Promises, promises!

Sermon preached on 5th March 2017

Readings: Genesis 2: 15-17; 3: 1-7  Matthew 4: 1 – 11

Yesterday, I stumbled across a compilation of TV adverts from the 1970s and 80s – and it’s surprising how many are still lodged somewhere in the memory, even though I may have not have THOUGHT about them for a long time.

There was the glamorous Nanette Newman, with her “hand that do dishes”, advertising Fairy washing-up liquid – alongside an impossibly long and shiny table covered in impossibly white and shiny plates and cups and dishes.

There were reminders of the much-loved and highly inventive adverts for Hamlet cigars: always accompanied by Bach’s “Air on a G sting”, various characters endured some embarrassing mishap or other – then lit up a cigar and smiled through it all anyway.

One which I didn’t remember was an early one for McDonalds – which seemed just to list the various kinds of burger which we may or may not wish to inflict on our digestive systems: a reminder perhaps that the Fast Food chains that now surround us are in fact a relatively recent addition to our culture.
One thing that became clear surprisingly quickly is the fact that many of the adverts are actually about something very different from the actual product they are promoting: they “work” by sowing the seeds of “dissatisfaction with our lot” and offering the illusion of something different – “buy this and your life will be a whole lot better”.

I remembered very clearly an early advert for the Breakfast Cereal ”Ready Brek” – with the strap line “Central heating for kids”. Since, in the 70s, I was still at primary School and having to wear short trousers – in winter as well as summer – I do remember pestering my parents to buy some, on the assumption that I WOULD feel warmer on the way to school and in the playground once I got there. I quickly discovered that it didn’t work!

Barclaycard filmed Alan Wicker – in various exotic locations – clearly implying that with this credit card the world could be our oyster…. provided we can pay the bills afterwards.

Meanwhile, there was a common sub-plot to adverts for anything from Old Spice after-shave to Starbrite toothpaste, from Clearasil skin cleanser to the Maltesers which probably gave us spots in the first place: all of those things, and many more, would, it seems, guarantee to get us noticed by the opposite sex.

And harmony between the generations could apparently be bought either in the shape of a finger of fudge (“just enough to give your kids a treat” or, more recently, a packet of Worther’s originals.

I suppose, to some degree, we accept that this is the way advertising works – with so many things on offer, advertisers have to do something to grab our attention.
But I’m not sure that it IS only in the adverts that this kind of psychology is used.
The same sense of dissatisfaction – of yearning for something better – seems to have found its way into the mainstream TV schedule: “Grand Designs”, “Building Dream Homes” and several imitations promote the idea that you can buy or build your way to lasting happiness: your “forever home” is just a few months’ graft and a large overdraft away.
Programmes such as “Escape to the Country” and “Home or Abroad” are based on the idea that you can simply up sticks and start again somewhere else.

What is offered in either case is not just a shiny new home, or a change of scene, but the vision of a new life – a new “you” – freed from the problems of our daily reality, rather like being on holiday for ever.

That vision is, of course, just an illusion – no more real than the side benefits of Ready Brek or Clearasil.

And yet these programmes are popular – because they do tap into a real yearning – a natural desire to strive for more. The fact that one of the 10 Commandments instructs us not to “covet” our neighbour’s possessions – suggests that this instinct is not a new one.

We find it hard to be satisfied with what we have – and we find it equally hard to be satisfied with who we are.
And so we’re taken in very willingly, by the promise of something more, no matter how illusory that promise may actually be.
That very human instinct lies behind both of our bible readings this morning.

Adam and Eve have been created in God’s image – they have all of creation at their disposal – and yet the serpent persuades them that they can be even MORE like God – if only they will eat of the forbidden fruit. This is the one “product” they need to guarantee REAL happiness: but I the event that promise turns out to be false.

And as Jesus is tested in the wilderness, the tempter employs a certain logic: obviously Jesus is going to eat again some day, so why not just get on now and make himself some bread? Or, since the Father has already told him “You are my beloved Son”, surely it’s not too much to ask him to show that love – by sending angels to save him from a sticky end if he jumps? Finally, comes the real test – the promise of absolute power. Again, that is an illusion – as that power is not his to give away.
What’s on offer here is the “forever home” type of promise – a vision of lasting happiness that neatly forgets reality – the things that will happen beyond our control and force us to adapt, whether we like it or not.
Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness – our 40 days of Lent – give space to challenge and overcome those deceptions: to recognise the difference between the promises of God and the illusions that we, or others, construct for ourselves.

Jesus heads out into the wilderness to think about who he is and what he has to do – and we now face the same challenge – to learn who we are meant to be – to learn to be true to ourselves – to learn to be satisfied with ourselves.

That’s not an argument for having no ambition – for simply being content not to achieve much in life – in fact it may be the opposite. Discovering who God calls us to be – recognising the unique gifts of those around us – may in fact drive us to challenge the status quo – to challenge any people or systems which seem to prevent people from living fully human lives.
The first step, however, is that act of recognition –– that we don’t need to and cannot, in fact, buy ourselves into something new or greater – that we are already “God-like” – made in God’s image.
This afternoon and tomorrow evening – 13 parishioners will begin preparations for Confirmation. They come in various shapes and sizes – 8 of them under 16 years of age, and 5 of them a little older!
That’s really encouraging, I think – it’s certainly the largest group I’ve ever seen here and the first time in many years that we’ve been able to have a Confirmation service here in our own church. And so I hope we will ALL be excited for them and strengthened by the promise of what they bring among us.

