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Jesus calls fishermen

Sermon 26 January 2020                                                                       Isaiah 9.1-4, Matthew 4.12-23

This week the Davos summit has been in the news, as well of course, as the adventures of Harry and Meghan! I was picking up from the Davos summit that we’re at a kind of tipping point globally, mainly around climate change, but also about how we can manage and regulate an increasingly digital world. There seem to be so many conflicting interests. How far can governments take the lead? What part can big companies play? What, if anything, are we called to do at a local level?

Tipping points are key moments in history. Being alert to signs of the times, as the bible calls them, is part of our calling as we follow Christ. In our gospel reading today we see Jesus’ own alertness.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of waiting at the start of an event, perhaps a race of some kind, waiting for the starting pistol, nearly starting too soon, but knowing you can’t start till the pistol goes off? Then, and only then, do you move. In Matthew and Mark’s gospel the starting pistol for Jesus’ ministry is the arrest and imprisonment of JB. That was the tipping point for him. Reading the signs of the times he senses that this may be the trigger to a whole series of events resulting eventually in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans. He seizes a window of opportunity – or ‘a favourable time’ (kairos) to use bible language. He moves quickly, with an urgency and a clarity of purpose. His strapline is short, urgent, and identical to John’s; ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’. In our OT reading Isaiah recalls an earlier favourable time when Israel had defeated the Midianites, an event leading him to anticipate a similar experience in the future. Matthew is doing the same as he quotes Isaiah’s prophetic hope, but he sees the favourable time as NOW! This is God’s timing. Jesus can now get on and do what he has been anointed to do, and he goes for it!

Matthew further underlines this in the call of the first disciples. Usually pupils chose the rabbi they wanted to follow and then the rabbi would decide whether or not they were suitable pupils. Here Jesus makes the choice; he wastes no time waiting to be chosen. He has spent long days in the desert pondering his call at his baptism, considering what lies ahead and almost certainly considering who might join him. In the light of this he calls these fishermen to follow him.

Following a rabbi was a whole way of life. You lived with them, ate with them, learned with them. The aim was to become exactly like them and do what they did. We see Andrew and the others being invited into this way of life. They couldn’t continue in the family fishing business and be pupils, if you like, of Jesus, though it’s likely that they did some fishing here and there during their time with Jesus.

Why fishermen? Why choose fishermen for those closest to you, those who would ultimately lead the Jesus movement? Why not carpenters, or shepherds, or farmers? As far as I know there are no references in the OT to fishermen being called to anything exalted, or anything at all for that matter. Is this the first sign of God’s upside down kingdom with rather unlikely people holding positions of authority? That may indeed be part of the picture. If so, it’s a reminder that those who might seem unlikely candidates to us can turn out to be a good fit for the calling in question. So, why fishermen?

It’s quite likely that some of them were already followers of John B; in our reading from John’s gospel last Sunday Andrew and Peter were being directed by John B to Jesus. So we might assume that these two anyway were already in sympathy with the announcement about the coming kingdom.

They would have been more available than farmers tied to the land during seasons of sowing and reaping, or shepherds needing to watch over their sheep. They had what we might call transferable skills. Their trading in fish would have brought them into contact with a wider range of people. (There were certainly people from Arabia, Phoenicia and Egypt living in Galilee during Jesus’ time). They were more mobile, and their form of transport – boats – would be very useful in enabling Jesus to move around.

There are also other characteristics of fishermen; they would have been used to working as a team – being attentive to one another, relying on each other, drawing on each other’s strengths, noting when one of them needed help. Their work involved lengthy periods of silent watching and waiting together, punctuated by great physical activity. They had stamina, resilience, patience. They could read the weather.

Now Jesus is calling them to draw on these strengths, but with a different catch in view. How do we feel about Jesus calling them to fish for people? They used nets rather than hooks! Nets catch more fish than hook and line. The time has come, people will be responding to Jesus’ message; perhaps he’s thinking that if these men are used to handling nets full of fish they’ll be ok with crowds?!

So, they may be unlikely in terms of the usual choice of rabbis looking for disciples, but they are a good fit for what Jesus sees lying ahead.

As well as all these reasons for Jesus calling fishermen there is this basic prerequisite of repentance. This message, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is near’ is referred to as good news (v23). Repentance is good news?! This may sound a little odd to us. (Picture of Justin Welby in Amritsar prostrating himself as a sign of repentance for the massacre carried out by the British in the 19th century). However, the NT understanding of repentance carries with it the idea of turning away from something and towards something/someone else and this is clear in the gospel accounts of those Jesus called – Matthew, Levi, the rich young man, Zacchaeus. There is a physical turning away from, a way of life, a set of habits, so that they are now facing Jesus. They might have had all the right qualifications for being a disciple, but without this radical turnaround they were nowhere. They could not begin the journey. And it was a journey. They did not become model disciples overnight, if ever. As we read the gospels we watch them, not understanding at times, lacking faith, asking dim questions, and then running away when Jesus needs them most.

And even before repentance there was something else. At his baptism Jesus heard the words ‘You are my son, the Beloved’. When Mark records in his gospel Jesus’ conversation with the rich young man he notes that ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him’ (Mark 10.21). I suspect Jesus did the same when he called the first disciples. That look of love he had received, he passed on to his followers. He looked on them and loved them. It’s that gaze of love that draws us towards Jesus and away from patterns of behaviour that diminish our humanity. They could see that he was good news. I wonder if we see Jesus like that?

The disciples were called not only as individuals but also as a working group. It’s the same for us. Individually we turn away from those things, habits maybe or activities or thought patterns that draw us away from God, and consciously turn our faces towards God’s. For most of us this will be a daily activity. We are also called to do this as a group of disciples, as a church. We may want to consider what activities, habits, patterns of thought our church may be invited to turn away from in order to follow Christ more faithfully at this tipping point in our history. What might become less important as we are turned more and more towards Christ? Then, as we remember those strengths Jesus saw in his first disciples we might consider the extent to which we are able to work together. What’s our team work like? Do we work together with some degree of shared consciousness, knowing each other’s gifts, aware of each other’s weak points, attentive to what each of us is doing as our part in a shared undertaking? What is our stamina/resilience like? How good are we at watching and waiting? What resources do we have that may shape what we can offer? What’s our equivalent of the fishermen’s boat? What might be our metaphorical net? How willing are we to share our resources? How flexible are we if, for example, we are faced with a challenge? (eg the disciples faced with 5,000 people needing a meal miles from nowhere!)

Our calling, whether individually or as a church changes over time. The skills, experience, resources we can offer when we are 20 are different from those we might offer at 60. Churches change too as they adjust to changes in their neighbourhood and increasingly now, to global challenges. In his chaplaincy lecture on Monday at the university Neil McGregor asked us what we thought the church should be and do today. He expressed alarm about some of our iconic churches like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s being major tourist attractions for which a hefty entrance fee is demanded. Who is the church for? he asked. Interestingly, there is a similar question being asked at Davos about the global economy and digital revolution; who are they for? And by climate activists about the earth. Who is it for?

Flexibility would seem to be an important feature of discipleship, or going with the wind of the spirit to use bible language. Reading the signs of the times will demand a variety of responses, some of them rapid, some requiring watching and waiting. Are we ready to keep turning towards Jesus, towards the light, to receive his gaze of love and then to respond to his invitation, ‘Follow me’? And, like him move with clarity of purpose? And, will we be able to do that together as a church?

Christine Bainbridge

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The desert shall blossom like the rose

Isaiah 52.7-10, John 1.1-14 Sermon Christmas Eve 2019

The opening words of tonight’s gospel are from John the evangelist, our John, as I like to call him. They echo the very first words in the bible, ‘In the beginning…’ where a lyrical description of how God created the universe follows. The power of God’s word stands out; he simply speaks and it happens…the earth, the sea, human beings…, and now John announces that most powerful of God’s words; his very self in Jesus Christ; that perfect expression of who God is…the Word has arrived.

Words are indeed powerful. The saying ‘Sticks and stones can hurt my bones, but words can never harm me’ is simply not true. Words stick, especially ones that are negative, and we human beings are usually better at remembering those than the more positive ones. Before I went to Sweden I was talking with someone who had gone to the same church college a few years before and who, though, encouraging me, also remembered being homesick. ‘The homesickness was visceral’, he said. Those words stuck with me, especially the word ‘visceral’. During my first month in Sweden, if I was feeling a bit under the weather I would think, ‘Oh no, is this the start of visceral homesickness?!’

