The notes for each of the Sundays in Lent are in three sections:
Notes on the lectionary readings - There is a brief background to each reading. I have had in mind especially lay preachers who may not have access to commentaries on the books of the Bible. Ministerial colleagues: you can no doubt find this information and much more in books on your own shelves.
The Sermon suggestions, giving a sketch of a way or ways you might develop thoughts that come from one or more of the readings for the day. They are intended to be a stimulus to you as you create your own sermon. Preaching is a highly individualistic, even an idiosyncratic art. The ideas and suggestions given may or may not accord well with your own style. In some cases you may react negatively to the suggestions (“I don’t agree with that!”). I hope that even such negative reactions might provoke you into developing your own line of thought.
The Prayers - As in the introduction to earlier sets of these notes, the prayers are intended to relate, though not necessarily directly, to the texts or themes for the day. They come from prayers I have myself used in conducting worship in recent times. Some of them are original, some have been adapted from sources now long forgotten, a few you may recognise as coming, with little alteration, from a prayer anthology well known to you. My hope is that you will not use these prayers exactly as they appear in these pages, but adapt them to your own style, to the events and concerns of the time, and to the needs of your own congregation.
These notes have been written during Advent 2003. An interesting exercise in living at one time in two contrasting seasons of the Christian year. I hope and pray that you will find them of help in preparing to lead other people in worship. Conducting worship is, as I have said previously, a holy, demanding, and privileged task. May God guide you and inspire you in it.
Lawrie Hampton, Advent 2003
Very Rev Lawrie Hampton
Deuteronomy 26: 1-11 On one level this passage outlines a ceremony of thanksgiving for the good fruits of the earth, setting the first fruits before the altar. The reference to a land flowing with milk and honey, and the instruction to rejoice in all the good which the Lord has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you - these have an obvious link with Harvest Thanksgiving as it is still celebrated today. But we can note that the focus of even this passage as not on the Creator and the good earth, but on God as the one who has delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, and has brought them out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders.
Psalm 91: 1-2, 9-16 It is not clear why the lectionary compilers ask us to disembowel this Psalm. The grand poetry of verses 3-8 are part of the context in which God offers protection to those who live in the shelter of the Most High. “By virtue of the soaring energy of [this Psalm’s] trust in God it leaves behind every earthly fear, every human doubt, and all inhibiting considerations, and lifts man up above the depressing realities of life to the hopeful certitude of a faith which enables him to endure life and to master it.” (Artur Weiser)
Romans 10: 8-13 Chapters 9 to 11 of Romans are a complex and sometimes obscure treatment by Paul of Jewish unbelief and its consequences. These verses play their part in the advancing of Paul’s argument, but they appear in the lectionary rather because they re-state in fine phrases some of the writer’s central teachings: salvation by faith, belief in the resurrection of Christ as an act of God, and, in a quotation from Joel, an assurance of salvation for everyone who calls on the name of the Lord. (Joel 2:32)
Luke 4: 1-13 This is seen by some as a strictly factual account of a forty-day ordeal of our Lord at the outset of his ministry, and a verbal conversation with Satan, the personification of evil, which must have been told by Jesus to his disciples at some later date. Others say that it must be purely symbolic, a dramatic and colourful way of expressing the inner struggle of Jesus in determining and fulfilling his calling as Messiah – a struggle that must have taken place not just at one finite time in his ministry, but would have continued until his death. In this case the story might have had its origins not in the life of Jesus, but in the teaching of the church in its early days. Others, perhaps most, take up one of many positions between these extremes. The preacher may want to mention these various ways of understanding the text; but the important question is not “What happened?” but “What did all of this mean to those who wrote it down, and what does it mean to us?”
The common approach to a sermon on the temptations of our Lord is to take each of Satan’s propositions in turn, and examine what it would have meant for Jesus’ ministry had he followed that particular path and why he rejected it. Then the sermon would look at how each particular temptation relates to the life of Christian people and/or the church in our own day. This provides a neat three-pronged sermon, which, however, might either be over-long, or allow only for a cursory examination of each of the temptations. Besides, it is a sermon that has been preached on the first Sunday in Lent innumerable times!
Another approach is to notice how, according to the Gospel chronology, the temptations follow hard on Jesus’ baptism, where the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son….” Luke 3: 21-22. Jesus returns from the Jordan full of the Holy Spirit. But the Spirit leads him not, as we might expect, to a period of powerful proclamation of the Gospel with signs and wonders, but to a wilderness of fasting and confrontation and questioning of his calling. If you are the Son of God – these are the words with which Satan begins two of his propositions to our Lord. If … if… Seeds of doubt are sown, not only about how Jesus will go about his ministry, but more radically, about whether he even has a ministry as Son of God/Messiah.
What a contrast!: that glorious moment at the Jordan, the vision of the Spirit, the divine voice sounding in his ears, You are my Son, with you I am well pleased; and the drear desert, the hunger, the wild beasts (Mark) and the beguiling voice of the tempter.
A sermon might go on to notice that following the terrible wilderness experience the devil departs but only until an opportune time, or in the REB translation, biding his time.
Now, Luke tells us, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. So now he meets with success? For a time, but Luke’s narrative then leads straight on to his rejection in his own home town of Nazareth….
If you saw the film The Last Temptation of Christ, (or can hire the video) you might like to refer to it, and especially the scene where our Lord on the cross finds himself wishing that he had lived an ordinary life, a quiet, safe domestic life like other people … then the dream fades, and the horror of the cross returns.
Luke has his own way of linking Jesus’ temptations and the cross. One of the thieves crucified with him says, Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us. It’s the same question: If you are the Messiah…. In Matthew’s Gospel, the onlookers taunt the crucified Christ: If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.
