Remember War, Make Peace

Isaiah 65.17-25 / James 3.13-18 / Luke 6.27-38

A Tale of Two Mothers

Two mothers tell their stories.

“I’m an Iraqi mother.

I was full of joy each time I had a child.

But I’ve wept so many tears for them.

I lost my first son when he was sent to fight against Iran.

He just never came back.

I lost my first daughter when we went to war over Kuwait.

She was with her school friends when there was an air raid.

The shelter was hit and she was never found.

I lost my second son just a few days ago.

He was killed defending Basra.

They say he fought bravely.

I’m a devout Muslim.

I ask Allah ‘Why? Why?’.

I hope no British or American mothers weep tears as I have done.

I wish them no ill.

I’m sure all mothers want their children to live in a peaceful world.”

“I’m a British mother.

It was such a joy when John was born.

Times were hard but somehow we managed.

John joined the Forces because he wanted plenty of activity and adventure.

I don’t think he ever thought about killing anyone, he wasn’t aggressive at all.

In fact, in Kosovo he mainly worked on reconstruction projects.

He really enjoyed that.

He went to Iraq determined to do his duty.

We got the letter from the MoD only two days ago.

It seems he was killed in some sort of accident.

We’ve always tried to be a Christian family, and I won’t stop going to church.

But I keep asking God to help me make some sense of it.

I think of what those Iraqi mothers must be going through.

I wish them no ill.

I’m sure all mothers want their children to live in a peaceful world.”

These stories are a meditation on war in Iraq but could refer to any two mothers, or indeed any two fathers, for any conflict, anywhere and at any time.

Remember War

This year sees the 80th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, and 100 years since the signing of the Versailles Treaty that brought World War I to its final end.

There have been many wars since then, of course, and conflicts continue now across the globe.

Many brave men and women continue to serve with courage and honour in dangerous situations, and on this Remembrance Sunday we rightly and truly remember and thank them all.

In World War II Britain and her allies fought against the threat of a right-wing extremism that threatened democracy and promoted so-called racial superiority and purity.

That threat was defeated by standing together and not allowing darkness to triumph over light.

Sadly, today we’re seeing a new rise in hatred and bigotry and right-wing extremists but again people are standing up and saying no.

Many people are willing to honour the sacrifices people made to defeat fascism by resisting hatred and division and instead working for the best of our British values – tolerance, justice and fairness.

These are values that members of our armed forces give their lives to defend, and as well as giving thanks for them we must honour their sacrifice by not letting their fight be in vain.

Yet freedom gained through war comes at a terrible cost, and we must remember that as well.

Parents lose children in wars they didn’t start, didn’t want and can’t do anything about.

People lose brothers and sisters, friends and lovers.

Wars destroy economies, wreck the environment, cause homelessness, force people to flee their countries, and destroy people’s faith in God, in goodness, in the hope that things can get better.

They cause mental and physical damage to those who fight in them and to those who are accidentally caught up in them.

Yet this is not how things are meant to be or what God wants for his world.

Make Peace

Our first reading, from Isaiah, gives a vision of a renewed Earth in which people are happy, peaceful, and have everything they need.

They live without fear or grief, and find satisfaction in honest work.

This is the world that God wants for us.

For as our second reading from James says, the wisdom that comes from above, that is from God, is peaceable and gentle.

It’s not easy to understand why, if God wants peace, we live in a war with war and violence.

But we know that God grieves with us when we grieve.

We know that he’s alongside the refugees, the injured, the scared, the grieving and the dying.

We know that he feels our pain and longs for the day when it will no longer exist.

We know that he’s working to bring that day about, sometimes in ways we can see, like when people go into dangerous situations and negotiate for an end to conflict, and sometimes in more hidden ways, like changing the hearts and minds of people carrying out violence.

And we’re called to play a part in that work of peace as well.

James urges us to act with wisdom and gentleness, creating peace in imitation of God.

And our gospel reading talks about the importance of not meeting evil with evil but instead overcoming evil with good.

We are to love, forgive and try to understand even those we consider enemies.

Yes, sometimes we have to act strongly and decisively to defend ourselves and others against evil, even if this means war, but so often we fight with one another for much less noble reasons.

We might not be able to solve big international issues but we can be peacemakers in our own places and among those we meet.

We can be an influence for peace, harmony and goodness in our own corner of the world and inspire others in turn, creating ripples that spread.

This might seem small and unimportant, unlikely to change the world, but, in the words of Margaret Mead,

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”.

A Veteran’s Tale

I’d like to finish with some words written by a veteran of World War II.

“So here we stand again. A year has passed.

Once more our sorrow turns to millions killed.

What have we learned?

What do you say to us, dear soldier

from your eternal silence?

Do you implore us to improve our killing efficiency,

to make bigger and better bombs,

condemning millions more to your sad fate?

Do you cheer us on in our blindness?

How many thousands have we added to your number, this past year?

No – I hear you plead now.

I hear you cry to us across the years:

‘Weep not for me but for those yet unborn.

Go! – save your own children from my fate.

Go! – thank me, by walking away today

to reject the futility, the waste, and the lie

that you have repeated over and over

even as you stand

for where do your billions go,

if not to ensure far more will know the hell I knew?

It is too late for me.

I have no voice but yours,

please – speak for me.

So, when you stand here again,

when this next year has passed,

come here in certainty

that you have taken some small step

along a different road …’”.

Amen.

Seeing and Believing

Luke 17.11-19

Introduction

That great figure of the Reformation, Martin Luther, was once asked to describe the nature of true worship.

He answered: the tenth leper turning back.

Often when people talk about today’s gospel reading they focus on the importance of gratitude – I’ve done this myself before.

But today I want to focus more on seeing and believing.

Master or Lord

When Jesus first met the ten lepers in today’s gospel reading they addressed him as ‘Master’.

