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Sunday, 25 June 2017

Isaac and Ishmael



This was a repeat of this sermon from three years ago.  Obviously things were changed slightly to reflect current events, and also because today is Eid al-Fitr, which needed to be mentioned.  But the text is largely the same.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Put Right with God




I wonder whether you can remember when you first made a conscious decision to be Jesus’ person?

I know some people can’t remember, they have been Jesus’ person all their lives and it would never have occurred to them to do otherwise. And some people know that once upon a time they were not Christians, but their journey to God was such a slow, gradual and yet purposeful one that they can’t point to a given day when they were a Christian, yet were not the day before.

And others have a definite date that they can point to and say “Then. That was the day I became a Christian.” I sort-of have that. In many ways the second Sunday in October, the best part of fifty years ago, was the day for me, but in fact, there was a lot of stuff that went before it, and a great deal more that came after it. It didn’t happen in a vacuum, although it felt a bit like that at the time.

I was just a child then, eighteen years old and on my own in Paris. I was rather lonely and having trouble making friends, and my grandmother suggested I went along to the English church to see whether they had any activities for young people. They most certainly did, and it didn’t take long for me to hear a sermon on “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.....”. And this was obviously the thing you did if you wanted to be accepted by this group of people..... so..... I’m so glad God is gracious and loved me anyway!

But the reason I’m raking up ancient history like this is that when you had become a Christian, as it was called, you were expected to attend the weekly Bible Study as well as the more formal teaching sessions which took place on a Wednesday. The Bible Studies were small discussion groups, people roughly the same age, peer-led. The minister stayed away, on the grounds that people needed to learn to read the Scriptures for themselves, not just be taught what to think. And it was noticeable that, very often, if we had got stuck with something, he would talk about the very thing we’d got stuck on in the Wednesday teaching sessions.

This form of studying the Bible was new to me – attending Bible Study and prayer meetings – the two tended to merge, rather – was not something that was done at the school I attended, or at my parents’ church. So I can still remember the very first passage I ever studied with my contemporaries, and do you know, it was that very passage from Romans that we’ve just heard read. We used the Good News Bible, only back then it was only the Good News New Testament:

“Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He has brought us by faith into this experience of God's grace, in which we now live. And so we boast of the hope we have of sharing God's glory!”

“Now that we have been put right with God through faith” The trouble is, all those years ago I got the emphasis wrong! I thought it was my faith that mattered, not God’s promises. I thought this was something I had to do, that I had to desperately manufacture faith, and never doubt, not for a single, solitary minute!

Wasn’t I silly! It is, of course, what God does that matters. We believe that God will put us right with him, and so God does. The technical term, which some translations use, is “justification”. All that really means is being put right with God. All the nasty squirmy bits of ourselves that we really don’t want God to look at too closely – and that, come to that, we don’t actually want to look at too closely ourselves – they are – not swept away, sadly, much though we might like that to happen. Quite the reverse; they are brought out into the light so that we can look at them and God can look at them and say – okay, that needs to change. And then, if we are sensible, we allow God to change us.

That, of course, is a very long process, and will probably never be completely finished this side of heaven. That’s what we call “sanctification”, being made holy, being made whole, being made more like God, being made more into the person we were created to be. But the point is, God doesn’t make us wait until we are perfect before he will put up with us. All the nasty squirmy bits, what the jargon calls “Sin”, God decrees they no longer exist. They do, of course, and we deal with them in due course, but the point is, they no longer come between us and God.

I once read a definition that I found really helpful. Suppose there was a law that said you mustn’t jump in mud puddles. Well, who can resist jumping in mud puddles? But you end up no only guilty of breaking the law, but also covered in mud. When we are put right with God – justified – we are declared “not guilty” of breaking that law. And as we become made more into the person we were created to be – sanctified – it is as if, with God’s help, we washed off the mud.

Like all analogies it’s not perfect, but I found it helpful, back in the day, and offer it for what it’s worth.

