Be Strong and Courageous….Stand Firm – Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader
Title: Be Strong and Courageous …. Stand Firm!
Preacher: Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader
Readings: Josh 1:1-9, Eph 6:10-20
Date: The Third Sunday of Lent, 12 March 2023 4.00pm
May I speak in the name of God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Go, Go, Go. Three cheers for York Minster Evensong.
What is it about saying things three times? There are various theories about why the habit developed, but it is certainly very long standing now. I think the bottom line is that we do it to ensure that we are heard, that we are understood and that we get a response.
Today our OT and NT lessons each have something that is said three times.
In the OT lesson God said to Joshua three times “Be strong and courageous”
In his letter to the young church at Ephesus Paul told the young Christians to be strong, but three times he told them they were “to stand”
Joshua was about to lead the Israelites into the new and promised land – he had very little idea about what lay ahead of them, what opposition they would meet, what practical problems they would face, and what resistance he might even face from his own people. He very much needed to hear God saying to him that he must be strong and courageous.
For the young church at Ephesus those new followers of Jesus Christ now found they were living in an alien culture. Right at the beginning when the church had come into being there, there had been terrific opposition to the Christian message from the trades guilds and the civic authorities. Now Paul writes to encourage them to keep going as Christians. And at the end of the letter he reminds them that they are engaged in a battle, not a physical one but a spiritual one, and they need to put on their spiritual armour for that battle. In verses 11, 13 and 14 he tells them they are under attack, so they must put on the armour that God has provided and stand, stand still, and stand firm.
For us the season of Lent is a time when we think about the struggle that Jesus had in the wilderness; the battles he fought with temptation and we begin to reflect on our own struggles as well.
If you have made part of your Lenten fast giving up something like chocolate or alcohol you may have your own struggles when you fancy just a tiny piece of chocolate, or the teeniest drink. But you may also during this period be aware of other things in your life that you recognise as temptation that must also be resisted. The temptation to pass on gossip, the temptation to try and get your own way about something, the temptation to tell another whitish lie. There are many things we struggle with where we know the right thing to do, but it is just hard doing it.
So this afternoon we are told to be strong and courageous; we are told to stand. And our two lessons give us the same clue as to what might help us to do that.
For Joshua – he was told to meditate on the book of the law and to act in accordance with what was written in it.
For the Ephesians it was about putting on all the armour that God provided; and there are 6 or 7 pieces of armour depending on whether you include that last injunction to pray. But I am only going to pick out one this afternoon. The one I want to take is the sword of the spirit which is the word of God. Or as Joshua knew it – the book of the law.
The word of God is perhaps especially relevant in Lent. Because in Lent we are never very far away from Jesus struggling with his temptations in the wilderness. As we know – for each temptation he faced his answer he always said what God’s word had to say. Again and again he brings to mind and recites sayings from the Hebrew Bible.
His temptations I’m sure you are familiar with – to turn stones into bread, to prove who he was by throwing himself from the top of the temple when God would step in and save him, and to get everything he could ever want by surrendering to Satan.
I always enjoy that game in “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue” when the panellists are told “This is the answer, but what was the question?” And they often come up with quite bizarre and sometimes funny questions. This afternoon I want to start with the answers Jesus gave to the tempter, because that takes to the heart of each temptation.
These were all passages in the OT that Jesus knew from his life of studying the scriptures – hiding them in his heart. Joshua had been told to meditate on God’s words day and night. That’s what Jesus had been doing for 30 years and what we are called to do too.
Jesus’s first answer was that one does not live by bread alone. He says that we need to feed on God’s word.
After 40 days without food Jesus was famished and he suddenly gets an urge to turn the desert stones to bread, to satisfy those gnawing pangs of hunger and that physical pain that he was experiencing.
But he knows that for the moment his focus in that desert place was to deal with his spiritual hunger, to be in real communication with God his Father.
For us we may not have gone 40 days without food, but I expect we all know the constant urges to satisfy our material needs or desires. Whether it is food and drink, or the other things that we use and that entertain us and occupy us. Jesus reminds us that in all our muddling along in the business of this world it is that God shaped hole in the middle of us that needs satisfying more than anything else.
It was that which Jesus had gone into the wilderness to grapple with, and it is that which we need to address this Lent – getting to know God and what it means to be his sons and daughters.
The answer to the second temptation is that we must not put God to the test. Jesus had answered the first temptation with the Bible and so the tempter comes to him – Ah the Bible – two can play at that game – listen says the tempter – the Bible says God will send his angels to save you, so throw yourself down from the top of this temple pinnacle and if you are who you think you are, the Son of God, then God will step in and save you from harm. You will float down from heaven on the wings of angels and everyone will know that you are God’s Son. So, if you are God’s Son, put on a show. Show them some magic! Jesus’s answer says is that the Bible says you mustn’t put God to the test. Because, he knew that the only route by which people would come to know who he truly was, would be by his going to the cross.
