3rd Sunday after Trinity 2020

Brian Reader

After a long time in lockdown, it appears that things are getting better and hopefully soon we will be able to meet together as a congregation in our own church once again.

Today is the Third Sunday after Trinity and as we celebrate St Peter tomorrow, it is also known as Petertide. Traditionally in the Anglican Church this is the time when new priests are ordained, and Veronica was ordained as a deacon 29 years ago at Petertide.

In today’s short Gospel St. Matthew speaks about water.

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Have you ever been really thirsty? Perhaps you have been doing the housework, or been out shopping and said: “I’m dying for a cup of tea – or mug of coffee”. Or you have been playing or watching sport, and looked forward to a nice glass of lemonade or something else! Have you been watching tennis and seen the players taking their break and invariably a drink. I wonder how many of you remember when the only drink supplied was Robinson’s Lemon Barleywater. Or perhaps you have taken part in a nice friendly game of football, – if there is such a thing – or the rough and tumble on the Rugby field and then enjoyed half a pint of shandy or perhaps even a pint.

Yes, you were thirsty, but not REALLY THIRSTY, not dehydrated as in a desert region, when the lack of liquid in the body becomes life threatening. I haven’t really been in that position, but I got close to it when I was in Bahrein. Some of you may know that in the Persian Gulf in the middle of summer it gets very hot. I won’t bore you with all the details but I was required to fly a low level flight over the harbour and surrounding coastline. It was nearly noon and it was too hot to touch the metal of the wings with bare hands. Getting into the cockpit, was like getting into an oven, and flying around at low level with the sun beating through the canopy was as hot as I imagine Hades to be. When all was done, after an hour, I was soaked in perspiration and had probably lost about four pints of liquid and felt quite faint.

I did not want lemonade, I did not want beer; all I wanted was cool water.

What did our Gospel say? “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these…” Even a cup of cold water! I would have given a king’s ransom for that. No! In the desert, or the hot lands of Palestine, the gift of a cup of cold water is not to be sneered at – it is a gift beyond price.

In the passage this water is to be given to “one of these little ones because he is my disciple”. Jesus talks a lot about children, but here he is talking about his band of followers. The whole of Matthew chapter 10, which has been set as the Gospel over the last three weeks, tells us about Jesus and his instructions to his disciples. Earlier he had told them about what to do, “As you go, preach this message: `The kingdom of heaven is near’ “. This is a direct instruction from Jesus to his disciples that they were to go out and spread God’s word.

And we as followers of Jesus we are also tasked to spread his word. Today that is called ‘mission’, and we know that if there is no mission then we are not a church. Mission is our work and we know it is not easy to spread God’s word to those who do not wish to hear. In the Gospel reading, Jesus is talking about the rewards. “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” What a wonderful thought, and so clear. Jesus was sending out his disciples to take news of the kingdom of heaven to the Jews.

They were doing his work and so those who received the disciples favourably, or welcomed them as it is translated in the New Jerusalem Bible, were also welcoming Jesus and those who received Jesus were welcoming God the Father who had sent him. And so today, if we are God’s true disciples, anyone who is receptive to your telling the good news of the Kingdom of God and spreading the Gospel message, is welcoming Jesus; and anyone who welcomes Jesus welcomes the one who sent Him, that is God the Father.

And going on with the reading, “Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward”. What do we mean by a prophet and a prophet’s reward? Where would we look for a righteous man today? In today’s world we can think of a missionary or a person going out to spread God’s word as a prophet and I would hope that all modern day Christians would be righteous men and women.

OK. so we can understand that a prophet should receive a reward in the life hereafter, but why should anyone who receives him or her, receive the same reward? That is the wonderful simplicity of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For those who believe that Jesus, the Son of God, was crucified for our sins, and rose again on the third day, the reward is eternal life; to be made heirs of the Kingdom of God.

By the Grace of God, that reward is the same for all, you might say, that for those who receive Jesus into their life and are born anew, it is their birthright.
I remember a sermon many years ago, when the preacher emphasised: The Gift, the Blessing and the Call.

God in his loving mercy has given us the chance to be free from our sins. If we acknowledge our sins and accept that gift, God showers us with many blessings, one of which is eternal life – to be with Him in glory. And after we have received the blessings we each have a call, to live out our faith in our everyday lives and to pass on the good news of God’s love to others. The Gift, the Blessing and the Call.

