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 2nd June 2019
Sunday 5th May 2019
Sunday 7th April 2019
Sunday 17th March 2019
Sunday 3rd March 2019
Sunday 24th February 2019
Sunday 17th February 2019
Sunday 3rd February 2019
Sunday 27th January 2019
Sunday 13th January 2019
Sunday 6th January 2019 – Epiphany
Acts 16: 16-34 and Revelation 22: 12-14, 16-17, 20-21
‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.’ Those four words have great power for me. Many years ago a friend in the church I belonged to at that time had a stroke. It paralysed him permanently down his right side meaning an end to paid employment, banishment from his model railway shed, no chance of being able to hold his future grandchildren and a great block on spoken communication because the words just wouldn’t come. Family and friends rallied round and he came home to what proved to be a slow, partial recovery. His lovely singing voice returned bit by bit. Then one morning, totally to the astonishment and joy of his choir conductor wife beside him, he suddenly sang without hesitation those words of power and hope: ‘Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Who me like his praise should sing? Praise him, praise him, praise the everlasting king.’
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles gives these words flesh and blood for us with two stories of people whose lives are transformed by the good news of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s son, the Messiah.
The changed lives described in Acts chapter 16 are important as evidence that the power for healing and change which Jesus has been modelling for his followers before his death, and which the gift of God’s Holy Spirit has strengthened among his followers, has influence across the water in Europe too. Up to this point, the writer of the Book of Acts (also author of Luke’s gospel) has shown us the power of the Jesus story to change lives in Palestine and to the north in modern day Turkey. Now, Paul the great missionary leader, has received an invitation in a dream to come over the eastern Mediterranean sea to Macedonia and take the good news there too. He and his companions have responded and are in the leading city of Philippi, a Roman colony. There they’ve found a group of prayerful women familiar with the one God worshipped by Jewish people. Once the women have heard the good news of Jesus they’ve asked to be baptised and one of them, Lydia a local businesswoman, has taken Paul, Silas and the others to her house. Paul and his companions, all Jews by birth, have followed their usual pattern of going to the local Jewish community as a good starting point for talking about Jesus: ‘Once, on our way to the place of prayer…’. They bump into a slave girl whose strange behaviour at once puts them at risk. They don’t want to draw attention to themselves for the wrong reasons in a place where they don’t know many people. This girl is shouting out, day after day on the streets of Philippi, that Paul and Silas are servants of the Most High God and deserve to be listened to. Just imagine how her owners feel about this. They’ve bought this girl because she has strange powers that appear to predict the future. People will always pay good money, even now, to try and secure that sort of information. Want to know if you’re choosing the right partner, saying ‘yes’ to the right job, declaring war against the right foe at the right time? Then go to Delphi and ask the priestess of the god Apollo what she thinks or get a skilled person to kill an animal sacrifice for you and read the entrails. If you can’t get to Delphi this girl is a good second best. She makes money for her masters through her insights and sayings. She is doubly trapped, both by their ownership of her and because of being possessed by internal forces within her psyche she can’t control. Paul gets fed about by her constant shouting out and following of him and his companions when they walk through the town. One day he is so frustrated he calls on the spirit within her to come out. She’s freed from that power at once but put at risk in a new way.
Now, her owners quickly realise, she’s worse than useless to them. They can’t profit from her any longer. Paul and Silas find themselves arrested, brought before the local magistrates and thrown into prison. The charge is that as Jews they’re trying to convert Romans to illegal beliefs and practices. It’s a trumped up allegation. We might expect them to react with some frustration or even resistance but instead they use a few hours with their feet locked in irons sitting on a cold prison floor as a reason to sing their favourite hymns. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Their fellow prisoners, despite being kept awake, listen in but the far more sinister sound of an earthquake then overtakes the scene. We encounter another loss of freedom – first the slave girl, then Paul and Silas, now the gaoler who’s put them in irons. He is so much the servant of the tough Roman authority he serves that he knows a gaol with open doors spells death for him. The damaged prison will mean some of his charges have escaped so he might as well end his life here and now rather than wait for his superiors to do this for him. But Paul stops him, talks to him about the Lord Jesus, and preaches a converting sermon to the gaoler’s entire household in the wee small hours of the night. Gaoler and prisoner, within hours, become host and meal guest. Meeting God in Jesus changes lives. It brings freedom and transformation.
Martin and I heard more stories of how that continues to happen last night in Manchester in three powerful accounts of lives changed by Jesus. Two of the people we know personally, because of our links with The Oaks in Wythenshawe. What used to be the minister’s house is now a place where young men who’ve come to Christian faith, many of them in prison, can exchange long-standing patterns of addiction and self-harm for holding down a job and having some self-respect. Both Joe’s parents were alcoholics. His father died when he was five. One of his brothers died of a heroin overdose when he was in his teens. He started using drugs and admits with shame that his last contact with his mother before her death was when he stole her purse as the paramedics took her to hospital after she suffered a fatal stroke. Since being at The Oaks Joe has trained to be a chef and now works full time as well as being a mentor for other ex-offenders who come live in the house. Dennis confesses he was an alcoholic for years but held down a job. He punched somebody and ended up in prison. It was there he finally understood Christian faith and when he came out to The Oaks he used the support as a platform to start a building apprenticeship which he’s now one year into. Andrea grew up in a very unhappy home, started using drugs in her teens, got pregnant through her drug abusing partner and resisted God for years. When her partner found faith she refused to listen to his pleas to change. The family appeared to hold together on one level but behind the scenes were deep conflicts. Even though Andrea was doing her best to bring up their children she was still using drugs. Finally her life changed because her boss, a Christian, convinced her of God’s love for her. She and her husband now work full time to help others come to faith and change their lives too.
Our world needs to know about the liberating love of God in Jesus. Who is going to tell them if we don’t? We’re surrounded by examples of a world ruled by a totally different set of words – ‘trafficked, harmed, betrayed, forsaken’. It’s our calling to find honest, simple ways to show and tell our own stories of realising the difference God makes in our lives. Ransomed – God has paid the price for all the stupid mistakes and wrong actions we’ve ever fallen into. Healed – the physical and emotional pains we carry, deep seated and longstanding, are changed by our relationship with God. Restored – the brokenness in and around us is mended and put right by God. Forgiven – none of us is perfect and we all need to be forgiven all the time but that’s taken care of too through God’s love in Jesus. That’s a message that’s good enough to last us for at least the next 175 years and one Wilmslow needs to hear.
John 21: 1-19 and Revelation 5: 11-14
Having food and drink prepared for us by someone we respect and revere, whose role and status are in no doubt, creates a special feeling in us. I remember being told of a small, intimate meal with the Archbishop of York which two people I knew enjoyed a few years ago. They described, in awed tones, how it had felt to be part of the conversation and drinks around the table, and then to have a plate of food set before them by the second most important church leader in the Church of England, John Sentamu. On one level, today’s gospel reading is about the disciples having a meal with the risen Jesus, prepared by him for them. But there is much more significance about this event, which makes it important for all us as we try to follow Jesus.
We don’t know exactly when this meal on the beach takes place but ‘some time later’ suggests the disciples may have started to lose heart down south in Jerusalem and retreat to their northern roots. The events of the crucifixion, and the times after it when they met the risen Jesus, have not led anywhere. What do we do when a new direction in our life seems to lead nowhere and things fizzle out? There’s always a great pull to go back to what we know, even if we don’t particularly enjoy it or want to do it. You can guess how the disciples might have rationalised this. Somebody’s got to put food on the table for the family and fishing is what many of them were doing before Jesus called them to ‘follow me’. So, we find seven of the remaining eleven out in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, back on their old stamping ground – a scene we’re familiar with from the other gospels but which we haven’t previously found in John’s gospel. Notice all the details we’re getting. We know exactly who’s here and who’s in charge. It’s Simon Peter – Simon the crumbly, unstable one who Jesus nicknamed his ‘rock’, and who had denied even knowing Jesus just a few weeks or perhaps months earlier.
