Please note that Podcast Garden have recently changed their backup location. If you think there should be a podcast (only for sermons from 2014 onwards) and there is not, you can still listen by clicking here

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Come and see

You know, I don't know about you, but usually when I think about the calling of the disciples, I think about the scene by the See of Galilee, with James, John, Simon Peter and Andrew all mending their nets after a hard days' fishing – or, perhaps, them out in the lake still and Jesus pointing out to them a shoal of fish that he could see and they couldn't. And Simon Peter falling on his knees before Jesus, and Jesus telling them that if they followed him, he would teach them to fish for people. That's what I think of, anyway.

So this story in St John's gospel comes a little strange. In this passage, Andrew is already one of John the Baptist's disciples, and, at John's suggestion, goes after Jesus, and then comes and gets his brother, Simon Peter, and introduces him. Not a fish or fish-net in sight! You wonder, sometimes, when the stories were being collected, who told what to whom, and who was trying to make who look good!

Not that it matters, of course; truth and historical accuracy weren't the same thing in Bible days, and don't need to be today. So for now we'll stick with John's story, since it was our reading for today.

And today's story introduces us to a very important person – Andrew. At least, Andrew is very important in John's gospel. We don't often think of Andrew, do we? He's Peter's younger brother, but it's Peter, James and John who go with Jesus when he is transfigured; it's Peter, James and John who accompany Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane. Andrew gets left out. Andrew stays back with the other disciples.

But here, according to John's version of events, Andrew was with John the Baptist, and when they encountered Jesus, he and his friend went off after him. “What do you want?” asked Jesus.

“Where do you live?” asks Andrew, in return. And Jesus says, “Come and see!”

We're all so used to the idea that “Foxes have dens and birds have their nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” that it might strike us a bit odd – but, of course, when Jesus hadn't yet started his ministry, he was not yet itinerant, and presumably still lived with his mother and brothers in Nazareth. Although, in fact, the story says that they were in Bethany, on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptising, and later on they leave to go home to Galilee, so presumably he was staying with friends somewhere. This wasn't the same Bethany where Martha, Mary and Lazarus lived, though, so he wouldn't have been staying with them. This Bethany is sometimes called Betharaba, to distinguish it.

I did read that the questions have a deeper meaning – I don't know enough Greek to be sure, but apparently they can be interpreted as Jesus asking Andrew what he is really looking for, Andrew asking Jesus who he is at the deepest level, and Jesus inviting Andrew to come and find out. But whatever happens, Andrew and his companion spend some time with Jesus, and the first thing that Andrew does afterwards is go and find his brother Simon Peter, and introduce him to Jesus.

Andrew does this a lot in John's Gospel. He introduces people to Jesus. First of all he introduces Simon Peter – to become Peter, that great Rock on whom Jesus was to build his church. And Simon Peter becomes one of Jesus' closest friends and supporters, far closer than Andrew himself did.

Then a bit later on, Andrew introduces some Greek travellers to Jesus; the travellers speak to Philip, and he goes to Andrew, and then both of them take the travellers to see Jesus. We aren't told what happened next; John goes off into one of Jesus' discourses. But it was Andrew who introduced them.

And in John's version of the story of the feeding of the Five Thousand, it is Andrew who brings the boy to Jesus, that nameless youth who had five barley loaves and two fishes, and who was prepared to share them with Jesus. Andrew brought the boy to Jesus.

Yes, well. I've heard, and I'm sure you have too, lots of sermons on St Andrew where they tell you that you ought to be like him and introduce people to Jesus. Which is all very well, and all very true, but it's not quite as simple as that, is it?

First off, when preachers say things like that, the congregation – well, if I'm any representative of it – go all hot and wriggly and feel they must be terrible Christians because it's so long since they last introduced anybody to Jesus. And the ones who are apt to feel the hottest and wriggliest are those who really do more than anybody else to introduce people to Jesus.

And anyway, Andrew only introduces people to Jesus when they want to be introduced. Simon Peter, his brother, was probably already following John the Baptist, and was anxious to meet the Messiah. He may, of course, have thought that the Messiah, the Anointed One, would rebel against the occupying power, an earthly leader, but, of course, he soon learnt differently. The Greeks in chapter 12 of John's Gospel had asked for an introduction. The boy with five loaves and two fish was anxious to share his lunch with Jesus, but couldn't get past the security cordon of the disciples.

