On this page you can find details of this month’s services and transcripts of recent sermons preached by our Minister, Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe.
Sunday 15th March 2020
Sunday 8th March 2020
Sunday 1st March 2020
Sunday 23rd February 2020
Sunday 16th February 2020
Sunday 9th February 2020
Sunday 2nd February 2020
Sunday 19th January 2020
Sunday 12th January 2020
Sunday 5th January 2020 (Epiphany Eve)
Sunday 15th December 2019
Sunday 8th December 2019
Sunday 1st December 2019
Sunday 15th March 2020
Exodus 17: 1-7 and John 4: 5-42
I’m not in danger of ever forgetting that day. After all, I’m reminded of it every time I go back to the well for water. It was a few years ago now but I can remember every detail as if it was yesterday. For one thing the sun was burning especially hot by noon. I knew the job of walking out to the well and hauling the water up in the bucket was going to be hot and uncomfortable. I was feeling sorry for myself, I suppose, though I would never have admitted that to anyone. I was cross that I always had to avoid the other women and go for water in all that heat. I didn’t feel life had treated me very fairly. It wasn’t my fault that I’d ended up as the target of all the gossips in town. They didn’t know – and I wasn’t about to tell them – what had gone wrong in the past, why I’d ended up having five husbands and none of the marriages had worked out. I knew they wouldn’t want to hear about the unfaithfulness, the arguments, the shouting and the insults – the beatings. My mother used to say ‘you know how to pick ‘em alright’. Things would start off happily enough but it never lasted. It wasn’t the life I’d hoped for when I was a girl. It wasn’t the life I thought God really wanted for me. It didn’t feel as though he was listening but even so I kept on praying and hoping for something better.
That day when I met the teacher from Galilee was like any other until I got to the well. Sam had gone out early to his workshop as he always does. He’s a good man and he’s never raised his fist to me. I’m always anxious though. I worry about what might happen if he met someone else, or got ill. That’s me all over – fretting over things I can’t do anything about. As I got near the well I could see there was someone there – a man on his own. Close up it was obvious from his clothes and everything about him that he was a stranger – a Jew. I’ll be honest – I was feeling pretty cross before he opened his mouth and asked me for a drink. Was he having a laugh at my expense? He didn’t look unkind – in fact, he had the strongest, kindest gaze I’ve ever seen in anyone. But what on earth was he playing at, asking me to give him a drink? He surely must have known that’s not allowed. I’m a woman, a Samaritan, an unrespectable woman (even though I hoped he might not bring that up). There he is, speaking to a woman on her own in a public place, knowing full well we’re not supposed to meet at all leave alone communicate, and he’s asking me to quench his thirst. Surely an educated looking man like that must know he’s doing wrong to even talk to me. So I took a risk and challenged him. I spoke to him direct in a way – in a tone of voice I never use with men usually. Would he lose his temper and tell me where to go with my bucket – or worse? Well, he didn’t – but he didn’t give up either.
He started to speak with me in a very different way from any other conversation I’ve had in my entire life. It’s hard to explain. You know how it is when you go out in the river to bathe. On the edges, where the water’s just up to your knees, it feels safe enough. But then you may suddenly find the bottom falls away underwater and you’re in the water up to your chin, right out of your depth. That’s how it felt in that conversation with the teacher. Only he didn’t let me flounder – he held me, in a way. He kept me afloat and he showed me that I didn’t need to be scared. I tried to think of someone we had in common, as Jew and Samaritan, so I reminded him of our common ancestor Father Jacob whose well it was all those years ago. ‘Are you greater than him?’ I asked him. It was a bit of a cheek, I’ll admit, but he didn’t seem to mind. He even looked to be enjoying this to and fro. He started talking about life-giving water – the water of eternal life. I was up for that right away – give me some of that and I won’t have to come here every day to collect water and lug it all back home with me. Only I knew he wasn’t talking about the water he was drinking from my cup at that point. He was talking about the water from God that reaches the dry places inside you and quenches a spiritual thirst.
That’s when the conversation went right out into the middle of the river and I started to forget about the depth and how to get back to the bank. I’d begun wondering how my life might feel if I wasn’t in such a mess inside all the time, if I liked myself a little better, and could forgive all those bad decisions in the past. It was as though he could see right into my head and read my mind. ‘Go home and bring your husband back here,’ he says. I nearly lost it then – not waving but drowning. I knew there was no lying to this man. I told him straight that I didn’t have a husband. And he knew all about it. Everything. All my past was open to him. But it didn’t seem to matter. I don’t know what possessed me at that point but I started talking about the different ways Jews and Samaritans worship – we go to Mount Gerizim and they go to Jerusalem – but we’re all trying to follow the law of Moses and we’re all looking for God. I thought he might have thanked me for the drink and gone on his way when I said that but he didn’t. He was lapping up the conversation and started talking about worshipping God in spirit and truth. I liked the sound of that. Truth isn’t so scary when you start to hope that God might love you, despite all the mistakes and the trail of disaster you’ve left behind you in life.
It was when I started talking about the Messiah that his eyes really lit up. ‘I am he.’ I am. Where had I heard those words before? Those were the words Moses heard when God spoke to him out of the burning bush all those years ago. ‘I am who I am’. I could have asked him more at that moment – all the questions were piling up inside my head – but there wasn’t time. His disciples came back with the food for lunch and you could see from their faces that they were none too pleased to see him talking to me. They didn’t say anything though – he had them well trained. Perhaps they were used to shocks and surprises – just like the one I’d had when he asked me for a drink.
I didn’t stay around to hear what he said to him. I ran home faster than I’ve ever done in my life and knocked on the doors of anyone I could find, right around the town. I’ve no idea what I said to them – just that they must come and see this man who could tell people everything about them. They came back with me and he spoke to them too – all of them – the men and the women and the children, just as if he’d known them all his life. Nothing was said about him being a Jew and us being Samaritans – at least not in my hearing. And then he said to me and Sam ‘I’m going to stay on for a few days. How many of us do you think you can find space for?’ Two days they stayed – the best two days of my life. And then they left.
Nothing’s been the same since then. Sam and I are so different with each other – I suppose a lot of it is because I feel so much more strong and calm inside. And I’ve heard bits about the teacher too. He’s on the way to Jerusalem, people say. So I’m wondering how things will unfold for him. I pray for him each morning. What will those people in the temple make of it if he tells them he’s the Messiah? They won’t like it if he lets on he thinks Samaritans – everyone who believes in God – can be part of this new message of love and hope, this worship in spirit and truth, he wants us to have. I worry about him in lots of ways – but in other ways I don’t. I remember that deep calm, and love and light I could see inside him that day, by the well, and I hold onto that.
Sunday 8th March 2020
Genesis 12: 1-4a and John 3: 1-17
Yesterday Lady Anne Dodd told one of her late husband’s jokes during her fascinating talk. A woman hears a knock at the door one morning and goes to open it. Standing there is a smartly dressed man with a rather serious expression on his face. ‘Jehovah’s Witness?’ she asks. ‘Yes’. Feeling a bit sorry for him she invites him in and sits him down with a cup of tea in the lounge. ‘Now tell me,’ she says, ‘what exactly is it that you believe?’ A look of horror and panic comes over his face. ‘I don’t exactly know. I’ve never got this far before.’ You could see today’s gospel reading as a reverse version of that encounter. Instead of Jesus teaching in public, here we have an example of a potential follower coming to see him ‘by night’, for a confidential conversation. By this stage of the gospel we’ve already learned enough to know that Jesus is God’s Chosen One and a complex, mysterious figure with a close link to God. He’s performed a ‘sign’ at a wedding in Cana, changing vast storage jars of water into wine. He’s overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple at Jerusalem. Chapter two ends: ‘While he was in Jerusalem for Passover many put their trust in him when they saw the signs that he performed. But Jesus for his part would not trust himself to them. He knew them all, and had no need of evidence from others about anyone, for he himself could tell what was in people.’
Now a knock comes on the door at night, presumably at the lodgings where Jesus is staying for the Passover festival. What follows is a conversation that’s only in John’s gospel. We have no idea what, if anything Nicodemus already knows about Jesus before coming to see him in private. It’s possible that he’s heard about him since that very public incident in the temple which the whole city has no doubt been talking about. As a Pharisee he’s a member of a Jewish religious sect which lives not just by the written Law of Moses but the oral version. Pharisees keep developing the law as a dynamic set of rules for daily living. They want people to live by the spirit of the law, not by its letter alone. It’s no surprise, then, that a Pharisee would want to ask questions of this new rabbi from Nazareth. If Nicodemus thinks he might be eased in gently he’s got another think coming. Jesus takes things straight to a very deep level. He starts reasonably enough by talking about God’s kingdom – an idea Nicodemus can understand because of the Jewish tradition that the king should be God’s highest profile servant on earth. The next moment Jesus says you can’t see the kingdom of God without being ‘born again’, whatever that means. You can translate the Greek a number of ways – it could also be ‘born from above’ or ‘born anew’ but Nicodemus is struggling at once with the whole idea. How can anyone be born again, he asks? Birth is a once in a lifetime event for each one of us, surely, and none of us can re-enter the womb once having left it. Jesus replies by talking of the need for everyone to be born again of water and spirit: ‘The wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born from the Spirit.’
