God of Surprises

It is often said that God is a God of surprises.  I like that.  I like it when God takes us by surprise.  Although God’s love and holiness are constant, in many ways He might seem unpredictable. Let me explain why I think this is the case…

He was certainly unpredictable about the people He chose to serve him.  Our Lord Jesus could have chosen disciples who were great orators, generals or politicians – but instead he chose simple folk, folk just like you and me.  I don’t know about you, but that gives me hope, hope right here and right now that God can choose us.  That whatever we have experienced in life, we can have new life – and new purpose – in Him.  God transforms; God makes the mundane miraculous, the ordinary extraordinary and the humble holy.

Of all the places that Jesus could have been born, he was born in Bethlehem, not in some ornate palace, but in a manger.  Who would have that the Son of God would choose that? We also read of the Shepherds who came to see the infant child and fell on their knees and worshipped him or the Wise Men who also fell on their knees and worshipped him. The stable in Bethlehem had become a palace.  He lived and came from Nazareth in Galilee, from some quiet backwater with nothing to really commend it.  The Light of the World stepped into our darkness – God at work again, surprising and transforming.

And of course, the fact that Jesus came and dwelt among us in human form, fully God yet fully man, is also God surprising us.  Who would have thought that God would choose to do something like that?  The fact that Jesus was incarnated speaks volumes…he can truly say I know what it is to be human, to experience everything that we experience in our humanity.

Our 1st reading speaks of the water that saves; the water of baptism that gives us the “pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Had you realised that?  It reminds us that we have been saved, we have been cleansed from sin.  Through baptism the seal of the Holy Spirit is placed upon us which signifies that we belong to God; we are his children, we are cleansed and redeemed. Do we live our lives with that clear conscience, as saved sinners?  We are saved “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  It seems somehow so easy to forget that, and to live in condemnation.  Our being children of God is what defines us.

And then we come to our second reading which speaks of Jesus’ baptism.  Jesus was without sin, and had no reason to be baptised – but he chose to be baptised to show us the way and to be obedient. Astonishingly we are told that as soon as Jesus had been baptised, he was sent out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit.  Yet again, there is a surprise.  God the Father has just told His Son, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  For me, the last thing I would have expected would have been for him to be sent out into the wilderness!

Jesus didn’t check himself in to a Five star hotel.  He came into the brokenness of the world, he spent time with the outcasts, the unclean, the sinners, the broken.  And he proclaimed a message of truth that they needed to hear…“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

The thing is folks, we may constantly be surprised by God – but He knows exactly what he is doing.  Do we know that?  Do we really know that?  Do we trust in him?  I think it is good when God surprises us; it wakes us from our spiritual slumber and galvanises us into being and into doing for His mercy’s sake. It is a message we need to hear today, a message we need to remind ourselves of constantly, and it is a message we need to claim for ourselves.  May we always be surprised by God, by what He can accomplish in this place, by how he can transform our lives, and by how we may accomplish his purposes.  May He step into our darkness and use us to His glory in all ways.  Amen

Ash Wednesday 2021

I once knew a woman who, for so many years, had dreamed of being able to read one of the set readings from the Bible in a Sunday service.  It was a huge thing for her, and she approached Scripture – God’s Holy Word – with reverence.  The reason why she hadn’t been able to was because the small group of people who did readings had become a clique which closed itself off from everyone else. But one day the Minister invited her to do a reading – her opportunity had finally come!  Unfortunately, in her excitement she realised as she stood at the lectern that she had forgotten to bring her reading glasses. Although she completed the reading, it didn’t flow as she read it, and the ‘team’ of people who usually did readings all pointed out how badly she had done the reading at the end of the service.  The woman was distraught, and it really knocked her confidence. It took her years to recover. The simple truth was that even though her heart had been in the right place, she allowed herself to become more influenced by what other people thought rather than taking comfort in knowing she was right before God who knew the attitude and reverence in her heart.

The British evangelist, preacher, leading Bible teacher, and prolific author G. Campbell Morgan once said, “Probably the vast majority of people are more influenced by what men will say, than by what God Almighty thinks.”  Even though he died in 1945, I think his words still hold true today.  It can often seem easier to do the right things when we gain recognition and praise can’t it?

The bottom line is this…if we’ve done an act of service to the best of our ability, in a way that is honouring to God, with a servant heart and in a way which we show integrity, then we should be prepared to take a stand and question the motives of the people who have brought discouragement.  We should not allow criticism we might receive to sap our confidence and crush us to the extent that we lose sight of what God is saying to us.  It may be that you inadvertently (or at worse knowingly) have made an “off-comment”, or a critical comment to someone.  I invite you to step back and think carefully about the words that you bring.  Do they bring life or destruction? Where are you in your heart? If you are unsure, ask the person you’ve made the comment to “How did you feel when I said…”, whatever the comment you made might have been.

This service marks the beginning of the season of Lent, which gives us a great opportunity to give ourselves a spiritual health check and honestly and candidly examine ourselves and examine our motives, whether relating to generosity of time, resources or talents, prayer or fasting – or the attitude in our heart.  It’s good to ask ourselves searching questions like “Would I still do this if no one would ever knew that I did it?” or “If I say what I want to say how might it be received?” Our words can be very destructive and in some cases quite toxic; but they can also be life giving and life affirming.  The truth is our words are a window on our heart. If we do or say anything, we should do it that people might “give glory to our Father in heaven”. It’s not about us – it’s about him.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t enjoy being encouraged – for example, if you’ve made Church ready for a Sunday service or been preparing refreshments for after a service and someone says to you how much they appreciate it, that’s great!  What is important here is the motive or reason WHY we do the things we do.  With the wrong motives, or if presented in the wrong way, our acts of service become empty and shallow and we are nothing more than hypocrites.  Whether we face encouragement or discouragement the key point is that we should act with integrity and humility, in a way that is honouring to God, and in a way that is free from hypocrisy.

