Sixth Sunday of Easter
You did not choose me but I chose you
Do you remember the Wombles? Strange furry creatures who lived underground and went about looking for things left behind.
Great Uncle Bulgaria, old and wise. Madam Cholet, kind-hearted but short-tempered. Tobermory (the handyman), Orinoco (prone to be lazy and greedy), Wellington (clever and shy), Tomsk (sporty womble), and Bungo (bossy and excitable).
The Wombles were created in a series of children’s book by Elizabeth Beresford in the late 1960’s and achieved wider fame when the BBC descended on Wimbledon Common during the 70’s.
The Wombles spent their time gathering things human beings discarded. Before recycling or upcycling was even thought of the Wombles were doing it first. Their motto was, “Make good use of bad rubbish”.
You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit.
The first thing, God chooses us. God chooses us. We do not choose God. People sometimes think that being a Christian is a lifestyle choice. They describe themselves as a churchgoer, in the same way that they might say they are a golfer, or a horse rider.
You might think you chose to come to church this morning, and indeed in today’s world taking part in worship is just one of many possible options on a Sunday morning, so – yes – you have to choose to be here. But God’s work does not depend on our initiative, God first chooses us, and we decide how we respond.
Being chosen matters. Not being chosen hurts. You can probably remember school PE lessons when teams were picked. I suspect PE teachers back then were blissfully unaware of the damage they did to those whose gifts lay elsewhere. Think of the scene in Barry Hines’ novel A kestrel for a knave, adapted into Ken Loach’s film Kes. Billy Casper is a working class lad abused both at home and at school. His PE teacher, Mr Sugden, was based on all too common reality. There are too many people who go through life not being chosen.
When I was in training a wise old priest came to visit and stayed for evensong and the evening meal.
There was a conversation about hospital visiting. One of the tutors was saying that you should never make people feel you have put yourself out for them. Don’t say you’ve had to make a special journey to the hospital. Tell them you were passing, and just popped in.
The wise old priest nearly spilt his gin with outrage. ‘Rubbish’ he snorted. Tell ‘em you’ve made a special trip. Tell ‘em you’ve gone out of your way. Tell ‘em you’ve cancelled something just to visit them. People need to know they are valued. They are worth your time. They are worth a special journey. Let them know they matter. Let them know they are chosen, to be worthy of your time and attention.
The first thing, God chooses you. St Paul calls it having treasure in clay pots. The Wombles called it Making good use of bad rubbish. This journey begins with God choosing you.
The second thing is that you are called for joy. When we were in Chester I often mentioned the Christians at either end of Eastgate Street.
At the cross outside St Peter’s, on a Saturday, there was usually a small group preaching the word. They were committed but stern. Their message was in their voices and their faces, harsh and gloomy. People hurried past keeping their heads down.
At the other end, outside WH Smiths there was black guy who worked in a local building society. In his lunchtime he’d stand and sing. His favourite song was ‘Happy Days’ and I’m not talking about the Fonz.
It was the Whoopi Goldberg song from Sister Act – Oh happy day, when Jesus washed me, washed my sins away, Oh happy day. His face beamed. His eyes shone, and he rarely sang alone for long. Students and other young people joined in, they’d sing, then they’d laugh, then they went on their way. His joy was infectious.
You are chosen for joy.
Do you know where the word Womble comes from? It is partly based on an old French word, ‘omble’, meaning the offal of a deer. It was the omble pie for the poor, after the best meat had gone to the rich.
Omble is about food, basic down to earth food, a meal that is shared by people who stand together facing life’s adversities. Omble pie is the humble meat, served in pastry to fill people up, it is a meal to be shared, eaten together. When people eat together community is formed.
Martin Percy says that to ‘womble’ is to forage, to hunt around for the unseen, the hidden, neglected, discarded. Jesus both advocated and practiced wombling. When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame. When he visited a town, he chose to spend time with the rejected and overlooked.
In what comes next our churches need to womble. There are many who have become isolated, lonely, and lost confidence. I keep hearing people saying they want to come back, to reconnect, but they are finding it difficult.
We need to womble. To go looking for them, as the good shepherd might. Maybe it is as simple as doing something like making a meal together, choosing to run a lunch club. Sharing a meal, making a space people can come into, creating community. I’m not sure we’d hunt down deer, but soup and a roll might do, so long as there’s cake to follow.
It has been done here before, people tell me the WI used to do it in the Mews. Maybe it’s time to do it again. To womble – looking for the unseen, the hidden, the neglected.
God chooses us. He chooses us for joy. His joy is that we bear fruit, and make a difference.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/m4pxMRw2fj8
Rogationtide 2nd May 2021
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
We are marking Rogationtide, traditionally the days immediately before the Feast of the Ascension, when the church focussed on the work of the land.
I was watching a tractor in the field next to the vicarage. One of the joys of living where we do is that the kitchen window looks out over the field. When we arrived it was full of turnips, then it was full of sheep, then all the turnips disappeared. Then the sheep went and the muck spreader arrived, followed by the plough, then the harrow.
A new crop, a harvest, then the plough again. The land is always busy. The farmer’s work is never done. This year something new. A subsoiler plough, breaking up the hard pan where last year’s tractor compacted the soil. The plough followed, and a few days later the harrow.
It struck me these are images rich with significance for how life feels at the moment. People speak of a harrowing experience. It usually means something difficult and unpleasant. Something that shakes us, possibly something that breaks us.
As I watched those two tractors criss-crossing the field I had a sense of this is how things feel right now. Like the ploughed earth our lives have been overturned. This year it feels like the overturning has been deep, and things we thought we solid and fixed have been cut through and broken up.
Then comes the harrowing. In the old creeds people spoke of the crucified Christ descending to the dead. Holy Saturday, the day between the Good Friday and Easter Sunday, marks the time when Christ was dead. In the old traditions it was called the Harrowing of Hell, when God breaks the power of death.
The harrow breaks up. And we find a curious new significance, that this word which we avoid, because harrowing experiences are painful, is also the word for the preparation of ground for the planting of new seeds. It is only when the ground has been harrowed that new life begins.
I suspect many people have a sense of lives being deeply overturned and life being broken. I know there are many people who are finding it difficult to reconnect with what went before. People who used to be sociable and enjoy the company of others are struggling to find any enthusiasm to take up what they have lost. People who used to do things actively have a sense of diminished confidence. People who were proactive and determined say they have just lost their spark.
The first thing – the first thing is to accept this for what it is. In the land that is overturned and harrowed, in this season of Rogationtide, we get a sense of how things are. A facing of facts, an understanding of how we feel and what we experience, and also that curious new significance – that it is the overturned and harrowed land which is ready for new planting.
Jesus said, Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
We might prefer it not to be pruned. But God has other plans. The hallmark of life, and the judgement of life, are the fruits we bear. It is as the parable of the talents, to those who have been given gifts much will be expected. The servant who hid his talent in the ground had it taken from him.
It doesn’t mean that we all have to do things that will make the headlines. God isn’t looking for heroes. As Edward Kings said, what we need are a few quiet saints. A course I used a few years ago began with the story of Peter, who after 25 years in the same place retired to a town he didn’t know. He was lost. No friends, no connections, no church, no job. What was he to do with his time? In a sense Peter’s life had been ploughed up and harrowed. Like a field, his life was made empty. It is in the emptiness God makes new beginnings. That is a phrase I keep coming back to – God acts in the empty spaces.
Peter prayed. He took a risk and asked God, what do you want me to do? Which is a dangerous prayer because you never know what the answer might be.
And in his prayer a verse from Jeremiah came to mind – Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.
So what does that mean?
Well Peter liked to go for a morning walk through a local park. On his next walk he stopped and looked around. It was a nice park, it had once been neat and tidy, with flowerbeds and a bandstand. Sadly these days it was a bit of a mess. There was litter everywhere.
So Peter went to Screwfix and bought a litter picker and a roll of bin bags, and he started picking up litter. And nobody noticed, at first. But after a few days people began to notice, and a couple of them stopped and chatted to him, and then a few more, and people asked him why he was doing it. And Peter told them it was God’s answer to his prayer.
Sometimes it takes our lives to be deeply overturned for us to hear God’s voice. Sometimes it is in the painful moments of harrowing that new beginnings emerge. Sometimes it is when we do not know what to do that we are closest to bearing fruit.
We may thing we come to church to be comforted. If so remember what Jesus said, Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You may be here this morning because God is pruning you, making you ready to do something more, be something more.
If life is like that, if you feel overturned, harrowed, pruned, remember what Jesus said. It is those who bear fruit who God turns to. Your challenge may be a sign God sees in you a branch that bears good fruit.
25th April 2021 - Fourth Sunday of Easter
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil
The image we ponder today is that of the shepherd. One of the consolations of lockdown has been the joy of walking the pathways of Cheshire. We are blessed with a beautiful land, as the Psalmist says, “My share has fallen in a fair land.” Over the past months I have worn out two pairs of walking shoes, and one pair of wellies.
We do not take this beauty for granted. On every walk my heart has dwelt on those living in high rise blocks, or families with children with no garden, surrounded by bricks and concrete.
I remember taking a group of children from a Liverpool outer estate into North Wales. As the minibus climbed the hills chaos erupted in the back seats. Some exotic creature had been spotted and there was great excitement. The children clamoured to know what it was.
It was a sheep.
For us the image of the shepherd might seem well known. For many in our society it is utterly alien. The first thing to note is that when we speak of Christ the Good Shepherd many in our society won’t have a clue what we are on about.
But then do we? There is a huge difference between your 21st Century Cheshire farmer and your 1st Century Palestinian shepherd. Jesus was speaking from what he knew, and what he saw day by day. He was using language people understood.
The shepherds of Jesus’ day lived a precarious existence. It was a job at the bottom of the social ladder, difficult, dangerous and disliked. When Jesus says, ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking of Amos, chapter 3, verse 12. Of course you are.
“Thus says the Lord, ‘As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel be rescued…’”
A Palestinian shepherd had to account for sheep that were taken, attacks by wild animal or robbers were frequent. If the shepherd could not save the sheep he was at least charged with bringing evidence of the attack.