When, not surprisingly, Nicodemus finds himself totally confused by this very new way of talking about God he gets a gentle upbraiding from Jesus. ‘Call yourself a teacher and you don’t know about this!’ Jesus says. Then he launches into an even more demanding piece of teaching which must give Nicodemus that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach known to all of us who find ourselves in a lecture which is going way over our heads. We know the speaker is on top of their material and what they’re saying is important – gold dust even – but we can’t in all honesty understand more than a few words of what’s coming out of their mouth. It helps that we, unlike Nicodemus, can go back to the first few verses of John’s gospel for some clues about what Jesus means. As well as lots of references to light and darkness we’ll find in John chapter 1 these words: ‘So the Word became flesh; he made his home among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.’ The whole of the rest of John’s gospel is going to show us, bit by bit, what the glory of Jesus looks like. It isn’t what we expect at all. We think in earthly terms of glory as proof of power, majesty, authority and success. We are going to discover that Jesus’s version of glory is shown through suffering, pain, rejection, hatred and finally death on a cross, the ultimate public evidence of failure and loss.
Jesus starts talking to Nicodemus about the link between heaven and earth, between those who go up to heaven and those who come down from it: ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, in order that everyone who has faith may in him have eternal life.’ Surely God’s chosen one, the one who inherits the king’s role of being God’s most visible servant on earth, ought to be lifted up on a throne so people can see his authority comes from God? God’s Word won’t be identified and shown to people in the way you expect, says Jesus. He takes Nicodemus back to the story of Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness – a painful memory from the distant past of weakness, division and a long journey.
This is probably the last place Nicodemus expects the conversation to go to. Jesus reminds him how centuries earlier the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness during their escape from Egypt and lengthy return to the Promised Land. They were attacked by a plague of venomous snakes. In Numbers chapter 21 we read how many of them died from snake bites. Moses prays to God on their behalf and is told to make a bronze serpent and erect it as a standard. Then when anyone is bitten they are to look at the bronze serpent and they will recover, which duly happens. Why, now, does Jesus refer Nicodemus back across the years to that story of healing and hope in the midst of danger, panic and fear? Because at this early stage in the gospel the writer wants us to know already that Jesus, too, has a future ahead of him which involves being lifted up before the eyes of the faithful in a form that used to spell fear for them. Now, through the mystery of God’s loving purposes for us all, a sign of fear and lost hope is to become the best reminder we have of God’s conquering love and the restoration of all the good things we thought we’d lost.
Three questions occur to me in response to this reading today. They are potentially questions for each one of us, for our whole church family, and much wider than that for our world. The first one is about maturity and openness to new things. Hats off to Nicodemus for going to speak to Jesus in the first place. He’s taking a risk and he gets far more than he could possibly have bargained for in the encounter. We know from later gospel references that what passed between them must have had an effect on him. At the end of John’s gospel in chapter 19 Nicodemus and another secret disciple called Joseph of Arimathaea, bring oil and spices to the dead body of Jesus and place him in a tomb before the sabbath. Whatever Nicodemus made of the words of Jesus that night he took them to heart, mulled them over, prayed and moved on in an amazing way in understanding and daily living. How many of us are good at being born again from above? Perhaps I can answer that best by thinking of some of the people I know who, at the same time as being old in years, are remarkably young and open in their thought patterns and opinions. God invites us into new relationship not just with Jesus but with one another, and with events around us.
The second question is about light in the darkness – the light from God which the darkness cannot ever overcome. Talking about this is not the same as living this as reality. I find Salvador Dali’s painting St John of the Cross helpful because it gives us a God’s eye view of Jesus on the cross and of the world at the foot of the cross. The things I experience as pain and failure are not necessarily seen that way by God. The efforts I think of as my best work can sometimes be shown to be a hollow sham when I try to view them from God’s perspective. At the moment many of the idea which I’ve held throughout my adult life, about the way the world is moving forward in terms of relationships and priorities, are being thrown into question. I can easily think things are falling apart. But perhaps through all this upheaval and anxiety God may see us all being painfully born again into a new understanding of our interdependence and need for mutual love. It’s not that God sends the problems we’re facing but I can see how God could work through the changes and challenges we face to bring about a new, better future.
The final lesson I draw from this passage is about the value of being able to live on several levels – literal and spiritual – side by side. People who operate on a purely spiritual basis are rather hard to get to remember their place on the coffee rota or their need to do the basics like shopping and paying bills. People who operate solely on a practical level never get the fun or the opportunities that living as one ‘born again from above’ can offer. May we find the grace to integrate within our daily lives the practical and spiritual heart of God’s good news.
Sunday 1st March 2020
Genesis 2: 15-17, 3: 1-7 and Matthew 4: 1-11
Today is the first Sunday in Lent – the 40 day period when followers of Jesus set our faces towards Jerusalem and set off with him towards his death and resurrection. As we cover the steps from ministry to arrest, life to death and back to life again, it’s a good time to ask ourselves if we’ve pinned our hopes on the right person. It would be a bit sad, after all that effort, to find at Easter we’ve invested in someone who isn’t worth our sacrifice, our commitment and offering of time, energy and monetary gifts – love even. The question we need to check out is whether Jesus has the right qualifications to be a Messiah. You’ll be glad to know that any 21st century Messiah in waiting can gain wisdom and download material from the website – ‘How to become a Messiah.’ It tells us: ‘Messiah, as described in the Jewish and Christian history, is the saviour of humankind in the time of misfortune. The last Messiah will be the best pioneer and political virtuoso that the world has ever seen. He would be the greatest man to ever set foot on this mortal world. He will put these unprecedented abilities to use, to accelerate love for god in all individuals. As you may know, the messiah is expected to urge the general population to wind up saviours, and good feelings within every individual heart. Anybody who has the abilities can become a messiah, if he/she is truly interested in sacrificing everything for the love of god.’ I don’t know about you, but I’m not totally convinced yet. I want to find The Messiah, not A Messiah. It sounds to me as though the people behind that website are either in it for a laugh or for the money or both.
Help is at hand, though. The good news is that the son of God has returned to earth and he’s called Vissarion. The slightly less convenient news is that he lives in Siberia. Until 1989 Vissarion was Sergei Torop and lived in the small Russian town of Minusinsk. Then he got the sack as a traffic policeman and a year later declared himself Vissarion – which means ‘he who gives new life’. He founded the Church of the Last Testament and now has 4,000 followers in Siberia and more worldwide, as well as two wives and six children. He also has a mother and a younger sister but Vissarion says Mary, the mother of Jesus, is his real mother. You may have noticed that being a Messiah in a cold climate means wearing socks as well as sandals – never the best look.
If all of this is unconvincing then try this exercise. You’re the gospel writer, Matthew. You know in your heart, your head, your body and your soul – with every fibre of your being – that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the real deal, God’s chosen one. Your task is to tell the story of his life in such a way that other people will believe that too and change their lives in response. This is the written version of ‘Who do you think you are?’ for Jesus. You begin this attempt to convince people by showing Jesus is a descendant of both the great king David and the patriarch Abraham. Then you write about his amazing birth, the visitors from the east who visit the young baby and bring his family special gifts and King Herod’s panicky attempt to kill Jesus in infancy. You show Jesus’s parents taking the family away to Egypt, the usual bolt hole for God’s people in trouble, and returning to bring him up in Nazareth, Galilee. Having introduced John the Baptist, preaching and baptizing in the wilderness by the river Jordan, you’ve finally brought the adult Jesus into your story with a moment of high drama at his baptism by John. As he’s come up out of the water the heavens have opened, a dove has flown down towards him and the crowd have felt God blessing Jesus with the words: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight.’ What’s the next scene in the drama? Surely it’s got to be Jesus’s first sermon, his first performance of a miracle, or something about him attracting followers and choosing his disciples, hasn’t it?
Definitely not! If this gospel is going to give people strong confidence in Jesus as God’s son, the true Messiah, it has to show that he’s trustworthy and reliable from the start. Now is not the moment for a big speech or a large scale event. A story teller or a public relations specialist gets the crowd interested and wanting more if their main character disappears as soon as things get interesting – ask the dramatists or the spin doctors. The next thing Jesus does after his commissioning – his ordination, the official moment when his ministry starts – is to go off on retreat for 40 days and nights. Remember the nights. Sleeping in the desert is not a pleasant occupation. It’s cold out there and there are wild animals too. This is not only a dangerous place physically but one where your mind starts to play tricks on you. Hunger and isolation can bring us close to God or close to total breakdown. The great mystics have always known the attraction and the risks of the wilderness. Jesus fasts, we’re told, but even if he weren’t deliberately eating a very light diet he’d have very little chance of a square meal in an environment like this anyway. It’s at the end of the 40 days that he’s most susceptible to strange thoughts and tempting voices inside his head. Can’t there be another way to faithfully serve his father in heaven? Does it really mean this sort of privation, and demand this sort of isolation and sacrifice, to be true to that calling he’s just received? Surely a few other ways can be found to get the message over to people?
Mark’s gospel tells us nothing about the details of the temptations Jesus undergoes in the wilderness. Luke and Matthew tell us much more. The first temptation Jesus experiences is the very obvious one of relieving his hunger by making stones into bread. What better way to prepare himself for the work that lies ahead and guarantee that when he goes back into the towns and villages of Galilee he’ll be able to gather a crowd within minutes to hear his teaching? ‘Come to hear the rabbi from Nazareth – food provided.’ It always draws the people in when you’re serving free food. But Jesus knows the answer to this temptation at once and he hears the tone of irony in the way the temptation comes: ‘If you are the Son of God..’ . He declares strongly that none of us is to live by bread alone but by the words that come from the mouth of God. God the Father will provide. We are not to worry about where our next meal is coming from. Matthew will soon show us Jesus preaching on that idea in the Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6 of the gospel.
The next temptation is possibly more beguiling. Get a large crowd by throwing yourself on God’s mercy, quite literally, and jumping into the abyss from a great height. Jesus knows that his ministry is not about drawing large crowds but about touching the hearts and changing the lives of the small number of people who are ready to listen to his words of hope and sacrifice. Not everyone is going to want a Messiah who models how they are to become servants of others, who expects them to love their enemies, who puts the least and lost at the head of the table and pushes the privileged and ‘as of right’ brigade to the bottom table by the smells from the kitchen. Jesus sees through this trap too and resists. We are not here to put God to the test.