They’ve been out all night fishing but caught nothing. They can’t even make a success of their old trade. What’s left for them now? Failed disciples and failed fishermen. The atmosphere in the boat that morning is not exactly jubilant. Being exhausted after a long night’s work is bad enough. Having nothing to show for your efforts is even worse. But their attention is suddenly drawn by a call from a figure on the beach and alongside a plume of smoke drifting up into the dawn sky. Who but Jesus would address them as ‘friends’, ask about their catch and give them advice in this way? As their nets fill up with a great catch John is first to guess that it’s Jesus. Realising that’s true, Peter can’t wait for the boat to reach shore, slowed down as it now hauling a great catch of fish. His impetuous energy restored to him in this amazing moment Peter jumps into the water and strikes out for the shore at once, leaving the others to get on with bringing in the fish. And look what he sees when he gets close to the beloved figure of Jesus – a charcoal fire. The gospel writer last showed us Simon Peter standing by a charcoal fire outside the house of Annas, father in law of the high priest Caiaphas, in Jerusalem on the night of Jesus’s arrest. There, three times Peter denied knowing Jesus, while his master was being interrogated. The sense of who’s in charge in this scene changes at once. ‘Bring some of the fish you have caught’ and ‘Come and have breakfast’ says Jesus.
It’s strange that Jesus, who clearly already has a supply of fish for the meal, should ask the disciples to bring some of their catch. Think, though, how when we all bring food to a shared meal we’re making our contribution. You become a co-host when you bring along your potato salad or your plate of sandwiches. Incredibly, Jesus is sending a message that even though God is perfectly capable of doing everything without our help God chooses to work alongside and with us. Our meagre efforts are important too. We become co-workers with God when we accept the invitation of Jesus to sit down to eat with one another. As the hungry fishermen eat no doubt Simon Peter is wondering what might come next. Surely Jesus knows how they’ve drifted back to the familiar and failed to be sent out in mission with the gift of God’s spirit within them, as Jesus intended? Peter may be preparing himself for a difficult conversation with Jesus about his past denials.
Instead he finds himself in a ministerial appraisal conversation to refocus him for the future. His mission, Jesus says, is to ‘feed my lambs’, to ‘tend my sheep’. And the outcome of this faithfulness will be that Peter, like his master, will finally be called on to give up his life for the flock. There’s no hint here that Jesus expects miraculous, net-straining catches from the disciples every morning. This is an invitation to renew their faithful, local, pastoral ministry to individuals, families and small towns and villages. People who have heard what Jesus was saying and doing about the loving, forgiving, transforming, healing, creator God who wants fullness of life for each one of us, and who are now trying to live differently as a result, need help to do this. Simon Peter is to organise the disciples to make this happen, to build up and care for the flock Jesus thinks of as his own people – both those who were once on the road with him and those around Galilee and Jerusalem who heard his message and were changed for ever by it. Three times Simon Peter had denied Jesus. Three times he is called to this resumed leadership role. The reminder is gentle but clear – Jesus is calling him to start again and renewing their relationship in trust and hope.
Today’s other reading, from the book of Revelation, links to this scene on the beach as in chapter 5 verse 6. Revelation, the last book of the New Testament, we meet the figure of the Lamb, who bears the marks of sacrifice. This is a book of apocalyptic writing. It aims to pull away the cover and reveal truths about things and it does this in the language of symbols and visions. There is no certainty about who wrote this book but we think it comes from the last quarter of the first century, when Domitian was emperor. It starts by addressing seven young Christian churches in Asia Minor. In the passage we heard today a scene is taking place in heaven, before the throne of God. The one seeing the vision has been told ‘the Lion from the tribe of Judah’ has won the right to open the scroll. We’re prepared to see a powerful beast taking on this role but the shock comes that this is actually done by the Lamb. Why a lamb? Because we’re to think of the Passover lamb sacrificed on the altar in the temple each year to remind God’s people of their freedom from slavery in Egypt many centuries before. Jesus is now God’s messenger of forgiveness, liberation and endless new beginnings and he is to be recognised and worshipped in the image of a beautiful, pure, vulnerable and dependent young animal. That imagery has been somewhat lost in our culture. People will have recognised words that Handel set to music in The Messiah for the chorus – ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth, wisdom and might, honour and glory and praise!’ Not everyone understands that to mean Jesus, the one who died and rose again, whose risen body bears the marks of the cross. Very few people who today go to a pub called the Lamb and Flag will probably have the faintest idea where that name comes from. The one receiving the vision in Revelation understands new things about the identity of Jesus in this scene of a Lamb with a scroll. The disciples on that beach in Galilee learn about their renewed mission to God’s people through the call and company of Jesus.
For me, there are three powerful things to draw from these readings and apply to our lives and ministry in this Easter season. Firstly, there’s a lesson about keeping on with the journey even if Jesus may seem to have gone out of a sight for a while and we’re not sure about the next step. As a church and as individual pilgrims we can sometimes feel as though we’re waiting for God to do the next thing. It can be tempting, when this happens, to go back to what’s safe and familiar from the past. We revert to our old patterns – after all, they used to feel alright and they fitted us for a long time. Where’s the harm? But Jesus doesn’t want us to forget the new things we’ve learned. Part of the test we are put to sometimes is whether we can maintain growth and change even when God doesn’t seem to be loudly suggesting the next stage.
Secondly, I am heartened and touched by this story about Jesus preparing a meal for us when we most need it – not a symbolic square inch of bread and a sip of wine but a proper breakfast after a hard night in the fresh air. God knows and meets our human needs just as much as our spiritual and emotional ones. God even bothers to ask for our contribution to the table because we matter in God’s eyes. This is a sign of God’s love.
And finally I’m reminded by this conversation with Simon Peter about the vital importance of pastoral care in everything we do as God’s church. We can’t be sent out with the good news if we don’t care for one another and meet each other’s needs as part and parcel of that ministry. People are attracted by the active support we give each other and our openness to welcoming new needs and new people into the flock. The Holy Spirit can work in and through us when we’re in relationship with each other, even if at times that’s stressful, demanding, awkward and tiring. Perhaps a church breakfast on a beach would be a fun way to celebrate 175 years rather than a sit down meal indoors!
Isaiah 43: 16-21 and John 12: 1-8
What an embarrassing moment. The meal is a special one in honour of Jesus. Yet again, he is in the home of Lazarus and his two sisters Mary and Martha, just a few miles from Jerusalem in Bethany. This village is on the edge of the city – at the foot of the Mount of Olives – but nobody yet knows how or when Jesus plans to enter the city. The great feast of Passover is less than a week away. No doubt the close followers of Jesus are hoping to enjoy their meal and forget, for a few hours, about the possible trouble to come. Jerusalem is not a safe place for Jesus to be, because he’s a target both for the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious leadership, but he’s insisted on coming here. As they gather for the occasion the guests are probably looking forward to a good meal, because Martha is a celebrated cook. She never misses an opportunity to honour her guests with great food. There’s a lot to celebrate in her home too for only a few days earlier Jesus, the teacher from Nazareth, has performed the most amazing miracle by bringing her brother Lazarus back to life from the grave. Of course, you never know what Mary her sister will do, though. She’s just as likely to want to be with the men, hearing what Jesus is saying and his latest teaching, as helping her sister to serve the food. So perhaps it’s no surprise when she performs her very intimate and disturbing ceremony, in front of all the guests, at the end of the meal. Nobody quite knows where to look or what to say. Peter, James, John and the other disciples probably exchange glances as she comes into the room carrying a jar of perfume. She has her hair loose, which is a worrying sign in itself – not the sort of behaviour you expect from a woman in mixed company. Then she performs a ritual that sends several messages all at once. It’s lovely to have attention paid to one’s feet – those much-neglected parts of our bodies – but not this way. Normally you would expect to see them washed in a bowl of water by a minor member of a household. Instead, Mary’s using the most expensive perfume to care for them, and even more unusually wiping clean the feet of Jesus using her hair.
We’re supposed to be confused at this point in the story. What on earth is going on? The mixed messages are pouring in, even as the strong aroma of the perfume is wafting throughout the entire house. This moment is leaving it’s powerful message on everyone’s clothes and putting a very significant question into their minds. The usual thing to do with oil or perfume is to anoint the head of someone very important – often a king or religious leader. You don’t expect to see perfumed oil used on the feet of someone living and breathing. You do use ointments like this, though, to embalm a dead body. Mary’s extravagant gesture is sending a very powerful message without any words being used. She is telling everyone both how precious and important Jesus is, how much they should all be expressing their love for him while he’s still alive, and warning them all that before long he will be dead. Judas, the purse holder for the disciples, points out that this money could have been given to the poor. The amount of perfume would have cost an ordinary labourer at the time about a year’s wages to buy. Jesus responds in words that can be read several ways. The Greek may not simply say: ‘The poor you have always with you.’ It could, instead, be read as saying: ‘Have the poor among you always’ or ‘Keep the poor among you always.’ If you read the words of Jesus this way, and understand how important his ministry to the poor has been throughout his travels in Galilee and beyond, this whole event has a totally different impact. That evening in Bethany must have stayed with those who were there and given them many pauses for thought in the coming days. Jesus would go on to enter Jerusalem on a donkey several days later as a different kind of king from the one many hoped he would be. The memory of Mary’s gesture would no doubt have been there as many of those who had been at the table in Bethany stood, days later, before the cross seeing Jesus die. Was this the most ridiculous, pointless moment of all on the part of God, for whom extravagant gestures seem to be a natural way of operating? It depends how you read the story and how it touches your heart.
