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Sunday, 12 March 2017

For God so loved the world




The text of this sermon can be found here.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Listen to Him



1. Introduction

The problem with having two thousand years of Christian history behind us is that we don't always appreciate the significance of the stories about Jesus that we hear so regularly each year.
I'm thinking particularly of this story of the Transfiguration,
because it is so easy for it to slide over our heads and mean nothing to us.
It's not like Christmas, when we celebrate God's having come to earth as a human baby.
It's not like Easter,
when we celebrate Jesus' death and resurrection, with their obvious consequences for us today.
It's not even like the Ascension,
when we celebrate Jesus' going to glory,
so that the Holy Spirit can be sent upon us.

Does this story actually mean anything at all to us today?

2. The Story of the Transfiguration

Jesus had gone up the mountain,
with his three closest friends,
Peter, James and John.
And suddenly something happened to him,
and he looked quite different,
was dressed in white,
and was chatting to two figures who, we are told,
were Moses and Elijah.
What I am not at all sure is how they knew they were Moses and Elijah –
it's not, after all, very probable that they had their names printed on their T-shirts.
I suppose either they were heard to introduce themselves,
or Jesus knew who they were and said "Hullo Moses, hullo Elijah!"
Anyway, at first the three friends think they are dreaming,
because they were half-asleep anyway,
but then they realise they aren't.
And Peter, getting a bit over-excited,
as he tended to in those days, babbles on about building shelters for the three men, and so on and so forth.
He didn't really, we are told, know what he was saying;
he was just so excited that he wanted to prolong the moment,
go on being there,
keep it going.
Perhaps, too, he felt the need to say something to reassure himself that he was still there.

And then the cloud comes down;
they can't see a thing,
not Moses,
nor Elijah,
nor nothing.
And they are scared, and cold,
the way you are up a mountain when the clouds come down.
And then, the voice that comes out of the cloud:
“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
And they couldn't see Moses or Elijah any more, only Jesus.

“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
It wasn't Moses they were to listen to,
and it wasn't Elijah.
It was Jesus.
Now, for us, that makes a great deal of sense;
we are quite accustomed to knowing that Jesus is far greater than Elijah or Moses.
But for Peter, James and John –
and, perhaps, for Jesus Himself –
it was far otherwise.
They had grown up being taught that Moses and Elijah were the greatest historical figures there were.
Moses, in their hagiography, represented the Law,
the very foundation of their relationship with God.
And Elijah represented the prophets,
those men and women of old who had walked with God and who had told forth God's message to the world,
whether or not the world would listen.
There really could be no people greater than Moses or Elijah.
No wonder they didn't say anything to anybody until many years later, when it became clearer exactly Who Jesus is.

Because they'd been told not to listen to Moses,
not to listen to Elijah,
but to listen to Jesus.

Well, that's all very well, but we know that.
It doesn't mean anything to us today,
so why do we remember it?
Well, sometimes I actually wonder whether we do remember to listen only to Jesus.
It's not that we don't mean to, but we get distracted.
And I think sometimes we find ourselves listening to Moses, or to Elijah.

3. Not Moses

If Moses represents the Law, then I think we listen to Moses a great deal more than we mean to!
We know, in our heads, that what matters isn't how well we keep the various rules and regulations we impose upon ourselves,
but whether we are walking with Jesus.
But sometimes we act as though what we do matters more!
As if whether or not we pray, or how we do it, was more important.
As if the various restrictions we impose on ourselves were more important.
As if whether or not we read the Bible every day, were more important.
But what really matters is our walk with Jesus.
If we are walking with Jesus, then we are His people,
and that fact matters far more than the various ways we may try to express that walk.

And sometimes –
I am a bit hesitant to say this, in fear you misunderstand me –
sometimes we even put the Bible in place of Jesus.
It's an easy mistake to make, because after all,
we do sometimes call the Bible the Word of God.
But it's actually clear from the Bible that Jesus is the Word of God.
And the Bible is, if anything, words about the Word.
But it's from the Bible that we learn about Jesus,
it's from the Bible that we learn who God is,
and what sort of people we will become when we become His people.
And it's not too surprising if, sometimes, we get confused.
I have heard people say
"Oh, I do love the Bible"
with the kind of fervour you would expect them to use only of Jesus.
I always want to say,
"but surely it's Jesus who you worship, not the Bible!
Surely it is Jesus you are following, in that sense."
Of course, we do follow the Bible,
we would be very silly if we didn't.
If we didn't read our Bibles and learn from them,
we wouldn't know how to follow Jesus, and we'd go off on all sorts of tangents.
And of course, even if we do read our Bibles and learn from them, we can still go off at all sorts of tangents,
and get things tragically wrong.