It’s clear that for our Lord temptation, testing, was not confined to forty days in the wilderness. In Gethsemane (Let this cup pass from me) and on the cross (My God, why have you forsaken me?) Matthew 27: 40
If for our Lord his ministry was not a chronicle of uninterrupted “successes” we need not be surprised that for his people faith is constantly being tested and challenged.
Eternal God, you promise to those who are tried and tested in lifethe presence and the support of Jesus Christ,the one who knew trials and temptations as we do.We pray for those who find it hard to live up to the faith they holdand the principles that they profess.We pray for people who are under pressure to compromise,to give in to the urgings of friends and colleagues,to succumb to their own insistent desires.We pray for people who look for quick and shallow satisfactions,and find no deep enduring serenity of spirit.Lord God, make them – and us – strong to stand firmfor all that is true, noble, just, pure, lovable and gracious. excellent and admirable,strong in the strength that your Spirit gives.
We remember in your presence people around the world,
people in all their diversity, who together are your Church in the world.
Especially we pray for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand,
and its partner churches,
and for this congregation.
Lord God, strengthen your people to be patient and steadfast
to resist every temptation to look for shallow answers to deep questions,
all temptation to put first among their goals
material success, popular acclaim, or power over others.
May we and all your people be ready to live with our Lord
as servants in the world, living out the love that he puts into us.
We pray for people whose faith and hope and love are strained
by the pain they endure, by the waning of their physical or mental powers,
by the hardness of heart of people around them,
or by whatever private grief or anxiety they are bearing …
Strengthen our faith, God our Father, enrich our love, enliven our hope,
and empower us to serve you cheerfully
among those who live and work around us every day
as people of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Very Rev Lawrie Hampton
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18 Walter Brueggemann says that “this chapter is pivotal for the Abraham tradition. Theologically, it is probably the most important chapter of this entire collection. It has been judged by many scholars to be the oldest statement of Abrahamic faith, from which the others are derivative. It has been utilised by Paul in a distinctive way for his great teaching on justification by faith. There is no doubt that this chapter offers crucial resources for the themes of faith and covenant.”
Verses 13-16, omitted by the lectionary, are widely agreed to be an interpolation. The original narrative moved directly from Abraham’s sleep to the appearance of God in the smoking fire pot and the flaming torch, and to the covenant God makes with Abraham.
Psalm 27 This is a psalm of two parts. It may originally have been two separate songs, for both the mood and the metre change after verse 6. The first half glows with enthusiasm and confidence – the writer knows no fear, despite the dangers around him. From verses 7 there is earnest searching for God, and the writer pleads that God will not abandon him to his enemies. In the closing lines, faith is overcoming fear.
Philippians 3:17 to 4:1 Philippians is a warmly personal letter, written from prison, in which Paul tells his readers about the coming visit of Timothy, and to assure them of his warm appreciation of their concern for him and their generosity to him. He tries to assure them that his imprisonment has turned out for the furtherance of the Gospel, and urges them to be united and faithful in the face of persecution. The words joy and rejoice occur often.
This passage warns against enemies of the cross of Christ, reminds them of where their deepest loyalty lies, and urges them to be steadfast in the Lord.
Luke 13: 31-35 We don’t know whether the Pharisees who brought the message of Herod’s plans were well-disposed towards Jesus and wanted to save him from the Tetrarch’s wrath, or, on the other hand, were used by Herod to get Jesus out of his territory. Either way, he rejects the warning, calls Herod that fox, and speaks of his determination to finish my work. T W Manson (The Sayings of Jesus) says that the word “fox” typifies low cunning… and is used in contrast to “lion” to describe an insignificant third-rate person. So Jesus’ words are a double insult to the Tetrarch.
The lament over Jerusalem and the deep sense of frustration and disappointment in Jesus that prompted it is similar to the tears that he shed over the city when he entered it on Palm Sunday. Both express a warm compassion for the city and its people, a bitter sorrow that they had rejected God’s purposes, and foretell future destruction. Your house is left to you suggests that the glory of God will depart from the temple and move elsewhere. Compare John 2:19: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” … He was speaking of the temple of his body.
Ask the congregation how their faith is. Invite them to think for a moment about their faith and the shape that it’s in. Is it even-keel, unvarying, or does it have its lurches, its ups and downs, days when it vanishes, and days when it’s robust? Some say faith should always be rock-solid. They claim that if you are sometimes disturbed by awkward questions, and are not satisfied with pat answers, the “right” answers, then you faith is weak and inferior.
I’ve sometimes wistfully thought that life would be easier and more comfortable (and my sermons would be more dogmatic!) if there were smooth, definite, straightforward answers to the deep questions about God, life and its meaning, sorrow and tragedy, eternity…. Many years ago I tried to say something about this in a sermon, and an eager young man came rushing up to me after the service, told me that he was dreadfully upset to think that there were uncertainties in my faith, was concerned for the state of my soul, and enthusiastically offered to lead me to a rock-solid certainty. How do you think I responded? What would you have said?
In Genesis 15, in conversation with God, Abraham was told not to be afraid: his reward was great. The only reward Abraham wanted was an heir – and that had been promised three chapters and probably a decade earlier, and he told God so….
The sermon might go on to tell of God taking Abraham out of his tent and showing him the shimmering stars of the night sky. An experience for him of the glory of God, perhaps? Anyway, Abraham, we’re told, trusted God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.
For Abraham, faith was a struggle, as it was for many of the great men of God in the First Testament…. Immediately after that holy moment under the stars, God promises that the land he stands on will be his possession. And Abraham responds, “How can I know (be sure – REB) that I will possess it?” A brittle faith indeed.
