Saturday, 14 December 2013

Advent 3

Isaiah 35: 1-10; James 5: 7-10; Matthew 11: 2-11

It must be a sign of middle age and relative security that I find the hardest question for me to be asked lately is “what do you want for Christmas?”. It is also a sign of getting older that my honest answer to “what do you want for Christmas?” is “sleep”.

So this third Sunday in Advent is a gift for me… and anyone else who is feeling just a little bit harassed.

Here is Isaiah’s gift to us, from chapter 35:
Strength for the weak hands,
Firmness for the feeble knees.
The Lord says to those who are of a fearful heart,
"Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.

The greatest gift of Christmas is God’s presence in our world and in our lives. And it is a gift that we receive without even lifting a finger. More than that, it is a gift which promises us new strength, new grace, new and deeper reserves of love and joy and peace. Or as Isaiah puts it: “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Meanwhile the gift from the letter of James are the words telling us to be patient and to strengthen our hearts. At first this might seem like advice for the young at heart, who cannot wait for Christmas to come. Do you remember those days – when you impatiently counted down the sleeps before Christmas, feeling like it would never come? Now I expect you’re more likely to be caught saying ‘I can’t believe it’s only 10 days to Christmas – I’ll never be ready’.
For those who feel like they can’t wait, James says ‘be patient’.. and for those who feel hassled by all they have to do. James says ‘be patient’. God will come in Jesus. Nothing you do will make it happen sooner or be better. The gift of Christ is God’s idea – and God will make it happen, not any human plan.
I chose the carol, ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ for this service because I think it expresses perfectly this sense that the birth of Jesus Christ is an act of God, not a human event.

Bethlehem is asleep – every living soul. The hymn is full of references to all the things that human beings are not doing, while all the action is done by God, the angels, even the stars in the sky. We are left only to wonder and to sing of Immanuel - God come to us, abiding with us, entering our hearts. Be patient.

But I don’t believe that God means us to be complacent as we wait for the gift of love at Christmas. Isaiah and the other prophets speak about the coming of God’s kingdom when there will be peace and joy and love for all As we wait for God’s full purpose to be revealed we might find ourselves becoming restless, impatient. If Jesus came to be prince of peace, when will there be peace in Jerusalem, in Syria, in Afghanistan?
So we come to the gift of our gospel reading. I’d forgive you for wondering why we have had a reading not about the birth of Jesus, but from 30 years on, when Jesus has started his work and preaching. John the Baptist has baptised Jesus and then John has been put in prison for his condemnation of his ruler, Herod. John is beginning to wonder whether Jesus is the Messiah after all. He sends his disciples to ask “Are you the one, or must we look for another?”.
Jesus tells him to look at the evidence “the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought good news”. If Jesus was a modern day teenager he would simply say to John ‘Am I the one? Like, duh!’.

Who else but the Messiah could do those things?
When all these good things happen, you know God is at work in his world. John knew it when he saw Jesus at work – but where might today’s world know it?
I want to give all of us a challenge today.
You know it’s Christmas because of the evidence all around you. But right at the heart of Christmas is this message that God came into the world in Jesus.
John the Baptist was challenged by Jesus to look for the signs around him and I believe we are each challenged to look for the evidence around us.
Look for goodness and new life, hope and joy in he world – and when you find them, look for the presence of God in them. You might hear in the Christmas story about Jesus Christ - who was the word made flesh 2000 years ago. But you might wonder how people can see & hear that for themselves, as John did? It is a challenge, sometimes, to see evidence of God’s gift of Gods presence to us – even in our 21st century world. How can the world of today see the human face of the one who is God with us? That can be a challenge.

But to those of us who follow Jesus Christ, it is even more challenging than that.
People need to see the face of Christ today in us – that’s why the church is sometimes called the body of Christ.

If Christmas is God’s gift to us of God’s own self, it is a gift which comes with an invitation and a challenge to be part of God’s gift to the world around us.

