Passion Sunday

Brian Reader

A sermon prepared for Passion Sunday, the beginning of Passiontide, and the last two weeks of Lent leading up to Easter. It is based on the Gospel of Saint John Chapter 11, verses 1-45:

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

We all get disappointed in this life when we think that friends have let us down, and if you are like me, then you too may show your annoyance. Did you feel annoyed like Martha that Jesus did not come immediately he got the message about his friend’s illness? But how did Jesus receive the message, and how did they know where he would be? We will never know for sure, but according to the previous chapter of John’s Gospel he had been to the place on the Jordan where John the Baptist had been baptising and first met Jesus. One thing we can be sure of is that they didn’t have mobile phones to make immediate contact! So we don’t know how long the message took to reach him. So why did Jesus not go at once? Perhaps he knew that his friend was already dead! I don’t believe for a second that Jesus was delaying so he could then do an even greater miracle of healing.

When I have difficulty trying to unravel a passage from the bible, as well as praying, I also read a commentary by Bishop Tom Wright on the subject, which usually gives a different point of focus. The bishop believes that the story gives us an insight into prayer. We pray for justice and peace, – for prosperity and harmony between nations and races, and still it hasn’t happened. Why? God doesn’t play games with us. His ways are not our ways. His timing is not our timing. One of the most striking reminders of this is in verse 6 of the passage. When Jesus got the message from the two sisters, the cry for help, the emergency-come-quickly appeal, he stayed where he was for two days. He didn’t even mention it to the disciples. He didn’t make preparations to go. He didn’t send messages back to say ‘we’re on our way: He just stayed there. And Mary and Martha, in Bethany, watched their beloved brother die. What could be harder than that?

So what was Jesus doing? If we think about the rest of the story we can find the answer. He was praying. He was seeking to find the will of his father. He wanted to do what was right. The disciples were right: the Judaeans had been wanting to stone him, so surely he wouldn’t think of going back just yet?

Bethany was, and is, a small town near Jerusalem, on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. Once you’re there, you’re within easy reach of the holy city, and who knows what would happen this time if he had returned.

It’s important to realize that this wonderful story about Lazarus, one of the most powerful and moving in the whole Bible, is not just about Lazarus. It’s also about Jesus, and when Jesus thanks the father that he has heard his prayer, I think he’s referring to the prayers he prayed during those two strange, silent days in the wilderness across the Jordan. He was praying for Lazarus, but he was also praying for wisdom and guidance as to his own plans and movements. Somehow the two were bound up together. What Jesus was going to do for Lazarus would be, on the one hand, a principal reason why the authorities would want him out of the way. But it would be, – on the other hand, – the most powerful sign yet, in the sequence of ‘signs’ that marks our progression through this gospel, of what Jesus’ life and work was all about, and of how in particular it would reach its climactic resolution. The time of waiting, therefore, was vital. As so often, Jesus needed to be in prayer exploring the father’s will in that intimacy and union of which he often spoke. Only then would he act – not in the way Mary and Martha had wanted him to do, but in a manner beyond their wildest dreams.

This story is all about the ways in which Jesus surprises people and overturns their expectations. He didn’t go when he received the sisters’ message. But he did eventually go, although the disciples warned him not to. He spoke about ‘sleep’; meaning death, and the disciples thought he meant ordinary sleep. And, in the middle of the passage, he told them in a strange little saying that people who walk in the daytime don’t trip up, but people who walk around in the darkness do. What did he mean? He seems to have meant that the only way to know where you were going was to follow him. If you try to steer your course by your own understanding, you’ll trip up, because you’ll be in the dark. But if you stick close to him, and see the situation from his point of view, then, even if it means days and perhaps years of puzzlement, wondering why nothing seems to be happening, you will come out at the right place in the end. There is a great deal that we don’t understand, and our hopes and plans often get thwarted. But if we go with Jesus, even if it’s into the jaws of death, we will be walking in the light.

The prayer of Jesus at the grave begins with thanksgiving as all prayer should; we take too much for granted. But if, like the Psalmists or Job, you have a complaint about arbitrary injustice or the unfairness of it all, it is right to tell him so. Martha certainly spoke her mind, and, feeling neglected, bluntly reproached Jesus. A prayer of protest is quite proper. Prayer is a dialogue of learning; in the stillness you learn more about yourself, and God, and the way things really are. You may come to understand, ‘Why should it happen to me?’, is answered with ‘Why should it not?’, and ‘Why me?’ becomes ‘Why not me?’ ‘Jesus wept’ is not an oath; it expresses his grief at the death of his friend and the distress of his sisters; for John it stresses the reality of the Incarnation. This man is truly flesh and blood, who understands a cry of pain and anguish, and shares the pain and hurt of bereavement. If ever you are almost overwhelmed by grief, he understands and shares; and comes to you as he came to Martha and Mary. The long story about Lazarus (whose name so aptly means ‘blessed by God’) is the crowning sign of victory over death. Here Lazarus is dead and buried and decaying and this resuscitated corpse is a further sign:

Jesus not only speaks of the word of life but he himself is the Resurrection (Anastasis)

Often we hear a voice that reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death; but Jesus’ commanding voice insists: In the midst of death we are in life. Don’t worry about what happens when you die for he is Resurrection. And there is more to come. Offering you a chalice, a minister may say: ‘The blood of Christ keep you in eternal life,’ – in other words – keep you where you already are. That’s John’s new theology and an understanding after his sixty years of prayer and meditation. Eternal life is here and now; we have passed from death to life already. Yet sometimes you may feel half-dead through bereavement or despair, divorce, or disappointment, or redundancy or being told about a life threatening illness for yourself or someone close to you and yet you find a new lease of life that seems like resurrection, a life that is fuller and richer, more satisfying and fulfilling, eternal in quality as well as quantity, here and now. I certainly found that when working in a hospice.

As Easter makes plain, God is in the business of raising the dead. Life is a succession of deaths and resurrections; and when you come to the end of your days and he leads you through death into Life, it will be but one more in a whole series of resurrections.

Lord Jesus, give us the courage and strength to follow you,
especially when times are hard,
so that we may experience your love
and help through all our days.

Amen

Third Sunday before Lent 2020

Brian Reader

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written: “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” — the things God has prepared for those who love him — these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit. The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, for, “Who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2: 1-16

Today is the Third Sunday before Lent. It is also the start of the period called Shrovetide that begins on this day and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins.

Of the three long readings, I have selected Paul’s epistle for closer study. Why? Because I have found Paul’s writing sometimes quite difficult to understand. Why is this? Unlike the other disciples, Paul was never a follower of Jesus during his life time, in fact just the reverse. Those close disciples of Jesus could easily speak to the people of Judea and the surrounding area about Jesus, and remind them of the miracles, and the things Jesus had said and done when he was amongst them. Paul, unlike most of the other disciples was well educated, and his role as the ‘Export Manager for the Gospel’ was to tell people in foreign lands about Jesus, of whom they had no previous knowledge.

Imagine going to a family or school reunion where you would find it fairly easy to discuss things widely known and accepted by you all. Imagine now going away on holiday where you would find it much more difficult to discuss the similar things with a group of strangers unless you gave them a lot more information first. This is the problem facing Paul. He is talking to Jews who were practicing their religion away from their homeland in a sophisticated pagan city. In this letter Paul talks a lot about wisdom and the Holy Spirit. Life is full of mystery. The deepest mysteries of human life – love, death, joy, and beauty, have for centauries been believed to point to the deepest mystery of them all, the mystery of God. Pagans believed that by going through particular initiation rites and disciplines they could get to the heart of the mystery, and would discover things that would change their lives completely. Now most Jews believed that the one true God had already invited them to share his own life and purpose, so they didn’t follow this route. But they, too, experienced the mystery as they tried to understand the truth about how and why God had made the world, and in particular what his purpose was for them and for the future. This is where Paul comes in. He picked up this Jewish tradition and declared that God’s past, present and future had at last been unveiled in and through Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was the clue to all the secrets of God. One of the reasons, in fact, why the mystery of the gospel is a mystery, is because nobody in Corinth or in the rest of the world, would ever think of looking for the secret to life, the universe, God, beauty, love and death in a place of execution outside a rebellious city called Jerusalem.

But there was power in this ‘good news’, and the appropriate response to this gospel was ‘faith’. This is central to Paul’s vision of what being a Christian is all about, and it is brought about by the power of the spirit at work in and through the gospel.

God really does have wisdom in store, deep and rich and many-sided; but it’s only for those who can and will appreciate it, those who are sufficiently grown-up in their spiritual understanding. The wisdom Paul has in mind doesn’t belong to ‘this age’ at all. It belongs to the ‘age to come’; and speaking of it to those who aren’t already part of this new ‘age to come’ is like speaking of a sunrise to blind person. Only those who have believed in the rising of the son of God can even begin to understand what this wisdom is. How do we know? Because God gave us his spirit at Pentecost. This is another major theme of the letter. Paul relishes the fact that the spirit who is poured out upon believers, brings them to faith and opens their hearts and minds to the wisdom of this ‘age to come’, is God’s own spirit. Paul declares, that this spirit is given to all God’s people in the Messiah.

