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

Christ the King 2019

Brian Reader

Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s year, and the Sunday before Advent. When I was a school boy, today used to be called Stir up Sunday, because the Collect used on this Sunday began Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord… This was the day when our mothers would mix the Christmas pudding and we were all allowed to help mix the pudding and make a wish. We were also given the treat of scraping out the bowl and licking the spoon; in those days there were no supermarkets where you could buy a Christmas pudding. You will be pleased to know that the Collect has not been forgotten and it is now used as the basis for our Post Communion Prayer which we will say together later in the service.

When the new lectionary was introduced, with the Bible readings spread over three years, this festival from the Roman tradition was added, and it does give us an opportunity to celebrate Christ as King before we remember Jesus as the babe at Bethlehem. Two weeks ago it was Remembrance Sunday when we remembered the dead of two world wars who had fought and died for king and country and also the many who have died in wars since that time. If we read our history books we find them littered with wars and battles as kings and rulers fought for territory and power. Is that all we think about when we speak of a king? If that is the case then our Gospel and NT readings do not seem to fit in at all.

If today we are thinking about Christ as King, it is strange that we are reminded of his very cruel death between two prisoners. But Jesus Christ is the long promised heavenly king, spoken about by the prophet Jeremiah, who said: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” And Jesus is the fulfilment of that promise.

The trouble today, in our very materialistic world, is that we lack a centre for our thinking and our living. Many are searching for truth but few find it. We sometimes think that man can do anything, but our knowledge is fragmented, and the bits do not add up to a coherent whole. Paul said in his letter to the Colossians, that Jesus Christ alone can makes sense of it all. He is the key to understanding the universe and the purpose of our lives in it. He is the one who makes sense of everything, who holds it all together.

So today we celebrate Christ the King. Christ our King? So, what do we understand about Christ as our King? Perhaps we try to relate Christ the King to our understanding of an earthly king. An earthly king has a land or an empire that he rules, he has subjects and armed forces. He has a code of laws and imparts justice, and, if he is a good king, he will lead his people with wisdom and courage. WE know that Christ has a heavenly kingdom but many would dispute that He rules on earth. We sing “Thy kingdom come O God, Thy rule on earth begin. Break with thy iron rod the tyranny of sin.” But we also believe that one day he will rule on earth and on that day all will bend the knee to him as undisputed king of the earth as well as heaven.

And he has his army to fight his battles. We, his Church here on earth, whether we like it or not, are Christ’s army, to fight against sin and evil in the world. And if we follow the living Christ, He certainly leads us with wisdom and courage. Christ has given us rules to enable us to live our lives as His subjects and as He would wish. But Jesus does not lead us like an earthly king, he leads us like a shepherd faithfully tending his flock; knowing us all by name, knowing all our strengths and weaknesses. What earthly king would wash his servant’s feet yet this is what Jesus did. What earthly king would ride into town on a donkey yet this is what Jesus did. What earthly king would wear a circle of thorns as a crown, yet this is what Jesus did. Christ was not highborn in a palace like some earthly prince but born in a stable to ordinary working folk. So perhaps he doesn’t match our idea of an earthly king, perhaps we need to look elsewhere to understand why he is king.

Pilate, during the trial of Jesus asked him: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said: “You say so.” And when Pilate came to write an inscription to put above Jesus on the cross, it read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”; and it was written in Aramaic (the local Hebrew), in Latin, and in Greek. You will remember that the chief priests said to Pilate: “Don’t write, ‘The King of the Jews’, but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’,” and Pilate answered “What I have written, I have written.” And so Pilate will be remembered throughout history as a Roman who did not believe in Jesus, yet he testified to his kingship in three languages!

What earthly king would abandon his power to become a working man and a teacher, who would let himself be falsely accused, be ridiculed, tortured and put to death for our sins on a cross, so that we might be forgiven? Yet this is what Jesus did. Such love, such compassion, such obedience to the Father. Yes, Jesus Christ has shown that he is indeed the King of Love of whom we sing:

The king of love my shepherd is,
whose goodness faileth never,
I nothing lack if I am his
and he is mine for ever.

In Jeremiah’s time the rulers of Judah (or shepherds, as they are called in most translations) were failures. They were weak, wicked or short lived, and none of them proved to be good. So Jeremiah prophesied: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord”.

So Jesus is the new good shepherd, the new king who will rule with love. We may never fully understand Christ the King of Love, for his heavenly love is beyond our understanding. We shall never fully understand the cross in this life; because at the heart of it there is mystery, but we can put our trust in the love that he offers to all of us and we can accept the forgiveness which his great love bought for all of us. And as good subjects we should follow our king’s command, to love God with all our heart and mind and soul, and to love our neighbour as our self. And if we do this, if we put our trust in our king, the Lord Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear, not even death itself. Because our king has lead the way through his own death and resurrection, and we can be confident of joining him as heirs to his heavenly kingdom.

Jesus Christ is the centre of our faith, and he is God’s only Son who has achieved salvation for us. So, in these difficult and uncertain times, when we hear of wars, terrorists and insurrections, and hear scares of financial hardships, we need not be terrified; because we have Christ as our King and Saviour, and his love and promises will last for ever.

Yours is the majesty, O Lord our God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yours is the kingdom and the power; Yours be the glory now and for evermore.

AMEN.

Bible Sunday 2019

Brian Reader

Today is Bible Sunday, and many of you will know that the Bible has been on the best sellers list for ages. But just suppose, for the moment, that there was no Bible, it just didn’t exist. Put your hand up if you think that without the Bible the world would be a much poorer place. How could our church exist without the Bible? And that’s the whole point.

Without the Bible it would be difficult to worship God not just because the Bible shows us what God is like but also because most of our hymns are based on Scripture. So there would be no need for a choir!

There is no other book that can speak more powerfully into our lives than the Bible. So it would be very difficult to hear from God. Without the Bible it would be difficult to learn anything about God or to make any sense about why we are in this world, or the meaning of life. It would also be difficult to know whether what anybody else says about God is true.

Many people choose to live their lives without a Bible, they may have access to one, but it stays in the cupboard or on the shelf. They feel they don’t need it in their lives! They have it all worked out. It’s just another book which perhaps they may get round to reading one day! I hope you are not one of those people. There are also others, who through ignorance, indifference, or their own religious beliefs, choose never to read the Bible. But for millions of people they have no choice. Through barriers of illiteracy, language or religious persecution, they have no access to the Bible.