And when our friends want to be introduced to Jesus, that's when we need to imitate Andrew. If they don't want to know him yet, and we keep trying, we'll just end up being utterly boring and probably lose their friendship! It's probably better to just pray for our friends, and hold them up to Jesus that way – if and when they are ready for more, they will let you know. There is, as the Preacher tells us, a time for everything!

King's Acre, as a church, does a great deal to make Jesus known in the community, what with the youth club, Girls' Brigade, Pop-In and the Tuesday toddler group. We are giving people the opportunity – they know what a church stands for, and if they don't, they can always ask. We may never know how much we've done for people, how much our example has led them to want to find Jesus for themselves, to question the easy, unthinking atheism popularised by Richard Dawkins and his ilk. That's as it should be – our job is to be ourselves, to be Jesus' people, as we have committed ourselves to being.

So what sort of people are we going to be being? I think Jesus gives a very good picture of what his people are like in that collection of his teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount: poor in spirit – not thinking more of themselves than they ought; mourning, perhaps for the ungodly world in which we live; meek, which means slow to anger and gentle with others; hungry and thirsty for righteousness; merciful; pure in heart; peacemakers and so on.  They love everyone, even those who hate them; they refrain from condemning anyone, or even from being angry with them in a destructive way; they don’t hold grudges or take revenge, value or use people just for their bodies, or end their marriages lightly. Their very words are trustworthy. In short, they treat everyone with the greatest respect no matter what that person’s race, creed, sex or social class. They also treat themselves with similar respect, looking after themselves properly and not abusing themselves any more than they abuse others.

We don't, of course, have to force ourselves to become like that in our own strength – we'd make a pretty rotten job of it! We do have to give God permission to change us, though, to “let go and let God”. We have to be willing to allow God to work in us, gradually transforming us into the people we were created to be.

And as we do so, we will be able to have a response when our friends ask what Church is all about, or who Jesus is.

And people are asking, aren't they? Like Andrew, they want to know where Jesus is. Where is Jesus in these dreadful floods in Queensland? Where is Jesus in that shooting in Arizona? Where is Jesus in the riots in Tunisia and the Ivory Coast? Where is Jesus in Haiti, where a year after the earthquake people are still living in tents – and they are the lucky ones? Where is Jesus in Pakistan?

Jesus answers us, as he answered Andrew: Come, and see. And the answer, of course, is that he is there in the middle of it all, as he always is. “Behold the Lamb of God,” said John, “Who takes away the sins of the world.”

There are always dreadful things happening in our world. There always have been – even back in Jesus' day, you remember, the disciples asked what had gone wrong when a tower collapsed, killing rather a lot of people. Look at the book of Job, or at some of the Psalms, trying to come to terms with why bad things happen, and so often to people who really didn't deserve it. And there are no easy answers; all we can do is to trust and to believe that God is there in the middle of it. “Come and see,” said Jesus, and they went and saw. And we are invited to stay with him exactly where he is: in the middle of it all. Amen.

With thanks to Joelle Hanson for the 2nd half!

Sunday, 2 January 2011

His own received him not

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

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

The “He” we are talking about is, obviously, Jesus, and we are looking at part of the great Prologue to John's Gospel that we sometimes call the “Christmas Gospel”. It is, of course, still Christmastime in the Church, and it is very nearly Epiphany, when we celebrate the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus, so it all seems to fit together rather well.

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

Anyway, the thing about this second half of the Prologue – oh dear, I shall start sounding like Frankie Howerd in Up Pompeii if I'm not careful – is that it spells out quite clearly that anybody who does believe in Jesus becomes a child of God, not through physical birth, but through spiritual birth.

This is a good reading for Epiphany, of course. John doesn't tell us about the Wise Men coming to see Jesus – only Matthew does that. But the Wise Men are a vital part of the Christmas story, however strange a part. To the point that I'm now going to ask Felicia to read Matthew 2:1-12 to us.

Matthew tells us the story largely from Joseph's point of view, of course, and there are some very serious differences, not to say contradictions, between his version of events and Luke's. Matthew seems to think that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, which was where they moved to for safety after they came back from Egypt. No mention of mangers or inns here – and not even Luke says the manger was actually in a stable! Could be they'd just run out of cots....

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

So the wise men – we don't know how many there were, Matthew doesn't say. Actually, he just says “Magi” or wise ones, so it's not impossible, although it's rather improbable, that they would have been a mixed group, men and women both. Tradition, of course, has made of them kings, and given them names: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. And it is only tradition that identifies gold with kingship, frankincense with divinity, or godhead, and myrrh with death. This can, of course, be quite helpful, reminding us Who Jesus is, but it is nevertheless tradition, not Scripture.