William Barclay quotes one who had spent time with shepherds; “I have listened with intense interest to their graphic descriptions of downright and desperate fights with these savage beasts. And when the thief and the robber come (and come they do), the faithful shepherd has often to put his life in his hand to defend the flock. I have known more than one case where he had literally to lay it down in the contest. A poor faithful fellow last spring, between Tiberias and Tabor, instead of fleeing, actually fought three Bedawin robbers until he was hacked to pieces with their khanjars, and died among the sheep he was defending.”
Which is not to say that our modern shepherds have an easy life by any means. The Lakeland shepherd, James Rebanks, in his book ‘The Shepherd’s life’ offers some advice to would-be shepherds.
First thing – it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep.
Second thing – you won’t always win.
Third thing – so stop whining and get on with it.
There’s some good advice for churches in those words.
Jesus draws a distinction between the good shepherd and the hired hand. The clue is in the word ‘good’. As you well know, in Greek there are two words for good. There is agathos which describes the moral quality of a thing. And there is kalos which means something good because it is lovely.
When Jesus speaks of the good shepherd he used kalos. We sometimes refer to someone as good because we see in them something wonderful. A good teacher may be skilful, effective, able to control a class and deliver good results. But then there are those people whose passion for their pupils goes beyond skill and efficiency and results. A good teacher inspires and encourages, is gracious, generous and kind. There is a difference between effective and good.
When Jesus speaks of ‘good’ he means people who inspire and encourage, those whose passion for what they do makes it an act of love rather than just a job.
Covid has been, as Charles Dickens put it, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We have, quite literally, walked through the valley of the shadow of death. We have seen great suffering and much grief. We know a difficult road lies ahead. Yet we have also seen, as Kate Adie put it, ‘the kindness of strangers’. Medical staff and those working in care homes have trodden the path of the good shepherd, too many have lost their life in doing so.
Neighbours have shown kindness in countless acts done for others. Teachers have gone door to door delivering lessons to children. People have volunteered in their thousands. We have seen goodness, kalos, in our communities. So yes, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death – and we have seen goodness and seen it in abundance.
We face tough times ahead, our world has changed, we have changed, our jobs, our communities, our churches, have changed. In a few moments we shall hold our annual meeting a key part of which is to grasp some difficult nettles and elect people to represent our church as we move into that difficult future.
On our shared behalf may I offer our thanks to those who have served our church over the past year, in some cases for several years, but particularly over a year that has been unprecedented and extraordinarily challenging.
The past year has been the most challenging we have faced in many of our lifetimes. But let us acknowledge, here and now, that the year ahead will present us with even greater challenges.
I hope we are building a community that is good, people who do what they do not just out of a sense of duty but because with a genuine love for what it means to be a parish church. We need people who are kalos. Such lives make a difference.
I want to finish with a comment made to me by a local funeral director a few days ago. He said, we see funerals in many settings, churches, crematoria, civic celebrants, clergy, people of all faiths or none. In this past year your church has stood out as a place where people are treated with courtesy, kindness and respect. It is still difficult. We are still under Covid restrictions. But in your church it just seems better, it is kinder.
In what comes next let us tread as the good shepherd, that what we do we do kindly, with grace and in love.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/XRfUCy79t28
18th April 2021 - The Third Sunday of Easter
Luke 24: 36b – 48 (Act 3: 12-19)
Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.
If our phone rings before 10am it is usually someone wanting to
1. save us money on domestic appliance insurance,
2. prevent us from being charged for something expensive we never knew we'd bought from Amazon,
3. or to tell us we have a problem with our internet which they'd like to resolve for us.
I'm afraid they all usually get pretty short shrift from me.
The other week we did have a problem with our internet, and an engineer from Openreach came and sorted it out for us – but just after he left we had a phone call “about our internet”. How were we to know whether it was a genuine follow up or another would-be scammer? That was an easy one, but unfortunately many of us hear the words without comprehending their meaning.
We've also heard a lot about fake news recently – and for some of us even April Fool jokes were difficult to recognise. It now seems that we live in a society where truth is often more unbelievable than fiction – and fraudsters play on that.
The events described in our reading from Luke 24 were not easy to believe either – but these were genuine. They took place on the evening of Jesus' resurrection. Late that afternoon the risen Jesus met Cleopas and another disciple as they walked on the Emmaus Road. After Jesus had left them they went to tell the other disciples that they had seen Jesus.
Despite that – when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples, v37 tells us “they were startled and terrified, as though they were seeing a ghost”. ….. and it wasn't as if Jesus himself hadn't prepared them what was going to happen either. It is there in v46: “thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day”.
But if you look at v44 you will see there is more to it than that - Jesus tells them “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you – that everything written in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled”. Here Jesus is summarizing the message of the OT – i.e. what is happening now is what God always planned, as he had revealed in his Word.
Yes the Easter events are the fulfilment of scripture – but God's plan doesn't stop there – because he tells us in v47 that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name, to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem”
Jesus had taught all this to his disciples but – as we might say today – the message hadn't sunk in. Their minds were not yet open to understand what they had been taught.
Move on for a moment to Acts 3 (our first reading). It is now after Pentecost. The Holy Spirit had been poured out on the disciples – Peter is a new man - and almost unrecognisable from when he denied Jesus in the High Priest's court a few weeks previously.
Here he is now standing in Solomon's portico (part of the Temple where Jesus had taught the disciples) addressing the people and he is really socking it to them:
• you rejected Jesus and handed him over to Pilate
• you rejected Pilate's finding of his innocence
• you demanded the release of a convicted murderer in his stead
• you killed Jesus, the author of life, whom God raised from the dead
Collective responsibility has always been a contentious issue.
• The church gets blamed for what it does as much as it gets blamed for what it fails to do.
• A good proportion of the population think of the church only as the buildings - a view we would probably refute,
• but another sector of society blame the nearest Christian they can find for anything the church does which they don't like – whether we happen to agree with it or not.
Here Peter was using the word you in a collective sense, LAOS was the collective noun for the Jewish people = it was you Jews who were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus – not his listeners individually.
However – and this is a very important point – we cannot stop there - as some throughout history have done. Peter (v 17) puts this in context “I know you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers – but this is how God fulfilled what the prophets had foretold, that the Messiah would suffer. Repent therefore and turn to God that your sins may be wiped out.”
The 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine was visited by a priest who urged him to make his peace with God while he still had time. Heine replied flippantly “God will forgive me – that's his job”
That is a very dangerous assumption - we cannot expect God to ignore our sins, but we have the assurance that he pardons those sins which we confess and renounce.
The renounce bit is important and sometimes is more difficult than the confession itself. It's not much good confessing what we did wrong last week, unless we resolve not to repeat the misdemeanour next week.
Of course we don't always get it right straight away and God may still forgive us again – but that doesn't give us a licence to go on sinning provided we confess afterwards. We have to keep working at renouncing and hopefully move on.
Here Peter was not suggesting the sin of the Jewish people and their leaders was excusable, nor was he implying that forgiveness was unnecessary – but he was showing why forgiveness was possible – through Jesus the slate can be wiped clean.
So here we see Peter and the disciples taking up that command from Luke 24. They have started to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, but so far they are only at stage 1 - “beginning from Jerusalem” and of course the job is nowhere near finished yet 2,000 years later.
The on-going mission of the church is the responsibility of God's people in every generation. As Paul Dawson reminded us last week we benefit from those who brought the gospel to this country 1500 years ago and from those who established Christianity and built and endowed our churches in the centuries since. .
God promised Abraham that the good news would be shared with All Nations – so we are but one generation in God's purposes. Our role is not just to preserve and conserve that which we have inherited – and that seems difficult enough at times – but to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with those who do not know him.
I don't know about you but I've found that a particularly difficult thing to do in the last year or so, so it is my prayer for us all that God will open each of our minds to understand the Scriptures better - that we may be open to his leading as we face the opportunities, and challenges, that come to us as individuals and as a church.
The YouTube version is here https://youtu.be/Y7hvo8JVsOY
Second Sunday of Easter
‘he breathed on them…’
Locked doors. Breath. A finger.
Let us begin by noticing the context of this morning’s reading from St John. The disciples met behind locked doors.
We are an Easter community. We celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are the church whose task it is to proclaim good news to all people.
Yet this was not immediately so. In the days of the first Easter the friends of Jesus met behind locked doors, because they were afraid. Easter is a drama, it is a journey, over these weeks we witness transformation. That frightened, beaten, despairing people were changed. If those friends of Jesus had only met behind locked doors we would not be here today.
God acts. God acts in people. God begins with ordinary people, people like you and me, not terribly clever, not always brave, not filled with confidence, and when the world falls to bits he acts in those people to make a new beginning.
We need to hear that today more than ever before. And we need to remember that like the seed that falls into the earth and dies, new beginnings are at first small and hidden.
We need at this time a sense of grace and generosity. I was reading this week a book by one of my favourite authors, John Lewis-Stempel – The Running Hare, the secret life of farmland.
It is the time he took a field in Herefordshire and sowed it by hand with wheat. He wanted to take a field from which all wild flowers had been eradicated, and all wildlife fled, and nurture life back into it. He quotes the old adage for hand-sowing, “One for the rook, and one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow.’ We get our term ‘broadcasting’ from the old way of sowing. It is a reminder that not everything will work as we think it will, or hope and expect it will.
God must surely know us in the same way, the failures are more frequent than the successes, but it is the seed that falls to the ground and dies that bears a harvest. God’s way is of grace and generosity, allowing the harvest to grow where it can.
What comes next may make us anxious, like the friends who met behind locked doors. But Easter is a time for transformation. We need to allow God to act in us. Small beginnings matter. Locked doors.
Next - Breath.
Jesus breathed on his disciples. This is how God transforms. Our bibles begin with emptiness, the earth was without form and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, the breath of God moved over the face of the waters.
The word ‘breath’ is interchangeable with ‘Spirit’ or ‘Wind’. It conveys life giving energy. Every living thing is that which has been given the breath of life.
A new born child’s first breath is a moment of change, lungs formed in the womb that have never been filled with air suddenly start to work. Oxygen is absorbed, the miracle of new life begins. It is no wonder breath is understood as a gift.
