Category Archives: Sermon

Sermon by Adriaan van Klinken – 17 May 2020

Notes from the sermon by Adriaan van Klinken at All Hallows’ Church on 17 May 2020

“Who Do You Say That I Am?” – Jesus Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God

In our series about “Tricky questions from the Bible”, today we think about the question who Jesus is for us. Libraries full of books have been written about this question – so by definition I’m going to simplify a very complex issue. But still, many of you may think it’s far too complicated what I’ll be sharing with you. At least I hope to give you some food for thought.

Reading I: Matthew 16:13-17

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.

Who do you say that I am? That’s the question Jesus asks his disciples. They have been following him for some time. But walking around with Jesus and closely observing his ministry is not necessarily enough to know with whom, exactly, they are dealing. That is true for the disciples as much as it is true for us today. We can devote our lives to him, worship him, follow him. But that doesn’t mean we are able to articulate who, exactly, he is. In our Christian language, we refer to him as the Messiah, the Christ, Lord, Son of God, and even as God the Son. What do these titles mean? What truth about Jesus do they try to capture?

Throughout the ages the answer to this question has been deeply divisive. Very early in Christian history, it caused the division between Jews and Christians – as Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah that Jews had been expecting for centuries, while most Jews did not agree. In the early centuries of the church, the truth about Jesus was subject of heated debate. Each of the three classic creeds that the church formulated was an attempt to capture the truth about him with more detail – about the virgin birth, about the eternal existence of Christ, about the relation between his human and divine nature, about his relationship to God the Creator, about his position in the Trinity. But with each creed, certain views were labelled as heretic, and the people who upheld them were excluded from what was seen as orthodoxy. This culminated in the greatest schism in Christianity, between the Western and the Eastern Church, in the year 1054. Here in England, in the 17th century, the understanding of Jesus Christ caused the split between the Unitarian Church – our friends at Mill Hill Chapel – and the Anglican Church. Nowadays, different understandings of Jesus not only cause divisions between and within Christian denominations, but also in the relation between Christians and Muslims. For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet – an important prophet as he presents a revelation of God, but he himself is not divine.

The division about Jesus is ironic, given that Jesus himself called us to be united. The reason for these divisions and conflicts is that Christians have often approached the question as a piece of maths or science – which can only have one right answer, nailed down with great detail and precision.

In our reading from the Gospel of Matthew, we already find three answers to the question of who Jesus is.

  1. Jesus himself uses the term, ‘Son of Man’. This term is used 80 times in the gospels, and in each case it is Jesus who uses it for himself. What does that mean, Jesus as the son of man? At first sight, one might think that it simply refers to Jesus’ human nature. But that misses the point that when Jesus was alive, his humanity was not in question. The people around him may have wondered what kind of human person he was (John the Baptist, or a reincarnation of a prophet such as Elija or Jeremiah?), but not whether he was truly human. The title ‘Son of Man’ has a much more specific meaning. In the Hebrew language it reads like, ‘son of Adam’ – Adam as the first human being, created as God intended humankind to be; bearing God’s image, not distorted by sin but living in harmony with creation and with God. We know what happened to Adam and Eve in paradise: they failed to live up to God’s intention and design.

    In the Jewish tradition there is the expectation that God will restore humankind by sending a new Adam. For instance, in the book of Daniel we read a prophesy about the Son of Adam who is given authority, glory and power by God, and his kingdom will never be destroyed (Daniel 7, 13-14). By using the title ‘Son of man’, or ‘son of Adam’, Jesus applies that prophesy to himself. In him we encounter the true son of Adam, God’s new creation, restoring humankind. Jesus is not just human as anyone else, not even a prophet, but he is the human par excellence – human as God intended us to be in the beginning. And his kingdom of true humanity will have no end.

  2. In response to Jesus’ question, the disciple Peter declares: ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Let’s first think about that title, Son of God. One might say that this refers to the divine nature of Jesus – but wait, that may be too fast. ‘Son of God’ is not the same as the title ‘God the Son’ that the early church developed after Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew wrote his gospel for a mostly Jewish audience. The title ‘God the Son’ would have been a blasphemy for Jews, but the title ‘Son of God’ was very familiar to them. Throughout the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament), the term is used. For example in relation to King David, who in Psalm 72 prays: ‘Endow the king with your justice, O God, the royal son with your righteousness. May he judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice.’ Here, and in other Psalms (e.g. 82 and 89), the title ‘son of God’ is used to refer to a king who will rule with justice and righteousness.

    The history of the kings of Israel in the Old Testament is one long story of failures: time and again, rulers end up seeking their own interest and departing from God’s ways. Yet the Psalms keep the hope alive that one day, there will be a king after God’s heart, who seeks the interest of his people, and who rules in line with God’s commandments of justice and peace. That king will be exalted as God’s son, says Psalm 89, and God’s covenant with him will never end. The Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as that long-awaited king. In its opening sentence, it refers to Jesus as the son of David, and it emphasises that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the town of King David. Thus, the title ‘son of God’ – at least in the Gospel of Matthew – means that Jesus is the royal son, who brings God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

  3. The third title, also part of Peter’s answer to Jesus question, is ‘Messiah’ (or in Greek, ‘Christ’). The word literally means ‘anointed’. It refers to the ritual of consecrating someone with oil in preparation for a special ministry or position – for instance, as king or as prophet. Throughout the Hebrew Bible we find the strong expectation that God will send someone who will truly live up to their anointment, who will not disappoint (as many prophets and kings in the Bible do) but who will stay true to their divine calling and mission. In the Hebrew Bible, the belief in the Messiah is particularly strong in texts written while the people of Israel were in exile. The Messiah would bring them back to the promised land, as a new Moses; he would restore the Jewish nation, as a new King David; he would bring freedom, justice, and peace. The belief in the Messiah was also strong among Jews at the time of Jesus: they hoped that he would liberate them from the Roman oppressors. Most likely that was the reason why many Jews did not recognise Jesus as the Messiah – he did not free them from the Romans. Instead, he was killed by them. But the early Christians believed that he was – for them, Jesus’ execution by the Romans was exactly the result of his righteousness, his relentless commitment to God’s justice.

So what made Jesus the Messiah, the son of God? In the gospels, we read plenty of stories about what made Jesus special: his charisma and wisdom; his ability to heal people; his courage to speak truth to power; his mysticism through which his life was radically centred in God. But these things did not necessarily make him the Son of God. John the Baptist, for instance, did similar things. The difference is in the experience of Easter. Whatever exactly happened at Easter (Heston will be preaching about that next week), it radically changed the way in which Jesus’ followers thought about him. The empty tomb was evidence that he was not just a prophet, but indeed the Son of Man – the first of a new creation – and the Son of God – the Davidic king who would rule over a kingdom of justice and peace. The resurrection of Jesus was the affirmation that he, indeed, was the anointed one, the Messiah. As we read in the Book of Romans (1: 4), Christ Jesus ‘through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.’

This idea, that Jesus was appointed (or exalted) as Son of God reflects ideas in the Old Testament about the new king of David (e.g. see Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.’”). It has been incorporated in the New Testament in various versions. According to Romans, the exaltation took place through the resurrection. The Gospel of Mark, which is the oldest of the four gospels, suggests that it happened at Jesus’ baptism, when a voice was heard from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11). Matthew and Luke in their gospels shifted the moment to Jesus’ conception – the story of the virgin birth. Matthew repeats it later, in the story about the baptism of Jesus (3:17) and in the story about the transfiguration (17:5: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him”). Luke comes with the story about the ascension – a literal exaltation – of the risen Christ to heaven.

