Bible Sunday

A sermon on the Bible for Bible Sunday, 25th October 2020.

King James

It’s slightly over 400 years since the publication of the Authorized, or King James, version of the Bible in 1611.

This was the only authoritative English Bible for reading in churches until the Revised Version in the 19th century.

Influence

It’s been called “the most influential version of the most influential book in the world, in what is now its most influential language”.

“The most important book in English religion and culture”.

And “the most celebrated book in the English-speaking world”.

It’s so influential that Cambridge students of English have to read it so they can understand the many biblical references in English literature.

It’s added 257 sayings and expressions to the English language, more than any other single source, including Shakespeare.

These include “a drop in the bucket”, “a fly in the ointment”, “at his wits end”, “in the twinkling of an eye” and “the skin of your teeth”.

And the King James is still the most popular translation in the United States, despite the many different versions that we have now, all produced to keep up with our ever-changing language, better translation techniques and technology.

Culture

But …

King James didn’t get people to spend 7 years translating the Bible just to produce a good read and a source of quotes.

Although we can read the Bible like that and some people do.

They marvel at the beauty of the language, the poetry, the vivid images, the exciting stories.

And they feel they’ve taken part in a cultural activity like reading a novel or visiting a museum.

Before I became a Christian I considered the Bible a book of interesting stories, like other books I’d read, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.

Scholarship

It’s also possible to spend hours analysing the Bible as if it’s just any other ancient book.

We can decide what kind of writing each part is, when it was written and by whom, what exactly this particular Greek or Hebrew word means, and so on.

I’m not knocking these things – they can help us get a deeper understanding of what’s being said.

They can also help us avoid either interpreting things too rigidly and literally or dismissing everything as myths.

They can help us not take verses out of context and use them to browbeat others or to justify violence, hatred and our own prejudices.

Plus, these things keep biblical scholars happy and off the streets!

But if we get too deep into technical analysis we might forget what the Bible is actually for.

What is the Bible for?

The Bible isn’t just a good story, a collection of ideas, things you should and shouldn’t do, or a fascinating historical document.

Although it contains all these things and more, it’s a collection of books, that changes us by pointing to the living word of God – Jesus.

It guides us, teaches us and helps us discover the truth about humanity, God and the world.

It’s not that there’s necessarily an easy answer to every question in the Bible (if there was, Christians wouldn’t argue so much).

But it shows us which way to go to begin or carry on a relationship with God, how to be transformed by the power of God’s Spirit so we begin to live good lives, and where to find real help, peace, hope, guidance and comfort.

Why read it?

But none of these things can happen unless we actually open it.

As an old Chinese proverb says, “a book unopened is but a block of paper”.

There’s a story about a young couple who went on honeymoon and, due to a flight delay, arrived at their hotel in the early hours of the morning.

The next morning they complained that their room was ridiculously small, had no windows and only a single bed settee.

Having booked a honeymoon suite, they’d been given a box room, they complained.

The manager came upstairs and asked if they’d noticed the double doors, which the couple had assumed was a wardrobe.

Beyond the doors was a room with a four‐poster bed, a balcony with a sea view, flowers and champagne.

They had spent their wedding night in the lobby of the best suite in the best hotel in the country.

It can be the same with the Bible if we’ve never sat down and read it properly.

We might know some of the stories or books but stick with the Sunday school stories we learnt as children.

Or we might hear bits of the Bible read here every Sunday but never find out how and where they fit in the overall story.

If we don’t read the Bible for ourselves we could miss out on the treasures it contains.

We could stay in the lobby and miss the good things that are waiting for us on the other side.

This is why today’s collect asks God to help us hear, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the scriptures.

Without all this the Bible is just another book on the shelf and we miss out on its power.

A power that can transform not just us as individuals but our whole society.

Faithful readers of the Bible have set up just legal systems, cared for the poor and helpless, improved working conditions and made widespread education available.

Overcoming some of the difficulties

It’s true that reading the Bible can seem a daunting task.

It’s long, it contains strange names, it has bits we don’t understand and bits that seem just horrible. 

And we all have a million other things that need doing.

But there are lots of Bible reading plans which break it down into small, manageable chunks.

There are books which help with the hard bits.

There are versions written in different styles for different people.

We can listen to it through apps or online.

There are Bible study groups.

Why not ask each other about it – all of us need help sometimes.

And we can probably safely skip the really long lists of names if we want to.

Some benefits

In the process we might be surprised at what we discover, what we learn and how we change if, in the words Colossians, we let the word of Christ dwell in us richly.

So, let us keep our hearts and our minds open to what God might be saying to us today through words that have been changing the world for thousands of years.

Questions to ponder for bible sunday

Do you have a regular Bible reading pattern or is the Bible more of a mystery to you?

How can we deal with the more difficult passages involving things like violence, subjugation of women and slavery?

Do you have a favourite Bible passage or Bible translation?

Do you use apps or websites to read the Bible or do you prefer paper?

Are there helpful reading plans or guides that you’d like to share?

