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.

Remembrance Sunday 2017

Brian Reader

Good morning to you. I don’t normally go off script, but this morning at our short Remembrance Service I was quite moved as all the names were read out.  I recalled what I had heard, (at ‘A Concert to Remember’ arranged by Rotary at St Michael and all Angels Church in Macclesfield last night) when we were told that since 1914, eighty million had been killed by war or terrorist acts. Eighty million – that is more than all the people in the United Kingdom including all those we don’t know about.

Looking back I found that I preached my first Remembrance Sermon 22 years ago today and it was interesting to read what I had said then, and on subsequent Remembrance Sundays. One thing I discovered was that I could never preach any of those sermons again as the world has changed so much during those 22 years.

For the past three years we have heard a lot about the First World War and I am sure we will hear much more about it next year as the centenary of the armistice is approached. In re-reading those sermons I was reminded that it was only in 1995, that I fully grasped what effect the carnage of that war had at a personal level.

I had been on holiday up in Scotland, and we decided to go and have a look in the Doune Motor Museum. We had the place to ourselves and could look at this large collection of interesting cars which were nearly all roadworthy. One car took my eye,  It was a small 1913 Sunbeam 3 Litre sports car.  I can picture it now, British Racing green, a lovely swallow tail, an outside hand brake and a leather strap over the bonnet. A car any young man would have been proud of. But something was wrong. The number plate; it was modern.

I then looked at the plaque which told you something about the car. It had not been registered until 1974. A farmer’s plough had hit it, and it had been dug up and restored.

It had lain buried for nearly 70 years. Can you believe that?

Someone had just buried that lovely car. Imagine the grief of that family, the father mother, wife or sister, who could not bear to have the prised possession of their son, husband or brother about them, to remind them of their great loss. So when they knew that their loved one was dead, they buried his car just as he had been buried on a far-away battle field.

But although we all know a lot more about the First World War it appears that this modern generation knows little about the Second World War, the Battle of Britain or the Battle of the Atlantic when many brave lives were lost to bring us food. As shops are open every day with food flown in from all over the world children, cannot imagine what it was like during the war, with rationing and vital food being brought in convoys across the Atlantic fighting their way across with the constant threat from submarines, enemy warships and bombers.

A paper recently reported, that when school children were questioned, they thought that we had fought alongside the Germans in the last war!!   I wonder what history is taught in schools!

Although we are not at war, we still live in troubled times. There are threats of terrorism and unrest and in the Far East, North Korea is threatening the USA with nuclear rocket attack. It also appears that the morality of prominent members of our society, including our politicians is under suspicion and is being investigated.  Much of society seems ‘Hell bent’, (and I use the words advisedly,) in getting the maximum out of the system with the minimum of effort. It makes you think that if the call came today, few would be willing to sacrifice all to defend what they believed in. It is therefore not surprising that some of those who fought to bring freedom, question where this modern world is headed.

Where will it all end? What is the point of carrying on?

On this Remembrance Day we need to look around and see if this country and the world is worthy of the sacrifice of those who fought in wars to end all wars.

Jesus said, ’Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.  How was Jesus able to say this? It was because He himself was to give his life to be a sacrifice for all.

Twelve days ago, in Faith Hour we heard this read. ‘During Old Testament times, the high priest’s work was never finished! Do you know why? Because the people where always sinning, so lambs had to be constantly sacrificed to atone for their sins.

However, when Jesus died, rose again and went back to heaven, the first thing He did was to sit down, because the work of salvation was finished! The Bible says: ‘Christ did not have to offer himself many times. He wasn’t like a high priest who goes into the most holy place each year to offer the blood of an animal. Instead, he offered himself once and for all, so that he could be a sacrifice that does away with sin, and because of Christ’s ‘once and for all’ sacrifice on the cross, you have direct access to God at any time. The moment you say, ‘Father, I come in the name of Jesus,’ you’re made welcome and all your needs are met.

There’s a story from American civil war days about a soldier sitting on a bench outside the white House looking depressed. A little boy passing by stopped and asked what was wrong. The soldier told him he needed to see president Lincoln but the guards wouldn’t let him in. Hearing this, the boy took him by the hand and led him directly into the president’s office. ‘Father,’ he said, ‘this man really needs to speak with you.’ That boy was the president’s son; he had direct and continuous access to his father, and because you belong to Jesus, you do too!

So today let us approach the God the Father, through Jesus his Son, and ask that we can be made agents of God’s love and peace to help this world become a better place for all.

AMEN.