In different ways, these texts capture the belief that Jesus, as a true Son of Adam, has been affirmed and elevated by God as the Son of God. The fourth and latest gospel, of John, goes a decisive step further: it declares that Jesus had been with God, and was God, from the beginning of time.

Reading II: John 1: 1-5, 9-14, 16-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

The Gospel of John has a so-called high Christology: it reflects the belief in Jesus as an embodiment (incarnation) of God-self. He was not adopted, at some moment in or after his life, to become the Son of God, but he was God from the beginning. He was God in human form. More than the other three gospels, John is more influenced by Greek than Jewish thought. His beautiful poem about the Word that was in the beginning plays with Greek philosophical ideas about the logos (‘the Word’) and applies them to Jesus. Later in the early church, this opening of John’s gospel was developed into the doctrine of the Trinity: Jesus Christ as God the Son, one with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (Graeme will preach about this in a few weeks time).

To conclude, in the New Testament itself, we find different takes on the question of who Jesus is. There’s a reason why the Bible includes four gospels – each written at a different time, in a different context, aiming at a different audience, and with its own emphasis. The Bible does not capture the truth about Jesus in doctrines and creeds, but in stories and parables, in symbolic and poetic language. Instead of homogenising this diversity into one Orthodox Truth with a capital T, why not acknowledge these various interpretations, contemplate their meanings, and be enriched by them?

The most important is that you yourself find an answer to the question who Jesus is for you – based on your own experience and understanding of him.

At some moments, I tend more towards a low Christology: the idea that Jesus was a human person like you and me, but anointed with a divine spirit like the way in which the first Adam had received God’s breath. This view keeps Jesus close, I can recognise myself in him, I can model myself after his humanity. He is my Brother.

As other moments, I tend towards a high Christology: the idea that Jesus is God who revealed himself through us in human form. When I struggle and fail in life, I know that God in Jesus has saved me. He is my Lord.

Either way, Jesus presents us with a mystery – somehow, in him we see the face of God. We cannot capture that in scientific formulas. We only know that Jesus’ followers, then and now, have encountered in him the heart of God: full of love and compassion. In his life and his resurrection, we have seen God’s vision for humankind revealed: a kingdom of justice and peace. Trough him, there is hope for us all: the hope to be born again, to become sons and daughters of Adam, as God intended us to be; to become sons and daughters after God’s heart.

Sermon by Heston Groenewald – 3 May 2020

Notes from the sermon by Heston Groenewald – 3 May 2020. You can see the service on in this post. Heston tries to answer the question about “God and violence” Our readings were from Deuteronomy 7:1-6 and Matthew 5:43-45

We humans are a violent coercive manipulative species! Although we work hard to hide that from ourselves and others, we don’t have to look very deep inside to find the truth. And if God is going to deal with real human beings in the real world (that’s what Love does) then ideas about God and ideas about violence are sometimes going to clash.

Does human violence originate in God? And did/does God command violence and even genocide?

NO!

In Jesus, God has ‘come out’ as complete and utter self-giving love. Love is patient, love is kind, love does not insist on its own way. Which means God is patient, God is kind, God does not insist on God’s own way. (God doesn’t ‘command’ anything.) God loves all of creation- and God invites all of creation to live in that love. That’s the clearest revelation of God that we have- God is as God is in Jesus.

But we human beings are painfully slow to grasp wonderful divine realities like this. St Paul was 100% right: we see God as through a glass darkly. Thousands of years after Jesus, we’re still struggling to live as though ‘God is love’. And if we still haven’t- the ancient Israelites never stood a chance.

Let’s turn back the clock to centuries before Jesus- to a dark primitive dangerous time. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, full of violence and tribal warfare, where only the strongest survive. If you want your family or nation to stay on top of the tribe next door, you need bigger weapons than them, and stronger gods to lead you into battle. That’s how you’ll win when you fight them- and you will fight them- often- because that’s how the world works.

So now imagine with me, that you are YHWH the God who is Love. And you want to create a ‘new normal’ in this world full of violence. Where on earth do you begin?! Well, the Jewish-Christian story goes, you start small: you invite one family to live differently. You meet them on a mountaintop in the desert, and tell them not to fight their neighbours- instead to love them and bless them and seek their good.

That’s quite a mindbender for these poor Israelites, after escaping the violent oppression of Egypt. They find themselves surrounded by enormous empires- Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians- who rule the world thanks to their powerful armies. Which must also mean thanks to their powerful battlechief gods. It’s easy to see how this violent cultural context would CLOUD the Israelites’ ability to see that God is love- through a glass darkly.

And as they came to enter this promised land, it’s easy to see why they would be tempted to do things the way empires do- invade with an army and take no captives. They would naturally assume that their god was going into battle with them- to bless their weapons and be their commander-in-chief. And when they won battles, that’s how they would tell the story:

Moses said: When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess, he will drive out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

Deuteronomy 7:1-6

The Israelites entered the promised land with an army. And it worked! So when they told the story, it said, God was with us in battle helping us to win. That’s what gods did and that’s how the world worked.

If you’re God and you are love, you must be sickened by all this. But you love this world and you’re committed to changing it for good, starting with this nation. And so you roll up your sleeves, and work with the reality before you. The Israelites have entered the land, and so you invite them to build a ‘Jubilee’ society based on freedom and equality and generosity- Thus says the Lord: Do justice and righteousness, and care for the refugees, orphans, and widows in the land.

But wealth and power are timeless temptations, and again it CLOUDS their vision of God who is love. Violence is particularly cruel when it’s inflicted on your own people during peace time. (See if any of this sounds familiar- from today’s news!) Under Solomon and the kings, the Israelites became arms dealers, and the urban elite viciously taxed the subsistence farming masses to channel the nation’s wealth into the pockets of a few. The people of God became a carbon copy of the empires surrounding them- almost completely CLOUDING out God’s vision for their society: to do justice and righteousness, and care for the refugees, orphans, and widows in the land.

But God broke through the clouds- warning through the prophets that their violence and oppression would lead to their own violent downfall:

For the sins of Israel, I will not relent.
They trample on the heads of the poor and deny justice to the oppressed…

Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send for King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon, and he shall turn this land into a ruin and a waste, and this people shall serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.

They refused to change their ways, and as promised the Babylonians smashed up Jerusalem and carried its people off to exile. The Persians subsequently conquered the Babylonians and sent the Israelites back to Jerusalem to rebuild their national life- but as subjects of the Persian king- and in turn as subjects of the Greek and Roman rulers. Which brings us to the time of Jesus- and we read in the gospels about Israelites desperate to take arms against the Romans and conscript YHWH into this ‘holy war’. (Judean People’s Front!)These were the Zealots and interestingly one of them became a disciple of Jesus (Inclusive Church!)

In this violent cultural context, God’s voice breaks through in Jesus: You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…

In his own teaching and life and death, Jesus broke the cycle of violence which we all live and breathe and perpetuate so naturally. In the middle of a violent world, Jesus’ life served as a ‘space’ where God could finally be seen clearly- God is love.

