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Sunday, 5 May 2019

Peter and Paul

Another "Golden Oldie"

Our readings today are about two very different men, both of whom were leaders of the very early church, and both of whom had made appallingly bad starts!

To take them in chronological order, first of all there was Peter.
Simon, as his original name was –

Peter was basically a nickname Jesus gave him.
It means stone or rock;
if Jesus had been speaking English, he might have nicknamed him “Rock” or “Rocky”.
“You're Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.”
But the Greek word was “Petros”, so we know him as Peter.

Anyway, as you know, Peter was an impulsive type,
probably with a hot temper.
We probably know more about him than we know about any of the Twelve, as it is often his comments and answers that are quoted.
And, sadly, the fact that when push came to shove his courage failed him
and he pretended he didn't know Jesus.
And our Gospel reading today is all about his reinstatement.

It’s not very clear how this story fits in with the rest of John’s Gospel, which seemed to come to an end after last week’s reading.
But the writer seemed to find it necessary to add this additional story.
The disciples have gone back to Galilee after the Resurrection,
and have gone fishing.
I suppose they must have thought that it was all over,
not realising how much their lives were going to change.
And although the other gospel-writers tell us that Peter had seen the risen Lord, he still seems to have had trouble forgiving himself for the denials.
So when he realises that it is Jesus on the lake shore, he grabs his tunic –
he will have been working naked in the boat –
and swims to shore.
And they all have breakfast together, and then Jesus turns to Peter.
You can imagine, can't you, that Peter's heart started beating rather faster than usual.

Now, part of the whole point of this story doesn't actually work in English, because we only have one word for love, which we use for loving anything from God down to strawberries, including our spouse, our children, our best friends and the writings of Jane Austen!

But the Greeks had several different words for love.
There was eros, which was erotic love, the love between a man and a woman;
then there was storge, which was affection, family love, the love between parents and children.
Then, and these are the two words that are relevant to us here, there was philia, which is friendship, comradeship, and agape, a word only found in the New Testament, which means God's love.
And when Jesus says to Peter “Do you love me?” he uses the word agape.
Do you love me with God's love.
And Peter can't quite manage to say that, and so in his reply he uses philia.
“Yes, Lord, you know I'm your friend”.
And Jesus commissions him to “Feed my lambs.”

This happens again.
“Do you love me with God's love?”
“Lord, you know I'm your friend!”
“So take care of my sheep.”

And then the third time.
Well, that's logical, there were three denials, so perhaps three reinstatements.
But this time it is different:
“Simon, son of John, are you my friend?”

Peter doesn't quite know what to answer.
“Lord, you know everything;
you know whether I'm your friend or not!”
And Jesus tells him, again, to feed His sheep.
And comments that he will die a martyr's death, but instructs him to “Follow Me!”

And, we are told, Peter did follow Jesus.
We know he was in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came,
and it was he who preached so powerfully that day that three thousand people were converted.
We know he was imprisoned, and miraculously released from prison;
there is that wonderful scene where he goes and knocks on the door of the safe house,
interrupting the prayer-meeting that has been called for the sole purpose of praying for him,
and the girl who answers the door is so shocked she leaves him standing there while she goes and tells the others, and they don't believe her!
Quite the funniest scene in the Bible, I think.

Anyway, we know that Peter ended up in Rome, and, sadly, tradition tells us that he was crucified upside-down, which those who wrote down John's gospel would have known, which is arguably why it was mentioned.

But the point is, he was completely and utterly forgiven and reinstated, and God used him beyond his wildest dreams.

And so to St Paul.
Now Paul, at that stage known as Saul, also needed a special touch from God.
He couldn't have been more different from Peter, though.
He was born a Roman citizen in the city of Tarsus.
He was well-educated, and had probably gone to university,
contrasting with Peter, who, it is thought, only had the basic education that all Jewish boys of his time and class would have had.
He was a Pharisee, the most learned and holy of the Jewish religious leaders of the day.
And, like so many Pharisees, he felt totally threatened by this new religious movement that was springing up, almost unstoppably.
It was, he thought, complete nonsense, and not only that, it was blasphemy!
He set himself to hunt down and kill as many believers as he could.

But God had other ideas, and grabbed Saul on his way to Damascus.
And we all know what happened then –
he was blind for three days, and then a very brave man called Ananias came and laid hands on him,
whereupon he could see again, and then,
after some time out for prayer and study,
he became the apostle to the Gentiles, so-called, and arguably the greatest influence on Christianity ever.
He had a knack for putting the great truths about God and about Jesus into words, and even today, we study his letters very seriously.

He started off by persecuting believers, but in the end, God used him beyond his wildest dreams!

So you see the common link between these two men:
one an uneducated provincial fisherman,
the other a suave and sophisticated Pharisee, and a Roman citizen, to boot.
Peter knew how dreadfully he had sinned;
Paul thought he was in the right.
But they both needed a touch from God, they both needed explicit forgiveness,
they both needed to know that they were loved, no matter what they had done.

