Friday, 13 December 2019

Advent 3 - God is at work.

Matthew 11: 2-11, James 5: 7-10

How great it is to stand on the brink of a great new chapter for our world. A new start, a new government, a time of peace and prosperity and goodness for all people.
Not a reference to Thursday’s General Election result – but a reflection of what our Bible readings have to say about the kingdom of God.
However we feel about the new government, we can all agree that through the human decisions that are made at Westminster we want to see a country – even a world – where God’s will is done, where the values of the kingdom are honoured, where God is in charge, for the good of all God’s children.
But how do we know what God’s kingdom looks like, and how do we become part of it?

The passage we heard from Matthew comes from a time right at the start of Jesus’ ministry, when John the Baptist, who has been put into prison, is wondering about God’s kingdom .

Specifically, John asks whether Jesus is here to bring in God’s kingdom. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

The answer Jesus gives -  to John, through his messengers, and to the crowd around is all about looking.

1.   What do you see?
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

The first thing to do if we want God in charge of our world is to look around for those places and those people in whom God’s good work is being done. Where lives are better, fuller, healed – God is there. And did you notice that the blind will see – one sign of the kingdom is that more & more people will see it as it grows and as people flourish.

I’m not suggesting we ignore the difficult things in our world – but I am suggesting that we should be the first to notice the good things, and be ready to point out to others that God is at work to bring healing, hope and joy.
I love Isaac Watts’ hymn with which we will end our worship today ‘Joy to the world’ – especially the verse ‘No more let thorns infest the ground or sin and sorrow grow’. The kingdom is like a garden: we need to look and root out the weeds, but we also need to look for the fresh growth of good plants and encourage them.

2.   What did you expect?
Back in Matthew’s gospel - Jesus then turns his attention to the crowds around him
 “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet..”.

Recognising signs of God’s kingdom involves recognising our expectations of the kingdom. The people of Jesus’ day went out to listen to John the Baptist because they recognised that, like an Old Testament prophet, what he was saying was a message from God. That message wasn’t an easy message, nor did it come from a place of privilege or earthly power, but it came with the conviction that God was with his people, out there in the desert.

What do we expect to see when we look for signs of God’s kingdom? Surely something of God’s peace, justice, joy, healing. But where should we look? Not just in any royal palace, nor even in the palace of Westminster, but anywhere where God’s promises are fulfilled.

In my Christmas letter to ministers of the synod, I mentioned some unexpected Good News, delivered this December by a group of artists.
The four artists nominated for the 2019 Turner Prize will share this year's award after urging the judges not to choose any of them as a single winner.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Helen Cammock, Tai Shani and Oscar Murillo got together to write to the prestigious prize's panel. They said they wanted to make a "collective statement" at a time when there was "already so much that divides and isolates people and communities".
The BBC, reporting this, have suggested that ‘Maybe annual awards … are reaching their sell-by date: an anachronism from a bygone binary age of winners and losers.’
Maybe for us, as we look for the Good News of the kingdom, we will find that with the birth of Jesus Christ, God with us, God has also declared an end to the bygone binary age of losers and winners.
The figures collected around our Christmas crib show us the endless reach of God’s inclusive grace – the young and powerless are there, with the old and faithful; foreigners and outcasts; high-born and lowly; the desperate and the seeking ones; even the beasts of the fields and those who tend them. All are drawn together by angels, star and circumstance, and at the very centre, God made flesh. The kingdom of God is here.
Sometimes we see signs of God’s kingdom where we least expect them.

3.   See – I am sending my messenger
Jesus says of John the Baptist:
“This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Jesus tells the crowd around him to keep looking, keep watching, keep waiting for the ever-unfolding signs of God’s kingdom.

If the main message of Jesus is to look and see – then the letter from James mainly tells us to be patient (no less than 4 times in that short section).
However pleased some of us may be by the make up of our new government, we know this is not yet the kingdom of God fully come on earth.
But be patient, people of God, and know that God’s purposes will unfold -  that God will one day bring total peace, security, wholeness, and joy to his creation.

And in the meantime, prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus, once and for all, as the child of Bethlehem.
So sing with the angels ‘The Lord is come! Alleluia’.