Then comes the most insidious temptation of all. It’s always like that with the third one in the sequence. We think we’re doing alright with numbers one and two but when we face the third time of asking we may start to wobble. He hears a voice saying: ‘Worship me, Satan, fall down before me, and I’ll give you the whole world in palm of your hand.’ This is when Jesus finally flips, loses his temper and drives the tempting one away. We are here to worship God alone, and no one else.
Very often we think of Lent as a time to give up things – we focus the 40 days on ourselves. Jesus shows us that any time of reflection and preparation is about God, not about us. He reminds us that God provides all we need. He reaffirms that God is worthy of our worship and praise – no other comes anywhere near God. This is a good time to check out for ourselves as individuals and our church the answer to the question of who we rely on, who we go to in times of trouble and crisis. The answer must be God.
Sunday 23rd February 2020
Exodus 24: 12-18 and Matthew 17: 1-9
‘How are the mighty fallen’. Those are words that have a particularly strong resonance for me this morning, when we’ve heard even more about the life of Canadian humanitarian, theologian, spiritual adviser and champion of the rights of those with learning difficulties, Jean Vanier. Somewhere in my mother’s photos there’s probably a picture of him which she took when, back in 1983, she attended the World Council of Churches meeting in Vancouver. I have a book of his on my shelf – a book I always valued until quite recently – which is about how to build Christian community. Now we’ve heard more about the great man’s feet of clay. L’Arche, the international organisation he set up which runs communal homes for adults with learning difficulties around the world, has investigated allegations into their founder since his death last year. Their report now says Vanier had ‘manipulative and sexually abusive’ relationships with six women, some of them his assistants and others nuns, in France between 1970 and 2005. All of these took place because he was their spiritual adviser. The person they trusted, look up to, admired and saw as someone who would bring them closer to God in fact betrayed their trust and caused them lasting physical and mental damage.
This story is not unique. There are plenty of other examples of people who, from afar, seem great and praiseworthy but about whom we then discover things we’d rather not know that cut them down to size or make them outright repellent. ‘We’re all human’. ‘None of us looks that good close up and personal’ – you can just hear the sort of excuses we can all come out with when our heroes are shown in their true light and knocked off their pedestal. But the gospel writers need us to know that one person who’s walked this earth is definitely different. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth we’re not going to find rubbish swept under the carpet or bad stories from his past hushed up with a massive non-disclosure payment buying silence from those in the know. Jesus is both fully human and fully God’s son. He is worthy of every offering of respect, love, praise and loyalty we can bring to him. He is also continually bathed in love and care by God. That reality continues whatever happens to him, however much he may suffer at the hands of humanity and whether or not we ordinary mortals recognise who Jesus really is. He may look like one of us – in some senses he is one of us – but all the time he is also God’s son and faithfully answering to his Father in heaven.
The gospels of Mark, Luke and Matthew all give us a moment the theologians call the Transfiguration – an event when Jesus goes up a high mountain in the company of three disciples, Peter, James and John. There isn’t an exact parallel story in John’s gospel but some people quote verse fourteen from chapter 1 of John as his version of this: ‘So the Word became flesh; he made his home among us, and we saw his glory, such glory as befits the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.’ Some churches mark Transfiguration Sunday later in the Christian year but our readings pattern sits it here. It is the bridge between the season of Epiphany, following on from Christmas, and the start of Lent with Ash Wednesday this coming week. During Epiphany we have seen how the light shining in the world through the birth of Jesus spreads through his baptism, his calling of disciples and his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. In Lent we’ll discover how that light battles increasingly with darkness right up to and beyond the point of Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection.
This Transfiguration story has multiple layers of significance but it doesn’t grow more important by us trying to prove it point by point. Did it happen on Mount Tabor, in modern day Israel? The pilgrimage organisers would like us to think so, but there’s no evidence. Other mountains are mentioned and the debate continues. What does matter, though, is that this moment of revelation happens on a high mountain. Those are places where people have often encountered the presence of God. Jewish hearers of the gospel will know that it was on the mountain top that Moses, the great leader of God’s people who brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, communed with God and received the heart of the law, the Ten Commandments. The transfiguration story says that on the mountain top the disciples see Jesus bathed in bright light, his face radiating light, and that he’s accompanied by Moses and by Elijah with whom he seems to be talking. To be in the company of Moses confirms for us that Jesus is God’s new chosen one, the one who is here to bring people out of slavery into a new way of living and guide them as to how they can live well together. Having Elijah there too is a signal about standing in the line of the great prophets. Neither Elijah nor Moses, according to Jewish tradition, have a known burial place on earth. Elijah’s death is described in 2 Kings 2, with his body being dramatically taken up into heaven in a chariot of fire as his spirit of prophesy is handed on to his follower Elisha. If you don’t have a burial place, and your legacy lives on powerfully, there’s always a possibility you may return again. The presence of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the mountain top signifies their blessing on Jesus and his continuity in the line of leaders and prophets of old. If they’re with him then he’s really special and worthy of all our attention and worship. If all of this sounds strange and mysterious that’s fine too. ‘Tis mystery all’, as Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘And can it be’ wisely says of God’s grace.
The gospel writer wants us to see Jesus as the inheritor of the great tradition symbolised by Moses and Elijah, receiving God’s blessing and special commission, but that’s not all. In chapter three, when Jesus is baptized by John, he comes up out of the water to the opening of the heavens and the Spirit of God descends on him. A voice from heaven says: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight.’ On this occasion, on the mountain top, those words are repeated but with added significance. Now the disciples hear a voice saying: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight; listen to him.’ By this stage in his ministry Matthew’s gospel has shown us most of the teaching of Jesus. The disciples have had plenty of powerful things to listen to, showing them how Jesus has come to fulfil the law and call them to a new way of holiness. Do you know how it feels to be in a teaching session and have the sense that the speaker knows exactly when your attention is wandering off to something else? It’s as if God, through this incident, is calling us back to focus on what Jesus is saying and doing. How easy it is to let our hearts and minds wander. How long is it until Easter? Forty days! How can we be expected to keep focussing on God for that long! Surely there’s a quicker version of this journey, a short cut we can take, a way through to new life which doesn’t require of us all this concentration and energy.
Thankfully there’s personal concern and graceful touching on the mountain top too. The disciples fall on their faces in terror at the sound of the voice they hear. Jesus comes over, touches them and says: ‘Stand up; do not be afraid.’ Here is a safe, respectful touching from someone whose reliability and integrity we can truly rely on. Here are good words of reassurance too for us to hear at the start of Lent 2020. There’s plenty in the world for us to be frightened by just now. Political uncertainty is present in many places. Conflict continues to destabilise our world – in Syria and Yemen and elsewhere. The climate seems to be scarily unpredictable – floods, fires and sea level rises. Storms of locusts are destroying the crops in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Kenya. And to cap it all Coronavirus is a hidden threat which scares us even more. The safe touch of Jesus is what we need. Lent is not going to be an easy journey but we will do it together and in the company of Jesus, God’s chosen one. Let’s listen to him and let him reassure us that we do not need to be afraid.
Sunday 16th February 2020
Matthew 5: 21-37 and 1 Corinthians 3: 1-9
It’s fascinating the things people say to ministers based on what they think this way of life is like. In December people sympathise about your ‘busy time’, as if the rest of the year is a holiday camp. Before Trinity Sunday, which follows on after Pentecost, people in the know joke about ministers having a Sunday off so someone else can try to explain how God is ‘three persons’, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It’s as if they think it’s only the doctrine of the church that takes some unpacking. Spare a thought for everyone leading worship today who’s trying to wrestle with what Jesus says in this part of the Sermon on the Mount. There’s nothing of the lovely, poetry in the Beatitudes here. Jesus has also moved on fast from using the powerful images for his followers of being salt and light for the world. Here, we suddenly discover what he means by saying he hasn’t come to abolish the law but to complete it.
Like all good speakers, Jesus knows how to grab our attention with a repeating pattern. ‘You have heard’ is balanced by ‘But what I tell you is this’, several times. It isn’t that Jesus is telling the crowd to forget the Jewish law and listen only to what he says instead. After all, he’s already told them that nothing he says or does is intended to change even a letter or a dot of the law. Rather than forgetting the law he’s inviting them to go deeper into it so they start to understand the intention behind the commandments. Then they can begin to internalise ways of relating to God and one another that will transform community living for everyone. It’s not enough to say ‘Nobody got killed’ and wriggle off the hook when our malice and under the breath mutterings about one another are found out. Jesus says that bearing a grudge against someone, belittling another person or calling them names are enough to put us on trial too. Tom Wright puts it clearly: ‘Every time you decide to let your anger smoulder on inside you, you are becoming a little less than fully human. You are deciding to belittle yourself.’ Name calling and the venting of resentment are now even more rife than they were in the time of Jesus. Then it would have taken the form of long-standing family rivalries, trouble on the streets between the ruling authorities and citizens and domestic violence too. Now we have endless ways to get at one another, and to do so very publicly. People use social media to attack those they dislike or envy, near and far. The means are in our hands – the mobile phones so many of us carry. We can leave nasty messages for each other and hector from a distance without revealing who we are. The news shows the tragic results of these storms of criticism, when those subjected to judgement and pressure by thousands of invisible critics may even take their own lives as a way of escape. If only the suicide of former Love Island host Caroline Flack could be the last such death, but we know once the heat dies down people will forget the power of their words and others will be pushed beyond breaking point as she appears to have been.