They didn’t call him ‘Lord’, ‘Messiah’ or ‘Son of David’, all of which would suggest that they saw him for who he truly was.

Instead, they called him ‘Master’.

This suggests they saw him as a respected teacher, a worker of miracles, a holy man – but only a man.

They believed that Jesus could help them, certainly, but did they really see and believe what was going on and who was in front of them?

Leprosy in the Bible

The disease that these ten people had may not have been actual leprosy as we understand it today, as the word was used to cover a whole range of disfiguring skin diseases.

But regardless of what they were actually suffering from they were outcasts, required by law to live away from other people, and to shout ‘unclean’ in warning if they met another person.

And being unclean they weren’t allowed into the temple to worship God, so they were outcasts from their faith as well.

This is why when we meet them in today’s reading they are described as keeping their distance.

The idea was to protect the community from contagious diseases at a time when medical knowledge and understanding were very limited, and the simplest disease was potentially life-threatening.

So people described as lepers in the Bible weren’t just physically ill – they were also socially isolated, cut off from their faith community and feared by everyone they met.

In-between

They lived in a kind of in-between state, not really welcome or at home anywhere, even among their own families.

Strangely enough, the place where Jesus is said to have met these lepers doesn’t actually exist.

He’s described as travelling in the region between Samaria and Galilee but the two places border each other – there is no region between them.

So, either Luke was seriously bad at geography or he was making a deeper point.

And perhaps this point was to do with God being at work in the in-between places and among the in-between people.

Jesus reaches out, then and now, to the people who don’t really belong or fit, the people who are rejected and unsure of themselves.

The people who fall between the cracks in society.

The ones most people don’t want to think about.

He even reaches out to people who don’t really understand who he is or what he’s about.

The healing

So, Jesus hears the cries of these outsiders and promises them healing.

Unlike in most healing miracles he doesn’t directly heal the lepers by touching them or speaking words of power but instead sends them to the priests.

The reason for this was that only the priests in the temple could declare the lepers clean and free of disease and restore them to both worship and society.

And the lepers turn to go and find themselves healed.

Yet only one comes back to thank Jesus.

Hence the common focus on gratitude when preaching about this story.

Seeing and believing

But in fact this man does more than just thank Jesus – he throws himself at Jesus’s feet in an act of worship and praises God.

All the lepers were healed but only one saw and believed.

Only one recognised who Jesus really was and what the miracle he’d just received really meant – that God was here and at work even among those who thought there was no hope for them.

All the lepers were healed but only one saw, noticed and let it sink in.

And that made all the difference.

Because he saw what had happened that one leper recognised Jesus – who he was and the source of his power.

Because the leper saw what had happened he had something to praise and thank God for – his healing and the wide-ranging compassion of God.

And because the leper saw what had happened he changed direction and came back to Jesus – his life was changed for good.

An invitation to see differently

This story gives us an invitation to think about how and what we see and how that might affect our lives.

When we meet challenges do we see danger or opportunity?

When we get up in the morning do we see a list of things we have to do or a new chance to do some good?

When we see someone in need do we see a burden or an opportunity to love our neighbour?

When we see a stranger do we see a potential enemy or a potential friend?

And even more, when we consider God do we see a stern judge or a loving parent or friend?

When we consider ourselves do we see a failure or a beloved child?

When we look at our faith do we see rules and duties or a relationship with God?

When we look to the future are we full of fear and uncertainty or do we hold on to hope and faith?

We all have different answers to questions like these, and probably our answers change at different times, but what we see can drastically change our lives, for better or worse.

If we can look at our lives and search for the good things that are happening, instead of focusing on the bad, then we might find ourselves happier, more grateful and more hopeful.

And if we take the time to notice what is good, and remember that God is the source of all good things, then we, like the leper in the gospel, will find ourselves growing in faith and trust in God.

Then, as we recognise God at work in us, in the people around us, and in the wider world, we will want to come to him in worship and praise, finding that it’s not just a Sunday duty but a joyful daily response to seeing and believing.

We will join with that leper in offering true worship by coming to Jesus with gratitude and praise.

All we need to do is open our eyes, see and believe.

What are your priorities?

Deuteronomy 30.15-20 / Luke 14.25-33

Good news and context

When I was training to be an LLM I was given lots of good advice about preaching but two things in particular have stayed in my mind.

One is, always look for the good news as that’s what the gospel is all about.

The other is, always consider the context.

Now, when I first looked at today’s readings I had some trouble with spotting what the good news could be in the reading from Luke so I turned to the context to see if that would help.

So, we start our reading by noting that large crowds were following Jesus.

He was popular, this Jesus.

Of course he was: he spoke with authority, he performed miracles, he radiated compassion and love.

Yet he also shocked people with his teaching and his strong demands.

Hard things

The crowds following him were confronted with three hard things:

One, you must hate your family in order to be my disciple.

Two, you must be prepared to die a painful and humiliating death to be my disciple.

Three, you must give up everything you have to be my disciple.

It seems a strange way to gain followers and not an approach that’s likely to feature in any modern-day mission strategies.

But perhaps Jesus was just issuing a reality check to these crowds, which probably included large numbers of people who just wanted to be in on the latest thing, or who were high on excitement about someone they thought would solve all their problems for them.

They hadn’t yet realised that Jesus was heading into trouble, and his followers could head into trouble as well.

He wanted them to think it over before they got in too deep and faced trouble they weren’t prepared for and hadn’t signed up to.

Jesus wasn’t the kind of person we’re all too familiar with now who makes false promises to lure people in and then just shrugs or passes the buck when things became difficult.

So that’s one piece of good news: Jesus may say tough things but we can trust him not to lie to us or lure us in with empty promises.

But now let’s look at his three demands.

Hating our families

First, we must hate our families.