I think that one of the greatest problems any church may face is an absence of grace, often seen in people who don’t understand grace or people who have never experienced it.  If we live in grace, there is no room for hypocrisy.  You see this at work when you encounter people who are both critical and who struggle to help solve a problem that they speak into.  When you have a lack of the kind of humility that is born out of grace, and a critical spirit, it is bad fruit that suggests that an individual is not at peace with God.

Paul was someone who had personal experience of an encounter with the full measure of God’s grace.  Paul spoke into the heart of the Corinthian church because he was not certain that everybody in the church who professed to be saved was truly a child of God (see 2 Corinthians 13:5). His heart was that people would be reconciled to God and also reconciled to one another.

Ministry requires sacrifice.  A hard truth though is that we are ALL called into ministry.  We are ALL called to take up our cross and follow Christ, not on our terms but on God’s.  Paul paid a high price to be faithful in his ministry. And yet how little the Corinthians really appreciated all he did for them. They brought sorrow to his heart, yet he was “always rejoicing” in Jesus Christ. He became poor that they might become rich (see 1 Corinthians 1:5; 2 Corinthians 8:9). The word translated as poor here means ‘the complete destitution of a beggar.’

What brought about this life changing transformation in Paul was an encounter with Christ.  The woman caught in adultery also had a life changing transformation through an encounter with Christ.  It is an account in John’s gospel that I am sure you will have heard many times before.

As I thought and prayed about this passage, what struck me was that this woman was actually facing death – she was facing the prospect of being stoned to death.  This event took place at dawn, so likely she will have had little if any sleep.  Exhausted physically, and emotionally, she found herself in a place where everything was stripped away.  Trauma and the prospect of death have that tendency of stripping everything away.

It is astonishing that into this place of accusation and trial, the woman encountered Jesus and found herself in a place of reconciliation and forgiveness – a place of grace.  And let’s be clear, that pastoral encounter with Jesus was not a ‘sticking plaster’ kind of encounter…he didn’t simply say “there, there, there, you’re forgiven – on your way”…but instead he said “Go now and leave your life of sin.”  The woman journeyed from a place of hopelessness to a place of hope, from death to life, and in her heart she must have been overwhelmingly grateful for this chance for new life.

We must be prepared to be self-aware and self-critical and ask ourselves in what ways do we show appreciation for Jesus’s ministry – his life, death, resurrection and exaltation…and in what ways do we show appreciation to one another for the ministries we exercise? The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial.  It is a time when we consciously strip away the baggage and die to self, as Christ died for us on the cross.  It is a time when we can remind ourselves that we seek to follow God and not our own often misguided ideas.  It is a journey with grace as its destination. 

As you journey through Lent this year, I invite you to join me in coming before God to ask him to take you to a deeper place of grace. And if like me you have the need and the courage, to ask God to take you to a deeper place of humility that we might bear the fruit of a humble and grateful heart.  After the Liturgy of Penitence, you will be invited to come forward to receive the sign of the cross made from palm ashes. The music that will be played at that moment is based on Psalm 51, a piece called Miserere mei, Deus, Latin for “Have mercy on me, O God” by Italian composer Gregorio Allegri. It was composed during the reign of Pope Urban VIII, probably during the 1630s, for the exclusive use of the Sistine Chapel during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week, and its mystique was increased by unwritten performance traditions and ornamentation. As you receive the cross and listen to this music, you may wish in that moment to simply say to God in silence “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner” and “create in me a clean heart” with expectancy and hope, as a way of refocussing and rebalancing knowing that you are forgiven.  Then later to receive Communion, mindful of what Christ did for us on the cross that we might approach the throne of grace. Amen

The Transfiguration of Christ

The German economist and Communist political philosopher Karl Marx said that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people.” This is often summarised by the sentence…“Religion is the opium of the masses.” Marx believed that religion had certain practical functions in society that were similar to the function of opium in a sick or injured person: it reduced people’s immediate suffering and provided them with pleasant illusions which gave them the strength to carry on. Marx also saw religion as harmful to his revolutionary goals, as it prevents people from seeing the class structure and oppression around them, thus in his view religion could prevent the socialist revolution. It is not exactly an endorsement for religion and faith. Some people seem willing to wait for Christianity to die when it is no longer needed; but others were, and are, keener to kill the illusion before (in their view) it does greater damage.[1]

With the relatively recent rise of new atheism, claims that Christianity is untrue have certainly been heard by a very wide audience.  We are living with a generation in society that has not been brought up within the culture and teaching of the church, and which has a deep mistrust of authority and institutions.  The scepticism with which the church is viewed is not limited though to the church alone.  People don’t trust anything, not families, not employers, not governments.

I guess my response to these views is one tinged with sadness.  Sadness because, none of the people who express such views seem to have had a personal encounter with our Lord, Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ.  None of them seem to have a heart and head knowledge of that personal relationship with Christ.  None of them seem to recognise or acknowledge lives transformed by the love and grace of God.  None of them seem to see the reality of this in people’s lives.