Spoken words are powerful, and Jesus is God’s spoken word, but written words also have power and it wasn’t long before those early disciples decided that those words about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection must be written down. Before this they would have talked about Jesus, and those memories of him, especially of his death and resurrection, gave them courage and hope during times of hardship. Do you remember when he healed Jairus’ daughter? Do you remember the huge catch of fish? His words on the cross? Mary seeing him in the garden? It’s through the written word that we so often encounter Jesus the living word. Those words we hear tonight from our scriptures speak about peace, about light shining in the darkness, about a God who comes to live next door to us. We need to feed on those words when more negative words gnaw away at us (like ‘visceral homesickness!).

On one of those exceedingly wet days we were having before Christmas I was sitting at a bus stop with 2 other women, all of us with bags of shopping, effortlessly weaving together one of those dreary conversations about the state of the weather, crowded shops, just missing the bus…one of the women was standing and suddenly the expression on her face changed, a distant look came over her, and she said, ‘it’s all too much, all this (waving her arm)’… Her face softened…’years ago we were in the desert..the desert’, she repeated (and I sensed this was in a similar category to visceral homesickness). ‘It was Christmas and we were in the desert; our first Christmas away from home. The others were nearly all single, many of them Americans. What would we do? I remembered carol singing at home, I asked around and soon there was a group of us and someone said we could ask for donations for an orphanage they knew about in the next village. So we went round singing carols, the words all so familiar, so homey somehow, and we raised a good amount for the orphanage and then I said, Come back to our place for some eats and they did and we sang again…and that was one of my best Christmasses ever’.

The two of us sitting were caught up in this word picture she was drawing (in fact, I nearly missed the next bus!) and, speaking for myself, I was no longer so conscious of the rain, the shopping and ‘all this’ (waving my arm). I was hearing what I would call a gospel memory, put into words that, as John would put it, shine in the darkness.

Christmas resounds with gospel memories. New words are spoken into places where negative words have been holding sway. Listen to these negative messages; ‘We’re too old’ – Zechariah and Elizabeth when they’re told that they will have a son. ‘You can’t marry her’, Joseph on discovering that Mary is pregnant. ‘There’s no room’, when Joseph and Mary are seeking somewhere to stay and for Jesus to be born. ‘You can’t leave the sheep’ (what some of us might have wanted to say to the shepherds). Now there are new words; ‘with God all things are possible’ (Luke 1.37), Immanuel, ‘God with us’, ‘Peace on earth’, challenging all those old messages.

The other evening we watched the film ‘Paddington’ again. Very enjoyable! One of Paddington’s characteristics is that he always tells the truth (the result of a strict upbringing by his aunt Lucy!), even when what he says can sound very unlikely, such as something looking like an elephant dropping in through the skylight while he was in the house on his own (the baddie in the story of course). Gradually the Brown family realise that he really does always speak the truth and learn to trust and accept him.

I wonder how often we think to ourselves ‘I wonder where the truth lies’ when hearing a report of something that has happened, or listening to what one or other political party is promising to do. Might their words just be telling us what they think we want to hear? Supposed truth can so often be more to do with expediency or a desire for popularity or worse still, used as a smoke screen, than as a description of reality.

Our John and the other evangelists wrote down what Jesus had said and done to convey the truth about him, and to give us words with which to challenge all those negatives in our world – what he calls darkness. John doesn’t say that the darkness disappears with Jesus’ arrival; he says Jesus the light shines and the darkness can’t overcome it. The darkness can’t overcome it because we’re dealing with solid truth, the truth out of which the universe was spoken into being, the truth embodied in Jesus Christ (whom we have seen, John says, in verse 14), God with us, ‘full of grace and truth’.

Because the accounts of Jesus’ birth include angels, dreams, babies, (2, counting John Baptist), a manger, a star and mysterious visitors from the East we can too easily hear them simply as stories, and good ones at that, and then not sit with them long enough to see and hear the truth being expressed through them. They ring out with joy (especially Luke’s gospel), light (John) and presence (Matthew). Together they open a window on God’s glory seen in a person, like one of us, an actual historical person, not a fictional super hero. The darkness in the world may continue as before – wars, betrayals, lies and so on, but the truth about us is plain for us all to see in Jesus. He has baptised our humanity, if you like; like him we are beloved, God delights in us, longs for us to share that bubbling joy, to cling to his goodness, to trust in it. The invitation is always there. And when the enemy of human nature whispers words like ‘visceral homesickness’, or ‘desert’, or ‘its hopeless’, or ‘you’ve failed again’ – whatever are his weasel words to you – we can come back with some of those words we hear in our Christmas gospel – God is with us (Immanuel), Do not be afraid (words to Mary and the shepherds), I bring you good news of great joy.

Mother Julian puts it like this;

It is God’s will that we should rejoice with him in our salvation and that we should be cheered and strengthened by it…He loves us and enjoys us, and so he wills that we love him and enjoy him, and firmly trust him; and all shall be well’.

May we know that more and more in the core of our being.                 Christine Bainbridge

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Advent 3 Sermon – Sunday 15th December

Today, continuing in our season of Advent, as we prepare for Christ’s birth at Christmas, the spotlight is on two prophets – Isaiah and John the Baptist.

It’s over 4 months since I last preached here and I felt a bit rusty as I was preparing for today!  Most of you will have gathered that I had a wonderful time in Sweden, staying in our link diocese of Växjö, and learning Swedish.  I was treated to months of being immersed in what the Swedes call ‘the nature’ – in this case forests of ancient beech and oak, and a huge lake, and learning in a residential school run by the church with a strong ethos of inclusion and community building.  All the regular students, except me, were young adults, most of them studying art or music, whilst the ones in my class came from countries like Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Chechnya, and we were all learning Swedish.  It was a rich learning experience and one on which I’ll be drawing for years to come.  And I was able to see our daughter Anna and grandson Zac, and drink Swedish coffee which is very good!

I wonder how you felt when you got up on Friday morning to the news of the election results; Elated?  Resigned?  Doomladen?  Hopeful?  Prophets like Isaiah and John Baptist were very alert to their political context and I’d like us to get a sense of that.

Divide congregation into 2 halves – one shouting  Doom! Doom! and the other ‘The desert shall rejoice and blossom!’

Those 2 themes run through all the prophets.  They hear both. They speak from both.  They struggle at times to hold both together.  We’ve been following Isaiah through the lectionary in our weekday readings and can see how he oscillates between the two.  He’s alert to political realities – foreign powers expanding, moving towards his country.   He foresees the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians – a desert – (Doom! doom!) whilst also anticipating a future where once again they will flourish (the desert shall rejoice and blossom’).

The Israelites in Isaiah’s time dealt with the looming crisis in a number of ways.  I just want to consider 3 of them.  They’re fairly universal, I think:

Mime           Block ears and close eyes

They refused to look at what was happening

Mime           Phoning Egypt.  ‘Hi Pharoah, I know you enslaved us in the past, but we didn’t really mind, and now we want to go back

They went back to some bad places, old habits, seeking help in the wrong places

Mime           Drinking from a beer bottle

They escaped into drink, partying and a fantasy world of pleasure-loving gods and goddesses

So let’s look at how Isaiah deals with these responses.

Refusing to look at the difficult stuff.

Like all the prophets he wants us to really look at what’s happening around us and see it clearly.  This past year, globally, we’ve all been urged to do that in relation to climate change.  In some parts of the world our deserts are expanding rather than turning into pools of water.  More and more we are being told we can no longer turn a blind eye to the signal that floods, drought, forest fires, and plastic-congested seas are sending out about the health of our planet.  Our eyes and ears need to be open.  We need to be courageous enough to look at what is happening, globally, locally and also personally.

