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Nazareth Manifesto

A Nazareth Manifesto

Luke 4.14-21

Introduction

If you could summarise in a few sentences the very essence of your being – about who you are and what is unique about you – what would you say? Don’t worry, there’s no way I’m going to ask you to write that down, but it would be a very hard thing to do, wouldn’t it?

Many organisations, including big well-known brands, have to do this when creating their mission statement, explaining what is unique and different about them. I wonder if you can guess the name of the global organisations that have these mission statements?

‘To inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.’

‘To refresh the world in mind, body and spirit. To inspire moments of optimism and happiness ‘

‘Our vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Our business idea supports this vision by offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.’

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that these are not really about the product they offer – but how they transform our lives, inspiring our spirit, creating a better life for us, giving us moments of optimism and happiness.

And so we come to our gospel reading and what some call the mission statement, or manifesto, of Jesus. He begins by reading the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, foretelling the coming of a Messiah, to bring good news to the poor, proclaim liberty to the captives, sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed and announcing that the time has come when the Lord will save his people. And after that he gives a one sentence sermon, the first recorded words of his public ministry: ‘This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.’ This words of Isaiah are Jesus’ manifesto; the essence of who he is, what he will do and how he is unique.

When you read this passage in Luke’s gospel, you might notice that it is written almost in real time, as if you are reading a play or a film script. It has the details of Jesus rolling up the scroll, sitting down, the people waiting with their eyes fixed on him. It’s making the point that what is important is happening now, in front of their eyes. The hundreds of years of waiting for the Messiah is now here. God is here now, it’s happening live, here with you.

But there’s something else unusual about this passage.

Did you notice in the Bible passage that it mentions almost in passing, where this is located? It says ‘Then Jesus went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.’ Jesus preaches his first recorded sermon in his birthplace of Nazareth.

I wonder if you have been to a church service where the location has been as memorable as the words you have heard? I remember one sermon I heard over 30 years ago. I was travelling out on the dawn ferry to the tiny island of Eigg, near Skye in the highlands of Scotland. I wasn’t quite sure what I’d find, particularly as a friend had cynically described it as ’60 drunkards clinging to a rock’. On the ferry was a Church minister, who encouraged me to attend his service that evening on Eigg. I went along with some reluctance, having heard my fair share of sermons of damnation and hellfire in Scottish churches. That evening in a corrugated roofed shack, with almost half the island present, he preached a sermon about God’s love and words of gentle encouragement that God was there with them; with them in that harsh and bleak environment in their forgotten community lost out in the sea. On the ferry back I asked him why he’d chosen that theme of God with us. He simply said ‘That is what they needed to hear.’

Here in the gospel reading, Jesus is returning to where he spent 90% of his human life, to a small agricultural town set in the middle of nowhere, far away from the busy trade routes. A place of probably only a few hundred people, scratching an existence from the land, dealing with the usual family problems, trying to get by whilst those in power far away seemed keen on messing up life for them. A forgotten place of ordinary people. When one of the disciples asked Nathanael to come and meet Jesus of Nazareth he replies bluntly: ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’

I wonder if you’ve ever considered why Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until he was 30 years old? There are several good theological and cultural reasons why he might have waited so long. But could it also be because he simply enjoyed being with us: to live a life amongst the forgotten people of the tiny village of Nazareth:

to spend so much of his life not amongst the rich, the famous and religious, but living alongside farmers and carpenters. Just being with people, understanding and experiencing the messiness of life.

Recently I have been reading this book called A Nazareth Manifesto, written by Sam Wells, the vicar of St Martin in the Fields. He explains that there is an often neglected four letter word in the Bible that describes the essence of who God is and his desire for us: the simple word with.

And you can see how this word with is used throughout the New Testament to describe the essence of God’s desire.

From the birth of the son to be named Emmanuel which means God with us. It’s the Word become flesh to live with us. Of the person who in the beginning was with God … and without him not one thing came into being. A person whose final words in Matthew’s gospel are: Behold, I am with you always.’ To the very end of Revelation, the final epiphany or revelation of God’s eternal purpose for us: ‘Now God’s home is with people! He will live with them, and they shall be his people. God himself will be with them.’’

