2nd Sunday after Trinity 2019 – Freedom!

Anne Coomes

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. [Galatians 5:13-25]

Freedom is a word that you often hear these days. There are many different forms of it, and many different people advocating it. Certainly people around the world want political freedom – from Africa to Asia to the former Soviet Union to Scotland. Then there are the economists who believe in FREE trade, the lifting of tariffs. There are the capitalists who dislike central controls because they hinder FREE enterprise, and then there are the communists who say they want to set the proletariat FREE from capitalist exploitation. Just now, with regard to Brexit, there are the Remainers who want to have the FREEDOM of belonging to Europe to enjoy travel and trade. And there are the Brexiteers who want the FREEDOM of NOT belonging to Europe, because of all the laws and regulations.

President Roosevelt way back in 1941 summed it up well when he listed four kinds of freedom that politicians should aim to deliver:
freedom of speech everywhere,
freedom of worship everywhere,
freedom from want everywhere,
freedom from fear everywhere.

What sort of freedom is Christian freedom? Paul talks about it a lot in our reading from Galatians this morning. So what is it? Primarily it is a freedom of conscience. According to the Christian gospel no one is truly FREE until Jesus Christ has rid them of the burden of their guilt. So Christian freedom is freedom FROM sin, not freedom TO sin. We have freedom to approach God without fear, not freedom to exploit our neighbours without love. Indeed, the reading this morning makes it clear that with regard to others, we do not have the freedom to even just tolerate them. We are commanded to love them, and because of that, to be willing to serve them, to act in their best interests. It is a remarkable paradox – we are free in relation to God in that we can approach him without fear, but we are slaves in our relation to others, in that we need to always consider their needs as well as our own. We are not to be destructive, but in Christ we are to be constructive towards others.

But how is that realistically possible? We all know the pull of the lower nature in our lives. Paul looks in some depth at the constant warfare that goes on between what he calls the flesh and the Spirit. He urges us to be aware of this constant pull downwards on us. He urges us to actively repudiate the it evil, selfish urges that will harm both ourselves and others.

Paul says we will only succeed if we stay close to the Holy Spirit. In fact, in our reading this morning Paul mentions the Holy Spirit seven times by name. He is called our Sanctifier who alone can oppose and subdue the sinful flesh, and He alone can cause the fruit of righteousness to grow in our lives.

Paul lists some beautiful traits that make you wish that you knew a lot of people who had them: these nine Christian graces together portray the beauty and attractiveness of a Christian life. The first triad, or three, if you like, is LOVE, JOY and PEACE. These Christian virtues primarily describe our proper attitude towards God. For our first love is for God, our chief joy is our joy in God, and our deepest peace is our peace with God. The second triad of graces are PATIENCE, KINDNESS, GOODNESS. These are, if you like, the social virtues, looking towards others rather than Godward. Patience is longsuffering towards those who aggravate us. Kindness is a question of our disposition towards others. Goodness is doing words and deeds which benefit others. The final three graces are FAITHFULNESS, GENTLENESS AND SELF-CONTROL. Faithfulness is a description of the reliability of a Christian, gentleness reflects the humble meekness of Christ, and self-control describes personal inner strength, the very opposite of personal weakness.

So ‘love, joy, peace’ is God-wards, ‘patience, kindness, goodness’ is towards others, and ‘faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’ is self-wards in that it describes a Christian’s character in themselves. And all of these are fruit that comes from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within us.

If only it were easy to allow such beautiful characteristics as these to bloom in our lives! But we all know that it is not easy, and St Paul was above all a realist. He spoke in quite savage terms about the on-going struggle it will be, and was adamant about how we should treat our baser desires. He even said we should ‘crucify’ them – in other words, make a stern, decision to utterly reject the wrong, to put it firmly away from us. And we can look for help to the Holy Spirit. For Paul says we are to be led by the Spirit. The Greek verb which he uses for led, was used of a farmer herding cattle, of a shepherd leading sheep – in other words, a relationship of everyday calm familiarity, and of total trust and confidence based on on-going experience. We are to be led, and we are NOT to suddenly take off down the road on our own, as a cow did recently on the Silk Road on my way to Poynton. And Paul goes even further. He urges us to actively ‘walk with the Spirit’ – and the verb he used here is of moving forward actively, with purpose and direction. If you have ever walked a Jack Russell dog, you will know what he meant.

