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Monthly Archives: February 2018

Feast Day: The First Sunday in Lent
Readings: Mark 1:9-15

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

In our gospel reading this morning we are confronted with that most unscrupulous figure Satan and the temptation of our Lord in the wilderness. The devil and temptation. Both of which are worth attention for different reasons. It is worth paying attention to the devil because he is the one who seeks to undermine, disrupt, and distort the good work and good plans of God. As such he is the enemy of human creatures. However, it is worth paying attention to him only to the extent that we understand that we shouldn’t pay him too much attention. As my Professor of Systematic Theology would say, we should remember that the devil is a character in God’s story and not the other way around.[1] And it is worth paying attention to temptation because we all face it and yet it tends to function in a much more subtle and cunning manner than we might expect.

This morning then, I want us to consider both the devil and temptation as Christ himself encounters them in the wilderness. And my hope is that we find there in Christ’s weakness—in our weakness—God’s power to save.

As we read Mark’s account of this event surely one of the most striking aspects is its brevity. Matthew and Luke’s accounts are significantly longer. It is there that the we hear of the content of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness and his discourse with the devil. By contrast, Mark’s account is two short verses and he tells us nothing of the content of the temptation just that it happened.

In Mark the temptation of Christ in the wilderness comes immediately on the heels of Christ’s baptism in the Jordan and precedes the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. When he steps into the waters of the Jordan the Spirit descends upon him and we hear those words of affirmation from the Father in heaven. Here Christ is disclosed to us as the Son of God, the promised Messiah.

Immediately,” Mark tells us, “the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.” The same Spirit who descended upon Christ at his baptism immediately expelled him further into the wilderness. Mark wants us to know that these two events are connected. That is to say, Christ’s temptation in the wilderness is the necessary consequence of his baptism.

Indeed, for Mark, the temptation of Christ in the wilderness is not just restricted to this moment but is rather definitive of Christ’s entire life and ministry from this point onwards. In both Matthew and Luke the temptation of Christ ends and he is victorious over the devil who departs. But that is not the case in Mark. Here there is no end to the temptation that Christ faces. Rather, these forty days of testing in the wilderness following his baptism anticipate the struggle that Christ will endure every step of the way to the cross.

There is something really important for us here and it is the sober reminder that our life in Christ necessarily includes testing and temptation. Christ himself, who is revealed as God’s Son in baptism, enters into a journey that is going to end with the outpouring of God’s love on the cross. Yet every step of the way he is faced with the subtle but demonic temptation to take a slightly different direction that will not need to have the cross as its end goal.[2]

That’s part of the cunning nature of the devil and the subtly of temptation. We might expect a devil who is obviously godless or dangerous and who tempts people to do spectacularly wicked things. However, in the temptation of Christ as Matthew and Luke tell it the devil is a figure who even quotes Scripture all in an effort to divert Christ from the will of the Father.

The very same thing is true of your life in Christ. When Jesus took you and made you a child of God in baptism and set you on the narrow road with him, demonic forces took note. And every single step that you take with Christ in accordance with the will of God is accompanied by the demonic temptation to go in a slightly different direction. What is that next step that you sense Christ is calling you to take with him but that you have been resisting or ignoring?

Let me give you an example. The Screwtape Letters is a novel by C.S. Lewis that is a series of letters from a senior demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a less experienced tempter. And so his uncle Screwtape is mentoring him, teaching him how to more successfully tempt a character that we know only as “the Patient,” thus securing his damnation.

In one letter Screwtape counsels Wormwood not to discount more cunning efforts: “You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all junior tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.” Temptation is the devil’s way of trying to drive even the slightest wedge in-between God and man. Most of the time that is as simple as convincing us that our way is better than God’s way and that to live in a world of our own fashioning is infinitely more interesting than life with God in the world that he has fashioned.

It is into this reality that Christ entered upon his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. He enters into solidarity with us and becomes like us in every respect, even facing temptations and trials at every step. Yet where we so often yield to temptation he obeys in order to lift us up with him. He enters into our weakness in order to show forth God’s power to save. He steps into the space that the devil attempts to create between God and man and he closes it up and seals it in his own flesh.

