Come and See!

comeandsee

(1 Cor. 1-9; John 1, 29-42)

 

Soon after our present Bishop came to the diocese in 2009, he introduced a programme entitled ‘Living God’s Love’, which has just been reviewed and renewed. The vision behind the programme is to see God’s Kingdom grow in the world through flourishing, Christ-centred communities, inspiring people of all ages and backgrounds to discover God, grow in their relationship with God, and respond to God’s transforming love through serving others.

 

One strand of that programme is entitled ‘Making new disciples’.

 

In the passage from the Gospel of John we heard this morning, we are given John’s account of the calling of the first disciples by Jesus. It is very different from the accounts given in the three other gospels: it takes place by the Jordan, rather than Galilee, and the disciples are not called from their regular work, but are already followers of John the Baptist. They are pointed towards Jesus, rather than being directly called by him.

 

But there is a pattern to their becoming disciples, a pattern which modern research has shown is still the most effective way of making new converts today.

First, someone who has already had a life-changing encounter with Jesus speaks about it, and points the way to where he can be found.

Second, the potential disciple makes the decision to go and see for themselves, and has their own encounter with Christ.

Third, they share the details of their experience with others who are close to them and trust them – and so the process continues and the company of disciples grows.

Jesus is the first and the supreme example of one who hears God’s call, responds to it, and is so committed to that call that he is willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist witnesses that Jesus is the one who baptises with the Holy Spirit; that is the one who can lead you into a life-changing encounter with God. He proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God, the one who is so close to God, so like God, so dear to God, that he is like a Son of the Father. He testifies that Jesus is the Lamb of God; that is, the one who sacrifices himself for all people. Andrew proclaims him as the Messiah, the anointed representative of God for whom the Jews had been waiting.

Like those first disciples, we also are being called; we need to respond; we need to commit ourselves to following Christ’s self-sacrificing way.

We will not all encounter God in Jesus in the same place. For some of us that encounter will take place in prayer or in worship. For some it will be in reading and study – and not necessarily in the study of theology or the scriptures: for some people their study of the arts or of science may bring an encounter with the God revealed by Jesus. For some the encounter will come in service to the lonely, the bereaved, the hungry, the sick or refugees. Others may encounter God in the glories of nature.

 

Many people, though, will encounter God in Christ through relationships, and in particular relationships with people like us, who have heard the call, had our own life-changing encounter with God, and are now, like those first disciples, sharing our experience of God’s anointed one with the world, through our words and our actions.

 

That is not just something for a limited group of people, like clergy, theologians or lay ministers. Jesus’ ministry of proclaiming the Kingdom started at his baptism; our call to proclaim the Kingdom of God was given to us at our baptism. And just as Jesus was strengthened and empowered for his task through the gift of the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so God equips us for our task of proclaiming the Kingdom through that same Spirit, if we will open our hearts and minds to receive her. It is through the actions of everyone who is called that the Kingdom will be established on earth.

 

Every Christian individual and organisation who hears Christ’s call to ‘Come and see’ needs to help in addressing the challenges we face as a world, and be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to meet them.

 

It is easier in our generation to ‘come and see’ those challenges than it has ever been before: TV and the Internet bring us daily evidence of the destruction of animal habitats, the pollution of the oceans, the melting of glaciers and the Arctic ice caps and other results of global warming.

 

They bring pictures into our living rooms of starving children in the Yemen and elsewhere, of the destruction of cities like Aleppo, of terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East, and of refugees freezing on the streets of Paris and in the camps of Lesbos and Syria.

 

They face us daily with the challenge to consider what it might mean for us to proclaim Christ in today’s political and economic world; to consider what it might mean for the choices we make when we vote in local and national elections and when we shop, and for our interactions online and in person with our friends, neighbours and those who represent us in Parliament and councils.

 

If we choose to proclaim Christ when we do those things, it may mean that we will be mocked and threatened as Jesus was, by those whose power and prosperity is threatened by what we say. Or, it may just lead to us being thought odd, and maybe rejected by our family and friends, just as Jesus was.

This first chapter of John’s Gospel shows us the process of becoming a disciple of Christ, of hearing about him, having a personal encounter with him, committing yourself to him, and then proclaiming him to others. Many Christians talk about the encounter with Christ, often called conversion or baptism in the Spirit, as a once in a lifetime event. But though there may, for some people, be a specific once in a lifetime event when this commitment began, it is in reality something that continues throughout our lives, as we follow the Lamb of God in sacrificing ourselves in the decisions we make every day.

 

It is also often spoken of as something that happens to us as individuals. But following Christ is not just an individual thing, as everything that we do has an impact on the communities we belong to. This is especially so in the call to ‘come and see’ the Lamb of God and imitating him in living our lives sacrificially. Our transformed lives have the potential also to transform communities, another of the strands of ‘Living God’s Love’.