But I really do think the most important thing that I’ve learnt in all the years since that first Bible study, so long ago, is that I don’t have to do the putting right! As I said earlier, I got the emphasis all wrong, and thought it was all down to me. I ended up thinking I had to be perfect because Jesus died on the cross for me, and how ungrateful would it be ever to sin again?

But it’s not like that. Our salvation doesn’t depend on what we do. We all need to be saved, and we all can be saved – these days, I’m not entirely sure what I mean by “saved”, and it’s one of those words that I suspect we all interpret slightly differently, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, we don’t have to – and, indeed, we can’t – save ourselves. God does that. All we have to do is to reach out, to say “Yes please!” and accept what is on offer. “Listen,” says Jesus, according to the book of Revelation, “Listen! I stand at the door and knock; if any hear my voice and open the door, I will come into their house and eat with them, and they will eat with me.”

Of course, one shouldn’t really take a verse out of context like that, but it is a helpful illustration. All we need do is open the door to Jesus – and then let go. Then we are put right with God by faith, we do have peace with God, and we can relax and allow God to re-create us into the person we were designed to be. That bit isn’t always easy – far from it – but it’s worth it.

Those who know me well know that I often have an illustration of a butterfly somewhere about my person. That’s because it reminds me of how God is working, and will continue to work, in my life. Think how a butterfly is made. How does it start life? And how does it go on? The actual butterfly bit, the beautiful bit, is a very tiny part of its life; some species last no more than a day or so, if that. Mayflies, for instance, don’t even have mouths – all that they are interested in is reproducing themselves, finding a mate, laying their eggs, if female, and then dying. And the whole cycle takes two years or so to fulfil.

And when they actually go to become a butterfly, or mayfly, or dragonfly, or whatever insect they are due to become, the caterpillar has to pupate. That isn’t just a matter of hibernating, like a dormouse or bear; they have to be completely remade. While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there. It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again.

It’s just as well, I think, that butterflies and the like aren’t sentient. Imagine how awful it would be if they were aware what was going to happen to them! Think how terrified you’d be if you knew it was going to happen to you. To be completely remade into something utterly different. Something so different that it uses a totally different medium to move about in, the air. Caterpillars are creeping creatures, that move on the earth and on plants, and the larvae of things like mayflies and dragonflies are water insects, that can’t breathe in the air. Even more different!

And yet, we believe that something of the sort is going to happen to us one day, when we die and are raised from death into our new life. To a certain extent, of course, that happens, and is happening right now, here on earth, which is why God has already started to work in us and to make us into the person we were created to be. But how much more work will need to be done on us before we are perfect! I know John Wesley believed that Christians could be perfect, but I also know I’m very far from! And God still needs to do a great deal of work on me before I fulfil my potential.

But the thing is, and that’s where I got stuck as a young woman, we don’t have to do it. And we don’t have to wait until it’s done before we can get on with our lives as Christians, as God’s people. We have been put right with God through faith, and now have peace with him through our Lord Jesus Christ. So we can get on with our lives. Amen.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Going to Emmaus




So, it is Easter Day –
well, it isn’t, of course, but in our Gospel reading it is still Easter Day.
And all of Jesus’ disciples and friends are confused and sad –
many of them haven’t really heard about the resurrection,
or believe it if they have heard it.
Everybody is scared –
will they be next?
Will the authorities clobber them for being part of Jesus’ retinue?

Anyway it’s all over now.
The Teacher is dead.
And something weird has happened to his body.
Maybe it’s time to go home, to get on with their lives.
Cleopas certainly thinks so.
He doesn’t live very far from Jerusalem –
only seven miles.
High time he was going home.
So he and his companion –
who may well have been his wife –
pack up and go home, sadly, tiredly.
And Jesus comes and walks along with them, but they don’t recognise him.

But they start talking and he asks why they are so sad.
What has gone wrong?
And when they say, “Crumbs, you must be totally out of the loop if you haven’t heard;
what stone have you just crawled out from under?”
he goes through the Scriptures with them to show them that this wasn’t disaster, it wasn’t the end of the world, but, quite the reverse, it was what had been planned from the beginning of the world.

