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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

Sermon given 19th July by Christine Bainbridge

Sermon 19 July 2015 Mark 6. 30-34, 53-56

I wonder how you are today? What kind of week have you had? As always there’s been a lot going on internationally – Greece, a possible nuclear deal with Iran, closer to home concerns about the future of the BBC. Then our own circumstances – what’s been happening at work or home. Decisions we need to take. Health concerns. All these surround us as we come to our readings from scripture this morning. This is our context. How might our faith address it?

If you were here last week you may remember hearing about king Herod, a particularly unpleasant ruler. Both our readings today look at how people with power and authority exercise it – the rulers of Israel in our OT reading from Jeremiah and Jesus and his disciples in our gospel passage. So, the focus I want us to have as we consider these extracts from scripture this morning is leadership; what insights might we gain about leadership from scripture and how might these help us in our particular context?

Today we’re hearing about a group of our members going to Taize. They have leaders! I’d like to ask those of you in the group what qualities you most want to see in your leaders. Wait for response. Take microphone round. Repeat some of the qualities.

It sounds as though you will all flourish under good leadership whilst at Taize.

Let’s look at how the prophet Jeremiah describes bad leaders:
They don’t take care of their people
They scatter them and drive them away
They make them afraid and terrified.
I was very struck by this reference to bad leaders scattering people and terrifying them; I guess that’s partly what lies behind the great movement of refugees from different parts of the world at present. Like the Israelites thousands of these people are being scattered. Jeremiah looks forward to a time when his people will live in their land in peace, feeling safe, with a ruler who cares for them. He dreams of God gathering his people and leading them himself.

Hold up an empty picture frame. Our gospel today is a bit odd. It’s like this empty picture frame. The missing picture is the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 which we will hear next week. Our reading from Mark is just the frame around this miracle – some verses before and some verses after it. Perhaps our lectionary is being influenced by post modern art, showing more interest in the space around something than in the thing itself? I don’t know! What I do know is that the frame helps us see the kind of leadership exercised by Jesus and the disciples – a leadership that makes possible the picture in the frame – the feeding of the 5,000. The frame holds that picture and enables us to see it better. So let’s look at the frame and see what it tells us about Jesus’ leadership.

Jesus is someone who gathers people rather than scatters them. We see him here gathering his 12 closest followers after they have been out on the road doing the same things as him. This also reminds us that he’s the kind of leader who trusts colleagues with whatever is his central task. He’s now gathering them for a debrief and a rest. Next we see him gathering the crowd that has followed them – he begins to teach them many things. Further round the frame Mark gives us a glimpse of the gathering that would happen wherever he went. Rather than wanting to run away people wanted to draw as close to him as possible. He regularly welcomes this (people bringing children to him, Zacchaeus, Bartimaeus, the woman with the issue of blood….)

He cares for people – he sees his disciples need a rest and tries to arrange this, he can see that the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’ and, crucially, he has pity on them. (‘When Jesus saw the crowd he was filled with pity because they were like sheep without a shepherd’). A better word might be ‘compassion’ because ‘pity’ more conveys feeling sorry for someone. The Greek word means to experience deep feeling that spills over into action – in Jesus’ case, beginning to teach the crowd. This word is only used of Jesus in the NT and in 3 parables with close reference to himself. Matthew and Luke also refer to Jesus having compassion on a crowd. Compassion is a key ingredient in Jesus’ leadership. He seriously loves these people. Mark’s picture frame demonstrates how attractive this is – people are drawn to him.
So, on our leadership checklist –
Drawing others to you
Trusting them with your mission
Caring for them
Caring for those to whom your mission is directed and with whom you have no ties at all (‘the crowd’)
Exercising compassion

It’s this kind of compassion that I imagine motivated Brother Roger to found Taize; seeing the brokenness in Europe after the 2nd world war he wanted to offer a place where bridges might be built, relationships mended; or Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche deeply moved by the loneliness of men with learning difficulties, or Mother Theresa being drawn out of her peaceful convent with its beautiful garden towards the poor of Calcutta. Or whoever started Reading food bank or RE Inspired or Communicare or Mission to Nepal.

Each of these individuals was rooted in a church. The church is like the frame around the picture of Taize or Communicare etc. It’s what holds it. We are all that frame. We are all called to draw others rather than scatter them, to generate trust rather than fear, to care for each other and for those in the different places where we are during week. More than anything, as Christ’s body, we are bearers of compassion, that deeply felt emotion that results in loving action. This compassion is a characteristic of God himself; Jeremiah imagines God viewing his scattered people with compassion, and preparing to appoint a ruler who will gather them to himself. Our gospel writer Mark sees in Jesus just that kind of leader. After his resurrection Jesus entrusted that leadership to his church – that’s us. We are his Body here in this place today. We’re that compassionate frame. We have a special calling to lead in the field of compassion.

As individuals we are unlikely to found a community like Taize or set up an organisation like Communicare, but as you’ll see if you read on and look at the picture in this frame (feeding 5,000) that’s not what’s asked of us. Jesus asks each of us to offer the little drop of compassion we have and that’s hard because we don’t think it will make any difference. What’s even harder is that we are asked to do this on a daily basis. How hard is that?! As we all do this we build a frame that enables miracles to happen.

Richard and I lived in Peckham for a number of years. You may have heard of Kids Company, a charity in Peckham that helps seriously troubled children. They’ve been in the news recently following accusations of mismanagement. Whether or not these are founded it remains to be seen. It’s clear that Kids Company does remarkable therapeutic work with children and young people. Their stated aim is to demonstrate to the children that they love and care for them. It’s that compassion/pity word associated with Jesus. They do this in a very particular way, offering one to one support that continues for months and, if necessary, years. A young woman who has been supported by Kids Company for some years (seeing a counsellor, having a mentor) says this of her key worker, ‘When I saw her at the beginning she said, there’s nothing you can say to me, nothing you can do, you can swear at me, you can tell me to go away, but nothing will make me like you less or care about you any less’. Within that frame of active compassion the young woman had received the healing necessary for her to move forward.

