Posts tagged ‘Lent’

March 9, 2011

Lent, a time for new beginnings and growth.

Blarney Crocuses

Photo: Crocuses at Blarney Castle (February 2011)

Sermon for Ash Wednesday.  Text: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Mentioning ‘Lent’ to people will provoke differing reactions. For some, it is the chance to give something up, such as chocolate, smoking, alcohol, (or churchgoing)!  For others it is the chance to start doing something good and positive, going for a brisk walk every morning, reading Deuteronomy and Leviticus before breakfast or giving some time or money to a charity.  For others still, even mentioning ‘Lent’ will result in arms being folded and statements of defiance such as ‘Well, I’m giving up Lent for Lent!”

I have to say that over the years I’ve tried various things with limited success, so I was pleased about the appointed reading for today because it is one that I have for years found in equal measure comforting, encouraging and challenging.  This reading gives us help with some of the great themes of Lent that have been practised by Christians down through the centuries, these are: Giving to the needy, Prayer, Fasting, and the way we view possessions.

The Lord Jesus begins by teaching about giving to the needy.  Even just mentioning this may make us squirm!  It used to be that the needy were people who you lived amongst, orphans and widows and beggars on the streets were near where you lived and may have been known to you personally.  Now to a large degree, the needy are much more remote from us, they live in far away places, we are distanced from them in language, culture and creed.  As such, it is easy to forget about them and as it were to pass by on the other side of the road.  If we have a conscience however, the needy will never be so far away from us that we are unable to help.  Not only does the Lord Jesus want us to give to the needy, He wants us to do it in secret.  He says:

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…” (v.1-4)

The Lord does not want us to be hypocrites, where we only do things for outward appearance – ‘Look at me aren’t I great for giving all this money away!’  Haven’t we all felt that temptation, when we have done something good or given something away, we want people to know about it? Of course, if people can find out about our giving and it looks like we were trying to keep it a secret all the better – ‘O how holy I am!’  I love the phrase ‘do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing’, our motive for giving must be pure; we must genuinely not even secretly want some kind of reward in return.  We give because of God’s love, God’s love for us and for the joy of being used by God to bless others in return.

The next great theme of Lent is that of Prayer, the Lord says:

5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (v.5-6)

Again, we are not to be hypocrites, putting on prayers for show to be seen and heard by others.  I learnt my lesson about this at the Christian Union meeting I used to attend in my student days.  For some reason I got it into my head that God was impressed with long complicated prayers and so when we used to have prayer times I would set off on these really extended ridiculous prayers with what I thought were long and impressive words and rich metaphors – it was all very ridiculous and I am ashamed as I remember it.  Nobody said anything to me about it but one day, in mid prayer it suddenly dawned on me what I was doing – I was trying to impress God, and I was trying to impress my fellow students and I was a big eejit!  I felt so stupid and it was many months before I could pray out loud again – normally and honestly and without hypocrisy.  Of course this is even more important in our personal and private prayer; like our giving of money, our personal prayer times should be in secret, behind a closed door out of sight and hearing of anyone else as much as possible.

Have you ever tried to fast?  If you want some way to make yourself as grumpy and as irritable as possible I highly recommend it!  No seriously, fasting is something that is a very good habit indeed, though one that seems (for many) to have fallen by the wayside a bit in recent times.  There are lots of different ways of doing it but here is what I would suggest for someone who would like to give it a go:  A simple way to do it is to fast for 24 hours, so when you wake up in the morning don’t have breakfast, just a couple of glasses of water and the time that you normally would have spent preparing and eating your breakfast spend in prayer and Bible reading.  Then for your elevenses the same, a glass or two of water and the time you would have normally taken with your coffee and ‘Kit Kat’ spend with God in the place of prayer, same for lunch, same for dinner and the same before bed.  The next morning, have your breakfast, but just have a small bowl of cereal or slice of toast, if you go for the ‘full Irish’ you will probably be sick!  Fasting has a strange effect; you will find yourself getting grumpy as you get hungry but this will go because of the extra time spent in prayer and in that prayer you will find all sorts of things that need dealing with coming to the surface.  Talk to God about all the stuff that comes up, tell him what you are feeling, just let it all out and tell him.  People who fast often find it invaluable and actually look forward to it as a time of blessing and fellowship with God.  Again, the Lord Jesus wants our fasting to be done in secret – we don’t make a fuss about it so we plan the fasting for a quiet day when we would be at home rather than a day when we were invited to City Hall for a banquet!

The fourth great theme of Lent that the Lord teaches us about is our attitude towards money and possessions.  It’s a bit of a cliché (but one that we have no doubt witnessed), that the more money people have the more tightly they try and hold on to it.  So often people who are very wealthy are also very unhappy.  Conversely, people who are not at all wealthy are often much more happy.  I have also seen how often it is the poorest people who are the most generous in their giving of both money and resources; they have learned a lesson of which the rest of us can only be  in awe of, that true happiness is in giving away what God blesses us with, that we might in turn bless others.