And when they get home, they invite this stranger, this wonderful person who has brought them hope, to stay for supper.
And part-way through the meal, he takes the bread and blesses it –
and they know who He is.
It is Jesus!
And then he is gone.
But they know.
And they know they must tell the others, too,
so as soon as they’ve finished eating, they get up and go back to Jerusalem.
Seven miles;
a couple of hours’ walk.
Not so bad early in the day, when they were fresh –
but after supper, when they were tired?

And when they get to Jerusalem, they hear that Simon, too, has seen the Lord, and that he is really risen.
And they share their story, too.

---oo0oo---

In a lot of ways, this story poses more questions than it answers.
Who were Cleopas and his companion?
Have we ever heard of them before?
Why didn’t they recognise Jesus?

I don’t know who Cleopas was;
but it’s possible that the companion was his wife.
Certainly a former minister of mine thought so, and would use the text “Jesus himself drew near and went with them” whenever he preached at a wedding.
But I noticed awhile back, when reading John’s Gospel that one of the few women named is a Mary, the wife of Clopas.
Clopas, Cleopas?
Same person, do you think?
So is he walking with his wife, Mary?

I think it’s significant that they weren’t in the main group of disciples;
Cleopas wasn’t part of “The Twelve”, still less part of the very close group around Jesus.
But they were followers, fellow-travellers.
The wife was one of the group of women who kept the whole show on the road, I expect, probably seeing to it that everybody ate,
and that nobody got too dirty
and everybody had a blanket at night,
if there wasn’t a convenient place to stay.
But they weren’t in the close group.

Which, I think, shows us that Jesus was and is anxious for all his followers, not just the big names!
Sometimes it feels difficult, doesn’t it –
there we are, small churches in a small circuit,
in a country that doesn’t “do” God very much,
and is apt to be a bit frightened of those who do...
but Jesus himself draws near and walks with us,
even if we don’t always recognise him.

I wonder why they didn’t recognise him?
The text says “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.”,
as though it was done on purpose.
Did the risen Lord look so very different from him as they’d known him before?
Or was it just that he was out of context, as it were –
look how it isn’t easy to recognise someone you only know slightly,
your hairdresser, for instance,
or the guy who shoves trolleys around at Tesco’s,
if you meet them on the bus.
You know you know them, but you can’t think where from,
and what is their name?
Or had he the hood of his cloak up, so they couldn’t actually see his face?
But eventually he does something so familiar,
the taking of the bread and blessing it,
that they can’t help but recognise him.
Of course, they may not have been present at the Last Supper –
as far as we know, it was only the Twelve who were –
but they would have seen Jesus do this at almost any meal they took together.
It was a part of a normal Jewish evening meal,
especially the Friday-evening Sabbath meal.
It would have been well familiar to them.
And so they recognised Jesus, knew it was true –
he had risen, he wasn’t dead any more –
and then he wasn’t there any more, either!

I wonder, too, whether when Jesus opened the Scriptures to them,
he wasn’t opening them to himself, just as much.
He had told the disciples, frequently –
although often only the smaller group –
that he was to rise again, but it must have been well scary for him.
We saw in the Garden of Gethsemane how awful it was for him, the whole prospect of death on a Cross,
with no real assurance that God would raise him.
He knew, he believed –
but what if it wasn’t so?
What if he really were just deluding himself?
We all get moments of doubt like that, don’t we?
What if the whole God thing is just a delusion,
dreamed up by human beings to help us cope with the nastinesses of life?
But Jesus was vindicated.
He had been raised.
And maybe, just maybe, when he opened the Scriptures to Cleopas and his wife, he was reminding himself, too!
Yes, this was what it said, and this was what it meant!
How lovely to know for certain!

We can’t know for certain yet, and we often doubt.
That’s okay –
if we knew for sure it would be called certainty, not faith!