So what does this event matter for Freya today and for the world we older ones expect her generation might live in? Just a few suggestions from me. Firstly, I think it’s important because, just like the world in which Jesus lived, our generation knows deep divisions between rich and poor. The gap between those who own a ridiculous amount of money and those who do not have enough for the basic necessities of life is widening each year. There is not enough around in our culture giving us a sense of contentment that enough is as good as a feast, that not needing to aspire all the time to the next new thing is an acceptable way of approaching life. Discontentedness – the need to own the next new model almost as soon as we’ve bought an updated version of a product, is doing us no good. In the world I grew up in you didn’t become a person worth watching and copying based solely on your ability to consume and comment on the latest version of a piece of technology. I don’t spend a lot of time hankering after the 70s and 80s but I do regret the amount of attention we now pay to objects, tools and things, rather than to people, their hopes and fears, needs and gifts. The signs of stress and unhappiness which some of our teenagers and young people now display confirm for me that human beings don’t necessarily find lasting fulfilment through consuming things.
The second thing I learn from today’s gospel story and the baptism of Freya is that God is always going to confuse and confound lots of people by choosing the way of suffering and hurt, rather than the way of violence and aggression. Mary’s loving gesture is a silent sermon, reminding the others around her in the room that Jesus is precious and that his life will draw to a close very soon. We don’t like to face the fact that God’s chosen path for challenging and reversing the darkness and evil in the world is through the way of the cross, leading to apparent failure and the death of Jesus outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Instead of welcoming the peaceful, non violent methods he chooses, the authorities – both Roman and religious – are threatened by his passivity and become even more aggressive themselves. People who want a proper king as they see it – a king who will raise an army and turn out the occupying forces of Rome – are disappointed and vent their anger on the preacher from Nazareth. Not everyone understood why Jesus was doing what he did, in faithfulness to what he believed his heavenly Father wanted, at the time. Not everyone understands now. It’s always been like this. Following Jesus doesn’t mean claiming a position of power, shouting others down, pushing to the front of the queue – it means being willing to get on one’s hands and knees and serve others in the way God wants. There are never big rewards on earth for this. The treasure we build up in God’s eyes is another thing but it’s sometimes easy to wish the life of discipleship were easier. Today we’ve helped Freya to take her first step on this pathway. For her to make progress she’s going to need good models from all of us – above all in our willingness to put others first and ourselves at the end of the list.
And finally this message is about healing the woundedness of the world with love – an aspiration which I think people of goodwill warm to whatever their position in terms of faith in God. Mary covers the feet of Jesus with the most expensive perfumed ointment you can buy. The house is filled with the smell. Those who see the gesture learn a powerful and moving lesson about self giving love. Whenever we choose to hold back and not ‘have our say’ when we are wronged, whenever we build bridges in a situation where people hold opposing views, whenever we return goodness for unkindness we are following Jesus in his ministry of healing. Extravagant gestures can be good things. God goes in for them. They can bring people to see new things and understand deep truths – and the most important one of all – how much they are worth and how much they are loved.
Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18 and Luke 13: 31-35
Yesterday was North Western synod meeting – not words with which I would usually expect to start a sermon! Today, though, this feels like the point of entry for us to start engaging with what God is saying to us as a church in the light of the passage we’ve heard from Luke’s gospel. Let me try to explain why. Synod meetings happen twice a year, always in a church large enough to host 100 plus people and ideally somewhere reasonably central with decent facilities. Yesterday’s meeting happened to be in the town centre church of Bolton, where I was minister until 2008, so as we drove there I was thinking back into how it felt to be part of that community. Bolton has a significant Muslim community and a Council of Mosques. Some of the mosques are in parts of town that, until the 1940s and 50s would have been dominated by church buildings, even if the attendances at Christian worship would already have been falling fast by those days. In the 2011 census almost 12% of the population in Bolton said they were of Muslim faith, 2% Hindu and 62% identified themselves as Christian (though, of course, that doesn’t mean they attend church on Sundays!). The Muslim population has been changing since 2001. It used to be dominated by people whose families came originally from India or Pakistan, but now a significant number of African-born Muslims have moved there. The URC where I was minister was on the Inter Faith Trail, set up by the Council as part of the induction for people coming to work there from all sorts of public bodies. They came to visit a number of churches, mosques and temples to hear something about the religious faith of the different communities in town and demystify some of the strange ideas which can grow up about what various faiths teach.
In our synod meeting yesterday, we didn’t mention the shooting of innocent, unarmed worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on Friday. I hope that, had I been host minister in such a multi cultural, multi faith community, I would have spoken up on the importance of praying about that awful event. I hope I would have known some faith leaders locally to whom I could have offered sympathy and an assurance of support. Instead, it felt as though synod was operating in its own little bubble, not particularly registering the existence of other Christian churches let alone naming the pain of those from other faiths.
Does this matter? Do we need to be engaged with the world? Can’t we just hunker down and spend our energies on Christian communities that recruit new followers of Jesus and keep out the uncomfortable realities, the different views and values, of those around us? One answer was provided for me by another event this week at the Christian Resources Exhibition in Manchester. There was a lunchtime talk on Christians in Politics, billed as being about how the churches need to engage with Brexit. Martin and I went along, rather hesitantly, and were impressed by what we heard. The message was not about what to campaign for but the importance of showing up, as Christians, in places where big issues are being discussed. Andy Flannagan grew up in Northern Ireland so he knows a fair bit about the reality of politics and the way people can use religious arguments to bolster political ideologies. His central message, though, is that Christians need to ‘show up’, as he puts it, when major decisions are to be made. As usual on these occasions we came away with a book. One illustration in it of how Christians in Politics works tells the story of their ‘Do not send this postcard’ campaign. The idea was simple – to give hosts of Christians who had been asked for years to send postcards about third world debt, trade rules, human slavery, climate change and the like a postcard with no address and no space for a stamp. It just said: ‘Have you ever sent a campaigning postcard? Did you hope that the person who read it had the passion to make change happen? We think YOU could be that person. Don’t just send. Be sent.’
That, for me, is where today’s gospel comes in. At this point in the narrative Jesus is preaching, teaching and healing in Galilee but he and we know where he is ultimately headed. Back in Luke chapter 9, verse 51, we’ve been told: ‘As the time approached when he was to be taken up into heaven, he set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem.’ The journey takes time and includes a number of different incidents, but all the while in the background is Jesus’s firm intention that all roads for him must now lead to Jerusalem, the city where in obedience to God’s will he knows his life will end. It’s in that knowledge of a greater fate awaiting him that he dismisses, so quickly, the message brought him by a number of Pharisees. Are they acting in good faith in giving him this warning? Is this some sort of trap? The gospel leaves it open to the possibility that these Pharisees, at least, are genuinely concerned about the welfare of the rabbi from Nazareth. But Jesus himself seems totally unconcerned about the danger to his life posed by Herod, ‘that fox’ as he calls him. It’s as though Jesus is telling his followers, and through the gospel writer’s skill us too, that this violent, neurotic puppet ruler, held in place only by the support of the Roman occupiers, is not where the real danger comes from. He’s not the true threat to the life and wellbeing of Jesus. Those who have power of life and death over Jesus lie elsewhere and he must travel to Jerusalem to face them before long. He must ‘show up’ and meet head on the challenge they pose to the purposes of God.