In Luke the gift of the Spirit is given in the simplicity of this moment, Jesus breaths on his friends and so shares God’s life changing Spirit.
This gift is given to be used. That is made clear. Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
We often overlook the second part of that. There is nothing soft or woolly about our commission as followers of Jesus. We have a job to do and it matters. In the ordination of priests one of the charges laid upon those entering holy orders is the responsibility to teach and admonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations.
Being a Christian isn’t about being nice to people. Sometimes what people need isn’t what they want. In our life together God calls us to be tough because love costs.
That is something else we need to bear in mind as we face what comes next for our churches. This will not be an easy time. Moments of change never are. A new born child’s first breath is usually a cry. Breath transforms.
You might expect that a new movement trying to introduce new ideas would make the most of its heroes. Naval stories of Nelson always focus on his grasp of strategy and boldness in tactics. You don’t hear many stories pointing out that he wasn’t actually a very good sailor.
So Christianity is a very odd new movement. Our gospels mostly tell us how the disciples got it wrong. Peter jumped overboard and sank. James and John wanted seats of importance. Thomas doubted.
Well, if anything, such failures give us hope, because – if I dare say it – the church is full of failures. Maybe it’s only when we know we’re pretty hopeless that we’re willing to listen to a different way of looking at things.
The fact that the gospels record the failures of the disciples is really quite astonishing when you think about it. You’d expect those bits to be quietly edited out – but they haven’t, and for that I am truly thankful.
More to the point - the resurrection does not deny the reality of Christ’s suffering. If Walt Disney has scripted Easter the risen Christ would be revealed as young, fit and healthy. But Luke tells us a different story, that the risen Christ still bore the marks of crucifixion. He invites Thomas to put his finger into the marks of the nails, to put his hand into the wound of the spear.
The risen Christ, indeed when we come to it, the ascended Christ, still bears in his body the wounds of crucifixion. So too does his body the Church.
This also is a mark of how we will be in the times ahead. Covid will leave scars. Scars in individuals, scars in communities, scars in our society, and scars within our churches.
Locked doors. Breath. A finger.
God acts in people. God acts in us. In the resurrection we see how God acts, and in whom.
Christ, our risen Lord, no tomb can keep you,
no door is closed to you, no heart is barred to you,
no mind is shut off from you.
Come lead us out of darkness into light,
out of doubt into faith, out of death into life eternal:
Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/kCrBdbLeqds
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
We come to Easter morning. We have walked with Christ in the wilderness. We have pondered the meaning of the cross. We have followed the crowds who saw Jesus. We have sat at table as his friends, shared bread and wine, wondered at his taking the role of a servant, washing his friends’ feet.
We have stood at the cross, or perhaps not, as many then could not, to watch him die. To be abandoned is the hardest death of all. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? It wasn’t just God who forsook him that day.
And now with the women we come to the grave. It was a woman’s role, they brought spices to anoint the body. In Jewish burial customs a body was first buried in a temporary tomb. Only later, when just the bones were left, was it moved for permanent burial.
The women would have sat through the night grinding spices with which to anoint the body for this first burial. Perhaps in silence, just being together grinding the spices of grief. We don’t always need the right words. We sometimes just need to be together. That is something we have learnt anew through these past difficult months.
When they come to the tomb they expect to find nothing other than death. This is the end of their hopes, all their dreams, all their love. The world can be a cruel place.
We need to remember this. Our Easter morning begins as a day of mourning. We must grasp that reality if we are to understand what God is doing through his people. Happy clappy religion that sees the world through rose tinted glasses is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
In Easter our encounter with God is in the cross and the grave, and why are we surprised? Is this not the same God who acts in the wilderness? Is this not the same God whose voice is heard not in signs of power and glory, not in the earthquake, not in the mighty wind, not in the brilliance of fire, but comes to one terrified and alone, hiding in the wilderness, hearing God in the piercing silence?
Is this not the same God who looks to the desert to make new beginnings? The God who is more at home in a tent than a temple, in a stable than a palace.
So – if we can walk in the dawn light with the women we do so carrying the spices of grief. That last final act of love – which is all God needs. For it is they who discover the unthinkable, that in this ultimate desert place God is doing what God does best, and is making a new start.
Mark, as I have said many times, is a master story teller. You will notice what is missing from this story. Like that party game where you memorise a collection of items, then one is removed and you have to spot what is missing.
So what is missing from this Easter morning? The answer of course is Jesus. Nowhere in Mark’s Easter account do the disciples actually meet the risen Christ. The story ends at verse 8, the women running away, in terror and amazement, saying nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That’s it. End of. Finito.
Our bibles of course have some extra verses, but those are very clearly added later to try to make sense of Mark’s abrupt ending. There are those who think Mark obviously wrote more but that has been lost. Think of a manuscript where someone picks it up but leaves the last page behind. Maybe it’s a simple as that.
Others, and I am one of them, think that Mark ended his Gospel this way by intention. He is a master story teller, and really good stories have untidy endings. Yes, in your average fairy tale they all lived happily ever after, one of our infant nativities even ended that way, which was a bit odd seeing it was performed under a stained glass window of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, but this isn’t a fairy story.
Mark is writing for people who choose to follow Jesus, and who choose to do so in a difficult and dangerous world, who would never themselves meet the risen Lord. For those people what happens next matters, and it matters very much.
They knew, as we know, that being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy. In fact for them it was often a life threatening choice. Can the story end with women running away in fear, saying nothing to anyone?
Yes it can. But if it had we wouldn’t be here today. But it didn’t. So we are.
In Mark’s account as we have it I suggest we find ourselves involved in this Easter morning. Do we encounter this truth and go away telling no-one? If we do that what happens next? Or can we hear him telling us – you are here because that’s not how it ended. And you can’t let it end that way today.
The story of Jesus, God’s greatest gift, ends like it started. As vulnerable and as weak as a baby born in a shed. A truth as fragile as a tale told by frightened people.
Yet this message of hope and of unbreakable love has endured. Today it is placed into our hands. In these strange and difficult times it us who run into the dawn, and what message have we to tell?
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/yaR02PVaAcY
Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches
We come to Palm Sunday, and one unlike any before. We cannot process with our palm crosses. We cannot read our usual dramatic Gospel. But at least we are here, last year our churches were closed on Palm Sunday.
Many people spread their cloaks on the road. Palm Sunday is a day of crowds. Crowds are fickle. Crowds can change unpredictably. Crowds can be peaceful and quiet one moment, a raging mob the next. A crowd can be a shared celebration, the joyous greeting of a successful football team. Or a crowd can be an angry force of violence and destruction, as we saw recently in Bristol.
Jesus knew crowds. He spent time with many people. He clearly knew how to, as they say, work a crowd. He could read the mood, he spoke with humour, irony and appeal. He could stun a crowd into silence, and he could provoke hostility and resentment.
Margaret Thatcher was infamously misquoted as saying, “There is no such thing a society.” Which ignored the second part of what she said, that society can only exist because it is created when individuals come together. A crowd is a crowd, many people, many unique and individual people. Each person matters.
In St Luke’s account Palm Sunday is immediately preceded by the story of Zacchaeus. You will recall that Zacchaeus was a small man so he climbed a tree to see Jesus better. We may remember that Zacchaeus was a bad man who cheated people in their taxes. And if we remember that then we remember wrong. Like the crowd we have jumped to conclusions. Collective memory isn’t always right.
Nowhere in the story of Zacchaeus does it say that he was a cheat or dishonest. When he meets Jesus he says that if he has defrauded anyone then he will restore it four times over. If he had defrauded anyone – the ‘if’ makes a difference. Jesus very often spotted the person amongst the many, the individual within the crowd, the person left out, ignored, overlooked or despised. Jesus spotted Zacchaeus, and many others.
I spoke last week on the request of the Greeks, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ I suggested that most of the time most of the people see the Jesus they want to see, the Jesus that fits their agenda, the Jesus who matches their views, the Jesus that doesn’t ask awkward questions.
The crowd was no different. They wanted a new king. They wanted someone to make life better. They wanted a hope they could get behind. They wanted what you and I want, for our lives to be better than they are right now.
Jesus knew what they saw in him, and he knew he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted. So he rode on a donkey, a parody of a Roman triumphal procession, I am not what you think I am.
To be fair to the crowd even his closest friends didn’t get him right. Judas didn’t set out to betray Jesus to death, he likely believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah, sent to kick out the Romans and bring in a new age of Jewish independence. His actions weren’t designed to send Jesus to his death, he acted in good faith, hoping to provoke the final conflict between good and evil, knowing Jesus would prevail.
Like many, he saw the Jesus he wanted to see, not the man riding a donkey, not the man washing his friends’ feet, not the man who would accept the cross as the only means of doing God’s will.
It is an unusual Palm Sunday. It will be an unusual Holy Week. It will be an unusual Easter. Maybe in this time we will glimpse an unusual Jesus – not quite the person we expect, not quite the man we think we know.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/-s6NpNz7Hpk
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
In 2018 I attended a conference in Manchester for those involved in Cathedral ministry. I came home with several things. A whistle, a genuine ACME Thunderer, the gift of an after dinner speaker who informed and entertained us with the history of Joseph Hudson who in the 1880’s developed the first police whistle.
Did you know that before the ACME whistle football referees had to call attention to a foul by waving a handkerchief? Not very effective. Joseph Hudson’s whistle have played their part in policing, sport, maritime safety, military communication and as Fiona will testify – calling over excited children back into class.
I also came home with several books, some useful contacts, a job offer in Australia, and a cross.
The first Christian sign was the sign of the fish. You will have seen it on the back of cars. A simple line outline in the shape of a fish. It was used by Christians to mark places of gathering, family homes where the church met to worship. In Greek the word for fish is ICTHUS – the letters of which stand for Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour.
Yet it is the cross which is the most universally recognised sign of the Christian faith. And if you think about it that is odd. The cross was a Roman instrument of putting someone to death in the most humiliating and agonizing way possible. It was a slow death, stripped naked and robbed of all dignity. The cross was a deliberate tool of political oppression. As I said recently, the message of the cross is that this person doesn’t count.