Going back to old places/habits

Isaiah challenges their interpretation of the past, of their history.  Did they enjoy slavery?  Who actually helped them?  God or Pharoah?  Who had the real power?  God or Pharoah?  (See Isaiah chap 30)  What we draw from our past influences how we live in the present.  Most of the students in my class in Sweden had experienced trauma of some kind.  Several had been victims.  Adjusting to a new life where there was freedom was a relief, and also a challenge.  When things are difficult, which they often are, trying to start afresh, to feel at home in a culture different from your own, it’s tempting to feel that the place where you were a victim might be better – you know what to expect; it’s familiar.  Slavery in Egypt can seem more attractive than the long journey through the desert to the promised land.

Distancing ourselves whether through drinking or fantasy worlds of one kind or another. 

Here Isaiah is particularly astute.  He’s saying there are good dreams and bad dreams, or, we might say, there is fantasy or there is vision.  Vision comes from what we know about God from Scripture, his dealings with us and others.  Isaiah draws the vision in the wonderful word pictures we hear in our reading today.  The desert shall rejoice and blossom, no more fear, the end of sorrowing and sighing, everlasting joy….Who wouldn’t want to be part of that vision?

Fast forwarding to John B; he too had been saying ‘doom, doom!’ but also, like Isaiah, sharing a vision, this time of the one who was to come, the Messiah.  Now John is in prison, his own personal desert, and he’s doubting the vision.  Can Jesus really be the One?  He seems an unlikely Champion.  And here we see another strategy for confronting a desert moment – asking a question.  I love John’s directness.  He doesn’t mess about.  ‘If you are the one, tell me!’  Jesus answers in language John will understand, language from Isaiah, language of a prophet.  Look at what you are seeing and hearing.  What does it tell you?

If I’d been in prison I’d probably have sent Jesus a message along the lines of ‘Get me out of here!’  On the whole we’d rather escape from desert times, and certainly our scriptures hold plenty of encouragement to cry out to God, to ask for help in times of trouble.  Isaiah urged his people to do that rather than turn to more dubious sources of help.  However, in both Isaiah’s time and John B’s time it turned out that the means by which the desert was going to rejoice and blossom was different from what people might have been asking for.  For Isaiah it was Cyrus the Persian, another empire builder who would be God’s means of restoring to Israel much of what they had lost.  For John it turned out that his prison cell was the place of revelation.  The message Jesus sent would have been irrefutable evidence that he was indeed the one.  It’s worth noting what the marks of a vision from God is like, as opposed to an escapist fantasy – human wellbeing, both physical and mental, a flourishing natural order, adequate water, fertile land, and good news for the poor.  Those are good filters for viewing our own political context.

Octavia hill, housing pioneer and later founder of the National trust, was a woman of faith who did just that.  For a time Richard and I worked in an office near London Bridge opposite a Victorian building inscribed with words from Isaiah, from the King James version of the bible.  It read ‘the desert shall blossom as the rose’.  One of Octavia Hill’s model housing estates was just around the corner and the words from Isaiah’s vision expressed her response to the doom and gloom of overcrowded tenements, back to backs with a few communal taps and little or no privacy that was accepted as the natural form of housing for ordinary working people.  Octavia Hill saw a housing desert, if you like, really saw it, and as a woman of faith set out to do something about it.  The words from Isaiah spoke to her and someone, perhaps her, I don’t know, inscribed them on that building that we saw every day, encouraging us to hold on to the expectation that deserts really can change into places of hope.  Octavia Hill designed her estates around green squares where children could play and tenants could meet and hang their washing.  Where there had been just earth or coke paths between the houses now there was green – a literal fulfilment of Isaiah’s vision.

And now we have Greta Thunberg from Sweden who sees both the beauty of the earth and its impending doom, really sees it, if action isn’t taken soon enough.  She has had her own desert places, not finding school easy (she has Asbergers), being so miserable for a time that she couldn’t face going to school and yet it was in school that she was first confronted with climate issues.

So let’s face just one of those personal, local or global deserts that may be pressing in on us, looking at it, listening to it, whilst holding on to the promise that the desert will rejoice and blossom.  And I’d like to suggest that, like John B, we ask Jesus a question as we do so, but a different one from him.  Ask, ‘what are you inviting me to be or to do here?’  And expect some surprises!                                  Christine Bainbridge 15 December 2019

 

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About a tree…

St John and St Stephen, Advent 2A. Isaiah 11:1-10 7 Matthew 3:1-12. December 8, 2019.

 

Isaiah 11. A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

On this Second Sunday in Advent I wonder: What might God be saying to us through the image of a tree?

 

I thought I’d start today with the phrase “I wonder” because (& I don’t know if you know this) it is being used to great effect in our school, St John’s.

 

Wonder, trust and achieve is a school motto and don’t those words strike you as being in the perfect order?

 

Someone has thought this through!

 

There’s a debate in education at the moment about achievement and excellence and those things are very important, but we might want to ask, as Christians, are we more than our achievements and our excellence?

 

A Christian anthropology might want to say that wonder is vital to our identity as human beings.

 

Many adults have lost the art, but children can still wonder.

 

And sociologists tell us that trust is the most basic requirement of a stable existence as we begin our lives in the world.

 

So to wonder, trust and achieve is, to my mind, spot on (forgive the school-based mini digression).

 

So this second Sunday in Advent, I wonder, what might God be saying to us this morning through the image of a tree?

 

We have several images of trees with us here already in church.

 

We have our Jesse Tree on which we hang the stories of our faith week by week – to remind us that we’re part of the Judeo-Christian family tree ourselves. We’re part of the story.

 

We have our Advent wreath (okay, not exactly a tree, but there is greenery and candles…), and it helps us reflect on our journey through Advent as we light a different one each week.

 

Last week we began with the first candle for the patriarchs, this Sunday we think of the prophets of the Old Testament, voices that cried in the wilderness, literally and spiritually, culminating in the last of the OT style prophets, John the Baptist.

 

This Sunday the lectionary is using John the Baptist as a bridge, if you like, between OT prophets and what is coming after. He gets a Sunday all to himself next week!

 

If you recall, although Jesus spoke of John the Baptist as the greatest prophet, he added ‘whoever who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he’ – so something is developing as we move through the Sundays in Advent, travelling as we are from the old to the new, towards the dawning of the kingdom age.

 

And, continuing images of trees, we have our Christmas Tree! But before we imbibe the spirit of the Christmas tree and its lights and decorations, and its sense of “here we are at Christmas already”, we’re going to linger for a while in Isaiah 11, and meditate on yet another tree.

 

This is not a very pretty tree – it might not look very healthy – in fact, it’s just a stump.

 

You will have seen stumps of trees. It’s not often that when a tree is felled, someone is able to come along and pull out the roots entirely as well, so the stump is left, and often it just sits and rots.

 

In the chapter before our reading, in Isaiah 10, we have images of destruction as Israel’s enemy Assyria is compared to a tree that is comprehensively felled. Nothing will be resurrected from that stump – it has felt the full force of God’s judgment.

 

But from the stump of Jesse, something new is growing: ‘A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse’ (or ‘the stump of Jesse’).

 

This is where we see a tree as a vital image of growth and health. All was looking as though it was over – it was looking final for Israel, because of her unfaithfulness.

 

Sometimes in our lives things can look pretty final. Mental health issues, relationship breakdown, a failure of our physical health, a set back for one of our children; things can sometimes look very final, very much like a stump.

 

Stuck in the ground. Going nowhere.

 

But like those times when you looked down at the pavement and saw a shoot seemingly coming through the tarmac and wondered: how do they do that? – things that God is growing in you, have a habit of coming through anyway.

 

There’s something about a shoot poking out through a stump that speaks to us of hope. There’s ‘a dearest freshness deep down things’, was how the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it.

 

It’s often when the other bits of our life have been hacked away (branches, twigs and leaves, and even most of the trunk) that our true self has a chance to come alive again.

 

There’s still goodness in the ‘stock’ – or the essence of you.

 

If you’re in a situation where bits of your life seem to have been lopped off, and are still being lopped off in a very uncomfortable manner, maybe God is revealing the fundamentals of you, the essence of you, in a new way?

 

So we have the new shoot growing out of the stump, and this is a sign of hope. The worst place we can be in our lives is a place without hope. If you know someone who is struggling, and you only pray for one thing for them, pray they don’t lose hope.

 

So what is the stump of Jesse?

