Opportunity Beckons

Jesus tempted in the wilderness

Luke 4.1-13


So, we have reached the season of Lent.

We might see this time as a kind of spiritual detox, where we give up chocolate and pray a lot instead.

Or we might see it as a drudge, or a duty, or just as irrelevant.

Or we might think it’s all a bit too depressing and downbeat, with all its talk about temptation, struggle, sin, suffering and death.

These aren’t subjects we like to dwell on.

Who, given a choice, wouldn’t prefer a life full of comfort and ease, with no problems to worry about, to a life with sorrow, hardship and pain?

But sometimes we need the wilderness.


In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is out in a physical wilderness alone, single-handedly fighting off the devil.

If this was a film, we’d get scary music, gloomy lighting and ominous rumbles of thunder.

Now, I haven’t been to the Judean wilderness but I’m told it’s a place in which the sun shines relentlessly, nothing much grows for most of the year, and there’s no shade to protect you from the temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius.

It’s a place where the only things that really matter are life and death.

And Jesus comes here, away from all distractions, for a time of testing and preparation.

A time in which he must decide who he is, whose voice he will listen to, how he will live his life, and how he will carry out his ministry.

In short: what kind of Messiah he will be.

Will he be God’s Messiah: someone who heals, forgives, restores, loves, suffers and dies?

Or will he take Satan’s option: a life of self-gratification, worldly power and spectacle?

Jesus is facing the biggest, most significant questions of his life and ministry, and his answers will shape his future – and ours.

He’s being offered the most tempting, delicious, irresistible alternatives to a life of obedient service, suffering and sorrow.

But Jesus dismisses the possibilities that the devil offers him.

Instead, he chooses the difficult road that leads to the Cross.

The road that leads to our salvation.

And there may come a time for us when we need to face our own wilderness and make our own life and death decisions.

I don’t believe God visits bad things on us to make a point, or to teach us something, but I do believe he constantly works to bring good out of the bad things we encounter through living in a fallen and broken world.

And so in times of suffering we may be brought face to face with issues which we would normally avoid.

Times of hardship may force us to make choices about what is really important in our lives.

And our own decisions to follow Jesus can mean much more when following him is costly.


In ordinary human friendships, it’s not surprising that people who enjoy each other’s company spend time together.

But the real test of a relationship is what happens when things are difficult.

When people are in trouble, and need help, rather than just being fun to be with… that’s when they learn who their real friends are.

And the decision to spend time with someone even when that’s a difficult thing rather than a fun thing… that’s a decision to be a true friend.

That’s what makes a real, deep friendship possible.

The same is true of our relationship with God.

Will we seek to be friends with God only when he’s fun to be with?

Or will we persevere through difficult times?

Will we obey God and do the right thing, even when it hurts?

Do we love God, and long for God, or just for the good things he gives us?

Will we live for God only when he makes us feel happy, or will we follow him even when there’s no obvious reward?

Or even when being a Christian makes life difficult?

Our responses can determine whether we lead half-hearted lives of lukewarm Christianity, or adventurous lives in which we discover more and more about God.

But even when there’s not a crisis, sometimes we actually have to deliberately set time and space aside to face important questions.


These might be questions like:

Who am I?

What is my purpose?

Who could I become?

Am I moving towards greater wholeness, hope, love, joy, peace and faith in my relationships with God and others?

And this is why Lent is not a detox, a drudge, a duty or irrelevant.

Neither is it just a depressing time of going round feeling bad about ourselves.

Rather, Lent is, above all, an opportunity.

It’s an opportunity to take time out to reflect on what’s important and make sure we’re on the right path.

It’s an opportunity to be honest with God about our sins and weaknesses so that they can be dealt with and moved on from.

It’s an opportunity to renew our commitment to God, to spend time listening to him and loving him, and to confront the things that keep us from putting him first.

It’s an opportunity to think about the big questions that so often get pushed out by the day to day ones.

Above all, it’s an opportunity to encounter the God who walked in his own wilderness and still accompanies us when we walk through ours.

What’s Your Passion?

Jeremiah 31.31-34 / Hebrews 5.5-10 / John 12.20-33

5th Sunday of Lent / Year B

I don’t know what sort of things you’re passionate about.


When I say passionate I mean that you feel gripped by them, unable to let them go – you want to spend lots of time doing them because they inspire and excite you or transport you away from everyday life.


Perhaps your passion is music, films, crafts, TV soaps, reading, DIY or gardening.


Or maybe you long to jump out of planes or trek through South America.


When we talk about passion these days we think about an intense desire, maybe even an irresistible force, something we really want to do or have, or a person we feel we can’t live without.


Often, when people don’t know what career they want to have they’re advised to follow their passion, on the grounds that if they really love something they’ll enjoy working in that area.


Passion, though, is one of those words that seems to have completely changed its meaning over time.


Its root is the Latin word patior, which means to suffer.


The word is also used to suggest the idea of being driven to suffer by some sort of force.


And it suggests the idea of being driven to take action where there is pain and suffering.