So why did Christians, this new movement of friends of Jesus, use the instrument of his death as a sign?
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
If someone asked you that what would you show them?
Our pictures of Jesus are of necessity no more than imaginative. Some of them very badly informed. You can probably remember images of a handsome blond-haired blue-eyed Jesus – forgetting entirely that Jesus was Jewish.
People nearly always portray Jesus as they would like him to be. On the one hand there is Jesus meek and mild who wouldn’t say boo to a goose and certainly wouldn’t present any disturbing questions. On the other is Jesus the freedom fighter, the wild revolutionary, malleable to whatever ideology you’re wanting to promote.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
To this request Jesus gives an unexpected answer. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
During our conference we met at St Anne’s church in the middle of the Manchester shopping centre to listen to the Archbishop of York. Outside the church there is a bench on which is a sculpture of a homeless man sleeping. He is wrapped in a blanket, you cannot see his face, only his feet stick out.
And they are pierced feet. This is an image of Jesus, as a homeless person sleeping on a bench.
It is in stark contrast to the glitz and glamour of the surrounding shops. Its poverty is shocking in the midst of so much wealth and money spent on ourselves. You come out of a shoe store with your shiny new shoes and there are cold naked feet pierced by nails. The buildings tower upwards, modern and clean, our Lord appears tiny and insignificant so low and on the edge.
When the statue was unveiled, it was unveiled by a homeless man named Dave.
It reminded me of a story, of a lady hurrying to a prestigious exhibition of religious art. Near the entrance she spotted a huddled figure sat on the pavement with a cup begging for coins. She kept her head down, didn’t make eye contact, and hurried past.
The exhibition was everything she’d hoped for. Beautiful treasures speaking of God’s glory and transcendence. Paintings that spoke of peace and joy. Sculptures which were breathtakingly powerful. Until she came to a sixteenth century sculpture, Christ on the Cold Stone, depicting Jesus naked, alone, awaiting crucifixion.
As she left the exhibition she came again to the homeless person outside. And saw them differently.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.
Jesus’ answer is that those who wish to see him need to let go of themselves. We cannot see Jesus if the Jesus we seek is the Jesus we want. It is only when the grain falls into the earth and dies that it bears fruit. The grain that is kept safe does nothing. It just eventually rots.
The cross then is why Christians know who they are.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CbnN5-fEdic
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
We come to Mothering Sunday, in strange and difficult times. Last year Mothering Sunday was the first Sunday of lockdown. All our preparations fell to bits, our churches were closed, there was a sense of being bewildered and bereft.
A year later and we are still bereft. We cannot visit our families. Travel is restricted. We are separated from those we love.
We are aware of those who have lost people they love, who have been unable to grieve with others. Of babies born yet to be held by grandparents. Of those who have become mothers alone, without the support of family, and unable to make bonds with other new parents.
If there is a price of lockdown it is the social isolation which has affected every part of our society. In the months ahead I hope our churches can be places where people can connect. We need to work on new connections.
And this is an unusual Mothering Sunday. Originally Mothering Sunday was a day people travelled. They went back to the church where they were baptised, or to the Cathedral, the mother church of the Diocese. They would usually make the journey walking, and it was said they went ‘a Mothering’. Such travel of course, would be illegal today.
Those who travelled would reconnect with family, often taking a Simnel Cake as a gift, a reminder that whilst Mothering Sunday falls during Lent it is still a Sunday, the day of resurrection, so it remains a feast day.
By the early 1900’s the world had changed, not least following the
First World War, and Mothering Sunday had largely
been forgotten. In 1921 Constance Penswick-Smith, the daughter of the vicar of Coddington, Northamptonshire, wrote a book
suggesting the revival of Mothering Sunday. It was a focus on family in an age when many of the poor worked in service or newly emerging industries, people who had little time off and precious few holidays, family life was changing and Mothering Sunday was a reminder that family matters.
It was Mothering Sunday, not Mother’s Day, an American invention which its creator, Anne Jarvis, later campaigned to abolish because it had been overtaken by commercialism and lost contact with its original intent.
I must confess to feeling rather lost when preparing for this service. Usually Mothering Sunday has meant churches filled with families, gifts of flowers for all ladies present, and a sermon aimed at a younger audience. But not this year.
A few years ago Fiona and I marked Mothering Sunday with the Great British Bake Off, we both made cakes during the service. We had the same ingredients but there the similarity ended. Fiona’s ingredients were weighed carefully on the scales - mine were measured in handfuls less whatever fell onto the floor.
Fiona mixed her cake in a Kenwood Chef, I used a paint stirrer mounted in a power drill. Fiona’s cake was made with love and care, mine was chucked in a bucket. Fiona’s table was neat and tidy. My side of the church looked like an explosion at Mr Kiplings.
The message was meant to suggest that love and care matter, a reminder to value the things our mothers do for us. It has to be said, that when the cakes were baked and presented to the Brownies and Cubs, both were consumed with equal delight. A reminder for parents that you don’t need to be perfect to be a good parent.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Both our readings speak of parenthood in difficult times, and they bear witness to the transforming power of compassion and courage. You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to work out that Pharoah’s daughter knew exactly what was going on. When a Hebrew mother comes forward to look after the child hidden by the river she must have figured out whose child this was.
So often in the Old Testament it is the women who act with wisdom and discernment.
On 23rd October 1881, some of our older members may remember it, Edward King preached a sermon in which he mentioned a sign he had seen in a local park. The notice ran, “All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.”
There was no threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. Just an appeal to everyone’s sense of beauty and value to exercise their personal freedom for the preservation of a common good.
Such signs today would be different. Inevitably there would be a penalty for none compliance. We live in a culture which assumes people will only be good if they forced to be so.
Mothering Sunday is reminder that God invites us to assist in the protection of the flowers, or if not the preservation of nature, to assist in the protection of people. There is an appeal for us to share in God’s work of bringing new life, caring for the fragile, nurturing the young, helping people grow and develop their full potential.
God invites us to assist, without threat of punishment or hint of compulsion. All persons are requested to assist – it’s as simple as that.
“When she opened it she saw the child…”
Pharoah’s daughter didn’t need to act to save this child. She didn’t need to turn a blind eye to the reality that the Hebrew woman was clearly the child’s mother. She didn’t need to risk herself by breaking the law.
But she saw the child and she chose to do good.
As you go about your week ahead, in the people you meet, difficult children, awkward adults, or in the handling of things, which Benedict reminds us are always God given treasures, reflect on that sign in the park.
All persons are requested to assist the society in the protection of the flowers.
You don’t have do. If you don’t there’s no come back. It’s just an invitation, to be the person who makes a difference for the better.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/4HJZNx3oSIE
7th March 2021 - Third Sunday of Lent
John 2: 13 - 17
The Bible teaches us that our God is the God of 2nd chances.
To try to be positive that could have been what Jesus was doing when He turned over the tables in the Temple. Giving those who had disgraced the temple a 2nd chance. A chance to give up what they were doing and try a different way.
In this passage it is easy to see the emotion of Jesus. This is not the only time when we see the emotions of Jesus coming to centre stage.
But this is slightly different from other times when Jesus allowed us to see his emotions, there is only one way to describe it, on this particular day….Jesus was angry.
I’m sure all of us have been there. Something stirs us up, our emotions flare up and suddenly our anger spews out. But we need to clear about an important truth here.
It’s not being angry that is a sin. It is what we do with our anger that really matters, and what we direct it at.
We know that Jesus was without sin, and yet here we see him in this story showing what seemed like uncontrolled anger at the sellers and money changers, and actually driving them out of the temple.
It seems His emotion took over, but it was for a reason.
The temple was being used for the wrong purpose, a bad purpose. This was not so much about the buying and selling that was taking place, it was about how and why it was being done.
It was the time of the Passover which meant that Jews who were faithful, and able to, headed to Jerusalem to celebrate. So Jesus went too, but when He got there things were not as they should be.
You may remember that in the Old Testament, God required the Jews to celebrate the Passover to remind them of how God had delivered them out of Egypt.
To preserve the life of their first born they would need to kill a sacrificial lamb and apply the blood of the lamb to the door post.
When the messenger would see the blood then he would pass over the house and the child would be spared.
They were also told that (if possible) they were to go to Jerusalem to make this sacrifice. So this is why Jesus and His family were there.
I want you to imagine if you will, what they saw when they got there. The Jews had greatly multiplied by this time so hundreds of thousands of Jews would have flooded the city. Like some major convention, or perhaps like the Olympics had come to town. And all of that attention and the size of the crowd meant one thing to the Priests and the Pharisees. Money. The economic impact was huge. The merchants, and the priests and temple leaders, would clearly make a lot of money.
When Jesus arrived at the temple He saw immediately that it had been turned into a giant marketplace. But worse than that was how they were selling, they were certainly charging far more than they should.
In other words they were ripping the people off. Most of the people who came to Jerusalem for Passover had traveled a very long way. Travel was already tough but imagine trying to travel with the animals for their sacrifice. Almost impossible.
Depending on what type of offering you were making that would decide the type of animal you needed. It could be a big as bull, or a small as a dove ... but in addition for Passover everyone was required to bring, or purchase, a lamb.
So it would be a real struggle to bring them any distance. Even if you decided to bring your own animals they had to be perfect, no spot or blemish. And you were not the one who got to decide. The priest was.
Many, no doubt, brought their own animals only to have them turned down by the priests. The priests were sharing the merchants profit so they turned many of them down. Then you had to purchase one at their prices.
They had a monopoly going and anytime there is a monopoly, people will take advantage of it. And they did. They charged high prices because the people had no choice but to pay it.
So here were those who sold the cattle, doves, lambs and right by them were the money changers, you see you couldn't just use any money, it had to be specific coins that were needed to be used, and most people would not have them. So merchants and money changers were taking lots of money from people who simply came to worship their Lord, and probably couldn't afford it.
And there they were when in walked Jesus.
Jesus the man who worked in a carpenters’ shop with His Father Joseph, a man who is healthy and strong and He storms in and basically destroys the place. Animals, people, money, scattered everywhere.