In our first reading, we are told that the “gospel is veiled, to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

I am sure you know people who profess no belief in God; people who disbelieve.  This may include family, friends or neighbours.  If you ever have a conversation with them about faith, and they talk about their disbelief I invite you to try something.  Ask them if they are prepared to try and pull back the veil and see if they have an encounter with Christ.  Invite them to a service, invite them to come and see for themselves, invite them to consider the impact that your faith has had and is having on your life.  After all, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

When we look at our Gospel reading for today, the disciples Peter, James and John were eyewitnesses of the transfiguration of Christ.  The Greek word translated as transfigured is one we might be more familiar with – metamorphosis.  We’re all familiar with a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.  There are many views about the transfiguration, but in my view the more plausible ones are that:

  • The transfiguration is a prophetic view of both the future glory and the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship
  • The transfiguration is a sign of the royal presence, for the kingdom of God is in the midst of his people. Here Jesus’ glory is revealed not just through his deeds, but in a more personal way.

This alone would have been in incredible sight and experience for those 3 disciples.  But then we are told that Moses and Elijah appeared before them too.  We must recognise that Mark is not prone to hyperbole in his gospel narrative.  It is as if he is simply reporting facts or making a factual statement – Elijah and Moses appeared before them – not two people LIKE Moses and Elijah appeared before them.  There must have been something about these two people that made them instantly recognisable.

Let’s be clear; people in that society and culture were not known to be superstitious – in fact they were pragmatic and somewhat sceptical.  That is one of the many reasons why people were so astonished by the miracles of Jesus and subsequently the miracles of the apostles themselves.  We must understand that context and if this were evidence we were considering in a court of law this context and the fact that these 3 disciples were eyewitnesses would “hold water”.

As a nation and as a community the Jewish people had seen prophets come and ago over centuries.  They had had chance to learn of prophecies fulfilled, see prophecies being fulfilled and to hold hope that prophecies would be fulfilled. Many authors concur that the significance of Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus is that they represented the Law and the Prophets respectively.  It is also important to bear in mind that both Moses and Elijah “had unusual departures from this world, and were both expected to reappear at the end of time.”  Their appearance with Jesus was a significant moment of proclamation that Jesus’ life and ministry was about to come into sharp focus and climax leading to his crucifixion and resurrection.

The disciples saw Jesus in the fullness of his glory, leaving no room for doubt or disbelief.  Sometimes we need to have an encounter with the glory of God for the veil to be pulled back.  Sometimes we need to capture a glimpse of his glory to be able to face or duties and trials.  My prayer is that as we journey together, people might see something of the light of Christ shining within us, that they might see lives transformed, and God at work in us as a Church and in our community.

In all of this, we are drawn into the event.  We are invited to make this journey with the disciples.  We too are invited to be eyewitnesses, to come and see.  We are invited to share our faith: people who follow God (like Moses), people who witness about God’s message (like Elijah), and people just like us, transformed by this amazing power, gladdened by this light. Not an empty, illusory faith but a tenacious, grounded, real, transformational faith.  As we journey through Lent, it’s a good idea to be mindful of the transfiguration.  In the passion of Christ as we come to the cross it is good to know that it doesn’t end there. 

Almighty Father,

whose Son was revealed in majesty

before he suffered death upon the cross:

give us grace to perceive his glory,

that we may be strengthened to suffer with him

and be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;

who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.

Amen


[1] Lucas, R. C., & Green, C. (1995). The message of 2 Peter & Jude: the promise of His coming (p. 73). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press.

What is it that defines you?

I’d like to begin this morning by asking you to ponder a couple of questions.  The first question is “How do we know what someone is really like?” We reveal who we are to one another through what we say, what we do and how we continue to be over a long period of time.  In this time of Covid, we have all grown accustomed to coming together in fellowship on a Sunday morning wearing masks.  I’d like to suggest to you that for some people there may also have been times before Covid when they came to Church wearing a very different kind of mask – a mask of bravery or a mask of pretence.  If we are honest with ourselves, we’ve all been there at one time or another haven’t we?  There may have been things going on in our life – at work, or at home – in which we were struggling. Our default position is often to be very English – a stiff upper lip, with a veil pulled over our emotions.  Of all the places where we might be though, surely the place where we can be most real is in the house of God?

Have you ever noticed that Jesus never pretends?  He is always authentic, always the real deal.  He reveals who he is through his teaching, his actions – his birth, his life and earthly ministry, his death, his resurrection…and his exaltation.  He shows us the way, how to be, and reminds us who we really are in our humanity.

This leads me to ask my second question for you to ponder this morning. The question is “What is it that defines you?” Our natural responses might include things like the job that we do, the role that we have in the family, the place where we were born and raised – I am sure there are many other things you could add to that list.  All of these things are of course, important.  But I would like to suggest that there is something that comes before all of those, something that takes precedence above all of them, and that something is a deep truth – we are children of God and loved by God.  If we are able to acknowledge that, if we are able to receive God’s love, then how we relate to everything else around us in life changes.

Being a Christian is so much more than simply ticking the boxes of religious observances and practices.  Jesus is alive and real; I have seen so many lives transformed by faith in Jesus, when people have seen a glimpse of the fullness of God’s transforming and redeeming love.  He can change our life forever; an encounter with Jesus is a genuine invitation into a new life in all its fullness as we enter deeper into a relationship with him.  Jesus is our life and light.  That’s why we must constantly return to the foot of the cross.  That’s why every time we gather before the Lord’s Table, we are invited to remember all that Jesus did, all that Jesus accomplished and be renewed in hope and light and life.  At the foot of the cross and before the Lord’s Table we have an opportunity to be redefined, to remind ourselves of our true identity. 