A spoonful of cod liver oil

Matthew 20.1-16 / Proper 20

Introduction

The writer Barbara Brown Taylor describes the parable of the labourers in the vineyard as being a little like cod liver oil: you know Jesus is right, you know it must be good for you, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.

This is one of those parables that offends because it seems to reward the undeserving while sending those who’ve done the most to the end of the line.

To try to understand this parable I think it’s important to look at its context.

Context

Just beforehand Matthew tells us about the disciples coming to Jesus and asking what they’ll get in return for following him, with the implied suggestion that they deserve big rewards.

Jesus in return promises that they, and everyone who listens to his call, will be rewarded generously, with a little twist when he says that the first will be last and the last will be first.

Then, not long after the parable, we have the story of James and John wanting to sit either side of Jesus in heaven, in places of power and glory.

So, both before and after the parable the disciples are jockeying for position, wanting good seats in the kingdom, trying to be first in line when the doors open and the show begins.

And we all want to be first when it comes to getting something good.

Getting in first

On one memorable occasion Keith and I were invited to a garden party at Buckingham Place. This was when Prince Philip was chancellor of the University of Cambridge and would invite a selection of people from the university each year.

Keith being chaplain at Downing College, we got a chance to go and snapped it up.

We got there nice and early clutching our invitations so that we could be at the front of the queue and get in as soon as possible.

There are many times in life when we might want to be at the front of the queue for a special event.

Imagine if you’d got somewhere very early, and spent hours queuing in the sun or rain, and then someone came out and started letting people in from the other end of the queue?

I doubt any of us would be very pleased because it would obviously be unfair.

And this is the problem here with the parable of the workers.

But its’s not fair!

We read it and think, but why should people who’ve turned up at the last minute get the same as people who’ve done most of the work?

What kind of operation is this?

Most people have an inbuilt sense of what’s fair and what’s isn’t.

Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work isn’t fair.

And we feel, in the face of a world which clearly isn’t fair, that it’s even more important that God should be fair, so that everything gets balanced out in the end and we get our proper rewards.

So, like the workers in the parable, we grumble when it seems that God isn’t living up to this expectation.

The problem here isn’t that the latecomers who do little get more or better things than us – they don’t, they get the same as us.

The problem is that they get the same as us, and they don’t deserve it, do they?

They’ve come late to faith, contributed less, or are outright sinners.

Maybe they should get something for at least turning up but not as much as us.

Control vs grace

What Jesus is getting at, I think, is our tendency to want to control how God acts and to find a way to get ourselves a better position compared to other people.

We want God to dole out rewards according to our judgements of who deserves what.

In the process, though, we forget that God’s kingdom isn’t a matter of rewards and working our way into heaven.

It’s not a question of ranks or worthiness or who can do the biggest number of good things.

Entry into God’s kingdom is about grace, mercy and forgiveness, given generously and without discrimination just because God wants to.

So, there’s no point anxiously jockeying for position or measuring what we’ve done compared to others because.

Important though our faith and service are to God, they should come naturally from our love for him, not from a desire for a front-row seat in heaven.

And we will all get the good things that God promises us, no-one who comes to him will miss out, and that is good news.

But, of course, even if we can accept that God in his generosity treats everyone who comes to him the same, what about the first shall be last bit?

First and last

Why make the first workers wait until after the last ones?

Well, I think it’s all about the way in which Jesus turns our ideas about first and last on their head.

In human terms it’s the powerful, the influential, the rich, the skilled and the talented who are looked up to and treated as successes.

But in God’s eyes the first are those who don’t have any of those human advantages but come to him with love and faith and do what they can with the opportunities they have – how ever big or small they are.

But in the end it doesn’t matter because, from first to last, and last to first, all will be welcomed, rewarded and loved when the time comes to finish our work and rest with God.

So yes, this parable is a bit like cod liver oil, but if we can swallow it then it will do us all good.

How to deal with conflict

A sermon preached on 6th September 2020

Matthew 18.15-20

Introduction

Imagine two friends in a church far away. Let’s call them Andrea and Louise.

Andrea and Louise used to spend a lot of time together.

They came to church together, had meals at each other’s houses, went on days out, talked and laughed.

Sometimes they had an argument or a misunderstanding, but they always made it up quickly.

Now though, they don’t talk at all.

They won’t even look at each other.

Worse, they talk about each other in unkind ways.

This is making life difficult for others in the church because they’re causing an atmosphere of tension and distrust.

Andrea and Louise, though, can’t let go of this falling-out.

Instead of talking to each other like they used to do they make accusations and snide remarks to others, hoping to get people on their side.

This is leading to divisions and drawing others into their argument.

Some in the church want to ignore it in the hope that it’ll blow over, but instead the problem is just festering.

Others want to boot one or both out of the door until they come to their senses, but this seems harsh.

No-one is prepared to talk openly about what’s going on.

If only Andrea and Louise, or someone else in the church, could apply the words we’ve heard from Jesus today.

