Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Jesus encounters the darkness – John 9

A sermon preached at St Saviours Guildford on Sunday, 24 February 2013.

If you prefer listening to reading, you can hear the sermon here

We all know the type, the kind of person who has an instinctive ability to locate the button which makes me so angry that I think my head is going to explode, and who also has an utter inability to leave the button well alone.

Button pushers, we all know them, some of us might be them, we could all do without them. But here is the strange thing, Button Pushers are sometimes helpful. Take Jesus, for example. Have you ever wondered why Jesus performed so many of his miracles on the Sabbath day. I mean, if there was a big, red button which you didn’t want to press in first century palestine, it was the one marked ‘Sabbath Day’. But Jesus seems to be magnetically drawn to this particular button. Sure, the miracles he performed on the Sabbath were examples of divine compassion and love, they were good and beautiful works, but, couldn’t he have waited a day? Did he have to break Sabbath Laws? Make no mistake, that is exactly what Jesus has done in our reading. By Jesus’ day, good people, out of a desire to show love for God and diligence in keeping the law, had broken down the command to keep the Sabbath day holy into thirty-nine prohibited activities, one of which was kneading, which included any mixing of a liquid with a powder to make a paste… and that is exactly what Jesus did on this particular Sabbath. He spat on some mud and made a paste and smeared it on the blind man’s eyes and told him to go and wash in the pool of Siloam… and in doing that he pushed the big red button marked ‘Sabbath day’. 

Jesus seems to have brought division and an angry response wherever he went and whatever he said in John’s gospel. He had only just narrowly escaped being stoned to death in chapter eight because he claimed that he was worshipped by the patriarch Abraham. And now he provokes another confrontation. I suppose, if we are looking for an encounter with Jesus in this story, the encounter isn’t primarily with people, the encounter is with something much bigger, it is with darkness. John starts his gospel by telling us that the light sines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. In this chapter, just before Jesus makes the mud and smears it on the blind man’s eye’s, he echoes that theme, ‘so long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world’. In this story, ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ become embodied in the characters and the way they respond to Jesus. This is story about the light of the world, invincibly encountering darkness, and we see that encounter in two ways:

The religious authorities
The healing itself, which brought physical light to the man born blind triggers a religious controversy. Clearly, suspicions had been raised when the healed man had spoken to his friends and neighbours about ‘the man called Jesus’ who had given him the gift of sight, so they brought the man to the Pharisees, the religious establishment of the day, to be questioned.

And so we have the two facts on which this religious trial rests: Work on the sabbath day is not allowed, but a miracle had been performed which was so exceptional that nobody had ever heard of anything like it (v.32). And the question is, which of those facts will be the focus of attention? Now that question might seem easy for us to answer today – clearly, people trump rules don’t they? I mean, certainly rules which don’t matter all that much, like being diligent in keeping the Sabbath day? It is easy for me to think that I would focus on the life giving miracle, and not on the broken rule, because in this instance, the rule doesn’t matter all that much to me. I don’t get particularly worked up over the Sabbath – perhaps I should! But what if the rule which had been broken was more significant to me? How would I react if the works of God seemed to be challenging some of my most deeply cherished religious or theological or moral views? I hope I would be keen sighted enough to discern what God was doing and courageous enough to  keep in step with him. But I know that there would be a good chance that I would be on the side of the Pharisees. 

The Pharisees, you see, were good devout people, they were serious about their faith, they were people who, in many ways, I think we would see eye to eye with. They believed in God, that he had revealed himself to Moses, that his will is enshrined in scripture, and that the response believers should make to show their love for God who has saved them is to be serious about walking in the will of the Lord. They knew how life should be lived. The attitude of the religious authorities is one of certainty, and I think that's where the problem lies, and that is where we can subtly change our behaviour. In verse 24 they say, ‘Give glory to God! We know this man is a sinner.’ In effect they were saying: ‘Give glory to God: Agree with us’. They were so convinced that they knew how God would act, that they were unwilling to see the works of God presented before their eyes. They were so sure that they know who God was that they were ignoring God in their midst.

