First Sunday in Lent – Tempted in the Desert
During Lent we will be producing a set of reflections that are primarily designed to be used by congregations in Sunday services, but will also be of value for personal reflection during this season. They explore how we are called to be ‘beacons of hope’ in our world. Each week will explore familiar lent themes with a particular emphasis on how these relate to issues such as poverty, equality, the environment and politics. Here is the first reflection:
First Sunday in Lent – Tempted in the Desert
Lent is a season that is inspired and informed by the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness at the outset of his earthly ministry. Seeking to determine his purpose and vocation, he was tempted to pursue pathways that did not belong to the way of God’s Kingdom.
Yet in those temptations there is more than an echo of the kind of religion that we can all too easily find ourselves pursuing. Lent is a time for us also to free ourselves of such inclinations, and be reminded again of their emphatic rejection.
(If used in public worship, this reading might work best if two voices read alternate stanzas)
Turn these stones into bread
Grant us a faith where self is satisfied
And tables are spread at which believers can dine
With backs turned on a needy, hungry world
But bread alone will not sustain
And the food of your word calls us to place others before ourselves;
To seek your Kingdom and speak your truth,
Casting its light upon pathways of hope.
Leap from the temple’s highest tower
Grant us a faith that thrills and entertains
Where we can applaud and cheer for more
To take our minds off the crosses that others may bear.
But you refuse the temptation of being shaped by our desires
To willingly dance to tunes of our making.
You call us to capture this world’s attention
With refrains of justice and acts of compassion.
Sign up to the agendas of the powers that be
Grant us a faith that leaves their gods and idols unchallenged and undisturbed;
That asks no questions of systems and structures
That leave many behind, oppressed and forgotten
But you are the one we are called to enthrone
Whose kingdom is founded on justice and right
That nations might rejoice in the light of its coming
And hope can echo when its cause is embraced.
Second Sunday in Lent – I am God, your God (Psalm 50)
Lent is a time for deepening our relationship with God; to explore more fully the nature and purposes of our God. The desert is a place of stark emptiness; devoid of the trappings and distractions of more familiar environments. Therein lies the challenge of whether our routines of worship, prayer and activity have themselves become such trappings. To what degree are our perceptions of God constrained by the language and priorities we choose, leaving us blind to other aspects of his being?
Psalm 50 is one of many Scripture passages where expectant worshippers are left surprised by a God who refuses to wallow in the excesses of their worship rituals. Rather he calls his people to examine themselves, particularly in the light of his laws of justice and righteousness – to live out their worship in the every-day of life.
What might God be seeking to say to his people in the midst of today’s world?
What aspects of God’s nature and being do we need to re-claim and re-embrace in our life together?
You call us to be still – and in stillness know you more
In the empty wilderness, there is no figure but yours
No-one else on whom we can fix our attention,
Nothing with which to busy ourselves, except your waiting presence.
Throne rooms and palaces are easy to prefer;
Where the comforting distractions of frenzied activity,
And the noise and clamour of well-intentioned adoration,
Help us avoid the searing questions of your Kingdom’s cause
And on our very doorsteps are many desert places
Landscapes scarred by neglect and deprivation
Lives parched and wearied by emptiness and longing
Not as passing pilgrims but imprisoned by a climate that is cruel and unforgiving.
Dare we believe that if we stand in that desert
Allow ourselves to be buffeted and scorched by its harsh extremes
That there we might not only find you
But see you in new light and discover more of who you are
For the God who has become one with us
Chooses not to invite us to any palatial banquet
Until we have walked with him in desert places
Taking up our cross to follow in the pathways of self-denial.
So let our light shine in the places that others might avoid
Let beacons of hope be kindled in places of despair
May we not simply wait for desert dwellers to join our self-styled party
But seek in their stories, new glimpses of who you are.
Third Sunday in Lent – His hands have moulded dry land (Psalm 95)
The popular perception of Lent is still one of a season in which we “give things up”, and the Jesus we meet in the wilderness has fasted for 40 days. Today, we might not simply explore the spiritual virtues of doing without, but recognise that our unhalted consumption is raising questions about the sustainability of our planet.
The desert landscape is a stark reminder of what can happen, even to fertile places when they are exploited and over-consumed. The discipline of fasting and sacrifice invites us to consider what we might manage to curtail on a more permanent basis. It invites us to remember that this earth is not ours, and we have no more claim on its resources than any other generation – past or future.
You call us to the desert
And in its vast and barren landscape
We recognise this earth’s true fragility
When parched and hungry, we inhabit a land that cannot sustain us
Confronted by the emptiness of this scorched and ravaged place
We learn to be thankful again for the bounty,
That too lightly we dismiss as routine expectation,
And recognise more deeply the sufficiency of knowing you.