Conflict management – step 1

Jesus teaches us that when we have a problem with another person the answer is not complaining to everyone else, ignoring it or trying to shove the problem elsewhere.

Rather, the answer is the much more difficult but also much more rewarding task of sitting down with that person and talking through the issues.

This takes honesty, and a willingness to listen and not be defensive, but it’s the best path to reconciliation.

It might turn out that this great issue was a misunderstanding, or something said in a moment of stress without really meaning it.

I’ve had at least one experience where a small misunderstanding led to a huge rift when it could’ve been sorted out with a proper conversation.

In contrast, I’ve also had an experience where talking through a misunderstanding strengthened a relationship.

Step 2

Sometimes, though, hurts go deep, and we need help from someone else to sort through it all.

So, Jesus suggests a sort of mediation process, where wise and understanding people join in with the discussion to give another perspective.

They may be able to find a way through that those directly involved can’t see.

An issue came up in a place I used to work between two people that would have benefitted from mediation.

Sadly, those in charge, for unknown reasons, blocked it, causing one of the people involved to resign.

If mediation had happened those two might still be working together now.

Step 3

But what if even that doesn’t work?

Well then the wider church community needs to be called in.

This issue between Andrea and Louise is hurting everyone.

It’s upsetting the life and witness of the church, and if they and a few good friends can’t resolve it then more help is needed.

I don’t know how the whole church being involved might look but it would be important to avoid turning it into a trial.

Any church trying to heal a serious division needs the humility to recognise that we’re all capable of making mistakes and falling into sin, and that this is not a process of fault-finding but of healing.

Then, as a last resort, people are to be removed from the church’s fellowship.

I’ve found this a hard thing to read before because it sounded like Jesus was suggesting rejecting people and treating them like lost causes.

And in fact, these words have been used to justify throwing people out of churches with no hope of return.

Recently, though, I’ve come across another perspective.

Jesus talks about treating people like Gentiles and tax collectors, the social outcasts of his day.

But these were also the people that Jesus came to look for and save.

These are the people that God doesn’t give up on and calls to come back to him.

So, maybe all hope isn’t lost for Andrea and Louise, even if the church can’t resolve their problem.

Maybe they aren’t to be rejected altogether but just distanced for a bit to allow wounds to heal, while the church continues to care about them and tries to draw them back in.

Conclusion

It takes courage to talk openly about our differences with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

I know it’s something I struggle with and I’m sure many others do too.

It takes humility and self-awareness to recognise that there may be fault on our side as well as the other person’s.

And it takes bravery to hold our hands up and say, ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry’.

But when we do try to follow Jesus’s path of reconciliation, we have his promise that he will be with us.

And because we’re working to carry on God’s work of reconciliation in our own lives, we can be sure that he will hear our prayers and help us.

Those are the promises of Jesus whose work for reconciliation took him to the cross. 

On his promises we can depend.

The Canaanite Woman

Matthew 15.21-28

The meeting between Jesus and a Canaanite woman would’ve been just one among many were it not for the shock of their conversation.

Even though Jesus is sometimes harsh with the Pharisees, we still expect compassion for a woman in need.

And so, when we see Jesus first ignore her and then compare her to a dog, we wonder what’s going on.

I think we can start to get a handle on it by looking at this story in terms of boundaries.

The first boundary is geographical.

Jesus has gone not only to Gentile country but to Canaanite country, the land of Israel’s oldest enemies, in modern-day southern Lebanon.

The Canaanites, who had a reputation for corruption and violence, were living in the Promised Land before the Israelites got there and drove them out.

Some Canaanites remained, though, and so did the bitterness and feuding between them and Israel.

Going there as a Jew could be compared to going from Israel to Gaza today.

So, it was unlikely that any Jews would come there, across that border.

The second boundary is personal.

The passage doesn’t tell us about Jesus’s state of mind, but I imagine he was tired and grieving, and needed some time out.

His cousin, John the Baptist, had recently been killed, thousands of people had been clamouring for his help, and then he’d had the Pharisees arguing with him about petty traditions.

Jesus was and is God, but in his earthly ministry he was God with the limitations that go with being a human being, like tiredness, sadness and frustration.

He needed to set limits and boundaries on the time and energy he spent on helping people, for the sake of his wellbeing, and that of his disciples.

Setting boundaries may sometimes seem like selfishness but it’s vital if we want to serve others joyfully and effectively, and nowhere does the Bible say that Christians are meant to be overburdened and miserable – quite the opposite in fact!

The third boundary is between Jews and Gentiles.

This boundary is revealed when Jesus says that he was only sent to the house of Israel.

This might make us feel left out but Jesus’s ministry follows a pattern that even Paul, the champion of the Gentiles, recognised when he said that the gospel came first to the Jew and then to the Greek.

Israel, as the chosen people of God, was given a special place in the world but it wasn’t for their sake alone.

With Israel’s blessing came responsibility, as way back in Genesis Abraham was told that his descendants were to be a blessing and light for the whole world

Jesus continued Israel’s role by going to his own people first.

