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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent Sunday 2014

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So, Advent.
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,
and 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!

But here in Church, Christmas hasn’t started yet, and won’t for another four weeks.
We are celebrating Advent,
and it seems to be another penitential time, like Lent.
Those churches that have different colours for the seasons have brought out the purple hangings,
and many will have no flowers except for an Advent wreath.

But Advent is really a season of hope.
We look forward to “the last day when Christ shall come again”
to 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’ Mother, Mary.

Today, though, our readings are about the coming King.
Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, tells how the prophet,
and perhaps the people for whom he was speaking,
longed and longed to see God in action.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!”

Scholars think that this part of Isaiah was written very late,
after the people of Judah had returned from exile.
They would have remembered the stories of the wonderful things God had done in the olden days,
in the days of Abraham and Sarah,
of Isaac and Jacob,
of Moses,
and of David the King –
and then, they would have looked round and said
But hey, why isn’t any of this happening today?”

They reckoned the answer must be because they were so sinful.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No-one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

It does sound very much as though the prophet were longing for God,
but 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 today,
and our churches stand empty,
but there was the prophet saying that thousands of years ago!

And, of course, as it turned out,
God hadn’t abandoned his people at all!
Jesus came to this earth, lived among us, and died for us,
and Isaiah’s people now knew the remedy for their sin.

But Jesus himself tells us, in our second reading,
that 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,
and rather discourages us from speculation as to when or how.
But he draws pictures for us:
The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
At 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 heavens.”

It is a scary thought, isn't it, with the world as unstable now as at any time in the past century.
What’s more today, as at no other time in history,
communications are such that if Jesus were to come back,
we’d know about it almost as soon as it happened –
look how quickly news spreads around the world these days.
Half 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 totally unmistakable.
But lots of generations before ours have thought that Jesus might come back any minute now,
and 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:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Like Isaiah, we long and long to see God come and intervene in this world, and wish that He would hurry up.

And 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,
and one has to assume He knew what he was talking about.

But 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,
and it’s not made a blind bit of difference.
So maybe there’s something else.

You see, in one way, Jesus has come back.
Do you remember what happened on the Day of Pentecost,
in that upper room?
God’s Holy Spirit descended on those gathered there,
looking like tongues of fire,
and with a noise like a rushing mighty wind,
and the disciples were empowered to talk about Jesus.
And we know from history,
and from our own experience,
that God the Holy Spirit still comes to us,
still fills us,
still empowers us.

One of the purposes of these so-called penitential seasons is to give us space to examine ourselves
and see if we have drifted away from God,
to come back
and to ask to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit.
Then we are empowered to live our lives
as Jesus would wish.
We 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 Spirit.

Robert and I very much enjoy ice dancing,
although we have never been very good, and as we get older,
we don't get any better, either!
Rather the reverse.
And 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 inside us,
and actually make our bodies move in the right way,
and show us how it's done from the inside.
That would be so much better than anything our coach could tell us, or anything we can learn from watching videos.
We would be enabled to dance better.
And 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.

All 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.

But whether it is tomorrow,
or twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from now,
one 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,
as we always do and always will,
we’ve come back to God and asked forgiveness,and asked God to renew us and refill us with his Holy Spirit.

We can only live one day at a time, but each day should, I hope, be bringing us nearer to the coming of the King.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Christ the King

 I forgot to record the children's talk, sorry.  Scroll down past it for the recording of the main sermon.

Children's Talk:
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 them!

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.

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Main Sermon:
Today is 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, then.

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.

But traditionally, 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.”

And 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.

And yet, 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 them.”

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.

Jesus 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 State.

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 do this.

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 lord
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
And 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 hall,
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat,
And order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a light.4

Look to the presence: are the carpets spread,
The dazie o'er the head,
The cushions in the chairs,
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
Perfume the chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his place."

Thus if the king were coming would we do,
And 'twere good reason too;
For 'tis a duteous thing
To show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and our cost,
So he be pleas'd, to think no labour lost.

But at the coming of the King of Heaven
All's set at six and seven:
We wallow in our sin,
Christ cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain him always like a stranger,
And as at first still lodge him in the manger.”

“We entertain him always like stranger,
And, as at first, still lodge him in the manger”.

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. Amen!

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Remembrance Sunday 2014

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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 preachers.

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 at all.

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 its height?

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.