And they both responded.

If this had just been a story of how God spoke to two different men in two different ways, that would be one thing.
It would be a fabulous story in its own right.
It would show us that we, too, no matter how dreadful we are,
no matter how prone to screw things up,
we too could be loved and forgiven and reinstated.
And this is, of course, true. We are human.
We screw up –
that, after all, is what sin is, when you come down to it –
the human propensity to screw things up.
Which we all do in our own particular ways.
It doesn't actually matter how we mess up –
we all mess up in different ways,
and sometimes we all mess up in the same way.
It is part of being human.
God's forgiveness is constant and unremitting –
all we have to do is to receive it.
There is no more forgiveness for a mass murderer
than there is for you or for me.
And there is no less forgiveness, either.
It is offered to us all, everybody,
even the worst sort of person you can possibly imagine.
No nonsense about God hating this group of people, or that group of people.
He doesn't.
He loves them, and offers forgiveness to them as and where they need it,
just as he does to you,
and just as he does to me.

But, as I implied, that isn't quite the end of the story.
It would have been a wonderful story, even if we had never heard of Peter or of Paul again.
There are one or two marvellous stories in Acts that we don't know how they came out –
I'm thinking here of Cornelius and the Ethiopian treasury official;
both men became Christians,
one through Peter's ministry and one through Philip's,
but we are not told what became of them.
We don't know what became of the slave Onesimus, either;
the one who had to return home to Philemon,
bearing with him a letter from Paul asking Philemon to receive him as a brother in Christ.

But we do know what happened to Peter and to Paul.
They both responded to God's forgiveness.
They received it.
They offered themselves to Christ's service and, through their ministry, millions of people down the centuries have come to know and love the Lord Jesus.

Of course, they were exceptional.
We know their stories, just as we know the stories of John Wesley,
of people like Dwight L Moody, or David Livingstone,
Eric Liddell or Billy Graham.
But there are countless thousands of men and women whose stories we don't know,
who received God's forgiveness,
offered themselves to His service,
and through whose ministry many millions of men and women came to know and love the Lord.
Some of them went to live and work somewhere else,
but many of them lived out a life of quiet service exactly where they were.
Some of them, sadly, were imprisoned or even put to death for their faith,
but many died in their own beds.

And you see where this is going, don't you?
Now, I know as well as you do that this is where we all start to wriggle and to feel all hot and bothered,
and reckon we can't possibly be doing enough in Christ's service,
or that we are a rotten witness to his love and forgiveness.
But that isn't really what it's about.
For a start, we are told that when the Holy Spirit comes,
we will be witnesses to Christ –
not that we ought to be, or we must be, but that we will be!
And I know that many of you are doing all you can to serve the Lord exactly where you are, and I'm sure you're doing a wonderful job of it, too.

But maybe it never occurred to you to offer.
Maybe you accepted Jesus' forgiveness, and promised to be his person, and rather left it at that.
That's fine, of course, but what if you're missing out?
You see, the giving and offering isn't all on our side –
how could it be?
And when we offer ourselves to Christ's service, you wouldn't believe –
or perhaps you already know –
the wonderful gifts He gives to help you do whatever is is you're asked to do.
I know that sometimes people have even wondered if God could possibly be calling them to do whatever it is,
as they want to do it so badly that it might be just their own wants!
But, you see, God wouldn't call you to do something you would hate, would he?
And so what if it did end badly?
Look at a young lawyer, in a country far from here, who was thrown into prison for his faith, which led him to stand up for what he believed was right against the government of the day.
He left his country when he was released from prison –
and to this day he will tell you that it was knowing his Bible as well as he did that helped him stay sane while he was in it –
you may have known him, for some years ago he was a local vicar and now he is the Archbishop of York!

I'm rather waffling now, so I'll shut up.
But I do just want to leave this with you:
Perhaps, today, you just needed to be reminded that God loves and forgives you, whoever you are and whatever you have done.
But it maybe you need to think:
have you ever offered yourself to God's service as Peter did, as Paul did, as so many down the years have?
And is God, perhaps, calling you to something new?

Sunday, 28 April 2019

Thomas Gives Permission

I did preach during Lent, on Palm Sunday, but the service was substantially the same as the one I led three years ago, so didn't bother uploading it, and there was no recording.

For this week, the text is pretty much the same as my "usual" Thomas sermon, but I'm uploading it again to make it easier to find.  


Today is one of those rare Sundays when we have the same Gospel reading every year;
the story of Thomas.
Doubting Thomas, we call him in the West, which is really rather unfair of us, as if it were the only thing about him that mattered!