Not surprisingly the the leaders of the Temple began to demand some answers from Jesus.
Basically they were asking Jesus “who do you think you are?” If you are so important do something to prove yourself. They demanded that He give them some kind of sign, a miracle to show he had authority.
And how did Jesus answer them? He said, “An evil and adulterous generation looks for a sign.”
Could this happen today? Of course it could, and it does.
Have you ever said, I’ll go to church Lord, if you will just heal me. OR Lord if you will just get me out this problem I’ll live like I should OR Lord if you will just answer this one prayer, I’ll do whatever you ask.
The Jews asked for a sign. Instead of giving them a sign Jesus simply answers their question.
But they didn’t understand, but then, neither did the disciples at that point.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in 3 days I will raise it up.” They were confused. They all thought He was talking about the building they were standing in.
Jesus was, of course, talking about Himself. His crucifixion. And these very same Jews, led by the priests, merchants and money changers, were going to be responsible for having Jesus crucified.
The Priests and Pharisees didn’t get it. They didn’t want to get it because they knew they were in danger of losing their authority….their power, and most of all, their source of lots of money. So they chose not to believe.
The disciples saw how Jesus reacted to the sins of the moneychangers in the temple. They eventually twigged and saw it in the same way that Jesus did.
But in fact the Bible tells us that it was not really until after the resurrection that they truly believed. It was only then they fully understood what Jesus had meant.
What does it take for you to believe?
When you face trials or you face a time when God is testing you how do you respond?
Do you stop and remember. Remember what God has done for you. Remember your blessings, and give Him thanks.
Or do you start to try to make a bargain with the Lord. God if you’ll do this for me then I will do this for you.
Or do you remain skeptical saying to yourself, I have to see it to believe it.
Or do you simply accept His discipline, learn from it and begin to grow again.
Perhaps God is trying to do something in your life right now to get your attention, God sometimes does that.
God tried to get Jonah’s attention and he ran.
God tried to speak to Moses and Moses got angry. His anger kept him from ever getting into the Promised Land.
So what is the best thing you can do when God tries to get your attention?
You will all probably have your own answers, but I think the Bible tells us:
Just say yes Lord, what do you need? What can I do?
And then listen!!
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/QQvAEV6uXCo
Second Sunday of Lent
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
In Jesus’ time there were crosses everywhere you went. They were a common sight. The people nailed to them were not the Messiah, nor even heroic freedom fighters or brave idealists, by and large they were petty thugs, criminals, runaway slaves and frequently innocent people murdered because those in power sometimes do things just because they can.
Every cross had a meaning, it was a noticeboard, It’s message was who is in charge, and who is nailed here doesn’t count. Anyone who challenged authority was nailed up as a public spectacle - this is what happens if you stand against us. This is what happens if you rebel.
Those nailed to the cross were non-persons, non-citizens. Roman citizens were never crucified because Roman citizens mattered. They might be punished, even executed, but they were never crucified. Only the people who don’t count were crucified.
When Jesus walked amongst the towns and villages crosses were everywhere. They said who was in charge. And who wasn’t. He of course had a message about who was really in charge - so he knew full well the risk he was running.
Art and religion have often missed the point of what Jesus said to his friends. If you want to follow me then you should know the consequences. If you accept the authority I speak of you will be in conflict with the powerful of this world.
Art has so often depicted the meaning of the cross as Christ’s suffering for the world. Whether it be a painting, or the bloody reality of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, the focus has often been on the pain and gore of the cross.
Religious people have also often focused on the suffering. Sometimes using the cross to shock and arouse guilt. Sometimes using it as a sentimental self-obsession that God loves us this much.
But that is not the point of the cross.
You’ll have heard people say, we all have our crosses to bear - some minor inconvenience that has upset our plans - a broken washing machine, an awkward colleague, some disappointing news. Or giving up chocolate or wine for Lent. Taking up the cross becomes nothing more than doing something slightly uncomfortable to prove we’re faithful.
But that also is not the cross Jesus points to. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross.”
He knew the message nailed to the cross. This person doesn’t count. This person doesn’t matter. This person means so little we can do this, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Step out of line and this person might be you.
He knew that message all right - and he knew that those who followed him would tread the same path.
The point of the cross is not the suffering. The cross is where non-citizens are killed. Those who choose the kingship of Christ reject the kingdom of this world. Those who are non-citizens of this world are citizens of another. You have to choose who to obey. And if you choose God, be prepared to be rejected by this world.
We know, because we are an Easter people, that the cross is not the end. But its reality not denied by the resurrection. The risen Christ displayed to his friends the wounds of the cross. His risen body was still a crucified body. God’s greatest hope, greatest gift, greatest love, is revealed precisely in that moment of rejection.
God has chosen to belong with us, that is the crazy claim of a God born in a back street stable. The question Jesus poses to his friends is - do you choose to belong with God?
There is an irony in his question - “will you deny yourself?” The reality is that most of the time most people act and think in self-denial. It is the driving force behind the hunger that drives people to desire and acquire more and more. The illusion that happiness is a newer car, a posher house, a bigger television - which of course never works so the cycle repeats itself.
This is real self denial - the pursuit of happiness, and meaning, and love in all the wrong places. We know it is self-denial because it simply doesn’t work.
Over lockdown we have been walking every day, mostly through Whitegate woods down to the river. You see a lot of dogs being walked, and the happiest dogs are those with sticks.
One doggy was a very happy doggy, he had a massive stick. A branch fully six feet long. His tail was up, his eyes straight, his head held high. He was ever so pleased with himself. Until he came to a gate.
You know what happened next, he tried and he tried, but he simply couldn’t understand why the stick wouldn’t go through the gate. Any more that the fully loaded camel of a rich man would pass through a narrow gate in a Jerusalem city wall.
Jesus’ irony is a grim irony. He could see crosses all around him. He saw the denial of hope - will you turn your back on this, and embrace the cross? Will you stand with God with the rejected? Will you take that chance, and discover where that takes you?
The cross is essential, because it takes us to that point where the illusion is denied, and a reality unimaginable revealed.
O Lord, our Saviour and our God, whom nails could not hold to the cross, but only love; grant that we, who have received the fullness of your love, may be ready to bear before the world the marks of your Passion; for you are alive and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/x9CCI6pm2UU
21st February 2021
For the next few minutes I’d like to concentrate my thoughts on Verses 12 & 13 of this mornings gospel.
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan: and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels waited on Him”.
It seems that no sooner was the glory of the hour of the Jesus’ baptism over than there came his battle against temptations.
I think there is one thing which stands out here in such a way that we shouldn’t ignore it. Paul mentioned it on Wednesday evening at our Ash Wednesday service. It was the spirit who thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for this time of testing. The very same spirit who came upon him at his baptism now drove him out for his test.
In this life it is impossible for any of us to escape temptation in some form; but one thing I think is sure--temptations are not sent to us to make us fall; they are sent to strengthen us, our minds and hearts and souls. They are not meant for our ruin, but for our good. They are meant to be tests from which we emerge better and stronger to serve God.
Suppose someone enjoys playing football or rugby or some other game; suppose they are doing really well in the second team and showing real signs of promise, what will the team coach do? The coach certainly will not send them to play for the third team in which they could probably walk through the game and never break sweat; more likely they will send them to play for the first team where they will probably be tested as never before and have the chance to prove themselves. That is what temptation is meant to do--to enable us to test ourselves and to emerge the stronger for it.
One, if you like slightly technical point, as with many things we find in the bible forty days is a phrase which should probably not be taken completely literally. It is the Hebrew phrase used to express a considerable length of time such as when Moses was said to be on the mountain with God for forty days ( Exodus 24 ).
It was Satan, who we sometimes call the devil, who tempted Jesus. I have to admit to sometimes struggling with the idea of the devil.
So perhaps it would help to look at the development of the concept of Satan, which I think is very interesting.
The word Satan in Hebrew simply means an adversary; and in the Old Testament it is used of ordinary human adversaries and opponents.
The Philistines fear that David may turn out to be their satan in
1 Samuel 29; David regards Abishai as his satan in 2 Samuel 19; Solomon declares that God has given him such peace and prosperity that he has no satan left to oppose him in 1 Kings 5.
So the word Satan began by meaning an adversary, a human one and not one specific individual or entity.
But as time goes on it does take a step on a downward and somewhat more sinister path; it begins to mean someone who pleads a case against a person. It is in this sense that it is used in the first chapter of Job. In that chapter Satan has the particular task to consider men and to search for some case that could be made against them in the presence of God. He was the accuser of men before God. The word is also used this way in Job 2 and in Zechariah 3 . The task of Satan was to find and to say everything that could be said against a man.
As I mentioned earlier the other title often used of Satan is the Devil; the word devil comes from the Greek diabolos, which literally means a slanderer. It is a small step from the thought of one who searches for everything that can be said against a person, to the thought of one who deliberately and maliciously slanders people in the presence of God.
So far in the Old Testament Satan is still human individual and not yet the malignant, supreme enemy of God. He is more the adversary of man.
But now the word takes the last step on its downward course. Through their time of captivity the Jews learned something of Persian thought.
Persian thought is based on the conception that in this universe there are two powers, a power of the light and a power of the dark, Ormuzd and Ahriman; the whole universe is a battle-ground between them and man must choose which side he is on in that cosmic conflict.
To put a more Jewish/Persian slant on it, we could could take the view that in this world there is God and Gods Adversary, Satan/The Devil.
So it was almost inevitable that Satan/The Devil, should come to be regarded as The Adversary par excellence. That is really what his name has come to mean; that is what he always was to man; but now Satan becomes the essence of everything that is against God too.
When we turn to the New Testament we find that it is the Devil or Satan who seduces Judas in Luke 22; it is the devil whom we must fight in 1 Peter 5 & James 4; it is the devil whose power is being broken by the work of Christ in Luke 10. Satan, The Devil, is now the power which is against God.
Here we have the whole essence of the Temptation story. Jesus had to decide how he was to do his work. He was conscious of a tremendous task and he was also conscious of tremendous powers.
God was saying to him, "Take my love to men; love them till you die for them." Satan was saying to Jesus, "Use your power to blast men; obliterate your enemies; win the world by strength and power and bloodshed."
