Third Sunday of Lent 2019

Brian Reader

Isaiah 55.1-9; Ps63.1-9; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to God, for he will abundantly pardon”

I remember using those sentences from our first reading from Isaiah to open Evening Pray in Wrexham, and I believe them to be very appropriate for today, the Third Sunday of Lent. While the Old Testament lesson is of good news, the epistle and Gospel are much darker in tone.

Let us consider the passage from Isaiah, which at first reading, does not appear to make much sense in today’s world. Who’s ever known anyone going to a super market to buy food without money or a credit card? It is unthinkable. In fact when I compared the Lent Lunch we enjoyed last Thursday to a ‘feast without price’, Veronica was very quick to remind us that there was a basket for donations for the ‘New Kitchen Fund’. So why, and for whom was the passage written? First a bit of explanation. Many theologians reckon that the Book of Isaiah is made up of three books, not just one, and that this passage is most of the final hymn of the portion of the Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55). It dates from the sixth century B.C.E., at the dawn of Persian rule, and it is encouraging exiles living outside of Judah to uproot themselves, and return to a land their generation had never known, so that they could reclaim their ancestral home. Although it was a real event in an earthly world, the Babylonian exile of the Jews was portrayed in Scripture with such moving imagination that later readers saw in it much more than history. It describes in eloquent poetry a practical return from exile in such spiritual terms that it came to be read as describing the spiritual journey of every believer from their various exiles returning to their home in God. To reinforce this, Second Isaiah talks about, the journey: to reclaim the legacy of Abraham and Sarah; to re-enact the exodus from Egypt so many centuries before; and to live out Israel’s role as God’s own creation.

Here in chapter 55 the poet imagines repatriation as welcome to a bountiful feast of satisfying foods, hosted by none other than God. The image of Judah’s land as one “flowing with milk and honey” is implicit in this invitation. So what did people have to do so that they could receive God’s bounty? They must thirst. In other words they must want God’s grace.

Those who are satisfied with the world and its enjoyments, and do not seek for happiness in the favour of God, and those that rely upon the merit of their own works, and see no need for Christ and his righteousness, they don’t thirst. They have no sense of their need. These are not worried about the fate of their souls, and see no reason to seek and follow Christ.

But those that thirst are invited to the waters, as those that labour, and are heavy-laden, are invited to Christ for rest. Note, Where God gives grace, he first gives a thirsting for it; and, where he has given a thirsting for it, he will then give His Grace. For those of you still wondering about food and drink, bread and wine, without money, well these are heavenly gifts that have already been paid for by Christ on the cross.

Moving on, instead of these images of great abundance in Isaiah and in our Psalm, our gospel lesson from Luke has a contrasting image of scarcity. In our gospel lesson, Jesus told a story about a landowner who was concerned about a fig tree that wasn’t growing figs (which is what a fig tree is supposed to do). The landowner wanted to chop the tree down right there and then, but the gardener suggested the tree be given a bit more time, a bit more cultivation, a bit more fertiliser, and a bit more work. The desired result, of course, was for the tree to produce fruit, for the tree to come up with the figs. Jesus then left the story open-ended. We never heard whether the tree came up with the figs, or whether it was cut down a year later. The moral of this little story is that we too are expected to produce fruit, the fruits of the Spirit. In any event, we have this contrast between passages about celebrating abundance and a passage about coping with scarcity.

In our epistle Paul begins his passage on temptation by issuing a series of warnings to the Corinthians on the dangers that might befall the believer through the temptations of this world. And he uses God’s people in the wilderness of the Old Testament as their example. These were people who had claimed the covenant promises of God! They had witnessed God’s presence! They had a visible mark of the presence of God in their midst. By day He led them by a cloud, and by night by a pillar of fire! They had first-hand knowledge of God’s deliverance! They had witnessed the Red Sea being parted, so that they could cross over on dry land! They had the sign and seal of God’s love. They had all been ‘baptised under the cloud’ and had enjoyed the blessing of having a great leader – Moses! They were set apart for God’s service, and they had been called to be servants of God, within His chosen people. They enjoyed spiritual refreshment and sustenance, and through their wilderness journey the Lord had been the source of their meat and drink. Despite all that God had done for them, they rebelled, and God withdrew His blessing from them.

Is it not the same today? Think of all that the Lord has done for us as individual believers and as members of His Church! Have we not been unfaithful and is the church of today, not guilty of backsliding? What lessons can be learnt?

The Israelites were redeemed, they were brought out of slavery, but they were tempted, and they yielded to that temptation and became disobedient to God! Because of their disobedience, God prevented most of them from entering the Promised Land, and they perished in the wilderness! How many bright Christians have ‘perished in the wilderness?’ How many have started off serving God and been enthusiastic about His work and His will, and have fallen into temptation and have become disobedient and useless in the Christian call?

Paul gives a very stark warning about being over confident in one’s self. Here is the scenario. There may be one who is religious, who attends at public worship, who lives a decent and, in their eyes – a God fearing life, but what hope do they have for eternity? Their hope rests only on their religion. They think that it will somehow be good enough so that God will overlook whatever little misdemeanours they may have committed. So they depend upon themselves, rather than on the Lord.

You will remember the story that Jesus told about two men who went to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, (that in itself is an interesting phrase!) “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men…” and listed how good he thought he was. The publican instead stood a long way off, and hung his head in shame, and asked God, “be merciful to me a sinner.” And Jesus said, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’ So we need to be constant in prayer, be subject to God’s Word, be humble before the Lord and depend on God every day.

Paul envisages a situation where a believer might actually manufacture his own stumbling block, by failing to fully rely on the Lord! Paul reminds us that temptation is a COMMON experience! Don’t think that you are the only one who has ever been tempted! No temptation is unique to you; someone else had that very same temptation! That very same thought, desire, suggestion! But God is faithful, and will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able to resist. God in His sovereignty will not permit you to be tempted any more than you can endure!

This is good news for believers. Remember that God is our father, and He loves us and cares for us! When times of temptation come, whom will we trust! Will we rely on ourselves, or will we rely on the Lord? Will we tackle temptation in our way, or in the Lord’s way? Note that SUBMISSION TO GOD always precedes resistance of the Devil! What is temptation all about? It is about the building of Christian Character! It is the method that God uses to make us spiritually strong. It would not be my way! But then we have learned that self-reliance is sinful! This is God’s way! Sankey, the great hymn writer wrote,

“Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin;
Each victory will help you some other to win;
Fight manfully onward, dark passions subdue,
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.
Shun evil companions, bad language disdain,
God’s name hold in reverence, nor take it in vain;
Be thoughtful and earnest, kind hearted and true,
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.”

The question facing Paul was: will the Corinthians avail themselves, will they accept this God-given way out when they need it? And the question facing us in our increasingly pagan atmosphere of our contemporary world, is: will we put our trust in God and follow him?