And it’s this act of being with that lies at the heart of who we are too and our purpose as a Church and in our community. In our second Bible reading today from 1 Corinthians we heard about how we are all a part of the body of Christ. Each of us is unique, with our own personal journey and experiences we bring – all the struggles and skills, the joy and the pain. But it is by being with each other, valuing our diversity and differences, that we become Christ’s body.

Back in 1938, a research study was set up to try and answer the question: What makes a good life? It took 724 boys or teenagers from two different backgrounds – a group of students from Harvard college and another from one of the poorest areas in Boston – and set out to study what kept them happy and healthy through life. Amazingly, the research is still continuing today with around 60 of the original group still alive into their 90s and almost 2,000 children included in the research.

During that time and thousands upon thousands of pages of notes, the research has followed some as they have climbed up the social ladder and others as they have gone down it. Some who have become famous, even including one president, and others who have struggled with alcoholism and schizophrenia.

As the researchers go back to those who started in inner-city Boston, they are asked ‘Why are you still interested in me? My life isn’t that interesting’. In all their years of research, those from Harvard haven’t asked those questions!

Many started out in their teens thinking that they would gain happiness through working hard, getting lots of money, becoming famous. However, the clearest message they got from 80 years of research was this (and it’s advice which is as simple and as old as the hills):

‘Good relationships keep us happier and healthier.’

And it wasn’t about the number of friends, or even whether people were married or single, but about the quality of these relationships. Looking back at people in their 50s, it wasn’t middle-age cholesterol levels that told them how healthy people were going to be at 80 It was how satisfied they were in relationships, however messy and imperfect those were. It was having relationships where you could really count on others to care and support you.

The writer Mark Twain, as an old man, looking back over his life wrote:

“There isn’t time, so brief is life, for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. There is only time for loving, and but an instant, so to speak, for that.”

If being with is the nature of God and we are designed to be with others, then what does this mean for us and for our church? It isn’t always possible, but are there relationships that have broken down over the years that can be mended? And how are we called to be with others here in in our church or in the communities in which we live?

Those short words of Jesus’ sermon, just one sentence long, summarised the essence of his being and purpose: ‘This passage of scripture has come true today, as you heard it being read.’ And even that can be summarised simply into one word: Emmanuel: that God is. God is with. God is with us.

Amen.

baptismofchrist-francesca (2)

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

 

JonBaptistIcon

Light and Dark

Advent 3 –  Zephaniah 3.14-20, Luke 3.7-18

This Sunday we have lit a candle for John the Baptist.  Last Sunday when we were considering prophets in general we heard the first part of Luke’s description of John.  He was a prophet who preached baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  He was called to be in the wilderness (a reminder of the Exodus wanderings of the Israelites in the desert), preparing his people for the arrival of someone who would, like Moses, lead his people to a place of freedom.  Now today we find out what John actually said in his preaching.

Earlier this week when I told someone I would be preaching today they said, ‘I hope it’ll be cheerful’.  I made a non committal grunt, not having really looked at today’s passages.  When I read our gospel, though, I remembered someone I used to work with.  We would joke that he was good at giving tough encouragement.  By that we meant that when we ventured to talk about something that bothered us he would say the equivalent of ‘tough!’  John the Baptist’s preaching would seem to be of that kind, whilst  Zephaniah’s, usually doom ridden, turns out to be more cheerful in our OT reading this morning.  And this Sunday is intended to be cheerful – it was given the name ‘Gaudete’, Latin for ‘Praise’.

Advent has this unsettling mixture of waiting in hope for something wonderful that is going to happen, but also in fearful anticipation because when it does all our weaknesses will be exposed.  Or to use John’s language, trees that don’t bear good fruit will be cut down and destroyed and our chaff will be separated from our wheat, with short shrift being given to the chaff, and this, Luke says (v18) is the good news preached by John.  So I want to consider what is this good news about judgement, repentance, sin?

To do this I’m going to draw on a recent visit to our link diocese of Växjö in Sweden.  That diocese will be 850 years old in 2020 and I want to go back to a hundred or so years before that to events that led to its being founded.