But so often, when we get to the shadowed places, the awful times, when God seems far away and maybe summer and daylight will never come, then Jesus himself draws near and walks with us.
We don’t always recognise him, of course;
in fact, very often we don’t even know that he is there.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very bad at recognising Jesus!
But sometimes a friend or even an acquaintance will say something, and you know that it is from God!
Don’t ask me to explain how you know, you just do!
Been there, done that?
Yes, I thought some of you would have!

And there are times, too, when we don’t recognise Jesus at the time;
things are just too awful for that.
And yet, when we look back, we see that he was there, all the time,
just that we didn’t recognise him.
Maybe he was there in the tissue a friend offered us to mop up with, the shoulder offered to cry on, the hand-clasp in the darkness.... but he was there.

Remember how Jesus wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus,
even though he was about to raise him from the dead?
There are times, I think, when all God can do is to weep with us, or to share in our frustrations, or even to act as a receptacle for our anger.
But at least he is there doing that.
I remember when the daughter of an acquaintance was killed in a dreadful accident some years ago now, her father said at the funeral “Thank God for a God to be angry with!”

Jesus himself drew near and walked with them.
It’s not just in the bad times, of course –
them too, but in the good times, too.
And perhaps in the indifferent times, the time when life goes smoothly and the days slip past too fast to count.
Jesus is there, I think, in a piece of music that lifts our spirits,
like the Hallelujah Chorus or some other favourite piece.
Jesus is there when we are getting ready to go on holiday, or share a family celebration.
When we are looking forward to things, when we are dreading them.

Jesus himself drew near and went with them.
If we are Jesus’ people, then we need to learn to be aware of his presence with us.
It’s not always about feeling –
we don’t always feel his presence, and that’s as it should be.
As I said, if we were certain, they wouldn’t call it faith.
But if we believe that Jesus is present with us all the time –
even when we’re in Tesco’s, even when we’re at the office or washing-up the supper dishes –
then how are we going to live?

There was once a monk who served God in a community of brothers, and he was called Brother Lawrence.
And he learnt over the years that God was just as real and there whether he was washing the dishes in the community kitchen, or whether he was on his knees in the chapel.
He wrote about it, and developed a correspondence with other people who wished to find this out for themselves.
You may have come across his writings yourself;
he was called Brother Lawrence.
As he explains, staying aware of God’s presence is far from easy, but it doesn’t matter if you make a nonsense of it –
you just come back to remembering as soon as you realise you have forgotten.
The Jesus who walked along the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his wife also walks with us while we’re doing the washing-up or reading our e-mail.

So –
do you stay aware of that?
I know I don’t, not as much as I should!
Maybe we should all make more of an effort to stay aware of God’s presence with us at all times.
Even when we can’t see Him, even when it feels as though all trace of him has totally vanished from the universe.
There are all sorts of methods you can use to help with this –
making a point of a quick prayer when you put the kettle on, for example, or whenever you get up to go to the loo at work.
Even just “Lord, have mercy” or “Into Your hands”.
There has been a discussion on one of the book groups I belong to on Facebook about the amount of times a day children at boarding-schools were expected to pray –
space for private prayer in the mornings,
Grace before and after every meal,
corporate prayer in Assembly, probably twice a day....
and so it went on.
Not that the children probably appreciated it at that age –
I know I didn’t –
but if you think about it, a routine like that does structure pauses into your day to be aware of God.

Jesus himself drew nigh and went with them.
Two ordinary Christians –
well, they weren’t even that, of course, as the name wouldn’t be coined for awhile, but you know what I mean.
They weren’t part of the inner ring, they weren’t special.
They were ordinary people, people like you and me.
And Jesus himself draws near and walks with us, too.
Hallelujah.
Amen.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

He is risen, He is alive




Alleluia, Christ is risen!

So we have proclaimed, and so, I imagine, we believe. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there.

I love this story in John’s Gospel. There is so much detail, so many little personal touches. Unlike John, really – so much of his Gospel is a formalised account, and you only get a couple of glimpses of Jesus as a person, unlike in the synoptics. But here is one of the intensely personal stories. You can’t help but get the impression that it is an eyewitness account.

