LENT 2019


Pope Serves

Entrepreneurs who gather round tables to see what they can sell me. They are not attempting to improve our ability to serve others. They are trying to tempt us to serve ourselves.

Being a servant is a posture of those who follow Jesus. 

In Philippians 2, Paul tells us:

3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 

4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.


As Paul goes on he shows us Jesus as the example of a servant. He was here to serve the interests of others.


Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.


As I prepared this I was left thinking about my father-in-law who passed away recently. He was a servant. At the dinner table, in the kitchen, in the garden, in the church and wherever. He was obsessed with it, almost addicted. 

His deepest gladness was meeting other people’s needs.




Jack white

In an interview with the Observer Music Magazine Jack White from rock band The White Stripes pointed his finger at the spirit of his age. ““It’s pathetic in America. Everyone thinks they can have whatever they want. They’re really spoiled and gluttonous; they always want more and bigger and better and all that jazz, and the fastest and the newest toy – and it’s not necessary. People in America, especially don’t want anyone to tell them that there’s any sort of rules, or limitations. They don’t want, “You can’t do that,” or “You can only have this”. Everyone wants to eat their dessert first.”

In a sermon in Fitzroy, a few years ago, I opened up the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man which basically damned the Rich Man to hell for his conspicuous consumerism and desire for the dessert first. It is a hard word to a congregation full people who fit the character sketch and CV of the rich man and not one that looks or lives anywhere near Lazarus. It is a story that goes with Jesus comments “blessed are the poor” and “woe to you who are rich.”  We could paraphrase “Woe to those who got their dessert first.”

As Christians we need to be alert to the weaknesses of our conditioning. White’s words are an astute analysis of the soul of our times. We are its victims. It is all around us, sucking us in, moulding us and shaping us. Being the victims does not excuse us. We need to bring to bear on our disposition the challenge of the Gospel. It is not just a marked contrast; it is an antithesis of all that the world would sell us.

Jesus birth rings in a new way to live. Here is the King of all Kings on a bed of straw, poor, vulnerable and dependent, soon fleeing like a refugee to escape the political death squads. God has shown us the selfless sacrificial alternative; an opposite way that sees life lived for what is given away not accumulated. It is a life of precarious bravery not comfortable safety, of giving up his rights for the salvation of others, not demanding or even expecting everything to fall into place. This Jesus way is about abundant blessing but not the blessings expected in a world where we want to eat our dessert first. 

And Jesus whispers still; follow me. It is impossible without the daily taking up the cross and heading off no matter what the cost. The cross is not made up off quality silver and bought in the coolest high street jewellers. WWJD is not something to be worn as a fashionable wrist band. What Would Jesus Do is a moment by moment question that inconveniences our lives and leaves us with the nuisance of having to befriend the unlovely, the stigma labelled outsider and the violent enemy.

The revolution that was Jesus birth became his teaching. The Beatitudes are simply ridiculous in the context of the world we live in. In our world the rich are blessed, the promotion is blessed, the expensive car is blessed, the prestigious post code is blessed; they are the way to get voted into eldership certainly!

The kingdom of God is upside down. The poor are blessed, the meek inherit, the peacemakers get the kingdom of God. It is time that we as the Church of Christ heard the words of Jack White and then examined the lifestyles of those of us who claim to follow the humble, impoverished carpenter who was tortured and rejected and ask whether we reflect the world or are the torch bearers of a new way, living out the words of the one we say we are following.   






“Surrender don't come natural to me 

I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want 

Than to take what You give that I need 

And I've beat my head against so many walls 

Now I'm falling down, I'm falling on my knees 

And this Salvation Army band is playing this hymn 

And Your grace rings out so deep 

It makes my resistance seem so thin 

I'm singing hold me Jesus, 'cause I'm shaking like a leaf 

You have been King of my glory 

Won't You be my Prince of Peace”

-      From Hold Me Jesus by Rich Mullins


It is Lent, a season when Christians consider self denial on the run up to Easter. Of course, self denial should not be for just 40 days. It is the call of Jesus by his grace to follow him; “anyone who comes after me must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” “Daily” he calls, not “annually”.

Mind you if there has ever been a time in history where these words are difficult it is now. In a world where self gratification is instant in that we can message, bully, buy and sell instantaneously from our phones Jesus call really is counter intuitive. It breaks the defaults of the conditioning of our society.

Rich Mullins’ words here say it all - “Surrender don't come natural to me/I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want/Than to take what You give that I need." 

Rich's words sends me off immediately to the last few verses of Matthew 6: 30-34. Eugene Peterson's paraphrase (The Message) puts it poetically: -

“If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I’m trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."

Jesus tells us to stop fighting and worrying about getting things and start responding to God's giving. This is wisdom for any age.

God doesn’t call us to self denial to spoil our fun. We fight God to hold onto what in eternity and even in the here and now we don’t need. We don’t take what God has to offer that would transform not only our own souls but the world we live in. Those who lack attachment are those who make the difference and live at peace. This Lent may Jesus' grace ring out deep and may it redeem us into what we were made for.