This is an astonishing claim. It clearly doesn’t mean that Christians automatically know everything about God, or why would Paul bother to write letters? It means that they have open access to ‘the mind of the Christ’. But to explore this they must themselves be ‘mature’. They must themselves be ‘spiritual’. Bishop Tom Wright says that this tight-packed and challenging passage has many lessons for us, but perhaps the most important is for Christians who have forgotten, or perhaps never knew, two truths. The first is that there is a wealth of knowledge and life enhancing understanding waiting for us to explore. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs and a rule-book for life, such as anyone could master in a weekend. It is as many-sided as the world itself, full of beauty and mystery and power, yet as terrifying and wonderful as God himself. There is always much, much more to learn, to relish, and to delight in. The second is that the Christian message from the very beginning challenged the world of power, including social and political power, with the message of God’s superior kingdom unveiled in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul doesn’t want the Corinthians to imagine that he is talking simply about a religious experience that won’t have anything to do with the real life of politics and government. No. Christian teaching effects every part of our lives.

At the end of the Epistle reading for two weeks ago, Paul wrote “For the message of the cross is foolish to those who are perishing but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God”. What did he mean? Paul here is contrasting ‘the wisdom of the world’ with ‘the wisdom of God’. His basic claim is that the message about the Messiah and his cross carries a power of quite a different sort to the power of clever speech, and newsworthy oratory. The point is that when Paul came into a pagan city that prided itself on its intellectual and cultural life, and stood up to speak about Jesus of Nazareth, he was faced with a problem.

Jesus had been crucified by the Romans but raised from the dead by God, and he was now the Lord of the world, summoning people to faithful obedience. Paul knew what people would think. This was, and is, the craziest message anybody could imagine. It was news of an executed criminal from a despised race. And the Jewish people themselves wouldn’t enjoy hearing it either. No Jew of the time was expecting a Messiah who would be executed by Rome; a Messiah ought to be defeating the pagans, not being killed by them! To tell the story of Jesus and his cross, was just inviting people to mock. But the story had to be told truthfully. Simply telling the story released a power of quite a different sort from any power that human speech could have: God’s power, beside which all human power looks weak; and God’s wisdom, against which all human learning looks like folly. Paul says it the other way round, to make the point with stunning rhetorical effect: God’s folly is wiser than humans, and God’s weakness is stronger than humans!

The Christian good news is all about God dying on a rubbish-heap at the wrong end of the Roman Empire. It’s all about God babbling nonsense to a room full of philosophers. It’s all about the true God confronting the world of posturing, power and prestige, and overthrowing it in order to set up his own kingdom, a kingdom in which the weak and the foolish find themselves just as welcome as the strong and the wise. Think back to Jesus himself, and the people he befriended, and ask yourself whether Paul is not being utterly loyal to his master.

The gospel, the Good News, is the royal announcement that Jesus is Lord, because God has raised him from the dead. It is ‘God’s power for salvation to those who believe’. When this announcement is made, people discover – to their astonishment – that things do change. Lives change. Human hearts change. Situations change. And new communities come into being, consisting of people grasped by the message, believing it’s true despite everything, falling in love with the God they find to be alive in this Jesus, and giving to Jesus their supreme loyalty.

That is the evidence Paul has in mind. ‘To us who are being saved, it is God’s power.’ That is just as true now as it was in Paul’s day. However, in exactly the same way today, many people still defend their own power and prestige, and love of money, by declaring that the Christian message is all folly. I can do no better than end by reading part of our collect prayer –

Give your people grace so to love what you command, and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.

AMEN

Epiphany 3 2020

Brian Reader

Isaiah 9.1-4; Ps.27. 1.4-9; 1 Corinthians 1.10-18; Matthew 4.12-23

I was a little taken aback, when I looked at the readings for today and found that I had never studied them in any depth before. They did not seem to have any real theme. One might have thought that the Epistle reading from Corinthians, with the call for unity among the Christians, would have been more appropriate last week when we had the start of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Also, the Old Testament Reading seemed to be out of place, until I realised that we are still in the Epiphany season, the revealing of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

Isaiah talks of ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,’ and how they will rejoice when the long awaited Messiah comes as promised. The Gospel reading refers us to the Old Testament reading and tells us that when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested, he left Nazareth, and went the 28 miles to live in Capernaum, which is small town by the Sea of Galilee. He mentions Zebulun and Naphtali and they were the very first tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel to be deported by the Assyrians 700 years before Matthew wrote his Gospel.

The area of Zebulun and Naphtali had not been called that for a very long time.

To get an idea of how odd it is that Matthew describes the area in that way, imagine a modern-day writer referring to Paris as being in the “territory of the Franks”. Matthew is trying to get us to think historically. And his point is that Jesus — the son of David — is beginning his restoration of the Davidic kingdom, (and its transformation into the kingdom of heaven), at the place where the Jews had abandoned God’s covenant seven centuries before. Matthew goes on to say that from that time Jesus began to make his proclamation. ‘Repent!’ he would say. ‘The kingdom of heaven is arriving!’