Let us return to thinking about the gift of cold water. In the Bible we have lots of imagery concerning thirst and water and wells, because it was easily understood by a people who were aware of the importance of water in a hot dry land. They could not get water by just turning on a tap.

We all remember the story from St John’s Gospel about the Samaritan woman at the well in the heat of the day and how Jesus told her, “Everyone who drinks the water (from this well) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

We are all thirsty for spiritual refreshment and we turn to Jesus because he is the only one who can protect, refresh and sustain us. Without God in our life we are nothing. But with the gift of spiritual water that Christ is offering – and that spiritual water will become in us a spring of water welling up to eternal life – we can be born again and do anything in the name of Jesus.

And remember what happened to the Samaritan woman when she had accepted Christ’s gift she rushes back to her village to witness to Jesus and lead others to him. This is the proof of living water, the stuff of the new birth – a life redirected from being a sinner to being a glorious witness for Christ.

O God, the protector of all who trust in you,
without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy:
increase and multiply on us your mercy;
that with you as our ruler and guide
we may pass through things temporal
that we lose not our things eternal;
grant this, heavenly Father,
for our Lord Jesus Christ sake,

AMEN.

7th Sunday of Easter 2020

Brian Reader

Last Thursday was the feast of the Ascension; the day on which the Church celebrates Jesus’ Ascension up to heaven.

I used to enjoy the Ascension Day service as we always had the anthem ‘God is gone up’ by Gerald Finzi. We would sing, “God is gone up with a triumphant shout: The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:” and I found a fine example of the anthem on You Tube.

But the reading from Acts says nothing about trumpets sounding, just the reverse. The disciples seemed somewhat surprised as initially they just stared into heaven. Surely as Jesus was taken up from earth, his disciples must have felt a tinge of sadness. How would they cope without Jesus’ presence? Surely they would miss him?

When the apostles had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Acts 1:6-14

So in our Gospel reading we hear the Farewell Prayer of Jesus which he made sometime before the crucifixion. Jesus had accomplished all he set out to do during his lifetime. He had made God known and fulfilled prophesies from the Bible. He had passed God’s message on. Now there remains only his death for the sins of the world, and beyond it the glory of the resurrection and ascension. But Jesus knows that his followers will be in a hostile world and will miss Him. So he prays that God will protect them; that their lives may be shaped by the truth of God’s word; that they may display such unity among themselves and that the world will be shaken out of its disbelief; and that they may, in the end, go to be with him and see his glory for themselves.

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.! have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
John 17:1-11

So, after time, these same disciples came to realise that Jesus’ ascension was very much to their benefit. They came to realise that whilst Jesus might not have been physically present with them, once his spirit had been given to them at Pentecost, it would always be with them. And so we read in Acts that they went back to Jerusalem and they all gave themselves to prayer. They also came to understand that in heaven Jesus himself was praying to the Father for them, as in St Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes: “Christ Jesus, who died … was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is interceding for us.” And it was surely this presence of Jesus by His Spirit and his prayers for them that encouraged and empowered them in those first difficult days of the Church’s life.

Jesus prayed, and so should we. Even Jesus’ disciples knew that their prayers were not all that they could be, and so they took the very sensible step of asking Jesus for help. And as we know, Jesus was only too happy to oblige. And so it was that Jesus taught them the prayer that we all know so well; the prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer.

I would hope that you would use the Lord’s Prayer as part of your prayer life every day. And yet, many of us feel that we would like to pray more, or to have more depth to our prayers. Well, those of us who feel like that are in good company. Whilst, on the one hand, prayer is the simplest thing in all the world: we just talk to God, we need to practice it; to make it a habit.

So perhaps like me you have a desire to learn and grow and experience more in your prayer life. You too might like to join me in praying, “Lord, teach me to pray.” But well we might ask ourselves, why bother? Indeed, why pray at all? Doesn’t God know everything already, and won’t he do what he wants regardless of whatever we might say to him?

Archbishop William Temple famously said, “When I pray coincidences happen. When I don’t pray, they don’t.”

I’ve found that to be true.

Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive”. The Bible seems clear, that for His love for us God has determined that he will listen to and answer our prayers, and so from the comfort of our own sitting rooms or indeed anywhere – even in the car, we can change the world. As we pray for people and situations, God acts.