Do you have a Bible? How often do you read it? Daily? Weekly? Have your children, and grandchildren ever seen you reading your Bible?

We are fortunate that we have the privilege to hear and read the Good News, not only in our own language but also in the comfort of knowing that we can do this freely – in the open – with no risk of arrest or imprisonment. And if we have a problem, we can ask and receive help. But are we really interested in hearing and reading what God wants to say to us? In the Gospel passage today we hear what God’s message is about.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”
Luke 4:16-24

It was a statement made by Jesus in the synagogue and was as controversial then as it is now. He was telling everyone that He has come to restore what has been lost. To put things back where they belong! On one level, Jesus is insisting that those who want to follow Him should give back what they have taken dishonestly, and redistribute wealth so that those living in poverty can be ‘released’ from the economic ‘chains’ which bind them. On another level, He is making the point that He wants to bring release to those who are feeling isolated because of emotional hurt and physical problems. He wants to bring FREEDOM to all. Most importantly, He wants to restore a relationship that has been lost, the relationship between ourselves and God the Father.

If I were to blindfold someone and ask them to go and make me a cup of tea, they would not be able to do it. Why? Because they wouldn’t be able to see – they need help – someone to guide them – to issue instructions on where to walk, when to go upstairs, where the kettle is etc. It’s the same with the Bible. Without it we cannot know how God wants to set us and our communities free to be the people He wants us to be. We cannot know of the love and mercy of God for ourselves and others. We cannot find out how we are to live our lives. We cannot know how to act to those around us.

Those who have translated the Bible have done us an incredible service and have helped to look for ways for people to understand it. By translating it into our own language we are able to find freedom; Freedom from fear, pain and addiction. We are able to find forgiveness, to find that we are loved, and to find the courage to face the future.

By reading the Bible we are able to find peace of mind, and liberation from the tyranny of sin and death, so that we are free to enjoy eternal life with God. But if we do read the Bible and if we who know of God’s love and mercy do not extend that information to others, then we will be poorer for it and, worse still, guilty of withholding the most precious gifts of God, from the very people who need them.

Now I have had days when reading the Bible, I would skip reading the passage for the day because I knew the story. The familiar ones, which get repeated every year; the author may be different but the story is almost the same. Then, one day it dawned on me that I was missing God’s opportunity to speak to me and for me to hear what He was trying to say to me. The more times I read the same passage, the more I got out of it, and more often than not something different each time. Each time something unexpected was learnt, or something unfamiliar heard. Suddenly, a word or two would leap off the page and strike me in a new way and lead me to an encounter with God and on a journey I had never thought possible. When that happens, in that split second, the living God who breathes through the words of scripture is there with us in that moment and the scriptures are fulfilled in our hearing. But it doesn’t happen if the Bible stays on the shelf or sits in the cupboard or alongside the TV Guide.

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope. May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our LORD Jesus Christ.
Romans 15:1-6

Today is Bible Sunday, a day when we recognise the importance of the word of scripture in defining who we are as a community of faith. Today, like Paul writing to the Romans, we acknowledge that this collection of writings that we know as the Bible, some written over 2000 years ago is for our instruction, our encouragement and to give us a sure hope. I believe that when you take the scriptures and you read them regularly and pray them passionately, you find that what you get is not certainty but possibility; what you get is not always answers but questions that leave you longing for more; what you get is not definite direction but a compelling call to go deeper into the mystery of this always new and very surprising God; what you get is not grounds for self-justification but the reality of a God who embraces our human vulnerability and sinfulness and who in living, dying and rising again opened the door to life in all its fullness.

Today and every day we are called to follow the pattern of the living Word. Today and every day we are called to read and pray so that the word of God will become so familiar that the ears of our hearts may be tuned to listen for the unfamiliar and the unexpected. There will of course be days when the words of scripture will stay fixed and lifeless on the page; when there’s no sign of movement. We too, will experience times when the light of dawn seems far away and the night seems endless. But as we journey forward each day with the risen Christ, we will be able to keep believing, and see the scriptures being fulfilled in our time. – for it is the reality of the living God who dwells amongst us in the Word made flesh.

A poem whose author is unknown:

They lie on the table side by side,
The Holy Bible and the TV Guide.
One is well worn and cherished with pride.
Not the Bible, but the TV Guide.

One is used daily to help folk decide.
No, not the Bible, but the TV Guide.
As the pages are turned, what shall they see?
Oh, what does it matter, turn on the TV.
So they open the book in which they confide.
No, not the Bible, but the TV Guide.

The Word of God is seldom read.
Maybe a verse before they fall into bed.
Exhausted and sleepy and tired as can be.
Not from reading the Bible, from watching TV.

So then back to the table side by side,
Lie the Holy Bible and the TV Guide.
No time for prayer, no time for the Word,
The plan of Salvation is seldom heard.
But forgiveness of sin, so full and free,
is found in the Bible, not on TV.

Blessed Lord, who caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: help us so to hear them, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word, we may embrace and for ever hold fast the hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.
AMEN

14th Sunday of Trinity 2019

Brian Reader

What should be made of our readings for today, what are they trying to tell us? They all seem to be pointing in different directions. Firstly, I think we should consider the Gospel reading from Luke:

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Luke 16:1-13

Some have thought that Jesus was condoning sharp practice in Business, but Jesus was not applauding fraud; he was telling a story where the master was commending his steward because he acted cleverly, not because he acted dishonestly. How can we sort all this out? The first thing to do is to understand how the story works. It would seem that the master in the story had himself been acting in a somewhat underhand manner. Jews were forbidden to lend money for interest, but many people got round this by lending in kind, with oil and wheat being easy commodities to use for this purpose. It is likely that what the steward deducted from the bill was the interest that the master had been charging, with a higher rate on oil than on wheat. If he reduced the loan in each case to the basic sum that had been lent, the debtors would be delighted, but the master could not then bring a charge against the steward without owning up to his own shady business practices. Thus, when the master heard about it, he could only admire the man’s clever approach. We know, as many lottery winners have discovered, that money can’t buy true friendship. This manager decided that by helping his master’s debtors, he would at least put them under an obligation to himself. He ‘made friends’, by writing off their debt; and his action recalls in part, the ancient Hebrew law of Jubilee when every fifty years debts were cancelled.