In speaking about this he talks of three days – a ‘heads up’ moment for the disciples and for us – declaring that there will be two days more for driving out demons and working cures but that on the third day ‘I reach my goal.’ Three days to change the world – Good Friday, Easter Saturday, Easter Sunday – and ‘on the third day he rose again’. But Jesus knows full well Jerusalem will not be an easy place in which to show up. This was the city where prophets had frequently met their doom. In Jeremiah 26 we hear how, centuries before the time of Jesus, Uriah was killed there by King Jehoiakim, for having prophesied in God’s name ‘against this city and this land.’ Jeremiah 38:4 describes Jeremiah’s own fate there for predicting the imminent success of the invading Babylonian army: ‘The officers said to the king. “This man ought to be put to death. By talking in this way he is demoralizing the soldiers left in the city and indeed the rest of the people. It is not the people’s welfare he seeks but their ruin.” King Zedekiah said, “He is in your hands; the king is powerless against you.” So they took Jeremiah and put him into the cistern in the court of the guardhouse, letting him down with ropes. There was no water in the cistern, only mud, and Jeremiah sank into the mud.’ Later on, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Stephen the first person to be martyred for his faith asks those putting him on trial in Jerusalem: ‘Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the righteous one, and now you have betrayed him and murdered him.’ (Acts 7. 52) His fate would be to be taken outside the city and stoned to death.
If you’re feeling sad and concerned today about the fate and state of the world, if you’re wondering how to go on praying with such dreadful evidence all around us of the terrible things human beings can do to one another, hold on tight to the final image from today’s reading. Jesus, the living embodiment of his sermons (unlike any other preacher there’s ever been or will be) faces the violence and betrayal he knows await him with an amazing, powerful love that puts into practice his teaching that we must love our enemies. Having dismissed the power of the wily old fox, Herod, he evokes the picture of the creature foxes most readily feast on in captivity – a mother hen. We are invited to see the city of Jerusalem, the city that stones God’s messengers and murders God’s prophets, as a vulnerable, broken place full of people needing protection: ‘How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings; but you would not let me.’ Unhuggable. Flinching away from love. Resisting change. There are plenty of people in the world around us who fit that description. And today’s reading gives us strength to hang on in there with them, to just show up when the opportunities arise to be alongside them, to find ways of being present as reminders of the God who made and loves our world, and each one of his children, everywhere.
Exodus 34: 29-35 and Luke 9: 28-36
What do you do before facing a big challenge? You get into the right place, physically and mentally, to tackle whatever may come. If it’s a sporting event, and you’re a professional, you may well consult a sports psychologist to help you get inside the mind of the opposition. If the challenge you face is spiritual you’ll probably go on retreat, to spend time with God and prepare yourself for whatever temptations and difficulties lie ahead. It will help if, as you enter the fray, you know there are some people around you who support what you’re doing and are rooting for you. At the start you may be totally unsure how things are going to turn out – whether your efforts will meet with success or be a total, and perhaps very public, failure. Knowing there are some close friends who understand, as much as anyone else can do, what you’re going to be feeling like, may make all the difference. They’ll be there, hopefully, when whatever you’re undertaking drains and exhausts you, making sure you get some rest and encouragement. They might, down the line, be able to remind you how important it is that you go through with what you’ve begun even when the going gets really tough. Knowing they’ll be there for you will probably be a great source of strength and comfort.
Today’s reading could be seen as a moment of private support in Luke’s gospel, a sort of ‘team Jesus’ event, within the life of the young rabbi from Nazareth. It comes just before Jesus sets his face firmly towards Jerusalem and whatever lies ahead for him there. From now on, he and his disciples are going to be heading towards what Jesus knows is likely to be his death. Whatever happens, Jesus is certain that arriving in Jerusalem will mean a violent and highly stressful clash with the Roman and Jewish authorities in the capital. At the start of chapter 9 the gospel writer has reminded us that recently, even in Galilee, Jesus hasn’t been safe because Herod the puppet ruler of the region has been worried about the influence of the young preacher. Having made sure of killing off John the Baptist, the troublesome prophet and cousin of Jesus, Herod is still uneasy about the number of people who hang on every word and action of the preacher and healer who survives. Some people have been saying that Jesus is really John the Baptist risen from the dead. Others have been claiming that Jesus is the embodiment of Elijah, the great Jewish prophet of old who was said to have been taken up into heaven rather then dying at the end of his life. Rumours are rife. There’s no doubt this young man is creating a stir and he’s a threat for anyone in authority like Herod who’s wielding power to oppress and crush others. Jesus gives people time and dignity. He builds their self-respect. He heals the sick, speaks out for the voiceless, and changes lives wherever he goes. Given room to breathe and think and dream the people of Galilee and the Gentile communities around the Sea of Galilee are starting to come to life in dangerous ways. No wonder Herod is on edge and has his secret police and troops on full alert.
But that’s not all that’s been happening so far in chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel. There’s also been a miraculous feeding of a large number of people – five thousand in fact – a clear sign that Jesus has God’s special blessing and authority. Shortly after that event, and just before the passage we heard today about Jesus and three close friends on a mountain top, Jesus returns from a time of solitary prayer to ask his disciples: ‘Who do the people say I am?’ The answers come thick and fast. John the Baptist, Elijah, one of the prophets of old – take your pick. ‘And you,’ Jesus asks, ‘who do you say I am?’ Peter answers ‘God’s Messiah’. It’s a title Jesus accepts – the idea that he’s the chosen one of God, sent to lead the people and restore their liberty, but he says the disciples are not to tell this to anyone. Then he describes himself by the mysterious title ‘Son of Man’. There are lots of debates about what this title means. I think the gospel writer wants us to see Jesus identifying himself with all of humanity, placing himself alongside us, just as we saw him doing in preaching the Sermon on the Plain. Jesus knows what hunger, thirst, pain, hardship and despair are like from our perspective not as an intellectual exercise but because he’s been there. He tells Peter and the others: ‘The Son of Man has to endure great sufferings, and to be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, to be put to death, and to be raised again on the third day.’ So Jesus is simultaneously the Son of God and of Man.
That’s the background to this moment on the mountain top which theologians call the Transfiguration, a vision of Jesus as God sees him, bathed in light and glory. He is communing with the great leaders of the past, Moses and Elijah, who are clearly offering him respect. As Peter, John and James are waking up and rubbing their eyes the gospel tells us Moses and Elijah are talking to Jesus about his departure – or we could translate the word as ‘exodus’ – and his destiny in Jerusalem. The gospel writer wants us to see the parallels between Jesus and Moses, who led the former Israelite slaves out of Egypt in their great escape, the story of their exodus and return to the promises land. Jesus, who preached that inflammatory sermon in Nazareth and almost got himself killed for his pains, Jesus who refuses to keep the good news within safe limits, is the new leader of God’s people on the journey from slavery to freedom. He inherits and fulfils the mantle of Moses.
What do the three close companions of Jesus make of all this? They’re understandably quite overwhelmed. ‘Should we put up a blue plaque?’ ‘Should we raise a memorial stone?’ A voice from above commands them: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.’ And if we, receiving Luke’s gospel, are left in any doubt at all about what these words mean we should immediately get the message if read on in chapter 9. On coming down the mountain Jesus and the three close companions are confronted by a desperate father seeking help for his child: ‘Teacher, I implore you to look at my son, my only child.’ No wonder doctors and therapists so often find their roles exhausting and emotionally overwhelming. To be faced with the despair of a parent needing care for their sick child is like no other pain we may encounter. Jesus heals the man’s son, something his disciples have not been able to do, and reinforces the message that bad things lie ahead for him saying: ‘The Son of Man is to be given up into the power of men.’ Then the journey to Jerusalem begins.
Why do we need to hear this story of mountain top transformation and valley floor confrontation of evil this Sunday? Because we’re about to start the journey of Lent, which takes us towards both the death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s Messiah, the Son of Man. Because we’ll be hearing for ourselves in the readings over the coming weeks the resistance of the disciples to the reality Jesus keeps drumming home, that his presence is a threat to the powers of this world, and that his end is not going to be a quiet death in ripe old age. Because we might hang on in through the pain and darkness of Holy Week if we can retreat to the mountain top, to the glory of Jesus being bathed in the light of God’s love, which we’ve heard about today.
And our Lenten journeys are bound to have their highs and lows too. Life always does that to us. No sooner have we been rejoicing, elated, full of energy and hope than we’re confronted with opposing forces that threaten us with darkness and despair. We’re always at risk of crashing into the buffers of events that will drain our hope and undermine our faith. The presence of Jesus, who is both at home on the mountain top and in the midst of despair down below is our best source of comfort and companionship. He is the one whose exodus – whose liberation journey – transforms our lives.