YOURS IS THE MAJESTY

Second Sunday before Lent 2019

Brian Reader

Genesis 2.4b-9, 15-f; Revelation 4; Luke 8.22-35

For those of you waiting for the pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, or the start of the big Easter Egg raffle, or for others anticipating the start of a new life style by giving up our naughty indulgences for Lent, well we don’t have much longer to wait.

Today we heard three readings which do not seem to have anything in common. The answer is to be found in the Collect, which is a prayer that is meant to concentrate our thoughts on the theme of the day. ‘Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: …’
So our thoughts are to be on God as the creator and ruler of all.

The first reading is very much about creation, and those of you who worship on Thursday mornings may remember that Veronica also read this section from Genesis to us on St. Valentine’s Day. Some think that the section from chapter 2 is the second of two differing accounts of creation to be found in Genesis. The first chapter of Genesis describes the “six days of creation”, with a seventh day of rest, while Genesis 2 covers only one day of that creation week and gives more detail of the sixth day, when God made man. There is no contradiction, as in the first chapter, the author of Genesis presents the creation of man on the sixth day as the culmination or high point of creation. Then, in the second chapter, the author gives greater detail regarding the creation of man. Genesis 1 records God creating animal life on the sixth day, before He created man, while in our reading the animals are mentioned after man has been created. On the sixth day, God created the animals, then created man, and then brought the animals to the man, allowing him to name them.

Two interesting points can be made. Firstly that while God made our bodies from the dust of the earth, God breathed his life into us. Thus grace in the soul does not come from the earth, but is the work of a loving God. And secondly, God put man in the Garden of Eden, – not in a palace. God supplied all that man would need in the garden but he had to work – to till it and keep it.

We sometimes forget the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, ‘He that will not work, has no right to eat.’ And God also gave us free choice. Man could eat of every tree in the garden except one, but as we all know, humankind did chose to eat of the forbidden tree.

Our second reading was from Revelation. Have you ever thought about how you obtain information and knowledge? Sometimes we have to be taught by another, or work hard over days or months to try and understand something, while at other times we might just get a flash of inspiration. I would suggest that John received a vision or a flash of inspiration just like that. As he looks up into the sky, John sees there before him a door standing open in heaven. A voice beckons him to pass through the door: “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” John is whisked up to heaven where he sees before him a throne with someone sitting on it.


John’s description of what he saw in heaven is, like the rest of the New Testament, true to the classic Jewish principle that “no one has ever seen God”, so he does not name or describe God directly. What John sees is both a throne room and at the same time (because it is God’s throne room) a place of worship. In his day, the prophet Ezekiel saw “a throne of sapphire” and on it “a figure like that of a man”, which he identified as “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord”

To John the throne represents the power and majesty of the one sitting on it, and everything else he sees is described in relation to this central throne. John describes lights and other thrones, and elders, and lightning, and thunder, and blazing lamps, and a crystal sea, and creatures with a multitude of eyes and wings, who continually said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”. What started as a heavenly tableau unfolding step by step before John’s eyes now becomes a scene of active worship and proclamation.

The use of verbs in the present tense, and the phrase day and night, give the impression that this is no longer something John saw once in a vision, but a ritual in heaven repeating itself over and over again without rest or interruption. The throne is suddenly alive with living creatures hailing and worshiping the anonymous someone seated on it as the Lord God Almighty. The twenty-four elders continually worship this one who lives for ever and ever, laying their crowns in front of the throne and saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being”.

What are we to make of this reading? I would suggest that this wonderful vision of John, celebrates creation, with God as the creator. And even as we read his prophecy today, John manages to convey a sense that what he saw is something still going on in heaven, so it probably also points to the new creation to come. We may not fully understand this passage, but as John was told in his first vision, “Do not be afraid”, and we too should heed that advice.

This phrase leads to our Gospel reading. The story should be well known as the passage about Jesus taming the storm on the lake, is contained in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as well as Luke. I don’t know about you but I was very frightened when I was in a small boat in a storm, and if Jesus had been in the boat I would certainly have woken him up! And Jesus would probably have said to me exactly what he asked of the disciples, “Where is your faith?” BUT only after he had calmed the storm. And the disciples realized the truth that their leader, Jesus, could command the winds and waves, and that they obeyed him. They were with the Son of God, who had been there with his father when the world had been created.

So where is our faith? What do we believe?

Some people do not believe in miracles, but I do. I believe that a God who created the world, who sent his Son to redeem the world, and sent his Holy Spirit to work with and uphold the Church, is still very capable of working miracles in our world today. You may say, “Well, I have never seen a miracle.” Miracles aren’t always big. Have you never experienced a coincidence which cannot easily be explained? A near miss, or a chance meeting, or a phone call which changes the course of events? These are times when God is working in secret. Many people have them and we discussed some of them in Faith Hour last week.

Yes! Miracles still happen. You just have to be open to God to see them and accept them.

The Baptism of Christ – 2019

Anne Coomes

Luke 3.15-17, 21-22

Well, as of this morning there are only 75 days to go until Brexit. And it seems to me that there are only three kinds of people left in this country at present. There are the Brexiteers, the Remainers, and there are the ‘I can’t stand any more of this’ people who are so sick of the whole thing, that they have turned off the Radio and TV.

But there is one thing that the Brexiteers, the Remainers and the ‘I can’t stand any more of this’ people deeply share – they are each concerned about identity. The Brexiteers badly want to be British and nothing but British. The Remainers want to be British – but also European. The ‘I can’t stand it any longer’ folk probably feel that the system has let them down, and are bitterly hurt, so they have withdrawn from the debate altogether.

Well, the Bible doesn’t mention Brexit, but this morning’s readings are about finding our own true self-identity. And we don’t have to fight for it, and debate and vote for it this week – we are given it by God.

We read just now in Luke:

And a voice came from heaven:

“You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

That is just part of one verse, 19 words in all. But you could argue that they are the most important, pivotal words in the whole New Testament. For Jesus was given his entire self-identity in those words. You are God’s beloved Son, and He is pleased with you. Everything Jesus did and said throughout his ministry was based on that identity.

And it was given to him by God. He did not have to struggle attain it. But what he did have to do was to remain in that relationship, and he did it by a life of total dependence and obedience to God. Jesus mentioned it again and again in his teaching: “truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” And again: “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the one who sent me.” And again: “I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true.” Jesus’s life was of total obedience to the father in all things.

You know, our modern minds so often rebel when we hear that someone is living in obedience. We think of it as being dominated. But with God, it is a life of joyful cooperation based on intense love. Have you ever watched Crufts dog show, and the trainers who dance with their border collies? Those border collies eagerly follow their owners every move, and never take their eyes off their faces. They live to please their owner, they delight in responding. This is not fear, but joy and unity.