In light of these revelations – this deep truth – we are invited to respond with awe and reverence, and to be drawn deeper into heartfelt worship with humble and grateful hearts.  The extraordinary lengths that God was prepared to go to in order to reconcile us to him are astonishing.  No wonder that so many who encountered Jesus fell down on their knees and worshipped him.

The Lord we serve and adore is the ultimate revelation of the Father, sharing with him the sovereignty of the ages and bringing into reality the divine purpose for the ages.  Our passage from John’s Gospel shows how Jesus was with the Father before the creation of the world.  In the opening verses we see echoes of Genesis 1 – when God spoke, creation took place…and Psalm 33:6 – by the word of the Lord, the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth.  Whatever else John is going to tell us, he wants us to see his book as the story of God and the world, not just the story of one character in one place and time. This book is about the creator God acting in a new way within his much-loved creation. It is about the way in which the long story which began in Genesis reached the climax the Creator had always intended.  And He will do this through ‘the Word’. In Genesis 1, the climax is the creation of humans, made in God’s image and likeness. In John 1, the climax is the arrival of a human being, the Word become ‘flesh’.

John also shows Jesus’ deity and essence (Jesus is fully God) as well as His incarnation (Jesus is fully human too – the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us).  As Jesus gives life and is life, raises the dead and is the resurrection, gives bread and is the bread, speaks truth and is the truth, so as he speaks the word he is the Word.  God’s word is the one thing that will last, even though people and plants wither and die (Isaiah 40:6–8); God’s word will go out of his mouth and bring life, healing and hope to Israel and the whole creation (Isaiah 55:10–11). These verses serve to give us some indication of how we should read and understand the entire Gospel, almost like an overture to an opera.

Amongst all other religions, in Christianity both the person of Christ (Who is Christ?) and the work of Christ (what he accomplished) stand unique.  Our understanding of the person of Christ and the work of Christ has to be central to our faith; and the implications of having a wrong understanding is that the bedrock of our faith is undermined. Jesus is a stumbling block to non-Christians, Atheists, and other faith groups.

If you want to get to know God the Father, take a long hard look at Jesus – God the Son, and to get to know him by reading the Gospels in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we get to know Jesus, we will quite naturally enter into a deeper place in relationship with all the fullness of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Jesus became human to reveal the Father to us and to reconcile us to himself that we might become children of God.  We are able to connect with Christ in his humanity and worship him in his deity as he shows us the way to the Father.  We are reminded that the primary reason for our existence is to worship and be in relationship with God. Jesus stepped down into our darkness and our condition of human weakness, pitched his tent and revealed his glory.  Jesus is the author and finisher or completer, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2)

We will soon be entering the season of Lent and which we may choose to journey to the cross with Christ.  In this time may you have a fresh and a deeper revelation of Christ mindful that in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; and in this time of uncertainty that all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It may be in reading this that you would like to know this Jesus I write about. If you are not a church-goer, I encourage you to go along to your local Church and ask the minister to tell you about Jesus. If you are a church-goer and want to know him more, keep reading the Bible and I pray that He may reveal himself to you through his Word.

Amen

My eyes have seen your salvation

The season of Epiphany comes to an end with what is known as the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, more commonly known as Candlemas.  It is on this day that we remember how the child who had been made known to the Magi is now recognized by Simeon and Anna, when he comes to be presented by his parents in the Temple according to the Law of Israel. He is both ‘a light to lighten the Gentiles’ and ‘the glory of God’s people Israel’. But the redemption he will bring must be won through suffering; the Incarnation of Christ is directed to the Passion; and Simeon’s final words move our attention away from the celebration of Christmas and towards the mysteries of Easter.  What Jesus accomplished for us was achieved through his birth, life, death, resurrection and exaltation.

We know that Mary and Joseph travelled with Jesus to Jerusalem to present him in the Temple; it is helpful to explore the reason why.  The answer can be found in Leviticus 12 where we learn of the requirement for every Jewish woman who gave birth to a son to go to Jerusalem forty days after the birth and offer for the purposes of ritual purification two sacrifices in the temple. This is because (as difficult as it might be for us to understand) women were considered unclean after the birth of a child – for a period of 40 days for a boy, and 60 days for a girl, women were not allowed to worship in the temple. 

That’s something that we find difficult to understand today; it is so different to our culture. We may be a little more familiar though if we think about cleansing and purification, for example when parents bring their children for baptism, there is often a sense of how they want to “get right with God”, they want to “do the right thing”, and they appreciate the encounter with the grace that comes through baptism perhaps much like Mary would have had a similar encounter through purification.

In the case of a firstborn son there was also a requirement that in his presentation at the temple, he be acknowledged as belonging to the Lord in a special way (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15). This involved the child being ‘redeemed’ by the payment of a fee of five shekels (Numbers 18:15–16). Though this payment could be made anywhere in the land, the ideal was to present the child in the temple (Nehemiah 10:35–36). And when this was done, the purification and presentation would be done together. To use two turtledoves or young pigeons for the sacrifice instead of the usual lamb and one turtledove or pigeon was actually a concession for poor folk (Leviticus 12:8).

Whether we are blessed with the gift of a child or the many other blessings that God has given us – in either case we are invited to make a response.  Mary and Joseph’s response was to do what the law required of them by presenting Jesus in the Temple for dedication, in which there is a dual action of giving thanks and then asking for God’s blessing. Jesus was born under the law (Galatians 4:4), obeyed God’s law perfectly (John 8:46), redeemed us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), and set us free from bondage (Galatians 5:1).