Back in the 11th century the easiest way to travel around Europe was by sea, much of the country being covered by forests, and roads being little more than dirt tracks.  In spite of these challenges there was good communication between different parts of Europe – letters were exchanged, as were beautifully illuminated books and manuscripts.  One day in summer time a group of monks, including 3 nephews of the leader Sigfrid, set out probably from York across the North Sea in response to a request from a Viking ruler to their king, Aethelred, that he send missionaries to Sweden.  He wanted to be baptized.  This was in the early part of the 11th century.  By then there had been a Christian presence in this country for at least 700 years.  In Sweden, the country to which they were heading, less than a hundred.

When the group arrived they encountered a landscape much harsher than the one they had left.  The forests were thicker and therefore darker than the ones at home.  In fact they quickly learnt that the word ‘dark’ was invariably paired with the word ‘forest’ in the local language.  Not only that but the forest floor and any clearings were scattered with stones and boulders, some of them huge.  Growing crops was therefore backbreaking work.  There appeared to be no towns, but scattered groups of huts, often near a well around which the trees had been cut down.  It was to these newcomers a wilderness, not only geographically, but psychologically.  Fear was everywhere.  Fear of hunger – food was scarce; fear of what lurked in the forest – bears, wolves, or worse;  in the dark the stones could take on strange shapes…, fear of the gods (it was said that in a cosmic battle way back the gods had hurled these huge stones at each other, thus covering the earth below), fear of other human beings.

Sigfrid and his group saw themselves rather like John the Baptist, called to cry out in this wilderness, to make a way through it and to declare the good news that Someone greater than them was already here and reaching out to them.  They set up camp in a clearing near a well and continued as best they could the monastic routine they followed at home.  We can assume that this would have been Benedictine and therefore have been a balance of work, study and prayer – the prayer being communal and including the singing of the psalms.  Next to a well that survives to this day and is one of several named after Sigfrid, there is a boulder shaped rather like a lectern where it’s possible to imagine one of the monks standing, preaching to those who came to the well.  What would they have been preaching?  We don’t know.  We can only hazard some guesses as we notice particular features of worship in the Swedish church today.

Handling darkness is one of the big challenges in northern Europe.  Almost certainly Sigfrid and others would have announced Jesus as being the Light of the world.  John’s gospel was a favourite with the monastic orders and they would have drawn on that first chapter describing Jesus as a light shining in the darkness, the arrival of which, like JB, they were announcing.  The light shines in the dark forests, not only revealing the strange shapes for what they are – not trolls or evil spirits, but boulders and trees, but also challenging their power to generate fear.  Jesus is a light more powerful than any source of darkness, enabling us not only to confront darkness, but also our fears.  Confronting darkness with light is a big theme in Swedish churches during Advent.  Even people who don’t usually attend church are likely to attend on Advent Sunday when there are special hymns and candles everywhere and then on Dec 13, St Lucy’s Day, the whole country takes part in celebration of a saint associated with light – what they call Santa Lucia – and there are candlelit processions in churches, schools, hospitals, all over the place.

At a time when few people could read or write the monks would have taught verses of scripture by getting their hearers to repeat them until they knew them by heart.  When entering the forest they would then have those words about Jesus as the light to accompany them.  They could have said them aloud – shouting them if they wished!  Or, they could have sung them.  As I said earlier, monks sang the Psalms and psalms are full of rejoicing and of not being afraid.  Singing itself can be an antidote to fear.  And singing is a big feature of Swedish Christianity to this day.  When I was there a few weeks ago and Advent was mentioned in one of the meetings, the Swedish clergy spontaneously broke out into an Advent hymn that they had learnt from childhood!  Singing challenges the darkness.  Notice that Zephaniah tells his people to do just that in our OT reading.  ‘Sing, O daughter of Zion, shout aloud O Israel…never again will you fear any harm’, he says.

Light, of course, does have its down side, as I thought last week when a particularly bright day highlighted the smears on our windows and dust almost everywhere.  It shows us what’s wrong.  But Luke, in his narrative about JB, calls this good news.  It’s good news to see the smears and the dust because JB is saying that injustices are about to be put right by the one who is coming (hence Herod being so twitchy about him and putting him in prison), and that because he is there and is alerting us we have time to put our own house in order before he arrives.  The areas that JB homes in on are still relevant to today.