The church too can be that frame of active compassion. If we return to the context we considered at the beginning – Greece, Iran, decisions facing you, issues at work or home, health concerns – how do these look when viewed with the eyes of compassion? How do we see Greece when we set it in that frame of compassion? How do we see ourselves? Our children? That issue at work?

I’ve been trying this out myself this week – don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk, I said to myself as I prepared this sermon!

Following the custom of silence at Taize there will now be 2 minutes silence. In that time I invite you to consider something or someone that has been on your radar this week and then try putting that situation/person within the frame of compassion that Mark offers us in his gospel. What do you see?

Christine Bainbridge

Remembrance Sunday – sermon given on 8th November 2015 by Richard Croft

Weirdly, today’s OT and NT readings are connected by, amongst other things, fish. The book of Jonah is the story of a man who was swallowed by a gigantic fish; and the gospel in Mark is about 4 fishermen who caught fish for a living. I just want to get that out of the way, don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere else with that.

The challenge today for us is to try and understand what our readings says to the theme of Remembrance. That is, as we hear scripture, and in our gospel reading of today we hear the words of the man who himself was and is the Word of God, we consider how that informs and shapes our thoughts and actions as we remember. As we remember servicemen and women, and ordinary men, women and children as well who have died in zones of conflict, and the grim reality of war which still blights our world.

Just to recap, the reading in Jonah tells the story of a reluctant prophet. Jonah was told by God to go and preach to the city of Nineveh to save it from destruction. Jonah didn’t like the idea so he got on a ship and sailed in the opposite direction. There was a huge storm at sea which Jonah understood to be a result of his disobedience to God, so the sailors threw him into the sea, where a giant fish swallowed him. In the belly of the fish Jonah found a moment of ‘quiet contemplation’ where he repented, and the fish vomited him out. This chastened and probably bleached man then preached a message from God to Nineveh, ‘that great city’ (3:1). The king, his subjects and even the animals fasted and repented and the city was saved from destruction. In the gospel today, we find the first words of Jesus as recorded by Mark: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the good news!’ (1:15). Next, walking along by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus comes across 4 fishermen: Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and his brother John. He commissions them to follow him with these words: ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people’ (1:17). They are to share in his task of calling people to repentance and belief in the good news of the Kingdom of God. And there’s the connection with Jonah, that was what he did too. How does this speak to Remembrance?

War is all around us. From this week’s Guardian: “Last week the heads of the UN and the Red Cross made what they called an ‘unprecedented joint warning’ for states to stop conflicts, respect international law and aid refugees. ‘In the face of blatant inhumanity, the world has responded with disturbing paralysis’ they said. The UN is struggling with an unprecedented array of conflicts and crises, with 60 million people made homeless, record demand for humanitarian aid, and little signs of peace talks bringing an end to wars in Libya, Syria or Yemen. ‘These violations have become so routine there is a risk people will think that the deliberate bombing of civilians, the targeting of humanitarian and healthcare workers, and attacks on schools, hospitals and places of worship are an inevitable result of conflict. Enough is enough. Even war has rules. It is time to enforce them.’ said Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General.”

War is all around us. Today marks in particular the end of WW1 and the sacrifice of so many in that conflict. But the day, this moment, also gathers up all who are affected by conflict: soldiers, sailors and airmen certainly but also those civilians, ordinary people who didn’t ask to be involved.

The words of Jesus speak of something completely different – the Kingdom of God. The gospel gradually spells out the its meaning. It is not a Kingdom like our country is a Kingdom with borders and a monarch; it is rather a community of people connected through space and time, focussed on the teachings, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We can read in places like the Sermon on the Mount some of its principles: love for enemies, giving, being peacemakers: and the life of Jesus tells us about forgiveness, reconciliation, healing, peace, and self-giving. That commission given to the first disciples, the one about becoming fishing for people to come into the Kingdom, comes down to us: we are invited to call people too. Let me link that to what we are doing here this morning – to confession, to turning away from evil to good, to forgiveness in the absolution, to worship, to hearing God’s word, to the sharing of the peace, to sharing the family meal, to the sending out again. What we are engaging in now is a microcosm, a parable of the Kingdom in itself. But not only a parable; also the reality.

So here’s the thing. What does it mean to be fish for people, to proclaim the Kingdom on Remembrance Sunday? To allow this gospel imperative to engage with sacrifice, duty and war? I think in a church like ours, with its culture of peace and justice, and dare I say it? being a bit lefty, some of us find Remembrance Sunday a slight embarrassment and there’s even quite a bit of aversion to wearing poppies. Let me say straight away I know exactly how that feels. But let’s also think: we might prefer it otherwise, but war has been, is now, and unfortunately always will be with us. There have been, are now, and will be men and women who will go and fight for our country, who will take up arms and put themselves in the line of fire, often with tragic consequences. It is right that we should remember them and reach out to those affected. It is right also that we should remember with compassion all who are affected by war. That’s not to be militaristic; it’s to be realistic and to be compassionate. Our church is part of our parish, part of our town, part of our country, part of all that happens and we are linked together by shared humanity. There are people in this church this morning, and in our parish and our town who are directly or indirectly connected with our armed forces or who have been affected by war.