And, as Jesus found his self-identity in his relationship to God the father, so the New Testament is clear that we also find our deepest fulfilment and identity in our relationship with God. Like Jesus, we cannot earn our place as children of God, we are given it by the Father, when we turn to faith in Jesus Christ. But we do have to respond – and live a life of obedience if we are to benefit from it.

St Paul is a good example. He had been a senior Jew, a Pharisee of the Pharisee – a real blue blood. But when he found Jesus, he considered all that he had been as mere rubbish compared to the joy of his new identity In Galatians he writes: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” And all that Paul did and taught were based on that one fact.

It was the same for the other Christians in the New Testament. When they turned to Jesus, they were born again into the kingdom of God, and sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Our reading from Acts tells us that Peter and John were sent to Samaria where ‘they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit.’ The Holy Spirit became their comforter, their assurance that God the Father was now Abba, their daddy.

Of course, most people today do not find their identity on a relationship with God, but on the things that are dearest to them in their daily lives. Some people identify themselves by their relationships. We all know people who live totally for their families, but what happens if the family goes wrong? Divorce or bereavement or simply children moving away can be devastating if your main role in life has been that relationship. Some people identify themselves through their work. Poor Andy Murray comes to mind. He is losing his tennis and he is only 30. He must feel that he will never be able to be his true self again. Many years ago, when BBC reporters had to retire at 60, it was well known that they often died within two years. Loss of self-identity is devastating. Some people identity themselves by their wealth. Think of the wife of the founder of Amazon. She is about to become the world’s richest woman. But what happens to her if she loses it? And finally, some people identify themselves by their power. Donald Trump comes to mind. He has closed the American government. That takes power – if no sense.

So – family relationships, work, wealth and influence – of course these should all be excellent things in our lives. But they do not make a good basis for your deepest self-identity. None of them are permanent, they depend on other people, and you can lose them at any time.

We as Christians have something that will last forever, and which will bring us nothing but blessing: God has called us to be in his kingdom. We respond by living lives of daily dependence and obedience to him.

Our Old Testament reading give us a picture of just how wonderful that relationship can be. To paraphrase Isaiah:

he created us,
he has summoned us by name,
we are his,
he will be with us,
we are precious in his sight,
he loves us,
he wants to bring us near to him,
he created us for his glory.

When we have that as the basis of our self-identity, we can love and enjoy our families and work, and use our wealth and influence wisely and for the good. We can even keep our sanity this coming week, when Parliament votes, and who knows what happens to Brexit then.

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018

Brian Reader

So here we are at the fourth Sunday of Advent, and Christmas is almost upon us. Veronica opened the service with the lighting of the fourth Advent candle. Here at St. Oswald we have a candle holder rather than the usual Advent wreath, which allows the congregation to see all the candles at once. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child and Purple (or violet) has traditionally been the primary colour of Advent, symbolizing repentance, prayer and fasting. Purple is also the colour of royalty and the sovereignty of Christ, so demonstrating our anticipation in Advent of the coming King.

The first candle of the Advent Wreath, the Prophecy Candle or Candle of Hope, is purple. The second Candle lit, which is also purple is called the Candle of Preparation. Last week Veronica lit the Pink Candle for the third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday, being over half way through Advent. Pink or rose represents joy or rejoicing and reveals a shift in the season away from repentance and toward celebration. Today the fourth Advent Candle is purple. It is called the Angel Candle or the Candle of Love because our gospel today reminds us of the Angel visiting Mary and of her great love for her unborn child. Lastly, the Christ Candle is white representing purity and light and this is lit on Christmas morning.

Christ is the sinless, spotless, pure Saviour. He is the light come into a dark and dying world. Also, those who receive Jesus Christ as Saviour are washed of their sins and made whiter than snow. While there may be several traditions regarding the meaning or theme of each candle, they all enable us to reflect during Advent. By focusing on the colours of Advent in the weeks leading up to Christmas, it is a great way for Christian families to spiritually prepare by keeping Christ at the centre of Christmas, and for parents to teach their children the true meaning of Christmas.When I was a young schoolboy, the family went to Plymouth Brethren services and there were no candles and certainly no Advent Wreath. To say that, as a child, I found their Communion services to be ‘dour’ would certainly be correct. They did not have candles, or crucifixes or any of those ‘Papacy trappings,’ so my first Christmas with the Church of England was a bit of an eye opener!

Our Gospel reading from Luke is all about Mary meeting up with her cousin Elizabeth when both were pregnant, and Mary being overjoyed and singing a song which we call the Magnificat. My Plymouth Brethren Sunday school teacher taught me that this was a very boastful song and that we should never express ourselves in such a way. I would hope that when she got married and had a child of her own, that she too would also share some of the joy that Mary felt, and would then correctly understand this song of Mary.

Just put yourself in that house all those years ago. We don’t know precisely where Zechariah lived but it is probably fairly close to Jerusalem. In an earlier chapter, Luke tells us that Zechariah was taking his turn in the temple, rather like Veronica, who as a canon has duties in Chester Cathedral. It is probable that Mary lived some eighty miles from Elizabeth which was quite a journey in those days, so she may not have been aware that Elizabeth was also expecting a baby. You can imagine the meeting, the two of them talking excitedly to each other about the wonders that God had achieved. They were both very, very, happy, and it is probable that they danced around together.

In his commentary ‘Luke for Everyone’, Bishop Tom Wright suggests that Mary probably made up a song with snatches of poems and songs she already knew or perhaps by adding her own new words to a great old hymn or psalm. And as she lived in a culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song you could clap your hands to, or stamp on the ground. Mary’s song should be read like that. It’s one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It goes with a swing and a clap and a stamp. It’s all about God, and it’s all about revolution.

And it’s all because of Jesus – Jesus who’s only just been conceived, not yet born, but who has made Elizabeth’s baby leap for joy in her womb and has made Mary giddy with excitement and hope and triumph. In many cultures today, it’s the women who really know how to celebrate, to sing and dance, with their bodies and voices saying things far deeper than words. That’s how Mary’s song comes across here.

Yes, Mary will have to learn many other things as well. A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when Jesus is a baby. She will lose him for three days when he’s twelve. She will think he’s gone mad when he’s thirty. She will despair completely for a further three days in Jerusalem, as the God she now wildly celebrates seems to have deceived her (and that, too, is part of the same Jewish tradition she draws on in this song). All of us who sing her song should remember these things too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost, and this time it won’t be taken away.