Jesus is keen that religious gatherings should be based on reconciliation and truth, too. If you’re about to be holy – that is, if you’re in the temple and waiting to bring your sacrifice to the priest at the altar – you need to have made peace with those you’ve fallen out with first. Clearly it would be ridiculous if, having bought your lamb or pigeon in the temple at Jerusalem you then had to stop and walk back home to Capernaum in Galilee to knock on the door of your next door neighbour and apologise for the dispute you’ve been having with them for years about boundary walls. That would involve about a week’s worth or more of walking. Think of the queue behind you as the other worshippers waited for you to return, ready to proceed with your sacrifice! It’s another of Jesus’s tongue in cheek illustrations. Everyone who hears this teaching of Jesus knows he’s doing the normal rabbi trick of exaggeration to make his point. But the message is still strong and clear. We can’t focus solely on making our relationship with God look bright and shiny if there are dark, unresolved corners in the way we fail to get on with those around us. Not only that, in a passage which speaks powerfully to our culture of compensation claims, vexatious legal battles and endless wrangling about who is liable when something goes wrong, Jesus advises us to ‘come to terms’ quickly if someone has a claim against us. It sounds as if Jesus has plenty of experience of the damage people suffer as a result of getting caught up in lengthy and often unsatisfactory legal disputes. He knows that a good community isn’t one where people are always shouting ‘You’ll hear from me in court’ at one another, or threatening each other with a ‘letter from my lawyer’. That does nothing to build trust or healthy living. Remember, this passage of teaching in Matthew’s gospel starts with the Beatitudes talking of the poor in spirit, the sorrowful, the gentle, and hungry and thirsty ones, the merciful and those whose hearts are pure. How can we find a way of living, day by day, that allows us to be described like that? Here’s the answer. To work not just on our actions but on the thoughts and feelings that lie within us too. Then we won’t just say the right things – we’ll feel them.
If that sounds a very tall order for each of us as individuals then it is and always has been. That’s why we need one another’s help to get through the trials and challenges of trying to live in God’s way and learning to our love our neighbours no matter how annoying and troublesome they may be. This teaching has hardly been easy to hear so far. Now it’s about to get even more taxing. Jesus enters into the eternally difficult field of marital relationships. In an era long before ‘#metoo’ his teaching about family is radical and very unlike what the men in the crowd will have heard from anyone else at the time. That’s one important thing to remember here – no wonder he attracts so many female followers when he teaches this sort of thing. The society Jesus operates in is patriarchal, like all the others of his day. Against this background it’s amazing that Jesus says adultery is wrong and not only that – a man allowing himself to lust after someone else’s wife is just as bad. He also condemns those men who would divorce their wives for the most trivial of reasons, just so they could go off with the latest woman they’re attracted to. We live in a culture where it is possible for women to divorce men and seek refuge from abusive situations. In the time of Jesus women had no legal rights, no standing as individuals, and no way of defending themselves from unreasonable or violent husbands. The possibility of a husband divorcing his wife was a constant threat to women’s status and identity. As a divorced woman you would find yourself with nowhere to live, just the clothes you stood up in and no resources to feed yourself from. You would be dependent on the kindness of any family members or friends who might be willing to quietly support you, as you hid away from others because you could never again be a respectable woman.
As if all of this teaching were not enough Jesus ends with a flourish by forbidding the swearing of oaths. Just say what you mean and mean what you say is enough. God is not impressed by our posturing and declarations. God wants a totally different sort of accountability. Jesus is calling out the double standards and two facedness he sees around him – the victims and the victimisers – and encouraging us all to live the law in a new way from the inside out. Then we’ll begin to see the kingdom of heaven on earth – around us in the way we relate to one another each day. And wouldn’t that be something to shout from the rooftops about.
Sunday 9th February 2020
Isaiah 58: 1-9a and Matthew 5: 13-20
Whenever a new leader appears in any organisation there’s always likely to be a conversation about where they stand. Are they a continuity candidate – picking up where people before them left off – or a radical innovator who wants everyone and everything to look very different in the future? You see this sort of discussion going on every time a political party changes leadership, or a new senior health manager is put in charge, or a headteacher takes over in a large school. There’s likely to be lively debate about whose mantle they might be going to put on, whose legacy they may claim to carry forward, which predecessor’s shoes they may be stepping into. These questions matter a lot to people who either want things to stay as they are or are desperately hoping they’ll go off in a whole, new direction. They happen in religious groups too – all the time.
On our journey through Matthew’s gospel this year we’re currently hearing the major teaching of Jesus. For three whole chapters of the gospel, from chapter five to chapter seven, Matthew gives us a grand overall compilation album of all the preacher’s best hits. Because this is so important for understanding who Jesus is, and how significant his life and teachings are, the gospel writer puts this mega sermon very early on in the ministry of the young man from Nazareth. It’s gained the title the Sermon on the Mount but I don’t think anyone reading all of this imagines even the most patient of congregations would have stood out in the sun on the shores of Lake Galilee hearing all of this in one long, uninterrupted session. Last week we heard the opening verses of this teaching – a piece of poetic passage which is often called the Beatitudes because each phrase begins with the word ‘Blessed’.
Now, in today’s reading, the teaching switches tone fast from the deep, poetic way the Beatitudes make us look at life’s tragedies and triumphs in a whole new perspective to two very down to earth images for being a follower of Jesus – those of salt and light. Wherever you live, whenever you are alive, you can’t manage without these two everyday things. Salt is a basic element each one of us must have in our bodies. We need salt to help us to retain water, digest our food and use our muscles. If you live in a hot climate, as Jesus does, you know how vital it is to have supplies of salt around. The trouble is, you don’t know the saltiness of the white crystals you have in your hand until you try using them in your tasks of cooking, preserving meat and other food, and everyday cleaning and purifying. If the salt has become weak and feeble then it’s no use for anything and simply needs to be thrown away. It’s quite literally a waste of space.
What does it mean if we, who say we try to put Jesus at the centre of our lives today, have stopped being the salt of the earth and become something useless and only worthy of being chucked onto the rubbish heap? It’s a disturbing question to ask ourselves. Tom Wright, in his book about Matthew’s gospel, puts this very clearly: ‘How could God keep the world from going bad – the main function of salt in the ancient world – if Israel, his chosen ‘salt’, had lost its distinctive taste?’ For some people in the story of the church over two millennia the answer to what we’re here for has been that the Church is mainly here to worship God, to say prayers, read the scriptures, and encourage people to live with Jesus as their model for human existence. That sounds convincing on one level. It’s even quite impressive, up to a point, and all the amazing buildings which have been used over the centuries for Christian worship can make us feel good about what the Church has been doing all this time. But the question that this teaching of Jesus about salt leaves us with, the uncomfortable issue it leaves hanging unanswered, is what is supposed to happen to the rest of the world if the Church simply looks inward and wants to do its own, holy thing in a beautifully ordered way? Our salt then is carefully measured out in little containers, not left in a large pile in public where anyone and everyone can access it. If we’re only concerned with inner holiness not radical service you might question whether we are really living the gospel. You can’t read about Jesus in the gospels without being very aware of how much time he spends with unholy people. He’s for ever going out of his way to help those who’ve not set foot in the synagogue for decades and are not on anyone’s guest list in polite company. He also makes a speciality of being approachable for those people he shouldn’t be talking to at all – foreigners, non-Jews, beggars, women, those who are ill in body and mind, the outcasts and untouchables of his day. They seem to be drawn to him wherever he goes and he, for some strange reason, not only senses immediately who they are but is also willing to go towards them in an unthreatening, open-hearted way. If you know that model of mission and outreach when you hear these words about being salt you can’t easily imagine that a church which is only concerned about itself is doing the job God wants of us. As he gave this teaching Jesus could see just how far the Jewish people of his day had strayed from God’s original hope and aim for them. By promising to be their God, and offering them a covenant relationship, God had stayed faithful to them throughout centuries of mistakes, broken promises and downright betrayal on their part. It would be no surprise if God were now wondering if the gift he’d given them was ever going to be shared properly with the whole world.
Good preachers use a variety of illustrations – it increases the possible hit rate for changing people’s hearts and minds. If being described as salt doesn’t mean much to you then what about the idea of being ‘light for all the world’? Surely that would ring bells with the audience in Galilee when they hear these words from Jesus. They would know at once that he is quoting to them from the prophets of old. He’s reminding them of the message from God which they and their ancestors have been very good at forgetting over the centuries – the message we heard again today from Isaiah chapter 58. If you answer God’s call to live out your holiness through practical acts of justice, kindness, compassion and care for others then ‘your light will breath forth like the dawn.’ There’s also the passage we often hear before Christmas from Isaiah chapter two, in which God calls the people of Israel to gather all peoples to the mountain of the Lord, in a world of peace and harmony. ‘Come, people of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord.’ Perhaps most well known of all is the promise of a future Messiah in Isaiah chapter 9, which starts: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a land as dark as death a light has dawned.’ It shouldn’t be a surprise for any faithful Jew to hear Jesus talking about the role of God’s people to be light for others. There’s only a few minutes for us to preen ourselves, though, and imagine our community as a light on a hill, because Jesus quickly goes to the other extreme with his next image. Instead of being that sort of light for others you lot have become more like a lamp under a basket, its light shielded and cut off from anyone who might otherwise benefit. What a shame that God’s people should fall into a pattern of cutting people off from contact with God in this way. None of us can claim to be innocent of this offense, no matter how open hearted and minded our welcome for others is. We all of us still have inner filters that stop us from extending the light of God’s love as far as it needs to go into the darkness of our world. The risk of cutting people off from the light is always there and it’s most dangerous when we’re trying to be nice, holy followers of Jesus who don’t let our carpets get wet, our walls scratched and our lives disrupted by awkward people who don’t understand how good we’re being in letting them over our threshold.