As we look at these things, the giving of money, praying in secret, fasting and our attitude to money and possessions it can be overwhelming.  We can despair at our weakness:  We try to give money away but we can’t even afford to pay our bills first, ‘I want to be able to pray but I don’t think God would listen, he’s too busy and how could he love me after what I’ve done anyway; fasting, I’m a million miles away from that, it’s just for monks and people who have loads of spare time on their hands; money how can I worry about money, I don’t have any to hoard in the first place!’  I know, I know.  Look, just begin with small steps, like a child learning to walk, holding his Father’s big hands and looking into his Father’s kind and loving eyes.  Just take one step at a time…

I’ll finish with this amazing true story that I came across recently:

A man called Craig had been an alcoholic for more than a dozen years. He’d lost everything he had, including his wife and son, due to his selfishness and addiction. Things began to change after he gave his life to Christ, but he still fell regularly into his old habits. It didn’t help that he’d lost his well-paying job and was working at a local grocery shop that was well stocked with alcohol. After a few years of going back and forth between Christ and the bottle, he finally cut the ties, and, out of obedience to Christ, quit his job.

With no income and hope only in Christ, he was in desperate condition. After an interview with a sheet metal company down the street from his new church, he cried out to God. “God, if you give me this job I will give you my first pay check.” Surprisingly, he got the job.

He clearly remembers the day when he got his first pay check. Stacks of bills needed to be paid. Penniless but determined, he wrote his name on the back of the check and endorsed it over to the church and walked it to the church office without waiting for the Sunday offering. That was the moment, he says, that changed his life because now he understood what it meant to trust God.

As of today, Craig has been sober for 25 years, he’s a manager at that sheet metal company, and he serves as an elder at his local church.[1]

With God’s help, all things are possible, even for me and even for you.  Amen.

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February 25, 2009

God. Where are you?

Sermon for Ash Wednesday (Isaiah 58:1-12)

Do you ever get the feeling that God is just not there? I think we perhaps all experience this sometimes. I want to read to you the opening paragraph of a play called “Racing Demon” by David Hare. The character is the Reverend Lionel Espy. He is kneeling on the ground. He is in his fifties with a bald head fringed with white hair. He wears a black cassock. He is addressing God.

God. Where are you? I wish you would talk to me. God. It isn’t just me. There’s a general feeling. This is what people are saying in the parish. They want to know where you are. The joke wears thin. You must see that. You never say anything. All right, people expect that, it’s understood. But people also think, I didn’t realise when he said nothing, he really did mean absolutely nothing at all….(1)

Hmm it can be a very lonely place to be in when God seems that distant. Of course there are many reasons why we may find ourselves on the rocky road of doubt and our reading from Isaiah sheds some light on why sometimes it may seem as if God is simply not saying anything at all.

As we look at the reading we see that every day the people are seeking God, like they are knocking on the door of Heaven and there is no one in. They are asking themselves ‘what was the point of our fasting, it hasn’t got us anywhere?’ They thought they could somehow make God take notice of them by how religious they were. It’s all very well fasting but it doesn’t impress God at all because they are also exploiting their workers and fighting with each other.
God is only interested in an outward show of religion if it is accompanied by kindness and acts of love and generosity.

We need to be so careful don’t we? We can go through the routine of going to church, receiving communion, singing hymns, saying prayers, shaking hands at the peace and so on – we can do all those things without having a living, vital relationship with God.

From verse 6, God tells the people the kind of religious observance He expects of them:

6 “No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
7 Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

If our faith is real, if it is genuine then we will want to express our love for Jesus in practical ways. Imagine if all we ever did was tell our wife or husband or children that we love them but never actually did anything to show or demonstrate that love! In a much greater way we need to show our love for God in the way that we do things to demonstrate it.

So what do we do? We need to show acts of kindness, acts of charity and acts of generosity.
Do we find it hard to be kind and generous to our spouse and children? Of course not! We love to buy presents and do things that make those whom we love happy and smile. Well then let’s think like this when we want to please God. When we help someone imagine God’s smile. When we show a stranger an act of kindness, imagine God’s pleasure. When we give even a little money to help those who are suffering in another country and when we show compassion, don’t you think that causess delight in heaven?

As Christians we have to walk the walk not just talk the talk. Our words and our outward devotion have to be at least matched but what we do in secret to help others.
Here’s a great quote from John Wesley:

Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all people you can, as long as ever you can.(2)

And do you know what will happen if we can even begin to do this? Our relationship with God will take off onto another level! Listen again to verses 8 and 9:

8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

There can be numerous reasons why in our journey with God He can seem very far away and distant, but one possible explanation is that we have just not been demonstrating our love for Him. In the same way our partner or children would reluctantly begin to shun us if we ignored them, so God may turn away (a little) from us. As I said, it can be for different reasons but if God seems far away and at the same time we are not being particularly kind or charitable then perhaps there is our answer.

And what better time than Lent to begin to turn things around? This very night let us recommit ourselves to serve Jesus by ministering to others with acts of love and kindness, always bearing in mind that the very least we can do is give our lives to the One who gave His life for us… Amen.
(1) David Hare “Racing Demon”, 1990, Faber & Faber p.1
(2) http://www.sermonillustrations.com/a-z/c/charitable_giving.htm