Look at the Crusades –
hundreds of years ago, they genuinely believed that fighting and killing Moslems was what God wanted them to do;
they seem to have taken some of the bloodthirstier parts of the Old Testament a bit literally!

Er – has anything changed much? People do seem to want to worship a bloodthirsty God, a God who is judgemental and harsh, who wants nothing more than to condemn people,
and looks for any excuse to do so,
And, sadly, they apt to find him.
You only have to look at some of the stuff coming out of the USA these days, the Biblical literalism that demands that men have control of women’s bodies, that believes it is all right to hate people of certain ethnicities,
or certain sexualities.

And similarly, if we come to it looking for a God who is loving and kind,
wanting nothing more than not to condemn people
and looking for any excuse not to do so, then that is what we are apt to find!
So while the Bible is terribly important,
we have to be careful with it.
We can't rely on the Bible without knowing that we are to rely on the One to whom the Bible points.
The Bible alone, Moses alone, cannot save us.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"

4. Not Elijah

And if Moses alone cannot save us, how much less can Elijah!
Elijah was on that mountain-top representing the prophets.
We are to listen, we are told, to Jesus.

That doesn't mean that prophets are not important to us.
Prophets, of course, are those people who speak forth God's word, whether as preachers –
although not all preachers are prophetic, many are –
or whether more informally,
in the sort of setting where the so-called charismata are used.
Of course if someone is telling you what he or she believes God is saying to the assembled company, that is very important,
and you would do well to listen.
But you also have to weigh it up,
to make sure that this is what God is really saying.
They do say, don't they, that one of the marks of a cult is when the leader's words are given an importance equal to, or greater than, the Bible.
Which would not, I suspect, happen if the leader's followers weren't prepared to let it!
I don't know about anybody else,
but when I come to preach, I have to remember two things.
The first is that all I have is words.
They may be very good words, or I may have written a load of –
er –
round objects,
but all they are is words.
And unless God takes those words and does something with them, we might as well all go home!
My job is to provide the words;
God's job is to do the rest.

The other thing I try to remember when I come to preach is a story I read when I was training.
Two men were coming out of church on a morning when the preacher had been more than usually dull,
and the first man had not only been bored, but had had a severe case of chapel-bottom!
And he said to his friend,
"You know, there are times I really don't know why I bother!
I have heard a sermon nearly every Sunday for the past 40 years, they have mostly been very dull, and I can hardly remember any of them!"
To which his friend, who was somewhat older, replied,
"Well yes.
I've been married for 40 years,
and my wife has cooked me dinner almost every night of those years.
I can't remember many of them, either –
but where would I be today without them?"
In other words, our sermons are to be daily bread.
They aren't supposed to last a life-time, and be life-changing –
if they are to be, that's God's job, again, not ours.

"Listen to Him".
It is Jesus that matters, not the preachers and prophets of our age.
They are at best conductors –
they bring us to Jesus.
They are not Jesus, and we are very silly if we trust them more than Him.
They cannot save us;
only Jesus can do that.

5. Conclusion

It is not Moses we must listen to,
Moses who represents the Law, or the Scriptures.
It is not Elijah,
Elijah who represents the prophets and preachers.
It is Jesus.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Of course, the Bible is important.
Of course, our prophets and preachers are important.
But they are only important in so far as they lead us to Jesus.
That is what matters.
They do not, and cannot, of themselves save us;
only Jesus can do that.

And do note that I said only Jesus –
all too often we use a form of shorthand, when we say that we are saved by faith!
Mostly we know what we mean –
but it is not our faith that saves us.
It is Jesus.
Sometimes we talk and think and act as though our faith saves us.
It doesn't.
Jesus does.
We are saved by what Jesus did on the Cross,
not by what we believe about it.
Nor by what we read about it.
Nor by what our preachers tell us about it.
Salvation is God's idea, and God's job, not ours.

And that, I think, is the message of the Transfiguration.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
Amen.


