Septuagesima: “Little Easter” – 17th February 2019

By the Revd Matt Harbage

Readings: Jeremiah 17.5-10; 1 Corinthians 15.12-20; Luke 6.17-26.

Today we begin a bit of a countdown.

Septuagesima Sunday: derived from the Latin for 70, followed by next Sunday, Sexagesima  – 60, next Sunday 50 – We are counting down to Easter.

Lent has not yet begun, beginning as it does on Ash Wednesday on the 6th March, so this pre-Lent period offers us time to ponder how we might keep the coming Lent.

So what might we give up, or take on, over the coming 40 days? How will you keep Lent?

These Sundays leading up to Lent, [Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima] have sometimes been called ‘Little Easters’ and our first reading, from 1 Corinthians 15, clearly focuses us on the resurrection.

It’s amongst my favourite passages of Scripture and this and other parts of chapter 15 are often read at funerals. Here, Paul is making an appeal to logic: If we don’t believe in the resurrection from the dead, then Christ himself wasn’t raised either. If that is the case, then where is our hope?!

Surely it is the incredible, and mysterious – and sometimes hard to imagine – resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead which gives everything else in our faith and life generally meaning, unique colour and clarity.

It is because Jesus went first, died and then came back to us, my fear of death is calmed.

When I was a teenager I once read a book called “Who moved the stone”. You might have come across it. The manuscript was praised by TS Elliot and published in the 1930’s. The author, Albert Henry Ross, set out to disprove the resurrection. Like St. Paul’s approach in Corinthians he approached the evidence with robust logic and followed where it led. But, the more he wrote the more he ended up being convinced, beyond reasonable doubt as it were, of the real bodily resurrection of Jesus.

After all, he reasoned, “Why would the first disciples be prepared to die for something they knew was fabricated?”

And why, when Christians became a problem, didn’t their detractors – the Romans and Jewish leaders – simply produce Jesus’ corpse?

You might decide this Lent to look out for “Who moved the stone” or find something similar. There are some remarkable books out there written to strengthen us in our belief.

The Resurrection is so foundational and thus important to wrestle with: Through it, the Eucharist becomes not just a memorial meal to remember a powerful teacher, but becomes a celebration of life over death. Of redemption over the powers of human will to kill and destroy.

In Jesus Christ, God is doing something new.

Yet in Jesus, God was also continuing something as well. For Jesus was also a great prophet, continuing the great prophetic tradition of the likes of Jeremiah and Isaiah.

In the sermon on the mount from Matthew’s Gospel, or indeed the sermon on the plain from Luke’s Gospel, it contains that prophetic passion which comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable.

Here Jesus speaks politically: Those who trust in themselves, in their own power and might, they will fall. Those who are downtrodden, who know themselves to be in need, these are the blessed ones. For they, in their humility, will find God.

We see that same prophetic passion in Jeremiah: In the reading printed in our order of service, Jeremiah contrasts trust in human power with trust in God. He begins by speaking poetically, about a wilderness with no life and contrasts a tree planted by water.

It reminds me of that famous poetry from Jeremiah’s contempory, Second-Isaiah:

“Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old.

Behold, I will do a new thing; now it springs forth; do ye not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.”

This “New Thing”, this “Way in the wilderness”, is Jesus Christ and his Resurrection. And as long as we live and die as human beings, the hope of Resurrection will always remain relevant and attractive.

So too, the prophetic tradition today is also alive and well.

I think of those who are involved in the campaign against the arms trade; lobbying MPs, engaging in symbolic actions, mobilizing support and meeting with in the arms industry, pushing for fewer exports of weaponry, more embargos and giving greater voice to victims of war and conflict.

In the spirit of the Beautitudes, we contemplate how to peacefully take symbolic action: to fill the hungry. To make those who are weeping laugh. To critique the powerful systems which forget compassion and mercy to those in need.

Who knows where such thirsting will take us, as we prayerfully look outward to the world Jesus came to save.

And so, as we turn towards Lent, I wonder where our Lenten journey will take us.

Alongside spending time with activists this week I’ve been receiving the most remarkable reflections from members of our community on the Gospel of Luke. These insightful reflections will be put together to form our Parish’s Lent Booklet which will be printed in time for Ash Wednesday.

It’s going to be my Lenten habit to prayerfully read and re-read these reflections as I ponder the “New Thing” God has done in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

May we allow his Gospel to deeply impact our lives this Lent and thus lead us out deeply into the needs of our world.

Amen.

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