Finally, today’s reading reminds us afresh of the way that Jesus can bring hope for the world too. Our news headlines bring us stories of failed summits – leaders whose interaction do not bring agreement or greater peace and justice – but this account of Jesus the deliverer loved by God, the Creator of us all, does do that. We may find the strength to smile, to hold a hand, to reach out to someone in need this week and as we do so the Jesus who is bathed in God’s light will be with us, shining strength and compassion onto the world through us.
Genesis 45: 1-11 and Luke 6: 27-38
Have you ever been in training for something that demands regular, intensive preparation on a daily basis? One of the things that shows when a young person has talent, and a real desire to get somewhere with it, is their determination to train and drill their body and mind regularly. Getting to the top means practising your scales daily, if you’re a classical musician. Succeeding in a physically demanding thing like athletics or ballet means endless drills, strength and suppleness exercises for the body – a daily regime of training that doesn’t even stop for Christmas Day or more than the briefest of holidays. In a dance mad culture like that of Ukraine, I heard recently, children as young as two and three are now being sent to ballet classes to start learning the basics. A teacher from Europe was interviewed about the phenomenon of Korean dancers who can already perform the famously demanding Black Swan solo from Swan Lake as young as 14. She described how some girls of that age can understand and perform the movements for this dance but they don’t get anywhere near interpreting the full emotional impact of the piece. They’re not old enough yet for that. Training a body and developing understanding of what you’re doing have to go hand in hand. Sometimes, as we grow older, we discover how our physical capacities for some highly demanding tasks are diminishing but the compensation can be that our spiritual and mental abilities may be simultaneously getting deeper and more impressive.
Luke’s gospel is written for people who are trying to learn how to be disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s not something that happens for anyone overnight. Even if we feel confident and comfortable saying where our own ‘yes’ to God began – and for each of us that will be different – learning to follow Jesus is still a life-long process that demands of us daily training and a willingness to push our bodies, minds and spirits beyond what might be comfortable in order for us to grow. Today’s reading continues the passage in Luke chapter 6, the Sermon on the Plain, which we began hearing last week. Jesus is standing with a crowd of close followers who have been following him around Galilee for some time now. He has just chosen 12 apostles to be his closest companions. The crowd has been expanded by the presence of visitors from Jerusalem, all of Judea, and from the Gentile territory to the north of Tyre and Sidon. So far his message has been challenging in ways that Matthew’s version of this, the Sermon on the Mount, is not. He’s said plenty to get the congregation thinking and his message may be put here by the gospel writer to speak directly to those going through hard times. If you’re a member of a Christian community suffering persecution, someone whose willingness to follow Jesus as the Son of God is causing them personal hardship and stress, then the Sermon on the Plain may speak to you very directly. Now, in verse 27, Jesus goes on to another hard part of discipleship, and calls on his followers to do something even more challenging than seeing God in their suffering.
We are to love our enemies, he says, and do good to those who harm us. He gives practical examples – if someone hits then don’t retaliate, if someone steals from you then offer them something else you own too, if anyone takes your things then don’t demand their return. This teaching sounds even more impossible than what’s gone before. How and why should we even begin to take it seriously and put it into action? Jesus is reminding us about the nature of God, one of whose primary characteristics is a willingness to be merciful and allow us new beginnings. The Old Testament sometimes get portrayed as being short on mercy and heavy on condemnation but hear these words from Exodus 34: 6-7,when God describes himself to Moses: ‘The Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, long-suffering, ever faithful and true, remaining faithful to thousands, forgiving iniquity, rebellion and sin but without acquitting the guilty, one who punishes children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the iniquity of their fathers!’ God is both merciful and righteous. God is in charge of judging those who have done wrong – that is his job, not ours – and, as these verses show, God knows that bad things carry on from one generation to the next and cycles need to be broken for healing to happen.
What can happen if, like a person in training for some special task, we devote ourselves each day to the attempt to live according to this teaching? It can start to change us, bit by bit. We may not feel the right emotion towards someone we’ve been hurt by but if we make an act of will to forgive them that has a freeing effect on events and emotions. I think of a story told to me by an elderly lady after a Remembrance Sunday sermon some years ago. She nursed in North Africa during the Second World War and coming on shift one morning found that the British and allied troops she and her colleagues had been caring for the day before had been moved overnight to the next stage of their treatment. In the beds instead were injured Italian and German soldiers. The shock of the moment and the decision she made were still with her all those years later. Her job was to care for the sick. She did so. I could tell she understood the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness.
Becoming a forgiving community will have a deep effect on us as a church though this is no easy task for any of us. The plus side is that, as our reading reminds us, those who extend mercy find that they experience more mercy in return – their lives are deepened, enriched and blessed as a result. The lovely illustration Jesus gives in the Sermon on the Plain is reminiscent of those beautiful words in the twenty third psalm: ‘You spread a table for me in the presence of my enemies; you have richly anointed my head with oil, and my cup brims over.’ Jesus evokes the image of someone going to market to collect grain. The trader fills their apron in such a way that every gap is filled, and overflowing measure is given. In the same way, Jesus say, God loves, forgives and cares for each of one you as you try to live merciful lives.
The third aspect of forgiveness we need to be praying for at the start of this new week in the life of the world is the need for mercy within the broken communities. Think of the House of Commons and the political crisis we face as Brexit continues to divide us. Think of the conversations between the United States and North Korea, a nuclear power without treaties and having few friends. Think of the tensions on the Venezuelan border which claimed several lives yesterday and show no sign of diminishing. The best we may be able to do is hold back from judging others or retaliating against them when they hurt us – true forgiveness may be much harder to reach – but as followers of Jesus we need to keep on trying to model the truth about our merciful God to those around us so the world can be healed.
Jeremiah 17: 5-10 and Luke 6: 17-26
Who are you writing for? That’s a question I often used to ask myself as a trainee journalist, sat in a rather shabby training centre above the bookies in the rough part of central Cardiff 40 years ago. Having never lived in South Wales I had little idea what the local evening newspaper’s readership was like. It was only as I got to know the area better that I got some sense of what might interest those in Splott but wouldn’t ring bells in the Sirhowy valley – or which big stories might grab the whole region and even have a national angle. Questions about potential readership, who’s written the article and who did they speak to, all surface today as we follow the story of Jesus in Luke’s gospel. We need to know a bit more background to make sense of all this. The writer of Luke’s gospel is putting his version of the story of Jesus down on parchment in the late first century, sometime between 80 and 110 AD. He’s got Mark’s version available to him, and another source of information which Matthew’s gospel draws on too, but about a third of Luke’s gospel is unique to him. He’s writing for followers of Jesus who are starting to experience serious persecution. It used to be said Luke was a companion of Paul on his missionary journeys, and certainly in the book of Acts this same writer covers a lot of material about the birth of the Church across Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean. Now we’re not so sure of that link with Paul but we do think Luke was an educated man with a sympathy for ordinary working people, and that he wrote his gospel to be read aloud after communion in a Greek speaking churches. He wants to help followers of Jesus to relate their faith to two major elements of his story and their lives. One is the reality of the Roman Empire, its power and claims. You couldn’t live in any part of the empire at this time without having to work out how you felt about that. The other is how to see the Jewish faith if you believe that Jesus, the Jew who knew his Hebrew scriptures so well and deeply rattled the Jewish religious authorities with his teaching, is actually the son of God, the long-promised Messiah.
You may have wondered during today’s gospel reading if Alan had turned to the wrong page in the bible. It sounds familiar to start with but then goes off into places we may not recognise. Didn’t Jesus give his first special sermon on a mountain top? Aren’t we supposed to be hearing comforting words that we often read at special moments like weddings and funerals? What’s gone wrong? The answer is that Luke presents this teaching in a very different way from the Beatitudes in Matthew. Luke is giving us the first section of his ‘Luke-only’ part of the gospel here. He probably sets Jesus’s first outdoor sermon for which we hear the words on a level plain rather on higher ground, to show us this message is something to be lived in the midst of other people, who have different values. Where Matthew’s version of this teaching has Jesus on a mountain, like a modern-day Moses bringing important teaching from God down from the summit, Luke wants us to feel we’re alongside Jesus as he talks to us about God’s values. The word in the New Testament Greek for ‘level’ ground is the same as that the prophet Isaiah uses to describe how God will deliver the people of Israel and transform the landscape: ‘Let every valley be raised, every mountain and hill be brought low, uneven ground be made smooth, and steep places become level.’ (Is. 40.4). If you’re speaking to people on a level piece of ground you’re demonstrating that you identify with them. You’re not preaching a gospel from on high, standing several feet above contradiction as pulpits often used to be built in the past. Jesus is getting amongst the people as he preaches – both the 12 apostles he’s just called by name, the band of disciples who have been following him around Galilee, and a great crowd of people who’ve walked long distances to find out who this preacher and healer from Nazareth really is. Luke lays on the size and variety of the crowd with a trowel – there are people here from Jerusalem, from Judea (the region to the south of Galilee), and even from the coastal region up north by Tyre and Sidon – in other words there are Gentiles in the crowd alongside Jews.