Clearly, today’s Psalm (27) reflects a faith that doesn’t come easily.
Today’s Gospel reading, like last Sunday’s account of the testing of Jesus, the agony in Gethsemane, make it clear that faith for Jesus was not smooth, easy, and untroubled.
Nor is faith easy for us in today’s world. Faith needs to be rugged and resilient. So we are reminded that our hope and our peace and our life depend not on our battered and tattered faith, but on the good purposes of a holy, just, and loving God….
Call to Worship
God is with us now. There is no place where God is not. Wherever we go, there God is.
Now and always God surrounds us and looks on us with mercy,
and is ready to hear us when we call.
So let us worship God.
We honour God in this act of worship.
We seek to honour God in everything we say and do
today and every day.
We honour you, God eternal, Creator and Father.
We honour you, Jesus the Christ, Lord and Saviour.
We honour you, Holy Spirit of God, helper and guide.
Glory be God, Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit of life.
Eternal God, you have set before us in Jesus Christ
the true way of life, full life, eternal life.
Though we may go against what we know is your will for us;
though we may forget you, neglect you, and leave you out of our life;
though we may be too blind to see our own sin,
and too proud to admit it;
and though our attempts to put things right
may be half-hearted and fruitless:
we know that you never forget us,
and that the forgiving, restoring love that you hold out to us in Jesus Christ
never comes to an end.
God of gentle strength, close to us in our joys and in our sorrows,
dispel our gloom, take away our despair, kindle our hope,
and give to us and to all your people a song of joy and a shout of praise
as people of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
[In writing these prayers it was intended that the parts in bold type
would be spoken by the congregation.]
Very Rev Lawrie Hampton
Isaiah 55: 1-9 Chapters 40 – 55 of our Book of Isaiah are by a different author, writing at a later time, than chapters 1-39. This writer, known as the second Isaiah (deutero-Isaiah), probably wrote at the time when the exile in Babylon was coming to an end. Deutero-Isaiah writes “a poem about God’s relationship to his ‘Servant’ Israel, in whom he has determined to glorify himself.” (George A F Knight, 'Servant Theology').
NRSV entitles this chapter 'An Invitation to Abundant Life'. It is an assurance the God will provide for the needs of the people on their return from exile – as in Is 41: 18: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. On another level it speaks of the Lord as the one who supplies their every need.
Psalm 63: 1-8 This Psalm uses similar imagery to that we have met in Is 55. Its writer seems to be remote from the sanctuary where he has worshipped in the past, and yearns for a sense of God’s presence. He looks for his satisfaction to God. The final three verses, properly omitted by the lectionary, seem to have been added by another hand at a later date, and do not sit well with the rich devotion and gratitude of verses 1-8. A Psalm to have the congregation at worship say together.
1 Corinthians 10: 1-13 Headed in the NRSV Warnings from Israel’s History this passage continues the topic of discipline in the face of temptation that Paul was dealing with at the end of chapter 9. Now he reminds his readers of the story of Israel (our ancestors) who, although they were brought through the sea (at the Exodus) and baptised into Moses, all eating the same spiritual food and drinking the same spiritual drink, yet many turned to idolatry and sexual immorality. Let this be a warning to you, he tells his readers; and adds a tart word to the self righteous (vs 12) and an assurance that God is faithful, not allowing his people to be tempted beyond their strength.
Luke 13: 1-9. Although some writers have tried to identify the particular atrocity by Pilate that Jesus’ questioners were alluding to, they have come to no unanimous conclusion. But the implied question put to Jesus is a loaded one: This event gave some of them an opportunity to tempt our Lord. They sent the report to him to see what he would answer. For if he said “This killing is a clear case of injustice and oppression,” they would then defame him before the Roman governor, claiming that he was overstepping the law and that his teaching violated that same Roman Law. (Ibn al-Salibi, quoted by Kenneth Bailey. 'Through Peasant Eyes', p 76). On the other hand, to appear to condone Pilate’s action would have enraged patriotic Israelites. He instead directs their attention to their own position: Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. The parable about the unproductive fruit tree may be more than a moral exhortation to a fruitful personal life on the part of his hearers. The tree may represent the scribes and chief priests, and it is their inability to bear fruit for God that is the point of the parable (compare Isaiah 5: 1-7).
(Based on Isaiah 55: 1-9)
I read some time ago part of a letter written by a young woman working in Afghanistan for an international aid organisation. She wrote:
Afghani people are quite wonderful. Ridiculously polite, respectful, and hospitable….
The plight of these people, who asked for none of this (the civil war going on around them) seems almost hopeless…. I cannot imagine how dire the suffering is for most people. I have never seen people who are so desperately hungry. The shells echo in the mountains to remind everyone that there is a war going on. Their stomachs rumble to remind them that there is a famine.
In villages where there is no food people offer me (a visitor) bread, tea, and a makeshift meal.
Everyone else looks on. We talk about the problems they face, but their eyes are focused on the food I eat. I can promise them nothing, but they believe that my visit has given them hope. What can I say?
The problem of hunger in a world of plenty has been with us for many decades. We are used to it, perhaps inured to it. It’s an economic and political problem of long standing. But it’s also a problem about people – people who never have enough to eat, are chronically undernourished, catch diseases, and die. So we have the awful paradox of this young woman eating the bread that had been hospitably offered to her, so that she could not possibly have declined it, and at the same time aware that the eyes of all around her were watching not her, but those crumbs of bread – watching longingly, hungrily.
