The Baptism of Jesus

Anne Coomes

Isaiah 42. 1-9; Acts 10. 34-43; Matthew 3. 13-end

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’

Matthew 3. 13-end

When I was out in Kenya just over a year ago, I met an old man named Eustace who came from a remote village on Mount Kenya. In the 1950s, someone had come to the village and told them about Jesus Christ. Eustace was so drawn to the stories of Jesus that he decided to become a Christian. He was told that an important part of becoming a Christian was to be baptised. But there was no minister or church in his village where this could happen. So, Eustace and another boy decided to walk to the nearest church in order to be baptised. They were only about 14, they were barefoot, and – it was a three-day walk. That would have been like you or me taking off our shoes after church this morning and leaving them at the door for Veronica to trip over, and then us walking from here to Chester Cathedral. Barefoot. I’m not sure how many of us would even get as far as the Cock and Pheasant! But getting baptised meant that much to Eustace. And he made it! It is an awesome thought.

Our reading this morning in Matthew tells the lovely, gracious story of the baptism of Jesus. How one day Jesus walked out of the obscurity of his village life in Nazareth down to the Jordan in order to meet up with John, and to be baptised. The story in Matthew takes up only four verses – but how rich in meaning it is!

It is well worth remembering some of the bigger picture around it, in order to fully appreciate just what happened that day at the Jordan. First of all, John the Baptist had arrived on the scene like a thunderbolt, and his baptism was shockingly new. Never before, in all history, had any Jew submitted to being baptised. Of course, the Jews knew and used baptism, but it was only for proselytes who came into Judaism from some other faith. It was natural that a sin-stained, polluted proselyte should be baptised, in order to clean them up a bit. But no Jew had ever dreamed that they, a member of the chosen people, and assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism. Baptism was for sinners on the outside, and no Jew ever thought of themselves as a sinner shut out from God, for were they not sons and daughter of Abraham?

So John the Baptist was a real shock to the Jews. His fiery message that they too were doomed unless they, too, repented, was unprecedented. For the first time in their national history the Jews woke up to their own need of baptism. And they did wake up! Hundreds and probably thousands of them went out to John the Baptist. Never in all of Jewish history had there been such a unique movement of penitence and of search for God. No wonder that the countryside was in an uproar, with everyone discussing repentance. It must have been a bit like Brexit, with people arguing on both sides, but no one staying neutral. Love it or loath it, you thought about it.

Which is exactly why God had sent John the Baptist in the first place – to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.

This was now Jesus’ opportunity, the perfect and prepared time for his public ministry to begin. The way had been prepared for the Messiah, and here he was, ready at the Jordan, asking John for baptism. It seems an odd beginning for a Messiah, to seek baptism. And down the centuries, many people have wondered why on earth Jesus would chose to be baptised. Even John was astonished! But in his baptism Jesus was identifying himself with the people whom he came to save. In the hour of their new consciousness of their sin, and of their search for God, Jesus’ baptism was his way of publicly declaring that he, too, needed to live a life consecrated and holy before God, doing only what the Father commanded him to do.

What about the voice that Jesus heard at the baptism? The words are of supreme importance. ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. That sentence is composed of two quotations. ‘My beloved son’ comes from Psalm 2, which every Jew knew was a description of the Messiah, the mighty King, sent from God, who was to come. ‘In whom I am well pleased’ is a quotation from Isaiah 42, which is a description of the Suffering Servant. So at the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven was declaring two certainties: that Jesus was indeed the chosen One of God, chosen to be King, and the certainty that the way in front of Him would be the way of suffering – the way of the Cross.

And so, the dove descended gently upon Jesus. With it, Jesus was given the power of the Holy Spirit. From now on, in full obedience to the Father, and in the power of the Spirit, Jesus would fulfil his calling. He would be the Messiah, both as suffering servant, obedient unto death, and then – as king of kings, lord of Lords, at whose name one day every knee under heaven will bow.

And so yes, my friend Eustace in Kenya was right to take his baptism so seriously all those years ago. It was his declaration that he was repenting of his sins, and dying in order to rise again with Jesus to new life. He was reborn in Christ. Eustace went on with his faith in God. He somehow got to university in Nairobi, and became a university lecturer and a local church leader. Today he is retired, but has the pastoral oversight of about 20 churches, and is on the board of a big medical mission in Nairobi. His life has been so fruitful for God, and it began all those years ago with a barefoot teenager, walking lonely miles in order to be baptised and so declare his commitment to Jesus.

Epiphany

We celebrate the Epiphany today. The word “Epiphany” means the “Showing Forth”, the manifestation to the world – to people of all nations, colours, languages and even creeds. To all who will listen or see Jesus for what He is – the Son of God.

And so we have the familiar story of the Wise Men following the star – possibly from Iran or Iraq as we know them today – following their beliefs that our fortunes are in the stars. The New English Bible actually calls them “Astrologists”.

So they came and ended up first of all in Jerusalem, where they consulted the King – Herod, who was dismayed to hear of another King’s arrival – Jesus. People in power are always frightened of rivals, just as people who are rich are frightened of losing their wealth and create barriers to keep others out: “gated communities” is a misnomer as isolation and segregation must be the reality such barriers create.

Herod’s advisors told him of the prophecies that said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of this new King. The City of David – Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread” or “the place of basic nurture”. And so the Wise Men continued their following of the star, and came to the house where Jesus was, and offered their strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they went on their way.

In today’s world they could have instead embarked on a virtual quest rather than a physical one, with apparently less personal danger and without involving difficult face-to-face encounters with such as Herod.