19th Sunday after Trinity 2017

Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?
Matthew 22.15-22
Brian Reader

Good morning to you all. Firstly on behalf of Anne Coomes and myself I would like to thank all of you who came to Chester Cathedral on 21 October to support the Readers who were being licenced, transferred or made Emeritus. I hope you found the service as uplifting and enjoyable as we did.

Today is the 19th Sunday after Trinity, and we are rapidly approaching the end of the Church’s year. Apart from it being the 109th birthday of St. Oswald Church there is nothing really special about today, which enables us to concentrate on the readings we heard from Matthew’s Gospel.

The story is well known but still important, and I was trying to think of a way to make it a bit more easily understood. Just imagine you are standing in the Palace of Westminster and the great British public asks, “Is it right that we pay vast sums of money to the European Union?” So the wise man (or woman), said, “Show me your coinage,” and he/ she was shown a pound coin with twelve edges. “Whose head is this on the coin?”, and the crowd said, “It is the Queen of England”. I will let you guess what was said next.

A country’s coinage is very important. Had we changed to the Euro some years ago, I doubt if we would or could have even contemplated Brexit today, as we would have been much more closely linked in with, and locked into, the European Union. And if Brexit fails, then the EU politicians have already said that their vision is for a European state with one currency, so the pound would have to go.

As I’ve said, the nation’s currency is very important and it is surprising to learn from this passage that the Romans allowed the Jews to use their own coinage, even if it was only to be used in the temple. The Romans even allowed Temple guards and this was one of the reasons that Jesus was handed over to be crucified, to protect the few perks the Romans allowed the Jews to keep.

But back to the story. This question, which the Pharisees put to Jesus, had an obvious double edge. The issue of paying tax to the Roman emperor was one of the hottest topics in the Middle East in Jesus’ day. Imagine how you’d like it if you woke up one morning and discovered that people from the other end of the world had marched in to your country and demanded that you pay them tax as the reward for having your land stolen! That sort of thing still causes riots and revolutions, and it had done just that when Jesus was growing up in Galilee.

One of the most famous Jewish leaders when Jesus was a boy, a man called Judas (a good revolutionary name in the Jewish world), had led a revolt precisely on this issue. The Romans had crushed it mercilessly, leaving crosses around the countryside, with dead and dying revolutionaries on them, as a warning that paying the tax was compulsory, not optional.
The Pharisees’ question came, as we would say, with a health warning. Tell people they shouldn’t pay tax, and you might end up on a cross. On the other hand, anyone leading a Kingdom-of-God movement would be expected to oppose the tax, or face the ridicule and resentment of the people. Surely the whole point of God becoming king was that Caesar wouldn’t be? If Jesus wasn’t intending to get rid of the tax and all that it meant, what had they followed him for all the way from Galilee? Why had they all shouted Hosanna a few days earlier?

If Jesus had been a politician on a television programme, you can imagine the audience’s delight, and the producer’s glee, when someone asked this question. This one will really give him a hard time.

Before Jesus answers, he asks them for a coin. Or rather, asking them for a coin is really the beginning of his answer, the start of a strategic outflanking move. When they produce the coin, the dinar that was used to pay the tax, they are showing that they themselves are handling the hated currency. Among the reasons it was hated was what was on the coin. Jews weren’t allowed to put images of people, human faces, on their coins; but Caesar, of course, had his image stamped on his and around the edge of the coin, proclaiming to all the world who he was, Caesar had words that would send a shudder through any loyal or devout Jew. ‘Son of God… high priest’ – was that who Caesar thought he was? How could any Jew be happy to handle stuff like that?

We watch the scene as Jesus takes the coin from them, like someone being handed a dead rat. He looks at it with utter distaste. ‘Whose is this… image?’ And who is it who gives himself an inscription like that?’

He’s already shown what he thinks of Caesar, but he hasn’t said anything that could get him into trouble. He has turned the question around, and is ready to throw it back at them. ‘It’s Caesar’s,’ they reply’, stating the obvious, but admitting that they themselves carry Caesar’s coinage. ‘Well then,’ says Jesus, you’d better pay Caesar back in his own coin, hadn’t you?’

Astonishment. What did he mean? ‘Paying Caesar back in his own coin’ sounded like revolution; but standing there with the coin in his hand it sounded as though he was saying: ‘you should pay the tax, and you’d better pay God back in his own coin, too!’ More astonishment. Did he mean that the kingdom of God was more important than the kingdom of Caesar, after all? Or what?