Friday, 17 February 2017

Being, not doing

 This will not actually be preached, as it turns out the church I'm Planned for just has a token service - a "Parliamentary" service, if you will - to keep it open pending a new building.  I could wish I'd known this before spending two days of my life writing this, but as it has been written, I might as well publish it!

“Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect”

I was reading an article the other day by an American pastor called Amy Butler, whose church, like us, follows the Revised Common Lectionary. Not all of her article is relevant to us, as she lives in the United States, and the culture there is somewhat different to ours, of course, but this first bit is, and I’m going to quote it directly:

“In these weeks after the Epiphany we are hearing parts of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ famous teachings from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. Last Sunday in worship, instead of preaching a sermon I had written, I decided to “preach” the entire Sermon on the Mount – two full chapters with no breaks, the words of Jesus.

In coffee hour after worship, several people came up to me to tell me they really did not like or agree with some of the parts of my sermon that day. Two chapters. Read from the Bible. The words of JESUS.

Most of us really like certain parts of the Sermon on the Mount – the parts about the lilies of the field and where your treasure is there will your heart be also. But there are lots of other parts of the sermon, and frankly, many of them are quite onerous. There’s the love your enemies part, direction about not being a hypocrite, hard words about divorce, and a warning against religious leaders who smile too much. If you listen to the whole thing instead of picking and choosing the passages you like, I will guarantee you’ll feel uncomfortable …” (https://baptistnews.com/article/the-sermon-on-the-mount-is-counter-cultural-thats-the-point/)

And I don’t know about you, but the verse “Be perfect, just as our Father in heaven is perfect” really, really, really makes me feel uncomfortable!

How on earth are we going to be perfect? No matter how hard we try, no matter how fiercely we discipline ourselves, we are never going to be totally perfect.

Look at the Pharisees, for instance – they really wanted to be God’s people, and thought that they could succeed by doing. The trouble was, that they were so busy trying to act correctly that they forgot all about what God had said about looking after people, things like we heard in our first reading this morning:

“When you cut your crops at harvest time, don’t cut all the way to the corners of your fields. And if grain falls on the ground, you must not gather up that grain. Don’t pick all the grapes in your vineyards or pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. You must leave those things for your poor people and for people travelling through your country. I am the Lord your God.”

The Pharisees were so busy trying to tithe everything, even the product of their herb garden, that they forgot to look after their elderly parents or the travellers. They didn’t mean to be unkind; they just got rather self-righteous about things. They were too engrossed in how holy they were being that they didn’t have any spare energy to help their neighbours. And Jesus picked them up on it, pointing out, as I’m sure you remember, that it didn’t really matter how you washed your hands, or what you ate – what mattered was what you thought and felt inside, and how that expressed itself in practice.

Being perfect, in Jesus’ terms, appears to be more about who you are than what you do. We are told in John’s gospel that if we believe in him we are not condemned, but have passed from death to life. ­The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we can enter God’s presence with boldness because of what Jesus has done. The whole thrust of Paul’s letters is that we should rely on grace, not on the law. Jesus has taken the law to a whole new level; it’s not just about what you do, it’s about who you are.

Of course, who you are is going to inform what you do. Jesus reminds us that his people will love their enemies, as well as their friends; they won’t fight back when they are abused; they will pray for those who treat them badly, and in return, treat them as they would wish to be treated.

That’s not to say that God’s people are going to be doormats, letting others walk all over them. And it’s certainly not to say that you never pull up someone you see doing wrong. Remember our first reading?

“You must be fair in judgement. You must not show special favour to the poor. And you must not show special favour to important people. You must be fair when you judge your neighbour. You must not go around spreading false stories against other people. Don’t do anything that would put your neighbour's life in danger. I am the Lord.
“Don’t secretly hate any of your neighbours. But tell them openly what they have done wrong so that you will not be just as guilty of sin as they are. Forget about the wrong things people do to you. Don’t try to get even. Love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord.”

“Tell them openly what they have done wrong”.

Of course, like any of these things, it can be misused. We all know those people who like to “tell you the truth in love”, which invariably means they are going to be incredibly rude about something that’s none of their business.

But, by and large, it is not incompatible with loving our neighbours, of course. Look how we discipline our children, and remind them of the standards of behaviour we expect from them. Look at the demonstrations, the petitions, the upsurge in popular feeling that’s taking place in America at the moment, and to a lesser extent here. Many people feel that the attitudes and actions of Donald Trump and his government are not those that they can condone, and feel the need to stand firm against what they perceive is wrong. Many of us feel that our own government’s refusal to receive immigrant children who have lost touch with their families is very wrong indeed.