 

I am sure many of us feel overwhelmed sometimes by the enormous scope of the changes that are needed to transform our world so that it comes closer to being the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. We question what we can do as individuals.

 

Earlier in the week I was listening with admiration to President Obama’s farewell address to the American people. He spoke about his early career in Chicago, where he ‘witnessed the power of faith,’ and ‘learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it.’ He reminded them that change isn’t always for good, that progress needs to be worked for, and can be reversed, and made his last request to the American people as President in these words “My last ask is the same as my first. I am asking you to believe. Not in my ability to bring about change – but in yours. I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice:

Yes We Can.

Yes We Did.

Yes We Can.”

 

‘Yes we can’. That was a secular political message – but it was a message that grew out of his Christian faith, his encounter with Christ and his commitment to follow him. As we allow the Holy Spirit to empower and equip us to do the same, together we can change the world. We can become, like Peter, stones who together are built into the place where others will encounter God in Jesus. Our very being and our communities and workplaces will become the places where Jesus is staying. Through us the Kingdom can be established, as we too invite people to come and meet Christ and to live sacrificially in his name.

 

A prayer by John Van de Laar:

 

The struggles of our world feel overwhelming, Jesus;

beyond our ability to understand, let alone solve.

We do not have the capacity

to silence the justifications,

to heal the addictions,

to restore the brokenness,

to repair the destruction,

or to reverse the trajectories

of our self-centred, short-sighted weakness,

our heartless, dehumanising aggression.

 

But, we do not face these struggles alone, Jesus;

You have aligned yourself with us,

in taking on flesh,

in going through the waters,

in laying down your life;

And you have invited us to partner with you,

in proclaiming Good News,

in freeing the imprisoned,

in restoring the broken,

in uniting the divided;

 

And you have given us the capacity,

the divine Spirit,

to be co-workers with God.

 

For this, we are eternally grateful.

Amen.

 

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Christmas in the Real World…

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Hebrews 2, 10-18; Matthew 2,13-23

 

On Christmas Eve at Midnight we were with John the Divine, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in the darkness.

 

On Christmas morning we went with Luke to the manger and worshipped with the rustic shepherds.

 

But this morning we are back in the real world, with Matthew. This is the part of the story that is never depicted on Christmas cards and is never acted out in children’s nativity plays, because, as T S Eliot said,  human beings cannot bear too much reality. It doesn’t even even get into modern TV nativities – the ones that are supposed to be as real as Eastenders! For many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, Christmas is a short escape from the harsh world of reality, and they would prefer to forget this part of Matthew’s story, lest it spoil that escape.

 

When, in a meeting of our house group before Christmas, we looked at the two versions of Christ’s birth  the one in Luke’s Gospel and the very different one in Matthew’s Gospel, someone remarked they much preferred Luke’s story to Matthew. In Luke’s story there are problems before the birth, as Mary has to travel a long distance when she’s heavily pregnant, and isn’t given a private place to give birth. But after the joyful shepherds have visited, everything is normal and peaceful. Mary and Joseph name their child, take him to Jerusalem to present him in the Temple, then go peacefully back home to Nazareth.

 

Matthew’s tale is much darker. Trouble looms from the moment the wise men stop to ask Herod where the royal baby is to be born. He hatches a plan to let them lead him to the threat to his dynasty.

 

As our reading takes up the story, the exotic magi have gone home by another way, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, leaving Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to face an uncertain future. Herod has realized Plan A is not going to work, and has put plan B into action – kill all the babies and toddlers in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the one among them who may grow up to be a threat to his power.

 

So, like many families the world over, Mary and Joseph are forced to take their baby away from their home, and become refugees in a foreign land, camping out there until the threat to their child seems to have gone; but even then, they continue to take precautions, keeping away from areas near the capital, and setting up home in a Northern backwater, while their son grows to maturity.

 

Politics and plots, massacres, flight and life in a refugee camp: it’s just like the news we see year after year in the media. Not very Christmassy, is it?

 

But it is Christmassy. Christ’s Mass is not about making the world a fairy tale place, with only sweet smelling straw, starlight and candlelight, cuddly animals and foreign visitors who bring rich and exotic gifts. It’s about living on in the real world, a world where tyrants do send their soldiers to slaughter whole populations including woman and children.

 

A world where families do have to leave their homes and face insecurity to escape persecution.

refugee-father

A world where fathers do have to think carefully about where they choose to live, in order that their wives and children may be reasonably safe.

A world where women like Rachel continue to weep for their children who are no more.

 

But yet it’s about living in the real world transformed, because of Immanuel, God with us. It’s about a world where we need no longer feel ourselves alone or powerless in the face of such evil. It’s about a world where we know God’s presence alongside us, experiencing the worst that life can throw at us, but never defeated, nor destroyed. It’s about living in our fallen world with the hope that there is a better way, and that ultimately, in spite of all appearances, that better way will triumph.

