Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 3

Roy Arnold

I spoke last week about our sins, which can come in all shapes and sizes – little sins, big sins and huge sins. The interesting thing is that huge sins begin normally with small thoughts we allow to grow.

If you think about it, the holocaust, in which six million Jews died, began with someone’s thoughts and passed on through the ages until it became a terrible crime against humanity.

My talk last week was about our sins of thought, word and deeds – hateful thoughts, hateful words and hateful deeds. And we can divide these sins into two halves, namely things we actually do or think or say (we call these “sins of commission”) in contrast to our “sins of omission” – things we don’t think (when we should) or don’t say (when we should) or deeds we should do but don’t.

And I have always believed that all of us are more guilty of sins of omission. The good thoughts and opinions about other people, or the good, encouraging (loving) words we should have said but didn’t or don’t, and the good deeds which we forget to do – or never even thought of. All of which linger on, as thoughts, words or deeds which remain good intentions.

According to our prayer-book  we don’t act as we should, through “negligence, weakness or our own deliberate fault”. In this season of Lent our faith reminds us of our need to come to God and say sorry. And, if need be, to say sorry to the people we sin against. That is if we previously through carelessness or negligence haven’t even recognised that we have hurt them – usually the ones we shouldn’t hurt at all…

If we can ask God to forgive us for our sins of commission or omission, then forgiven and freed from guilt we will be able to serve God and one another in newness of life – the fresh start which Lent reminds us about.

New mercies each returning day
hover around us while we pray.
New perils past, new sins forgiven.
New thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

3rd Sunday of Lent 2018

Brian Reader

Exodus 20. 1-17; 1 Corinthians 1. 18-25; Ps 19; John 2:13-22

Today is the third Sunday of Lent and our readings direct us to think about the Law and Jesus’ action in the temple. I am sure you recognized the reading from Exodus as the Ten Commandments. Those of you old enough to have been brought up using the old 1662 prayer book will remember that the Ten Commandments were part of the old communion service and even if they were omitted for the rest of the year, they were certainly recited in Lent. My father-in-law, the rector of a small village church, loved to tell this anecdote of how he took a service in another parish in the early 1940’s and read out all the 10 commandments. One of the older ladies in the congregation was so impressed that she handed him a crisp 10 shilling note – which was a lot of money in those days – with the words “a bob for each commandment”!

A ten bob note

Let us now consider the reading from St. John’s Gospel. One of the first prayers I remember as a child starts – ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. The record of Jesus overthrowing the tables in the temple is not the action of a meek and mild person. Before we look at what happened, we need to consider the importance of the Temple itself. The Temple was the beating heart of Judaism. It wasn’t just, as it were, a church on a street corner. It was the centre of worship and music, of politics and society, of all national celebration and mourning. It was also the place where you would find more animals (alive and dead) than anywhere else. But, towering above all these, it was of course the place where Israel’s God, YHWH, had promised to live in the midst of his people. It was the focal point of the nation, and of the national way of life. And this was where the then unknown prophet from Galilee came in and turned everything upside down. People used to this Bible story can forget how shocking it must have been. And it raises a number of questions. What was wrong with the Temple? Why did Jesus do what he did? And, when they asked him for a sign, what does his answer mean?

Before even that, there’s another question to be considered. People who know the other gospels in the New Testament will realize that they also contain a very similar incident. However in the other three Gospels it occurs at the end of Jesus’ public career, when he arrives in Jerusalem for the last time, rather than at the beginning as it does here. One reason for putting the incident at the beginning, as John does, is the fact that Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t have Jesus in Jerusalem at all during his adult life, so the final journey is the only place where it can happen. John, however, has Jesus going to and fro to Jerusalem a good deal throughout his short ministry. And if he had done something like this at the beginning, it would explain why certain other things happened. Like why people came from Jerusalem to Galilee to check him out, and why, when the high priest finally decided it was time to act, he already felt they had a case against him.

Firstly, we have to understand what a dramatic and violent act this was, and, you might ask, ‘Is there a link with the Ten Commandments?’ Well Jesus was angry at the injustice and the downright theft – Thou shalt not steal. He was angry that the poor were being exploited. To buy a dove would cost a full day’s wage but a ‘guaranteed unblemished dove’, which alone was acceptable for sacrifice, well that would cost three full weeks’ wages. And it could only be bought in the Court of the Gentiles; it was a racket! The Temple tax was two days’ pay but Gentile coins bore ‘graven images’ so it cost another day’s pay to have your money changed into Temple coinage. And Jesus was even more angry that Israel, the so called ‘people of God’, were dishonouring the name of God, and were also denying its calling to be a light to the nations.

There was blatant exploitation of pilgrims! From all parts of the Roman world they came, Gentiles, attracted to the Jewish faith by Jews they met in their home towns. They were excited to come to their great Temple, but there they found that the only place they were allowed to go to pray was like a noisy market. It seemed that neither Gentile coins nor Gentile people were welcome. The Lord had suddenly come to clean out his Temple, just as Malachi had promised. So Jesus drove the sheep and cattle out, and overturned the tables of the money-changers.