Saturday, 2 November 2019

All Saints – even Zacchaeus

Isaiah 1: 10-18
Luke 19: 1-10
Today is the nearest Sunday to All Saints day (November 1st) and so I thought we could think about ‘saints’ today.
But the readings we heard are the ones chosen for this Sunday, and not specifically chosen because they are about saints. Yet in reading these – both the gospel story of Zacchaeus and the teaching of Isaiah – I realised they had a lot to teach us about saints.

I only learnt this week that Zacchaeus is considered a saint by the Orthodox church – he has his own day – April 20th – and he even figures in some icons. This print out is a bit blurry – but it shows a bearded man with a halo and the words ‘hagios zakaios’ – saint Zacchaeus – or ‘holy Zacchaeus’.

The crowd who surrounded him when he climbed the tree to see Jesus were very clear that they did not think Zacchaeus was a saint.

Quite the opposite – when Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house they grumble “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner.”
Zacchaeus is the chief tax collector and a very wealthy man – he is a civil servant for the Roman Empire and there is more than a suspicion that he is rich not only from being in the pay of the Romans, but also because he cheats people to line his own pocket.

And yet.. Jesus not only notices him, he goes to his house and he tells the grumbling crowd “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham”.
Jesus sees a child of Abraham who is worthy of his time and his company, when all the crowd sees is a sinner.

And the encounter with Jesus changes this tax collector. He says to Jesus "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."
Zacchaeus wants to put things right and he wants to be worthy of the title ‘child of Abraham’, so he acts for justice and mercy.

The reading we had from Isaiah makes it clear what God requires of his people, the children of Abraham. Isaiah tells the people that God does not ask for worship or sacrifice, but he tells them
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”.

Jesus recognizes that Zacchaeus is a child of Abraham, not just a sinner. And Zacchaeus recognizes that as a child of Abraham he needs to prove himself worthy of the title through correcting any injustice in his life.

So Zacchaeus the tax collector becomes St Zacchaeus – for the Early church, if not for the writer of the gospel.

That Greek word on the icon ‘hagios’ zacchaeus is used many times in the New testament, but never in reference to any one person, however admirable or holy. When the writers of the letters are writing to the growing churches they greet ‘All the saints of the church’ – and the word ‘hagios’ is used  - the holy ones.

I was talking to a friend in ministry this week who told me this story of how she had changed her thinking about ‘saints’.

She was doing a summer pastorate as a student and was allowed to use the minister’s vestry to work in. On the desk there was a box marked ‘the saints of this church’ – it contained a collection of cards with names and addresses. She looked for the other box – for the names & addresses of the people of the church who were not saints. There wasn’t a second box.
The saints of the church were all the people of the church.

And so you, sisters and brothers, like Zacchaeus are beloved children of Abraham, and also members of the body of Christ. You are the saints of Immanuel URC.

Yet like St Zacchaeus, yours is not just an honorific title – it is a recognition that you are those who listen to the demands of God that Isaiah gives us.
As saints you need to cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

But please don’t think that today I am challenging you to be saints and not sinners. We are perhaps used to reading the story of Zacchaeus as a story of dramatic change – as if he went up the tree as a sinner & came down it as a saint. Zacchaeus was certainly changed by his encounter with Jesus. But even in his new and generous life, Zacchaeus will have made mistakes, and not always treated people well. Even a saint of the Orthodox church cannot be perfect, nor do we expect them to be.
Saints are holy, filled and inspired by God’s Holy Spirit, but they are still human. Zacchaeus may have shaken off the terrible label ‘sinner’ but that doesn’t mean he never sinned again.

Saints of Immanuel URC you may be, but that does not mean you are perfect. Even as you strive to learn to do Good and to seek justice, you will make mistakes.

But Jesus is waiting for us when we do make mistakes. Jesus is clear that he has came to “seek out and to save the lost”. That is not simply taking sinners and turning them into saints, or seeking the lost and making them found – it is about the merciful grace of God which is always waiting to invite us down from our position of detached observation of life, and come in to eat with us, and share with us, and change us for the better, day after day; time after time.

And to God be the glory now and forever. Amen.