 

Matthew’s Christmas story was written to show us that everything we might have to suffer, everything that his ancestors suffered, Jesus also suffered. That is what the name he was given by the angel means: Emmanuel, God with us, going through everything we have to go through.ACC02433GRE

 

Christmas is not just about the children, it’s not just about December 25th, it’s not about the 12 Days of Christmas, it’s not even just about the extended church season of Christmas that extends to Candlemas at the beginning of February. It’s about how we live through the whole year and every year, in the faith that God is with us, no matter what our trouble or distress, and that the divine presence will support us and save us no matter what we have to face on our journey through life.

 

So happy continuing Christmas to you all. Happy New Year.

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Christmas Word

 

(John 1, 1-14)

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The Word was with God in the beginning; and the Word took on flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory – the glory of the only Son of the Father.

 

So says the writer of John’s Gospel in his meditation on the meaning of the Incarnation.

 

What was the word?

Think for a moment: what word, for you, is at the heart of the meaning of Christmas?

 

When you came into the service this morning, you were given a star. On one side of it are things which represent Christmas. If you have some time over the Christmas period, perhaps you’d like to spend some time relaxing by colouring them in.

 

On the other side, would you like to write the word that sums up for you the meaning of Christmas.

Maybe you found it difficult to bring it down to one word.

 

Here are three that I thought I might put on my star.

First: ’Communication’.

 

At Christmas, through the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God  communicates to us what God is really like. And that continued through the life and teaching and death of Jesus, and through the Holy Spirit, which continues to lead us in God’s ways.

 

Which prompts a question: how does our celebration of Christmas communicate that to the world? Are we celebrating something that happened long, long ago, in a far away country? Or are we celebrating something that happens now, here, and every day?

 

My second word would be ‘Life’.

 

John says that the Word was God’s agent in creation (and God said “let there be light’) and that the Word is the source of the life that illuminates everything and every one who is born into the world. In celebrating the birth of the Word made flesh, we are celebrating the new life that the coming of Jesus offers to everyone who accepts his teaching and lives as he lived.

 

Which prompts the question: how does our celebration of Christmas bring life and light to others?

 

My third word would be ‘Mystery’.

John says that when the Word came, the world did not recognize him; and his own people did not receive him. What the Word means to different people and in different times is not obvious. It cannot easily be summed up in other words. It is something that those of us who have found life through following his light need to struggle with throughout our lives, if we are to continue to see God’s grace and truth and glory through his story.

 

Many people nowadays do not recognize and receive the Word. How can we share the mystery of the Christmas event with them so that they too can become God’s children and live in the life and light and Glory of the Word?

christmas-colour-a4

 

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What’s in a Name?

(Isaiah 7, 10-16; Matthew 1, 18-25)

 

 

You can sometimes tell when a person was born by their name. I don’t just mean the time of year (we have probably all met people called Holly, or Noel, or Natalie because they were born on Christmas Day) but the decade. There are names like Herbert, Hilda, Ada, and Elsie that were typical of my parents’ generation – and others like Tracy and Darren which came into fashion in the Sixties and Seventies.

 

When we chose names for our children, we tried to choose names that were timeless, and that wouldn’t identify them as being born in a certain era. We also tried to find names that wouldn’t be easy to shorten, though we failed in that – schoolchildren can manufacture a nickname no matter what name you choose!

 

Some people hate their names or their second names, and never use them. I resented the fact that I didn’t have a middle name, whereas my siblings do, until my mother told me that, because I was born in Cornwall, they were going to give me a traditional Cornish name – Loveday – but decided against it. I’m glad they decided against that!

 

What we didn’t give any consideration to was the meaning of our children’s names. I only found out after he was named that the name of our grandson means exactly the same as the (different) name of our younger son. Both their names mean ‘God has heard’. I wonder if you know what names they are?

 

In Bible times, the meaning of a name was very important. This was unfortunate if you were the child of a prophet, since you were likely to be given a name which was in itself a prophecy – and some of them could be very long and complicated. Hosea called his first child Jezreel, meaning ‘God plants’, but when his wife was unfaithful and he saw that as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, he called their next two children Loruhamah (no more mercy) and Loammi (not my people) as a warning to the nation.

 

Isaiah (whose own name means ‘Salvation of God’) also gave his two sons prophetic names. The first was a hopeful name: Shearjashub, meaning ‘a remnant shall return’; but the second was called Mahershalalhashbaz, which can be translated ‘quick to plunder, swift to spoil’ a prophecy about the actions of the kings attacking Judah. Maybe, Loveday wouldn’t have been so bad!

 

It is no surprise, then, in our O.T. passage today, to find Isaiah advising on the name of a baby soon to be born. Ahaz, King of Judah is terrified by the prospect of being attacked by the combined forces of Syria and Israel. Isaiah says that a child soon to be born (probably in the royal family) should be called Immanuel, meaning ‘God is with us’, and that before he is old enough to be weaned, the threat from Syria and Samaria will have vanished, as both kingdoms will be destroyed by the Assyrians.