This sounds shocking, even if you happen to have some difficult family relationships, because blood is thicker than water, right?

It also sounds shocking to us because for so long in the west we’ve treated the idea of getting married and having a family as a Christian ideal, whereas in fact over the centuries there have been many different approaches to marriage and family and singleness within the Church.

However, that aside, this isn’t really as bad as it sounds but is more of a translation problem.

Jesus was speaking in Aramaic, and the word he used which is translated into ‘hate’ in English was used to talk about liking something less than something else.

So, if I was magically able to speak Aramaic I might say that I loved chocolate ice cream and hated vanilla ice cream in order to explain that I liked chocolate ice cream more than I liked vanilla ice cream.

This is about priorities: nothing must come between us and Jesus, however dear it is to our hearts.

Loyal to death

Second, we must be prepared to die a painful and humiliating death.

The people listening to Jesus would’ve seen many people going to their deaths on crosses.

It was a punishment reserved for the worst criminals and a particularly cruel way to die.

Dying because of our faith isn’t really a danger for us now, although it is for many other Christians across the world, but the principle remains: as Christians we are choosing to live in a way that other people won’t like and they may turn against us, even if it’s only in mockery or dismissive attitudes, and we need to be prepared to deal with it.

Again, this is about prioritising Jesus above everything else, even our own reputations or safety.

Third, we must give up everything we have.

Giving it all up

This can make us feel very vulnerable.

Must we give up all financial security, the things we’ve worked hard for, the things that make us feel safe and comfortable?

Must we give up on all our ambitions and dreams for a more financially secure life?

Well, some may be called to do this but for the majority perhaps what’s more important is that we’re prepared to hold our possessions and comforts lightly enough that we can give them up if asked, and not hold on to them selfishly when others need our help.

It’s about loyalty and God’s priorities and our willingness to freely obey, not forcing ourselves into misery.

It’s about prioritising Jesus so that what we have is freely available to him and others, not held onto tightly with a sense of entitlement.

Running through all of these demands is a call to us to realise the cost of discipleship.

It means putting God first whatever this costs us in terms of relationships, reputations, material goods, or even our lives if necessary.

And we need to make sure we can cope with the commitment.

But, and this is where we get some good news again, this isn’t just a list of demands from on high.

God’s part

Rather, it’s a set of 2-way commitments between us and our God.

For the call to commitment in our gospel reading is matched by God’s commitment to us.

We heard that commitment set out in the Deuteronomy reading, where it says that if we keep faith with God he will bless us.

 As we set out on the journey of faith God in Christ comes with us and sticks with us all the way, giving us power, helping us up when we stumble, offering constant love, companionship and forgiveness, and above all assuring us that if we persevere in love and faith we will make it because he has made it possible.

So, as Deuteronomy puts it, “Choose life so that you … may live”.

Faith

Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16

Proper 14 / 8th Sunday after Trinity

Introduction

As some of you may know I have a flock of hens in my back garden.

I find it fascinating to watch them going about their daily lives – they’re a lot more interesting and complicated than many people think.

However, although hens have many good qualities, they’re really not very brave.

And what really upsets them is the unknown.

 Change something in the garden, make them go somewhere different, give them something they haven’t had before or change their routine and you get no end of hurt looks and complaining.

In our reading from Hebrews, though, we see a very different response to being faced with the unknown.

Abraham and Sarah

The writer reminds us that Abraham and Sarah left their home, their lives and their country to go somewhere they didn’t know and start a whole new life they couldn’t imagine.

And all this was based on belief in a promise from God that they would be the mother and father of a great nation through which the whole world would be blessed, even though Abraham was 75 years old and Sarah was unable to have children.

This can’t have been easy for them, to put it mildly.

I expect they’d settled into a life that suited them and that they were comfortable in.

If I was in Sarah’s place I think I’d be up half the night thinking about all the things that could go wrong and worrying about all the practical arrangements.

Abraham was probably worried and distracted as well.

Perhaps he even wondered if he was mad to think that God had spoken to him.

And I imagine there were many discussions and maybe even arguments between Abraham and Sarah about it all.

Yet, in the end, they decided to take the risk because they had faith in God.

Centuries before Susan Jeffers’ self-help book they felt the fear and did it anyway.

The riskiness of faith

Faith is a risky and difficult business.

Faith means following God into the unknown without a signed contact or any legal proof that our needs will be met and promises kept.

It means continuing to believe that this world is not all there is even when everyone around us says we’re wrong.

It means staying hopeful that God is at work making things better even when political leaders spout hatred and division, the world faces disastrous climate change, and we’re surrounded by heartbreak and the evidence of the many ways in which people mistreat one another.

Faith, says Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen

Faith is assurance without guarantees. 

And its conviction without solid proof.  

But because faith is believing in things not seen, faith isn’t certainty. 

So faith brings risk. 

Disappointment

We all know that those who step out in faith, those who follow God’s call, don’t always have happy endings. 

Sometimes things just don’t work out. 

Sometimes we must face disappointment and obstacles and failure.

We might feel called to a certain profession but can’t find work. 

We might feel called into a marriage and then find ourselves facing the heartbreak of divorce. 

We might feel called to take a stand on something and then find that our friends are turning their backs on us. 

There are lots of people who feel called to do something, to say something, to be something, to follow God into unknown and risky land, only to find heartbreak, disappointment and confusion because things just didn’t work out how they hoped and believed they would.

The reasons aren’t always obvious.

Maybe they misheard, maybe the timing was off, or maybe there was some reason that had nothing to with them at all but was all to do with the brokenness of our world.

I do believe though that God cherishes and rewards our willingness to obey and try and follow even if it doesn’t always go right.

And Abraham and Sarah, on the face of it, had reason to feel disappointed, confused, angry and heartbroken.