Let’s be clear. Jesus wasn’t trying to give an answer, for all time, on the relationship between God and political authority. That wasn’t the point. He was countering the Pharisees’ challenge to him with a sharp challenge in return. Wasn’t it, after all, they who were compromised? Had they really given full allegiance to their God? Were they themselves playing games, Keeping Caesar happy while speaking of God?

We can only fully understand what Jesus was doing when we see his answer in the light of the whole story. Jesus knew – he had already told the disciples – that he was himself going to be crucified, to share the fate of the tax-rebels of his boyhood. He wasn’t trying to wriggle out of personal or political danger. He was continuing to walk straight towards it.

But he was doing so on his own terms.

His vocation was not to be the sort of revolutionary they had known in the past. The kingdom of God would defeat the empire of Caesar, and the world, not by conventional means, but by the victory of God’s love and power over the even the great empire of death itself.

Yours is the majesty, O Lord our God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirt;
Yours is the kingdom and the Power;
Yours be the glory now and evermore.
AMEN

Second Sunday after Trinity 2017

I came to bring a sword:  Matthew 10.24-39
Brian Reader

Our Gospel reading is taken from Matthew, and it reminded me about a story we heard on our recent Chub meeting to Hope. (Chub just stands for Church and Pub). Well, a new vicar had been appointed to St Peter’s in Hope and on his first Sunday he preached from Matthew’s Gospel on the Sermon on the Mount, which was very well received. The next Sunday he preached the same sermon, and a few eyebrows were raised. Believe it or not, on his third Sunday, he again preached the same sermon. There were distinct mutterings in the congregation, and the Church Warden was delegated to have a word with the vicar.

But when asked, the vicar said he would continue to repeat the same sermon until the good people of Hope lived out the message of the sermon in their lives!

Like Jesus, the vicar wanted people to change their lives. Our reading for today, which is also from Matthew, has much the same purpose. Jesus came to change people’s lives, but some of the things we heard in the Gospel reading, we may not have expected. We know that God is a god of love and that Jesus, his Son, came into the world to proclaim that message. But in the passage we read –

‘Don’t think it’s my job to bring peace on the earth’ I didn’t come to bring peace – I came to bring a sword, I came to divide a man from his father, a daughter from her mother, and a daughter-in-law from her mother-in-law.’

Jesus had meant these words to cause a stir.

‘Sons against fathers, daughters against mothers’ – what on earth could he mean? Rejecting parents and children – not peace on earth, but a sword – can this be Jesus himself speaking? What’s going on? How can we get our minds around these strange sayings?

Now the New Testament also has a good deal to say about caring for one another within the family. But some have misguidedly taken passages like these as a licence to neglect their own dependants, to spend all their time on ‘the Lord’s work’. You may have heard it said about someone that they were so heavenly minded that they are no earthly use!

But these are stern and uncomfortable words which we can’t ignore. They echo down the years into the Christian church of today. Think of St Francis, leaving his wealthy home, despite his father’s fury, to go and live a simple life of imitating Jesus as best as he could – and setting an example that thousands still follow today. Think also of those who have faced terrible dangers for the sake of the gospel and have had to send their families to a place of safety elsewhere, while they have stayed to look after a church because there wasn’t anyone else to do it.

Jesus doesn’t say here that everyone who follows him will find themselves split off from their families; certainly not. Indeed, many of the apostles, in the days of the early church, took their spouses with them on their travels. But Jesus is once again talking about priorities, and is making remarkable and quite drastic claims. He isn’t saying (as some have tried to pretend that he was saying) , that what matters is following God in your own way. No. Jesus is saying, loud and clear, that what matters is allegiance to him: allegiance to Jesus must come at the top of every priority list. In our service today we have already heard the words that Our Lord Jesus Christ said:

The first commandment is this: ‘The Lord our God is the only Lord’. “You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength”
‘The second is this’: “Love your neighbour as yourself’”
There is no other commandment greater than these.

As the story in the Gospels unfolds, we see how difficult this was, even for those who knew him personally: Peter denied him, Judas betrayed him, the rest all ran away and hid. But the challenge remains, embracing everything, demanding everything, offering everything, promising everything.

The absolute demand of Jesus brings us back to the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t the case that there are some fine ideals in the mind of God, and that Jesus just happens to teach them a bit better than most people. Nor is it the case that Jesus came to show us the way through the present world to a quite different one, where we will go after death. No: Jesus came to begin and to establish the new way of being God’s people, and not surprisingly those who were quite happy with the old one, thank you very much, didn’t like having it disturbed.