Why did Mary launch into a song like this? What has the news of her son got to do with God’s strong power overthrowing the power structures of the world, demolishing the mighty and exalting the humble? Mary and Elizabeth shared a dream. It was the ancient dream of Israel: the dream that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day Israel’s God would do what He had told Israel’s earliest ancestors: that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled. Nobody would normally thank God for blessing them if they were poor, hungry, enslaved and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the power-brokers, the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elizabeth knew all too well, living as they lived in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose casual brutality was backed up by the strength of Rome.

Mary and Elizabeth, like so many Jews of their time, searched the scriptures, soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, revolution, of victory over evil, and of God coming to the rescue at last. All of that is poured into this song, like a rich, foaming drink that comes bubbling over the edge of the jug and spills out all round. Almost every word is a biblical quotation such as Mary would have known from childhood. Much of Mary’s song is echoed by her son’s preaching, as he warns the rich not to trust in their wealth, and promises God’s kingdom to the poor.

But once again Luke hasn’t just shown us a big picture. Mary’s visit to Elisabeth is a wonderful human story – of the older woman, pregnant at last after hope had gone, and the younger one, pregnant far sooner than she had expected. That might have been a moment of tension: Mary might have felt proud, Elizabeth perhaps resentful. Nothing of that happens. Instead, the intimate details: John, three months before his birth, leaping in the womb at Mary’s voice, and the Holy Spirit carrying Elizabeth into shouted praise and Mary into song.

Underneath it all is a celebration of God. God has taken the initiative – God the Lord, the saviour, the Powerful One, the Holy One, the Merciful One, the Faithful One. God is the ultimate reason to celebrate.

The stories of the special pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth is about much more than their just their mutual joy. It is about the great fulfilment of God’s promises and purpose and also reminds us of another important thing. God regularly works through ordinary people, doing what they normally do, who with a mixture of half-faith and devotion are holding themselves ready for whatever God has in mind. So while you enjoy, what I hope will be a joyful and peaceful Christmas, remember that God has a plan for everyone, and be ready to serve him, and follow Him whichever way and whenever he leads.

Blessed are you, sovereign Lord, just and true, to you be praise and glory for ever.
Of old you spoke by the mouth of your prophets, but in our days you speak through your Son, whom you have appointed the heir of all things.
Grant us, your people, to walk in his light, that we may be found ready and watching when he comes again in glory and judgement; for you are our light and our salvation.
Blessed be God for ever.

AMEN

Second Sunday of Advent 2018

Ann Coomes

Malachi 3: 1-4,  Phil 1: 3- 11,  Luke 3:1-6

How many of you are going to have a Christmas tree this year? How many of you have got it decorated yet?

 Because of course, without the lights on the tree, there is no glory in the tree. It is all dolled up, but nothing glitters or glows – there is no energy in it – no light!

For me, the most nerve-wracking part of getting ready for Christmas comes just after I have managed to get the tree to stand upright without falling over, and I have unravelled the tangle of Christmas lights and wrapped them round and round and round the tree.  Then just before I plug the lights in, there is that awful moment when I wonder if the lights will actually work or not.  Suppose nothing happens?  Why didn’t I check them before I put them on the tree?  And if they don’t work, which bulb is not working?   How will I ever find it?  

Anyway, I reckon that the people of Israel were feeling a bit like that in this morning’s reading from Malachi.  The time was about 445 BC, and Israel was in the doldrums. They had, if you like, a very big tree with lights on it – but it would not light up.  In other words, they had a magnificent temple in Jerusalem, but it felt flat, somehow, and there was no power in it.

To really appreciate their problem, we need to remind ourselves of the back story.  Israel had returned from exile in Babylon nearly 100 years before, in 538 BC.  But they returned to disaster, because Jerusalem was in ruins.  Solomon’s beautiful temple where centuries before the glory of God had been so evident that it had literally lit up with glory, had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

But still, the prophets who had returned from exile with the people had assured them that God had not forsaken them, and that one day He would come in power and restore the glory of Israel.

And so the people, working for decades, had slowly managed to restore the city, and the temple.  But then – nothing happened.  The temple, although it was ready for God, did not ‘light up’, and the nation certainly did not return to the prosperity, international prominence and wealth that their prophets had promised to them.

Malachi is, as you know, the very last book in the Old Testament. And so the OT ends on a rather dismal note – the people of Israel in Jerusalem, hoping for the glory of God to return to them, but instead facing a rather terrible time of it. 

Because in thecenturies between 445 BC and the birth of Christ, Israel was invaded over and over again.  For example, in 350 BC Jerusalem was invaded by Artaxerxes 111 of Persia.  About 20 years later, in 332 BC Alexander the Great arrived.  After him Israel came under the rule of Egypt and then Asia Minor, until in 63 BC General Pompey of Rome invaded it, and the Roman Empire swallowed it up. 

So no wonder the Israelites felt discouraged.  Where was Jehovah?  Why had he not blessed the second temple?  Why didn’t the Christmas tree lights come on, as it were?

No wonder that by the time of Christ the Pharisees kept so strictly to the Law of Moses – they hoped that in doing so, they would encourage God’s blessing on their nation.  

After all, Malachi had warned the people that when the Lord finally did come, who could endure his coming?  God would demand purity and holiness, he would be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.  And so the Pharisees preached strict observance to the Law – or at least the outward signs of it.   

But still –nothing happened.   Still no lights on the tree. 

The Jews could only wait and hope that one day the second temple would be filled with a glory that would make Israel the light of the world. But – where was it?

Of course, this morning, with the benefit of 2000 years history, we know that the reason the second temple did not ‘light up’ was that the first covenant God had made with mankind was coming to an end.  God was going to keep his promise of dwelling among his people in a way they could hardly have imagined – He himself was going to come to his people. He was going to be their glory, to dwell in their hearts, not in a mere building of stones. 

Which brings to our Gospel reading, from Luke, where John the Baptist begins his ministry.  John was unique, for he was the very last ofthe Old Testament, pre-Christian prophets, and the very first prophet to recognise Jesus for who he was. 

Isaiah had foreseen John the Baptist eight centuries before, calling him:  

A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’

The coming of John he Baptist was so important that Luke actually went to the trouble to set it in the context of world history by linking it with the political situation of the time.   He tells us that it was during the 15th year of Tiberius the Roman emperor.  Well, Tiberius ruled from AD 14-37, which would make his 15th year either AD 27-28 or AD 28-29. 

John the Baptist’s witness was almost the hinge of history, if you like.  The age of the Law was ending, and God was about to make a new Covenant with mankind – one written in the blood of Christ. 

From now on, the way to God was not through keeping the Law, but through repentence and forgiveness.

The middle one of today’s readings was from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians, which offers each one of us some wonderful encouragement as we prepare for Christmas this year.

Paul writes that he is confident ‘that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus….’

In other words, God is at work within us, through his Spirit, and He will never give upon us.  We may have various troubles in our lives this Christmas, but we can be sure that God will never leave us or forsake us. 

