Posted by: owizblog | September 21, 2012

Jumping Off A Cliff: Sermon, 20 March 2011

Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17

I’ve a confession to make. I’ve been having withdrawal symptoms! We had to cancel the first date they offered us to put in our television and broadband package, we won’t get television until next Tuesday. And I have missed it! We’ve been reduced to watching DVDs of TV series we know so well, our lips move along with the dialogue. I don’t know how many of you are fans of the American series The West Wing, the magnificent seven-series epic about life in the White House and administration of the fictional President Josiah Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen, but that’s where we went many an evening. And that’s where we were at the beginning of the last week, as I tossed in my mind how I was going to fulfil last week’s promise to you, and fuse together this week’s readings with the Second Temptation of Christ – because (another confession) when I promised you that we would do that, I didn’t know how I was going to do it. And here you were, thinking that your new Minister was super-organized, with all his sermons to the end of April already written…

I reassured myself that something would come; it was only Monday… only Tuesday… only Wednesday.

And on Wednesday we revisited two programmes in series five of The West Wing... I’ll catch you up with the plot. A crisis in the Middle East has given President Bartlett the chance to try for a risky peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, a move his Chief of Staff and oldest friend, Leo McGarry profoundly disagrees with. The conference succeeds, but at the cost of an enormous row between the two men, after which McGarry has a massive heart attack. Bartlett, overcome with guilt at the demands, leading to this, that he has placed on his old friend, visits Leo in hospital after his big and complicated surgery. The two old friends are completely reconciled, but over the President’s objections, McGarry makes it clear to him that he simply can’t return to work in his old job. It’s beyond him. The President must appoint a new Chief of Staff. They muse over events, and the President asks Leo whether he remembers what he said to him when he asked him to take the job, six years previously. McGarry says “You asked me if I’d be willing to jump off a cliff for you…”

Jump off a cliff for someone. The metaphor for a total, complete, and utter commitment. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard gave us the expression “a leap of faith” (though he actually spoke of a “leap into faith”.) And so, when the President returns to his staff, in the hospital waiting room, and tells them that they can go and see his outgoing Chief of Staff, very briefly, he calls back his trusted press secretary Claudia Jean Cregg, and tells her he has something to ask her.

“Anything, Mr. President…”

“I want you to jump off a cliff for me…”

2

Abram sits among everything he knows, surrounded by family and kinship ties of the kind that, in the ancient world, keep you safe, and give you your respect and dignity and status, that tell you who you are.

And God says to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

You could easily paraphrase that as “I want you to jump off a cliff for me…”

And Nicodemus. Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night, who is afraid to commit, who hesitates to jump…

And thirdly – to go back to last week – Jesus in the desert with the tempter. Except that, suddenly, they aren’t in the desert any more. They are 450 feet up, on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. And the Tempter says “I want you to jump off for me…” Except that he doesn’t. The Tempter says to Jesus “ want you to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple to show me how much faith you have in God…”

There’s a difference. But what is it?

[Hymn]

3

It’s a remarkable passage, the first three verses of Genesis 12. Someone once remarked that if Ralph Vaughan Williams had died at the age of 70, we’d only have two-thirds of his music. (He lived until he was 86.) And here’s Abram at 75, and his story is only just beginning. Maybe we shouldn’t worry the way we do about the age profiles of our congregations. Abram is – or should be –  the poster-boy for an adventurous retirement!  To put it more profoundly, God comes to him in comfortable old age, sitting amid the fruits of a whole lifetime, and in the security of his ties of kith and kin, and says: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” And it will work out, because I am God.

Leap of Faith

It’s an invitation to trust. And there is a promise here, but it’s an open-ended promise. I will bring you to a land, to a place, and I will give you a future. But ultimately, says God, I am the goal and the destination, I, and the good I will do for you. I will define the destination, but it’s the journey there that will define you. Because it’s the journey that is faith…

And it’s taking that journey that is your freedom…

But it’s a difficult freedom.  Notice what Abram has to leave. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house…” It’s like a set of Russian nesting dolls, from the outermost to the innermost layers of our connection: Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house… Don’t cling to these things.  They aren’t your security any more. Many people who are critical of religion see it as a form of dependence – but faith isn’t about dependence, it’s about trust… Faith is always about growing, and often about growing up. At the age of 75, Abram is being invited to do a lot of growing up very quickly! And growing up has a lot to do with putting things away. “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things…”

Let’s go back a moment to our TV-less existence at the Manse at the moment, and to that DVD of The West Wing. When President Bartlett says to Claudia Jean Cregg “I want you to jump off a cliff for me…” what he means is “I want you to plunge into the unknown. I want you to leave the security of who you are behind, because I think you can be a bigger and different person where I am inviting you to go.  I want you to trust my estimate of you. I want you to do something quite terrifying because I think that the journey through it will justify my faith in you.”

Add to that – “…and I promise that the journey will justify your faith in me…” –  and you hjave a Biblical pattern. Abraham, the pattern of faith. Paul uses it explicitly in his letter to the Romans. But you also see it reflected – quite deliberately – in other places. Two men sitting by the lochside, mending nets. Fishing is all they have ever known. This place, and its people, are all they have ever known. And a man they’ve never seen before comes by and says “Follow me!” And they do. “I will make you fishers of men”; that is, I’m inviting you to come and be something you don’t know how to be, yet. On the way, you’ll find out much more about me. And much more about who you are, much more than if you just stayed here with what you know… I’ll lead you to where you’re supposed to be. And it won’t be easy – in fact some of it will be scary, even terrifying.  But it will be real, and I will be in that reality with you, every step of the way.”