The offer of wine and milk without money and without price in Isaiah 55: is the reference to physical food for the body? The people would need that on their long journey home from exile. Or is it about spiritual food? We can be sure that when the people heard these words of the second Isaiah, they would think of the journey their ancestors had made, centuries before, and how God had provided for their needs. The people on neither journey would have asked whether the promise of nourishment referred to refreshment booths along the way, or the provision of their deep spiritual needs. One without the other would be unthinkable. No one could be completely human without both. When Jesus gave food to five thousand it was because their bellies were empty. But in John’s Gospel the story of feeding the crowd leads straight into Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life…”
Our bodies are not simply a necessary (and perhaps regrettable) container for the spirit within. We are people, with bodies that are a walking wonder, minds with breathtaking capacity, and a spiritual dimension without which we are less than human.
A sermon would need to go on to 'earth' this with references to ways in which the church in general and your church in particular says to men and women, Come to the waters, and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money, without price….
God eternal, Maker of all things, we thank you for this world of plenty,
with food sufficient for all who live in it.
May we be caring and compassionate people, people of Jesus Christ,
who do what we can to bring food to the hungry
and help to the needy.
Stir us by your Spirit to work for that day
when the earth’s bounty is justly and equitably shared,
and the people of the world live in lasting peace together.
We remember the words of our Lord, that we do not live by bread alone.
We pray that your church around the world will be faithful,
proclaiming in its teaching and its preaching your love in Jesus Christ,
and also reflecting that love in its life and work.
Quietly, we think of people who are especially dear to us, near or far away,
grateful for the love that binds us to one another, eager to nurture that love,
and anxious that they will live each day in peace and safety,
led by your Spirit in ways of honour and of Christian grace
with Jesus Christ our Lord.
you have fed us with bread for body and spirit.
Let the grace of Jesus Christ be in us,
enabling us to share cheerfully with others
what you have given to us.
Renew our vision, and strengthen our trust in you
as we dedicate ourselves again to our calling
as the people of Jesus Christ.
Very Rev Lawrie Hampton
Joshua 5: 9-12 The lectionary delicately omits the first part of this chapter, which tells in some detail of the circumcision of those born during the forty years of the Exodus. Both the mass circumcision and the celebration of the Passover represent a new stage of the Israelites’ journey, now that the produce of the land is available to them, and the supply of manna has ceased. Gilgal comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to roll”; it is the name of several locations; it “is used generally for a circle of stones having religious significance.”
Psalm 32 Like Psalm 51, this penitential Psalm is by tradition attributed to David following his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. Whether or not this is so, it describes the joy
of those who are forgiven, and teaches us that penitence is the condition on which forgiveness is granted. It is said to have been a favourite of Augustine, “who often read this Psalm with weeping heart and eyes, and, before his death had it written on the wall which was over against his sick-bed, so that he might be exercised and comforted by it in his sickness.” Luther called it one of the Pauline Psalms.
2 Corinthians 5: 16-21 One of the best-known passages in all of Paul’s writings. Lyrical and passionate, it enshrines a number of doctrines central to his teaching: the idea of being in Christ, and its consequences; reconciliation with God as occurring on God’s own initiative; forgiveness of sin; the call to be ambassadors for Christ in his work of reconciliation; and the atoning work of Christ, the bearer of our sins.
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32 The lectionary reading gives us the general introduction to three of our Lord’s parables, and then the longest and most complex of the three, the Prodigal Son, or as Helmut Thielicke memorably called it, the Parable of the Waiting Father. This parable, so well known, is full of hidden treasures. I am grateful to Kenneth Bailey for his exposition of the parable in his twin books, Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes, published together as one volume in 1983. I was introduced to this book a few years ago now, and I wish that I had had it available during the years of my parish ministry. To anyone studying or preaching on the Gospel according to Luke, and in particular on its parables, this is an invaluable companion.
Is there anything more to be said about the parable of the prodigal son? When this passage appeared in the lectionary several years ago, Shirley Fergusson and I decided to present it in a different way. We both did a careful study of Kenneth Bailey’s work on the parable, and spent some time working out what we would do with it in sermon time. On the Sunday she took the part of the younger son, and I of the older son. Sermon time was devoted to an unscripted (but carefully prepared!) dramatic presentation of what the two brothers might have said to each other when the party was over, and their father had retired. We managed to work up considerable passion! We also made sure that our presentation shed light on the parable and on what it says to us who read it.
Another year, I wrote a “television” interview with the father and his two sons. This was presented to the congregation in sermon time, fully scripted this time, with members of the congregation playing the four parts. They sat at a table in front of the congregation. They had the script in front of them, but were encouraged to be familiar enough with it to be able to lift their heads and play the part as well as read the words.
Again, the script was indebted to Kenneth Bailey’s work, and was contrived with a view to informing, enlightening and edifying the congregation, and not simply entertaining them!
Here is the first part of the script as a sample:
Interviewer: Welcome to the Happy Families show.
On this programme each week we bring to you our viewers the story of a family that has come through the tensions and troubles that are part of life together for every household.
It's our privilege to look in each week on a family in strife and difficulty.
Sometimes the story ends in tragedy and heartbreak; sometimes it ends in success and happiness;
most often there is no ending: the story is still unfolding, as family life always is.
This week, we hear from their own lips, the story of a father and his two sons.
A story of rebellion and defiance, a story of wild living and abject poverty, a story of....
but the three people concerned are with me here to tell their own story.
I'm glad to introduce Reuben ben Issachar (Father stands and bows),
his older son Nathan (stands and bows) and his young brother Benjamin. (stands and bows)
(To Reuben) Sir, you have lived on your land all your days and tried to bring up your boys as a responsible father should?
