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:
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!

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Settle down!

This sermon was preached at a Service at which the Sea Scouts paraded

It’s not very often I open my Bible – or, these days, open a Bible app on my phone or tablet – and come across a passage I’ve never even heard of before, but, do you know, that’s exactly what happened when I read the Old Testament reading for today, from the prophet Jeremiah. I thought I had read all the book of Jeremiah, but this bit obviously escaped me!

Jeremiah writes a letter to the people of Israel, who have been taken into captivity in Babylonia, and this is what he says: “The Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those people whom he allowed Nebuchadnezzar to take away as prisoners from Jerusalem to Babylonia:  ‘Build houses and settle down. Plant gardens and eat what you grow in them. Marry and have children. Then let your children get married, so that they also may have children. You must increase in numbers and not decrease.  Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.’”

Well, what’s this all about, then? What had happened to the people of Israel, and why did God want them to settle down?

Well, a few centuries earlier, the kingdom of Israel had been divided into two, with the northern kingdom being larger, and the southern kingdom, Judah, being smaller. But the Middle East is, was, and probably always will be a very unsettled area, and back in the day, the strongest nation in the region was called Assyria. And eventually the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom, known as Israel, and carted its leaders off into exile.

The southern kingdom, Judah, struggled along for another couple of centuries, being more or less allied with Assyria. Eventually Assyria fell in its turn, and Babylonia became a power in the region. King Nebuchadnezzar was able to conquer the kingdom of Judah, and he carried its people off into captivity. Not everybody went, of course, either time, but certainly they would have taken the leaders and influential people, and their families and extended families, and what was left behind were the ordinary people. We do know that some of the people who went to Babylon had great influence there – Daniel, for instance, or Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You can read their stories in the Book of Daniel.

Anyway, the point was Jeremiah lived around that time, and he was one of those left behind. There seems to have been a certain amount of coming and going. Anyway, Jeremiah’s letter said what he believed God was asking him to say to the people: Settle down in your new cities, raise your families, and, above all, pray for your new homes and your new rulers. The people were obviously going to be away for some years, and it made sense to make proper homes for themselves rather than hope – as some of the crowd-pleasers kept telling them – that they would be able to go back home next week.

Well, that’s all very well, and all very interesting, but what does it have to do with us today? These people lived long ago in history, and there aren’t even many sources to confirm what really happened!

Well, that letter might have been written about two and a half thousand years ago, but it’s still relevant today. We are not exiles in a strange land – but goodness, more people are today than at any time in human history! Millions of people, quite literally, have had to leave their homes and flee to safety; many now have to live in refugee camps, which I believe is all very well in the summer, but would you like to have to live in a wet and muddy tent as winter draws on? No, me neither! Others have been able to get to safety in Europe, and many here, to the United Kingdom. Some of them set out to cross the sea in the kind of rickety little boats that would give your leaders a heart attack – and some, sadly, didn’t make it. And many, if not all, of those who come will do just exactly as Jeremiah told his people, all those years ago. They will settle down, get jobs, and work for the good of their new country. And if they are praying people – and many of them are Muslim, so they will be – they will be praying for their new country, and their new friends, too.

And if they are doing it, how much more should we be doing it? We are told to pray for our city and our homes, and that includes our friends.

Prayer is an odd sort of activity, isn’t it? Especially what’s called intercessory prayer, which is when we ask God for other people, and for ourselves. You would think God would know people’s needs before they ask – and of course, God does! But we are told to pray; it seems in the Bible that it’s absolutely indispensable. Jesus assumed that people prayed; you might remember that he said “When you pray....” rather than “if”. In a few minutes, when we have our intercessory prayer, I’ll be reading out a list of names of people who’ve asked the church to pray for them. Yet God already knows their needs. And it’s the same if you see on social media that a friend is poorly or something, and you stop what you’re doing and say a little prayer for them, even something like, “Dear God, please look after them and help them feel better.” God already knew they didn’t feel great....

I don’t know why we are told to pray, but we are. It seems as if prayer creates a condition, an energy if you like, that enables God to work. I do know that when we pray, things change. We change. The more we pray, I think, the closer we come to God, and the more we are enabled to see things from God’s point of view. We aren’t telling God what to do, although it might start off feeling like that; we are barely even asking, other than to say here’s this person with this need, can you do something about it? And sometimes God says, yes, here’s this person with this need, what are *you* going to do about it?

We can’t, of course, make someone feel better if they’re not well, but we can text them and say we’re thinking of them; if new children come to your school who don’t yet speak much English, you can befriend them, show them what they need to know – where the toilets are, for instance, or where to go when it’s lunchtime. If someone’s being bullied, you can help them report it, or just stay with them so the bullies can’t get at them. That sort of thing. And the grown-ups will have their equivalents, too.

