Tag Archives: Lent

Illuminating Liturgy: A Tenebrae Service around St John’s Passion

Tenebrae services, or Services of Shadows, come in many variations. This present service is structured around the account of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus given in St John’s Gospel, divided into seven sections. This text is the set Gospel reading for Good Friday which, on account of its length, is often not heard in its entirety in Good Friday services. Using this text for a Tenebrae service on Maundy Thursday or another evening in Holy Week makes possible a hearing of the whole of the narrative as preparation for whatever shorter part of the set Gospel might be used on Good Friday.

The service simply allows John’s passion narrative to unfold, punctuated by periods of silent reflection, a sung refrain and the extinguishing of a candle after each section. An opening and closing prayer are the principle points of interpretation of the narrative, which is otherwise heard without comment.

The service concludes with a final prayer and musical reflection before the people depart in silence, when ready.

This service is shared in the hope that it might be of use to others. Please feel free to download the service document (in MS Word .docx format) and adapt it as appropriate to your local context. We’d love to hear whether it has been useful to you!

Illuminating Liturgy: The Passion according to St Matthew – A Service Order

For a number of years the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist has heard the passion narrative of the gospel for that lectionary year on Passion (Palm) Sunday as a preparation for Holy Week. A version of that order — for Matthew’s Gospel in Year A – is shared here in the hope that it might be useful to others .

The text of the passion narrative is punctuated with prayers, psalms and hymns, with a few suggestions for dramatic actions which might help to reduce the ‘wordiness’ of such a long reading in church. The order also includes the Eucharist. More explanation of the service and how to prepare it are given in the downloadable document. Used ‘as is’ – including Holy Communion – the service would run for 70-75 minutes, depending on your music choices.

Please feel free to download this resource (in MS Word .docx format) and adapt it as appropriate to your local context. We’d love to hear whether it has been useful to you!

1 March – On seeing what is there

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Lent 1
1/3/2020

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 32
Matthew 4:1-11


In a sentence
We must look to see how God has worked – say in Isaiah’s servant – to see how God works in Jesus.

If you were to give a child a pencil and ask her to draw a picture of a person’s face, the chances are high that she’ll draw a circle for the head, with eyes at the top of the head and the nose and mouth filling the rest of the space. Or, if you asked her to draw and colour a tree, it will almost certainly have a brown trunk and green leaves – in a single hue of brown and green.

She’ll do this because she ‘knows’ that this is what a face looks like, or how a tree is coloured. Of course, it is not only children who do this. Most of us realise pretty soon that our untrained drawing skills are fairly limited so we risk no more the taking up of pencils to draw but, if we dared, we would draw and colour much the same as innocents who don’t yet know that they ‘can’t draw’.

We draw and colour like this because we ‘know’ what things look like: eyes are at the top of the head and leaves are green. Except that they aren’t. There are good reasons for imagining that things are like this but we are wrong nonetheless. We have simply not paid enough attention to the world in which we live.

We need to be mindful of the distortions of unattentive ‘knowledge’ when we come to read the Scriptures. It is impossible not to bring some knowledge – or at least some expectation – to the Bible, but it always distorts what we see when we get to it. Those of us well-formed in Christian tradition bring to the Bible thousands of years of accumulated expectation: we know what we’ll find there.

The church has long ‘known’ the meaning of the readings from Isaiah we’ll consider over Lent. We have learned the connections between these prophetic texts and the story of Jesus. Again, there is good reason these links have been drawn. The work of the ‘Servant’ figure who appears in these texts resonates with accounts of who Jesus was and what he achieved:

‘Here is my servant…in whom my soul delights…I have put my spirit upon him’ (42.1);

‘But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed’. (53.5)

If you wonder, How could those lines not be about Jesus?, the point is made. The connection to Jesus is obvious to a church which saw both what happened to him – ‘wounded’, ‘crushed’ – and experiences forgiveness and reconciliation from what happened to him – ‘for our transgressions’, ‘we are healed’.

And we need not doubt that obvious connection.