They reached the Promised Land but then had to leave again because of a famine, and they faced many other difficulties during their lives, never seeing the full carrying out of God’s promises.

Faith despite everything

But, Hebrews says, they saw God’s promises from a distance and greeted them.

In other words, they kept on believing despite not seeing the results they wanted. 

They kept on hoping. 

They kept on in their faith even though it was a faith in things not seen.

And their faith was justified because through them Israel was founded and through Israel the Saviour of the world has appeared.

Yes, we may go through many difficulties and we’re not protected from life’s problems.

But when we take the risk, when we decide to go with God, we go because we have faith that we don’t go alone. 

We trust that we’re not left all alone on this adventure of faith.  

We trust that God is with us just like he was with Abraham and Sarah.

We carry on even when everything is hard and nothing will go right.

We carry on by faith. 

We move forward by faith. 

We face disappointment by faith. 

We live through heartache by faith. 

We sort through confusion by faith. 

We risk everything and follow God by faith.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Faith brings risk. 

Faith isn’t certainty. 

Faith doesn’t always lead us to a happy ending in this life. 

But faith does keep our eyes turned to the horizon. 

Faith keeps our heads up in hope, because we know that, although God calls upon us to take the risk that comes with faith, God takes an even greater risk on us. 

God’s faith in us

God takes an even greater risk in loving us fearful, hesitant human beings, who are sometimes more like my hens than we like to admit.

God is willing to take a risk on us. 

God is willing to step out in faith for us. 

God is willing to sacrifice everything for us. 

And such a God deserves the same from us. 

Such a God is worthy of our faith and the risks that faith brings.

And if we can only keep on in our faith then our God will gladly give us the kingdom.

My Brother’s Keeper?

Deuteronomy 30.9-14 / Colossians 1.1-14 / Luke 10.25-37

Who are we? Who are they?

If I asked you to describe yourself in just one word, which one would you choose?

It’s a hard thing to do because we’re complicated people and we probably want to use many words to describe ourselves at different times.

But what about if I asked you to describe a stranger using just one word?

Somehow, it’s a lot easier to do that, often using a negative stereotype to do so.

For example, we might see a woman in a headscarf and think “Muslim” and then of all the negative images that there are at the moment of Muslims, like “terrorist” or “fundamentalist”.

But actually there’s a lot more to her than her headscarf.

This woman may be a wife, a mother, a doctor or a teacher, and a friend.

Like us, she has hopes and fears and dreams, maybe she loves rollercoasters and dogs.

Above all, she’s probably a person who just wants to get on with her life like we all do.

Or we might meet someone on the other side in the Remain/Leave debate and be tempted to dismiss them as idiots because they don’t agree with us about the European Union.

But there’s a lot more to them than the box they ticked in the referendum.

They too have families and friends, jobs, interests, hopes, fears and dreams.

Who counts?

In our Gospel reading today an expert in the Jewish law asked Jesus who his neighbour was.

He wanted to know, in other words, who he had to help and who he could ignore with a clear conscience.

Where were the boundaries of care and compassion?

In response, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which a man is attacked and left hurt lying in the road.

A priest and a Levite go past without helping, even though they were the clergy of the day, and if anybody knew about helping people in need it should have been them.

Then a Samaritan appeared.

In Jesus’s time, Jews and Samaritans were enemies divided by a common religion.

Variations in the interpretation of the Scriptures led to massive hostility between the two communities, in a way that’s still familiar today to us Christians, not least in the history of Northern Ireland.

When Jews thought about Samaritans they tended to use words like “wrong”, “bad”, “enemy” and “unclean”.

So, when the Jews listening to Jesus heard him mention a Samaritan arriving they would have shivered in fear and been convinced that something even worse was going to happen to the injured man.

Was this story going to end in tragedy?

If you turn Good Samaritan into Good Islamic Fundamentalist you get an idea of what was going on here.

But then Jesus shocks everybody by making the Samaritan into the hero of the story, the person who goes out of his way to help the injured man.

This would’ve been completely unexpected, undermining every stereotype that the Jews had about the Samaritans.

The sting in the tale

Now, often people think this story is just about being nice, and of course it is – up to a point.

But there’s nothing new about saying it’s nice to be nice, and you don’t have to be religious or even Christian to be kind and helpful.

Many people of all faiths and none go out of their way to care for others and try to live as good people.

The Jews were also used to the idea that they had a duty to help other people, as social justice and protecting the vulnerable are strong themes throughout the Jewish Scriptures.

And, near the beginning of our reading the law expert himself talked about loving your neighbour as yourself being one of the two great commandments of the law, alongside loving God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind.

But Jesus introduces a new, radical and difficult bit of teaching because he tells his questioner that our neighbour is everybody.

This means friends, enemies and people we’re not much bothered about either way.

It means the people we’re tempted to dismiss with easy stereotypes as well as the people we appreciate for all their complex characteristics and personality traits.

The answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?” is everybody.

God’s answer to Cain’s question

In the lawyer’s question I hear an echo of Cain’s question back in Genesis after he’d killed his brother Abel and God asked him where Abel was.

Cain replied, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’

And the answer echoing through the pages of the Bible ever since is ‘Yes’.

We are our brother’s, and our sister’s, keeper because God created human beings to live in community and have responsibilities towards one another.

All people are made in the image of God and are loved by God, so all people are our neighbours and worthy of help.

This is where Christianity differs from just being a nice person.

However kind, good and helpful we might be, it goes against the grain to help an enemy, someone who’s hurt us or a representative of a despised group of people.

For example, if someone stole from this church and got injured in the process, how happy would you be about helping them?

But God still loves that thief, and even the terrorist, because he sees beyond the label to the complicated person underneath, with all their mixed thoughts, emotions and motivations, and he sees what they could be.

This doesn’t mean that we should just let people do what they like, because love sometimes means letting people face the consequences of their actions so that they can learn and grow into better people.