But we need to pray, we need to bring our concerns to God. Jeremiah told his people to settle down, and to work and pray for their community.­ They needed to become part of their new communities, even though they hoped they’d be able to go home soon. In fact, it was about fifty years before they could go home – that’s another amazing story in the Bible, and you can read all about it in the books called Ezra and Nehemiah. But they did go home, although the Jewish community also ended up scattered throughout the world.

We need to pray for our community, whether large or small – our family, our schools or workplaces, our London boroughs, London in general – the Mayor and our elected representatives.... all of those. And for our government, for Mrs May and her Cabinet. God said to the people of Judah in exile: “Work for the good of the cities where I have made you go as prisoners. Pray to me on their behalf, because if they are prosperous, you will be prosperous too.” Amen.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Great Expectations

For the first time since I started using my Kindle Fire to record my sermons, the recording has failed me!  Only the first 4 minutes recorded, one of which had to be edited out when I dropped the microphone and couldn't reattach it to my t-shirt.

The sermon was a "sustainable sermon", and you can find the text here.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Things that Really Matter

Some years ago now I went into my father’s study, and found him reading his Bible. I enquired what he was reading, and he told me that he was looking ­ up the passage he had heard in Church that morning, as it struck him that it must have been written for people who owned more than one dog: “The more I called them, the more they went from me!”

Dogs do that. Puppies, especially. And so do small children – if you chase a puppy or a small child, it will run away, in the case of the child usually laughing hysterically until it falls over, at which point it howls. If you’re serious about getting either child or dog to come to you, you need to stop calling, turn round, and pretend you’re going to go away, at which point dog and child will usually come running.

This is a lovely passage, one of the ones in the Old Testament that shows us God as a loving parent, and helps us to understand why Jesus said to call him “Abba”, or “Daddy” - children today who speak Hebrew as their first language usually call their fathers “Abba”, and their mums are “Ima”.

Anyway, the person who wrote this passage, Hosea, was a prophet in Israel in the 8th Century BC, so ten thousand years ago. Which is a very long time indeed, but nevertheless! In the Armenian church, they celebrate Hosea and the other so-called “minor prophets” today, 31 July.

Hosea was one of those people who did things to illustrate what he believed God was saying, as well as saying them. He married a woman, Gomer, who was a prostitute, and she continued to go with other men even after she was married to him. This was to illustrate God’s sadness and disappointment that Israel was going after other gods and not worshipping God any more. And there are all sorts of doom-and-gloom prophecies, you know the kind of thing, saying that the people will be taken away into slavery if they do not repent and turn back to God.

­But Chapter 11, the chapter we read today, is a little different. The metaphor changes from a husband-wife relationship to a parent-child one. And God laments, loud and long, that his children will not come back to him. Verses 3 and 4 are maternal in their love for Israel, or Ephraim as it is also known: 
“Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
    I took them up in my arms;
    but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
    with bands of love.
I was to them like those
    who lift infants to their cheeks.
    I bent down to them and fed them.”

The image is of God as mother, breastfeeding her children, who then grow up and turn away, doing the things they know their mother hates. And suffering the consequences, too. And God also hates that:
“How can I give you up, Ephraim?
    How can I hand you over, O Israel?
. . .
My heart recoils within me;
    my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
    I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
    the Holy One in your midst,
    and I will not come in wrath.”

God’s own law says that Ephraim must be destroyed, but God’s heart revolts against the implications of that law, and refuses to destroy a beloved child. The Israelites did go into exile, as promised/threatened:

“They shall return to the land of Egypt,
    and Assyria shall be their king,
    because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
    it consumes their oracle-priests,
    and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.”

The King of Assyria was put on the throne, and the tribes were lost. Admah and Thingummy – Zeboiim, I think you say it – were two of the Cities of the plain that were destroyed with Sodom and Gomorrah.

But God didn’t cease to love Ephraim, even though Israel made its own plans, worshipped its own gods, and refused to turn back to God. That didn’t matter to the great Father-heart of God.

In our Gospel reading, we hear about someone else who made his own plans and they went astray. The rich farmer decided to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store his crops so that he would be comfortable in the future. But do you notice, it’s all “I, me, mine!” “I will build bigger barns to have more room to store my crops”. There appears to be no question of his giving away his surplus this year – no, he plans to be rich!

But then – the heart attack, the stroke, the ruptured artery, and bye-bye rich farmer! And who are all those crops going to belong to now? asks Jesus, cleverly coming back to the question that started it all: “Tell my brother I want my fair share of my inheritance!”

It is not earthly goods that matter. Not in God’s eyes, anyway. Elsewhere, Jesus tells his followers not to store up treasure on earth “Where moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break in and steal”, but rather to store up treasure in heaven. And that’s pretty much what he is saying here, too.