The truth is, that we can sometime change to become like the people we spend time with. And by spending time with God in prayer, we mysteriously become more like God’s Son, Jesus.

Over the past three and a half years more and more worshipping communities have dedicated the eleven days between Ascension and Pentecost to pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’. We are praying that the Spirit will inspire and equip us to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with our friends and families, our communities and networks. It has been amazing how many varied ways there have been in which people from every tradition have taken up this challenge. The effects have been remarkable.

It is our prayer that those who have not yet heard the Good News of Jesus Christ and his love for the world will hear it for themselves, and respond and follow Him.

Each and every Christian across the country is invited to pray that God’s Spirit might work in the lives of 5 friends who have not responded with their ‘Yes’ to God’s call.

Whether you have joined in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ before or not, you are invited to take part this year – along with churches from over 65 different denominations in 178 countries around the world. Archbishop Justin Welby has said that “In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ we all commit to playing our part in the renewal of the nations and the transformation of communities.” So during the 11 days of Thy Kingdom Come, it is hoped that everyone who takes part will:
• Deepen their own relationship with Jesus Christ,
• Pray for 5 friends or family to come to faith in Jesus,
• Pray for the empowerment of the Spirit that we would be effective in our witness.

United in prayer, we hope and trust that we will be changed to became just a bit more like Jesus, and we hope and pray that through our prayers for our community, nation and world, God will change the world for the better. Perhaps you might like, in your own way, in your own situation, to join in this movement for change – so pray for the world, for those around you, and don’t forget to include yourself.

While watching an Ascension Service on line I was reminded of the famous saying of Saint Teresa of Avila which reminds us that Jesus is relying on us –

“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

3rd Sunday of Easter 2020

Brian Reader

The road to Emmaus

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Luke 24:13-35

Many living today have never before experienced the difficult times that we are now facing. One of the things that Christians feel deeply is that we cannot attend Church and we miss the comfort which may be found in the Service of Holy Communion. However, it is not the first time that the Church has been in such a position. Throughout Christian history some Christian people have found themselves isolated from the sacramental life of the Church for all sorts of reasons, and particularly in times of plague, famine and warfare.

At such times the Church has encouraged people to make what is called a spiritual communion. It is a way of uniting yourself with Jesus and entering into communion with him even though you are not able to receive the sacrament itself. I hope that many of you partake in services at home, reading prepared words or joining in with a service on the radio, TV or online.

Today’s Gospel reading tells the story of two of Jesus’ followers on their way to Emmaus. One of the things that sometimes upsets people in the story of the resurrection, is that Jesus’ friends failed to recognise him. Why did this happen, and is this something that should concern us?

Despite the fact that Jesus had told them that he would return from the dead, his disciples did not understand this, and they had no idea what he would look like. In a similar way, it is not unusual, for us to ignore friends or simply fail to recognise them, especially if our thoughts are elsewhere. Let me give you an example. I was in Tesco’s the other week during the ‘lockdown’, when someone I knew by sight said ‘Hallo, how is your father keeping?’ This took me by surprise as had my father still been alive, he would have been 118 years old. So my reply was a feeble one: I just said, ‘I have no father’. 

Today’s gospel reading is my favourite resurrection story. No, it’s much more than a story, it is an account of what actually happened to two people as they walked along the road from Jerusalem. Nowhere does the Easter story speak to us as clearly as in Luke’s account of this walk to Emmaus. Imagine the scene. The bottom has dropped out of their world. They are wrapped up in their own thoughts, their friend and teacher Jesus, had been crucified like a common criminal. They couldn’t understand it. They were very dejected. And someone joined them – as the Good News Bible says, “they saw him, but somehow did not recognize him.”

Jesus said to them, “What are you talking about” And they answered, “Where have you been? Haven’t you heard about Jesus the prophet who they crucified? And we had hoped that he would be the one who was going to set Israel free! And now some of our friends have said that they have been told by angels that he is alive!” They were trying to make sense out of what had happened, but Jesus had the answer. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

We are lucky, we also have the New Testament to help us, but Jesus was able to give them a Bible study on their journey using just the Old Testament. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Jesus used scriptures to make sense out of what had happened, and we too today can use the Bible to help us when we are disheartened and worried, and the Holy Spirit will guide and help us. But Jesus will only come into our lives if we are ready and willing to accept him.