R: I have always tried to rear my sons as a good father in Israel ought to do.
They have learnt from me the great traditions of our people, and I have tried to teach them
and to set them the example of living according to the law of the scriptures -
to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.
I: As youngsters, they were good boys?
R: They were boys! They had their moments. There were childhood escapades, there were squabbles and scrapes that brought anxiety and pain to me and to their mother. Sometimes my sons filled my heart with pride, sometimes I despaired of them, sometimes I had to discipline them. That's how it is with children.
I: Were the two of them alike?
R: Alike? Never! I often found it hard to believe that they could have been born of the same parents. Chalk and cheese. Nathan here was always the quiet, reserved, polite, obedient one. But Benjamin? - always full of life and mischief, bubbling, fun-loving, ambitious; yes, and rebellious. Whatever I said, he’d want to question it. He'd argue about anything and everything.
I: So Nathan was your favourite even back in those early days?
R: Certainly not. They are both my sons. My wife and I always took great trouble to treat them even-handedly..... We'd not let Benjamin with his noise and liveliness put Nathan in the shade.... And we tried not to favour Nathan because he was so mild and easy to manage....
And so on. I hope this is enough to encourage some readers to prepare something of their own,
Full Script of 'The Story of a Loving Father'
For opening worship
We worship you, our God.
You are our God: there is no other for us to worship.
You are our God, our life and our hope, our peace, and our joy.
With heart and mind, with our voices and with the spirit deep within us we worship you.
You know us, eternal God. You know us, better than we know ourselves.
You know us, deep in our inner being.
If we have hurt other people, spoiling their joy in living, depriving them of peace and hope;
if we have done harm to our own inner life, if we have neglected you, our one faithful God,
you know it all.
And still you love us!
You reach out to forgive us, to welcome us, to make us what in your grace you want us to be.
Creator God, all that is good is your gift to us.
Help us to be honest in our thinking, joyful in our giving, warm and tender in compassion.
Help us to bear no grudges, to forget past hurts,
remembering the good that has been done to us and for us.
Help us, God our Father, to live as loyal followers of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Very Rev Lawrie Hampton
Isaiah 43: 16-21 The second Isaiah writes as the exile in Babylon is coming to its end, The preceding verses (14-15) speak of the coming fall of Babylon. God will break down the bars of the captivity for your sake. Our passage first reminds the people of the mighty acts of God in rescuing his people from slavery in Egypt, and goes on to promise that God will do a new thing, even more marvellous than that Exodus, bringing the people this time not through the sea, but through the terrible wilderness that lies between the people and their homeland.
Psalm 126 “Psalms 120 -134 …are known as Songs of Ascents, that is, ‘songs for the way up’ to Jerusalem. These songs were sung by members of the Covenant people who either wanted to make the ‘ascent’ to Jerusalem, which lies about 2300 feet above sea level, in order to attend one of the covenant festivals, or were pilgrims who were already on the way up or had even reached the great outer gate of the Temple.” (George A F Knight: The Daily Study Bible: Psalms, Volume II)
In this Psalm, the event that was promised in our Isaiah reading is remembered and celebrated with great joy. The second half of the Psalm recognises that the return of the exiles is not complete, and prays for their safe return; it may also reflect the difficulties being experienced by the returned people in rebuilding their life in their homeland. It looks to a joyous completion of the process.
Philippians 3: 4-14 The lectionary has us reading during Lent a pot-pourri of apparently unconnected selections from Paul’s letters. Today we return to the letter to the Philippians, to the chapter before that from which we read on the second Sunday in Lent. In the NRSV and NIV (as in the Greek) this reading begins in the middle of a sentence! – but not in the REB or GNB. Paul outlines the grounds on which – if such a claim was valid - he could claim to have earned God’s favour. But he insists that such claims are totally invalid. Indeed, his history as an orthodox Jew and Pharisee, and his zeal and his righteousness are irrelevant – indeed he regards them as rubbish (NRSV, REB, NIV) or garbage (GNB). The Greek word means refuse or dung. One commentator suggests an appropriate translation would be muck. Whatever, it’s a strong word with which to contrast his former religion with the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ my Lord.
John 12: 1-8 In Mark’s Gospel (14: 3-9) we read of an unnamed woman who breaks open an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and with it anoints Jesus’ head. This takes place when our Lord is at table in the home of Simon the leper, in Bethany, and there are anonymous protests that the ointment was wasted and could have been sold and the proceeds used for the poor. Matthew (26: 6-13) tells the same story, but here it is the disciples who are angry about the waste. Luke (7: 36-50) has a similar story, set at the house of Simon, who is described as a Pharisee. The woman, delicately described as a woman in the city who was a sinner, anoints not Jesus’ head but his feet, and bathes them in her tears. The objection in Luke’s story is not about extravagance, but, coming from Simon the host, is a complaint that if Jesus were a prophet he’d have known about the woman’s unsavoury reputation, and in response Jesus tells a story, and the account closes on the subject of the relationship between love and forgiveness.
In today’s lection, John’s version, the woman is Mary of Bethany, and here, as in Matthew and Mark, but not in Luke, Jesus relates the anointing to his coming death.
Scholars are still not agreed as to the relationship between these stories, whether they are all versions of the one incident, or relate to two or three different but similar events.
In John’s Gospel, we are told the value of the perfume: three hundred denarii. The NRSV in a footnote says that 300 denarii would be nearly a year’s wages for a labourer. It’s impossible to convert this into our money value, but it would have to be many thousands of our dollars. In John’s version it’s Judas Iscariot who raises objections about the extravagance and says the money could have been used for the poor. It is no accident that the narrative goes straight on to tell of the plot to kill our Lord. The woman’s extravagance and Judas’s meanness of spirit form a stark contrast.