This is why we talk about the passion of Christ – his suffering on the Cross because of his desire to save all of us from the consequences of sin and bring us into relationship with God.


And today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday, the start of Passiontide, when the Church begins to look more closely at Jesus’ suffering during the last days of his earthly life and his death on the cross.


Yet, although it seems at first glance that the passion of Christ and what we call passion today are completely different, I think there’s still a link between the two.


When we’re truly and deeply passionate about something, or someone, we’ll do anything in pursuit of that passion.


We’ll go out of our way to follow it, even if it means working long hours or sacrificing other things, or even undergoing pain and suffering.


Think of ballet dancers, for example, some of whom will dance on with horrible pain and injuries in their feet in pursuit of their passion.


All of our Bible readings today contain passion in both the old sense of suffering and the modern sense of a strong desire.


In the reading from the book of Jeremiah we’re told that God’s law, the will of God as described in the Old Testament, will pass from the written word, from tablets and scrolls and paper and books, into our hearts, so that we can live it out naturally and easily, in closeness with God.


The promise is, says God, that he will write his law in our hearts.


And this promise comes from God’s suffering as he sees his people betray him again and again, and his strong desire to have a relationship with us despite all of that.


Then in the Hebrews reading we see Jesus described as a priest passionately praying to his Father on our behalf with tears and cries in his desire for us to be saved, and willing to accept suffering on our behalf.


And finally, we have our Gospel reading, in which Jesus talks passionately about his coming death, and how it will both bring about the victory of goodness and love over hatred and evil, and draw people to him.


Although Jesus is troubled he stands firm and faces suffering because of his love for us and his strong desire to win our salvation.


And it was this love, this all-consuming passion, that was the basis of Jesus’ life, and which led him to his own passion and death on that Good Friday.


It was this all-consuming love and passion that guided all that he said and did.


It drove his faith, and it led him in the will of God.


It wasn’t easy, and it lead to death, but his death and resurrection have made it possible for each one of us to share in the life of God.


And we hear in the Gospel that as disciples of Jesus we’re called to follow in his footsteps.


This means we too must have a passion for God that makes us willing to serve him, whatever the cost.


We must also have a passion for those around us that means we’re willing to love, help and serve others as Jesus would do.


The Bible is quite clear that, as Christians, our faith must be alive and active, and filled with passion.


The Christian life is not a passive thing,  but must be a passionate thing.


Serving and following are active, not passive – they are things we must actively pursue as Christians.


And we do all of this so that God’s name may be glorified, so that his Kingdom may come and his will be done.


So that the seed of this old world may pass away and God may bring resurrection life to all of creation.


So that we can oppose all that seeks to hurt and destroy and hinder the purposes of God, for although Jesus has won the war against evil there are still battles to fight.


So that fullness of life in Christ can come.


So that all people may be drawn to Christ as he’s lifted up on the cross.


We can play our part in this great plan, in our great hope of faith, by living our Christian lives with passion in all that we do.


By being willing to face the consequences and the costs, just as Jesus was, in order that God may work in us and through us and in partnership with us to usher in the new life of his Kingdom to all people.


May Jesus’ passion, and the way he passionately led his life, inspire the whole of our lives, and may passion for Christ and for the coming Kingdom consume us and draw us ever closer to God.



Ash Wednesday

A Jewish saying counsels that each person should have a note in each pocket.

In one pocket, the note should announce “for you the universe was created”.

In the other, “you are dust”.


Ash Wednesday reminds us that we are dust, that our lives are short, and that we go wrong in so many ways.

It reminds us of our need for forgiveness and God’s loving grace in giving it to us.

Today is also the day when we might begin a Lenten fast.

We might give up chocolate or alcohol, spend less time staring at screens, or let go of whatever else it is that distracts us from eternity.

Not that these things are necessarily wrong, but the best things can become a problem if they push out things that are more important.

Alternatively, we might resolve to take things up: to spend more time in prayer or Bible reading, to volunteer our time to help others, to follow a Lent course.

Whatever we do or stop doing, our aim is the same: to make more room for God in our lives, to refocus on what’s really important, to make ourselves a little more prepared for the day when we become dust and meet God face to face.

We clear our lives out a bit to let in God’s light and grow in wholeness, just as a fruit farmer prunes trees to let light in and encourage fruit to grow.


Not that this is necessarily easy.

It’s when we give up our cherished comforts or sacrifice our precious free time that we realise what a hold such things can have on us.

We suddenly notice the empty place inside us that we’ve been trying to fill with chocolate or TV or the internet.

We find out what we really miss and what we’re really afraid of, whether it’s hunger, silence, loneliness, boredom or something else.

But if we feel emptiness and longing, impatience or boredom, a craving to be filled, or a restless desire to go back to our old comforts, this isn’t something to run away from.

This is a call to connect with our need for God.

It’s a reminder that there’s a place within us designed for God and which nothing else can really fill for long.

In St Augustine’s famous words, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you”.

So, the journey of Lent, though it may seem negative with its talk of sin and repentance, and though it reminds us that we are dust and our lives are short, is an invitation to travel towards wholeness and healing.

It calls us to face the reality of our lives, not to harm but to heal.

It draws us towards a more joyful and fulfilled life, full of wonder at God’s love, seen all around us in the grace he extends and the world he’s given us.

Lent invites us to experience restoration, and a newer, deeper relationship with the God who loves us, rejoices over us and created the universe for us.

Lent is a call to find new life through shaking off the things that trap us and the things that separate us from God and one another.

May we all be able to hear and respond to this call.

Elijah, Elisha and Transfiguration

2 Kings 2.1-12 & Mark 9.2-9

Sunday next before Lent/Year B


This week I’ve been up in my attic rummaging through old things.

I don’t go up there much because there’s a danger of meeting spiders, but for some reason I had an urge to do some clearing out, and it’s not a big time for spiders right now, so I went.

And while I was up there I came across a portfolio from when I was a librarian and working to get my chartership.

Once you’ve got your academic qualification in librarianship you can become a chartered librarian by working for 1 to 2 years with a mentor to achieve some continuing professional development objectives.

I’d never worked with a mentor before and I found I really enjoyed it.

It was good to have someone interested in my development, and willing to talk and listen about how I could further my career and interests, generously giving me the benefit of her wisdom and experience.

There came a time, though, when I had to leave my mentor behind and begin to stand on my own.

At that point I was on my own when it came to making my way in the library world.

And this feeling of being on your own is what Elisha experienced on the day when his mentor Elijah was taken up to heaven.

Elisha really didn’t want to let go of this relationship, saying three times during our reading that he wouldn’t leave Elijah.

His fellow-prophets also seem worried, as they keep asking Elisha if he knows that today’s the day he loses his mentor and has to take on the job of lead prophet himself.

Elisha isn’t pleased by this, essentially telling them to shut up and stop going on about it.

Perhaps the other prophets weren’t confident about Elisha’s abilities, maybe they were trying to make sure Elisha was prepared, but all they do is rub salt in the wound.

Then Elijah is suddenly gone, separated from Elisha by a chariot and horses of fire, and taken in a whirlwind.

Then Elisha cries out “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”

Now, Elijah was not Elisha’s father, but it was normal at that time for a pupil to refer to a master as ‘father’, so that much makes sense.

But I did wonder what that statement about the chariots of Israel and its horsemen was about.

It seems this refers to an ancient image of God as the commander and chief chariot driver of the heavenly host of angels.

Elisha is therefore recognising that God himself, or at least his heavenly host, has come to collect Elijah.

Interestingly, when Elisha later lies dying in 2 Kings 13 the king of Israel uses the same words in grieving for him, as if Elisha is to be taken in the same way.

And this phrase is also where the song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” comes from.

But, going back to our story, an interesting thing happens.

Just after the place where our reading ends, having seen this great vision of God’s power and glory, Elisha picks up Elijah’s mantle, repeats his miracle of parting the waters of the river Jordan, and is recognised by the other prophets of Israel as having received Elijah’s spirit, meaning that he’s been given the power that Elijah was given – to act as a prophet of God and leader of all the prophets in Israel.

Elisha has been empowered and reassured, and the further story of his life proves that he’s learnt from his mentor and walks in the power of God.

But what does all this have to do with the transfiguration of Jesus, which is what we’re supposed to be remembering today?

Well I think perhaps the link lies in the way in which the visions in the two stories reassure, strengthen and help God’s people in their work.

Elisha was given a vision of glory which equipped him to take on his mentor’s job when he was full of doubt, fear and grief.

The disciples on the mountain with Jesus were also given a vision of glory.

They weren’t yet facing doubt, fear and grief but it wouldn’t be long before Jesus began heading towards Jerusalem and towards his suffering and death.

Then they would begin to doubt – this wasn’t how the story of God’s Messiah was supposed to go, perhaps they’d made a terrible mistake.

And they would be afraid – if their leader had been arrested and executed maybe they would be next.

And they would be grief-stricken – their leader, friend, guide and mentor would be dead, and all their hopes would be gone.

It’s easy for us to underestimate how difficult that time was for the first disciples, as we move into Lent and start to look at the events of Jesus’ suffering and death from the other side of Easter.

For them there was no Easter, and no idea that one person could die and rise from the dead for all of humanity.

To them, resurrection was something that happened all at once to everyone at the end of the world, and then it would be too late to make any difference to things here and now.

So perhaps this vision of glory, like the one given to Elisha, was designed to help them through the dark times to come, to strengthen them when they felt weak, give them hope when they wanted to give up, and to reassure them that God was indeed near them and at work in the person of Jesus – they had only to hold on until things became clearer.

Of course, there is a difference: Elijah was gone and couldn’t help Elisha any more.

But Jesus is not gone, and he doesn’t leave us to carry on alone, but stands with us always.

And, even if we never get a vision like the ones we’ve heard about today, we have the benefit of the Easter story to help us hold on to the truth that God is alive and active in the world, the mentor who never leaves us, and the one whose glory fills both heaven and earth for ever.