It was very challenging to see the front page story in Saturday’s newspaper about the US drone strike and then to turn to read an obituary in the very same newspaper about the Iranian general who had been killed – someone considered by his compatriots as a genuinely wise man.

Born in 1957, one of nine children in a peasant farming family in a mountain village in Eastern Iran, who at the age of 13 left home with a cousin to try and earn enough money to repay the $100 agricultural loan his father had taken out from the Shah’s government when his father couldn’t make the repayments himself. Qasem succeeded in restoring the family honour:

“At night we couldn’t fall asleep with the sadness of thinking that government agents were coming to arrest our fathers,” he recalled. “Our bodies were so tiny, wherever we went they couldn’t hire us.”

Eventually, they helped to build a school. Eight months later they returned home through the snow with money to repay the debt. He went on to work for the local water board, but later joined the Revolutionary Guard after the 1979 uprising…

He was clearly not a saint, but he was once trusted enough by the West to be welcomed as leader of a delegation of Iranian diplomats to meet with US officials in Geneva following Nine Eleven. This looked like a hopeful collaboration until in 2002 President Bush included Iran in his “Axis of Evil” speech and all trust immediately broke down.

Clearly, General Qasem became a man of war not of peace, but one must wonder about the wisdom of simply “taking out” someone like that just because it is technically possible.

I feel violence can never be the answer. Just as we are outraged by King Herod’s massacre of the Innocents, so we are surely called to travel home another way than this…


The Epiphany season invites us into our own journey of discovery about the significance of Jesus – that God’s Son is not just born as the saviour for the Jewish people – God’s chosen race – but for all of us, all humanity. We are no longer to live as a gated community, locked out of God’s grace and favour. Whoever receives and accepts Jesus is a member of God’s family. Gentiles (we who are not Jews) can become the new Israel, upon whom God’s favour rests. As our epistle reminds us – now we have access to God in boldness and confidence through our faith in Jesus, who promises to be beside us in our searching and journeying through all the risks we take and whatever dangers we are exposed to as part of the universal human race this new year and beyond…

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Ephesians 3:5-6

I fear wise men may be in short supply among those presently in positions of great power on all sides. Let us pray for true wisdom, discernment, restraint and compassion to be cultivated in the world’s leaders of our generation.

May the golden allure of admiration craved by powerful rulers be melted down into shining acts of kindness and generosity; may the fragrant incense that comes from discernment of true worth be offered by taking time to act only in godly righteousness and in seeking lasting peace on earth, and may the sufferings of this present time be ultimately soothed by the transformative myrrh of human compassion and hopefulness now and always.

First Sunday of Christmas 2019

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Matthew 2.13-end

Most of us know the story of Christmas off by heart – of Mary and Joseph, the little town of Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds and the kings – but in actual fact what we really know is a conflation (the posh word for a mixture) of two stories; one from St Luke’s gospel and a different story as told by St Matthew. The first written gospel (St Mark’s) doesn’t include anything about Christmas, neither does the last written gospel (St John’s).

So we are left with St Luke’s account of angels in chorus, Mary and the Infant in the manger, the sheep farmers down from the hills, the innkeeper and the stable – all told (we think) by a source close to Mary. And the totally different story told by St Matthew of the star and the wise men, of the wicked King Herod forcing the Holy Family to become refugees – this seems to be from a source close to Joseph, the down-to-earth carpenter and yet a dreamer of dreams, with three angelic messages mentioned in our gospel for today; two warning of danger to the young Jesus.

When you consider these separate stories of Christmas told by Matthew and Luke, you might say that the story of the birth of Jesus is a story of light coming into our world, with the bright star pointing to the light of god’s love as reinforced by the opening verses of the gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

But clearly the story of Joseph and his dreams are filled with the gathering darkness (ironically called forth by the radiance of the light). So Herod massacres the Holy Innocents and Joseph and Mary become Displaced Persons – until they find their home in Nazareth.

I think that this contrast between light and darkness echoes the lived experience of us all; of illness and health, good and bad, night and day. The powers of the dark hate the powers of the light of the day, and the good and lovely light of the life of Jesus ends on the Cross – well, seemingly ends: for we believe that actually the darkness disappears with the dawn of Easter Day. And if we hold fast to our apparently counter-intuitive, counter-cultural belif in God, and if we follow Jesus – the Light of the world- we may find ourselves on the winning side in this battle between good and evil. And may even find ourselves waking up to the new dawn alongside the angels in heaven and know ourselves at last “wonderfully restored” to light and life, just as Jesus that first Christmas we are told came to share our human nature.

So may we, by following His path, share His holiness and be welcomed home, out of darkness into His marvellous light. Let’s all try to keep that dream alive as we enter the gate of another new year, going into the darkness and putting our hands into the hand of God, that shall be to us better than any human-made light and safer than any known way.

4th Sunday of Advent 2019

Brian Reader

I can’t quite wish you a Happy Christmas yet, but my WELCOME together with LOVE is part of the theme I would like us to consider on this the 4th and last Sunday of Advent. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about the approaching birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph. From other New Testament sources we know that Mary was an excited Galilean girl, probably very nervous, but nonetheless looking forward to welcome the birth, of her baby who she knew, was to be a very important boy.

