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It’s almost an anomaly nowadays, isn’t it? Out in
the world, people are starting to celebrate Christmas already – the
shops have had their decorations up since the beginning of last
month, or even earlier,
the round of office parties, works celebrations, school festivities
will be starting any day now. And the endless tapes of carols and
Christmas songs that are played in the shops, I should think they’d
drive the shop assistants mad!
here in Church, Christmas hasn’t started yet, and won’t for
another four weeks. We are celebrating Advent,
it seems to be another penitential time, like Lent. Those churches
that have different colours for the seasons have brought out the
many will have no flowers except for an Advent wreath.
Advent is really a season of hope. We look forward to “the last
day when Christ shall come again”
establish the Kingdom on earth. We also look back to those who’ve
been part of God’s story, including John the Baptist and Jesus’
though, our readings are about the coming King.
Our first reading,
from the prophet Isaiah, tells how the prophet,
perhaps the people for whom he was speaking,
and longed to see God in action.
that you would rend the heavens and come down,
the mountains would tremble before you!
when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
down to make your name known to your enemies
cause the nations to quake before you!”
think that this part of Isaiah was written very late,
the people of Judah had returned from exile. They would have
remembered the stories of the wonderful things God had done in the
the days of Abraham and Sarah,
Isaac and Jacob,
of David the King – and then, they would have looked round and
hey, why isn’t any of this happening today?”
reckoned the answer must be because they were so sinful.
come to the help of those who gladly do right,
remember your ways.
when we continued to sin against them,
then can we be saved?
of us have become like one who is unclean,
all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up
like a leaf,
like the wind our sins sweep us away.
calls on your name
strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us
made us waste away because of our sins.”
does sound very much as though the prophet were longing for God,
somehow couldn’t find him, in the mists of human sinfulness and
this world’s total abandonment of God. You know, there’s
nothing new – we complain that people don’t want to seek God
our churches stand empty,
there was the prophet saying that thousands of years ago!
of course, as it turned out,
hadn’t abandoned his people at all! Jesus came to this earth,
lived among us, and died for us,
Isaiah’s people now knew the remedy for their sin.
Jesus himself tells us, in our second reading,
his coming to live in Palestine as a human being isn’t the end of
the story, either. Somehow, someday, he will come back again. He
obviously doesn’t know all that much about it while he is on earth,
rather discourages us from speculation as to when or how. But he
draws pictures for us:
sun will be darkened,
the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the
the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great
power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect
from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the
is a scary thought, isn't it, with the world as unstable now as at
any time in the past century.
more today, as at no other time in history,
are such that if Jesus were to come back,
know about it almost as soon as it happened – look how quickly
news spreads around the world these days.
the time you hear about it on Facebook or Twitter before the BBC has
even picked up on it. And Jesus' return would be something
lots of generations before ours have thought that Jesus might come
back any minute now,
Christians throughout history have lived their lives expecting him to
come home. We have remembered Jesus’ warnings about being
prepared for him to come, but He hasn’t come. And we get to the
stage where we, too, cry with Isaiah:
that you would rend the heavens and come down,
the mountains would tremble before you!”
Isaiah, we long and long to see God come and intervene in this world,
and wish that He would hurry up.
that’s perfectly natural, of course. Some folk have even got to
the stage of believing it won’t happen, and have given up on God
completely. But Jesus said it will happen,
one has to assume He knew what he was talking about.
that doesn’t mean that we can blame God – if
You had come back before now, this wouldn’t have happened. Every
generation has been able to say that to God,
it’s not made a blind bit of difference. So maybe there’s
see, in one way, Jesus has come back. Do you remember what
happened on the Day of Pentecost,
that upper room? God’s Holy Spirit descended on those gathered
like tongues of fire,
with a noise like a rushing mighty wind,
the disciples were empowered to talk about Jesus. And we know from
from our own experience,
God the Holy Spirit still comes to us,
of the purposes of these so-called penitential seasons is to give us
space to examine ourselves
see if we have drifted away from God,
to ask to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit. Then we are
empowered to live our lives
Jesus would wish.
don't have to struggle and strain and strive to “get it right” by
our own efforts. God himself is within us, enabling us from the
inside. Jesus doesn’t just provide us with an example to follow,
but actually enables us to do it, by the indwelling of the Holy
and I very much enjoy ice dancing,
we have never been very good, and as we get older,
don't get any better, either!
no matter how hard we've worked, we've never been much good. But
supposing somehow the spirit of a very good ice dancer could get
actually make our bodies move in the right way,
show us how it's done from the inside.
would be so much better than anything our coach could tell us, or
anything we can learn from watching videos.
would be enabled to dance better.
that’s what God does – by indwelling us with his Holy Spirit,
He not only shows
us what to do, but enables us to do it.
of us will face the end of the world one day.
It might be the
global end of the world, that Jesus talks about, or it might just be
the end of our personal world. We expect, here in the West, to
live out our life span to the end, and many of us, I am sure, will do
just that. But we can’t rely on that. You never know when
terrorists will attack – or even muggers, or just a plain
accident. We can’t see round corners; we don’t know what
will happen tomorrow.
whether it is tomorrow,
twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from now,
day we will die, and then, at last, we will meet Jesus face to
face. And we need to be ready. We need to know that we have
lived as God wants us to live – and when we’ve screwed up,
we always do and always will,
come back to God and asked forgiveness,and asked God to renew us and
refill us with his Holy Spirit.
can only live one day at a time, but each day should, I hope, be
bringing us nearer to the coming of the King. Amen.
I forgot to record the children's talk, sorry. Scroll down past it for the recording of the main sermon.
Okay, so who can tell me something
about sheep? Why do farmers grow sheep? What do they provide?
(Meat; wool). We don't see many sheep her in London, do we?
Sometimes we see pictures of sheep in the Bible, often we see a
shepherd carrying one round his neck, like a scarf. Well, my brother
is a shepherd, and he tells me that this is one of the best ways of
carrying them, only what the Bible doesn't show is the very nasty
things they are apt to do all down your front while you are carrying
Shepherds have to look after their
sheep all the time. They can get horrible illnesses – their feet
can get dreadfully sore, and sometimes flies can lay eggs in them,
and the maggots try to eat them. And the wool can get all icky and
manky, especially around their tails, so the shepherd tries to keep
that area clean, and often shorn.
And quite often, there isn't enough
grass in the fields for them, so the shepherd comes round with a
tractor and trailer every day to provide extra feed for them – and
yes, the stronger sheep do push the weaker ones aside, just like
sometimes at school the bigger kids push the little ones aside. And
when that happens, of course, the teachers intervene to make sure the
little kids are able to have their turn in the playground, or at
lunch, or whatever.
But the people the prophet was talking
to would have known about sheep more than kids in school, so his
picture made sense to them. And when the Prophet said that God would
send a King to be their shepherd and take care of them, who do you
think he was talking about? Jesus, of course! And today is the day
when we think extra specially about Jesus as King, and we remember
that He is also the Good Shepherd. Amen.
powered by podcast garden Main Sermon:
the very last Sunday of the Christian year, and it is the day on
which we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.
I wonder what
sort of images go through your head when you hear the word “King”.