It’s important that all of us who are serious about following Jesus, who are serious about giving glory to God, are never so sure that we leave no room to be silent and awestruck by God’s grace. None of us ever has such a firm grasp of who God is or what God does that there is no room left for growth, for challenge, for amazement. For the Pharisees, a little ignorance, a little confession of need, a little space for God to be God could have changed the direction the were walking in. But instead, they go deeper and deeper into the darkness, retreating from the light who has come into the world. They go from division among themselves (v. 16) to ever greater certainty that they are right. As they evaluate Jesus and his works, they remain closed. They think they see clearly, but by judging the Light of the World, they are moving to a deeper darkness. May God save us from knowing too much!

The man born blind.
But hear we have the blind man. The creator of the universe, who in the beginning took dirt and formed it into a human being and breathed life into it, that same creator now takes the dust of the earth, and uses it to bring about a new creation, to bring life and light where there had been darkness and despair.

But at the same time as the Pharisees are retreating from the light, the now healed man embraces the light more and more. He starts off not knowing very much at all, but he has a very basic certainty – which goes to show that it is not always a bad thing to be sure of your self: ‘I don’t know whether he is a sinner, one thing I know, I was blind, now I see’ (v. 25), whatever the religious authorities did to him, however they tried to pull rank on him, or call him a sinner, or make out that he was stupid, they couldn’t take that one thing away from him. He knew that Jesus had brought him light. He is certain of that one thing. At the heart of every disciple is, I think, a very simple experience of God’s grace. Maybe not an experience which provides all the answers, maybe it leaves us with even more questions than before. The likelihood is that the more we step into the light of Christ, the bigger our questions get and the more acutely aware of our ignorance we become. But there is still that basic certainty. Not a certainty that means we have understood God, or that we have God neatly packaged up, but a certainty that can see the difference God has made in his lives and can say, ‘I was blind, but now I see. I know that much’.

I remember hearing the story of a miner who had become a christian. His colleagues thought that it was all rather pathetic and teased him about his faith. ‘You don’t believe in all that nonsense do you? Surely, you can’t believe that Jesus turned water into wine?’ ‘I don’t know whether he turned water into wine’, the man replied, ‘But in my house, he turned beer into furniture.’ He wouldn’t speak beyond what he knew, but he did know the difference Jesus had made in his life. ‘I don’t know whether or not he is a sinner. One thing I know, I was blind, now I see.’

But Jesus also gives increasing clarity to the man’s spiritual vision. Did you spot how the way he speaks about Jesus progresses as he comes under more and more pressure? He starts in verse 11, simply by saying ‘The man they Called Jesus’. By verse 17 he is calling Jesus ‘a Prophet’, someone who represents God and authoritatively speaks his word. Ten verses later Jesus has become someone who might be followed as a disciple, and the man indicates that this is exactly what he is ‘do you want to become his disciples too?’ (9.27). In verse 33, the man confesses that Jesus is ‘from God’. And by the end of the chapter, he not only calls Jesus ‘Lord’, and acknowledges him as ‘The Son of Man’, he falls on his knees in worship (9.38). His interrogators may have ordered him to ‘give glory to God’ by disowning Jesus, but the healed man glorifies god in the only way he knows how – by worshiping Jesus. The kind of spiritual sight which we see in the healed man begins and ends in worship, in the acknowledgement that true light doesn’t belong to us as a possession, but comes to us as a gift.

And the light really does come to him. After he has been accused, and written off and excommunicated, expelled from the community which provided him with some meagre support, Jesus comes and finds him (v.35). The man doesn’t go looking for Jesus. Jesus the good shepherd, whose sheep hear his voice and answer his call. The shepherd who searches for the one, beloved, lost member of his flock. Jesus finds this man, and welcomes him. That is the deepest truth of the Christian experience: Jesus. Found. Me.