As the Scriptures say elsewhere, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin,” (Heb 4:15). Whatever temptation you might face Jesus Christ knows it fully and, “he is able to help those who are being tested,” (Heb 2:18). Therefore, you are never alone.

Lent is a season when the Church is invited to enter more profoundly into the way of Jesus Christ, a way that ends with the cross where we encounter most fully the mystery of God’s love. And we are invited, as we journey with him and with one another, to feel more deeply the agony of his temptation wherein Christ learned to submit himself entirely to the will of the Father, because that is the way of love.

And as we journey with Christ towards the cross we are invited likewise to empty ourselves and give ourselves over entirely to the will of God as we prepare to celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection. Therefore Lent begins with that great exhortation that we heard on Ash Wednesday part of which I recall for us again on this The First Sunday in Lent: “I invite you therefore, in the name of the Lord, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and by reading and meditating on the word of God.”

In all of these practices we learn the virtues of self-denial and obedience. We learn of our own weakness, that we are prone to wander. We learn of the power and love of God in Christ and the beauty of life with him. And we also learn that it is possible to grow-up in our life with Christ if we are willing to stick with him and obey him.

This is a difficult way. It is almost always easier to give into temptation than it is to resist it. In another one of his letters Screwtape tells his nephew about a previous patient of his who, upon arriving in hell came to a sudden realization: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”

Sin is not actually all that it is cracked up to be, in fact, we do not truly like it at all. Perhaps you have had moments in your life when you were overwhelmed with the beauty and goodness of Christ. No one, in those moments, ever thinks to themselves, “I really wish I chose to go my own way more often.” You were made for God and the life of freedom and beauty that you long for can only be found in obedience to his will, in going in the way that he has set for you with Jesus Christ.

This Lenten season, may you find strength in Christ who by obedience, fasting, and prayer withstood temptation. May he give you grace to discipline yourself in submission to the leading of the Holy Spirit. And may you find that your closeness with God deepens and matures as his will works itself out in you. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Endnotes
[1] Joseph Mangina, homily for the First Sunday in Lent 2017, The Church of St. Mary and St. Martha.
[2] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Index, 348.

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Feast Day: Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
Readings: Mark 1:40-45; 2 Kings 5:1-14

“Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said to him, “I do will; be made clean.”

In our readings this morning we meet two lepers who receive healing from the Lord. I want us to behold the compassion of Jesus Christ who reaches out to touch us, cleansing from every sin those who are penitent, and thereby makes us whole by restoring our relationship with God and with one another.

“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Straightaway Mark tells us that this man is a leper. In Ancient Israel lepers were an isolated and desperate people reduced to a pitiful state of existence on account of their being pronounced ceremonially unclean according to the law of Moses.[1]

Listen to this passage from Leviticus that describes the daily life a leper in Ancient Israel: “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp,” (13:45-46). Not only did lepers experience terrible physical suffering but emotional and mental suffering as well, cut off and isolated from their own families and communities. What a pitiful existence.

Lepers were ceremonially marked off like this, easily distinguished from the rest of the community, to enable others to avoid them at all costs so as not to become unclean themselves. Even a passing encounter with a leper was enough to render one unclean. For example, there is a Rabbinic teaching that says, “If an unclean man [afflicted with leprosy] stood under a tree and a clean man passed by, the latter becomes unclean.”[2] Lepers were avoidable, forgettable people.

Now, in this story you and I are the leper and though we may be physically well our contagion is sin. Even more than leprosy in Ancient Israel, sin isolates us and separates us from God and from one another. We have a need at our very core to be healed and restored to life with God and each other, to have the work of sin undone in us. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, we cannot cure ourselves.

The next thing I want us to notice is what Mark tells us about the leper’s posture. How does he come to Christ? Begging him and kneeling before him. Begging is very much a last resort. We know that this man would have been cut off from his family and community supports. Probably he had burned through whatever resources remained and exhausted all other possibilities. Now he has come to the end of himself and must resort to his last play—beg. Throw himself utterly and completely at the mercy of Christ.