God said to Jesus, "Set up a reign of love." Satan said to Jesus, "Set up a dictatorship of force." Jesus had to choose between the way of God and the way of Satan.
And that is, of course the message for us all, in life we have a choice, to be a follower of God or to be an adversary of God, and all that follows on from that decision.
In our story presented to us by Mark the choice seems straightforward, temptation is clear to see and, of course, Jesus is strong enough to reject it.
For us it often seems to be so much more difficult and complicated, and as mere human beings we also may feel less well equipped to cope with it.
But note the last few words of that passage, “and the angels waited on him” or as it is in another translation, “the angels took care of him”.
I would like to leave with you the suggestion that we also have to remember, that just like Jesus in the desert, whatever temptations and trials we have to face, we don’t have to cope with them alone either.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/xNrM7x-aZLc
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”
Dust and glory and Ekballei.
Dust - Ash Wednesday brings us face to face with mortality. It’s something we usually avoid. I don’t know when you last walked along Llandudno pier – it is one of those places we cannot go at the moment. A couple of years ago we went on Shrove Tuesday, it was a lovely day. How often in February can you sit on top of the Great Orme, sheltered from the wind, and eat your butties?
We took it for granted of course. A drive along the North Wales coast, a walk along the promenade, then up the Orme. Never did we dream that one day such simple freedoms would be denied us.
It makes you think. Lent is a time to think. We are in a wilderness time. It is uncomfortable, it is hard, but remember that it is in the wilderness that God so often acts. It is in the wilderness that new beginnings happen.
The Great Orme is a marvellous spot, it must mean a lot to many people because if you walk out to the headland you will find several discrete piles of dust – people go there to scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
Actually, if you scatter ashes on top of the Orme they’ll all blow off and end up on the pier, so save yourself the climb and go to the pier in the first place.
Either side of the pier are rows and rows of benches, all but one bearing the name of someone held in memory. (The exception is a couple who bought a bench to celebrate their golden wedding.) Most of the names are not local people – they are visitors – people for whom Llandudno, the pier, the seaside, the windswept Orme, speaks of a better place.
Many of the plaques on the benches reflect the value of a better place – that where people are, their home, their work, the daily grind, they feel isn’t enough - there remains a longing for something above and beyond.
So it is to the seaside that people go to make that important gesture.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. This dust is both reality and glory. Scientists tell us that the stuff we are made of was born in the furnace of a star. Stars are the building blocks of creation – it is in their heat and intense gravity that matter is formed. If we are dust, then we are star dust. Every atom in your body was formed somewhere beyond – the dust that swirled through space - over countless ages becoming rocks and planets and water and air – and life – created in the heart of a star.
Which is pretty amazing. I often reflect the words of Wesley in his hymn – Love divine all loves excelling – near the end
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place. He didn’t know much about astrophysics, but he knew that it is the things of this world which reflect the glory that is to come – and are of themselves a glory to be rejoiced in. That’s important – the things of this world are where glory is to be found. Family, friendship, love, loyalty, compassion, glory is here, and it points to a glory yet to come.
So as you walk along the pier - every bench, every plaque, every memory, the celebration of a golden wedding – these speak of glory. And it is glory in the here and now.
The dust and the glory and ekballei.
Ekballei. We don’t come easily to the wilderness, to Lent. It is a tough journey and many choose not to acknowledge it. It is time to remind ourselves, again, year on year, of how Jesus comes to the wilderness. St Marks tells us that the Spirit ‘drove’ Jesus out into the wilderness. He uses the word ‘ekballei’ – it’s a forceful, powerful word. It’s where we get the word ballistic from – as in a ballistic missile.
The Spirit hurls Jesus into the wilderness – because this Lenten time isn’t a time of ease and comfort, we are disinclined to come easily, if it feels like a struggle then maybe you’re doing it right.
Dust and glory and ekballei. Over the next few weeks we will follow Christ in the wilderness. We need to make wilderness moments – and they don’t happen easily either. A moment to stop, pause, think, pray.
This year we cannot have Lent groups, but the Church of England has provided a good resource of daily prayer, reading and reflection. It is available free as an app, either for Android or iOS. Please use that resource, make a moment of wilderness every day. God makes new beginnings in the wilderness.
In my daily prayer I follow the Rule of Benedict. Benedict knew all about the dusty bits of life, the reality of living with ourselves and living with others. The reality of living in our world. The reality of living with God. And he knew it isn’t easy.
Benedict’s rule is at times down to earth, compassionate, realistic. And at other times it hurls – it makes demands that are uncomfortable – but important. He tackles head on the conflicting pressures of daily living. The joy of hospitality. Moments of solitude. Times of companionship. In the Rule we meet ourselves as we are, sometimes joyful, sometimes cross and grumpy, we recognise times when we fill emptiness with busyness, and what happens when we give too much of ourselves to the demands of others.
In wisdom we come home – the heart of Benedict’s wisdom is that we don’t need to look to the above and beyond, to the unreachable – to live well – in ourselves, with others and in God is not about being somewhere else and someone else. He brings us down to earth – to the reality around us, where God waits for us.
God waits in the wilderness. He needs us to stop and be still. He needs us to listen. He waits for us to empty ourselves of too many distractions. The wilderness is an opportunity, and like this hard and difficult time, in the emptiness we discover new possibilities.
There are no ashes this Lent. But we have dust and glory and Ekballei.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/CQXAn9PPqDA
14th February 2021 - Sunday next before Lent
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
In Chester I used to be one of the chaplains at our local hospital. A few days before Christmas we found ourselves with a group of volunteers from local churches singing carols around the wards. It is a big hospital and we had to fit into a tight timetable between ward rounds and visiting. So at each ward we sang two carols, then dashed along the corridor to wherever would have us next.
I wasn’t sure we were really doing much good. Most of the time the curtains round beds remained closed, or someone was obviously watching Corrie and just turned the sound up. But we persevered. We had a list and felt we had to visit every ward on it.
In the last ward we got to, a bit later than we should and feeling we were intruding on the busy staff, there was a side room with a door just ajar. A family was gathered, clearly deeply upset. Should we sing?
We decided we ought to, and the door remained open. We sang our usual two carols and then tried to leave as quietly as possible. I was the last to leave and as I followed our small group down the corridor the door opened and young man came out.
“My father has just died,” he said. “We’ve been here for hours, it’s been a terrible day. And right at the end you sang carols. He left this earth with a smile on his face. Thank you.”
There are moment of transfiguration. There are moments when you stand on a mountain top and everything is made clear. There are moments when God’s glory touches the messiness and chaos of our mortal humanity.
Remember what I said about Mark’s Gospel – it was written for Christians who were finding life hard. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Mark begins with prophecy, a voice often rejected, and with Jesus’ baptism, his identity with those who choose to follow him. And do you remember the voice that spoke at his baptism – this is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased?
Here again, in this moment of transfiguration, the same identity – this is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.
Mark is a master storyteller. In the shape of his gospel the transfiguration is a turning point. It is from here that Jesus moves towards Jerusalem. He knew where that road would lead, it is a journey towards the cross.
Mark’s readers were mostly Jews, people whose grasp of reality and understanding of who they were had two foundations – the giving of the Law and the voice of prophecy.
The Law was the bedrock of God’s relationship with his people. In Moses God had called a people out of slavery and led to freedom. In Moses they were chosen and God entered into a covenant with them. This was a mutually binding relationship. You shall be my people, I shall be your God.
The sign of this covenant relationship was the Law – that when people lived in the land God gave them they would remember all they had was a gift. They would treat the poor with respect, leave a harvest for the refugee, uphold the practice of Jubilee – a time when all debts are wiped clean. The poor will not get poorer, and the rich will not get richer.
These are a people living in obedience to God – a holy nation who did things differently. This is the Law.
Of course human beings fail, we forget our best intentions, we allow our dreams to fade, and when that happened God sent a voice to call people back, to remind them of the covenant, to heal the relationship. This was the voice of prophecy. Often a hard voice, but one that spoke the truth.
Two foundations of relationship – the Law and the Prophets. The Law given through Moses, the greatest voice of prophecy heard in Elijah.
And so in this transfiguring moment, when the path ahead is so difficult, when his friends cannot believe this is the road he must tread, Jesus encounters Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. Everything God has done leads to this moment. Everything God can do depends on what Jesus does next.
And he choose the hard road, he turns towards the cross.
“As they were coming down the mountain…”
We all have mountain top experiences. Moments when everything is clear, or something we do goes so well, and we sense a certainty that God is close. But you always have to come down the mountain.
If you read just a bit further then you find that as Jesus and his disciples came down the mountain the first thing they ran into was an argument. Conflict broke out, they went from the glory of the mountaintop to the messiness and chaos of other people.
That is how faith is. We need to be reminded constantly that faith is not about staying up the mountain where everything is clear. Faith is about clinging on that glimpse of glory when you’re down in the valley and everyone is being a pain in the neck.
Most of the time we are not up the mountain. Most of the time we are in the shadows of the valley and the way ahead is not clear. But moments of transfiguration happen, and they matter, and when they do remember what direction they point.
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/uEyw_-gbRRE
7th February 2021 - Second Sunday before Lent
John 1: 1 - 14.
And the word became flesh and lived among us,… full of grace and truth.
Each of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were obviously written by different men, but each were inspired and directed by the Lord. They were written with different specific audiences in mind, but together, they provide 4, complimentary, accounts of the life of Jesus.
John, the son of Zebedee, is the author of the Gospel we heard from today. That very familiar passage, loved by so many and often argued about as to which translation is the best.
John and his brother James are sometimes known as the "Sons of Thunder," most likely for their lively, zealous personalities.
Of the 12 disciples, John, along with James, and Peter formed the inner circle, chosen by Jesus to become his closest companions.
They had the exclusive privilege of witnessing and testifying about events in the life of Jesus that no others were invited to see.
Luke tells us that John was present at the resurrection of Jarius' daughter, and Mark that he was at the transfiguration of Jesus, and in Gethsemane.