First to religious people (those calling themselves the children of Abraham), the equivalent of churchgoers like us, not to assume that somehow we are exempt from calls to get ready; to those who, also like us, have plenty and enough, to share with those who haven’t; to those who would have been regarded as beyond redemption by Jesus’ religious contemporaries – the tax collector and the soldier (we can perhaps think of contemporary equivalents)-, to avoid dishonesty in their business practice, and bullying and bribery (a certain high level American lawyer comes to mind this week).  It’s as though JB is saying that God’s scheme of things allows for time to put things right.  The other bit of the good news that we might not notice is that this opportunity is for everyone, not just the chosen people.  Who’d have expected tax collectors and Roman soldiers to be included in the new order that’s on its way?  Luke is the only gospel writer to continue the quotation from Isaiah earlier in this chapter to include the words ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of our God’.

Like JB, Sigfrid and his companions would have given some basic ethical teaching as part of the preparation for baptism.  It would have related to whatever was the local culture, one that seems to have been very violent.  The good news was that there was now an invitation to adopt a new way of life and they were being offered the opportunity to prepare for it, to start turning towards the light and away from darkness, ready for baptism.  However, given the emphasis in Swedish churches on moving towards darkness carrying light and singing God’s praises in the face of it I think we can assume that those new Christians were not being told to avoid darkness, or ignore it, or worse pretend that it doesn’t exist.  Instead, like Sigfrid, like JB, they were to be light bearers in the darkness, to shine as lights in the darkness, moving into it, challenging it, emptying it of its power.  ‘Shine as light in the world to the glory of God the Father’, we say in baptism.

Sigfrid was called on to do this in a very particular way.  Once a Christian community was established in the Växjö area he moved on to other places to share the gospel.  While he was away there was a violent uprising during which his 3 nephews were murdered.  Reprisals were the order of the day and the local ruler ordered the perpetrators to pay a huge sum of money to the monks, guessing that they would be pleased to have enough to build a church.  This would indeed have been the case, but Sigfrid refused, saying that he preferred to offer forgiveness instead.  It’s on this kind of foundation that the current diocese of Växjö is built.

Time is running out for us to get ready for Jesus’ coming – less than 10 days!  But the good news is that the offer still stands.  We can ask how God might like us to prepare, and we can ask that he be specific, just as John was specific about what form repentance might take for different groups of people.  And God doesn’t reply, ‘tough’ like that colleague of mine.  Nor does he give us a deadline by which we have to respond.  He gently works with our desire to turn towards the light.  There is mercy.  So perhaps this is a cheerful sermon!

 

Christine Bainbridge

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The Shape of Everything

Acts 3:13-19, Luke 24:36-48

If you have seen the film, ‘The Shape of Water’, you may have wondered about the title. The movie takes its name from Plato’s idea that in its purest form, water takes the shape of an icosahedron, a 20-sided polyhedron, evoking the idea that beauty has many faces. It’s a lovely, unlikely film where Sally Hawkins falls in love with a humanoid sea-creature, ugly to our eyes but beautiful to hers. The shape of water.

Luke is the author of the gospel passage we read this morning, or, as I am coming to like to call it, the Jesus story. In those few verses, right at the end of his account, Luke gives us a summary: ‘the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’. These few words have a particular shape, containing as they do suffering and death – crucifixion – on the one hand and new life – resurrection – on the other. The cross-resurrection message, Luke goes on to tell us, is at the heart of the message of forgiveness for the world. I want to look at this in a particular way that I hope we will find enlarges our understanding and our faith, using the metaphor of shape.

Firstly, I want to say that this book, the Scriptures, has itself the shape of death and life, cross and resurrection. Jesus tells us that “’…everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled. Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.’” (Lk 24:44-46) What he is saying is that his death and resurrection were clearly foreshadowed in the Scriptures: that is, the OT. Let me illustrate briefly with three examples. If you’re not familiar with the stories, I will reference everything and you can look it up later. It’s important to understand that Jesus’ death and resurrection didn’t come out of the blue: there was a shape to much of the OT – the shape of death to life. First, there is the grand movement of the Exodus: the captivity and slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt and their escape (Exodus 1-14) – from captivity to freedom, the shape of death to life. Then within that story is another story with the same shape, just so we don’t miss the point – the death of the Passover lamb and the horrible death of the firstborn in Egypt (Exodus 12) which led to Pharaoh driving them out of his country. Again, death to life. Secondly, there are many individual figures in the OT with this shape. The clearest is Joseph, poor boastful Joseph, literally thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, then unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, and thrown into prison. But God reveals dreams to him which he interprets to Pharaoh and he becomes ruler of Egypt. Slavery to redemption. Death to life, crucifixion to resurrection (Genesis 37-47). Finally there are the prophets. I will mention only one, the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, written around 700 years before Jesus’ birth, speaking of someone who is to come, a suffering servant: ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…yet he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light.’ (Isaiah 53:4,5,10,11). This remarkable chapter in Isaiah prefigures the coming of the Messiah, a servant who will mysteriously suffer in order to give us life, who will die, but will see new life. It traces the shape of the One who was to come, and in the person of Jesus the dots are joined together. Scripture is Jesus-shaped.

