This sermon was preached on the 21st February at St Mary’s, Diss – as a livestreamed service.
The readings were: Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, Mark 1:9-15
May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Lent is upon us once again. Though it finds us under different circumstances than we have been accustomed to in the past. This year is different even from last year where we met for the first couple of Sundays as we started our pilgrim journey through Lent together. Yet no matter the circumstances surrounding any given season of Lent, its heart remains the same; a heart which on Ash Wednesday our Vicar John reminded us is grounded in prayer.
As good Christian men and women we should pray at all times and in all places, of course, but sometimes it doesn’t come easily. The season of Lent is all about leaning into that uneasiness, that spiritual discomfort, for it is in the wilderness that our hearts become fertile ground for spiritual growth.
John rightly reminded us that prayer is about more than speaking to God, it’s about listening to God; perceiving his presence with us and his wisdom for us. Each week we shall be reflecting on prayer through different themes, such as the power of creation to inspire, the resonance of music and artistic beauty, the words of books, and the significance of places and spaces. The joy of prayer is that its riches are limited only by the imagination of God himself; for he remains always free to reveal himself to us in both familiar and unexpected ways.
I suspect that today’s theme is no exception; for the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Bible are, in my mind, characterised precisely by this balance of familiarity and surprise.
Our passages today are ones which we are likely familiar with; God’s covenant with Noah marked by the sign of the rainbow, and the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist. These and today’s psalm offer us three crucial insights into the Christian life with God.
In Genesis we see that God Speaks.
God is not, as the deist might say, one who made the world, sets it running and leaves it be. No, he is the Living God who speaks with Noah and makes him a promise, much as he had spoken with Adam and Eve and as he will speak with Abram, Joseph, Moses, the Judges, the Prophets, the shepherd king David and many others throughout the scriptures.
If we take the Bible seriously, we cannot escape the reality that God is more than an abstract ideal such as a philosophical first cause or a metaphorical notion of truth and goodness; no the Lord is one who communicates with his people – though perhaps not always in the ways in which they expect.
On the theme of our expectations, our Psalm brings us to a second insight: God Leads his people.
When we think of God’s leadership, particularly at the start of Lent with Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness symbolically reminding us of the Israelite’s 40 years wandering in the desert, we can think of dramatic signs and wonders; whether it be the israelites being led by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, or the parting of the red sea, or the scenes of Jesus’s many healings and exorcisms, the calming of the storm and the walking on water, the miraculous catch of fish and the turning of water into wine.
All of these are works done by the Lord, but they are not the only kind of divine work which he does among us. Psalm 25 shows us several ways in which the Lord leads David:
The Lord teaches David,
who says: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my Salvation.” David desired to grow in understanding, as we each should according to the grace and ability God has given us.
The Lord encourages patience in David,
who says: “O my God, In you I trust… for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your Mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.”
God may act dramatically in our lives, but our lives still continue on and along. Even a moment which changes everything has to be sustained with patience, a lesson which I myself am continually learning afresh these days.
And the Lord shapes David’s Character, his attitude. David asks God for forgiveness, that he may walk in his paths. He says: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.”
David later draws to a close by saying: “May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.”
Our pilgrim journeys of faith should comprise of all three of these aspects; we are to learn about the Lord through the Scriptures, in Church, and by prayer; we are to exercise patient faithfulness, and we are to grow in character, pursuing the humility of holiness that we might remain within the blessings of God’s steadfast love.
Our scripture readings have shown us that God speaks to us, and that he leads us in his ways. Our Gospel reading goes beyond that, indeed that is why we call it Good News, for in it we have witnessed Jesus of Nazareth being baptised in the river Jordan. “And straight away coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him, and there came a voice from heaven saying: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is of such overwhelming significance that it’s a pity we’re so often numb to it through our overfamiliarity with the story. The Son of God who is one with the Father in the love of the Holy Spirit, is a human being called Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.
The idea of God as an external, abstract philosophical concept is thoroughly and utterly rejected. God has become tangible, so much so that he will die a genuinely human death for us upon the cross and then days later offer his disciples the chance to touch him, to put their fingers into his wounds.