And God invites us to create the same sort of space in our own lives- to break free of violence and manipulation and jealousy. Let it all stop with you. Turn the other cheek. Forgive. Do good to anyone who harms you. It’s still crazy talk, isn’t it! Even the NT says so- this idea is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to everyone else.

How foolish are you prepared to be?? Some people are prepared to refuse violence altogether- Pacifists like the Quakers are a thorough inspiration. But not everyone is prepared to turn the other cheek when violent bullies are terrorising the world. So Just War proponents argue that injustice needs to be resisted- and this might sometimes require the use of force. War can be justified under certain conditions, and Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer can plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45

Of course God doesn’t command violence. In the real world where violence is a reality, God invites us to UNCLOUD our lives, to see God clearly and to undo violence through love.

Politically, that means resisting the violence of Empire which surrounds us every day- violence inflicted as ever on the empire’s most vulnerable citizens: workers, sick, poor, elderly, orphans, widows, refugees.

As a church family and individually, God invites us to undo our own internal violence through love. This is why we usually start worship with confession:

we have used our power to dominate
and our weakness to manipulate;
we have evaded responsibility
and failed to confront evil;
we have denied dignity to ourselves
and to our sisters and brothers,
and have fallen into despair.

Jesus invites us to live in the image of God who loves ALL creation: the Israelites AND the Hittites, the Brits AND the foreigners, the Christians AND the non-Christians (which we’ll explore next week).

Are you/we ready to accept God’s invitation? And to slowly slowly align your desires with God’s desires – to desire the good of ALL, and to stop living as though we’re in competition or at war with people who aren’t ‘us’ – and indeed to start living as though we’re outrageously ‘for’ people who aren’t us.

Jesus said, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Sermon by Prof Adriaan van Klinken – 22 March 2020

Notes from the sermon by Prof Adriaan van Klinken – 22 March 2020. You can see the service on our Facebook page

Readings:

Bread? Finished.
Rice? Finished.
Pasta? Finished.
Long-life milk? Finished.
Tinned food – tomato, beans, chickpeas? All finished.
And of course, toilet paper. Famously finished.

Everyone who has been to a supermarket in the past 10 days or so has seen the empty shelves.
People have been hoarding like crazy. Trolley after trolley after trolley.
The shelves in the shops are empty. The cup boards in our kitchens are full.
That is, for most of us. Not when you are a nurse and spent a long day at work, only to find empty shops at the end of your shift.
Not when your cash is limited, and you can’t afford buying food for weeks ahead.

If the Britons once had a reputation for keeping calm and carrying on, that reputation has now gone.
In the years to come, psychologists will be discussing this panic buying, the anxiety and fear it reflects, and whether or not it is irrational.

On the first Sunday of church closure because of the corona crisis, the lectionary gives us Psalm 23 to read.
Usually, in our services at All Hallows we skip the Psalms.
But in situations like ours today, the book of Psalms – basically a collection of prayers, confessions, and meditations – appears to articulate and address the anxiety and fears that many of us experience, but it also offers us comfort and hope.
In particular Psalm 23, one of the most well-known psalms in the Bible.
Take that opening line: “The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.”
A statement of faith that directly counters the tendency for stock piling and panic buying that we have seen in the past days, also in ourselves.
“The Lord is my shepherd, I will lack nothing.”

The image of the Lord as shepherd is a popular one in the Bible.
It is particularly dominant in the books of the prophets such as Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel – texts that date back to the period in which the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon.
Exile meant that their flock was scattered all over the place.
Exile meant uncertainty about the future – would they ever return to their God-given land?
Exile meant existential questions about their existence as a people, about their identity, about adjusting to new circumstances or longing back for the past.
Exile caused fundamental anxiety and despair.
In that context, prophets kept alive the promise of God. In the words of the prophet Ezekiel:

I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited part of the land. I will feed them with good pasture. … I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. (Ezekiel 34: 13ff)

Psalm 23 can be seen as a response to this prophecy. It expresses the faith of the people of Israel that yes, this prophetic word will come true:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me.

When we read and sing this Psalm today, we join a choir of people throughout centuries, who have claimed these words to express their faith and hope against all odds.
The words of this Psalm come alive to us, again.
They give us hope in these days of despair; comfort while we spend our days in self-chosen or forced isolation;
they bring relief while we may feel ill or worry about symptoms of the virus; they reassure us in the midst of uncertainty about our future.

In our gospel reading Jesus is depicted as the good shepherd who truly cares about his flock – going to the extreme to show love for his sheep, even protecting them with his own life.
Jesus is contrasted to someone who is hired, paid to look after the sheep but does not own them, and therefore is not invested in their well-being.
As soon as a wolf shows up and attacks the sheep, such a hired man will run away, trying to save his own life.
But Jesus goes to the very end – risking his life, showing deep care, true commitment.
As the good shepherd, Jesus did not even hesitate to touch people who suffered from one of the infectious diseases of his time, leprosy.
I’m not sure whether we should follow that example literally today, but we should follow it in the spirit: physical distancing does not mean social distancing.
Let’s keep looking after each other, support and care for one another, in our church community, in our neighbourhoods, in our city.

Our reading from John is highly appropriate for this period of Lent.
It reminds us of the extent to which Jesus cares for his people, us included – caring so deep that it costed him his life.
But our reading also anticipates the reality of Easter, as Jesus says: “The reason why my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.”
Because of Jesus’ suffering, his death and resurrection, we as Christians know:

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
because you are with me.

In Jesus, God is with us, whatever we go through.
Even in these days of corona-crisis, when many of us suffer from anxiety, struggle with uncertainty, feel isolated, fear for our health, our jobs, our future. We are not alone.

Instead of constantly watching the news for the latest developments and updates of this crisis, can I suggest that this week we read Psalm 23, every time we are overwhelmed by what is happening?

No panic buying and stock piling, not even the multi-billion government plans to save our economy from collapse, can give us the reassurance that God offers us in Christ:

I am with you;
I prepare you a table of abundance;
my goodness and love will follow you all the days of your life.

Sermon by Dr Jan Betts – 15 March 2020

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts on 15 March 2020

Readings:

Our readings are two stories which seem to be connected by water. In the wilderness are the people who God has redeemed from Egypt, who God miraculously and marvellously brought through the terror of the water of the Red Sea. These people, who are really special to God, are now facing a different encounter with water. They are thirsty and it’s not hard to imagine how tough that was. We flinch at the thought of not enough loo roll…what’s it like to have no water coming out of your taps!

In the second story a lone and lonely woman in Samaria also needs water.

Water has significance in the history of the Jewish people. it means chaos when it’s broad and formless and threatening. Water is implacable when it’s sea.  It means things are falling apart. It may well bring death but water is also a gift of life. The psalmist walks beside still waters. In Eden there were rivers, not seas.  Jesus calls himself living water.  Water washes the disciple’s feet, in its cleansing capacity, as we need to be washed symbolically. We need to remember these symbols when we hear Jesus interacting with water.

Both these stories are about a need. However these aren’t stories so much about how those needs were met as of the way of getting the water which is wanted and the attitudes which surround the two stories.