His new Temple has no need for animal sacrifice. John understands that all Jesus’ actions here are linked to the time of Passover. John has already told us that Jesus is God’s Passover lamb, and now He goes to Jerusalem at the time when freedom, and rescue from slavery in Egypt, was being celebrated. Somehow, John wants us to understand, what Jesus did in the Temple is a hint at the new meaning he is giving to Passover. But the action and the story as it unfolds, also point to Jesus’ own fate. Because when they ask him what he thinks he’s up to, and request some kind of sign to show them what it all means, Jesus speaks, very cryptically, about his own death and resurrection.

He is the true temple: he is the Word made flesh, the place where the glory of God has chosen to make his dwelling. The Jews had ancient traditions about the Temple being destroyed and rebuilt. It had happened before, and some thought it would happen again. Herod the Great had begun a programme of rebuilding the Temple, and now, forty-six years later, one of his sons was completing it.

The period of time, ‘In three days’ links with the wedding at Cana, when the wine was changed on the third day. Similarly their imperfect religion will be superseded; by and through his Resurrection. He is himself the spiritual Temple where God is truly worshipped. His friends recalled verse 9 of Psalm 69 about the Messiah, which says ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’; but the Sadducees were angered by his claim and used it in evidence at his trial. ‘Destroy this Temple’ he said – and they did; because by persisting in avarice and prejudice, they brought destruction on themselves. Jesus takes the traditions and applies them to himself. He is the reality to which the Temple itself points. His death and resurrection will be the reality to which the whole Passover celebration points.

In the two vivid scenes of this reading, John has introduced us to almost all the major themes of the gospel story, and has given us food for thought about where it’s all going. If profit matters more than people and prejudice more than unity, these things lead to death. So the story is not about church bazaars or dual-purpose buildings or even Sunday selling; it’s much more serious than that! Jesus still challenges his Church: if we set profit above people, if we let prejudice hinder unity, if we neglect our mission, we too shall bring judgement and destruction on ourselves. The Lord whom we seek has already come to his Temple. And the church and Christians fail
when they neglect God’s standards of holiness, justice and love. And if all this sounds too difficult to take in, I can do no better than to finish with the words of that great evangelist Dr. Billy Graham who consistently preached that “Jesus Christ is the Son of God who alone can save us from our sins”. Countless people found faith through his simple, clear message, and responded to his call to “pray to God for forgiveness and, by faith, receive Jesus Christ into your life”.

Amen

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 2

Roy Arnold

Here we are in the season of Lent – and, from her fabulous collection of stoles, Veronica will be wearing purple for the next few weeks at Holy Communion. Purple for “saying sorry to God” for our sins and to receive his forgiveness.

Sins:
– the things we have thought (about other people – and even about ourselves) which has saddened God
– or the words we have spoken. – unkindly or carelessly – and which maybe have been contrary to God’s ways
– or our  deeds which have been wrong in God’s eyes.

To sum up, our sins of thought, word or deed.

Note the order of our sins. Sins begin with thoughts – the things which we harbour in our minds, or which other people have planted in our minds. Things which we keep in our “craws” and which, as sure as eggs are eggs, thoughts will become words. And from being hidden they will become public – out in the open – for all to hear. And from words they can soon become deeds.

How much better our own lives and our world would be, and happier too, if we could think good thoughts, and speak good words, and do good deeds. But often maybe we don’t, which means we must own up to God our sins of thought, word or deed, and trust in the love of God – who surprisingly knows the thoughts of our hearts, and our words before they leave our mouths and our deeds before we do them.

But before he can forgive us, we must own up, come clean. Then God in His everlasting love can truly forgive us, and we can make another new start. We must be born again – maybe many times!

2nd Sunday of Lent 2018

Brian Reader

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Romans 4:13-25; Ps 22:23-31; Mark 8:31-38

Good Morning to you all. Today is the second Sunday of Lent and Lent is a time of reflection. Our Bible readings for today direct our thoughts to consider what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ and what it means for us to be a Christian.

The passage from Genesis talks about Abraham. Now he had believed in God and had been doing God’s will for some time, so when God spoke to him again “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless”, he was not surprised, as this is the fifth time that God had made promises to Abraham, so it is nothing new.

However, many years had now gone by since God had first promised Abraham that his descendants would become so numerous that they could be compared to the dust of the earth and the stars of the sky. But so far, Abraham and his wife had not had any children. They were both getting older, and it was looking like they would not have any children. So God took this occasion to remind Abraham that He would multiply him “exceedingly”.

At this time God also changed Abram’s name to Abraham, meaning he would become a “father of many nations”, and changed the name of his wife from Sarai to Sarah. Even though it didn’t look like Abraham and Sarah would ever have a child, God continued to repeat and add details to the original promise He had made to Abraham.