He didn’t want to bring division within households for the sake of it. But he knew that, if people followed his way, division was bound to follow. We see division in our world today. Terrible things are happening, brought about by hate. Brought about by those who do not believe in a God who teaches us to love, not only our neighbours, but also our enemies, as we love ourselves. But with so much death and destruction we can become afraid and turn in on ourselves; frightened to be the outgoing and loving people that God wants us to be.

One of the most memorable moments for me in recent weeks has been the moving pictures of people giving out roses; people of all races, colour and creed making a practical display of their love and compassion to other human beings. What do you think is the command repeated most often in the Bible? You might imagine it’s something stern like: Behave yourself – -Say your prayers! – Worship God more wholeheartedly! – Give more money away. You’d be wrong. It’s the command we find repeated three times in our Gospel

‘Don’t be afraid.’

Yes, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ The people who gave out roses were not afraid. You can see easily enough why Jesus needed to tell his disciples not to be afraid. After all, he’s warned them that the authorities will be after them; that they will suffer physical and emotional violence; and, that people will start calling them the sort of names they have already begun to call him. So there was plenty to be afraid of! And yet he says, don’t be afraid.

If, as the Gospel is saying, God really takes note of every single sparrow in the sky, and every single hair of our heads, that means that, just as nothing is too great for him to do, so nothing is too small for him to care about it. The message is plain. You are worth more than a great many sparrows; so rest assured that God knows and cares about the details of your life, even as you face the temptations and dangers which are all around us.

Followers of Jesus are bound to experience attacks at all levels. But we must also learn that the one we are serving is stronger than the strongest opponent we will ever meet. If we accept the challenge of Jesus sayings, this is then matched by the remarkable promises he makes to those who accept His challenges and live by them. He will ‘own’ us before his father in heaven, and ‘Those who lose their lives will find them.’

That’s why Jesus’ challenge, to the disciples themselves and, through them to the Israel of his day, had to be so sharp – and it also has to be just as sharp today, where people still prefer comfort to challenge.

So follow Christ, love your enemies, and DO NOT BE AFRAID!

Amen

Trinity Sunday 2017

The Mystery of Three in One
Anne Coomes

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13 :14) Most of us have known the words to that lovely blessing since we were children, and they do not seem either strange or amazing or radical to us. But that is not how they would have seemed to the first Christians who heard them 2000 years ago.

If those first believers had grown up as pagans, they would have grown up with the idea that the gods were way up there somewhere, but not in the least bothered about the sorrows of humanity, and very unlikely to ever pay you any attention at all, no matter how long and humbly you waited for them. The pagans gods were powerful, arrogant, and indifferent towards humanity. You’ll know the feeling if you have ever rung a big energy company or the BT people, and tried to get through to talk to someone. Total indifference – no love, grace or fellowship there!

If those first believers had grown up as Jews, they would have thought of Yahweh as all powerful and all good and all knowing, but as “up in heaven”, and consequently in his purity and glory unapproachable by sinful human beings. One’s relationship with Yahweh was through careful, humble obedience to the Law. There was love – you only need to read the Psalms to see how much love – but it was in return for your obedience to the Law.

And then Jesus had appeared, with the astonishing news that God so loved the world that he had sent his only-begotten son, that whoever believed in him would not end their life on earth by perishing in their sins, but instead they would be free to inherit eternal life in his presence. The love of God had now sent down the grace of Jesus on the world. Jesus was the Way, the Truth and the Life – all you had to do was to accept him by believing. Here there was staggering love – and boundless grace.

But Jesus on earth could not be accessible to every believer all of the time, and after his resurrection, the work of Jesus on earth had been completed. As he told his disciples, he was going to return to his Father. And so it was time for the third part of the blessing to come into reality: Jesus was not going to leave his followers on their own: he was going to send them the Holy Spirit, who would be with them for always.

The Holy Spirit is described as our Counsellor, who will lead us into truth, who warns us of things, who directs our paths, who sanctifies us. It is God within us, the promise of our future inheritance, the reassurance that we are indeed born anew in God’s kingdom. We are to walk in his Spirit, to listen to his Spirit. It is God’s fellowship with us, boundless, full of love and grace, and there for us every minute of every day.

God’s spirit within us has another implication for our lives. It not only unites us with God, but it is the basis of our unity with each other. We are all of the same family – we share the same spiritual DNA.