John is also the only recorded disciple to be present when Jesus was crucified. He is the one Jesus spoke to from the cross about His mother. He is the one Jesus told to take care of His mother after He was gone. They were close.
John tells us a lot about the life and ministry of Jesus that the other writers do not tell us.
John tells us about the Marriage Feast at Cana of Galilee, of the coming of Nicodemus to Jesus, the woman of Samaria, of the raising of Lazarus, of the way Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.
John paid careful attention to everything going on around him, so he gives us many of the little details the other writers leave out.
When Jesus feeds the 5,000 with the fish and loaves, only John tells us they were barley loaves. When Jesus walked on water and came to the disciples in the middle of the storm, John is the one who tells us they had rowed between 3 and 4 miles when the storm came.
He is the one who tells us there were 6 stone water jars Jesus turned in to wine. Only John tells us about the crown of thorns and how the soldiers gambled for Jesus’ robe.
These are all the memories of a man who was there, who experienced these things first hand.
But in the beginning part of this chapter, John tells about things he did not directly see or know. These are things which could only have been shown to him by the Lord, showed to John so that he could record them for others.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . . .
These are the words of a man inspired and directed by God to teach us and to help explain to us who Jesus is and where He came from, and how God prepared the way for His arrival.
There was a man sent from God who’s name was John, is a God-directed passage telling us about the forerunner of Jesus, not John the disciple but John the Baptist of course, explaining how through him God paved the way for His arrival.
And in verse 14, John shares more of his God-inspired, but also directly experienced memories.
And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Most of us are familiar with the verse John 3: 16, explaining why Jesus came into the world, explaining how the love of God caused Him to send His only begotten Son into the world, to pay the price for our sins, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.
That is often quoted as the most important verse in the New Testament, many have called chapter 1 verse 14 the 2nd most important verse in the New Testament.
You remember I’m sure, it begins, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This can also translated as he pitched his tent among us. Many of the people of Jesus’s time were nomadic so a tent would be their home, not a stone or brick building, Jesus came for everyone nomad a town dweller, rich or poor, anytime, anywhere. We do not only find him here in church.
Can you imagine the love that drove God to have His only begotten Son, the Creator of all things, leave the glories and majesty of heaven to come and live as a man?
To know the pains, hunger, thirst, heat and cold, heart break and temptations that we know?
But He did, and John was able to spend around 3 years with Him, and took care of His mother after that.
If we could talk with John now we might ask him to tell us, like a good interviewer would, what stood out about the time you spent with Jesus? When you saw His glory displayed, you who notice all of the details, what stood out to you about Jesus?
Here we read what I think would probably be his answer.
We observed His glory, the glory of the One and Only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
We might also ask what was most important thing you personally took from your time with Jesus?
He could be likely to reply, I saw His grace and truth.
Years ago, a large international conference was held of religious leaders and theologians from around the world. In the midst of the conference, a quite heated debate began about what it was that set Christianity apart from other religions.
Some argued that it was God coming in the flesh that set Christianity apart from other religions.
They decided that wasn’t it, because other religions claimed that their gods came to earth to us too.
Some argued that it was love, or sacrifice, or the resurrection, or one thing or another; each idea in turn being shot down.
Finally, C. S. Lewis, the writer and theologian, who had arrived late, walked into the conference and asked what all the noise was about.
When he was told they were discussing what it was that set Christianity apart from all other religions, he said, “That’s easy. It’s grace.”
I can see why he said that, as John brings that message to us so clearly in this passage.
Yes, the thing that sets Christianity apart from every other religion in the world is grace, the “unmerited, unearned, undeserved, favour of God, given freely out of His love.”
That is what Jesus brought to us all.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
Let us pray,
Heavenly Father help us to meet your Son, and just as John did, to know your grace and truth on our lives. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mknb3TXSLm4
31st January 2021 - Candlemas
This child is destined for the falling and riding of many, and a sign that will be opposed.
Luke’s Gospel is full of encounters. He begins with a series of encounters. An older couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth and an angel. A teenage girl and an angel. The same girl, the same Elizabeth and an unborn baby - who leapt in the womb. Shepherds and a whole host of angels and a newborn baby. A young couple with their child and an encounter in the temple.
The encounters matter. They reveal God amongst us.
Candlemas is an Epiphany encounter. Truth is revealed.
It is also a pivotal moment. We take our last look at the Crib, we have our first glimpse of the Cross. Mary holds her son, and we foresee the time she shall hold his broken body taken down from crucifixion.
These are stories of contrast. The shepherds come and go, it is a brief encounter. One of the best books on funeral ministry was called just that. Brief Encounters.
I remember a mad old Canon telling a group of curates what the church was for. People come into churches, he said, ‘sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying’. We’re here to give them a glimpse of heaven. And then to let them go again. Brief encounters matter.
People come to our churches for all sorts of reasons. Christmas, a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. Like the shepherds they come, they see, they hear, and then they are gone. What did they glimpse? What did they hear? God is in those brief encounters – just as he chose the shepherds, disreputable and untrustworthy, to be the first witnesses to Christ’s birth.
And then we have Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna. William Barclay calls such people ‘The quiet in the land.’ People who aren’t interested in power or wealth or success or glory. People who just say their prayers and get on with life. Day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Anna and Simeon are in the temple daily – watching and waiting patiently, faithfully, diligently. The shepherds saw immediately. Anna and Simeon had to wait a lifetime. But wait they did – day after day, week after week, year upon year.
Different encounters – the same hope.
Some years ago, in a small room in a corner house, a group of teenage mums were playing with their babies, they were drinking tea and complaining about the price of baby milk. A grandma was serving biscuits and chucking the babies’ chins. She remembered her days as a young mum, during the war, when everything was rationed.
She asked the teenage girls why they didn’t breastfeed their babies – there was a silence. The mums looked at one another, then the bravest said – we don’t know how to.
So a group of grannies got together and they started a breastfeeding class – the next week the pavement outside was gridlocked with buggies. Teenage mums spread the word and the grannies rose to the occasion.
Our local doctor rang me. “I believe you’ve set up a breastfeeding class?” Well – not me personally. “How did you do it? We’ve been trying for years. We’ve spent thousands trying to do it.”
Ah – I said – what you need is granny power.
Luke’s telling of the story makes me think he took mums seriously. Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, her meeting with Mary – two women divided by age but sharing a common expectation.
Gabriel’s visit to Mary – and I always have to ask – was Mary the first to be asked? How many other young women had Gabriel knelt before and waited? But their weddings were planned, their hopes set, their answer was no.
We don’t know if Mary was the first to be asked. Only that she was the first to say yes.
I cannot imagine that Anna did not take this child in her arms – Luke doesn’t say it – but young mums delight when someone cherishes their child. I can see Anna, whose soul had been pierced, holding Mary’s child - knowing what Mary’s heart would endure. When Mary stood at the foot of the cross I wonder if Anna’s face came before her.
Candlemas connects us with signs, God is amongst us, waiting to act – maybe in a moment, maybe over years. We don’t get to choose how, we just have to be ready to say yes when it happens.
Let the flame of your love never be quenched in our hearts, O Lord. Waking or sleeping, living or dying, let us delight in your presence. Let the flame of your love brighten our souls and illumine our path, and let the majesty of your glory be our joy, our life and our strength now and for ever. Amen Johann Arndt, 1555-1621
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/tyMYM2NvlFo
24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
24th January 2021 - Epiphany 3
“I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades”
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. Our news is filled with pictures of exhausted hospital staff, schools coping with rapidly changing rules, businesses and livelihoods closed, many may never reopen.
But as the number of seriously ill people continues to be high, and the daily count of deaths continues to rise, so too does the number of people who have received a vaccine.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
This perhaps gives us a glimpse into the reality of life many have lived before, and many are living now, which so far thankfully we have been spared. Those who have lived through war. Those living in parts of our world whose stories have disappeared from our news – but their struggles continue. Those for whom our readings today were first written.
Now is hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
Both our readings speak of wedding feasts. Weddings of course are one of the great moments of hope and joy that stand as beacons along the path of our lives. Weddings are currently suspended, many of the couples we are working with have postponed their weddings three or four times. This has been hard and expensive for them, and for those whose livelihood is catering for wedding celebrations.
The wedding at Cana is often read at weddings, but I suspect couples choosing it don’t spot the significance of the story. This is an Epiphany story. The point is revealed in the final verse – this is a sign, it reveals Christ’s glory, and his disciples believed in him.
Weddings reveal glory, they are moments when two people make a commitment to one another, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to stick together through all that life can throw at you. The moments of joy and dancing, and also the moments of grief and mourning.
Life can be hard and dangerous. Yet there is hope.
I am convinced that everything of this world is about anticipation. We live in a foretaste of what is to come. If it is true that humanity is made in the image of God then somewhere in that there is the revelation of glory.
That God is about love and truth, and loyalty and commitment, and courage and tenacity, and compassion and forgiveness. These hallmarks are of God, and of human relationships – at their best.
In the midst of so much that reflects a fallen world, humanity at its best shines through. Those whose care for others costs them dear. Those who give of their time for others. Those who labour to make life better for others.
In this hard and dangerous time, we see hope.
In his great hymns, Love divine, all loves excelling – Charles Wesley concludes by referring to our new creation. That time when humanity is restored in God.
“Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.”
The key words there are ‘changed from glory into glory’. The best things of this world are a foretaste of that reality yet to come. Yet note this, they are glory now, pointing to glory to be. They are glory now. So we live in hope. And we must not take for granted those best things, those best moments, that point towards better things to be.
In our reading from Revelation, which is always a difficult book to read, but worth sticking with, the writer tells of falling at the angel’s feet to worship him. But take seriously what comes next, take this very seriously.
The angel’s response is unexpected. “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus.”
I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades.
When you looked in the bathroom mirror this morning who did you see looking back at you? I suspect that when you looked in the mirror you didn’t say to yourself – there is an angel. There is a messenger of God whose place is at the throne of heaven. There is a being who God sends to announce good news. There is a guardian of hope.
So hear the words of the angel – I am a fellow servant with you.
We live in hard and dangerous times. Yet there is hope. That hope is within us. For we are messengers of a world that is coming to be.