And Paul in his letter to the Romans makes reference to this promise. He reminds us that Abraham wasn’t righteous or doing the will of God because of the Law because the Ten Commandments had yet to be written, No, Abraham was judged righteous because he had faith, he believed, he did what God wanted.

In the same way, we can’t buy our way into heaven by doing good works or by just following the Ten Commandments. Which is just as well, as we will never be able to fully keep the first commandment, let alone the rest.

So how do we respond to God’s infinite love and Grace?

Well Jesus fulfilled the Law; firstly by showing that love is the fulfilling of the Law. In fact, Jesus gave us the double command to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your Soul, with all your mind’, and ‘to love your neighbour as you love yourself’, and said that this was the perfect summary of all the Commandments, in the world the entire Law.

And secondly Jesus showed, by his whole life of obedience to the Father, from start to finish, that this was how the genuinely human life should be lived. His death on the cross ushered in God’s new promise for all mankind, so the way to salvation now, is not by keeping laws but by receiving God’s forgiveness through Christ. He and not the Law opens the way between the Father and us.

Earlier in this service we used the Ten Commandments as a confession. Some may ask is the Law relevant for us today? The Law may be fulfilled in Jesus Christ but this does not mean we can ignore it. Its inadequacies are clear enough, and it was for this reason we were reminded about the positive sayings of Jesus as well as the negative parts of the Old Testament Law.

Rules cannot lead a person to God. Nevertheless they remain ‘holy, just and good’. The Ten Commandments are the essence of the moral law of the world, as we understand it. We are not made Christian by keeping them, but we heed them because we are Christians and we try to live as God has decreed. The church and Christians fail when they neglect God’s standards of holiness, justice and love.

Also, an understanding of the Law helps us to understand the Jewish culture of the day, and this in turn helps us to better understand the good news of the Gospel.

Let us now consider the reading from Mark. Just before the passage set for today, Jesus asks the question “Who do people say I am?”  And Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” But it is quite clear that Peter did not understand that God’s promised ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’, would have to be the Suffering Servant promised in Isaiah.

Now, Jesus’ friends and followers were used to danger. It was a perilous time. Anyone growing up in Galilee just then knew all about revolutions, about holy people hoping God would act and deliver them, and instead, ending up getting crucified for their trouble. Any new leader, any prophet, any teacher with something fresh to say, might go that way. They must have known that by following Jesus they were taking risks. The death of John the Baptist, will simply have confirmed that.

But this was different. This was something new. Mark says Jesus ‘began to teach them’ this, implying that it was quite a new point that could only be begun, once they’d declared that he was the Messiah – like a schoolteacher who can only begin the next stage of mathematics when the pupils have learnt to add and subtract.

And the new lesson wasn’t just that there might be danger ahead; the new lesson was that Jesus had to walk straight into it. Nor would it simply be a risky gamble that might just pay off. No, it would be certain death. This was what he had to do.

You might as well have had a football captain tell the team to stand still and let the opposition score all the goals they wanted. This wasn’t what Peter and the rest had in mind. They may not have thought of Jesus as a military leader, but they certainly didn’t think of him going straight to his death.

As Charlie Brown once said, “winning isn’t everything but losing isn’t anything”; and Jesus seemed to be saying he was going to lose. Worse, he was inviting them to come and lose alongside him. This is the heart of what’s going on here, and it explains both the tricky language Jesus uses; it was tricky for them to puzzle out at first hearing, which explains the strong negative reaction of Peter, so soon after telling Jesus that he and the rest thought he was the Messiah. Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities. A Messiah who did that would be shown up immediately as a false Messiah.

So why did Jesus say that’s what had to happen? St Mark explains this in the later chapters of his Gospel, but already there is a hint, an allusion. ‘The son of man’ must have all this happen to him, declares Jesus; only thus ‘the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him’: It is the only way for the kingdom of God to come. Jesus is half quoting, half hinting at, themes from the prophetic books of Daniel and Zechariah. He will eventually be vindicated, after his suffering, as God sets up the kingdom at last.

Jesus is both warning his followers that this is how he understands his vocation and destiny as Israel’s Messiah, and that they must be prepared to follow in his steps. So important is this message that opposition to the plan, wherever it comes from, must be seen as satanic. Even Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, is capable of thinking like a mere mortal, not looking at things from God’s point of view.

This is a challenge to all of us, as the church in every generation struggles not only to think, but to live from God’s point of view in a world where such a thing is madness. This is the point at which God’s kingdom, coming ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ will challenge and overturn all normal human assumptions about power and glory, about what is really important in life and in the world. The coming of God’s kingdom with power has a lot more to do with the radical defeat of deep-rooted evil, than with the destruction of the good world that God made and loves.

