Reflection for Lent 1B 2021

God’s Covenants Come Out of Wildernesses by Jamie Campbell
Genesis 9:8-17

I’m not sure which of the church’s penitential seasons I love more – Advent or Lent. I have a sneaking suspicion it may be Lent – not because of any great theological or liturgical reason, but because I actually get to sit back and observe the season properly. We’ve turned Advent into an elongation of Christmas that means that for those of us responsible for church music O Come All Ye Faithful and Hark the Herald Angels Sing may have been played and or sung over a hundred times before we get to the 25th of December! 

But with Lent we don’t seem to do that – we keep Easter at the end of it, the light at the end of the tunnel that we, eventually, get to. In many churches this period of penitence is marked by making the church as stark as possible, covering crosses and other images, using unbleached candles, even going as far as wearing sackcloth vestments. The word “Alleluia” is buried for 40 day –sometimes even given a full funeral. And then Easter Sunday comes and it’s a beautiful and joyous occasion.

We, of course, have a mini-Easter each week; but what really makes Easter Sunday special is when you go through the drama of 40 days of “wilderness” and then break forth into joy! 

I have to confess; it wasn’t until I joined the Episcopal church and experienced Lent and Holy Week that Easter Sunday became a very special occasion. Although Tain Parish Church always marked Good Friday and always had a Family Service on Easter Sunday I didn’t see any great difference between Easter and any of the other Family Services1.

You see, the issue was that there was no Lent. 

One of the key themes in Advent and Lent is waiting. In Advent we wait for the Birth of Jesus, but what do we wait for in Lent? 

Put very crudely, we wait for it to be over. If we’ve given up something, we wait to take it up again -and we enjoy it all the more for having spent 45 days without it (unless you enjoy a Sabbath from your fast each Sunday). 

Our Old Testament Lesson today almost jumps the gun a bit for a Lenten reading. We all know the story of Noah’s Ark that this follows – 40 days on a boat in open water. A very wet wilderness. Then comes “The Rainbow days of Noah” – at the end of it all God makes a covenant, a promise and gives Noah a sign of this; though, I’m sure Noah would have liked this sign a lot earlier. 

Many of us, I’m sure, can relate to Noah’s experience on the Ark. He was (remembering that he had to wait for the waters to clear) 150 days locked in with his family while outside the storm and the seas raged. Some of you may read this and say “only 150?! He got off lightly, I’ve been stuck here for nearly a year….LET ME OUT!

I could be very flippant at this point and sit back and say “hang on in there, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel all of this will be over soon.” 

If we only look at today’s Old Testament lesson superficially, we could leave it there and be content with “the light at the end of the tunnel” drawing nearer and everything being okay; but something as devastating as a flood doesn’t go away overnight. Even once the waters have receded the damage remains – sometimes for years and centuries to come. 

They stepped off a boat into their “renewed life” and found themselves standing in the devastation of the aftermath of a flood and I’m sure they looked at one another saying “I thought it was over?” “I thought life was going back to normal?”– which is why God makes promises. 

The Israelites needed a promise of something new after 40 years in their very dry wilderness (the opposite of Noah’s).

The Lord made a covenant with them – a promise for their renewal. The trouble was, that the Israelites couldn’t keep to their end of the bargain.

They didn’t like the way things were being run. The leaders then told them what the latest rules and guidelines were, that was, until the Israelites got tired of waiting for the “new normal” and went so far off course that the ever changing guidelines needed changed again. 

There was no quick fix solution, but there was much rejoicing there was when they finally reached the promised land and their time in the wilderness was over – even if there were still some restrictions. 

However, the reality for the Israelites was that not everyone made it. Those who were my age when they left Egypt would be in their 60s when they got to the Promised Land. Some, like Moses, never made it. 

It’s a reality of life that we have seen again and again. That sadly, there are those who will not know in this life how the pandemic ends. It’s a harsh truth that we have lost many, many faithful believers through a variety of circumstances. 

I do not wish to belittle any of them or to suggest that the circumstances that we are experiencing now in 2021 are the same as the Israelites faced – but I do wish to say that we have the same God who promised the Israelites that He would see them through their time in the wilderness and kept His promise when the time was right. 