However, this passage also teaches us that no boundary should be so rigid that it excludes mercy and compassion.

For all the seeming harshness of Jesus here, he did, in the end, grant the woman’s request, and in doing so he crossed over the Jew/Gentile divide.

After all, he’d just lectured the Pharisees about holding so hard to traditions that there was no room for the loving spirit of the law, and Jesus is no hypocrite.

Here, though, is perhaps the hardest part of the story to deal with: Jesus comparing the woman to a dog.

Obviously, we don’t know how it was said and whether Jesus was smiling or not, and such things can make all the difference between something being an insult or a piece of wry humour.

We do know that ‘dog’ was a common insult used against Gentiles, but that word referred to the feral scavenger dogs who roamed the streets being a nuisance.

The word Jesus uses, though, refers to pet dogs, in fact to pet puppies.

Then, as now, these dogs were generally cherished members of the family, and woe betide anyone who said they weren’t important!

I don’t have a dog now but I used to have a pair of border collie/Labrador crosses.

I loved these dogs, looked after them and fed them.

But, much as I did love them and want to give them what they needed, they weren’t in quite the same position as the humans in the house.

We had our food at our time and they had their food at their time – and maybe they had to wait until we’d finished eating but they would get their turn.

So, it’s not that Jesus is saying, ‘Go away, you’re worthless and I’m not giving you anything’.

Rather, he’s saying, ‘It’s not your time yet, when it is you’ll get everything you need’.

It’s always hard when we don’t get an immediate answer from God, and sometimes God seems most silent when we’re most desperate.

We might’ve experienced this during the pandemic, wondering what’s going on and not getting any answers.

But this woman is not easily put off.

She accepts what Jesus is saying but still believes.

She believes not only that Jesus can help her but that he will help her.

Her faith is not just that God exists and is powerful, but that God is love.

That is the faith that Jesus responds to…a faith insisting that, no matter what he sounds like, his essence is still love and compassion.

She knows that if she can just look him in the eye, his love will not be able to refuse her request.

And she’s right.

There’s an important challenge in this passage: can we believe in God’s goodness even when it looks or sounds like it doesn’t exist?

Even in the middle of a global crisis?

Can we have the kind of faith that a child in a loving family has that her parents will answer when she calls, even if she has to call a few times?

Can we have faith in Jesus…in God?

Not, do we believe God exists…not, do we believe God is all-powerful, or all-knowing … but do we believe that God is love, even when it doesn’t look like it?

Being Beloved

A sermon for Morning Prayer, 19th February 2020

Psalm 72 / James 1.19-27 / Mark 8.22-26

Introduction

A friend of mine has been having a difficult time recently and ended up in hospital for two weeks.

She’s now back home and getting better but it was a massive shock to her and her family.

A further complication, though, is that before all this happened she felt she was being called to do a new big work for God, but now that work seems beyond her and so she’s confused.

I don’t know what the answer to her dilemma is, but it’s got me wondering about what God wants from us.

Doing for God

Do we have to be doing great things for God or is it enough to be an ordinary person doing normal things in an everyday life?

We hear a lot about heroes of faith who do wonderful things, like Solomon in Psalm 72, being a good and wise king.

He judges with righteousness, provides justice for the poor, brings his people wealth, rescues those in need and brings down oppressors, with care for even the most insignificant person.

Then there’s Jesus in the gospel reading, healing a blind person while passing through a village.

And James charges us to care for orphans and widows, that is the people who are most vulnerable and needy in society, while also doing the very difficult task of keeping ourselves from saying things we shouldn’t.

So if you’re not dispensing good things from on high, or able to perform miracles, and if you have only a limited number of things you can do because of circumstances of your life, personality or resources, what then?

This also has a personal dimension for me in that I’m in the early stages of considering whether God is calling me to explore other forms of ministry, and I’m very conscious of my own limitations and what I can and can’t offer.

Beloved

But perhaps we can find hope in a small word near the beginning of James’s letter – “Beloved”.

This one word speaks volumes about who we are and our relationship with God.

When someone is your ‘beloved’ their welfare is your concern.

When they are hurting, you feel it too, and what you want for them is things that will help them flourish, grow and be happy.

So if we are God’s beloved, and the whole story of salvation tells us that we are, then God wants what is good for us, indeed our welfare is his priority, even if it doesn’t always seem like it, such as when we end up ill in hospital.

Sometimes what’s best for us is to be challenged to move on to something new, to be stretched out of our comfortable ruts, to find out that we can do more than we thought was possible, or even to be stopped in our tracks.

But at the same time God doesn’t push us too far, doesn’t want us trying to do things he hasn’t set out for us to do, for that will only lead to heartache and disappointment.

So while the Bible stresses that our lives should be spent in service of God and others, it doesn’t say anywhere that we all have to do everything.

In fact, all we have to do is take the opportunities to serve that are in front of us, whether big or small, do what God puts in our hearts and minds, and what he makes it possible for us to do, remembering that the task of saving the world doesn’t fall to any one of us but to him.