And, of course, there are others, equally sincere Christians, who hold just the opposite view to us. Especially, it seems, in the USA, where Christianity is very often allied to extreme right-wing views, extraordinary though we may find this. And, sadly, the extreme right seems to want God to be judgemental, harsh, unloving – the kind of God who says “You must be perfect” and condemns you for not being.

Well, I don’t believe God is like that. If God says “You must be perfect”, there must be a way of being perfect. The Pharisees thought it was about hundreds of very detailed rules and regulations which, if you kept them perfectly, would keep you right with God, but Jesus said it wasn’t that. Jesus said, so often, that it was who you are, not what you do, that matters.

John Wesley very much believed Christian perfection was a thing. He didn’t think he’d attained it, but he reckoned it was possible in this life. He preached on it and it’s one of the sermons we local preachers are supposed to have read – you can find it on-line easily enough. Anyway, he said about perfection was that it wasn’t about being ignorant, or mistaken, or ill or disabled, or not being tempted – you could be any or all of those things and still be perfect. Wesley reckons – he goes into all sorts of arguments here, mostly putting up straw men and demolishing them, but by and large he reckons that the closer we continue with Jesus, the less likely we are to sin. I believe he didn’t reckon that he’d got there himself, but he did know people who had. He said even a baby Christian has been cleansed from sin, and mature Christians who walk with Jesus will be freed from it, both outwardly and inwardly. I hope he’s right....

But the point is, we simply can’t be perfect in our own strength. You know that, and I know that. Trying to be will only wear us out and make us either give up in despair or become one of those harsh, unloving Christians who worships out of fear rather than out of love. We become Biblical literalists, and try to dominate women and feel it’s all right to hate people who are not like us.

No, the only way to become perfect is to allow God the Holy Spirit to make us so. To allow God to fill us with his Holy Spirit right up to overflowing. To let go, and let God, as they say. Amen.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Turning the World Upside-Down




Our readings today are both very familiar ones. The passage from Micah, reminding us that nothing we can do can take away our sin, but that God has told us
“what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah of Moresheth, incidentally,was a prophet in 8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and Hosea. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, particularly because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us.” But Micah said, “Ain’t gonna happen!” As one modern paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot, Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds!” Israel, back then, was a theocracy, rather like present-day Iran. Religious leaders held an enormous amount of political power, but they were not elected, and nor were the kings. So you had an unelected power-base who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary people. But “What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”

And then that incredibly familiar, perhaps over-familiar passage from Matthew, which we call the “Beatitudes” – the blessings with which Matthew opens the collection of Jesus’ teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, and so on.

So what are we to make of all this? Why do the lectionary compilers think that the Sermon on the Mount is so important that it deserves several weeks’ study?

I think, don’t you, that it’s because we don’t hear the words any more. We don’t hear how they would have struck the first listeners. We don’t notice them – they are part of our culture, part of the stuff we have “always” known about Christianity.

I’ve been looking at a few modern paraphrases of this passage, to see if they can make it feel more relevant. I particularly like this one, from a church in Australia:
“Those who depend entirely on God for their welfare
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“Those who are stricken with grief
    have got it made,
        because they will receive the ultimate comfort.

“Those who allow others to have first claim on everything
    have got it made,
        because the whole world will be given to them.

“Those who hunger and thirst to see the world put right
    have got it made,
        because they will be richly satisfied.

“Those who readily treat others better than they deserve
    have got it made,
        because they will be treated with extravagant mercy.

“Those whose hearts are unpolluted
    have got it made,
        because they will see God.

“Those who forge peace and reconciliation in places of hostility
    have got it made,
        because they will be known as God’s own children.

“Those who are attacked and abused for sticking to what is right
    have got it made,
        because they are already at home in the culture of heaven.

“When people turn on you
    and do all they can to make your life a misery;
when they make false allegations about you
    and drag your name through the mud,
        all because of your association with me,
    you have really got it made!
Kick up your heels and party,
    because heaven is coming
        and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams!
You are in great company,
    because they were just as vicious
        to God’s faithful messengers in the past.”
©2002 Nathan Nettleton

The thing is, back in the day, people thought – as we are inclined to think today – that when all is going well, when we have plenty, or at least enough, when life is smooth and there aren’t any humps in the road, then, they thought back then, and we think today, that God is blessing us. And, of course, that is true.