The message Jesus gives is significantly different in Luke’s version from that of Matthew’s too. Here we don’t have nine beatitudes – ‘you’re close to God/satisfied/unburdened/at peace when…‘ sayings – but four accompanied by four sets of woes. Luke understands being in the right place with God as spiritually helpful while at the same time uncomfortable too because it isn’t the experience all those around you will share. Part of his message is a ‘hang on in there’ reminder for struggling, groups of those following Jesus in the early Church. The gospel writer wants his hearers to understand the strength that comes from sharing and the reality that resources can be freely made available in struggling communities because people understand what it is to go without. If you help someone today, they may be there for you in your time of need. That reality still comes into our conversation when people reminisce about the community spirit there was during World War Two. Even now, when adversity strikes, an amazing amount of self-giving love and generosity can emerge from a disaster such as floods, heavy snow, a power cut or some other unpredictable crisis. People can rediscover their faith in humanity when things go wrong.
One question today’s reading poses for us is what does the gospel writer want us to think is Jesus’s attitude to those who have plenty of resources to their name? Is Jesus trying to put rich, well fed, contented and apparently successful people off following him? We can’t answer that without being aware that the very first chapter of the gospel has Mary’s amazing song of the world turned upside down, the Magnificat, within it. We’ve also seen how Jesus reminding the congregation at Nazareth synagogue about God’s incredible willingness to help Gentiles – non-Jews – in the past, a message which both outraged and annoyed them. Is this another example of the teaching of Jesus being seriously off putting to Jewish listeners who may think they’re already in the right place with God and don’t like what they’re hearing? The answer to that question can’t be found just in this chapter. The rest of Luke’s gospel has examples of Jesus engaging with people of all sorts and shapes and sizes, offering them the chance to change and repent – to turn their lives around and return to God. One thing he longs for is that everyone realises the resources they have and joy they will receive from being open and generous in their giving. Some people think of our church as wealthy and might be surprised to know that we actually raise significant amounts to give away. We haven’t got major savings in the bank, which is a good thing. Any church treasurer will tell you that the worst thing to happen to a church is for it to inherit a lot of money. That runs the risk of people starting to live on the interest, both spiritually and practically, instead of being in tune with the God who gives us more than enough for our daily needs and encourages us to share what we have.
Where does today’s reading challenge us and feed us? For me it’s a reminder that we, too, live among people who don’t understand the values Jesus teaches just as that large and diverse crowd hearing the Sermon on the Plain didn’t either. I hope that we in this church know the promises of God but we don’t necessarily expect them to come into being around us in five minutes. Indeed, some of what we hope and work for is not going to emerge in our lifetime. But we need to be awake to the signs of God at work, the glimpses of life, the promises of hope that will enliven and re-energise us as we choose God’s ways of blessing. We need to be a community that models living by a different set of standards, the ones God gives us, and above all a people of hope.
Jeremiah 1: 4-10 and Luke 4: 16-30
Where was Jesus when they did the sermon class at rabbi school? Was he on a day off? Was he in the back row on his mobile, not listening because he was following the latest trending news story on poverty in Palestine or racial tensions between Jews and Samaritans? Something must have happened because, to judge by today’s reading, he seems to have missed out on three basic messages that any good preacher should know. The first is ‘Don’t tell people any home truths – especially if you know a lot of those in the congregation personally and they think they know you.’ It’s never popular and it doesn’t do any good. The second is never to remind people in your sermon about their bigotry and narrowness – they won’t invite you back and they’ll put the word around to other synagogues that you’re a trouble maker. And the third is whatever you do, don’t mention God! People come to worship to meet their friends, to have a good natter, to catch up on the news, to be seen in their new outfit, to keep up with the big noises in the front row, and they don’t want to be troubled with all that business about faith and righteousness and prayer and helping others. Pander to people’s prejudices, massage their egos, confirm their sense of self-satisfied goodness and you’ll be everyone’s favourite preacher.
If any of us thought Jesus preaching at his home town synagogue in Nazareth was going to go well then we haven’t been listening too closely since we began to follow Luke’s gospel at the start of Advent. Luke’s been giving us clues all along that Jesus isn’t going to be God’s easy answer to the problems of the world and that, right from the start, he will divide and challenge people because of what he stands for and is. Who says to Joseph and Mary: ‘’This child is destined to be a sign that will be rejected; and you too will be pierced to the heart. Many in Israel will stand or fall because of him; and so the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.’? Those are the words of Simeon, the faithful, prayerful, worshipper who meets the young family in the Temple as Jesus’s parents come for the ritual purification required by Jewish law after childbirth. He sees both the pain and promise within this small infant. Luke places this incident right at the start of the gospel as a sign that things are not going to end well for Jesus, or not in terms that the world will easily recognise. Luke warns us there are choppy waters and turbulent times ahead for all those who love and care for this special child.
So we can’t say we haven’t been warned. But even so the behaviour of those Nazareth worthies that Sabbath morning is still something of a shock. We had the scene set for this in last week’s reading. Jesus has been teaching in the synagogues of Galilee ‘armed with the power of the Spirit’, and he’s been making such an impact that everyone is singing his praises. You can just imagine the synagogue officials at Nazareth hearing about all of this and discussing why he’s not so far chosen to preach on home soil. They make sure he’s invited to come and be heard in his home town, by those who’ve known him since he was a little lad. It’s about time Nazareth should get a chance to assess this new religious sensation. Everything seems to be going so well. Jesus is a good reader – he is confident and assured in the way he finds the passage on the scroll and they can hear him at the back. He’s a gifted scholar, too, who’s used to study and who brings the words to life as he proclaims them. And the passage he’s reading is an exciting one – a feel good text about hope from the prophet Isaiah. This is all about the change the Lord will bring to people’s lives through his special messenger – how God has poured his spirit out on his chosen one and how that person will speak to the poorest and weakest and most damaged people around with words of power and transformation. This will happen when the Year of the Lord’s Favour is proclaimed. That’s a significant time for the Jewish faithful, one they remember from the book of Leviticus but won’t have lived through in the time of Jesus for many centuries. In chapter 25 of Leviticus, a book of ancient law in the Hebrew scriptures, God calls on the people to mark every 50th year as a Jubilee. During this Year of the Lord’s Favour, unrepayable and long-standing debts are to be cancelled, slaves and prisoners must be set free, disputed land should be returned to its original owner and everyone gets a once in a lifetime chance to reset their economic and relational clock to freedom and a new start.
It’s good to hear talk about God’s ancient promises. It makes the people of Nazareth feel hopeful that, one day, the rule of the Romans and their puppet kings will come to an end, oppression will cease and the Jewish nation will be able once more to live and breathe and make its own independent decisions. What they don’t expect, what they don’t really want when it actually happens, is for this charismatic young rabbi to tell them that revolution is happening here and now. It sounds good at first when they hear it: ‘Today, in your hearing this text has come true’ Jesus tells them. But wait a minute. What does he mean? Who does he think he is? Has he got authority to say things like that with such certainty? Some of them are probably inflating their chests with civic pride at the confidence of their home town boy while others are already ready to burst the pretentious bubble of Jesus, son of Joseph the builder.