As I’ve heard it put before, “There’s only one Saviour, and I’m not him”.

So yes, let’s do what we can to follow God’s will by caring for others and trying to make our bit of the world a better place, but also give thanks to God that ultimately everything is in his safe hands.

Salt and Light

Isaiah 58.1-9a / Matthew 5.13-20

Introduction

A story is told about a church that was having a special Saturday night service.

Towards the end of the service a thunderstorm unleashed a bolt of lightning that plunged the building into darkness.

So, the minister carefully felt his way through the church to find some candles and then handed them out.

Everyone lit their candles, passing the light from one to another.

Then, when all the candles were lit, the congregation made their way to the door of the church.

Looking out, they could see rain coming down in sheets. All the traffic had stopped, and people were running for shelter.

Looking around, the congregation could see that the whole city was in darkness.

So, there they stood, a little band of Christians, each clutching a light, not sure whether to venture out into the storm or stay inside the church in the hope that the storm would soon blow over.

A disciple in the world

Today’s gospel reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount, where we learn what it means to be a disciple in the world.

We learn that being a disciple is not an easy ride.

We may be poor in spirit, we may mourn, we may long to see a righteousness that seems far off, and we may feel unimportant – yet we are blessed.

And in the light of that blessing we are charged to be merciful, to be pure, to work for peace, and to stay faithful whatever the consequences.

Now, continuing the theme of what it means to be disciples in the world, Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, and so I want to talk about each of these things in turn this morning.

Salt of the earth

Firstly, salt.

This has different uses.

It can be a preservative, it can purify by killing off bacteria, it can be used as a fertiliser, it has a vital role in keeping us healthy, and it makes our food taste better.

But when Jesus described us as the salt of the earth he focused on its taste; pushing the point home by talking about the uselessness of salt that loses its saltiness.

This reference to salt losing its saltiness can be puzzling because modern table salt doesn’t ever do this, but in the ancient world salt was a slightly different thing.

The salt that Jesus was talking about was collected from the shores of the Dead Sea and could contain many impurities that looked like salt but weren’t.

As salt dissolves in water it was quite common for it all to be washed away and for only the impurities to remain, leaving behind something that looked like the real thing but wasn’t.

So, it’s important for us to be true salt, not just an imitation that looks real but is actually not doing anything.

But how can we do this?

Well we can find an answer if we go back to our first reading, from Isaiah.

Here, the prophet describes a people who are very outwardly religious, who observe all the feasts and fasts and say the right words, but as soon as they get out of the temple, they’re fighting with one another because it only goes skin-deep.

God rejects this empty ritual in favour of making a positive difference in the world, saying, 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
   and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin.

God doesn’t reject religious observance per se but he’s not in favour of religious observance that doesn’t go hand-in-hand with making a positive difference to the world around us.

And we’re all called to make a difference – whoever we are, if we have a paid job or not, if we’re at school or retired, if we’re a parent or grandparent or neither, and in line with our gifts, talents, strengths and weakness.

We’re called to flavour the world – to make it better, richer, deeper, through our presence, our actions and our words, and not to huddle together out of the storm keeping our blessings to ourselves and reluctant to be involved in everyday life.

We’re called to season and transform human activity in a way that reveals God in the world.

This might sound a bit beyond us, but all it really means is living faithfully in accordance with our faith and what we believe God wants us to do.

In my own small way, I try to do this kind of thing at work.

When I do my proofreading job, which often involves working with people who are worried and vulnerable because of a learning disability, I try to make sure I treat people with care, compassion and respect, as well as working hard and honestly for them.

I’m not saying I’m perfect at all this, but I try because to me this is part of living out my calling as a Christian, and at least as important as dressing up and preaching on a Sunday.

Light of the world

Then, secondly, we’re described as the light of the world.

When I hear the phrase “light of the world” I immediately imagine the famous painting of Jesus by Holman Hunt.

I don’t generally think of myself as the light of the world, and indeed in the Bible it’s usually God who’s described in such terms.

But we’ve been given God’s light and now we’re called to share it with others, to help spread God’s truth, goodness and holiness in the world.

We are to help people see God’s life in theirs by showing them how God is working in our lives.

We are to enlighten the dark places of the world with the light we’ve received.

We are to let people see hope where there seemed no hope, and a new path when they feel all is lost.

We’re called to reveal truth, mercy, justice and love by displaying them in our own lives.

The light of God that fills us is meant to shine out to others as well.

After all, light is meant to be shared, it’s meant to have an effect; it’s not meant to hide away when people are in need out there in the dark and the storm, and what we do and say is seen by the world.

Our witness

It’s our witness, whether good or bad.

And it’s a wonderful opportunity to show God to the world by shining our light in a way that isn’t about us boasting or feeling superior or coming across as holier than thou, but which is instead about glorifying him.