As they approached the village, Jesus acted as if he were going further, but they invited him to stay. So he went in to stay with them, and he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him.

Jesus, from the time of the Last Supper, has left us a positive and practical act that we can follow. It has come down to us for almost 2000 years and, although today we cannot join with other Christians in the act which we do in ‘remembrance of Him’, we can join in simply as we pray, so that we can come near to Him, recognise Him as our risen Lord and Saviour; and in that way Jesus can feed and sustain us in the days ahead.

The Gospel tells us that the disciples got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. For them despondency and mourning are now things of the past. Let’s imagine what would have happened if it had been us… We would just have finished a seven-mile hike from Jerusalem. It was evening, the sun would have set, and we haven’t finished our meal yet. Yes, we would have been pleased and overjoyed. But to go back to Jerusalem tonight? No, let’s get some rest, and go tomorrow when it’s light. Not so his true disciples, they got up and returned at once to Jerusalem to tell the others what had happened on the way and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke the bread.

And that same Jesus relates to us in the world today. So let us take four lessons from the reading:

  1. Sometimes we fail to recognise Christ as he works in the world today. We ask, “Why does God allow this to happen?” We fail to realise that it has doubtless been a consequence of our own poor choices and selfishness and carelessness collectively as human beings that has brought this world to the state it is today, but Jesus has not given up on the world.
  2. We have the scriptures to help us to understand and by reading the Bible, the Holy Spirit is able to teach and direct us.
  3. Jesus left us a ceremony where usually we can join together as his disciples did at the last Supper. Today, alone or with others we can join in a spiritual communion. This can be a special time when we not only remember, but we are able to recognise and become part of Christ here on earth.
  4. We are Christ’s hands and feet on earth today and we should be ready to do his bidding whenever he calls us and to be always looking for opportunities to spread the Gospel, the good news, of his glorious resurrection.

O Lord Jesus, we know that you are alive today. Help us to look for you and recognize you in the world about us.
Help us to read and appreciate our Bibles more, and send your Holy Spirit to guide us in the way of all truth.
Be with us as we make our spiritual communion today and help us to make coming to your table a regular habit.
Lord, show us what you would have us do in the way of sharing the good news of your love and salvation for all.
And please, Lord, help us to act when your time is right and not put off till tomorrow what we should be doing today.

Amen.

Passion Sunday

Brian Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Third Sunday before Lent 2020

Brian Reader

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

1 Corinthians 2: 1-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

Epiphany 3 2020

Brian Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AMEN

The Baptism of Jesus

Anne Coomes

Isaiah 42. 1-9; Acts 10. 34-43; Matthew 3. 13-end

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptised by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptised by you, and do you come to me?’ Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’

Matthew 3. 13-end

When I was out in Kenya just over a year ago, I met an old man named Eustace who came from a remote village on Mount Kenya. In the 1950s, someone had come to the village and told them about Jesus Christ. Eustace was so drawn to the stories of Jesus that he decided to become a Christian. He was told that an important part of becoming a Christian was to be baptised. But there was no minister or church in his village where this could happen. So, Eustace and another boy decided to walk to the nearest church in order to be baptised. They were only about 14, they were barefoot, and – it was a three-day walk. That would have been like you or me taking off our shoes after church this morning and leaving them at the door for Veronica to trip over, and then us walking from here to Chester Cathedral. Barefoot. I’m not sure how many of us would even get as far as the Cock and Pheasant! But getting baptised meant that much to Eustace. And he made it! It is an awesome thought.

Our reading this morning in Matthew tells the lovely, gracious story of the baptism of Jesus. How one day Jesus walked out of the obscurity of his village life in Nazareth down to the Jordan in order to meet up with John, and to be baptised. The story in Matthew takes up only four verses – but how rich in meaning it is!

It is well worth remembering some of the bigger picture around it, in order to fully appreciate just what happened that day at the Jordan. First of all, John the Baptist had arrived on the scene like a thunderbolt, and his baptism was shockingly new. Never before, in all history, had any Jew submitted to being baptised. Of course, the Jews knew and used baptism, but it was only for proselytes who came into Judaism from some other faith. It was natural that a sin-stained, polluted proselyte should be baptised, in order to clean them up a bit. But no Jew had ever dreamed that they, a member of the chosen people, and assured of God’s salvation, could ever need baptism. Baptism was for sinners on the outside, and no Jew ever thought of themselves as a sinner shut out from God, for were they not sons and daughter of Abraham?