There are several characters in this important account – Mary, Joseph, Jesus himself, Simeon and Anna.  I want us to focus today on Simeon and Anna who had that amazing encounter with Jesus. Here is what we learn about them:

  • Both are elderly – with Simeon we are told “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (Luke 2:26) and with Anna “She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four.” (Luke 2:36-37).
  • Both are devoutly religious, people who are expecting the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25) and the “redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:37-38).
  • Equally important, both are prophets. Anna is explicitly given this rare and honoured title (Luke 2:36), and when Simeon speaks by the power of the Holy Spirit of God he too is prophesying (Luke 2:25ff.).

It is on this occasion that the Christ-child is recognized by Simeon and Anna, when he comes to be presented in the Temple according to the Law of Israel.  Simeon held the baby Jesus and called him “a Light for revelation to the Gentiles.” (Luke 2:32) Imagine if you can that you are Simeon, holding Jesus gently in your arms, gazing upon him.  As you picture that, listen to the words of Simeon which we frequently recollect in the Nunc Dimmitis or Song of Simeon:

Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, 

according to your word; 

for my eyes have seen your salvation, 

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 

a light for revelation to the Gentiles 

and for glory to your people Israel.” 

What an incredible revelation of Christ Simeon had – not only by his recognising who Christ was and all that he came to be, but also in finally holding that Christ-child in his arms.  I don’t know about you, but I can almost imagine Simeon stood there gazing upon Christ with tears of joy in his eyes…I have hoped and waited for so many years and now finally “my eyes have seen your salvation.

Now imagine for a moment that you are Mary or Joseph hearing those words.  They had both had encounters with angels, had both beheld the wonders of Shepherds coming and paying homage at the birth of Jesus, and sometime later beheld the Magi kneeling in adoration before Christ.  And despite all of this, having heard the words of Simeon they were still amazed.

And then Simeon “blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.””  Imagine what Mary and Joseph must have thought about those words, particularly with that prophetic statement looking forwards to the great sacrifice that Jesus had to make once for all.

Anna, like Simeon, had that double revelation of Christ.  She too understood all that he was and all that he came to be.  As a consequence of that revelation she “came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38)

I don’t know if you know that the name ‘Anna’ means ‘Favour’ or ‘Grace,’ and originates from the Hebrew ‘chanan’, meaning “to bend or stoop in kindness” and “to find favour and show favour.”  She certainly did find favour in God’s eyes, for He revealed the Messiah, the Hope of Israel, to her aged eyes.  Her anointed ministry during later years of life reminds us very beautifully that all are called to ministry, whether young or old, male or female.  There is always ministry awaiting the sensitive, obedient, and pure—ministry that can influence and shape the rising generation (Titus 2:2-5). I think we desperately need the Simeon’s and Anna’s – people who speak God’s truth and see God at work so clearly – people who God can use no matter how unworthy or inadequate they might be – people of faith and people of hope.  In Curacy, I attended Morning Prayer every day and I was usually joined by an elderly gentleman.  He was a good friend.  He was my Simeon.  It was a privilege to pray with him and in my frequent encounters with him I saw something of God’s love and grace at work.  He encouraged me immensely and invited me to walk deeper in God’s grace. He passed away 4 years ago and the Song of Simeon was said at his funeral.

They have no more wine

Whether we are conscious of it today or not, we live in an age where we are surrounded by signs, symbols & icons.  Brand and brand placement dominate the media.  Throughout history, in a variety of ways, these have always had significance in society and culture.

To give you an idea of what I mean, I’m going to list several people or brands that I am sure are instantly recognisable if you search for them on the internet.  Try taking a look for:

  • Audrey Hepburn
  • Apple Logo
  • BMW
  • Winston Churchill
  • Marilyn Monroe
  • Afghan girl (taken by Steve McCurry)
  • Jesus

The thing about signs, symbols and icons is that they often evoke an emotional response from us – perhaps triggering memories and reminding of us past experiences either good or bad.  Let me explain how…

The point is that they often point to something more, something beyond.  They can also instil a sense of identity and belonging, and perhaps one of the most striking and enduring signs or icons is that of the cross of Christ.  If you search for a picture of the cross of Christ, as you look at it, what memories and emotions does it evoke in you?

Many years ago I studied at the University of Birmingham. I always remember when I came home for the weekend or during the holidays I knew I was getting close to home when I saw a large illuminated cross outside a Church building on the outskirts of the city I lived in. Just seeing that cross spoke volumes to me; it had in many ways become an icon, pointing to something more, something beyond – and in this case the comfort of home.

The Bible, and in particular John’s gospel, speaks quite a lot about signs.  We encounter one of those in our reading today in which we learn of Jesus’ first recorded miracle at a wedding celebration which took place in Cana in Galilee. All of Jesus’ miracles point beyond themselves to a deeper truth, to “the revelation of God in Jesus.”  The blind man whose sight was restored journeyed into a deeper place of faith and truth, the woman with the issue of blood journeyed into a place of restoration and renewal.  Jesus constantly reveals himself and we are always invited to respond, always invited to place our trust in him. 

So we find ourselves in this story at a wedding celebration in Cana, a town about nine miles north of Nazareth, and if you remember from our reading and sermon last Sunday this was the place that Nathanael came from.  We might think that weddings are big occasions in our country, and don’t get me wrong – they often can be!  However, in Jesus’ day wedding celebrations could last as long as a week, and often the entire village or town was invited.  It was considered an insult to turn down an invitation to a wedding, so most people would typically attend.