When we recognise that God is to be the focus of our living, the next step is to understand that that relationship is not about us and what God will do for us, but about our following him, accepting that our lives must follow the way of the cross. And it can be a real temptation for us to want to use God to establish our own importance and position rather than recognising that if we follow Jesus we are on the path to the cross. So there is a second thing for us to grapple with this Lent.
Finally, the third temptation – the answer to it was you must worship and serve the one true God. This temptation is to get it all – all the wealth, comfort, recognition, power, and glory that is out there. Satan offered all that to Jesus if he would take the easy way – his way. How often do we say we follow Jesus but in reality we live our lives working and straining for all those other things because we have in fact exchanged the service of God for the service of Satan.
So as we work our way through Lent – another 26 days or so to go – let’s focus on getting to know God, on walking the way of the cross, and on truly worshipping and serving God rather than stuff.
Let’s keep God’s word at the centre of our lives – meditate on it, allow it to shape our lives, use it in our dialogue with those often subtle urges that come to us day by day. So that in all these things we may be strong and courageous and stand our ground.
Water for all, for life, and for unity – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: Water for all, for life, and for unity.
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Readings: Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42
Date: Third Sunday of Lent, 12 March 2023, 11.00am
Isn’t it great when we all come together? When we gather, and congregate around something we have in common. There are many things that bring us together and unify us, like, I suppose, football: big matches on the big screens with best commentators; remember the olden days when we all huddled round the TV watching Match of the Day on the BBC? Of course, Football isn’t the only thing that unites us. From our Gospel this morning, people are brought together around a well, a watering-hole if you like. Water always brings us together.
Water, brings us together because it is the source of life. Human beings are made up of around sixty per cent water and the earth is almost completely covered with water, we cannot survive without it. Water is able to calm, and heal, to salve, cleanse, to restore and to reconcile. We are creatures made of water and creatures who need water. Wherever there is water, there we gather, bound together as one, we build cities alongside rivers, we irrigate our land to grow our crops, every creature of this earth comes to the water to drink.
Spiritually, the Christian person is born again through the waters of our baptism, and Jesus alludes to himself as the living water, in whom all our thirst will be quenched. The water that I will give, he says, will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. It is this water that brings about new life and new possibilities, it is this water that can make miracles happen.
In the book of Exodus, we find the Israelites grumbling; they are in the desert and have had nothing to drink for days. Without water the people are fractious and divided. What brings them together in the end? Water bubbles up from the side of a rock like a crystal fountain- and through that water, the people are reconciled to God and to one another.
God yearns for humanity to be bound together as one, and gives them water, to make it happen. Because of this water, the people of Israel are drawn back together and are carried through their wilderness into the promised land. St Paul later refers to Jesus as the rock from which this living water comes.
Our Gospel reading today, is about water from a deep, life-giving well, which reveals the true identity of the woman who came to fetch it in the heat of the day. This is the water that reconciles Samaritan and Jew, male and female, the excluded and the included. This water washes away any idea of us and them, the well becomes a place of meeting, water brings people together. Jesus is crossing every social boundary by talking to this woman- but through this conversation he speaks of the hope that one day, all will worship together in spirit and in truth….and he of course, is the living water which will make this happen. This is the ultimate reconciliation of all things in Christ, the living water that brings all things together.
St Paul in his letter to the Romans, reflects further on what this reconciliation might mean. Reconciliation is in essence is a very simple thing, it is to be made one, and through Christ the whole of humanity has the potential to be made one with God and with one another. Jacobs’ well at Sychar, is the place, where for a moment in time, all things are drawn together under God, above and beyond all the petty divisions that separate us.
As the water from the rock brought the Israelites together- so Jesus, the living water, seeks to restore and reconcile all things to himself, bringing the whole of humanity through the wilderness of doubt and division into the promised land of joy and gladness and complete unification before God. This kind of unity is something we are thirsty for today, not only in our world but also in our church.
Jesus had a vision of all people reconciled with one another. The tribes and nations of the world re-created as one family, worshipping God together in unity and recognizing one another as children made in the image of God. For us, that hard work of reconciliation begins with our baptism, but also with something as simple as our prayer of confession at the beginning of every eucharist- we have not loved God with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves…there our reconciliation begins, as we gather at the well and drink of the living water.
This is the work we are called to undertake in lent, reflecting on how we give ourselves to this task of being made one when there is so much pulling us apart and when we experience a world which is divided and unjust. We do so need that living water to renew us and bring us together until justice rolls down like a river, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
This week we hear again of the most vulnerable and most excluded in our world, our most needy neighbours, brought to our shores across the waters of the English channel, seeking safety and asylum after terrible loss and grief, and yet, as a society how are we proposing to welcome them? Will we even give them something to drink? The direction of some current policies seem to be taking us further towards division, this morning the Archbishop of York has called the government’s new asylum and migration law ‘cruel and without purpose’, it seems as if we are being scattered, rather than drawn together through our common humanity, we are being turned against one another, and encouraged to turn away those we should be loving.