But what does it all mean for us, and how do we relate it to the passage in Hosea?

It’s about what we value ourselves by, I think. All of us here are pretty well off, by the standards of much of the world – I expect we are all wearing clothes and shoes – and if we are barefoot, it is from choice. We probably have a change of clothes and of shoes at home, and we can wash in warm water each morning and have drains to dispose of used water and other waste. We are going home to eat enough food, to homes that keep out the elements and are warm in winter; we probably have a television and a telephone, and may well have the Internet.

Now, there is nothing wrong with any of those things, as long as we don’t start to value ourselves by how much we have. And as long as we realise that most of the world doesn’t have these things, that millions of people have been forced to leave their homes due to war or famine and to live in makeshift camps with no running water or proper facilities for disposing of sewage, with no jobs, no residents’ permits, no real hope. If they have been lucky enough to be admitted to a European country they still can’t work while their request for asylum is being processed, and even though they get a small allowance, it isn’t really enough to live on, and certainly not enough to lead a comfortable life.

The farmer in Jesus’ story was valuing himself by his possessions, by how much he owned. It is a seductive temptation, isn’t it? Even the Jews were inclined to believe that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, and poverty a sign of the reverse. And we have all heard of “prosperity theology” which claims that God wants you to be rich – and so God does, but not necessarily in material possessions! In fact, they are of least importance, when moth and rust can corrupt and thieves break in and steal.

It is the treasures in heaven that God wants us to store up. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions”, and we know that values in God’s country are totally different from values here. But it is in God’s country that we need to store up our treasure!

So we need to stop valuing ourselves by our jobs, or by our income, or even by how hard we work for the Church. We need to value ourselves because Jesus values us. Because Jesus died for us on the Cross, and God raised him from the dead. Because we are loved so much that God found a way to keep us with Him.

“The more I called them, the more they went from me”, said Hosea. “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you,” says God to the rich farmer.

What are you valuing yourself by? And incidentally, it’s no good valuing yourself by how much you pray or use the other means of grace. Because it is only through the grace of God that we have any value at all in God’s eyes – but in God’s eyes, our value is enormous! Amen.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Thirsting for the Word

You might want to listen to the podcast, as between having written this and preaching it, there was an atrocity in Nice and an attempted coup d'etat in Turkey, both of which had to be talked about.  I'm told I "gabbled rather", and I expect I did, as I always do when preaching extempore!  See what you think!


I forget who it was who, when asked whether he preferred Martha or Mary, said:
“Before dinner, Martha; afterwards, definitely Mary!”

Me, I’ve always felt a bit sorry for Martha.
There she was, desperate to get all these men fed,
and her sister isn’t helping.
And when she asks Jesus to send her in,
she just gets told that Mary has “chosen the better part”.

Yet it was Martha who, on another occasion, caused Jesus to declare:
“I am the resurrection and the life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
And Martha herself gave us that wonderful statement of faith:
“Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah,
the Son of God,
the one coming into the world.”
Martha was seriously a woman of faith.
And she wanted to show her love to the Lord by providing him and his disciples with a really good meal.
Maybe she overdid it –
the Lord might have preferred Martha’s company, even if it did mean dining on bread and cheese, and perhaps a few olives.

The family at Bethany has many links in the Bible.
Some people have identified Mary as the woman who poured ointment all over Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper –
and because he lived in Bethany –
Simon the Leper, that is, not Jesus –
some people have also said that he was married to Martha.
We don’t know.
At that, some people have said that Jesus was married to Mary; again, we don’t know.
What we do know is that Martha and Mary were sisters,
and that they had a beloved brother, called Lazarus.
We do know that on one occasion Mary poured her expensive perfume all over the feet of the Lord –
whether this was the same Mary as in the other accounts or a different one isn’t quite clear.
But whatever, they seem to have been a family that Jesus knew well,
a home where he knew he was welcome,
and dear friends whose grief he shared when Lazarus died,
even though he knew that God would raise him.
Lazarus, I mean, not Jesus, this time!

In some ways the story “works” better if the woman who poured ointment on Jesus’ feet in the house of Simon the Leper and this Mary
are one and the same person,
as we know that the woman in Simon’s house was, or had been,
some kind of loose woman that a pious Jew wouldn’t normally associate with.
Now she has repented and been forgiven,
and simply adores Jesus, who made that possible for her.
And she seems to have been taken back into her sister’s household, possibly rather on sufferance.
But then she does nothing but sit at Jesus’ feet, listening to him.
Back then, this simply was Not Done.
Only men were thought to be able to learn,
women were supposed not to be capable.
Actually, I have a feeling that the Jews thought that only Jewish free men were able to learn.
They would thank God each morning that they had not been made a woman, a slave or a Gentile.
And even though St Paul had sufficient insight to be able to write that “In Christ, there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile”,
thus at a stroke disposing of the prayer he’d been taught to make daily, it’s taken us all a very long time to work that out,
and recent events would show we haven’t really worked it out yet!­

Anyway, the point is that Mary, by sitting at Jesus’ feet like that,
was behaving in rather an outrageous fashion.
Totally blatant, like throwing herself at him.
He might have felt extremely uncomfortable,
and it’s quite possible that his disciples did.
Martha certainly did, which was one of the reasons why she asked Jesus to send Mary through to help in the kitchen.

