Lift up the Lord this Lent!

Homily at St Thomas’s and St Peter’s for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 2012

Lift up the Lord in your life this Lent!  For “when the son of man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.”

This morning, I would like to help you see Our Lord Jesus Christ through new eyes – the eyes of St John the Beloved.

Close your eyes for a moment, and imagine that you ARE John the Beloved, an old man now, in your eighties or perhaps even your nineties, and look back.

It all began on a breezy day when you were with your brother, James, and your father, Zebedee, fishing. One of the locals, a bright young man called Jesus from Capernaum, strides up to the dockside and calls out “John! James! Come with me on an adventure!” You notice that other fisherman – Simon and Andrew – are with him already, and you know this man – he is the son of the local carpenter and has a reputation for being generous, and firm but fair. You look at your Dad and he gives a gentle nod – there are always men looking for work on the dockside and he can spare you and your brother to go off for a month or two and see the world.

Well, it turned out to be more than a month or two – and what a journey! Jesus recruited a dozen disciples altogether and then caused uproar at a local wedding by turning water into wine. He led you on a whistle-stop tour all round Israel where he healed the sick, raised the dead, and cast out demons. He picked just you, with Peter and James, to climb a mountain where God’s voice rang out – “This is my Beloved Son! Listen to Him!” And it was at that moment when you realised the awesome significance of what you’d been asked to do, and Who had picked you to be his companion. Not just another Rabbi! No, Israel had hundreds of religious teachers. Not just another prophet – the Bible listed dozens of prophets who had spoken throughout your history. No, this Jesus was something unique, the beloved Son of the one and only God, who he dared to address as Father.

Then it all went horribly wrong. One of your companions, Judas, turned traitor. Jesus was arrested. The other ten ran away. Only you and Jesus’ own mother were left on that dark and terrible Friday, standing close to your friend and master, Jesus, tortured and dying on a cross of wood. Before he breathed his last breath, he made you promise to look after Mary from now on.

If it had ended there, it would have been a remarkable story. But that was only the beginning. Your grief was disturbed on Sunday morning by another Mary, the young lass from Magdala, with some hysterical story about an empty grave. Only she wasn’t hysterical. Within hours, Jesus himself had stood among you – walking straight through a locked door if you please – and shown you the wounds in his hands and his feet. He told you to stay put in Jerusalem until he gave you a signal, and then to go and tell the world all about him. So you waited, and prayed, and talked to each other about the amazing thing you’d just seen.

Seven weeks later, your world changed again. Simon Peter gaze an amazing sermon in the market square where people who couldn’t speak your language somehow understood exactly what he was saying and three thousand people asked to be baptised as followers of Jesus. The twelve of you – you’d picked Mathias to replace Judas – set off around Israel to tell your people that Jesus was the teacher who had completed God’s law, and to be fully Jewish, you needed to understand his teaching.

It wasn’t easy. Some of your own people listened to you – others tried to get you arrested, or even executed. Your own brother, James, was the first to be killed. A nasty piece of work, Saul, from Jerusalem, started hunting you down. Then you heard that on the way to Damascus, he claimed he’d received a vision of Jesus and become one of you. It sounded like a clever ruse to infiltrate your inner circle, but no – Saul’s conversion was genuine, and he became Paul the Apostle. And he challenged you to go further, to take the message of Jesus not only your Jewish brothers and sisters, but out to the whole world. You were slow to catch on, and God had to give Peter a special dream in the end to prove this was the right way to go, so you did.

So here you are in Ephesus, the part of the world people now call Turkey. Mary came with you, and after a long life God took her up to heaven – not only her soul, you understand, but her body too – quite remarkable.

Paul and the other eleven went off into Europe, Africa and Asia. One by one they were arrested, tortured and executed. You are the only one left now, and an old man. Perhaps God will spare you to die a natural death. But before you go, you need to pass on your memories of the things Jesus said and did! There are so many! What will you choose to write? Which of his actions and sayings are the most important, that the world needs to know?

You ponder what it is that motivated you to devote your whole life to spreading the message of Jesus. You have meditated on his message for more than half a century. You remember a letter you wrote to new Christians some years ago. “Dear children, you know the Father and your sins have been forgiven through the power of Jesus.” You pick up your quill pen now and begin to write:

“The Son of Man must be lifted up so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him. Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life. No one who believes in him will be condemned; but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already.”

People of Abercynon/Bargoed, open your eyes and look around you. You are the dear children to whom John the Beloved was writing. You are the ones who will receive eternal life because of your faith. You are the ones who must continue the work of John the Beloved, speaking of Jesus to the next generation. But where are the young adults, the teenagers, the children, in this church community? Any church which fails to hand on faith to the next generation will surely die, a slow and lingering death. Jesus proclaimed that when he is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself. Now, it is your calling to continue the work of St John, to lift up Jesus to this generation.

Today’s first reading is a warning. God’s own people had forgotten to take God’s message seriously. It took a foreign emperor to say to the Jewish people:” Rebuild your temple and worship God in the way He requires.” The psalmist challenges himself: Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I forget that Jerusalem is the place God chose.

Our generation also needs a warning: We have forgotten God’s message. We have fooled ourselves with the idea that God is so kind and caring that he lets everyone into heaven, whatever they believe. This is not what the Bible teaches us. We are called to lift up Jesus so that people hear his message. If they accept it and follow it, their place in heaven is secure. If they understand it and reject it, they are lost. If they hear but do not understand, then, and only then, can we hope that God in his mercy finds a way to receive to heaven those not given the gift of faith on earth.

Your children will meet Jesus in three ways. They will hear of him through history. They will know him through your word and witness. They will meet him their own thoughts and meditations.

You might encourage them to pray and reach out to Jesus, but this only becomes fruitful when God chooses to make the connection with them. This happens most powerfully in times of distress and brokenness. When our loved ones fall on hard times, practically or emotionally, these are the crucial moments to gently encourage them to reach out to God with a heartfelt prayer.

And you might be ready to share with your children the reasons why the Bible is reliable even though today’s media finds all kinds of ways to pour doubt on the foundation stones of our faith. But your children will only want to hear that information when their hearts are asking the right questions.

Your own faith is the most powerful evidence you have. Let your children and your friends know that you are a person who prays. If God has made a connection with your heart, have the courage to tell others what you’ve experienced. Among other Christians this might be showing off, but in today’s world it’s essential that those who don’t yet know Jesus know what goes on in the heart of a Christian believer. You are the only people who can lift up the name of Jesus in your workplace, among your friends, in your extended family. Pray to God to give you the right words, the right experience, and the right loving attitude to be the one who makes Jesus known wherever you go.

“When the son of man is lifted up, he will draw all people to himself.” Lift up the Lord in your life this Lent!