As one well-loved Bible scholar urges us: To keep our Christian freedom, and to enjoy it, we are to make it our task each day to take time to remember who we are. We belong to Jesus Christ, and his Spirit dwells within us. So we can actively decide to cooperate with Him each day, and ask Him for guidance when the way is not clear. Remember – we are FREE to do so.

So – finally – coming back to Brexit, with regard to our Christian lives, you can have it both ways this morning. With regard to the rule of sin in your life, be a Brexiteer – get yourself free of it and deny its control on your life. With regard to other people, be a Remainer, and make the decision to love others and be willing to help them.

You are a Christian – you are free!
So Brexit from sin, and Remain in the Holy Spirit.

First Sunday after Trinity 2019

Brian Reader

Luke 8:26-39

As you may have realized, I have been away from Bollington over the last two Sundays, but I have not missed Church. While I was away I realised that I have been a Lay Reader for 24 years…

was played on the organ by Jennifer (and those who knew the words joined in!)

This is really quite an achievement because I remember our team Rector saying before he agreed to the start of my training at the age of 61 “Well I suppose we might get two or three years out of you!” Why have I mentioned this? Well today’s Gospel story is well known. As well as appearing in Luke, there are similar stories in both Mathew (8.28-34) and Mark (5.1-20). Yet when studying the text and the various commentaries, I learnt something new. It does not matter how old you are, or how long you have been doing something, you can always learn something new if you approach it with an open mind.

The story is set on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Tiberias. The lake is not very large, only about 13 miles long, and 8 miles wide, so I had assumed that in Jesus’ time all the people around the lake would have been Jews. This was not the case, as along the western edge of the lake was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in what is now Jordan. The Decapolis was a centre of Greek and Roman culture in a region which was otherwise populated by the Jewish people and that was the reason they were breeding pigs.

But back to the Gospel story. Jesus had chosen to cross over on to foreign soil, perhaps to escape the immediate pressure of travelling around under the nose of Herod Antipas. There was, however, to be no peace there either. This violent man, possessed, it seems, by a multitude of spirits, at once confronts him and fills the air with screaming and yelling. The disciples must have wanted to get straight back in the boat and head for home again. Jesus remains calm before this human storm, as he had before with the wind and the waves on the lake. The same quiet authority will deal with the one as with the other. The man was wild and had almost superhuman strength; today he would probably be diagnosed with melancholic mania. He was certainly in mental torment, but Jesus was stronger than his whole regiment of demons. Jesus needed some visible demonstration of his cure and when the pigs were stampeded by his cries Jesus said, ‘There go your demons’.

There’s an ironic twist in the story; because the demons ask to enter the pigs and the pigs then rushed headlong into the sea; at the time, there was a popular superstition that the sea was the abode of condemned spirits. Now the story contrasts the well-being of man with that of the pigs and their owners; but the pigs’ drowning raises some awkward questions: was it right to take the men’s livelihood away? Were the men more worried about the money than about the animals? Did the pigs matter more than the man? Is business profit and the economy more important than the well-being of animals? The townspeople asked Jesus to leave, but were they afraid of such obvious divine power, or of the threat to their businesses, or because they just didn’t want to be disturbed?