Jesus understands that evil will be defeated, and the kingdom will come, precisely through his own suffering and death. But despite this, the passage makes it clear that following him is the only way to go. Following Jesus is, more or less, what being a Christian means; and Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into possible risk and danger. Or did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives? Yes, suffering is also part of being a follower of Jesus – it may be as simple, yet as difficult as saying ‘No!’ to oneself, or bearing hardships or being at risk to life and limb.

We should remember Abraham and be like him. He had faith, he believed, he did what God wanted. God made promises to Abraham and these were kept. In a similar way, God, through Christ, has made promises to us, which he will keep. Our Lenten reflections should show us that a true understanding of what it takes to follow Jesus, will involve hardship, and, sacrifice
but the rewards will be everlasting!

AMEN

Lent Lunch Talks 2018 – 1

Roy Arnold

Just by way of interest, how many of you take the “Macclesfield Express”?

Well, if you do, you will know the item called “Before the Bench” – a weekly list of people had up for drunkenness, driving too fast, stealing, beating up their wives or girl-friends, drug offences – selling them or taking them. It all makes depressing reading.

But there is nothing new under the sun. Back in the early days of the church, St Paul, in his epistle to the Galatians, gives us a similar list of offences like “quarrels and strife, unfaithfulness in marriage, anger, drunkenness, jealousy, etc”.

By way of contrast, St Paul lists what’s on the opposite side of the coin – what he calls the Fruits of the Spirit. In other words, how God wants us to live a better way – a more happy way. Here is his list: “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

I think you would agree God’s way is by far the better way. You would think that coming to church regularly might be a guarantee of us leaving a life full of the Fruits – the harvest of the Spirit. Yet in my time as a vicar I have had an alcoholic churchwarden, an organist who regularly “borrowed” money from vulnerable pensioners, a young server who embezzled funds from his employer (a funeral director) and a regular communicant who was totally obnoxious. Meanwhile (I guess) others might be sinners in a more hidden way – behind closed curtains.

It may well be that as a church we are always banging on about sins. So I make no excuse – as a sinner myself – that in these next few weeks of Lent, I am going to talk about sin. “We knew nothing about sin until our new Vicar arrived” – an old joke. But I have come to a new understanding of how God works. For instance, in the Lord’s Prayer two things are closely linked together and joined together by a very significant conjunction – by an “and”: “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses.” This is God’s provision: Bread and forgiveness.

Appropriate, then, that with our bread and soup, that we dip into some thoughts about sins – and God’s wish for us to be rid of them. We can all be tempted. But being tempted is not sinning, to quote: “Temptations are like birds flying over our heads. It is only when we let them make nests in our hair that they become sins.”

Jesus said: “Be ye perfect as I am perfect.” Maybe like an archer aiming for a bull’s-eye, not quite hitting it, but having to keep trying.

St Paul said: “The good that I want to do, I don’t do; and the evil I don’t want to do, that I do!”

When we think about God we might be inclined to think of some stern headmaster – always on duty to spot naughty children. But Jesus tells us that his likeness is to:
a housewife searching for a lost coin,
or a shepherd looking for a lost sheep
or a father welcoming home his tearaway son.
At this mention of God in relation to our sins, think of the three descriptions – the housewife, the shepherd and the overjoyed father.

Sunday Next Before Lent 2018

Ann Coomes

This coming week brings us something unusual which has not happened since 1945. Can you guess what it is? It is that this year, both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day share the same day ! This is the first time in 73 years that that has happened.

At first glance, it may seem an odd mix, the combination of a day which begins a period of prayer, fasting and penance with a day dedicated to romance, but when you think about it, there is a very obvious link between the two days – and that is – love!

For Lent is about far more than giving up chocolate or something else that we really like, and therefore spending the next five weeks feeling both a bit miserable and a bit virtuous at the same time. Lent is really all about setting aside time to learn how to love God more, as we give Him more space in our lives.

Lent was first observed by the very Early Church, and has its roots in the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness in prayer and fasting before God. His reactions to the temptations that Satan laid before him all demonstrated his perfect, divine love.

Consider the first one – the temptation to turn stones into bread. In other words – the desire to satisfy immediate physical desires. Later on, Jesus would indeed feed people – thousands of them, with bread when they were hungry, but He went so much further than that – he became the Bread of Life itself for us, providing us with spiritual nourishment forever. His love went beyond satisfying just human stomachs, to satisfying human hearts as well.

Then there was the second temptation, to jump off the top of the temple and trust God to send angels to catch him. Satan was tempting Jesus to act out of pride in who he was, and to use his privileged position to impress others. But of course, to do so would have been to act in arrogance and self-assertion. And so, Jesus chose instead to continue his humble, loving, dependence on his father, which is how we should also walk before God.

The final temptation, when Jesus is offered the kingdoms of the world in return for his worship of the devil, sparked a furious response from Jesus: ‘Away from me, Satan!’ For to put something or someone else before God is to turn your back on God, whose very nature is love. Jesus knew that to worship God lies at the very heart of our participation in the divine love. And when we share in God’s love, we can go on to share in sacrificial service to meet the needs of others, as Jesus did.