For it is to his death on the Cross that Mark’s gospel will inexorably trace the life of Christ from this moment of baptism in the Jordan. This is why this Lent we are located by the font, to remember that Christ was baptised into the act of cleansing for the forgiveness of sins which we all need in order to be saved. In the waters of the Jordan, Christ, God himself, symbolically articulated the promise of his association with us that was made in his incarnation as one of us; Having taken on our human flesh, God has irrevocably and eternally committed his very self to each of us. The promise articulated at his baptism, that he would take on the cleansing of our sins, is demonstrated in his death upon the cross, and in the inability of the power of sin and death to restrain his love for us and to keep him in the grave. Rising to eternal life, Jesus lives as the enduring sign of his promise to us much as the rainbow has been a sign of God’s promise to Noah. This is why we respond to his promise of salvation by being united to him in the waters of Baptism – as he shared in our death so we share in his life.
This is the Gospel.
This is who we are praying to, this is who speaks to us, who leads us and with whom we are eternally united by the presence of the Holy Spirit.
I labour this point because Christian prayer is ultimately clothed in Christ himself; he is the meeting point, the linchpin which congruently holds together divine reality with our human reality.
It is in his presence that the Church becomes what she is, the Body of Believers; the Bride of Christ with whom God will live with in unveiled glory.
Just as prayer is clothed in Christ, so too the Bible itself follows the same pattern. I have said that God speaks. Some would say that God reveals, and that what he says is his Word. In the opening of John’s Gospel we hear that in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God. Each week that we hear our scripture readings we end with “For the word of the Lord, Thanks be to God”.
Does that mean that the Bible is God? Well, not quite.
The Bible is a collection, a library, of writings written by many people over many centuries. And these people, however fondly remembered, were nonetheless people like you and I. They had virtues to commend them, and they had flaws to condemn them. We only have to look at someone like Paul to see open acknowledgement that this was the case.
Some argue that we should therefore try to peer behind the text to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the writers, and to make allowances for their weaknesses or even perceived mistakes.
Yet this is to introduce our own weaknesses and assumptions into the mix. Who is to say that a disagreement is a weakness or a mistake?
No, I believe that just as the humanity of Jesus is so important for our salvation, so is the humanness of the Bible, the scriptures, key to being able to call it ‘holy scripture’. The Bible is the word of people who are flawed yet who by the Grace of God have been empowered to speak faithfully in accordance with the truth they have received from God. Just as Christ has redeemed human nature, the Spirit sanctifies human words about God. When read prayerfully, we engage with what God has to say to us even across the centuries and cultures so that it seems fresh and alive to us even as Christ is alive today.
This means we have to pursue the Bible with a degree of humility;
‘it summons us to listen to it not as though we know already what it has to say, not as though it only confirms what we have already said to ourselves, but to listen in such a way that we are lifted outside of ourselves to hear what only God can say to us.’
(TF Torrance – ‘The place of Christology in Biblical and Dogmatic Theology’
in Essays in Christology for Karl Bath, 1956. p30)
‘To listen in such a way that we are able to hear what only God can say to us’.
We return to John’s reminder that prayer is more than just speaking to God, but listening for God to speak. When it comes to praying with the Bible, one of the most helpful spiritual exercises you can do is the practise of Lectio Divina. There are several ways of doing it but basically they all boil down to spending time with a portion of scripture. Don’t just read a passage once, and move on to the next part of your day. Take some time to reread, to allow your mind wander around the meaning of the words and to look for moments of resonance and meaning.
When I was first studying at the London School of Theology there was a weekly charismatic prayer meeting with worship songs led by a band. It was a lively service, yet one week there was no band. They got us all to sit in silence and gave everyone a bible to read. They prayed and kept silent for the next three hours. Some people left after ten minutes, and that was fair enough. But many stayed longer, and even thinking back to that night gives me chills for around the room over those three hours people met with God in Scripture. Several people were reduced to tears. I was one of them.
That’s not to say that I cry everytime I read scripture – I don’t, but I share the story because I am convinced that God speaks, that God leads, and that God not only meets with us but unites us to himself.
And so I encourage you this week to make some time to read your Bible prayerfully. If you’re not sure what to read or where to start then I suggest you go to our website dissteamminsitry.org.uk and on the page for today’s service I’ve posted a couple of references to various prayers in the Bible itself which you could use as a starting point.
You might find it helpful to pray as you start that God will open your eyes afresh while you’re reading.
Don’t hurry, or worry that you have the wrong questions to ponder. Just, Read, Notice. Pray. Reflect.
You might find it helpful to find an audio-bible on YouTube, or maybe you have one on a CD.
Listen to the words afresh and maybe, in the midst of the familiarity of the passages, God might just surprise you this Lent.
Afterall, Jesus prayed for us in John 17, saying:
“Righteous Father, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”