Love sometimes means standing up for the victims of cruelty and prejudice and defending those who have no voice.

But our desire to see God’s justice prevail shouldn’t push out God’s love for the world, which includes those who would consider themselves his enemies or ignore him completely.

Everything we do needs to be touched by mercy and compassion because that is how God acts.

We need to remember how much we have been forgiven and how much we are loved, with all our mixed thoughts, feelings and motivations, and extend that love to others.

And above all we need to remember that we ARE our brother’s keeper – and EVERYONE is our neighbour.

The Importance of Temples

Picture showing a menorah with burning candles to celebrate Hanukkah

John 10.22-30

This is not going to be a sermon about sheep.

We hear a lot about sheep in the Bible, and they make for a good metaphor, but I want to talk about temples.

HANUKKAH

You see, I think it’s important that our gospel reading begins by mentioning the feast of the dedication, which is better known by its other name of Hanukkah.

You may have seen the 9-branched candlesticks that are lit for this feast, or the similar ones that sometimes make their way into Christmas decorations.

Around 200 years before Jesus was born Jerusalem was captured by Syrian invaders and the temple was filled with statues of Greek gods.

The invaders even put up an altar to Zeus inside the temple and sacrificed pigs there.

This was horrifying to the Jewish population and eventually there was a revolt.

The invaders were defeated, and the temple was rededicated to God, with a candle being lit as a sign of his presence.

So, the nine-branched candlestick that’s used during the Hanukkah festival symbolises God’s help in difficult times.

And the festival celebrates the lights coming back on after a time of disaster and loss.

LOSING TEMPLES

It’s perhaps hard for us to understand how much of a disaster losing the temple was to the Jews.

We can get a glimpse of it if we think about how devastated so many people were by the fire at Notre Dame, as they saw an ancient and beautiful place of worship go up in flames, not knowing if it could be saved.

But on the other hand, we’re surrounded by ruined temples – from prehistoric Stonehenge to the abbeys torn down and the churches damaged in the Reformation – and we don’t seem to mind this.

In fact, many people enjoy visiting ruined places of worship, looking round, reading the information put up by English Heritage or the National Trust, and seeing pictures of what places might’ve looked like with the roof on and more walls.

But, important though these places of worship were in their time, no-one has tried to restore them to their former use – and maybe that’s partly because we see things differently these days.

THe temple in Jerusalem

For the Jews, the temple was the primary place where God could be found.

They knew that God wasn’t contained to just one spot, of course, but the temple contained the holy of holies, an inner sanctuary where God’s presence dwelt in a special way.

People could speak to God in the temple and listen to his word.

And it was a political symbol, stating that they were, as the USA later said about itself, one nation under God.

The temple set Israel apart from other countries, giving them a sense of identity by showing them who they were and what they stood for.

And it carried their hopes for a future of justice and peace when the Messiah would come and set up his throne.

So the temple was for the Jews a special place to meet with God, a place that gave them a sense of identity, and a place that gave them hope for the future.

All of that was lost when the temple was desecrated, and brought back when the temple was restored.

Our temple

But what does this have to do with life here in the UK in 2019?

Well, the world today still has more than its fair share of shock, horror and loss.

There are wars across the world, not all of which get onto the news.

We hear a lot about terrorism, violence, abuse, intolerance and prejudice.

Natural disasters strike at random and climate change is an increasingly urgent emergency.

There seems to be a lot of disaster, loss and darkness around.

But we still have light and hope, and everything is not lost, for we still have our temple.

Our temple can’t be lost.

Our temple rose from the dead on Easter Day and nothing can overpower him.

“The Father and I are one” says Jesus.

God came to us in Jesus and is still here through the Spirit.

He lives, loves and works within and among us.

Our temple goes with us everywhere so we’re always in the presence of God, even in the worst of times.

“What my Father has given me is greater than all else”, Jesus says.

For Jesus has ultimate power and authority in the world – even when it seems like everything might be descending into chaos, and when those who want to hurt and destroy seem to be getting the upper hand.

Jesus explains that “my sheep hear my voice”.

So in Jesus we can hear God speaking the words we need to hear.

Words of encouragement, direction, comfort, peace and understanding.

And we can speak to God in every place and at every time because our temple is always with us.

Jesus also gives us identity and purpose, saying: “I know them and they follow me”.

In Jesus our temple we have a sense of who we are and what our purpose is that can never be taken away.

And Jesus gives us hope for the future: “I give them eternal life and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand”.

Death and destruction don’t get the final word.

Jesus does.

In Jesus we have hope because he shows us that death is not the end, suffering will be transformed, and evil won’t get its own way for ever.

So, while we need and should cherish our places of worship, they aren’t ultimately our temple.

History shows us that buildings can fall out of use, be damaged or destroyed, and that triumphs and disasters come and go.

But a living temple that has been through death, and risen again, will stand strong for us for ever.

Opportunity Beckons

Jesus tempted in the wilderness

Luke 4.1-13

Introduction

So, we have reached the season of Lent.

We might see this time as a kind of spiritual detox, where we give up chocolate and pray a lot instead.

Or we might see it as a drudge, or a duty, or just as irrelevant.

Or we might think it’s all a bit too depressing and downbeat, with all its talk about temptation, struggle, sin, suffering and death.

These aren’t subjects we like to dwell on.

Who, given a choice, wouldn’t prefer a life full of comfort and ease, with no problems to worry about, to a life with sorrow, hardship and pain?

But sometimes we need the wilderness.

WILDERNESS AND TEMPTATION

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus is out in a physical wilderness alone, single-handedly fighting off the devil.

If this was a film, we’d get scary music, gloomy lighting and ominous rumbles of thunder.

Now, I haven’t been to the Judean wilderness but I’m told it’s a place in which the sun shines relentlessly, nothing much grows for most of the year, and there’s no shade to protect you from the temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius.