OK for her then, but what about Joseph. It is assumed that he was probably older and more staid than Mary and it must have come as a great shock to find out that his young fiancée was pregnant. Wow, that was a stoning offence. I doubt if HE welcomed the news when he first heard it. But God is good; He knew the characters of both of them. That Joseph, her husband-to-be, was an upright man, and that he wouldn’t want to make a public example of her. God also knew, that while Joseph was deciding to set the marriage aside privately, that he would listen and follow the will of God, when it was explained to him by an angel in a dream – who said

The child she is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus…

The only point where the two Gospel stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.

At this point those who are not Christians will be heard laughing out loud. “From the Holy Spirit; A virgin birth, you must be joking!” Since a boy I have always accepted that the conception of Jesus was just another of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith. However, I also remember reading as a school boy, in the now defunct Sunday Pictorial that a number of women had claimed virgin births, but they had only produced girls. And surprise surprise, some fifteen years ago on the web, I found that while it would be a scientific anomaly to give birth while a virgin, it is not a scientific impossibility. This has been known to happen in nature, although it is rare. When it does happen, all offspring are female; it’s all to do with females having two X chromosomes. However, there is 1 in 5 million chance for a women to have both an X and Y chromosome, so, the birth of a son cannot be completely ruled out as impossible.

In the Bible, we are told that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant. That is indeed all that needs to be said, since we are concerned with the entry of the infinite God into his creation. This is something that cannot be described, any more than the act of creation can be described in any detail. Nor can the virgin birth be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The miracle is the incarnation itself, that God chose to have his Son born as a human, and if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty about accepting the means by which God chose to effect it.

Bishop Tom Wright accepts that for centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary – and untrue. Some go further saying that this story of a miracle birth, has had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that in its self sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have also given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever, (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage, and all that it implies.

It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative? Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception.

In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage. It seems as if Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight. Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t, because ‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop wars and genocide?’ But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel – in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways – and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself.

Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the Holy Spirit? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. In the OT reading we heard Isaiah proclaiming that God himself will give a sign. ‘A woman has conceived and will bear a son named Emmanuel.’ Now, the name ‘Emmanuel, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about the child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’.

Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age. God is present, with his people; He doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance. He is always active, and sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.

This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will tell us through the Gospel readings in the coming year. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who still comes to us today when human possibilities have run out. God with his powerful grace and love always offers us new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his many promises. During the Christmas season we will have Joy, but there also the challenge, to remember Christ all the year round. We must not put him away in a box together with all the other Christmas decorations. We also have to remember that Christ does not remain a child. He grows into manhood and challenges us to follow in his footsteps and to obey the commandments and the will of God. A challenge which most of the world finds too difficult to accept. Joseph accepted God’s word and welcomed Jesus as any other normal father would, and I’m sure he loved him as he watched him growing up, and while he was passing on his skills as a carpenter to Jesus.

Yes, welcome and love. That’s what we have to do, welcome and love baby Jesus this Christmas tide. WE also have to allow him to grow and be the man who will challenge us by revealing the true nature of God. As well as loving God, Jesus also teaches us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Do we welcome and love our friends who are non-Christians this Christmas time? Probably yes. But do we love and welcome those we do not know when they come to church at Christmas or for baptisms or weddings or funerals? God loves us all and we too should always be loving and welcoming to all of God’s children. WE owe it to God, we owe it to them!

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Amen

Christ the King 2019

Brian Reader

Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s year, and the Sunday before Advent. When I was a school boy, today used to be called Stir up Sunday, because the Collect used on this Sunday began Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord… This was the day when our mothers would mix the Christmas pudding and we were all allowed to help mix the pudding and make a wish. We were also given the treat of scraping out the bowl and licking the spoon; in those days there were no supermarkets where you could buy a Christmas pudding. You will be pleased to know that the Collect has not been forgotten and it is now used as the basis for our Post Communion Prayer which we will say together later in the service.

When the new lectionary was introduced, with the Bible readings spread over three years, this festival from the Roman tradition was added, and it does give us an opportunity to celebrate Christ as King before we remember Jesus as the babe at Bethlehem. Two weeks ago it was Remembrance Sunday when we remembered the dead of two world wars who had fought and died for king and country and also the many who have died in wars since that time. If we read our history books we find them littered with wars and battles as kings and rulers fought for territory and power. Is that all we think about when we speak of a king? If that is the case then our Gospel and NT readings do not seem to fit in at all.

If today we are thinking about Christ as King, it is strange that we are reminded of his very cruel death between two prisoners. But Jesus Christ is the long promised heavenly king, spoken about by the prophet Jeremiah, who said: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” And Jesus is the fulfilment of that promise.

The trouble today, in our very materialistic world, is that we lack a centre for our thinking and our living. Many are searching for truth but few find it. We sometimes think that man can do anything, but our knowledge is fragmented, and the bits do not add up to a coherent whole. Paul said in his letter to the Colossians, that Jesus Christ alone can makes sense of it all. He is the key to understanding the universe and the purpose of our lives in it. He is the one who makes sense of everything, who holds it all together.

So today we celebrate Christ the King. Christ our King? So, what do we understand about Christ as our King? Perhaps we try to relate Christ the King to our understanding of an earthly king. An earthly king has a land or an empire that he rules, he has subjects and armed forces. He has a code of laws and imparts justice, and, if he is a good king, he will lead his people with wisdom and courage. WE know that Christ has a heavenly kingdom but many would dispute that He rules on earth. We sing “Thy kingdom come O God, Thy rule on earth begin. Break with thy iron rod the tyranny of sin.” But we also believe that one day he will rule on earth and on that day all will bend the knee to him as undisputed king of the earth as well as heaven.

