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 3rd February 2019
Sunday 27th January 2019
Sunday 13th January 2019
Sunday 6th January 2019 – Epiphany
Sunday 2nd December 2018
Sunday 25th November 2018
Sunday 11th November 2018 – Remembrance Sunday
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
Welcome to the run up to Easter! Yes, I’ve seen my first Easter egg in a shop – retailers can’t afford to hang about when there’s chocolate and profits in the offing. In the Church Year today is Epiphany Sunday – a festival with several layers of meaning. For the world at large it’s the reminder that twelfth night has happened, Christmas is over and decorations now need to be packed away again because East Cheshire hospice are on their way to collect Christmas trees for recycling. For us, as people who try to follow Jesus, it’s a time to have a moment of epiphany – a revelation – about the presence of God among us. I mean something more significant than realising the low, winter sun light is showing up all the marks on the windows and you need to see out more clearly but even that level of epiphany is important if you’re a driver and the poor visibility is your windscreen! This is the day when the Church celebrates the way non Jews – Gentiles – came to recognise Jesus not just as a special child but a divine one, born of God. It’s the start of a season which runs until Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, and climaxes in Catholic circles with a great festival of Mardi Gras and rich food before the period of fasting that will lead up to Easter.
Our model for non-Jews who have a moment of insight as to who Jesus really is comes from the story of the magi. This is a part of the birth narrative of Jesus which only appears in Matthew’s gospel and is all that gospel says about how Jesus began his life on earth. You may be super-efficient people who’ve already recycled all your Christmas cards. If not, when you’re doing that why not set yourself a little biblical test this year? How many of your cards have a religious theme? Of the ones that do how many of them show Jesus with Mary and Joseph on their own, how many add the shepherds and do any of them have the magi as well in a great curtain call of characters crowding into a tiny space? If you’ve got any cards showing baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds and the magi all together in one scene that’s an interesting example of the way we blend Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus with Matthew’s. It’s alright to do that but it helps if we realise that we’re blurring the lines between different traditions when we do this. Epiphany is a Matthew centred day.
Let’s put a few myths to one side to begin with. Tom Wright the biblical commentator tells us the word we often hear to describe these visitors from the east – ‘magi’ – can mean magicians or experts in interpreting dreams or astrologers, which is the translation used in our church bibles. How that description got changed into them being kings is not entirely clear but the writer of Matthew is very keen to keep reminding us how the birth of Jesus fulfils all the prophecies of the past, so this could be part of the reason. Hear these verses from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 60 again: ‘Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come; and over you the glory of the Lord has dawned. Though darkness covers the earth and dark night the nations, on you the Lord shines and over you his glory will appear; nations will journey towards your light and kings to your radiance.’ The gospel writer wants his first century Jewish hearers to see the links between this account of the birth of Jesus and what had been promised for centuries about the people of Israel and the coming of a Messiah. Visitors who can travel large distances, who can afford rich gifts and who have knowledge and understanding, are powerful people – the fact that myth and legend has made them into kings is not so much of a surprise.
You may have noticed that Matthew’s gospel gives us no firm basis for the other parts of the story we’ve constructed on the basis of very little evidence. Where did we get three visitors from? Simply because the gospel mentions three distinct types of gifts we imagine three pairs of hands holding the gold, frankincense and myrrh. What about the camels? It’s a long way from Persia and camels are good beasts of transport but the gospel is silent about whether the visitors came on camels, on some other beasts or on foot. Do the magi visit Jesus in a stable as a baby? There’s nothing here that parallels with Luke’s version of the story. Matthew tells us the visitors enter a house and there’s nothing about an overcrowded Bethlehem full of census visitors and a baby laid in a manger because the inn was full. The fact that, later in Matthew chapter two, Herod orders the killing of all boys under the age of two suggests this birth story is set a little later in the life of Jesus.
One commentary I read when preparing for today asked: ‘Did Matthew believe that his story was historically accurate?’ and went on ‘We cannot be sure, but probably. He doesn’t seem to have any evidence for the historical veracity of his story of the kind that we would demand today, but what was that against the testimony of Scripture?’ I think those comments show a degree of misunderstanding about what the gospel writer is doing here. Matthew is carefully constructing his life story of Jesus in such a way that we, the hearers, will be led to believe for ourselves that Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is God’s son and the saviour of the whole world. The gospel writer is piling up the indicators that Jesus fulfils what the prophets and people of God of old were expecting and how this happens. Jesus is going to take all these prophecies and hopes and expectations to a whole, new level – to blow our minds with the reality of what God is doing.
