Archive for November, 2014

Isaiah 64.1-9 Mark 13.24-37

Last Friday was Black Friday, apparently
An annual event of world-shattering proportions which apparently didn’t exist in this country until three years ago
The day when everyone realises it’s nearly Christmas, and rushes out to the shops

‘Black Friday’: words more likely to make us think of a calamitous fall on the stock markets, or some great threat to world peace, than a day to get 20% off at Fenwick’s
It seems to me we’re weakening the force of apocalyptic language
I’m glad we have Scriptures like the ones we heard today to remind us what ‘apocalypse’ really means

This Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent
We use this time to prepare ourselves for Christmas

I don’t mean just decorating the church
Sending each other cards
Cultivating a Christmassy mood

I mean a real reappraisal of what where our faith comes from
What it means to us
What we think we have been promised
What we are hoping for; what we are praying for

The start of Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the church
But the passages we are reading are continuous with the passages we have been studying in the last few weeks
Those passages have prepared us very well for Advent
Because their theme has been expectancy

Last week we heard Jesus talk about himself as the ragged stranger who needed companionship or hospitality, returning to judge those who denied him
The message is, don’t just sit back and wait for Christ to come:
Start looking for him now

The week before that we heard Jesus talk about himself as the master returning to find out what his servants had done with the talents he left them with
The message is, don’t imagine your task is just to keep things as they are
Expectancy means growth
We should grow spiritually in this time of waiting

The week before that was Remembrance Sunday;
we talked about how easy it is to forget the important things, and what God’s command to us to ‘remember’ means for our lives

The week before that, we remembered how Joshua led the people into the Promised Land,
and how we shouldn’t let ourselves be led astray by the imagined glories of our past;
Bbecause the truth is we have always fallen short, so we should always be trying to do better

What we have learned in the last few weeks is that expectancy is faith: faith that God will do what he has promised
Remembering the past is fundamental to maintaining our sense of expectancy for the future
Remembering isn’t wallowing in nostalgia
Remembering is a constant effort
A constant effort to bring the reality of God’s actions in history into the present
To live our present lives in the light of the promises God made to us in the past

The moment we stop trying to remember, we start to forget
We forget who we are
We forget who our God is
We forget his promises, and his plan

Expectancy is a theme that is very important to us as Christians
Because after 2,000 years we are still waiting for God

That is the definition of a Christian: someone who waits faithfully for Christ to come again
Someone who waits for Christ is someone who believes in the Christ of the gospels
Someone who waits for Christ is someone who believes in the resurrection
Someone who waits for Christ is someone above all who believes in Christ’s promise to return
Because only when Christ returns will the full truth of the gospel be revealed

The first Christians, including the apostle Paul to begin with, believed Christ would come back very soon
Almost certainly in their own lifetimes

Some of the prophecies Jesus utters in the gospels certainly do seem to refer to events that happened soon after his death
– the destruction of the temple, the scattering of the disciples

But I think Jesus always wanted his disciples and followers to know, he would not be coming back soon
Because otherwise, why would he spend so much time teaching them HOW to wait?

How should Christians wait? I would say three things:
– We should be patient
– We should be hopeful
– We should be watchful

First of all, patience
I’m sure we all have memories of Christmas Eve: coming downstairs after bedtime to tell your parents, ‘I can’t sleep!’
– Excitement is good
– But it’s also immature. We need to temper eagerness with wisdom
– The important things happen in God’s time, not ours

Secondly, hopefulness
– The wait is long: but we don’t allow ourselves to get tired
– We don’t get frustrated
– We don’t get distracted
– We don’t allow ourselves to get drawn back into the same temporary satisfactions other people waste their time and energies on

Thirdly, watchfulness
I remember as a small child waiting in bed on Christmas Eve with my eyes closed
Hoping to hear Santa opening the door; But of course, I always fell asleep

Watchfulness for Christians is looking for the signs of Christ’s coming
But it’s also being watchful over ourselves
Watchful over our hearts and minds
Watchful over how we behave in public
Watchful especially over how we treat each other

We should not live as dreamers
We should live as people who know something, something that makes our lives special
We should live as people who have something, something that sets us apart
We should live as people who expect something, something much more than we have already

If we live expectantly, we will never be demoralised:
We will hang on to our hope, because we will know God is near
We will be alive to God
Alive to the need others have, to hear the gospel from our lips

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Eze 34.11-16, 20-24; Mat 25.31-46

