Sermons

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.

Sermon Date

Sunday 12th January 2020
Sunday 5th January 2020 (Epiphany Eve)
Sunday 15th December 2019
Sunday 8th December 2019
Sunday 1st December 2019

Forthcoming Church Services

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Sunday 12th January 2020

Isaiah 42: 1-9 and Matthew 3: 13-17

Our journey through Matthew’s gospel continues this week as we find ourselves transported from last week’s Epiphany scenes. Then we were travelling from Persia with the wise men, students of the stars, to find the new-born King of the Jews and offer him worship. We saw up close and personal the threat posed to Jesus and his family by the insecure, violent Jewish ruler King Herod. We saw how Matthew’s birth account acts as a trailer for the story to come. We saw how the gospel writer’s focus on Jesus as bringing light, purity, hope and love from God signals a new start for the whole world. We recognised that the light of Jesus is not for Jews alone but for anyone and everyone who wants to come towards it. This is something new – putting into action the promises of the prophets of old, who foresaw that the nation of Israel had a special part to play in God’s plans to bring people of all nations and races together in worship around a source of light for everyone.
Today’s gospel passage takes the story years ahead and puts us in very new surroundings. We are not in the palace, the temple or the streets of Jerusalem and not in a house in Bethlehem either. We are in the Judaean wilderness, a place the scriptures associate with trying to find God. The wilderness is a barren, lonely and unforgiving place. It’s blistering hot by day and cold at night. It’s a tough place to survive because there’s little to eat and scant sources of water. You only go to the wilderness for two reasons – either you’re running away from things and people you can’t handle or you have a real desire to meet God in a place where there’s no obvious distractions to get in the way. The Hebrew scriptures show us many stories of people of all kinds, including prophets, who escape to the wilderness and discover they can’t control what will happen to them once there. Moses and the Israelites enter the wilderness on their escape from slavery in Egypt because it’s a place of safety from those who might want to take them back to serve Pharaoh. They soon find the challenges of learning to worship God properly together and of surviving in terms of food and water in this barren, unforgiving place. When they rely on God’s help and listen to Moses things go well. When they make their own plans and listen to other leaders things go badly. No wonder it takes them two generations – 40 years – before God judges them ready to enter the promised land. All the lessons the wilderness can teach are summed up in the way being there can build our relationship with God. Left with nobody else to rely on, and no distractions, the wilderness can teach us how to rely on God for our needs both practical and spiritual. Go away on holiday with family or friends and you soon discover who you can trust to read your mood, understand what you’d like to do next, and be a good, relaxing companion. In the wilderness we build our closeness to God as a companion. As we grow in trust we can test and deepen our bond with God, discovering his reliable and comforting presence in the bad as well as the good times.
In Matthew, chapter 3, John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus has been in the wilderness before announcing his message: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you!’ He’s drawn visitors from Jerusalem, Judaea and the Jordan valley. They’ve come to see the spectacle by the riverbank, as penitent people follow John into the water and are washed clean confessing their sins. They’ve also seen John giving a strong verbal going over to those Pharisees and Sadducees who’ve come for baptism. He’s scathing in questioning their motivation. ‘What are you doing here? Who told you about baptism for forgiveness? What makes you think you’re the first born of Abraham – the big players in God’s story?’ Someone else is due to come after him, John says, someone who is mightier than he is and who he’s unworthy to serve in the most menial ways such as removing his sandals. His baptism is not with water but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He is going to sort out the true believers from those going through the motions, the wheat from the chaff. Sit up and listen. Keep your eyes open for his arrival. The stage is set for the entrance of this mysterious, unnamed figure.
Prepare for another moment of epiphany, of special revelation from God. It’s at this moment that Matthew’s gospel first introduces us to the adult Jesus, arriving by the Jordan river from Galilee and approaching John for baptism. We are given no details of the life he’s lived since, as a small child, his family were forced into refugee status in Egypt to protect their special child from Herod’s jealousy. There’s a parallel the gospel writer wants us to spot between the return home of the former slaves, who enter the promised land after the death of Moses from the wilderness by crossing the river Jordan. Here, Jesus the new embodiment of Israel, enters his public ministry from the wilderness by the banks of the Jordan. Jesus is the new Moses – the new leader, the new channel for God’s guidance and teaching, the new one to watch. He may not look very significant, this young man from Nazareth, but John the Baptist recognises at once that he is the one everyone has been waiting for. And that Jesus, of all people, doesn’t need baptism for forgiveness.
I think our first possible lesson from this week’s reading relates to the question why does Jesus get baptised? Why does he tell his cousin this must happen to fulfil what God requires? The gospel writer wants us to see Jesus submitting to what he understands to be God’s purposes from the very first moment we meet him. The first words we hear from his lips are about doing what God wants so other people can see faith in action. He knows it’s important for people to watch him going down below the waters of the Jordan and coming up washed clean, as they have done. Sometimes in life we know something may not be strictly necessary but we go through with it because of the significance it has for others. It helps them to move forward. It allows other things to happen. Jesus is not worried about justifying himself. He’s no need to have a public discussion with John about his personal purity. He doesn’t have to demonstrate his superiority by agreeing with John’s misgivings and becoming the baptiser himself.  He goes ahead with baptism by John as a sign of obedience to God.
The second lesson I draw from this passage is about where things happen. I like to know the place I’m going to be in for a special moment, so I can prepare how I’ll speak and behave much better in my imagination. Surely you wouldn’t want the wilderness as the place to launch a public, worldwide ministry? It’s away from other people, inhospitable, empty and uncomfortable. That things start for Jesus in this place, on the margins, in the place inhabited by people who are dispossessed, restless, outcast and spiritually searching, tells us a lot about the ministry Jesus has ahead of him. We’re not called to choose our favourite place as the one where we serve God. We must be willing to go where God wants and needs things to happen.
Finally, this story tells us something about God’s approval and how it comes. The gospel tells us a dove descends – a sign of peace – and a voice from heaven says: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I take delight.’ It’s not exactly a dramatic speech – more a word of reassurance and calm pleasure from God. There is nothing Hollywood going on here, no choirs of the heavenly hosts or earth splitting tremors beneath people’s feet. I think of the words of the hymn which speaks of the voice of Jesus as contentment and his presence as balm. There is a lot of painful, dramatic, heavy going, demanding, ministry ahead for Jesus. God, his heavenly Father and ours, simply expresses gentle, warm delight in the moment. We don’t need millions of followers on twitter to tell us we’ve done something good. God’s quiet, undramatic approval can sometimes fill our hearts and minds and reassure us we’re on the right track.

