Saturday, 20 February 2016

Lent 2 Sacrifice 21 February 2016

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’. Mark 14:24

In this Eucharist we are being caught up into the eternal sacrifice of Christ and its profound challenge to our self-interest.

This gathering in the parish Church is part of an eternal gathering stretching back to Abraham and beyond and stretching forward to the consummation of all things.

This morning we are touching reality - we are drawn to the events represented here which institute God’s covenant with us, and we are drawn into a love which touches every human concern upon the earth.

To the outward eye we are a small gathering of religious people doing their own thing upon their weekly holy day. To the eye of faith we are Christians, caught up once more, on behalf of the whole creation, into the eternal sacrifice of Jesus Christ, through whom,and with whom and in whom in the unity of the Holy Spirit, we give glory to our Father in heaven.

The Old Testament reading from Genesis describes an awesome encounter between Abraham and the Lord.  In this holy eucharist we too should be in awe as we approach the same Lord in the Eucharistic sacrifice. This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, happy are those who are called to his supper.

One role of a preacher is to awaken, sensitise and draw God’s people afresh into this great mystery of the Christian religion which centres on the Lamb of God our Saviour truly present in the sacrifice and sacrament of the altar. If we fully realised what was going on in this rite our amazement would soon infect others to join in the most significant happening on any day in Horsted Keynes!

Jesus St John says is the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. The sacrifice once offered on Calvary and made present at this altar is rooted in the history of God’s people and the eternal covenant.

Genesis Chapter 15 describes the institution of that covenant with Abraham by the shedding of blood, an agreement between man and God pledging loyalty even unto death.  In the ancient world, when a covenant was ‘cut’ with the slaughter of lambs its breaking could be punishable by death. It also symbolised a death to independent living and the coming alive of a relationship or covenant.

In the covenant God made with Abraham there was a special sign.  The sacrificed animals were consumed by a supernatural intervention interpreted as an anticipation of the new covenant.  As the animal sacrifice was consumed by fire from heaven, so Jesus is to see his body and blood separated in death and then transformed by power from heaven in the glory of the resurrection.

So it is that in the Eucharist we witness the separate consecration of Christ’s body and blood. We pause devotionally on two occasions to recall the sacrificial sundering of the Lamb of God - this is my body...this is my blood...of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins

Some of us possibly visited the ‘Seeing Salvation’ exhibition at the turn of the Millennium 16 years ago at the National Gallery. One of the many images of Christ was this  (show) - ‘The Bound Lamb’ by Francisco de Zurbarin who lived in the 17th century.  It is an image that often appears on Nativity scenes, the Shepherds’ offering which anticipates Christ’s sacrifice. 

As Jeremy Paxman wrote in the Church Times of this painting: ‘no image I know so perfectly captures the astonishing force of the Christian story’.

The sacrificial imagery in today’s Old Testament links to this symbol of Christ as Lamb of God so familiar to us from the liturgy of the Eucharist - familiar and yet often rather empty of meaning to many of us until we examine the Old Testament roots as we are doing this morning. 

How often we hear those words ‘Lamb of God’? How much we need to ‘inhabit the words’ of our prayer and liturgy and not be empty ritualists!

There is a Church in Norway, I’m told, which has the image of a sheep sculpted half way up its tower.  Only when people enter that Church and hear something of its history do they discover the full Christian significance of the sculpted sheep.

Years before the sculpture was erected some renovation work was occurring on the Church steeple in this rural community.  One day a workman slipped from the steeple to almost certain death.  At the same time by a remarkable twist of providence a flock of sheep was being driven past the Church. 

The steeplejack fell on a sheep and his fall was cushioned. The sheep died to save him - an awesome happening! The workers expressed their gratitude to God by adorning that Church tower with a sculpted sheep.

Jesus is the Lamb of God whose voluntary sacrifice takes away our sin.  Our Lord on Calvary takes the full impact of sin and death for us at the cost of his life.

Our Lord has soaked up all the evil that would defeat me and offered me life to the full - life that cancels sin with forgiveness, sickness with healing, bondage with deliverance and even doubt with the gift of faith through the mighty Redemption he has won. 

All of this is powerfully present to me in every celebration of the Eucharist.

I cannot understand it but I will accept it. I cannot understand the way electricity works but that does not stop me switching on the lights. I take both on authority and it works to do so.

Jesus died in my place so that he might live in my place. Jesus died in my place to carry off the impact of evil upon me, through the gift of the Eucharist. Jesus lives in my place, cooperating with my will by his Spirit, as I welcome him again and again into my heart in this Sacrament!

This morning we make the memorial of the Offering of Jesus and enter into that Self-Offering! It is through the sacrificial Lamb of God that we can make a perfect offering to the Father, our sinful bodies made clean by his body..our souls washed through his most precious blood.

There is a deep continuity between the sacrifice of Abraham, the offering of Jesus the Lamb of God, the Eucharistic Sacrifice and our own sacrificial living as Christians.  They all hang together. In a culture so full of self-interest what we are about this morning is powerfully counter-cultural. Here, in union with Christ, we are offering our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice

No wonder the eucharist has been described as ‘a meeting of rebels in a mammon-oriented society’. Sacrifice goes against the grain of our contemporary culture in many ways, especially voluntary sacrifice.  People can make sacrifice when absolutely necessary - but to choose to give your life away Sunday by Sunday - well that’s heavily counter-cultural!