And he has his army to fight his battles. We, his Church here on earth, whether we like it or not, are Christ’s army, to fight against sin and evil in the world. And if we follow the living Christ, He certainly leads us with wisdom and courage. Christ has given us rules to enable us to live our lives as His subjects and as He would wish. But Jesus does not lead us like an earthly king, he leads us like a shepherd faithfully tending his flock; knowing us all by name, knowing all our strengths and weaknesses. What earthly king would wash his servant’s feet yet this is what Jesus did. What earthly king would ride into town on a donkey yet this is what Jesus did. What earthly king would wear a circle of thorns as a crown, yet this is what Jesus did. Christ was not highborn in a palace like some earthly prince but born in a stable to ordinary working folk. So perhaps he doesn’t match our idea of an earthly king, perhaps we need to look elsewhere to understand why he is king.

Pilate, during the trial of Jesus asked him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said: “You say so.” And when Pilate came to write an inscription to put above Jesus on the cross, it read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”; and it was written in Aramaic (the local Hebrew), in Latin, and in Greek. You will remember that the chief priests said to Pilate: “Don’t write, ‘The King of the Jews’, but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’,” and Pilate answered “What I have written, I have written.” And so Pilate will be remembered throughout history as a Roman who did not believe in Jesus, yet he testified to his kingship in three languages!

What earthly king would abandon his power to become a working man and a teacher, who would let himself be falsely accused, be ridiculed, tortured and put to death for our sins on a cross, so that we might be forgiven? Yet this is what Jesus did. Such love, such compassion, such obedience to the Father. Yes, Jesus Christ has shown that he is indeed the King of Love of whom we sing:

The king of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never,
I nothing lack if I am his
and he is mine for ever.

In Jeremiah’s time the rulers of Judah (or shepherds, as they are called in most translations) were failures. They were weak, wicked or short lived, and none of them proved to be good. So Jeremiah prophesied: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord”.

So Jesus is the new good shepherd, the new king who will rule with love. We may never fully understand Christ the King of Love, for his heavenly love is beyond our understanding. We shall never fully understand the cross in this life; because at the heart of it there is mystery, but we can put our trust in the love that he offers to all of us and we can accept the forgiveness which his great love bought for all of us. And as good subjects we should follow our king’s command, to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbour as our self. And if we do this, if we put our trust in our king, the Lord Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear, not even death itself. Because our king has lead the way through his own death and resurrection, and we can be confident of joining him as heirs to his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus Christ is the centre of our faith, and he is God’s only Son who has achieved salvation for us. So, in these difficult and uncertain times, when we hear of wars, terrorists and insurrections, and hear scares of financial hardships, we need not be terrified; because we have Christ as our King and Saviour, and his love and promises will last for ever.

Yours is the majesty, O Lord our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yours is the kingdom and the power; Yours be the glory now and for evermore.

AMEN.

Remembrance Sunday 2019

Job said to his companions: “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock for ever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints with me!”

Job 19:23-27a

Job – a man put to the test by God at the behest of the devil, who is trying to prove that Job’s faithfulness is wafer-thin. Job’s fath is tested by disasters to his reputation, to his health, and by disasters to his family. But after this testing, Job’s faith is upheld – “I know that my Redeemer liveth…”

On this Remembrance Sunday it is appropriate to compare Job’ suffering to that of men, women and children in the midst of war – witnessing death and disaster, facing death or disability. Compared with Job, I think it is fair to say that in wartime many people lost their faith in God, while a few did persevere in believing…

…including one of Bollington’s most favourite vicars, Canon Reginald Norton Betts, who had been awarded the Military Cross in that terrible conflict of the First World War.

Another result of that war was that people lost their faith not only in God, but in all those in Authority – “the powers that be” – who led them into war in the first place. Our Collect for today echoes this:

Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the king of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

I rather think that at our present time, too, most people are not exactly inclined to trust those in authority, not only in our country but world-wide. And this year we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the rising up of the churches and the “little people” in peacefully breaking down the Berlin Wall. But this fundamental mistrust can escalate into fearfulness and even despair about the future of our planet.

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus, and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Luke 20:27-38

Our Gospel for today is about another battle of beliefs as Jesus confronts the Saducees – a Jewish religious group who did not believe in life after death. Obviously, Jesus spoke up for the belief in eternal life – and could do no other he was consciously on his chose pathway through life, to crucifixion and gloriously to resurrection. A path that led from utter despair to overwhelming hope, opening the way for all of us to eternal life: a central plank of our Christian faith.

On this Remembrance Sunday, I wonder how many of us remember that – as Christians and as many other faiths – we do believe in life after death. And (for instance) that those rows and rows of graves in foreign fields marked with crosses, or with Jewish Stars of David or the crescents of Islam, not only represent the tragic toll of death as a result of war, but also the ranks and ranks of those same souls now in heaven who “at the going down of the sun and in the morning” we do remember. Souls now at rest, with the battle done, but nevertheless poignantly reminding us of the immense sadness and tragedy of wars still raging today.

So at our parish war memorial this morning and later at war memorials right across the country and the world, we do well to remember not only the deaths of so many, but also like Job we may dare to believe that in truth Our Redeemer liveth, and that in God’s good time all things will be made new in Him. Our post-communion prayer for this remembrance Sunday has much to commend it:

God of peace, whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom and restored the broken to wholeness of life: look with compassion on the anguish of the world, and by your healing power make whole both people and nations; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

Amen

Bible Sunday 2019

Brian Reader

Today is Bible Sunday, and many of you will know that the Bible has been on the best sellers list for ages. But just suppose, for the moment, that there was no Bible, it just didn’t exist. Put your hand up if you think that without the Bible the world would be a much poorer place. How could our church exist without the Bible? And that’s the whole point.