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Sunday 5th January 2020 (Epiphany Eve)

Isaiah 60: 1-6 and Matthew 2: 1-12

A new year has started and we’re off on the next round of whatever lies in store for each one of us in the months to come. In all the tidying up from Christmas – the church tree will be taken down and the decorations and lights put away for another year very soon now – it’s easy for us to forget Epiphany, the other great Christian festival which happens tomorrow. An epiphany is a moment when something is seen clearly. It’s the big reveal moment of the story – the instant when the disguises fall to the ground, the lights get turned on full and we’re suddenly able to see the true identity of those in front of us. For the early church the festival of epiphany was all about celebrating the baptism of Jesus. It is during this moment, at the start of his public ministry, that for the first time the adult Jesus is seen by others beyond his close family to be God’s special one, God’s son, the Messiah. Epiphany, Easter and Pentecost were the big three celebrations of the Christian church year for the first Christians. It wasn’t until early in the fourth century when it was decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus as well, with a Christ Mass communion to coincide with the winter solstice. Over time, we’ve come to associate Epiphany more with the final episode of the Christmas story, the arrival of wise men from the east, which has attached itself more strongly to the festival than the baptism story. Matthew’s telling of these events flags up very strongly the themes the gospel writer is going to be telling us about over the rest of this church year. The start of chapter two is like a trailer for the main story we’re going to be seeing. It whets our appetite for the big drama and themes to look out for as the life of Jesus unfolds, and gets us tuned in to the perspective Matthew is bringing to his version of the good news about Jesus Christ.
Turn up the colour and brightness on the screen because exotic characters from ‘lands afar’ are about to enter. In Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus there have been no Roman census, no overcrowded lodgings in Bethlehem, no heavenly hosts giving messages in the middle of the night and no arrival of unannounced shepherds to see the new baby and tell anyone who will listen what an exciting moment this is. Instead we have magi, visitors from the east, whose studies of the stars have led them to believe a special event is happening over in Palestine. According to Tom Wright’s commentary on Matthew’s gospel there were three times in the year 7 BC when the planets Jupiter and Saturn were in conjunction. Jupiter was associated by people with royalty and Saturn with the Jews. It wouldn’t have been a big leap for an astrologer or astronomer (making predictions from the stars and studying their movements were the same thing at this time) to guess that the bright star over Palestine could indicate a new birth of Jewish royalty. So far so good. But here these wise men from Persia – probably followers of Zoroastrianism – take a wrong turn with their camel train. They decide, perhaps not surprisingly but very dangerously, to go to Jerusalem to find out the meaning of the bright light in the east they’ve been drawn to explain. In doing so they unwittingly enter the most dangerous place they could possibly choose to go. At this stage in the story we might just notice that Matthew hasn’t given us any time frame for what’s happening. With Luke’s version we know the first visitors arrive to greet the newborn child on the very night of Jesus’ birth. If these magi have had to cover the distance from faraway Persia they will have been on the road for weeks if not months by this stage. The images of shepherds on one side and magi on the other which we see in old masters and put together in our Christmas cards and nativity scenes aren’t at all like the story as Matthew conveys it.
As the visitors enter the capital city they should pick up the signals of anxiety and stress fast, even if they’ve walked into the trap without noticing the risk. Their first words are not the wisest way to introduce themselves in a place where they’re strangers and don’t know the ropes: ‘Where is the new-born king of the Jews? We observed the rising of his star, and we have come to pay him homage.’ Do they think there’s a new baby in the palace, a son of Herod the king, and they’re the first ones to know about it? Surely they know that issues about who is going to succeed to the throne next, and who’s the legitimate heir of the king or queen on the throne at the time, are the biggest causes of murder, intrigue and upheaval in public leadership all across the nations at this point in history. If they’re really so naïve as to think their question is perfectly innocent then they’re about to find out the error of their ways fast. Like all oppressive dictators, Herod is jumpy and insecure. It doesn’t take much to get him on edge and as Matthew tells us very clearly when Herod is disturbed all the other people in Jerusalem need to be on their guard too because they’re at risk as well. ‘Watch out – he’s dangerous in this mood.’