This story, of course, begins on the evening of the Resurrection.
According to John's account –
and yes, it does differ a little from some of the other accounts, as he puts in far more detail –
the first person to have seen the risen Jesus was Mary Magdalene.
She had gone to the tomb very early,
and found that it was empty.
And while she was weeping quietly in the garden,
Jesus had come to her and reassured her.
Peter and John had also seen the empty tomb,
but had not yet met with the risen Jesus,
and the account isn't terribly clear as to whether or not they realised what had happened.

Anyway, that evening the disciples are together,
and Jesus comes to them, as we heard read.
He reassures them,
and reminds them of some of his earlier teachings,
and then, apparently, disappears again.

But Thomas isn't there.
We aren't told whether he hadn't yet arrived
or whether he had just left the room for a few moments,
gone to the loo, or to buy a meal for everyone,
or something similar.
But whatever, he misses Jesus.
And, of course,
he doesn't believe a word of it.
The others are setting him up.
Or it was a hallucination.
Or something.
But it couldn't possibly be true.
And for a whole week he goes round muttering,
while the others are rejoicing.
Goodness, he must have been cross and miserable,
and the others must have been so frustrated that they couldn't help him.

And then Jesus is there again,
with a special word of reassurance,
just for Thomas.
He gets his side out, showing the wound.
Perhaps Thomas would care to touch it?
This isn't ectoplasm,
it's proper flesh.

Thomas can take Jesus' hand again,
just as before.
And Thomas bows down in awe and worship.
So what can we learn from the story of Thomas?
I personally find the story a very liberating one.
From Thomas,
I learn that I have
permission to wait,
permission to doubt,
and permission to change my mind.

Firstly, then,
Thomas tells us we have permission to wait.
That sounds odd,
but don't forget it was a whole week until Jesus put him out of his misery.
It must have been a pretty endless time,
feeling sure that his friends had got it wrong,
wondering who was going mad,
them or him.
But Thomas put up with it.
He didn't abandon his friends,
he didn't run off and do something different.
Instead, he stayed with them and put up with the pain and confusion and bewilderment,
and ultimately Jesus put everything right.
The Lectionary celebrates this every year on this Sunday;
it is the anniversary of the day when Jesus came to Thomas and put it all right for him.

A whole week, though.
Imagine that.
It must have felt like an eternity of doubt,
of confusion,
of bafflement.
The others were all totally convinced they’d seen Jesus,
and as far as Thomas was concerned, they’d all run quite mad.

So often we want things now.
If we are unwell, or grieving,
we want instant healing –
we want the confusion to be resolved.
What was that old prayer:
"God, give me patience, and I want it now!"
At the moment I’m trying to get used to missing my father, who died a few weeks ago.
I’d love to stop minding so much, but I know really I need to go through this process in order to come to terms with his death.
And I also know that it will take just exactly as long as it takes.
I can’t hurry the process;
I can’t feel better just because people want me to;
or even just because I want to!
These things take their own time, and there is not a lot we can do about it.
Nevertheless, we don't like to experience bad feelings, obviously,
and we want them to go away.
We also don't like to watch someone else experiencing bad feelings.
We might try to deny their feelings,
telling them they don't feel like that.
Or we might try to tell them they are wrong or wicked to have those feelings.
I’ve heard people say that if we have asked for healing,
we should then proceed to deny we feel ill!
When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, I'm told that after a few weeks people start expecting you to be “over it”.
No wonder people hide their feelings, and when asked, meaningfully, “How are you?”
they just say, “Fine, thanks” and don’t talk about it, even to people who would listen.

It is hideous horribly difficult to watch someone else suffer,
and we develop these strategies of coping so that their suffering doesn't rub off on us.
Also, of course, we don't like to have negative feelings because somehow we think we are failing as Christians when we do.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s gone to Church in a bad mood but with a sweet smile pasted on,
and a “Fine, thanks!” in response to anybody who asks how we are.
We don’t like to admit we aren’t feeling wonderful –
in fact, we may even have been told, as I have in my time, that it’s a sin to feel less than one hundred percent on top of the world one hundred percent of the time!
And certainly a sin to admit it!

I think one of the things the story of Thomas gives us is permission to have bad feelings.
Permission to feel confused, or angry, or bereaved, or muddled, or ill, or craving, or whatever.
Permission to wait to feel better, to allow it to take its time.

Thomas also tells us we have permission to be wrong, and to doubt.
Thomas was wrong.
He thought that Jesus had not been raised.
But it wasn't the end of the world that he thought so.

All too often, I think that if I am wrong,
if I am mistaken,
if I make a nonsense of something,
it is the end of the world.
I confuse making a mistake with a deliberate sin,
and think that God and others will condemn me for it.
But no,
look what happened to Thomas.
Far from being condemned,
Jesus comes to him specially to prove he is alive.
To show Thomas that the others hadn't gone totally mad.
Jesus was extra specially kind to Thomas.