Undeniably, Judas had a point. Mary’s was an extravagant act, by any standard. A sermon might make something of the contrast between Mary’s gross extravagance – not only the cost of it, but that while, like Chanel No 5, only the merest dab is needed, Mary impetuously pours a whole jar of it on Jesus. Caught up in a flood of warm-hearted gratitude and devotion, she performs this grossly extravagant act for the one who has done so much for her. Undoubtedly the poor people of Bethany could have been helped by a gift of this amount of money. But contrast on the one hand the cold, calculating, bean-counting attitude of Judas, reducing everything to dollars (denarii) and, on the other hand, the unbounded enthusiasm of Mary, pouring out her heart and perfume equally lavishly in a deed that no one can ever account for in the coinage of any country.
The house was filled with the fragrance – as indeed it would be, in such quantity. But this is also speaking, in the manner of the fourth Gospel, of the fragrance of Mary’s deed. It is the equivalent of Mark’s She has done a beautiful thing to me (Mk 14:6 NIV; the NRSV has She has performed a good service for me, which sounds inappropriately pedestrian in the context; It is a fine thing she has done for me (REB)). The Hebrew Scriptures have several passages where God is pleased with the soothing odour, a sweet savour that rises from the earth. Whenever the ancient writers use this image, it is always in connection with an offering made to God. There is an element of beauty and fragrance about God’s relationship with his people. You might like to ask what kind of fragrance ascends to God from our offering of worship.
All the four accounts of the anointing of Jesus see it as pointing forward to Jesus’ death, as does our observance of this season of Lent. Lesslie Newbigin, in 'The Light has Come – An exposition of the Fourth Gospel' writes: “The reply of Jesus (v. 7) is not easy to interpret. Mary cannot keep for his burial what she has already poured out. The words can have the sense, ‘It was that she might keep it for the day of my burial,’ and this seems to be the meaning. Mary has not given this to the poor, but has kept it for an act which is a true expression of love and concern. As Mark has it: ‘She has anointed my body beforehand for burying.’” . . .. To set alms for the poor over against devotion to Jesus is to miss the real motive for Christian discipleship. Devotion to Jesus and gratitude for his service will lead in fact to a service of the poor (which will always be needed) in a manner quite different from a legally required almsgiving. It will be in fact part of the fragrance of the gospel which is destined to fill the whole world.”
Call to worship.
The skies above us tell of the glory of God. The world around us shows the wisdom of God.
Jesus the Christ brings to us the beauty of God’s love and care.
Let us worship God.
Prayer We worship you, God eternal, our Father.
We honour you, maker of everything good.
Your love, declared to us in Jesus Christ – his life, his teaching, his suffering, his death,
his risen presence with us, his grace, beyond our deserving, bringing freedom and life.
For it all, we honour you, Lord God. We give ourselves to worship you in spirit and in truth.
You have done great things for us, eternal God, in the history of our nation,
and in the chronicle of our own life.
We have received so much that is good and beautiful, bringing colour to our life, and joy to our heart;
your goodness and your mercy, following us all the days of our life.
You have been with us, deepening our delights, multiplying our joys,
giving to us patience and hope and strength in our troubles.
We know that sometimes in our joy we forget that all that is good in our life is your gift to us;
and sometimes in our sorrows and our difficulties we can be resentful and full of complaints . . .
Here, in this quiet time we remember again, that though we may forget you,
you do not forget us, and your forgiving love never comes to an end.
We ask you for a stout heart, to bear our own burdens, a tender heart to bear the burdens of others,
and a trusting heart to share our burdens with you, our eternal Father, for you care for us.
In warm-hearted love, and in whole-hearted worship, may we always serve you our God
in the name and the spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Very Rev Lawrie Hampton
These notes are based on the lectionary readings for Palm Sunday
Isaiah 50: 4-9 The word “servant” doesn’t appear in this passage, but it bears a strong resemblance to the other “servant songs” in Deutero-Isaiah. (For this term see the notes for 14 March). The speaker in this poem is that ideal character, dedicated to the Lord, who appears in the other servant songs: Is 42: 1-4, 49: 1-6; 52:13 to 53:15. The notion of the servant as one who suffers is introduced here (verse 6), and worked out more fully in the last and best known of the servant songs. The servant learns from God in order to teach others (vs 4 & 5), and when this brings persecution he takes insults and humiliation without retaliating, indeed bares his back to the lash, and offering his cheek to those who inflict on him the ultimate humiliation – pulling out the hairs of his beard. He puts his trust in the eternal God to vindicate him.
Psalm 118: 1-2, 18-29 Luther said that this was his favourite Psalm. He said, “This is my Psalm which I love – for truly it has deserved well of me many a time, and has delivered me from many a sore affliction when neither the Emperor nor kings nor the wise nor the cunning nor the saints were able or willing to help me.” (Quoted in Weiser’s commentary on the Psalms.) Weiser goes on, “The psalm is powerful testimony to the strength of faith that flows from the direct experience of the help of God and in gratitude and joyful surrender to him is able to overcome all human afflictions and fears.”
This part of the psalm was evidently chosen for Palm Sunday for its references to the opening of the gates of righteousness, the cry Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, and to the festal procession.