 

In English (as in most of Northern Europe), surnames often come from the occupations followed by our ancestors, or from their personal names. Hence the large numbers of Smiths, Bakers and Cooks, and the Johnsons, Jacksons and Richardsons, descended from people in those occupations, or with those names.

Names help us to recognise, identify and explain people – and the names given to Jesus are no exception.

 

Our third reading, from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, also centres around the giving of a name.

 

Usually, on the fourth Sunday in Advent, as our collect indicates, we concentrate on Mary, the mother of Jesus; but in Matthew’s account, Mary isn’t centre stage; his account centres on Joseph.

 

He and Mary were betrothed when she conceived Jesus. In Jewish law, this meant that they were already considered to be a married couple, even though they had not yet started to live together. When she was found to be pregnant, Joseph would have been entitled to accuse her of adultery and have her, and the father of her child punished. At the very least, he would have been entitled to divorce her. Joseph seems to have been a man who knew his Bible, so he was very clear about the options open to him.

 

But Joseph was also a man whose knowledge went beyond the written law; he knew the ‘name’ of God, which is another way of saying he knew the character of God; and because he believed that God was merciful, he resolved to be merciful too, and to divorce Mary quietly. Of course, that might have spared her from death, but it would have left her very little in the way of life. In a small town, everyone would have known he had rejected her, and when the child was born, no-one would have been prepared to marry her or care for the child.

 

Joseph’s name means ‘one who adds’, that is, one who goes beyond the minimum that is necessary. He shared the name with a major character from Israel’s past: Joseph of the coat of many colours, Joseph the dreamer, Joseph who saved the people of Israel from famine and kept them in safety in Egypt.

 

The New Testament Joseph is also one who hears God speaking in dreams, and who acts to save those of God’s people who are vulnerable. His dream contains an instruction to take Mary as his wife, and an assurance that her child is not the result of sin, but the work of the Spirit of God. He is given a personal name to give to her child: Jesus, or in Hebrew, Joshua, which means ‘God saves’.

 

Joseph married Mary and gave her son the name announced by the angel. But in marrying Mary, he also gave Jesus a family name. In the Aramaic which they all spoke, Jesus would now be known as Yeshua bar Yoseph: Jesus the son of Joseph. Joseph gave to Mary and her son not just a name, but a home, respectability and a place in society.

 

The Bible and the Christian tradition have given many names to Jesus, as well as those he bore during his lifetime. They look both backward into Jewish history and forward to his unique role. From the Old Testament, he has been given the names from Isaiah’s prophecies; Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. In the New Testament he is known as Messiah, Saviour, Word, Light, Redeemer. In this same passage, Matthew applies to him the name given in Isaiah’s prophecy that we heard earlier, Immanuel, God with us.

 

One of the hymns we are singing this morning contains another list of names, taken from the Advent Antiphons, traditionally sung during the last days of the season from 17th to 23rd December at Evensong. Jesus is called Adonai, or Lord of Might; Rod of Jesse, from another of Isaiah’s prophecies, which predicts that a new shoot will rise from Jesse’s stock. He is named Key of David, a reference to another passage in Isaiah, where the Key stands for royal authority, a reference taken up by John the Divine in Revelation; and finally he is called Day Spring or Day Star, reflecting Zechariah’s prophecy in the Benedictus, that he will initiate a new dawn, a new beginning in the history of God’s people.

 

Some of the names given to Jesus in the New Testament have more importance for his earliest followers, since they look back to his Jewish heritage, and proclaim the continuity of God’s provision for them; but others have a more universal appeal. Jesus is the Day Spring, whose coming initiates a new dawn in the relationship between God and the human race. His personal name, Jesus, reminds us that God comes to us, not as a ferocious judge of our failings, but as one who saves us from our selfishness and error. The name Immanuel tells us that, no matter how dark and difficult our life seems, God is with us.

 

As a consequence of following Jesus, we also acquire a new name, that of ‘Christian’. It should frame our character, and affect the way we live our lives. But the way we live, bearing the name of Christian will also affect the view that people outside the faith will have of God, Jesus, and the life of faith. So many of the stories we read in the media at the moment give Christianity a ‘bad name’. What can we do to make sure that the name of ‘Christian’ really reflects Jesus’s character of love, service, forgiveness and inclusion for all?

 

Names are so much more than just labels. They can be full of riches if we think about them carefully. In these last few days before Christmas, as we prepare to greet our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, at his birth, may we meditate on his names, and so come to know and love him better, and be ready to receive him more fully into our hearts and lives. Amen

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Clear the Path for the Kingdom!

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Photo © Copyright John Light and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence.

 

(Advent 2. Yr. A. Is. 11, 1-10; Romans 15, 4-13; Matt. 3, 1-10)

 

Did you know that Hertfordshire has over 5000 footpaths, totalling almost 2000 miles or 3000 km?