Jesus’ mother Mary was a guest, and we are told that Jesus and his disciples were also invited. Let’s look together at the events as they unfolded:

  • They ran out of wine at the celebration.

This would have been a social disaster and brought embarrassment and shame upon the host.  There was a clear need which Mary immediately recognised – “they have no more wine”, she said to Jesus. (John 2:3)

  • Jesus didn’t draw attention to himself in his response and actions. 

Few besides the disciples and his mother actually saw how he responded.  What was important in that time and place was actually the journey they went on in their faith and how they responded.  I don’t think how Jesus replied to his mother was rude; the sense I get is that he replied with a half-smile on his face along the lines of “What do you expect me to do about it?”.

  • Mary responded by saying to the servant present “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5), in other words “He’s got this under control, trust him.”  The disciples responded too by “putting their faith in him.” (John 2:11) When we are presented with need, do we put our faith in God and trust him to provide?  Jesus’ response encourages us to journey to a deeper place of faith and truth and invites us to respond too.
  • There can be no doubt from Jesus’ attendance and actions that God wholeheartedly approves of weddings and wedding celebrations.  His actions invite us to look deeper and look beyond and see his wonder and glory and majesty.  We see that in our first reading from the book of Revelation which speaks about the Church being the bride of Christ, and the linen of the wedding dress standing for the righteous acts of God’s people.  Imagine that – every righteous act that you do for God is helping to provide material for the wedding dress. 
  • If Jesus turns water into the finest of wines at the wedding feast in Cana, saving the best until last, imagine what the heavenly wedding banquet will be like.
  • In Jesus’ response we encounter a real sense of the abundance of God’s blessing, and his desire for intimacy, fellowship and communion with humankind as well as “the glory of Jesus and the wonder of His redeeming love.”

I want to close today by leaving you with a thought…when you think about approaching the Lord’s table to receive either Holy Communion or receive a blessing, what deeper truth does that act point to and how might God be inviting you to respond? What journey is God taking you in your faith?

Will you follow me?

At my licensing service in January the Bible passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that was read out spoke about St Paul urging us to live a life worthy of the calling we have received.  I thought it might be helpful for us to look more closely at the nature and implications of that calling as we reflect on today’s Gospel reading, in which we learn of the account of Jesus’ calling of Philip and Nathanael.

In case you hadn’t appreciated there was something very different about the way in which people became disciples of Jesus compared to how people might become followers of a Rabbi.  You see, in Jesus’ day, only Jewish boys who achieved academic excellence could present themself to a well-known, respected, and acclaimed Rabbi and seek to become one of their followers or disciples by engaging in a higher level of learning known as Bet Midrash – which literally means “house of study”. The student would tell the Rabbi that he wanted to become his follower, his student and begin to engage with more intense study. But before that could happen, the Rabbi would interview the student and ask lots of questions, to find out the child really was of sufficient academic standing.  Each Rabbi wanted to teach his thinking, his philosophy, his interpretation of Scripture and needed to see if the child had what it takes to be his disciple.

In contrast, people became disciples of Jesus in a very different way.  They didn’t choose to follow Jesus – instead, they were chosen by Jesus.   He specifically sought out people who he wanted to be his disciples – in this case Philip and Nathanael.  Jesus called THEM. They wouldn’t have gone beyond early stages of education, they hadn’t achieved academic excellence, and therefore they wouldn’t have made the cut for any Rabbi.  Jesus didn’t choose people who were great orators, people who held great political power and influence or people who had amassed great wealth.  Jesus chose ordinary everyday people as his disciples because he could see a deeper potential within them, who in the power of the Holy Spirit went on to change the course of human history.  He has called and invited us too, to become his disciples.  He constantly asks us that question “will you follow me?”

God always does that.  Have you noticed how God has a habit of choosing the least likely people in the least likely places to accomplish his purposes? He makes the secular sacred, the ordinary extraordinary, the dark light. He chooses people who we sometimes least expect and invites them to know him, to develop the mind of Christ and be clothed in his truth.  And then Jesus gives a clear mandate, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)  He calls us do to that together; in unity, with one mind and one accord.

We don’t know a great deal about Nathanael except that he was from Cana in Galilee. Remember it was in Cana that Jesus did his first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding feast.  Nathanael’s name means “gift of God”, although as a disciple he is often referred to as Bartholomew.  He, like so many others, was sceptical of the thought of a Messiah or Saviour coming from Nazareth.  In some respects that’s understandable – after all, Nazareth was one of those backwater villages with a population of less than 200, and it was hard for anyone to imagine that the Saviour of the World could possibly come from such a place.  We know that Jesus spent his boyhood years in Nazareth before beginning his earthly ministry when he was about 30.  After moving his home to Capernaum, Jesus returned to teach in the synagogue of Nazareth twice more, but was rejected both times by the people.  On one occasion the townspeople were so outraged at Jesus that they tried to throw him off a cliff to his death.  Not exactly something that sells Nazareth to us as a place is it?

