Sermons for Lent

Lent IV 2018, 11 March - Father Nicholas

In the first three weeks of Lent, Fr William and I reflected on Christ’s Temptations in the Wilderness – reflections on materialism, with the challenge to change stones into bread, on pride and invulnerability with the second temptation and on the pursuit of power when on the mountain the Devil offered Christ sovereignty over all things if only He would bow down in worship.

And we have tried to ask what the temptations would have meant for His ministry and the character of His Messiahship if He had given into them and how His ministry clearly refuted them. How are His temptations our own?

This Sunday and next we are going to reflect on Jerusalem, both the physical city in Palestine, and what it meant to the Jews of Jesus’ day and of what it might mean to us as Christians, and next week on the heavenly Jerusalem, heavenly Salem.

Jerusalem is, of course, rarely out of news whether it is with modern states’ choosing to recognise it as a capital fifty years after the Israeli conquest it during the Six Day War, as Guatamala has chosen to do this week gone or whether it is in the locking of the doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre two weeks ago in protest at the Israeli government’s discrimination (through rents and taxes) against the Christian presence there, now reversed thanks to the intercession of King Abdulla II of Jordan.

But what did it mean in Jesus’ day? What might it mean to us?

If you go to Hereford Cathedral you will find one of the most famous maps of  Western history, the so called ‘Mappa Mundi’, map of the world, an early fourteenth century representation of the world as a great orb divided into three between Asia, Africa and Europe – the known continents of the day - with Jerusalem at the centre of the map. The populations of Shem, Japheth and Ham, the sons of Noah, covered the known planet; Jerusalem was at the centre.

Surprising as it may seem, throughout the mediaeval period access to Jerusalem and the holy sites, was guaranteed by the Muslim dynasties, the Fatimids of Egypt, that controlled the area such that until about 1400 Christians outnumbered the Muslim population of city and far outweighed the Jewish settlers. What was so important?

For the Jews of Jesus’ lifetime, and those before and after Jerusalem was pre-eminently the place where God had chosen to dwell. This was the sacred city, made holy by the presence of God in the tabernacle, brought there by David and enshrined in the Holy of Holies within the great Temple.

‘Walk about Zion, go round about her, number her towers, consider well her ramparts, go through her citadels’, sings the Psalmist proudly (Ps. xlviii, 12, 13).
And the Psalmist, King David no less, would know for it was here that he was king. For the Israelite nation, the Jewish people, Jerusalem was distinct not because it was because God had chosen to dwell there but because it was the only place in which he dwelt. Unlike the pagan cults and mystery religions of the ancient near east, with a myriad of temples in every township and city, on the high places and in the plain, there was for the Jew only one place in which the Temple of the Lord had been built. Jerusalem, ‘the City of Peace’.

Synagogues abounded in every place where there were enough Jewish men to constitute them. But there was, until it was destroyed by the Romans, only one Temple, one place on Mount Zion where God had come to dwell. Although the Prophets could imagine God leaving his sanctuary, abandoning his people (Ezekiel vii and xxvi), there was only one Temple. When Pompey ransacked it and entered the Holy of Holies, wherein only the high priest of the year was ever allowed, he found an empty space. No cult statue, no image, no figurative design to describe God’s presence. Just absence.

In Psalm cxii we hear that the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, to give thanks for the Name of the Lord. Jesus, like all Jewish men before Him and since, went up to the Temple, where it pleased God to dwell. Indeed, all of Jesus’s earthly ministry, from his birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, through his childhood years in the hick countryside of Galilee in Nazareth and around, is a journey that ultimately ends up coming to Jerusalem.

Of course, we know, that Jesus had been there before, as the precocious twelve year old who outstayed the pilgrimage with his parents to teach in the Temple, and at the time of other festivals but it is in the last few weeks of His life that he prepared His disciples for this final journey. Going up to Jerusalem, to die. First, He cast out the traders in the Temple (much to their evident chagrin) and then returned daily to teach, basing himself with friends in Bethany but always drawn back to the place where God, His Father, dwelt.  

Jesus met a death long foretold. Our pilgrimage may not be as dramatic or have such a violent outcome but the former archbishop of Canterbury reminded all Christians that we should, at least once in our lives, go up to Jerusalem. When such journeys have been made difficult by occupying forces, Christians have resourcefully built models of Jerusalem elsewhere – the sacri monti of Piedmont, for instance, the church complex around the Sepulchre church in Bologna and the foundation stone of the city of Borgo San Sepolcro in Tuscany, recreating in places the Via Crucis, the final journey walked on earth of Him who now reigns in the heavenly Jerusalem. To whom be glory for evermore. Amen.