Without the Bible it would be difficult to worship God not just because the Bible shows us what God is like but also because most of our hymns are based on Scripture. So there would be no need for a choir!

There is no other book that can speak more powerfully into our lives than the Bible. So it would be very difficult to hear from God. Without the Bible it would be difficult to learn anything about God or to make any sense about why we are in this world, or the meaning of life. It would also be difficult to know whether what anybody else says about God is true.

Many people choose to live their lives without a Bible, they may have access to one, but it stays in the cupboard or on the shelf. They feel they don’t need it in their lives! They have it all worked out. It’s just another book which perhaps they may get round to reading one day! I hope you are not one of those people. There are also others, who through ignorance, indifference, or their own religious beliefs, choose never to read the Bible. But for millions of people they have no choice. Through barriers of illiteracy, language or religious persecution, they have no access to the Bible.

Do you have a Bible? How often do you read it? Daily? Weekly? Have your children, and grandchildren ever seen you reading your Bible?

We are fortunate that we have the privilege to hear and read the Good News, not only in our own language but also in the comfort of knowing that we can do this freely – in the open – with no risk of arrest or imprisonment. And if we have a problem, we can ask and receive help. But are we really interested in hearing and reading what God wants to say to us? In the Gospel passage today we hear what God’s message is about.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”
Luke 4:16-24

It was a statement made by Jesus in the synagogue and was as controversial then as it is now. He was telling everyone that He has come to restore what has been lost. To put things back where they belong! On one level, Jesus is insisting that those who want to follow Him should give back what they have taken dishonestly, and redistribute wealth so that those living in poverty can be ‘released’ from the economic ‘chains’ which bind them. On another level, He is making the point that He wants to bring release to those who are feeling isolated because of emotional hurt and physical problems. He wants to bring FREEDOM to all. Most importantly, He wants to restore a relationship that has been lost, the relationship between ourselves and God the Father.

If I were to blindfold someone and ask them to go and make me a cup of tea, they would not be able to do it. Why? Because they wouldn’t be able to see – they need help – someone to guide them – to issue instructions on where to walk, when to go upstairs, where the kettle is etc. It’s the same with the Bible. Without it we cannot know how God wants to set us and our communities free to be the people He wants us to be. We cannot know of the love and mercy of God for ourselves and others. We cannot find out how we are to live our lives. We cannot know how to act to those around us.

Those who have translated the Bible have done us an incredible service and have helped to look for ways for people to understand it. By translating it into our own language we are able to find freedom; Freedom from fear, pain and addiction. We are able to find forgiveness, to find that we are loved, and to find the courage to face the future.

By reading the Bible we are able to find peace of mind, and liberation from the tyranny of sin and death, so that we are free to enjoy eternal life with God. But if we do read the Bible and if we who know of God’s love and mercy do not extend that information to others, then we will be poorer for it and, worse still, guilty of withholding the most precious gifts of God, from the very people who need them.

Now I have had days when reading the Bible, I would skip reading the passage for the day because I knew the story. The familiar ones, which get repeated every year; the author may be different but the story is almost the same. Then, one day it dawned on me that I was missing God’s opportunity to speak to me and for me to hear what He was trying to say to me. The more times I read the same passage, the more I got out of it, and more often than not something different each time. Each time something unexpected was learnt, or something unfamiliar heard. Suddenly, a word or two would leap off the page and strike me in a new way and lead me to an encounter with God and on a journey I had never thought possible. When that happens, in that split second, the living God who breathes through the words of scripture is there with us in that moment and the scriptures are fulfilled in our hearing. But it doesn’t happen if the Bible stays on the shelf or sits in the cupboard or alongside the TV Guide.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ.
Romans 15:1-6

Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we recognise the importance of the word of scripture in defining who we are as a community of faith. Today, like Paul writing to the Romans, we acknowledge that this collection of writings that we know as the Bible, some written over 2000 years ago is for our instruction, our encouragement and to give us a sure hope. I believe that when you take the scriptures and you read them regularly and pray them passionately, you find that what you get is not certainty but possibility; what you get is not always answers but questions that leave you longing for more; what you get is not definite direction but a compelling call to go deeper into the mystery of this always new and very surprising God; what you get is not grounds for self-justification but the reality of a God who embraces our human vulnerability and sinfulness and who in living, dying and rising again opened the door to life in all its fullness.

Today and every day we are called to follow the pattern of the living Word. Today and every day we are called to read and pray so that the word of God will become so familiar that the ears of our hearts may be tuned to listen for the unfamiliar and the unexpected. There will of course be days when the words of scripture will stay fixed and lifeless on the page; when there’s no sign of movement. We too, will experience times when the light of dawn seems far away and the night seems endless. But as we journey forward each day with the risen Christ, we will be able to keep believing, and see the scriptures being fulfilled in our time. – for it is the reality of the living God who dwells amongst us in the Word made flesh.

A poem whose author is unknown:

They lie on the table side by side,
The Holy Bible and the TV Guide.
One is well worn and cherished with pride.
Not the Bible, but the TV Guide.

One is used daily to help folk decide.
No, not the Bible, but the TV Guide.
As the pages are turned, what shall they see?
Oh, what does it matter, turn on the TV.
So they open the book in which they confide.
No, not the Bible, but the TV Guide.

The Word of God is seldom read.
Maybe a verse before they fall into bed.
Exhausted and sleepy and tired as can be.
Not from reading the Bible, from watching TV.