Hats off to the chief priests and scribes who are asked to go away and check the records who confirm – however shaky their voices – that Bethlehem not Jerusalem is the place where the prophets foretell the Messiah will be born. They at least are being honest unlike Herod who tells the magi to come back from their visit via his palace so he too, in due course, can pay homage to the new king. As if…
In the final scene of the story the magi do arrive, find Jesus and his family and truly pay homage to him. They show their recognition that this is a very significant child and present from their treasure chests gold, frankincense and myrrh – exactly the sort of presents you give to someone royal.  That image is one the gospel writer wants us to remember from the trailer.  Do you ever do that when you’re watching a film? You get to a moment you saw in the trailer and think ‘I know what it means now’ when you see it in the context of the whole film? This image of those visitors kneeling before the baby and presenting their gifts, signifies for the gospel writer and for us the whole world recognising the significance of this small, unknown baby in Bethlehem. The real king of the Jews is a vulnerable baby and he is hidden in plain sight of King Herod. Herod would gladly kill Jesus if he got the chance. There are just a few miles between them. It’s not as if Bethlehem is the back of beyond in relation to Jerusalem but insecure Herod would rather stay safe in his palace than go and hunt himself. He’s given his visitors from the east instructions to come back and tell him how to find the baby so he too can go and pay homage.
The magi, thankfully, are not that gullible. They have learned something. They have seen something of light, purity and hope in this family and the new little boy and have decided to protect the family of Jesus by not returning to Herod and going home another way. They fail to give Herod directions as to how to find the child. Notice that Matthew hasn’t actually given us any timescale for this story. As you read on in the gospel you see that Herod recognises he’s not found the child and later orders all baby boys under the age of two in Bethlehem are to be killed. This suggests that the visit of the magi and the slaughter of the innocents as we sometimes call it could well be taking place at some time in the first two years of Jesus’s life, not immediately at the time of his birth.
In all the events that are going o unfold in the gospel that baby is going to grow into an adult who brings before people a special sense of God’s presence and light and love and draws from them, surprising them as it happens, a sense of a desire to bow the knee and honour God within this person they meet. People are going to get from Jesus a sense of brightness, light, blue skies and joy in living which will be in contrast to what’s happening a few miles away in Herod’s palace in the darkness and the shadows, the deception, lies and intrigue and the choices that are made without God at the heart of them contrary to God’s purposes. All of that battle between light and darkness is going to carry on playing out throughout Matthew’s gospel.
But that isn’t all there is. There’s one another major, amazing thing that Matthew is setting up for us in this trailer which is that Jesus has been born King of the Jews but not just for the Jews alone. This is the king who is there for everyone. Jesus is someone who will draw people to him and who at the end of his ministry will send out his disciples to take the good news to all nations – not just to those who are like us, not just to those who seem to have been born in the right place or have the right genealogy but to anyone and everyone.
It’s a story with global relevance. It begins in a very small and apparently hidden way in a particular place with a limited number of individuals who actually go home again. What has happened to those magi? We have no idea. But they symbolise in Matthew’s gospel those who have encountered something new about God’s love through Jesus.  The empire, of course, is going to strike back. It always does. But the battle will go on – the battle between light and darkness. And the New Testament story which Matthew is going to unfold for us is how Jesus draws together a new family, a new community, honouring God and open to all with eyes to see and ears to hear.