Imagine, then, what it would have been like for Mary Magdalene. The third day after her dear Friend, her dear Teacher, some even say her Husband, had been killed. Yesterday had been the Sabbath; she couldn’t do anything then except sit at home and weep, and when the Sabbath ended, it was night, and there was no way she could go to the tomb after dark – nobody was going to let her go. But now it is morning; dawn hasn’t quite broken yet, but it’ll be light soon. It must have been about five o’clock, I think – dawn in Jerusalem at this time of year is about half-past five, a little earlier than for us. Mary hasn’t slept, or she’s woken up early, and creeps out of the house and makes her way to the tomb where, two days earlier, she had helped lay her Master’s body. Perhaps she’ll feel better if she can just see the body one last time. Some of the other accounts imply that they hadn’t quite finished embalming the body, and wanted to do that before it got too nasty.

And Mary walks up to the tomb – and finds the stone is rolled away from in front of it, and the tomb is empty! There must have been grave-robbers at work! Oh, it’s too bad of them. Couldn’t they have left his body in peace? So Mary rushes off in despair to find Peter and John – although quite what she thought they’d be able to do isn’t clear. Perhaps she hoped they would have more authority to ask awkward questions of the powers-that-be than she had. Anyway, she finds them, and rushes up to them in floods of tears.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” So Peter and John rush up to have a look, and see what she is talking about. John is the fastest, but when he reaches the tomb he just stops and peers in. Perhaps Mary was wrong – he doesn’t want to trample on his dear Friend’s body Or perhaps he’s a bit overcome by it all. Anyway, whatever, he just stops and peers in. Peter rushes up and rushes in, not stopping to look first – how typically Peter, somehow. And John follows him in, hoping perhaps to try and stop him making yet another gaffe. And then they both see.

The graveclothes are still there. It isn’t that the whole package, graveclothes and all, has been taken away, it’s just that the body has been taken out of the clothes. And the bit that had been round the head, the bit that Mary and John had wrapped round together, that’s still there, too, lying separately. It really looks as though the shroud hasn’t been disturbed at all. How very weird. Almost as though – could it be?

Peter and John look at each other with a wild surmise. Perhaps it’s true? All those heavy hints that he had dropped? Without a word they rush off back to tell the others.

And they forget about poor Mary, who has gone off to have a good cry by herself somewhere.

Typically male, don’t you think? Mary has come to them for help, and they suddenly rush off without even telling her what they think might just possibly have happened.

Mary is too busy crying, just at first, to realise that they’ve gone, but all of a sudden she realises that it’s gone quiet, so she peers into the tomb. And there are these two beings dressed in white. Hang about, that’s not Peter and John, is it? Who are they, and when did they arrive?

“What’s the matter?” they ask her. “Why are you crying?”

She explains, “They’ve taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they’ve put him!”

Then she feels someone behind her.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how Mary needs to be with the body to get her grieving done. The thing she really minds is that she won't know where the memorial, the tomb, is.

That says something to us, I think, about how we grieve for those we love.

Mary can’t see beyond the fact that the beloved body has gone missing: she won’t know where to bring flowers in the future; she won’t be able to finish off the embalming...

And when a man, whom she assumes is the gardener, asks her what’s wrong, she says again, “Where is he? Have you moved him? Where did you put him? Please tell me, please?”

And then the man suddenly says, in that well-known, familiar, much-loved voice: “Mary!”

And Mary takes another look. She blinks. She rubs her eyes. She pinches herself. No, she’s not dreaming. It really, really is! “Oh, my dearest Lord!” she cries, and flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.

---oo0oo---

Well, that’s the story. The question is, is it true? Was there really a physical resurrection? Does it matter? Isn’t it true that what really matters is that Jesus is alive today?

Well, that’s quite a point, of course. The one thing that really matters is that Jesus is alive today. But as St Paul said in his Letter to the Corinthians, the whole point is that if the Resurrection didn’t happen, he’s a fraud and our faith is futile. In other words, we might as well go home. For St Paul, if Christ is not raised, our sins are not forgiven, and we have no hope of everlasting life.