I’ve made a bit of a meal about the shape of scripture for two reasons. Firstly, Jesus does himself. No argument there! Secondly, because if we believe anything, if we say that we believe that Jesus, in his life and death and resurrection achieved our salvation, that is, our healing; and if we say that in Jesus, God himself was dwelling, and if we say, look, this didn’t happen out if the blue, it’s actually prefigured in the OT, then get this: not only is scripture Jesus-shaped, God is Jesus-shaped. I don’t know what picture of God you carry in your mind – an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud? A kindly uncle? A kindly aunt? Put those images away. God has the shape of Jesus. And as we reflect on his death and resurrection, it’s a blood-and-guts picture as well as one of new life, of victory – even if his hands and feet and side still carry the marks of the nails and the spear (John 20:27). Paul tells us in his letter to the Colossians that ‘He is the image of the invisible God’ (1:15) – an image which includes all the suffering of the cross, death and resurrection. I am certain that when Ascension day comes, Vince will remind us that what the ascension tells us, is that all of this is taken up into the Godhead, into the Person of God himself.

This is treasure beyond price. But I want to widen the field still further. In speaking of Scripture having the shape of Jesus, the shape of cross and resurrection, and then of God Himself having that same shape, we are still being sort-of ‘churchy’. I came to faith some 40-odd years ago with the idea of ‘personal salvation’, that it was all about me somehow. And I had a message to tell people about admitting sin, coming to Christ, receiving his forgiveness through the cross and then the promise of eternal life through his resurrection. And all of that is true, and absolutely right for me and for many people at the time. The trouble is it was too small. It’s not only that Scripture is Jesus-shaped, or that God is Jesus-shaped – thinking particularly of cross and resurrection – it’s that everything is Jesus-shaped! We don’t have to look very hard to see the same shape spread across not only humanity, not only the world, but the whole universe. The animal and plant kingdoms have been following a cycle of death and new life for billions of years. Paul himself, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, in Greece, writes about the resurrection. He uses the illustration of a seed which first has to die – that is, to be put into the ground, before it comes to life again (1 Corinthians 15:35-57). The universe itself is full of stars dying and being born again. It’s like this: from the smallest microbe to the biggest galaxy, in the Scriptures, in our own lives there is the shape of death and life: the shape of Jesus, the shape of God himself, the shape of everything. Have we got it yet?

In our human existence we experience death and new life – quite literally, but also within our own lives as we face pain and suffering and then sometimes, new life as well. I deliberately say ‘sometimes’. We will not always see the reality of resurrection, of new life and hope. We can reflect that in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, there really wasn’t much hope, maybe none at all. With one or two exceptions, the story of Jesus’ death reads like it’s the end. We tend to view the cross through the lens of the resurrection, but the reason the resurrection reads like a surprise is because it was a surprise! Who really knew that would happen? For the disciples and everyone around the cross, it looked exactly  like the end – it was a public execution. Did even Jesus know the resurrection was coming? He had some hope – ‘today you will be with me in paradise’, said to one of the two thieves crucified with him (Luke 23:43) but coming back and eating fish on a lakeside (John 21)? Maybe not! ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46) doesn’t sound full of hope, does it? ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30) sounds, well, like an ending.