It is encouraging, isn’t it?
We’re allowed to doubt –
it’s not the end of the world if we find something difficult to believe!
So often we try to suppress our doubts,
to pretend that we believe everything we’re supposed to believe,
all “our doctrines”,
feeling that if we wonder for one minute we’ll be condemned.
Or maybe our experience of Christ’s love is so very different from that of our neighbour’s that we wonder if it’s really valid at all.
The thing is, when that sort of thing happens,
when we suddenly wonder whether our faith is all a big nothing,
or when we wonder if we’ve got it right,
then the story of Thomas tells us not to worry.
As the prophet Isaiah tells us,
“Whether you turn to the right or to the left,
your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
‘This is the way; walk in it.’”
“This is the way; walk in it.”

It’s okay to experiment with our faith,
with our expression of our faith,
and even, sometimes, with our whole lifestyle.
After all, if our faith doesn’t actually affect the way we live, it’s not much good –
but maybe we have allowed it to affect us to the point that the only people we know are Christians,
maybe even Christians who think exactly the same way we do?

The point is, if we get it wrong, Jesus will come to us, as he came to Thomas, and help us get back on track.
The Good Shepherd doesn’t hesitate to put on his Barbour and Wellies and go to find us if we get ourselves a bit lost.

So Thomas gives me permission to feel awful and
permission to make mistakes and to doubt.
But it would be wrong to leave it at that,
without looking briefly at the third permission Thomas gives us,
and that is to change our minds.
The thing is, Thomas was mistaken when he believed that Jesus had not risen from the dead.
Okay, fine.
But as soon as Jesus showed him he was wrong,
he changed his mind.
He fell down and worshipped the risen Jesus.
He felt ghastly for the whole week between Jesus' appearing to the rest of them, and Jesus appearing to him.
And that's okay.
But when Jesus did appear,
he forgot all about feeling ghastly,
he didn't get cross and go "Where were you?" or anything like that.
He just fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.

It doesn't matter if we feel awful for any reason.
It doesn’t matter if we get it wrong.
What does matter, though,
is if we are given the opportunity to correct ourselves,
or to put things right,
and we fail to take it.
Thomas didn't do that.
Thomas admitted he was wrong,
and he fell down and worshipped the risen Lord.
When we are shown, as Thomas was,
that we have made a mistake,
the thing to do is to put it right.
They do say that the person who never made a mistake never made anything, and that's very true.
But the point is, it is only by correcting our mistakes that we can make progress.
If we stay stubbornly convinced that we are right, and everybody else is wrong, we won't get anywhere.
We won't be freed to go on with Jesus.

Thomas is supposed to have gone on to found the Church in India.
He couldn't have done that if he had gone on being convinced he was right and everybody else was wrong.
He admitted he had been wrong,
and thus was free to put it behind him and go on with Jesus.

Are you able to do this?
Are you able to wait for clarification when things seem to have gone wrong?
Can you wait, trusting God that you will feel better in due course?
Can you live with your doubts and confusion,
perhaps opening the door to becoming a bigger person through them?
And can you put it all behind you and say, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” Amen.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Glimpses of Glory

(This is very similar, but not identical, to this sermon from nine years ago.  I was not Planned to preach this Sunday, but stood in for someone who found themselves unable to do so)
Do you ever watch sport on television?
It doesn’t really matter which sport –
football, rugby, athletics, gymnastics, cycling, ice-skating –
whatever it is you enjoy,
the point I’m about to make is the same.
What we see on television is just the tip of the iceberg, the pinnacle of the sport.
They show you the very best athletes at the peak of their game.
What they don’t show you is the endless hours of practice every single one of those athletes puts in,
often training at unearthly hours of the morning to fit in with the day’s work, grinding along,
day after day after day,
getting injured,
plodding on.
And then, every once in awhile, realising how much they’ve improved,
how much they are “getting it”.
Suddenly, all the hard work has paid off –
they’ve been selected for their team, or their club, or even their country!
Or perhaps they’re finding a certain aspect of the skill easy that six months before they could barely do.
A glimpse of the glory of what they’ve been working so hard for.

Perhaps you’ve taken a sport fairly seriously in your time, so you know what I’m talking about.
But even if you haven’t, isn’t it the same with our Christian lives, too?
We plod on, dutifully using what John Wesley called “The means of grace”,
that is, the Sacrament,
public worship,
the Scriptures,
prayer and so on,
and yet nothing seems to happen. 
Sometimes it feels as though our relationship with God is all down to us, not to God,
and doubts set in. 
But then, just sometimes, God breaks in and we get a glimpse of his glory. 
I know that has happened to me, and I hope it has happened to you.

In our readings today, various people get glimpses of God’s glory.