We should remember that the best that any of us can be or become is one of the ‘friends of Jesus’. He calls you to be his friend, and writes off all that you owe. He promises aid whenever you need it – all with no strings attached, and also gives us  – to each other – for ever.

But we should also realise, that the story is a parable, and not just a piece of moral teaching about money, and how or how not to use it. We are faced with a first-century Jewish story about a master and a steward, so we should realise that the master is God; and the steward is Israel. Israel is supposed to be God’s property manager, the light of God’s world, responsible to God and set over his possessions. But Israel – as can be seen in so much of Luke – has failed in the task, and is under threat of imminent dismissal. What then ought Israel to do? The Pharisees’ answer was to pull the regulations of the law even tighter, to try to make Israel more holy. But this had the effect that they were excluding the very people that Jesus was trying to reach. Jesus, in this parable, indicates that if Israel is facing a major crisis the answer is rather to throw caution to the winds, to forget the extra bits and pieces of law which the Pharisees have heaped up, and to make friends as and where they can. That’s what ‘the children of this world’ would do, and ‘the children of light’- that is the Israelites, ought to do so as well, learning from the cunning people of the world how to cope in the crisis that was coming.

Hear this, you who trample the needy and do away with the poor of the land, saying, “When will the New Moon be over that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath be ended that we may market wheat?”- skimping on the measure, boosting the price and cheating with dishonest scales, buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, selling even the sweepings with the wheat. The LORD has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done.”

Amos 8:4-7

The reading from Amos is also warning about unfair trading and social injustice. To have good law and justice in a country you must have a good government to make those laws and then see that they are obeyed. Amos is advocating that the Jewish state return to the teachings of the prophets and obey the laws that God gave them so that they would prosper as the people of God. I think that today, when we look around at the problems in our country, many of us feel that our Parliament, as a whole, has let us down very badly.

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle – I am telling the truth, I am not lying – and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles.

1 Timothy 2:1-7

In the reading from the epistle, Paul is giving Timothy instruction about how to be a good pastor, and his teaching on prayer goes straight to the point. It is normal to pray for those close to us, but in this passage he strongly urges that we should start, as it were, at the other end. We should pray for the people who hold the world together by their rule, leadership and authority.  A few years ago people were more or less happy with our democratic institutions, and our system of government. We voted every few years, we answered opinion polls from time to time, and we had a sense that we lived in a free society. Are you aware that since the reign of Charles II, prayers are said before each day of parliamentary business? The Speaker’s Chaplain usually reads the prayer:

“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed.”

You may not be surprised to hear, considering their recent actions, that in January of this year, some MPs have called for an end to the practice of holding prayers in parliament before the start of official business. This motion, backed by the National Secular Society, says “religious worship should not play any part in the formal business of the House of Commons”. And we think we are in a Christian country!

I remember that not so long ago, in every Anglican service there was a prayer for the Queen, but just not the queen but for all those in authority under her; this included all those in government, national and local, the armed forces, police and civil servants. When I was in the Royal Air Force, I liked that prayer because I felt it was also for me. I held the Queen’s Commission and I was part of all those ‘in authority under her’. That prayer was not just for the Queen but for the good governance of all in our country. We rarely hear it today!

Many Christians who were reasonably content with their country have been tempted to think that praying for kings and governments is a rather boring, a conformist thing to do. It looked like propping up the status quo. But now we have an unstable government, unable to find solutions to current problems and tending to divide rather than unite the country. We have knife and drug crime rife amongst our young, an under-resourced police force, a judiciary who appear weak, and there are other injustices affecting the less able and weak in our society. Our tackling of climate change and pollution can be said to be only half hearted at best.

No, this is not another chapter of Project fear, but a call to action for all Christians. The teaching given to Timothy is correct and just as meaningful now as it was then. Should we not all be joining together and praying for good government on a worldwide scale, for the United Nations and all who seek to influence the rulers of the nations?

This train of thought brings us exactly to the point the Jews had reached in the first century. They had suffered under persecution and unjust rulers for many generations. But they trusted in the one true God, and that God had sent his Son Jesus into the world to act as a ‘mediator between God and humans’. The fact that this view of God is centred upon Jesus, who died as a ransom for the sins of the whole world, means that the news of this one God, this one Saviour, must now go out and spread into all the world.

As so often in the New Testament, the call to prayer is also the call to think clearly about God and the world, and God’s project for the whole human race. Try praying for your rulers instead, and watch not only what God will do in your society but also how your own attitudes will grow, change and mature. So, if we want Justice for all, if we want a better government, if we want the best outcome from the current situation, if we want to see our nation united and thriving again in the future, then we had better start praying for it now.

“Oh Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, we are in a mess. Grant to all those responsible for our government, both in this country and to those who speak for the European Union, the wisdom and the guidance of your Spirit, that they may reach solutions which benefits all and brings the unity and wellbeing for which we all long; For yours is the kingdom and the power; and to yours be the glory now and for evermore.”

AMEN

11th Sunday after Trinity 2019

Come to the party!

Brian Reader

Proverbs 25:6 – 7; Ps 112; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

A very good morning to you all on this the 11th Sunday of Trinity, or as Veronica has renamed it “Back to school Sunday”.

I am very pleased to be back with you today because last Sunday Jean and I were worshipping at Holy Trinity Church in Broadstairs, in the church where I was both christened and confirmed. Veronica would have appreciated the service as lots of incense was used.

We were there to celebrate the 80th Birthday of my sister-in-law, and it was a big family gathering and a party. To find a theme for the address for today is fairly straight forward as the short reading from Proverbs points directly to the Gospel from St Luke, which itself links in with the family party.

Did you know that Luke’s gospel has more mealtime scenes than all the others? If Luke’s vision of the Christian life, from one point of view, is a journey, then from another point of view it’s a party. Several stories end with a festive meal – like, for instance, the parable of the prodigal son which is in the next chapter of Luke. All these themes come together in the Last Supper and, finally, the reported meal at the end of the journey along the road to Emmaus.

In this chapter Luke has brought together two parables about feasting. The first we heard this morning, is not always recognized as a parable, because it looks simply like a piece of social advice, a piece of practical wisdom. So if you want to avoid embarrassment in front of your fellow guests, then follow this tip. But Jesus didn’t come to offer good advice; and often his own conduct seemed calculated to cause embarrassment. In any case, Luke tells us it’s a parable; in other words, we ought to expect it to have at least a double meaning.