It’s a place where the only things that really matter are life and death.

And Jesus comes here, away from all distractions, for a time of testing and preparation.

A time in which he must decide who he is, whose voice he will listen to, how he will live his life, and how he will carry out his ministry.

In short: what kind of Messiah he will be.

Will he be God’s Messiah: someone who heals, forgives, restores, loves, suffers and dies?

Or will he take Satan’s option: a life of self-gratification, worldly power and spectacle?

Jesus is facing the biggest, most significant questions of his life and ministry, and his answers will shape his future – and ours.

He’s being offered the most tempting, delicious, irresistible alternatives to a life of obedient service, suffering and sorrow.

But Jesus dismisses the possibilities that the devil offers him.

Instead, he chooses the difficult road that leads to the Cross.

The road that leads to our salvation.

And there may come a time for us when we need to face our own wilderness and make our own life and death decisions.

I don’t believe God visits bad things on us to make a point, or to teach us something, but I do believe he constantly works to bring good out of the bad things we encounter through living in a fallen and broken world.

And so in times of suffering we may be brought face to face with issues which we would normally avoid.

Times of hardship may force us to make choices about what is really important in our lives.

And our own decisions to follow Jesus can mean much more when following him is costly.

PERSEVERANCE

In ordinary human friendships, it’s not surprising that people who enjoy each other’s company spend time together.

But the real test of a relationship is what happens when things are difficult.

When people are in trouble, and need help, rather than just being fun to be with… that’s when they learn who their real friends are.

And the decision to spend time with someone even when that’s a difficult thing rather than a fun thing… that’s a decision to be a true friend.

That’s what makes a real, deep friendship possible.

The same is true of our relationship with God.

Will we seek to be friends with God only when he’s fun to be with?

Or will we persevere through difficult times?

Will we obey God and do the right thing, even when it hurts?

Do we love God, and long for God, or just for the good things he gives us?

Will we live for God only when he makes us feel happy, or will we follow him even when there’s no obvious reward?

Or even when being a Christian makes life difficult?

Our responses can determine whether we lead half-hearted lives of lukewarm Christianity, or adventurous lives in which we discover more and more about God.

But even when there’s not a crisis, sometimes we actually have to deliberately set time and space aside to face important questions.

QUESTIONS

These might be questions like:

Who am I?

What is my purpose?

Who could I become?

Am I moving towards greater wholeness, hope, love, joy, peace and faith in my relationships with God and others?

And this is why Lent is not a detox, a drudge, a duty or irrelevant.

Neither is it just a depressing time of going round feeling bad about ourselves.

Rather, Lent is, above all, an opportunity.

It’s an opportunity to take time out to reflect on what’s important and make sure we’re on the right path.

It’s an opportunity to be honest with God about our sins and weaknesses so that they can be dealt with and moved on from.

It’s an opportunity to renew our commitment to God, to spend time listening to him and loving him, and to confront the things that keep us from putting him first.

It’s an opportunity to think about the big questions that so often get pushed out by the day to day ones.

Above all, it’s an opportunity to encounter the God who walked in his own wilderness and still accompanies us when we walk through ours.

Encounters with Glory

A fisherman casting a net towards a crowd of people

Isaiah 6.1-8(9-13) / 1 Corinthians 15.1-11 / Luke 5.1-11

Introduction

On Wednesday I was driving into Cambridge early in the morning when, as I waited in the inevitable rush hour traffic jam on Madingley Road, I suddenly noticed that my fuel gauge was well into the red zone.

Immediately I was anxiously watching the miles to the nearest petrol station, and at the first opportunity I drove in with great relief to sort things out.

Similarly, when we suddenly catch sight of God it can bring into focus things in our lives which suddenly seem to need urgent attention, when before that moment we were going along quite happily.

God’s call in the Bible

This was the experience of the three men in our readings today.

First, we heard about Isaiah’s calling to be a prophet.

It’s as if he’s attending an ordinary service, the Jewish equivalent of what we’re doing here today, when everything in front of him vanishes and he’s presented with a vision of the heavenly court.

And his reaction to seeing God’s glory and power is not, “Wow, amazing!” but “Woe is me! I am lost…”

Then in our second reading Paul refers to his calling to be an apostle.

This happened, you may remember, on the road to Damascus, when Paul was setting off to find and arrest followers of Jesus and bring them to Jerusalem for questioning and possible execution.

Instead, he experienced a bright light, was knocked off his donkey, heard Jesus telling him he had got things wrong and ended up blind for three days.

And what Paul says about his calling is that he is “the least of the apostles, unfit to be an apostle…”.

Then, finally, we get our Gospel reading.

Here, Jesus provides Simon Peter, later of course the Apostle Peter, with a huge catch of fish after a disappointing night of empty nets.

Upon seeing the miracle that Jesus does for him in providing these fish, and realising at least something of who he is, Peter falls at Jesus’s feet and declares that he’s “a sinful man”.

There’s a strong theme running through all three of these stories.

It’s when Isaiah sees God in glory that he becomes aware of his own flaws and lack of righteousness.

It’s when Paul has a head-on confrontation with Jesus that he understands that he’s got everything wrong.

And it’s when Peter sees signs of God’s power in the catch of fish that he feels unworthy to be in Jesus’s company.

In all of these stories a close encounter with God leads to people realising their own weaknesses and failures.

But these are not stories about God overwhelming people in a kind of heavenly bully way.

And they’re not just stories about how inadequate we are in the face of God’s power and glory.

For although encounters with God can make us aware of our flaws and weaknesses, and the contrast between us and our holy and powerful God is striking, this is not where the story ends.

Sending out

There’s a second theme running through these stories – one of equipping and sending out.