If we, and those first century listeners, have been hearing Jesus properly then we shouldn’t be surprised to hear the third point of today’s sermon from Jesus. He is the continuity candidate after all. He is not here to throw out any babies with the bath water. He is here to continue the same message of love, forgiveness, covenant relationship and mutual faithfulness which God has been offering to people from the beginning of time. There is nothing new here. It’s just like one of those old masters in the hands of a good restorer. Jesus is taking the accumulated dust, dirt, and varnish of the centuries off the law of God and making us see it fresh, as on the day when it was first understood and put into words and codes by the children of Israel centuries earlier. The surprises and challenges of the Sermon on the Mount are not over yet by any means but we’ve got plenty of homework as salt and light for others to put into action in the next week. To be continued.
Sunday 2nd February 2020
Micah 6: 1-8 and Matthew 5: 1-12
With the recent death of Terry Jones, founding member of Monty Python, writer, historian, comedian and all round impressive human being according to those who knew him, we’ve seen quite a few references to his role in the 1979 film The Life of Brian. Jones plays Brian’s mum. The first century Jewish crowds have got the idea that Brian is the Messiah, God’s chosen one, and there are hundreds of them crowded outside the house where Brian lives. His mother arrives and announces from Brian’s bedroom window the memorable words: ‘He’s not the Messiah! He’s a very naughty boy. Now go away.’ In all the controversy the film caused, and the accusations of blasphemy which still occasionally come up even now, I think we overlook how brilliant the film is. It impressively shows us the frenzied, restless, unstable background which really was there in first century Palestine under Roman occupation. It’s also brilliant in the way it reveals how desperately the ordinary people were searching for a new leader to latch onto – not an oppressor, a temple official, or someone paid by outside powers and with a hidden agenda – but someone authentic, who’s on their side not on their backs.
The writer of Matthew’s gospel also tells us a lot about the way things were in the villages and towns of first century Palestine. He knows how people were searching for a saviour to transform their lives and secure a different future for them. Before today’s reading from the start of chapter 5 we’ve had the birth story of Jesus, his baptism by John the Baptist and his temptations in the wilderness. Already he’s called two sets of brothers to be his disciples. Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John have been following him throughout Galilee as he teaches in synagogues, heals the sick and gathers crowds from all sides of the Sea of Galilee, from Jerusalem and Judaea and from Transjordan, over the river to the south east. His fame has even spread up north to Syria, the gospel says. The stage is set for the first episode of set piece teaching in Matthew – a sermon which fills three chapters and is full of amazing new things about people’s relationship with God and each other. Where do you set a big speech in any drama? You go for somewhere impressive, with enough room to fit in the people who need to hear it. Matthew sets this teaching of Jesus on a mountain and, since the gospel has told us Jesus is in Galilee, the Christian Church and more recently the Israeli tourist board have decided which piece of land near the coast best fits the bill. I don’t think for a minute that Jesus actually said all these things at one time and in one piece of teaching. This is an expert summary of his entire sermon archive, as remembered later by his close followers and kept alive among them by word of mouth until the gospel was written down. That was probably in the second half of the first century, a generation or more after the death and resurrection of Jesus. There’s enough material here for a year’s worth of sermons at least.
Before we start looking at what Jesus says in Matthew chapter five there’s another question to consider first. What do religious bodies do when what they hear from God is too much to take? They try to domesticate the message, to calm it down and take away its power and impact. The Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount is often shown in religious art as reflective and peaceful. This is not the sort of saviour who is going to say anything challenging, radical, controversial or dangerous. His words and actions surely don’t need to be monitored by undercover visitors from Jerusalem or agents of the local powers that be. Hang on a minute, though. In that case how is it that within a very short period of time this young rabbi from Nazareth is going to get himself onto the radar of the state authorities wherever he goes? Why, within three years, will Jesus be labelled as public enemy number one by the Jewish authorities from the temple in Jerusalem and end his life dying an painful death on a cross, the ultimate torture weapon of Roman rule in troublesome parts of the empire?
The real message of the Sermon on the Mount, when it’s not being defused and toned down by the Church or anyone else, is nothing short of world changing. The hymn we sing, ‘O Lord, all the world belongs to you’, puts this brilliantly – the teaching of Jesus is ‘turning the world upside down’. Everyone knows, surely, that getting on in life and being successful is a good thing. Many of us also assume, and people have taken this view down the ages, that it’s also a sign of being boosted by some sort of external force, however you describe this. People talk about others being blessed, though perhaps fewer of them really know what they mean by that or if God has anything at all to do with this. But Jesus is saying completely the opposite. Not that success and riches and everything you’ve ever wanted lined up on a plate are proof God is looking kindly on you. Quite the reverse. When your emotional reserves are on empty, when you can’t stop the tears, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, when your efforts to bring about harmony are failing, when standing up for justice is causing you to become a target yourself – when any of these signs of failures and collapse add up to tip you over the edge then you’ll find God there already in the pain, holding you and willing to live alongside you in all that’s happening. That’s the upside down world of the blessings Jesus speaks about here.
The Message translation puts it this way: ‘You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. In his commentary on Matthew’s gospel Tom Wright translates ‘blessed’ another way: ‘Wonderful news for the poor in spirit! Wonderful news for the mourners! Wonderful news for the meek!’ He warns against thinking that Jesus is preaching this sermon to show us how to live properly. ‘These blessings are not Jesus telling us “try hard to live this this”. They are saying that people who already are like that are in good shape. They should be happy and celebrate.’ That’s something of a relief for those of us who hear the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus demanding impossible things of us in the face of life’s overwhelming challenges and tough demands. That’s a comforting message for those times when find the pressures of life sending us into a downward spiral. There are always some people around who wrongly think disasters and sadness must be God must be trying to punish people for mistakes and failings. God doesn’t operate like that and Jesus wants us to know this. He’s reassuring us that living as faithful followers of his is no guarantee bad things won’t happen to us but when they do we will be able to discover God in whatever we’re facing.
One writer talks about blessing meaning being in the right relationship with God and suggests hearing these surprising statements a little differently: ‘You’re in the right place when you’re poor in spirit’. Charles Elliott, director of Christian Aid in the 1980s, goes on: ‘How can that possibly be the “right place”? It is the right place because it makes no claims on anyone, not even on God. And it is then that God’s offer of love and wholeness, for the individual and the community, can be accepted. As it is accepted so the richness of the offer is revealed.’
Why does this, and other teaching of Jesus build up as such a big threat to the pharisees, the scribes, the Jewish leaders and so many of those who initially are drawn towards him and later end up rejecting him? It’s almost as though, to rewrite where we came in, once they begin to understand how radical his teaching really is some of them end up saying with fatal consequences: ‘He is the Messiah and he’s a very naughty boy’. They can’t take his disturbing new take on God’s love which enters into the mess of our human lives and is not afraid of the darkness and pain. Failure, disaster, hurt, disease and the rest are NOT signs of God’s absence but seen in this upside down way they are radical opportunities to see the Kingdom of Heaven sneaking into our broken lives, subverting the power structures, ideas and ways of the world, and bringing in a new God centred way of seeing everything.
Sunday 19th January 2020
Isaiah 49: 1-7 and John 1: 29-42
Welcome to one Sunday of the year when we celebrate and live out what it means to be Reformed Christians in a very clear and obvious way. Today we’ll be ordaining Anne Brander to be an Elder and inducting her into that role along with Nicola Moss, Fiona Wood and Richard Wood (no relation) who are taking up Eldership again. They’ll all serve for three years which is the length of time we’ve decided on here in our Church Meeting. Anne’s already been to her first Elders meeting and is getting her head around the way we organise our life together but today is what really makes her an Elder. This is the moment when we will pray for her and ask God’s blessing on this new service she’s offering among us. Some of us might be thinking this is a good demonstration of our way of doing and being church – that we agree things together rather than the minister or anyone else with a dog collar telling us what to do. But we’d be wrong. And today’s gospel reading shows very clearly what’s really happening not just today but whenever we do things as followers of Jesus.
Our reading is just a few verses after the very beautiful and mysterious prologue to John’s gospel – the passage which we so often read just before Christmas but don’t often have time to explain then. ‘In the beginning the Word already was. The Word was in God’s presence, and what God was, the Word was.’ This scene setting passage tells us that the Word of God is also life and light, that the darkness can’t master the light and that someone called John testified to others about the light shining from God’s Word. Not everybody recognised or understood God’s Word though and even his own people would not accept him. God’s Word, Jesus Christ the son of God, would be a leader in the line of Moses the lawgiver bringing us grace and truth. So the stage is set for the story to begin and immediately in verse 19 the first scene of John’s gospel finds us with someone called John by the bank of the river Jordan. He’s having a highly charged conversation with a group of priests, Pharisees and Levites. They’ve been sent out from the temple in Jerusalem to see just who he is and what he thinks he’s up to baptizing people. Where’s his authority coming from? When did a first century Temple External Ministries Validation Committee give him the authority to do this? All John will say is there’s someone else due to appear, someone hidden in plain sight among them. This unnamed stranger will follow on from John. He will have a much higher level of significance in God’s eyes. ‘You think you’ve got a problem with me. You haven’t seen anything yet.’ So ends day one of the story with deliberate echoes of the Genesis story in the Hebrew scriptures when God separates light from darkness and declares the light is good.