For my work over the years, I have travelled a bit. And when you meet people of totally other cultures, it can be hard to establish a point of contact. But I have found, again and again, that when you are both Christians, that contact is already there. I know that Veronica and any of you who travelled with her to India to spend time with the Delhi Brotherhood will have found that same thing when you got there. In my case, I can think of some close fellowship I have enjoyed with some amazing Christians in very unlikely places. I have met them sharing God’s love in the orphanages of Romania, up in the Tien Chan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, in the slums of Nairobi, in the bush of Mozambique, among the poor of Bosnia, and with refugees on the rubbish dumps of Podgorica. In each one of them, the same purposefulness was immediately evident – the grace of Jesus and the love of God was a daily fact in their lives, and they were dedicated to sharing that amazing grace with the people in need around them. Their fellowship was an inspiration to me.

So – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – on Trinity Sunday, the Church celebrates the three-fold nature of our wonderful God. Many great theologians have tied themselves up in knots trying to explain it and probably some have gone mad in the process. But really, I think some things are best understood through merely experiencing them. And maybe the great truth, the great doctrine, of the Trinity is like that. Neither Jesus nor Paul nor Peter nor anyone else in the New Testament ever seemed to feel the need to struggle to explain it – it just was how God is.
In my own experience I sometimes find another useful comparison in the all-powerful yet unapproachable sun in the sky as being the essential force which is vital to life on our planet but which is only accessible and experienced by us humans as the source of light and warmth. Maybe our Creator God could be described as like the sun, Jesus like the light and the Holy Spirit like the warmth we experience in our everyday lives? Well, it works for me!

In the gospel of John, chapter 15, Jesus is very clear about it: “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them…. and the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things…”

God the Holy Trinity, Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit: all of humanity is made in God’s image and shares God’s DNA. We come to realise that this is God in his totality eternally loving us, and simply wanting our love in return. Perhaps the real mystery is how hard we as human beings seem to find it to reciprocate that love and to live our lives generously, peacefully and lovingly to all.

5th Sunday of Lent 2017

The Raising of Lazarus
Brian Reader
John 11, 1-45.

Today, the fifth Sunday of Lent, is also called Passion Sunday, and we had a long reading about Jesus’ friend, Lazarus and his two sisters. What did you make of it? 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? Why did Jesus delay? Perhaps he was delaying so he could then do an even greater miracle of healing? I don’t believe that for a second.

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 just two miles or so from 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 the sisters asked him.
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 under- standing, 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 ‘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. 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 understanding after 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, redundancy or being told about a life threatening illness 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 the 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 holds you through death into Life, it will be but one more in a whole series of resurrections.

May we pray. 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

Candlemas 2017

Anne Coomes

The wedding at Cana

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

My father was a Presbyterian minister on Long Island, New York, and so I grew up attending church. And at every single service, everybody prayed.

This led me to ask my mom one of those impossible questions that kids come up with. My crazy question was: how many prayers has Jesus received down the centuries? Not surprisingly, my mom said she had no idea.

Well, I never have found out how many prayers in total Jesus has received, but when I came to this reading this morning, I suddenly realised that the story of the Wedding at Cana is very special.

For it takes us back to the very first-ever prayer made to Jesus. And there are some really lovely things about this simple story, and also some surprising ones.

The story, of course, comes in chapter 2 of John’s Gospel, and when you think about where it comes in the gospel, it is quite astonishing. For chapter 1 of John’s Gospel could not be more different. It is sublime – John has just written one of most magnificent descriptions of Jesus in the Bible:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Through him all things were made…

What an opening scenario! The majesty of the creator of the universe in the dawn of time. John goes on:

…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. To all who received him, he gave the right to become the children of God…

This is all high Christology, soteriology, – all the ologies you can think of. From the towering majesty of this, the next chapter could not be more different. For having introduced Jesus in all his glory and grace, where does John set him in chapter 2?

Jesus who made the universe is attending a wedding in a small town in a back water of the Roman empire. And the people around him are not asking him to save them from their sins. No, instead, his mother tells him that the wine has run out. It’s sort of like a film where superman flies in from outer space to rescue the earth, and then helps out with coffees at a Saturday morning bake sale.

I mean – why would you? Why not describe Jesus as doing something more important? So why did John not think this was odd?

Let’s look again at chapter 2.

There is a wedding, and Mary knew at least one of the families involved, because she and her family had been invited along for the feast.
The party has begun and is obviously going well – so well that the wine has run out. That is not really surprising, as Jewish weddings went on for a week – and they would have got through a lot of wine. Anyway, Mary sees a social crisis about to happen. To run out of wine would have reflected very badly on the bridegroom and his family.