Often, one things of pomp and circumstance, the gold State Coach,
jewels, servants, money…. and perhaps scandal, too. What do you
think of when you think about a king? The modern monarchy is largely
ceremonial. Our Queen reigns, but she does not rule. All the
same, I’d rather be represented by a hereditary monarch who is
a-political than by a political head of state for whom I did not
vote, and whose views were anathema to me! But it hasn’t always
been like that.
We think of good, brave kings, like Edward the
Third or Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,
once more”. We think of Elizabeth at Tilbury: “Although I have
the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of
a King, and a King of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma,
or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders
of my realm.”
Actually my favourite Elizabeth quote
is when she was very ill, and one of her courtiers said to her, “Your
Majesty, you must go to bed!” to which she replied, “Little
man, one does not say 'must' to princes!”
Or we think of Richard the Lionheart – I’m dodging about
rather here – who forsook England to fight against Muslims, which
he believed was God’s will for him. Hmm, not much change there,
But there have been weak kings, poor kings, kings that
have been deposed, kings that have seized the crown from others. Our
own monarchy is far from the first to become embroiled in scandal.
Think of the various Hanoverian kings, the Georges, most of whom were
endlessly in the equivalent of the tabloid press, and cartoonists
back then were far, far ruder than they dare to be today. You may
have seen some of them in museums or in history books. The ones in
the history books are the more polite ones.
the role of a king was to defend and protect his people, to lead them
into battle, if necessary; to give justice, and generally to look
after their people. They may have done this well, or they may have
done it badly, but that was what they did. If you’ve read C S
Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, you might remember that King Lune
tells Shasta, who is going to be king after him: “For this is what
it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last
in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as
must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh
louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
when we think of Christ as King, we come up against that great
paradox, for Christ was, and is, above all, the Servant King. No
birth with state-of-the-art medical facilities for him, but a stable
in an inn-yard. No golden carriage, but a donkey. No crown, save
that made of thorns, and no throne, except the Cross.
we know that God has raised him, to quote our first reading, “from
death and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world. Christ
rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and
lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this
world and in the next. God put all things under Christ's feet
and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things.” Christ
was raised as King of Heaven.
And it is the Kingdom of Heaven
that he preached while he was here on earth. That was the Good News
– that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He told us lots of stories
to illustrate what the kingdom was going to be like, how it starts
off very small, like a mustard seed, but grows to be a huge tree.
How it is worth giving up everything for. How “the blind receive
their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,
the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to
Jesus does lead us into battle, yes, but it is a
battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the
cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces
of evil in the heavenly places.” And through his Holy Spirit, Jesus
gives us the armour to enable us to fight, the helmet of salvation,
the breastplate of righteousness, et cetera, et cetera.
requires that His followers forgive one another, everything, all the
time. Even the unforgivable things. Even the abusers, the tyrants,
the warlords…. Even Jehadi John, and the other leaders of Islamic
And in that Kingdom of Heaven, he will
judge the nations, so our reading tells us. We will be separated
into the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. I gather
that in ancient times, your flocks tended to be mingled, sheep and
goats together, and sheep didn't really look like today's sheep, so
it was not always easy to tell them apart at a casual glance. But
the King has no problems; they are separated, the one group to be
rewarded for the way they have fed the hungry, clothed the naked and
so on, and the other to be punished for the way they have failed to
It is often rather an awkward sort of
passage for us, as we believe – and rightly – that salvation is
by faith, we cannot earn it. No, of course we can't; it is God's
free gift to us through Christ Jesus, we know that. But we also know
that faith doesn't happen in a vacuum. If it means anything, it
changes our lives. Things are never the same again.
We know all this. We have seen it
happen, if not to ourselves then to our friends. We know all about
the little voice that says “I need someone to go on Facebook and
send a loving message to X”, or “I need someone to see to it that
this church is kept clean and tidy”, or “I need someone to knit
Christmas stockings and Easter bunnies for church funds”, or
whatever. Even sometimes the bigger things: “I need someone to be
a street pastor” or “I need someone to stand for election as an
MP”.... we all know that voice.
Yet too often we ignore it. We go
about our business as though we were no different from anybody else.
We act as if the Kingdom of Heaven was something completely
irrelevant to us. And worse, we act as if the King of Heaven was
irrelevant. This poem was written sometime between 1603 and 1648
possibly by someone called Thomas Ford, and it is still true today:
“Yet if his majesty our sovereign
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
say "I'll be your guest to-morrow night."
How should we
stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! "Let no
man idle stand.
Set me fine Spanish tables in the
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat,
order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and
candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a
Look to the presence: are the
The dazie o'er the head,
The cushions in the
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his
Thus if the king were coming would
And 'twere good reason too;
For 'tis a duteous thing
show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and
So he be pleas'd, to think no labour lost.
But at the coming of the King of
All's set at six and seven:
We wallow in our sin,
cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain him always like a
And as at first still lodge him in the manger.”
“We entertain him always like
And, as at first, still lodge him in
Must we? Shall we not follow this
King, whose Kingdom is not of this world. He is the king who rides
on a donkey, the king who requires his followers to use the weapon of
forgiveness, the king who surrendered to the accusers, the scourge,
and the cross.
Are we going to turn away from this world, and
its values, and instead embrace the values of the Kingdom? I tell
you this, my friends, most of us live firmly clinging to the values
of this world. I include myself – don’t think I’m any better
than you, because I can assure you, I’m not! We all cling to the
values of this world, and few of us truly embrace the values of the
Kingdom. We still lodge the King of Heaven in the manger. But He
will forgive us as we acknowledge our failure and try again to
embrace those values, which are so foreign to our own.
As we reach the end of one church year
and look to the beginning of a new one, may the one whom we know to
be King of the universe and ruler of our lives guide us in our
journeys of welcome and forgiveness, that our churches may include
all whom God loves, and our hearts may find healing and wholeness.
My father claims he has heard of a
preacher who concluded his sermon on the Gospel passage we have just
heard read by asking his congregation “Would you rather be with the
wise virgins in the light, or with the foolish virgins in the dark?”
which did not, of course, get the answer he was hoping for!
But the point of that reading, as,
indeed, the point of the one from Thessalonians, is that we can't see
the future. We can't see round “the bend in the road”. We don't
know when we will die, or, indeed, whether our dear Lord will return
before that happens. We have no way of knowing the future, and
therefore, we need to be prepared for almost anything.
But today is Remembrance Day, when we
think of the past, rather than the future. Never an easy day for
You know, of course, that Remembrance
Sunday was instituted in about 1920, after the end of the First World
War. That war, known then as “The War to end all Wars”, was
seriously terrible for those who participated in it. Many millions of
young men went to their deaths in the killing fields of France and
Belgium, and barely a family in those countries that were part of it
did not lose somebody. Both my grandfathers were involved in this
war, and each lost a brother. In fact, one of my grandfathers was
only just recovering from a serious wound when the news came through
that his brother had been killed. The family could easily have lost
both its sons. Indeed, many families did lose all their sons – it
was a hard time. And the flu epidemic that came immediately after
caused yet more deaths and unhappiness.