For all of those candidates, then, this Lent will be a particularly important one – in discovering who they are and who God calls them to be, within the fellowship of his holy people.

And so I’d ask you to pray for them all – as they begin to explore – and for me, please, as I try to guide them along the way.

Throughout these 40 days may we also pray for ourselves, and for each other, that we can stop trying to be more than ourselves – that we can learn to love ourselves as we are – because we are already made in the image and likeness of the One who loved us first, and loves us still.

Cross Country walking?

Sermon preached on 26th February 2017 (George Herbert Commemoration).

Readings: Revelation 19: 5-9    Matthew 11: 25-end

There aren’t many Vicars who could claim, like Jesus, to be able to walk on water. And yet both of the clergy (officiating) here this morning DID just that last week!

The Wood family spent the last few days of half term in the small village of Karesuando, which straddles the border of Finland and Sweden, with a river running through the middle. The national border is exactly half way across the road bridge which joins the two river banks – and the river itself was frozen solid and covered in snow.

And so it was that, in a matter of minutes, we were able to walk from Sweden to Finland – and from one time zone to another – across the frozen waters of the Muonio river!

It was while we were staying there, on the Friday evening, that I saw perhaps the most amazing sight that I’ve ever experienced. And what I saw – was a vision of my wife.
Now, if I stopped there, she would probably quite pleased – but I haven’t finished the sentence.
What I saw was a vision of my wife scampering up a snow-clad hillside, apparently with the boundless energy of a hyperactive gazelle. And that’s not something we’re used to seeing!

What was responsible for this uncharacteristic turn of speed, however, was the appearance of the Northern lights overhead.
This is something that she has long dreamed of seeing – and we were fortunate to be treated to one of the best displays there for some time.

I have to confess that I didn’t respond in quite the same way – either in terms of speed or enthusiasm. The lights were very beautiful – but I found myself standing there in the same way I might stand alongside the Eiffel Tower, or the Coliseum in Rome – recognising something I’ve seen many timed on TV and then seeing it “for real”. I knew this was something special – but it didn’t really “reach” me deep down.
For me there were other moments which touched me more profoundly – encounters with the local people and animals – and a sense of “connection” despite their living in a very different culture from our own.

And it occurs to me that if the wonders of creation – if the beauty and mystery of nature – can speak to each of us so powerfully, but in such different ways, the same must also true of the ways in which God reveals himself to us.
If we do not all respond to the same experiences in the same way – then presumably we will not all be brought closer to God by the same sights or sounds or ideas.

One of the important challenges then, as we head into Lent this week, is for each of us to rediscover what it is that feeds us as an individual – what is it that causes us to stop and stare in wonder – what makes us feel spiritually alive?

In doing so we can gain a stronger sense of our identity – of what really makes us the people we are. And we can also learn more about the God who formed us – not only from our own experiences, but by noticing the wonder in other people’s eyes, as they respond to the things that move them most.
The question of identity – and other people – came into focus in a rather bizarre way, through the equally challenging utterances of Donald Trump.
On the day after our family had walked across the invisible border between Finland and Sweden, he attempted to strengthen his call for stronger border controls in the USA with the words “just look what happened in Sweden last night”.
Well, as far as we could see, not much happened in Sweden that night – except that it snowed a lot and everyone stayed indoors – apart from mad dogs and Englishmen seeking the Northern lights!

And I just want to take a moment to think about this whole question of borders – and of whom we should allow in or keep out of each nation.

From the perspective of the US – it’s surely worth recalling that almost all acts of violence in America are committed by Americans, not by immigrants. Even on the question of religious extremism, I think that is true: those of us old enough to remember the 1990s will almost certainly recall the WACO massacre. No Muslim terrorist or immigrant of any race or creed has ever caused such loss of life as occurred then.
Meanwhile, in Africa, just 6 years after Sudan and South Sudan separated into different nations – in order to ease tensions between Muslim and Christian communities – those religious differences have been replaced by tribal tensions and civil war of different kind.

The famine which now threatens the lives of Sudan’s children is entirely manmade – a result of people trying to define more and more tightly who is “us” and who is “them”.
In Sudan and South Sudan, establishing clear borders has NOT resulted in security and peace – quite the opposite.

“Keeping out foreigners” is not the solution to the social ills of either continent.

The way we order society within each nation – the way we value other people, inside our borders and beyond, – are far more important to our long term security and peace.

I haven’t yet mentioned George Herbert, our local holy man, whom we commemorate today, so just one more though!
As a politician and public speaker he was well versed in the ways of the world – the way people jockeyed for power and influence.
As a poet and musician he knew how to move the heart and inspire the soul.
As a pastor here, in what was then a tiny rural community, he was very much aware of the natural rhythms and cycles of agricultural life.

For him there was no separation between the world of faith and the concerns of everyday life.

For him there was no distinction between rich and poor – all were welcome, all were accountable to each other and to God, and all were equally in need of God’s love and forgiveness.

And it seems to me that’s not a bad vision for both our church and our society at large – the aspiration that both might allow us to be ourselves without condemnation – and to marvel at the world as we see it and be valued for those things.

Jesus said “Come to me all you that are weary and I will give you rest. Learn from me and you will find rest for your souls.”

Perhaps, during Lent, each of us can aim to accept that invitation for ourselves – to find our rest, our space, in the presence of God – and then, in our encounters with other people, to extend that same welcome and reassurance to all who come looking.