Yet there is much more to be seen here, and much more to know. The relationship between Jesus and the Servant is greater than the ‘conservative’ knows, who sees here a miraculous foreknowledge of Jesus. Such a reading would not allow that Jesus couldn’t have happened without Isaiah’s vision, but this then reduces the link between Jesus and the Servant to a happy coincidence across 500 years.

And the relationship between Jesus and the Servant is much deeper than implied by the dismissive claim of the progressive that the church has therefore misunderstood and hijacked a convenient text. For, even if Jesus doesn’t ‘require’ that Isaiah spoke as he did, we can’t recognise God in Jesus without some prior context, such as the Servant of Isaiah.

Oddly, then, we both don’t need Isaiah to understand Jesus, and yet must understand Jesus in terms of Isaiah. This is because what Isaiah says is not necessary for Jesus’ work; other things are present to help us recognise God in him. But the God Isaiah sees working in the Servant is the same God who is at work in Jesus, and so we should expect a connection. Our sense for God’s way in the world, then, will be much stronger if we look to see Isaiah’s Servant on his own terms, before and as we connect the Servant to Jesus.

This is not straightforward. We will see that the Servant is a very slippery figure. Sometimes the Servant is clearly Israel itself but other times the Servant is clearly over-against Israel, or for Israel. The slippage from the Servant which is all of Israel to the individual(?) Servant for Israel is probably deliberate but is also vexing. At the very least, we might come to see that God’s way with the world cannot be reduced to simple formulas or drawn with straight lines, or coloured with a single shade of green.

This matters for Christians because if it is not clear who or how the Servant is in Isaiah, it must be less clear in what way Jesus himself is the Servant. If Jesus is doing the kind of things Isaiah saw that such a God would do, we need to see what Isaiah saw if we are to know what Jesus did.

To come to see this will be our work over the next few weeks but, for now, there is another dimension of Isaiah’s preaching which is crucial to our reading of the Servant’s work. This is the nature of the God who is (co-)agent with the Servant.

Very strong in Isaiah – particularly these latter chapters – is the declaration of the absolute sovereignty of God. The work of the Suffering Servant is the work of the God who, as we heard this morning,

   …created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it (42.5).

Isaiah sets God’s capacity to reconcile through the Servant’s suffering alongside God’s creative power, as being of the same order. If there is a link between the suffering of the Servant and that of Jesus, then the cross becomes – unexpectedly – a sign of power: a sign of the absolute sovereignty and creative power of God. It is the cross which parallels the creation of the world, and not the merely Easter Day resurrection, isolated as a miraculous wonder.

The cross is how God creates, or ‘now’ creates, ‘now’ brings righteousness to the world:

See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare… (42.9).

These are not ‘additional’ things; they are new things. New sight, new knowledge, which changes how we see, and so what we see. The former things, as what we ‘know’, must give way to the latter things – the cross, and God’s freedom in the cross.

This begins when we pay attention to what is before us, trusting not what we think we know but trusting eyes being trained to see. A child can be trained to see that, in fact, our eyes are in the middle of our faces, that a tree trunk is pink and purple and grey, and occasionally a little brown; that a leaf is greeny-yellowy-white when it is not red or purple.

We do not see the world aright because we do not see God aright. Because we have not looked deeply into the God who is there, we do not believe that there is more to see in us and around us than we have noticed in fleeting glimpses.

Seeing God rightly begins with doing as God commands:

Behold, my servant’ (42.1, KJV),
[given] as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Behold who you are.
See who is given for you.
And discern the God who is in the midst of it all.

By the grace of God, may our eyes be opened to all this. Amen.


A prayer in response to the sermon

We bless you, O God,
You have created and sustained us
and all things for your own name’s sake, that we might glorify and enjoy you forever.

And yet we confess that, in thought, word and deed, we fail to bring you glory.

Forgive us when it does not occur to us that there is more to see of you and of those around us than we have seen till now.

Forgive us when, seeing more deeply we choose rather to be blind; when hearing more completely, we choose to be deaf.