We may have our own views but we cannot be sure of all the answers. It’s very sad that the only time that he came to them they asked him to go away. Jesus is then very careful not to do anything which might antagonize the Roman Authorities in the future. But Luke’s focus in telling this story is on the man himself, and, as always, on Jesus. For Luke, what has happened to this man isn’t just a remarkable healing; it is ‘salvation’. The salvation which God promised long ago, is now becoming evident in Jesus and his mission. It has already reached many in Israel, and it is now starting to spread further afield. The man, quite understandably, wants to be allowed to stay with Jesus. Not only is he now bonded to him by the astonishing rescue he has experienced; but he may well assume that things would not be easy back in his home territory, where everyone knew the tragic tale of his recent life. There might be considerable reluctance to take him back as a member of his family or the village. He would have to stand up and take responsibility for himself; he couldn’t rely on being able, as it were, to hide behind Jesus. Luke reserves the real point of the story to the last few words. ‘Go home,’ says Jesus, ‘and tell them what God has done for you.’

Just as from Israel’s earliest experience, deliverance always precedes commandment, so this healing comes before the commission; now that he has set you free and you are in your right mind: go and tell the others. And the man goes off and tells everyone what Jesus has done for him, and in doing so he becomes the first apostle to the Gentiles. Luke is not offering us, or not yet, any formula, or carefully worked-out doctrine, of how ‘God was in Christ’. At the moment it is simply something people discover in their own experience: what Jesus does, God does. Or, to put it the other way round, if you want to tell people what God has done, tell them what Jesus has done.

The best brains in two thousand years of Christianity have struggled to find adequate words to explain how this can be; but it is a truth known to many,
at a level too deep for mere theory, from the moment they discover God’s saving power in the person and work of Jesus. Jesus will not run from any danger or turn away from anyone. Jesus showed that he was stronger than a whole regiment of demons. He waits patiently for you to come to him, waits to set you free from all that troubles you, and give you peace.

Find the peace that Jesus alone can give, and go and tell others, of what God, through Jesus, can do for them.

AMEN

6th Sunday of Easter 2019

Brian Reader

Acts 16: 9- 15; Rev 21: 10, 22 to 22: 5; Ps 67; John 14: 23-29.

Now this may seem a strange question but bear with me, it does have relevance. Does anyone remember this? [played on the organ by Jenny]

It is one of the Beatles hits which was released as a single 1967, over half a century ago.
I first preached on these readings back in 2004 – fifteen years ago, and I played a recording of the first part of the song. Then I was able to ask – How many of you remember the Beatles? But now perhaps I might have to ask a younger generation, have any of you heard of the Beatles? The lyrics were:

Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It’s easy
Nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
It’s easy
All you need is love
All you need is love

Today is the last Sunday before the Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven. After His resurrection, Jesus had to remind his disciples what he had taught them about God and Himself. Now in today’s Gospel reading from St John, Jesus is trying to prepare them for what is about to happen. “I’ve told you this ahead of time, before it happens, so that when it does happen, it will deepen your belief in me.” It will also give them a better understanding of His love. In another translation, the passage starts: “If anyone loves me, he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him.” If you read John’s Gospel, you will see that just before this passage, Jesus is talking a lot about love. Hence my being reminded of the old Beatles hit.

All you need is love. But is that true? Yes, if that love is for God and for our neighbours as Jesus commanded. Yes, if it is the selfless love that a parent should have for a child and a child for their parents, then it is good and honourable.

Regrettably, in today’s permissive world, with all the media and peer pressures put upon us, love is more likely to be selfish or just plain lust. So it is not surprising that David Shepherd, who as Bishop of Liverpool, the home of the Beatles, said, when speaking on permissiveness and human love – “If I was clever enough and good enough it would be all right to say, ‘Love is all you need’, but because I am neither clever enough, nor good enough, there is a need for signposts (or rules) to show that it is not the loving thing to go down (some) particular paths.”

And Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
What is Jesus’ word? It is His teaching and His commandments which we can read in the Bible. To sum up the whole message of the Gospel: Belief in and love of God, means belief in and love of Jesus. For St John the two are inseparable. There is no adequate faith in God apart from faith in Jesus.