In the first story, the children of Israel, the descendants of Abraham are wandering, we are told ‘as Yahweh told them’. They were trying to obey God. But when they were desperate, they forgot all about their protector and turned on Moses, who then redirected them to God. ‘It’s God who gives water not me’ says Moses. Moses was furious for God’s honour and worship. The necessities of life will come to you…..when you honour God.  (Which incidentally was a lesson he forgot later, when something similar happened and he was excluded from the Promised Land because of his arrogance.) I love Moses, he’s such a fiery impatient flawed character. He must have been totally fed up with the people he led, moaning and groaning and expecting him to do it all, to be the one who always had to be the one saying it’s not me, it’s God you need. The people shamelessly forgot God and demanded that he do it all.

Now let’s think about the woman at the well.

We know about this woman. She has typically been portrayed as no better than she ought to be, in that funny phrase, a woman who had no husband which was a shameful thing to be. But more recent thinking suggests that she was an abused woman, a woman who may have been simply passed from man to man for all sorts of reasons, as women were in those times. She had had five husbands, legitimate relationships but probably not relationships of her choosing, and was now under another man’s charge.  Relationships enough to make her unacceptable in purity terms to the other women who came to the well when it was cool, not in the heat of the day. Relationships which excluded her from simple friendly everyday interactions by pointing the finger at her shame.

But she’s not stupid, she’s lively, she’s not afraid to hold her own. I like her. Whether I would have liked her if I’d been born then I don’t know: we all exclude people not like us, who break our codes.

Jesus the Rabbi, who is not supposed to teach women, meets her as she’s alone at Jacob’s well, at a time when she wouldn’t expect to have to face anyone. It has historic references:  Jacob met Rachel at the well, much more properly with her maidservants:  Jesus is signalling that times have changed in the new kingdom, that these excluding customs are not needed any more. Because he too is alone. It must have been a strange tense meeting: a man, and especially a rabbi was not supposed to be alone with a woman and vice versa.  This woman was already an object of shame, probably to herself as well to the rest of the town, and she was desperate for water. So, importantly, they both break the code of purity. As Jesus so often does he joins the woman in her shame, in her vulnerability and openness to criticism, in the same way as he touched the woman with an issue of blood, as he refused to condemn the woman in adultery. Jesus says if there is excluding shame around I’m in there too, taking the same shame, not one bit superior. He had to presume this would get back to the Pharisees and be one more black mark. Jesus was quite wonderfully and gloriously shameless in his inclusion. 

He began by asking for something, always a good way to break the ice. And the woman effectively says ‘how shameful’. She has the upper hand: she’s already bad so she can challenge. ‘you’re a Jew, you don’t associate with me, so because you are asking me for something I’m going to challenge you back. Why are you asking? Does she suspect an ulterior motive of some kind?

Jesus gives her an answer that in some way speaks to her: ‘if you only knew what God is offering…you’d be doing the asking and you’d get living water’, meaning  himself as the water of life. Puzzled but intrigued, she challenges him again: she claims connection with Jacob, – that Rachel meeting again! –  saying I’m as good as you in my ancestry and you are an arrogant Jew claiming to be greater than Jacob! This serious intrigued banter goes on: Jesus insists on his point about living water. ‘Well Ok then’ she agrees,’ let me have some.  No more well visiting at midday for me’.

Jesus really wants her to understand. He’s so loving to this woman. He’s drawn her interest and trust by speaking directly with her and she’s intrigued. So he goes for the jugular. God can do this: we become intrigued, we go along to church or have conversations or whatever and then we are by God’s mercy faced with the real, the terrifying and wonderful consequences of our interest in God. ‘Go get your husband and then come back’ he says. Ouch and ouch again!  It’s such a slap in the face. She must have thought she was doing quite well talking to a rabbi on equal terms, then he suddenly reminds her that she’s scum.  It’s outrageous to our ears. It must have rocked her right back to the sense she came with, of being an ashamed outcast.

But Jesus has already shared her shame. It’s so important. Jesus doesn’t approach us as someone who is trying to make us feel bad. We are loved beyond measure as Becky reminded us so powerfully last week, but she also reminded us that wisdom doesn’t come without effort, it can’t just be picked from the tree. God walks with us in the gaining of that hard wisdom, through the desert temptations, through the terrors and challenges.  Here’s another person facing a tough challenge.

 The woman meets it, she doesn’t scuttle away, she answers back truthfully, and in return gets another shock. Jesus knows her history, and commends her for being truthful. Jesus loves it when we face up to the truth about ourselves because only then can the spirit begin to work. AA knows about this – we have to see the truth of ourselves, however beautiful that often is – before we can be open to receiving. No short cuts. Our shames have to be named and transformed by the love of God. When we are known we can be loved and God knows us and loves through and through. There is no point in anything but truthfulness before the love of God.

The Israelites were shameless. They just demanded, with no recognition of their own relationship with God. But with the truthful receptive woman Jesus shares the knowledge that she has met the Messiah they both look for. She is no longer excluded: she’s known, and to be known can be to be healed.  But she has to be inclusive too because Jesus tells her that salvation comes from the Jews.

And finally nothing Jesus does is about or just about individuals. Scripture is always pointing us to the spreading of the word, and the woman belts off to tell everyone about her meeting.  The Samaritans were – although much less so now – a group who had an uneasy relationship with the Jews. Jesus is accused of being a Samaritan and demon possessed at one point. He’s not ashamed of that. He talks about the good Samaritan and the one leper who came back to thank him was a Samaritan. He was softening up the disciples’ excluding prejudices through his stories and now they didn’t dare challenge him but meekly followed him to stay in Samaria for a few days.  

So a conversation with one ashamed excluded person becomes a way into an excluded community.  The healing of one is the healing of many. I’m still thinking about how that works here, among the people who come to All Hallows. How can we too meet them wonderfully unashamed or superior, seeing the face of God looking back at us.

Sermon by Becky Reeves – 1st March 2020 – Lent 1

Notes from the Sermon by Becky Reeve on the 1st March 2020 to celebrate the first Sunday in Lent

Readings:

May my words speak your truth and be a blessing to your people.

It is so tempting to see Lent in the same light as our New Year resolutions, a chance to find something about ourselves which we think falls short and to use Lent as a chance to improve it. Taking our cue from the old monastic fast patterns we dutifully give up chocolate, or alcohol, or swearing. Of late there has been the fashion to pick something up for Lent rather than giving it up, with the encouragement to exercise more, give more to charity or read improving books.  What I suggest though is that both approaches miss the point of what Lent is for and what it is really calling us to.

The danger of engaging with Lent as we often do is that the season becomes some kind of personal improvement project,  to make a new improved version of ourselves with added or reduced features. To stage-manage ourselves into being a more holy/ more ethical/ more sustainable version of ourselves. A better Christian product. But these are products of our own making and our own design. A product ripped from the tree of knowledge before it is ripe and ready.

In both our readings today we encounter the temptation to see ourselves as products to be extended; one reading where the temptation is resisted and one where it is not.  Both readings riff on the temptation to be perfect- to aspire to be more than we actually are- to attain through foul means that which we think will make us whole and our lives complete.  To refuse the role of humanity which is to be incomplete and dependent. Because if there is one thing which makes us human, it is surely that we are provisional beings, always needing to be in relationship with God in order to find completion.  In the Genesis reading we see the voice of the tempter lure Eve to contemplate a life of perfection, being, like God, a complete being. This episode reminds us of how attractive our fantasies of perfection can be – ‘good food and a delight to the eyes’ as Genesis puts it. But we know how that story ended up…..  In the wilderness Jesus was also tempted with things which seem good- the ability to feed himself and others, definitive knowledge of God’s care -and worldly power. Jesus, however, modelled the correct response to the temptation to work to improve ourselves as a project separate from God, giving 3 instructions for how to live: ‘by every word that comes from the mouth of God’, ‘not putting God to the test but worshipping’ and ‘serving him’. It is not God that Jesus puts to the test, but Jesus himself, allowing himself to be tempted and vulnerable, and in the process gaining true knowledge which he has struggled for rather than off the peg answers.