So John the Baptist was a real shock to the Jews. His fiery message that they too were doomed unless they, too, repented, was unprecedented. For the first time in their national history the Jews woke up to their own need of baptism. And they did wake up! Hundreds and probably thousands of them went out to John the Baptist. Never in all of Jewish history had there been such a unique movement of penitence and of search for God. No wonder that the countryside was in an uproar, with everyone discussing repentance. It must have been a bit like Brexit, with people arguing on both sides, but no one staying neutral. Love it or loath it, you thought about it.

Which is exactly why God had sent John the Baptist in the first place – to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.

This was now Jesus’ opportunity, the perfect and prepared time for his public ministry to begin. The way had been prepared for the Messiah, and here he was, ready at the Jordan, asking John for baptism. It seems an odd beginning for a Messiah, to seek baptism. And down the centuries, many people have wondered why on earth Jesus would chose to be baptised. Even John was astonished! But in his baptism Jesus was identifying himself with the people whom he came to save. In the hour of their new consciousness of their sin, and of their search for God, Jesus’ baptism was his way of publicly declaring that he, too, needed to live a life consecrated and holy before God, doing only what the Father commanded him to do.

What about the voice that Jesus heard at the baptism? The words are of supreme importance. ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’. That sentence is composed of two quotations. ‘My beloved son’ comes from Psalm 2, which every Jew knew was a description of the Messiah, the mighty King, sent from God, who was to come. ‘In whom I am well pleased’ is a quotation from Isaiah 42, which is a description of the Suffering Servant. So at the baptism of Jesus, the voice from heaven was declaring two certainties: that Jesus was indeed the chosen One of God, chosen to be King, and the certainty that the way in front of Him would be the way of suffering – the way of the Cross.

And so, the dove descended gently upon Jesus. With it, Jesus was given the power of the Holy Spirit. From now on, in full obedience to the Father, and in the power of the Spirit, Jesus would fulfil his calling. He would be the Messiah, both as suffering servant, obedient unto death, and then – as king of kings, lord of Lords, at whose name one day every knee under heaven will bow.

And so yes, my friend Eustace in Kenya was right to take his baptism so seriously all those years ago. It was his declaration that he was repenting of his sins, and dying in order to rise again with Jesus to new life. He was reborn in Christ. Eustace went on with his faith in God. He somehow got to university in Nairobi, and became a university lecturer and a local church leader. Today he is retired, but has the pastoral oversight of about 20 churches, and is on the board of a big medical mission in Nairobi. His life has been so fruitful for God, and it began all those years ago with a barefoot teenager, walking lonely miles in order to be baptised and so declare his commitment to Jesus.

Epiphany

We celebrate the Epiphany today. The word “Epiphany” means the “Showing Forth”, the manifestation to the world – to people of all nations, colours, languages and even creeds. To all who will listen or see Jesus for what He is – the Son of God.

And so we have the familiar story of the Wise Men following the star – possibly from Iran or Iraq as we know them today – following their beliefs that our fortunes are in the stars. The New English Bible actually calls them “Astrologists”.

So they came and ended up first of all in Jerusalem, where they consulted the King – Herod, who was dismayed to hear of another King’s arrival – Jesus. People in power are always frightened of rivals, just as people who are rich are frightened of losing their wealth and create barriers to keep others out: “gated communities” is a misnomer as isolation and segregation must be the reality such barriers create.

Herod’s advisors told him of the prophecies that said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of this new King. The City of David – Bethlehem, which means “the house of bread” or “the place of basic nurture”. And so the Wise Men continued their following of the star, and came to the house where Jesus was, and offered their strange gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they went on their way.

In today’s world they could have instead embarked on a virtual quest rather than a physical one, with apparently less personal danger and without involving difficult face-to-face encounters with such as Herod.


It was very challenging to see the front page story in Saturday’s newspaper about the US drone strike and then to turn to read an obituary in the very same newspaper about the Iranian general who had been killed – someone considered by his compatriots as a genuinely wise man.