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Sunday 15th December 2019

Isaiah 35: 1-10 and Matthew 11: 2-11

As former prime minister Harold Wilson once memorably said, ‘A week is a long time in politics.’ If you’re one of those people who takes a great deal of interest in the state of the nation, and the role of the government, you’ll have had a busy time in the past seven days trying to keep up with events. On the other hand if you’re someone who says: ‘No matter what I do or say the people who run the world just get on with doing their thing. Nothing the politicians have promised or lied about or threatened is going to make much difference in the end to me and mine.’ then you’re hoping all the fuss will die down now so you can get on with life uninterrupted.
There’s a lot of political background to today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel and it helps to know this because over recent weeks we’ve been skipping around in the story in a rather confusing way. Last week we were with John the Baptist alongside the river Jordan, as he calls on people to change their lives and relationship with God, symbolizing that by washing them clean in the water. In chapter three of Matthew’s gospel John appears in the Judean wilderness in the clothes of a prophet and behaves like a latter-day Elijah. His preaching demands a response from those who listen. Things can’t go on as they are. He warns people of God’s anger over their behaviour and calls on them to bear good fruit in the future. He announces that one is coming after him who will baptise them not with water but ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’. Now, today, we skip on to Matthew chapter 11 by which time the gospel has shown us a lot about Jesus. We’re clear now that we’re meeting John’s ‘one who comes after me’, and that Jesus is doing the saying the sort of things that show God is working powerfully through him. Why, then, is John the Baptist in any doubt that Jesus is God’s chosen one, the Messiah, the promised one? What’s going on when John sends his own disciples to ask: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?’ It helps to know that by this point John is being held in prison because his ministry is seen as a political threat exposing the Jewish puppet ruler Herod’s own faults and abuses of power. Cut off from news and deprived of freedom, as John is by this stage, he could be wondering if he’s got things wrong in seeing Jesus as the one God has sent. Alternatively, John could be sending his disciples with a question to give Jesus a fresh platform for saying who he is. What’s more interesting than the motive is the question.
John the Baptist’s message to his cousin from prison gives us permission openly to acknowledge the questions we all share, at different times, about the identity and reality of Jesus. We can be kept in virtual prison by different events in our lives, feeling ourselves to be deprived of news, unsure about who to trust, forgotten by the world and deeply stressed as to where we’re headed in the future. When all or some of this happens to us we can start to wonder if all the things we thought we could believe and trust in about Jesus were actually illusory. If we’ve made one, great, ridiculous mistake in taking a step of faith, calling Jesus ‘Lord’ and putting our hand in his then in times of darkness and loss of confidence we need to know that for sure. It would be earth shattering to discover this, but better that than continuing to put our trust in a charlatan, a purveyor of empty promises, a confidence trickster, a liar and a cheat. Is Jesus the one or should we go back to looking for another saviour? There are plenty of options around. We could follow another faith leader, a political leader, a philosopher, an outstanding entertainer, an inspirational sports coach, a top economist, an environmental champion, a great writer or artist. Why should we stay with Jesus of Nazareth? When we’re in this frame of mind and questioning the truth about Jesus it’s the challenge of the way he behaves that can be as off putting and disturbing for us as it always has been for his followers over the centuries. Why does he choose, so unreasonably, to emphasise love and renewal over judgement and condemnation? We would like him to side-line and point the finger at those whom we feel undermined, misunderstood