So then back to the table side by side,
Lie the Holy Bible and the TV Guide.
No time for prayer, no time for the Word,
The plan of Salvation is seldom heard.
But forgiveness of sin, so full and free,
is found in the Bible, not on TV.

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.
AMEN

Michaelmas 2019

A sermon prepared by Canon Roy Arnold, read by Canon Veronica.

Prologue: We have several people in our congregation who suffer from age-related macular degeneration. This is an eye condition which reduces central vision. Roy is now one of them – which is why Veronica read his sermon for this special day.


Have you noticed the Michaelmas Daisies on this the feast of St Michael and All Angels – commonly called Michaelmas?

56 years ago – in 1963 – at this time I was ordained Deacon in Bristol Cathedral. And earlier in that year Hylda and I were married at St John’s church in Bollington; married to my wife, and then to my second wife – the Church of England!

The connection between ordination and Michaelmas being angels – for angels (by definition) are messengers and servants of God, and hopefully and in theory, so are the clergy to the church. And as my special companion and guardian angel, so has Hylda been to me and our daughters too – which perhaps underlines the fact (in the priesthood of all believers) that everyone – clergy and laity alike – is called to serve God and one another.

We come across St Michael in our reading today…

War broke out in heaven; Michael and his angels fought against the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they were defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. Then I heard a loud voice in heaven, proclaiming, “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death. Rejoice then, you heavens and those who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, for the devil has come down to you with great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”

Revelation 12:7-12

The Good News is that God, being an Almighty God, won the battle and the war. The Not-so-good News (for us) is that the devil and his bad angels were banished to the earth, and we only need to turn on the television news or read the papers to see what the devil and his bad angels have been up to in our world. With so much evil and pain all around us, we (who are hopefully on God’s side) are called upon, in small ways or great, to fight the good fight (as the old General Thanksgiving has it) “not only with our lips (just by what we say), but in our lives, by walking before God in holiness and righteousness all our days particularly by following Jesus – the Son of God. For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him “should not perish but have everlasting life.”

Of course, the devil whispers in our ears that this statement is not true – that God’s Son will not lead us to eternal life, because eternal life does not exist! But we must realise that the devil has always been a liar through and through. So we as Christians must hold onto our core beliefs, and live our lives with love and love and honesty and gratefulness… Speaking of which, let me end by thanking Veronica and Dave for their ministries, and thanking all of you, alongside all the people in the parishes and dioceses in which I have served.

I have – we all have – so much for which to thank our God – as I do!

Amen


There were two retired priests (and Honorary Canons) in our congregation this day who were celebrating anniversaries of ordination at Michaelmas. Veronica read out a potted history of each of their careers (having consulted Crockford’s Clerical Directory).

Canon Roy Arnold: After Lampeter Theological College Roy undertook two curacies (as was usual in those days) over a period of about seven years. his first curacy was at St Luke, Brislington in Bristol diocese. His second curacy was back in this diocese at the parish of St Mary Without the Walls, Chester. Then he served his first incumbency as Vicar of Brinnington with Portwood 1971-1975, followed by seven years as Vicar of St Paul, Sale. After that followed a short period as rector of Dodleston, before then moving away from Chester diocese across the Pennines to take up the post of Vicar of St Oswald, Sheffield, when he also had the demanding role of Diocesan Communications Officer, which latter role continued when he moved from that parish to take up another post, additionally working as Chaplain with the Deaf. In 1995 he was made an Honorary Canon of Sheffield Cathedral. He finally “retired” as they moved back to Bollington in 1997, helping cover two vacancies and also becoming a great friend and support to the present Vicar for the past twelve and a half years.

Canon Phil Lambert was ordained deacon in 1978, then priested in 1979. He also served two curacies, first at Holy Trinity, Upper Tooting in Southwark diocese, then at the parish of Whorlton in Newcastle diocese. Then he served successive incumbency posts in several clusters of parishes in Newcastle diocese before moving to the diocese of Bath and Wells as Rector of another group of parishes and becoming Rural Dean there. He then moved to Salisbury diocese as Team Rector of Dorchester and also Rural Dean there too, before becoming Canon Residentiary of Truro Cathedral. Finally he moved to the diocese of Europe where he served as an Assistant Chaplain living in Crete. We are pleased that he too has recently come to live here in retirement and has the Bishop’s Permission to Officiate.

Albeit the timings of both Roy’s and Phil’s early retirements were not necessarily what they had planned, we are nevertheless privileged to share in their continuing journeys and wish them every blessing.

14th Sunday of Trinity 2019

Brian Reader

What should be made of our readings for today, what are they trying to tell us? They all seem to be pointing in different directions. Firstly, I think we should consider the Gospel reading from Luke:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Luke 16:1-13

Some have thought that Jesus was condoning sharp practice in Business, but Jesus was not applauding fraud; he was telling a story where the master was commending his steward because he acted cleverly, not because he acted dishonestly. How can we sort all this out? The first thing to do is to understand how the story works. It would seem that the master in the story had himself been acting in a somewhat underhand manner. Jews were forbidden to lend money for interest, but many people got round this by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose. It is likely that what the steward deducted from the bill was the interest that the master had been charging, with a higher rate on oil than on wheat. If he reduced the loan in each case to the basic sum that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master could not then bring a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices. Thus, when the master heard about it, he could only admire the man’s clever approach. We know, as many lottery winners have discovered, that money can’t buy true friendship. This manager decided that by helping his master’s debtors, he would at least put them under an obligation to himself. He ‘made friends’, by writing off their debt; and his action recalls in part, the ancient Hebrew law of Jubilee when every fifty years debts were cancelled.