Faithful attendance and active participation in the eucharist is our great reminder day by day of God’s call for us to direct our energies more and more away from the service of self and more and more towards his service.  This self-offering is, in the words of the Eucharistic Prayer both ‘right’ and also ‘a good and joyful thing’.

Sacrifice is at heart about this voluntary choice about how we direct our lives - it is about love before it is about death.  It is about ‘joyous living’ just as sure as ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. It is not so much about forgoing what we desire but of binding our energies to what God desires. 

Here in this Eucharist week by week we’re drawn into such a school of sacrifice, into a love which touches every human concern upon the earth. We are caught up again and again into the loving sacrifice of Christ and its profound challenge to our self-interest. In offering our lives once again this morning we’re entrusting them afresh into the hands of God, renewing our covenant with him, so as to be employed to his praise and service in every situation we shall face in the coming week. In the name of the Father…

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Lent 1 14th February 2016

In Lent we are called to discover afresh the power of Christ’s Cross.

This is why we started Lent with the signing of the cross on our foreheads and why the symbols of glory and resurrection are backstage for the next six weeks, so that the Cross shines forth.

Last month I was in Tenerife walking in the mountains.

I visited the small town of Santiago del Teide perched on the lower slopes of Mount Teide which towers almost 4000 metres above sea level, the highest point above sea level of any island in the Atlantic Ocean, and third highest volcano on any volcanic island in the world.

The volcano last erupted in 1909. When it did so the inhabitants of Santiago del Teide were faced with the prospect of their town’s obliteration.

It’s a deeply Christian place, Tenerife. When they saw the volcano erupt the villagers didn’t hesitate to act.

They took the cross from the altar and went up the hill to meet the lava. The flow stopped where they met and each year since there’s been a thanksgiving procession.

I walked to the place where the lava stopped and said a prayer by the Cross there and before the original cross that’s in the beautiful church there.

The people saw burning lava halt before the Cross and the victory of their Christian faith.

In my own experience the Cross is as sure a weapon against no less fiery assaults against my spirit.
To believe in the Cross is to believe in the risen Lord Jesus Christ who stands behind it and beside each one of us. His power in us, by his Spirit, is greater than the power of any enemy, however powerful.

For the next six weeks Christians are paying special attention to the Cross of our Saviour and how it engages with our personal struggle against sin.

You may struggle with lack of faith in yourself – the Cross says God loves you, turn from such disbelief.

You may struggle with lack of faith in other people – the Cross says God loves them as well as you and much more, so forgive those who upset you or who seem to be against you.

You may struggle with lack of faith in God – the Cross tells you God loves you enough to die for you.
Jesus said God loves us so much he numbers every hair on our head.

In Wednesday’s rite of ashing those who received the ashes of last year’s Palm branches on their foreheads heard the words Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. These words can be paraphrased, as I did with the school children, as ‘God loves you. Turn from sin’.

‘God forbid that we should glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’ Saint Paul once wrote (Galatians 6:14) and he goes on to invite us to let the Cross bring God's grace into our lives.

In Lent we seek more than usual such grace for the empowerment of our loves, grace that comes from the foot of the Cross.

Let’s turn there now as we think in a quiet moment of the immense love shown to us by the God and Father of Jesus in sending his Son to die for us and pouring the Holy Spirit into our hearts to bring assurance of that love.

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Pre-Lent Sunday 7th February 2016

We read in the Gospel a very beautiful incident from the account of the life of Our Lord.

Jesus ascends a high mountain with Peter, James and John. While praying up there the Lord’s face glows with the brightness of the sun and his garments became dazzling white.

The splendour of Christ’s divinity penetrates through his human body as the Son of God appears in his splendour and glory.

The glory that was to shine when he rose from the dead at Easter shone in this isolated incident through the person of the earthly Jesus.

The disciples were shown as much of God as they were ready for.

At the heart of Christianity there’s a yearning to see God as he is. This has sprung up from the days Jesus walked and shone on earth with the promise we would be able to see God.

Not with mortal eyes but in the resurrection.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord anticipates both his Resurrection and our own. As children of God we’re heading for the full, glorious sight of God.

Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will be has not been revealed Saint John writes. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)

As Lent approaches we should be in the valley of decision about some action that can help us better head for the vision of God. It’s a time to refocus upon Our Lord, to turn our eyes upon Jesus.

Lent challenges us to look to the main things in Christian life and to keeping them the main things.

This season has about it a call to study God’s word. I do commend what I wrote in P&P suggesting we do some extra bible reading from Exodus, Isaiah, John’s gospel, Acts and so on.

As I’ve written in the news sheet from my Premier Radio broadcast on Friday, Lent’s a time we can use to let the power of the Cross take more hold of our lives.

Give out - write a letter or e mail of encouragement to a different friend or colleague each weekday; give time to help a neighbour; save money on food and give it away to charity.

Give something up. Christ bore the Cross for you and fasting can remind you of that love. Just have drinks before and after eating one meal in the afternoon if family arrangements allow; give up alcohol or chocolate on weekdays.

Give out, give up - and give to the Lord in prayer. Make a weekly self examination; attend an extra weekly church group like the Acts for Action on Tuesday evenings in the Martindale or Stations of the Cross which you can always do on your own or with others Saturdays 5.30pm.

The yearning to see God more fully is at the heart of Christianity, and to see God we need to purify our vision. Through giving out, giving up or giving to the Lord in prayer we’ve got 40 days to work especially at this.

Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will be has not been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:1-3)

A happy and holy Lent to you!