 

It’s back to the family tree image. Jesse was father to David, who appeared to be just the obscure son, the one in the fields, but turned out to be a man after God’s own heart.

 

Despite violence, deception, marital and parental disasters, David, son of Jesse, would become part of the very line of the Messiah.

 

And for the record, there were some remarkable women in that family line as well, including Ruth who wasn’t even a Hebrew, but who left her own people to be faithful to the God of her mother-in-law.

 

God moves in mysterious ways. It’s a cliché but all through the story of our faith, God is in our failures and mess ups and is weaving them into a seamless garment that is taking on the unique colour and texture of our life – not our perfectly planned life that never actually came to pass – but the real life that we’re living right now.

 

So it’s lovely we’re talking about trees and tree stumps and shoots that come out of stumps, and family trees, but as we ponder these Advent readings, of the peaceable kingdom and the call of John the Baptist to prepare the way, it’d be disingenuous not to mention judgment.

 

Preachers used to be exhorted to preach on the ‘four last themes’ during Advent: namely death, judgment, heaven and hell.

 

So, not too much pressure then.

 

I remember being at Douai Abbey in 2007, the year I started training. Henley Deanery Clergy were gathering to hear Stephen Cottrell, then Bishop of Reading lead an Advent quiet day and I was kindly invited. At the outset Bishop Stephen announced his intention only to speak on those four themes.

 

You could see all around the room guilty clergy thinking about all the children’s talks about kind and helpful reindeers that they’d left half written on their desk, and I can tell you it did go rather quiet as + Stephen started his Advent reflections.

 

I seem to remember they contained an anecdote about his son, who couldn’t sleep. In the middle of the night dad Stephen was woken by crying on the stairs. He tiptoed out to see what was taking place and sat down beside his son, and waited till his son was ready to say what was wrong.

 

He waited quite some time. But he was patient.

 

And then haltingly, his son began to speak.

 

And as his son talked, he (his loving dad) listened.

 

Because he loved his son so much, he knew that whatever was said, he would still love his son, and still listen, and still be there.

 

And then Bishop Stephen said: “I wonder if that’s a helpful image of what judgment is?”

 

Giving an account to your heavenly father about what’s gone wrong.

 

I don’t know how that strikes you – intellectually, emotionally – as a definition of judgment?

 

I think at the time (before I had theological training!) I still retained images of eternal judgment being a rather uncomfortable concept, at least for those who reject God’s love, and I thought: surely it’s a bit more fearsome than that?!

 

What about ‘he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked’ (Isaiah 11)?

 

Or, ‘he will clear his threshing floor and he will gather his wheat into the granary and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire’?

 

The Church of England’s introduction to Advent, in Common Worship, helpfully informs us that the choice of readings ‘challenge the modern reluctance to confront the theme of divine judgment’.

 

Emotionally though, what does it feel like to long for judgment, or a judgment? Ask anyone who’s been unjustly sentenced to prison, and you will find out.

 

Judgment may be less palatable to those whom society has treated rather well, than to those at the bottom of the heap.

 

As regards the biblical narrative, maybe judgment has more to do with imagining and creating a just society than with who is ‘in’ or ‘out’ for eternity…

 

There is certainly a very compelling vision of a just society in Isaiah 11. The innocent get justice; the evildoers get their come-uppance. That’s what we all really want, isn’t it?

 

And the beautiful vision embraces ecology too – in a wonderful reversal of ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’, the lion lies down with the lamb, the toddler plays with a snake without being harmed. In a world where ecological disaster is playing out before our eyes, and many are crying out in an increasingly bleak wilderness, Isaiah’s vision is like a return to Eden.

 

So, to end, what might God be saying to us through the image of a tree that is felled but not destroyed?

 

The house of Israel seemed to have reached a dead end, but God was not finished with it yet! With God, dead ends have a habit of turning into new beginnings.

 

And in our church, may God lead us into pruning and growth in all the right places.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wake Up

Wake Up and Shake Up!

Isaiah 55. 1-9     Luke 13.1-9

Have you heard the news?

Often, we had heard the news and it was rarely good, and if we hadn’t heard it, we braced ourselves to listen.

On this particular occasion, we had heard the news and were later in the day to see a newsclip of the head of the suicide bomber in Jerusalem’s popular but ruined, Mahane Yehuda fruit market, being picked over by religious Jews with tweezers and polythene bags looking for scraps of bodies.

Often there we just sensed it, the anticipation of tragedy even before we heard the sirens. The traffic slowed and the car horns fell silent. It was like that on the Temple Mount on one October morning – the news travelled fast – at least 30 dead, many more wounded near the Al Aqsa Mosque, shot by troops.

Have you heard the news? We don’t know if Jesus had already heard the news but they told him anyway, each person probably vying to do the telling – “Pilate’s soldiers have murdered worshippers in the Temple, right tin the middle of the service and their blood flowed in the gutters with sheep that had just been slaughtered.”

Same place and similar circumstances. In Jesus’ time it was Jews who were killed by Pilate’s soldiers. On the 8th October 1990, it was Jewish soldiers who did the killing and the tragic cycle of violence between the opposing communities continues – each atrocity, massacre or incident accompanied by mutual denunciation and recrimination. Welcome to first century Palestine, where feelings ran deep, extremism thrived, and the future of the country looked precarious.

I wonder how those who told Jesus of the massacre expected him to respond – with denunciation of the Romans, the statutory tearing of the robes and prayer that God would speedily rid the land of the occupying forces or, and we are told elsewhere that Jesus needed no one to tell him what was in the heart of man for he knew it altogether (John 2.24,25) – a pronouncement on what must actually have been the wickedness of those whom Pilate’s soldiers butchered. Popular contemporary Jewish thinking went like this:  Really bad things don’t happen to really good people and what happened back there in the Temple was really bad so the people killed couldn’t have been really good!

Things aren’t what you think they are

The ghastly Eliphaz, one of Job’s ‘comforters’, took this line when he went to visit the unfortunate, disaster-smitten Job, (Job 4.7) and Jesus’ own disciples on seeing a blind man asked, “Master, who sinned? This man or his parents?” (John 9.2) “Neither,” replied Jesus on that occasion. And here, anticipating just such a judgmental attitude in those who had told him of Pilate’s latest outrage, he rips into them and their smug, tidy theories. “Do you think that because those Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did or those 18 who were killed when the Tower of Siloam fell. Do you think they were worse than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you that unless you repent you will all perish just as they did” – by the edge of a Roman sword and under the crushing weight of falling masonry. Nothing less, said Jesus, than thorough- going repentance and the total reorientation of their lives from their reckless and doomed nationalistic aspirations back to God would spare them from the catastrophe towards which they are rushing, and which he longed might be avoided.

And here, a brief reflection on Jesus’ teaching.

There is about much of it both an aching tenderness and an almost terrifying severity. “Come to me all who are heavy-laden and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of spirit” (Matthew 11.28) – echoing the magnificent invitation from Isaiah 55 read earlier in our service and contrasting starkly with Jesus’ words later in the same Gospel, addressed to people who considered themselves God’s favoured ones. – “I never knew you! Depart from me.” (Matthew 7.23)

So here in Luke, the urgent call to repentance and the yearning that the disaster Jesus so vividly – and in the parable of the fig tree hints is so very near (Luke 3.6) – is expressed very tenderly. Luke writes,” as Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed the days will come upon you (and they did come) when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side … and crush you to the ground and your children with you … because you did not recognise the time of your visitation from God.’ (Luke 19.41-44) Do we?

Is it not possible that through the humiliating, protracted, confusing, divisive and painful time our nation is passing, God may not be seeking to humble us and remind us of the things that make for peace? Were not the opening words of our service today, ‘Almighty God’?

I clearly remember watching on the evening news the ceremony of the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. The Union flag was lowered, the marine band played, the rain poured down as Governor Chris Patten and others sang, ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended.’ It seemed a courageous and appropriate choice with its closing lines, ‘So be it Lord Thy throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires pass away.’