The Gospel is always very clear on these matters: Jesus constantly challenges us to consider, who is ‘included’ and who is ‘excluded’? What does being reconciled in and through Christ mean for us today? We are called to gather around the living water, we are called to generosity in our response to those who are thirsty. True reconciliation, of which St Paul speaks, means seeing Christ in one another and loving as he loves us. It means recognising that we are all equal under God.
If we waited at Jacob’s well for a little longer, who else would be drawn to the water at an unsociable hour, who else would be seeking to quench their thirst? To all those who come, Jesus offers living water, and desires that we his children do the same. Whoever turns up at the well is given the water of life.
The story of the woman at the well, shows us that Christ, the living water, shows no partiality. Though the disciples were clearly uncomfortable about Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman and urged him to turn away, Jesus recognizes her as a child of God and she becomes a prophet, a messenger, an evangelist, for the good news, there at the well, where water is shared. God turns no-one away, and sends no-one away without offering them a drink of that living water.
It is to the woman at the well, that Jesus reveals that one day we will all be together, made one in him.
We are all called to drink of the water, offered to us by a loving and generous God, freely given for renewal, restoration, and reconciliation, given to bring us to life, and given to bring us back together.
Turned towards Christ and turned for Prayer – Ash Wednesday – Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Title: Turned towards Christ and turned for Prayer
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor.
Readings: Isaiah 58. 1–12, Matthew 6. 1–6, 16–21
Date: Sermon preached on Ash Wednesday on the theme of ‘Prayer’, one of the Diocese of York ‘Habits of Christlikeness’ in the Diocesan Rhythm of Life
George Herbert in his first poem on Prayer, describes what prayer is, or rather, he ends up telling us, rather beautifully, that there is no singular definition. Prayer is many things, The Church’s banquet, he begins, angel’s age, God’s breath in man returning to his birth, the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.
It seems that Prayer is a thing which is almost undefinable, it is the other country of our souls, whilst also being as Herbert would say, Heaven in ordinary, or the milky way, the bird of paradise, church bells beyond the stars. In more prosaic language, prayer is a habit of Christlikeness, for it through prayer that we become more and more like Christ.
We are today entering into a season when we are commanded to pray as a means of seeking forgiveness, and of orientating our lives anew in the right direction. But what is the right direction? And how shall we pray? How can our praying help us navigate not only this lent but our whole lives as beloved children of God?
Another take on prayer is and what prayer isn’t, is offered in our readings this evening. God does not desire, God is not interested in, the kind of prayer and fasting that is orientated to the self. The people of Israel complain that they are ‘not seen’ by God when they make ostentatious prayers and offer fasting for their own good- their fasting does not recognise the needy in their midst and their prayers are neither honouring God nor their neighbour, they are primarily honouring themselves. The direction is all wrong.
The Philosopher Soren Kierkegard reminds us that the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather change the nature of the one who prays. To become more Christ-like, we might say. The change God wants to see through prayer: is the bonds of injustice being loosened, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the oppressed set free, the words of Isaiah, taken up by Christ himself when he defined his own mission in the world.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God calls the people to humility in their praying, which means to be properly brought down to the dust of the earth. For it is stood in the dust with our eyes looking to the stars that we know who we really are- creatures made in the image of God our creator, and creatures seeking transformation and change in our lives, and from there seeking transformation and change, and healing and renewal in the life of a broken world.
When prayer is rightly directed, other joys and blessings will emerge like a spring of water- the praying will direct the living.
Prayer does not need trumpets, prayer does not need to be seen. Prayer is ultimately an activity of the human heart in response to God alone, the turning and tuning of the heart to sing, as Herbert would again say a kind of tune, which all things hear and fear. Prayer is you and me, each one of us, stood before our maker-
In a sense, it is that kind of personal reflection and prayer that we are all called towards this lent, this is an inward journey of the heart and soul, the journey we all must face as we stand before God who sees us even in secret. This is a journey which plumbs the awful depths of our humanity and lifts us up from the dust of the earth to rise in glory.
The Litany of Penitence which follows this sermon sets us off on that journey by naming out loud and helping us each recall our propensity to turn away from God. It’s a list of things we know we all do and this is followed by a symbolic gesture of penitence which marks our foreheads with an ashen cross.
We remember that we are of the dust, and to the dust we will return, we are reminded that in the meantime, we are daily being tuned to sing the song which glorifies no-thing and no-one but God, and through that prayer we are turned away from sin to be faithful to Christ.
And there is perhaps the key, the secret, the only way of praying- For however we pray, whether on our knees, or in silence, or with others, or indeed on street corners or noisily with trumpets, the key to prayer, the secret to prayer, is that it is orientated always and only towards Christ, we are to be humble in the dust with our eyes fixed on Jesus. O God, turn us and tune us to sing your song.
If our prayers and our hearts are so directed, then our lives will be directed in the same way, turned and tuned to be faithful to Christ, open to being changed and transformed in his name, and ready to serve Christ in one another, in the world he loved and came to save. To his name be glory forever.