Whereas, on the pinnacle of the Temple, the Tempter is saying quite different things to Jesus.

4

I can remember the moment I lost my head for heights. I was 30, and on holiday in York. I had my elbows on the parapet of a bridge over the river Ouse, and was staring down at the slow, smooth, barely flowing water, and reflecting (pun intended!) that I had no real sense of the distance between me and the sparkly surface below. The tourist next to me must have had the same thought, but he acted on it. He scrunched up a paper tissue, and dropped it – and as it fell towards the river below, I could feel myself being pulled after it! I had that strange, wobbly feeling I’d never had before, but have often had since – the first such time, later that same holiday, being when I climbed the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, something which turned out to be a thoroughly bad idea!

I can only imagine that standing 450 feet up on the pinnacle of the Temple would have been very much worse. But the Tempter says: “What are you worried about? If have faith, this shouldn’t be scary! If you have faith, you shouldn’t be scared! If you have faith, nothing bad will happen to you. If you have faith, this is no problem. If you have faith, there are no problems…”

And it’s a lie. It’s always a lie when someone says to you “This is my definition of faith in God, and you must measure up to my definition or you don’t have faith.” It’s always a lie when someone says to you “This is my definition of faith, and if you don’t match up to it, you’re not a Christian!”  This is not an invitation to trust God. This is a simple playground dare, like the one that got me, at seven, to walk along the top of a brick wall in the school playground just because someone dared me to do it. And when my redoubtable teacher Miss Williams had talked me down from the predicament I was in, she said, as tens of thousands of teachers have said, “If he told you to put your hand in the fire, would you do it?”

If he told you to chuck yourself of the pinnacle of the Temple, would you do it?

That’s not faith. That’s manipulation on the part of the Tempter – “I’ll define for you what faith in God is – and then you fit in with my version of faith…” and it would have been a complete abdication of responsibility on Jesus’ part had he done it. It wouldn’t have been trust, but infantile dependence, on the part of a grown man called to stand before God. Not the trust of a child, which Jesus tells us we need to see the kingdom of God, but a childish refusal by an adult to be an adult. And that’s not faith.

5

But what about Nicodemus? That’s an odd story. He comes to Jesus by night – and John doesn’t say that sort of thing by accident; Nicodemus’s night is a mental, spiritual  night of uncertainty and doubt – and Jesus tells him “You must be born…” – and the Greek word is anothen, which you could translate as “again” or “above”. What it means, though, in its context is clearly “You must be born into the life that God gives…” The life you have already is not enough. You need a different starting-point. And it’s entirely understandable that Nicodemus can make no sense of that. “Can a man go back into his mother’s womb?”

How can you just jump into a new life, just like that?

And his story just fades out at that point, with his question hanging in the air…

There’s a marvellous story about a train that stopped, unscheduled, at a small rural station in Cambridgeshire. A man took the opportunity of jumping on board, and the furious guard bore down on him. “Get off! Get off! This train doesn’t stop here!” Unfortunately for him, the rule-breaking passenger was a well-known Cambridge philosopher, who immediately shot back at him “Well, if the train doesn’t stop here, I can’t be on board, can I?”

There is, as they say, no answer to that. Or maybe there is: not a philosophical answer, but a theological one. If we are prepared to leap, God will sort it out. If we are prepared to go with God, to trust God, to leave where we are behind, we will land where we should be.

And the penny seems to drop – but not quite then. After a brief appearance, speaking up tentatively, but still bravely, for Jesus a few chapters later, Nicodemus is back at what seems like the end of the story. At the worst possible time to do it, the most dangerous and daunting time, with Jesus crucified, dead and about to be buried, when Joseph of Arimathea shows his side by offering his grave in the garden for the condemned man, Nicodemus, too, takes his leap, and shows his side. For Nicodemus, the leap of faith isn’t a blind one. It doesn’t involve denial of the risks. It involves a long hard look at the real world, and a big deep breath. And it involves real life. Not a magnificent, stupid stunt with your eyes closed, defying reality in the name of God. That isn’t what faith is, not for him, or for you, or for me.

Likewise, he Tempter invites Jesus to leap into the unknown, to see if God is there. God invites Abram to leap into the unknown on the promise that he is, and will be, there.

6

Every Sunday we come to this place, which is a place of complete, total acceptance. However, whyever we come, this is a God-given place, and time, and space, in which we belong – even if we don’t or can’t feel or know that, even if we can’t quite believe it. We come out of the complexities of our lives into the infinitely subtle simplicity of God’s peace in Jesus Christ. But we have to go back. And for all of us, going back, some days, leaving this peace and going back to real life in the real world, must seem like a huge leap. A jump off a cliff.

But for faith, going back into the world of daily life from a place of safety and security is always an act of trust in God. And in God’s commitment to us. We can’t stay here. So let’s go into real life with God.

That’s what faith is.

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