Even that begs the question slightly, for Paul might just have been talking about a spiritual resurrection – after all, we know that our own bodies, when we’ve finished with them, will either be buried or burnt, but we will expect the bit of us that matters to go on. Obviously, if we don’t believe even in a spiritual resurrection, what are we doing here?

The question is, does it matter whether or not we believe that Jesus’ body was raised? That he wasn’t a ghost of some sort, but in a genuine body one could hug, that could eat and drink, that could walk, talk, break bread, and, one assumes, eliminate.

People say, oh but the Gospel accounts are contradictory, they are writing what they would have liked to have happened, etc. I, personally, believe that the very fact that the Gospel accounts do tend to be different in the details makes it all the more likely to be true.

If it were just wishful thinking, their accounts would tally far more, and there is absolutely no way in the world they would have had it that the first people to meet the risen Jesus were women! In those days, women’s testimony simply didn’t count. Women were not supposed to be able to tell the truth, or something. If you wanted a witness, he had to be male. So absolutely no way would the stories, if they were made up, or wishful thinking, have had the first witnesses be women.

But does it matter? I believe it’s true; you may or may not. But does it matter? In one sense, yes, it does matter. The Resurrection is, after all, totally central to our whole faith. If it didn’t happen, then we might just as well all go home, as St Paul so rightly says.

But the most important thing of all, of course, is that Jesus is alive today! The Resurrection is important, it’s central, yes. But if it is just an episode in history, no matter how true, no matter how well documented; if it’s just history like the Second World War or the Gunpowder Plot, then it doesn’t really affect us at all. But the fact that Jesus is alive today, the fact that he can, through the Holy Spirit, come and indwell us, you and me, the fact that we can know God’s forgiveness and healing and wholeness – that’s what matters! And for that we say “Alleluia!
 

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Mothers, Mary, Mother Mary


Today, it will not have escaped your notice, is Mothers’ Day. At least, it might be Mothers’ Day out in the world, but here in Church it’s Mothering Sunday, and that, in fact, is only tangentially about human mothers! Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, and it’s long been known as Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday – it’s half-way through Lent, and in days when people kept it rather more strictly than they do now, it was a day when you could relax the rules a little.

And the tradition grew up that on that day, you went to the mother church in your area – often the cathedral, but it might have just been the largest church in your area. Families went together, and it became traditional for servants to have time off to go home and see their families on that day, if they lived near enough. In the Middle Ages, servants may only have got one day off a year, and it was, traditionally, the 4th Sunday in Lent. Many children had to leave home when they were very young – only about 11 or 12 – because their parents simply couldn't afford to feed them any longer. And, indeed, many of these children hadn't known what a full tummy felt like until they started work. But even so, they must have missed their families, and been glad to see them every year.

And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for us. What we remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that, too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our Mother. After all, there are people whose mothers have died; people who didn’t or don’t have a good relationship with their mothers; and above all, people who would have loved to have been mothers, but it didn’t happen, for whatever reason. Many of those will not be in church this morning. The Church isn't always very tactful about Mothers Day, I'm afraid – I used to find it very patronising, especially considering that for the rest of the year I was rather left to get on with it, and was told that the loneliness and isolation and lack of fellowship was “the price you pay for the wonderful privilege of being a Christian Mother!” As if....

The worst Mothers Day sermon I ever heard was from a young curate who had just discovered his wife was expecting their first child – sadly, he moved away during the course of the year, as several of us were longing to hear what he would have had to say after several months of the reality of parenthood!

But, talking of motherhood, you will have noticed that our readings for today seemed more like Christmas ones than suitable for mid-Lent. You see, yesterday was 25 March, exactly nine months to go until Christmas, so, of course, that is the day when parts of the church celebrate what’s called the Annunciation, when Gabriel came to tell Mary she was going to have a baby. And even though we Protestants don’t really think about Mary much, the fact that she’s such an important figure in so much of Christianity means she’s probably worth thinking about from time to time.

