Morning Service

“What Do We Want?”

Morning Service for the First Sunday in Lent, conducted by the Revd. J. Millington

Sermon

This sermon is taken from Luke 4, verses 1-13; Psalm 25, verses 1-10

Walking the Way: What do you want?

Just suppose you were lost in a very remote place, miles away from civilisation. And suppose you were hungry…very hungry…dangerously hungry and you picked up a stone and you knew that you had the power to turn this stone into bread- would you do it? Yes! It sounds like a very sensible idea.

And when you think about it, people have actually been “turning stones into bread” for thousands of years, ever since the human race took up agriculture. Is this not what agricultural scientists, farmers and gardeners do all the time: they look at a piece of ground which has nothing on it except earth and stones and they work out how they can use this ground to produce food. Even today there are very gifted people spending long hours experimenting in how to raise food for hungry people in areas where the soil is too dry or too stony to raise food naturally. In the Bible itself, God is praised for his power that causes “the earth to yield fruit and grain for the making of bread.”  So, “turn stones into bread, Jesus”- what is unreasonable about that?

Or just suppose you are a very capable, organising kind of person (and in this area I know that a good many people are, so it is no good trying to look modest…). Suppose you were a person with excellent project management skills, people skills, someone who can sum up a situation in a glance, whether in a company or a political group or a neighbourhood; suppose you were this person and you saw a cause dear to your heart where everything was going wrong and being badly handled, would you not want to “pile in” and sort it out? Yes, probably. It would take a lot of personal commitment but if we had the necessary time and energy and support, we would do it. And again, in the Bible, God often tells someone “you have the gifts and the opportunities to sort out this challenging situation. Get on with it.” So “Jesus, get out there and take charge.” What is unreasonable about that?

And finally, just suppose that you had a way of proving beyond all doubt that there IS a god? Think of gathering together your cynical colleagues, your disinterested family members, your struggling friends, who you know to be in need of faith but who will not be convinced – imagine that you could gather them all together and do something so spectacular (like jumping off our tower knowing that an angel would catch you and I am not asking for volunteers) so spectacular that they would be forced to admit that yes, there is a god? Think of the awesome effect on their lives. Think of the strength and the hope and the comfort they would gain. Think of the good they would go on to do in the world. If you knew you could prove there is a god, would you not do it? Yes, maybe…..not too sure.

But again, in the Bible, God’s people are told to make known his name; make known his power; stand up for his glory.  So “Jesus, let your power be seen, so that all may glorify God.” What is unreasonable about that?

There is a reflection on the story of Jesus’ temptations from the Iona Community which begins, “the devil was a very reasonable man.”  I suppose he had to be. After all, if we are confronted by something with horns, tail and pitchfork, cackling with demonic laughter like a cartoon baddy, something might just  warn us that this person is bad news. But someone presenting what sound like perfectly reasonable arguments is far more difficult to ignore. 

Walking the Way: living the life of Jesus today. The United Reformed Church is challenging every single congregation to explore what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in twenty-first century UK.  Neither the programme nor the resources are proscriptive: everyone doing the same thing at the same time- because Walking the Way is a very personal thing.  It is not even primarily about organised religion. It is not there to offer us new structures and systems and ways of doing things in church. It is about each individual Christian (or almost Christian) walking the way of Jesus Christ and discovering how they do that 24/7, not just during the hours when they are in church.

Organised religion/church life is no more than a vitally useful tool to help us follow Jesus. The church is a means to an end, not an end in itself.  Many people, if asked what their faith “wish list” would be, would include “to see a lot more people our in church.” Fair enough. Would not we all like that? But more-people-in-church is not and never has been the same thing as more-Christians-living- the- life- of- Jesus-in-the- world.  Think about it…..

As we start looking at Walking The Way then, the first and most obvious question to me, was, “What do you want?” Assuming that none of us have been coerced into Christianity, this faith is one we have chosen, what do you, personally, hope to gain by following Jesus?

Over my years in Christian ministry I have learned two things: first, that most people do not find that an easy question to answer, especially to a minister because they think they might offer the “wrong” answer. Second, that when people do allow themselves to think seriously and make an answer, there are almost as many answers as there are people.  But here are a few I have heard: what do you want from following Jesus?

I want to be part of something greater than just my own physical existence

I want to know that I am loved

I want something to give me hope, not only for my own life but for the world in general

I need to be freed up from the things that are destroying me

I hate feeling guilty and inadequate and I want someone stronger than myself to help me

I need a shape and a purpose to my life

I want to believe that I can make a difference for good in the world

I want to be glad of who I am rather than trying to be what everyone else wants

I need healing from intolerable pain

I need hope in a bad time that my life will still be worth living

I want to belong somewhere.

I need to believe in eternity.

In a play by Andrew Young, based on the life of Nicodemus, that man in John’s Gospel who was attracted by Jesus but followed only at a distance, Nicodemus is asking John why he had followed Jesus so much more closely, was it to do with those amazing miracles he did? And John replies, “it was indeed; more miracles than one. I was not blind and yet he gave me sight. I was not deaf and yet he gave me hearing. Nor was I dead, yet me he raised to life.”