Jesus hasn’t done the module on conflict resolution at rabbi school either. He goes straight for the most risky tactic possible. He tells the congregation the truth about who they are and so reflects back to them their prejudices and narrowness. It’s not that Nazareth is any worse than other towns and villages in Galilee but he knows this lot through and through because he’s grown up among them and he sees how their minds work. He knows their inner battles between honouring God, at their best, and petty arguments between each other when they’re at their worst. If they were able to stop and think about it they might be a bit less violent and hasty. Jesus reminds them of two stories from Jewish history, both of times when there was dire need in Israel but God chose to offer help to foreigners instead of his chosen people. Two great prophets of old – Elijah and Elisha – were both sent to help non-Jews in a time of great and universal need. How many Jewish widows were still going hungry at home while Elijah was called on by God to feed one foreign widow and her son in Sidon, up north? How many good, faithful Jews were suffering the curse of leprosy when God instructed Elisha to heal one, solitary foreign leper, the commander of the enemy army no less, in the person of Naaman, another Syrian? That’s what tips the situation, when Jesus pushes that second button. It pushes the congregation over the edge from approval to fury and almost results in them tipping Jesus over the edge of a convenient and steep cliff on the edge of town to his death.
We want God’s words of grace but we don’t want them to help those we think of as other, as foreign, as the enemy. The gospel, the Year of the Lord’s favour happening now – right in the middle of our unjust, embittered and divided world – is the thing we need most now, just like those worshippers in Nazareth. At the same time, like them, it’s the thing we find hardest to handle and accept. God is so disastrously unable to judge properly between us all – so unwilling to see things in their proper proportion, as we do. God remains so dangerously willing to give grace to those we know clearly know don’t deserve it. God is so prone to gently showing us our faults when we need his continued attention while we carefully list the failings of others.
How do we get beyond that synagogue in Nazareth and start to hear and live the gospel with Jesus on the road, as he escapes through the crowd and slips away into the backroads of Galilee? There’s a story in the last issue of Reform, our denominational magazine, that helps me with this. It’s an interview with Professor Mela Pattillo Beals who, in her teenage years, was one of the group of African American high school students from Little Rock, Arkansas who was chosen to break the all-white education system at the Central High School in 1957. She explains how, with help from her grandmother, she found both the courage and the grace to resist racism. On the first day at school she and her mother were chased from the building by a white mob keen to hang them if they could: ‘That’s when I remembered that Grandma had for years said: ‘God is as close as your skin. Here, feel your cheek. See? That’s God. He’s right there. All you have to do is ask and he will help you forever.’ I always thought: Who needs this information? But this particular day, when I was being chased by men with rope, I said: Alrighty then. I need to test Grandma’s theory. I said the 23rd Psalm aloud and the Lord’s Prayer. I was running down this street with no sidewalk, my mother behind me, and the first guy stumbled over some dead branches, thereby tripping the men who were behind him, giving us just moments to get in. I got in the car, got my mother and backed down the street faster than I’d ever driven forward. I thought: ‘Huh, integration is a bigger word than I thought.’ Yes, and so are justice, and respect and diversity and dialogue. Just as well God gives us grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this, as the hymn reminds us. Let’s claim that grace and take the walk away from the cliff edge together with Jesus in our midst.
Nehemiah 8: 1-3, 5-6, 8-10 and Luke 4: 14-21
On a holiday in Venice, some years ago, Martin and I spent a marvellous morning on the small island of Torcello in the northern part of the lagoon. It has an amazing cathedral which dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries. In those days the island was the centre of the area and may have had up to 20,000 inhabitants. Today there are fewer than 100 people living there and the reputation of its near neighbour Venice gets far more attention. On the west wall of the cathedral is a vast mosaic of the Last Judgement, from floor to ceiling. It’s a reminder of the times when most people didn’t read at all and relied on the priest to read aloud to them from scripture, probably in Latin, which nobody without an education would have understood anyway. You needed help to get the message over, hence the wall paintings and mosaics of so many ancient places of Christian worship. Today’s Old Testament passage shows us a moment in Jewish history when many ordinary people needed reminding of what their religion taught and of where they had come from.
Our scene takes place within the newly rebuilt walls of the city of Jerusalem. The city has been deserted and in ruins for several generations, ever since almost all the nation’s leaders had been taken off into slavery by the Babylonians at the end of a long and brutal siege almost six centuries before the birth of Jesus. Some of the descendants of those slaves have already been given permission to return home across the desert but the city is still on its knees. One hundred and fifty years after the original fall of the city Nehemiah, a Jewish courtier of the King of Persia, hears God’s call to rebuild the city’s walls. Amazingly, he gets permission from the king to do just that. Appointed as governor of Judah he returns to the place which is holiest to the Jewish people, even though much of the city remains a pile of rubble with the temple totally destroyed. He organises the Jews he finds there and they – as the early chapters of the book of Nehemiah tell us in incredible detail – divide between themselves the task of restoring the city’s gates and walls. Renewing the city’s boundaries and fortifications is the first task. The neighbouring Samaritans, Ammonites and Arabs are not pleased to see a re-established Jewish presence in the city so they need to be alert to ever present danger from outside.
Next comes the rebuilding of the population – the work that’s to be done within the city walls on the people, their relationships, their day to day interactions. Nehemiah sees a deeply divided population. The wealthy Jews within the city have been oppressing their poor neighbours for years and getting away with it because corrupt governors before Nehemiah have turned a blind eye and possibly got a back hander for doing so. He realises that securing the city’s future means helping everyone to have a new understanding of God’s word. They must re-establish faith in the one God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and bring people back to understanding the Jewish law, the Law of Moses, on which every part of their religious life is built. With Nehemiah’s encouragement the city’s people gather together and Ezra the priest reads to them from the law – or we could use the Hebrew word ‘Torah’ – of Moses. This is a mixture of law and teaching and it is the term we now use for the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Ezra’s reading takes the entire morning – possibly up to 6 hours – and it has a deep affect on people as they stand and listen. This is a culture where probably less than 3% of people can read. They depend on the scribes and priests to read them God’s word aloud and to help them understand it. Then other scribes (Levites) preach on what the people have heard, relating it to their everyday lives, and nobody moves or goes home for lunch: ‘They read from the book of the law of God clearly, made its sense plain, and gave instruction in what was read.’ This is a sermon class in action – a great open air sharing of God’s word.
Our world knows how hungry the most desperate and deprived people are still for words of hope and wisdom which they can rely on and trust. In Venezuela today, which oil reserves should make one of the wealthiest countries around, corruption and dictatorship have left people hungry and thirsty with their nation’s health service, education, transport, economy and the rule of law in ruins. Even so, if someone speaks to them words of hope and justice Venezuelans still have energy to listen and engage. We do not live by bread alone, as Jesus reminds us all, and in restoring to the people of Jerusalem God’s word for them Nehemiah and Ezra bring them back to what they most need to re-establish the city on the right foundations. People weep as they hear the law read out, recognising how far away from God’s will for them they are now. Nehemiah sends them away rejoicing, though, to organise a city wide party where everyone will get good food and drink to share: ‘So all the people went away to eat and to drink, to send shares to others, and to celebrate the day with great rejoicing, because they had understood what had been explained to them.’ God’s law brings justice and hope.
Why does this piece of ancient scripture matter to us now? On Holocaust Memorial Day it is a reminder of one of the major things the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – have in common. They are centred around the reading and interpretation of holy scripture, as the basis for the way their followers will live and relate to the world every day. The Hebrew Scriptures make up the major part of the Christian bible in terms of words and pages. The Koran talks of figures we know from the Old and New Testaments though it portrays them in different ways, telling other stories about them. One of the ways in which the Jewish faith has been oppressed, and Jewish people persecuted, over the centuries, has been the destruction of scriptural scrolls. These are sacred objects. When you visit a synagogue you discover how much reverence and care is taken in the storage, handling and preservation of the scrolls. They are kept safe within a special cupboard at the centre of the worship space. The importance of the scrolls, containing God’s word, was known to the Nazis which is why they went to such trouble to desecrate and destroy these holy writings when the persecution of Jewish people began in 1930s Germany. Respect for the religious writings of other faiths is one of the basic human rights of a civilised society and one we need to remember and cherish.
Why do scriptures matter to people of faith? Because, as the story from Nehemiah shows us, they are one way we can reconnect with God. Without them we are trying to build a wall without foundations. The United Reformed Church is sometimes caricatured as a Christian denomination with so little doctrine and structure that anyone can believe anything they like and anything goes. But that’s a serious misunderstanding of what our Reformed forebears understood by engaging seriously with scripture and relating it to the way the followers of Jesus try to live now. Just think back to the words we heard promised by those Elders who were inducted in our communion service last week. We asked them: Do you believe that the Word of God in the Old and New Testaments, discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is the supreme authority for the faith and conduct of all God’s people? Their promise is what we hold to as a Church.