Mary is deeply concerned for her friends, and in the crisis of the moment, she does something that no one in history has ever done before – she turns to Jesus for help. John tells us:

when the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘they have no more wine.’

This simple statement at the wedding marks a tipping point. Up until now, Mary has been Jesus’ mother, and he her oldest son. She knows who he is, and he knows who he is, but until now neither Mary nor Jesus has ever acted on it. Now Mary has suddenly appealed to her son’s supernatural powers for help. It is a prayer.

No wonder that John has included the story here in his gospel. We have the Word made flesh, and come among us to reveal his glory, and here is the first time that a person has acted in faith and reached out to him as Immanuel, God with us.

And how lovely that it should be Mary who is first to pray to Jesus, and who is first to have a prayer answered. And Mary’s prayer was so humble. Her prayer was not for herself. It was an intercessory prayer on behalf of her friends, the bridegroom’s family. Her prayer was very short – only one line long. She said: ‘They have no more wine.’

Her prayer was not bossy. She informed Jesus of the need. She did not tell him what he should do about it – she left that to him.

But even so, at first, Jesus did not respond well! He seems taken aback by her sudden appeal.

‘Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come.’

Jesus is saying that when it come to his life-mission, sorting out wine at a wedding was NOT it. But Mary does not argue with him. She simply tells the servants to be sure to do whatever Jesus commands them.

We are not told why Jesus changed his mind, only that he pointed to six stone water jars, and told the servants to fill them with water, and then draw some out and take it to the Master of the banquet. They did, and the new wine was praised as being better than the old.

So – what can we take from this story? Several things.

First, that the everyday problems of our lives are not too little to bring to God. If we are in trouble, and need help, we are right to turn to him in prayer.

Last year I was in Exeter at the exhibition ground, and it was horrendous winter weather. I got totally lost on the Exeter ring road, and ended up back at the exhibition ground, quite desperate. A little old man was walking out of the ground, and I asked if he knew where a certain street was. He lived around the corner from it! He got in the car and guided me straight there. Of all the hundreds of roads in Exeter, he lived around the corner from it. God had answered my everyday crisis prayer. (But I did not push it – I got a satnav!)

What else can we take?

Mary presented the need – she did not tell Jesus HOW to answer her. When we pray for ourselves and others, we can simply tell him the need, and trust him to work out the answer by himself.

Mary told the servants to be obedient. That is also critical. If we are to get anywhere with God, we need to obey what he says to us.

So – the story of Cana wedding is beautiful. From the majesty of a Creator at the dawn of the universe, to Immanuel, God-with-us in the everyday, who cares for us on an everyday level. No wonder that John concluded the story by telling us that in this first of his miracles, Jesus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

We also can put our faith in him.

2nd Sunday of Advent 2016

Brian Reader

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Ps 72: 1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12

Today is the second Sunday of Advent. Some 10 days ago someone asked me “Why don’t we have flowers in Church during Advent?” I gave an answer but it raised other issues, and it set me thinking.

What is Advent, and what do we know about it?

Advent is so much more than a delicious chocolate calendar counting down the days until Christmas. In fact, the Advent calendar gives a wrong idea about Advent, as it assumes that Advent starts on the 1st December, when we all know that this year it started last Sunday on 27th November, and next year it will start on the 3rd December.  I therefore decided to speak this morning about Advent and I make no apology for using some of an article by Justin Holcomb which I found on Christianity.com.

For some of us there may be some confusion surrounding the meaning of the Advent season. The word “Advent” just means “coming”. So it is reasonable to assume that the Advent season focuses on expectation and to think that it serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. This is part of the story, but as Anne explained last Sunday there’s more to Advent than just that.

We should also understand that Christmas, the “Christ Mass”, was not celebrated until 350 to 400 AD. Scholars believe that during the 4th and 5th centuries in Spain and Gaul, Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. During this season of preparation, Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for their baptism; in a similar way that some new Christians today use Lent as a time of preparation for their baptism at Easter.

So originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas. By the 6th century, however, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds in Glory as the judge of the world. So Advent was a season that focused on waiting.

It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was also explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas.

Advent is now the period of four Sundays leading up to Christmas, and each Sunday is commemorated by the lighting of one of four coloured candles in the Advent wreath, with a fifth white candle being lit on Christmas day. Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days”, that we read about in Acts and Hebrews: as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom.

The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration, while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people.

In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season. While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future.

But the world we live in seems to take an Advent-free leap straight from All Saints Day to Christmas Eve? WHY?

