17th Feb 2021
Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of faith….
Hebrews 12:2 (NIV)
I want us to reflect for a few minutes on what Lent is- not unreasonably on this Ash Wednesday. And I want our reflection to start at the fun fair. I appreciate that even for me that is an unlikely place to start, given that we don’t usually associate Lent with fun. But please bear with me.
You are sitting in one of those fair ground rides. It’s a sort of small vehicle or car or carriage. I’m not quite sure what the technical term is. Typically they seat about 4 people and they are open topped. It’s the Ghost Train and it’s about to start. You will enter a darkened tunnel and there will be mildly unpleasant things in store – perhaps the un-nerving sensation of hanging things brushing against your face in the dark as you rattle along, blood curdling wails and screams, and luridly illuminated skeletons popping up right next to you.
Is Lent like a Ghost Train? Mildly unpleasant? Something to be good-naturedly endured?
Or is it like the Roller Coaster? There’s the long slow climb to the ride summit as we steel ourselves and summon up the will power for the abstinence that lies ahead – and then follow the downs and the ups, the failures and the successes, the giving in to temptation and the successful resisting of temptation – until we arrive back at the platform, climbing unsteadily out, grateful to be back in normal life where spirituality is steady, predictable and undemanding.
Or is it like my favourite ride, the Waltzer? That’s the thing that goes round and round – circular seating cells attached to the undulating perimeter of a revolving circular platform. The circular seating cells spin round, throwing you by centrifugal force back against the padded wall of your cell. I’ve made it sound as if you have to be mad to go on such a ride! Basically, you are going round and round while going round and round, if you see what I mean. Is Lent like that? A whirl of going round and round the dizzying exhaustions of spiritual endeavour, but not really getting anywhere – just going round and round in a cycle of introspection, repetition and disappointment.
These fun fair rides: they are each of them journeys are they not? They are not states of being, or philosophical systems or sophisticated world views. They are simply rather frivolous journeys. Their value for our present purposes lies simply in that – that they are events which move us in a trajectory. And I have hammed them up a bit to make them analogous of some ways of looking at Lent and the journey that it is.
Because it is a journey. Later in this liturgy we will say the words, in the context of a prayer, ‘Help us to follow you on the journey to Jerusalem.’ On the Ghost Train you follow the car in front. On the journey of Lent you follow Jesus to Jerusalem. That is very obviously the case in the progression of our week-by-week worship, especially in the readings and reflections – until we arrive at Palm Sunday, the crucifixion and the empty tomb.
If you listen to football managers, or chief executives, or even bright-eyed personal trainers, you will hear them talking about the team, the company, the client, being ‘on a journey.’ They mean that they are not yet where they want to be or should be.
But they are following a plan, putting into effect a programme, aiming at an ideal. The detail usually resides in a description, an organizational template, an operational ‘bible’ – we are going to do this, then we are going to do that.
There may well be some merit in planning your Lenten journey similarly – jotting down some objectives, setting out some criteria, following a scheme – all designed to increase your knowledge of the gospel story, or broaden your experience of prayer, or expose you more directly to the needs of others. But the chief dynamic of our Lenten journey is not really about technique or process. It is about a Person. We are invited by Jesus to follow him – just as the disciples were, as described in the early chapters of the gospels.
And this surely, is the point. We are not given a programme or a plan. We are given a Person. And not just a person as an ideal, who by our own efforts we are enjoined to match, like the pictures of those sculpted fitness fanatics on the gym wall that look down on us as we, in our desperate hopefulness sweat it out on the machinery of torture, knowing all the time that we can never achieve that muscled perfection.
The Person we follow is the person who has walked where we must walk. He has walked the way not simply by himself and for himself – as a kind of ideal to be emulated. He has walked that way for us – so that we can in fact follow him.
So I take Hebrews 12:2 as the key verse that unpacks what the business of following Jesus is based on. ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of faith….’ It was only a couple of months ago that I preached on this very verse but I make no apology for referring to it again, because it is such a crucial verse in helping us to understand the dynamics of faith, and what following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem actually involves.
I made the point, and I am making it again now, that as a pioneer Jesus does the thing that we who follow must also do. That’s what pioneers do. Therefore he does it as we must do it – by the exercise of faith. It’s Jesus who is doing it, but not the Jesus of a certain kind of piety which assumes that it all happened for him as easily as breathing – because, well, he’s the Son of God, isn’t he. No. The equipment he uses is the same equipment that we have – a vision of the will of God, and the help of the Holy Spirit.
And he pioneers a very particular path. The terrain is dangerous, with steep drops either side – the abyss of self-pity on one side, and the even steeper drop to spiritual pride on the other. We must put our feet in exactly the same place that he has put his – as if he is finding a way for us through a mine-field, which, in a way, it is.
And the journey leads to Jerusalem because that is where he went. Not because it was an interesting place to visit as if he was a discerning tourist. He went to Jerusalem because that is where following the will of God was bound to take him. The battle that he found himself in could only reach its conclusion there – not in some anonymous village, or some isolated cave devoted to spiritual introspection. The journey seemed to many of his followers to be exciting and optimistic at first. And on arrival, the optimistic excitement seems to have reached fever pitch as everyone took up palm branches to wave in welcome and celebration.
But we know the real shape of the story, and how it is consummated, as the irresistible force of Jesus’ Spirit inspired resolution comes up against the immovable object of religious and political self-interest. The sinister forces of power politics and human ambition must be confronted with words of truth and acts of self-sacrificial love, and the cost of such faithfulness is life itself, given up in the agony of brutal execution.
The people had expected his arrival in the city to lead to a triumphal coronation as he assumed the role of saviour – saviour of a proud people from foreign domination. Well, it was a coronation, and the rightful King had indeed arrived, but his throne was not a golden, be-jewelled seat placed imperiously at the top of a flight of ceremonial steps, but a rough wooden cross placed at the top of a low hill outside the city walls.
Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem in obedience to the will of God. If that is why you go to Jerusalem confrontation and pain is what arrival in Jerusalem results in. And if he is our pioneer for that journey which we also must undertake, in which we place our steps in exactly the marks left by his, this is the outcome. Self-sacrificial love knows no short cuts.
So every time we face the challenge of faith – what will I do about that broken relationship, what can I do about my neighbour’s suffering, what ought I to do about that slightly dodgy business proposal – Jerusalem, and what it contains, beckons. The way there is marked by such faith crisis moments, and when they come they act as markers, signposts. They show you that you are on the right road.
In fact if the road you are following contains no such moments you can be sure that it does not lead to Jerusalem. The markers which are the crises of faith, when decisions must be made about truth and love, do exactly that – they mark the way. They are spaced out only on that road, because this indeed is the highway designated ‘J1’ – J for Jerusalem, and J for Jesus, and ‘1’ because it is the only way.
Lent then is a kind of distillation of life itself – a kind of crash course in living a particular journey – the journey of faith in Jesus, who is up ahead pioneering the way. And if he is so far ahead that you often think that you can hardly see him – then I would recommend that this Lent you take part in the Bible study being led by Tim and Sarah, because Bible study is the best way to see Jesus, the best and indispensable way. And as you walk that way you will discover a kind of paradox – that Jesus is indeed up ahead doing the pioneering as he made his way to Jerusalem and the victory of the cross. But you will also discover that he is in fact next to you, in the person of the Holy Spirit – your companion, in the seat right there next to you, as you climb the incline at the start of the Roller Coaster of faith, through which, by God’s grace, you will be brought, via all the inevitable ups and downs, to the tranquil terminus of the presence of the Father.
Ash Wednesday 2021 Sermon led by Revd Paul