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.

Our Readers

Anne Coomes and Brian Reader have been with us for some time now, but at a special service at Chester Cathedral they were officially licensed to our parish.

A coach-load of parishioners were able to attend the service.

 

 


Eternal Giver of love and life,
Your Son Jesus Christ has sent us into the world
to preach the gospel of his kingdom.
Confirm us in this mission
and help us to live the good news we proclaim,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. 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.

Lent Group 2017

Six Lent Study Groups led by Anne Coomes and Canon Veronica, on Wednesday evenings in church, from 7.30pm till 9.00pm, starting Wednesday 8 March. Anyone is welcome to join us in reading Archbishop Rowan Williams’ little book called “Being Disciples”. Refreshments provided. Please sign up on the list at the back of church if you’d like to come along for any or all of these weekly sessions.

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.

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!