Philippians 2: 5-11 One of the best known and most frequently quoted passages from Paul’s letters. It is thought that Paul might have been quoting an early Christian hymn. As it stands, this is a summary of Paul’s understanding of the person of Christ. It seems a pity that the lectionary has us omit the first four verses of the chapter, which introduce this poem, and which outline some of the qualities that ought to be found in those people who heed the injunction to let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Luke 19: 28-40 or John 12: 12-18 The lectionary this week gives us the luxury of choosing either Luke’s or John’s version of the events of Palm Sunday. The event is described in all four Gospels. John’s version differs in some respects from the others: he has already told us in chapter 11 that the raising of Lazarus from death has led many to put their faith in Jesus, it has also reinforced the determination of the authorities to have him done away with. Now (v 9) they determine to do away with both Jesus the giver of life, and Lazarus, whose life was given back to him. For John this is not (as in the other Gospels) Jesus’ first coming to Jerusalem. John does not tell us of the elaborate arrangements (reported in detail by the other writers) for obtaining the ass for Jesus to ride on. Only John tells us that the crowd had palm branches. Only he explains that at the time the disciples did not understand what Jesus had done, but that it became clear to them later. And John alone tells us of the despair of the Pharisees: You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!
Palm branches were a symbol of victory and rejoicing after war. The quotation from Zechariah (9:9, but read also v 10) makes it clear that the king comes not only in humility, but more importantly as one who brings peace to the nations. Both the crowds who cheered and the authorities who plotted misunderstood totally the nature of Jesus’ Messiahship.
To tell the truth, it was not much of a procession. A gaggle of nondescript men from the countryside, a few fishermen, a former tax-collector, a handful of assorted hangers-on, a group of women, wending their way into the city. With a man riding a donkey. Nothing at all compared, say, to a detachment of Caesar’s troops marching into Jerusalem, drums beating, bugles blowing, drawn lances glinting in the sunshine. Now, there was a spectacle to strike fear into the heart of any Jew who had rebellious thoughts against the might of imperial Rome.
You can’t imagine anyone feeling threatened by this disorganised rabble, even though there were people lining the road, waving branches in the air and cheering them on. And their leader? That man on the donkey was no one special. A village carpenter, people said, a carpenter turned travelling preacher and healer, someone from a small rural village that city people made jokes about: Nazareth. Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?
No, even though there were shouts that claimed this man was some kind of king, Caesar in his imperial palace in Rome could sleep peacefully, and even his local representative, Pontius Pilate wasn’t likely to have to call out the guard to deal with this lot.
A king on a plodding donkey? Yes, he was cheered on by his followers, and welcomed by others who knew little about him except that it was said he had performed miracles, even brought a man back from death. So yes, they shouted their heads off. It would have been a great relief to this man’s followers to bellow their cheers of excitement. It would be a welcome change from the doom and gloom talk they’d been hearing over the last week or two… But if Governor Pilate had leaned out his window and seen it, it was such a poor, ramshackle affair that it wouldn’t have troubled him. In Dorothy Sayers’ Man Born to be King plays, she has Pilate and his wife coming across the procession as they drive through the streets in their chariot. They stop for a look. Pilate says, “Looks harmless enough. Not a very distinguished following, I must say.” His wife replies, “Oh, Caius, it’s pretty. Look at the little children! Aren’t they sweet?” And so with their platitudes they dismiss this silly procession, and this peasant, Jesus, whom his poor followers were calling a king. Pilate could never have guessed that this caricature of a king would be remembered, honoured, and loved and served by millions twenty centuries on into history. And he could never have guessed that he, a senior officer of the great Roman Empire with wide authority, would have a place in history for one thing only: for the part he played in the judicial execution of this carpenter/prophet/king.
That’s the way a Palm Sunday sermon might begin. Enough, I hope, to get you going in your own direction!
Call to worship
This is Palm Sunday.
On this day Jesus rode into Jerusalem, and was greeted by cheering crowds waving palm branches.
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the heavens!
Lord God, great in your mystery, deeper than we can fathom, more glorious than we can imagine.
always the same in your holiness and your grace:
we lift to you mind, heart, and spirit, and offer ourselves to you
in these words and songs of worship.
Lord Jesus Christ, as you once entered Jerusalem, meek and humble,
so you come every day to lives that are open to your coming.
King of peace, Man of sorrows, crucified Saviour, living Lord, we welcome you,
we honour you, we trust you, we love you, today and every day. Amen.
You see us, eternal God, here at worship. You know us. You know why we are here today.
You know the secret thoughts and feelings we have brought with us to this place of worship.
You know us. And you go on loving us. So we make no excuses. We do not pretend.
We hold nothing back from you. We are glad that we can be ourselves in your presence;
glad that you accept us, welcome us, that you love us and freely forgive us
in the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Lord Jesus Christ, we follow you today along the road thick with many palms and loud with many cheers.
We see you striding resolutely along the shadowed pathway of this holy week
to be betrayed, tried, crucified, and killed.
Make us brave to walk with you, loved and forgiven, ready to grow in trust, understanding and humility.
Teach us, as we share this week with you, how to love, and how to forgive.
Lord Jesus Christ, be with me today, and bring me, bring us all, through life’s hard times
to the victory you have won.
May I know joy with you and with your people for ever. Amen.
Very Rev Lawrie Hampton
For most of my parish ministry years, we had a service at 7 pm each evening in Holy Week including Saturday (Easter Eve), but not on Good Friday, when we had a morning service.
These were short services – strictly not more than 30 minutes. We never had great crowds attending, but those who did come often expressed warm appreciation. Services comprised two hymns, one or more readings, brief prayers, and a reflection. Often the theme for the service would be determined by the events of that particular day in our Lord’s last week on earth (see table below). There are other possibilities: one year I took one of the characters from the Gospel narratives and each evening told some of the events of the week as seen by that person, and in their “own” words – so Peter, Pilate, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, a Roman Centurion told us about what they had seen, heard, and felt. You need to use some imagination, but it’s also important to keep close to what is told us in the Gospel narratives.