It’s quite strange to pick this chapter of John’s gospel as an example of an ‘encounter’ with Jesus. Because for the vast majority of the story, Jesus is nowhere to be seen. He leaves in verse seven, so Jesus isn’t actually present when the miracle takes place. We are reminded of Jesus’ absence in verse 12, where the healed man says he doesn’t know where Jesus is, and we don’t see Jesus again right until the final scene of the story in verse 35. Surely, there are better examples of encounters with Jesus? But in another sense, ‘encountering Jesus’ happens throughout the story. He is encountered, not in person, but in the life of the man whose world has been transformed and been made new and beautiful because of his encounter with Jesus Christ. It is his testimony, his transformed life, which is impossible to argue against cogently. In his life we see the invincible light of the world bringing healing and joy and welcome and acceptance. And I want to close by saying that the same can be true for each of us: Jesus, the light of the world, will encounter people through our transformed lives, and we will encounter him in the lives of others, if we have eyes to see.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The greatest resolution

Austin Farrer for the start of Lent...
"If there are any of you determined to live a more Christian life, there is one resolution you need to make which is, out of all proportion, more important than the rest. Resolve to pray, to receive the sacrament, to shun besetting sins, to do good works – all excellent resolutions; but more important than any of these is the resolution to repent. the more resolutions you make, the more you will break. But it does not matter how many you break, so long as you are resolute not to put of repentance when you break them, but to give yourself up to the mercy which will not despise a broken and contrite heart... it remains true [of us] that... in [our] natural being, there dwells no good thing. Saints are not [those] who store goodness in themselves, they are just [those] who do not delay to repent, and whose repentances are honourable. The saints have tried God's patience to the utmost, they have explored illimitable mercy."
(Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, p. 17) 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Shriven or Fat?

Five years ago I lived in Italy for a little while. In February 2009 I took a trip to Venice during Carnivale. Now, I have to admit, I find the whole mask wearing thing a bit creepy. Every time I went out, there were people wearing strange outfits and bizarre masks. It’s amazing how unnerving it is not to be able to see the faces of the people around you. Carnivale was a big party. The whole city was involved, and it all got me thinking about the meaning of the word Carnivale.

The word ‘carnivale’ was probably formed from the words ‘carne’ – meat, and ‘levare’ – to remove. Some think that the word may have different origins, but, seeing as carnivale always marks the approch of lent, the sentiment of preparing for a time of fasting by ‘removing the meat’ seems fitting. The climax of Carnivale is, of course, Mardi Gras, which simply means, ‘Fat Tuesday’. Having ‘lavared’ your ‘carne’, now, on the last day before lent, you make sure you use up any fat you have in your house in preparation for the start of the lenten fast on Ash Wednesday. Of course, in Italy and other Catholic countries, the word has now become synonymous with a great big party.

In Britain, we have nothing quite as extravagant or joyful as ‘Mardi Gras’. We have Shrove Tuesday, whose chief enjoyments consist in running around, flipping pancakes, and maybe dousing one with lemon and sugar before eating it. It all seems pretty dour, but I quite like it that way. To be honest, I think I would prefer a damp pancake to a street party. But then again, I think I would prefer almost anything to a street party! I'm not sure my time in Italy changed my British penchant for gloom. It is just possible that this delight in the dismal, goes way back into the history of the collective British psyche. Take the word ‘shrove’. It comes from the old English word ‘to shrive’ which means ‘to confess your sins to a priest’. On the continent, the day before the start of lent is marked by the last party before a time of slightly fewer parties (and a fair bit of sorrow for all the overindulgence). In Britain, we like to get on with our repentance early!

It is good to keep Lent seriously. We all know we are not as good as we might be, even if we don’t like to admit it. Lent is a time to be honest with ourselves and God, and to focus on the aspects of our lives in which we would like to bear a greater resemblance to Jesus. It is good to have a time of self denial, where we focus on those who have nothing, and remember how fortunate we are. But it is also useful to remind ourselves that, whilst abstinence can be good, it is not the only story God wants us to hear. It is ok to be shriven on Shrove Tuesday, so long as we remember that (by and large) the things we enjoy are enjoyable because God made the world good. So this Lent, may our abstinence lead us into a greater enjoyment of God’s good creation.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Bleeding glory – Luke 9.28–36


‘Identity’ is very important. Governments invest huge amounts of money in developing ever more sophisticated identification documents. My passport can now work with a computer to recognise my face! And for this privilege, I had to pay £72! Then there is Identity theft, which is big business. Criminal gangs rifle through waste paper looking for information about us which can be used. And those lovely e-mails telling you that you have won the albanian lottery, or the helpful phone-calls from the Microsoft protection centre informing you that your Windows computer has a virus… I have some bad news… they may not be helpful and kind. They may, in fact, be from people who want to steal your identity, and probably your money too. Being able to prove who you say you are is very important.

