Sunday next before Lent

26 feb 2017


Preacher: Canon Wendy Robins,
Honorary Canon & Assistant Priest

Readings: 2 Kings 2. 1–12; Matthew 17. 9–23


I cannot imagine that I need to remind you that Wednesday sees the start of Lent for another year.  It is hard to believe that it has come round so quickly.  But that's partly why the readings that we have today are about transfiguration and persistence. 

Looking at the passage from 2 Kings that we heard earlier it seems to me that not only is this painting a picture that we will see echoed through the story of Lent and Easter but also telling us something about staying faithful.  The fact that Elisha will not leave Elijah tells us something about staying steadfast and holding on.  Because Elisha's desire to stay with Elijah is not simply about his desire to remain faithful but also about his desire to receive a blessing and a very special blessing at that: that of inheriting a double share of Elijah's spirit; of his ability to do very special things.  Now the passage which we heard doesn't really tell us if he does or does not receive the blessing he sought but it is interesting that there are exactly double the number of miracles attributed to Elisha (28) as to Elijah (14).

Elisha receives a double blessing because he was persistent and refused to leave Elijah.  The disciples in the reading from Matthew are given an insight into what will happen to Jesus in order – we might suggest - that they will be helped during the difficult times that are to come when Jesus is crucified and dies and will be buried.  They are distressed by what they are told and it is not difficult to imagine that they will be even more distressed when the events actually occur.

Lent is often about perseverance.   Sometimes it is because we give something up and we struggle to keep this going right through the weeks of Lent.  Other times it is the journey that we make through the readings of scripture and services, through that which we hear from Lenten speakers or the Lent groups we attend or books that we read which touches us and makes us aware. in a new way, of the road which Jesus travelled during Lent and the agonies that this must have caused.

Sometimes too the journey of Lent causes us to confront, in much the same way as the disciples were caused to do in the Matthias reading, our lack of depth of faith.  For here, with echoes of the more famous words rendered in parables in each of the Synoptic Gospels the size of the disciples faith is questioned.  We know from the parables and because of what we know of the seeds from which mustard trees are grown that the trees become tall and strong so that birds can perch on it and find shade.

I am always amazed by the fact that mustard grows on trees and that the trees are quite big!  But here in this passage from Matthew it is not the size of the tree that is important for Jesus’ illustration, rather it is the size – or lack of it – of the seed which features.  For Jesus explains to his disciples that they have been unable to cast out the demons as he had because they did not have sufficient faith.  And this is particularly damning really because what he says to them is that if they had faith as small as the mustardseed – which is apparently tiny 1-2 millimeters in size – then they would have been able to do these things which had been requested of them.   How damning must it have seemed to them to be told that their faith was so tiny?

Lent seems to me to be one of those times when we should take the opportunity to reflect upon our faith and it’s outworking.  We have Lent groups here and many years ago it was out of such groups that, in the local church to which I belonged we formed a group – which grew to be a number of groups – that met regularly for six or eight weeks at a time to study the Bible together and to explore what it meant to be people of faith in that place and at that time.

Lent can and should inspire us to look again at out faith and like my friends from the Mustardseed groups to try to see how we can help to grow our faith so that it is ust a little bigger than that tiny seed for in that is what God wants for us: faith which is big enough to do extraordinary things – faith which by the standards of the example of the mustard seed is not very big and yet it is very powerful.

A couple of weeks or so ago I was privileged to travel to Zimbabwe with the Bishop, the Dean and the Archdeacon of Southwark.  We visited our Link Dioceses and here we saw the effects of the situation in the country on the church and we saw too the effects of drought and now of rather too much rain all at once.  But, throughout all the difficulties we saw a people of great hope and faith.  People who believed that if they worked on various projects such as poultry farming or raising small crops of potatoes or maize they could make a real difference to their own lives and the lives of those around them.  

And more than that they believed that with the smallest of resources they could build and begin to use new hospital and school facilities which will bring care and education to the needy people in the villages and townships in their areas.   We saw crops growing and heard of feeding programmes and we saw schools and hospitals rising out of the ground and beginning to be ready to provide the infrastructure for service.  It is true to say that we might not go about doing things in the same way here but what struck me was that here were people of vision and faith using their gifts to try to bring about real change in a needy and difficult situation.   And what was so abundantly evident was that their deep and vibrant faith sustained them everyday and in everything that they did.

I have been to Zimbabwe a number of times now and whenever I go I return challenged once again by the depth and importance of their faith for their lives.   Once again this year the Bishop of Southwark’s Lent Call features people and projects in Zimbabwe as well as in our own Diocese.  We are asked to give generously to and to pray for those whose work is featured.   And I hope we all will do that.

So as we move into Lent I urge you all to spend the time reflecting on your own faith but also on the faith of others to see what we can learn from them.  Let’s try to make sure that we have sufficient faith to persevere and to stay with our Lord during the journey that this Lent will bring so that we may come to Easter morning full of joy and hope knowing that our ivies are bound up in Christ and that our faith has grown even the tiniest bit in the coming few weeks.