And so, during his time in the wilderness, Jesus was living out the love of God in practice, and for us, Lent can become a time to learn from him.

And of course, it all begins this coming Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. Many thousands of churches around the world will mark it with a service that includes ashes being smeared on people’s foreheads. Have you ever wondered where that practice has come from?

The tradition of using ashes goes back far earlier than Jesus in the wilderness. It goes right back to the Old Testament, when the Israelites had sinned, and, then finally come to their senses. When they saw their evil ways as God saw them, they could do nothing but repent in sorrow, and mourn for the damage and evil they had done.

As a visual sign of their change of heart, they humbled themselves before God by covering their heads with ashes. It was an outward sign of their heart-felt repentance and acknowledgement of sin.

Centuries later, when the early Christian church was observing Easter each year, it became the custom for both new believers and older ones to demonstrate their repentance before God by having ashes sprinkled over them at the beginning of Lent.

The Bible certainly has some wonderful verses concerning God’s call to us to come near to him: Here are just a couple from the Old Testament:

‘Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.’ (Joel 2:12-13)

And from Luke: ‘I have not come to call the virtuous but sinners to repentance’ (said Jesus).  I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’

God loves us, and rejoices over us when we come near to Him.

But – what about Valentine’s day? Where can that fit into all this?

Well, of course, Valentine was a follower of Christ, who spent his life sharing God’s love with others. We know very little about him, except that he was a priest who lived in Rome in the late 3rd century .

It was a time when the Emperor Claudius had decided that soldiers in the Roman Army were distracted from their duty by their wives, and so he attempted to outlaw marriage.

It is believed that Valentine disregarded the emperor’s command, and married many couples in secret. He also helped Christians in Rome during times of persecution there.

Eventually Valentine was caught, arrested, and condemned to death. While he was in prison awaiting execution, Valentine showed love and compassion to everyone around him, including even his jailer. The jailer had a young daughter who was blind, but through Valentine’s prayers for her, she was healed and could see again. Just before his death in Rome on 14th February, he wrote her a farewell message that he signed ‘From your Valentine.’

So the very first Valentine card was not between lovers, but between a priest about to die, and a little girl, who had been healed through his prayers.

Valentine’s life demonstrated the importance of showing God’s love in action.

And so we have it – the very unusual but very fitting combination of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. A day of our coming to God in repentance because of his great love for us, and a day of us celebrating and sharing our love for others because God’s love shines in our lives.

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany 2018

Deuteronomy 18.15-20; Revelation 12. 1-5a; Mark 1.21-28

Brian Reader

As well as it being the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, it is the Sunday before Candlemas, and the end of the Christmas Season; the time when we lose the Crib and the last of the Christmas trimmings. Today is also listed as Leprosy Day & Homelessness Sunday, but I could find nothing about homelessness or Leprosy in the readings. However, the story of Jesus curing a Leper can be found in verse 40 if you continue to read chapter 1 of St Mark’s Gospel.

So what message can we learn from our readings for this morning. On first a reading they seemed strange. I found them difficult to understand and seemingly lacking any link which would give a single theme.

The first was a passage from Deuteronomy. In it the writer, traditionally thought to be Moses, says ‘The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.’ And in the New Testament, in John, this passage is seen to be a reference to the prophet ‘par excellence’ – that is Jesus himself.

For our next reading we had a bit from The Revelation. When I was in Sunday school, I was warned off reading Revelation as it was considered too difficult, but here it is, as our reading so we better try and understand what it is saying to us. Revelation is unique in the New Testament. Its message is of the final victory of Jesus Christ over all the forces that oppose God, and this is conveyed in a series of visions. John was writing for a persecuted Church, and these chapters are full of encouragement to enable the persecuted Christians to take heart.

The woman stands for God’s chosen people, from whom the Messiah Jesus, and through him the Church, was born. The red dragon does not represent Wales but Satan himself, who is hell bent on destruction of all that is good. If the reading had continued, the main message would have become clearer. Although Satan is strong and powerful and his attack fierce – his time is short. He has already been overpowered by Christ: so he can be overcome by Christians. Satan is destined for destruction, and the Church is destined for eventual triumph. God’s people are at all times, and everywhere, under His sovereign protection.

Our Gospel reading tells us of Jesus and how he taught and healed with great authority, the authority of God himself. So we see that all three reading do have a link – it is Jesus himself – our Lord and Saviour.

Let us try and imagine what it would have been like on that Saturday, the Sabbath in the small town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee. Here in the synagogue is a man, not one of the recognized teachers, who begins on his own authority to tell people what God’s will is. Although Mark gives no record, you can imagine what he said. It was certainly not what they expected. He announced the coming of the Kingdom, spoke of God’s mercy and forgiveness, of help and hope and liberty, and joy in believing.