So if today you can accept the gift of Isaiah’s words, and the letter of James’ words, and the gift of John the Baptist’s experience of God in action, the be ready too to accept the challenge this gift brings.
Listen to the story the church tells; look at the love in the lives of the people who are part of the church; and think about what your part is going to be in showing the love of Jesus in the world.
Look for the evidence of God’s gift to the world – and then be prepared to be that evidence for the whole world. 
And may God help each one of us to live up to that challenge – in Jesus name. Amen.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Advent Sunday

Isaiah 2: 1-5 Romans 13: 11-14 Matthew 24: 36-44

For the Dr Who fans it has been an exciting few weeks. Last Saturday was the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Dr Who. Of the more recent Dr Whos, I have liked David Tennant best: and it was Tennant’s Dr Who who came up with this description of time “People assume that time goes in a straight line, but actually it’s like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey..stuff."
Ok – you may not care about Dr Who at all – but as it’s Advent Sunday you’re forced to think about time.

We might have been told that Advent Sunday is about getting ready for Christmas: but if that’s all it is, why aren’t our readings a bit more Christmassy? If we are getting ready to celebrate the coming of Christ in a historical event from 2000 years ago – why are our readings looking not back, but forward?

On Advent Sunday we think about the coming of our God into the world in Jesus. And that means we think about time, because we simultaneously celebrate a past event – when Jesus came, a present event, that Jesus is here, and a future event, when Jesus will come.

We hear from Isaiah of a time when God’s place, God’s mountain, will be the highest and greatest in the world – when all people will be drawn to God and when there will be absolute peace – when swords will be hammered into ploughshares.
This was a wonderful promise for the people of God of the first Isaiah’s time:the kingdom of Israel has been split into two and both the kingdom of Israel, in the north and the kingdom of Judah, in the south were facing threats from neighbouring kingdoms. War was a fact of life for the people to whom Isaiah was prophesying, and they must have longed for the kind of peace, brought by God, that he promises.

The letter to the Romans looks forward to a time of salvation for all – when the day – the day of the Lord – will finally come and all will be light. Although the church at Rome knows they live in a time of darkness, when God’s light has not yet fully dawned, they are told to be ready, and told to put on the armour of light, to be children of light and followers of Christ, even in the darkness that surrounds them.

And Jesus point his followers to the future and warns them that they do not know when the end of time will come, but that it will come unexpectedly and suddenly.
Immediately following this teaching, Jesus tells the parables of the wise & foolish virgins, and of the sheep and the goats – stories of being ready, and of being judged at the end of time.

Time may or may not be a ball of wobbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff – but the Bible teaches us that our God is not bound by time. The God who came in Jesus is the God who will come. God will come; life as we know it will change forever; there is nothing we can do except wait for God’s time.

But what are we meant to do with that promise?

It might sound a bit like an empty promise – ‘a time of great peace & salvation’ – you don’t see much sign of that happening anytime soon, do you? Maybe these prophets got it wrong – maybe God has given up on his world, after all.

Or maybe these promises make us feel that there really isn’t anything we can do except to wait, passively, for God to act.
I said that Advent was about God coming to us – so let’s wait & see what God is going to do.

But of course we are not waiting in a vacuum for God to act – we are approaching Christmas and remembering that God has come into the world.
God has come – we don’t need to search or seek or strive. Advent means God is coming to us – whether we like it or not.
And Jesus Christ came to announce that ‘ the kingdom of God is among you’ – we may not be able to see a world of perfect peace yet. But we can live as those who belong to the kingdom, because we know God is here already, that the reign of God has begun, even if God’s rule is not yet complete. The God who has come and will come keeps coming, is here – is the God of yesterday, today and forever.

So as we celebrate this communion meal today we celebrate the God who is the true Time Lord. 
We remember that Christ died for us – that the risen Christ is with us – and that Christ will come.
And this Advent and this Christmas reminds us to celebrate the love of God, through all time, that never ends.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The unpreached sermon!