What we do is this: we reach out. Our role is not to be political here – it is to be pastoral. We are to be fishers of people. We are to care for people affected by war. In doing this we, as a community of faith, stand for a different way of doing things. We hate war and conflict. It is the absolute opposite of all that Jesus stands for, all that the Kingdom of God is. But it happens. Organisations like the British Legion and Hope for Heroes, which help servicemen and women who have been affected by war, do a great job. So does the Red Cross in its work with all people affected by conflict, whatever side they are on. Back in 1982, during the Falklands war, Rosemary’s brother Peter was on board HMS Coventry when it was bombed and sunk. He spent several hours in the water before being rescued. At that time Rosemary was a junior doctor working at Wexham Park Hospital in Slough. Somehow, the information was relayed to the hospital Chaplain who sought her out to tell her the news personally, and offer support and prayer. At that time it was not known whether Peter was alive or dead. She really appreciated that human contact and care. The Chaplain was doing his job as a ‘fisher of people’. Three days later the ship’s commander telephoned Rosemary’s parents to tell them that Peter had been fished out of the sea and was alive and well.

Part of what we as a church do is to offer moments like this one, in church, with a bit of ceremony, with readings, prayers and silence that enable us – and especially anyone here who is personally affected by war, or who has a relation who is a serviceman or woman – to gather our thoughts and emotions together and find somewhere to put them. There can be great power in ritual acts, in well crafted liturgy and prayers. We call our special prayer of each Sunday a ‘Collect’ because it does precisely that – it collects us, draws us together in common prayer.

To fish for people, called to proclaim the Kingdom of God. I wonder how far the net is cast. To servicemen and women and their families, certainly. To those affected by war? Yes. To refugees? Yes. To our enemies?

Richard Croft

The Rich Young Ruler – 11th October 2015 Rev. Vincent Gardner

Rev. Vincent Gardner Rich young ruler 11/10/15

Do you know what one of my fantasies is? To be able to look out from a balcony window on the Amalifi coast in Italy with a glass of red Barolo wine in hand, good company, sun on my face… while lying on a bed of hard cash….Gorgeous. Money is one of the life’s pleasures. It has never done any ‘evil’ too me.
Money is great! Having loads of money must be brilliant! So before we start today, that’s where I am coming from. And I am no fool.
On April 1st 1976 British astronomer Patrick Moore made an announcement on BBC Radio 2: “At 9:47 a.m. today there will be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ astronomical event occurring.” The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, he said, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth’s own gravity. Astronomer Patrick Moore explained that if people were to jump in the air at the exact moment that this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation.
When 9:47 AM arrived, BBC Radio 2 began to receive 100s of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her 11 friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room….It was an April Fool’s joke.

Then (2005) April 1st the media reported that NASA had discovered water on Mars and that they had actual pictures on the official NASA website. Those who went to the website to check it out, saw this picture: (picture of a glass of water balanced on a chocolate Mars bar) April Fools! Now, what is it that makes an April Fool joke funny? (Someone shouted out “fools”, which is technically correct, I guess) It’s when someone can be fooled into believing something that’s not true.

In the incidences I just cited (about Jupiter/Pluto and about Mars) people were made to believe something about the HEAVENS that wasn’t true. And in our story today, we encounter a young man who believed something about HEAVEN that wasn’t true. Now, before we get to what he believed that was NOT true, let’s first understand what he believed that WAS true.

Notice what this man does “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him” (vs. 17) He RUNS up to Jesus. Why does he do that?

Well, when was the last time you ran? If you’re like me, you ran because you were in a hurry. You needed to do something/get somewhere and you needed to run. This man RAN to Jesus because he needed to get somewhere… to Jesus. And he needed to get something – something he was sure Jesus had. But what was it that Jesus had that this man needed so badly?

Well, look at his first question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” verse 17. Now, that’s kind of a bizarre question for him to ask. I mean – think about it. This man would seem to be a shoe-in for salvation.
• He’s young, rich and professional. He’s not a near-do-well. He doesn’t live off others. He may very well, be handsome, and likable and an accomplished businessman. In my eyes ‘Ryan Gosling’.• But he’s HUMBLE (he kneels before Jesus). • And he’s EAGER to know what he needs to do to please God. • On top of that he’s a highly MORAL man. He strives to keep the 10 commandments. In fact he believes he’s kept those commandments ever since he was a boy. Even Jesus likes him. Mark 10:21
This rich young ruler is so impressive that when Jesus says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
They ask: “Who then can be saved?”

I mean – if this guy can’t do it, who can????

But this rich young ruler BELIEVED all the right stuff
1. He believed that he was lost (He doubted he had eternal life).
2. He believed that he needed to DO something to please God (“what must I DO?).
3. And he believed that Jesus could give him the answers he so desperately sought.

But his problem was – he was a FOOL. He walked away from the only one who could answer his question.
And he walked away because he believed something about Heaven that was not true. What he believed was that he could get into heaven while putting his money before God. But he was seriously and foolishly wrong about that.

“I always point out that the man’s sin was not that he had money, but rather that money had him. In a sense his god was wealth. He was self sufficient.” (Paul Humphrey)
How do we know money was his god?
Because Jesus pointed it out to him (and to us) in a very clever way.

Jesus says to this young man “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” Mark 10:19
19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’ ”

You can almost sense the relief in the young ruler’s response
“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Mark 10:20
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

He’s thinking to himself “Hey this is a shoe-in. I’ve got it made. I’ve studied for this test – and I’ve passed!”
But in his sudden excitement, he missed the one commandment Jesus had left out.
Do you know which one it was? “Thou shalt not COVET” Exodus 20:17 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

This rich young ruler was a covetous man. His money and his possessions were important to him. And they were SO important they were robbing him of his closeness to God. Money can blind you to God.