There is nothing wrong with knowledge. There is nothing wrong with study and intellectual pursuits. But one of the many things these passages tell us is that there is no short cut to wisdom. Anything that is truly worth knowing cannot be picked up off a shelf, or off a tree. It is only by struggling with knowledge, by facing down trials, like Jesus in the wilderness, that we can come to a place of true knowledge, which goes beyond the superficial and which is rooted deep in our souls, even if the trials happen solely within our own hearts and minds. As TS Eliot puts it, ‘the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

In refusing Satan’s temptations to improve his external holiness credentials Jesus categorically resists a functionalist approach to character, which always craves bigger and better. Jesus recognises that his limitations are not flaws, but the shape of his humanity, as a created child of God. We find it so hard to believe this- that we are loved as we are without needing to improve ourselves and iron out our dodgy bits. Without proving our worth and earning God’s grace. We have created a narrative of Original Sin which portrays us as inherently flawed and needing fixing, but this is not the story Jesus tells us about ourselves. In Lent we start to face towards the cross, the stage Jesus used to tell us the story of how much he loves us, and how God will stop at nothing to bring us back to him and show us his love.  How much he loves us already, before we have done any improvement projects. The stories God tells are always better than the stories we tell.

I challenge you this Lent to sit with yourselves neither adding nor subtracting. The real question of Lent is not what we want to change about ourselves but what we want to learn. Deep learning, which can only be drawn out over many days, like Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness.  You don’t need any resources for this, any Lent books, or diet plans, or special practices.  In the words of the Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse: ‘To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.’  Similarly Isaac the Syrian taught that the way to God is through our heart saying ‘Try to enter the treasure chamber that is within you and then you will discover the treasure chamber of heaven. ..The ladder to this kingdom is hidden inside you, in your soul.’

You are a child of God, built of the DNA of God’s universe. You need nothing more. Sit with the God that is in your depths and allow him to bring you back to being what you were created to be. Perfection is not something beyond ourselves to anxiously chase or to work towards, it is something we find in embracing the God who is waiting for us, the one who is as close as our heartbeat. Jesus knew this and it is what drove him into the desert to meet with his God and to face his doubts and limitations. It was only after this desert time that he launched into his ministry of healing and teaching. The wilderness created the silence which was needed to go deep.

It is only by giving up the striving to be better, more spiritual versions of ourselves through our own efforts, and relaxing into the knowledge that Jesus’s death is the final full stop to the statement of God’s unalterable, unflinching, unshockable love for us, that we can grow into the people we are called to be. As St Irenaeus said in the 2nd century- ‘The glory of God is a human being, fully alive’. Not powerful maybe, or infallible or even wholly good, but glorious none the less. The people who will actually be God’s hands and presence in this world. Not because we have made a personal commitment to grit our teeth and make ourselves do it for the next 40 days, but because we are beginning to live a different way- the way where our will is aligned to the will of our father, who wants only good things for us and who knows us better than we know ourselves. And so we come back to where we started- back before the fall- however you conceptualise that, to a state of grace with God- the ground of our being. …. So, if you must give something up this Lent, give up the voice which tells you that you must be more or better. And take up God’s invitation to rest in his love and to let it draw you back to being the person he made you to be. And that is good enough for anyone.

Just before I finish, let us take a moment of quiet to start a Lenten journey within, to meet with the God who is waiting for us deep in the silence of our hearts.

(light candle) Taste and see that the Lord is good………

May the Spirit lead us this Lent by unknown paths into the tombs of our hearts, and in the dark, hidden places may we be born again in you. May we too burst from the tomb, radiating the light of your indwelling.

Amen

Sermon by Dr Jan Betts 16 January 2020 – Calling (Part 3)

Notes from the sermon by Dr Jan Betts 16 January 2020 – Calling (Part 3)

If you could spend your week doing anything you like what would it be?  Watching your favourite box sets? Climbing mountains? Sleeping..I wonder..

I’ve just had a lovely holiday and when I got back what did I find? Two kinds of jobs to be done. One set was lovely, contacting friends, and family, gently pottering in my garden. The other set were not so nice – tough emails to answer,  bills to pay, the hoover has packed up, the car needs its MOT, the last light bulb has gone in the bathroom… lots and lots of jobs need doing and they have to be done or there will be consequences.

One of my solutions to getting jobs done is to get someone else in to do stuff which I really can’t do.   We have jolly chats, and I go about what I can do cheerfully while someone else does what I can’t do or haven’t time to do properly. I feel so much better for the company and the sense of parallel working which it gives me.

I have slowly come to recognise that I can’t do it all in my life at home and am comfortable with that. But what I struggle with and have struggled with all my life is how I find a balance in my ‘working’ life with God.

I know God is not interested in how much I ‘do’. I’m not ‘paid’ with eternal life for being a good worker, thank God. I have a relationship with Jesus which asks me to be wholehearted and utterly committed, as he asked the rich young ruler to be, as he asked Nicodemus to be. Despite that I have struggled with a feeling that I need to be constantly saving the world on all fronts!  As if I could!  

But in a recent sermon on the reading we have today of the five loaves and two fishes I began to join up the dots a bit differently.

John 6:1-15

What hit me between the eyes was that ALL there was in the basket which fed everyone was five loaves and two fishes. That was all.

I thought about this little lad. He was probably running about half listening to Jesus, being with his mates and his family, looking forward to lunch and his little pack up. They would taste so good and he was hungry. And maybe he was standing close to Jesus when Jesus felt sorry for this hungry crowd.

Jesus says to Philip ’where can we buy some bread’? Not where can they buy bread but where can we buy bread? The disciples were knackered and in fact Jesus had brought them to this place to rest but hey ho, the people just wouldn’t leave him alone and he felt sorry for them.

So Andrew takes the hint and goes round asking if anyone had any food with them? There wasn’t much response that we hear of. I imagine the boy is puzzled. Is he the only one who has a pack-up? But he looks at Jesus and he looks at the crowd and he says honestly and simply ‘I’ve got some food’.

The straightforwardness of children is delightful. You’re asking if anyone has any food to share -well yes he has and maybe he could spare some of it.  What were his feelings if no one else was willing to share?

So he offers Jesus his basket thinking Jesus might take a roll and be grateful. And Jesus takes the lot!!! No half measures. He just picks up the whole basket. Hey that’s my lunch says the boy. And watches with amazement while Jesus feeds everybody with it. Did other people bring out their loaves in shame? It really doesn’t matter at one level but I hope so!

Jesus asks us for all of our five loaves and two fishes. We hear this over and over again. If you want a relationship with me you have to be all in. Be born again, be willing to sell those worldly goods which you feel so responsible for, leave your fishing career, stop worrying about impressing your neighbours, or filling your barns full of corn. Come and be part of my Kingdom totally whole heartedly.