At the time of Christ’s passion, the disciples were worried and upset by the talk of His betrayal and the thought of Jesus leaving them. Jesus himself knew the effect his death had on them all. And so He is trying to explain and to get them to understand why it has to happen; that the time was coming when Jesus would no longer be physically present with them. However, His return to God will be for their good: it will bring a new power for action, together with a new certainty in prayer. If Jesus is to leave them, how can He be the ‘way’ to God when He is no longer there? The answer lies in the two successors to Jesus’ ministry named in this chapter.

One successor is the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises the disciples that they will not be left ‘orphaned’; he will send a ‘Helper’ , a ‘comforter’ or a ‘Counsellor’ for them – the Holy Spirit. The resurrection of Jesus will bring not only the promise of eternal life for the believers, but also his living presence through the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit will help the disciples remember and apply Jesus’ teachings to life after His ascension and give them the courage to endure the persecutions which will follow. And two weeks ago Anne spoke of the persecutions which are still taking place in the world today. Best of all, the Holy Spirit will come to be with them always and everywhere (not limited by a physical body as Jesus had been). The Spirit will teach and counsel and bring to mind all that Jesus has said. And Jesus’ own unshakeable peace will be theirs.

But there is a second successor, the church. With the promise comes a commission. Jesus promises that those who believe in him will “do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these”. So Christians can continue Jesus’ work. ‘Greater things’ does not mean more spectacular – it would be hard to outdo the resurrection! But the world-wide mission of the church does take the ministry of Jesus far beyond the bounds of His earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit is the power for this ministry. And our contribution lies in obeying Jesus and his teaching. Love of Christ and obedience are tied intimately together in this passage.

For all those who follow him, Jesus offers his ‘peace’. Note: the peace that Jesus offers his disciples is not the peace of an easy life. It is the peace of the obedient servant who has the full confidence and support of his master, and who carries out his commission effectively and joyfully.

With His death Jesus made the approach-road for men and women to come to God. His resurrection enables His return to the Father, and His ascension enables Him to get a permanent home ready for his disciples, and in due course he will come again for them. And we are included in that promise if we follow Him as His disciples today. We have seen that as disciples, we must continue to love and trust Jesus Christ. And the way we can show our love is to do all that he says and commands.

As we have seen, the Beatles’ phrase ‘All you need is love’ is not enough. It also requires prayerful action, commitment and courage to follow Christ. In the Beatles song we hear – ‘It’s easy, love is all you need’. But Jesus never said it would be easy, or without hardship, for the Christians who follow Him, but we know that with the help of the Holy Spirit all things are possible. Jesus’ ascension, His returning to the Father is the culmination, the completion of Jesus’ work as a man here on earth. It is the crowning of the Easter story – Hallelujah!

4th Sunday of Easter 2019

Anne Coomes

“My sheep listen to my voice, they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” 
John 10 27

No one will snatch them out of my hand. 

Yet today, there are many countries where the authorities are trying to do just that. To snatch Christians away from Jesus Christ, by persecuting them or even killing them. Just how bad is this persecution? Well, as you know, following the outcry over Asia Bibi, the Christian woman cleared of blasphemy in Pakistan late last year, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commissioned the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Rev Philip Mounstephen, to carry out an independent review on the persecution of Christians worldwide.

Bishop Mounstephen was a good choice, because he used to head up the Church Mission Society, and in that role has worked with persecuted Christians in many countries.

Well, you’ll remember that on 3rd May, only about 10 days ago, the bishop published his interim report, and the findings made our national headlines. The report found that ‘religious persecution is a global phenomenon that is growing in scale and intensity’ and that there is ‘widespread evidence showing that Christians are by far the most widely persecuted religion’. Acts of violence ‘are on the rise, with an increase in the severity of anti-Christian persecution.’

As of 2019, 245 million Christians worldwide suffer high levels of persecution or worse. This is up 30 million up on 2018. That’s one in ten Christians globally. In Asia the statistics are even more shocking, with one in three Christians at risk of severe persecution. As for the persecution in the Middle East and Africa, it has reached such a ‘vast scale’ that it is arguably coming close to meeting the international definition of genocide, according to that adopted by the UN. Christians in Palestine now represent less than 1.5% of the population, while in Iraq they have fallen from 1.5 million to less than 120,000 in just 16 years.