We are also told that Nathanael had been under a fig tree.   Such trees could be tall and provided fruit. But they also acted as shade from the blazing sun. The spreading branches and thick leaves were an ideal place of shade and shelter. It wasn’t unusual for a person to sit in the shade of a fig tree to reflect, contemplate and to wrestle with the issues of life.  It was also a place from which Nathanael could observe what was going on around him; he could see what Jesus was up to from a distance.  John makes it very clear though that Jesus saw Nathanael under the fig tree. It might have been that Nathanael was troubled or conflicted; he would have heard about Jesus of Nazareth and now he was able to see him for himself. Was he seeking guidance? Was Nathanael wrestling with the truth that Jesus is the Messiah? Is it because of this honest wrestling, this element of doubt, that Jesus is able to say that Nathanael is a true son of Israel?

We can be just like that in life too; we find our “fig trees” in life where we can sit and observe what is going around us, where we can grapple with things and try and get our heads together.  I am sure you all have such special places; this Church might be such a place for you.  And when we do grapple with things and try and make sense of life and what is going on, it is reassuring to know that it isn’t wrong to doubt.  It is good to be honest with ourselves, to be real.  Real people have real doubts, real people are part of this wondrous mess that life can be sometimes be, real people are people just like you and me.  Real people are the people that Jesus calls.  Real people are the people invited to “come and see”.

We may not see Jesus standing right before us as Nathanael did, but he is with us all the time.  When we have an encounter with Jesus, he often speaks right into our heart and shows that he knows us intimately which we are reminded in the words of today’s Psalm “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.

Like Nathanael, we may find ourselves asking “How do you know me?”  But the truth is there is nothing about us that Jesus doesn’t know.  Whatever experiences we have had in life, there is nothing that Jesus doesn’t know.  There’s no point in pretending with God.  And he comes and calls us because he loves us despite ourselves and he delivers the goods; he doesn’t let us down.

This place of meeting, this church building can be a place for all of us to sit and shelter from the pressures of everyday living. It can be a bit like an oasis in the desert.  This isn’t simply my church – it is our church, the church of this parish and all the people who live here.    Here we are offered that space, safety and opportunity to consider the questions of life; and I’m not talking about the little questions like what colour socks should I put on today, I am talking about us trying to make sense of why we are here, how do we grapple with the very real challenges that we face, and what does our future have in store for us?  Jesus longs to engage with all of us, those of us who are sitting under a fig tree or in a church or wherever.

You may be feeling like Nathanael with doubts and questions whether you are here for the first time or if you are regular member of the congregation. But I tell you this; if you are looking for answers, I truly believe you are in the right place.  You are in a place of prayer, a place of healing, a place of forgiveness, a place of love and a place in which you are valued beyond measure.

Nathanael got it.  He said to Jesus “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”  As we think about Nathanael’s response, and how we may have been sitting under our fig trees watching life go by and trying to make sense of it all…no matter where you are in your life right now, I offer you an invitation.  If you would like to respond to Jesus, maybe for the first time, or even to recommit yourself to his calling now I invite you to get in touch and I’ll pray for you.  But for now, let me close with a short prayer…

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that you call us to be your followers, that you look beyond our weakness and see potential in us.

We are willing to turn away from all that might be wrong in our life.

We want to put you first and go where you lead in the future.

Thank you for dying on the cross so that we might be forgiven.

Come into our life this day; Come in as our Saviour and Lord: Come in to be with us for ever.

Thank you Lord Jesus. Amen.

The Other Side

Today’s reading from Nehemiah speaks of the circumstances of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem and the first steps taken in their coming out of exile.

Let’s consider the context – it was the 5th century BC and the Israelites had recently been through the incredibly traumatic experience of exile. We must remember how a century or so previously, the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and forced the majority of its inhabitants out of their homeland. No wonder we are told that by the rivers of Babylon they sat down and wept in a foreign land, strangers in a strange land and dislocated from everything that they held dear.

Exile in Babylon proved to be an incredibly tough experience. Fast forward 70 years and the Persians took over from the Babylonians and incredibly allowed the exiles to return home. We should bear in mind that a period of 70 years spans a generation so the Israelites returning “home” were not returning to a home they will necessarily have known; it will have been the home of their parents. In several waves, the Israelites returned to Jerusalem and began to rebuild their lives, but not exactly lives as they had known. If exile was tough, trying to get back to a “new normal” amid so much uncertainty was even harder.

Perhaps that sounds familiar to us today? We too may have felt exiled due to the pandemic – unable to do many of the things that previously we might have taken for granted. Lockdown is never easy, and at the time of posting my country is in the middle of a 3rd lockdown. So many false starts. So many shattered hopes. Finding a new normal and rebuilding life on the other side can feel even more challenging.

However, when the great leader Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem he managed to mobilise the inhabitants to action; the walls of the city were rebuilt – in itself a very significant and symbolic act. The people began to feel secure again. Take heart because with God on our side, the rubble can be raw material and the ruin can once again feel like home. As a people we can be incredible resilient and adaptable.

With the physical fabric rebuilt, this is where the key character in our passage fits in. Ezra also returned to Jerusalem and worked with Nehemiah. He had a different skill set. Nehemiah was a visionary leader. Ezra was a Bible teacher. In Nehemiah 8, it is Ezra who takes the lead as God’s people regather around God’s word.

  • The people told Ezra the teacher of the Law to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses (v1)
  • Ezra read from the Book of the Law of Moses from daybreak until noon (v3)
  • He read to men, women and others who could understand – implying that those present included children (v2)
  • The first day of the seventh month is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (v2).
  • Everybody listened attentively (v3)
  • The event included praise and worship – the people bowed down and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground (v7)
  • When people heard the Words of the Law of Moses they were so convicted by what they heard, they were filled with contrition, brought into a place of repentance and wept (v9).  But Nehemiah said “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our LORD. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” (v10) The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.” (v11)
  • Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (v12)

If the challenges of this pandemic have shown us nothing else, we have been presented with an opportunity to reflect upon what actually is really important in our lives, that duty of care and responsibility we have to one another, a deeper appreciation of the simple things we hitherto have taken for granted, and to embrace the truth and listen to people of integrity, not people who are like shifting sand.