It was like a breath of fresh air. The manner of his teaching was more astounding than the content. If he caught your eye, it was arresting; each one felt that he was talking just to them. And he spoke with such authority. The usual teachers – the priests and scribes, the literate ones, the self-appointed scrupulous guardians of Jewish ancestral traditions – they didn’t teach like that. They always said, ‘as Moses said’, or ‘as Rabbi so-and-so said’: but Jesus presented no argument, just a simple statement of fact. Jesus spoke with a quiet but compelling authority all of his own. And with the same authority he spoke words of healing, like a message straight from God. They had never heard anything like this before.

One man was especially affected. Most of the time he was fine, or he would have been excluded from society and the synagogue. Today, the electric atmosphere and excited buzz around him, aroused his nervous tension and provoked the outburst. You may not believe in demons and ascribe his symptoms to hysteria or epilepsy or some other disease that we would recognise today. But demon-belief was common in the ancient world, and would have been in this congregation and the man himself. The wonder in this synagogue was not only that the man was cured; but the manner of it was more surprising than the fact. There was no incanted list of spirit-names to find a stronger or higher spirit, as was standard practice for the many exorcists; Jesus simply commanded and it was done.

Sometimes people for whom life had become a total nightmare – whose personalities seemed taken over by alien powers confronted Jesus; indeed, they seem to have had a kind of inside track on recognizing him, knowing who he was and what he’d come to do. He’d come to stop the nightmare, to rescue people, both nations and individuals, from the destructive forces that enslaved them.

So whether it was shrieking demons, or simply whatever diseases people happened to suffer from, Jesus dealt with them, all with the same gentle but deeply effective authority. This is how Mark begins to tell us both about how Jesus became so popular so quickly and of how the course of his public career, pointed unavoidably to its dramatic conclusion.

There is no doubt that Jesus quickly attracted huge crowds, and that his authoritative healings were the main reason. That in itself would have been threatening to the authorities; but, there was more. Jesus had joined in a struggle against the forces of evil and destruction,
forces that still exist in the world today. Jesus came to be the human bridge or ladder across which people could climb to safety. And in the process, he himself paid with his own life – the price of this saving authority, Christ on the Cross, a human bridge with outstretched arms carrying people from death to life; that was simply part of the integrity of his healing action which now stretches to eternity. The demons had their final shriek at him as he hung on the cross, challenging and mocking for the last time the validity of his authority. On the cross he completed the healing work he began that day in the synagogue.

When the church learns again how to speak and act with the same authority, we will find both the saving power of God unleashed once more and with it a similar opposition from the forces of darkness. Similar, but not the same. The demons recognised Jesus, and knew he had come to defeat them once and for all. They can still shriek, but since Calvary they no longer have authority. To believe this is the key to Christian testimony, and saving action in the world, that despite its frequent panic and despair, the world has already been claimed by the loving authority of God in Jesus.

So to return to Leprosy Day & Homelessness Sunday… Well we know that Jesus heals and since my childhood great steps have already been made to bring a cure for the crippling disease of Leprosy, although it is far from being eliminated. Homelessness on the other hand is different. We know that it sometimes results from mental health issues, including the breakdown of relationships, and addictions to alcohol, drugs and/or gambling. These can all lead to homelessness. Also we know that the greed of individuals, and poor decisions on house building, land usage, and social injustice can all be factors. Jesus has the necessary power in his own strength and person to heal individuals. We should continue to pray for God’s guidance, and give what we can to help those less fortunate than ourselves. Remember, God has supplied the world with everything sufficient for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

And so today our theme has been Jesus. There was never anyone like Jesus. He speaks the truth about God. He can meet your need; He can set you free. And if you allow him to work through you, you can help change the world.

AMEN

St Philip

John 1.43-51

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Anne Coomes

Have you ever wondered how many Christians there are in the world today? According to recent statistics, the number is 2.3 billion. That is nearly one third of the world’s entire population. That is an awful lot of people who are willing to be called a follower of Jesus, even if it is in name only. It is amazing to think that every follower of Jesus can be traced back to the very first 12 followers of Jesus, who founded the early Church. To start with 12 and end up with 2.3 billion. That is an impressive growth rate!

It makes our reading this morning very special – for this takes us all the way back to where it first began – at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when He has just begun choosing his disciples. He has already chosen Andrew and Simon Peter, and now it is Philip and Nathanael’s turn. Philip and Nathanael are among the lesser well-known of the disciples. Philip, like Andrew and Simon Peter, was from the village of Bethsaida, and we are not told where Nathanael came from. But they had this in common – they were devout Jews who truly wanted to honour God.