But what is important about the Magi is that they came. They were not Jewish, yet somehow they knew that the new-born King of the Jews was important, and they wished to worship him. Important enough that they travelled “from the East”, arguably modern-day Iran, but who knows, all the way to Jerusalem to find the child. “They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, they knelt down and worshipped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”

And their offerings were accepted. There was no question that these foreigners, these non-Jews, should not worship Jesus. The Jews, Jesus' own people, did not receive him, but these foreigners did. They sort of symbolise all of us, down the generations since then, who were not born Jewish but who nevertheless believed in Jesus.

The thing was, the Jews' rejection of Jesus didn't surprise God! You can't actually surprise God – He always knows what's round the next corner, which is something we can never know. But God knows. And St Paul, or whoever it was wrote the letter to the Ephesians, knew that: “Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.”

Holy and without fault before him! And he has given us, according to Paul, every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world, echoing the Gospel promise that “Out of the fullness of his grace he has blessed us all, giving us one blessing after another.”

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

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

We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem, but we also worship Jesus all year round, remembering not only his birth, but his teachings, his ministry, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit. And we worship, not only as an abstract “Thing”– what was that song: “I will celebrate Nativity, for it has a place in history....” – it’s not just about worshipping a distant divinity, but about God with us: Emmanuel.

Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us. He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....

His father, Joseph, was, we are told, a carpenter, although in fact that’s not such a great translation – the word is “Technion”, which is basically the word we get our word “technician” from. A “technion” would not only work in wood, but he’d build houses – and design them, too. He was a really skilled worker, not your average builder with his trousers falling off. Jesus would have been educated, as every Jewish boy was, and probably taught to follow his father’s trade. After all, we think he was about 30 when he started his ministry, and he must have done something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in the Temple. I wonder, sometimes, what he said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly did more than once. A friend and I were discussing this once, and could come up with nothing more specific than “Something in Aramaic!”

God with us: a God who chose to live an ordinary life, who knows what it is to be homeless, a refugee; who knows what it is to work for his living. Who knows what it is to be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised. Who knows what it’s like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power. Who came to his own people, but his own did not receive him.

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

Children's Talk for Christmas 2 Year A

Well, now. Have you had a lovely Christmas? Did you get some amazing presents? What did you get?

I was given, among other lovely things, some home-grown lamb and pork from my brother, which I’m really pleased with. I like Christmas!

But I’m sure you’ve noticed that there seem to be two sorts of Christmas! There’s the bit we do in Church, about Jesus being born, and the shepherds, and the star, and the kings, and so on. And then there’s the other bit, about Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, and Rudolph and the sleigh. And somewhere in all there there is lots of extra food and drink and turkeys and mince pies and stuff like that. It all seems rather a muddle, don’t you think?

Well, that’s partly because it is a muddle. You see, nobody knows when Jesus’ birthday really was, but scholars seem to think that the one day it absolutely wasn’t was the 25th of December. It is more probable that he was born in September – after all, sheep wouldn’t still have been out in the fields in December at that time and place.

But December is the darkest time of the year. We’ve just had the absolutely shortest day there can be – only 7 hours, 49 minutes and 43 seconds of daylight here in London – and now the days are getting longer again. Barely perceptibly at first – today, for instance, there is only going to be 7 hours, 56 minutes and 49 seconds of daylight, so today is only just over seven minutes longer than the shortest day. But it is longer, and that’s the point. People used to celebrate the turn of the year, the fact that the Light was going to come again.
And what better time to celebrate the coming of the Light of the World, people thought. So the old pagan celebration of Yule got a Christian bit tacked on to it, but the joins show rather!

And the Santa Claus thing is even more of a muddle – you see, in some countries he doesn’t even come on Christmas Eve! He comes on 6 December, which is St Nicholas’ Day, because, you see, his name really is “St Nicholas”, and “Santa Claus” is what it was corrupted to over the years. And so children in lots of European countries expect that Santa will bring them presents on St Nicholas’ Day. But our civilisation has muddled up Santa with Father Christmas, and we only get one lot of presents! Shame, really!

So what I’m trying to say is this – don’t worry about the fact that Christmas seems to have two faces. Enjoy it! But don’t ever forget that there’s more to it than just Santa and Rudolph and parties.... remember what Christians celebrate at Christmas! And are still celebrating – all the Santa stuff is over now, but the Christian Christmas goes on for another several days yet! Amen.