What really really struck me was Jesus wants my five loaves and two fishes but I can’t offer more than that. I don’t have olives or cheese or cake. I truly believe that Jesus would never ever ask me to be a treasurer because spreadsheets are not in my basket.  But he does ask for the things I have got such as they are, because they are part of our relationship. I can use them to feed others as well as feeding you, he says. Give me your ability to write or to organise and you will get joy out of it and so will others. And if you give me those and others give me their gifts, their financial skill, their large hospitality, their love for children, why then you’ll get that too because it will be share around for you.

Jesus wants the lot, and he wants the lot the lot from all of us but he wants only what we’ve got. I am thrilled that others care so passionately about climate change that I can hear from them and do small actions. This church punches way above its weight in terms of loving actions in the world.  I am thrilled that Hannah and others love children so much that I can share in the delight of seeing them grow as young Christians and young people.  I am thrilled that people do so much for asylum seekers here and I can contribute what I can to their work. I love the way we affirm people of every sexual orientation. I share in the loaves and fishes which other people have in their baskets to do this caring work, and we are very committed to it as a church community.

Our community is first and foremost this  Gospel-shaped caring. But is it more than that?

Let’s read Acts 2:42-47 and Philippians 2:1-11

We hear in these passages about the way in which the early church worked together, in humility, sharing the love of Jesus among themselves, being Gospel shaped caring. But they also shared  their resources. They fed each other and they took care of the widows and orphans. Lucky people they didn’t have buildings to look after or minutes to take at meetings but we do! What they did do was to give what they had and to support the community of believers.

So I am equally and perhaps even more thrilled that there are people here who share their five loaves and two fishes of talent and energy with us all when they do the chores which need doing  or there will be consequences! I am thrilled that there are people who put the bins out, clean out the chapel, work so hard and with such frustration  to find a way of getting us a new roof, write policy documents to keep us in good standing with the Diocese, who check that the fire alarms are serviced, who notice when there is litter and pick it up, who write contracts for our staff  and  serve with cheerfulness on PCC and do Health and Safety checks.   When I was on PCC we used to say that changing a lightbulb was a holy act of service and it is – it’s a loaf or a fish, and we need to see that as cause for celebration as much as anything else we do.  It’s something we do together, and we get joy out of doing it together and feeding each other. Buddying up to do stuff is so much more fun than doing it on your own. No one can do it alone.

So now I want to give you the challenge which I find so hard, and which reduces me to tears sometimes.

At least 10 years ago we looked at our small community here and our leaky church and our tired faces and we had a whole church discussion and then a vote,  praying and thinking  through whether we stayed in this building or moved out into a school or joined with the Methodists or whatever.  We committed ourselves to staying, which was a momentous decision, and we have worked and prayed to that end ever since. We turned down quite a lucrative contract because it would mean the building wasn’t available for the community during the week. We were trying to live the Kingdom and to live for the love of God together in this community. Those years since have been a long time to be working this through and we still have leaks in the roof, but we’ve done an awful lot else as well, by the grace of God.  We also – and Heston told me to put this bit in – have some tired people who have been working for that long time and need rest.  Giving your lunch, your little bit which grows to feed everyone is not a one day event, but neither is it a life sentence and what we do this year may not be what God asks of us next year.

What he didn’t tell me to put in is to share with you how many people have said they are worried about him when he goes green with tiredness. He also has five loaves and two fishes and while he gets paid it doesn’t give the rest of us leave to not share ours.

So what might be the bit of the loaves and fishes which you could offer in the next five to ten years to keep the vision of our community alive? Every little bit of offering can be transformed when we do it together in the love and praise of God as the early church did.  If we all do it together we get to have a great picnic all the time, others see how much we love each other and no one feels overloaded.

At home as I said I employ someone when I can’t do things. Do we need to think about that? Life has been transformed by having our administrator and thank God for the money that has let us employ lovely Dee to do that role. Some of our loaves and fishes may be more money rather than time, or skills.

Thinking about my five loaves and  two fishes has left me so much more thankful for what I can actually offer, willing to give God back what I have been given and to share it with the saints around me but also clear that I don’t have to offer what isn’t there.  Someone else will share their oranges – in other words do the spreadsheets. I offer what I have to my relationship with God and rest in the hope that we all share together in the harvesting  of the Kingdom.  

Our Calling – practising the presence of God

This morning, as part of our current series on “Calling” Heston shared with us about “practising the presence of God”. Here are some notes from Heston’s talk:

We seek to live in an atmosphere of praise and prayer. We aim to be constantly aware of God’s presence, so that we may indeed pray without ceasing. Our ever-deepening devotion to the indwelling Christ is a source of strength and joy. It is Christ’s love that inspires us to service, and strengthens us for sacrifice.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed. – Nikos Kazantzakis

A prayer of St Anselm
Now, my whole heart, say to God:
‘I seek your face; your face, O Lord, do I seek.’
I will seek you by desiring you,
and desire you in seeking you.
I will find you by loving you,
and love you in finding you.

The holiest and most necessary practice in the spiritual life is that of the presence of God. It consists in taking delight in and becoming accustomed to God’s divine company, speaking humbly and conversing lovingly with God all the time, at every moment, without rule or measure. We must continually apply ourselves so that all our actions become a kind of brief conversation with God, not in a contrived manner, but coming from the purity and simplicity of our hearts. — Brother Lawrence

Spirit of God, come afresh on us…
Open our eyes, that we may recognise you walking with us;
Open our ears and our minds, that we may hear your word;
Open our hearts, that your love may flow through us
and bring the blessing of new life to all we meet;
For you are the God who makes all things new,
and surprises us into understanding.
Blessing and honour and glory and power
be yours for ever and ever. Amen.

Practising God’s presence in beauty

The world is charged with the grandeur of God – Gerard Manley Hopkins

Practising God’s presence in the desires of our hearts- opening our lives to God’s grace

Song Purify my heart

Practising God’s presence in self-giving

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. – Mark 10:45

Jesus calls those who would serve him to follow his example and choose for themselves the same path of renunciation and sacrifice. To those who hear and obey, he promises union with God.

Song Brother sister let me serve you

Practising God’s presence in our daily work (calling)

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
— Matthew 5:13-16

Song Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee

Practising God’s presence in prayer and silence

A prayer of St Anselm
Come now, little child.
Turn awhile from your daily work;
hide yourself for a little time from your
restless thoughts,
cast away your wearisome distractions.
Give yourself a little leisure to talk with God,
and rest awhile in him.
Enter the secret chamber of your heart,
shutting out everything but God,
and that which may help you in seeking him.
And when you close the door, seek him.
Now, my whole heart, say to God:
‘I seek your face;
your face, O Lord, do I seek.’
I will seek you by desiring you,
and desire you in seeking you.
I will find you by loving you,
and love you in finding you.
I praise and give thanks to you
that you have made me in your image,
so that I can remember you,
think of you, love you.

Practising God’s presence in bread and wine (on Sundays) and fellowship (every day)

Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. –– C.S. Lewis

Like it or not, heaven is other people.
Did you think it was God?
You are right; but it is God in people, just as it is God in you.
— John V. Taylor

Closing songJesus Christ is waiting in the streets

Heston challenged us to spend at least a minute a day in silence, listening and waiting in God’s presence.