Born in 1957, one of nine children in a peasant farming family in a mountain village in Eastern Iran, who at the age of 13 left home with a cousin to try and earn enough money to repay the $100 agricultural loan his father had taken out from the Shah’s government when his father couldn’t make the repayments himself. Qasem succeeded in restoring the family honour:

“At night we couldn’t fall asleep with the sadness of thinking that government agents were coming to arrest our fathers,” he recalled. “Our bodies were so tiny, wherever we went they couldn’t hire us.”

Eventually, they helped to build a school. Eight months later they returned home through the snow with money to repay the debt. He went on to work for the local water board, but later joined the Revolutionary Guard after the 1979 uprising…

He was clearly not a saint, but he was once trusted enough by the West to be welcomed as leader of a delegation of Iranian diplomats to meet with US officials in Geneva following Nine Eleven. This looked like a hopeful collaboration until in 2002 President Bush included Iran in his “Axis of Evil” speech and all trust immediately broke down.

Clearly, General Qasem became a man of war not of peace, but one must wonder about the wisdom of simply “taking out” someone like that just because it is technically possible.

I feel violence can never be the answer. Just as we are outraged by King Herod’s massacre of the Innocents, so we are surely called to travel home another way than this…


The Epiphany season invites us into our own journey of discovery about the significance of Jesus – that God’s Son is not just born as the saviour for the Jewish people – God’s chosen race – but for all of us, all humanity. We are no longer to live as a gated community, locked out of God’s grace and favour. Whoever receives and accepts Jesus is a member of God’s family. Gentiles (we who are not Jews) can become the new Israel, upon whom God’s favour rests. As our epistle reminds us – now we have access to God in boldness and confidence through our faith in Jesus, who promises to be beside us in our searching and journeying through all the risks we take and whatever dangers we are exposed to as part of the universal human race this new year and beyond…

In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Ephesians 3:5-6

I fear wise men may be in short supply among those presently in positions of great power on all sides. Let us pray for true wisdom, discernment, restraint and compassion to be cultivated in the world’s leaders of our generation.

May the golden allure of admiration craved by powerful rulers be melted down into shining acts of kindness and generosity; may the fragrant incense that comes from discernment of true worth be offered by taking time to act only in godly righteousness and in seeking lasting peace on earth, and may the sufferings of this present time be ultimately soothed by the transformative myrrh of human compassion and hopefulness now and always.

First Sunday of Christmas 2019

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’ When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’ When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean.’

Matthew 2.13-end

Most of us know the story of Christmas off by heart – of Mary and Joseph, the little town of Bethlehem, the stable, the shepherds and the kings – but in actual fact what we really know is a conflation (the posh word for a mixture) of two stories; one from St Luke’s gospel and a different story as told by St Matthew. The first written gospel (St Mark’s) doesn’t include anything about Christmas, neither does the last written gospel (St John’s).

So we are left with St Luke’s account of angels in chorus, Mary and the Infant in the manger, the sheep farmers down from the hills, the innkeeper and the stable – all told (we think) by a source close to Mary. And the totally different story told by St Matthew of the star and the wise men, of the wicked King Herod forcing the Holy Family to become refugees – this seems to be from a source close to Joseph, the down-to-earth carpenter and yet a dreamer of dreams, with three angelic messages mentioned in our gospel for today; two warning of danger to the young Jesus.

When you consider these separate stories of Christmas told by Matthew and Luke, you might say that the story of the birth of Jesus is a story of light coming into our world, with the bright star pointing to the light of god’s love as reinforced by the opening verses of the gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

But clearly the story of Joseph and his dreams are filled with the gathering darkness (ironically called forth by the radiance of the light). So Herod massacres the Holy Innocents and Joseph and Mary become Displaced Persons – until they find their home in Nazareth.

I think that this contrast between light and darkness echoes the lived experience of us all; of illness and health, good and bad, night and day. The powers of the dark hate the powers of the light of the day, and the good and lovely light of the life of Jesus ends on the Cross – well, seemingly ends: for we believe that actually the darkness disappears with the dawn of Easter Day. And if we hold fast to our apparently counter-intuitive, counter-cultural belif in God, and if we follow Jesus – the Light of the world- we may find ourselves on the winning side in this battle between good and evil. And may even find ourselves waking up to the new dawn alongside the angels in heaven and know ourselves at last “wonderfully restored” to light and life, just as Jesus that first Christmas we are told came to share our human nature.