 

They are the responsibility of the County Council’s Rights of Way service, which ensures that landowners keep them accessible and reinstate them after ploughing, and that they are properly signposted; but the day to day maintenance is carried out by the Countryside Management Service, which works with the county and local councils and uses a team of volunteers to clear vegetation, and provide steps on steep inclines, and boardwalks where the ground is rough or waterlogged. The volunteers, known as Footpath Friends, not only join working parties to clear and reconstruct the paths, but also adopt a path each, and undertake to walk it four times a year, to discover any work that needs to be done, and report it, so that the Countryside Management Service can prioritise what needs to be done.

 

John the Baptist, quoting the words of the prophet Isaiah, urged the people to ‘Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight’. I see that as a sort of spiritual version of the work of the Countryside Management Service, clearing away the brambles so that the message of Christ can get through. John indicated that the way to do this preparation and straightening was to repent, because the paths needed to be opened for the Kingdom of God, a new reality that was coming near.

 

What did this mean for the people of his time? And what does it mean for us now?

 

The Kingdom of God, better translated as the Sovereignty of God, is not a place, but a new way of existing, thinking and being, a deep change to the very foundations of social relations, so that everything is submitted to God’s ultimate purpose and God’s sovereign will. Both the Hebrew and the Greek words which are translated as “repent’ (shub in Hebrew and metanoia in Greek) indicate this is not just an expression of sorrow for wrongdoing, but a radical reversal of the way we think, feel and act. It demands a complete renewal of life, turning from the old ways to the new, a rebirth into a new being. When we become part of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God becomes part of us, and the new way of life it brings is meant to flow through us and out into the world.

 

Each of our readings from Scripture this morning tells us something about this new reality that is coming.

 

Isaiah, living at a time when the hope was that the kings of David’s dynasty would embody and enforce God’s purpose, describes the new reality using royal imagery. At the time this was written, the descendants of David had suffered defeat and humiliation at the hands of foreign conquerors. All that remained was a stump. But even so, the prophet expresses the hope that a new line, a shoot, inspired by the power of God’s Spirit, will emerge, and will transform the role of the king. Immune to propaganda and bribery, he will embody the values of the ancient covenants with God, giving justice to the poor and the weak.

 

Isaiah’s vision then expands the transformation that the new regime will bring from the life of the Jewish nation to the entire world. The new way of living and relating will spread from Judea to all the nations of the world, who will place themselves under God’s rule through the ‘shoot’ of David’s line.

 

Not only human nations, but the whole creation will be born again into the conditions that existed at the creation, when animals lived in peace with each other and with humanity. And lest we think that is far fetched, just remember how human greed and injustice destroys the natural world as well as promoting conflict in human society. Climate change and the destruction of the rainforests and the arctic,and the poisoning of the oceans has led to loss of habitats for animals, birds and fish, and sometimes, loss of entire species. Living according to the values of the covenant with God means caring for vulnerable creatures as well as human beings, and could transform the world.

 

 

Paul is writing to members of the Christian Church in Rome, a mixed group of Jewish and Gentile converts, who he assumes have already experienced the transformation brought by following The Way, the path signposted for them by Jesus Christ. Living under the sovereignty of God, they are to live a life that glorifies and gives witness to that sovereignty. They are to imitate Christ and welcome all, both Jews and Gentiles, regardless of their wealth or talents or any lack of them. They are to be filled with the Holy Spirit and show in their lives the joy and peace between former enemies that living in the Kingdom of God means.

 

As members of the Christian Church in our time, this passage challenges us. How good are we at showing to those outside our joy and peace in believing? How good are we at welcoming into fellowship those currently outside the church, not for what they could contribute, but solely for the glory of God?

 

Paul is full of hope and confidence that the Kingdom of God is already being lived in the Christian communities he and the apostles have established.

John, preaching before the ministry of Jesus started, has a much harder and more challenging message. Unlike Paul he is not an insider talking to the insiders in the faith. He is a one time insider who is now an outsider, and is challenging the insiders for their failure. He strikes at everything that gives the religious people of the time their confidence that they are first along the way into the Kingdom of God. Your membership of the Jewish people, descent from Abraham won’t get you there, he says. Neither will your rituals and sacrifices. The covenant with God is about much more than circumcision and sacrifices. Just like the outsiders, he tells them, you need a complete change of thinking and lifestyle; and as a symbol of this, he replaces the priest-supervised ritual of sacrifice in the Temple with cleansing with water, the ritual that was used when Gentiles converted. To those who don’t change he promises, through metaphors drawn from agriculture, a doom-laden future. No wonder the religious authorities were appalled!

 

Yet, according to Matthew, many of them came out to hear John, even though he attacked them in such violent language, and even asked for baptism. We can only wonder why they did so. Perhaps they were tired of the system, which, however dutifully they followed its rules, didn’t bring them peace of mind. Perhaps they were ready for a change. Perhaps they were willing to put their faith in an outsider, no matter how unpalatable and offensive he was, in the hope that he would usher in a changer for the better?