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched… When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honour, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honoured in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

What is Jesus really talking about? The rest of the chapter makes it clear that he’s talking about the way in which people of his day were jostling for position in the eyes of God. They were, so it appeared to him, eager to push themselves forward, to show how well they were keeping the law, not to benefit others, but to maintain their own purity. They were precisely the sort of people he now found himself with, people who would watch for any sign of irregularity, even frowning upon actions, such as Jesus’ healing a man on the Sabbath; which they would have accepted on any other day but not the Sabbath. And Jesus, throughout this section of Luke, is turning things upside down. He is associating with the wrong kind of people. He is touching the untouchable and going out of his way to speak to the nobodies.

The parable, then, isn’t so much good advice for social occasions – although there is a very practical human wisdom in the warning against pride and arrogance. No! The real meaning is to be found in the warning against pushing oneself forward in the sight of God. In Jesus’ day it was all too easy for the well-off and the legally trained to imagine that they were superior in God’s sight to the poor, and to those without the opportunity to study, let alone practise, the law. And even today, this is a trap that Clerics, Readers, and all other Christians can fall into.

At the same time, in the world for which Luke was writing, there would also be another wider meaning. Within Luke’s lifetime thousands of non-Jews had become Christians – they had entered, as you might say, into the dinner party prepared by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Many Jewish Christians, as we know from Acts, had found this difficult, if not impossible, to understand or approve. They were so eager to maintain their own places at the top table, that they could not grasp God’s great design to stand the world on its head.

Pride, notoriously, is the great cloud which blots out the sun of God’s generosity. If I reckon that I deserve to be favoured by God, not only do I declare that I don’t need his grace, mercy and love, but I also imply, that those who I think don’t deserve it, shouldn’t have it. Jesus spent his whole life breaking through that cloud and bringing the fresh, healing sunshine of God’s love to those in its shadow. The Pharisees could watch Jesus all they liked, but the power, both of his healings, and of his explanations, was too strong for them. The small-mindedness which pushes itself forward and leaves others behind, is confronted with the large-hearted love of God. All Christians are called to the same healthy dependence on God’s love, and should have the same generosity in sharing it with those in need.

The last two verses are linked more with the next passage, but still have a message for us. Bishop Tom Wright, who has written many good commentaries on the Gospels said, that once, many years ago, he preached a sermon on this passage. He emphasized the extraordinary way in which Jesus tells his hearers to do something that must have been as puzzling then as it is now. Don’t invite friends, relatives and neighbours to dinner – invite the poor and the disabled. The sermon had a strange effect. In the course of the next week he and his wife received dinner invitations from no fewer than three people who had been in church that day. The Bishop didn’t know which category of guest he was in and he was too polite – or afraid – to ask. This time it looks as if the passage is real advice. The parable of the supper, which immediately follows, is a parable all right, but Jesus really seems to have intended his hearers to take literally his radical suggestion about who to invite to dinner parties.

Social conditions have changed. Once it was easier when people lived in small villages in which everyone knows everyone else’s business, when meals are eaten with the doors open and people wander to and fro at will, but now in many parts of the world this has changed and it may seem harder to put it into practice. Many Christians would have to try quite hard to find poor and disabled people to invite to a party – although you will know some who do just that.

But nobody can use the difference in circumstances as an excuse for ignoring the sharp edge of Jesus’ demand. In particular, they cannot ignore it in the light of the parable that follows. You will remember the story about people who very rudely snub the invitation to a splendid party. They make excuses of the usual kind. The householder, having gone to all the trouble of organizing and paying for a lavish feast, is determined to have guests at his table, even if he has to find them in unconventional locations. The original guests have ruled themselves out, and others have come in to take their place. Once again the invited and expected guests are the Jews, waiting and waiting for the kingdom, only to find, when it arrived, that they had more pressing things to occupy them.

Of course, in Luke’s day many Jews had become Christians. But the majority of the nation, both in Palestine and in the scattered Jewish communities in the rest of the world, were not. Instead, (as it must have seemed to those first Jewish Christians), God’s messengers had gone out into the roads and hedgerows of the world, getting all kinds of unexpected people to join in the party. Not just Gentiles, but people with every kind of moral and immoral background, people quite different from them culturally, socially, ethnically and ethically.

But there is a another twist to this parable, because it bends back, as it were, on itself, returning to the challenge which Jesus gave in those last verses. The party to which the original guests were invited was Jesus’ kingdom-movement, his remarkable welcome to all and sundry. If people wanted to be included in Jesus’ movement, this is the sort of thing they were joining.

Once again, therefore, the challenge comes to us today. Christians, reading this anywhere in the world, must work out in their own churches and families what it would mean to celebrate God’s kingdom so that the people at the bottom of the pile, at the end of the line, would find it to be good news. It isn’t enough to say that we ourselves are the people dragged in from the country lanes, to our surprise, to enjoy God’s party. That may be true; but as those of you who have done an Alpha course, or experienced a Cursillo weekend will know, party guests are then expected to become party hosts in their turn.

Jesus is asking you to invite non-Christians to come in and share His party, to share, His love, His joy and His forgiveness which is available to all.

AMEN

First Sunday after Trinity 2019

Brian Reader

Luke 8:26-39

As you may have realized, I have been away from Bollington over the last two Sundays, but I have not missed Church. While I was away I realised that I have been a Lay Reader for 24 years…

was played on the organ by Jennifer (and those who knew the words joined in!)

This is really quite an achievement because I remember our team Rector saying before he agreed to the start of my training at the age of 61 “Well I suppose we might get two or three years out of you!” Why have I mentioned this? Well today’s Gospel story is well known. As well as appearing in Luke, there are similar stories in both Mathew (8.28-34) and Mark (5.1-20). Yet when studying the text and the various commentaries, I learnt something new. It does not matter how old you are, or how long you have been doing something, you can always learn something new if you approach it with an open mind.

The story is set on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, or Lake Tiberias. The lake is not very large, only about 13 miles long, and 8 miles wide, so I had assumed that in Jesus’ time all the people around the lake would have been Jews. This was not the case, as along the western edge of the lake was part of the Decapolis, a group of ten cities on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire in what is now Jordan. The Decapolis was a centre of Greek and Roman culture in a region which was otherwise populated by the Jewish people and that was the reason they were breeding pigs.