and bullied by. It would be easier to believe in him if he were not so radically willing to receive a whole load of other people, not of our choosing and not to our personal taste, into God’s kingdom. It would allow us a quieter life if his clear-eyed understanding of us, his ability to see into our real thoughts and feelings, were not so unsettling in its effects. It’s one thing to become a disciple. It’s quite another to find ourselves being changed in the process – being challenged to let go of our bad habits, being loved into a new openness, mercy and patience, having the blinkers and prejudices and resistance to ideas and people we’ve had for so long questioned and lovingly subverted. Above all, when we’re in prison in faith terms, we wish Jesus’s way of loving were not so powerfully simple and deeply unsettling.  When we can’t even love ourselves in the right way how can we learn to love our enemies and do good to those who would harm us?
The disciples of John the Baptist get their answer loud and clear. ‘Tell him,’ Jesus says in effect, ‘that the blind are given back their sight, the lame walk again, the lepers are healed, the deaf get back their hearing, the dead are raised to life and the oppressed and wretched people at the bottom of the pile discover that God is on their side not on their backs.’ These are the signs of the Messiah at work, of God acting, speaking, healing and transforming the world through the hands and feet, the words and actions of Jesus of Nazareth. John’s question is answered conclusively but not, perhaps, in the way he expects.
The challenge now, for us, is to see how and where God is at work in, around and through us bringing signs of his rule breaking through into the here and now. This can confirm for us that Jesus has been at work in our communities, helping us to trust that God will continue to be with us in the future. Here are some of my pieces of good news, evidence of God’s rule breaking into our experience to bring new life, healing, hope and right relationships.
One thing that has been very powerfully present in recent trustee meetings for Source Youthwork has been the sharing of good news by Matt Williamson, Gemma Tuson and Jo Stansby and by those who volunteer regularly in the after school and evening cafes. It’s not always possible to know what a big change is, in the life of a young person, and you need to understand their story to appreciate when things are moving. Up close and personal we hear stories of those who are changing their behaviour, adjusting their view of the world, discovering gifts within them and learning how to support others in new ways. Very often change happens slowly. It’s only when a crisis comes – when one youngster blows their top and the others in the group help to pick up the pieces and support those who have to handle things – that you can see how some of them have matured and grown.
It was a real moment of joy for many of us to have been able to bring all of that together here on Tuesday night, with the Christmas celebration and community carols held with Wilmslow High School in the presence of the school choir, the school band, staff, pupils, parents and volunteers and friends of Wilmslow Youth, of this church and Life Church Wilmslow. How long had that event been in the making?  At a quick guess 10 years – and the rest. There’s many years of praying and hoping, of networking and reaching out behind that short hour of carols, readings and sharing. And it won’t end there. There’s already talk of another one next year.
Then there’s the individuals and families that are touched by the love and welcome of Thursday Tots, of Messy Church, of Monday Fellowship, of the badminton group, the gardeners team, the quilters, the Luncheon Club and the undercroft café. The list goes on and the boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ gets beautifully blurred when you start to think about it. People’s lives are being touched by God’s love through us. It’s good news. It has a history because this hasn’t happened overnight and it’s the bearing of fruit from seeds planted years ago.  It has a ‘here and now’, in-the-present quality for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. It has a future too – one we can’t clearly predict but which has new partnerships, new opportunities, new joys and challenges ahead for us all.