 

Does that sound familiar? What does that say to the church of today and the society of today? Are we committed to a way of life which has some Christian values at its heart, but, in practice, has moved far away from the challenge of Jesus’ teaching. If we have, is that why people will follow anyone who promises things will be different?

 

Unlike many of today’s leaders, religious and political, John doesn’t claim the role of ‘Messiah’ for himself. He is always pointing to a greater power, the future incursion of God’s Holy Spirit into the world embodied in the person of God’s Messiah. John sees his role as the Forerunner, the Footpath Friend, who is simply preparing the way for the greater things to come.

 

We are insiders in the Church of today. Do we put all our faith in our membership of the Church, and in coming to worship on a regular basis? Is that confidence in our own admission to the Kingdom of Heaven justified?

 

Or do we sometimes allow ourselves to be challenged by the voices of outsiders to reflect on whether we have really repented and changed our thinking and lifestyles, perhaps at some cost to our own comfort; are we really living under the Kingdom of Heaven? Does our repentance show in changed lives, or is it just words? Or do we still have work to do, clearing the paths of our own lives, our church lives, and the values of the society we live in, so that the Way of the Lord is clear for the message of the Lord to get through.

 

The Kingdom of heaven is coming near! The Advent challenge to us all is to prepare the Way for Christ to be born again in our hearts and in our world.

 

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

 

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‘The Resurrection of the Body and the Life Everlasting’

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2 Thess. 2, 1-5,13-17. Luke 20, 27-38.

I get the impression people nowadays don’t talk much about life after death, or Heaven and Hell – except to make jokes about them. They are much more concerned about their life in the here and now, and how to make it as rich and satisfying as possible.

 

We may think about it a bit more at this time of year, when we go through the seasons of All Saints and All Souls and then Remembrance Day, but even so our thoughts tend to be concentrated on those who have died, rather than our own death and what may await us after it.

 

This wasn’t the case in the Christian community in the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, however. The Day of the Lord – the day when Jesus would return in triumph to judge the earth – was expected to occur very soon, and there was constant speculation about what would happen, how the faithful would know when it was approaching, and who would be among the saved.

The Christian community to whom 2 Thessalonians was written were distraught. The Greek original says they were ‘shaken out of their minds’ by people who said the Day of the Lord had already come, and Jesus had returned – perhaps because they had seen nothing of it, so assumed they were not among the saved.

 

The apocalyptic writings of the time, of which we can see examples in the gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew, and in Revelation, predicted a series of events which had to occur before the Lord’s return. Though the details varied, the general tenor of these predictions was that things would get much worse on earth before things got better with the Second Coming.

 

The writer of the letter first attempts to reassure his readers, by reminding them of this timetable, and assuring them that the predicted events have not taken place. But much more importantly, he reminds them of the character of the God whose judgement they await: that God loves them, and chose them in the earliest days of the Christian mission; and that God’s grace continues to strengthen, encourage and comfort them in the good works they carry out in his name.

Throughout Christian history, different groups have looked at what was happening in the world around them, and thought that Judgement Day was fast approaching. But perhaps the point of those predictions was that there will always be such things happening in the world, so judgement is always close at hand, and always ‘not yet’.

 

Belief in resurrection of those who were saved was a very new one in the world of first century Judaism. Some of the religious groups – notably the Pharisees – believed in the resurrection of the righteous; but more conservative groups, like the Sadducees, didn’t believe in it at all, because it wasn’t a belief that was found in the Torah.

 

It wasn’t a belief that was found in the Old Testament much at all. There is a passage in the book of Job which sounds as if it is talking about resurrection; “I know that my redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth…. then in my flesh I will see God” but the problem is we read it through Christian spectacles. What is more, when we listen to the words, many of us hear them sung to Handel’s marvellous music from the Messiah – and with the addition that his lyricist put in speaking about the resurrection of Jesus.

Job may be talking about seeing God and being vindicated by him after death – but it is more likely he was saying that he expected God to appear and vindicate him on this earth.

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We know that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, which makes it all the more obvious that their question to Jesus, which Luke recounts in chapter 20, was posed in order to trap him, and not for any desire to know what he really thought. It was based on the practise of levirate marriage, ordered in the book of Deuteronomy, which ruled that if a man died without fathering a son, one of his brothers had to marry his widow, in order to father a son for him, to ensure that the family line did not die out. Nobody observed this rule by New Testament times, so the question was wholly specious.

 

Jesus avoided the trap, and at the same time gave his own teaching about the life of the world to come. His answer taught that there is a difference between life in this world and the next. In this world, the only way to ensure that your legacy lived on was to marry and to have a family; in the world to come, life is eternal. There is no more death, so there is no need for sex and marriage to ensure your line lives on.