Indeed, Paul says that as we share in God grace,

  • our love ‘will abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 
  • we will be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless
  • and we will be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
  •  

All of which takes me back to my Christmas tree lights.

They cannot shine of their own accord, they need energy from outside.

They cannot shine if their filament is corrupted or twisted in any way. 

They need to be properly plugged into the source of their energy.

Only then will energy from the Source be able to flow into them, and light them up,bringing glory to the tree, and being a light to all those around them.

Only when the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us will we, in our small way, become lights to the world, because his light is shining through us. 

Christ The King – Sunday 25 November 2019

Brian Reader

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps 93; Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37

Today, is the last Sunday of the Church’s year and as next Sunday we will start the reflective season of Advent, it is appropriate that today we celebrate Christ the King.

I don’t know about you, but I was quite surprised by the readings set for today. At first they appear to have little in common, but when studied together, they reveal the understanding – or the misunderstanding – of the Kingship of Christ as it has been revealed over a long period of history.

The Book of Daniel would probably not have been my first choice for an Old Testament lesson as it is difficult for us to understand, as our with minds are more used to dealing with life in the 21st century. If we wish to understand it, we should first consider when and why it was written.

It was written, probably after many decades of it being passed on by word of mouth, to remind the Jewish people of God’s greatness, and to encourage them while they were in exile in Babylon. Earlier in the book Daniel interprets the king’s dream which vividly portrayed a time when nations will be judged and destroyed. At that time God would set up His kingdom and reign forever.

9 As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousand served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgement, and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

This passage is part of a later dream or vision that Daniel had that adds the fact that God will “sit” for a solemn day of judgment before He sets up His “everlasting dominion.” An elaborate court room is described and the Ancient One who took his throne is God the Father, and the white garments and white hair stress that he is eternal.

His throne was a fiery flame: This was a brilliant manifestation of God’s splendour and the fierce heat of His judgment. There seems to be something lava-like in the stream of fire pouring from the throne; it was like a river of vast destructive and cleansing power. There is then a description of the innumerable company of angels surrounding the throne of God, and the mass of humanity standing before God for judgment.

The books referred to contain the records of good and evil since the beginning of time. His verdict will be both just and merciful, because He commits the judgment to His Son, who gave His life for us. It continues:  – in my dreams (night visions) I saw the Son of Man – or the Messiah (one like a human being) coming with the clouds of heaven – this refers to Jesus ascending to heaven after his resurrection, “to receive the kingdom.”

After His resurrection, Jesus said he must return to His Father. In this passage, on his return to the heavenly courts, His Father invests him with, dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples nations and languages should serve him – and says that his kingship should never be destroyed.
It is a call to the Jewish faithful to stand firm with the assurance that even though, humanly speaking, the situation seems hopeless, God is in control and things will come right.

These verses are for the comfort and support of the people of God, in reference to the persecutions that would come upon them, and many of the New Testament predictions of the judgment to come, reflect this vision.
Our next reading was from the book of Revelation. The word can be interpreted as the sudden unveiling of a previously hidden truth. As such it could be titled the book of Revelation of Jesus Christ!

This is another of the visions and ‘revelations’ seen by holy, prayerful people who were wrestling with the question of the divine purpose. This book was also written to bolster the Christians, living in seven towns in Asia Minor which is now in modern Turkey and in our passage, these seven towns are referred to as the seven spirits. There may have been several groups of Christians in ancient Turkey, where John seems to have been based. They would have been mostly poor, meeting in one another’s homes.

By contrast, at that time, people were building grand and expensive temples for Caesar and his family in various cities, all eager to show Rome how loyal they were. What would Jesus himself say about this? Did it mean that, after all, that the Christians were wasting their time, following a crucified Jew rather than Caesar who was rather obviously the present ‘lord of the world’?

Revelation is written to say ‘no’ to that question – and to say much more besides. At its centre is a fresh revelation of Jesus the ‘Messiah’. John, with his head and his heart full of Israel’s scriptures, discovered on one particular occasion, as he was praying, that the curtain was pulled back.
He found himself face to face with Jesus himself.

The early Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth had become, in person, the place where heaven and earth met. Meditating on Jesus, and contemplating his death and resurrection in particular, they believed they could see right into God’s own world. They could then understand things about his purpose which nobody had imagined before.

So John starts by offering them the grace and peace of God the Almighty, and from Jesus to whom he gives various titles.

Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.

Jesus is the one who, through his death and resurrection, has accomplished God’s purpose. His love for his people, his liberation of them by his self-sacrifice, his purpose for them (not just to rescue them, but to put them to important work in his service) – all these are stated here briefly in this verse. And, not least, Jesus is the one who will soon return to complete the task, to set up his rule on earth as in heaven. But by far and away the most important: everything that is to come flows from the central figure, Jesus himself, and ultimately from God the father, ‘He Who Is and Who Was and Who Is to Come’.

And so we come to the Gospel.
This too is an example of misunderstanding, and it is set in a place where Jesus is on trial. We have heard the reading many times, especially at Easter, so we have some understanding of what Jesus is saying. But not Pilate.

Are you the king of the Jews?

The Kings he knew about ruled people according to their own wishes and whims. They were all-powerful. And people knew how kings became kings.
Often, the crown would pass from father to son but from time to time there would be a revolution. The way to the crown, for anyone not in the direct family line, was through violence.

Herod the Great, thirty years before Jesus was born, had defeated the Parthians, the great empire to the east, and Rome in gratitude had allowed him to become ‘King of the Jews’, although he, too, had no appropriate background or pedigree. So Pilate comes to investigate whether Jesus is a political threat to Rome: are you the King of the Jews?

Rather than answer Pilate, Jesus becomes the interrogator and judge in this trial. Pilate is not as in control as he pretends to be and Jesus knows it. This ironic blurring of legal and political roles is a favourite technique of John’s.
But it is clear who the real judge is. In response to Jesus’ question, Pilate declares, “I’m not a Jew, am I?” Of course he’s not; quite the opposite: he’s a Roman representing the arm of the Empire that is oppressing Jesus’ own people, the Jews. As Pilate remains opposed to Jesus and entirely uninterested in truth for truth’s sake, he does in fact become indistinguishable from those who rejected Jesus by handing him over to Pilate.

Jesus responds, in a way, to Pilate’s king question. But Jesus does not crow about being a king; rather, he immediately speaks not about himself but his community, calling it a kingdom (some prefer the word “kindom”). Here he contrasts himself with Pilate.

Pilate uses power and authority for selfish ends with no concern for the building of community, and certainly not a community guided by love and truth. Pilate hoards power and lords it over people even to the point of destroying them, on a cross if necessary. Jesus empowers others and uses his authority to wash the feet of those he leads. He spends his life on them, every last ounce of it; he gives his life to bring life.