What can shape and guide us in doing that? God’s Holy Word and our faith and trust in Him. God led his people out of exile, and he can lead us to the other side of this pandemic. So Lord, let us remember these words and commit them to our hearts:

How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.

Advent 4

In today’s Gospel reading, we read how the same angel who had announced to Zechariah the birth of John the Baptist now came and announced to Mary the imminent birth of Jesus.  All of this happened in Nazareth of all places, a town in Galilee.  Nazareth was considered to be a rural backwater, looked down upon by the Judean elite.  We see that in John’s gospel, when we are told about the calling of the 1st disciples: “Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.” (John 1:45-46)  To think about this in our context, it would have been like someone saying many years ago “can anything good come out of White Abbey?” 

As we reflect on the first 2 verses we’ve heard in today’s reading it is clear that there is intention and purpose – the angel Gabriel was sent by God, and he was sent specifically to Nazareth, to a specific person – Mary, who was a virgin, and pledged to be married to Joseph, a descendant of David.  Everything had to be in place – and it speaks to us very clearly about how God has a plan and knows exactly what he’s doing.

The angel Gabriel told Mary very clearly that she was the “favoured one” and that the Lord was with her and that she would conceive a son. The stupendous claims which the angel makes for this unborn baby (1:32–33) would have quite simply staggered Jewish readers of the Gospel, so no surprising to learn that Mary was “much perplexed by his words”, as it says in some translations.  It’s likely she would also have been perplexed because at that point she wasn’t even married and it’s not as if you encounter an angel every day!  If that had happened to you, I wonder how you would have responded?  In Mary’s response to Gabriel, she did not question anything that was said – apart from wondering how she would conceive because she was a virgin!

Mary and Elizabeth of course have very different stories to tell.  Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist was something that would take away the shame of her infertility, whereas Mary’s pregnancy potentially brought shame on her since she was out of wedlock.

The angel responded to Mary’s question: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God”. Mary’s subsequent response is one of humility and obedience: ““I am the LORD’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me according to your word.”” No “ifs”, no “buts”, but complete obedience, complete trust, complete faith. If you continue reading Luke’s gospel, you will see how she then takes everything that has been said and gives all the glory back to God.  She praises God because he has “looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

For many years, I struggled with the church’s veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary to such an extent that it stopped me finding inspiration in her life and testimony. Today, that struggle is still there but diminished sufficiently for me to say this:

I believe Mary’s life and testimony speaks of Godly humility, grace, faith and faithfulness, obedience, conviction and incredible strength. Mary’s example – her life and testimony – is one that we can all aspire to and it’s good that on this 4th Sunday of Advent we can remember her especially. May we all, like Mary, have the courage and wisdom to acknowledge God’s direction in our lives and be able to say: “I am the LORD’s servant, may it be to me according to your word.”

Advent 3 – Expectation

In today’s gospel reading, we are reminded of the message and ministry of John the Baptist, who Jesus referred to as the greatest of the prophets.

In my advent reflection for this 3rd Sunday of Advent I spoke about expecting and expectation.  Our expectation can either be good or bad.  Which of these it is depends on our motive and focus.  If our expectation is focussed on self-fulfilment and at its root has a selfish motive, then it is likely that is bad.  If our expectation is God-focussed (which is why we pray may YOUR kingdom come, may YOUR will be done), then our motive is pure, and it is likely our expectation is good. 

In Jesus’ time, the people were living under the oppressive regime of the Romans.  Our expectations are often greater during times of adversity.  The people voiced their expectation of a coming Messiah by asking John the Baptist very direct questions: “Who are you?”, “Are you Elijah?”, and again “Who are you?” That expectation continued to be voiced when they encountered Jesus, who was asked “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?

It’s quite likely that we encounter people with expectations.  At hospital recently I encountered a woman of great faith who was partially sighted.  She responded warmly to my greeting and then asked if I was the doctor.  I said no, I’m Mark, one of the chaplains here at BRI.  She expected a doctor.  She didn’t expect a priest.  But as soon as she realised that I was a priest she visibly relaxed and after a long conversation I prayed for her.  We can be sick of mind, sick of body, sick of spirit, or sick of heart. I believe in God’s grace that the encounter we had helped her know some measure of healing and peace in her mind, her spirit and her heart.  The doctor and the rest of the medical team were working to address her being sick of body. Perhaps an unvoiced expectation was satisfied because she was clearly deeply moved by being prayed for in that way.

The people of God expected a warlike Messiah to free them from oppression.  What the prophets had made clear, and made starkly apparent by John the Baptist, was what they needed was Jesus, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings who through his life, ministry, death, resurrection and exaltation would reconcile them to God once and for all.  Then God’s people would truly be free from the bondage they couldn’t even see – the bondage of sin and death.

Heavenly Father, help our expectations to be realistic and founded in You and You alone.  Open our eyes that we might recognise the signs of your presence in our midst, calling and inviting us into a deeper relationship with you.  Thank you for the witness and testimony of John the Baptist who came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  Help us to bear witness and give testimony to Jesus Christ, the light of the world.  Amen