But it’s just when things are going well, when life is smooth and we are happy that we are inclined to forget God. Oh, we may go on going to church and so on, but we aren’t necessarily living a holy life. God is basically part of the background, not front and centre.

And so God asks, in the words of the prophet Micah,
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
Answer me!”

And the people, irritated – after all, who needs God when life is going smoothly? The people respond, “Well, okay, what do you want? Doves? Sheep? Rivers of olive oil? Herds of oxen? Our firstborn child?”

And God responds, “Don’t be silly;
You already know what’s wanted:
To do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God!”

“To do justice, and to love kindness,
 and to walk humbly with your God!”

God is saying pretty much the same thing here as in the Beatitudes, isn’t He? We are blessed – God blesses us – when we hunger and thirst after righteousness. We are blessed – God blesses us – when we are merciful, kind, treat others better than they deserve. And so on.

It’s interesting, I always think, that if you read Luke’s version of the sermon, he doesn’t say “Poor in spirit”, he just says “Blessed are you poor”:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.”

And he goes even further:
“‘But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
‘Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets!”

I don’t suppose that Jesus means that it is wrong to be happy, or to have sufficient for our needs, or whatever; it’s not about misery now in order to rejoice in heaven. After all, he is on record as saying that he has come that we might have life and have it abundantly! And given his own track record of providing several hundred gallons of wine at the fag-end of a wedding, and enough food from a small boy’s packed lunch to have twelve basketfuls of leftovers, he can scarcely want us to live in poverty and want!

But – people do. Refugees. Victims of war. Victims of famine. People who are homeless for whatever reason, often due to mental illness, but not always. And while one other person is in want, then we should not be content. You read awful things on the Internet about churches – mostly in the USA, it has to be said, but not invariably – where people are not welcomed because they are different, perhaps their sexuality is different, or their skin colour. And, of course, we in the UK have a very poor track record on that last one. No, we should not be content.

As St John reminds us, if we don’t love our brother, who we have seen, how can we love God, who we haven’t? If we exclude people for any reason, we are not doing God’s will – and it is those who we exclude who receive God’s blessing. If we say horrible things about people, we are not doing God’s will – and it is the ones we are horrible about who receive God’s blessing.

For Jesus’ followers, what he was saying was revolutionary. He couldn’t mean that, could he? He couldn’t really mean that God wasn’t blessing the rich and the powerful? It was the “little people”, not the influential ones, who mattered most?

But the Bible has always said that! “To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It wasn’t unique. Over and over again the prophets, perhaps especially Micah, but not only him, inveigh against those who use false measures, those who rob the poor, those who get rich at the expense of others. Over and over again we are taught that other people matter just as much as we do, if not more so.

And over and over again we forget. Over and over again we start to think that because God loves me, and I’m like this, the people who God loves are all going to be like this. We forget that God loves everybody. Even Donald Trump! Even members of ISIS.

But seriously, that’s why we need to be reminded of these passages every so often. God does actually mean it! “You are blessed” “You are happy” “You’ve got it made!” However we may translate it, it’s true that God smiles on those who this world considers of little importance. And we, who have been blessed so very richly with the material things of life, we need to keep an eye on ourselves lest we become complacent, and lest we forget God. Amen.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

His own people did not receive him




You might be wondering why I have chosen to have two Gospel readings today, and no readings from other parts of the Bible. The thing is, the ­lectionary isn’t at all clear which to use, and gives both. So I thought, well, why not have both, for a change? They both, I believe, have things to say to us today.

From John chapter 1, and verse 11:
“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”

“He came to his own country, but his own people did not receive him.”

The “He” we are talking about is, obviously, Jesus, and we are looking at part of the great Prologue to John's Gospel that we sometimes call the “Christmas Gospel”.

I believe, incidentally, that this first chapter of John is thought to have been written last, a sort of summary, almost, of the whole thing,
or it may have been a paraphrase of a then-current hymn, rather like Paul quotes one in Philippians 2.
Not that it matters, of course, not at this distance;
it is the Prologue to John's Gospel, and it tells us of the Word of God,
the Light of the World,
who was rejected by his own people but who adopted any and all who did choose to believe in Him.
Which is basically the whole of the Good News in one sentence, no?

