In a long ago church youth group there was a young lad named Ian.
Ian struggled to compete with the other members of the group and in any contest or challenge, he would always come in last. But he would do everything with a big beaming smile. Always ready to taking part with great enthusiasm.
One day we all went bowling at the lanes at the King Alfred Centre in Hove and whenever it came to Ian’s turn, the balls slid hopelessly down the sides and he failed to knock down a single skittle – but then suddenly right near the end of the game – he somehow got the ball to land in the dead centre of the alley and at a pace of two miles an hour, it headed for the middle of the skittles. Everyone in the youth club held their breath – for Ian was a popular member – and the ball glided into the skittles and the whole lot came tumbling down.
He turned to us amazed with tears streaming down his face and he was engulfed by all his friends as they celebrated his achievement. I will never forget the moment he turned to me and exclaimed “Thank you for letting me come bowling Fr Andrew. It’s been the best day of my whole life”.
I never forget Ian when I am tempted to give up on myself or worst still give up on another person – for sometimes against all the odds the most astonishing things can happen.
What on earth shall we get from Lent this year – we might well ask ourselves – for it has been one long season of dreary under achievement since this virus took hold of us. We need good things to happen now rather more denial and restraint.
So try this for size. In St John’s Gospel we meet a succession of characters who find they succeed against all the odds. In each of their lives there seems to be no let up in bad things coming their way. So don’t think much of themselves and the people don’t think much of them.
Hopeless cases the lot of them with no chance of making anything of their lives.
John’s Gospel is brilliant for many reasons. For it contains wonderful passages of deep theology interspersed with these great personal encounters – as if Jesus is saying – look this is what I mean in practice.
So let’s meet them!
John chapter four and Jesus meets a woman by the well. She comes to draw water in the middle of the day when less people are around for she doesn’t want to draw attention to herself. Jesus is sitting there as if waiting for her – and he sees right to the heart of her sadness – you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband, he says. She is trapped in her past. Locked into the failure of so many relationships – but Jesus helps here to wrestle free by not condemning her but offering her, against all the odds, a redeemed future.
With new found confidence she finds her voice and arguably becomes the first Christian missionary “Come and meet a man who told me all I ever did” she says to anyone who will listen.
John chapter five and there has been a man who has been paralysed for thirty eight years – hopelessly laying beside a pool – waiting in vain for a miracle cure from its seemingly health giving properties. Jesus notices the man and with no thought for his track record, and against all the odds, he lifts the man to his feet and he goes off carrying his mat to tell everyone that Jesus had given him a personal resurrection.
John chapter nine and we meet a man born blind from birth and the talk of the religious folk is all about who must have sinned in that man’s family to create such a thing – and Jesus heals him. Bringing to an end a personal history of condemnation, and against all the odds, giving him hope.
And then finally our passage for the Gospel today, when a woman’s history of adultery means that she is a good candidate for being hauled up in front of Jesus by the religious worthies – so that they can trap Jesus into agreeing with the sentence of stoning – that his own inherited law would suggest should be meted out. Jesus offers her His God given mercy, his accusers melt away and the woman is given a fresh start.
In all these stories we meet people stuck in long term hopelessness. Jesus recognises the situation that had held them back but instead of leaving them where they were, he pours out his mercy and against all the odds – the present and the future opens up for each of them – in ways that make the religious leaders of the day go wild with resentment.
In these stories Jesus shows us what the season of Lent is all about.
This is not a time to retreat into ourselves and wallow in our unworthiness, nor is it for adopting a posture of penance because that is all we. think we are good for.
Its about setting us free from the past and giving us all a new start.
Our reading from Isaiah feels as if the people are being torn off a strip. The prophet is a mouthpiece to God’s frustrations with them.
Why do you hold all these fasts? Why do you have all these liturgies and practices when all they do is keep you as the people you have always been.
If you really did believe in me – if you truly wanted to get out of the past- you need to express your sorrow yes, but letting me lift up your life against all the odds and offering fresh possibilities.
Lent is an invitation to us to form an orderly queue behind the woman at the well, the man beside the pool, the blind man and the adulterous woman – and see how meeting Jesus can for us all end up being the best day of our lives.
This year above all things we long for a release from this pandemic – but the question I increasingly ask myself is – what sort of future do I want to be released back into.
It goes without saying that I want to be able to be close to people again. I want to be with my wider family, I want to be out and about, I want an end to all the sadness and the distancing, but beyond that, I want to look for more than just a return to what we all once were.
Isn’t this the chance to reach out for something new – which before the pandemic might have seemed against all odds – but now might just be possible.
And isn’t such a hope – however wild, exactly what the season of Lent was supposed to be about – but we had tamed it along with so much else – so that it was just a little intermission in life – and all we ever wanted was to get back to the chocolate and the wine and cakes as soon as Easter day dawned.
The ash that we would have inscribed on our foreheads on this day, surely represents the hope of such transformation. Not ashes to live under as if to sum up our pessimistic personal outlook – but ashes to rise up above – like a phoenix – and fly to the wings of a new morning.
The woman was so ashamed of herself that she crept out to the well when no one would be looking.
The lame man had stayed in the same place for many a year, given up on healing.
The blind man had become used to being the focus for discussion about sin.
The adulterous woman was trapped in a way of life that had squeezed out the capacity to truly love from her heart.
None of them were looking for an encounter with Jesus – against all the odds – he drew close to them and changed them.
Why cannot this Lent have the same outcome for you and me?
ISAIAH 58: 1-12
JOHN 8: 1-11
In a long ago church youth group there was a young lad named Ian.