The main impact of such genocidal acts is exodus. Christianity now faces being wiped-out in parts of the Middle East. In fact, ‘The eradication of Christians and other minorities on pain of the sword or other violent means is… the specific and stated objective of extremist groups in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, North-East Nigeria and the Philippines.’ These groups want to stamp out all evidence of Christianity. They remove crosses, tear down or bomb churches (think of the attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday), abduct and kill the clergy.

But it is not just extremist groups. It is governments. In many countries to be a Christian is to risk arrest, imprisonment, and torture – for no other reason than that you believe in Jesus. For the report warns of an increasing threat from ‘aggressive nationalism in countries such as China, as well as from Islamist militia groups.’ For example, in India, ‘there is a growing narrative that to be Indian is to be Hindu.’

The report then analysed persecution around the world.

Christians in the Middle East and Africa use to be 20 per cent of the population – 100 years ago. Today, they are less than 4 per cent. In South East Asia, such as India and Nepal, militant nationalists are demanding anti-conversion laws. In other words, to make it illegal to even become a Christian. In sub-Saharan Africa, such as Nigeria there are the militant Islamists Boko Haram and the Fulani herdsmen.  Their specific aim is to eliminate all Christianity and thus pave the way for the total Islamisation of the country.

And so in Nigeria alone, hundreds of Christians are being killed every single month. During 2018, far more Christians in Nigeria were killed in violence than anywhere else in the world. What about East Asia?  Well, North Korea has been the most dangerous country in the world for Christians for the past 18 years. Here Christians face arrest, interrogation, severe torture, imprisonment and often execution. Over in China, the Government is currently demolishing church buildings and tearing down crosses. In Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma), again the growing influence of Islamic militancy… is driving persecution of Christians in the region. In Central Asia? The report says that ‘the situation for Christians is bleak, as authorities have further enforced a widespread crackdown on churches.  

All in all, Bishop Mounstephen has said: “Through my previous experience… I was aware of the terrible reality of persecution. But to be honest in preparing this report, I’ve been truly shocked by the severity, scale and scope of the problem.”

For of course the New Testament was always clear that to be a Christian is to face persecution. 

Matthew 5 11: Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,

Mark 8 35: For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.

Luke 21 12-15: But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. 

John 15 18: If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. 

Romans 8 35: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

2 Corinthians 4 8-10:  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 

2 Timothy 3 12: In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.

1 Peter 3 14: But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.

1 Peter 4 12: Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

So going back to our Bible readings this morning, it is not often that you can pick up a national news story and link it directly with the Bible, but when you compare the Mounstephen interim report with our reading this morning from Revelation, the similarities are striking: 

Revelation reads:  ‘there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from? I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’ 

2nd Sunday of Easter 2019

Brian Reader

Acts 5:27-32 / Ps: 150/ Rev 1:4-8 / John 20:19-31 /

Today is sometimes known as Low Sunday, after all the excitement of Easter Sunday. It is also a time when Cathedral choirs are away on holiday. This is good, because it allows good parish choirs to fulfil the role of relief choir in a cathedral setting, and I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to sing with relief choirs at Bury St. Edmund’s, Gloucester Cathedral, and twice at St. David’s.

So what impact did this Easter have on you? For me it surprised me in a number of different ways; ways I did not expect and ways I did not choose.

Firstly there was the Lent group, movingly centred on the book ‘The Nail’, some portions of which Veronica used in the services leading up to Easter. It was a good Lent course as it made us realise that through our sins, we all had a responsibility for nailing Jesus to the cross. But it wasn’t nails that held him to the cross – it was His love for us. And then last Sunday we had our Easter services to celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection, and we met the risen Lord at the communion table. In the past I can remember waking up on Easter morning to find snow covering the daffodils. But not this year; Easter was late and we had fine weather! The daffodils may have faded, but the bluebells were out and the trees had a good covering of new leaves. For those of you who made the early Easter service it was magical. The sky was clear with an almost full moon and a couple of pink contrails crossing the dark blue sky; with the dawn chorus in almost full throat. Even the weather was warm and we didn’t really need the blazing fire, as we filed into a dark church with our candles burning. If you have never been to one of Veronica’s early Easter services, I certainly recommend it, as it is an experience never to be forgotten. And the 10.30 service was also memorable. We had a double Christening, and multiple Christenings at Easter used to be a feature of the early Church.