But back to the Gospel story. Jesus had chosen to cross over on to foreign soil, perhaps to escape the immediate pressure of travelling around under the nose of Herod Antipas. There was, however, to be no peace there either. This violent man, possessed, it seems, by a multitude of spirits, at once confronts him and fills the air with screaming and yelling. The disciples must have wanted to get straight back in the boat and head for home again. Jesus remains calm before this human storm, as he had before with the wind and the waves on the lake. The same quiet authority will deal with the one as with the other. The man was wild and had almost superhuman strength; today he would probably be diagnosed with melancholic mania. He was certainly in mental torment, but Jesus was stronger than his whole regiment of demons. Jesus needed some visible demonstration of his cure and when the pigs were stampeded by his cries Jesus said, ‘There go your demons’.

There’s an ironic twist in the story; because the demons ask to enter the pigs and the pigs then rushed headlong into the sea; at the time, there was a popular superstition that the sea was the abode of condemned spirits. Now the story contrasts the well-being of man with that of the pigs and their owners; but the pigs’ drowning raises some awkward questions: was it right to take the men’s livelihood away? Were the men more worried about the money than about the animals? Did the pigs matter more than the man? Is business profit and the economy more important than the well-being of animals? The townspeople asked Jesus to leave, but were they afraid of such obvious divine power, or of the threat to their businesses, or because they just didn’t want to be disturbed?

We may have our own views but we cannot be sure of all the answers. It’s very sad that the only time that he came to them they asked him to go away. Jesus is then very careful not to do anything which might antagonize the Roman Authorities in the future. But Luke’s focus in telling this story is on the man himself, and, as always, on Jesus. For Luke, what has happened to this man isn’t just a remarkable healing; it is ‘salvation’. The salvation which God promised long ago, is now becoming evident in Jesus and his mission. It has already reached many in Israel, and it is now starting to spread further afield. The man, quite understandably, wants to be allowed to stay with Jesus. Not only is he now bonded to him by the astonishing rescue he has experienced; but he may well assume that things would not be easy back in his home territory, where everyone knew the tragic tale of his recent life. There might be considerable reluctance to take him back as a member of his family or the village. He would have to stand up and take responsibility for himself; he couldn’t rely on being able, as it were, to hide behind Jesus. Luke reserves the real point of the story to the last few words. ‘Go home,’ says Jesus, ‘and tell them what God has done for you.’

Just as from Israel’s earliest experience, deliverance always precedes commandment, so this healing comes before the commission; now that he has set you free and you are in your right mind: go and tell the others. And the man goes off and tells everyone what Jesus has done for him, and in doing so he becomes the first apostle to the Gentiles. Luke is not offering us, or not yet, any formula, or carefully worked-out doctrine, of how ‘God was in Christ’. At the moment it is simply something people discover in their own experience: what Jesus does, God does. Or, to put it the other way round, if you want to tell people what God has done, tell them what Jesus has done.

The best brains in two thousand years of Christianity have struggled to find adequate words to explain how this can be; but it is a truth known to many,
at a level too deep for mere theory, from the moment they discover God’s saving power in the person and work of Jesus. Jesus will not run from any danger or turn away from anyone. Jesus showed that he was stronger than a whole regiment of demons. He waits patiently for you to come to him, waits to set you free from all that troubles you, and give you peace.

Find the peace that Jesus alone can give, and go and tell others, of what God, through Jesus, can do for them.

AMEN

6th Sunday of Easter 2019

Brian Reader

Acts 16: 9- 15; Rev 21: 10, 22 to 22: 5; Ps 67; John 14: 23-29.

Now this may seem a strange question but bear with me, it does have relevance. Does anyone remember this? [played on the organ by Jenny]

It is one of the Beatles hits which was released as a single 1967, over half a century ago.
I first preached on these readings back in 2004 – fifteen years ago, and I played a recording of the first part of the song. Then I was able to ask – How many of you remember the Beatles? But now perhaps I might have to ask a younger generation, have any of you heard of the Beatles? The lyrics were:

Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done

Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
It’s easy
Nothing you can make that can’t be made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
It’s easy
All you need is love
All you need is love

Today is the last Sunday before the Jesus’ Ascension into Heaven. After His resurrection, Jesus had to remind his disciples what he had taught them about God and Himself. Now in today’s Gospel reading from St John, Jesus is trying to prepare them for what is about to happen. “I’ve told you this ahead of time, before it happens, so that when it does happen, it will deepen your belief in me.” It will also give them a better understanding of His love. In another translation, the passage starts: “If anyone loves me, he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him.” If you read John’s Gospel, you will see that just before this passage, Jesus is talking a lot about love. Hence my being reminded of the old Beatles hit.

All you need is love. But is that true? Yes, if that love is for God and for our neighbours as Jesus commanded. Yes, if it is the selfless love that a parent should have for a child and a child for their parents, then it is good and honourable.

Regrettably, in today’s permissive world, with all the media and peer pressures put upon us, love is more likely to be selfish or just plain lust. So it is not surprising that David Shepherd, who as Bishop of Liverpool, the home of the Beatles, said, when speaking on permissiveness and human love – “If I was clever enough and good enough it would be all right to say, ‘Love is all you need’, but because I am neither clever enough, nor good enough, there is a need for signposts (or rules) to show that it is not the loving thing to go down (some) particular paths.”

And Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”
What is Jesus’ word? It is His teaching and His commandments which we can read in the Bible. To sum up the whole message of the Gospel: Belief in and love of God, means belief in and love of Jesus. For St John the two are inseparable. There is no adequate faith in God apart from faith in Jesus.

At the time of Christ’s passion, the disciples were worried and upset by the talk of His betrayal and the thought of Jesus leaving them. Jesus himself knew the effect his death had on them all. And so He is trying to explain and to get them to understand why it has to happen; that the time was coming when Jesus would no longer be physically present with them. However, His return to God will be for their good: it will bring a new power for action, together with a new certainty in prayer. If Jesus is to leave them, how can He be the ‘way’ to God when He is no longer there? The answer lies in the two successors to Jesus’ ministry named in this chapter.

