Sermon for the Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Lent, 28 February 2021
Readings: Genesis 17: 1–7, 15–16 • Mark 8: 31–end
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Please scroll to the bottom of the page for a video of this sermon.
Nicola Sturgeon, Mark Drakeford, Arlene Foster, Boris Johnson. Four leaders who do not all see eye to eye. Each has problems of her or his own as First Minister of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, or as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. And (like leaders everywhere) they all have one big problem.
If ever their paths cross, years from now, and they look back at the time of the pandemic, I wonder if – despite their differences – they will find fellow feeling as they remember how each of them struggled to balance the unbalanceable – collective safety and personal liberty, lives and livelihoods, health of mind and of body, young and old; and how, when they tried to follow the science, they found that science (especially in the early days) didn’t always speak with one voice, but was a conversation (occasionally, an argument); and how sometimes they strained to listen to the right voice. You shouldn’t always follow the voice that tells you what you want to hear – but might not the thing you want to be true, just occasionally, be true?
Last Sunday’s gospel and today’s are about different voices. Last week we saw Jesus baptised, heaven ripped open and a voice telling him, ‘You are my Son’; and then Jesus propelled into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Then at last the voice of Jesus himself, ‘The kingdom of God has come near!’
Today – more voices. Jesus tells his disciples about the rejection, the suffering, the death that await him. And then the language becomes very strong.
First, Peter ‘rebukes’ Jesus. We don’t hear Peter’s words, but Mark, the gospel writer, suggests the tone of voice. Earlier on in the book, Mark uses that exact word (which we translate as ‘rebuke’) to describe how Jesus speaks to evil spirits when he casts them out; and the language of exorcism is not polite – ‘You know, I really think it might be better all round if you we could find you demons some more appropriate accommodation’ – so Peter is not saying to Jesus, ‘I do just wonder if we’re slightly overegging the suffering and rejection,’ he is expressing outrage that Jesus should even suggest such things. Then Mark uses the same word, ‘rebuke’, for Jesus’ reply to Peter. Now we do hear the words, and they are paint-stripping: ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ – the very thing, perhaps, that Jesus said when the devil tempted him in the wilderness.
Get behind me, Satan. What does that mean? Is Jesus saying that the person we know as ‘Peter’ is a false personality? That, beneath that rubber mask of the game but gormless disciple, is the face of the prince of darkness? Has Satan, defeated in open combat by Jesus in the wilderness, now switched to covert operations? Not quite. This is Peter talking, and he’s not possessed, he wants the best for Jesus. He really does.
This is a subtler part of Jesus’ temptation: when the call to turn aside from God’s path comes not in the voice of an enemy, seeking to deceive him, but in the voice of a friend, trying to help. It is sincerely meant and lovingly offered. Surely, says Peter, you don’t need to go through all that – rejection, suffering, death – on the path to glory. Peter wants the best for Jesus, yet if Jesus follows his advice the result will be the same as if it came from Satan himself. Peter is a dangerous friend, so – Get behind me, Satan: you think in human terms, not in God’s terms.
I began with the dilemmas of our leaders. We have our own dilemmas – smaller ones, probably (though you never know who is in a livestream congregation) – choices that affect you, and the people whose lives touch on yours. So here is a question to ponder during Lent – and has Lent ever felt more like a true wilderness and a real place of testing? – as we try to know God better.
I am tempted. Not tempted in a have-a-beer-or-a-doughnut sense, but presented with something that tests my judgement as well as my willpower. I see something I or we could do or be – or something I really want to avoid – and I am not certain what to do. There may be no enemy, out to deceive me, but am I blessed with a dangerous friend?
Friends want the best for you, but sometimes see ‘the best’ only in terms of what Jesus calls ‘human things’ – prosperity, security perhaps – an obvious kind of happiness. God’s terms, on which true happiness can be had, may be those of risk and even loss. The truth may be – though your best friend may never tell you – that in this or that temptation you must lose your life in order to gain it. But how do I know?
There is no guaranteed method of getting this right. Even wise friends make mistakes. Reading the Bible is vital to Christian faith, but it doesn’t give you the precise solution for every problem. Things can still go wrong even when you are really trying to do what God wants. I have posed that problem in terms of voices. There are the voices of others, and there are the inner voices, like the ones that come when you can’t get to sleep. Which should you listen to?
Christians try to make progress on this is by praying, one of the things we may actually have more scope for during our collective quarantine. No guarantees here either. Prayer is, as George Herbert calls it in his poem of that name, ‘the soul’s blood’; but hours of doing it won’t guarantee that you get up off your knees knowing what to do. Not even if you're the Prime Minister, or the Chancellor as he writes Wednesday’s budget.
It really does help, though – but how do we do it? Prayer is a kind of conversation with God – talking and listening – though in my experience less straightforward than God’s conversation with Abraham in our first reading. When you or I talk to God, let’s take heart from the strong language of today’s story. Peter and Jesus rebuke each other. God can handle honesty – your anger, my accusations, even despair. It’s what Herbert’s poem calls our ‘reversed thunder’, our siege ‘engine against the Almighty’. But then we need to listen, and that is harder.
I have been helped by a preacher, Austin Farrer, who suggested in a sermon that prayer is a kind of listening to silence. Listen to the silence at home or out on a walk and you find that it’s not silent at all: music plays somewhere, there’s a car in the distance, wind in the trees. And it’s the same with the silence of the mind, where he describes ‘so many drums beating: noisy rhythms of self-conceit, of resentment, of lust, not to mention the busy intellect tapping out the various rhythms which amuse or…worry it.’
The preacher’s advice? Notice that they are there, but they are not what you want just now; you don’t want to dance to their tunes. Instead, go deeper into the silence ‘until’ he says, ‘you hear that rhythm which, though it may not be the loudest, is the firmest of all.’
The call of God may sometimes even be best described not as a voice to obey but more as a rhythm to move to; or as Herbert puts it ‘A kind of tune, which all things hear’. To repeat, no guarantees. But if we persevere in praying, we may be less caught up with ‘human things’ and their seductive drumbeats. And we shall sometimes know what George Hebert’s means in the last words of his poem on prayer: ‘something understood’.
Prayer (I) George Herbert (1593-1633)
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
Gods breath in man returning to his birth,
The Soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian Plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’Almightie, sinners tower
Reversed Thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world – transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Getting distracted in prayer is nothing new. Thanks to The Revd Stephen Tucker for this excerpt from the Devotions of Herbert’s godfather, John Donne (1572-1631).
I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his Angels thither, and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door; I talk on in the same posture of praying, eyes lifted up, knees bowed down, as though I prayed to God; and if God or his angels should ask me when I thought last of God in that prayer, I cannot tell. Sometimes I find that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it I cannot tell. A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain troubles me in my prayer.