It is interesting to contrast this with the story of Naaman that we heard in our first reading this morning. Naaman was not an Israelite and therefore the same ceremonial laws pertaining to cleanliness were not applied to him. In fact, we learn that Naaman was doing well for himself. Commander of the king of Aram’s army. A man of some power and wealth. Though he was feared in battle there was one enemy he could not defeat: “The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy,” (2 Kings 5:1).

As we heard, when Naaman got wind of a prophet in Israel who could cure him of his affliction he set off with vast amounts of silver and gold, a caravan of horses and chariots, and even an endorsement from the king of Aram himself. In other words, unlike the leper in our gospel reading Naaman rolled up to Elisha’s house with a show of strength and wealth. A show of strength that masked his weakness. A show of wealth that masked his poverty.

And so Naaman had to leave his horses and chariots, silver and gold, there at the entrance to Elisha’s house. He was not permitted to bring them in. Because the healing that the Lord had for him was not for sale. He would have to learn that all of his strength and all of his wealth were not going to get him any closer to the healing and wholeness that he so desperately desired.

Are we so different from Naaman, you and I? How manifold are the ways that we attempt to cover up our weakness and our poverty! The ways we try to minimize our sin, try to conceal it from God and even from ourselves. Yet, whatever our accomplishments may be, and they may be many and they may be great, they amount to little when we are faced with our brokenness. An outstanding career contributes jack to the remission of your sins.

Every time we enter this house of worship—perhaps because like Naaman we have heard that there may be healing here for us (2 Kings 5:3-4)—Jesus Christ invites each one of us to let down our guard, to lay down our showy displays of self-sufficiency, so that our hands are empty and able to receive the gift of his healing love. Because when we approach Christ in our poverty and weakness, exposed and vulnerable yet truly ourselves, he does not delay in having compassion upon us.

So then, we needn’t fear knowing ourselves as sinners. We needn’t conceal or cloke our sins before God and ourselves but can rather acknowledge and confess them humbly before the face of Almighty God our heavenly Father and know the infinite joy of his forgiveness.

Think, for example, of when we come to the altar rail for communion. Laying aside all pretense of our own worthiness and instead falling on our knees in adoration of Christ, stretching out our empty hands before him in the hopes that we will stretch out his hand toward us. And what do we find but that he gives us himself, touching our deepest wound, and filling us with his love and mercy.

From his knees in adoration the leper says, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” He knows that Jesus is able to heal him. Maybe he’s heard the reports that have begun to spread throughout the region about what Jesus has done for people. How he delivered a man possessed by a demon of how he took Simon’s ill mother-in-law by the hand and at once the fever left her. The question for this leper is not can Jesus but will he? Maybe you’ve wondered this yourself. You know that he is quick to have mercy and forgive and that he has done so for others, but would he do the same for you? Does he want to?

I love what happens next. Mark tells us that Jesus was “moved with compassion.” Everything about Jesus is shot through with compassion and love. Even the judgement of Christ, that we see throughout the gospels and that can seem to us so counter to love, is itself a manifestation of the compassion of Christ that burns away all that opposes God’s good will.

Jesus here was moved with compassion. “He stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do will. Be made clean!” He stretched out his hand and touched him. Recall what we learned about leprosy earlier. To even come near a leper was to risk being made unclean yourself, cut off and isolated from your people, pitiful, accursed, damned. Yet Jesus Christ reaches out his hand and touches him.

Now the word “touch” here literally means, “to fasten to.” Jesus clings to this leper, becoming unclean himself, becoming accursed himself, becoming damned himself, because he was moved with compassion. He did not fear the man’s contagion but only desired to heal him and restore him to life with God and with his community.

I was reminded this week of the story of St. Damien of Molokai. In the 19th century there was an epidemic of leprosy (later called Hansen’s Disease) in Hawaii. It was so bad that in 1865 the king passed the Act to Prevent the Spread of Leprosy which resulted in those with the worst cases of leprosy being required to live under a medical quarantine on the island of Moloka’i.

Initially the Kingdom of Hawai’i intended to provided resources and support to this leper colony but soon they became overwhelmed with the need. At that time the Bishop believed that the lepers needed a priest. Despite the high-risk, eventually four priests volunteered to go including Father Damien, a Belgian priest.