But Jesus then goes on to indicate that there is some continuity between this life and the next, with a complicated rabbinic-type argument about the patriarchs. When God spoke to Moses, he proclaimed himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but only living things can have a relationship with God. So Jesus is saying that in some sense, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob live on, and gives us hope that we will too. Though there is discontinuity, there is also continuity through God who is the Lord of both this world and the next.

 

Jesus doesn’t actually tell us much about the life of the world to come. He does indicate that it will be different from life in the flesh – which rather puts paid to all those pictures of Heaven which see it as just like the best of this life, only in abundance; depending on your tastes and circumstances, heaps of good food, wine, nubile maidens, blissful music or just eternal rest!

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The lack of detail can be rather frustrating to us humans. We like to know what’s coming, so we can prepare for it properly. We want to know whether we will still survive as individuals; we want to be assured that the relationships which we value in this life, and which have sustained us, will continue in the world to come. Jesus refuses to give us answers about that, as he refused to give a specific timetable for his return.

 

We don’t have the language or the concepts to depict what resurrection life will be like. Most of the attempts to do so, from the depictions of Paradise and Hell in classical art to images of angels with harps on clouds are profoundly unsatisfying. We have clues from the disciples’ experience of Jesus after his resurrection, but they don’t actually help a great deal. But the details should not be important to those who have faith.

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We need to share Job’s confidence that God loves and supports us in this world and the next. We need to hear with the Thessalonians the assurance that God’s grace and comfort and strength will never leave us. We need to concentrate on living the resurrection life in this world, so that we may be judged worthy to share in the life of the world to come.

 

For some people in our world, this life is more like Hell than Heaven. We see some of those people on the news, day after day, particularly those living in war zones, or fleeing as refugees. If we follow the teaching of Jesus about loving and serving our neighbour, and particularly those who are poor and marginalised and without earthly possessions, then he assures us we are serving him. We are already beginning to live the life of the Kingdom; we are anticipating the resurrection life. If we sincerely try to live that way, then surely we can affirm that “we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”, and wait for whatever that may turn out to be, without fear.

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Essentials of Prayer

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(Psalm 84, 1-7; Luke 18, 9-14)

 

Imagine the scene. It is either dawn or mid-afternoon and the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people of Israel is being offered in the Temple in Jerusalem. As the proper time arrives, the great gates are opened and the people stream in to witness the sacrifice and to offer prayers to God.

 

There is the smell of many people; of the lamb who is sacrificed; of warm blood as it is splashed on the altar, then the smell of smoke and burning meat as the sacrifice is burnt on the altar, and of the incense as it is placed on the coals and rises towards the heavens.

 

There are the sounds of the animals and birds used for sacrifice, of cymbals and bells and trumpets that punctuate the ritual, of many voices speaking their prayers aloud as the incense rises.

 

Into this scene walk two men. They are both well dressed. Both take care to stand apart from all the other worshippers. But their attitudes are very different.

 

One man is a Pharisee, a leader and teacher of the faithful. He is careful to stand a distance from all the other worshippers. He must be careful to keep himself untainted by any contact with ‘the people of the land’, those who cannot or do not keep themselves ritually clean; even to brush his coat against their clothes would destroy his state of ritual cleanliness.

 

He stands erect and full of confidence as he addresses his prayer to the Almighty. As he looks around him, he notices the other man also standing apart, and uses him as an example. He makes his own assessment of his morality, and it is not a kind one; he brands him a rogue and a swindler – and then throws in adulterer for good measure. He is attacking a stereotype, and does not see beyond his own prejudiced image.   His prayer turns into a statement of his own religious superiority to everyone else there. He thanks God briefly, but then goes on to distinguish himself from the ‘great unwashed’ around him, boasting of doing more than the law demands by fasting and tithing more than is required.

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The other man, the tax collector, stands apart from the others, not to keep himself unsullied, but because he feels himself unworthy to be among the faithful of Israel. As he too prays aloud, he doesn’t dare lift his eyes from the ground, even to watch the incense ascending, or the priest blessing. He beats his chest (a gesture which was usually done only by women as they mourned a death) to show his anguish and distress at his own unworthiness to offer any prayer to God. When he finally voices his prayer, it is a simple cry to God “Lord, have mercy on me” or “Lord, make atonement for me”. He has come to pray at the time of the sacrifice, because he believes only the sacrifice of a perfect creature can atone for his sins.

 

At the end of the ritual, the two men leave, along with everyone else. Perhaps outwardly there is no difference. But, as Jesus tells their story, he reverses the order in which he describes them. The tax-collector, who showed contrition and humility is spoken of first. His prayer has been answered; he has been forgiven and he is justified and judged righteous. The Pharisee who felt himself so superior, is placed second now; his own self-righteousness has hardened his heart; because he is so confident in his own actions, he is not open to God’s grace. His attendance at the sacrifice was a waste of time. He returns in exactly the same state as he went up to the Temple, unjustified and unforgiven.