So, my prayer today is that God will give us all grace to step out with confidence, faith and love into the world to serve him in others. May we be light and salt in all the places we go, the words we say and the things we do, so that we may give glory to our Father in heaven.

Amen.

‘Why do you come to me?’ The Baptism of Christ

Matthew 3.13-17

Jesus came to John to be baptised.

John tried to stop him, saying, ‘Why do you come to me to be baptised?’.

What kind of world – and what kind of God?

This year has got off to a difficult start.

Wildfires in Australia have burnt an area almost the size of Ireland, which itself covers over 32,000 square miles.

And now trouble has flared between the US and Iran, causing uncertainty and the threat of war.

Such headlines, and ones closer to home of violence and crime in our own communities, can cause us to question what kind of world we live in.

Is it a hostile world, a neutral one, or a welcoming world?

And, beyond that, is God hostile to us, indifferent to us or does he welcome us?

If we look at the painful places within our own lives we meet similar questions and problems.

These are the places we might keep buried, hidden in our hearts, but the memories can still make us sad or afraid.

Such experiences and memories can cause us to doubt the goodness of other people, the world and of God.

This becomes even harder if we sign up to the idea that Christianity is all about being good, that we are completely sinful, and that we killed Jesus by being bad.

With ideas like that God can’t be on our side, never was and never will be.

Such a view kills our spirit, our faith and our hope.

The most we could hope for is a neutral God, away in the distance watching but not getting involved.

You might know the song “From a Distance”, written by Julie Gold, which talks about God watching us from afar and seeing a peaceful world living in harmony.

I’ve never liked this song as it sounds too much like what I’ve just been talking about – a God who’s far off, not getting involved, and not understanding how things really are.

Although, to be fair, I should point out that Gold says she believes that God does get involved and that the song is about the difference between how things are and how they seem to be.

But whether we believe God is angry with us or just indifferent we’re in trouble.

On one hand we have a God who we’re always trying to appease while knowing that we can never meet his standards.

And on the other hand, we have a God whose attention we are desperately trying to attract.

A surprising God

But neither of these are the God that we have.

Back in our gospel reading, when Jesus turns up at the Jordan John is taken aback.

John is aware that his baptism is a lesser thing compared to what Jesus brings.

He knows that he’s only a messenger, that Jesus must increase and he must decrease

Yet Jesus is standing in front of him asking to be baptised along with all the other people, as if he was a normal person.

It’s one thing for Jesus to turn up in power, but quite another for him to wait in a crowd for his turn to be baptised.

John was so surprised that he even tried to stop Jesus being baptised.

As great a prophet as John was he hadn’t yet grasped what Jesus’s mission was all about.

To John God was powerful, other, a bringer of judgement, someone to be appeased.

He wasn’t someone who comes to us and joins in with everyone else.

So, John asks in surprise, ‘Why do you come to me?’.

And this is a question we may ask as well.

Sometimes it seems unbelievable that God would come to us.

Maybe it’s because we believe God is distant, cold, and uninvolved.

Maybe we think we don’t deserve to have God come to us.

Maybe we were taught that God is more concerned with our behaviour than with our life.

Maybe pain, difficulty, losses and bad news have caused us to wonder if God even cares.

Maybe God doesn’t act, speak or think how we expect.

God won’t fit in our box and we can’t seem to get out of it.

I don’t know when or if you ask John’s question but if you do the answer is found right here, in the baptism of Jesus.

When Jesus went down into the water with all the frail, flawed human beings he went because he wanted to save us by being one of us.

He joined in with a baptism he didn’t need to identify with us, with our needs, our hopes, fears, dreams, hurts and failings, in short with our situations as human beings.

And he continues now to come to us because he wants to be one with us, to walk with us, and to help us become the people he knows we can be.

There is no one to whom Jesus doesn’t come.

He comes to the people who’ve lost homes, businesses, friends or family in the fires in Australia, as well as to those putting their lives in danger to battle the flames and rescue both people and animals.

He comes to the people who live in fear of bombs and missiles and loved ones being sent out to make war, as well as to peacemakers.

He comes to people living with deep sadnesses, traumas and fears that imprison them, as well as to people who are full of joy and celebration,

He comes to people who commit crimes, and to their victims, to people who’ve made a mess of everything and those who seem to have everything sorted.

He doesn’t come in the way John expected, or in the way we might sometimes wish for.

He doesn’t come with fire and fury and bolts of lightning, crushing enemies and forcing the world to bend to his will.

Instead, his way is to stand by us, to go into the waters of life with us holding our hand, to be the friend, guide and helper who’ll never leave us.

When Jesus came for baptism John tried to stop him.

Imagine if he’d succeeded?

Welcome or shun?

Yet we all have the ability to stop Jesus coming to us.

We can decide to shut him out, not listen, let difficulties and our inability to always understand what’s going on turn us away from him.

Or we can welcome him in, let him have all of us, both good and bad, allow him to be part of both the happy and the sad parts of our lives, and see the difference he can make when we only let him come to us.