“All these impermanent things
Well they're trying to convince me
Baptize my soul and rinse me
Purge my mind of honesty and fire
All these impermanent things
Well they all add up to zero
They make-believe that they're my hero
Then they fill my mind with doubt and false desires

Why keep hanging on
To things that never stay
Things that just keep stringin' us along
From day to day”

-          From Impermanent Things by Peter Himmelman

Wikipedia will tell you that Peter Himmelman is an orthodox Jew who prays 3 times a day and is the son-in-law of Bob Dylan. The Jewish part explains Himmelman’s deep spiritual insight. When I did my weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster I played Himmelman very often. Impermanent Things was the most played.

As a preacher it is one of my very favourite songs. I have used Himmelman's words in a sermon on Matthew chapter 6 v 19-34. If you didn’t know about Himmelman’s deep Jewish faith you would be sure that he had used this passage as his inspiration. Of course Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel most intent is revealing Jesus as a continuation of Jewish tradition so perhaps it is not so surprising that he and Himmelman would be on similar themes.

Jesus is saying in the second half of this most famous Sermon that where are treasure is our hearts will be also. He is suggesting that we invest our lives on eternal things that last rather than the impermanent things that Himmelman so poetically describes in this song.

Jesus goes on to talk about how we shouldn’t be worrying about impermanent things and Himmelman puts it beautifully here how these impermanent things play tricks with our heads and hearts and throw us of the better more lasting course. Jesus is on the same idea.

So why do we get obsessed with impermanent things? A couple of years ago I piled my parents' things onto a skip outside their house. So many things. A few months before they were vital things in my parents lives but now they were useless; rubbish even! It made me ponder Himmelman's song and Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. It was a cold lesson in the emptiness of things.

On Himmelman's most recent record There Is No Calamity, the first song 245th Peace Song begins:

"The holes in people’s lives need to be filled
I get that. I understand that.
But you’ve got to be careful what you fill them with
Do you get that? Understand that?"


Deny Yourself


“It's a funny thing about humility
As soon as you know you're being humble
You're no longer humble
It's a funny thing about life
You've got to give up your life
To be alive
You've got to suffer to know compassion
You can't want nothing if you want satisfaction


It's a funny thing about love
The harder you try to be loved
The less loveable you are
It's a funny thing about pride
When you're being proud
You should be ashamed”

from Trap Door by T-Bone Burnett

Those lines, "It's a funny thing about life/You've got to give up your life/To be alive," are very profound lyrics to take into Lent.

This is the subversive secret of the Kingdom of God. As the world seeks getting and gaining and hoarding, God’s way to human fulfilment is the opposite.

Lent is often defined as a time of denial. It is certainly a time to reflect on what distracts us from the more important things. The clutter and fuss of our lives clog up our souls from the refreshing life giving air that the Spirit wants to pump through us.

Jesus did not give his life for our own self indulgence but so that we might give our own lives for the service of God and others. It is in that service that we find the life in all its fulness that God desires for us. 

Lent is ultimately about that. The denial is for our flourishing. Lent should be seen as a time when we return to God’s intentional flourishing of our humanity.

Jesus did not ask disciples to pray a prayer, believe a few creedal statements, go to Church every week, sing new worships songs or give up chocolate for six weeks before Easter

Long before T-Bone’s clever lyrics Jesus put it like this - “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” In that following, he knew, we would flourish.


Stocki Pop

Every Lent is different. Most times I purposefully make it so.

This year’s difference is a little out of my control. This year, the day after Lent begins, I will find myself in a hospital theatre for a small operation. The six weeks of Lent will be about me getting my body healed and back in shape. Though I hope to be back preaching a couple of Sundays after the operation, I have given myself to Easter Sunday to be fully restored.

The simultaneousness of my physical healing and the use of Lent to seek my spiritual healing makes this a very unique year.

Even from the start. On the second day of Lent I lay myself down on an operating table and put myself vulnerably into the hands of others. I have had a few months of bad health. Infections and now TEN antibiotics have played havoc with my body and indeed my mind. I have been physically tired and creatively a little dull.

The worst days physically had me longing for this operation. I wanted to be well. As the day arrives I am more apprehensive. When I come round from the aesthetic will I have any pain? Will the few days afterwards be comfortable? How long will it be until I heal? Please God, this is the end of the problem? 

I am appreciating the immense prayer support from around the world. I recently watched that West Wing episode where President Bartlett was talking to Arnie Vinnick who was hoping to take over from as President. Bartlett says, “The only thing you can pray for in this job is the strength to get through the day. You can try coffee if you want, but prayer works better for me.” Amen Jed. It’s why we call our dog after you!

Thank you all for your prayers!

My apprehension is way over imbalanced by hope. Hope for that creativity to come back. Hope that I won’t need any more antibiotics or fear that when a course finishes the infection will come back. Hope that some week up ahead I will be back to 10:10 - life in all it fulness!

It is more than an operation and healing. In the last four months I have put on some serious weight and am very unfit. On Friday morning I hope the operation will be done and the healing of the scars will begin. However, I have targeted Easter to restore my health and even after that want to use the spring to be ready for Uganda in July.

So, all of this throws a little more focus on Lent. Can I do with my soul what my body is going to go through? Can I open myself to God? Be vulnerable. Be prepared for the spiritual knife of the Spirit? Can I find the hope in amongst the apprehension as I allow God to do his work as the Soul Surgeon. Am I then up for the healing, six weeks of giving myself to be spiritually more healthy on Easter Sunday morning.

Let’s do it… pray for me as I do.