Perhaps because Christmas is about celebration, and celebrations can be a time to move products off the shelves. Advent is about waiting, and waiting is considered a waste of time in a materialistic world.

In the Western religious setting, new believers seek to use Jesus to provide them with their most convenient lives in the here and now, and Advent is a particularly awkward intrusion.

Advent links our hearts with those of ancient prophets who pined for a long-promised Messiah but who passed away long before his arrival. In the process, Advent reminds us that we too are waiting.

Even on this side of Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, there is brokenness in our world that no shopping trolley full of Christmas bargains can fix; there is hunger in our souls that no plateful of Christmas pudding and brandy butter can fill; there is twistedness in our hearts that no terrestrial hand can touch.

As the apostle Paul declared, “The whole of creation, has been groaning together for redemption.” In Advent, Christians embrace the groaning and recognize it not as hopeless whimpering over the failings of the present moment but as an expectant yearning for a divine banquet that Jesus is preparing for us even now.

In Advent, the church admits, as poet R.S. Thomas has put it, that “the meaning is in the waiting.” And what we await is a final Advent that is yet to come. In Advent, believers confess that the infant who drew his first ragged breath between a virgin’s knees has yet to speak his final word.

Advent was intended to be a season much like Lent, a time of fasting, and reflection and there are a variety of ways that this time of mourning works itself out in the season. That is the reason that traditionally we have no flowers in Church during Advent, and why some Churches delay their carol services until after Christmas.

Today it is difficult to keep in mind the true meaning of Advent in the midst of parties, shopping, lights and decorations that we see all around us. Some may view Advent like the season of Lent, where you can celebrate it or skip it, waiting instead for the big holidays like Christmas or Easter. I can’t help but feel, that when we skip over these waiting periods in anticipation of the real meaning of the holiday, we come up a little empty when the big day arrives.

So what should we do?

Reflection on the violence and evil in the world cause us to cry out to God to make things right -to put death’s dark shadows to flight. One catechism describes the spirituality of Advent beautifully:

“When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Saviour’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated; and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense.

We are between the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming. It is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation.

Faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. The promise for Israel and the promise for the church is Jesus Christ; He has come, and He will come again.

So Advent reminds us to listen for the message that God is speaking, even in the waiting. This is the essence of Advent.

Are you listening for God speaking to you, through the Bible, or prayer or quiet meditation? Are you giving yourself space to hear what God is saying to you in this busy world?

What better time to start than this Advent?

Advent Sunday 2016

Ann Coomes

Isaiah 2: 1-5 ; Romans 13: 11 – end;  Matthew 24: 36 – 44

You’ll never guess who I ran into last night. Michael Fox, our former curate, and his wife Ginny. I was up at the Royal Northern College of Music, where Ginny, who is a member of the St George’s Singers, was singing the wonderful Brahms Requiem.

brahmsrequiemBrahms’ requiem is a magnificent affirmation of faith and hope in Jesus Christ, and of an eternal future in the comfort of his presence,  and so it reminded me of our readings this morning – the longing which St Paul had for the second coming of Jesus, and his joy and utter confidence in Christ’s eventual return.

There is a line in the requiem which quotes Jesus from the gospel of John. It runs:

‘You now have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man shall take from you.’
I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice. 

What a wonderful promise!  And of course, that is what Advent is all about – the coming of Jesus. Or the ‘adventus’ of Jesus, if you want the Latin.

So it is little wonder, then, that Advent is the season of Christian anticipation and hope.

For as we look back to that First Coming of Jesus, born so humbly in a manger in Bethlehem, so we look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus, when He will come in power and authority.

Our readings this morning look forward to that Second Coming of Jesus, at the end of time. Together, the readings spell out several things the Bible urges us to remember.

Firstly, we are reminded that as Christians, we are citizens of two countries. We belong both to this present age on earth, with its pain and evil, and also to the age that is to come, when Christ shall reign in power. We live our lives at the intersection of these two ages.   Hence the ambiguity of Christian experience. We are not what we were, but equally, we are not yet what we shall become.

So, if you like, the two ‘ages’ of history overlap. With the birth of Jesus, the kingdom of God has come, but not in completeness.  Paul likens a Christian to a child who one day will come into a great inheritance. We Christians are waiting for that – for the Second Coming of Jesus, when the present age will finally disappear, and the new age of God’s kingdom will be consummated.