Pilate’s rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm; Jesus’ rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror

Pilate’s followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nations. Jesus’ followers put away the sword in order to invite and unify people.

Pilate’s authority originates from the will of Caesar and is always tenuous.
Jesus’ authority originates from doing the will of God, and is eternal. Jesus places all of this choice conversation material before Pilate, but he hears only Jesus’ possible threat to Pilate’s own authority: “So you ARE a king?”

Jesus again pushes deeper to the heart of the matter: this is the trial of the ages. Truth itself is on trial and Jesus is the star witness. Will Pilate side with Truth or Cynicism?

What about us?

It is interesting to note that, in the end, Pilate attempts to crucify the Truth. He places a placard mockingly announcing Jesus as The King of the Jews. The irony is that Pilate in trying to mock, has unwittingly announced the truth. There on the cross the King is crowned, not with diamonds or a laurel wreath but with thorns. And from that lofty height, his Church, his ally in announcing the truth is born. Loving truth will always win.

As Christians we believe that Christ the King lives and will come again to reign in glory for ever. Until that time we have to follow His calling, and with His help follow in His way, spreading love and His Gospel truth to all we meet.

AMEN

Bible Sunday 2018

Brian Reader

Isaiah 55: 1-11; 2 Timothy 3: 14-4:5; Ps 19: 7-14; John 5: 36b-47

Last week we had the Confirmation Service with Bishop Libby preaching, so today might feel a bit like, ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’! But it shouldn’t.

Today we could be celebrating Simon and Jude the Apostles, or the Last Sunday after Trinity, but our readings are for Bible Sunday, so today we celebrate Holy Scripture. If we had any doubt about its importance then the collects and the readings for today make the point very clearly.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, that through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.

Do we receive the comfort of God’s Holy Word?
Do we listen for God speaking through His Word?
These days, our lives seem so full of noise, which makes any listening hard. We tend to turn on the Mobile, or the television and leave them on, even if we are not interested in the programme. We seem to have a dread of silence, and all this noise makes it difficult for us to listen. So to what, and how should we listen?

For the Muslim, it is comparatively easy, for theirs is a religion of the book,
the Koran, the direct word of God dictated to Mohammed his prophet.

But our Bible is not like that. For one thing the Bible is a very human book. Not only one book but a collection of many books, written in many different styles, at different times and in varying contexts. Within its pages we can find history, stories, songs and letters. The Bible did not fall out of the sky ready-made and there is evidence that parts of both the Old and the New Testaments have been revised over the centuries.

Within the Bible, God’s word is depicted in very dynamic terms – His word is his deed. When God speaks, things happen. And most particularly of all, John’s gospel speaks of Jesus as the Word become flesh.

God has used the Bible, down through the ages to reveal himself to us. He has spoken through his prophets, whose words and deeds have been recorded in the Bible; he has spoken to His people through their history, by showing how he has acted through the ages, giving them support, succour, and hope, during times of both their obedience & when they have rebelled

When you read the Bible you are aware of the truth that those who wrote the books of the Bible had faith in God; and that their understanding of God changed, as they reworked the Bible texts to cover changing circumstances. For it is from the Bible they learnt about God, and from God they learnt how to discover the truth in the Bible.

Why is it that some people still have no understanding or knowledge of God? I am reminded of the schoolgirl who, when faced with an RE project, sent a letter to the Anglican Church Information Office, in London saying.
‘We are doing God next year. Please send all details and pamphlets!’

We don’t need details and pamphlets we have the Bible which is an information resource without parallel. However, without the help of the Holy Spirit and our faith to aid our understanding, the Bible is just old religious literature beloved of our fathers but dead to many of this generation. It is God alone who gives the Bible Authority and reveals it to be the Word of God. And Christ, who is himself frequently referred to in the scriptures, he came to fulfil the Bible prophesies.

In today’s epistle St Paul writes to Timothy. All scripture is inspired by God
and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

We sometimes question why the world rejects the teaching of the Bible. But why should the world believe and follow the teaching of the Bible, when some, who call themselves Christians never open their Bibles at home from one year to the next? Yes, it is true, that there are many who will quote the Bible passionately to support their arguments for pacifism, against pacifism, and 22 years ago, when I spoke on Bible Sunday, some were quoting the Bible to support their views for and against the ordination of women.

My father-in-law, a village Rector, loved to quote verse 40 of Matthew chapter 22: which reported Jesus as saying Hang all the law and the prophets, but he only quoted this to show that any quotation taken out of context would probably be incorrect!

The Bible still remains a primary channel of God’s word to us. By such means God confronts us with challenge, choice, guidance, and rebuke,
but also grace and hope. A community of Christians that stops reading the Scriptures, will soon be deaf to God, and will try to make him after their own image.

This is what must have happened in the early 13th century. Did you know, that in 1229, at the synod of Toulouse, the Roman Catholic Church – forbade the laity to possess the Scriptures (Bible), except the Psalter, and such other portions as are contained in the breviary, (their equivalent of our prayer book) and especially denounced all translations other than Latin?

One of the reasons for the Reformation was the wish of Christians to return to a true Christian religion based on the Bible. This gave the impetus to Wycliffe and Tyndale to translate the scriptures into English. We thank God for their work, and also for the work of many Christian Biblical scholars of all denominations who now work closely together to produce the text of the Bible which is as accurate as can presently be achieved. However, the Bible is most effective when it is translated into everyday Christian life.

Did you ever wonder why Jesus never gave chapter and verse when he quoted the scriptures? How would you have found a passage in the scroll of Isaiah say? It was only when studying for the Certificate in Theology that I discovered that Stephen Langton had first numbered the chapters in 1226 and that Robert Etienne introduced the numbering of verses in 1551.
These two actions resulted in the easy referencing of the Bible that all Christians still enjoy today.

This does not mean that the Bible is any easier to understand! God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. This is good news; the last thing we want is a God who thinks and acts like us. There is something very human about the Bible’s own witness. Many of the stories of God drawing near to his people are set in everyday contexts rather than specifically religious settings. The challenging word of God is heard through the prophet in the market place or by the city gate or a thirsty Christ at the water well.

The Bible brings good news. From Isaiah we heard: Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. God has given mankind intellect and this great reference book, the Bible. The Bible does not contain pat answers to all the questions we have in life, but by careful study, the use of our minds, and guided by the Holy Spirit and our friends in Christ, we too can understand the truth and wisdom of the Bible for our use in our world today.

It is His Holy Spirit that has the power to change old religious writings into this great authority that we call the Bible. For in today’s Gospel from John we learn that Only God can reveal God.