Firstly, Moses and the Israelites. 
Moses is spending time in the mountains with God. 
This passage is set shortly after that infamous episode with the golden calf,
and I think the authors are trying to emphasize that it is God, Yahweh, who is in charge,
not Moses, not a golden calf, nor anybody else. 
So Moses’ face shines when he has been in God’s presence,
as he is speaking with God’s authority. 
The Israelites caught a glimpse of God’s glory. 
And we are told that Moses did, too;
he was allowed to see just the tiniest shadow of the back of God –
as though God had a human form, but then, he was told,
he couldn’t see the face of God as he wouldn’t live through the experience. 
Nobody can, nobody except Jesus. 
We can only come to God through Jesus;
more of that in a minute. 
The Israelites could only see God’s glory reflected in Moses’ face, and it scared them. 
Moses, who hadn’t at all realised anything was different,
had to put a veil over his face while he was among them, so as not to scare them.

The New Testament reading set for today, which we didn’t read,
points out that Moses was able to take the veil off, eventually, because the glory faded. 
Moses was back among the people, involved in the every-day tasks of running the Exodus,
and gradually the glimpse of glory that he had had,
and that he had passed on to the Israelites,

Okay, fast-forward several hundred years to the time of Christ.
This time, it is Jesus who is going up the mountain and he asks his friends James, Peter and John to go with him.
I don't know whether Jesus knew what was going to happen,
only that it was going to be something rather different and special,
and he wanted some moral support!
And so the four friends go up the mountain –
and suddenly things get rather confused for a time,
and when it stops being confused,
there is Jesus in shining white robes talking to Moses and Elijah.

Peter, of course, babbles on about building shelters,
but more to reassure himself that he exists, I think, than for any other reason.
And then the voice from heaven saying "This is my Son, listen to Him".
In other words, Jesus is more important than either Moses or Elijah, who were the two main people, apart from God, in the Jewish faith.
To good Jews, as James, Peter and John were, this must have almost felt like blasphemy.
No wonder Jesus told them to keep their big mouths shut until the time was right,
or he'd have been stoned for a blasphemer forthwith.

Peter, for one, remembered this momentous day until the end of his life.
Years and years later, he –
or someone writing in his name –
was to write:
"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,
but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received honour and glory from God the Father
when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, `This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'
We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven,
while we were with him on the holy mountain."

For Peter, James and John, it was to be proof that Jesus is the Messiah, and through all the turbulent times that followed they must have held on to the memory of that tremendous day, when they saw a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus.

But they, too, had to come down from the mountainside and carry on,
and immediately they are confronted with a crisis:
a child who has been brought to the disciples for healing, but nothing has happened. 
In this version of the story, Jesus sounds almost cross –
well, you can’t blame him, can you? 
He was probably tired after being on the mountain,
and rather wanting a quiet supper and his bed,
and now the disciples were all talking at once, explaining how they’d tried to cast out this demon,
and the boy’s father is adding to the confusion, and yadda, yadda, yadda….. 
Basically, back to normal! 
We know from other accounts of this story that afterwards Jesus tells the disciples that they can only cast out that sort of demon with prayer and possibly fasting. 

So it seems that glimpses of God’s glory are very rare, and the normal gritty, hum-drum, everyday life is the norm. 
And that’s as it should be. 
You can’t live on a mountain-top all the time, you’d get altitude sickness! 
If you were on holiday all the time, you wouldn’t appreciate the rest and relaxation that being on holiday brings. 
It’s not much fun waking up and knowing you have no work to go to and, when you get up, the big excitement of the day will be deciding what to have for supper! 
We are never quite sure where God is in all of this. 

But God is there. 
Those very special glimpses of his glory, such as Moses saw,
such as Peter, James and John saw, are just that:
They happen maybe once or twice in a lifetime, if that. 
But God is there, acting, working in our lives, even if we don’t always recognise Him.

My father tells a couple of stories about this. In the first, two men are talking in the pub, and the first is telling of an adventure he’s recently had in North Africa. He got lost in the desert, and ran out of water, and quite thought his last hour had come, so he prayed out loud to God to come and save him.
“And what did God do?” asked his friend, realising that something must have happened as there he was, large as life and twice as natural, in the pub enjoying his pint.
“Oh,” said the first man, “God didn’t need to do anything, as just then a caravan came along, and I was able to go on with them to safety.”

The second story tells of the time there was a big flood, and people had to climb up on to the roofs of their houses to escape.
One person – let’s make it a woman this time, as we had a man in the last story, but it doesn’t really matter – one woman thought this was a remarkable opportunity to demonstrate, so he thought, God’s power, so she prayed “Dear Lord, please come and save me.”

Just then, someone came past in a rowing-boat and said “Climb in, we’ll take you to safety!”

“Oh, no thank you,” said our friend, “I’ve prayed for God to save me, so I’ll just wait for Him to do so.”

And she carried on praying, “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Then along came the police in a motor-launch, and called for her to jump in, but she sent them away, too, and continued to pray “Dear Lord, please save me!”