No one can serve both God and money! Why not? Well, there are two basic reasons that is true:
1st – God won’t stand still for it. The very idea of placing anything between yourself and your loyalty to God is something He will not tolerate. To love your money (or anything else) more than you love Him is idolatry.
2nd – The love of money will enslave you and rob you of God’s peace.

But we have to be careful Jesus wasn’t criticizing the man for being rich, lots of Jesus followers would have been regarded as wealthy or at least comfortable. Jesus himself was probably from a comfortable situation. Nicodemus. We might class some people as poor within our community/country but wouldn’t be in another country/situation. What we might perceive as rich another group wouldn’t. Jesus was comfortable around rich people and partied with them. No being rich itself wasn’t the issue, being controlled by it rather than God was the issue.

A friend mentioned ‘I was in Hollywood, Florida… on the so-called “gold coast” of Florida. Every morning I taught the Scriptures to a crowd of five hundred or more. These people, I was told, represented well over a billion dollars’ worth of accumulated wealth. I had the opportunity to talk with many of them individually. I found that most of these, by their own testimony, though they had all the money to buy anything they wanted, had arrived at the place where they were suffering from what someone has so aptly called “Destination sickness” – the malady of having everything that you want, but not wanting anything you have, and being sick and empty.’
Truth is universal, but Jesus was unique. He taught with authority, which amazed His followers. Something about the way in which He taught was distinctly different from that of anyone else they had ever heard. Maybe it was a bit like hearing an author read his own poetry aloud – it is quite different from having a friend read it to you! Jesus had a moral authority.
Some of the parallels between his teachings and that of the rabbis of his day are quite subtle, yet revolutionary. For example, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour” (Shabbat 31a). Jesus said, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). The difference is subtle yet profound.
When you leave this morning and you speak to the clergy on the door and you say. ‘Good Morning Vicar, another wonderful sermon’ etc. Don’t be surprised if you receive the reply ‘tell me three things why this morning is good?.’ This is not another grumpy response but just the vicar demonstrating Rabbinical teaching practice.

Who do you say I am? 13th September 2015

St John’s and St Stephen’s Church, Reading, 13th September 2015, Creation 2
Isaiah 50:9-11, Mark 8:27-38
Who do you say I am?

I cannot remember a time when a leadership election for a political party has generated such interest and, whatever we might think of the outcome, it has re-ignited an interest in politics for many people. A rank outsider, left wing, the worst-dressed and most rebellious Labour MP is suddenly the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition. The mention of Her Majesty reminds us that Queen Elizabeth in the last week became the longest serving monarch in British history. The Queen is widely respected, admired and loved and has, I think, a key role as a focal, and steady, point for our nation. Leaders matter! On the other side of the Atlantic, there is much excitement, interest and also horror as Donald Trump leads the pack of nominees for the Republican presidential nomination. The prospect of ‘the Donald’ becoming the most powerful man on the planet…..

There is something instinctive in us that wants to place hope and faith in a leader. We want them to succeed, not to disappoint, to lead us to a better place. It doesn’t always work, of course. But unless we just become cynical, we continue to want to believe in a leader. So when Jesus asked Peter, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ he was taking the temperature of public opinion about himself before focusing on Peter himself with the question, ‘Who do you say I am?’ What thoughts went through Peter’s mind? Was it a spur of the moment decision to say, ‘You are the Christ!’ or had he reflected long and hard on all he had seen and experienced? I’m inclined to think it was the spur of the moment, actually, but let’s just rehearse some of the qualities he had seen in his leader, his Rabbi, his friend.

Jesus was a powerful, charismatic preacher. Wherever he went, his words stirred the crowds and they flocked to him to listen to his stories and parables, his message of welcome into the kingdom of God. Once he preached from a boat, there were so many people on the beach who wanted to hear him. He denounced injustice and hypocrisy wherever he found it, making him few friends with the powers that be, but firmly on the side of the poor and downtrodden. He was a healer of bodies and minds, of people with fevers, epilepsy, leprosy, paralysis, blindness, deafness: even the dead. And he did more than that: he changed relationships, lifted up those who were struggling with life, he forgave sins, he made things whole. He was an exorcist and had power over evil, sending a whole legion of evil powers into a herd of pigs tumbling over a cliff. He was a brilliant and inspired wisdom teacher – no country bumpkin was he! His parables and sayings come down to us over the millennia: the good Samaritan, the sower, the prodigal son, the sermon on the mount; ‘go the extra mile’; ‘let him who is without sin cast the first stone’; ‘give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ and so on. He was an extraordinary worker of miracles – think of the feeding of the 5000, the stilling of the storm, the walking on the water. He was a ‘mystic’, praying for hours in solitary places, and carrying with him always a strong sense of the presence of God. He was the most amazing and extraordinary man who has ever walked the face of the earth. It was not a difficult step for Peter to declare him to be ‘the Christ’, the anointed one, the Messiah, the one who was coming, who would save the Jewish nation.