Last weekend I was in Mevagissey, leading Sunday morning worship. Unfortunately, just an hour before the service I realised that I had left the sermon at home (2 and a half hours' drive away). I managed to collect my thoughts enough to preach - it may even have been better! Anyway, this is what was on my computer, all that time.
Readings: 2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13   Luke 21: 5-19

It is a joy to be with you. Not only because I have made no secret of the fact that I love to see the sea, as I travel around the synod, but because this is a very special weekend, with the signing of the ecumenical covenant for Cornwall this afternoon.
In that covenant we commit ourselves – Anglican, Methodist, United Reformed, Salvation Army & Baptist Christians –

1.   “to seek out every possible opportunity for joint initiatives at local and county level in mission to all the people of Cornwall
2.   to work together to equip both lay and ordained ministry whenever possible and to share that ministry wherever appropriate
3.   to continue the work of developing strategies whereby we optimize the use of our church buildings for the benefit of communities throughout the county”

That sounds like a lot of exciting possibilities ahead, to me.
Seeking, working, sharing, planning.. together.

But the most exciting part comes at the end of what we, your church leaders, will sign this afternoon:
‘We also affirm our intention to go on praying and working, with all our fellow Christians, for the visible unity of the Church in the way Christ chooses, so that people may be led to love and serve God more and more.’

Praying and working. Getting the balance between what we leave to God and what we do ourselves. How do we get the balance right?

The letter to the Thessalonians gives Paul’s warning to those who are prepared to wait for God to sort things out and so fritter their lives and their time away sitting around. ‘Do not be weary in doing what is right’ says Paul. Sometimes we cannot simply pray and hope for the best – but have to be prepared to struggle with all the issues to work out what is the right thing to do; to get on and work!

And in our Gospel reading, we are caught between realism & hope.

This is a relentlessly difficult reading. Jesus says to his followers quite clearly – don’t get carried away by the splendour of the temple – the fine stones and ornaments. Don’t put your trust in your fine building – because it won’t last. In fact, the Temple was destroyed by the Roman army about 40 years later – the temple will be destroyed. The Jewish people will need to reshape their faith without a temple – relying only on their local synagogues as places where they can study and pray and hope for the future. Someone suggested to me last week that the synagogues replacing the temple as the focus for worship was rather like our present-day churches finding new ways to work – a kind of “Fresh Expressions” movement for the 1st century AD.
Jesus warns his followers that there will be change, that they can’t expect things to stay the same.

So if we can’t put our trust in buildings, in solid bricks & mortar, what can we trust? People? Jesus says “Take care you are not misled. For many will come saying ‘ I am he’ and ‘the time has come’. Do not follow them”.
So however charismatic a leader, or whatever the claim they make for themselves, we mustn’t put our trust in other people, either.
No, Jesus says, when you’re really up against it, when you’re seized and persecuted and made to stand up in court to defend yourselves “I myself will give you such words and wisdom as no opponent can resist or refute”. God’s Spirit, given by Jesus, will be what saves us when we face the ultimate test.

We can’t and we shouldn’t trust buildings or people: but we can trust God – the power of God the Father, given by the Son through the Spirit: God is what we can always rely on.

That doesn’t let us off the hard wrestling of ‘what are we to do?’ – it doesn’t mean that we can sit back & hope God will sort it out. God’s spirit, the power of God, will come to help those who follow Jesus – but only when they are really up against it – arrested, imprisoned, and put in trial. Yet in the midst of that trial God will strengthen them and give them the right words to say.

As we stand at the brink of the new possibilities of this ecumenical covenant, perhaps we can look again at the challenge Jesus gives.
What does it mean to sign a covenant together to promise to seek, work, share and plan together? How can we be open to the work of the Spirit in the way we pray and work together for the sake of the world around us? How can we allow God’s Spirit to change us, so that we can be agents of reconciliation and unity in a world which longs for both?

We must work, we must pray and we must be open to God’s spirit.
God help us, God change us. Amen.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Children of God

Sermon for an induction on November 10th. Readings were:
Luke 18.15-17 , John 15.1-5 (the readings used at Prince George's baptism!) & Isaiah 11: 1-6

So here we are at the start of something. The start of a new ministry. This is the start of a relationship between Gary & this United Area, and especially between Gary & the churches at Market Lavington, and Devizes . It is also the start of Gary’s relationship with the South Western synod. One of the great joys of a new start like this and welcoming any minister in an induction is getting to know him or her better.