Finally, a Coastguard helicopter came and sent down someone on a rope to him, but she still refused,
claiming that she was relying on God to save her.

And half an hour later, she was swept away and drowned.

So, because she was a Christian, as you can imagine, she ended up in Heaven,
and the first thing she did when he got there
was go to to the Throne of Grace, and say to God,
“What do you mean by letting me down like this?
I prayed and prayed for you to rescue me, and you didn’t!”

“My dear child,” said God, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter –
what more did you want?”

When we pray for someone to be healed, quite often we want to see God intervening spectacularly, like the disciples expected to see with the boy with a demon from today’s reading. 
After all, if you think of it, there’s a limit to what medicine can do. 

When you have an operation, the surgeons can cut you open and do what needs to be done inside you, and then they can stitch you up again – but they can’t make that cut heal up!

They can, of course, do all sorts of things to encourage it to heal –
they can’t actually make the flesh grow back together again.
That has to be left to natural processes –
or is it God? 

I believe God is involved in healing, whether it is by direct, supernatural intervention,
or, more usually, through the normal processes of one’s immune system,
aided by medical or surgical intervention when necessary. 
But those glimpses of glory that I started with –
when you realise that you are making progress in your chosen sport or hobby, or perhaps when you are out there competing –
I believe those times, too, are from God.

I think, then, that what I want to leave with you today is this:
as we go into Lent,
which is a time when we are apt to think about God, and our relationship with Him,
perhaps a little more deeply than at other times of the year,
let’s be on the lookout for touches of God in our everyday lives. 
They don’t have to be spectacular, they probably won’t be. 
But each of them is a little glimpse of glory.  Amen.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A tree by the water

I have, I hope, been able to edit out my own coughing fits, but not those of the congregation!

From our first reading this morning, the passage from Jeremiah chapter 17:
“I will bless the person
    who puts his trust in me.
He is like a tree growing near a stream
    and sending out roots to the water.
It is not afraid when hot weather comes,
    because its leaves stay green;
it has no worries when there is no rain;
    it keeps on bearing fruit.”

And in the Psalm we read together, we are told that those who delight in the law of the Lord “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in due season. Their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”

Earlier in the week, I was watching a documentary about the Kalahari desert in Africa, which is one of the driest places on earth. But water still flows under, and very occasionally on top of, the dried river beds, and you could see, from drone footage, exactly where the rivers run, because they are lined with green trees, and it was those trees that enabled giraffes to live there, as they could feed on the leaves.

Israel is pretty dry, too, I understand – the Negev, do they call the deser there? Anyway, the whole thing of irrigation, and planting trees by the river, has a great many echoes in the Bible, so I imagine it must have been very much a thing, especially back in the days before modern irrigation techniques were able to make the desert, quite literally, blossom like a rose.

One of my favourite passages is in Ezekiel, where that prophet has a vision of a stream of water beginning in the Temple in Jerusalem and flowing down to the Dead Sea, becoming wider and deeper as it flows, full of fish, fertile, bringing fertility to the whole area, including the Dead Sea. And we are told that “On each bank of the stream all kinds of trees will grow to provide food. Their leaves will never wither, and they will never stop bearing fruit. They will have fresh fruit every month, because they are watered by the stream that flows from the Temple. The trees will provide food, and their leaves will be used for healing people.”

Zechariah also mentions this river, but says half of it will flow to the Mediterranean and half to the Red Sea. He doesn’t put trees alongside it explicitly, though.

This river appears, according to the book of Revelation, to be in the heavenly Jerusalem rather than the earthly one we know. The writer has a vision of the new Jerusalem, and in part, “The angel also showed me the river of the water of life, sparkling like crystal, and coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb and flowing down the middle of the city's street. On each side of the river was the tree of life, which bears fruit twelve times a year, once each month; and its leaves are for the healing of the nations.”

But the point of the passages in both Jeremiah and the Psalm is that it is we who are – or who can be – like the tree planted by the water. It is we who can bear fruit all year round, who can stay green and fresh even in times of drought. And at this point we all start to wriggle and feel uncomfortable and think, “Oh God, I’m not like that at all!”

And, of course, we aren’t like that. At least, most of us aren’t. Some of us are, and you will know who those people are in your life. But they won’t know it – partly because if they did know it, they would start thinking what great people they are, and then, of course, they wouldn’t be. Because the whole point is, those of us who do bear fruit, or green leaves, or whatever, are the ones through whom God’s Spirit flows. Jesus said that if we abide in him, we will bear much fruit, and apart from him, we can do nothing.

We know, too, what the fruit is that we are going to bear – those lovely, life-enhancing qualities that St Paul lists in his letter to the Galatians: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And I am sure there are others – Paul’s lists are apt to be descriptive, not prescriptive!