And so we read that Jesus, before he left for Galilee, found Philip, and said: ‘Follow me.’ If someone said that to us today, we would be puzzled. Follow you where? But the concept of ‘follow me’ would have been familiar to Philip – in Jewish circles many rabbis had young men who wanted to learn from them. They were called learners, or disciples, and so they followed their teacher – literally as well as mentally. What was unusual here was that normally the poor disciple had to try and guess which was the best rabbi to follow. But here Jesus was seeking Philip out – calling him by name.

Jesus was calling those whom the father had given to him. Jesus has since called each one of us by name – for like Philip, we did not find God, he found us. We love him, because He first loved us. And Philip responded with great gladness. He even brought his friend Nathanael to Jesus, as Jesus knew he would. Philip tells Nathanael that he has found ‘the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ But – Nathanael is not impressed. What good can come out of Nazareth? His scorn was not that of disinterest, but disappointment – he knew that the prophecies did not include a messiah from Nazareth. But it was exactly Nathanael’s high regard for the Scriptures which Jesus immediately picked up on. He praised Nathanael for having full integrity as an Israelite. Then Jesus added that Nathanael would see “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

This reference may sound odd to you and me, but it would not have done so to them. It harks back to Genesis, and the night that Jacob dreamed of the ladder between earth and heaven, the thin place where angels came and went. Jesus is telling them that with his arrival, that ladder, that intersection between earth and heaven is truly established – forever – in the person of the Son of Man. And sadly, that is all we learn of Nathanael. But John and Acts have more to tell us about Philip. And the stories of his discipleship hold great encouragement for us.

For although Philip never doubted that Jesus had chosen him, he still really struggled at times, as we often do. He got anxious when faced by big challenges, and also totally confused at other times. For example, in John chapter 6, there is the story of Jesus about to feed the 5,000 before sending them away. As a test of faith, He asks Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ And Philip fails the test completely. His reaction is only that : ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread!’ It never occurred to him that Jesus could easily do it.

The next time we see Philip is on Palm Sunday, in Jerusalem among the joyful crowds. Some strangers from Greece arrive, and ask him to take them to Jesus. But Philip lacks confidence to do this, and asks Andrew for help. Together they show the men the way to Jesus.

We’ve all been like that. When people have asked us to show them Jesus, we can so easily falter. That is why having Christian friends alongside us is so important, we are stronger together in our witness.

The next story of Philip is yet another story of failure. But I find it very comforting, because if you ever fear that you have really let the Lord down, you could not do worse than poor Philip did. It was the night of the Last Supper, when Jesus tells the disciples: ‘if you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.’ And Philip’s response to this is cringe-making; he says ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’ Jesus’s reply is so sad: ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”?’

What a sad reproach from Jesus. And on their last-ever evening together! For Jesus is crucified next morning. Imagine how Philip must have felt – it would have broken his heart to think that Jesus had been so disappointed in his discipleship. Don’t you know me, Philip?

And yet – Jesus did not give up on Philip. For Philip was witness to the resurrection, the ascension, Pentecost, and the hectically busy life of the early church. Then persecution struck – and the Christians had to flee Jerusalem or die. And so we come to our final two glimpses of Philip. Acts records that when the Christians scattered, Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. He cast out demons, and healed the sick. So there was great joy in that city.

What has happened to Philip? He has grown strong and confident. The power of God is now very obviously on his life.

Our last story of Philip is most moving. It comes in Acts chapter 8. Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ So Philip goes, – and meets the Ethiopian eunuch, an important treasury official, in his chariot. The eunuch is reading Isaiah and asks for help to understand it. And Philip, beginning with that very passage of Scripture, tells him the good news about Jesus.

The Ethiopian responds with great joy, and asks Philip to baptise him. And then we are told that when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and travelled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

And with that, Philip passes out of history. But what a lovely final picture of him, this lesser known disciple. He was not timid or confused now, but full of the Holy Spirit and a passion to share Jesus with everyone he met.

With Christians like that down the centuries, no wonder the Church continued to grow. Jesus stills calls each one of us by name today, and gives his grace to us as freely as He gave it to those first disciples.

Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Advent 2017

Roy Arnold

[Roy wasn’t able to make it to church, so Veronica read the sermon]

I had thought I might be with you this morning, but thought better of it. Maybe next Christmas, or better still, Easter. Anyway, here we are again on Christmas Eve. Another year drawing to a close. A year for me of lessons learned – like the wisdom of those who wrote our Wedding Service and the words “in sickness and in health” as part of our relationships whether we are married or not.

I know how much Hylda’s care (and that of our daughters) has meant to me since my disastrous fall in March, and I know also the comfort of your prayers from this congregation, and of the work of caring for the sick by doctors and nurses and district nurses, and of the benefits of our National Health Service. All lessons learned by me this year.

And the simple lessons of walking in someone else’s shoes. The shoes of my mother who suffered from arthritis for many years, or the suffering of soldiers wounded in battle. Or the simple annoyances of being reliant on someone else to fetch and carry.