Today’s reading, taken from St. John’s Gospel, is part of the continuing resurrection story. Jesus appears in a locked room to some, but not to all the disciples, and he commissions them. “Just as my Father sent me, I send you.” But Thomas, the twin, was not there, and when they told him that they had seen the Master, he said that he would not believe unless he too could see the marks of the crucifixion on His Lord. Poor Thomas, nicknamed ‘doubting’ for the rest of time.

Why did he doubt; why is this story recorded? Just imagine if this had been a communist story, or even the report of an event or a meeting by a modern political party, would they have written anything about anyone possibly having doubts? Most unlikely. This part of the story would receive spin, it would be glossed over, or edited out. But some doubting is normal, it is not improper, unless it is hidden and not faced and overcome. So why was this bit about doubting Thomas recorded, and why did Matthew also record that some doubted? Well the Gospel writers would not have made it up, so it can be regarded as true. And if the doubting is true, then all the other resurrection eye witness reports can also be taken as true.

Back in 2004 there was a lot of hoo-ha about the film – ‘The passion of the Christ’. I saw the film, with all the gore and violence, and I think it gave me a better understanding of Christ’s love and the suffering He endured for me, for you, and for the whole world. We know that Pilate was pressurised by the Jewish priests but as the Roman governor, he was very happy to use their false accusations to rid himself of a possible trouble maker. Christ who came teaching love and justice for all, was put to death unjustly because of the fear and hatred of a powerful few. One thing that the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ forcibly recalled to mind, was the great trauma that the two Marys and all the disciples felt as events unfolded leading up to the flogging and terrible death of their beloved Master.

Would I have denied Christ like Peter? Probably. Why stick out and be another victim when all you have worked for and believed in is being swept aside, rejected, and nullified before your very eyes? They did not know that he was to return, to make all things new, to gladden the heart and stiffen the sinew. He tried to tell them, but they just didn’t understand. Yet return to life He did. Risen in a new body which they failed to recognised till he spoke their name, broke bread in thanksgiving, or said “Peace be with you.” He also taught them afresh about himself – as the Son of God, and of God His Father, and He spoke of the Holy Spirit, who would come to fire them up for their work in the days to come.

Tom Wright, who was the Bishop of Durham, has said that “there is little justification for being a Christian unless one accepts that the Resurrection is a matter of historical fact.” In his TV programme ‘Resurrection’, he took an historical journey to the places where Jesus lived and died, in an attempt to build up a picture of what really happened in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. He showed that the cross was not the end – NO, that was just the beginning.

The Resurrection that followed was an event of cataclysmic proportions which changed the way mankind viewed life and death for ever. The resurrection rejuvenated the grieving disciples. It galvanised the young Church which spread the Gospel through the eastern world like wildfire. It gave a faith in Jesus Christ by which, men and women were prepared to live their lives, and if – as was sometimes necessary – a faith to die for.

This is our faith, and yet we too sometimes doubt just like Thomas. He was able to see and feel the wounds inflicted on Jesus, and we can’t. We can’t prove there is a God in any scientific way, yet we can prove that Christ did live, that he was crucified unjustly for our sins, and that he did rise again. And Jesus tells us through his disciples and scriptures, that if we have seen Him, (or know Him as our personal saviour) then we have seen and know God the Father. And so we can believe with our minds and have faith, but we also need to trust with our hearts and reach out for His ever forgiving love.

He said, “Peace be with you.” So cast your doubts away, Jesus lives, Hallelujah!

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.
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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.