In God’s hand is the raising up and the putting down of nations which are after all in the words of Isaiah the prophet like ‘drops in a bucket’ – dust in the scales. (Isaiah 40.15)

After the Siege

Returning for a moment to Jesus’ grief over the fate of Jerusalem, it’s almost as if he can hear the Roman siege engines rumbling into place – see the archers drawing back their bows. What he foresaw happened; the destruction of the city was terrible and the suffering of its population unimaginable, but while many of Jesus’ warnings of judgment and disaster relate to the siege and the Jewish people, others relate to afterwards and surely to all people. They remain contemporary and urgent: ‘Take care! Be on your guard against every kind of greed for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12.15) In St Matthew’s account of the last public teaching given by Jesus before his arrest and trial, he warned of the dire peril of those who have, ignoring the plight of those who have not (though in the parable of the sheep and goats to which I allude, he puts it far more vigorously and bluntly than that). (Matthew 25.40-45)

Beyond Brexit?!

On the morning after the fateful Brexit vote, I was accosted in Palmer Park where I was walking the dog, by two nice Nepali friends, ex Gurkhas, who were deeply shocked and bitterly disappointed at the way the vote had gone. I was given an earful at the end of which one of them asked me with an utterly disarming smile, “Tell me, will be there be resurrection after Brexit?”

I don’t know. What I do know is that when we emerge from this nightmare, much larger and more pressing challenges await:  the probability of mass global migration provoked by climate change, the continued rapid depletion of the world’s natural resources, the relentless growth of population and much more.

Last week’s BBC Analysis programme looked at the likelihood of humanity living beyond the end of the present century. It made for sober listening. “We live as if eliminating all wild life would be rather a pity!” “Politicians are concerned about being re-elected and blind to the magnitude of the risks (confronting the world).” And memorably, “There may be no fish and chips by the middle of the century as fish stocks are exhausted.” (And if that is not reason to shape up and take action, I don’t know what is!)

I return to Luke’s Gospel and conclude with these striking words of Jesus:  ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say it’s going to rain; and so it happens. And when you see the South wind blowing you say, ‘There will be scorching heat;’ and it happens . . . you know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?’ May God give us the courage and the wisdom to do that and without fear and in gentle trust to shape our lives and that of our Christian community accordingly.

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Baptism, Weariness, and the Start of Something New

Isaiah 6,  Luke 5:1-11

May I speak…

Well I’m relieved to see this week that some people did come to church today and not go off to the golf club, or somewhere else, instead!

On Monday at Café Theologique we looked at football as metaphor for theology…

Our table wondered about the faith of supporters. Trudging back from football.. bleak February Saturday afternoons, (or Sundays for some). “why do we keep doing this? Why put ourselves through this pain, this agony, I don’t know if I even believe in this team anymore…”

(echoes of FrV last week, pertinent ‘why even bother going to church?’)

(Maybe in other areas of life too?)

Yet still people come, still they buy season tickets.. still trudge through the rain, still doubt, still hope –  for why?

Is it something, I wonder, about history, identity, community, shared experiences, (highs and lows?).. is it something about the faint insistence of hope, (even hope against hope).

I wonder if there is something that is lost here – and yet something which is gained?

And I wonder if we can draw some inspiration from these two readings and also from our baptism today to help us ponder these things?

A baptism is always an exciting day for the church it’s a symbol and sign of a new beginning … It’s lovely to welcome our baby into the church of Christ… to celebrate with and friends and family too.. this wonderful moment.

The church calls Baptism a ‘Sacrament’, which means it’s like ‘a window on God’. It is a way of showing that this kingdom is already with us, in our midst, yet seemingly ‘not yet’. Jesus invites us all to ‘wake up’ and to participate in its coming.

Through these distinctive symbols; anointing, passing through waters of new birth, receiving a light it is like we are saying God will have changed this child’s story, and the signs tell us that the change has already taken place. Our baby will just need time, (we all need time), to face the full reality and responsibility of living fully humanly, (maybe that’s why we do church – to practice these stories of hope?)

A baptism is essentially a ‘letting go’, it is a way of saying that life will be different now.. it is a giving up on the things we make of ourselves… and instead embracing a new thing, a new identity in G-d.. (which happens to look exactly like our own beautiful lives – yet is fundamentally different; dancing to a different tune)

But the letting go.. remains.. something that mystics may speak of as giving up on ego, of realizing that we are not ‘the be all and end all’ of our own story.. there is more to us.. there is relationship, community, history and love.

In Isaiah. we see this mystical vision (merkevah) of God upon a throne –  the words we will sing later, “holy holy holy”, (“other other other”) remind us its a place of total wonder and awe.. a moment beyond words.

Maybe something of life, the wonder of new life born into the world, or the wonder of mountains, sea, a phrase of music or the tenderness of lovers..

The fragility and vulnerably of human life… maybe a moment in the forest listening to the soughing wind in the canopy of trees?

Or a moment of inexplicable awe, as with friends you realise you are loved!

the moments when ‘we feel how the saint feel about God’

Isaiah is awestruck – hand-clasping, gasping, wonder… “who shall I send?”,

“me, lord – though I don’t know how.. |

it’s like a feeling of being overwhelmed.. what else can we say but yes to the wonder and mystery of life?

And so too for the disciples as they are called by Jesus..

Something of the weariness comes across in this tale (a tale which is deliberately written to encourage a weary church in 80-90CE)

Luke has introduced Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet whose mission is to announce the coming of the Realm of God and to invite people to repent and join the movement towards the Realm (Luke 4:14-30).

There is a subtle aspect to this narrative connected to the “deep water” (bathos). This theme occurs several times in biblical texts in connection with the primordial sea, a powerful Jewish symbol of chaos. Luke perceives his world as a chaos: hostility between traditional Judaism and the followers of Jesus, the repressive behaviour of the Empire, and conflict within the church.

Almost a resignation, ‘if you say so’ … (look here wise guy, we know what we are about, we’re fishermen, we do this every day.. but ‘if you say so’..yes)

Something about being so tired, so worn out.. there is nothing left to give, and instead a surrender (of ego..)

Maybe letting to of our ‘self-made-ness’ a surrender to life’s complexities, its joys and pains.. no longer fighting…  giving in to something mysterious, unknowable.. that wonder speechless again… and then..

then..

Receiving something … unexpected.. something totally overwhelming..

Within the mysterious logic of G-d. Something connects weariness, resignation, letting go, to an overwhelming blessing. (Again – ‘how the saints feel about G-d’.)

Which brings us back to Baptism.. and not just Todays Baptism –

but to all of us… the expectations, we place on ourselves (and each other).. the ways that we make our world, and that world seems to punish us.. many voices, hopes and fears consuming us with noise and clamour.. voices calling us to be this or that, be like this, like that… economic demands, social demands, expectation, anxiety, depression… the weariness

And yet …

At the point of baptism.. as we find our selves.. not just head, not even body; but actually our whole selves… sinking beneath the waters of this world..

a giving up, in the letting go…

submerging beneath water, for a brief moment all the noises fade.. there is silence and a calm as water fills the ears and liquid holds us womblike… the voices are a distant mumbles…

And in that space.. the space of Isaiah letting go, in Simons letting go, in the Baptism and in the churches letting go.. a giving in to the mystery of God..

in that space a new voice can be heard; sweet, serene, deeply knowing, calling, “there is no other voice but mine now, you are mine now – you are loved, you have always been loved, you will always be loved, you are mine now and will be forever… you are loved…”

And maybe that is why we are here.. echoing those fleeting moments of hope and humanity, (how the saints feel about God) holding us, inspiring us and reminding us who we are …

Amen

GS Collins 10 February 2019

Picture – Bill Hemmerling Fishing for Souls. Oil on canvas, 60 × 10 in.

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Baptism of Christ

Isaiah 43.1-7                            Luke 3. 15-17, 21-22               

The Baptism of Christ – what a wonderful gift it is that Timothy’s baptism falls on this Sunday.

When I start thinking about a sermon, I go through the readings and try to notice if any words jump out at me.

‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’

These are the words that seemed to jump off the page when I read through today’s readings. And the words that come immediately before this are :  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.

‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’

Our names are very precious.  Our name is one of the first things we are given by our parents.  From a very young age we can recognise our name and we get used to answering to our name all through our lives.  Our name is basic part of who we are.  We have our own name and our family name.  To be called by our name means we are recognised as a person.  Even if we sometimes get those annoying phone calls trying to sell us something or saying they have heard we have been involved in an accident and would we like to make a claim.  But despite this, to be called by our name is important. And of course our name and identity is affirmed in baptism.