It comes closer one small step at a time. One kind act at a time. One work of compassion at a time. These fragments of glory become the glory. They are signs. These are Epiphany moments. In them Christ is revealed, that the world may believe in him.
A prayer of St Benedict
Gracious and holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate on you, and a life to proclaim you; through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/mFo8EhHyQGg
The Baptism of Christ
Our Gospel reading is Mark 1:4-11
“You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”
Our gospel reading today comes from St Mark, who begins the story of Jesus not with his birth, but in his baptism. That is significant. We believe that Mark was the first gospel to be written, it is likely he wrote for Christians who were facing hostility and persecution. So he sets out to tackle a difficult question.
If Jesus is the Son of God why did he die on a cross? And if Jesus is the Son of God why are those who believe in him suffering also?
You see the dilemma. If Jesus is the Son of God how can his life end on a cross, and how can those who follow him face persecution? Surely if Jesus is who he says he is, then Christians ought to be powerful and successful and the world ought to believe and be better.
So Mark writes his gospel rooting Jesus in the ministry of John the Baptist, who like the prophets before him came to a sticky end. John, you will recall, was beheaded by Herod.
The Jesus story begins for Mark not in a stable but in a river, at his baptism. This is the defining moment when Jesus leaves home to begin his public ministry. It is a turning point. It is the same turning point for those who have chosen to follow Jesus, who like him have entered the river and emerged baptised, members of a new community.
Mark takes care to remind us that at every step, in every encounter, Jesus faced hostility and opposition. Immediately after his baptism he is driven into the wilderness to endure temptation and hardship. The way of Christ is not the way of easy success and worldly power. The world can be changed, but it has to be changed the hard way. From within.
Most of us probably never decided to be baptised. I was baptised by the Revd Harold Dawson, Vicar of St Mark, Glodwick, my grandfather, in the font of St Nicholas, Blundellsands, on 26 March 1961. It was the church where my parents were married. I was later confirmed there by Bishop Stuart Blanch, who having laid his hands on my head was instantly elevated to become Archbishop of York. I am sure that was no coincidence.
I have not the slightest memory of my baptism – as I suppose is true for many of us. In Mark’s day things were different. Baptism was a life changing decision. If you chose to be baptised you became a target for arrest, torture and execution. It was not something people undertook lightly.
Mark begins the story of Jesus with the same experience as those who choose to follow him – baptism is a life changing moment.
The odd thing of course is that Jesus didn’t need to be baptised. He was born a Jew, this identity was his from birth, baptism was how foreigners, outsiders, became members of God’s chosen people.
And of course Jesus didn’t need to be baptised by John because John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance – that those who had turned away from God were given a second chance. Through the water of baptism the disobedient were brought back, the estranged reconciled. That surely didn’t apply to Jesus.
So when Jesus came to John – John was at first appalled. You have no need of this baptism. But Jesus insisted. This is God’s way – a path of humility, sacrifice, obedience, love. These are the tools by which the world is offered a new beginning.
We take our inheritance too lightly if we take baptism too lightly. We may not have chosen to be baptised, but we must choose whether we live the life that this baptism offers us. And the path of that life runs against the grain of this world.
As Jesus came up out of the water two things happened. Firstly the Holy Spirit came to him as a dove. That doesn’t mean a bird landed on his head. If it did baptism then services would be far more interesting. This is an epiphany moment – things are made clear.
This is a moment of decision. To leave the safety of a family home and begin the public ministry that leads to the cross.
This is a moment of identification. Jesus had no need to repent, but this is a journey that leads people back towards God. Jesus takes the first step on that journey himself, as a shepherd leads the flock.
This is a moment of equipment. All of us will have experienced times in our life when we have faced a challenge when we didn’t know what to do. As we get older we become less confident about tackling the unknown. Younger people have a much greater capacity to tackle the unknown with confidence. God is always in the moments when we take on the impossible. Some of the best churchwardens I have worked with have been people who told me they had no idea what was involved, and felt they were totally inadequate for the job.
God does not call us to the easy. He calls us to the hard. But he does not leave us unequipped. The gift of the Spirit comes in many forms.
This is a moment of approval. You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. Henri Nouwen said that this was the moment that identified Jesus and everything he did. The whole of his life is living the identity of being God’s beloved. Everything he did was seeking that same identity in every person he met.
You and I may not remember our own baptism, but we share these moments.
A moment of decision, made daily to take our baptism seriously, to know that we belong to an alternative community.
A moment of identification, to walk the Godward journey in the company of Christ and in the fellowship of others.
A moment of equipment, to face the uncertainties and impossibilities in the faith that God does not call us to anything that is beyond his ability to support us.
A moment of approval – that you are God’s beloved, with you he is well pleased. And to seek that in everyone.
Father eternal, cleanse and renew us each day by the power of your Spirit, that the goodness of the incarnate Lord may be seen in our lives; fill the Church, and the whole world, with the light, joy, and peace of his birth, that his second coming in glory may be hastened, and all creation perfected in his eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The YouTube version is https://youtu.be/HI-3IHYB5ts
Although we celebrate it today, officially next Wednesday is Epiphany, sometimes known as twelfth night, the time when most of us take down our decorations, if we have not done it before. So Christmas is over.
Or is it? In the Eastern Orthodox Church what we call Epiphany is when they celebrate Christmas. Epiphany is the revealing of Jesus to the world and as a season continues to Candlemas, the 2nd of February. So there is a case for keeping decorations up until then, if you really want to.
In our readings on Christmas day and since we have heard how many people went to see the new baby, notably first the shepherds, and later the oriental visitors. Late stragglers they may have been, but they were, they are pretty special characters in our story.
“Wise men from the east”, Matthew called them (Matthew 2:1). They had seen a star rising, which proclaimed the one born to be king of the Jews, and came to pay him homage.
So what of the shepherds and wise men.
Think how different the shepherds and the wise men were from each other. The shepherds probably wore rough clothing, for working outside in all weathers. The wise men, however many of there were, no doubt rich and important, and so could afford good cloth, even for travelling.
The shepherds would not have been well-educated, though if they were Jewish, they might well have learned to read. The wise men were proficient in analysing the movement of the stars and calculating the patterns of astronomy. They would have read books on wisdom and prophecy.
The shepherds came from fields nearby – ‘in that region’… The wise men came from the east – possibly from Persia or Arabia. They would not have been Jewish but most likely Zoroastrian.
They were utterly different in background, in culture, in religion, in appearance. But they all came to the crib.
And their paths to the crib were very different too.
The wise men had spent about 2 years getting to the crib.
They must have been looking in the sky and maybe elsewhere in nature for signs. They made calculations, and reflected, and thought.
But they did not get to the crib straight away. They may have made some detours, even some wrong turnings. (No satellite navigation .)
Matthew says that when they got to Jerusalem they had to ask Herod the way to the king of the Jews, and he had to get the chief priests and the scribes to do more research, which finally pointed the way to Bethlehem. It was a thoughtful, pondering, slow and difficult path.
Now think about the shepherds. They were not even looking for a sign. They were just getting on with life – “watching over their flocks by night” – when suddenly there was a blinding light, a loud voice, giving an absolutely clear pronouncement: “to you is born in the city of David a saviour who is the Messiah; the sign is this: a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”.
There was no deliberation amongst the shepherds: they just decided: “Let's go, now, to Bethlehem to see whatever it is that has taken place”.
They did not say: “well, I wonder what that was all about? I’m not sure whether we have heard right. Perhaps we should check in the angelic directory about the credentials of these messengers”.
They just went to see!
And they didn’t take 2 years about it. They ‘went with haste’ and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. It was a bright, obvious, fast and simple path.
Do you find your faith journey takes you on one or other of these paths? It might be that someone comes to God by a slow and rather winding path.
They might find hints and whispers of God in nature, and keep their eyes and ears open to the insights of others.
They may ponder and wonder, maybe having no clear idea of exactly what they are looking for, but still keep on the path, hoping that they will one day see the star come to rest, above the One they have sought with so much faithfulness and trust.
Probably for many of us our faith journeys are this way as we come week by week and year by year seeking the Lord of all in our readings, the sacraments and in our prayers.
Or you might sense that you are more like one of the shepherds: caught up in a spiritual experience, spontaneously responding with faith and acceptance. A sort of ‘St Paul on the road to Damascus’ thing. We see this emphasised in some kinds of worship and spirituality: especially in the more charismatic churches – ‘heart-stuff’ comes before ‘head-stuff’, and things seem clear, revealed, certain and demanding an immediate response.
We are each on our own journey and it is probably wrong of me to make such a clear distinction. It encourages division. We might then tempted to say, ‘feeling matters more than thinking’ or ‘thinking matters more than feeling’.
The fact is, of course, that there is something of the shepherd and something of the wise men in each of us. And this is as it should be:
God calls us through the willing response of our hearts and also by our thoughtful pondering about what the world is like, our own lives, and the mysteries of existence.
Think of Jesus’ mother, Mary, watching by the crib. Mary had let her heart be captured by the Holy Spirit: she said to the angel: “Let it be unto me according to God’s will – that is, she saw a sudden revelation, and she responded with a heart-felt ‘yes’.
But then in the stable, welcoming all these strange visitors who were seeking her child, the babe in the manger: Luke says: ‘Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Mary, is a good model for us as disciples of Christ, responded in a flash, and yet pondered for years.
One major thing which Epiphany shows us, that it was not just the Jews who would come to the stable, to their homeland, but all nations, bringing the wealth of their experience, and their insights and their traditions.
God calls us to be open and to welcome everyone who comes: whether they are tentative seekers or those who ‘know’; whether they are pondering in their search or feeling overwhelmed with the love of God.
Our journeys will all be different and individual, some harder than others.
However well we think we know our scripture and our faith, God still has much more he wants us to know, and so we need to continue on our way with all the enthusiasm we had when we first started out.
We will all find a space at the manger; we can all offer the gift of ourselves, head, heart and all; and we can all know that we are called and loved by the one who shines light into our darkness, and whose glory rises upon us, not just today but in the dawning of every new day.
The Revd Dr John Stopford
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/EtbOWkJgBTo