Forgive us, then, selfishness, witting and unwitting; unkindness, intended and unintended; impatience we think was can justify, and which we cannot, despair because we have knowingly or unknowingly grasped the wrong hope.

Gracious God above all gods, Open eyes which are blind, bring captives out from the dungeon, and light to those who sit in darkness.

Make of us people for whom the past is past, and who are grounded in the new things you have promised.

Just so, gracious God, have mercy on us…

Illuminating Liturgy: The Passion according to St Luke – A Service Order

For a number of years the Congregation of Mark the Evangelist has heard the passion narrative of the gospel for that lectionary year on Passion (Palm) Sunday as a preparation for Holy Week. A version of that order — for Luke’s Gospel in Year C – is shared here in the hope that it might be useful to others .

The text of the passion narrative is punctuated with prayers, psalms and hymns, with a few suggestions for dramatic actions which might help to reduce the ‘wordiness’ of such a long reading in church. The order also includes the Eucharist. More explanation of the service and how to prepare it are given in the downloadable documents. Used ‘as is’ – including Holy Communion – the service would run for 70-75 minutes, depending on your music choices.

Please feel free to download these resources (in MS Word .docx format) and adapt them as appropriate to your local context. We’d love to hear whether they have been useful to you!

DOWNLOADS

22 March – This is how God loves

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Lent 5
22/3/2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51
John 3:16-21


I bought a violin on Friday. Not that I can play the violin – yet. But, for reasons quite obscure to us, Coulton has wanted to learn the violin since he was about 3, and we figure that now is about the right time to start, and I’ve offered to learn with him as some encouragement along the way. Buying violins is not a straightforward thing. You have to talk to people who know something about them, research what is available, and where, and in what condition. You can learn all sorts of things via YouTube reviews of the instruments – what to look for, why it’s better if the instrument if professionally modified from its factory condition, and so on. In the case of my new violin – it came up on Thursday on Gumtree, and looked a pretty good deal. The problem was that it was in Geelong – amounting to probably a three hour return trip, all up. I contacted the chap offering it for sale, and he didn’t want to post it but would be happy if I arranged a courier. So I contacted a courier, and that wasn’t going to cost too much, so got back to the seller to arrange an electronic transfer and the courier pick up. It turned out he then needed to be in Melbourne on Friday, so I upped the offer a bit if he’d deliver it, which he did, and I have my violin. (Coulton doesn’t have his yet!)

Why am I telling you all this? Now that I’m a parent, it is becoming increasingly clear to me just how much parents do for their children, if everything is working the way that it should. Most of the time a child has no idea what is involved to make happen the things which make her life a happy one. But occasionally she’ll hear, especially is ingratitude is present, Mummy and Daddy loves you so much that is this what they have done for you. Of course, it is almost impossible that the child can understand what in fact has been done, but still it is the case: love does “so much

Which brings us to today’s gospel reading – re-visited from last week – and the first verse in particular: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life”. This is one of the Christian texts: printed on T-shirts and bumper stickers and baseball caps, appearing on placards in crowds at major sporting events: it sits somewhere near the perceived centre of what needs to be said in evangelism.

“For God so loved…” Is the way to salvation the same kind of way as that by which a boy comes to learn the violin – that so much is done, which then has to be “believed” or received?

I want to propose this morning a reading of this verse rather different from the way in which the church has generally heard it, thinking through three crucial parts of the verse: first, the so which seems to carry most of the weight of emphasis (God so loved the world), then the giving of the Son and, finally, the belief we are to have in response to all this.

1. For God “so” loved the world.

It is difficult not to hear this as “so much” – so much, so big, was the love of God, that he gave the Son. In the background here is the love we have for our children and the cost it would be to us to give them up in this way. (Perhaps also, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac also sits behind this text). And yet even though this is the sense the English suggests, it is not what the Greek implies. In the Greek, the “so” is the first word in the sentence, giving it more the sense of “thus”: Thus, or this, is the love of God: God gave the Son. The difference is subtle, but very important. If I say to Coulton – this is how much we love you, that we did all this that you might have a happy experience with the violin, his response might be, But couldn’t you have got an even better violin with a bit more effort? The “so much” implies the possibility of even more – that God has paid enough – even more – than necessary, but not necessarily everything. Here the love of God is quantified, measured: this is how much God loves you; is it not impressive?