But before we get into Baptism, just a little more about these wonderful words from the prophet Isaiah.  They are addressed not to an individual – not to a Sarah or a Rebecca or a David.  They are addressed to the people of Israel as a whole.  They had been having a horrific time, defeated by powerful and aggressive neighbours they had been driven into exile and their capital city and the temple which was the centre of their worship and their identity had been completely destroyed.

Had God forgotten them?  Had they been abandoned and cast adrift in a violent world? What could they make of the promises to Abraham and later to King David that his kingdom would last for ever.  Where was God now?  So things were at a very low point.  But here the prophet is speaking words divinely inspired.  No. You have not been abandoned or disowned. You are still precious in God’s sight. God is the one who created you and God still loves you.  Do not fear.  Our Good News Bible says ‘I will save you’.  Another version – NRSV says ‘I have redeemed you’  I have called you by name.  You are my people.

They have been called by their name, their true identity as God’s people was secure.  This was not because they had earned this by living good lives.     But it says ‘because you are precious to me and because I love you.’

Wow!  To have the creator of the universe, God himself say these words ….  That is pretty special.  When I read words like that it gives me a wonderful warm feeling.  Like coming out of the cold into a warm place and suddenly feeling relaxed.  Or coming out of the cold swimming pool and relaxing in the Jacuzzi. ‘I have called you by your name and you are mine.’  If you take away one thing from this service, perhaps you can take those words.  And if life is very full or very challenging, you can come back to them and reflect on them. ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’  Our identity is secure and we are God’s loved people.

Identity is important in baptism.  At first sight it is a bit puzzling that Jesus was baptised. Baptism is about repentance, turning away from all it is wrong, all that is dark and life denying.  All that leads to destruction and despair.  But the firm belief of the church from the very beginning is that Jesus was without sin.   Jesus by now was about 30 years old we are told.  He was a mature adult and on the threshold of his public ministry.  No doubt he had been thinking and praying and his vocation had been maturing, but now at his baptism, although he is not actually given a name, his calling and his identity are affirmed in dramatic fashion.  It must have been a very significant memory for Jesus as all 4 gospel writers include it.  The punch line, if you like, comes in verse21.  There was a voice from heaven: ‘You are my own dear Son.  I am pleased with you.’  Just like in the Isaiah passage, the identity of Jesus is recognised and affirmed.  You are my own dear Son.  So his identity is recognised.  He is not just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth, he is God’s own dear Son.  In some ways the baptism of Christ functioned as a kind of commissioning or even ordination.  From now on he embarked on those three very packed years of public ministry.

And notice the visuals.  This is a Trinity occasion.  The voice from heaven is associated with God the Father.  Jesus’ identity as the much loved Son is affirmed and the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove.   Father Son and Holy Spirit and every Christian baptism is done in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The baptism of Christ comes in the church calendar in the Epiphany season.  I sometimes think of it as being like when you drop a pebble in a pond.  The ripples spread out in all directions.  At his birth Jesus is shown to the nearby shepherds. Then with the arrival of the magi, the three wise men, Jesus is shown to non-Jews.  And now at his Baptism his calling is recognised and the divine approval is clearly signalled.

Timothy is not old enough to take his own decisions, so he is baptised by the wish of his parents and the promises are made by parents and godparents.  As he grows up he will need to decide for himself. But from now he has a new identity.  He is named and enrolled in the family of the church.  And his baptism is also a call to action.  Once again he will have to discern this for himself.

Attending a Baptism service is not a spectator sport.  It is a chance to remember our own baptism or to consider if that is step we would like to take. In recent baptisms here Gary has sprinkled us with water from the font as a way of including us.  Today we are going to try a different way.  After the final blessing and dismissal Chorate will be singing to us and you are invited, if you wish to come and dip your fingers in the water of baptism in the font and to make a sign of the cross on your forehead as a sign of remembering and recommitting to our baptism vows.  To affirm our identity as God’s loved sons and daughters. People who can tune into those words from Isaiah: ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’   Amen

 

Richard Bainbridge

 

The painting shown was The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca, painted around 1450

 

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The Finger That Beckons

Isaiah 61.10 – 62.3, Luke 2.15 – 2

Introduction – Christmas choices
For reasons with which I will not bore you, Nancy and I invited ourselves at very short notice to Christmas lunch with my brother and his family in Wokingham. The welcome was warm, the company delightful and the spread, ample and delicious. There was no turkey but a fabulous side of beef and a lovely salmon wrapped in pastry – and all the trimmings. I opted for the beef – a difficult choice for I am fond of salmon.

Today with our readings we are offered two attractive and substantial dishes. I’m going to be greedy and opt for a bit of both and hope I do not give you indigestion.

A passionate prophet
The Old Testament passage from Isaiah offers us an amazing vision – of a city ransacked and ruined, gloriously restored and of an exhausted, dispirited and exiled people wonderfully returned. And on the lips of the prophet there is a longing and an anticipation for more. ’For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent – for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet till her righteousness shines out like the dawn – her salvation like a blazing torch.’

And I have met and heard of good people, pastors and priests who have for their own place, parish or town made that plea and pledge of the prophet their own. We could make it our own . . .

For Newtown’s sake we will not keep silent – till the battered and bruised find courage and hope, the lonely friendship, the used and abused – men and women, and there are many of them – deliverance and dignity, the dealers are seen no more lurking round the garages on Amity Road or behind the nursery in Palmer Park, and, some might want mischievously to add, plans for the mass rapid transit system beside the Thames – thwarted!

Mary, angels, a manger and the shepherds
If the passage from Isaiah was the salmon in pastry, the gospel from St Luke is the beef. The reading draws to a close with the haunting, poignant comment that Mary ‘treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.’ (Ch2.19) Avery similar comment is made again just a little later in the gospel after Joseph and Mary to their great relief found the young Jesus debating in the temple courts in Jerusalem.

Sadly, while one part of the Christian church has in the past elevated Mary to heights which would have made her both dizzy and embarrassed, another part has in reaction often ignored her entirely. (I believe a few weeks ago Ali Marshall preached most helpfully about her.) Mary is an extraordinary example of suffering love, great integrity and profound faith, and when I think on her, I have no hesitation in saying, ‘Hail Mary, full of grace.’

Angels – I’m rather keen on them. They play a most significant role in both the Old and New Testaments – warning, encouraging, guiding, protecting. Their appearance at times is utterly overwhelming but others quite low key and down to earth. And I have heard from reliable and steady of sources, even Anglican ones, of the appearance of angels in Iran, Pakistan – even Birmingham. My favourite Christmas card this year was of a sketch by Raphael,of an angel both arms raised above his head, one leg tucked under his bottom, the other stretch before him almost as if he was hurdling – magnificent. If the angels of Bethlehem appeared anything like that no wonder the shepherds took note!

And now as we slip from the Nativity to Epiphany, two observations about our traditional understanding of the trappings of the former:
1.  I do not believe from twenty years of living in the Middle East that if Joseph had turned up in Bethlehem and said, ‘I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Mattat, the son of Levi of the line of David and originally from Bethlehem,’ ANY door would have been closed to him. In that region historical memories are long, the extended family very important and hospitality a sacred duty.
2.  The word rendered, ‘inn’, in our Nativity accounts much more commonly means, ‘a place’, ‘space’, even, ‘guest room’. (The traditional word for an inn is used in the story of the Good Samaritan.) At Easter, Nancy and I visited the ancient city of Matera in southern Italy, many of whose houses were built into caves on the hillside. We saw one that had been restored to how it might have been a hundred years ago. It was a cave, one part of which was clearly the living quarters with bed, food store and primitive kitchen, the other end, separated by a very low wall, housed animals. There was a manger carved into the rock. I think that could have been how it was in Bethlehem, where there were plenty of similar caves, some larger, allowing provision for storage or even an extra room. Beautiful though they may look on Christmas cards, it’s doubtful whether any young mum would put her child under the stars where even today the snow can lie, ‘deep and crisp and even’. I realise that these thoughts may cause havoc for the writers of Nativity plays, and now what of the shepherds ?