Lent IV 2018, 11 March - Father William

Sacred place 1: The Jerusalem of the heart
Fr. Nicholas and I are following our series of sermons on the Temptations of Jesus, of holiness in the face of temptation with some reflections, in the next two weeks on holiness of place, and specifically on the place of Jerusalem – the city where Jesus died – in the hearts and minds of Christians.

Are particular places holy? Billions believe they are. I remember when my wife and I went to visit our daughter in Australia last year, we went via Malaysian Airlines – they’d thankfully stopped overflying the Ukraine by then. On one of the screens in the cabin, visible to everyone, was a constant representation of the direction of Mecca in relation to the aircraft’s current position – so that prayer could be made by Muslims in the prescribed way. Once we arrived in Australia, place after place was pointed out to us in our travels that was in some way ‘holy’ to indigenous Australians.

To the Jews of Jesus time, there was no doubt. Jerusalem was a holy place; the place where God’s name dwelt; the place where, God’s ‘Shekinah’ God’s visible presence had descended on Solomon’s Temple at its dedication. Psalm after Psalm extolled it; the one place where acceptable sacrifice could be made; the centre of the people’s sacred life. For millions of Jews, it is sacred still, even if the sacrifice is today one of tears, beside a ruined Temple Wall; now that the Temple Mount is dominated by a shrine to another faith.

But for Christians, Jerusalem is a more complex and conflicted symbol. It is the place over which Jesus wept in disappointment – ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not’. It is where he ended his earthly ministry; where he was arrested, tried, flogged, and put to death. It was the place from which he ordered his followers to flee when they finally saw, as they did 70 years’ later, the Roman siege works beginning to surround it. On the one hand it was a centre of support for Paul’s ministry to us Gentiles, On the other and later, it sent missionaries to the infant Gentile churches trying to persuade them that to be a Christian you had to take the full weight of the Jewish Law upon your shoulders – source of the people against whom Paul struggled in his letters.

Centuries later, it became a centre of devout pilgrimage to thousands, as Christians from those Gentile lands sought to tread the land that Jesus trod, breath the air he breathed, and so give new life to their faith. But, when the Muslim hospitality that had enabled that to happen became more straitened, the threat to Jerusalem that represented also triggered the Crusades, leading to the death of countless thousands of Jews, Muslims and Byzantine Christians as the armoured men from the Northlands hacked their way through to its holy places once again.

And today, the City is again a symbol of holiness – this time to millions of fundamentalist – mostly American – Christians, who believe that it is only when the Temple is rebuilt once again on the holy mount  that the Second coming of our Lord will take place, and who therefore rejoice that their president has decreed their county’s embassy be relocated there, in spite of the fact that in so doing, he has trashed hopes of peace in the Holy Land for years to come.

Light and darkness, woven around each other, across the centuries; most sacred of places, source of contention, conflict and violence.

Given this, can no place can be sacred, no place give us a sense of the presence of the God whom we seek, whom we love? For me, the answer is both yes and no. For me it is ‘yes’ when I open up this Church on a dark evening, and see the two lights burning in the Lady Chapel, and feel a sense of power and peace that is almost palpable. It is when I stand on a moor or headland, and feel the blessed wildness of God all around me, and these moments are some of the most precious I have ever known. They are free gift from the God who loves us; who knows that we do not have the grace or the maturity to feel him equally everywhere, and so blesses us with a place to love.

It is when we attempt to capture those moments in those places; are determined to pin them down and own them for ourselves that it goes bad on us; when we abandon the dependence that comes with accepting ‘gift’, and demand the certainty of ‘possession’ – a possession that becomes an idol that we are prepared to fight over. But accept God’s gift of presence when and where it comes, be open to it, and rejoice in it, and we are clothed in light, and anywhere can become holy for us; can become the Jerusalem of the heart.

May the Jerusalem of the heart be with you this Lent and Eastertide.

Previous sermons in Lent:

Lent II Father Nicholas 25 February 2018

Lent II Father William 24 February 2018

Lent I Father Nicholas 18 February 2018

Lent I Father William 18 February 2018

 

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