On May 10, 1873 Father Damien arrived to be a priest to the approximately 800 lepers that had been exiled to the island. On his arrival he spoke to those gathered as, “one who will be a father to you, and who loves you so much that he does not hesitate to become one of you; to live and die with you.”[3]

In his time with the people of Molokai he helped build homes, a church, he dressed ulcers and wounds, made coffins, dug graves. Six months after his arrival he wrote to his brother in Europe saying, “I make myself a leper with the lepers to gain all to Jesus Christ.”[4] Finally, after eleven years living amongst the lepers of Molokai Father Damien contracted the disease himself and died shortly thereafter.

In a similar way Jesus Christ does not fear our contagion. He does not walk past you or avoid you, but rather fastens himself to you, taking all of your sin upon himself, becoming unclean, becoming accursed, becoming damned, and he bears the full weight of it all the way to the cross. Because he is full of compassion and he wills to forgive you your sin and make you whole. He wills to heal the wounds of division and separation. He wills to step into the isolation that sin creates and reconcile us to God and to one another. “I do will. Be made clean!”

Endnotes.

[1] Leviticus 13:3, 15

[2] Lane 85, fn145

[3] Wikipedia

[4] Wikipedia

Feast Day: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Texts: Mark 1:21-28; Deuteronomy 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

“They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (Mark 1:22)

When was the last time that the Bible caught you off guard? When was the last time you were confronted with the word of God and it disturbed you or made you uncomfortable? I realize this is a bit of a funny question and maybe for different reasons. Maybe you’ve been reading the Bible for so long now that you think you’ve heard it all? In this case, our familiarity with the Bible can actually dull some of it’s edges. Or, maybe you simply assume that anything God could have to say would obviously affirm what you already believe or know to be true? In this case, we may simply discard or ignore any bits that we feel pose a challenge to us personally. Or, maybe you don’t actually read the Bible. Biblical literacy among Canadian Anglicans is not what it could be.

Let me give you an example of this latter phenomenon. Recently, I was at a gathering of Anglicans and at one point in our conversation we were sharing our images of God. How do we understand who God is and what he is like? As people chimed in I was struck by one thing: a lack of appeal to Scripture. People were happy to suggest that we can come to know God as we hug our grandchildren or take a walk down by the lake. No one seemed to think it was particularly important that if we’re going to talk about God we had better begin with the Bible—God’s own self-revelation.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that if we begin to talk about God by talking about ourselves then the God we end up with looks an awful lot like, well, us. You can imagine my surprise when in that gathering I learned that obviously Jesus himself shared the moral and political leanings of white, liberally-minded baby boomers!

Now, I hope you know I’m having a bit of fun here, but it is an important matter because actually in the gospels, and in Mark especially, the presence of Jesus disturbs people. For example, in the portion of Mark that we heard read this morning we are confronted with the astonishing power and authority of Jesus’ teaching.

Jesus and his newly minted disciples enter the synagogue in Capernaum on the sabbath and Jesus began to teach and Mark tells us that the people gathered there, “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” At the same time Jesus encounters a man possessed by a demon and casts the demon out. Again, Mark tells us that the crowds, “were all amazed,” at the authority of Christ’s teaching. Even the demons obey him!

All throughout Mark’s account of the gospel, wherever Jesus goes his presence and teaching elicit this sense of astonishment. Now, the word Mark uses here means to be struck with panic or shock. If you’ve ever read the Bible and felt a twinge of panic then that means you might be doing it right.

Let me give you an example from later on in Mark’s gospel. It’s the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus wanting to know how to inherit eternal life (10:17). To which Jesus responds, “go and sell all you have, give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.” Then Jesus turns to his disciples and explains how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. At this point Mark tells us that the disciples, “were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” (10:26). The disciples upon hearing the teaching of Christ were shocked, struck with panic, and wondered if it was even possible for anyone to be saved at all. Sidebar: the good news is, with God all things are possible (10:27).

