Saturday, 22 March 2014

Living Water

Some people who read this blog might be wondering why it did not appear last week. I did n't have a week off, and I did preach a sermon, which continued the theme of vision - in that case 'Vision for Growth'. Last week I referred at some length to the Peterborough Diocesan Vision for Growth, and since the Bishop of Peterborough has not yet released his roadshow talks for publication online, I chose not to publish anything that would pre-empt him. So for more on Vision for Growth, keep an eye on the Peterborough Diocesan website:

The readings for the third Sunday in Lent are of particular relevance to my benefice, since we call ourselves Living Brook.

The Old testament and Gospel readings show a marked contrast in attitude and understanding, however. Exodus 17 recounts the story of a grumpy set of Hebrews, travelling through the wilderness having been freed from slavery by God, but seeming to be somewhat ungrateful for their liberty. Although they had seen unimaginable miracles in the course of their rescue from Egypt, they didn't seem to wholeheartedly believe that God was with them and supporting them in the desert. The pillar of fire had, perhaps, led them into the wilderness in order to abandon them there. Thirsty, instead of actively looking for water, or even asking God nicely, they grumbled and demanded. They acted in the dependent way of a lazy child, expecting that if they moaned then the required drink would arrive without any effort on their part. Moses did not challenge this demanding behaviour, but, irritated and worn out by it, aimed his own complaints at God. We've all had moments when we've thrown up our hands and said 'what am I supposed to do?' - complaining instead of getting on with it, feeling aggrieved that anything might be expected of us instead of taking the situation sensibly to God in prayer. What am I supposed to do could become, Lord, please help and guide me so that I can act in your strength and wisdom and deal with this situation. All too often the tiredness or emotion or just spiritual laziness lead us to whinge in God's direction, as though attempting to pass on the blame to God. 'Oh, You deal with it!'

God did - of course God did. God loves His children and is not going to watch idly as a people He has gone to the trouble to rescue from Egypt then die of thirst. But God was displeased. He provided water. Miraculously the water that gave life bubbled from the driest of sources, a rock. But the Hebrews had tested God instead of trusting Him. Although God had shown them a vision of a land of milk and honey, a land that was their destiny, they showed that they didn't share the vision trust it to be true. If the vision was true, why imagine that God would let them die? If God is to be trusted, why imagine that He would let them die? Why should God prove Godself by producing water on demand in such circumstances?

God is not to be tested. Imagine for a moment, testing your parents. If you love me, give me this or that. Or testing your partner - if you really love me, do this or that. It is not the sign of a healthy relationship, but of self interest coming before love for the other. Why should a relationship with God be any less open to trust? If we are in a loving relationship with God, then we should be trusting and faithful; and responsive, getting on with things alongside God. that is not to say we never ask things of God. We all ask things of loved ones, but in a healthy relationship that is part of the give and take of things, and a request includes the words please and thank you. It comes as a reasonable part of a loving relationship, not a whining demand - in a healthy relationship anyway. And so it should be with God.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Vision in the Wilderness

Lent traditionally begins with the strange story of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by God. As we are asked in the Lenten discipline to focus on penitence, we are reminded that Jesus was without sin, but certainly knew what it was to be tempted.

The temptations are placed in the gospels by Matthew and Luke as a proof text. (This year we read from Matthew 4:1-11). If you are doubting that Jesus is the Son of God, that the voice from Heaven calling Jesus Son was real, then here is the story to convince you. The proof is not merely in the sinless ness of Jesus, but in what the temptations are. Each of the temptations parallels a story of the Israelites in the wilderness with Moses. The Israelites gave in to temptation, but despite that salvation was promised to them as God's people. God had to provide them with the law, a set of guidelines that would show them clearly what was the behaviour expected of them.

In the wilderness, dry and rocky, food and drink were in short supply. The Israelites failed to trust God. They forgot that God had protected them and led them from slavery, and suggested that Egypt in chains would be better than freedom in the desert. God supplied them with food - God was always going to do that- but they were ungrateful even then, and still failed to trust God for provision on the Sabbath. Jesus knew that God would provide for Him, and trusted him completely. We may not always understand how God will provide, but if we trust, then He will (Proverbs 3:5). Jesus reminds us that life comes from the word of God. Jesus Himself is the word of God, present at creation bringing life, and demonstrating the awesomeness of that life in the resurrection.