We should remember that the best that any of us can be or become is one of the ‘friends of Jesus’. He calls you to be his friend, and writes off all that you owe. He promises aid whenever you need it – all with no strings attached, and also gives us  – to each other – for ever.

But we should also realise, that the story is a parable, and not just a piece of moral teaching about money, and how or how not to use it. We are faced with a first-century Jewish story about a master and a steward, so we should realise that the master is God; and the steward is Israel. Israel is supposed to be God’s property manager, the light of God’s world, responsible to God and set over his possessions. But Israel – as can be seen in so much of Luke – has failed in the task, and is under threat of imminent dismissal. What then ought Israel to do? The Pharisees’ answer was to pull the regulations of the law even tighter, to try to make Israel more holy. But this had the effect that they were excluding the very people that Jesus was trying to reach. Jesus, in this parable, indicates that if Israel is facing a major crisis the answer is rather to throw caution to the winds, to forget the extra bits and pieces of law which the Pharisees have heaped up, and to make friends as and where they can. That’s what ‘the children of this world’ would do, and ‘the children of light’- that is the Israelites, ought to do so as well, learning from the cunning people of the world how to cope in the crisis that was coming.

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”- skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.”

Amos 8:4-7

The reading from Amos is also warning about unfair trading and social injustice. To have good law and justice in a country you must have a good government to make those laws and then see that they are obeyed. Amos is advocating that the Jewish state return to the teachings of the prophets and obey the laws that God gave them so that they would prosper as the people of God. I think that today, when we look around at the problems in our country, many of us feel that our Parliament, as a whole, has let us down very badly.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle – I am telling the truth, I am not lying – and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

In the reading from the epistle, Paul is giving Timothy instruction about how to be a good pastor, and his teaching on prayer goes straight to the point. It is normal to pray for those close to us, but in this passage he strongly urges that we should start, as it were, at the other end. We should pray for the people who hold the world together by their rule, leadership and authority.  A few years ago people were more or less happy with our democratic institutions, and our system of government. We voted every few years, we answered opinion polls from time to time, and we had a sense that we lived in a free society. Are you aware that since the reign of Charles II, prayers are said before each day of parliamentary business? The Speaker’s Chaplain usually reads the prayer:

“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed.”

You may not be surprised to hear, considering their recent actions, that in January of this year, some MPs have called for an end to the practice of holding prayers in parliament before the start of official business. This motion, backed by the National Secular Society, says “religious worship should not play any part in the formal business of the House of Commons”. And we think we are in a Christian country!

I remember that not so long ago, in every Anglican service there was a prayer for the Queen, but just not the queen but for all those in authority under her; this included all those in government, national and local, the armed forces, police and civil servants. When I was in the Royal Air Force, I liked that prayer because I felt it was also for me. I held the Queen’s Commission and I was part of all those ‘in authority under her’. That prayer was not just for the Queen but for the good governance of all in our country. We rarely hear it today!

Many Christians who were reasonably content with their country have been tempted to think that praying for kings and governments is a rather boring, a conformist thing to do. It looked like propping up the status quo. But now we have an unstable government, unable to find solutions to current problems and tending to divide rather than unite the country. We have knife and drug crime rife amongst our young, an under-resourced police force, a judiciary who appear weak, and there are other injustices affecting the less able and weak in our society. Our tackling of climate change and pollution can be said to be only half hearted at best.

No, this is not another chapter of Project fear, but a call to action for all Christians. The teaching given to Timothy is correct and just as meaningful now as it was then. Should we not all be joining together and praying for good government on a worldwide scale, for the United Nations and all who seek to influence the rulers of the nations?

This train of thought brings us exactly to the point the Jews had reached in the first century. They had suffered under persecution and unjust rulers for many generations. But they trusted in the one true God, and that God had sent his Son Jesus into the world to act as a ‘mediator between God and humans’. The fact that this view of God is centred upon Jesus, who died as a ransom for the sins of the whole world, means that the news of this one God, this one Saviour, must now go out and spread into all the world.

As so often in the New Testament, the call to prayer is also the call to think clearly about God and the world, and God’s project for the whole human race. Try praying for your rulers instead, and watch not only what God will do in your society but also how your own attitudes will grow, change and mature. So, if we want Justice for all, if we want a better government, if we want the best outcome from the current situation, if we want to see our nation united and thriving again in the future, then we had better start praying for it now.

“Oh Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, we are in a mess. Grant to all those responsible for our government, both in this country and to those who speak for the European Union, the wisdom and the guidance of your Spirit, that they may reach solutions which benefits all and brings the unity and wellbeing for which we all long; For yours is the kingdom and the power; and to yours be the glory now and for evermore.”

AMEN

11th Sunday after Trinity 2019

Come to the party!

Brian Reader

Proverbs 25:6 – 7; Ps 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

A very good morning to you all on this the 11th Sunday of Trinity, or as Veronica has renamed it “Back to school Sunday”.

I am very pleased to be back with you today because last Sunday Jean and I were worshipping at Holy Trinity Church in Broadstairs, in the church where I was both christened and confirmed. Veronica would have appreciated the service as lots of incense was used.

We were there to celebrate the 80th Birthday of my sister-in-law, and it was a big family gathering and a party. To find a theme for the address for today is fairly straight forward as the short reading from Proverbs points directly to the Gospel from St Luke, which itself links in with the family party.