Their terror gave way to wonder, excitement and exuberant, bubbling praise. Can one not imagine them saying to one another on return to their flock, ‘Who would have thought that to us, you Abraham with your bandy legs and squint, and to me with a stutter and love of drink, an angel spoke and we looked at the face of God?’ The wonder of that is most beautifully put in a poem from Uganda.

Blessed are you O Christ child
that your cradle was so low that shepherds,
poorest and simplest of earthly people
could yet kneel beside you and
look level-eyed into the face of God.

Sometimes I fear the accumulated trappings of the Christmas story can obscure the central figure. Doing RE-inspired in Southcote just before Christmas, I got so caught up with my story of an unkind innkeeper that I never had time to get Jesus born!

A Christian for some fifty years and a priest for over forty, I still hunger to study, know and follow Jesus better. I share the credo of Theodore Doestoevsky, which I stumbled upon recently. Here it is: ‘To believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable . . . and more perfect than Christ, and I tell myself with jealous love, not only that there is nothing but there cannot be anything.’

I end with words of a Christian hymn from India:

Behold how the angels sing;
Glory to God in the highest,
Peace on earth.
Love has taken a name and a form, and,
becoming meek for his helpless creatures
has come to earth.
The finger on which the sun is set as a diamond,
he puts to his mouth and plays with in the small cowshed.
O Christ, give to us this mind,
that as the finger turns and beckons
we too may respond.

He beckons us into a new year. Let us follow with courage and devotion.

Amen.

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Advent 2 – The dark night of John the Baptist

Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptist

John the Baptist bursts blazing onto the scene as recorded in the first few verses of the gospel of Mark. ‘A shout goes up in the desert: Make way for the Lord! Clear a straight path for him!’ (v3). He’s like an old-time fire-and-brimstone revivalist, strong on sin and repentance, confident in his message, calling sinners forward for baptism and the start of a new life. Here’s a sample to get us in the mood: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’ (Matt 3:7) He was effective, too: we read that the whole of Judaea, and everyone who lived in Jerusalem went out to him – it was revival, a mass movement on a grand scale. A clear message, certainty is so compelling, it has a hypnotic power. People – including us – will do anything for certainty, anything to keep the uncertainties and doubts away. Dressed in camel-hair clothes, feeding on locusts and honey he had an appearance and a way of life that matched well his uncompromising, strident message. But along with the call to repent and begin again was another message, the message of advent: someone else is coming who is much greater than I am. Look, I baptise with water: but he will baptise with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist was the messenger, the forerunner, the herald of the coming Messiah, Jesus. Get ready!

 

There’s a key word buried in the gospel reading that’s strongly associated with John and in fact with many prophets and strong preachers. It’s this: repent. I wonder what that word does for you? Anything? Leave behind a life of sin? Do you find it a rather heavy word, loaded with guilt? Does that actually help you? I’m guessing no. I received a lightbulb moment this week when someone pointed out that the ‘pent’ part of the word means ‘think’. This will be obvious to anyone speaking a Romance language: in French, to think is penser, in Spanish pensar, in Italian pensare. In English we get our word ‘pensive’ meaning thoughtful, from this root. ‘Repent’ means to ‘re-think’, to think again. That sense of the word reflects well the word in Greek lying behind it, metanoia – which broadly means this: go beyond the mind you have. John called people to think again. Think again about how you are living your lives, yes: but think again about how history is panning out before your very eyes. One is coming who is going to up-end all your thoughts about God, about life: I am not worthy to squat down and undo his sandals, he is so great. I baptised you with water; but he will baptise you with the Spirit of God.

 

This is all great stuff, energising and full of hope. I suspect that John, like many of his compatriots, thought that the coming of Jesus the Messiah would herald in such an age of renewal that the old order would be overturned – the occupying Romans turned out, the kingdom restored, a return to the golden days of David the King with their enemies on the run. As is often the case, it didn’t turn out like that. Jesus was a teacher like none other. He did not seek power in any human way – by political or military means. He healed the sick, taught about making peace with the Romans, turning the other cheek, non-violence, reaching out to lepers and the dead. Meanwhile, John carried on with his message of black-and-white certainty, calling out the ruler, Herod, for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias. Was it any surprise that he got banged up in prison? Not at all. And in prison, deprived of his wilderness pulpit, in silence, confronted with his own thoughts he found that doubt, uncertainty was gnawing inside him. Had he got this right? Jesus wasn’t turning out to be the Messiah he had thought. And why was he, John, the prophet sent before him, in prison? Had he got it all wrong? Was God in this at all? And so he sent a messenger to Jesus to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ (Matt 11:2,3). Jesus answered him by telling him, through the messenger, what he was doing and to compare it with what he knew from the scriptures about the coming Messiah. Jesus invited John to re-think, to change his mind, to repent, to go beyond his ideas of what Messiah should be. It was exactly what John had been telling people to do as he started his ministry, proclaiming a baptism of re-thinking.

 

I have struggled with understanding John as I came to prepare this sermon. As I read the gospel passage I only saw the strident, certain prophet. But as I reflected more on his life, I came to see a more human figure. One whose hopes – the certainty that he preached with – did not work out in the way he expected. Whose fearless preaching got him into trouble, where perhaps more circumspection would have avoided it. One who doubted, who had to ask the question that was plaguing him: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’

 

I was very fortunate that when I came to faith as a teenage schoolboy, I was influenced and taught by some remarkable people at the church I attended. I owe a great debt to them. But I remember one time talking about doubt with one of the clergy. He remarked, holding an open Bible, ‘I used to have doubts, but I don’t any more’. That stuck with me as an ideal I should aspire to, so that when doubts about my faith did surface during my years at university, I felt doubly bad. Since then I have learned to live with doubt, to acknowledge it and recognise it as an essential part of my faith journey. Fast forward to this year, while walking in Portugal Rosemary and I met two women, friends, one Scottish and one English. I fell in to talking with the Scot and we shared stories about our families and our faith. She confessed to finding it hard to keep believing in God’s goodness when she experienced a personal tragedy but felt she had to just ignore her doubts and keep believing, wasn’t that what we were supposed to do? I gently pushed that back, speaking about doubt as something we all have, that it’s not wrong. That ‘certainty’ can actually be a bad thing because when we’re certain, we can’t listen. We can’t listen to ourselves, or other people, or in fact to what God Himself is speaking to us. So much pain in our world comes from people who are ‘certain’. I’m putting inverted commas around ‘certain’ to indicate that there will always be a shadow side of doubt there, whose unacknowledged presence will make us shout all the louder. That when we are ‘certain’, there is no room for faith – it is just not necessary. Anne Lamott, the author writes that: ‘The opposite of faith is not doubt: it is certainty’. I gave that quote with the Scottish lady. It gave her permission to leave behind her false certainty, which wasn’t certainty anyway and realise that we can’t know everything. It lifted a burden from her.

 

Doubts, or questions, may take many shapes and forms. We may have doubts at a very basic level about our faith: is it really true? Does God actually exist? How can God be good when there is such pain in the world? How can God be good when someone I love just died? We may have doubts at a more personal level: doubts about ourselves, fears that we are not who we seem, doubts that anyone can love me, let alone God. And there’s a temptation, in the face of messages planted deep within us, to ignore the questions and the doubts, pretending they are not there. It’s like trying to bury something that’s alive. It may indeed have been like that for John the Baptist, even as he was calling people to repentance and pointing to Jesus as ‘the One who is to come’.

 

It’s possible to see that John the Baptist was on a kind of spiritual journey as he travelled from that blinding certainty at the outset of his ministry down to a different man a few years later, stripped of his role as preacher, stripped of everything, pretty much, facing an uncertain future and facing too the internal doubts and questions about his mission: have I got it right? Have I made a huge mistake? The Franciscan teacher Richard Rohr speaks of the two halves of the spiritual life. The first half when we build our containers, build the framework of our lives, often with rules, certainties, confidence. Then something happens to us, often in middle age but can be at any time, when tragedy, crisis or illness strikes and the container breaks, the certainties are gone (which is what happened to John when he found himself arrested and in prison). And then what you’re left with is what was in the container and you learn to live with that without the false reassurance of so-called certainty. We might call that process repentance –that is, re-thinking, going beyond the old mindset. What emerges then is faith.