Heston recommends reading ‘An Altar in the World’ by Barbara Brown Taylor

Sermon by Rev Dr Angela Birkin 12th January 2020 – Epiphany 1

Notes from the sermon by the Rev Dr Angela Birkin 12th January 2020 – Epiphany 1 – The Baptism of Christ  

Readings

We are in the season of Epiphany and today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ.

The word epiphany comes from Greek and means “revelation from above”, and during the season of Epiphany we discover who the baby whose birth in Bethlehem we celebrate on December 25th is.

Today God is showing us something very important about Godself, about Jesus and about us in the account of the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

As, this morning, we are using the account of Jesus’s baptism from the Gospel of Matthew it is useful to summarise what Matthew has told us so far in the first 2 and a bit chapters of his Gospel before we meet the adult Jesus.

In our services we read bits of Matthew’s Gospel here and bits there separated by days if not weeks, so we don’t get the force of the picture that he is building up leading to today’s account of Jesus’ baptism.

It is definitely worth sitting and reading the first three chapters of the Gospel of Matthew – if you do you will read an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham, which contains four interesting women!

This is followed by Matthew’s narrative of the birth of Jesus which in only 8 verses tells us that Jesus is divine as Mary is with child from the Holy Spirit, but that as the adopted son of Joseph is also a son of David, a messianic title as well as a family description.

Jesus will save his people from their sins as signified by his name, the Greek version of Joshua which is derived from the Hebrew verb to save, Jesus fulfils the words of the prophets in the scriptures, and he is Emmanuel, God is with us.

Jesus will manifest God’s presence with the people he has come to save.

We are so familiar with this story, or we think that we are, and we miss how amazing it is.

But is gets more amazing as the infant Jesus is visited by Gentiles, wise men from the East, who find the child born king of the Jews not in the palace of Herod in Jerusalem but in a humble house in Bethlehem. Jesus’ birth is significant for people beyond the Jewish world it seems.

Then this story which inspires beautiful  Christmas carols and  cards becomes a story of fear and horror and sorrow as the child who is Emmanuel, who will save his people from their sins becomes a refugee from a tyrant and bully who is prepared to kill young children indiscriminately to protect his position. A story that is sadly all too familiar throughout history, but is not the story expected for the Messiah, for the Christ.

When it is safe the Holy Family returns to Judah from Egypt and settles away from Jerusalem and Bethlehem where the children were massacred, in Nazareth in the district of Galilee; not a place you would expect to find God’s anointed one.

Next, we meet John the Baptist in the Judean wilderness, whose dress recalls the prophet Elijah and who is preaching the need for repentance and a new relationship with God. John baptizes those who come to him with the water of the river Jordan, baptism acting as a ritual cleansing, and tells them that one more powerful is coming who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And this is when the adult Jesus walks into the story.

The one who will save the people from their sins, who is Emmanuel, God is with us, who is the King of the Jews, comes to John at the Jordan to be baptised, insists on being baptised despite John’s protestations that Jesus should be baptising John.

“Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.”

As Jesus came up from the water of the Jordan the Spirit of God descended on him and God said, “This is my Son.”

Jesus, the Messiah, Son of David, Emmanuel, Son of God. Matthew tells us all this in just three short chapters.

Three things to note about Jesus’ baptism, three things to be aware of for ourselves.

Firstly, Jesus is baptized at the very beginning of his public ministry. Baptism is not the end of something but the beginning of something new.

The activity of the Holy Spirit is always creative, new and radical. John baptized with water, Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit and with fire as John recognised in Matthew 3v11. Jesus experienced the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him at his baptism, and it is the same Spirit who comes to us, empowering, comforting, encouraging and guiding as we step into the future with Christ.

Baptism is just the beginning, but a wonderful beginning.

Secondly, Jesus’s baptism was followed by service to God, service which fulfilled all righteousness, service of self-offering for others. Service described by the beautiful servant song of Isaiah 42 which we heard this morning.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”

Isaiah prophesied and spoke into the context of his own time but from the time of the earliest Christians, Jesus of Nazareth has been seen as the perfect fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophesies.

The Messiah, Emmanuel – God with Us is also the Suffering Servant. This is the one we are called to follow, whose way is the way of justice and mercy and peace and forgiveness and love, even love of enemy.

It is not an easy way, and some of our sisters and brothers throughout the world suffer greatly in following the way of Jesus Christ, but we are never asked to walk the way alone for the Holy Spirit is with us.

Thirdly, at his baptism Jesus was not given a to do list by God. God did not say ‘If you do this, then I….’.

God said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, greatly and dearly loved is affirmed clearly and unambiguously, and he hasn’t done anything yet except come to John at the Jordan. Everything that Jesus does, his public ministry, teaching and healing, is done in the knowledge that first and foremost he is the beloved Son.

And we are adopted into God’s family in Christ Jesus.

And God loves us, each one of us.

We have done nothing to earn that love, and we can not do anything to make God love us more or less.

God loves us because God loves us because God is love.

God loves you.

Our baptism is the beginning of a wonderful if challenging journey following the way of Jesus Christ, the way of service for others, accompanied and strengthened by the Holy Spirit with the soundtrack of God’s love song “You are my child. You are dearly and deeply loved. I take great delight in you.”

Sermon by Rev Hayley Matthews 5th January 2020 – Epiphany

Notes from the sermon by the Rev. Hayley Matthews 5th January 2020 – Epiphany

Readings:

I was introduced to what3words this week. It’s a little app where the entire world has been marked by a metre square grid that has been given three unique and unrelated words. For example, sat up in my bedroom writing this the three words for my precise location on the bed were disturbing.readjusts.tension* – apt, perhaps, for sermon writing – whereas where I enjoy my morning lemon and ginger tea in the kitchen the three words are insects.performer.taps*. The aim is to help the emergency services locate you so that rather than say, ‘I’m at Bolton Abbey not far from the Strid,’ you can say starting.binds.tutorial and they will be able to locate you and your broken leg much more accurately.

But there’s one Word that covers every square metre of this earth, the universe beyond, and one star that leads us all there, past, present and future, and that word is the Living Word; Jesus born to us as one of us, and yet surpassing us all. But, like all the best things, He is secretly hidden to be found only by the true seeker – and yet hidden in plain sight so that anyone might find the hidden treasure when they least expect to.

Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this perfectly in his poem God’s Grandeur:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

It is a poem that speaks so clearly of the passage in John’s gospel; just as John the Baptist was not the true Light that was to come into the world; just as the good deeds that we do should not point people to ourselves but lift peoples’ attention to a greater Love; just as the glory of the universe scattering the awesome wonder of the Northern lights across our skies is not the Light that brought everything into being; so even the darkness and dirt of life’s journey nor our suffering and sorrows can snuff out the True Light from our darkness, however dark that may be.

Three years ago I was very sick indeed and my recovery was not a given. The treatment was called ‘radical’ and they weren’t joking. Just after my first dose of chemotherapy I was pacing around my garden after midnight in desperate need of fresh air and relief from both pain and sickness. Living alone seemed harder than ever when I felt in such need. Yet it was a beautiful night; the sky was clear and dark, the stars showing off their constellations like diamonds against black velvet. I can still hear the breeze whispering through the many trees that surrounded the vicarage garden. Suddenly I became aware that although I knew it was beautiful, I could no longer feel it; no longer experience it. I realised that somewhere along the road of life the many small darknesses – and some of the bigger ones – had completely dulled my sight.