One successor is the Holy Spirit. Jesus promises the disciples that they will not be left ‘orphaned’; he will send a ‘Helper’ , a ‘comforter’ or a ‘Counsellor’ for them – the Holy Spirit. The resurrection of Jesus will bring not only the promise of eternal life for the believers, but also his living presence through the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit will help the disciples remember and apply Jesus’ teachings to life after His ascension and give them the courage to endure the persecutions which will follow. And two weeks ago Anne spoke of the persecutions which are still taking place in the world today. Best of all, the Holy Spirit will come to be with them always and everywhere (not limited by a physical body as Jesus had been). The Spirit will teach and counsel and bring to mind all that Jesus has said. And Jesus’ own unshakeable peace will be theirs.

But there is a second successor, the church. With the promise comes a commission. Jesus promises that those who believe in him will “do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these”. So Christians can continue Jesus’ work. ‘Greater things’ does not mean more spectacular – it would be hard to outdo the resurrection! But the world-wide mission of the church does take the ministry of Jesus far beyond the bounds of His earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit is the power for this ministry. And our contribution lies in obeying Jesus and his teaching. Love of Christ and obedience are tied intimately together in this passage.

For all those who follow him, Jesus offers his ‘peace’. Note: the peace that Jesus offers his disciples is not the peace of an easy life. It is the peace of the obedient servant who has the full confidence and support of his master, and who carries out his commission effectively and joyfully.

With His death Jesus made the approach-road for men and women to come to God. His resurrection enables His return to the Father, and His ascension enables Him to get a permanent home ready for his disciples, and in due course he will come again for them. And we are included in that promise if we follow Him as His disciples today. We have seen that as disciples, we must continue to love and trust Jesus Christ. And the way we can show our love is to do all that he says and commands.

As we have seen, the Beatles’ phrase ‘All you need is love’ is not enough. It also requires prayerful action, commitment and courage to follow Christ. In the Beatles song we hear – ‘It’s easy, love is all you need’. But Jesus never said it would be easy, or without hardship, for the Christians who follow Him, but we know that with the help of the Holy Spirit all things are possible. Jesus’ ascension, His returning to the Father is the culmination, the completion of Jesus’ work as a man here on earth. It is the crowning of the Easter story – Hallelujah!

2nd Sunday of Easter 2019

Brian Reader

Acts 5:27-32 / Ps: 150/ Rev 1:4-8 / John 20:19-31 /

Today is sometimes known as Low Sunday, after all the excitement of Easter Sunday. It is also a time when Cathedral choirs are away on holiday. This is good, because it allows good parish choirs to fulfil the role of relief choir in a cathedral setting, and I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to sing with relief choirs at Bury St. Edmund’s, Gloucester Cathedral, and twice at St. David’s.

So what impact did this Easter have on you? For me it surprised me in a number of different ways; ways I did not expect and ways I did not choose.

Firstly there was the Lent group, movingly centred on the book ‘The Nail’, some portions of which Veronica used in the services leading up to Easter. It was a good Lent course as it made us realise that through our sins, we all had a responsibility for nailing Jesus to the cross. But it wasn’t nails that held him to the cross – it was His love for us. And then last Sunday we had our Easter services to celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection, and we met the risen Lord at the communion table. In the past I can remember waking up on Easter morning to find snow covering the daffodils. But not this year; Easter was late and we had fine weather! The daffodils may have faded, but the bluebells were out and the trees had a good covering of new leaves. For those of you who made the early Easter service it was magical. The sky was clear with an almost full moon and a couple of pink contrails crossing the dark blue sky; with the dawn chorus in almost full throat. Even the weather was warm and we didn’t really need the blazing fire, as we filed into a dark church with our candles burning. If you have never been to one of Veronica’s early Easter services, I certainly recommend it, as it is an experience never to be forgotten. And the 10.30 service was also memorable. We had a double Christening, and multiple Christenings at Easter used to be a feature of the early Church.

Today’s reading, taken from St. John’s Gospel, is part of the continuing resurrection story. Jesus appears in a locked room to some, but not to all the disciples, and he commissions them. “Just as my Father sent me, I send you.” But Thomas, the twin, was not there, and when they told him that they had seen the Master, he said that he would not believe unless he too could see the marks of the crucifixion on His Lord. Poor Thomas, nicknamed ‘doubting’ for the rest of time.

Why did he doubt; why is this story recorded? Just imagine if this had been a communist story, or even the report of an event or a meeting by a modern political party, would they have written anything about anyone possibly having doubts? Most unlikely. This part of the story would receive spin, it would be glossed over, or edited out. But some doubting is normal, it is not improper, unless it is hidden and not faced and overcome. So why was this bit about doubting Thomas recorded, and why did Matthew also record that some doubted? Well the Gospel writers would not have made it up, so it can be regarded as true. And if the doubting is true, then all the other resurrection eye witness reports can also be taken as true.

Back in 2004 there was a lot of hoo-ha about the film – ‘The passion of the Christ’. I saw the film, with all the gore and violence, and I think it gave me a better understanding of Christ’s love and the suffering He endured for me, for you, and for the whole world. We know that Pilate was pressurised by the Jewish priests but as the Roman governor, he was very happy to use their false accusations to rid himself of a possible trouble maker. Christ who came teaching love and justice for all, was put to death unjustly because of the fear and hatred of a powerful few. One thing that the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’ forcibly recalled to mind, was the great trauma that the two Marys and all the disciples felt as events unfolded leading up to the flogging and terrible death of their beloved Master.

Would I have denied Christ like Peter? Probably. Why stick out and be another victim when all you have worked for and believed in is being swept aside, rejected, and nullified before your very eyes? They did not know that he was to return, to make all things new, to gladden the heart and stiffen the sinew. He tried to tell them, but they just didn’t understand. Yet return to life He did. Risen in a new body which they failed to recognised till he spoke their name, broke bread in thanksgiving, or said “Peace be with you.” He also taught them afresh about himself – as the Son of God, and of God His Father, and He spoke of the Holy Spirit, who would come to fire them up for their work in the days to come.

Tom Wright, who was the Bishop of Durham, has said that “there is little justification for being a Christian unless one accepts that the Resurrection is a matter of historical fact.” In his TV programme ‘Resurrection’, he took an historical journey to the places where Jesus lived and died, in an attempt to build up a picture of what really happened in Jerusalem some 2000 years ago. He showed that the cross was not the end – NO, that was just the beginning.