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Sunday 8th December 2019

Isaiah 11: 1-10 and Matthew 3: 1-12

If you can believe the opinion polls the word is that lots of voters in this General Election are still undecided. I wonder if we’ve grown reluctant to tell pollsters what we really think about things – not trusting the voice on the end of the phone any longer, or the person who’s apparently sent you an email, is just one of the signs of undermined trust that’s grown a lot more significant in recent years. We know that information is power, too, and that those who manipulate what we tell them are hard to shout down. By sharing information about where we live, where we bank, or what we think about some major issue, we’re giving someone a tool they may abuse to damage us or to argue a case we don’t agree with. Perhaps it’s understandable that so many people now feel disenchanted about politics in general. Feeling you can’t trust others is not a good experience. It makes you look at the whole of life differently. It takes the shine off even happy moments, undermines our hope and makes us doubt whether what we’ve worked for and invested in matters at all.
There is plenty of lost trust, damaged hope and searching for truth going on in today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel. It’s set at a moment in the history of first century Palestine just before the beginning of Jesus’s adult ministry. We talk about the darkness of night being deepest just before dawn. That’s the experience of many Jewish people at this moment. It’s a time when many people are asking deep questions about God and the future – a similar period of tension to the one we heard about in last week’s passage, which came from just before the end of Jesus’s ministry. Herod, the Jewish ruler who had been on the throne at the time of Jesus’ birth, had died about AD 4. Ten years after that the armies of the Roman Empire had arrived to set up occupation in Palestine, and things have been getting steadily worse for ordinary people ever since. The Romans want to control Judea because it gives them a strategic base in the eastern Mediterranean. Their armies have already crushed most opposition to the north and west of Rome in Europe, including Gaul and Britain, so going beyond Greece into the Middle East has been the next obvious step. You don’t build a big army and then stop using it. Palestine is crawling with Romans and the natives are restless. The struggle against Rome is about resistance to their control over all aspects of people’s lives – taxes, where you live, what buildings are put up, where you’re forced into labour or asked questions as you journey on the roads. Nothing is free from their interference. They are stripping Judea of its wealth and its future, hand over fist, and people are powerless to stop them. But even worse is what your own religious leaders are doing. They may speak your language but the Pharisees and Sadducees are as bad as the Romans if not worse. Shouldn’t they know better? What they doing? They are persecuting their fellow Jewish citizens with their distorted, self-serving version of faith, lording it over others with their smug holiness and keeping the poor down. They are making everyone exhausted with their continual criticism and self-righteousness. Is that really what God wants?
‘Not them again!  I can’t listen to them any longer. I don’t believe a word they say. Turn the sound down. Press delete. Take no notice.’ That’s how we respond when we’ve lost trust and have disengaged from events around us. Suddenly, out of nowhere, another voice comes down the line. It’s a voice that reminds us of words we’d almost forgotten, familiar words from our childhood, words we trusted once and that fill us with energy and a tiny, bright spark of hope. It’s a sound that comes out of the silent emptiness of the wilderness  in central Judea, where nobody goes unless they want to die or find God: “A voice cries in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord; clear a straight path for him.’” Isn’t that what the prophet Isaiah said? He was the one who spoke to God’s people of freedom, of another way of seeing the future, of sharing our faith in such a way that others would come to the one God of all the world and light would overcome the darkness. Crowds come out to hear the message and find a man who looks like Elijah reborn, with a strong message.
John the Baptist’s words hit home for people who have been living with half-truths and lies for too long. People are drawn to his willingness to tell the truth, to say things as he sees them, and not to shy away from confronting the questions in everyone’s hearts which they’re too scared to put on their lips. When he sees Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowds coming to the water’s edge for baptism in the Jordan he calls them out: ‘What are you doing here? What makes you think it’s time to change your lives? Don’t come and get washed clean only to go away again and carry on the same way, oppressing your brothers and sisters.’ John tells it like it is. He is dangerously unafraid. The authorities can’t intimidate him. It’s plain he will not die peacefully in his bed of old age if he carries on taking risks like this.
What is so frightening and attractive about John is his closeness to God. He knows how much God weeps over the mistakes and hypocrisy of his people. He sees how much crookedness and distortion there is in people’s life paths, their words, their intentions and actions. God doesn’t want things to be like this. God wants us to honour truth, to treat one another in the same loving and merciful way that we have been treated by God, and so to bear good fruit for all to see. But we can’t get there without first facing the truth about who we are and what we’ve done to each other. God is also the one who judges. If the world is to change then somewhere, somehow, we have to realise the faults within our own lives and be able to call out the faults of others too. It’s always much easier for us to see who else needs to be judged. We don’t enjoy admitting that we too, stand in need of judgement sometimes. John the Baptist comes to remind us that deliberately fudging the facts, distorting the truth, and telling lies, is wrong. God knows exactly what we think, feel and intend, even if we may pull the wool over the eyes of others at times.
We stand alongside John and pray with him for a new beginning in the light of the damage that has been done to us and the damage we’ve done to others. He leads us down into the waters of the Jordan to be washed clean by him. We know this is deeply symbolic. It’s a reminder of the moment when, after 40 years of wandering and lostness on the way home from Egypt, the Israelites arrived on the edge of the Promised Land and needed to cross the river. We come up again from the waters and we know this moment is the start of the rest of our life. Now we’re ready to hear what God’s new society – God’s kingdom – is going to look like, to see the words of the prophet Isaiah come alive before our very eyes. The story is about to start in a new way. Didn’t somebody say that John has a cousin – Jesus of Nazareth? Perhaps he is the one who’s going to bring the Holy Spirit and fire. This story is only just beginning.