We know that the New Testament records the sayings and the teaching of Jesus and Jesus taught us that God is as a father to us all. A God with whom we can all have a personal relationship as a child has to a loving parent. Jesus said: ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?’

Yes, the Bible is a wonderful book, but if reading it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit does not bring us into a personal relationship with God the Father, through Christ the Son, then it is of no more use to us, than an just an outdated book of yellowing pages!

AMEN

17th Sunday after Trinity 2018

Brian Reader

Wisdom 1:16-2.1, 12-22; or Jeremiah 11.18-22; Ps54;
James 3:13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37.

As we approach Bible Sunday, have you ever thought that today we have the ability to get closer to the Gospels than at any time in the past?

Firstly, I believe that scholarship and research has given us the best translations and commentaries that there have ever been, and secondly, modern technology, gives us easy access to the web which enables us to source that information whenever we wish. But, I would suggest, we rarely seek to find that Bible information, but rather seek the easier options of contact with friends, photos, games or support of our busy lives. Not that that is wrong, no this is just a reminder, that today we don’t have to carry a Bible with us, all we need to know can be found on the web.

Today on the back of our news sheet there are four related Bible readings. We heard passages from Jeremiah, James and Mark but didn’t hear the passage from Wisdom. Can I recommend that you all take the sheet home with you, and for homework, read the passage from Wisdom?

So what can be said about our Gospel for today? This story is also recorded in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, so the early Christians must have thought it worthy of note. Last week Veronica was telling us about Jesus teaching the crowds, but this passage from Mark tells how Jesus is now trying to teach his disciples. First he takes them away from the crowds because what he has to tell them cannot be said openly, because the scribes and the Pharisees are seeking to find evidence against him. Also the teaching method has changed. Usually Jesus teaches people by parables, interesting stories which have a hidden religious meaning. Now he speaks to them directly. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him …!”

He will be handed over; he will be killed; he will rise again. Why couldn’t they understand?

Because no such fate could possibly have been part of their understanding of what role a Messiah might have. Why should they, or more to the point, how could they, be expected to understand? Education by the priests in the temple was for the rich, for the others they would be taught by their parents about the law and something of the Old Testament stories. They had been taught that the Jews were waiting for a Messiah to lead them into their Glory Days again. They had accepted Jesus as this new prophet, but did not expect him to be captured and put to death; and how could anyone rise from death? Perhaps Jesus was speaking in riddles again, how could they tell? And yet they were afraid to ask.

But something must have stuck. If Jesus is going to die, who will take over? And Jesus was aware of this undercurrent and discussion and asked them about it. But most probably, because they were ashamed, they did not answer him. But Jesus knew and turned it into another training opportunity, saying that, ‘Whoever wants to be first, must be last of all, and servant of all.” And to make the point even clearer he put a young child in their midst. Now many scholars believe that the verses from Mark 9:37 and 10:15, have been accidentally reversed in the past. They both speak about children, but if reversed back, the subject matter fits in better with the context. So the last verse would become; (from Mark 10:15) ‘I am telling you the truth: anyone who doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child will never get into it’.

This certainly makes more sense as, at this point, Jesus is teaching his disciples about humility. At this stage we should not only sympathize with the disciples; we must also ask ourselves whether we would have done the same thing. When God is trying to say something to us, how good are we at listening? Is there something in scripture, or something we’ve heard in church, or something we sense going on around us, through which God is trying to speaking to us? And if so, are we prepared to listen to it? Are we willing to have our earlier ways of understanding things taken apart so that a new way of understanding can open up instead?

A sign that the answer may still be ‘no’ is if, we like the disciples, are still concerned about our own status, about what’s in it for us. If we think that by following Jesus we will enhance our own prestige, or our sense of self-worth, then we’re very unlikely to be able to hear what God is actually saying.

Certainly Jesus must have been frustrated and disappointed that the disciples could only worry about their own relative status. How often do we need to be taught this lesson? I remember, with regret, how I got quite jealous that a lady who became a Christian quite late in life, appeared to be making more progress in her Spiritual life than I was. And I was a Lay Reader! And then I remembered, ‘anyone who doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child will never get into it’.

That’s the trouble with understanding only half the message – the half that the disciples and we want to understand. If Jesus is Messiah and king, then aren’t we all royal courtiers-in-waiting? In other words, anyone at all associated with Jesus can become the means of access to royalty, and even to divinity. So the disciples aren’t special in that sense at all.

Mark relates in the following chapters how the disciples continue with the same idea in their heads, until the shocking truth dawns. The Messiah will be captured, tried and killed.

To try to jolt them out of their upside-down thinking, Jesus, not for the last time, uses a child as a teaching aid. Aside from normal family affection, children were not rated highly in the ancient world; they had no status or prestige.

This lesson resonates down through the centuries of church history in which so many have thought that being close to Jesus, even working full-time for him, somehow made them special. Those who have really understood his message know that things just aren’t like that. When Jesus went to the cross, everything his disciples had imagined was turned upside down, and he is still turning upside down the way people think, including Christians. If we feel sorry for the disciples in their confusion, should we not ask ourselves just how confused we still are?

Do you think that you know all you need to know, or do you still want to learn? If you are no longer learning then you are not growing. Don’t you realise that we all still need help to live the true Christian life? Being child-like does not mean being childish, it means wanting to grow up. Don’t you too really want to grow up to the full-grown stature of a mature child of God?

When a fond relative asks a child, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ they really mean, ‘What are you going to do?’ We are obsessed with ‘doing’ more than ‘being’ but what you are is more important than what you do. A proper answer to that question would be, ‘A man’; or ‘A woman’. However, the best answer is, ‘To be like Jesus’.

The best thing is we all still can be. Just accept Jesus into your life as a child, and ask Him to be your friend and Saviour.

AMEN

14th Sunday after Trinity 2018

Brian Reader

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Ps 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

We have now reached the first Sunday in September and the 14th Sunday after Trinity – only seven more to go! So today my talk is part sermon, and part meditation.

Our readings speak about the commandments given to us by God, and how it is most important for us to be doers of God’s word and not merely hearers like those who still speak with unbridled tongues and who deceive no one but themselves.

It could be said that it is all in your mind, as your mind commands your thought, speech and actions. Let me give you an example: A lovely-looking girl got on a bus and most heads turned. She had a classical beauty and figure, and was most attractively dressed. The faces of other passengers registered wistful pleasure or delight – until she began to speak. Her voice was like the sound of many cement-mixers, coarse and loud and grating and the content was worse than the sound, crude, judgemental, blasphemous; it really was a real turn-off. If only she had given as much thought and care to her attitudes as to her appearance!

Now the Pharisees were most zealous in religious observance; they were not all nit-pickers or pettifogging lawyers; but when the hungry disciples ignored a traditional ritual, the Pharisees were quick to try to attack Jesus through his friends. Jesus made no defence of his disciples, but launched a scathing counter-attack on their accusers, by contrasting appearance with reality. In Isaiah 29:13, we can read: The LORD says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules that they have been taught.”