So Advent is a time to remember that world history is not just a tale of on-going gloom and doom. It has a story line. In a sense, world history is His story. God’s story. He made this world. He came and lived in it. He calls us to follow him. At the end – the second Advent – He will return and wind up history. That is the great Christian hope which we remember this morning. That history is moving steadily towards that amazing day of Jesus’ return.

And this time it won’t be in an obscure manger in Bethlehem. When Jesus comes back, this Second Coming will be the most public event in all history. It will come like a bolt from the blue, and be like sheet lightning, from one side of the sky to the other.

The return of Christ will be the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
It will be a time of judgement, a time of restoration

As our reading in Isaiah put it:

He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.

It will be a time of new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, where God will once more live among his people.

Of course, just as in the time of Noah, most people do not believe that anything big is coming. They think that the present age will go on forever. Many people say that Paul got it wrong, because he tells his readers that they are living in the last days, and of course 2000 years has gone by, and Jesus has still not returned.

But when Paul uses the term ‘last days’, he is not referring to the length of time between when he was writing and when he expected Jesus to return. Rather, he was saying that there is now nothing more on God’s calendar when it comes to his dealings with mankind. The Messiah has come, has died for his people, he has risen again, and now reigns in heaven with a name that is above every name. There only remains now for his return – when every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is indeed Lord.

In that regard, these last two thousand years are indeed the ‘last days’. There is no other age of human history after this age. Everything between God and man has been accomplished, the stage is set. And at just the right moment, known only to God the Father, Jesus Christ will return.

Meanwhile, our Christian calling is to behave in the continuing night as if the day had dawned. We are to live lives of self-control and goodness,  showing that we are citizens of a different kingdom. In that regard, we are the light of the world.

This Advent can for each one of us become a spiritual journey. We begin by remembering birth of Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem. We look then to the Scriptures that reaffirm that He is present, through his spirit, in the world today. We then remember the scriptures which tell us that he will come again in glory. Finally, we look forward to our final destination, which is to be in his presence forever!

Which, of course, brings me right back to the Royal Northern College of Music last night, and that magnificent line which runs:

‘You now have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice.

As it says in Revelation, even so, Come Lord Jesus.

Amen!

The story of Zaccheus (Luke 19: 1-10)

Canon Roy Arnold

The Gospel tells us the story of Zacchaeus, who was a very, very rich man – the chief tax-collector in the prosperous city of Jericho – but not a popular man because tax collectors were collaborators with the hated Roman occupiers, and noted for making a bit of cash on the side for themselves. But one day – going about his business in town – he heard a stir and wanted to know it was all about. Actually it was Jesus just passing through Jericho, but Zacchaeus couldn’t see him because of the crowd and also because he wasn’t very tall. So he started to run up the road and scrambled up a sycamore tree. It was a surprise – up among the branches – when he heard his name being called.

Church of the Good Shepherd, Jericho (photo by Tango7174)
Church of the Good Shepherd, Jericho (photo by Tango7174)

“Zacchaeus, come on down”. It was Jesus who was calling and much to the surprise of Zacchaeus, Jesus was saying that he wanted to stay at his house, despite the muttering of the crowd about Jesus mingling with tax collectors and sinners. Actually, I believe that Jesus could see into the heart of this man called Zacchaeus – that he wanted something more in his life, he wanted forgiveness maybe; he wanted to feel loved; no longer to be an outcast. And this is what he heard Jesus saying directly to him (and the men muttering in the crowd) “Today salvation has come to this house, because this too is a son of Abraham. For the son of man came to seek and to save the lost”, using the word lost in the sense of getting lost as in a strange city or place.

I guess that most can feel lost at times. People can get lost in their search for riches, as I think Zacchaeus had done; for the love of money is the root of evil and a frequent way of getting on the wrong track. Or people can get lost when they take to the bottle, or drugs. And also we can get lost when the experience of our lives change. I must admit that I am not particularly enjoying getting old, despite having a bus pass. But then I could be old or a child in war-torn Syria.

There are all sorts of ways in which we can feel lost, some our own fault and or by actions of others; or by illness or loss, but lost is lost (as Mrs May might have said). But Zacchaeus was found – up a tree – by Jesus, the same Jesus who can show me and you the right way to go. By that light of God which Jesus brings to us when we are lost, as the old hymn has it:

Lead kindly light amid the encircling gloom; lead thou me on. The night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on. Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene. One step enough for me.

One step out of our lostness, or one step towards the life which is to come. One step; a step to follow Jesus. Just one step is probably all it takes. So we pray that Jesus, the Light of the World, will be with us this day, that we may ever live and walk as children of the light, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen