Sunday, 4 March 2012

Following Christ...

This following Christ is a challenging thing sometimes. How do we know if we are facing the wrong right direction? 

Here is the sermon I preached today. I think Jesus gives us some clues.

Lent 2: 2012

There are many Christians today who will avoid talk about Satan and evil and the spiritual realm. This avoidance is not an example that we are given by Jesus. Throughout the gospels, we read that Jesus healed people of demonic possession: he named them and cast them out. In our Gospel reading today Jesus recognises the work of Satan in Peter – and I don’t imagine for one moment that it was a comfortable experience for either of them: Jesus sees the Satan at work in one of his disciples and has to say something; Peter probably would not have recognised it was Satan at work, as he sought to protect Jesus: from the elders, and even from himself. Peter may well even have been trying to protect himself, as he would have been seen with Jesus, listening to him, accompanying him, and telling others about him.
So why don’t we talk about Satan anymore? Why don’t we talk about evil and the spiritual realm anymore? We are happy to pray in the name of the Holy Ghost – it is at the end of many or our prayers, and we rely on it for guidance and comfort each and every day. If we recognise a ghost – a Spirit – that is holy, then there must be those that are not holy, those that are malign.
This is, perhaps, a discomfiting route to be going down so early on a Sunday morning – but these things are important. In so many places, our world is given over to an insidious creep towards an increased diminishing the impact of evil, of Satan, of the spiritual realm that is not holy. How and where is this so you may ask? Look at any of the programming on the television and you will see a spread of programmes that glamorous Vampires and the like. There are films that engage in a dialogue with these things and there are few who offer openly an alternative voice.
For us today, we may not know where to see Satan at work: we may well wonder, what is the big deal, is this really something about which we really need to worry? I believe the answer is yes. I believe the answer is yes because Jesus did, and by virtue of my baptism I am called to fight valiantly against sin, the world and the devil. Those of you who are baptised, who have had children baptised, or who are Godparents… you will have promised yourselves, or been promised for, or promised on behalf of others, that you will assist them in this task of fighting against these things: how well are you doing? How well are any of us doing?
In the apparently simple act of Peter warning Jesus about teaching openly that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again in this simple act, Jesus recognises Satan at work. This is our clue – along with the Collect that we have prayed today: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul. Peter’s actions can be read as altruistic – protecting Jesus from those who may well wish him harm: the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes. As I have hinted though, Peter’s reasons may have been pointed slightly more towards self-preservation. Either way, Jesus sees the words and action of Peter as pointing away from what Jesus had come to do – and this is the work of the devil, this is Satan, this is evil present in our world. This is our clue to where Satan is at work: in anything that prevents the work of Jesus, in anything which adversely affects our bodies and evil thoughts that which may assault and hurt the soul.
Our bodies are frail – and we will decay by varying degrees, and in due course die. We might like to think this prayer would have been so much more depth and meaning in the age it was written, where people were at the mercies of being bled or leached or simply left to suffer the plague or other woeful ills. Are we not all afraid though? Would we not all rather that physical infirmity did not come our way? Praying to be spared is no cowardly thing. Our concerns are real, our fears are real: it is what we do with any of it. Alongside our prayers to be spared, we must hold prayers also for strength to withstand what may come. We know Jesus walked the way of suffering and that this path was held in and guided entirely by prayer. This is our pattern and our example – and it is one that will hopefully keep our eyes focussed on Jesus through whatever trials may come to any of us. Having no hope is where the evil one can wheedle his way in. Forgetting that God was on the cross, that God withstood pain, that God suffered for – leaving us an example – to forget leaves us vulnerable. It is for this reason that I sing with great hope the final verse of the hymns: Abide with me:

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Right at the start, when tempted in the wilderness, Jesus revealed his readiness to withstand what might come in the future when he did not succumb to the offers of Satan. This was both physical threat as well as mental and spiritual. Satan offers us quick fixes, simple ways to get to heaven easily – or so it would seem. It won’t matter if we are not in Church on a Sunday morning. What difference will it make if we don’t say our prayers at the end of the day – or the start? Who will know, who will notice, if we don’t open our bible from one end of the week to the next or if we choose to stay in our gardens or at home instead of putting ourselves out to come to the Lent Course or any of the others things that are offered to us to assist us in our devotions and growth in faith? Who cares about any of this? You can guess the answer: God. God cares because not doing any of these things point us away from God. This may feel uncomfortable, but it is true. Sliding away, avoiding things that will bring us into conversation and exploration of God’s way, of the way of Christ also, not turning ourselves towards these things are not of God. Peter’s example of warning Jesus off about teaching so openly of his forthcoming trial – and the rejection by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes – is akin to our failure to talk about God, to meet with others to pray to God and to bring ourselves before God, publicly and privately, to hear his word and his way for us. If we don’t do these things, if we don’t align ourselves with the way of Jesus – taking up our cross and following him, then this is the entry point for Satan. When our eyes are not fixed on God – where are they fixed?
The prayer that we might be defended from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul is all very well, but we have to assist in the process. We can ask God to hold the cross before our eyes, but we have to look at it. As we continue in this Holy Season of Lent – look to the cross and pray for protection and for grace to continue to fight valiantly, against sin, the world and the devil.

And if Satan, vexing sore,
flesh or spirit should assail,
thou, his vanquisher before,
grant we may not faint nor fail.

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