 

As Luke’s introduction to the parable makes plain, it is first of all about the inner attitude of the disciple. The attitude of superiority to others shown by the Pharisee in this parable was criticised by others in Jesus’ time. The Assumption of Moses contained similar sentiments to the parable and Rabbi Hillel wrote: “Keep not aloof from the congregation and trust not in thyself until the day of thy death, and judge not thy fellow until thou art thyself come to his place.”

 

According to Luke, this parable was told to the disciples on the way to Jerusalem. Throughout this journey, Jesus is shown trying to teach his disciples about Kingdom values. Chief among those values is an attitude of humility, of service to others, of acknowledging everyone’s equal reliance on the grace of God. In the parables he uses to highlight these values, he uses some strange chief characters – a Samaritan, an unjust steward, a nagging widow – and now a tax collector. A faithful Jewish male would have considered himself superior to all of these – but Jesus uses each of them as an example of what God regards as worthy.

 

Perhaps in Luke’s church there were also people who regarded themselves as more righteous, more worthy of God’s ear, more certain of salvation than others in their congregation. We know that the early church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, of men and women, of rich and poor. This parable may have been included by Luke to bring them up short and make them think again about their attitudes.

 

And what of today’s Church? In churches, as in all human institutions, there is a tendency for people to reject others, and to try to keep themselves separate from those who (they think!) fail to meet the standards that God requires. We seem to have particular problems with this in the Anglican Church. We have provinces in the worldwide Anglican Communion who refuse to attend meetings with representatives of other provinces where gay people have been elected as bishops by their congregations, or where gay couples have been offered marriage or church blessings on their partnerships. In the Church of England itself, we also have groups who have set up up ‘societies’ within the church, to ensure they can worship separately from those who accept women to the role of Bishop.

 

Aren’t these actions the modern equivalent of standing by yourself before the altar of sacrifice and pulling your cloak tightly around you lest you become contaminated by those you have judged to be wrong? Are not these groups in danger of basing their confidence on their own right actions, as the Pharisee did, rather than acknowledging that all our hopes are based on the teaching, life and death of Christ and the grace of God? Kierkegaard said “The self-assured believer is a greater sinner in the eyes of God than the troubled disbeliever”.

 

But the parable is also about the right way to pray. The rabbinic documents of the time gave instructions about how a worshipper should pray at the time of the morning or evening sacrifice. He should stand with his hands crossed over his chest and his eyes to the ground, in an attitude of submission to a master or lord. He should first of all articulate praise to God for all his gifts, and then present his own needs.

 

The Pharisee did neither. He praised God only that he wasn’t like other less worthy people; he didn’t present any petitions to God, since he obviously thought he had everything already. He boasted about his own actions, which went way beyond what was required by the Law. He was the man who has everything – so he really had no need of God. His prayer, though on the surface a thanks to God, was in fact just a request that God confirms his own assessment of himself as righteous.What’s more, he judged others by their outward appearance, and projected his own prejudices on to them.

 

In contrast, the tax collector had no illusions about himself. He knew his occupation automatically put him outside the circle of the faithful. He beat upon his chest, the place where evil thoughts and emotions were thought to come from at the time, and requested nothing based on his own merits. He did not criticise others, not even the Pharisee who was publicly humiliating him in front of a crowd of worshippers. In his prayer he presented just one petition to God and threw himself entirely on the divine mercy; and because God is merciful, his petition was granted.

 

Luke places a great emphasis on prayer in his gospel. At every significant moment in the story, prayer is offered to God. He also places great emphasis on the outcast and the sinner, alerting us to Jesus’ message that they are often closer to God than those who think themselves ‘religious’.

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How does this story relate to our practice of prayer? Do we begin each time of prayer with giving praise and thanks to God for all we have been given – or do we rush immediately into asking for what we want. Do we recognise our own inadequacies and need of mercy, or do our prayers assume that God operates with the same prejudices and stereotypes as we do?

It is a particular danger in public prayer; we often pray only for ‘people like us’. In our prayers we sometimes act like the Pharisee, condemning those who are different. This can have a devastating effect on those who hear us: I recently read an article by a non-believer who put aside her own feelings to attend a family christening, only to be confronted by someone leading the prayers who asked God to help ‘fight against the rise of secularism and aggressive atheists’, who, he judged, wanted to stop him worshipping and destroy Christianity – which was far from what this woman wanted.

 

But such attitudes also have the effect of taking us further from the presence of God, rather than closer, as prayer should do. Self-righteousness, particularly when it involves projecting the darker side of ourselves onto others, closes our innermost being to the grace of God. The essence of prayer is to stand before God in a state of spiritual nakedness, to acknowledge what we have been given by God’s grace with heartfelt thanks, to reflect how far we still are from what God would have us be, and to trust only in the justice and mercy of God.

 

With that attitude, Jesus’ parable tells us, the tax collector went home justified, made right with God. With that attitude, we have begun to master the essentials of prayer, and with it, we can go on learning to become closer and closer to God.

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