The Resurrection that followed was an event of cataclysmic proportions which changed the way mankind viewed life and death for ever. The resurrection rejuvenated the grieving disciples. It galvanised the young Church which spread the Gospel through the eastern world like wildfire. It gave a faith in Jesus Christ by which, men and women were prepared to live their lives, and if – as was sometimes necessary – a faith to die for.

This is our faith, and yet we too sometimes doubt just like Thomas. He was able to see and feel the wounds inflicted on Jesus, and we can’t. We can’t prove there is a God in any scientific way, yet we can prove that Christ did live, that he was crucified unjustly for our sins, and that he did rise again. And Jesus tells us through his disciples and scriptures, that if we have seen Him, (or know Him as our personal saviour) then we have seen and know God the Father. And so we can believe with our minds and have faith, but we also need to trust with our hearts and reach out for His ever forgiving love.

He said, “Peace be with you.” So cast your doubts away, Jesus lives, Hallelujah!

Third Sunday of Lent 2019

Brian Reader

Isaiah 55.1-9; Ps63.1-9; 1 Corinthians 10.1-13; Luke 13.1-9

“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on him, and to God, for he will abundantly pardon”

I remember using those sentences from our first reading from Isaiah to open Evening Pray in Wrexham, and I believe them to be very appropriate for today, the Third Sunday of Lent. While the Old Testament lesson is of good news, the epistle and Gospel are much darker in tone.

Let us consider the passage from Isaiah, which at first reading, does not appear to make much sense in today’s world. Who’s ever known anyone going to a super market to buy food without money or a credit card? It is unthinkable. In fact when I compared the Lent Lunch we enjoyed last Thursday to a ‘feast without price’, Veronica was very quick to remind us that there was a basket for donations for the ‘New Kitchen Fund’. So why, and for whom was the passage written? First a bit of explanation. Many theologians reckon that the Book of Isaiah is made up of three books, not just one, and that this passage is most of the final hymn of the portion of the Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55). It dates from the sixth century B.C.E., at the dawn of Persian rule, and it is encouraging exiles living outside of Judah to uproot themselves, and return to a land their generation had never known, so that they could reclaim their ancestral home. Although it was a real event in an earthly world, the Babylonian exile of the Jews was portrayed in Scripture with such moving imagination that later readers saw in it much more than history. It describes in eloquent poetry a practical return from exile in such spiritual terms that it came to be read as describing the spiritual journey of every believer from their various exiles returning to their home in God. To reinforce this, Second Isaiah talks about, the journey: to reclaim the legacy of Abraham and Sarah; to re-enact the exodus from Egypt so many centuries before; and to live out Israel’s role as God’s own creation.

Here in chapter 55 the poet imagines repatriation as welcome to a bountiful feast of satisfying foods, hosted by none other than God. The image of Judah’s land as one “flowing with milk and honey” is implicit in this invitation. So what did people have to do so that they could receive God’s bounty? They must thirst. In other words they must want God’s grace.

Those who are satisfied with the world and its enjoyments, and do not seek for happiness in the favour of God, and those that rely upon the merit of their own works, and see no need for Christ and his righteousness, they don’t thirst. They have no sense of their need. These are not worried about the fate of their souls, and see no reason to seek and follow Christ.

But those that thirst are invited to the waters, as those that labour, and are heavy-laden, are invited to Christ for rest. Note, Where God gives grace, he first gives a thirsting for it; and, where he has given a thirsting for it, he will then give His Grace. For those of you still wondering about food and drink, bread and wine, without money, well these are heavenly gifts that have already been paid for by Christ on the cross.

Moving on, instead of these images of great abundance in Isaiah and in our Psalm, our gospel lesson from Luke has a contrasting image of scarcity. In our gospel lesson, Jesus told a story about a landowner who was concerned about a fig tree that wasn’t growing figs (which is what a fig tree is supposed to do). The landowner wanted to chop the tree down right there and then, but the gardener suggested the tree be given a bit more time, a bit more cultivation, a bit more fertiliser, and a bit more work. The desired result, of course, was for the tree to produce fruit, for the tree to come up with the figs. Jesus then left the story open-ended. We never heard whether the tree came up with the figs, or whether it was cut down a year later. The moral of this little story is that we too are expected to produce fruit, the fruits of the Spirit. In any event, we have this contrast between passages about celebrating abundance and a passage about coping with scarcity.

In our epistle Paul begins his passage on temptation by issuing a series of warnings to the Corinthians on the dangers that might befall the believer through the temptations of this world. And he uses God’s people in the wilderness of the Old Testament as their example. These were people who had claimed the covenant promises of God! They had witnessed God’s presence! They had a visible mark of the presence of God in their midst. By day He led them by a cloud, and by night by a pillar of fire! They had first-hand knowledge of God’s deliverance! They had witnessed the Red Sea being parted, so that they could cross over on dry land! They had the sign and seal of God’s love. They had all been ‘baptised under the cloud’ and had enjoyed the blessing of having a great leader – Moses! They were set apart for God’s service, and they had been called to be servants of God, within His chosen people. They enjoyed spiritual refreshment and sustenance, and through their wilderness journey the Lord had been the source of their meat and drink. Despite all that God had done for them, they rebelled, and God withdrew His blessing from them.

Is it not the same today? Think of all that the Lord has done for us as individual believers and as members of His Church! Have we not been unfaithful and is the church of today, not guilty of backsliding? What lessons can be learnt?

The Israelites were redeemed, they were brought out of slavery, but they were tempted, and they yielded to that temptation and became disobedient to God! Because of their disobedience, God prevented most of them from entering the Promised Land, and they perished in the wilderness! How many bright Christians have ‘perished in the wilderness?’ How many have started off serving God and been enthusiastic about His work and His will, and have fallen into temptation and have become disobedient and useless in the Christian call?

Paul gives a very stark warning about being over confident in one’s self. Here is the scenario. There may be one who is religious, who attends at public worship, who lives a decent and, in their eyes – a God fearing life, but what hope do they have for eternity? Their hope rests only on their religion. They think that it will somehow be good enough so that God will overlook whatever little misdemeanours they may have committed. So they depend upon themselves, rather than on the Lord.

You will remember the story that Jesus told about two men who went to the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, and the other was a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, (that in itself is an interesting phrase!) “God, I thank thee that I am not as other men…” and listed how good he thought he was. The publican instead stood a long way off, and hung his head in shame, and asked God, “be merciful to me a sinner.” And Jesus said, ‘I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.’ So we need to be constant in prayer, be subject to God’s Word, be humble before the Lord and depend on God every day.