I also think it is of great assurance to know that we have a God who not only keeps his promises, but keeps them eternally. The covenant He makes in today’s Old Testament Lesson still stands. The covenant He made, and affirmed, reaffirmed, re-re affirmed many times over with the Israelites still stands. And most significantly, the Covenant he makes with us in Christ still stands. The promise that “whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” 

In a few weeks, many of us will mark a part of the Old Covenant – the Passover, Easter. Some of us will even remember on Maundy Thursday the night that Jesus kept one of the regulations of the Old Covenant and in celebrating the Passover said this is “The New Covenant, Sealed by my blood.” 

Lent, concluded by Easter – a time in the wilderness completed by the mark of something new and a new beginning. 

After we spend time without something, we appreciate it more. The most exciting thing about Lent, is we know it will be over soon. There is always a light at the end of what can feel like a long tunnel. 

A year ago, none of us thought that we would be worshipping entirely online. When, on the 22nd of March last year I stood in the pulpit of St Andrew’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Tain and preached to a camera in an eerily empty church I thought life would be back to normal by summer. None of us thought that nearly a year later, we’d still be wandering in the wilderness with glimmers of light and hope darting in and out of view almost as often as the guidelines change. 

I wonder how many of us have become jaded to the whole pandemic, and have become complacent in how we deal with life. 

Perhaps we need to use this time in the wilderness of Lent to examine where we are in the wilderness of life – because there is a light at the end of both tunnels. 

Psalm 78:7 in the Scottish Metrical Psalter says this:

That they might set their hope in God,
and not forget His ways,
but hold in mind His mighty works
and keep his laws always.

The mightiest work of all being in Jesus Christ – who as St. Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4 – was born as one of us, under the old covenant in order to create a new covenant. One that gives us hope that there is more to life and that life is worth living! 

In John 3: 17 we read: “For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” So that through Him, we can have a new beginning. 

Like Noah, like the Israelites and like Jesus, we need to set our hope in God and remember the mighty works He has performed since the beginning of time. 

That He is the constant in this ever-changing situation and He is the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Our Lenten fast has been long – but great will be the Sunday when God’s church celebrates the Resurrection. When our wandering in the wilderness is completed in the promise of New and Everlasting Life so that we can stand in church once again and sing “Christ the Lord is Risen. Today. Alleluia!

In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. 
Amen.

1 And if the Rev Douglas Horne is reading in despair at this point, it’s not your fault. 

Sermon for The Feast of the Transfiguration – 14th February 2021

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

Some of you might be impressed to know that about ten years ago, I climbed a mountain in the French Alps. Well I say climbed, but when I tell you the mountain was Mont Blanc, you might realise that what I actually mean is – I ascended a mountain courtesy of a cable car.

I was with a group of close friends and after spending a few freezing cold moments gazing in awe at a glacier from an observation platform, we made our way to the suitably enclosed café.

The rest of the group were all delighted by the experience and rattling on about how they appreciated the creative nature of God and how much closer they felt to Him as they surveyed the view.

As I was unable to raise my eyes further than my glass of gluhwein, this was not an experience I felt able to fully enter into. I’m not a great fan of mountains: they’re usually beautiful I admit – from a distance, but as someone who doesn’t enjoy heights, being up a mountain again would definitely not be top of my list of 100 things to do before you die.

In fact, following my Mont Blanc experience, I’ve developed a strong sense of self-preservation which suggests that the very fact of being up a mountain would in itself contribute to my death – even going upstairs on a double-decker bus can sometimes give me palpitations!

Mountains, of course, are very symbolic in the Bible: they are often the places where key people encounter God.

For example, remember Moses climbing Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments. Today in Mark’s Gospel we have Jesus climbing another mountain where he encounters his Father.

I know that “mountain” is probably a bit of a stretch when used to describe the geography of the Holy Land, but when I read these passages again and try to imagine myself into the scenario, I don’t have any sense of resentment that Jesus should only take a select group of his followers with him. In fact, had I been invited to be in that select group I would probably have declined – “Me? Up there? No, you’re fine thanks. You go ahead. I’ll stay here and hold the coats.”

But at the top of this mountain, Jesus is revealed in his glory, His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 

The gospel passage today is about transformation, but is more widely known as The Transfiguration. The supernatural and glorified change in the appearance of Jesus is itself a witness to who Jesus was and is – even if the disciples didn’t quite join the dots at the time.

The Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the incident on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth. The Transfiguration not only supports the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, but the statement “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” identifies him as the messenger and mouth-piece of God, just as it did at his baptism. 