Anyway, the thing about this second half of the Prologue is that it spells out quite clearly that anybody who does believe in Jesus becomes a child of God, not through physical birth, but through spiritual birth.

John doesn't tell us about the Wise Men coming to see Jesus –
only Matthew does that.
But the Wise Men are a vital part of the Christmas story,
however strange a part. Next week is the feast of the Epiphany, when you will be thinking a little more about the coming of the Wise Men, but this week, we have the second half of the story, the What Happened Next. And it doesn’t make for pleasant reading.
Matthew tells us the story largely from Joseph's point of view, of course, and there are some very serious differences, not to say contradictions, between his version of events and Luke's.
Matthew seems to think that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, which was where they moved to for safety after they came back from Egypt.
No mention of mangers or inns here –
and not even Luke says the manger was actually in a stable!
As far as I can tell, when he talks about the “inn”, he means the guest room that many, if not most, houses had on the roof, and where Mary probably expected to go to be confined, but if this was full of relations come to town for the census, she had to give birth in the kitchen. The manger would have separated the animal part of the house from the human part – people lived together with their animals in those days for warmth, as much as anything else. And we don’t know what time of year it was, but probably not in the depths of winter, because the sheep wouldn’t have been out in the fields then. So if the animals were in the fields, the manger would be empty, and make a very convenient cot for a tiny baby!

But none of that matters, of course, not against the real truth, that God became a human being:
the Word became Flesh and lived among us, as our passage says:
“The Word became a human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us.
We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father's only Son.”
That is what matters.
The details are just details, and are not important.

So we are told that the wise men came from the East – as far as we know, there weren’t necessarily three of them, and they weren’t kings, either. But they came from the East to worship the new-born King of the Jews, and when they found out that He was to have been born in Bethlehem, off they trotted – it’s only a few miles – and found Joseph the Carpenter’s house easily enough. But when they had seen for themselves – quite possibly, by now, a toddler staggering around and falling over and being shy.... they went home by a different way and avoided Jerusalem.

And Joseph and Mary and the child had to flee, too, in the middle of the night. Some people say the massacre may never have happened as there are no external sources referencing it – but then, would there have been? I mean, how many boys under the age of two were there likely to have been in a village that size? They reckon Bethlehem held about 1000 people of all ages, so probably only a handful of boys under the age of two – and, sadly, probably no more children than are killed every day in Syria. Absolutely awful for the parents, but not global newsworthy, even back then.

But the Holy Family are out of it, and have fled to Egypt. I’ve never been there, but my mother went and sent me a picture of the Pyramids with the comment that they would have been old when Jesus saw them as a boy! I wonder whether he remembered that in later life?

We aren’t told how long the family had to stay away, but with Joseph’s skills, he would have had no trouble making a living for the family. “Carpenter” isn’t quite an accurate translation of the word “Technion” - it’s the word we get “Technician” from. Basically, if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it – from designing them to building them to making the furniture for them.... so no shortage of skilled work. And it’s probable that, because they were, as far as we know, the only refugees at that time, they were able to take a proper house in a village somewhere, rather than have to live knee-deep in mud in a makeshift camp. But all the same – a stranger, in a strange land. Joseph was glad, I suspect, to pack up and go home again when he heard that Herod had died. But even then he couldn’t go home, not back to his old home in Bethlehem, but up to Nazareth, in Galilee – really provincial and in the sticks if you were the sort of person who’d always lived near Jerusalem. But it was safe, and the neighbours were Jewish, so you felt far more at home there... and it was a lovely place to bring up a growing family.

But we know that, once he was grown, it was a different story. Once again, “his own people did not receive him”, and he could do no miracles in his home town when, home on a visit, he preached in the synagogue and appalled the locals by saying “This Scripture has come true in your hearing!”

And we know, too, that later on “ his own people did not receive him” when the people who became his first followers were the outcasts, the prostitutes, the collaborators, even the Gentiles, the non-Jews. But we also know that “Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”

God himself is our Father!

How true that is!
And isn't God great?!
The magi came to Bethlehem to worship the new-born infant,
and we are invited to do the same.
But we don’t just worship him as a baby –
it’s not about going smiling down at a baby kicking on a rug,
and saying “Oh how clever” when he picks up a toy, or staggers a few steps unassisted.