There are two things we need to understand. Matthew normally has Jesus speak of the ‘kingdom of heaven’; the other gospels normally use the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. Saying ‘heaven’ instead of ‘God’ was a regular Jewish way of avoiding the word ‘God’ out of reverence and respect. We should also understand that, ‘kingdom of heaven’ does not mean the place we call ‘heaven’; the place where God’s people go after their death. How could heaven be said to be ‘approaching’ or ‘arriving’? No. If ‘kingdom of heaven’ means the same as ‘kingdom of God’, then we have a much clearer idea of what Jesus had in mind.

Anyone who was warning people about something that was about to happen must have known that the people he was talking to would understand. And any first-century Jew hearing someone talking about God’s kingdom, or the kingdom of heaven, would know that this meant revolution. The Romans had conquered Jesus’ homeland about sixty years before he was born. They had installed Herod the Great, and then his sons after him, as puppet monarchs to do their dirty work for them. Most Jews resented this, and longed for a chance to revolt. But they weren’t just eager for freedom in the way that most subject peoples are. They wanted it because of what they believed about God, themselves and the world. If they were God’s special people, then it couldn’t be God’s will to have pagan foreigners ruling them. What’s more, God had made promises in their scriptures that one day he would indeed rescue them and put everything right. And these promises focused on one thing in particular: God would become king. King not only of Israel but of the whole world. A king who would bring justice and peace at last, who would turn the upside-down world the right way up again. And these revolutionaries believed that there should be no king but God. God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, was what they longed for, prayed for, worked for, and were prepared to die for.

And now Jesus was declaring that God’s kingdom, the sovereign rule of heaven, was approaching like an express train. Those who were standing idly by had better take note and get out of the way. For them God’s kingdom meant danger as well as hope. If justice and peace are on the way, those who have twisted justice or disturbed the peace may be in trouble. They had better get their act together while there’s time. And the good old word for that is: ‘Repent!’ The trouble with that word, ‘repent’, is that people have often not fully understood it. And I include myself in that group. It wasn’t until I looked into the doctrine of repentance that I understood its true meaning.

Repentance as taught in the Bible is a call to persons to make a radical turn from one way of life to another.

The repentance called for throughout the Bible is a summons to a personal, absolute and ultimate unconditional surrender to God as Sovereign. Although it includes sorrow and regret, it is much more than that. It is a call to conversion from self-love, self-trust, and self-assertion to obedient trust and full commitment to God. It is a change of mind that involves a conscious turning away from wrong actions, attitudes and thoughts that conflict with a Godly lifestyle and biblical commands, and an intentional turning toward doing that which the Bible says pleases God. In repenting, one makes a complete change of direction, a 180° about turn toward God. Repentance typically requires an admission of guilt for committing a wrong or for omitting to do the right thing; and a promise not to repeat the offence. It also requires an attempt to reverse the harmful effects of any wrong done or, where possible, make good any omissions. And if we do truly repent, God has promised to forgive.

The reading from Matthew then moves to the sea shore. This can be linked to last week’s Gospel which recalled how Jesus’ first two disciples joined him from among the followers of John the Baptist. Today we heard how Jesus recruited more disciples from the fisher folk, two of whom were his cousins. We can wonder why they left their lives as fishermen to follow Jesus. The answer can only be in Jesus himself, and in the astonishing magnetism of his presence and personality.

Let us consider what it might have been like to be there when Jesus chose those fishermen to be his disciples. They’d had talked with him and heard him speaking, and they had never met anyone so inspiring. They wondered if he really could be the promised One. That morning they saw him coming while he was some way off. As he drew level with them, they looked up, caught his eye and smiled a hesitant greeting; and he stopped, and spoke to them, and their hearts pounded. Just to be with him would be beyond their wildest dreams; and to be of use to him, to be given new direction, gifts and skills… So their response was eager and immediate.

Jesus knew that time was short and the urgency required that he had some help. From his many followers he would choose some disciples whom he could train and send on a mission: to be apostles of the Kingdom. Deliberately he would choose twelve – twelve would be a sign of his New Israel. Sent out in two’s, they would increase the preaching sevenfold. He began steadily collecting those whom he wanted. Like us they were a mixed bunch: They had complementing or conflicting temperaments – impetuous, cautious, arrogant, humble, perceptive, hesitant, quick-tempered, and with one – sure that he was right – and they had to learn to live and work together. But most of all they had so much to learn from him about God, and the Kingdom, the world, and other people, about themselves, and about love.
Still he comes, and he will call you by your name, call you for your skills and gifts, for the service of the Kingdom. If we give ourselves to him – he gives us to each other: and we have to learn to live and work together with all who follow him.

Will you turn and follow him when he calls, – we have so much to learn.

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days.
Yet thou, her child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.

AMEN

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