I say that because sometimes it can feel like there is no hope at all. Yet the Jesus story contains even hopelessness (which, weirdly, can give us hope). We can draw a line between the bleakness and futility of the torture and death of an innocent man on a Roman cross and our own experiences of bleakness and futility. Many years ago I spent 6 weeks on a training course in India, became friends with a German doctor, Dirk, on the same course. We had a lot of fun together, and I stoically endured the merciless teasing about warm, flat British beer with gritted teeth and a plastic smile. We talked often about faith – he wasn’t a believer – and one time he asked me, what do you say about suffering? I began to talk about the cross, the suffering of Jesus. After a few minutes he said, ‘Stop! It’s enough for me to know that you have somewhere to go with it!’

Some of you know that Rosemary and I have recently got back from a visit to Myanmar where our son and daughter-in-law are working for a few months. While we were that side of the world, we took the opportunity to visit Cambodia with Jon and Alexia. On our last day we visited the Genocide museum and Killing fields in Phnom Penh, the capital. Some 2 million people – that’s a quarter of the country’s population – almost all completely innocent, were tortured and killed in around 200 centres around the country in the years 1974-1979 at the hands of the Khmer Rouge under their paranoid leader, Pol Pot. It is the most sobering and depressing place I have ever been to, yet it is part of our global history. Before we went Rosemary and I prayed together and read verses from Isaiah 53: ‘He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with grief’ (v.3). Those words are so poignant, connecting like an electric circuit with the horrors of what happened at Tuol Sleng prison and I wept. In her prayer, Rosemary thanked God for the resurrection of the country, much in evidence now. And there it is again. Crucifixion and resurrection. Look for that pattern, that shape. It is everywhere.

‘Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’ (Luke 24:47) comes near the end of our gospel reading. I have said before that I the word ‘repentance’ quite problematic. It seems to me, at least, to have too narrow a focus: ‘what have you been up to, then? – you had better repent of that!’ I much prefer to break the word down into two halves – ‘re’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘pent’ from the French penser, ‘to think’. Rethink your life! No so much what have you done wrong today (although there may be profit in that!) but what direction is my life taking? How does my life line up with the Jesus story? And rethink the cross and resurrection – not just isolated events in history, but fulfilling the shape of Scripture written hundreds of years in advance; somehow revealing not only the shape of God Himself but the shape of everything. And you are forgiven! Again, I find the word ‘forgiven’ a bit narrow although it’s true, but it’s not enough – not only forgiven, you are loved, accepted, welcomed. If Jesus could forgive the men who nailed him to the cross – and he did – he can surely accept you!

Richard Croft

 

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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.

Luke 9vv28-36 Transfiguration Ikon

The Transfiguration

Luke 9:28-36:

After university I went to Kenya as a CMS Volunteer, and worked in a technical training school in Nairobi. I met Rachel in Kenya, as she was another CMS (which became known among us as the Church’s Marriage Society, for obvious reasons) Volunteer. Rachel lived in a beautiful spot called Mugumo, just south and on the slopes of Mt. Kenya. Another friend of ours taught at school just around the mountain at Kiamutugu.

This friend had studied theology at Durham, so his pupils got rather good RE lessons. The school was an ‘harambe’, or self-help school, cheaply constructed with classrooms, plain block wall and tin roofs, looking out over a large playing field, plain brick walls and a tin roof. One day he was teaching them about theophanies, or when God reveals himself directly, and is often used for dramatic events like the pillar of cloud and fire that went before the Israelites in the desert, or the clouds and thunder on Mt. Sinai when Moses received the law. After talking about theophany, David went to the classroom door, opened it, and immediately a bolt of lightning, framed by the door, struck the field outside, and there was a tremendous crash of thunder. He calmly shut the door, turned round, and went back to his desk, while the children stared, frozen in absolute shock at this muzungu who could call God’s wrath from the sky.

The Transfiguration is a theophany, with God speaking directly to the disciples from the cloud: This is my Son, whom I have chosen – listen to him. It appears in all the synoptic gospels (Matthew 171-8, Mark 92-8, Luke 928-36) and is referred to in 2 Peter 116-18, and maybe John 114 (We saw his glory, the glory which he received as the Father’s only Son.). It stands out with other significant events in Jesus life: the star and other signs around the nativity; Jesus’ baptism, when God says This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased.’ (Matthew 317); and the earthquake, darkness and rending of the temple curtain at Jesus’ death (Matthew 2745, 51-52).