But Jesus replied:
“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Mary, with all her history, was now thirsty for the Word of God.
Jesus wanted to be able to give Mary what she needed,
the teaching that only he could provide.
He would have liked to have given it to Martha, too,
if only Martha could be persuaded that they’d be quite happy with bread and cheese.
But Martha wasn’t ready.
Not then.
Later on, yes, after Lazarus had died, but not then.

In many ways, Martha and Mary represent the two different sides of spirituality, perhaps even of Christianity.
Mary, wrapped up in sitting at the feet of her Lord, learning from him, listening to him,
was perhaps so heavenly-minded she was of no earthly use.
Martha, rather the reverse.
She was so wrapped up in doing something for Jesus
that she couldn’t see the importance of taking time out to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.
Or if she could, it wasn’t something she wanted to do while there was work that needed to be done.
She expressed her love for Jesus by wanting to feed him,
wanting to work for him.

All of us, I think, are like either Martha or Mary in some ways.
Many of us are more or less integrated, of course,
finding time both to sit at Jesus’ feet in worship, adoration and learning, and time to serve Him in practical ways,
mostly through working either in the Church or in the Community.
Others of us are less balanced.
We spend our time doing one or the other, but not both.
Mind you, it usually balances out within the context of a church;
the people who do the praying and listening,
the people who do the practical jobs that need to be done around the place,
and the people who do both.
And perhaps in an area, too, it balances out,
with some churches doing far more in the way of work in the community than others,
but perhaps less in the way of prayer meetings,
Alpha, or similar courses
and other Bible studies.
And so it goes on.

Our Old Testament reading brings this need for balance very much to the fore-front.
The Lord, speaking through the prophet Amos,
expresses his disgust with those who have failed to be honest and upright in their dealings:

Listen to this, you that trample on the needy and try to destroy the poor of the country. You say to yourselves, “We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so that we can sell our grain. When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and fix the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell worthless wheat at a high price. We'll find someone poor who can't pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we'll buy him as a slave.”’

And then, after a paragraph of warning of physical misery, comes the terrible warning: “The time is coming when I will send famine on the land. People will be hungry, but not for bread; they will be thirsty, but not for water. They will hunger and thirst for a message from the Lord. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken. People will wander from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean and then on around from the north to the east. They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.”

They will look everywhere for a message from the Lord, but they will not find it.” The people started off with dishonest measures, with forcing the poor into slavery, and end up longing to hear from the Lord, but the heavens have been closed off to them.

Why am I reminded of current events? This whole mess in our country, everybody wondering what will happen next; will we really have to leave the EU, and what are the implications if we do? Parliament going into a tailspin and leaders resigning left, right and centre – well, mostly left and right, actually; I think the Liberal Democrat leader is still there. Or he was when I was writing this, but who knows?

I don’t want to go into detail about the causes of this whole disaster; you know them as well as I do. The road this country has chosen to take over the past 50 years hasn’t helped – the erosion of our manufacturing base, the disappearance of industries such as shipbuilding, consumer electronics, aircraft manufacture and most of the vehicle construction industry.  The fact that we were lied to, over and over again, by politicians and by the Murdoch press.... you know all that as well as I do. And I’m finding it incredibly difficult to work out what to say, anyway, as I’m so aware that my experience as a White, middle-class, elderly British woman is so very different to so much of many of your experiences. What, after all, do I know?

But whatever our experiences, however afraid of the future we might be, can we do anything about it?

None of us knows what is going to happen tomorrow; we can’t see round the bend in the road. But there is much we can do – not least, to pray for our country, and for our leaders; for Mrs May as she settles in to the job of being Prime Minister, and the Cabinet she is going to have to choose – and the awful decision she faces as to whether and when to trigger Article 50, and whether she can lawfully do this without the consent of Parliament as a whole... she needs our prayers, I reckon, even if we wouldn’t dream of voting for either her or her party!­

Those of us whose Christianity is more like Martha’s will want to get involved in many different ways; those of us who are like Mary will want to spend time in prayer and perhaps even fasting for this country we call home.

We don’t know the future; but we do know the One who holds the future in his hands. We may long and long for a word that doesn’t come, but we know that we have not been abandoned. We know that we may sit at His feet and drink of His word, and we may, must and will trust Him for tomorrow. Amen.