We need to see our need for restoration and forgiveness but God doesn’t take advantage of our vulnerability to overwhelm us and beat us down.

Instead he makes us clean, strengthens us, equips us and sends us out to do his work – even if we think we can’t do it.

Isaiah’s sin is blotted out by an angel with a burning coal, his guilt is removed, and he’s made ready to respond to God’s call to be a prophet to Israel.

Peter is told to not be afraid and given a new job of bringing people into God’s kingdom.

And Paul, of course, makes a complete about-turn from persecutor of the Church to one of its greatest apostles and evangelists.

God leads all three of these men from feeling they are unworthy to doing great things for him.

Isaiah is given the sign of the burning coal to reassure him that he’s clean and acceptable and that God is calling him to carry out the tasks of a prophet.

Paul is given an opportunity to undo his persecution of Jesus and his Church by becoming one of the Church’s champions and leading many more to the faith he tried to destroy.

Peter is comforted with gentle words and told that God has a job in mind that he’s confident he can do.

God’s call to us today

And I believe that God does the same thing today.

We might not have a dramatic encounter with God in quite the same way as we’ve heard about this morning, in fact few people do, but he does still speak to us if we’re willing to listen.

And we might come to realise that we’re not quite the amazing people we thought we were, or we might never have really felt that we were anything special, but regardless of that God is ready and waiting to cleanse, heal and restore us and enable us to be part of his work in the world.

This work may be surprising to us – I wouldn’t have guessed that I’d end up standing up and preaching to groups of people – but it will be work that we can do through the grace and power of God.

And although we may see great results, on the other hand sometimes we may not.

After all, Isaiah was misunderstood and both Peter and Paul were killed.

But the results of our work are in God’s hands, not ours.

Our job is simply to be faithful in doing the work God gives us, to say “Here I am, send me”, to go where we are sent and to say yes to God.

Our work is to do what we can, where we can, to bring news of God’s love to the world, to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, and to wait until we hear God say to us at the end of our lives, “Well done, good and faithful servant”.

Wedding at Cana

John 2.1-11

This is a sermon preached 6 years ago when I was first starting out as a Licensed Lay Minister/Reader.

There’s an old Jewish saying that goes, “Without wine there is no joy”, and I’m sure many people would say ”hear, hear” to that!

In today’s Gospel reading we heard the familiar story of the wedding at Cana – an occasion at which there was a lot of both joy and wine.

But part-way through, disaster strikes: the wine’s run out!

OK, this isn’t a disaster on the scale of earthquakes, famines and floods, but for a young couple just starting out on a new life, and wanting to gain standing in the community, it would be a major social embarrassment and humiliation.

So what to do now?

There’s a tradition in the Eastern church that Mary was related to the family, so perhaps it’s natural that she tries to sort things out.

And it seems even more natural that she should turn to Jesus.

But then Jesus speaks to her in a way that to our modern English ears seems terse and off-putting.

 Mary comes to tell him that the wedding’s run out of wine, and Jesus replies, “Woman, what concern is that to you and me?”.

Is Jesus being rude to his mother? 

Probably not.

It was unusual for a son to call his mother “woman”, but it was a respectful way to address a lady in first-century Israel.

By calling her woman and asking his question maybe Jesus was gently pointing out that he was more than just her son.

He had a wider mission to fulfil and an agenda set by his Heavenly Father.

We could also translate his question as something closer to “Don’t worry, leave things to me, I’ll sort things out”.

Perhaps the clearest sign that Jesus wasn’t being harsh, though, can be seen in Mary’s reaction.

She’s undeterred by his answer, doesn’t tell him off for being rude to his mother, and goes off in confidence that Jesus will sort it out.

And Mary’s confidence is rewarded – Jesus produces somewhere between 120 and 180 gallons of fine wine.

If wine brings joy there must’ve been a lot of ecstatic people in Cana!

I think this tells us a lot about the nature of God and I want to concentrate on 2 things in particular.

Firstly, Jesus is no killjoy.

He was invited to the wedding, he went and he joined in.

There’s no indication that he looked down on anyone for enjoying worldly pleasures, stood off by himself disapprovingly, or attempted to show anyone the error of their ways.

Instead, he helped them enjoy themselves even more.

It’s only what you’d expect – that the God who took such delight in creating the world and all its people would delight to be with them on a day of celebration.

That the God whose whole being is wrapped up totally in love would want to share the wonder of a young couple’s love by joining in their wedding party. 

So I wonder why we who are Christians aren’t spreading more joy in the world.

In an episode of the Simpsons, Homer Simpson asks his fundamentalist neighbour Ned where he and his family have been on holiday.

They reply, ‘We were at Bible Camp- we were learning how to be more judgemental!’

Unfortunately, this is the image many people have of Christians: judgemental killjoys following a harsh God.

And even more unfortunately, there are some Christians who live up to this image.

I think of Ian Paisley, passionate but blinkered and bigoted.

Of Oliver Cromwell, who had Christmas and merriment banished,

Of Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church, picketing funerals in order to preach hatred.

What good do people like this achieve?

I’m not advocating an anything goes approach to life, but I wonder what kind of Christian will lead more people into the kingdom?

One who reflects God’s delight in his world and everyday human pleasures, or one who wears a scowl and beats people over the head with their shortcomings?

Do we really want to be known as people who can’t enjoy themselves and are suspicious of having a good time in case it leads to sin?

Or would we rather show the world that we believe everything good comes from God, whether it be a heavenly-sounding church anthem or the fun of building a snowman?

As the saying goes: ‘There are more flies caught with honey than vinegar’.

So firstly, God is no killjoy.

Secondly, there’s a wonderful extravagance in the heart of God.

Jesus doesn’t grudgingly work out exactly how much he thinks the guests need to finish the wedding.

Instead, he gives them more than they could hope to drink in an act of scandalous generosity.