The second temptation, in which Jesus is invited to test God by throwing himself from a high place, reminds us of the way the Israelites tested God. 'If you are really God, then...' In some ways is reminiscent of the behaviour of a spoilt child. 'If you really love me, you'll give me whatever I want'. The Israelites questioned Gods presence at Meribah, and persuaded Moses to bring water from a rock with his staff. Of course God passed the test, but the test should never have happened. It is not for us to attempt to manipulate God or to tell God what to do. Jesus knows that of course God would send angels to help him if he asks - in the Garden of Gethsemane he pointed out to his friends that God would send twelve legions of angels to protect him if he asked- but in the desert the request would have tested God, and in the garden it would have been contrary to God's plan. Where Israel failed, Jesus did not. The failure at Meribah was what denied Moses the chance to enter the promised land; Jesus, the way, the truth and the life, shows us the way to the ultimate promised land, the Father's Kingdom.

The third temptation is to personal power and to idolatry. The Israelites, even after all they had seen as they left Egypt, did not remain loyal to God. In the desert they made a golden calf and worshipped that, their own priest Aaron enjoying the personal power that came with it. Later, many in Israel betrayed God and worshipped the gods of the Canaanites, Asherah and Baal. Nothing would ever tempt Jesus to betray his Father.

The Israelites needn't have been in the wilderness for so long. They had been given a vision by God, a good and strong vision. The was a good and productive land, a land their ancestors had lived in and prospered in years before. There was room for them in Canaan. They could settle there and live well, followers of their God and protected by Him. That was the vision they were given. And yet somehow they lost faith in the vision and failed to trust God. They imagined giants and powerful armies would crush them, and they gave in to fear. The promised land was denied to their generation because they didn't trust God or his vision.  In this, Jesus also shows us a better way. As he prayed and fasted in the wilderness, Jesus too had a vision from God. As for the Israelites, the working out of the vision involved some risk and discomfort, but for a great gain. The Israelites (or at least that first generation), decided that their fear of the risks outweighed what they would gain from going along with God's plan. We know that Jesus didn't relish all the difficulties that were required for him either, but he did not turn away from them. For Jesus, the vision of God meant that he would bring life in all it's fullness to all who would follow him. He would bring many people to the ultimate promised land. In order to show us what life in all its fullness really looks like, Jesus had to risk opposition, persecution and death.

For us today, acting on the vision of God does not usually involve battles or crucifixion, especially in rural England. But it might have obstacles, awkwardness or discomfort, and of course it involves change. God leads all of us, sometimes, into the wilderness. It's a good place to think. We can stay there a long time, fearing change and worrying over what might go wrong. Or we can move out of the wilderness into God's place of promise, whatever that might be. We go to the wilderness, as Jesus did to seek God's vision, and to consider how to make it a reality. We come out ready for action, however tough the action might be.

Lent, then, isn't just about penitence, the Lenten wilderness isn't just about saying sorry. It's about vision. It's the time and place for us to consider and to listen to God. What is God's vision for us? Are we a people headed for a land of milk and honey? If so, what does that mean? Full churches? A service every Sunday at the same time? A vibrant café church? A fantastic team leading assemblies in all the local schools? A strong pastoral team doing regular visits to the housebound? More clergy? Whatever the vision is, the challenge as Lent goes on is this: will you be like the Israelites and stay in the wilderness, complaining about the status quo but fearing change too much to risk moving on with God? Or will you be like Jesus, taking time to pray and then moving on from the desert to gather more people around you and to make God's vision a reality together, despite the potential difficulties?

In Living Brook Benefice we'll be gathering for an Away Day in early April to share our thoughts about God's vision for our parishes and think about how we move on with God's plan. All church members are needed to be a part of that day. As we prepare for it, every one of you is also asked to use our Benefice Lent Prayer every day, as we listen to what God is telling us.

Living God,
Your Son promised life in all it's fullness to all who follow Him.
Send your Holy Spirit to help your people in Living Brook Benefice this Lent,
And especially at our Away Day on April 5th,
That we may seek and find a vision that brings life and growth to our churches,
And allows that life and growth to flow like living water from us to our communities.
In the name of Jesus, who gives the water of life.