Luke knew the importance of identity too. The ninth chapter of his gospel, which we have snippet of this morning, starts with a very powerful man asking a question about identity (9.7). Herod the Tetrarch had heard reports of Jesus and the twelve apostles he had just sent out to heal and proclaim the kingdom, and was perplexed. He had just had John the Baptist executed, but some people were saying that he had been raised from the dead. Others were saying that Elijah or one of the prophets had returned. Herod wasn’t convinced by these stories. Who, he wondered, could this Jesus he was hearing about be?

Peter thought he could answer that question: ‘God’s Messiah’, he said (9.20). But he had only begun to imagine what this might mean. And so Jesus filled in the picture. The Messiah would be rejected and suffer and be killed and be raised on the third day. The identity of the Messiah was way beyond what any of the disciples were prepared to imagine. Peter and the other disciples, despite making a good start, were hardly any clearer about Jesus’ identity than Herod.

It is only after we have the question posed by Herod and half answered by Peter, that we come to the mount of transfiguration. At last, the moment when all will be made clear. Jesus takes Peter, James and John to the top of a mountain to pray, and something that can only really be marveled at happens. As Jesus was praying, his face and clothing were visibly transformed. It is as though, for a moment, the veil of heaven is drawn back, and Jesus can be seen as he truly is. At last, we think. This is the Messiah we want! A shining face, glowing clothing, having intense, meaningful discussions with two of the most significant figures from Israel’s history. This is a Messiah who you can really worship!

But if we were merely to come to that conclusion, we would be paying as little attention as Peter James and John. Did you spot what these immensely privileged disciples were doing whilst their Lord was talking with Moses and Elijah? They were dozing, ‘Weighed down with sleep’, or possibly even ‘drunk with sleep’ (9.32). Peter, James and John were only partially aware of what was going on. The translation we have in the NRSV doesn’t quite do justice to this. It reads, ‘But since they stayed awake’, but the tense of the verb ‘awake’ in greek stresses the beginning of a new action. So a better translation is something like, ‘when they were beginning to wake up’.

Why did Luke tell us about these napping disciples? I think it is to show us, as clearly as he possibly could, that the three witnesses of the transfiguration failed to understand the most significant part of the event, and instead, fixated on the least important aspect. Peter, the spokesman for the three disciples, fixates on the glorious, shining Jesus, the Messiah they had all dreamed of, and he wanted to preserve that moment by building shelters for them to stay in. What the three disciples had missed, though, was the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. We read that they were ‘were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.’ The word Luke used for ‘departure’ is literally ‘Exodus’. The Exodus was the story of how God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the sea, from death in Egypt to new life in the promised land. The discussion was about Jesus’ death to save his people, his resurrection to bring us new life. For Jesus, the transfiguration both confirmed who he was, and assured him that the path he was about to take to Jerusalem was God’s will. Here, on the top of the mountain, the Law and the Prophets agree that the Messiah will bring about a new Exodus for his people, and the Father adds divine approval. We are to listen carefully to the Son, because the teaching he offers leads us to know God more truly.

If we aren’t listening, if we are half asleep, the transfiguration confirms everything we expect God to be. Glorious, powerful, shiny. The kind of deity that we want to set up a shrine to. But if we stay awake and listen attentively we’ll realise that true glory isn’t found in the glowing face. It is found in the journey to Jerusalem, in the path of suffering to free his people. As one preacher put it, ‘Glory doesn’t shine, it bleeds’ (Debbie Blue, Sensual Orthodoxy).

Where do we expect to find glimpses of holiness? Beautiful worship? Exquisite music? A serene, ancient church? Perhaps we glimpse holiness in nature, when we look at a night sky or a sunset. Some people go on pilgrimage to holy places, or join religious communities. Some lock themselves in libraries to study the deep things of God. There are many ways we try to feel in touch with the spiritual, in which we experience the sacred, but the transfiguration challenges us, not to look for or hold on to the holiness that we expect to find, but to listen to the Son, to follow him  on the way of the cross, and to go on learning from him. Learning to see the God whose strength is revealed in the weakness of the cross may lead us to the same awed silence we see in the three disciples on the mountain top.