But if we read the clause as “This is the love of God” then we are not dealing with a quantity of love which might have been smaller or even bigger but the very content of love itself: love is the giving of the Son. We’ll come back to this again in a bit.

2. God gave the Son

What then, of the second thing to note in the verse, the giving of the Son? In most Christian thinking, this touches upon the theme of sacrifice: God sacrifices the Son, trades the blood and life of the Son for the salvation of the world. This understanding is both dearly embraced by some Christians and abhorrently rejected by others. On the part of those who embrace it, there is in the background the “so much” understanding we’ve just be considering: God has sacrificed even his Son for us. On the part of those who reject this idea there is, among other things, horror at the idea of sacrifice itself, let alone of sacrificing a child (in this era of heightened sensitivity to the abuse of children). The idea of sacrifice is made all the more difficult in those understandings which insist that God had to sacrifice the Son: that there was some kind of “deep magic” which forced God’s hand in this way (see an earlier sermon on this: here). It is difficult to overstate how thoroughly ingrained this way of thinking is in the way the church speaks about the saving work of Christ. Explaining why the New Testament speaks this way about the cross would take more time than we have now; suffice it to say, the “giving” of the Son is not a sacrifice, if by that we mean that it would necessarily work in the way religious sacrifices are normally thought to work, that somehow we or God met all the requirements and sinners are automatically sprung from judgement.

In what sense, then, does God “give the Son”? We can say that God “presents” the Son. This the love of God for the world: the Son. This is perhaps a little dense to be immediately clear, but it is the heart of the matter. For “the Son” is for us always the crucified one – not the “sacrificed one” – but the crucified one. Again, the difference might seem subtle but it is everything. To understand Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice is to interpret it in terms of first century Jewish understandings of the ritual animal sacrifices in Temple, which makes perfect sense if you are a first century Jew. We today do not have – or rather, we do not acknowledge that we have – a corresponding system of sacrifice securing our religious and secular lives. And so, if we are to interpret the cross as a sacrifice, we have to become first century Jews before we can become Christians. This is what St Paul rejected in a different form when he denied that uncircumcised male Greeks needed to undergo the cut in order to become Christians.

Jesus cannot be for us “the sacrificed one” in the way he could be for those who first heard his story. But he can be for us “the crucified one”, interpreted in a different way. Christians are so accustomed to the theory of an economy of salvation in which something has to be sacrificed that it is difficult to apprehend the story in a different way. But there are other ways. The sacrifice interpretation requires that Jesus came in order to die – that this was what the Father who sent him required. But this is not the sense we get from John’s gospel. Here, Jesus comes precisely to live – to be Word made flesh, to be Life and Truth in all their fullness. Jesus does die, but not because it was somehow demanded by God. If anyone demands his death, it is us: contradicting Jesus’ purpose as the Way, the Truth and the Life. The religious authorities require that Jesus die because he threatens the peace and may invoke the wrath of the Romans (John 11.48-50,18.14). The Roman governor Pilate, who initially tries to get Jesus off, finally also sees the political risk Jesus represents and decides that saving him is not worth the trouble (John 19.12f). And so Jesus is crucified, but not as a “sacrifice”; he dies because the capital-L Life he lived was too confronting, too threatening of human self-righteousness. On this reading, the Son – Jesus – is not given to be crucified; the crucified Son is what we are given. God says: Look at this. God asks, What, Why, How has this come to pass; what shall we say about it?

On the sacrificial reading, the un-crucified Jesus appears as a kind of currency in a sacrificial economy. The cross is a kind of “spending” of that currency: an exchange of Jesus’ life and blood for ours. The fundamental problem here is that we have to believe in this economy of salvation before we can believe in Jesus.