What is the Transfiguration about? It is a strange mixture of elements. It is clearly an endorsement of Jesus, as God’s Son and messenger: listen to him. Jesus is the link between earth and heaven. The presence of Moses and Elijah, the pre-eminent messengers of God in the Old Testament, emphasises Jesus’ importance, and God is now singling him out, above Moses and Elijah, as the one to listen to. Yet it is only seen by three disciples, Peter, James and John, who were asleep for first bit, and then afterwards are told to keep it a secret. In Mark’s gospel they are told to wait until after Jesus had risen from the dead, a phrase which confused them. The Transfiguration is proof that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah, but hardly anyone knew about it. It is a rare theophany, something that would have remained with Peter, James and John all their lives, but not something Jesus ever mentioned to the crowds, a miracle Jesus wanted no-one to know about.

I wonder if it was also to comfort and strengthen Jesus. It says that Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about the way in which he would soon fulfil God’s purpose by dying in Jerusalem (in Greek it says they spoke about his ‘exodus’, his leaving). We know, from the story of the Garden of Gethsemane (|Matthew 2626-46) – another occasion when the disciples were asleep – that Jesus, quite naturally, struggled with the path he was on. He knew, even here, that his path lead to Jerusalem and death, and though he was God, we was also human, and he was afraid. Here are Moses -the Law, Elijah – the Prophets, and God – the Father, encouraging him in what he had to do.

The Transfiguration also points to the resurrection, and the hope associated with that. Jesus is seen transformed, like the resurrection body. The disciples also see Moses (who died) and Elijah (who was taken up to heaven, but a long time before), are still very much alive and present. God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. This is where Jesus ministry will end, not just for him, but for all who follow him.

I quite like that this was a quiet event. It was not flashy, seeking publicity, in front of a crowd, to make Jesus a celebrity. It is understated, workmanlike. What is important here is Jesus relationship with his Father, the preparation for his ministry. A few trusted friends are let into the secret too, into something that they do not fully understand at the time, but would do later. It is not something they can bottle or keep, or even extend, as Peter tries to do. But as they went on to found Christ’s church, this was there to support them in hard times and challenges.

For us? God will come to us too in times of challenge. Probably not with glowing figures from the Bible, but with friends, or inner encouragement from something; a prayer, a passage, a view, a story… Our theophanies may not be actual thunderbolts, but they can be like a thunderbolt in the way they change us. And Jesus, the reason for us being here in church at all, is shown as God’s messenger in the most powerful way: listen to him!

Jeremy Thake

 

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The Feast of the Circumcision and Naming of Christ

Numbers 6.22-end, Luke 2.15-21

The feast of the circumcision and naming of Christ

 

‘it had been just as the angel had told them.’

These words are the focus of what I want to say this morning as we celebrate that day in the church year when we remember Mary and Joseph officially naming Jesus.

It’s the time of year when we play party games and have quizzes. So this morning I have some statements about names to give you. I want you to say whether they are true or false.

Sampans is the name given to the houseboats popular for holidays in Kerala, south India

False ‘kettuvalloms’.

Abuja is the capital of Nigeria. True

Adele is the British female singer whose recent album ‘25’ sold most copies in 2016. True

A vomitorium is the name given in ancient Rome to a room where people could go and be sick during a banquet. False. It was the exit to a stadium, enabling crowds to leave quickly.

If we want to verify the truth of any of these statements we can go to Uncle Google. The ‘truth’ here is about factual accuracy. But that’s not the only kind of truth. If we want to know the truth about a person we would certainly need accurate facts about their age, occupation, address etc, but that wouldn’t tell us all we need to know. How would we know what kind of person they were; whether they were kind or honest, or good with children, or knew how to fix things? That’s a different sort of truth. We might talk to their friends or go to their Facebook page, but we know that even those might not be entirely truthful about them. If we talk to them ourselves, how can we know if what they say is reliable?

In the past year we have become increasingly suspicious about the reliability of what other people, especially our leaders tell us. The words ‘post truth’ are now being used to describe a way of speaking that tells us what politicians and others think we want to hear. Someone was telling me last week how when their company is negotiating a deal their MD will exaggerate its benefits to their competitor, even though he knows that their claims are unlikely to be realised. This approach is seen as commendable; he is aiming high, talking big, being ambitious. We view advertising with scepticism. I regularly pass a place where you can take out a ‘same day loan.’ Above the shop is a large poster of a happy looking chap cheerily saying ‘and you still get to keep your car.’ Someone has scribbled underneath this, ‘Yes, you’ll be living in it.’