But to get back to our passage, Jeremiah also points out that people who do not trust in God are like desert shrubs – small, stunted, good for nothing much at all. A far cry from the lush trees growing by the river. And we may well know people like that, too; people who do make a fair fist at being human, but oh, how much more they could be if only they trusted Jesus!

And Jesus himself had some pretty harsh things to say to people who only trusted themselves, as we heard in our Gospel reading. We are more used to the version of this teaching given in Matthew, I think, probably because Matthew’s version is so much easier. We can think of ourselves as poor in spirit, as hungry and thirsty after righteousness – but we are manifestly rich and well fed, just like those whom Jesus condemns here.

I imagine Jesus does not condemn us just for being rich and well fed and content – after all, that is largely an accident of birth. Had we been born in another country, at another time, things might have gone very differently for us. But it’s the “I’m all right, Jack” mentality that so often goes with being rich and well fed that is to be shunned at all costs. We may be all right – but there are plenty of people who aren’t. We may be going home to a big Sunday lunch, or we might be planning to go out for brunch, as there are so many good restaurants in this area that serve it on a Sunday. But what of those whose cupboards are bare, who depend on the food banks for today’s meals? What of those who are homeless and begging in the streets? These appear to be the ones who, in this passage, Jesus is praising and blessing.

I’m not saying, of course, that we should be giving to every beggar on the streets – there are better ways of helping to relieve homelessness. The Robes project is going on at Mostyn Road at the moment, and there are plenty of other homeless charities you could donate to, if you wish. And I hope you sometimes put something in the food bank box if the supermarket you use has one. But it isn’t so much what you do, as your attitude. Remember Jesus’ story of the rich man ostentatiously giving huge amounts to the Temple, and then the poor old beggar woman giving a tiny coin? It was, said Jesus, the woman who had given the most; the rich man wasn’t going to miss what he’d given, but that coin might have meant the woman going without her supper that day.

But how do we become that sort of person? I know I’m not! The sort of person who resembles a tree planted by the water, bearing fruit and leaves all year round – well, that’s not me! I’m far too selfish and lazy and greedy and so on…. But then, we all have our faults. And if I were to try to conquer mine in my own strength, I’d just be setting myself up for failure.

The thing is – and this isn’t easy, either – it’s about letting God grow us. We are to produce fruit, and fruit isn’t manufactures, it’s grown. Leaves aren’t stuck on the tree with Blu-tak, they are grown, too. I have an orchid at home, which is many years old now – my daughter and her husband gave it to us as a “thank you” for helping organise their wedding, and they have their twelfth anniversary coming up! But the orchid continues to flower, and is in bud at the moment, even though it is so old. I can’t do anything to make it flower – I occasionally give it a few drops of water, but orchids are best left alone most of the time.

Flowers grow. Fruit grows. Leaves grow. We can’t make them grow, and we can’t make ourselves produce the good qualities that are required of God’s people. But we can allow God the Holy Spirit to flow through us, to fill us, to indwell us, to enable us to become the people God designed us to be. And if we do that – and, let’s face it, we’re not going to be able to do that every moment, but the more we try to allow God to work in and through us, the more successful we will be – if we do allow God the Holy Spirit to flow through us, we will gradually become a tree planted by the water side.


Sunday, 20 January 2019

God's Extravagance

The text of this sermon is substantially the same as the one I preached here, and on many occasions before then!

Sunday, 13 January 2019

The Baptism of Christ.

The text - substantially the same - of today's sermon can be found here.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Baruch and the Baptist

You might have found it strange that this morning’s first reading came from a book of the Bible you’ve never heard of! Well, the thing is, while the book of Baruch is actually part of our Bibles, it’s in the part known as the Apocrypha, and not all Bibles contain these books. If they do, they are found between the Old and the New Testaments. For us Protestants, the books of the Apocrypha – and if you don’t own one, there are plenty on-line, or you can download a Bible containing one – the books of the Apocrypha aren’t considered quite part of Scripture proper.

In the very first printed Bible, known as the Geneva Bible, the preface to the Apocrypha explained that while these books "were not received by a common consent to be read and expounded publicly in the Church," and did not serve "to prove any point of Christian religion save in so much as they had the consent of the other scriptures called canonical to confirm the same," nonetheless, "as books proceeding from godly men they were received to be read for the advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history and for the instruction of godly manners.”

So, the “advancement and furtherance of the knowledge of history” is what we’re after this morning. Who was Baruch, who wrote the passage we heard read, and why does it matter?

