Sunday, 1 March 2009

Revealing the signs

An offering for the first Sunday in Lent:

Readings: Genesis 9 v 8-17
Mark 1 v 9-15

It seems no time since the start of the year when we considered part of this morning’s gospel reading from Mark – the bit where Jesus is baptised and a voice from heaven says: This is my beloved child. I am pleased with him. And, though I know I’m repeating myself, I want us to take just a moment once again to hear God speak those words to each of us : You are my beloved child. With you I am pleased. That’s a message of love that can never be repeated too often. A message that gets to the very heart of God.
Remember, those were words that God spoke, before Jesus had accomplished anything.
Those were words that God spoke at the very start of Jesus ministry.
But, having heard those words again, having been reminded of the amazing love of God, let’s look at the passage as its told today in the context of our Lenten journey.
Somehow, the perspective of Lent puts this gospel reading in a new context.
The love of God hasn’t changed.
But today, we read on and consider Jesus response to that love.
The same Spirit that led Jesus to the Jordan and to his baptism, also led Jesus to the wilderness.
And while Matthew’s gospel gives us fairly elaborate detail of some of what went on for Jesus in the wilderness, telling us about the temptations that were placed before him, Mark is pretty sparing in his information.
It lasted 40 days, Satan was there, as were wild animals and angels.
That’s it.
Because Mark is keen to get on with the story of Jesus ministry.

This week it has dawned on me that, certainly from Mark’s account, you could be forgiven for thinking that Jesus appeared in Galilee, was baptised, spent time in the wilderness and then made his way to the cross.

Its something I haven’t quite developed here in Ayr yet but, in my last parish I was involved in what I liked to call pub evangelism.
As you know, Inverkip is a small village with a school, a church and a pub.
So the pub was a good place to meet locals and I made it my business to do so!
There was many a good going debate with the regulars about the affairs of the church.
One year, in Lent, one of the bar staff wanted to know:
So, after his baptism, did Jesus spend 40 days in the desert and then, when he came out, it was holy week?
It certainly made for a good discussion – and an opportunity to share faith with folk who were a lot more interested than the folk who worshipped in the church Sunday by Sunday.
But, when you think about it, the way we observe Lent and then Holy Week, its not such an odd conclusion to draw.
Indeed, on running that past some colleagues this week, they were saying how some children have the notion that it was the baby Jesus who died on the cross because we celebrate Christmas and then, before you know it, its Easter.
How often we assume that it’s an old, old story that everyone knows when there are so many opportunities to share the story for fresh hearers.

And so here we are, the first week in Lent.
We could do worse than ask:
What’s it all about?

Jonathan Edwards, former Olympic gold medallist was, for a time, involved in presenting religious affairs programmes.
In one series he presented, folk tried out various religions to see which appealed to them most.
Jews teased the palates of enquirers by introducing them to the Sabbath meal.
Muslims whisked the enquirers off their feet by introducing them to their Sufi dancing
A Church of England vicar epitomised Christianity by trying to persuade the young women in the group to give up using their hair straighteners for Lent.
That just about sums it up doesn’t it?
The more miserable our faith makes us, the more good it must be doing us.
And what better time to exercise that misery than Lent.
A time for giving things up.
A time for denial.
But what if all we are denying is the joy of our faith?
Surely our Lord, who revelled in relationships does not desire that each of us should go into our own wee corners and be miserable for 6 weeks just to prove that we are capable of self denial.
Surely the emphasis is not on individual misery but on community celebration, not life denying but life affirming.

On Wednesday, here in church, we reclaimed an old ritual that’s been lost in many Presbyterian churches.
We shared ashes.
Symbolising not only our commitment to Lent – to journeying with Christ through this season.
But symbolising also our commitment to doing something different.
To waking up to the signs of God in the world around us.
Signs of change.
Signs of a call to newness.
To walk paths that maybe aren’t familiar to us but that are well trodden nonetheless.
They are paths that Christ has walked before us.
And the call to newness is a call to which our Lord responded – choosing not to fit in with what was expected of him but to find new ways.
Choosing not to be sanctimonious but to be sacrilegious.
Still we are encouraged to find new ways to celebrate God in our every day, new ways to make God visible for others.
New ways to celebrate faith.

After the flood, our other Scripture reading for today, God found a new way to remind people of God’s love and God’s promise that never again would the earth be destroyed with violence.
God sent a rainbow.

In this part of the world, we are blessed with the sight of rainbows frequently.
But did you know that for a rainbow to appear, certain conditions must co-exist?

Firstly, the sun has to be lower than 42 degrees from the horizon.
Secondly, we have to be facing towards rain with the sun at our backs.
And, thirdly, the sun has to be hitting the raindrops to produce the prism of colors that make up the rainbow.
So every rainbow we witness is a miracle.
A miracle that speaks of God’s love.

Today, we all need signs to remind us that God is present, showing us the way, present in our world and present in our lives.

Occasionally the signs are easy to see.
More often than not, we have to really look for them.
And, if one of our Lent disciplines involves looking harder for signs of God at work in the world, at work in our lives, then that will be good.
And, hopefully, in this springtime, those signs are all the more apparent.

But sometimes, we have to help create the signs that show God at work.
And this sacrament that we share this morning is just one such endeavour.
Its an outward sign of a loving mystery – that the God of all creation comes anew to embrace each of us, to call us God’s children and to show pleasure with us.
As we use the symbols of bread and wine, symbols of everyday work transformed into symbols of Christ’s body broken and poured out for us, our Spirits are nourished.
We are fed as was Jesus in the wilderness.

And so this time of Lent, from the sharing of ashes on ash Wednesday through the long weeks of journeying with Jesus to the cross on Good Friday can be a time for us of looking at the dark places in our lives and finding, even in all those dark, unswept corners of our lives, even in those buried hurts and still painful losses, we can find the light of God’s love still shining, still suffusing our lives with that rainbow effect, reminding us that God’s love is at work in us.

The Old Testament story of the flood seemed, to me a strange reading to be considering at the beginning of Lent.
And yet, its message of a loving God promising never again to destroy the earth and placing a rainbow in the sky to remind us of that promise fits in well with the contrasts that are inherent in our season of Lent.
A promise that needs to be heard again and again in the world in which we live.
The words of Ash Wednesday: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return set in the context of a God who conquers death and promises new life.
A God who accompanies people through whatever wilderness they find themselves in and who sends angels to minister to them.
A God, who every day, finds ways to remind us of love at work in our lives.
May this Lent be a time for all of us, wherever we find ourselves in the wilderness, when we rediscover too signs of a loving God at work in us.
And may this sacrament be for us today just the beginning of our creating signs that show others that wonderful love of God.
For the glory of God.

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