SERMON:  21st February 2024

SERMON: 21st February 2024

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 21st February 2024

Today is one of those days when our set readings do hold together and relate to each other – which sometimes does not seem to be the case.  We have from the Old Testament part of the story of Jonah (Jonah ch 3).  It’s is not the first dramatic part when Jonah attempts to run away from God, is thrown into the sea by sailors, gobbled up by a whale and then sicked up on the shore. We read instead of Jonah picking himself up, perhaps reluctantly obeying God’s second call to go to the wicked city of Nineveh. and preaching repentence to the citizens.  After the passage we have heard you will remember that God’s mercy was poured out on them as they repented, and Jonah grumbled about this and attempted to argue with God about the lavish compassion he had shown.   Our psalm is a psalm of penitence (Ps. 51: 1-5, 17-18), well known to many of us from Allegri’s haunting setting so often sung on Ash Wednesday. Then our gospel is a passage from Luke (Luke. 11: 29-32), in which Christ is shown referring to the sign of Jonah as well as the example of the Queen of Sheba who heard of the wisdom of Solomon and came to consult him.

One of the underlying themes in the gospels is the questioning of so many people about Jesus – who he was, and by what authority he taught and by what power was he able to heal people and assure them that their sins were forgiven.  The disciples, despite their proximity to Jesus, are often perplexed and confused.  Who is this that he can command winds and waves to be still?  Who is this who brings new life to the sick and dead?  He does not conform to their image of what a Messiah should be like.  Even the closest who witness the Transfiguration are frightened and confused.  The crowds flock to listen and to beg for healing. They sense he has authority underlying his teaching which their own religious leaders do not have. Unlikely individuals come to him – like Nicodemus who comes under cover of darkness; the Centurian with the sick slave, who as a man wielding considerable military authority recognises that Jesus has his own kind of authority and power;  and then there is Jairus, prominent in his synagogue fearing for the life of his daughter, who seeks Jesus out, even though he has no formal religious status and keeps disreputable company.  There is a sad irony that it was a Roman soldier, a centurian in charge of executions, who watched Jesus die, and testified to the truth of Jesus’s identity, saying that this was indeed a Son of God.

But many of the religious leaders and some of the crowds questioned whether it was actually because Jesus had demonic power that he could cast out demons.  An account of this accusation immediately precedes our gospel reading, along with clamour by some for a decisive heavenly sign as to his identity and authority.  It is this which prompts Jesus to remind them of Jonah and the Queen of Sheba.  She saw and understood the wisdom of King Solomon.  The people of Nineveh saw and recognised the presence and preaching of Jonah as a sign from God that they should repent.    But now something greater than either Solomon or Jonah is here: and they do not see, do not recognise who has come among them.

Blindness to truth, not seeing, is a profound spiritual problem for Christians, too.  Some of the earliest teachers who left the temptations of the cities for the desert taught this and it remains as true as it ever was.  As we travel through Lent it is worth asking how we fail to see.  Let me suggest some possibilities.

We fail primarily to see the greatness of God’s love and the greatness of our calling.  Lent can be trivialised if we do not use it as a time to seek a deeper vision of the love of God which calls us to be his sons and daughters, and to be his hands and feet and eyes and ears on earth.  We truly are called to be people though whom his life flows because we are rooted in his love.  Remember Christ’s saying according to John that he is the vine and we are the branches. We cannot re-make ourselves.  Without him we can do nothing.  With him and through him our lives can be transformed and fruitful.

We can fail in the same way to see the significance of other people – those around us and those far away.  All have the same calling and all have the same potential to be transformed, sanctified.  I find very powerful the assertion by C.S. Lewis in a sermon preached in the University Church here during the last war, that apart from the Blessed Sacrament there is nothing more holy that we can touch than our neighbours.  (C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’: sermon preached on 8 June 1941.)  Now, as then, our culture and politics, and the appalling state of conflict in several parts of the world, lures us into easy simplicities of judgement – the good and the bad, them and us.  But it is not so.  All of us are sinners; and all of us are loved by God.

We can also fail to see how religion itself, particularly our practices and institutions, can blind us to the transformative love of God.  We can put our trust in them rather than in the God to whom they should lead us.  The parable of the publican and pharisee makes this very clear. The pharisee cocooned himself in the detail of religious observance:  but it was the sinner who was forgiven and enfolded in God’s love. Nearer our own time an 18th century satirical poet and chaplain to the King wrote a devastating little poem called ‘Lavinia in Church’.  Maybe you know it.  Here is part of it.

Lavinia is polite, but not profane;

To church as constant as to Drury Lane.

She decently, in form, pays heaven its due;

And makes a civil visit to her pew.

Her lifted fan, to give a solemn air,

Conceals her face, which passes for a prayer;

Curtsies to curtsies, then with grace, succeed;

Not one the fair omits …..

….     women talk away

To God himself, and fondly think they pray.

But sweet their accent, and the air refined;

For they’re before their Maker – and mankind;

When ladies once are proud of praying well,

Satan himself will toll the parish bell.

(Edward Young 1683-1765)

So this Lent let us pray that God may enable us to see, may give us insight – into ourselves and into the greatness of his love.