Why is this? Why does the teaching of Jesus have the ability to catch us off guard, make us uncomfortable, disturb us even? And, why is this a good thing to be embraced and not something to flee from or gloss over? I want to give just one reason this morning: because the teaching of Jesus comes from God not from man. Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning is illuminating. The Lord said to Moses, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command,” (18:18). Jesus is that one who Moses foreshadowed, the one who speaks only the words of God. As Jesus himself says elsewhere: “for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak,” (John 12:49). Therefore, to know Jesus Christ is to know God. 

So, Jesus’ teaching has authority because it is God’s word. And because it is God’s word it challenges us. For example, think of that encounter with the rich man I mentioned earlier. The word of Christ to that man challenged him to be converted, to trade in his perishable worldly wealth for the imperishable wealth of the kingdom. It was a difficult word and, in fact, when the man heard it, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions,” (10:22).

This gives us insight into why the teaching of Christ is so challenging—because it is infinitely demanding. The scribes were concerned with simply obeying the law. But Jesus goes further. He wants more than our obedience, he wants our undivided love. Isn’t that what Paul was getting at in 1 Corinthians? “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him,” (8:2). What Jesus asks of you is both infinitely simple and infinitely demanding: love God above all else and love your neighbour as yourself.

So, let me ask again, when was the last time you felt personally challenged by the word of God? When was the last time the presence of Christ disturbed you or called you out of your comfort zone? As a preacher, if I am going to faithfully preach the word of God, and not just my own opinion, then I can only hope that sometimes, maybe, on occasion, you are disturbed by a sermon or two. And if you hear me preach a sermon that does disturb you, great. Let’s put on the kettle, or crack a beer, and explore that.

Jesus’ teaching has authoritative because it is God’s word. And as such it challenges us. But it can also transform us. The rich man walked away grieving, but for all those who hear Christ’s word, who allow it to disturb them and make them uncomfortable yet who receive it, who follow him and learn to love and adore him, to them is given the gift of eternal life. Think of Simon, Andrew, James, and John last week. All of whom were transformed from ordinary fishermen into messengers of the gospel and joyfully shared in the suffering of Christ.

When Mark describes Christ’s teaching as having authority what he means is that Jesus’ words are not only informative but performative. In other words, the Gospel is not just the communication of things that can be known. The Gospel actually makes things happen and is life-changing.[1] The Gospel is not good advice, it is good news and that changes things.

This is evident in our gospel reading, is it not? The man in the synagogue, possessed by a demon, is liberated and set free by a simple word from Christ. Because the word of Christ has an authority that human teaching does not. Authority to destroy evil. Authority to heal the sick. Authority to forgive sin (Mark 2:10). Authority to liberate men and women from all that ensnares and binds them, and raise them up to new life.

All of this begs a question. Does Jesus Christ still speak today? Does he address us? Indeed, he does and one of the chief ways he does this is in the words of Holy Scripture. The Bible is not chiefly a dusty old history book. The Bible is not chiefly a guide for how to live a moral life. The Bible is chiefly God’s word, living and active. It is God’s disclosure of himself to humankind. It is how we know him and grow in friendship with him. When we hear and meditate on the words of Holy Scripture we are hearing and meditating on the words of Jesus Christ.

In and through the Bible Jesus Christ offers you and I eternal life, he offers us himself.[2]  That is why the absolute best method for nourishing your faith is to silently and diligently read the Bible. For as you read the Bible, Jesus Christ confronts you, is close to you, does not leave you. As you read the Bible you come to know him and love him more fully. And he forms you, over time, by the authority of his word.

This Lent everyone here will receive a booklet to help you pray the daily office, morning and evening prayer, and that same booklet will contain daily readings from Scripture. After Easter we will begin a parish Bible study, the goal of which will simply be to read through the Bible together, bringing all of our questions, and allowing the word of Christ to wash over us. In 2018, I want to invite you to drink deeply from the well of holy Scripture, to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest these words. That we might be both comforted and made uncomfortable by them. That by them we might come to know and love God more fully and be transformed into the likeness of his Son, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen.

Endnotes

[1] BXVI, quoted in God or Nothing, 202.

[2] Article VII: “…for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ…”