Did you know that Luke’s gospel has more mealtime scenes than all the others? If Luke’s vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, then from another point of view it’s a party. Several stories end with a festive meal – like, for instance, the parable of the prodigal son which is in the next chapter of Luke. All these themes come together in the Last Supper and, finally, the reported meal at the end of the journey along the road to Emmaus.

In this chapter Luke has brought together two parables about feasting. The first we heard this morning, is not always recognized as a parable, because it looks simply like a piece of social advice, a piece of practical wisdom. So if you want to avoid embarrassment in front of your fellow guests, then follow this tip. But Jesus didn’t come to offer good advice; and often his own conduct seemed calculated to cause embarrassment. In any case, Luke tells us it’s a parable; in other words, we ought to expect it to have at least a double meaning.

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched… When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

What is Jesus really talking about? The rest of the chapter makes it clear that he’s talking about the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God. They were, so it appeared to him, eager to push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping the law, not to benefit others, but to maintain their own purity. They were precisely the sort of people he now found himself with, people who would watch for any sign of irregularity, even frowning upon actions, such as Jesus’ healing a man on the Sabbath; which they would have accepted on any other day but not the Sabbath. And Jesus, throughout this section of Luke, is turning things upside down. He is associating with the wrong kind of people. He is touching the untouchable and going out of his way to speak to the nobodies.

The parable, then, isn’t so much good advice for social occasions – although there is a very practical human wisdom in the warning against pride and arrogance. No! The real meaning is to be found in the warning against pushing oneself forward in the sight of God. In Jesus’ day it was all too easy for the well-off and the legally trained to imagine that they were superior in God’s sight to the poor, and to those without the opportunity to study, let alone practise, the law. And even today, this is a trap that Clerics, Readers, and all other Christians can fall into.

At the same time, in the world for which Luke was writing, there would also be another wider meaning. Within Luke’s lifetime thousands of non-Jews had become Christians – they had entered, as you might say, into the dinner party prepared by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many Jewish Christians, as we know from Acts, had found this difficult, if not impossible, to understand or approve. They were so eager to maintain their own places at the top table, that they could not grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head.

Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity. If I reckon that I deserve to be favoured by God, not only do I declare that I don’t need his grace, mercy and love, but I also imply, that those who I think don’t deserve it, shouldn’t have it. Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud and bringing the fresh, healing sunshine of God’s love to those in its shadow. The Pharisees could watch Jesus all they liked, but the power, both of his healings, and of his explanations, was too strong for them. The small-mindedness which pushes itself forward and leaves others behind, is confronted with the large-hearted love of God. All Christians are called to the same healthy dependence on God’s love, and should have the same generosity in sharing it with those in need.

The last two verses are linked more with the next passage, but still have a message for us. Bishop Tom Wright, who has written many good commentaries on the Gospels said, that once, many years ago, he preached a sermon on this passage. He emphasized the extraordinary way in which Jesus tells his hearers to do something that must have been as puzzling then as it is now. Don’t invite friends, relatives and neighbours to dinner – invite the poor and the disabled. The sermon had a strange effect. In the course of the next week he and his wife received dinner invitations from no fewer than three people who had been in church that day. The Bishop didn’t know which category of guest he was in and he was too polite – or afraid – to ask. This time it looks as if the passage is real advice. The parable of the supper, which immediately follows, is a parable all right, but Jesus really seems to have intended his hearers to take literally his radical suggestion about who to invite to dinner parties.

Social conditions have changed. Once it was easier when people lived in small villages in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, when meals are eaten with the doors open and people wander to and fro at will, but now in many parts of the world this has changed and it may seem harder to put it into practice. Many Christians would have to try quite hard to find poor and disabled people to invite to a party – although you will know some who do just that.

But nobody can use the difference in circumstances as an excuse for ignoring the sharp edge of Jesus’ demand. In particular, they cannot ignore it in the light of the parable that follows. You will remember the story about people who very rudely snub the invitation to a splendid party. They make excuses of the usual kind. The householder, having gone to all the trouble of organizing and paying for a lavish feast, is determined to have guests at his table, even if he has to find them in unconventional locations. The original guests have ruled themselves out, and others have come in to take their place. Once again the invited and expected guests are the Jews, waiting and waiting for the kingdom, only to find, when it arrived, that they had more pressing things to occupy them.

Of course, in Luke’s day many Jews had become Christians. But the majority of the nation, both in Palestine and in the scattered Jewish communities in the rest of the world, were not. Instead, (as it must have seemed to those first Jewish Christians), God’s messengers had gone out into the roads and hedgerows of the world, getting all kinds of unexpected people to join in the party. Not just Gentiles, but people with every kind of moral and immoral background, people quite different from them culturally, socially, ethnically and ethically.

But there is a another twist to this parable, because it bends back, as it were, on itself, returning to the challenge which Jesus gave in those last verses. The party to which the original guests were invited was Jesus’ kingdom-movement, his remarkable welcome to all and sundry. If people wanted to be included in Jesus’ movement, this is the sort of thing they were joining.

Once again, therefore, the challenge comes to us today. Christians, reading this anywhere in the world, must work out in their own churches and families what it would mean to celebrate God’s kingdom so that the people at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the line, would find it to be good news. It isn’t enough to say that we ourselves are the people dragged in from the country lanes, to our surprise, to enjoy God’s party. That may be true; but as those of you who have done an Alpha course, or experienced a Cursillo weekend will know, party guests are then expected to become party hosts in their turn.

Jesus is asking you to invite non-Christians to come in and share His party, to share, His love, His joy and His forgiveness which is available to all.

AMEN