So what do we learn about Gary from his choice of readings? The gospel readings from Luke and from John were the ones he chose – the same ones chosen for the baptism of Prince George a few weeks ago. At first this worried me: are we dealing with delusions of grandeur here, Gary? Are you introducing yourself to us as the heir to the throne? Maybe ‘Prince Gary’ has a bit of a ring to it?

But my fears were dispelled when I looked again at the readings.

Jesus talks about a kingdom, it’s true, but he demonstrates the values of the kingdom of God, not the hierarchies of our world. In a society where children did not count for much until they reached adulthood (and where women were second class citizens all their lives), Jesus offers a new way. The great and powerful are loved by God, but so are the smallest and the least – the heirs of the kingdom are not those who are specially high born, but each one is welcomed by God in Jesus as if she or he was royalty.

I don’t know how many of you saw the footage of the Pope, in the middle of giving an address to thousands in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican, being interrupted by a little boy in a yellow rugby top. The Pope made no attempt to shoo the boy away, but patted him on the head, chatted to him at one point, and just carried on whilst the boy hugged his legs. I’m sure the security guards do not operate with the instruction ‘do not stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to these little ones too’ – but it was a great reminder that God’s love is for us all.
Whatever you think of Pope Francis as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, you cannot fault his humanity and his grasp of God’s truth that this boy was not an unwelcome intruder but a welcome guest.

So we welcome Prince Gary, as a precious child of God and an heir, with us all, to God’s kingdom.

The baptism service for Prince George was not televised, of course, but we have been offered ‘highlights’ from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address, and it seems that Justin Welby focused on the reading from John. He apparently said that those who take the journey of baptism must look in 2 directions – to the world, sharing the life of Christ with all; and to Christ, who says ‘abide in me’.

That’s also pretty good advice for churches and minister in a new ministry.
Jesus reminds his followers ‘I am the vine and you are the branches’. No new ministry can bear good fruit if we forget to remain centred on Jesus Christ. It is the love of Jesus flowing out through us that drives our mission in the world. It is the love of Jesus flowing into us that keeps us close to the life and love of God the Father. It is the love of Jesus that keeps us united together as branches of the one vine – whatever our differences as church members, churches, denominations, we are one in Jesus, the true vine.

But if we’re all one in being heirs to God’s kingdom and we’re all one in Jesus the true vine, is it wrong to induct Gary here as a leader?

If I say ‘yes’ we’d have to stop the service right now, wouldn’t we? But of course I’m going to say ‘no, it is not wrong to induct a new minister to lead you here’.
The Isaiah reading looks to the time when God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness – a fantastic time when all normal natural laws will end, when ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid’. God’s kingdom is so unlike the world we know that Isaiah says ‘a little child shall lead them’.

God is not looking for Princes of the church to lead his people. Jesus himself refused to use the political or hierarchical power of his day to fulfill his mission. God’s leader is one who knows they are just a child of God. Just a precious child of God. Just a chosen, beloved, child of God. Because every child of God is an heir of the kingdom and a servant of Jesus Christ. And as long as Gary remembers that that is who he is – it gives him the authority to lead in the way Isaiah envisions, through the Spirit of the Lord.

So we welcome Gary as one who will help others to hear God’s word, to know God’s love and to heed God’s spirit. Then together we will be parts of the true and living vine.

The Archbishop of Canterbury apparently concluded the sermon for Prince George in this way: 'For life to be complete, the living and trusted love of Jesus Christ is the foundation. That is something we grow into, live out, hold onto, and which finally carries us home. With Christ and his love as our centre, all the needs we meet are faced, all the hopes we have are shaped, and all the possibilities of our life journey are fulfilled.'
May this be so – for George, for Gary and for us all
In Christ’s name.