But at that point the mood changes. Coming, as it does, at the mid-point of the gospel of Mark, Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ is a watershed for the tone immediately changes. ‘Yes, Peter, you are right: but you only have half of the story. Here is the other bit’ – ‘the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again’ (31). Thant was not what Peter expected or wanted to hear! Peter then actually rebuked Jesus for saying that – but Jesus rebuked him in turn with the stinging, ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ (33) and reinforces his solemn message by telling him that if anyone wants to follow me, that will be their path as well (34-38)

What was it that brought Jesus to think and say that? Why didn’t he talk about leading the nation to triumph? In a sense there was an inevitability about it. It is sadly an almost universal truth that inspirational, great and good leaders who do the right thing meet a sticky end. In the 20th century the two great examples are Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but history is littered with men and women who have got in the face of corruption and injustice and paid the ultimate price. But there was a deeper truth here, a distant voice that Jesus had heard and understood. Buried in the book of the prophet Isaiah, 700 years old at the time of Jesus, was a message about a mysterious Servant who would arise, who would have God’s Spirit on him, who would point not only the Jewish nation but all nations back to God, who would care for the broken and downtrodden but who would also pay a heavy price. The Servant would be a Suffering Servant, one who would face suffering and rejection and an unjust death before his final vindication by God himself. You can find these four ‘Servant’ passages in Isaiah 42:1-4, 49:1-7, 50:4-9 (today’s OT reading) and famously, 52:13-53:12. The picture painted of Jesus by Mark in his gospel is one of exactly the Suffering Servant and the imprint of Isaiah is strong on the text of the gospel, and never more clear than at this point where the Christ faced suffering and rejection: Jesus identified himself with the Suffering Servant and knows this must happen. Peter had not realized this: like all of us, he only wanted the good bits! So Jesus got right in his face and pushed back Peter’s false hope with brutal reality.

Let’s hear today’s OT reading, Isaiah 50:4-9 again, with that in mind:
‘The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens me — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty? All of them will wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them up.’

I think it is possible to see how Jesus’ life was modeled on this ancient voice. Listening carefully to God, the intimacy with God, that he may know how to sustain the weary – it’s a very tender image. But facing suffering with courage too, knowing that in the end this would be vindicated.

What do we do with all of this? Where does the rubber hit the road? First of all I have tried to explain – to understand why it is that Peter was able to identify Jesus as the Christ. (Just as an aside, the word ‘Christ’ means ‘anointed or chosen one, Messiah’ – it’s not Jesus’ surname!! We should probably not call him ‘Jesus Christ’ but ‘Jesus the Christ’ or ‘Christ Jesus’ to make that clearer). Also, to see that to be ‘the Christ’ meant not only to be preacher, healer, wisdom teacher and all those other things we talked about but also to be prepared to face inevitable suffering with courage and faith; and to understand that this pattern of life was rooted in the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah.

At this point I want to stand up and open another window onto the question of who Jesus was or is. It’s not something we hear much about: the idea of Jesus as our brother. You can find this in Hebrews: ‘It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, ‘I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you’ (Heb 2:10-12)

How do you like the idea of Jesus as your elder brother, of us as his sisters and brothers? There’s a strong focus in our worship to place Jesus the Christ as beyond our reach: up there, out there, way beyond us, to put so much stress on his divinity that we forget that he was a human being. He walked a path – the path of suffering – that many, many people are familiar with: which qualified him to be the pioneer of our salvation, of our healing. This passage in Hebrews, which actually once again picks up the image of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant tells us that Jesus is ‘not ashamed’ to call us brothers and sisters. It is a lovely, warm image. Keep it in front of you!

There is a beautiful icon that I first saw at Taizé and have in my study: It is called simply ‘Jesus and his friend’. I love it! Jesus is on the right as you look at it, with his arm around his friend’s shoulder. Jesus is slightly bigger than his friend but not much – the emphasis is on equality, not superiority. His friend is pointing at Jesus – ‘He de man!’ and looks a bit like he can’t believe it is true! But it is true. Jesus the Christ is our friend, our elder brother. We are his sisters, his brothers. We are called, extending this family imagery, to be ‘little Christs’. For we too are anointed by the Spirit, we too are in the family

What would it mean to be, ‘little Christs’? None of us are going to have everything that Jesus did, but in each of this there will be some family likeness, some way that we express our relationship with Him. Maybe in welcome, in caring, in bringing healing to a difficult situation, in wisdom, in speaking, in encouraging, in giving, in facing down injustice, in standing up for the poor. Vince challenged us last week in his sermon to be ready to move out of our comfort zone. I don’t know what that might mean for you or for me but we should be aware that Christ calls us forward. We do this, we follow the family tradition, knowing that it may well bring pain as well – we are not above our elder brother. Let me pick up one thing from the Isaiah passage we read: ‘Morning by morning he wakens me — wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards’ Let us listen to the voice of God to us: through the scriptures, through our friends – our sisters and brothers – in silence, in prayer. And move forward – with our elder brother.

Richard Croft

Beginnings – Sunday 22nd February 2015

 

Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15

Beginnings

 

In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.

 

The gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent is a very compact 7 verse section of Mark. The 7 verses neatly cover three key events right at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry: his baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and the start of his work of preaching and teaching. Over the next 6 weeks we will travel with Jesus to the cross and then on Easter day to the empty tomb. But today, it’s all about beginnings. Some of you will remember that our previous Vicar, Tony Vigars, encouraged us to follow a series of studies called, ‘His story, our story’. It was based on the idea that somehow, in the story of Jesus, we find our own story. That the story of our life, and that of Jesus’ life, somehow match or mirror each other. Let’s see how we get on as we explore that idea with today’s short passage in Mark.

 

The wilderness experience is at the heart of the gospel reading, framed by the baptism and the start of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. That theme of wilderness is perhaps what Lent is most about. Lent is a period of 40 days – that’s not counting the Sundays – which is the same as the length of time that Jesus spent in the wilderness, being tempted and tested. Why 40? It’s a day for every year that the Israelites spent in the wilderness as they wandered from Egypt to the promised land – read about it in Exodus. That number 40 then connects us with Jesus in the wilderness and then right back to the book of Exodus, and 40 years spent in the wilderness. The word Lent, just in passing, simply means ‘spring’. We start Lent in the cold days of late winter and it takes us into the heart of spring with the re-emergence of the created living order in the bright spring sun. There’s another journey.