Paul envisages a situation where a believer might actually manufacture his own stumbling block, by failing to fully rely on the Lord! Paul reminds us that temptation is a COMMON experience! Don’t think that you are the only one who has ever been tempted! No temptation is unique to you; someone else had that very same temptation! That very same thought, desire, suggestion! But God is faithful, and will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are able to resist. God in His sovereignty will not permit you to be tempted any more than you can endure!

This is good news for believers. Remember that God is our father, and He loves us and cares for us! When times of temptation come, whom will we trust! Will we rely on ourselves, or will we rely on the Lord? Will we tackle temptation in our way, or in the Lord’s way? Note that SUBMISSION TO GOD always precedes resistance of the Devil! What is temptation all about? It is about the building of Christian Character! It is the method that God uses to make us spiritually strong. It would not be my way! But then we have learned that self-reliance is sinful! This is God’s way! Sankey, the great hymn writer wrote,

“Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin;
Each victory will help you some other to win;
Fight manfully onward, dark passions subdue,
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.
Shun evil companions, bad language disdain,
God’s name hold in reverence, nor take it in vain;
Be thoughtful and earnest, kind hearted and true,
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.”

The question facing Paul was: will the Corinthians avail themselves, will they accept this God-given way out when they need it? And the question facing us in our increasingly pagan atmosphere of our contemporary world, is: will we put our trust in God and follow him?

YOURS IS THE MAJESTY

Second Sunday before Lent 2019

Brian Reader

Genesis 2.4b-9, 15-f; Revelation 4; Luke 8.22-35

For those of you waiting for the pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, or the start of the big Easter Egg raffle, or for others anticipating the start of a new life style by giving up our naughty indulgences for Lent, well we don’t have much longer to wait.

Today we heard three readings which do not seem to have anything in common. The answer is to be found in the Collect, which is a prayer that is meant to concentrate our thoughts on the theme of the day. ‘Almighty God, you have created the heavens and the earth and made us in your own image: …’
So our thoughts are to be on God as the creator and ruler of all.

The first reading is very much about creation, and those of you who worship on Thursday mornings may remember that Veronica also read this section from Genesis to us on St. Valentine’s Day. Some think that the section from chapter 2 is the second of two differing accounts of creation to be found in Genesis. The first chapter of Genesis describes the “six days of creation”, with a seventh day of rest, while Genesis 2 covers only one day of that creation week and gives more detail of the sixth day, when God made man. There is no contradiction, as in the first chapter, the author of Genesis presents the creation of man on the sixth day as the culmination or high point of creation. Then, in the second chapter, the author gives greater detail regarding the creation of man. Genesis 1 records God creating animal life on the sixth day, before He created man, while in our reading the animals are mentioned after man has been created. On the sixth day, God created the animals, then created man, and then brought the animals to the man, allowing him to name them.

Two interesting points can be made. Firstly that while God made our bodies from the dust of the earth, God breathed his life into us. Thus grace in the soul does not come from the earth, but is the work of a loving God. And secondly, God put man in the Garden of Eden, – not in a palace. God supplied all that man would need in the garden but he had to work – to till it and keep it.

We sometimes forget the words of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, ‘He that will not work, has no right to eat.’ And God also gave us free choice. Man could eat of every tree in the garden except one, but as we all know, humankind did chose to eat of the forbidden tree.

Our second reading was from Revelation. Have you ever thought about how you obtain information and knowledge? Sometimes we have to be taught by another, or work hard over days or months to try and understand something, while at other times we might just get a flash of inspiration. I would suggest that John received a vision or a flash of inspiration just like that. As he looks up into the sky, John sees there before him a door standing open in heaven. A voice beckons him to pass through the door: “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” John is whisked up to heaven where he sees before him a throne with someone sitting on it.


John’s description of what he saw in heaven is, like the rest of the New Testament, true to the classic Jewish principle that “no one has ever seen God”, so he does not name or describe God directly. What John sees is both a throne room and at the same time (because it is God’s throne room) a place of worship. In his day, the prophet Ezekiel saw “a throne of sapphire” and on it “a figure like that of a man”, which he identified as “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord”

To John the throne represents the power and majesty of the one sitting on it, and everything else he sees is described in relation to this central throne. John describes lights and other thrones, and elders, and lightning, and thunder, and blazing lamps, and a crystal sea, and creatures with a multitude of eyes and wings, who continually said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come”. What started as a heavenly tableau unfolding step by step before John’s eyes now becomes a scene of active worship and proclamation.

The use of verbs in the present tense, and the phrase day and night, give the impression that this is no longer something John saw once in a vision, but a ritual in heaven repeating itself over and over again without rest or interruption. The throne is suddenly alive with living creatures hailing and worshiping the anonymous someone seated on it as the Lord God Almighty. The twenty-four elders continually worship this one who lives for ever and ever, laying their crowns in front of the throne and saying, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being”.

What are we to make of this reading? I would suggest that this wonderful vision of John, celebrates creation, with God as the creator. And even as we read his prophecy today, John manages to convey a sense that what he saw is something still going on in heaven, so it probably also points to the new creation to come. We may not fully understand this passage, but as John was told in his first vision, “Do not be afraid”, and we too should heed that advice.

This phrase leads to our Gospel reading. The story should be well known as the passage about Jesus taming the storm on the lake, is contained in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as well as Luke. I don’t know about you but I was very frightened when I was in a small boat in a storm, and if Jesus had been in the boat I would certainly have woken him up! And Jesus would probably have said to me exactly what he asked of the disciples, “Where is your faith?” BUT only after he had calmed the storm. And the disciples realized the truth that their leader, Jesus, could command the winds and waves, and that they obeyed him. They were with the Son of God, who had been there with his father when the world had been created.

So where is our faith? What do we believe?

Some people do not believe in miracles, but I do. I believe that a God who created the world, who sent his Son to redeem the world, and sent his Holy Spirit to work with and uphold the Church, is still very capable of working miracles in our world today. You may say, “Well, I have never seen a miracle.” Miracles aren’t always big. Have you never experienced a coincidence which cannot easily be explained? A near miss, or a chance meeting, or a phone call which changes the course of events? These are times when God is working in secret. Many people have them and we discussed some of them in Faith Hour last week.

Yes! Miracles still happen. You just have to be open to God to see them and accept them.