So may we, by following His path, share His holiness and be welcomed home, out of darkness into His marvellous light. Let’s all try to keep that dream alive as we enter the gate of another new year, going into the darkness and putting our hands into the hand of God, that shall be to us better than any human-made light and safer than any known way.

4th Sunday of Advent 2019

Brian Reader

I can’t quite wish you a Happy Christmas yet, but my WELCOME together with LOVE is part of the theme I would like us to consider on this the 4th and last Sunday of Advent. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about the approaching birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph. From other New Testament sources we know that Mary was an excited Galilean girl, probably very nervous, but nonetheless looking forward to welcome the birth, of her baby who she knew, was to be a very important boy.

OK for her then, but what about Joseph. It is assumed that he was probably older and more staid than Mary and it must have come as a great shock to find out that his young fiancée was pregnant. Wow, that was a stoning offence. I doubt if HE welcomed the news when he first heard it. But God is good; He knew the characters of both of them. That Joseph, her husband-to-be, was an upright man, and that he wouldn’t want to make a public example of her. God also knew, that while Joseph was deciding to set the marriage aside privately, that he would listen and follow the will of God, when it was explained to him by an angel in a dream – who said

The child she is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus…

The only point where the two Gospel stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.

At this point those who are not Christians will be heard laughing out loud. “From the Holy Spirit; A virgin birth, you must be joking!” Since a boy I have always accepted that the conception of Jesus was just another of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith. However, I also remember reading as a school boy, in the now defunct Sunday Pictorial that a number of women had claimed virgin births, but they had only produced girls. And surprise surprise, some fifteen years ago on the web, I found that while it would be a scientific anomaly to give birth while a virgin, it is not a scientific impossibility. This has been known to happen in nature, although it is rare. When it does happen, all offspring are female; it’s all to do with females having two X chromosomes. However, there is 1 in 5 million chance for a women to have both an X and Y chromosome, so, the birth of a son cannot be completely ruled out as impossible.

In the Bible, we are told that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant. That is indeed all that needs to be said, since we are concerned with the entry of the infinite God into his creation. This is something that cannot be described, any more than the act of creation can be described in any detail. Nor can the virgin birth be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The miracle is the incarnation itself, that God chose to have his Son born as a human, and if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty about accepting the means by which God chose to effect it.

Bishop Tom Wright accepts that for centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary – and untrue. Some go further saying that this story of a miracle birth, has had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that in its self sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have also given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever, (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage, and all that it implies.

It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative? Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception.

In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage. It seems as if Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight. Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t, because ‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop wars and genocide?’ But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel – in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways – and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself.

Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the Holy Spirit? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. In the OT reading we heard Isaiah proclaiming that God himself will give a sign. ‘A woman has conceived and will bear a son named Emmanuel.’ Now, the name ‘Emmanuel, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about the child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’.

Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age. God is present, with his people; He doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance. He is always active, and sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.

This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will tell us through the Gospel readings in the coming year. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who still comes to us today when human possibilities have run out. God with his powerful grace and love always offers us new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his many promises. During the Christmas season we will have Joy, but there also the challenge, to remember Christ all the year round. We must not put him away in a box together with all the other Christmas decorations. We also have to remember that Christ does not remain a child. He grows into manhood and challenges us to follow in his footsteps and to obey the commandments and the will of God. A challenge which most of the world finds too difficult to accept. Joseph accepted God’s word and welcomed Jesus as any other normal father would, and I’m sure he loved him as he watched him growing up, and while he was passing on his skills as a carpenter to Jesus.

Yes, welcome and love. That’s what we have to do, welcome and love baby Jesus this Christmas tide. WE also have to allow him to grow and be the man who will challenge us by revealing the true nature of God. As well as loving God, Jesus also teaches us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Do we welcome and love our friends who are non-Christians this Christmas time? Probably yes. But do we love and welcome those we do not know when they come to church at Christmas or for baptisms or weddings or funerals? God loves us all and we too should always be loving and welcoming to all of God’s children. WE owe it to God, we owe it to them!

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

Amen