Teach us to loosen our grasp
On what the habits of privilege have taught us to call essential
Set us free from the tyranny of consumption
That even in the wilderness, contentment might be found.
For at the dawn of time
You did not simply breathe out the life of your Spirit
But breathed it into the dust of the earth
We are yours; yet belong in, and are sustained by your creation.
And so we come to recognise
How easily we have forgotten the privilege of being its guardians;
The desert places become a stark foretaste
Of what can become, and is becoming, when we neglect this planet’s care
You did not come to exploit and consume the resources of this world
But to redeem and reclaim – to reconcile all things
Pointing us to that full salvation, for which all creation groans
Help us walk in its direction, casting the light of hope across this ravaged earth.
Fourth Sunday in Lent – If anyone would be my disciple (Mark 8:34)
The call to deny ourselves is not only counter-cultural but counter-intuitive. It is our recognition of human rights and dignity that motivates and informs much of our commitment to social justice. How, in the light of this are we to understand Christ’s call to self-denial?
Are we simply invited to passively accept those injustices that deny and undermine human dignity? Is the cross simply a symbol of quiet submission?
The Psalms speak of God fashioning our inmost being. As we pause to explore the person that God has made us to be, we might also recognise the identities and personas that this world can place upon us. These are identities that define borders, create barriers, measure worth, include some and leave others outside.
As we learn to leave these “selfs” behind, so we discover more of our common humanity with those that some would define as “other”. And so we become dissatisfied with a world that excludes and discriminates, that fabricates labels like “migrant” and “stranger”; where the needy are left without refuge when they fail to fit the moulds of acceptability and worth.
Who am I?
What is this self that you call me to deny?
Who are you calling us to become
Amidst a world of identities and boundaries, personalities and status?
In the self we leave behind,
Lie the trappings of a world that would press us into its mould;
Imposing its narratives of difference and discrimination;
Protecting interests that we have learned not to question.
But as we journey deeper
Into the person you have made us to be,
We discover in the face of each stranger,
The shared hopes and common accord of a fellow traveller.
For your call to discipleship extends beyond our human boundaries
Transcending the temporary divisions of this world
And through the common journey that you call us all to follow
Human need and dignity comes to matter more than borders.
In the solitude of the desert
The stranger seeking refuge becomes a potential companion
Their presence brings hope and the joy of shared humanity
In every encounter, lives are enriched and threats diminish
So help us learn the lessons of self-denial
And recognise that our places of plenty remain deserts for some
Barren, cold and unwelcoming wildernesses of rejection
Where beacons of hope can still be defiantly kindled.
Fifth Sunday in Lent – Grace, mercy and peace from God (John 1:3)
Our journey through lent is an opportunity for fresh encounters with God; to enlarge and deepen our vision of our Creator. But as we look again at the people we are, in the light of God’s true nature, our own shortcomings become even more apparent.
Yet God does not leave us to wallow in a sense of unworthiness, but welcomes us with mercy and grace. His cross declares a measureless love, through which we find redemption and forgiveness.
This Gospel flies in the face of the cultures of blame that have become so commonplace in our world, where political capital can be gleaned through narratives of fear and suspicion. As those who have received grace, we are called to speak a different language, a language that makes grace known. Grace and mercy are powerful lenses in our Beacons of Hope.
As we are drawn more close to you,
Your purity and holiness infuses each encounter.
With lives laid bare in your presence,
The contrast of our shortcomings becomes ever more clear.
Yet despite our disappointments,
The failures and weaknesses of which we are all too aware,
Yours is a face of welcome; your outstretched hand
Reveals a grace beyond measure and human comprehension.
The crosses we carry reflect your own
Beckoning us to that place where love outpoured
Bore every injustice and the worst of our intent.
Crying out, even amidst its deepest pain, for a Father’s forgiveness.
But we cannot walk away unchanged;
For those to whom grace has been extended,
Can be its truest advocates amidst this unforgiving world.
Peacemakers; reconcilers; determined that evil shall not repay evil.
The language of grace will outrage and disturb
In a world that treats every stranger with suspicion
That seeks to lay blame and demand retribution;
That assumes the worst of those whose worth has yet to be proven.
We will not be consumed by these unholy narratives
Nor shore up regimes that build themselves on hate.
For guilt and shortcoming is humanity’s common scar
Grace and mercy their eternal conqueror.
Palm Sunday – ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ (Matthew 21:9)
Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem is a profound moment. He enters the temple in the throes of religious festival and then casts out the peddlers and merchants who have turned it into a commercial enterprise. Religion has become a way of earning an easy living – devotion has become an opportunity to inflate the prices of the necessary paraphernalia of ritual and tradition.
The Court of the Gentiles had been turned into a religious market place. The outer court, that for many would be the only part of the temple into which they were admitted, had ceased to be their place of prayer. God had been displaced in the name of religion; exploitation and opportunism had been clothed with respectability and expedience.
Jesus’ response is dramatic and decisive, in a matter of moments tables are upturned, wares are sent flying and the entire scene is thrown into disarray. As our Lentern journey enters its final stage, we are reminded that the road to Calvary is not a place for easy religion.
What are the sounds that herald God’s coming?
Songs of praise and refrains of Hosanna?
Or the clattering of upturned tables, jangling of scattered coins
And the shouts and protests of angry traders?
For in the midst of this disrupted marketplace
You call all people to reclaim the rhythms of prayerfulness
Exposing the selfish opportunism
That is falsely veiled in expediency and necessity
Preserve us from a faith, where we become the temple traders
Laying out our stalls of religion and routine
Crowding out the gateways to your presence with our own pre-occupations
Leaving those who seek you outside of our cluttered sacred courts.
What public squares are we called to reclaim;
As places where your word can once again resound?
What tables are we called to over-turn;
That have too readily become the seats of exploitation?
What facades of respectability are we called to strip away?
What light might we shed on injustice?
Whose empires are we called to topple,
As the Redeemer’s presence is again made known?
Help us become true Beacons of Hope;
Where the radiance of your presence burns undiminished;
Where thresholds of gracious welcome are clearly illumined;
And the light of truth exposes evil’s harmful endeavours.
This reflection is particularly well suite to a Maundy Thursday Communion
Invited to his table
Disciples of Jesus gathered
In the traditions of their ancestors
And the customs of their faith – they gathered
As soldiers reported for their watch
And religious leaders waited nervously – they gathered
As temple traders sold their wares on rebuilt stalls
And dinner hosts spread banquets – they gathered
As the Roman governor attended to his dispatches
And clerks busied themselves in the waiting council chamber – they gathered
As palace guards were posted, and angry mobs were rallied
And servants lit the fire-pits in the High Priest’s courtyard – they gathered
As cross-beams were requisitioned
And the blacksmith’s hammer beat nails from red hot metal – they gathered
As hearts yearned for salvation
And God’s purposes began to unveil
Those who Christ invited – were gathered
And so we come together
To share bread and wine
As generations before us have done.
We gather amidst a world
Where entrepreneurs and restauranteurs, politicians, squaddies and servants
Pursue today’s concerns and duties,
Daring to believe that God’s purposes continue to be found and fulfilled.
We gather, that as God’s people we might be better equipped
To live out this sacrament in the public square
Seeking to meet Christ afresh
That we might be renewed and strengthened in the task that we share.
We gather amidst a world that is hurting and fractured
Uncertain and confused
Declaring freedom yet constrained by fear
Longing for peace yet perpetuating violence
United in common humanity yet often divided by religion
We gather, bearing its scars and sharing its fragility
To break bread at the table of its Saviour
Share wine at the bidding of its Healer
To offer ourselves and receive grace anew
And by his hand, be made ready to continue our journey.
Confident not in our own understanding
But God’s eternal wisdom
Certain not of the pathway ahead.
But that God will be with us as we trace its course.
A responsive prayer for Easter Day
Christ has died! – Christ is risen!
The Matthew 28 Easter morning reading concludes with the women being commissioned to tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. Jerusalem is the religious centre, Galilee is the centre of their everyday working lives. Like those early disciples, we who on Easter Day have encountered the risen Lord, are called not to the religious or spectacular, but to resume our everyday working lives transformed by the truth which we have re-embraced. This commission seeks to capture that reality:
The everyday and familiar invites our return
School runs, commuter routes, schedules and in-trays
e-mail; g-mail; voice-mail; snail-mail;
Response: Christ has died, Christ is risen
Appointments to keep, customers to satisfy
Orders to complete, mistakes to rectify
R: Christ has died, Christ is risen
Ends to make meet, uncertainties lurking
Tough decisions to make, dilemmas to ponder
R: Christ has died, Christ is risen
Aspirations to fulfil, careers to pursue
Skills to share, accomplishments to celebrate
R: Christ has died Christ is risen
Experiences await; unimagined, unforeseen
Dreamed-of, dreaded or simply routine
R: Christ has died, Christ is risen
Christ who is Lord of all things,
We have wept and shuddered at the foot of Your cross;
Marvelled and rejoiced at Your empty tomb.
May we not return unchanged to that from which we turned aside;
But ready to seek Your living presence in every aspect of our being.
Text: Revd Phil Jump
Image: Mike Lowe, Baptists Together