Jesus opened up the whole debate about the validity of traditions; minute regulations can often obscure the real principle. He contrasted the eternal law of God with man-made laws which are not sacrosanct. Simply because it seems good to us or we’ve always done it that way does not mean it can never be changed or has Divine approval.

With the crowd and later with his disciples, Jesus explained the truth about uncleanness and what really defiles a man or a woman. His appalling catalogue of sins and crimes, which are repulsive to us all, are all actions of an unclean mind and heart, not anything external; and they all can seed and reproduce themselves.

The heart of the matter, is a matter of the heart and mind. It is all a matter of personal responsibility. We would like to blame our genes, or poor environment, or inadequate education, or social pressures, or life’s unfairness; Obviously, we think, it must be something to do with other people! God has, however, given to each of us the dignity and the privilege of being responsible – and answerable – for our own acts and attitudes. It seems as if there is an evil twist within us; but how we deal with depends on us.

When a trainee priest once told an old and very wise saint that he found it difficult not to give way to temptation, the saint replied that, “I cannot stop birds from flying over my head, but I can stop them from nesting in my hair!”

So when we need help. Remember the power of prayer.

Lord,
you know us far better than we know ourselves.
You know how badly we react to criticism,
how quick we are to judge other people,
and even quicker to excuse ourselves;
we want to blame other people for our mistakes and faults and frailty;
we close up our minds and hearts;
and we cling to things that are not good for us.
Lord, help us;
we are trying to be honest with ourselves,
and with you;
help us to admit our faults and confess our sins.
Show us what spoils us, imprisons us, and enslaves us;
show us how we can be free within ourselves.
Lord, help us,
have mercy on us;
forgive us;
and set us free from the evil power of sin.
AMEN

13th Sunday after Trinity 2018

Brian Reader

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18; Ps 34 15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69

Today’s three readings have sufficient material for sermons covering a month of Sundays; however, you may be glad to know that I will comment on only one theme this morning.

In just seven weeks we will be commemorating the centenary of the ending of the First World War. As the words of St. Paul reminded us, we are still at war today, but many fail to recognise it.

C. S. Lewis wrote a book about imaginary letters between the devil and his lieutenants called the Screwtape Letters.  Lewis says in his introduction to the book, that the general public prefers either to ignore the forces of evil altogether – to pretend they don’t- exist’ and to use cartoon images of a ‘devil’ with horns and a tail as an argument to that effect. ‘You can’t possibly believe in that nonsense’, so how can you believe in a devil at all?’ The other extreme is to take an unhealthy interest in everything demonic, which can be just as bad in the long run.

What we have in the present passage and what l believe is required again and again as Christians, is face the daily and yearly battle for the kingdom, with a sober, realistic assessment both of the struggle we are engaged in and of the weapons at our disposal. It is, of course, a surprise to many people that there is a ‘struggle’ at all. Yes, they think, we find it difficult from time to time to practise our Christianity. We find it hard to forgive people, to pray regularly, to resist temptation, and to learn more about the faith. But as far as they’re concerned that’s the end of it. They have never thought that their small struggles might be part of a larger campaign.

In the letter to his friends in Ephesus, Paul writes that they should keep alert and arm themselves against the wiles of the devil and that is still good advice for us today. Paul warns them that, ‘our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. The problem with that is you can’t see the spiritual forces of evil. During the last war it was easy. The German aeroplanes had black swastikas on them and the German soldiers wore grey uniforms with funny shaped tin hats and anyway the whole country was united in fighting them.

But in today’s war we can’t see our evil enemy, we can only recognise the evil effect the devil has on other people, or on the way he tempts us from the straight and narrow path as we try to follow the will of God. And today, not only is the country not united in fighting evil, but sometimes even the churches seem divided!

But even if we can’t see our foe, Paul does give us some very practical advice.  We must put on the armour which has been provided by God. Firstly he says fasten the belt of truth around your waist. That is very important. The primary thing about the Christian message is that it is true; if it isn’t, it’s meaningless. It isn’t true because it works; NO, it works because it is true. Never give up on the sheer truth of the gospel. It’s like the belt which holds everything else together and in place. And we should be true in all we say and do. On the television we see advertisements in which lying is seen as the norm – I’m thinking about the advert where a hostess passes off a bought ready meal as her own cooking.

And put on the breastplate of righteousness.  The Revised English Bible says
for a breastplate put on integrity; we all know what is right and wrong, so we should do good and seek the moral high ground. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. REB says let the shoes on your feet be the gospel of peace, to give you firm footing; Jesus proclaimed a Gospel of peace, yet he did not budge when things got tough, and he was prepared to stand firm – even against physical force when necessary.

With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. If we have a strong faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, then we can be sure that he will help us resist all that the devil can throw at us. Take the helmet of salvation, GNB says accept salvation as a helmet. The devil tries to put doubt in our minds,
but if we know, if we really, really know, that we are saved, and that Jesus really loves us and that he died on the Cross for us, then the doubts sown by the devil will never be able to take root.

Ok, so that’s the armour, but how do we attack? Take the word of God as the sword which the Spirit gives you. God has given us the Bible, His Holy Word, as a great spiritual resource to help us defeat evil. It gives us great strength and encouragement and we should read it every day. And Paul goes on in his letter to the Ephesians to remind them that they also have another weapon which is prayer. God is spirit and we have been told to worship God in spirit and in truth. So Paul says – Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. And we know that in prayer we can ask God’s help not only for our own fight against evil, but also for our friends and family, and not only for our friends and family, but for our town and for the whole world.

We are told that with Christ’s death and resurrection he has won the victory, yet we still appear to see evil overcoming good all over the world.
How can this be? The only way I can think of explaining this is to liken it to winter in 1944-45. The war in Europe was virtually won yet because the allies let their guard down, the Germans had one last push, the Battle of the Bulge. It was their one last offensive, it cost many lives, it may have prolonged the war, but it was defeated, and by May of 1945, it was all over.

Have we as Christians let our guard down? Perhaps the devil is having his Battle of the Bulge. But he has already been defeated and Christ will come in Glory.

So next time you see a film or a programme about the war on the TV, remember, that we too have a war to fight against evil, and we have God’s armour to protect us if we will only use it. Sometimes we may have feelings of being restricted or let down, or inadequate. Remember that Paul was in prison when he wrote this inspiring letter to his friends. So take heart, never give in, and never forget to use our God given weapons of prayer and reading the Bible. They will Inspire us to tell the world of Jesus’ love for all and spread God’s kingdom and at the same time enable us thwart the devil and all his evil ways.

Amen