Day two in John’s gospel new creation house. We are still by the river Jordan and there’s another act of separation about to take place. In the creation story on day two the waters are separated into a vault above the earth and a vault beneath it. In this new version on day two Jesus steps out from his place among the crowd by the river and walks towards John in full view of everyone. It’s at this moment of epiphany that the gospel writer has John declaring a new title for Jesus. This man, John says, is ‘The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.’ We need to work out what we are we to make of this strange title. It helps to know that John’s gospel was almost certainly the last of the four gospels to be written down and that it tells the story of Jesus in a totally different way from the other three. The writer also seems to assume that we know the standard version of Jesus’ life already, from other sources like Mark, Matthew and Luke’s accounts. That’s why we’ll be able to cope with this alternative version without needing lots of scene setting and explanation. Why is Jesus the Lamb of God? I think we’re being pointed back again to the story of an earlier great leader, Moses, who led God’s people the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. They were to prepare for their great escape by eating a Passover meal the night before, feasting in a very clearly planned way on the meat of an unblemished lamb. The Passover lamb is a meal about freedom and deliverance. It’s not about a sacrifice made because of sins. Reading John’s gospel this way you can see the title ‘Lamb of God’ being given to Jesus to highlight him as God’s new leader bringing us to freedom. The only difference – and it’s a huge one – is that this time the deliverance is for everyone. Remember those earlier verses from John chapter one: ‘He came to his own, and his own people would not accept him. But to all who did accept him, to those who put their trust in him, he gave the right to become children of God.’ This new inclusive Covenant embodied in Jesus replaces the old Covenant with the children of Israel which they saw as exclusive to them alone.
As if day two hadn’t already had enough going on we also hear from John that he’s baptised Jesus – in a scene we haven’t shared – and that God’s Spirit came to rest on Jesus at the moment of baptism. The word used which we translate here as ‘rest’ is also the word in John’s gospel used to mean ‘remaining’, putting down roots and saying ‘here’s the place I call home’. In a few brief verses the gospel’s told us a whole lot more about this mysterious individual John’s been waiting for. We need a rest and time to get our breath back. Go home, have a sleep and see what tomorrow will bring. John’s gospel is still only at verse thirty four after all.
Day three dawns and more separation and distinction happens, mirroring the creation myth further. Two of John’s disciples go over to follow Jesus instead. One of them, Andrew, goes off to find his brother Simon Peter and he brings him to Jesus who gives him a new name, Peter, the Rock. The titles Rabbi and Messiah appear on the lips of some of the group gathering around the man John calls ‘God’s Chosen One’. If you were writing the music score for this film you would need something dramatic in the background by this stage of the story to show how the drama is building amazingly fast and to make sure nobody can take their eyes off the screen.
I’ve gone into detail on this passage of scripture today because I felt called to unpack some of its riches for a reason. Sometimes churchy folk think doing things the way we do is our idea and people have always done things this way. When we fall into that way of seeing things the big risk is that we conveniently forget what God’s up to in and through us. We also fail to recognise what God has been doing and will do in the future long after all of us have handed over our church keys and stopped being on rotas. These opening verses of John’s gospel show us very powerfully that it’s God initiative that matters. We may think we’ve decided to do something when we agree to let our name go forward for a particular role or put someone else’s name on a nomination sheet. In fact God is the one who calls and who chooses us not the other way around. It is in conversation with Jesus that Andrew, Simon Peter and the others recognise God’s call on their lives. They discover, in the process, that God in Jesus knows all there is to know about them and loves them with a strength and gentleness they can’t possibly get their heads around entirely. All they know, at the end of day three, is that this the person they want to be with. ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ We don’t want to let you out of our sight. You’ve appeared out of nowhere. Now we’ve found you we want to be with you.
We’ve also discovered together that God’s Spirit makes a home in Jesus at his baptism. When we try to do holy things together – making a church member, ordaining an elder, ordaining a minister, baptizing, sharing bread and wind in communion – we invite God’s Spirit to come and make a home within us too. And the outcome is a new community, gathered around the Jesus, the Son of Man, the Lamb of God, source of light and life. The minister and Elders are, we believe, called by God to serve and lead in the same way Jesus has modelled for us. God chooses us, equips us with the Spirit, and brings us together to build up the life of God’s people. All that, and John’s gospel has only got to the end of day three! This is going to be an epic journey.
Sunday 12th January 2020
Isaiah 42: 1-9 and Matthew 3: 13-17
Our journey through Matthew’s gospel continues this week as we find ourselves transported from last week’s Epiphany scenes. Then we were travelling from Persia with the wise men, students of the stars, to find the new-born King of the Jews and offer him worship. We saw up close and personal the threat posed to Jesus and his family by the insecure, violent Jewish ruler King Herod. We saw how Matthew’s birth account acts as a trailer for the story to come. We saw how the gospel writer’s focus on Jesus as bringing light, purity, hope and love from God signals a new start for the whole world. We recognised that the light of Jesus is not for Jews alone but for anyone and everyone who wants to come towards it. This is something new – putting into action the promises of the prophets of old, who foresaw that the nation of Israel had a special part to play in God’s plans to bring people of all nations and races together in worship around a source of light for everyone.
Today’s gospel passage takes the story years ahead and puts us in very new surroundings. We are not in the palace, the temple or the streets of Jerusalem and not in a house in Bethlehem either. We are in the Judaean wilderness, a place the scriptures associate with trying to find God. The wilderness is a barren, lonely and unforgiving place. It’s blistering hot by day and cold at night. It’s a tough place to survive because there’s little to eat and scant sources of water. You only go to the wilderness for two reasons – either you’re running away from things and people you can’t handle or you have a real desire to meet God in a place where there’s no obvious distractions to get in the way. The Hebrew scriptures show us many stories of people of all kinds, including prophets, who escape to the wilderness and discover they can’t control what will happen to them once there. Moses and the Israelites enter the wilderness on their escape from slavery in Egypt because it’s a place of safety from those who might want to take them back to serve Pharaoh. They soon find the challenges of learning to worship God properly together and of surviving in terms of food and water in this barren, unforgiving place. When they rely on God’s help and listen to Moses things go well. When they make their own plans and listen to other leaders things go badly. No wonder it takes them two generations – 40 years – before God judges them ready to enter the promised land. All the lessons the wilderness can teach are summed up in the way being there can build our relationship with God. Left with nobody else to rely on, and no distractions, the wilderness can teach us how to rely on God for our needs both practical and spiritual. Go away on holiday with family or friends and you soon discover who you can trust to read your mood, understand what you’d like to do next, and be a good, relaxing companion. In the wilderness we build our closeness to God as a companion. As we grow in trust we can test and deepen our bond with God, discovering his reliable and comforting presence in the bad as well as the good times.
In Matthew, chapter 3, John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus has been in the wilderness before announcing his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you!’ He’s drawn visitors from Jerusalem, Judaea and the Jordan valley. They’ve come to see the spectacle by the riverbank, as penitent people follow John into the water and are washed clean confessing their sins. They’ve also seen John giving a strong verbal going over to those Pharisees and Sadducees who’ve come for baptism. He’s scathing in questioning their motivation. ‘What are you doing here? Who told you about baptism for forgiveness? What makes you think you’re the first born of Abraham – the big players in God’s story?’ Someone else is due to come after him, John says, someone who is mightier than he is and who he’s unworthy to serve in the most menial ways such as removing his sandals. His baptism is not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is going to sort out the true believers from those going through the motions, the wheat from the chaff. Sit up and listen. Keep your eyes open for his arrival. The stage is set for the entrance of this mysterious, unnamed figure.
Prepare for another moment of epiphany, of special revelation from God. It’s at this moment that Matthew’s gospel first introduces us to the adult Jesus, arriving by the Jordan river from Galilee and approaching John for baptism. We are given no details of the life he’s lived since, as a small child, his family were forced into refugee status in Egypt to protect their special child from Herod’s jealousy. There’s a parallel the gospel writer wants us to spot between the return home of the former slaves, who enter the promised land after the death of Moses from the wilderness by crossing the river Jordan. Here, Jesus the new embodiment of Israel, enters his public ministry from the wilderness by the banks of the Jordan. Jesus is the new Moses – the new leader, the new channel for God’s guidance and teaching, the new one to watch. He may not look very significant, this young man from Nazareth, but John the Baptist recognises at once that he is the one everyone has been waiting for. And that Jesus, of all people, doesn’t need baptism for forgiveness.
I think our first possible lesson from this week’s reading relates to the question why does Jesus get baptised? Why does he tell his cousin this must happen to fulfil what God requires? The gospel writer wants us to see Jesus submitting to what he understands to be God’s purposes from the very first moment we meet him. The first words we hear from his lips are about doing what God wants so other people can see faith in action. He knows it’s important for people to watch him going down below the waters of the Jordan and coming up washed clean, as they have done. Sometimes in life we know something may not be strictly necessary but we go through with it because of the significance it has for others. It helps them to move forward. It allows other things to happen. Jesus is not worried about justifying himself. He’s no need to have a public discussion with John about his personal purity. He doesn’t have to demonstrate his superiority by agreeing with John’s misgivings and becoming the baptiser himself. He goes ahead with baptism by John as a sign of obedience to God.
The second lesson I draw from this passage is about where things happen. I like to know the place I’m going to be in for a special moment, so I can prepare how I’ll speak and behave much better in my imagination. Surely you wouldn’t want the wilderness as the place to launch a public, worldwide ministry? It’s away from other people, inhospitable, empty and uncomfortable. That things start for Jesus in this place, on the margins, in the place inhabited by people who are dispossessed, restless, outcast and spiritually searching, tells us a lot about the ministry Jesus has ahead of him. We’re not called to choose our favourite place as the one where we serve God. We must be willing to go where God wants and needs things to happen.
Finally, this story tells us something about God’s approval and how it comes. The gospel tells us a dove descends – a sign of peace – and a voice from heaven says: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight.’ It’s not exactly a dramatic speech – more a word of reassurance and calm pleasure from God. There is nothing Hollywood going on here, no choirs of the heavenly hosts or earth splitting tremors beneath people’s feet. I think of the words of the hymn which speaks of the voice of Jesus as contentment and his presence as balm. There is a lot of painful, dramatic, heavy going, demanding, ministry ahead for Jesus. God, his heavenly Father and ours, simply expresses gentle, warm delight in the moment. We don’t need millions of followers on twitter to tell us we’ve done something good. God’s quiet, undramatic approval can sometimes fill our hearts and minds and reassure us we’re on the right track.