And we need to re-engage with the Word of God because unless we do so we risk forgetting the difficult bits of the Bible on which we’re less keen. What had the people of Jerusalem forgotten, all those centuries ago? It was above all God’s word of justice – God’s call to build a society that was fair and which protected the weakest and most deprived – that seemed to have slipped their minds over the centuries. The Law speaks of protection for the widows, the orphans and the strangers in our midst. Strangely enough our society isn’t very good at remembering impoverished women, vulnerable children, refugees and asylum seekers either. That’s why we need to keep re-engaging with God’s word in the Bible and letting it put as back on the right course.
Isaiah 43: 1-7 and Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22
One starting point for me today has been to ask myself: ‘How much can we use our imaginations when we hear a story from the bible?’ This week we’re just starting our journey with Luke, the gospel writer, as he tells us about the life of Jesus as an adult. Luke has already given us a whole lot of stories and poems and songs and pictures which don’t appear anywhere else in the New Testament. Without this gospel we wouldn’t know about Mary being told she’s going to have a child – or shepherds coming to see the new Messiah – or Anna and Simeon recognising this amazing infant when his parents bring him to the Temple as a small baby. And Luke alone talks about Jesus as a an adolescent, debating faith with the teachers in the Temple and so getting left behind when the rest of the group from Nazareth leave for the walk home.
Now, suddenly, in chapter 3 Luke opens up a whole new scene before our eyes. We are standing alongside the River Jordan, and John the Baptist son of Zechariah and Elizabeth is preaching and teaching all over the Jordan valley. He’s quoting the prophets of old, including Isaiah, and challenging people with a tough message about social justice and change in their lives. ‘If you have more than you need then share it – don’t just keep it to yourselves. If you have power then don’t abuse it – use it fairly so others are safe around you.’ On one level this teaching sounds amazingly simple but you only have to think about the trouble and tensions we experience at all levels of our lives in our world if these things go wrong to see how deeply practical and important John’s words are. Without real justice we can’t have real and lasting peace – God’s shalom.
Luke paints this scene in such an impressionist way that we’re almost obliged to use our imaginations to make sense of it. Reading this passage is a bit like standing in front of a beautiful painting by Van Gogh, or Manet or Turner and trying to work out what all the colours and shapes might mean. The gospel writer doesn’t tell us clearly whether John the Baptist is deliberately trying to draw a crowd of people around him to hear his challenging message or whether they just come of their own accord. We are left to work out what it is that has attracted numbers of people to make the walk from Jerusalem and other parts of southern Judea to the river bank in search of such a tough and radical message. We may wonder if their presence a sign of a great longing for a new start with God and a spiritual hunger. We may ask if the success of John the Baptist in drawing a crowd, even though he doesn’t seem to have deliberately gone about doing so, shows us how deep was the failure of the Jewish religion of the time in leaving many people lost and unsatisfied? None of this is made clear for us but, as with the whole of the gospel of Luke already, we’re being encouraged to explore, to ask questions, to get under the surface of the story and mine the layers of meaning there are to be searched.
Let’s start at the surface level to begin with. You can see this passage about the baptism of John the Baptist, which Jesus comes to receive, as a reminder of our human need for new beginnings with God. When we make a decision to change our lives – moving on from something in the past – we may take symbolic action that shows we’re making a new start. Being baptised and being washed clean in the waters of the great River Jordan is just such an action. Some of us remember being baptised while others know it happened to us as a small child because we have a certificate to prove it. For anyone who is journeying with Jesus being baptised is a key moment in saying our ‘yes’ to God. Being able to symbolise this by going totally down under the water and coming up again has not just a great personal power for us but can also remind everyone of the death and resurrection journey which Jesus models for all of us and which can be a helpful way to understand our own losses and renewals in a lifetime of change. Choosing a new name is one way to draw a line with the past and begin again. I have a Pakistani friend, a Christian, who now wants to be known by a name from the New Testament not her original name. Her Muslim name has been a constant reminder of religious tension within the family. It was not her parent’s choice for but that of an aunt’s, which she put pressure on the woman’s mother to accept. I know of a United Reformed Church in another synod which changed it’s name to reclaim a good place in the community. It had become known for bickering and poor relationships. Now it calls itself by a new name people are coming there with fresh eyes and open hearts and the congregation responds better.
The next level on which you might understand the story of Jesus’s baptism as Luke tells it is as a community event. Luke sets the stage in the early part of chapter 3, giving us the buzz of excitement and tension around John the Baptist as he teaches. There’s a great range of people around him from the ordinary Jewish faithful to tax collectors and even soldiers, probably employed by Herod the Roman appointed ruler of the region. Some are choosing to be washed by John in the water as a sign of repentance and Luke gives us a sense that when Jesus joins such a group the whole event changes character.
The question which the gospel writer leaves deliciously open is did people notice something special at the time or did they think back later and remember those events in a new way, once Jesus had become a big name? Was this particular baptism the one everyone later wanted to claim they’d been there for? ‘I was there when Jesus from Nazareth, John’s cousin, turned up.’ ‘I could tell he was different from the first time I set eyes on him.’ It’s hard to answer this without understanding something about the nature of storytelling. When you write an account of someone’s life or of a particular event with the intention of changing the lives of others through what they hear then you’re bound to use some techniques to dramatize things. You will deliberately point out the significant recurring themes you want people to start noticing for themselves. You will place your characters in situations that enable them to be lit effectively or perhaps even hidden in the crowd. You will cut out the boring parts of the narrative and focus on the exciting events. I remember a conversation with a friend who had been on a visit to South America accompanying a high profile Christian writer and journalist who was researching a book on poverty. My friend remarked on how incidents which he remembered as pretty mundane and unremarkable became, in the hands of the writer, very different and almost unrecognizable in the book. That’s what writers do. They pick out things to make their point.
Luke is doing just that here, I think, as he stages the baptism of Jesus happening within a ‘general baptism of the people’. The event is marked out by the arrival of the Holy Spirit, like a dove, descending from heaven and accompanied by God’s words of blessing and approval. I think Luke wants us to conclude that during this event others heard and saw things happening at the moment when Jesus came up from the water that suggested to them this man is one to watch – he’s special – and he’s been particularly blessed by God. And certainly the gospel writer wants us to see this as the moment when this young man was particularly blessed by God. This gives Jesus his platform for ministry and establishes the start of his public role. It doesn’t mean that from now on Jesus will be, as John had been, choosing to live apart from others. After a time of withdrawal Jesus will return to teach, preach and heal in a very intense way. God’s blessing has re-emphasised the relationship, through Jesus, of God with his people and the true meaning of this will soon unfold with significance not just for those around Jesus at the Jordan river that day but for all people in all times and places for all eternity. So the baptism story in Luke gives us a pattern of engagement with the world, supported by God’s blessing, just as it does for Jesus.
But being blessed by God, being helped to journey into the world, is not without its problems, as we all experience regularly. For me that fact is given an amazingly powerful illustration by something that’s been happening on the banks of the River Jordan recently. Some of us were alive in 1967 when Israel fought a Six Day war with its Arab neighbours. As a result of that a large number of landmines were laid along the edge of the river Jordan at the point where it had been thought for many centuries the actual baptism of Jesus had taken place. Visitors coming to that area have been severely restricted in their access because of the danger of the landmines. They partially reopened the site in 2011 but you can only go down a narrow path to the river. So far a group of 22 minesweepers from Georgia have removed 1,500 of an estimated 6,500 landmines. They’ve made 50 acres safe and there’s 200 acres more to go. There are some amazing ancient churches there – Greek Orthodox, Franciscan, Ethiopian Orthodox – which have so far been liberated. The Russian, Syrian, Romanian and Coptic churches are still unable to be reached because of the landmines around them. There’s a Byzantine church which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1024 and rebuilt in the 12th century and there have been pilgrims who have gone to that part of the river for two millennia, almost. So in reclaiming that piece of land it seems to me that those who are removing the landmines are giving us symbolic encouragement to recognise that whatever lies ahead of us in life will have its risks and dangers. There are times when we approach each new day in fear and trembling of what might come next. The challenges of life are always with us. But that story of Jesus who comes to the riverside in solidarity with all of us, enters into the water and comes up again receiving God’s blessing, is the reminder for all of us of God’s presence with us no matter what is happening to us, and a source of constant and renewed hope for us and for God’s world.
Isaiah 60: 1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12