So, may Jesus come to us now and always, in all the seasons of our lives, and may we have the grace to let him in, fully, openly and completely.

Amen.

Judgement (don’t run away!)

A talk at Morning Prayer on 18th December 2019

Jeremiah 23.1-8 / Matthew 17.14-21

One of the four traditional themes of Advent is judgement, and specifically God’s judgement at the end of time.

It’s not a fashionable thing to talk about in many church circles and I can see why.

The idea of judgement can conjure up images of a stern judge, a harsh taskmaster, someone waiting to catch us out and punish us.

Talking about judgement also runs the risk of making it look like us Christians are obsessed with sin and judgement and finding fault with people for not living how we think they should.

So, we often set thoughts of judgement aside in Advent in favour of focusing on preparing for Christmas and Jesus being born as a baby in Bethlehem.

Preparing for Christmas is a good thing, of course, yet God’s judgement is not really the negative thing that the word might conjure up in our minds.

Take our reading from the prophet Jeremiah.

It begins with judgement on the leaders of Israel – but that judgement is not because God has taken offence on his own account but because of what these leaders have done to God’s people.

The leaders of Israel have failed to be good and wise shepherds, and so the people have been led astray and are facing exile.

God has seen this and is roused to take action.

He’s angry with those who have caused this disaster but his main concern is to help those who have been harmed.

He promises to send someone who will show true leadership by being just and righteous, which includes caring for the defenceless, helping the poor and not letting the powerful oppress and exploit those who are weak.

And God promises to bring back together the people of Israel who’ve been scattered across the world because his judgement is also about restoration.

It’s about restoring the world to how it should’ve been, to how God wants it to be, and about dealing with the effects of our broken world.

This is why when Jesus came he didn’t just say ‘start behaving or else’ but instead healed the sick, brought good news to the poor, called out injustice and hypocrisy, and offered compassion and forgiveness to those who recognised their own shortcomings.

This was God’s judgement in action, undoing the effects of sin and evil.

So, to recap, God’s judgement is about helping the helpless, stopping those who oppress others or lead them astray, and putting right the things that have gone wrong.

This, I hope, is a much more positive image of God’s judgement than we might otherwise have.

Of course, there is still the fact that none of us manages to be entirely good and just and righteous, so we might still feel that we have something to fear from judgement.

However, against that, we have a sympathetic judge on our side who understands us, forgives us and has come to Earth to make it possible for us to stand before him not in fear but with faith and confidence.

Because of Jesus we have received the grace that makes it possible for us to look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom not with fear but with joy and gratitude that God loves us, saves us, and will make everything right.

John the Baptist

Isaiah 11.1-10 / Matthew 3.1-12

2nd Sunday of Advent / Year A

Elections

I’ve heard a rumour that there’s some kind of election coming up.

I don’t want to speculate on what the result will be, but in this country, when there’s a change of government the changeover is instant.

On polling day itself there are removal vans standing by in case someone needs to leave Downing Street so that someone else can move in straightaway.

Things are different in the USA, though.

In normal times, at least, when the president isn’t being impeached, the election is held in November but he, or hopefully one day she, doesn’t take over until January.

This time between being elected and being sworn in is known as the transition time.

It’s when the old regime begins to withdraw and the new one prepares to start governing.

Change

And we are also in a transition time, now, not only politically but also spiritually.

For Advent is, among other things, about transition, and the prime symbol of that is John the Baptist.

John is a symbol of transition because he’s the link between the Old Testament and the New.

Some people don’t see the relevance of the Old Testament.

They think that the Old has given way to the New, so we can get rid of it.

Or they think that the Old Testament shows a nasty God and the New Testament a nice one.

This is obviously oversimplifying things but understandably people would rather focus on what they see as the nicer New Testament God.

But what we now call the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus’s day, so if we’re to understand Jesus’s story we need to understand the scriptures of his time, the ones he grew up with and which shaped the worldview of his time and people.

So, in that spirit, let’s go back to our Old Testament reading from Isaiah for a moment.

Prophecy

This reading contains a prophecy that would’ve been very well known to people at the time of Jesus.

It gives a promise that one day a Messiah will be born in the family line of Jesse, who was the father of King David, whose hometown was Bethlehem.

Suddenly we are in the royal town of Bethlehem, looking at a little baby in a manger who is in the family line of Jesse and David.

This Messiah will establish a new world order where righteousness and justice bring about safety and peace, where there’s an end to violence, destruction and fear, and where God rules over all.

A new era

This is what the Jews were waiting for when John the Baptist appeared.

They wanted a new world where they didn’t have to fear invasion, where they were no longer occupied by a foreign power, and where God would rule the world from Jerusalem.

Then John appeared in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt.

It’s interesting that we get a description of his clothes because nowhere do we get told what Jesus or any of his disciples wore.

The gospel writers weren’t often very interested in people’s clothing in general.

But John the Baptist’s appearance was very much like that of the prophet Elijah in 2 Kings 1, verse 8, where Elijah is described as ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist’.