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Sunday 1st December 2019

Isaiah 2: 1-5 and Matthew 24: 36-44

This worship space was not far off being full yesterday afternoon and it was tempting to remind people that it would be open this morning too.  We hosted the Churches Together in Wilmslow election hustings for Tatton constituency again, and there was quite a high number of church-related people in the audience, along with active individuals who do a fair bit in the community. What often saddens me about these events – and with one or two exceptions yesterday was no different – is the way we seem to spend so much time speaking about short term issues. Politicians of all shades have problems committing to projects that will bear little fruit until a few years down the line. They want instant fixes – probably because so many of us do, too. The only moment when that tendency was challenged came in the first question, from a young girl, which was about climate change and how the politicians would change the damaging direction of travel towards global warming and destruction of this planet where we live. I came away wondering if we should have had an upper age limit for those asking questions, perhaps of 25 years old, as the quality of the debate for me peaked early and was pretty disappointing from that moment on.
Theologians are comfortable about living in more than one time zone simultaneously. They help us to  understand the need to do more than simply sort out our needs in the here and now.  Perhaps that’s because God is able to operate in multiple time zones – past, present and to come. Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, at the start of a new church year, helps us to focus on the challenge of living in the here and now and the future at the same time.  Jesus is teaching in Jerusalem, in the final days of his life before his arrest, and he’s just spoken about the future destruction of the temple. The disciples are now sitting with their teacher and leader, on the mount of Olives, looking over towards the city and they’ve asked Jesus two questions: ‘Tell us, when will this happen? And what will be sign of the your coming and the end of the age?’ His answer is much more about the end times, and the trials they will face for their faith in him, than about the fate of the temple. All of the political, religious, social and climate upheavals he foretells to them will be forerunners for the return of the Son of Man, he says. Nobody can accurately predict and day and time when the Son of Man comes. The important thing the gospel writer wants his first century audience to hear is that they’re not to sit back and do nothing while they wait for Jesus to return. The Messiah has already brought salvation to the world and we must act in the light of that good news, rather than kicking our heels idly, because God has more to do and say sometime in the future. Matthew’s version of this teaching of Jesus has several elements that are not there in the other gospels.  He’s writing 50 years after the death of Jesus for young churches trying to understand what it means that Jesus was alive in God the Father before his birth on earth, that he lived, died and rose again, and that he promised he would come again later in history to fulfil God’s plans.
For one thing, we find Matthew’s Jesus reminding us of the example set by Noah for God’s people. Genesis in the Hebrew scriptures tells us the story of this mythical figure from the earliest days of the Jewish people, who listens to God and prepares for the coming flood by building an ark. All around him are people enjoying life and behaving completely selfishly. When the waters rise rapidly these people drown while Noah, his family, and the animals he’s saved are the only ones to survive. The message is clear: ‘Noah survived by listening to God, doing what he was told and being faithful. We must do the same.’ The second coming will mean judgement and separation, as Matthew’s Jesus makes clear with this vivid picture of pairs of figures, in the field or at the grinding stone in the mill, where one is taken and the other left. ‘Stay awake’, is the clear message, for only by being vigilant will you know when the end times are upon you. However prepared you may feel for what the future holds, God the Father will surprise you, says Jesus. You cannot know when things are going to happen.
Matthew’s gospel alone then goes on to show Jesus telling four parables about waiting and faithfulness. There’s a faithful servant who gets on with his work while his master is away, unlike others around him. There are ten bridesmaids who bring enough oil for their lamps so they can go into the feast with the bridegroom when he arrives, while ten others run out of oil and are shut out. There’s two faithful slaves who are given five and two bags of gold by their master and invest them well, while another panics and buries his one bag in the ground, Finally Jesus tells a parable about judgement in which the way we have treated others in times of distress – the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked and imprisoned – is seen to be the way we treat Jesus himself. The gospel writer wants us to be fully involved in the needs of those around us, not distant and unengaged, interested only in our own salvation. We are not to make waiting for a future return of the Son of Man an excuse for failing to witness to and encourage any signs of God’s rule of peace with justice, in the here and now. We are to live in more than one time zone at the same time – the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of God – which are able to happen alongside each other.