I could go on about this, but it doesn’t sound very Christmassy, perhaps? Or perhaps it is?  Because (if you think about it) walking in someone else’s shoes is actually what Christmas is all about. About how God sent His Son to be with us, and to experience life as we live it, the good bits and the bad, in sickness and in health, the rain and the sunshine. The darkest time of the year when Christmas comes to give us some light – if we are willing or able to accept the life and the light and the love of Christmas.

Christina Rosetti, who wrote the well-known carol “In the bleak midwinter”, also wrote another carol called “Love came down at Christmas”. Perhaps Veronica might sing it for us (if she has any voice left and is not suffering from carol fatigue). But before she does I would like to thank her – and Dave – for her love and care for us all:

 

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love Incarnate, Love Divine,
Worship we our Jesus,
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Second Sunday of Advent 2017

Anne Coomes

Well, it is that time of year again: the time of the nativity plays. How many of you here this morning have children or grandchildren who will be appearing in one, either here in Bollington or further away? Some of you may know Lorraine, who often comes here to church with me. She has to attend THREE different nativity plays this year, as she has five grandchildren.

Nativity plays can be very sweet, are often hilarious, and we should be very grateful for them, as they are one of the few reminders that our culture still has as to the actual reason for Christmas: the coming of the Messiah.
And our readings this morning all focus on this coming of Jesus Christ, but the writers are considering it from various points in the timeline of world history.

First, there is the magnificent reading in Isaiah that begins: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” At the time that Isaiah wrote this, the Jews were in deep trouble. First, the Assyrian empire had seized the northern part of Israel and taken the ten of the tribes of Israel into slavery. Then the Babylonians had invaded from the east, and destroyed Jerusalem, and taken the remaining tribes of Judah and Benjamin into captivity in Babylon.

Isaiah had not minced his words, throughout the book he makes clear to Israel that these disasters had come about because of her persistent sin and rebellion against God. She had broken the covenant God had made with her, and therefore, after many years of warning, God had given her over into the hands of her enemies. To all intents and purposes, the Jews should have faded away into history at that point. They could not help themselves, and all was lost.

But Isaiah had quite a different message. The message was that God still loved them, and that he would deal with their sins, and come to rescue them in power. They would be restored to a loving relationship with him.
Thus we have the words from this morning: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, …that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gently leads those that have young.”

And thus we have the other wonderful prophecies we also find in Isaiah: “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light, on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…” or again “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.  And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever.”

A divine Messiah was coming who would rescue his people, establish righteousness and restore all things. These wonderful prophesies of Isaiah expanded on earlier ones which reach as far back as Genesis, or about 2000 BC. That was when Jacob foresaw that from his son Judah, a mighty king would come, “and the obedience of the nations is his.”

Ten centuries later, in about 1000 BC, when David was anointed King of Israel, the Lord had promised him that one his descendants would rule forever. And so, the idea of a divinely sent king who would right all wrongs began to take shape. He is mentioned in various OT prophecies from that time forwards, and also in the Psalms, and above all in Isaiah. As the centuries went by, this promise of a great coming king gave the Jewish nation an unfailing hope, a national identity, a purpose, to keep going. It reassured them that they were known and loved by God, and that there would be a future hope for them. One day God himself would come to rescue them.

Isaiah’s prophecy was partially fulfilled in 539 BC, when after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the empire itself fell to the Persians. Cyrus, king of Persia, decreed that the Jews were free to go home and rebuild their temple.
They did so, but back in Jerusalem, still they waited for the coming of the promised divine king, or Messiah. And four more centuries went by, during which time there was more trouble, for in 63BC the Roman Empire invaded Palestine. Israel was once again under foreign occupation.

That was the situation when, in AD33, John the Baptist suddenly appeared in the wilderness, with a message that harked back to the prophecy of Isaiah. Here was the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord. He is coming! Repent, be baptised! Get ready to meet him!
For John’s message was, basically, the same as Isaiah’s: the people were in deep trouble because they had sinned, and thus cut themselves off from their relationship with God. But God had not given up on them – he was calling them to repentance, so that they could accept the king who was now coming to them.

Of course, Mark wrote these words long after John the Baptist. Mark’s purpose was to show how the great prophecies of the Old Testament had all been fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, who brought the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God.

Which brings us to our final reading this morning – from 2nd Peter. Peter was writing to Christians who were by then an established church, looking forward to the second advent, the return of Jesus. For they, like us, lived their lives between two advents. Jesus is coming back one day, not as a baby, but as the king of kings. If 2000 years seems a long time to wait, Peter advises us to be patient, as 1000 years is as one day to God. In the meantime, he advised his readers: “You ought to live holy and godly lives, as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming…in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”

Meanwhile, back here in December 2017, it is only two weeks to Christmas, and we are in the nativity play season, recalling the arrival of the precious baby who is at the centre of world history. He is the true light, the good shepherd, the bread of life, king of kings and lord of lords. He became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only. And as the book of Revelation sums it up: “He is the alpha and omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

Amen.