No, worshipping the Baby at Bethlehem involves a whole lot more than that.
It’s about worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did.
We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes –
but we worship the Risen Lord.
We celebrate Christmas, not just because it’s Jesus’ birthday,
although that, too,
but because we are remembering that if Jesus had not come,
he could not come again.
And he could not be “born in our hearts”, as we sing in the old carol.

Christmas isn't just a remembering thing, I think, although that too –
it's also about allowing the Lord Jesus to be born in our hearts,
about renewing our relationship with him.

We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem,
but we also worship Jesus all year round,
remembering not only his birth,
but his teachings,
his ministry,
the Passion,
the Resurrection,
the Ascension
and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing”–
what was that song:
“I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” –
it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity,
but about God with us:
Emmanuel.
Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us.
He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....

Jesus would have been educated, as every Jewish boy was,
and probably taught to follow his father’s trade.
After all, we think he was about 30 when he started his ministry,
and he must have done something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in the Temple.
I wonder, sometimes, what he said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly did more than once.
A friend and I were discussing this once, and could come up with nothing more specific than “Something in Aramaic!”
God with us:
a God who chose to live an ordinary life,
who knows what it is to be homeless, a refugee;
who knows what it is to work for his living.
Who knows what it is to be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised.
Who knows what it’s like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power.
Who came to his own people, but his own did not receive him.

“Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father.”

This, then, is the God we adore. We sing “Joy to the World” at this time of year, and rightly so, for the Gospel message is a joyful one.
But it is so much more than just a happy-clappy story of the birth of a baby.
It is the story of the God who is there. God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Getting Ready




This was a "sustainable sermon", the text of which can be found here.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Don't be Discouraged


Long, long ago, in a land far away from here, God’s people were feeling discouraged. For many years, all the people who mattered had been taken off to exile in Babylon, and now only a few of the poorest remaining, plus people from other tribes who had taken advantage of the empty city. Most of the city had been reduced to rubble, and, worst of all, the Temple had been burnt down.

But that had been some sixty years ago. Now, the Babylonians had been conquered in their turn. King Darius was on the throne of one of the greatest empires the world had ever known, the Achaemenid Empire, also known as the First Persian Empire. It had been founded by his grandfather, Cyrus the Great – you might remember Cyrus from when you’ve been reading Isaiah – and now spanned a huge swathe of territory, which, at its greatest extent included all of the territory of modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, parts of Egypt and as far west as eastern Libya, Macedonia, the Black Sea coastal regions of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia, all of Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, parts of the North Caucasus, and much of Central Asia. It truly was one of the largest empires ever!

Obviously one person couldn’t govern all that, so they basically devolved their government into provinces, ruled over by a provincial governor. The area we’re concerned with today was known as Yehud Medinata, which is basically just a translation of “Kingdom of Judah”, but, of course, it wasn’t a kingdom any more, just one more province of this huge empire.

King Cyrus had decreed that the Jews could, if they wished, return to Judah and rebuild their temple, and appointed a man named Zerubbabel, a grandson of the penultimate king of Judah, as governor. Zerubbabel went to Jerusalem with the new High Priest, a man called Joshua or Yeshua, it’s not quite clear which. Unfortunately, not all that many exiles went with them. The people had settled down in their new homes, as Jeremiah had told them to so long ago, and now were prospering and most reluctant to uproot themselves and their families. Most of them had been born in exile, and had no idea what Jerusalem was like, other than that it was some distant corner of the Empire. No thanks, they were very-nicely-thank-you where they were, they might come and visit when the city was rebuilt, but not just now.

That was the first setback. But those who went with Zerubbabel worked very hard, and gave very generously, and eventually the foundations of the Temple were laid. There was great rejoicing – you can read all about this in the book of Ezra, if you feel so minded – great rejoicing, although some of the older people were overcome with grief at the memory of the first Temple, which they could just, just remember.... and this? Not the same at all!

But many of the people who lived in the area – again, this is all in the book of Ezra – didn’t want to see the Temple rebuilt. Now, they knew as well as anybody that really, only the people authorised by King Cyrus could do any building work, and anyway, these people were not really Jewish. But they came to Zerubbabel and said, sweetly, “Oh, do let us help!” and when he said “No”, they did all they could to stop the building works – sabotage, frightening people, and writing incessantly to the King to ask him to make them stop work.