 

Before we get to the wilderness, let’s pause at the Baptism. As Jesus arrives on the scene – and in Mark’s gospel he just appears as if from nowhere – he submits to the baptism of John the revivalist preacher, aligning himself with the new movement of repentance and turning back to God. As he comes up from the waters of the Jordan, a dove flies down and lands on him, symbolizing the coming of the Spirit and a voice is heard: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’ (11). Those words and the presence of the Spirit are gifts to Jesus as he faces testing and trial and the start of his ministry. What more did he need? What more could God the Father give than his love, his assurance, and his very presence through the Spirit? Brothers and sisters, that assurance comes to us also. Here is where these events recorded on paper come alive for us and mirror our own experience. Most of us probably can’t even remember our own baptism – some will be able to – but we too can allow ourselves to hear those same words spoken to us: ‘You are my Daughter or Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’. Let those words rest on you, let them settle on you, like a, I don’t know, a dove. Let that assurance touch you, allow the Spirit to take that right into your heart: know that you are beloved.  The baptismal font is at the door of almost all churches and cathedrals because baptism is the sign of entry into the fellowship of Jesus. There’s a tradition of sprinkling yourself with a few drops of water from it as a reminder, and echo of your baptism and a few weeks ago Christine encouraged us to do that here at St John’s as part of the service. Do it again! Do anything you can to remind yourself of your baptism, and of those words of assurance and love.

 

You might think that after that high point Jesus would go on in triumph to conquer the hearts of his people and perhaps duff up the Romans while he’s at it. Counter-intuitively, the Spirit himself ‘immediately drove him out into the wilderness’ (12). There had to be a testing of Jesus’ calling and commission. He went out into a literal wilderness, a wild place, an empty place in order to confront his demons – the short-cuts to fame and success that would avoid the cross. The temptations of the flesh and and heart which could side-track him from his mission. The account in Mark is literally one verse only – we don’t get the detail that we do in Matthew and Luke. I’m not going to go to the detail, I want to use the barrenness of Mark’s words to reflect a bit around this theme. Firstly, there’s a very real sense in which the testing was necessary, to prove himself. How do any of us know we can do anything until we’ve been tested? Jesus’ mission was a spiritual one, so he faced spiritual testing.

 

Just as we too have been baptized, have received the Spirit and the assurance of God’s love, so too will we have wilderness experiences, times of trial and testing. That doesn’t mean something has gone wrong!  Wilderness times come to all of us – they can come from bereavement, loss of a job, retirement, the pain of mental or physical illness. Anywhere where we feel rootless, emotionally or spiritually alone. Strong temptations can come on us in those times – temptations to kick over the traces, to find solace from somewhere else or someone else. Where is your weak point? How well do you know yourself? We used to talk about temptation coming from the world, the flesh and the devil. Let me bring that up to date and then you’ll know what I mean – money, sex and power. They are, I believe, the root temptations for all of us – the places we are most likely to compromise. Richard Foster wrote a book called exactly that, ‘Money, sex and power’. We studied it in home group several years ago – it’s an excellent book. I bet that if you think about your weak spot, your Achilles heel, it’ll involve at least one of those, if not all three. We should guard ourselves and fight the temptation to succumb, to give in when we are at a low point. That will make us stronger, more ready for what we are called to.

 

For many Christians in the world today, the wilderness experience has a much sharper edge than what I have described. We heard last week of the terrible murder of 21 Coptic Orthodox Christians in Libya who were executed for no other crime than that they were Christians. When I heard about it I texted my friend and work partner George, who is himself a Coptic Christian. ‘My dear friend’ he texted back, ‘The whole world has gone to the devil. Kyrie Eleison, Lord have mercy’. The church in the Middle East and North Africa is facing terrible hardship at this time. Some of us heard Mona Siddiqui at the University comment a couple of weeks ago that the West seems to have forgotten about the existence of the historical Christian communities in those places. Perhaps during Lent we can remember the wilderness times that they are passing through and pray for them.

 

There’s a silly story about a man who had two dogs, a black one and a white one. Whenever his friend visited, he noticed that the two dogs were fighting. Sometimes the black one was winning, and sometimes the white. He asked them man, ‘why is it that one week the black one is winning, and the next week the white?’ The man replied, ‘It depends which one I feed the most’.

 

Lent provides us with an opportunity to draw on resources to build ourselves up, to feed ourselves. I’m going to suggest a few practical ways we can do that. Personally, I’m using the ‘Daily Prayer’ app on my iPad. It’s brilliant! It gives you prayers and readings for every day for morning, evening and night. I’ve only been using the morning ones but I am finding it really, really good. Then there’s ‘Pray as you go’ – these are 10 minutes of music, reading, reflection and prayer that you can get on your computer, tablet or mobile. You can use earphones and listen while you travel to work on the bus or train, or put it on speaker in the car. Lots of great books – Rosemary and I are getting so much from ‘Finding Sanctuary’ by Abbott Christopher Jamison. Rowan Williams’ book, ‘Finding God in Mark’ has daily readings from the gospel through Lent. And lots more, of course. Carpe diem – seize the day! Take the opportunities that are out there.

 

So Jesus passed the test. After the baptism, the testing; after the testing, the mission. Jesus started his public ministry of teaching, preaching, healing which in three short years would lead to the cross. The phases of calling, assurance and trial were necessary.

 

In the year 445, St Patrick baptized King Aengus of Munster in Ireland. St Patrick had in his hand a sharp-pointed staff and by mistake, without noticing, he stabbed the King in his foot while he was conducting the baptism. The King made no mention of this, and St Patrick only noticed what he had done when the baptism was over. ‘Why didn’t you tell me what had happened?’ he asked. The King replied, ‘I thought it was part of the ritual’.

