Sermon: Sunday 26 February 2014
The Very Revd Vivienne Faull, Dean of Leicester
‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.’
Today we begin our Sunday by Sunday journey through Lent, and towards Easter. These weeks are profoundly important. From the earliest years of the church 40 days were set aside to prepare catechumens for baptism at the Easter vigil. During those 40 days new Christians would pray, fast, read the Bible share their faith, examine the hearts and give alms.
These practices shaped their repentance, empowered them for discipleship and encouraged them in faith. We are part of that tradition: some of us met before the service to encourage one another. Across the diocese many people are preparing for baptism here at sunrise on Easter day. And at that service these new Christians will very publically, and very dramatically, join a world-changing new movement. A Fire for Christ, we call it. A fire which began with Jesus’ proclamation: ‘the kingdom of God is near, repent and believe.’
But what does that well-worn phrase ‘repent and believe’ mean? There are many people who assume that, though Jesus has great personal significance to them, Jesus is irrelevant to the contemporary practical and profound matters of our lives.
Some say he was a simple rural person who was only interested in face to face relationships, so repentance is about restoration of good relationships; or that he was interested in spiritual, not social, matters so repentance is about getting your prayers right; or that he was a member of a small group far removed from circles of power, so repentance is about turning back to behave as that group did and does; or that he was concerned not with political change but a new self-understanding, so repentance is about profound reflection; or that he came to give his life to save humanity, and the kind of life he led was one of a sinless sacrificial victim, so repentance is about returning to utter dependence on him.
All this is partially true. But I believe it doesn’t capture the profundity and complexity and the glory of what I believe repentance is about: that turning to walk with Jesus in the way to the kingdom, in the way of the cross, means not just individual spiritual work, but daring to walk in ways which challenge the world, ways which provides the energy and vision to transform that world. So repentance is not about retreat from really difficult stuff around power and passion, it means moving towards and into profound encounter and engagement with power and passion.
Over the next few weeks in a series of sermons I will be looking at those themes of power and passion, and how we handle them as Christians, and exploring something of the two dynamics I see within our scriptures for those on the way to the kingdom. The first is the move from a constrained place, to a broad place. The second is the move from scarcity to abundance. And then there is the source of the energy, power, movement to get from one to the other.
So let’s plunge in with today’s reading which does indeed speaks of an odd, dangerous, surging power which unsettles and revamps and opens and jeopardizes and heals. That power comes from an unexpected direction. In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee – a nowhere town, in the troublesome, unsophisticated North. Just how, as I’ve discovered, some Londoners think of Leicester.
You might like to take some questions away to mull over this morning. The first question is ‘where do you come from?’ The point of the inclusion of the detail about Jesus’ hometown is that the good news comes from an unexpected direction. This Cathedral community has within it people from if not quite all races and tribes and nations then at least a pretty good range. And that is wonderful, because each of you brings something special to this world-changing movement of Christ’s companions. So I ask again: where do you come from? And what do you bring to offer to us all? Because we need you, and what you bring.
Jesus arrives on the bank of the Jordan river, the river which set the boundary of the Promised Land, keeps it safe and marked out. And Jesus goes to John, who has stepped outside the safety zone, beyond home territory. So here we are, back with that theme of movement from a constrained place to a broad place, but this time subverted and inverted: out of the safety of the Promised Land back into the place of risk and challenge and change. For what happened next wasn’t comfortable, and it is curious. The Spirit drives Jesus out.
The Spirit drives Jesus out; in the way Jesus will later drive demons out. There is real force being used here to shift Jesus into the habitat of wild beasts not just for a moment, but for 40 days. Of course the number 40 is symbolic, a reminder of the days of the flood, and the years of the wanderings, and the days of Elijah’s flight. And in all of these stories told and retold by the Israelites the danger is real, and the moral of the story is that God preserved life through danger.
He was in the wilderness 40 days tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts. And angels waited on him. Mark is deliberately staccato.
And for Mark the wilderness sojourn isn’t a prelude to a different tale. The sojourn sets out the very stuff of that tale. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness to get conflicts done and dusted and over. The conflicts which began there would continue in villages of Galilee and towns of Judea, and reach their climax in Jerusalem. And having been impelled to go there, Jesus didn’t turn his back on it when he left: the wilderness would become the place Jesus returned to as a retreat from those who misunderstood him. Not because it was an easy place to be, but it was a real place to be. Not marginal, but central. Not incidental, but crucial.
So a second question for you to ponder. The spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. We talk a lot in our culture of driven people. They are often, in the world’s terms, successful people. What drives you? Is it something with power for good -faith, courage, hope, justice, prudence? Or is it something less benign – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, pride?
So a little more detail on what drove Jesus. At the heart of today’s gospel is that apocalyptic moment when the heavens are torn apart and a voice speaks: ‘You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’ There is an extraordinary sense of recognition and intimacy and preciousness here. And what Jesus experienced he passed on. Canon Mike Harrison, reflecting at a recent Bishop’s Council Residential, told of an American Christian social activist who had a friend who smoked a lot of weed and loved Jesus, the two not being necessarily connected. The hippy friend told the social activist ‘Jesus never spoke to a Prostitute’.
The Social Activist reached for this Bible and a rebuttal. ‘No,’ said the hippy friend, ‘Jesus spoke to a woman.’ And Jesus loved her. And the tax collectors and sinners. And those who knew themselves beloved loved in their turn. The term ‘beloved’ becomes the most frequent of greeting in the letters to the earliest churches, used 28 times. The writers describe others as ‘beloved’: you remember, of course! Timothy, beloved Ampliatus and beloved Stachys. And whole letters begin with the greeting ‘beloved’. If there was a characteristic of first Christians it was that they knew themselves beloved. And so they could love others in their turn.
So the third question for this morning: is there a moment you can recall when you knew yourself beloved of God? Perhaps your own baptism, or confirmation. Perhaps in an encounter with a friend, or a stranger who was Christ to you. And if you aren’t sure of God’s love perhaps it would be important to have a conversation with someone you trust who might help you find your own way into that recognition of your intimacy and preciousness to God.
So we are back to where we began. ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news’.
Where have you come from?
What drives you?
Have you discovered that you are beloved?
Three questions for each of us individually. And one for us corporately: Dare we, together, trust the odd, dangerous, surging power of Jesus who unsettles and jeopardizes and heals and energises and above all offers new life to the world?
© The Very Revd Vivienne Faull