Sunday 5th January 2020 (Epiphany Eve)
Isaiah 60: 1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12
A new year has started and we’re off on the next round of whatever lies in store for each one of us in the months to come. In all the tidying up from Christmas – the church tree will be taken down and the decorations and lights put away for another year very soon now – it’s easy for us to forget Epiphany, the other great Christian festival which happens tomorrow. An epiphany is a moment when something is seen clearly. It’s the big reveal moment of the story – the instant when the disguises fall to the ground, the lights get turned on full and we’re suddenly able to see the true identity of those in front of us. For the early church the festival of epiphany was all about celebrating the baptism of Jesus. It is during this moment, at the start of his public ministry, that for the first time the adult Jesus is seen by others beyond his close family to be God’s special one, God’s son, the Messiah. Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost were the big three celebrations of the Christian church year for the first Christians. It wasn’t until early in the fourth century when it was decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus as well, with a Christ Mass communion to coincide with the winter solstice. Over time, we’ve come to associate Epiphany more with the final episode of the Christmas story, the arrival of wise men from the east, which has attached itself more strongly to the festival than the baptism story. Matthew’s telling of these events flags up very strongly the themes the gospel writer is going to be telling us about over the rest of this church year. The start of chapter two is like a trailer for the main story we’re going to be seeing. It whets our appetite for the big drama and themes to look out for as the life of Jesus unfolds, and gets us tuned in to the perspective Matthew is bringing to his version of the good news about Jesus Christ.
Turn up the colour and brightness on the screen because exotic characters from ‘lands afar’ are about to enter. In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus there have been no Roman census, no overcrowded lodgings in Bethlehem, no heavenly hosts giving messages in the middle of the night and no arrival of unannounced shepherds to see the new baby and tell anyone who will listen what an exciting moment this is. Instead we have magi, visitors from the east, whose studies of the stars have led them to believe a special event is happening over in Palestine. According to Tom Wright’s commentary on Matthew’s gospel there were three times in the year 7 BC when the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. Jupiter was associated by people with royalty and Saturn with the Jews. It wouldn’t have been a big leap for an astrologer or astronomer (making predictions from the stars and studying their movements were the same thing at this time) to guess that the bright star over Palestine could indicate a new birth of Jewish royalty. So far so good. But here these wise men from Persia – probably followers of Zoroastrianism – take a wrong turn with their camel train. They decide, perhaps not surprisingly but very dangerously, to go to Jerusalem to find out the meaning of the bright light in the east they’ve been drawn to explain. In doing so they unwittingly enter the most dangerous place they could possibly choose to go. At this stage in the story we might just notice that Matthew hasn’t given us any time frame for what’s happening. With Luke’s version we know the first visitors arrive to greet the newborn child on the very night of Jesus’ birth. If these magi have had to cover the distance from faraway Persia they will have been on the road for weeks if not months by this stage. The images of shepherds on one side and magi on the other which we see in old masters and put together in our Christmas cards and nativity scenes aren’t at all like the story as Matthew conveys it.
As the visitors enter the capital city they should pick up the signals of anxiety and stress fast, even if they’ve walked into the trap without noticing the risk. Their first words are not the wisest way to introduce themselves in a place where they’re strangers and don’t know the ropes: ‘Where is the new-born king of the Jews? We observed the rising of his star, and we have come to pay him homage.’ Do they think there’s a new baby in the palace, a son of Herod the king, and they’re the first ones to know about it? Surely they know that issues about who is going to succeed to the throne next, and who’s the legitimate heir of the king or queen on the throne at the time, are the biggest causes of murder, intrigue and upheaval in public leadership all across the nations at this point in history. If they’re really so naïve as to think their question is perfectly innocent then they’re about to find out the error of their ways fast. Like all oppressive dictators, Herod is jumpy and insecure. It doesn’t take much to get him on edge and as Matthew tells us very clearly when Herod is disturbed all the other people in Jerusalem need to be on their guard too because they’re at risk as well. ‘Watch out – he’s dangerous in this mood.’
Hats off to the chief priests and scribes who are asked to go away and check the records who confirm – however shaky their voices – that Bethlehem not Jerusalem is the place where the prophets foretell the Messiah will be born. They at least are being honest unlike Herod who tells the magi to come back from their visit via his palace so he too, in due course, can pay homage to the new king. As if…
In the final scene of the story the magi do arrive, find Jesus and his family and truly pay homage to him. They show their recognition that this is a very significant child and present from their treasure chests gold, frankincense and myrrh – exactly the sort of presents you give to someone royal. That image is one the gospel writer wants us to remember from the trailer. Do you ever do that when you’re watching a film? You get to a moment you saw in the trailer and think ‘I know what it means now’ when you see it in the context of the whole film? This image of those visitors kneeling before the baby and presenting their gifts, signifies for the gospel writer and for us the whole world recognising the significance of this small, unknown baby in Bethlehem. The real king of the Jews is a vulnerable baby and he is hidden in plain sight of King Herod. Herod would gladly kill Jesus if he got the chance. There are just a few miles between them. It’s not as if Bethlehem is the back of beyond in relation to Jerusalem but insecure Herod would rather stay safe in his palace than go and hunt himself. He’s given his visitors from the east instructions to come back and tell him how to find the baby so he too can go and pay homage.
The magi, thankfully, are not that gullible. They have learned something. They have seen something of light, purity and hope in this family and the new little boy and have decided to protect the family of Jesus by not returning to Herod and going home another way. They fail to give Herod directions as to how to find the child. Notice that Matthew hasn’t actually given us any timescale for this story. As you read on in the gospel you see that Herod recognises he’s not found the child and later orders all baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem are to be killed. This suggests that the visit of the magi and the slaughter of the innocents as we sometimes call it could well be taking place at some time in the first two years of Jesus’s life, not immediately at the time of his birth.
In all the events that are going o unfold in the gospel that baby is going to grow into an adult who brings before people a special sense of God’s presence and light and love and draws from them, surprising them as it happens, a sense of a desire to bow the knee and honour God within this person they meet. People are going to get from Jesus a sense of brightness, light, blue skies and joy in living which will be in contrast to what’s happening a few miles away in Herod’s palace in the darkness and the shadows, the deception, lies and intrigue and the choices that are made without God at the heart of them contrary to God’s purposes. All of that battle between light and darkness is going to carry on playing out throughout Matthew’s gospel.
But that isn’t all there is. There’s one another major, amazing thing that Matthew is setting up for us in this trailer which is that Jesus has been born King of the Jews but not just for the Jews alone. This is the king who is there for everyone. Jesus is someone who will draw people to him and who at the end of his ministry will send out his disciples to take the good news to all nations – not just to those who are like us, not just to those who seem to have been born in the right place or have the right genealogy but to anyone and everyone.
It’s a story with global relevance. It begins in a very small and apparently hidden way in a particular place with a limited number of individuals who actually go home again. What has happened to those magi? We have no idea. But they symbolise in Matthew’s gospel those who have encountered something new about God’s love through Jesus. The empire, of course, is going to strike back. It always does. But the battle will go on – the battle between light and darkness. And the New Testament story which Matthew is going to unfold for us is how Jesus draws together a new family, a new community, honouring God and open to all with eyes to see and ears to hear.
Sunday 15th December 2019
Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Matthew 11: 2-11
As former prime minister Harold Wilson once memorably said, ‘A week is a long time in politics.’ If you’re one of those people who takes a great deal of interest in the state of the nation, and the role of the government, you’ll have had a busy time in the past seven days trying to keep up with events. On the other hand if you’re someone who says: ‘No matter what I do or say the people who run the world just get on with doing their thing. Nothing the politicians have promised or lied about or threatened is going to make much difference in the end to me and mine.’ then you’re hoping all the fuss will die down now so you can get on with life uninterrupted.
There’s a lot of political background to today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel and it helps to know this because over recent weeks we’ve been skipping around in the story in a rather confusing way. Last week we were with John the Baptist alongside the river Jordan, as he calls on people to change their lives and relationship with God, symbolizing that by washing them clean in the water. In chapter three of Matthew’s gospel John appears in the Judean wilderness in the clothes of a prophet and behaves like a latter-day Elijah. His preaching demands a response from those who listen. Things can’t go on as they are. He warns people of God’s anger over their behaviour and calls on them to bear good fruit in the future. He announces that one is coming after him who will baptise them not with water but ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’. Now, today, we skip on to Matthew chapter 11 by which time the gospel has shown us a lot about Jesus. We’re clear now that we’re meeting John’s ‘one who comes after me’, and that Jesus is doing the saying the sort of things that show God is working powerfully through him. Why, then, is John the Baptist in any doubt that Jesus is God’s chosen one, the Messiah, the promised one? What’s going on when John sends his own disciples to ask: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ It helps to know that by this point John is being held in prison because his ministry is seen as a political threat exposing the Jewish puppet ruler Herod’s own faults and abuses of power. Cut off from news and deprived of freedom, as John is by this stage, he could be wondering if he’s got things wrong in seeing Jesus as the one God has sent. Alternatively, John could be sending his disciples with a question to give Jesus a fresh platform for saying who he is. What’s more interesting than the motive is the question.
