A sermon preached by David Barton on the Second Sunday of Lent, 13 March 2022.
War has come again. And we are all filled with horror and compassion at what is happening in Ukraine. There is an inescapable conclusion that we all of us now live in much more dangerous and uncertain times. Nothing is ever going to be quite the same again. One of those moments when the gears of history change, and they have changed suddenly.
That reading (Luke 13:31-end) which is the routine reading for today, the Second Sunday of Lent in the Lectionary, is a useful reminder about the Christian Faith. It was not the product of the tranquil hills of Galilee. It was born in times of trauma. Bullies held power then as they do now. The reading looks forward to that later moment when Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem. It wouldn’t have been difficult. The nationalism of Israel was on a collision course with the might of Roman rule and that might would win. The Romans invented the flattening of cities. And no doubt Jesus also foresaw that his followers would be an easy prey for persecution from then on – as they were for the next 300 years. Ours is a faith not only born in but shaped by trauma.
So notice how Jesus is here: in the face of all that he is totally and utterly confident in God. And what’s more he is utterly certain that he is in God’s hands and he is fulfilling the Father’s will, even if that means going to Jerusalem, the place where so many prophets have lost their lives – as he knew he would too. He does not doubt that God would be with him, even there.
When we look at the cross we are looking at God. And the Gospel writers tell us that the risen Jesus still carried the marks of the nails. That’s the way the early church thought about Jesus. So when we pray the Lord’s Prayer with its opening recognition of God’s greatness, we should remember that that too is part of the greatness of God. The picture of God is a more contested one than we often imagine. Remember that line from the fourth gospel:
The light shines on in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it.
And in this context Jesus asks us to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done.
Its not a kingdom the radicals approved of then or even now. Jesus faces the same issues, but looks to a wholly different place: the human heart. Think of it as a school to go to equip us to face a troubled world.
Jesus sees the world, and all the people in it, as the kingdom of a God who loves; and each one of us someone made in the image of God – even those who drove in the nails. So when he calls us into his kingdom, and asks us to pray for its coming, it is into something we already belong to – gifted into it by God’s love. As he always says, “its at hand.” This prayer and the call of the kingdom are really about waking up to reality. And he asks only that we should learn and do two things. We should answer to the truth and life of God in ourselves. And we should carry the burden of our own wrongdoing on our own shoulders, like a cross.
Jesus sets no rules for this kingdom. He simply asks us to let the grace and compassion of God flow through us. To let it become an instinctive, intuitive part of ourselves. That is his law of love. . Its the instinct that makes us want to respond with care and love to those in need, to go down on our knees for those in Ukraine. To care for our neighbours. To respect everyone, however different. To work for justice and a better world certainly, but out of that deeper conviction that each one of us is precious in the eyes of God – even the enemies. When we begin to live like that we really do find ourselves living out of the life changing energy and power of God. That’s why Jesus says that his yoke is easy, his burden is light.
And it seems Jesus wants that to be an almost unconscious part of our lives. In his parable of the last judgement at the end of Matthew’s Gospel those welcomed into the kingdom are surprised. They gave to the poor and cared for the sick, because it was needed. They didn’t count it as virtue. And they were welcomed. Alas for those who thought it was about “being good”, and took a pride in doing it. Jesus’ call is always a call to nourish ourselves in the Love and Grace that is in us, and live it out. And when we do that we begin slowly to understand something of God’s purpose and will.
And we are to carry our own burdens. You will remember that parable Jesus tells about the way we criticise someone for the mote in their eye and fail to see the beam in their own? So much human discord comes from that kind of projection. He calls us to respectful vigilance in our dealings with each other. Remember too that extraordinary injunction: If on the way to worship we remember a wrong we have done to someone, we should turn round and ask forgiveness. We are very good at noticing the wrongs done to us, but the other way round? To someone not expecting such a thing? But the point is that to ask for forgiveness is to let ourselves be vulnerable, to surrender a bit of ourselves, let go control. And in doing that we open ourselves up to the creative, transforming love of God – the God who longs to make all things new.
That’s the kingdom. Its the place where we are made new, where we grow into the fullness of the stature and the maturity of Jesus. And then the world around us can begin to change.
So, in these hard times let’s remember those citizens of the kingdom of God, in our lifetimes, who have been catalysts for change. Think of Martin Luther King the other leaders of the black led churches in America. And in South Africa Desmond Tutu, Trevor Huddleston, Nelson Mandela and so many other Christians, women and men who shaped the idea of the Rainbow Nation. And across Eastern Europe, at this moment the many people who are beacons of hope for the refugees from Ukraine. That all the work of the Kingdom.
Last week I read an interview with one of the people who work with Pope Francis in his efforts to resolve international conflicts. The Pope remember brought about a settlement between Cuba and America, and with Justin Welby brought about the nearest thing to peace that South Sudan has known – the two return there next month to continue the mission. The Pope represents an enormous moral authority both for believers and many outside the church – and he is utterly shaped by his faith in Christ. This negotiator said something about the way they worked that could be straight out of the Gospels: We fight for good against evil and we have nothing to offer in exchange. No personal interest, no weapons, no kind of economy. Its just the strength of the Gospel.
That’s the kingdom Jesus asks us to pray for – the kingdom we also belong to.