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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.
particularly of this story of the Transfiguration,
because it is so easy
for it to slide over our heads and mean nothing to us.
like Christmas, when we celebrate God's having come to earth as a
It's not like Easter,
when we celebrate
Jesus' death and resurrection, with their obvious consequences for us
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
with his three closest
Peter, James and
And suddenly something happened to him,
and he looked quite
was dressed in white,
and was chatting to two
figures who, we are told,
were Moses and
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.
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
but then they realise
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
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
And then the cloud
they can't see a thing,
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
It was Jesus.
Now, for us, that makes a great deal of
we are quite accustomed
to knowing that Jesus is far greater than Elijah or Moses.
Peter, James and John –
and, perhaps, for Jesus
it was far
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
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
but to listen to
Well, that's all very
well, but we know that.
It doesn't mean anything to us today,
so why do we remember
Well, sometimes I
actually wonder whether we do remember to listen only to Jesus.
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
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
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.
whether or not we read the Bible every day, were more important.
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
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
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
with the kind of
fervour you would expect them to use only of Jesus.
I always want
"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
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.
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
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
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
and looks for any
excuse to do so,
And, sadly, they apt to
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
we have to be careful
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
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
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
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
I don't know about
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 –
but all they are is
And unless God takes those words and does something with
them, we might as well all go home!
My job is to provide
God's job is to do the
The other thing I try
to remember when I come to preach is a story I read when I was
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
"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,
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.
It is Jesus that matters, not the preachers and
prophets of our age.
They are at best conductors –
they bring us to
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.
It is not Moses we must
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
Of course, our prophets and preachers are
But they are only important in so far as they lead us
That is what matters.
They do not, and cannot, of
themselves save us;
only Jesus can do
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
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.
saved by what Jesus did on the Cross,
not by what we believe
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!"
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 …”
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
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
“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
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.
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;
what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love
and to walk humbly with your
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
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
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
have got it made,
because they are already at home in the culture of
“Those who are stricken with grief
have got it made,
they will receive the ultimate comfort.
“Those who allow
others to have first claim on everything
got it made,
whole world will be given to them.
“Those who hunger and
thirst to see the world put right
have got it
because they will be
“Those who readily treat others better
than they deserve
have got it made,
because they will be treated with extravagant
“Those whose hearts are unpolluted
have got it made,
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
“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
“When people turn on you
do all they can to make your life a misery;
when they make false
allegations about you
and drag your name
through the mud,
because of your association with me,
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
because they were just as
to God’s faithful
messengers in the past.”
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
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
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
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,
walk humbly with your God!”
“To do justice, and to love kindness,
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
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
you will laugh.”
And he goes even further:
“‘But woe to you who are rich,
have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full
for you will be hungry.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
God himself is our
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.
worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did.
We kneel at the cradle
in Bethlehem, yes –
but we worship the
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
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
but his teachings,
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:
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
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.
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
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.”’
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
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
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
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!
Welcome! I am a Methodist Local Preacher, and preach roughly once a month, or thereabouts. If you wish to take a RSS feed, or become a follower, so that you know when a new sermon has been uploaded, please feel free to do so.
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