 

He was right.

 

Richard Croft

Baptism of Christ

Genesis 1.1-5, Mark 1.4-11

Today is the Sunday when we remember Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. I want us to consider Jesus’ baptism, but also our own baptism. Baptism is a big topic. Both Jesus’ baptism and ours are rich in symbolic meaning. I can only touch on some aspects of baptism this morning. I hope you might want to make your own journey of discovery and uncover more layers for yourself.

We were enjoying a post Christmas break in Devon when news broke about the ship carrying Syrian refugees being abandoned by their crew in the Mediterranean and then towed to safety by the Italians. A ship crammed with needy, desperate people. I found myself wondering what it would it be like for us if instead of watching at a distance via the TV in our comfortable room we were suddenly air lifted into the midst of all those people; we were there on the boat with them, sharing their dangerous journey. What would that be like? Or suppose the refugees’ leaky, worn boat becomes a metaphor for our planet at present, ever more fragile as we burn more fossil fuel and destroy our ancient rainforests, accelerating global warming. What would it be like for us to find ourselves in a village in Bangladesh flooded as sea levels rise because of global warming?

On the whole we human beings are programmed quite sensibly to live within our comfort zones; so we would be unlikely to choose to do either of the above.

But as we turn our attention to Jesus’ baptism we discover that this is exactly what God does. Let’s picture the scene; we know from Mark’s account which has just been read to us that there were many people around – they had come from Jerusalem and the whole of Judaea. These were not individual baptisms as we do them in church, but an invitation to all those listening to enter the water when they were ready as a sign that they wanted to be washed of all wrongdoing and so be ready for God doing something. Paintings of Jesus baptism usually focus on the moment when he hears God speaking to him so he is seen just with John the Baptist and perhaps an angel or two. There would however have been lots of other people in the river with him at that moment. He would have gone down into the water with everyone else, going under the water and then coming up again and climbing out of the river with everyone else. It’s a clear picture of Jesus identifying with his people, with us; jumping into our leaky boat if you like, becoming one of us. There may be another subtle indication of this immersion in our life in what happens immediately after his baptism – Mark says that the spirit drove (GNB translation ‘made’ doesn’t convey the force of the Greek ekballo lit ‘threw out’) Jesus into the wilderness. Are there perhaps echoes of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden of Eden after the Fall? After an ecstatic experience of intense union with God as his beloved son, Jesus is driven into the wilderness, experiencing that separation or alienation/lostness that is a feature of being human.

So, one of the layers of meaning in Jesus baptism is that he is joining us, he is one of us.

Another is in what is happening when Jesus comes up out of the water. And the clue to this lies in our reading from Genesis. There we heard that at the very beginning before anything was created, when there was just a watery chaos, the Spirit was moving over the water. As it did so the process of creation began. Life began. Here at Jesus’ baptism there is water again and the spirit too. Mark uses quite a violent word to describe the spirit coming upon Jesus. He says, literally, the heavens were ‘torn apart’, as the spirit descended on Jesus. Almost as though heaven is breaking into earth. A new creation is beginning with Jesus’ arrival. Earth will not be the same again.

So, two layers of meaning – baptism signifying Jesus’ identification with us and then the start of a new world order. Heaven is touching earth.

What about our baptism, Christian baptism?

It’s different from John’s baptism. John only offered baptism as a sign of repentance and being washed from what was wrong in our lives. We know it’s different from an incident in the book of Acts (Acts 19.1-7). Paul was in Ephesus where he meets some believers and asks them whether they had received the Holy Spirit. They say they have never heard of the Holy Spirit, so Paul asks them what kind of baptism they have received. The baptism of John, they reply. So Paul places his hands on them and they receive the Holy Spirit (note that they are not baptized again – baptism only happens once). They then speak in tongues and prophesy.

So, Christian baptism involves the Holy Spirit; and this is very clear in the account of Jesus’ baptism. John says that the one coming after him will baptize people with the Holy Spirit. We then see what that meant for Jesus himself – the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends, and – this is the crucial part – Jesus hears a voice telling him that he is God’s beloved son and that he is pleased with him. This identity as God’s beloved son or daughter is what we inherit through baptism. It is what has been won for us through Jesus’ identification with us at his baptism and though all that follows in his life, death and resurrection. Through baptism we are re created as God’s beloved son or daughter and he tells us he is ‘well-pleased’ (I love this South London way of expressing it!) with us. Everything in our Christian life stems from this relationship. It is our bedrock. Like any relationship it has its ups and downs and it develops over time. Our awareness of God’s delight in us and in others can take time to develop. it will be challenged. We may find ourselves living quite often from a very different place in ourselves. but essentially the work of the Holy Spirit is to do with establishing that new relationship and living from it. It’s about being first of all, being in a relationship.

From that stems the other major aspect of baptism – we have a call to live out that relationship in the particular circumstances of our lives. when Paul places his hands on the believers in Ephesus they speak in tongues and then they declare God’s message (they ‘prophesy’). They speak into the specific context in which they ar eliving – not a sort of abstract quoting from the bible addressed to no one in particular. They are good news and they speak good news and it will relate to what is going on around them.

We may not be airlifted on to one of those boats carrying refuges, nor find ourselves in a flooded village in Bangladesh; none of us, I guess, witnessed in person the terrible events in Paris this week. However, our sharing in Christ’s baptism means that we are drawn into his identification with the suffering of humanity and the fragile earth on which our life depends. We are part of it. And we don’t despair. And we don’t despair when we face challenges in our own lives. We are hope bearers. We know that new creation is possible. We know this because we ourselves are being re created; through baptism we have a new and growing identity as God’s beloved son or daughter.