On the “presentation” reading – that God “presents” the crucified Son to us – we are back in the realms of last week’s reflection: that the cross symbolises something about our heart and the heart of God. John’s gospel is concerned with a “Word” – a Word enfleshed. This Word becomes what we are; the question is simply: what, actually, are we? At the end of his gospel John has the Roman governor Pilate present Jesus to an angry crowd with the words: Behold, the man. The sense is more, Behold: the Human Being. Here is the human being – his humanity and ours – and this is what is crucified. Jesus, then, dies not only (or even?) “for” us, but as us; it is us on the cross, our true humanity being broken by broken humanity.

This is too much to think through here, but it is the kind of thinking which springs forth if we allow that God’s love is not a divine Son given for us but a crucified Son given to us: a revelation which effects something rather than something effected which is then revealed.

3. So that everyone who believes

For the sake of finishing within a civil time frame, the third crucial aspect of this central Christian text: “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish.” What is this “belief”?

On the traditional reading, “believe” means here something like assent as the appropriate response, and receiving salvation in return. This is not unlike the case of little boys and their violins, where “believe” looks like taking up the bow and doing whatever it is you call what a little boy does with a violin: the “so much” of the gift received requires this response.

But on the alternative reading we’ve been unpacking, “believe” is quite a different thing altogether. This is the love of God: the Son. The crucified Son, and no other. The crucified humanity of the Word-made-human. Humanity brought to nothing by humanity. Here, “believe” means recognising ourselves in all dimensions of the story. It means seeing ourselves as the cause of the cross, and as the victim of the cross, and as the beneficiaries of the cross. The giving of the Son is not a “buy-back” scheme; it is the revelation of God’s heart for us, and of us as God’s heart.

We noted in passing earlier that it is closer to the dynamic of God’s work through Jesus to say that God’s love is the giving of the Son, rather than is shown by the giving of the Son. This is the love of God: the Son, crucified, restored to life. The cross and the resurrection are God’s story, are God as love, and are given also to be our story.

To believe in this God is to receive this love as our own. It is to grow into a humanity formed after the likeness of Jesus, the Son. It is to become love, as the children of God, and to participate in God’s great work of love in the world.

This is not easy. We begin with this story as we might begin with a violin for the first time – barely possible to hold let alone to get anything like music from it. But the promise is that, in continuing to hear the story and to tell it, it will increasingly become part of us, as the instrument becomes part the musician, the one enabling the other to express, and to be.

Let us, then, open ourselves to become love as God is love, harmony to the song God sings, to our greater humanity and, what is the same thing, to God’s greater glory. By the grace of God. Amen.

22 February – Fear Death by Water

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Lent 1
22/2/2015

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Garry Deverell


In 1922 T.S. Eliot published what many still consider to be the most important poem of the 20th century. ‘The Waste Land’ presents itself as a series of scattered images of Europe in the wake of the First World War. Ranging from the author’s memories of childhood visits to Germany, through cockney conversations in a London pub and walks along the Thames, to fragmented recollections of classical stories from Rome and India, the poem depicts a world in which the ‘nymphs’ – that is, the coherence of things – ‘have departed.’ Nothing is left, says the voice of the poet, except ‘voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells’. The poem is also about the author’s own ‘death’ – figuratively speaking – that is, his incapacity to make all these images of European meaning cohere in a way that can sustain his life. ‘Fear death by water’ says a clairvoyant the poet consults early in the poem. And by the end the poet is so desperately dry and thirsty in the wasteland of his imagining that he has actually begun to search for the water by which he is convinced he will die, yet it is unclear if the poet has found it, or no.

The images offered us by the first Sunday of Lent are not entirely unconnected to what Eliot saw and experienced in London at the end of World War 1. The Noah story is about a similar cataclysm, a flood, which – like the First World War – completely did away with the world as it has previously been known. One day everyone was going about their business, sure of the foundations on which they walked and the meaningfulness of the directions in which their lives were taking them. But then, suddenly, rain began to fall. And – absurdly, irrationally, inexplicably to most – the rain doesn’t stop. Indeed, the rain kept falling until all life on earth – all except that preserved by God in the ark – is no longer alive, but dead.