We don’t actually know that Baruch ben Neriah, as he was called, was the author of this book, and it may have been written much later than it appears, but that doesn’t really matter at this distance. We do know that he was an associate of the prophet Jeremiah, perhaps his secretary, at the time when the people of Israel were having problems. 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. But before he could do that, he had to besiege Jerusalem, and during the siege, Jeremiah was in prison as the then king, Zedekiah, didn’t like the fact that he was prophesying that the city, and the nation, would fall and would be carried off into captivity. However, while he was in prison, the word of God came to him to buy a field from his cousin Hanamel. Now, it might seem very foolhardy to you or me to buy a field in the middle of a country that was about to fall to invaders, but Jeremiah did as he was told, believing that it was a sign from God that one day, one day, the people would return. And he gave a copy of the deed of sale to Baruch, and told him to seal it in a clay jar so that, when the time came, he would have proof of ownership. We know how documents sealed in clay jars do last for many centuries, look at the Dead Sea scrolls. And it’s that Baruch who is purported to have written this book.

So, as prophesied, Jerusalem duly falls into the hands of the Babylonians, and the important people are carried into captivity. Not everybody went, of course,
but certainly they would have taken the leaders and influential people,
and their families and extended families,
and the ones who were 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 and Baruch were two of those who stayed behind. They both sought the protection of the man appointed as a local governor, whose name was Gedaliah.
There seems to have been a certain amount of coming and going between Babylon and Jerusalem, though, because Jeremiah was able to write to the exiles to say what he believed God was telling them:
“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.
It would not be next week. It would be about seventy years before they were finally able to go home, once Babylon itself had been conquered and 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
parts of Egypt and as far west as eastern Libya,
the Black Sea coastal regions of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia,
all of Armenia,
and Azerbaijan,
parts of the North Caucasus,
and much of Central Asia.
It truly was one of the largest empires ever!

Anyway, the point is that the people of Judah always knew that one day they would go home – although when push came to shove, many of them decided not to bother, as they were the second or third generation to have settled in their new country, and their roots had gone deep.

But those who had stayed behind, including Baruch, always hoped that one day, one day the people would come home again. And Baruch writes to them, reminding them of this. And reminding them that wherever they went, God would make it easy:

“For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
    and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
    so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
    have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
    in the light of his glory,
    with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.”

I expect, don’t you, that Baruch knew what the prophet Isaiah had written, which was very similar:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The people of Judah would have known these words, and so Baruch was rubbing them in, reinforcing them. One day. One day…..

And then, a few hundred years later, here is another prophet proclaiming these same words. John the Baptist, as we heard in our Gospel reading, quotes Isaiah:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

It’s all about preparing, isn’t it?

You see, despite all evidence to the contrary, it’s not Christmas yet! It’s very much the season of Advent, a season of preparing, of getting ready. We are only on the second Sunday in Advent, after all.

Well, what are we preparing for? Christmas – duh! Yes, but not just Christmas, although that can take a fair bit of preparation. What we think about in Advent is not just the immediate future, but the distant future, the day when Christ will, so we believe, return in glory to judge, as the Creed tells us, the living and the dead.

We don’t think of the second coming very often, do we? And that’s as it should be – if we focussed on it, we’d be so heavenly-minded we’d be no earthly use. But Advent is a good moment to think of it. You’ll notice that Luke fixes John the Baptist’s ministry very firmly in time – when Tiberias was
Emperor of Rome, Pontius Pilate was governor of Judah and Herod of Galilee, and so on. So we can place it fairly accurately at around 28 AD or thereabouts. He is rooted in time, but his message is eternal. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”.

You notice that both Isaiah, as quoted by John, and Baruch refer to the valleys being filled, the rough ways made straight, making level ground so that the people of Israel – all God’s people, in this context, not just Israelis – will walk in safety. I don’t know whether any of you are familiar with the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a fictionalised account of her girlhood and young womanhood in a pioneer family? In one of the novels, Laura is taken by her father to watch the railway being built. I am not quoting exactly, but she notices that the workmen fill in the hollows and dig out the humps so that the line can run as smoothly as possible across the prairie. It’s that sort of image that I have when I read these passages.

But, do you know, until I read the Baruch passage, I had somehow assumed that the Isaiah/John passage was all about our making ourselves fit for purpose, as it were, confessing our sins and allowing God to forgive us and heal us and make us whole. And it is, partly, about that. Advent is very much a penitential season, like Lent, and it’s a time to look at ourselves, both as individuals and as a church, and address our shortcomings in God’s presence.

But it’s also about what God is doing to prepare for Jesus’ return. The highway is being built – in our lives, in our churches, through us, although not totally by us – so that one day, we believe, Christ will return. We’re told we won’t know when or where this will happen, and not to believe it when people say “Look, he’s here,” or “Look, he’s there!” or even “He’ll be arriving on Monday next at 6:00 pm.” Jesus himself didn’t know, when he was on earth; he did know there’d be all sorts of false alarms about it, though.

The people of Judah didn’t know how long they’d be in exile. They did know they should settle down and get on with their lives, as it wasn’t going to be soon. But they did know that one day they would be able to go back – and indeed, that happened. We don’t know when Jesus will come back, but we know we need to get on with our lives, and also allow God to work in us, to prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.