In 1935 The Church of Scotland published 'Prayers for the Christian Year', which includes a service for each day in Holy Week. My edition was published in 1954, and I suppose other ageing ministers have a copy on their shelves, although no doubt the book is long out of print. The language of worship in it is, of course, hopelessly outdated; but the ideas of the prayers can be adapted to contemporary use. The limited lectionary included is still useful, and the outline of events of Holy Week is valuable. The table below is abstracted from Prayers for the Christian Year.
Monday Our Lord returned from Bethany to Jerusalem, cursed the barren fig tree, went into the temple and cleansed its courts.
Tuesday He spoke the parables of the two sons, the wicked tenants, the marriage feast, the ten virgins, and the talents. He answered the questions of the Pharisees Sadducees and a lawyer. He foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and the last judgement.
Wednesday Jesus remained at Bethany, while Judas was bargaining with the chief priests to betray him.
Thursday He went to Jerusalem. In the evening he in the upstairs room he washed the feet of the disciples, instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, spoke words of peace and strength, promised the coming of the Holy Spirit, and prayed for the unity of his people. In the garden of Gethsemane he endured agony. He was betrayed by Judas and arrested and taken away.
Good Friday Jesus was tried, whipped, mocked and condemned to death. He was led out to Calvary and crucified. He spoke from the cross the seven “words”, and died/
Saturday Joseph of Arimathea has Jesus laid in his own new tomb, and a guard is posted.
Over the page is the Good Friday service we used in St Stephen’s, Hamilton South, three years ago. This is the whole service – there was no spoken introduction, no sermon or “reflection”. We set up the lectern at the back of the church, behind the congregation, and asked one of our best readers to do all the readings. The congregation could not see her. So the first words of the service were “After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden…. (John 18:1 etc)
I have included the words of introduction that were in the printed order of service, because they were the only indication to the congregation of the form of the service. As minister for the day, I led the prayers.
*Welcome to this quiet time of remembering.
This morning, we are there as they crucify our Lord.
This experience may, as the song says, make us tremble.
It may also lift our hearts in renewed gratitude, love and devotion to our Lord.
*In this service we follow the narrative of our Lord’s suffering and death
as it is written chapters 18 and 19 of the Gospel according to John.
Hymns, readings and prayers will not be announced.
Please stand for the hymns as soon as the music begins.
*In the quiet time before the service begins, you can make your own prayers.
This prayer may be a guide for you:
Here this morning may we in faith behold Jesus, Son of God,
in the mystery of his suffering.
May his wounds be our healing;
may his death bring us life;
may his cross be our glory;
and may we share in the victory of his resurrection,
for your glory, eternal God.
Reading John 18: 1-27 Jesus and his followers
Who are we to sit in judgement on these followers of Jesus?
How stands our commitment to Christ? . . .
our willingness to go with him at all costs? . . .
our dedication to his service? . . .
our love for all his people, friend and foe alike?
Too often, Lord Christ, we are your people in name,
but not in the deep places of our lives. not in the strength of our love,
not in unselfish generosity, not in self-denial and steadfast loyalty.
Betrayed .. deserted .. denied … by his friends.
God of grace and mercy, forgive our disloyal words,
our fickle inconstancy,
and the way we betray the trust that you put in us.
Forgive us, and grant us your peace,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Hymn He came singing love
Reading John 18: 28 to 19:16a On trial before Pilate
you stood alone before church and world,
proclaiming that your kingdom is not like the kingdoms of this world:
King who made yourself as nothing,
humbled yourself to be obedient,
obedient even to the point of death, death on a cross.
Lord God, we acknowledge that often we are attracted and captivated by what the world calls greatness:
by power and authority, wealth and security,
by success and status, ease and comfort.
We see you now, with no power except your love,
no possessions to call your own, facing evident failure, not success,
sentenced to be humiliated, and to endure the agony of crucifixion.
We pray to you for the world’s defenceless ones:
people who are accused of evils they have not done;
people persecuted for beliefs sincerely held;
people lifting lone voices against injustice and intolerance;
people who must live always with poverty, hunger, illness, disability.
May they find in you their hope. And give to them, and to us, your peace. Amen.
Hymn My song is love unknown
Reading John 19: 16b-30
We see you, Jesus our Lord, alone, abandoned, racked by pain on your cross.
We ask you to be near those who today suffer pain or sorrow,
are troubled with anxiety and fear, or are lonely and bereft.
By your presence with them, may they find strength in their sorrows,
relief from their pain, assurance in their anxiety, and courage to face their fears.
Lord Jesus Christ:
for our sake you endured darkness and shame and pain on the cross.
By your Spirit bring light and love to our own life,
and to the life of our nation,
so that we are ready to sacrifice our own comfort
for the good of all humankind.
God of grace and goodness,
grant to us, and to all your people, pardon and peace,
empowering us by your Spirit to serve you with a quiet mind,
through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hymn When I survey the wondrous cross
Reading John 19: 23-42 The burial
Eternal and holy God, maker and lover of all,
we have been contemplating again this sacred story
in which our Lord was betrayed, tried, suffered, and died.
May it be not the chronicle of this day alone that fascinates us.
May it be not the terrible pathos of the story alone that grips us.
Grant, gracious God, that our inner spirit will be gripped
by what our minds can never quite grasp:
that this was all for us.
And so, Lord God, may we be all for you.
In the name of Jesus Christ, our Saviour and our Lord. Amen.
Hymn Lift high the cross (Number 87 in 'Alleluia Aotearoa')