And then there is the story of Jesus baptism by John in the Jordan. If there was ever a time and a place in which the phrase ‘fear death by water’ rang with portending truth, it was the ancient Mediterranean where literally thousands of souls were sent to a watery grave by the wrath of the gods made manifest in ocean storms and the monster Leviathan who lived beneath the waves. The rite of baptism deliberately invoked the universal fear of these apparently cosmic forces, that sense in which one could never be the master of one’s own destiny because the gods were always more powerful. Yet baptism sought also to both modify and transform that fear by invoking a phenomenon still very strange and foreign in the ancient world, the phenomenon of a God who seeks to influence the world solely by the grace of unconditional love.

In the baptism of Jesus a peculiarly Jewish logic about the meaningfulness of things is therefore brought to both its zenith and conclusion. For the semitic peoples of the ancient world both shared and did not share in the pagan fear of catastrophe that obsessed their neighbours. Like their neighbours, they believed that the power of nature, the power of water if you like, signified everything in the universe that could take one’s life away, everything that could render one’s plans and schemes both null and void, everything that could make a mockery of the notion that we are the masters of our own fate. Unlike their pagan neighbours, however, who were constantly seeking to do deals with the gods to secure their protection against catastrophe, the Hebrew preachers believed that the power behind all power was essentially both good and gracious, and desired nothing other than the good of the people, and desired this good unconditionally. The Hebrew stories about death by water were also, therefore, stories of LIFE by water. A flood comes to consume the earth and all its wickedness. Yet God preserves the seeds of a new world in an ark that floats upon the receding torrent for 40 days and 40 nights. The angel of death is sent to destroy all the firstborn of Egypt. Yet God’s people are preserved by walking through the depths of the Red Sea and trecking, for 40 years, through the wilderness until they cross into the land of their freedom via the Jordan river. Jesus’ life as a carpenter and compliant citizen of the Roman state is put to death in that same river by baptism that he might rise to live the life ordained for him by the God who claims him as his beloved Son. He receives, at that moment, the Spirit of God, who immediately drives him into the wilderness so that he can really learn what it means to do away with one’s own dreams and embrace the dreams of God. For 40 days and forty nights Jesus learns what it means to repent, to change one’s mind and heart, for the kingdom of God has come near.

Friends, the 40 days and nights of Lent begin with these stories of death by water in order to set our course aright. 40 days and nights hence is the beginning of the paschal triduum, the Great Three Days which commemorate the fulfilment of Jesus own baptism, his death on the cross at the hands of evil powers, and his rising to life as a sign of God’s final triumph over such powers by the power of what we rightly call love. We look forward to this time because in Jesus’ rising is the possibility of our own rising. In Jesus’ triumph is the possibility of our own triumph. In Jesus victory is our own victory. Easter is therefore our goal and our destination.

Yet, and this is very important, these stories of death by water also remind us that there can be no rising without a dying, there can be no prize without a willingness to give up on the very notion of winning, there can be no victory without a submission to complete and utter loss. For Lent is the process of getting to Easter by a dying to ourselves and a living to God. Lent is about confessing the truth about ourselves and our world, the truth of our utter helplessness to make for either sense or for good apart from a divinely given sensibility concerning the good. Lent is about the art of repentance and surrender, of turning from what is evil and giving ourselves only to what is beautiful and noble and true. Lent is about forsaking the business of getting by and learning to walk in the byways of God. It is about crying through the night and welcoming the joy of dawn. Lent, in short, is designed to kill everything in us that keeps us in chains so that God can free us, can redesign us, and fill our ‘empty cisterns’ with a new resonance for salvation. And we speak of these things in image and metaphor precisely because they are far too important to leave to prosaic, rational, flat language of the prevailing discourse.

I pray you all a blessed and holy Lent. In the name of God . . .