Which is precisely what Jesus intended it to be.

Because, after all, isn’t the whole business of God coming to earth scandalously generous? 

Our God overflows with love.

He gives us inexhaustible riches and inexplicable graciousness.

His generosity is wide and his welcome all-encompassing.

Jesus is showing us a sign of God’s grace in this miracle.

He’s showing us love and generosity without any sense of counting the cost or working out what people deserve.

There is enough. No, there is more than enough, for everyone.

The miracle here is not just that water was changed into wine.

The real miracle is that, regardless of what happens to us today or tomorrow,

regardless of what losses we suffer,

despite the hills we have to climb,

even with the hurts we have to just endure,

and even our failures –

the grace of God greets us and is inexhaustible.

A God this joyful and gracious is a God worth knowing.

He’s also a God worth following.

Just as at Cana Jesus’ act of generosity depended on the servants doing what he asked, his continuing work in the world depends on us doing what he asks.

It’s our turn to notice other people’s needs, bring them to God, and believe that he’ll help.

It’s our turn to do what God calls us to do to help others, even if it seems as mundane as pouring out water, and as unlikely to change the world.

We have the chance to give God what we’ve got, and who and what we are, and let him change them into something far better, richer and more life-giving than we could possibly imagine, for us and for everyone around us.

For we are children of a generous and loving God who comes with joy and offers far more than we can ask or imagine.

Let us pray:

Loving God, help us not be afraid to delight in life.

Help us give what we can with joyful and generous hearts.

Turn the water of our offerings into your glorious wine and use it for the good of the world.

Amen

Baptism of Christ

Isaiah 43.1-7 / Luke 3.15-17, 21-2

 

When looking at today’s gospel reading the question that stuck in my mind was: “Why does it matter that Jesus was baptised?”

It’s a very short story here but Luke obviously thought it was important enough to include, so there must be some purpose to it other than just a story about Jesus’s life.

Water is a powerful symbol in the Bible, with contradictory meanings.

In the beginning God is shown bringing creation and order out of watery chaos.

Here water was both the birthplace of creation and a place of danger.

Then water is used to turn bare earth into places full of plants of various – here it is a source of life and renewal.

Then in the story of the Flood water is a cleansing agent to wash away evil and restore the world to how it should’ve been – at least temporarily.

And the sea is described as the home of great monsters like leviathan, symbolising chaos and the world without God.

Even our first reading today refers to this, talking about having to pass through rivers that threaten to overwhelm us.

So water is both chaotic and dangerous, and the place of new life and healing.

And this is where Jesus went in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus is about to start his public ministry, and the first thing that happens to him is that John plunges him fully under the water of a probably not particularly clean river and holds him there for a while.

 

And it’s important that Jesus took this step because it shows us that wherever we go Jesus went there first.

For life isn’t only lived in safe, clean places.

It’s lived in sleepless nights and worry-filled days, and in moments of contentment and joy.

In relationships that are good, bad and something in-between.

It happens in jobs and schools and homes, in times of joy and fulfilment, and in times of boredom and despair.

It happens in hospitals and prisons and attempts to find a better life.

It happens in places of power and wealth, and among those who struggle to make ends meet.

It happens in moments of great triumph and great goodness, and in moments of sin and failure.

Life happens everywhere people exist, and so it can be chaotic or healing, destructive or renewing.

And when the waters of life threaten to overwhelm us the story of Jesus’s baptism teaches us that we aren’t the first ones to pass through a raging river.

Jesus has already gone in ahead of us.

We can’t go anywhere in life that Jesus hasn’t already been.

And there’s nowhere we can end up where he won’t be standing right next to us.

In more technical language, in his baptism Jesus identifies with all of humanity, becoming one with us in all the aspects of our lives – both good and bad.

So, one answer to the question “Why does it matter that Jesus was baptised?” is that it is a clear sign of Jesus becoming one of us, experiencing human life from the inside, and becoming our guide through the waters of life.

 

But there’s a second aspect to this story of Jesus’s baptism.

When Jesus comes out of the water he hears these words from heaven:

“You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”.

These words don’t come as a result of anything that Jesus has actually done – he hasn’t yet healed a single person, raised anyone from the dead, preached or taught or called anybody to repentance.

These words come to him because he’s God Son and the Father loves him – not for anything he’s done or thought or said but just because.

In this baptism the Father claims Jesus for his own.

Of course, we might think, that applies to Jesus, he’s the Son of God, but does it have anything to do with me?

Well it does because in our own baptisms we enter into the baptism of Jesus.

We are also claimed by God, we are also given the Holy Spirit, and we also are recognised as belonging to God’s family.

We become sons and daughters of God.

God looks at us and says with love and approval “This one is mine! I see my image in her. I’ll send down my Spirit to sustain and guide her”.

This is reflected in the words of the baptism service, where it says, “Christ claims you for his own”.

There’s no need to wonder whether we’ve done enough to be accepted or considered worthy.

We don’t need to worry about whether we’re loved as much as the next person.

We all face struggles at times to be good people, to cope with difficulties, to keep our faith alive, but none of that affects how God sees us for even a second.

For God says, “You see him? I’m so proud of him. He’s not perfect but he’s mine”.

So, Jesus’s baptism matters first because it’s a sign of Jesus becoming one of us.

And secondly it matters because it paves the way for our own baptisms and for our own belonging to God, and it shows us that God’s love and approval don’t depend on who we are but on who he is.

For God says to each one of us “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased”.

It sounds unlikely but it is the truth.

 

And it’s in the knowledge of our secure place in God’s love and family that we can go out into the world, face its difficulties, strive to live better lives, and share the good news of God’s love with all.

We do all this not to earn love but because we are already loved, and that love prompts us to follow Jesus.

And we do all this to share that love with others who are longing to hear God’s voice saying to them, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased”.