John presents himself almost as a stereotype of one of the old prophets that the Jews knew so well from the scriptures, so it’s no wonder that people flocked to him.

They wanted to be ready for the new kingdom of God and were excited that at last God seemed to be acting.

At last, an end to being looked down on by the countries around them, finally an end to Roman occupation, and a chance to be top dog for ever.

Some of them got a shock, though, those who thought they were automatically better than everyone else.

They didn’t think they needed to repent so much as be baptised to show off their piety.

They were seen for the hypocrites they were and denounced in strong terms, while those who came in humility and real repentance were welcomed.

But John himself wasn’t the new thing that God was doing.

He himself wasn’t the longed-for Messiah.

What John was doing was announcing the end of an old era and the start of the new.

He was preparing the way, making people ready, ensuring Jesus got off to a good start.

He’s fierce about it, but only because of the urgency of his message and his burning desire for people to be saved now that the Messiah is here.

This is why he’s the symbol of transition and the link between our Old and New Testaments.

He speaks, looks and acts like an Old Testament prophet but brings in the era of the New Testament, where the Messiah that the scriptures have been pointing to has finally come.

Still waiting

But, we might object, we don’t yet have all those promises of safety, peace, righteousness and justice.

And this is because we are still in a time of transition.

When Jesus came as that baby in a manger he came to start a process.

He started the process of bringing in the kingdom of God by being born as one of us, living with us and showing God’s power at work in him by healing the sick, raising the dead and showing compassion and mercy to the unloved and outcasts, before dying and rising again for us to win the final victory over sin, evil and death.

What Jesus didn’t come to do was judge the world and wrap everything up in the way that John was expecting.

I guess even great prophets don’t always understand everything.

This is probably why later, in Matthew Chapter 11, John the Baptist writes to Jesus from prison to ask if Jesus really is who John thinks he is.

John has got worried because things aren’t going as expected but Jesus reassures him by pointing to what he’s doing.

That final time of wrapping things up when there really will be safety, peace, righteousness and justice is still ahead of us

Right now we are part of the start of the kingdom of God coming on earth.

Right now we are all voices crying in the wilderness for people to come to God and receive his blessings.

We are charged to proclaim the good news that God has come to us.

Our work for God is to comfort, heal, help and bless, and to be light in the darkness for those who need it.

And we are invited not to try to do this in our own strength but to draw near to God, not only at Advent but all year round, to receive from him, learn from him, be changed by him and strengthened by him.

During this time of transition, when the kingdom of God is growing but not yet fully revealed, we are signs and buds of that glorious future which the Old Testament, John the Baptist and generations of Christians have looked forward to, when death will be no more, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be justice, righteousness, peace and mercy for all.

A Royal Priesthood

Isaiah 6.1-8 / 1 Peter 2.1-10, 25

A talk given at Morning Prayer, 27th November 2019

Being a priest – not just for those in funny collars

I know that we all have things that we find difficult to understand, and I’m sure that there are things I think I understand but have completely wrong.

However, I was once surprised and saddened to hear someone say that they didn’t apply the part of 1 Peter that talks about the priesthood of all believers to themselves because they hadn’t been ordained as a priest.

Apparently, they felt that because they didn’t wear a dog collar they were in a lesser class of people.

This seems a strange and unfortunate misunderstanding of an important concept that applies to all of us.

Yes, there are people who are called to be priests in the sense of vicars in parishes or chaplains in schools, universities, hospitals, prisons and the armed forces.

These are people who have a particular public, sacramental and leadership role in the church and in the wider world.

But they are not the be all and end all of what the Bible means by a priest.

Chosen by God

1 Peter is one of my favourite Bible passages for the sheer poetry of its language.

Who couldn’t be moved by being described as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’?

What this passage tells us is that we are all priests, not because a bishop has said so but because God has said so, because God has chosen us to be his, for no reason other than grace, and to receive the good things he has for us.

As priests we have the privilege of access to God, of being able to talk to him, know him and understand that we have a special place in his heart and purposes.

And our role as priests is simply to believe, receive and serve.

Our common calling

We are called to believe in Jesus, the living stone rejected by some but the one revealed as the Son of God and our Saviour.

We are called to receive God’s blessings and gifts, his forgiveness and salvation and his guidance.

And we are called to serve.

We are called to serve by proclaiming the deeds of God, in words and deeds, showing the world that God is at work and letting them know about his offer of salvation.

We have a role to serve others, in whatever ways God gives to us, and to spend time in prayer, praise and study of the Bible.

A Royal Priesthood

Finally, we are a ‘royal priesthood’.

And this is because the God we serve, love and are loved by is king over all.

We are chosen, loved and sent out by the one Isaiah saw sitting on a throne surrounded by heavenly beings.

This king offered Isaiah salvation and sent him out to bring the words of God to the people around him.

And our God and king now offers us salvation and sends us out to bring his word to the people around us.

May we all be filled with his power and grace to serve him as priests and know him as our king and saviour.

Amen.