Sermon - 26th February 2012
Lent 1 - Attract and Repel
Scripture - Mark 1:9-15
Rev Andy Braunston
We are at the start of Lent – a period of preparation for Easter. It always falls in the Spring and is, therefore, an interesting time as it contrasts various ideas. Lent thinks about sacrifice, putting ourselves last and is supposed to be austere – in the Eastern Churches Christians abstain from meat and all animal products and so have a vegan diet for six long weeks.
We started Lent on Wednesday with the traditional marking of ourselves with Ash as a symbol of sorrow for sin and a desire to turn away from it. Yet this season, in the Northern Hemisphere, falls at the end of winter and the start of spring. There is a sense of new life, better weather and new opportunities.
We think of the long journey of Jesus towards Calvary, how his teaching annoyed the authorities and led him to the Cross yet we also prepare for Easter a time of rejoicing and excitement. Traditionally Lent was about fasting, denial and austerity yet the best vestments, cloths and colours are used by the Church – so we don’t look too miserable!
These interesting contrasts are mirrored in our reading today. There is the high point of Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven affirming him and then there is the long temptation in the wilderness – the temptation for 40 days is remembered particularly during the long 40 days of Lent. Jesus preaches the coming of the Kingdom – which is both good and bad news depending on your own context.
Throughout St Mark’s Gospel we see Jesus’ prime insistence of proclaiming the coming Kingdom. Every time we pray the Our Father we ask “thy Kingdom come” but sometimes we are a bit hazy about what this Kingdom is.
The Greek term translated as Kingdom means the place where God’s will is supreme. It could be rendered as Reign of God. In Jesus’ teaching it is associated with various things: economic justice, righteousness, healing and the tables being turned. Many of Jesus’ examples of who is in, or close to, the Kingdom are about poor people. The widow who gives her tiny penny to the Temple treasury, the woman who searches high and low for the lost coin and the young lad who shares his loaves and fishes with the crowd. Jesus is concerned with righteousness which is a theme of the Jewish prophets in the Old Testament – it’s a mixture of the idea of justice and holiness; both are intertwined. Jesus tells the rich young man to give all he has to the poor; he tells the tax collector only to collect what is due and not cheat the poor, he tells us that we will be judged on how we treat him in the poorest of the poor. His healings and miracles speak of the Kingdom where the tables are turned so, in the words of his mother, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty handed.
The coming Kingdom is good news for those who are on the outside, who are marginalised, despised and excluded. It is the world turned upside down – or perhaps turned the back the right way again. It’s about a radical reordering of our priorities. #But, it’s bad news for those who are comfortable with how the world is. It’s terrible news for the dictator and the despot. It’s uncomfortable news for the rich as demands are made about the sharing of wealth. The Gospel attracts and repels.
Jesus’ call isn’t easy. The fundamental call of the Gospel is to turn around – to turn away from lives and lifestyles which are bad for us, for others and for the world. We are told to use our money wisely, to pray for those who persecute us, to renounce violence, to love those we don’t like and to live lives of service which have followership, not leadership, as hallmarks.
This is incredibly hard. Our nature is selfish and we are called, as Christians, to try and enhance our human nature so that we live counter culturally. We are called to be transformed by the grace of God and so allow God to transform our world into the Kingdom.
Personal and Political
The traditional disciplines of Lent are very personal – the idea of fasting, giving something up, and abstaining from certain foodstuffs are all about showing we can master our selfish impulses. The traditional Christian focus on giving is about showing that we are not possessed by the poison of consumerism and greed. These disciplines are personal even though the Kingdom is avowedly political. This is because there is another contrast in the Gospel – we are called to transform the world but the world will only be transformed by individuals who have allowed themselves to be transformed by God’s grace. Carol Hanisch and the feminists of the 1970s rightly remind us that the personal is political – by which they meant that personal problems have political causes. History shows that human efforts at transformation are so often damaged by our own human frailties.
For those, of course, who do well in our world, who are at the top of our society the Gospel can be very frightening. Why work to transform a world which has served you well? For those who don’t see their enslavement to the values of our culture the Gospel can be very threatening as it is subversive.
Contrasts in Church
This contrast of the Gospel both attracting and repelling is played out, of course, in church. Over the last 50 years church attendance has plummeted in Europe. According to recent surveys 72% of the population call themselves Christian yet only 8% actually attend church once a month or more. This has led all the denominations, including MCC, to reflect on how better to attract people to church.
There are, of course, many reasons why church attendance has plummeted – changes in society, different working patterns, a sense that – especially for lgbt people the changes that the secularists are arguing for are changes that we would rather want – the intolerance and crimes of the church haven’t helped either.
Denominations have responded by making liturgies and hymns more accessible and less mysterious – hoping to be more relevant. Some churches have invested heavily into social action hoping that as people see the values of the Gospel in action they will be attracted to church, others have tried to explain away anything that may seem to be incredible in the Gospel story, others have tried to be very friendly and welcoming and have gone to great lengths not to offend people. This means that hymns, liturgies, Biblical readings or aspects of theology which seem offensive are brushed to one side.
Interestingly the Orthodox churches are growing – admittedly from a very low base – and they make no attempt to make their worship more accessible or less mysterious. The Fundamentalist churches don’t try to explain away the incredible and grow. Social action is a vital part of the Gospel but we engage in it because it’s a gospel command not a growth strategy. The attempts to make the Gospel inoffensive leave us with a type of candy floss faith – very sweet but with no substance.
I think we need to distinguish between the absolute need to be welcoming and the desire to explain the incredible.
Welcome & Mystery
The United Reformed Church is planning a campaign of Radical Welcome and is seeking to make explicit their welcome for all sections of the community and they are to be commended for that. It’s something we’ve been trying to do in MCC since our inception.
Of course we want to make people feel welcome. Of course we want to learn people’s names, put them at their ease, get chatting to them after worship and see supportive genuine friendships formed and developed. Of course we want to use language which includes and doesn’t exclude and of course we want to motivate people by grace, not guilt.
But at the heart of the Gospel is mystery. We can’t explain it away, we encourage people to enter into and experience that mystery. We believe in a God who died. We believe that love is the answer to the pain and evil in the world. We believe that strength is found in weakness. We believe that faith will help you, it will enhance your life and you will get better – but we get better for a purpose and that purpose is to glorify God as we take up our crosses and follow Jesus.
The Gospel always demands a response. That response is both personal and political. To re-order our lives, to turn away from the things which are bad for us is difficult and counter cultural. Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him – a strikingly awful thing to ask. The cross means death. That means:
- Leaving aside our selfishness and helping others.
- Leaving aside our greed and using our money more effectively.
- Loving those we don’t like.
- Challenging injustice and working for change.
- Turning towards God and away from all that drags us down.
This is a life-long response. Our journey of discipleship may start with a dramatic turning around, or a gradual journeying towards Christ but always involves a continual process of repentance. During Lent we have the opportunity to reflect on the direction of our lives.
- Are there ways in which we need to further respond to God’s call?
- Are there things we have to turn away from?
- Are there things we have to let go of – personal hurts and wounds, lifestyle choices?
- Are there new ways in which we can learn to turn away from our own selfish desires?
We can use Lent to help us in this process of taking stock and whether we are giving something up, taking something up or simply reflecting we remember that the Gospel always demands a response and we, who have chosen to follow, need to respond.