The first sign of that is the arrival of these mysterious, insightful, searching, non-Jewish visitors from the east. They open the gospel, as representatives of the world, coming to a little village near Bethlehem because they sense major events unfolding. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, 28 chapters later, the risen Jesus will tell his disciples – and us too – to go out into the world in his name to take the message everywhere: ‘Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go therefore to all nations and make them my disciples; baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you. I will be with you always, to the end of time.’
What does the story of the magi say to us now, in 2019 – what light does it shine through our dusty windows onto the world and life around us? I am struck by the parallels between the insecurity, fearfulness and instability of Jerusalem under the absolute rule of King Herod and the number of unpredictable, dangerous, leaders strutting on the world stage now. Salisbury is a city I used to visit as a child during the summer holidays. If you had told me, a year ago, that in 2018 it would be the scene of a nerve agent attack carried out – in all likelihood – by Russian agents acting on orders from President Putin I would have thought you’d been eating something strange in your cereal that morning. The gospel writer describes how, on hearing from the astrologers that the Jews have a new born king, he is troubled ‘and so was the whole of Jerusalem.’ If you live under a despot then you depend for your future on the unpredictable behaviour of that individual. Your whole life depends on that person’s state of mind – their irrational thoughts and decisions – and it makes the world a dangerous place not just for your country but for its neighbours too – anyone who tries to relate with your ruler. Bullies cause others to behave differently – that’s their greatest weapon – they get inside your head and change the way you act. The magi get home safely because they don’t go back to Jerusalem as Herod’s told them to after God warns them in a dream about the danger and they take another route. We, too, need to keep on listening to God and following God’s guidance.
This story says something about possession and power too. Herod claims he wants to know where the new king is so he, also, can ‘pay him homage’. In reality he wants to know the place so he can take possession of the whole family and kill this young pretender to his power and rule. God doesn’t allow that to happen. The child is protected because Joseph listens to a dream warning him of the danger and he and Mary take Jesus to safety in Egypt so Herod’s plan fails. Our world still sees things in terms of ownership, possession and power going hand in hand. The recent headlines about the Chinese landing a spacecraft on the far side of the moon show that. There’s a mixture of excitement and fear about what they’ve done. Have they staked a claim to a new territory or will the Chinese be open to sharing their new-found knowledge? It’s one thing for the New Horizons probe to fly by Ultima Thule and send back images from the edge of our galaxy but quite another for one powerful nation to land a craft somewhere new and remote like the far side of the moon in their own name. How does this relate to Epiphany’s message for our world? It reminds us that God does power differently. God doesn’t dictate or create fear. God comes not to stake a claim – unlike us flying our rockets past distant objects or worrying about the Chinese on the far side of the moon – but to be with us.
And finally the Epiphany story of the magi visiting Bethlehem says something to us about presence. God comes – through these visitors led from the east – to a home. God comes in quiet, surprising ways. God subverts our understandings of authority right, left and centre. God comes to say ‘I’m here and this world belongs to me’ and also ‘and everything I have is yours’.
Jeremiah 33: 14-16 and Luke 21: 25-36
One of our household’s pet hates is when people use words inaccurately. I can predict the raised voice back to the radio or TV when yet another interviewee describes a part of the NHS or public service as being ‘decimated’ by cuts or something similar. Another word which gets bandied around a lot just now, because of the amount of turbulence and disruption in our world and uncertainty about the future, is ‘apocalyptic’. What exactly does the word mean? The dictionary says apocalyptic means: ‘relating to or involving predictions about future disasters and the destruction of the world. …a gloomy and apocalyptic vision of a world hastening towards ruin.’ Both today’s readings have an ‘end of the world as we know it’ feel to them. They come from two different times in Jewish history but they share a focus on the position and future of the capital city, heart of religion, home of the Temple – Jerusalem. The city is seen as a symbol of all that people hope and fear about what’s happening now and what might be around the corner in the very near future.
Capitals always stand for a lot for a whole nation. When a great city falls to enemy attack it usually means the country as a whole feels lost at best and totally defeated at worst. Think of the impact on New York of the destruction of the twin towers on September 11th 2001 – the city, the nation, the world even felt rocked at its foundations. During the Civil War in the mid 17th century the point when it could be said King Charles 1 acknowledged his weakness in terms of public support most glaringly was when he moved his court from the danger of London (where the forces of resistance were centred on the House of Commons) to Oxford. President Assad has determinedly held onto his position in Damascus throughout seven years of civil war in Syria, even though at times some of the suburbs were rebel strongholds.