Invitation As you leave church this morning splash some water from the font on to your forehead as reminder of baptism and take a slip of paper containing God’s promise to you. Carry this out into whatever lies ahead of you this week.

 

Christine Bainbridge

hope

Hope – a voice calling out in the wilderness

Today we’re starting on a new journey that will take us all the way in our church life to next Advent in December 2015. This is the first of many readings from Mark’s gospel that we will be hearing over the coming year and we’ll use it today to look at our theme of Advent Hope.

There’s an image that has haunted me for over thirty years. I first saw it when a young fellow student preached a sermon based on it, and although most of what he said I’ve now forgotten, the image and its message have lingered on in my mind. It may also be one of the most important images for us in our present age, striking a chord with many people including two of the most influential people of recent times.

There are two versions of the painting, created over a hundred years ago by the artist G.F. Watts, supposedly in a moment of anguish after the death of his adopted daughter, Blanche. The painting is called Hope. What you might expect would be a beautiful woman sitting on top of the world singing and playing a harp, laughing in the bright sunlight.

But what you get instead is this – a blind woman, her clothes torn and tattered in rags, her body scarred and bruised from some trauma. Her harp is almost completely destroyed. All that remains is one single string, with which she is trying to pluck out a sound.

So why has the image had such a profound impact?

The first of our influential figures attended a sermon in 1990, that was based on this painting. The message of that sermon was a simple one: that hope soars even through the reality of pain. In the painting, hardly visible above the blind woman’s head, are some notes of music that have broken through up into the heavens.

In spite of being in a world torn by war, in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate and decimated by distrust, in spite of being on a world where famine and greed are uneasy bed partners, the blind woman stills has the audacity to make music and praise God. The vertical dimension of her worship has balanced out what was going on in the horizontal dimension.

It was this message of the audacity of hope, even when everything around seems to be hopeless that had such a profound impact on the younger Barack Obama. It became the title of his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and propelled him to prominence. It later became the title of his autobiographical book The Audacity of Hope. Whether or not you feel Obama has delivered on these ideas is another issue but it was the message of hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope that inspired so many at the time.

And it’s this audacity of hope that also drives the message of John the Baptist in our reading today. We encounter him as this striking and strange figure, dressed in camel hair and eating honey and wild locusts.

In some ways he dresses like the superheroes that are so popular at the moment in tv and film. I don’t know how many of these superheroes you recognize. They all tend to use strange and weird outfits to hide their true identity and to point to their superhero power – whether it’s a batlike agility, amazing archery skills or superfast speed.

John the Baptist uses his own outfit for a very different purpose. He identifies himself with the long line of prophets such as Isaiah, stretching back over seven hundred years that have been with the people of Israel through their darkest moments. He is pointing back to a time when the people of Israel were at their lowest ebb, exiled, homeless and seemingly abandoned by God. And now the people of Israel again find themselves at the mercy of the oppressors, this time the Roman rulers. John steps into this situation, pointing people to the hope that is to come: ‘After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’ People have been waiting in hope for hundreds of year for a messiah to deliver them. It’s not surprising people come flocking from over the whole of Judean countryside to hear John’s message, perhaps travelling on foot from up to eighty miles away, to hear the voice calling out in the desert a message of hope.

Christians have been people of hope through some of the darkest times of history: not hopeful in some vague way that all will work out ok in the end, but in the ultimate transformation that God will bring to his whole creation, a future when all will be put right with humanity and with the world, when Christ comes again.

As the beautiful message of Revelation puts it: ‘God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’

It is a hope that God will renew and transform us, and that there is a future for our whole creation. And at the very centre of that hope is the figure of Jesus.

It is to Jesus that John the Baptist points and not to himself, as the hope for all people. It is Jesus who strides across history as the messiah who will bring hope for humanity, now and for the future.

For the first Christians, facing suffering and persecution, it was the hope of Christ’s second coming that they held onto closest. Do you know what is probably the earliest Christian prayer, after the Lord’s prayer? It’s a very simple one and in Hebrew in it’s only two words: Marana -tha, which means ‘Our Lord, come.; It’s also mentioned right at the end of the Bible, as the final prayer in Revelation:

‘He who testifies to these things says “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen, Come, Lord Jesus. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

But our hope of course is not just for the transformed creation that is to come.

The hope we have can transform us now to be agents of hope for our world.

And that’s where we come to the story of the second important person who was influenced by this painting of Hope.

In the bleak prison of Robben Island, a copy of this British painting of Hope decorated the walls of Nelson Mandela’s cell.

The MP Gordon Brown gave a moving speech shortly after Mandela’s death, about the impact of the man and of the painting and this is what he said:

‘The painting, entitled “Hope”, is about the boldness of a girl to believe that, even when blinded and even with a broken harp and only one string, she could still play music. Her and Mandela’s belief was that even in the most difficult and bleak of times, even when things seem hopeless, there could still be hope. We are mourning because as long as Mandela was alive we knew that even in the worst of disasters, amidst the most terrible of tragedies and conflict, there was someone there, standing between us and the elements, who represented goodness and nobility. And we are celebrating today because the lessons that we have learned from him will live on. He teaches us that indeed no injustice can last for ever. He teaches us that whenever good people of courage come together, there is infinite hope”.

And our faith in Jesus can sustain us now and can bring hope to our world in such need. We face a whole mountain of troubles for ourselves and for our world and at times these can seem impossible to overcome. But we also have a hope centred on the love of God in Jesus, that is for now and for the future.

As we prepare ourselves for Christmas, let’s remember this message of Advent Hope and pray about how we too can be the good people of courage and that together we can share this infinite hope.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.