How often can we say about something or someone, like the shepherds, ‘It’s just as we have been told’?

The truth we seek is usually about consistency, reliability and honesty. We want what’s written on the outside of the packet to be an accurate description of its contents. This has always been the case, although each era might voice the concern differently.

Listen to this; ‘Justice is driven away and right cannot come near. Truth stumbles in the public square and honesty finds no place there. Truth is lacking; anyone who stops doing evil finds himself the victim of crime’. Isaiah (59.14-15) speaking to the people of Israel in the 6th century BC.

This brings us to this special day when we remember Jesus being officially named. His name means God Saves. How many of you wrote Saviour as one of Jesus’ names? There are many other names too, of course. In the first 2 chapters of his gospel Luke is underlining in every way possible the truth of this name. He wants us to know that the events being described are clear signs of God’s activity; everything happens exactly as God’s messengers, the angels, have said; Zechariah loses his voice, Elizabeth has a son in her old age, they give him the name John even though no one in the family is called that. Mary has a baby by divine intervention, the shepherds see him in a manger just as the angels had instructed, and now the baby today is given the name Jesus. It’s all exactly as written on the packet as it were. Reliable. Consistent. Trustworthy.So, this name must be true, Luke is saying, and the rest of his gospel is a demonstration of that truth.

What do we mean when we say that Jesus is our Saviour, or Jesus saves? My brother in law inherited a dishwasher in his new kitchen. However, he frequently washes up himself, saying ‘you know where you are with washing up’. This has become something a catch phrase in his family and his son gave him an apron for Xmas with the words ‘you know where you are….’ on it!  We can say this about Jesus – we know where we are with him. He is trustworthy, consistent, reliable – there is a perfect congruence between what he says, what he does and who he is. He saves us because he invites us to enter this truth about him and to allow it to sink into us so that the same becomes true of us. What we are on the outside becomes the same as what we are on the inside. People can know where they are with us, if you like.

This kind of truth is what prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea etc longed to see in their people. The psalmists asked how we might find this truth and live by it. The ‘how’ was the big question. Ps 86 11 ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. Knit my heart to yours that I may honour your name’, is a characteristic cry of the psalmist.

I wonder if any of you had the Way or the Truth or the Life as one of Jesus’ names? We can call Jesus Saviour because of these three names – Way, Truth, Life. He is our ‘how’ so to speak. He is God’s answer to the question how?

If you really want to know the truth about someone you have to spend time with them, to watch what they do and say. If you want to become like them that is even more the case. If we call ourselves Christians we are Christ’s apprentices. We have signed up for a lifetime’s apprenticeship where we allow him to teach us, share his life with us, discipline us so that we can become what he is. We’ll be walking the same paths as him, listening for his instructions, eating with him.

That is exactly what Luke is wanting to enable us to do through reading his gospel. In his introduction he dedicates his book to a follower of Christ called Theophilus so that he has an ‘orderly account’ and can know, I quote, ‘the full truth about what you have been taught’. By putting together an orderly narrative Luke enables Theophilus and us to accompany Jesus through his birth, teaching, healing, death and resurrection. Through this journey we are ‘saved’ ie we are changed from the inside out so that we become more Christ like. People look at us and see something of Jesus there.

I’d like you to look at the name you’ve written on your piece of paper. Stick with that name rather than adding any more – your first thought is often the most telling. How far does that name connect with your own experience of Christ? Might there be ways in which you’d like it to be more true of your relationship with him? Perhaps you are still seeking Christ. If so just try sitting with the name, repeating it to yourself, and see what that’s like. If you know you are an apprentice of Christ I invite you during some silence to address Jesus in a prayer using the name you’ve written down.

During the offertory hymn the children will gather up your slips of paper and put them in front of the crib as a reminder of the many names by which the Christ child is known.

During communion I invite you to receive anointing and prayer for healing and wholeness. This is something the church has offered from the very beginning. At its best the church is a channel for Christ’s transforming love. The people doing the prayer and anointing this morning are representing all of us as those channels. At the start of this new year let’s make the most of the resources offered to us for living as Christ’s apprentices wherever we are.

 

Christine Bainbridge