And for eighteen years, no more work was done on the Temple.

But then King Darius came to the throne and eventually the situation came to his notice. So he wrote to the other governors in the area saying that Cyrus had authorised the rebuilding of the Temple, and therefore: “I order you to stay away from Jerusalem. Don’t bother the workers. Don’t try to stop the work on this Temple of God. Let the Jewish governor and the Jewish leaders rebuild it. Let them rebuild God’s Temple in the same place it was in the past.

Now I give this order. You must do this for the Jewish leaders building God’s Temple: The cost of the building must be fully paid from the king’s treasury. The money will come from the taxes collected from the provinces in the area west of the Euphrates River. Do these things quickly, so the work will not stop. Give them anything they need. If they need young bulls, rams, or male lambs for sacrifices to the God of heaven, give these things to them. If the priests of Jerusalem ask for wheat, salt, wine, and oil, give these things to them every day without fail. Give them to the Jewish priests so that they may offer sacrifices that please the God of heaven. Give these things so that the priests may pray for me and my sons.

Also, I give this order: If anyone changes this order, a wooden beam must be pulled from their house and pushed through their body. Then their house must be destroyed until it is only a pile of rocks.
God put his name there in Jerusalem. May God defeat any king or other person who tries to change this order. If anyone tries to destroy this Temple in Jerusalem, may God destroy that person.

I, Darius, have ordered it. This order must be obeyed quickly and completely.”

Quite a turn-round. And then, enter the prophet Haggai. We don’t really know who he was, whether he was one of those who went off into exile, or one of those who stayed behind. Either way, he supported Zerubbabel and Yeshua, and he knows that God wants the Temple to be rebuilt. So, three weeks after the work began again, he receives this message from God, as we heard in our first reading: ‘How many of you people look at this Temple and try to compare it to the beautiful Temple that was destroyed? What do you think? Does this Temple seem like nothing when you compare it with the first Temple? But the Lord says, “Zerubbabel, don’t be discouraged!” And the Lord says, “Joshua son of Jehozadak, you are the high priest. Don’t be discouraged! And all you people who live in the land, don’t be discouraged! Continue this work, because I am with you.”’

“Don’t be discouraged”. That was God’s message to the people of Jerusalem at that time. The Temple was at that stage of construction that you wish you’d never started, when it gets worse before it gets better. You know what it’s like, when you set out to have a massive tidy-up at home, it always gets worse before it gets better, and half-way through you start to wish you hadn’t bothered! “Don’t be discouraged.”

It’s a good message for us just now, isn’t it? 2016 has been an appalling year so far – not just the celebrity deaths, sad though they are. But the Brexit referendum, and the upsurge in racism and intolerance we’ve seen since then, the awful situation in Calais, the sword of Damocles hanging over us in the shape of the US elections this coming week.... it’s been a dreadful year so far and it’s not over yet.

But I do truly believe that God says to us “Don’t be discouraged!” The Christians in Thessalonica appear to have been discouraged, too, when St Paul wrote to them. They had received false teaching, saying that Christ had already returned, and they thought they had missed out. Which they hadn’t. St Paul points out that there has to be tribulation first, and this hadn’t happened at the time of writing, so Jesus can’t possibly have returned yet. And when he does, they’ll all know all about it!

And he goes on to tell them not to be discouraged, either: “Brothers and sisters, you are people the Lord loves. And we always thank God for you. That’s what we should do, because God chose you to be some of the first people to be saved. You are saved by the Spirit making you holy and by your faith in the truth. God chose you to have that salvation. He chose you by using the Good News that we told you. You were chosen so that you can share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, brothers and sisters, stand strong and continue to believe the teachings we gave you when we were there and by letter.”

“Brothers and sisters, you are the people the Lord loves.” And that’s just as true for us as it was for the people of Thessalonica. We, too, are saved by the Spirit making us holy, and by our faith in the truth, and God chose us to have that salvation.

So, in the face of all the awful things happening around us, let’s not be discouraged! We are the people the Lord loves, and we will continue to share that love with others in His name, no matter how many awful things happen. No matter what the result of the American election. No matter how badly our quality of life may deteriorate when we leave the EU. If we leave – I still find it hard to believe that anything so disastrous could possibly happen.

We are the people the Lord loves. We will not allow ourselves to be discouraged. Amen!