In today’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem, within days of his impending death. He has just warned his close followers, and those others hanging onto his every word, about the danger of putting too much faith in the great building they’re surrounded by. Jerusalem is going to be attacked and overthrown soon, he tells them, and people will need to flee for their lives as their religious heartland is overtaken by non-believers. But all this is part of something much bigger – part of God’s plan for the judgement and saving of the world, summed up in the coming of a figure Jesus calls the ‘Son of Man’. That’s a title his Jewish hearers would recognise from the apocalyptic texts in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly the book of Daniel: ‘I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.’ (Daniel 7:13)
In the face of this impending disaster Jesus calls on people to stay awake and tuned in to the world around them, so they can pick up the signs of the times. Whereas others may be overcome by fear they need not collapse with fear because God’s judgement is a sign of hope and liberation for them and the world.
What are we to make of a reading like that at the start of Advent, a period of hopeful, attentive waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus? The second reading from the prophet Jeremiah comes from 600 years before the birth of Jesus but is also about darkness and light for the nation and God’s people. The armies of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon are encircling Jerusalem in the final act of an attack that’s been getting worse year on year. He’s already threatened the rightful King Jehoiakim of Judah a few years before, who’d bought a temporary peace by forfeiting some temple silver and allowing members of the royal family and nobility to be taken hostage. Now Jehoiakim has been replaced by a young puppet ruler. The Babylonian king is about to depose that temporary King of Judah, destroy the city and the Temple, and cart off 10,000 of Judah’s finest into slavery. Jeremiah, the prophet, is in prison in the city as the end approaches. He hears words of hope!
Having earned himself a reputation as a voice of doom and gloom when everyone else was pretending the state of Judah was fine, happy and secure, Jeremiah now tops his reputation for being totally countercultural by speaking words of hope as disaster in the form of the Babylonian army is about to strike. Has he finally lost it altogether? Is imprisonment tipping him over into madness? We need to know that in the previous chapter of the book Jeremiah has just done the most ridiculous thing possible for someone in prison whose nation is facing total defeat – he’s invested in a plot of land. Why do that when the bottom is about to fall out of the land market altogether and the area around the capital to become nothing more than place to stand and look at the ruins of a once great city? Well, the easy answer is if God tells you and – like Jeremiah – you’ve found that resisting God gets you nowhere you have to obey. Hear Jeremiah’s explanation from chapter 32 verse 9: ’so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out the price for him, seventeen shekels of silver.’ Talk about pointless gestures – this takes the biscuit, surely. But it allows Jeremiah to hear words of hope about the future, even as the present is falling apart before his very eyes: ‘The days are coming, says the Lord, when I shall bestow on Israel and Judah all the blessings I have promised them.’ Somebody else, in the line of the great King David, will spring up to lead God’s people. He will be a person of righteousness, worth placing your trust in, who restores everything and everyone to their rightful place.
If, like me, you can identify with Jeremiah in prison fearing the worst yet praying for the best today, which field is God encouraging you to go out and buy? Is there something you can do to remind yourself of the way God’s plans operate on a totally different time scale from ours, and God’s solutions come at the problems with a very different perspective and understanding too? Is there a place where you feel close to God – somewhere you might return to either literally or in your prayerful imagination while you ponder the answer to these questions – a garden, a graveyard, a sea shore, a hilltop, a special seat, a favourite poem, a dining table surrounded by much loved guests? Where is your field? I have two fields I think of in answer to this. One is in the Kidron valley, on the edge of Jerusalem. Martin and I went there on a trip to Israel and Palestine 8 years ago. It was bought over 60 years ago by Chiara Lubich, founder of the international spirituality and unity Focolare movement and is near the place where tradition says Jesus was imprisoned overnight after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. The dream is that one day it might be a place where people of all faiths and none could build unity. It has never been possible yet for planning permission to be given for any building to happen there. Building in Jerusalem is a highly political and contentious thing to do. The bare ground is a silent symbol of that hope. I saw my other field from a distance, on a Welsh hillside, when Martin and I were on holiday a few days ago. It reminded me of this poem ‘The bright field’ by Welsh clergyman R. S. Thomas.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
John 18: 33-47 and Revelation 1. 4b-8