St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Lent 3, 2016

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 In this season of Lent we are often reminded that we are living through a time of conversion and penitence. On the two Sundays we have had so far, as also on the Wednesday evenings, I have focussed on repenting in sackcloth and ashes. 
Next Sunday we get to the mid-point of Lent, Mothering Sunday, and then with surprising speed we will arrive at Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week.
The Holy Week liturgies of the passion which we will celebrate so soon include the reading and singing of the passion narratives from the various Gospels. And when we hear those passion stories this year might I suggest that you pay particular attention to the character of Pontius Pilate. In particular, you will see him as an unjust coward, who didn’t have the guts, or perhaps even the inclination, to do the right thing. Other sources of evidence from his own time show that he was much more than just a coward. The Jewish historian Josephus portrays him as a man who went out of his way to disturb and offend the Jewish population, especially when it came to their religious practice.
The Jewish historians Philo and Josephus describe some of the other events and incidents that took place during Pilate's tenure. Both report that Pilate repeatedly caused near-insurrections among the Jews because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs.
Josephus notes one such case where, while Pilate's predecessors had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to Pilate to remove the ensigns of Caesar from the city. After five days of deliberation, Pilate had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Pilate finally removed the images. In describing Pilate’s personality, Philo writes that he was possessed of "vindictiveness and furious temper", and was "naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness". He writes that Pilate feared that a delegation of the Jews might be sent to the Emperor Tiberius protesting his behaviour because, in the words of Philo, "…if they actually sent an embassy they would also expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty".Maybe we should remember this character trait and his loss of face as we consider Pilate’s treatment of Jesus.
In the Gospels we are given another example of Pontius Pilate’s treatment of the Jews. The people reported to Jesus, as we read in S Luke 13:1-5,   that Pilate had mingled Galilean blood with their sacrifices. This is a clear reference to an act of violence against the Jews in the Temple – a violation of human rights on sacred ground. The people were in shock that such a thing had happened. Jesus seems to anticipate the question that is turning around in their minds ‘why have these people suffered this abuse of their religion? What have they done to deserve this?’ Surely there must be a reason. It’s the same kind of question we might ask in the face of any of the atrocities of modern times.
In response to their thoughts, Jesus seems to do something rather perverse. He seems to heap on more anxiety by mentioning a disaster – the fall of the tower of Siloam, which killed eighteen people. It’s even harder to explain a disaster of that kind than to explain why someone might try to desecrate a religion. It seems senseless and random, just like the recent tropical cyclone in Fiji, in the wake of which at least 42 people have died.
It’s significant, I think, that when Jesus responds to the people’s hidden anxieties, he doesn’t provide an answer to the problem of suffering. He offers no solution to the problem, other than to state clearly that this kind of suffering and death doesn’t just affect the evil – it affects the good too. These kinds of events seem to be a fact of human existence. And Jesus doesn’t say that everything will be OK, or promise that similar things won’t happen again. The answers we so desperately want to the problem of suffering can’t be given in a sentence or a sound-bite. Jesus does have something to say about suffering and death, and he will say it powerfully through the events of Holy Week. We’re not, however, there just yet.
Jesus doesn’t dismiss the worries of the people as silliness and a waste of time, or simply provide a few words of comfort. Instead he responds to the tragic events with an invitation. What he asks them is to focus their minds. He asks them for μετανοια which is a word that is usually translated as ‘repentance’, but in a more literal sense means ‘a change of mind’. He invites them to think differently about the way they live their lives, and to put a new mindset into action in what they say and in what they do.
Lent is a time for doing penance, and we make all kinds of gestures as a way of expressing this. But of course the result of these disciplines of fasting, of giving or generosity towards others and of prayer shouldn’t just be a temporary spring clean of the soul. It’s about μετανοια; about changing our minds; about reorienting ourselves permanently towards the good. It is about a decision to choose the life that God offers us, and to keep choosing it each day from now on.
This reorientation is an important way to help us deal with life. It takes our attention away from our fear of the unknown; or our worry about the suffering that the future may hold. It focuses us on the present moment, on the things over which we do have some degree of control, which are our attitudes to God, to ourselves and to others.
This μετανοια or conversion takes time and a lot of grace. It requires us not only to make up our minds that we want to change, but also for us to be willing to work patiently with God’s help to allow the change to happen. We need to set ourselves on the road; we need to be patient and merciful with ourselves if it takes some while to get things right. When it comes to living with God, we work to God’s timetable, not ours. 
Importantly there’s one thing we should remember. We need to take that first step – the step which is a yes to Christ, a yes to his kingdom, a yes to living and loving as he wants us to. And we need to take that same first step again each day – not just every day of our Lenten journey, but every day of our lives. 
It is by doing this that we will become the kind of people that we are called to be.
May God bless you as you become what God plans you to be.


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