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Sunday, 29 January 2012

What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

We don't always remember this in our day and age, but Jesus was a Jew. This seems obvious when I say it, but we don't often think through the implications of it. And one of the implications is that every Sabbath day, he went to worship at the local synagogue, wherever he found himself. Normally at home in Nazareth, but when he was on the road, he went local.

And here, in Mark's Gospel, Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. Mark tells us that he has been baptised, and then gone into the desert to think through the implications of this, to work out what it means to be “God's beloved Son, in whom he is well pleased.” He was tempted, and learnt what was and was not the right thing to do with his divine power.

And then John, his cousin, was put in prison and Jesus knew the time had come to start his own ministry in good earnest. He came out of the desert, and picked up Andrew and Peter and one or two others – we know from John's gospel that Andrew and Peter had been followers of John before this – and then, on the Sabbath, he finds himself in Capernaum, about 20 miles as the crow flies from his home town of Nazareth. So they all go to the synagogue there.

Now, one of the things about synagogue worship was that – is that, I should say, as I understand it is much the same today – is that you don't have to have a trained preacher up there, but almost any adult – adult males, in many synagogues, but some welcome women, too – can get up on his hind legs and expound the Scriptures. And visitors were very often asked to read the Scripture passage for the day as a way of honouring them, and it was quite “done” to comment on it. You might remember Jesus goes home to Nazareth at one stage and is asked to read the Scriptures there, with rather disastrous results. But not on this occasion.

What happens here, though is equally unexpected. Someone with an evil spirit is there, and the evil spirit recognises Jesus, and causes its host to cry out, interrupting whatever Jesus was saying or reading, to cry out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

It's a good question, isn't it? What does Jesus want with us? Why does he come, interrupting our nice, peaceful church services? Why does he come, interrupting our nice, peaceful lives? What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?

Of course, the answer is going to be different for each and every one of us. And yet there are some universal truths.

Firstly, I think, he answers “I want you to let me love you.”

To let him love us. That sounds as though it ought to be a no-brainer, but in fact, it can be very difficult to allow ourselves to be loved. And we tend not to look at it that way round, anyway. We think it's our business to love God – I am not quite sure what we think God's business is, but we don't always expect him to love us. And yet, how can we love unless he loved us first?

There's a story you may have heard before, told by the theologian and writer Gerard Hughes, in which he describes an image of God that many of us may have grown up with; a God who demanded our love and attention, and threatened us with eternal damnation if he didn't get it. And we ended up telling God how much we loved him, while secretly hating him and all he stood for, but terrified of not appearing to love him, because of the eternal damnation. We weren't told, or if we were told, we didn't hear, the first bit, which is that God loves us! God loves us so much that he knows quite well we can't possibly love him first. “We love, because He first loved us,” we are told. His love comes first. We need to let him love us. That's the first answer to the question, “What do you want of us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
“I want you to let me love you.”

And the second answer is “I want you to let me heal you.”

Healing. It's a bit of a vexed question, isn't it? We know that healings happened in the Scriptures, and we know that they can and do happen today, but we rarely seem to see any. We do see miraculous physical healings now and again, and we thank God for them as, indeed, we thank God when people are healed through modern medicine. But our bodies are going to wear out or rust out one day, whatever we do. We aren't designed to live forever on this earth, in these bodies, and they will eventually come to the end of their usefulness to us. But Scripture teaches that we will be raised from death in a new body, so it makes sense to me that the parts of us that make us “us”, if you like, are the parts that need healed. Our emotions, our personality, our memories. Things that have screwed us up in our pasts, that we find hard to get beyond. I believe Jesus always heals us when we ask, but we usually get the healing we really need, not necessarily the one we thought we wanted!

Also, while our language differentiates between healing and forgiveness, Jesus doesn't seem to so much. Remember the paralysed bloke whose friends let him down through the roof? Jesus' first words to him were “Your sins are forgiven!” which was what healed him. We need to be forgiven our sins, we need to be healed of being a sinner, if you like. We need to be changed into someone who can love God, and who can step away from sin – and we'll never do that without Jesus, let me tell you. We need to be healed so that we can become the person God created us to be. “I want you to let me heal you.”

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
“I want you to let me love you.
I want you to let me heal you.
And I want you to let me fill you with the Holy Spirit!”

To be filled with God's Holy Spirit. According to the Bible, this isn't an optional extra, it's an absolutely central part of being a Christian. Remember the believers at Antioch, who were asked whether they'd received the Holy Spirit when they were baptised, and they were like, “You what? What's the Holy Spirit?” and Paul had to re-explain the Gospel to them. It turned out they'd only got as far as John's baptism of repentance, not the baptism into a new life with Christ. So far as Paul is concerned, receiving the Holy Spirit is an absolutely central part of being a Christian.

Makes sense, really, when you think about it. Because if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are filled with God Himself, and can be loved and healed and made whole, and God Himself can direct our lives, never forcing, never compelling, but always asking and reminding us, and enabling us. We need to be filled with God's Holy Spirit if we are to grow and change into the people God designed us to be.

“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”

Of course, at that time the question was inappropriate, as was the follow-on of: “I know who you are, the holy one of God!” because Jesus was only just at the start of his ministry. He wasn't ready to become universally known, and anyway, he could sense that that which asked the questions had no interest in wishing him well. So he did the only possible thing, which was to command the evil spirit to come out of its host, which it did, and when the host recovered, all was well. But, of course, stories like this spread around, and Mark tells us that Jesus' fame in the area began to grow.

“What do you want of us, Jesus of Nazareth?” The question still resonates down the years, and I think the answers are still the same as ever: “I want you to let me love you. I want you to let me heal you. I want you to let me fill you with the Holy Spirit.” What is your answer? What is mine?

Will you let Jesus love you? Will you let Jesus heal you? Will you let Jesus fill you with his Holy Spirit? Amen.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

God's Extravagance

Some years ago now, when my daughter got married, my husband and I went to France to buy the sparkling wine they'd chosen for toasts and so on, and they ordered the rest of the wine on sale or return from Majestic or one of those. Of course, frantic panic and calculations about how much to get – but we all got it right, and there was plenty but not enough, as my daughter said, to be worth sending back! So we shared out what was left among the various families, and very nice it was, too! But wouldn't it have been awful if we'd got it wrong?

And, in our Gospel reading for today, that is exactly what happened The wine ran out. I gather that wedding parties in those days tended to go on for about three days, and it isn't clear at what stage the wine ran out; probably towards the end of the festivities. We aren't told why, either. Perhaps the wine merchant let them down, or perhaps her relations drank more than the bridegroom's family had expected, or perhaps they just didn't calculate properly. Who knows? Anyway,they ran out of wine. Total embarrassment and despair, and probably a great deal of fury going on behind the scenes.

But among the wedding guests were a very special family. Mary, the carpenter's widow from Nazareth, and her sons. Cana isn't very far from Nazareth, only about twelve miles, but that's quite a good day's journey when you have to rely on your own two feet to get you there. So it's probable that either the bride or the groom were related to Mary in some way, especially as she seems to have been told about the disaster with the wine.

And then comes one of those turning-point moments in the Gospels. Mary tells her eldest son, Jesus, that the wine has run out.

Now, as far as we can tell, Jesus is only just beginning to realise who he is. John's gospel says that he has already been baptised by John the Baptist, which implies that he has been out into the desert to wrestle with the implications of being the Messiah – and the temptations which came with it, and John also tells us that Simon Peter, Andrew and some of the others have started to be Jesus' disciples and had come with him to the wedding. But, in this version of the story, Jesus hasn't yet started to use his divine power to heal people and to perform miracles, and he isn't quite sure that the time is right to do so. So when his mother comes up and says “They have no wine,” his immediate reaction is to say, more or less, “Well, nothing I can do about it! It isn't time yet!”

His mother, however, seems to have been ahead of Jesus for once, on this, and says to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you!” And Jesus, who was always very close to God, and who had learnt to listen to his Father all the time, realises that, after all, his mother is right and the time has come to start using the power God has given him. So he tells the servants to fill those big jars with water – an they pour out as the best wine anybody there has ever tasted. As someone remarked, right at the fag-end of the wedding, when people are beginning to go home and everybody has had more than enough to drink, anyway.

I don't suppose the bridegroom's family were sorry, though. Those jars were huge – they held about a hundred litres each, and there were six of them. Do you realise just how much wine that was? Six hundred litres – about eight hundred standard bottles of wine! Eight hundred.... you don't even see that many on the supermarket shelves, do you? Eight hundred.... I should think Mary was a bit flabber-gasted. And it was such good quality too.

Okay, so people drank rather more wine then than we do today, since there was no tea or coffee, poor them, and the water was a bit iffy, but even still, I should think eight hudnred bottles would last them quite a while. And at that stage of the wedding party, there's simply no way they could have needed that much.

But isn't that exactly like Jesus? Isn't that typical of God? We see it over and over and over again in the Scriptures. The story of feeding the five thousand, for instance – and one of the Gospel-writers points out that it was five thousand men, not counting the women and children – well, in that story, Jesus didn't provide just barely enough lunch for everybody, quite the reverse – there were twelve whole basketsful left over! Far more than enough food -all the disciples could have a basketful to take home to Mum.

Or what about when the disciples were fishing and he told them to cast their nets that-away? The nets didn't just get a sensible catch of fish – they were full and over-full, so that they almost ripped.

It's not just in the Bible either – look at God's creation. You've all seen pictures of the way the desert blooms when it rains – look at those millions of flowers that nobody, for a very long time, ever knew were there except God. Or look at how many millions and millions of sperm male animals produce to fertilise only a few embryos in the course of a lifetime. Or where lots of embryos are produced, like fish, for instance, millions of them are eaten or otherwise perish long before adulthood. And millions and millions of different plant and animal species, some of which are only now being discovered.

Or look at the stars – have you, perhaps, been watching this Stargazing Live programme this week with Brian Cox and Dara Ó Briain? All those millions upon millions of stars, many with planets, some with planets like our own that may even hold intelligent life..... God is amazing, isn't He? And just suppose we really are the only intelligent life in the Universe? That says something else about God's extravagance in creating such an enormous Universe with only us in it! Our God is truly amazing! And who knows, somewhere, in a galaxy far away, God might be being worshipped by beings who are far different from us – perhaps they are five feet square, one inch thick, and ripple! Or perhaps they are more like plants than like people.... who knows? Apart from God, nobody knows! But it's fun to speculate.

But there's a more serious side to this than just science fiction, much though I love it. The point is, doesn't an extravagant God demand an extravagant response from us? His most extravagant act, so far as we know, was to come down to earth as a human being, a tiny baby, born in an obscure village in a dusty corner of the world, totally helpless, totally vulnerable.... our own celebrations of Christmas, no matter how over-the-top, don't even begin to come close!

And yet our response is, so very often, "meh!"; lukewarm! We tend to give God the minimum, rather than the maximum – that's much too scary! And yet we're told that the measure we give will be given back to us, pressed down, shaken together and running over! As the response to our Psalm reads, “How abundant is your goodness, O Lord.”

We hold back. We follow God only a little bit. We don't dare give the full tithe, the full ten percent, because we think that in times of recession we can't afford to. Or we think it doesn't apply to us. Well, I'm not one to preach prosperity theology, but God does promise all sorts of blessings on us, material or otherwise, if we bring in the full tithe.

Or, perhaps we do follow God whole-heartedly – but we see Christianity as a matter of judgementalism, of a God who seeks excuses to condemn people, rather than excuses to forgive them. We see people proclaiming in the media, or on Facebook, or elsewhere that God hates a given group of people – usually gay people, or women who have abortions. Such nonsense – how can he hate those he came to die for? He may or may not approve of their actions, but – well, he doesn't approve of everything we do, either. We too are sinners, and know that we are!

Would our extravagant God, the one who produced eight hundred bottles of top-quality wine at the tail end of a party, would that God really be mean-minded? Yes, we have seen from Scripture that God can be extravagant in his judgements as well as in his gifts, but not, normally, against people who are trying to follow him as best they know how. It is those who turn against God, who follow false gods, and who, worse still, encourage other people to do the same, they are the ones who come under judgement.

Sometimes, though, we can't respond extravagantly to God's extravagance because we are afraid to allow God to be extravagant with us! Maybe we'd be asked to do something we really don't want to do.... or live somewhere we don't want to live, or.... you know the scenario. But, my friends, if an extravagant God calls you to do something extravagant for him, won't he give you extravagantly, abundantly, the strength and, yes, the desire, to do it?

Jesus came, he told us, so that we can have life, and have it abundantly! Abundantly. Are we allowing God to be extravagant in our lives? Am I? Are you? Amen.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Echoes - Matthew chapter 2

This is an edited version of a sermon first preached some years ago. It doesn't feel right to just preach on the Epiphany without mentioning its aftermath.

The story of the coming of the Magi and the flight into Egypt, from Matthew’s Gospel, is really rather strange.
It’s certainly not found elsewhere;
in fact, Luke’s version of events is so different you sometimes wonder whether they are talking about the same thing.
Here we are, in Matthew,
finding the Holy Family living in Bethlehem,
fleeing to Egypt,
and then settling in Nazareth,
well out of reach of Herod’s descendants.
But Luke tells us that the family lived in Nazareth in the first place,
went to Bethlehem for the census,
and, far from avoiding Jerusalem,
called in there on their way back to Nazareth!
And, indeed, went there each year for the festivals –
I wonder, don’t you, whether they stayed with Mary’s cousin Elisabeth
and whether Jesus and John played together as children?

Not that it matters.
We all rationalise the two stories into one,
and add our own extraneous bits –
the ox and the ass, for instance,
are figments of people’s imaginations, not part of the Luke’s account.
Even the stable – the manger may well have been separating the dwelling-house from the animal-house, rather than in a separate stable as we envisage it.
But from Matthew’s telling of it, the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem anyway and didn’t need to use a stable!
And they were probably astrologers, not kings,
and Matthew doesn’t actually say how many there were!
He doesn't even specify that they were male, although they probably were. The word “Magi” just means “wise ones”.
And do you really think people kept bursting into song,
like they do in Luke’s gospel?
I rather think that Luke, like Shakespeare, was writing what he thought they ought to have said, rather than what they actually did say!

But both Gospels –
for both Mark and John choose not to start with Jesus’ birth,
but at the start of his ministry –
both Gospels agree that Jesus was born to a virgin,
was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit in some way we simply don’t understand.
And they both agree that he was born in Bethlehem,
to a mother named Mary and a father named Joseph.
Both gospels also provide a genealogy for him,
tracing him right back to Adam in St Luke’s case,
and only as far back as Abraham in St Matthew’s case!
And occasionally tracing by different routes.

And both agree that the baby Jesus was visited by outsiders, by people who were not from the religious establishment of the day.
The shepherds were apparently outsiders, not accepted in Jewish society.
And the Magi, of course, were foreigners, outsiders, not even Jewish.

Similarities, differences – it doesn't really matter, as I said.
The Bible people were not writing to modern standards of historical accuracy, but they are still telling us true stories, however they might vary in detail.
It’s what they are telling us that matters, not the historical details!

Have you ever noticed, too, that Luke’s version of events is from Mary’s point of view, but Matthew is telling us it from Joseph’s?
Luke shows us Gabriel going to Mary and saying “Hail, thou that art highly favoured;
blessed art thou among women!”
But Matthew shows us Joseph’s reaction to the news that Mary was expecting a baby and it wasn’t his –
he could have discarded her publicly and left her with no other resource than to go on the streets.
But he didn’t.
He decided he’d end the betrothal quietly, with no public scandal.
And then he listened to the angel who said that he should marry her anyway.

I think I rather like Joseph, don’t you?
He comes across as someone who’s willing to listen,
and to change his mind.
He comes across as someone who listens to God,
and is prepared to accept that God speaks to him in dreams.
In our reading today, again, Joseph listens.
He acts on what he hears –
he takes his family and flees to Egypt,
and when he is told it is safe, he brings them home again,
only to Nazareth, not Bethlehem.

But this whole story that we heard read to day has echoes in the Old Testament, doesn’t it?
And it echoes down the years.....

There is Israel going down into Egypt
and being called up out of Egypt in the Exodus as God's son (hence the quotation from Hosea in verse 15),
but we also have echoes of when Pharaoh tried to kill Hebrew infants
which led to Moses being hidden the bulrushes.
Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings
just as we have here
and I expect Matthew knew about them when he was writing the story.
At that, wasn’t there another Joseph who knew all about hearing God’s voice in dreams?

What these echoes do is to root the story in history.
The provide a setting for Jesus, if you like.
Sending Jesus wasn’t just something God decided to do totally randomly –
he was firmly rooted in the history of the Jews, who were expecting a Messiah.
Matthew, who is thought to have been Jewish, is trying to show how the Scriptures led down to this moment.

Rather like, if you will, when Jesus explained the Scriptures to Cleopas and his wife on the road to Emmaus, so they were able to see that they pointed to Jesus, and to the Resurrection.

For Matthew, all the Scripture quotations act as proof that Jesus is who He claimed to be.
It’s not the sort of thing scholars nowadays consider proof,
but that doesn’t matter.
For Matthew, as for all Jewish scholars of the time,
that was how you proved things:
was there a relevant quotation in the Scriptures?
He wants to set the Messiah in context.
And showing that history is repeating itself:
a new Pharaoh killing the babies, a new Joseph listening to dreams, a new journey into Egypt, and a new Exodus out of it.

And it echoes down to our own day, doesn’t it –
refugees, people fleeing in terror of their lives, genocide....
it never ends.

The magi –
wise men, astrologers, it’s thought –
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 just about watching a child grow and develop, and applauding when he does something really clever, like I do with young James.
Actually, he has learnt to applaud himself when he's done something he considers clever, but never mind that now.

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.

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

Jesus, as a human being, can identify with us.
He knows from the inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....
From the story of the flight into Egypt, we see him as a refugee, an asylum-seeker, although he was just a baby, or perhaps a small boy at the time.
From the story that Joseph chose deliberately to settle his family in the sticks, far away from civilisation, we see Jesus as living an ordinary, obscure life.

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.

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.

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.