Today this is enhanced by the presence of Moses and Elijah, (Moses representing The Law and Elijah, The Prophets) because it shows Peter, John and James then, and us now, that Jesus is the voice of God above all others. Jesus surpasses and supersedes all the key religious leaders who have gone before and their teaching!

I wonder if you have ever tried to re-invent yourself. It’s more easily done during some big life change that has an element of geographic movement: perhaps leaving home to go to college, changing jobs, moving home, starting at a new school, changing churches and so on. Sometimes that physical movement of place is the impetus for change.

Occasionally as a teacher, I see youngsters who are desperate to change but who have backed themselves into a corner.

Without the geographic change they are locked into a cycle of self-defeating behaviour because of the expectations of those around them – others won’t let them change. If you have the reputation of being the ‘class clown’, or the year group’s ‘gossipy girl’ it’s really hard to change and in all areas of life the more close-knit the community, the more difficult transformation can be.

And yet transformation is a part of our Christian life: through the power of the Holy Spirit we are being transformed from what we once were into what we shall one day be.

It is a work in progress. We are all works in progress.

As 2 Corinthians tells us, If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. And this happens – is happening – because of our encounter with God regardless of whether or not we were up a mountain when that encounter took place.

The problem though is that often we can’t see the wood for the trees: it’s rather like being a parent or grandparent who sees the children daily and because of that doesn’t notice the subtle changes that take place. It takes the visit of a family friend or other relative who hasn’t seen them for a while to say, “Aren’t they growing up?”

I remember at university hearing the testimonies of other Christians who told dramatic tales of transformation when they made a Christian commitment.

It both excited and disappointed me that these testimonies told of change from a really lurid past: excited because of the possibility that God can change anyone, however dodgy their previous lives, and disappointed that my life was so dull and ordinary in contrast.

I’m not doubting the truth of those testimonies, but they were so far removed from my own comparatively uneventful upbringing that they were hard to identify with and yet the Holy Spirit was still at work in my life. I was just too close to the wood to see the trees. So, slowly but surely, attitudes and behaviours changed.

I know I’ll never know the answer to this, but I sometimes wonder how very different from the current me, the old me would have been at this stage in my life had I not made a Christian commitment.

As I try to analyse my own life, and as I look at the lives of other Christians I have known for a long time, I am increasingly convinced that there aren’t that many of us who need a radical transformation of the Holy Spirit, although that’s not to say that we don’t need any transformation.

What the Holy Spirit does, though, is to take the essential us, the essential you and me and works with that God-given material and life’s experiences to challenge and effect incremental transformations that we may not even notice. The fact that we don’t notice that transformation mustn’t be taken as a sign that it isn’t happening.

Perhaps, every once in a while, we should surprise our friends by affirming what we admire and value about their spirituality and Christian witness. We are a work in progress. We are being transformed by the grace of God through the power of the Holy Spirit, but it’s not going to be accomplished this side of the grave so let’s not look for or expect perfection.

Just one minor point to finish on: Jesus chose to take friends with him. They were there to witness the event and talk of it to others later. Let’s not be afraid to do the same.

Lets talk to others of the Transfiguration of Jesus  – Jesus as the link between the human and the divine certainly, but let’s not forget to talk about what God is doing in our own lives: our own little transformations by the Holy Spirit; and if we can’t recognise it in ourselves let’s make more of a point in affirming it in each other. Sometimes it’s the personal rather than the profoundly theological that draws others in.

So, this week, in your day to day encounters, look for that transformation in your life. Recognise and give thanks that God is working through you, and through our church family. Share with those around you what God is doing in your lives and let others know that they too can be transformed.

Amen

Fr Simon

Sermon for Epiphany 5B – 7th February 2021

Isaiah 40:21-31; Ps 147:1-11, 20c; 1 Cor 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

Donald goes on holiday to the Middle East with his family, including his mother-in-law. During their stay in Jerusalem, Donald’s mother-in-law sadly dies. He goes along to the British Consulate to enquire about how to send her body back to the Scotland for a proper burial. The Consul tells him that to send the body back to Scotland for burial is extremely expensive. It could cost him as much as £5,000. The cost of burying the body in Jerusalem however is however only about £150, so most people opt for the latter. Donald thinks about it for a little while and says, “I don’t care how much it costs to send the body back, that’s what I want to do.” The Consul says, “You must have loved your mother-in-law very much.” “No, it’s not that,” says Donald. “You see, I’ve heard someone, many years ago, was buried here in Jerusalem, but on the third day he arose from the dead! I just can’t take that chance!