John the Baptist’s message to his cousin from prison gives us permission openly to acknowledge the questions we all share, at different times, about the identity and reality of Jesus. We can be kept in virtual prison by different events in our lives, feeling ourselves to be deprived of news, unsure about who to trust, forgotten by the world and deeply stressed as to where we’re headed in the future. When all or some of this happens to us we can start to wonder if all the things we thought we could believe and trust in about Jesus were actually illusory. If we’ve made one, great, ridiculous mistake in taking a step of faith, calling Jesus ‘Lord’ and putting our hand in his then in times of darkness and loss of confidence we need to know that for sure. It would be earth shattering to discover this, but better that than continuing to put our trust in a charlatan, a purveyor of empty promises, a confidence trickster, a liar and a cheat. Is Jesus the one or should we go back to looking for another saviour? There are plenty of options around. We could follow another faith leader, a political leader, a philosopher, an outstanding entertainer, an inspirational sports coach, a top economist, an environmental champion, a great writer or artist. Why should we stay with Jesus of Nazareth? When we’re in this frame of mind and questioning the truth about Jesus it’s the challenge of the way he behaves that can be as off putting and disturbing for us as it always has been for his followers over the centuries. Why does he choose, so unreasonably, to emphasise love and renewal over judgement and condemnation? We would like him to side-line and point the finger at those whom we feel undermined, misunderstood and bullied by. It would be easier to believe in him if he were not so radically willing to receive a whole load of other people, not of our choosing and not to our personal taste, into God’s kingdom. It would allow us a quieter life if his clear-eyed understanding of us, his ability to see into our real thoughts and feelings, were not so unsettling in its effects. It’s one thing to become a disciple. It’s quite another to find ourselves being changed in the process – being challenged to let go of our bad habits, being loved into a new openness, mercy and patience, having the blinkers and prejudices and resistance to ideas and people we’ve had for so long questioned and lovingly subverted. Above all, when we’re in prison in faith terms, we wish Jesus’s way of loving were not so powerfully simple and deeply unsettling. When we can’t even love ourselves in the right way how can we learn to love our enemies and do good to those who would harm us?
The disciples of John the Baptist get their answer loud and clear. ‘Tell him,’ Jesus says in effect, ‘that the blind are given back their sight, the lame walk again, the lepers are healed, the deaf get back their hearing, the dead are raised to life and the oppressed and wretched people at the bottom of the pile discover that God is on their side not on their backs.’ These are the signs of the Messiah at work, of God acting, speaking, healing and transforming the world through the hands and feet, the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. John’s question is answered conclusively but not, perhaps, in the way he expects.
The challenge now, for us, is to see how and where God is at work in, around and through us bringing signs of his rule breaking through into the here and now. This can confirm for us that Jesus has been at work in our communities, helping us to trust that God will continue to be with us in the future. Here are some of my pieces of good news, evidence of God’s rule breaking into our experience to bring new life, healing, hope and right relationships.
One thing that has been very powerfully present in recent trustee meetings for Source Youthwork has been the sharing of good news by Matt Williamson, Gemma Tuson and Jo Stansby and by those who volunteer regularly in the after school and evening cafes. It’s not always possible to know what a big change is, in the life of a young person, and you need to understand their story to appreciate when things are moving. Up close and personal we hear stories of those who are changing their behaviour, adjusting their view of the world, discovering gifts within them and learning how to support others in new ways. Very often change happens slowly. It’s only when a crisis comes – when one youngster blows their top and the others in the group help to pick up the pieces and support those who have to handle things – that you can see how some of them have matured and grown.
It was a real moment of joy for many of us to have been able to bring all of that together here on Tuesday night, with the Christmas celebration and community carols held with Wilmslow High School in the presence of the school choir, the school band, staff, pupils, parents and volunteers and friends of Wilmslow Youth, of this church and Life Church Wilmslow. How long had that event been in the making? At a quick guess 10 years – and the rest. There’s many years of praying and hoping, of networking and reaching out behind that short hour of carols, readings and sharing. And it won’t end there. There’s already talk of another one next year.
Then there’s the individuals and families that are touched by the love and welcome of Thursday Tots, of Messy Church, of Monday Fellowship, of the badminton group, the gardeners team, the quilters, the Luncheon Club and the undercroft café. The list goes on and the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ gets beautifully blurred when you start to think about it. People’s lives are being touched by God’s love through us. It’s good news. It has a history because this hasn’t happened overnight and it’s the bearing of fruit from seeds planted years ago. It has a ‘here and now’, in-the-present quality for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It has a future too – one we can’t clearly predict but which has new partnerships, new opportunities, new joys and challenges ahead for us all.
Sunday 8th December 2019
Isaiah 11: 1-10 and Matthew 3: 1-12
If you can believe the opinion polls the word is that lots of voters in this General Election are still undecided. I wonder if we’ve grown reluctant to tell pollsters what we really think about things – not trusting the voice on the end of the phone any longer, or the person who’s apparently sent you an email, is just one of the signs of undermined trust that’s grown a lot more significant in recent years. We know that information is power, too, and that those who manipulate what we tell them are hard to shout down. By sharing information about where we live, where we bank, or what we think about some major issue, we’re giving someone a tool they may abuse to damage us or to argue a case we don’t agree with. Perhaps it’s understandable that so many people now feel disenchanted about politics in general. Feeling you can’t trust others is not a good experience. It makes you look at the whole of life differently. It takes the shine off even happy moments, undermines our hope and makes us doubt whether what we’ve worked for and invested in matters at all.
There is plenty of lost trust, damaged hope and searching for truth going on in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel. It’s set at a moment in the history of first century Palestine just before the beginning of Jesus’s adult ministry. We talk about the darkness of night being deepest just before dawn. That’s the experience of many Jewish people at this moment. It’s a time when many people are asking deep questions about God and the future – a similar period of tension to the one we heard about in last week’s passage, which came from just before the end of Jesus’s ministry. Herod, the Jewish ruler who had been on the throne at the time of Jesus’ birth, had died about AD 4. Ten years after that the armies of the Roman Empire had arrived to set up occupation in Palestine, and things have been getting steadily worse for ordinary people ever since. The Romans want to control Judea because it gives them a strategic base in the eastern Mediterranean. Their armies have already crushed most opposition to the north and west of Rome in Europe, including Gaul and Britain, so going beyond Greece into the Middle East has been the next obvious step. You don’t build a big army and then stop using it. Palestine is crawling with Romans and the natives are restless. The struggle against Rome is about resistance to their control over all aspects of people’s lives – taxes, where you live, what buildings are put up, where you’re forced into labour or asked questions as you journey on the roads. Nothing is free from their interference. They are stripping Judea of its wealth and its future, hand over fist, and people are powerless to stop them. But even worse is what your own religious leaders are doing. They may speak your language but the Pharisees and Sadducees are as bad as the Romans if not worse. Shouldn’t they know better? What they doing? They are persecuting their fellow Jewish citizens with their distorted, self-serving version of faith, lording it over others with their smug holiness and keeping the poor down. They are making everyone exhausted with their continual criticism and self-righteousness. Is that really what God wants?
‘Not them again! I can’t listen to them any longer. I don’t believe a word they say. Turn the sound down. Press delete. Take no notice.’ That’s how we respond when we’ve lost trust and have disengaged from events around us. Suddenly, out of nowhere, another voice comes down the line. It’s a voice that reminds us of words we’d almost forgotten, familiar words from our childhood, words we trusted once and that fill us with energy and a tiny, bright spark of hope. It’s a sound that comes out of the silent emptiness of the wilderness in central Judea, where nobody goes unless they want to die or find God: “A voice cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.’” Isn’t that what the prophet Isaiah said? He was the one who spoke to God’s people of freedom, of another way of seeing the future, of sharing our faith in such a way that others would come to the one God of all the world and light would overcome the darkness. Crowds come out to hear the message and find a man who looks like Elijah reborn, with a strong message.
John the Baptist’s words hit home for people who have been living with half-truths and lies for too long. People are drawn to his willingness to tell the truth, to say things as he sees them, and not to shy away from confronting the questions in everyone’s hearts which they’re too scared to put on their lips. When he sees Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowds coming to the water’s edge for baptism in the Jordan he calls them out: ‘What are you doing here? What makes you think it’s time to change your lives? Don’t come and get washed clean only to go away again and carry on the same way, oppressing your brothers and sisters.’ John tells it like it is. He is dangerously unafraid. The authorities can’t intimidate him. It’s plain he will not die peacefully in his bed of old age if he carries on taking risks like this.
What is so frightening and attractive about John is his closeness to God. He knows how much God weeps over the mistakes and hypocrisy of his people. He sees how much crookedness and distortion there is in people’s life paths, their words, their intentions and actions. God doesn’t want things to be like this. God wants us to honour truth, to treat one another in the same loving and merciful way that we have been treated by God, and so to bear good fruit for all to see. But we can’t get there without first facing the truth about who we are and what we’ve done to each other. God is also the one who judges. If the world is to change then somewhere, somehow, we have to realise the faults within our own lives and be able to call out the faults of others too. It’s always much easier for us to see who else needs to be judged. We don’t enjoy admitting that we too, stand in need of judgement sometimes. John the Baptist comes to remind us that deliberately fudging the facts, distorting the truth, and telling lies, is wrong. God knows exactly what we think, feel and intend, even if we may pull the wool over the eyes of others at times.
We stand alongside John and pray with him for a new beginning in the light of the damage that has been done to us and the damage we’ve done to others. He leads us down into the waters of the Jordan to be washed clean by him. We know this is deeply symbolic. It’s a reminder of the moment when, after 40 years of wandering and lostness on the way home from Egypt, the Israelites arrived on the edge of the Promised Land and needed to cross the river. We come up again from the waters and we know this moment is the start of the rest of our life. Now we’re ready to hear what God’s new society – God’s kingdom – is going to look like, to see the words of the prophet Isaiah come alive before our very eyes. The story is about to start in a new way. Didn’t somebody say that John has a cousin – Jesus of Nazareth? Perhaps he is the one who’s going to bring the Holy Spirit and fire. This story is only just beginning.
Sunday 1st December 2019
Isaiah 2: 1-5 and Matthew 24: 36-44