Those first disciples did not follow Jesus “for the money” because he had none. Nor did they follow him for political power because he had none. He could do miracles but the people who followed him only because of the miracles were the ones who fell back when anything was asked of them.  They wanted their religion to be more of a spectator sport or a consumer choice and this was not what following Jesus was about.  Following Jesus is about committing yourself to a relationship with God and, like any relationship, it will demand your life but will also become your life.   All of those reasons people gave for following Jesus might be summed up as “I want to get a life.”    

Going back then to those apparently reasonable things Jesus was tempted to do, we might be able to understand why they were not unreasonable but, shall we say, inappropriate.

Yes, thousands of years ago, we learned how to raise food from the ground. From the soil and the stones we made bread. Then we wanted jam on our bread. Then we wanted pretty plates to eat the bread and jam from. Then we wanted china cabinets to store the pretty plates. Then we wanted dining rooms to store the china cabinets. Then we wanted larger houses with more rooms to store more cabinets, to hold more china because we were eating more and more bread and jam. Then we needed Weight Watchers…..

Physical desire is never satisfied.  Jesus did not say that we do not need bread. He said that we do not live by bread alone. A life totally given over to physical desires will never be satisfied. And, as we are frequently told nowadays, a purely consumer culture is becoming a highly dangerous one: causing catastrophic levels of pollution to the environment, inviting  corruption and crime motivated by greed, squeezing the poor to enrich the wealthy and if it carries on in the way it is going there will be a catastrophe. Jesus came to offer men and women “a life” and if he had used his power to turn stones into bread, he would have been leading us down a blind alley.   

Suppose he had done what a lot of his followers hoped he would do: take over the kingdom by force; get rid of the Roman Emperor and set himself up to rule instead? Would that not have made a better and fairer world? For a while, maybe. But I have yet to see or hear of a powerful ruler, who has coerced whole nations into submission and imposed even what looks like a totally fair and just system of government who has not had people turn against them or try twist their rules into something corrupt. People are not changed by having a certain lifestyle imposed upon them. They are changed from within. Someone who wants to see the world transformed into the kingdom of God  will not do this purely by setting up better systems of government. The kingdom of God starts from within, as men and women learn to love God and to let God love them. For Jesus to sit on the Emperor’s throne would have been a false message to those wanting a life.   

And proving the existence of God by an amazing miracle? It would not work, would it? According to our present scientific proof, if a person jumps from a great height without any visible means of support, such as a parachute or bungee-jumping rope, that person will crash to the ground and die. So yes, someone who is seen instead floating gently to the ground would raise a lot of questions. But the people of Jesus day would never even have seen a parachute and if they had watched Jesus float gently to the ground, enveloped in this large white cloud-shaped object, they could well have believed that this was some kind of angel and therefore yes, this was proof that God was on Jesus’ side. But two thousand years later we know different. And with every century that passes, we shall know more. So any “scientific” proof in 2018 that there is a god might well be dismissed as nonsense by 2118.

Jesus said that you cannot “test” God. If God is God then He cannot be tested by any rules that are subject to our limited understanding. The “proof” of God, he said, lies in the lives of those who love Him. I almost forgot…. A huge reason why people choose to follow Jesus is that they have seen the awesome change that faith in Christ has made to others.

What do you want? A life. And Jesus is not going to lie to those who follow him. He is not going to offer them those things which will drain life out of them. He is going to offer that which will make life rise up in them.

Some years ago, I was talking with Kathleen, a retired Minister and she told me of a mother who had confided her fears for her daughter, who was just about to leave home for University. The girl was very attractive and her mother was afraid that this could lead her into compromising and potentially dangerous situations.

“Does your daughter believe that she is attractive?’ asked Kathleen.

”Oh yes,” said the mother.

“Well in that case, I don’t think you need worry too much. It is the girls who believe that they are deeply unattractive who are more vulnerable. They will allow themselves to be led into dangerous places simply in order to feel accepted and valued.”  

Tom Wright, a popular Christian writer, pointed out that in each of the three accounts of Jesus’ time in the desert, wrestling with temptation, this happens immediately after his baptism when he hears the voice of God telling him, “you are my wonderful Son and I am well pleased with you.” So, says Tom Wright, Jesus goes out into the desert place conscious that he is loved and valued by God and it is this that gives him the wisdom and the strength to resist temptation.

Walking the Way- what do we want? To get a life, a real life and a real life grows from knowing yourself loved. It is not a soft option. Spoiled children- children to whom parents always give in and who get everything they ask for- spoiled children do not feel loved. They feel feared. They know their parents are scared of upsetting them and this makes those children very frightened.

To know ourselves loved means that we have space to think about what we really want and what we really need and that there is someone there who has promised to guide us into truth. To know ourselves loved means that we shall be allowed to make mistakes and get ourselves into a serious mess but there will be someone who can help us pick up the pieces and start again, without recrimination. To know ourselves loved means that, although we may face some tough challenges and dark places, there will be someone who will make sure we have every strength and support we need. And, as love is something that grows and develops, to know ourselves loved means that we shall always have love to share with each other.   

What was it we worked out with the children? That there are 166 hours in the week when we are not in the Sunday Morning Service. So, if you want to “Walk the Way and live the life of Jesus today” then remind yourself every now and again over the next 166 hours that you are loved and valued by God. And then ask yourself, “what difference does knowing myself loved and valued by God make to the way in which I am living my life?”

God bless you.

Amen.