Surprises are the Spice of Life – a Sermon for the 1st Sunday in Lent

5 March 2017

Surprises are the spice of life.

As with spice some surprises are too sharp to swallow but others can add flavour and excitement.

A birthday present or a gift at Christmas that takes us by surprise is usually very welcome.

When the gift is predictable it can be more than a little disappointing.

A good novel, or a creative piece of music, or an imaginative painting, contains a surprise or two.

A twist in the final chapter, the introduction of a key change, a little detail that only the observant can spot, these things can turn something half decent into something that is special.

Those that compiled the Gospel accounts knew what they were doing when they added surprises to their text; they knew that those twists would keep the reader alert.

Matthew’s account, the one that we are focussing on this year, is filled with surprises.

The surprises begin right at the beginning of the account with the genealogy of Jesus which includes some extraordinary characters whom you wouldn’t suspect of being ancestors of the Son of God.

Tamar, the Gentile, surprising for a book that claims Jesus to be the new Moses.

Rahab the Canaanite prostitute who spied against her people.

And so on.

To the reader that knew their Hebrew scriptures, which Matthew’s community clearly did, this was a very surprising list.

From the genealogy to Golgotha and the confession of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross, the first to publicly declare Jesus to be the Son of God, Matthew implies the tool of surprise to hook into the imagination of his readers.

Then there are the temptations in the wilderness.

One would expect the new Moses to spend time, as did the original Moses, in the wilderness.

What is surprising is the level of temptation that Jesus faces.

To the righteous reader how can this be so?

To the unrighteous reader, why doesn’t Jesus go with the quick fix, or the power, or the display that would prove once and for all his uniqueness?

It’s a twist alright.

Of course for many it is ok to recite the creed that includes ‘tempted in all points as we are’ but when that is graphically illustrated by a novelist and later a film producer to include the temptation of turning back from the course God would have him take and instead to marry Mary Magdalene, settle down and have kids, that is one twist too many.

But for me, the film Last Temptation, drove home the sacrifice Jesus made on my behalf.

I personally couldn’t think of how it’s even remotely possible to resist such a temptation, but resist he did.

In a church that is no longer surprised by the birth of the Son of God in a backwater,

or that the message didn’t get through to everyone (and still doesn’t),

or that the whole episode should end with him nailed to a cross,

such a creative addition to the story was sufficient to help convince me of the extraordinariness of Jesus.

So if Jesus and his actions took his contemporaries by surprise, how does Jesus take us further by surprise today?

The story has to be developed.

It cannot stay the same.

Just as the missionaries to Eskimos  found their claim that Jesus was the bread of life meant nothing to them, so we today have to realise that some of the story no longer surprises nor attracts our colleagues at work, our neighbours in the street, or our friends at the bowls club.

If someone had have said to me thirty years ago as I took up my first appointment in circuit that I would preach in a mosque at Friday prayers during Ramadan I would have thought them crazy.

If someone had have said to me then that a rabbi would open up the meaning of scripture like none of my Christian teachers I would not have believed them.

If someone had have said to me then that I would end up doing any one of the hundred and one things I have done these past three decades I would have said they were deluded.

But the path of discipleship is one of great excitement and joy when the journey has surprises along the route.

We cannot settle for anything less than surprise.

Because if we do our faith is dormant and in mortal danger.

So today we look to how the mission of Jesus can be further expanded.

Reaching out to our own, in a comfortable unchallenging manner is not going to get us anywhere.

To be engaged with those outside our own is to be alive to surprise.

To be open and receptive to those who offer us a very different perspective on life and faith is to be a faithful and willing listener to the God that is trying to get through to us.

We may miss what God is saying if we do not give God the chance to communicate through all of his children.

Yesterday my friend David and I attended a conference in the morning and an art gallery in the afternoon.

The conference was for chaplains and professional practitioners in health care. It was an opportunity for the delegates to explore the links between spirituality and medical provision.

In the afternoon we visited the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull.

For me God was as present in the gallery as he was in the conference.

That is not to disparage the conference in any way, far from it, I thought it was a wonderful conference touching on some very important issues and much will have been achieved by it.

But God could not be excluded from the gallery.

God was there in the labour undertaken by the artists as they conveyed meaning.

God was there in those attending from the 19-month old toddler rushing in between the legs of adults to the frail gentleman placing his walking stick against the wall before balancing himself on his weak legs to take a photo of a painting with his smart phone.

God was there in the joy of the residents of Hull as their city is visited and appreciated by those of us who haven’t been for many a year.

God will be in the week that you are about to experience.

Whatever it is that you will face,

highs or lows,

laughter or sorrow,

conversations or isolation

God will be with you and God will be within all you encounter and experience.

This is the message of Jesus in the wilderness,

the one who would go on to enthral crowds on hillsides,

be feted as he entered the city

and who would weep tears in the garden.

He was never forsaken.

And nor will you be.

[B1]

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