So what do we actually know about her from the Bible, as opposed to tradition? She first appears in our Bibles in this very reading, when Gabriel comes to her to ask her if she will bear Jesus, and, of course, as we all know, she said she would, and Joseph agreed to marry her despite her being pregnant with a baby he knew he wasn’t responsible for.

I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told.

But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy! And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when my daughter was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!

We don’t see Joseph again after this – tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him, Joseph has died.

 But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.

There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.

We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.

That’s really all we know about her from the Bible, but other early traditions and writings, including some of what’s called the apocryphal gospels – they’re the ones that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament as we know it – tell us a bit more. They tell us that her mother was called Anne and her father was called Joachim, and that she was only about 16 when Gabriel came to her. One source has it that Anne couldn’t have babies, and when Mary finally arrived, she was given to be reared in the Temple, like Samuel. And traditional sources also tell us that she went to live in Ephesus, probably with John, and died somewhere between 3 and 15 years after the Crucifixion, surrounded by all the apostles. And that her body was taken up to heaven.

Well, so far, so good, but how did they get from there to the veneration of her, not to say worship in some cases, that we see today? This may be something you find difficult to understand – I certainly do – and that’s okay. We aren’t required to do more than honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord; we mention her when we say the Creed, of course, and there are lots of churches dedicated to her. My parents’ church in Sussex is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as are loads of other churches around the world. But we do not think of her as quasi-divine in some way. We do believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by ordinary human means, but that this was something that happened in time, not in eternity! She became the Mother of God – she was not the Mother of God before Jesus was born.

I wonder, though, just how it happened that veneration of Mary became such a thing among Roman Catholic Christians. Orthodox Christianity also venerates her, but make it quite clear that she is not divine – the distinction, sometimes, among Catholics gets a bit blurred. One theory I have heard put forward is that she gives a female aspect to Christianity, which may or may not be lacking from the Trinity. Well, if that is so, how come Protestant women have managed without for so many generations?

Having said that, of course, it’s worth remembering the days when Christianity was first spread around the world. If you were Jewish, you were quite used to thinking of God as Father and Creator, but if you came from a background which worshipped a virgin goddess, Mary obviously provided what you found you were missing. And again, if you were used to worshipping a mother figure, as so many people were, you found something in Mary that perhaps you missed in the Christian depiction of God. Don’t forget, in the olden days you had to convert to Christianity when your ruler did, or the head of your tribe, or whatever, and if the worship you were used to was suddenly no longer provided, you had to make what you could of what you did have!

And then, of course, the Catholic Church being nothing if not practical, formalised a great deal of what was happening, and thought, about Mary into doctrine.... and so it went on. Chicken and egg type of situation, drawing on tradition and practice more than on Scripture. And so, of course, when the Protestants went back to the Bible, discarding most, although not all, traditional theology, Mary rather fell back into the background.

We Protestants, of course, do have a choice – there is a tradition of venerating Mary in some parts of the Protestant Church, but it is far from compulsory. We honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord – and we honour her, too, for her bravery in saying “Yes” to God like that. After all, had Joseph repudiated her for carrying someone else’s child, she could have ended up on the streets!

 But what, then, can we learn from Mary? We don’t tend to think of her very much, at least, I don’t. We don’t necessarily find in her a mother figure to worship. But there is that incredible bravery that said “Yes” to God – and remember, she didn’t know the end of the story, not at that stage! There are times I wonder what she must think of it all! But she was totally submitted to God in a way that very few people can claim to be. And, of course, there is what she said to the servants at that wedding in Cana - “Do whatever He tells you”.

And that’s not a bad motto to live by, either: Do whatever Jesus tells you. Amen.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

For God so loved the world




The text of this sermon can be found here.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Listen to Him



1. Introduction

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

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

2. The Story of the Transfiguration

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

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

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

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

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

3. Not Moses

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

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

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

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

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

4. Not Elijah

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

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

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

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

5. Conclusion

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

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

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