Second Sunday of Advent 2018

Ann Coomes

Malachi 3: 1-4,  Phil 1: 3- 11,  Luke 3:1-6

How many of you are going to have a Christmas tree this year? How many of you have got it decorated yet?

 Because of course, without the lights on the tree, there is no glory in the tree. It is all dolled up, but nothing glitters or glows – there is no energy in it – no light!

For me, the most nerve-wracking part of getting ready for Christmas comes just after I have managed to get the tree to stand upright without falling over, and I have unravelled the tangle of Christmas lights and wrapped them round and round and round the tree.  Then just before I plug the lights in, there is that awful moment when I wonder if the lights will actually work or not.  Suppose nothing happens?  Why didn’t I check them before I put them on the tree?  And if they don’t work, which bulb is not working?   How will I ever find it?  

Anyway, I reckon that the people of Israel were feeling a bit like that in this morning’s reading from Malachi.  The time was about 445 BC, and Israel was in the doldrums. They had, if you like, a very big tree with lights on it – but it would not light up.  In other words, they had a magnificent temple in Jerusalem, but it felt flat, somehow, and there was no power in it.

To really appreciate their problem, we need to remind ourselves of the back story.  Israel had returned from exile in Babylon nearly 100 years before, in 538 BC.  But they returned to disaster, because Jerusalem was in ruins.  Solomon’s beautiful temple where centuries before the glory of God had been so evident that it had literally lit up with glory, had been destroyed by the Babylonians.

But still, the prophets who had returned from exile with the people had assured them that God had not forsaken them, and that one day He would come in power and restore the glory of Israel.

And so the people, working for decades, had slowly managed to restore the city, and the temple.  But then – nothing happened.  The temple, although it was ready for God, did not ‘light up’, and the nation certainly did not return to the prosperity, international prominence and wealth that their prophets had promised to them.

Malachi is, as you know, the very last book in the Old Testament. And so the OT ends on a rather dismal note – the people of Israel in Jerusalem, hoping for the glory of God to return to them, but instead facing a rather terrible time of it. 

Because in thecenturies between 445 BC and the birth of Christ, Israel was invaded over and over again.  For example, in 350 BC Jerusalem was invaded by Artaxerxes 111 of Persia.  About 20 years later, in 332 BC Alexander the Great arrived.  After him Israel came under the rule of Egypt and then Asia Minor, until in 63 BC General Pompey of Rome invaded it, and the Roman Empire swallowed it up. 

So no wonder the Israelites felt discouraged.  Where was Jehovah?  Why had he not blessed the second temple?  Why didn’t the Christmas tree lights come on, as it were?

No wonder that by the time of Christ the Pharisees kept so strictly to the Law of Moses – they hoped that in doing so, they would encourage God’s blessing on their nation.  

After all, Malachi had warned the people that when the Lord finally did come, who could endure his coming?  God would demand purity and holiness, he would be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.  And so the Pharisees preached strict observance to the Law – or at least the outward signs of it.   

But still –nothing happened.   Still no lights on the tree. 

The Jews could only wait and hope that one day the second temple would be filled with a glory that would make Israel the light of the world. But – where was it?

Of course, this morning, with the benefit of 2000 years history, we know that the reason the second temple did not ‘light up’ was that the first covenant God had made with mankind was coming to an end.  God was going to keep his promise of dwelling among his people in a way they could hardly have imagined – He himself was going to come to his people. He was going to be their glory, to dwell in their hearts, not in a mere building of stones. 

Which brings to our Gospel reading, from Luke, where John the Baptist begins his ministry.  John was unique, for he was the very last ofthe Old Testament, pre-Christian prophets, and the very first prophet to recognise Jesus for who he was. 

Isaiah had foreseen John the Baptist eight centuries before, calling him:  

A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’

The coming of John he Baptist was so important that Luke actually went to the trouble to set it in the context of world history by linking it with the political situation of the time.   He tells us that it was during the 15th year of Tiberius the Roman emperor.  Well, Tiberius ruled from AD 14-37, which would make his 15th year either AD 27-28 or AD 28-29. 

John the Baptist’s witness was almost the hinge of history, if you like.  The age of the Law was ending, and God was about to make a new Covenant with mankind – one written in the blood of Christ. 

From now on, the way to God was not through keeping the Law, but through repentence and forgiveness.

The middle one of today’s readings was from Paul’s letter to the Philippian Christians, which offers each one of us some wonderful encouragement as we prepare for Christmas this year.

Paul writes that he is confident ‘that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus….’

In other words, God is at work within us, through his Spirit, and He will never give upon us.  We may have various troubles in our lives this Christmas, but we can be sure that God will never leave us or forsake us. 

Indeed, Paul says that as we share in God grace,

  • our love ‘will abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 
  • we will be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless
  • and we will be filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
  •  

All of which takes me back to my Christmas tree lights.

They cannot shine of their own accord, they need energy from outside.

They cannot shine if their filament is corrupted or twisted in any way. 

They need to be properly plugged into the source of their energy.

Only then will energy from the Source be able to flow into them, and light them up,bringing glory to the tree, and being a light to all those around them.

Only when the Holy Spirit is dwelling within us will we, in our small way, become lights to the world, because his light is shining through us. 

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.

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.

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!