Those of you whose roots are in this
country will have similar tales to tell, no doubt, and, indeed, some
of you may have lived through the Second World War, in which so many
civilians were killed and wounded, or at best lost their homes and
livelihoods, in the Blitz. My father was at school when it started,
and a member of the Home Guard, as many senior schoolboys were, but
before it ended he was in the Army, and was wounded, and spent over a
year in hospital. My aunt was working in a rather top-secret job
organising the invasion of France. And so it goes on. There are
things our parents’ generation just don’t talk about, since the
horrors they lived through weren’t something to share with the next
generation. My grandfather, the one who was not wounded in the first
war, was career army, and saw service in the desert, I believe. He
came through unscathed, except for breaking his leg in a trivial
accident that had nothing to do with the war, and was glad of it as
he took the opportunity of the enforced leave to visit his family,
who had not seen him for four very long years. But many didn't
survive – either casualties of war, or of the concentration camps.
And I gather the years straight after the war were full of confusion
and muddle, as countries tightened up their borders and decided who
should, and who should not, live there.
But then, my generation grew up with
the threat of the atom bomb over our heads; we knew, no matter how
much our parents tried to shelter us, we knew about the Cold War, we
knew that the Soviet Union was perceived as a threat, and that we
would probably not live to grow up because someone would press the
red button and the world would go up in what was called Mutually
Assured Destruction. Right through the 1950s and 1960s we expected it
to happen, almost at any minute. Then the United States was
distracted by the Viet Nam war, and the Soviet Union by its war with
Afghanistan, and then came 1989, and the end of an era.
And, of course, during that time there
was also the Six Day war and the 1973 war in the Middle East, and the
Falklands Conflict here, and some of you may have experienced wars of
independence, or other wars, in your home countries. Peace is very
rare and very precious, and it is amazing how much peace there has
been in this country, relatively speaking, in my lifetime.
Of course, once we had got past 1989
and the Communist Bloc was no longer a threat, we had to look around
for a new enemy. And we seemed to find it among some of the Muslim
community. Hmmm – when you consider that they, as we, are People
of the Book, and when you consider the results of anti-Semitism
during the Nazi era in Germany, it strikes me that there is something
wrong with this picture.
But then, people forget. There is a
saying that if you do not remember the lessons of history, you are
doomed to repeat them. Maybe we do. Our history in this 21st
century hasn't been exactly grand, has it? We have been pleased,
this past couple of weeks, that our troops have finally left
Afghanistan – but over 400 of them never will leave. And should
they have been there in the first place? It's a vexed question.
But there was the invasion of Iraq, for
which the atrocities of 9/11 were just a pretext. And now there is
unrest in so many places in the near East – Ukraine, for a start.
And Syria, life must be absolutely awful there. It doesn't seem five
minutes since we were watching a documentary about education in
Syria, and now children are probably very lucky if they get to school
So, we wonder, where is God in all
this? What have all these events to do with God? Or, indeed, why, as
Christian people, should we be paying tribute to those who were
involved in some of these hideous things – for whatever we our
taught, our own side usually does just as dreadful things as the
other side; well, we know that, don’t we – look at those soldiers
who were convicted of torturing Iraqi prisoners. And who knows –
they may just have been the tip of the iceberg. If there was a
culture of treating your prisoners with disrespect.... and then
people wonder why you get extremist organisations like Islamic State
– I know, and I know you know, that the vast majority of Muslims
feel just as much horror and despair about Islamic State as we do,
but I can also see, and I expect you can, too, just how they got
pushed into extremism by the behaviour of some of our troops, and the
attitude of not only our troops, but also our governments.
It’s difficult, isn’t it. “Blessed
are the Peacemakers”, said Jesus. But he also said that there would
always be wars, and rumours of wars. We are told to make peace, even
while we know we will be unsuccessful.
Robert and I visited New York less than
a fortnight after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, back in 2001.
We had planned our holiday months earlier, and decided not to allow
terrorism and war to disrupt our lives more than was strictly
necessary. Besides, what safer time to go, just when security was at
Anyway, the first Sunday we were there,
we felt an urgent need to go to Church, to worship with God’s
people. Not knowing anything about churches in Brooklyn, we went to
the one round the corner from where we were staying, which turned out
to be a Lutheran Church. And I was glad we went – the people there
were so pleased to know that people were still visiting from England.
They knew they faced a hard time coming to terms with what had
happened, and that the future was very uncertain, yet they knew, too,
that God was in it with them.
And God is in it with us, too. Whatever
happens. God was there in the trenches with those young men in the
first War; God was there in the bombing and occupations of the Second
War. God was there in the Twin Towers that day, and in the hijacked
planes, too. God is there in Afghanistan, and Syria, and Ukraine,
and South Sudan, and Palestine and all those countries where there is
no peace, and life is very frightening.
We, who call ourselves Christians,
sometimes refuse to fight for our country, believing that warfare and
Christianity aren’t really compatible. I am inclined to agree, but
for one thing – do we really want our armed forces to be places
where God is not honoured? That’s the big problem with Christian
pacifism – it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable.
But we must do all that we can to make
peace. I don’t know what the rights and wrongs of most of these
campaigns were. I do know, though, that people are suffering,
through no fault of their own. People are still suffering in Dafur
and Jerusalem and Damascus, and other places where they lost loved
ones. They are still suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are
suffering in other places where Muslims are despised because of their
faith – and, indeed, in places where Islamic State or Boko Harum
has any say in the matter.
War causes suffering. It is never
noble, or glorious, and I’m not quite sure whether it is ever
right. Even if it is, it is horrible. And inevitable. And we
Christians must do all we can to bring peace, and we must wear our
poppies and remember, each year, those who had to suffer and die.
For who knows when it will be our turn?
The foolish virgins in Jesus' story were the ones who reckoned it
would never happen, and failed to make preparations. We must and
will remember those who died in war, but we will also remember that
we have asked God to be in control of our lives. So we must be ready
for whatever He might ask us to go through. And always, always be
prepared to help make peace. Amen.
Please note that although this starts off the same as the sermon preached on this Sunday in 2011 and 2008, it finishes very differently.
Has anybody got penny on them? Or
even a pound coin? Okay, whose picture is on the front of it?
used to our coins, aren’t we – we barely even notice that they
have a picture of the Queen on one side, and a few odd remarks in
Latin printed round the picture. They basically say Elizabeth, and
then DG, which means by God’s grace; Reg, short for Regina, means
Queen, and FD means Defender of the Faith – a title, ironically,
given to Henry the Eighth when he wrote a book supporting the Pope
against the Protestant Reformation, long before he wanted to divorce
Katherine of Aragon and had to leave the Catholic church.
I was a little girl, though, before decimalisation, coins were even
more interesting, as they didn’t all have pictures of the Queen on
– the old shillings, sixpences, florins and half-crowns had often
been issued during the reign of George the Sixth and pennies were
often even older – it was not unusual to find penny that had been
issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, even! My father used to
make us guess the date on the coin, based on which reign it was, and
if we were right we got to keep it. Not that we ever were right, so
it was a fairly safe game for him, but it made sure we knew the dates
of 20th-century monarchs!
Different countries have different
things on their coins, of course; if you look at Euro coins, they
have a different design on one side depending on which country issued
them: the German ones have a picture of the Brandenburg gate, Austria
has a stylised eagle; the Irish ones have a harp. Those Euro
countries which are monarchies have a picture of their monarch on
them, as we would if we joined the Euro, and the Vatican City ones
have a picture of the Pope! I don't know what the newer Euro
countries, like Estonia and Poland have, but it wouldn't be
impossible to find out! That might be a nice game to play with my
grandsons when they are a little older, perhaps – but they would
learn them too quickly, I think.
This convention, of showing
the monarch on your coins, dates back thousands of years, and was
well-known in Jesus’ day. But unfortunately, this raised a problem
for Jesus and his contemporaries, as the Roman coins in current use
all showed a picture of the Emperor, and the wording round the side
said something like “Son of a god”, meaning that the Emperor was
thought to be divine.
You might remember how the earliest
Christians were persecuted for refusing to say that the Emperor was
Lord, as to them, only Jesus was Lord? Well, similarly, the Jews
couldn’t say that Caesar was God, and, rather like Muslims, they
were forbidden to have images of people, either. So the Roman coins
carried a double whammy for them.
They got round it by having
their own coins to be used in the Temple – hence the money-changers
that Jesus threw out, because they were giving such a rotten rate of
exchange. But for everyday use, of course, they were stuck with the
Roman coins. And taxes, like the poll tax, had to be paid in Roman
coins. You might remember the episode where Jesus tells Peter to
catch a fish, and it has swallowed a coin that will do for both of
their taxes. But that was then, and this is now.
Now, Jesus is
in the Temple when they come to him – in the holy place, where you
must use the Jewish coins or not spend money. “They”, in this
case, are not only the Pharisees, who were out to trap Jesus by any
means possible, but also the Herodians, who actually supported the
The question is a total trick question,
of course. They come up to Jesus, smarming him and pointing out that
they know he doesn’t take sides – so should they pay their poll
tax, or not? If he says, yes you must, then he’ll be accused of
saying it’s okay for people to have coins with forbidden images;
it’s okay to be Romanised; it’s okay to collaborate with the
occupying power. And if he says, no don’t, then he’ll be accused
of trying to incite rebellion or terrorism.
So Jesus asks for
a coin. I expect it was the Herodians who produced one – the
Pharisees would probably not have admitted to having one in their
pockets, even if they did. And he asks whose image – eikon, the
word is – whose image is on the coin? And they said, puzzled,
Caesar’s of course, whose else would it be?
And we all know
what he said next: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God
what belongs to God.
It’s kind of difficult, at this
distance, to know what he meant. Was he saying we need to keep our
Christian life separate from the rest of life? God forbid, and I mean
that! If our commitment to God means anything at all, it should be
informing all we do, whether we are at worship on Sunday or at work
on Monday or out at the pub on a Friday! There is a crying need for
Christians in all walks of life; whether we are called to be plumbers
or politicians, bankers or builders, retired or redundant! Wherever
we find ourselves, we are God’s people, and our lives and values
and morals and behaviour need to reflect that.
So what is
Jesus saying? It’s about more than paying taxes or not paying them.
It’s not about whether we support our government or whether we
I think he’s saying that there doesn’t have to be
a conflict. The image of Caesar is on the coin – but we, we are
made in God’s image! If we were coins, the writing around us would
say “A child of God”, not, as for the Caesars, meaning that we
are gods ourselves, but meaning, quite literally, that we are God’s
beloved children. There isn't really any difference between what
belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, because, ultimately,
everything belongs to God. Even the holy people, the Pharisees, had to use these coins when they went to the market. There isn't really much difference.
Yes, we need to be good citizens –
both Jesus and Paul make that clear, one way and another. And yes,
that includes voting as and when we're entitled to do so, and paying
such taxes as we rightfully owe, but it also includes making a fuss
when things aren't going as they should.
For instance, why do we still need food
banks and soup kitchens? I think it's disgraceful in this day and
age, and I emailed my MP about it; of course I only got back the
vague sort of answer that if and when his party came to power they
would Do Something About It – I'd really like him to be asking
Questions in the House every week or so to find out what the
Government is doing about it.
And maybe we should be writing to him –
or her, if you're up this end where it's Kate Hoey, rather than down
my end where it's Chuka Umunna – about traffiking. As I said at
the start of the service, we've been asked to think about that today,
as yesterday was World Anti-Traffiking Day.
We've all read horror stories about
people who came over here in all good faith, thinking they were going
to be found a sensible job and somewhere to live, and then they found
themselves enduring slavery, and worse than slavery. There was even
a case here in Brixton, not just so long ago. And the people
involved are afraid to get help, as they are here illegally, and may
well have fled very difficult situations in their home countries.
The people who offered to “help” them, quote unquote, were
preying on their fears as much as on their hopes.
There was the case of the Chinese
cockle-pickers, some years ago, in virtual slavery up in Morecambe
Bay, who were forced to work when it wasn't safe and were drowned.
We have all read stories about girls
forced into prostitution, and so on. And I have a horrible feeling
that these ones are only the tip of the iceberg. We must and we will
pray for these people, obviously, but also, if you even suspect
anything like that is going on near you – report it! If you don't
want to go to the Police, I'm sure Anti-Slavery International or Stop
the Traffik would help – in fact, I recommend a visit to their
websites as there is a lot of information on there, including ways in
which we can help.
You see, there isn't really much
difference, is there, between giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and
giving to God what is God's. These poor people are, each and every
one of them, someone for whom Christ died. Someone who God loves so
impossibly much he couldn't love them more. I'm sure God's heart
breaks when one of his beloved children is sold into suffering,
raped, beaten, overworked, not paid at all.... and I'm afraid it
happens rather more frequently that we would like to admit it does.
One of my favourite books is called
These Old Shades, and in it, a child character is taken to
Versailles, where the King is holding court. And on the way home,
the child says, “The King was lovely, just like on the coins”. I
often wonder whether, if we were an image on a coin, people would
recognise us. Perhaps, if we are whole-hearted about giving to
Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God, and
recognising that really, there's very little difference, maybe they
would. And in the meanwhile, let's do what we can to stop the
injustices of our modern world. Amen.
Unfortunately, I made a nonsense and failed to record the main sermon - probably just as well, since I hadn't much voice! It is almost identical to the one I preached on this Sunday three years ago, the text of which may be found here.
Once upon a time, long, long ago in a galaxy – well, a country, anyway – far away, there lived a man with two sons. Not unusual, of
course – there are lots of people who have two sons, my daughter
does. But these two boys, and their dad, feature in several of
Daddy was a farmer, we are told, and
one morning at breakfast-time, he said to the boys, “Right, lads;
busy day today, I'm going to harvest the big field. Either of you
free to come and help?”
The younger boy shakes his head.
“Sorry, Dad; I'm booked, I'm afraid. Told Sammy I'd go round to
“Not a problem,” said his father.
“What about you, Joe?” to the older boy.
“Yes, I can come!” says Joe. “What
time do you want me?”
“Oh, make it about 10:30, we'll be
able to use you then. Great. See you later!”
All very well and normal, you might
think. But then what happens? Joe, in the hour or so between the
end of breakfast and 10:30, when he said he'd be at the field, begins
to have second thoughts. It's a horribly hot day, he could go
swimming with his friends; Dad wouldn't really mind, there were
plenty of other helpers.... and eventually, his brother sees him
heading off with his trunks and a towel under one arm, obviously not
heading for the harvest-fields.
So the brother does a bit of thinking
himself. Yes, Sammy was half-expecting him, but harvest was harvest,
and it was pretty sure he'd be wanting to help his Dad, too. So he
grabs a passing servant and sends him round to Sammy's with a message
that he couldn't come, after all, and heads off down to the field.
Well, that's the story Jesus told. And
one of the reasons he told it was to tell us that it's never, ever
too late to change your mind, not in this life. If you've not been
quite sure about God, about being Jesus' person, you can still change
your mind.... it isn't too late!
I was unable to record the children's talk as my MP3 recorder decided to die on me; luckily I had another one (more reliable) to record the main sermon, the text of which can be found here. The text below is roughly (allowing for heckling from certain Swan Whisperers - who did apologise afterwards) what I said to the younger ones, and the recording is of the main sermon: powered by podcast garden
So, you younger ones.
Do you have to help at home?
What sort of jobs do you do?
Perhaps you make your own beds,
or keep your bedrooms tidy,
or do you help Mum in the kitchen?
I expect some of you help with the
cooking sometimes, too.
My older grandson likes to help making
pastry and cakes,
although as he is only four there's not
all that much he can do.
But he doesn't like to help clear up
and sometimes we have to get a bit
cross to get him to help clear up after lunch!
When my daughter was little, she had to
keep her room tidy,
and she had pet mice,
so she had to keep their cage clean
and make sure they had enough food and
water and so on.
And later on she used to cook sometimes
she's a great cook, and I love going to
meals round at hers.
When I was a little girl, we had to
make our own beds and help with the washing-up after meals –
my parents didn't have a dishwasher
back in those days.
But sometimes, when you try to help,
things go wrong, don't they?
I remember several dropped plates when
I was trying to dry the dishes –
that wasn't very helpful.
And I vividly remember burning a panful
of sausages beyond recall, which was also not helpful –
I didn't know how to cook them, and
Can you think of some times when you
tried to help and it all went wrong?
In our reading, Peter was trying to be
helpful, and it didn't quite work.
And I'll be looking at some more ways
in which we can be unhelpful after the hymn.
Our Gospel reading this morning is a
very odd sort of story, isn't it? Here we have Jesus telling his
disciples that what goes into your mouth doesn't matter, it's what
comes out of it – what you say, even, perhaps, what you think –
that matters. And then he goes and says something that everybody,
certainly today and, I suspect, throughout a great deal of history,
finds incredibly offensive.
Well, the first bit is easy enough to
understand. Jews and Muslims both have very strict dietary rules,
and believe that breaking them makes you unclean, and unfit to be in
God's presence. And they also have strict rules about washing
yourself before worship, being clean on the outside before, one
hopes, being made clean within.
But Jesus was able to see, as his
followers couldn't, that what you eat doesn't actually matter. Many
of the rules – about not eating pig, or shellfish, for instance –
made sense in an era where there was no way of refrigerating food.
Eating them might give you a tummy-upset, but it wouldn't be the end
of the world if you did. What goes into your mouth, says Jesus,
eventually passes through and comes out the other end, but what comes
out – well, that just shows what kind of a person you are!
And then a few days later – we don't
know the exact date, that wasn't the kind of thing that the first
gospel-writers thought important – a few days later he's off in a
non-Jewish region, and he is so incredibly rude to the woman who
comes begging for healing. What is going on?
Of course, the traditional explanation
is that he was testing her. Well, that may or may not be the case, I
don’t know, but it’s what people often say because it’s what
they think Jesus is like.
The difficulty is, of course, that we
can't hear the tone of voice he was speaking in. Did he snap at her,
which is a bit what it sounds like? He had ignored her for some time
until the disciples asked him to deal with her or send her away. Was
he trying to be funny? I wonder how you “hear” him in your head
when you read this passage, or one of its parallels.
I tend to hear him as being thoughtful,
trying to work it out. You see, in the time and place when he was
brought up, he would have learnt to assume that the Jews were God's
chosen people, and nobody else mattered. Some things, it would
appear, given the situation in Gaza today, never change. But the
point is, Jesus didn't know any better, which I think today's
Israelis ought to.
It might sound strange to say “Jesus
didn't know”, because after all, He is God, he is omnipotent and so
on. But we believe – or at least we say we do – that He is also
fully human. Unlike the various gods and goddesses of Greek myth, he
wasn't born already adult, springing fully formed from his father's
forehead, or something. He was born as a baby.
Think about it a minute. A baby. Just
like (if there's a baby in the congregation, point to it) or my
younger grandson. My younger grandson is eleven months old, and just
learning to crawl and to pull himself up to standing. And, of
course, he has to learn what he may and may not play with, and what
is and is not appropriate for him to put in his mouth – although he
is beginning to outgrow that habit. And I bet Jesus had to do the
same. He will have chewed on Mum's wooden spoon when his teeth were
coming through, and when he was of the age to put everything in his
mouth – and later, he will have discovered that it makes a lovely
noise when you bang it on the table, and have to learn that not
everybody enjoys that noise!
And so on. He had to learn. We are
told he grew in learning and wisdom. Remember the time when he was a
teenager and got so engrossed in studying the Scriptures that he
stayed behind in the Temple when everybody else had packed up and
gone home – and then, when his parents were understandably cross,
he said “Oh, you don't understand!” Typical teenager – and, of
course, Jesus was learning the whole time about the Scriptures, about
who God is, and, arguably, maybe a tiny bit about who He was.
And here, perhaps, he is learning
again. We can't rely on the Gospel-writers' timelines, they tend to
put episodes down when it suits their narrative. And here is Jesus,
perhaps having slipped away for a few days' break into Tyre and
Sidon, where he was less likely to be disturbed than in Galilee. And
then this woman comes and will not go away.
We don't know anything about her, other
than that she was a foreigner – Mark says she was Syro-Phoenician,
Matthew, here, calls her a Canaanite. Either way, she was basically
Not Jewish. An outsider.
You know, the Bible is full of stories
about outsiders coming to know and trust Jesus! Just off the top of
my head you have the centurion whose servant was healed, the other
centurion who Peter went to after his dream to tell him it was okay
to do so, and the Ethiopian treasury official. Oh, and Onesimus,
Philemon's slave. Philemon himself, come to that, but I think by the
time the letter was written, it was becoming more widely accepted
that non-Jews could be Christians, as well as Jews.
But at the time, these people were
outsiders. No good Jew would have anything to do with them. And
Jesus ignores the woman, until his disciples ask him to get rid of
her. And even then, he doesn't heal her daughter. Instead, “It's
not right to take the children's meat and give it to the dogs!”
But I wonder. Do you remember the
wedding at Cana, which we are told is his first recorded miracle?
And his mother came to him and said “Disaster! They've run out of
wine!” His first reaction was basically, “So what? What's that
got to do with me?” but then he went and got the servants to fill
those huge amphorae and the water turned into wine. He changed his
mind. His first reaction was not to do anything, but if there is one
thing he appears to have learnt, it is to listen to the promptings
of the Spirit.
And in this case, too. The woman,
consciously or not, said exactly the right thing: “But even the
puppies are allowed the crumbs that fall from the children's table!”
And to Jesus, that was God's answer.
Yes, he could and should heal this woman's daughter. So he did.
With the comment that right then, her faith was probably greater than
You know, the first time I heard this
sort of interpretation of this story, my immediate reaction was “No
way!” Jesus couldn't be like that – he couldn't have got things
wrong! You may be thinking the exact same thing, and I really
wouldn't blame you!
But, you know, it wouldn't go away.
Like a sore place in one’s mouth, or something, I kept on thinking
about it and thinking about it. Why was this so totally alien
to my mental image of Jesus?
Then I realised that, of course, it was
because I was confusing “being perfect” with “never being
wrong”. There’s a difference between being mistaken and
sinning! And, as I said, Jesus had to be born as a human baby,
to learn, to grow. And he may well have learnt, consciously or
unconsciously, that as a Jew, he was one of the Chosen, and thus
superior to everybody else. But he had already learnt, as we found
in the first part of our reading, that keeping the Jewish Law wasn't
what made you clean or unclean – so perhaps it wasn't such a huge
leap to discover that being Jewish or not didn't actually matter.
God still loved and cared for you, whoever you were.
And in the end, I found this thought
very liberating. It made Jesus far more human.
I realised that, while I had always paid lip-service to the belief
that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine, in fact, I’d never
really believed in his humanity! For me, he had always been a
plaster saint, absolutely perfect, never making a mistake, never even
being tempted. I realised I’d envisaged him overcoming those
temptations the gospel-writers talk about with a wave of his hand,
not really tempted at all. But, of course, it wasn’t like
that! St Paul tells us that he was tempted “in every way that
we are”, and if that doesn’t include really, really, really
wanting to do it, then it wasn’t temptation!
But if Jesus could be mistaken, if he
sometimes had to change his mind, if being perfect didn’t
necessarily mean never being wrong, then that changed everything!
Suddenly, Jesus became more human, more real than ever before.
The Incarnation wasn’t just something to pay lip-service to, it was
real. Jesus really had been a human being, with human
frailties, just like you and me. He had had to learn, and to
grow, and to change. Suddenly, it was okay not to get
everything right first time; it was okay not to be very good at some
things; it was okay to make mistakes.
And, what’s more, it meant that the
Jesus who had died on the cross for me wasn’t some remote, distant
figure whom I could aim at but never emulate, but almost an ordinary
person, someone I might have liked had I known him in the flesh,
someone I could identify with.
As I have frequently said, these
Sundays in Ordinary Time are when what we think we believe comes up
against what we really believe. Do we really believe that Jesus, as
well as being divine, was also human? Do we think of him as having
had to learn, to grow, to change. Do we think of him as having made
mistakes, having to change his mind, having to – to repent, if you
like, since that basically means changing one's mind because one
realises one is wrong?
And if that is so, if Jesus is not some
remote plaster saint, but a human being just like us – how does
that change things? How does that change our relationship with Him?
And how does it change things when we make a mistake?
Well, that was not a very nice story,
wasn't it? I don't know how well you know the story of Joseph, and
I'll be going into a bit more detail in a little while, but what you
need to know is that he had ten older half-brothers, and one younger
full brother, and his father loved him very much. I'm sure he loved
the older brothers, too, but he was a bit silly about Joseph and made
him a special coat, which none of the others had. And Joseph had
dreams about his family bowing down to him, and because he was a bit
spoilt, he told all these to his brothers, and infuriated them! And
in the end his brothers took action to make him disappear.
Do you have a little brother or a
little sister? They can be a right nuisance sometimes, can't they,
especially when they are naughty and you get into trouble for it.
Like when they snatch your toys and insist on playing with them, and
you get told to share nicely..... I dunno. My family all tell me
that having a big sister is horrible, too – I wouldn't know
because, you see, I was the big sister, and of course I was lovely –
well, some of the time. But no matter how infuriating my brother and
sister were – and trust me, your younger siblings don't stop being
infuriating at times even when you're my age. Do they? Anyway, no
matter how infuriating they can be, we wouldn't really want to get
rid of them, would we? Not seriously, not like Joseph's brothers
did. Of course, when we get really, really angry with them and
scream “I hate you, I hate you!” at them, at that moment we might
wish they didn't exist, but not most of the time.
But being angry can hurt a person!
Jesus tells us not to be angry with people in a destructive way,
putting them down and calling them a fool and an idiot, even if they
are. Well, Jesus doesn't actually say even if they are, he says
firmly not to do it at all. So what can we do when we get really,
really, really angry with our brothers, or our sisters for that
matter? We aren't allowed to leap on them and bash their heads on
the floor, no matter how much they deserve it. All we can really do
is go and hit a pillow somewhere and tell God all about it. God
understands – after all, they wouldn't have put this story about a
seriously irritating younger brother in the Bible, otherwise. The
thing is, you can always tell God about how you're feeling, even when
you're absolutely incandescant with rage. God always understands.
This is similar, but not identical, to the sermon I preached on this Sunday three years ago. Link to permanent podcast.
Two weeks ago, when I was last with
you, we looked at the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and we saw how God
was with Ishmael and his mother Hagar, even in the middle of the
desert when all hope seemed lost. I don't know what you looked at
last week, but if I'd been here, I'd have been talking about what's
called “The binding of Isaac”, when Abraham almost sacrificed
Isaac, but God sent a ram just in time – did you know, because I
didn't until I began reading around for these sermons, that Muslims
think it was Ishmael who was nearly sacrificed, not Isaac? Or some
do. And now, this week, we come to a nearly-grown-up Isaac, and his
search for a wife.
Scholars seem to think that these
stories of Abraham, which had been an integral part of the Jewish
tradition, were collected together and written down during the 5th
and 6th centuries BC –this, you remember, was when the
Israelites were in exile, the Temple had been destroyed, and they had
no king of their own. Only a very few Israelites were left in
Jerusalem, and they had rather lapsed from their traditions and
practice. So the various stories were collected and written down,
possibly somewhat haphazardly, in case it should all be lost.
Abraham himself is thought to have
lived in the early part of the 2nd millennium BC.
Apparently the earliest he could have been born was 1976 BC and the
latest he could have died was 1637 BC. This was in the Bronze age
–he would have had bronze tools, not iron, and possibly still a
When Robert and I were in Italy a few
years ago we visited the town of Bolzano, where they have the museum
where the body of Oetzi, the ice-man, is stored. You may remember
that he was found in the Alps about 20 years ago, having been
preserved in a glacier for over 5,000 years. The point is, this was
even longer ago than Abraham – he only had a copper axe, as they
hadn't discovered about bronze yet. But the things that were found
with him – his axe, his coat, his trousers, his bow and arrows, his
knife and so on, you could see just how they were used, and he was
really a person just like you or me! That makes Abraham feel less
remote, as he, too, would have worn clothes we recognise, and carried
tools we'd know and so on.
Abraham had felt called by God to leave
his home-town of Ur in the Chaldees, which in his day was allegedly
highly civilised. They had, apparently, nineteen different kinds of
beer and a great many fried-fish shops, if you call that being
civilized! However, they did enjoy other kinds of food, such as
onions, leeks, cucumbers, beans, garlic, lentils, milk, butter,
cheese, dates, and the occasional meal of beef or lamb. Just the
sort of food I like!
There was wine available, to make a
change from beer, but it was expensive, and drunk only by the rich.
They played board-games, enjoyed poetry and music, which they played
on the lyre, harp and drum, and were generally rather well-found,
from all one gathers.
The only thing was that without many
trees in their part of the world, they had to do without much
furniture, and tended to sleep on mats on the floor, for instance,
instead of beds. But definitely a sensible and civilised place in
which to live. When you hear it described, it doesn't sound all that
remote, does it? They were people like us, and had similar tastes to
But Abraham had felt called to leave
there, and to take his family and household and to live in the
desert. And they had all sorts of adventures, and sometimes things
went very wrong, but mostly they went all right.
And now Isaac has grown up and Sarah
has died, and it is time for Isaac to marry. Abraham is urgent that
he marry a woman from his own tribe, not a local Canaanite woman, who
wouldn't have known about God, so he sends his servant back to Ur, to
find a suitable relation for Isaac to marry.
The servant explains, rather earnestly,
how he asked God to show him which the right woman was –would she
offer to draw water for his camels, or not? That wasn't an easy task
– camels, which can go four or five days without water, like to
drink A LOT at one time, so she'd have needed a fair few bucketsful!
Rebecca's family would have liked a few
days to get used to the idea, but the servant says he needs to get
back as soon as possible, and Rebecca agrees to leave next day. So
she and her various maidservants – one of them may have been her
old nurse – got packed up and ready, and set off. And eventually
they get home safely, and there is Isaac coming to meet them. And
they get married, and live more-or-less happily ever after!
We sometimes get alarmed about arranged
marriages these days; we know that in those communities where they're
still more-or-less the norm, things can go horribly wrong – think
of those so-called “honour killings” we hear so much about! Even
in this day and age, it isn't always easy for someone to escape an
abusive situation if they don't know where to go. But as I
understand it, an arranged marriage can be every bit as happy and as
successful as one where the bride and groom have chosen one another;
we all know that you have to work at being married, whether you knew
your husband for years beforehand or whether you met him a few days
or weeks before the wedding – or even at the wedding!
I think Rebecca was very brave going
off with Abraham's servant like that; she had no way of knowing who
or what was awaiting her at the far end of the journey. The servant
had bigged up Abraham's – and thus Isaac's – wealth, and had
given her lots of gold jewellery, but was he telling the truth?
But one thing stands out about this
story and that is that God was involved from beginning to end! And
God led them all to a happy ending.
I wonder how much we actually believe
that God is really involved in our lives? I know we say we do, but
these Sundays in Ordinary Time are very much places where what we
think we believe tends to come up against what we really do believe!
After all, not all of our stories have happy endings, do they? Some
do, many do, and for these we give thanks, but what happens when they
don't? Does God get involved in our lives? And if so, how does this
work, and how can we work with God to ensure a happy ending?
Well, the Bible definitely tells us
that God is involved in our lives, and I am sure most of us could
tell of moments when we were perfectly and utterly sure of this. But
equally, most of us could tell of moments when we really struggled
with it! Where was God when this or that bad thing happened? Does
God really care? We thought about this a bit two weeks ago when we
looked at Ishmael and Hagar in the desert. And we found that God was
there with them, even though it hadn't felt like it.
Many of us have lived through enough
bleak times to know that one comes out the other side. We know that,
when we look back, we will see God's hand upon it all. God may not
have led us to a happy ending, exactly, but we can see how God has
worked all things together for good for us.
It's not a matter of God waving a magic
wand and producing the happy ending we want; we all know God doesn't
work like that. And it's not a matter, either, of God having set the
future in stone so that nothing we can do can change things. Nor is
it a matter of God simply sitting back and letting us struggle as
best we can, although everybody feels at times that this is what is
It's more as if God is working with us,
moment by moment. Sometimes we – or other people – do things
that mean the situation can't come out as God would have wished. God
has a detailed plan for creation, but his plan for our individual
lives isn't – can't be – mapped out in moment-by-moment detail
since we are free to make our own choices. But God truly wants the
best possible life for each one of us. The idea, I think, is to stay
as close to God as possible, trying to be aware of each moment of
decision and what God would like for us to do.
But, of course, as St Paul points out
in the letter to the Romans, that isn't actually possible! We're a
bit crap at actually doing the right thing, no matter how much we
know we want to! It was impossible for Paul to keep the Jewish law
in its entirety, no matter how much he wanted to. And although we
know we're, and I quote, under grace not under the law, we do tend to
find it easier to try to follow a set of rules and regulations than
to follow Jesus! And, of course, we don't follow those rules and
regulations perfectly – how could we?
But Jesus points out that his burden is
light! Sometimes we don't feel as though it is. “Come unto me all
you who are burdened, and I will give you rest!”
I am sure Abraham's servant must have
felt incredibly burdened when he went back to Ur to find Rebecca.
But the servant, at least, spent his time moment-by-moment in God's
presence. He trusted that God would lead him, step by step, to the
right woman and that God would bring the whole journey to a happy
conclusion. “Come unto Me all you who are burdened, and I will
give you rest!” Abraham's servant trusted God.
I wonder how much we trust God? It
isn't always easy, is it? Last week's story, how God asked Abraham
to kill Isaac, was very much about trust. Abraham didn't even argue
with God – he just went ahead and did as he was told, leaving it
very much up to God to do the right thing! Even Isaac didn't
struggle – he was a young man at that stage, not a small boy, and
he could easily have overpowered his elderly father. But no – he
allowed himself to be bound and laid upon the altar.And God did do
the right thing, as it were, and produced the ram.
And now God did show the servant his
choice of wife for Isaac. And so was born the Kingdom of Israel. We
never know the consequences of our choices – they may be far more
far-reaching than we expect. But we do need to practice involving
God in our everyday lives, otherwise, when the crunch comes, we'll
find it much harder than it need be to rely on him. “I will give
you rest,” says Jesus, but if we don't know how to come to him for
that rest, how can he give it to us? Amen.
Permanent podcast link I wonder how old you were when you
first heard the story of Isaac and Ishmael. I can't have been more
than 6 or 7 when it was part of my primary school Scripture
curriculum. Of course, as a child you only notice the superficial
parts of the story, and I don't think I've ever looked at it in any
great depth before. But it's an important story, because it echoes
down to this day.
So, then, Ishmael. The older child.
The one Abraham conceived on his slave girl, Hagar, because he didn't
see how else he was going to have a child – Sarah, he thought, was
long past child-bearing. Hagar and Sarah didn't really get on –
Sarah had been very jealous of Hagar when Hagar was carrying Ishmael,
and Hagar, one gathers, hadn't exactly helped by showing she rather
despised Sarah. Hagar had had to run away from Sarah when she was
pregnant, but the Lord had come to her and told her to go back, and
that he would make a huge nation from Ishmael.
And the years went by, and they all had
loads of adventures which you can read about in Genesis, including
fleeing from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and finally Sarah
becomes pregnant and Isaac is born. And now Sarah sees Ishmael
playing with Isaac – some translations say he was playing, others
that he was teasing or tormenting or mocking him, and we have no way
of knowing what he actually was doing. He may even have been doing
both – started off by playing, but unable to read Isaac's body
language to know when he'd had enough, and ended up with Isaac
crying, and Ishmael laughing at him, the way young people do with
very small children.
And Sarah is absolutely furious. This
had been a special party, to celebrate Isaac's weaning – he would
have been somewhere between 2 and 4, I think, rather like Samuel was
when he was taken to the Temple. Anyway, this special party, and now
Ishmael has upset the boy and made him cry. Is it always going to be
like this? And what if Ishmael really meant to harm Isaac?
You can understand Sarah's anger and
concern, of course. She is well old to have a small child to look
after, and this older half-brother is always going to be perceived as
a menace. So for the second time she demands that Abraham send her
away, and, heavy-hearted, he does so.
God tells him not to be too upset –
his promise is to go through Isaac, but Ishmael is also Abraham's
son, and so he, too, will father a vast nation. Ishmael is about 16
at the time. We know, because we are told he was 13 when they were
all circumcised, and that was about a year before Isaac was born, so
if Isaac is around three, Ishmael has to be 16. But the story makes
him sound as though he was younger, and still very dependent on his
Anyway, Abraham loads up a backpack for
Hagar, and sends them both off. And they appear to have no idea what
to do next, so wander rather aimlessly around until the water runs
out. And then when Hagar is despairing, Ishmael resting under the
one and only bush, God intervenes, and miraculously provides a well,
or a spring, so they are saved.
According to some Muslim traditions,
Paran, where they settled, is identified as Mecca, which is one of
the reasons why it is a holy place for Muslims today. Because, of
course, Ishmael is the father of the Arab nations.
I am not going to go into details about
which tribes he fathered and which he didn't – the sources are
unclear and nobody seems to really know. However, tradition has it
that he had twelve sons, all of whom became tribes, and their
descendants are, of course, the modern-day Arab nations.
Actually, you know, that's really
depressing! Because if there has not been peace between them ever
since, how many millennia is that, and what hope is there for peace
today? People don't change! The tribes of Ishmael and the tribes of
Isaac have never been able to live in peace. Just pick up your
newspaper or go online and look at the BBC headlines. A lot of what
is happening in present-day Israel doesn't get reported by the BBC,
but I have a friend who keeps an eye on things and she often posts
news stories on her Facebook page that don't make happy reading. The
tribes of Ishmael are still outcast in today's Israel.
And elsewhere, as the news bulletins
make horribly, painfully clear, they are divided among themselves.
The awful situation in Syria, which is leaking out into its
neighbours. It's too ghastly – there simply isn't an easy solution
to be found. At least we can pray for the situation there – I hope
you do pray for Syria, because the more of us who pray for her, the
better. It's an impossible situation – but then, we believe that
nothing is impossible with God!
So it's all very depressing, and it's a
depressing story for a summer morning, isn't it? I wonder what, if
anything, we can learn from it.
One of the things I do like about the
story is that it shows the people concerned to be real human beings,
with human faults and failings. Many ancient myths and stories
depict the people involved as in some way super-human, all too
perfect, or with amazing super-powers that they can call on in time
of need. Genesis doesn't. The people here are human, they have
human problems and human failings.
We can empathise with Sarah, I think.
At least, I can. We can't, and shouldn't, excuse her behaviour –
she was wrong to cast them out like that, and I expect she knew it.
But we can understand why she felt the way she did, and why she
reacted the way she did. She obviously had a huge problem with
jealousy, and if Hagar was youngish and pretty and, above all,
fertile, while she, Sarah, wasn't.... well.... And then with Ishmael
playing with, or teasing, or mocking – according to your
translation – the 3-year-old, who may have been over-tired after
the party.... you can see where she was coming from. And she wasn't
having “that bastard” inherit any of Abraham's wealth, thank you
And Abraham, too. He has proved
himself far from perfect – read some of the stories about him in
Genesis when you have a moment. He twice introduces Sarah as his
sister – she was, in fact, his half-sister – instead of
clarifying that she was his wife, and nearly led important people
into sin. And he didn't believe God that Sarah could have a child,
which is how come Ishmael was conceived in the first place. But at
least here he shows himself unwilling to let the family go. And he
gives Hagar a backpack of food and water, and relies on God's promise
to look after them.
And God does look after them, we are
told. They were thrown out for no fault of their own, they were
facing almost certain death in the wilderness, and then God was
there, in the middle of the mess, providing water for them and
ensuring their survival.
And because God intervened, Ishmael
went on to become the father of many nations, just like his brother.
Yet Ishmael wasn't the child God had originally planned for Abraham
and Sarah, and his sons were not to be “the chosen people”,
although I daresay our Muslim friends would disagree with us on that
one! But God still looks after him. God is there, in the middle of
the desert. God is there, in the middle of the injustice and
unfairness that caused Ishmael and his mother to be cast out. God
is there in the thirst and the heat and the despair.
And that is true for us, just as it was
true for Ishmael. Ishmael was not a child of the covenant, but God
still cared for him. The people of Syria, many of them, are not
children of the Covenant – although there is a very strong
Christian tradition there, too. But God still cares for them. We
ask where God is in the middle of the Syrian disaster. We ask where
God is in the middle of the brutal treatment of the Palestinians by
the Israelis. We ask where God is in the middle of our own personal
And the answer is the same as it always
was. God is there, redeeming us, in the middle of unfairness and
injustice and tragedy.
Perhaps you are suffering that way
today – in a desert place where it feels as though God has
abandoned you, and certainly everybody else has, and that you are
going to die of thirst any minute. I don't mean literally,
obviously, but there are times when it does feel like that, doesn't
it? And yet God is always there. Sometimes God does intervene to
improve matters. Other times, perhaps more often, things don't
actually improve, but God gifts us with the skills and grace we need
to cope with them. Hagar and Ishmael went on living in the desert,
but they learnt how to do this on their own.
God never abandons us. When we call on
him, he is there. Sometimes it doesn't feel like that – sometimes
we really do feel abandoned, and that our calls are just echoing back
from an empty sky. But that is only what it feels like, not what has
happened. I don't know why it sometimes seems to take God forever to
answer our calls – I'm sure there are plenty of good reasons we'll
learn about in Heaven – but I do know he does answer. Sometimes
“Be patient, be strong!” is the only answer – but the strength
and the patience grows.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is not a
happy story. But it does have one happy and shining outcome – God
was there with them in the desert. And God is with us in our
personal deserts, and in the global crises and tragedies of today.
God is with us. Emmanuel. Amen.
Welcome! I am a Methodist Local Preacher, and preach roughly once a month, or thereabouts. If you wish to take a RSS feed, or become a follower, so that you know when a new sermon has been uploaded, please feel free to do so.
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