 

You will notice that I haven’t actually answered any doubts. That’s not the point. There is actually no such thing about complete certainty about anything. We may find some doubts can be addressed and answered: some can’t. Again, the space between our doubts and our convictions (to use a different word) is where faith lives. Or maybe a better word is trust.

 

So as we journey through the season of Advent, let us reflect on John the Baptist as he points us to Christ, as we wait for His coming into the world. Let us see and hear John, the powerful and charismatic preacher, calling men and women to re-think their lives, signalling the coming of Christ and himself baptising him in the Jordan river. But let’s not just see him as a two-dimensional figure, locked into the image of the fierce and certain preacher. His certainties were, in time, broken open and he had to go through his own repentance, his re-thinking as the Messiah he imagined turned out to be the wrong one, as he had to re-form his mind. Perhaps this is a time to face our own doubts and fears, to re-think our faith. John’s expression of his own certainties and doubts is contained within the gospel story: the gospel, the good news has space to hold them.

Richard Croft

slide01

The Start of Advent

Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 24:36-44

Imagine you’re waiting at a train station for someone arriving. You’re stood at the head of the platform looking down the concourse beside the recently arrived train with people streaming towards you. You crane your neck to peer above the on-coming crowd, scanning the faces to find the person you’re waiting for. The faces farthest away from you of course are smaller and less distinct, perhaps your eyesight is less good at distances. Once or twice you think you’ve seen your person – but no – it was just a similar hair colour, facial shape, or maybe someone else is wearing a jacket the person you’re waiting for normally wears and just for a moment you’re caught out. Finally you catch sight of them – but even then it take a little longer to see their expression clearly and to read their emotions: how has their journey been? Are they pleased to see you? It is only as they come towards you that clarity appears. It is in the coming towards that clarity appears.

slide02There’s a humorous version of this in a 2013 Specsavers advert: here’s the moment the girlfriend who has been waiting on the platform for her returning boyfriend realizes she’s kissing the wrong man…

slide03Today is the first Sunday of Advent – Advent marks the 4-week period in which we prepare for the arrival Jesus. At the risk of sounding like the John Cleese’s Roman Centurion Latin master from The Life of Brian, I should point out that although ‘advent’ is sometimes translated simply as ‘the coming’’ this isn’t quite right. Strictly speaking the last part, from the word ‘venire’, does indeed mean ‘to come’; but the ‘ad’ part on the front indicates direction – ‘ad’ means ‘to’ or ‘towards’. Advent means God’s coming towards us, and as with my opening image of waiting for someone to come towards us at the train station, this introduces the possibility that the closer God comes to us, the more clearly we perceive God.

slide04This week a young male student dropped into the University Chaplaincy. He wasn’t a Christian but had spent a lot of time reading about Christianity and he was interested. There were some things he seemed to like, but there were other things he found difficult. For example, he’d been reading from the Old Testament a passage in which God is described speaking and he pointed out how overbearing and simply arrogant this God sounded.

I think he expected me to defend this picture of God and he was rather taken aback when instead I agreed with him.

slide05The Bible, I tried to explain, is the record of the long story, lasting several thousand years, of God’s coming towards us. Broadly speaking it is a story in which humans gradually come to see God more clearly. Older parts see God, as merely a local deity for Israel, one among many national gods. These parts of Scripture see God in the form of a warrior, a controller of storms, a provider of food and fertility.

There’s a sense in which these images are partly true in as much as they hint at how God is so much more powerful, more creative than we are; and yet they are also partly wrong – they are unclear: too indistinct.

As I suggested to the interested student, it’s only really in the Gospels, in the person, life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth, that Christians ultimately claim to see God best and most clearly. This is what Christians mean by ‘progressive revelation’: as God comes towards humankind we see God more clearly. And so some of our first assumptions drop away: is God a stern warrior figure like a local warlord or the king of Babylon? Well, no.

slide06When God comes right up close actually God looks like Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus God comes towards us: this we can speak of as God’s First Advent.

You’ll have picked up from our Old Testament and Gospel readings this morning however more than a hint of judgement. Somewhat oddly, you might think, the people who put together our readings have mapped onto our 4-week period of waiting for God’s coming at Christmas, readings about God’s Second Coming, God’s final advent in judgement: “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father… Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

slide07Whether we think about the second coming as what happens when we each die, or whether we think of it as what happens in the future, having to think about it at all during the soul-destroying process of Christmas shopping seems to me particularly unfair. Couldn’t we be a little more cheerful – it is Christmas, after all?

But one benefit of overlapping the stories of God’s first coming towards us in Jesus, and God’s second coming towards in judgement, is that we might begin to realise than that they are not unconnected. It is not the case that in God’s first advent we are shown one form of God (a Jesus-shaped God), but in the second Advent we experience a God who comes with a big stick… No.

This week I sat for an hour listening to someone who a month ago left their partner after a marriage of 20 years. All through the marriage their partner had been controlling, manipulative and bullying, and the children having got to a sufficiently mature age, the person decided to leave. Among many emotions, two dominant ones were relief and guilt.

slide08As we talked I noticed in the person’s description a pattern that reminded me of the story of the Exodus – of how the Hebrews once left a place of captivity, to their great relief, and then entered a period of uncertainty: their wilderness wanderings in the desert of Sinai which included much looking back. It took the Hebrews forty years before they entered their new Promised Land. So, reflecting on this, I expressed my joy for the person’s freedom, sadness at what had passed, hope for their future.

The person I was speaking with expressed surprise at such affirmation – that I, a representative of God, might not judge them. I replied that judgment did have a role, but it was the judgment of trying (gradually and carefully) to tell the truth: to themselves about what had gone wrong, to the partner in as much as they would listen, and above all to the children about what had happened. Judgement is not condemnation – it is compassionate truth-telling.

slide09God’s second advent, God’s coming to us in judgment, whenever that might happen, is surely best understood as the experience of truth being told to us compassionately: the truth about how we got it wrong; the truth about who we were when we trying to be someone else; and the truth about how God’s image was indeed in us all along…

Here in pictorial form is ‘the mirror of truth’ – the crack on the left-hand side is reflected in the image of a heart on the other side; which in turn reflects back to surround the crack: in judgement truth-telling is framed with compassion.

There is of course much more to say on judgment than I have time to do carefully here…

But how can be sure of any of this?

slide10Well, perhaps because between the first advent and the second final advent, there is a third experience of God coming towards us. When is this? It is in the daily experience of God coming towards us when we pray…

What is it like to experience this third daily advent? Well, how do you find it when God comes towards you?

My personal experience is very close to a description found in a poem by RS Thomas. He describes God’s coming towards him as like sitting by a pool of water in a forest and waiting for a deer emerge from the trees:

slide11(…God) has the universe

to be abroad in.

There is nothing I can do

but fill myself with my own

silence, hoping it will approach

like a wild creature to drink

there, or perhaps like Narcissus

to linger a moment over its transparent face.

When I am still – perhaps when you are still – in moments of prayer, or in those moments in-between business, we can sometimes find God coming towards us. Of course whether God comes or not is up to God; but when God does come (again speaking personally) I find it is not with flashes and bangs, nor with cataclysmic condemnation for my many sins: no it is more like seeing clearly God’s image in me: ah, yes, there I see Christ and know God’s blessing, but ah – here the image is marred, distorted – I need to seek change…

The eleventh-century French medieval mystic and monk Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about this experience of a third advent like this:

slide12 The third coming is like a road on which we travel from the first coming to the last. In the first, Christ was our redemption; in the last, he will appear as our life; in this middle coming, he is our rest and consolation.”

When God comes to us today God brings many things – but often I find it is rest and consolation.

slide13Here is another train station picture. Marc Trautmann’s Welcome Home. It’s an unashamedly sentimental one: at the end of a retreat I was once asked to pick a picture of God – this one spoke to me – after a time of being distant from God, God comes towards us and meets us: yes there is regret, a desire to do better; but there is also pure enveloping love, like the father coming towards the prodigal son, like the rush of the baby coming at Christmas: like the coming of truth. First, second and third advents all share something of this quality.

God has come towards us clearly in Jesus

God will come towards us at our deaths in clarity of truth

And God comes towards us now to show us clearly who we are and who we can be. Amen