These past few days the executive of the World Council of Churches has been meeting. Its general secretary Revd. Dr Olav Fykse Tveit talked about the threats faced by the whole world at this moment. He said: “The Christmas message is for everybody and about everybody. We trust in and are entrusted with God’s care for justice, peace, and our future – particularly the future of our children – and grandchildren—for all who come after us. We are in an urgent, critical situation in the world. The environment and future conditions for human life and all living organisms are threatened.” He also said the world is also facing another threat, from growing racism: “I want to emphasize here that the problem of racism is growing quickly in many, if not all, parts of the world.” Tveit also expressed concern about the way in which religion is increasingly abused to legitimize conflict and violence. “We have to deal with this in mutual accountability to one another for how our traditions and holy texts bring wisdom and hope, but also have been used to motivate conflicts and oppression. We are all worried that there is a significant increase in hate-speech against religious groups, violence and several terrorist attacks on sanctuaries and people praying there.”
The meeting issued seven public statements on global issues, some of which hardly got a look in at all at yesterday’s local hustings, but are worthy of our attention.  Firstly it celebrated the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which only one country – the United States – has so far failed to ratify. Then it addressed the climate crisis, pointing out the way children, young people and ordinary citizens have demonstrated about this: “The time for debate and disputation of established scientific facts is long over. We will all be held to account for our inaction and our disastrous stewardship of this precious and unique planet.” A third statement calls for end to conflict in Syria, and raised prayers for peace after more than eight tragic years of death, destruction and displacement. “In this context of fresh violence and upheaval, along with other communities in the area, Christian communities are also suffering.”
Another statement expressed deep concern over turmoil in Latin America where Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay, Peru and Argentina have all experienced mass protests and political crises shaking their governments, economies and societies, in some cases resulting in violent clashes and deaths.
A fifth statement says that statelessness must be eradicated so that people will no longer live in a situation of legal limbo. “Children constitute over a third of the global stateless population, and in the countries with the 20 largest stateless populations, approximately 70,000 stateless children are born each year. Risks of statelessness are often increased in the context of forced displacement and migration.”
Another statement expressed deep regret over the USA’s stance on West Bank settlements, reaffirming the WCC’s opposition to the establishment and expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory occupied since 1967.“The Executive Committee deeply regrets the announcement on 18 November that in the opinion of the United States government the ‘establishment of Israeli civilian settlements in the West Bank is not per se inconsistent with international law.’ This announcement reverses longstanding US government policy, and has put the US at direct odds with the vast weight of international legal opinion and with the long-established policy of the international community through the United Nations,” the WCC statement reads. Deeper instability in the Holy Land, I would add, is a danger for us all.
Finally the WCC executive expressed grave concern about the ethical implications of automated weapons systems – drones and the like. “Such weapons, if developed to be fully autonomous, would make decisions on who lives and who dies. All meaningful real-time human control would be eliminated, and likewise the direct legal, ethical and moral responsibility and accountability for such decision-making.”
I wonder where all to this leaves us here and now, as the General Election looms.  We must hope and pray that whoever forms the next government will recognise the longer-term needs of our nation and our world rather than going for short term gain. We can keep living our lives as followers of Jesus with an eye on the more than the next five minutes for us and those we like. We need to invest in the future and lay solid foundations for what we’re doing in the here now.  At the same time we need to be light enough of foot, mind and spirit to respond to challenges that come up out of nowhere. Then we’ll be able, together to follow faithfully God’s guidance, even when it surprises and challenges us.

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