Many preaching on today’s Gospel concentrate on the fact that the woman that Jesus heals is Simon and Andrew’s mother-in-law which is possibly the least interesting detail in the passage.

In much of his writing, Mark’s encourages us to look for instances of resurrection in everyday life in the lives of our friends and families and in the social and political realms. As so many in our world have found over the last year, a wide-spread fever can be extremely debilitating if they can’t do what they need to in relation earning money to feed, provide for and more generally serve their family.

We all long for the day when we can be released from the grip of Covid-19 and a world-wide vaccination programme is undoubtedly a step in that direction. It will allow us to feel whole again and means that we can once again be fully present to to others. We, for instance will be able to visit our new granddaughter Alanna and of course her parents Tracey and Andrew. In Mark’s gospel healing isn’t an “individual” thing, it’s a repairing of relationships, son to father, daughter to mother, and here, mother to children. Repairing the bonds of family is a dimension of resurrection.

The resurrection life that Jesus proclaims here isn’t simple or unambiguous in the world in which we live. Our passage goes on to suggest the enormity of the suffering (“the whole city was gathered around the door”) in much the same way that daily we hear stories of people who have lost their jobs, their businesses, their sense of well-being and their sense of orientation. Note however that Jesus doesn’t attempt to deal with all of this illness and suffering.

Early in the morning, Jesus leaves the house of Simon and Andrew and withdraws to a “deserted place” to pray. Prayer is an essential part of Jesus’ spirituality and He always turns to it in moments of crisis in his ministry. When Simon and his companions finally find him, alleging that everyone’s looking for him, he tells them that they need to move on to the surrounding towns in order to proclaim the message there too, and to continue his ministry.

In our passage from Isaiah, we find the people of Israel in exile in Babylon. They’ve had their familiar way of life turned upside down. Many are separated from family and friends, and to put it mildly, they’re down-hearted and fed up it’s been going on so long. I don’t suppose that rings any bells does it?

But Isaiah doesn’t seem to be down-in-the dumps. God, speaking through him says that the same power used to make the heavens and the earth will be deployed on behalf of the people to form them into a New Creation. The claim that the Creator doesn’t faint or grow weary suggests that Creation didn’t stop somewhere in the Genesis narrative of Creation, but is continuing and as a result great things can be expected.

Part of this creative work will be renewing and strengthening the people. God may not be tired, but people around the world are. But, a new future with unrestricted travel, a removal of restrictions, and rebuilding our lives in new and creative ways will require energy. Just as travelling back to Jerusalem and rebuilding that city would require energy of the people of Israel, once they’re released from captivity. However, we’re told that those who trust in the Lord will have the energy to move forward into the new creation that the Lord has in store.

Those who returned to Jerusalem would find their share of struggle and disappointment. The promise of new creation was not a promise of life outside of the world as they knew it. Yet the creative power of their God would open for them a way where before there’d been none. This powerful, caring God would provide the energy the people needed for their journey back to Jerusalem.

Those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint”.

At times when life has worn us down, when the spiritual battle seems overwhelming, when we feel as though we can’t go on, Isaiah offers us spiritual energy from a powerful, creative, but engaged God. In one sense, the prophet offers encouragement to go back. The scattered exiles can go back to Jerusalem from the far-flung regions of Babylon. The people will go back, but everything’s changed. They can’t go back, they can only move forward into God’s new future.

Weariness, of course, isn’t unique to the Israelites. Moving forward into a a future that we can’t yet imagine may seem some way off, but the promise of God’s continual creative work, with its mysterious yet life-giving power, should continue to give hope for God’s tired and weary people.

As the church we can’t go “back” once the restrictions are lifted. The church can only move forward into an uncertain world. What sort of church do we need to be as we move into that future? This passage look back to the faith that formed the church. That faith which recognises God’s creative power as well as the affirmation that God sees and knows us and God cares for us. God can and will give the church the energy it needs to move forward, so long as we let Him speak to us.

Where to start? Well even Jesus couldn’t heal everybody or sort out all of the things that were wrong in the world. So as we look to the future we need to accept our limitations.

For Jesus, prayer was the place to begin and so we each need to find our own “deserted place” in order to re-charge our spiritual batteries and to allow God to speak to each one of us and show us what Resurrection looks like in our everyday lives and in the lives of our friends, families and communities. Through that prayer He can show us what He how he wants us to play our part in that New Creation.

Amen.