I could no longer experience or feel the beauty of an exquisite night that surrounded me with all that would once have delighted me. I could no longer see the dearest freshness deep down things – I could no longer experience God. That revelation hit me harder than my diagnosis for it seemed to be saying to me, ‘you may as well be dead, because you are dead to life already; you’re even dead to God’.  It was such a shock after so many years of devoting my life to God’s service – how could I have lost God along the way? He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him; yet the world did not recognise him.

Fast forward so many weeks of the most arduous treatment. Again, alone on my bed one summer’s afternoon, unable to move my head because the chemo-radiotherapy made me so dizzyingly nauseated I dare not move a millimetre, I said again the only prayer I could manage; ‘Jesus, heal me, protect me, save me’.

These seven words were my mantra for many months and that afternoon they were no different to any other. Yet, at that moment that sun shone in through my bedroom window in one of those piercing shafts of light where the dust dances like a thousand tiny fireflies, glittering in the light. I watched it, absolutely mesmerised by the beauty of those tiny dust particles in the sunshine – and I thanked God; the God who made even the dust able to take my breath away and fill me with wonder – even there, unable to move on my sickbed.

Better still, I knew at that moment that I was healed – not necessarily that I would recover from either the treatment or the sickness, which, praise God, I have – but that I had had my sight restored. Once again I was able to see the light that had always been around me, that will always surround me; we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truthand from His fullness we have received grace upon grace.

No wonder the writer of Ephesians goes into such a paean of praise! He just can’t help himself as he lists all the benefits we enjoy as blessed in Christ with every spiritual blessing

We discover that we are chosen – so important when so many of us are in fact rejected from our own families for one reason or another; that we are adopted into the family of God, sons and daughters of a divine Mother and father who cannot but adore us; I’m not sure I fully realised just what that meant – for me to have been adopted by God – until I adopted my own two children. For God is the One who wills the very best for us and weeps with us over our faults and failings – pouring out God’s very Self on the cross in order to put that right… the forgiveness of our trespasses secured through Christ’s own blood. God’s beloved given that we might be beloved – have you thought about that?

God’s beloved given that we might be the beloved.

Then upon each and every one of us the seal of God’s spirit – that dearest freshness deep down becoming up front and centre-stage; leading and healing us into our futures as beloved sons and daughters of God.

We also discover that we are already part of a plan so much greater than any hope or dream we have had dashed along the way; a plan that in the fullness of time we shall all be caught up in the joy of a redeemed world; a world where all who have sought refuge will find it; where all who have been rejected are welcomed and belong; where all who have been abused or oppressed are freed from the perpetrators that would use and discard them as if they were of such little value when each and every one of us is of such enormous value that Jesus offers Himself that we might be freed –  our inheritance is that of the full goodness of God, why Jeremiah writes that even the priests will be given their fill of fatness writing ‘my people shall be satisfied with my bounty’.

And although at times such scriptures have been used to suggest that there is a religious elite, a chosen few, they have been given for all. These gifts are not just for the precious few; for the good and the great and the Godly, although they too shall receive their share; they are also for the poor, the lost and the broken; for the priest who knows only inner darkness and the mother who fears she may have to leave the children she has only just brought to the light; for the woman who has been so badly damaged she fears her life has been ruined and she might never know love and for the man who fears he may never know the security of a living wage; they are for the child who cares for the adults and for the child who does not know care at all; they are for the prostitute using heroin to get through her next trick and for the man hiding a gun in his Mam’s cellar while the police raid the estate; they are for Her Majesty the Queen, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and they are for the cleaners of Church House, most of whom barely speak a word of English, and who are delighted when we leave our meeting buffet trays for them because we are all too fat to eat any more.

The promise is of comfort for mourning, dancing where there was sorrow, wine, grain and feasting where there have been foodbanks and fasting; that we shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.

I don’t know about your darknesses, whether you have passed through them, whether the world seems bleak for you right now, or whether you’ve ever seen the light at all.

But this I know, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

I promise you, it’s true.

I’m living proof.


[* Just in case you have tried Hayley’s what3words and found that she seems to sleep in the ocean or drink tea in the Australian bush fires we have changed the words to protect her privacy though the replacement words hopefully convey a similar meaning! If you try using what3words please remember that if you share the words connected to where you live you are sharing your home address.]

Christmas Day “Sermon” by Rev Heston Groenewald

It came upon the midnight clear 
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to all,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Peace on the earth goodwill to all, from heaven’s all-gracious king – yes please! Because peace and goodwill are things we humans can’t seem to do without help. This feels especially true in these divided weeks after the general election. One day I suspect (I hope) we’ll look back at this point in (Anglo-American) history, and we’ll shake our heads in amazement. We’ll wonder how we got ourselves into such a mess; how we let our society get so ‘broken’; how we allowed our greed and pride and self-interest to go so totally haywire. 

We need a bit of hope to break into this craziness. And that is exactly what Christmas is all about. And that is exactly what this carol (It came upon the midnight clear) is all about. But I’m grateful that the hopefulness of our Christmas carols isn’t just blind optimism. I’m really grateful that many carols are written in a minor key – rather than whitewashing everything with jolly happy jingle bells. And their hopefulness faces up honestly to life’s difficulties and complications. In today’s ‘weary world and sad and lowly plains’ (austerity society? insane working hours/culture?) I’m grateful for the sobering side of Christmas. 

Still through the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O’er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains,
They bend on hovering wing,
And ever o’er its Babel sounds
The blessèd angels sing.

 At this point in history, I really need to hear the angels’ song- and I wonder if you do too?? I’m grateful to hear them sing that Jesus, who I love and serve and try to follow, was born in a barn, not a palace. 

I’m grateful that the first people to hear this good news were shepherds – outcasts – not the rich and powerful.

I’m grateful that strangers from the East – from a different religion and world view – were some of the first to perceive this good news, and to honour Jesus with their presence and presents. 

I’m grateful that the angels sang a song of peace to ALL people – but really it was only the sheep and the shepherds that witnessed it. 

I’m grateful for the sobering side of Christmas – the rough broken hurting realistic side.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And warring humankind hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise of mortal strife,
And hear the angels sing.

I’m grateful that God came to be *with us* – Immanuel – in human form, vulnerable as a baby, to share our humanity and all the mess and pain of life. 

I’m grateful to remember that for Jesus during his lifetime, there was neither fame nor power, wealth nor glory. That Jesus’ family was forced to flee to Egypt as refugees. That Jesus would grow up without a penny to his name. That Jesus would die as an enemy of the state, scorned by the crowds, and betrayed and abandoned by his friends and followers.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!

I’m so grateful to hear the angels sing about Immanuel – God with us in the reality of human life. He humbled himself to live and walk with us, to share our humanity – and to show us that human life can be a sharing in his divinity. If we are ready to let our self-seeking lives be turned upside down by the endless self-giving love of God. 

This is why God was born in our midst – to invite us back to the path of love which is the blueprint for our truest humanity – love for God, love for our neighbours, love for our enemies, and even love for ourselves. 

For lo!, the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

In these crazy times we live in, I think the whole world needs to hear a Christmas song of peace and goodwill. So this coming year, let’s go share it with them! Let’s be angels (messengers from God) and LIVE this song in love generosity justice and joy. And for this morning, let’s be angels and SING this song of the hope we share: 

It came upon the midnight clear 
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to all,
From heaven’s all-gracious King.”
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.