Christmas is the time for singing old songs, and telling old stories
Anthropologists and people who study folk lore tell us how many different stories are just versions of the same story
This shouldn’t surprise us: every individual human life is a version of a pattern of life that is common to us all

We are born, we live, we grow old, and we die
We eat and sleep and breathe
We go to school, we learn, we work, we retire
We probably marry, we probably have children

Folk tales take these common patterns and motifs and turn them into something magical
Children blessed or cursed in the cradle by fairies
Magical bottles and cooking pots that are never empty
Frogs that turn into princes
Princesses who sleep for a hundred years
Old women who grant wishes
A strange little man who spins straw into gold
The special child, rejected and despised by a step-parent, but finally recognised

Some of these stories are versions of things that really happened – or were said to have happened
One of those stories is the story of the king who puts on ragged clothes, and mingles with his subjects
Think of King Alfred, hiding in a cottage and burning the cakes
Think in the Old Testament of King Saul, going in disguise to visit the old woman of Endor, a spirit medium, before his last battle, so that he can consult the spirit of Samuel

Think of King Wenceslas, setting out in the snow with his page, to bring food and fuel to a poor old peasant, instead of sending a servant
And there are stories of other kings, who put on ragged clothes and went out simply to see how ordinary people lived:
– to learn at first hand how they lived, what their problems were, what they thought of the people who governed them
It’s the type of legend that grows up around the memories of good kings: they didn’t separate themselves from the people they ruled over

Why do folk tales keep repeating the same stories?
Maybe just because we like familiar things
Maybe because human experience and imagination are finite, and there really are only so many stories to be told
But perhaps for a deeper reason: that there are deeper patterns beneath all human life that are always trying to push their way through

The incarnate Christ is the perfect example of this figure of majesty in humble disguise
On the surface, he is human: as human as we are
But in all of Jesus’ words and actions, the divine majesty keeps pushing through
So people are forever falling at his feet – or recoiling in fear

The traffic isn’t all one way
We see Christ’s divinity pushing through his human form and behaviour
But we also see in Christ divine virtues which can be reflected in human actions

That’s the point of this morning’s parable
Charity isn’t just charity: it’s not just a matter of money passing from the well-off to the less well-off
It’s not just a matter of being nice

Every act of charity is an imitation of Christ
But more than that, it’s an invocation of the spirit of Christ: a way of making Christ present
It’s a confession of Christ: saying, we know who Christ is, and where to find him

It’s a recognition of Christ: we try to see the face of Christ in every stranger
It’s a recognition that Christ is in some way present in all of us: both the needy, and the generous who can afford to respond to need
Because we are all one in our ultimate need: which is simply, to come to Christ and recognise that only in him, can we find salvation

Jesus Christ is perfect God, and perfect man
He represents all of us; he sums up all of us
He faces all of the difficulties and dangers we face
He reveals the created potential of all human beings
He reveals the destiny of all human beings
He reveals it by enacting it, by dying on the cross and rising from the tomb
He also makes that destiny possible, because without Christ human potential could never be realised, because of sin

Some people think the gospel is a fairy tale
I couldn’t agree more
It’s only in fairy tales that ragged kings bring the gifts of charity to the poorest homes
It’s only in fairy tales that mysterious beings with the power to grant wishes pose as humble beggars

The point of a fairy tale is the revelation that comes at the end
The mysterious stranger is unmasked: their true majesty is revealed
The moment of revelation in the gospel story is the resurrection: but of course even that moment of climax is not the final climax we are waiting for

The point of revelation is a moment of judgment
Vindication for the one who has been hidden by their disguise
Judgment for the other characters around them – like the Ugly Sisters in Cinderella
The other characters in the story are either rewarded or punished, depending on whether or not they treated the ragged stranger with kindness

We are taught, as Christians, to be watchful
Always looking out for the signs of Christ’s coming
Always watchful, too, for the signs that he is already here

Every moment of our lives is a moment of revelation: a moment of judgment
Every moment of our lives is a time to show we know what it means to say, Christ is Lord
Every moment of our lives is a time to show to others that the love of Christ isn’t just a story; it’s real

1Thessalonians 5.1-11 Matthew 25.14-30

All of the Lectionary readings today relate to the biblical theme of ‘the Day of the Lord’
In other words, to what theologians call ‘eschatology’

Are we looking forward to the final judgment?
How do we feel about standing before God?
Will that day be a brilliant dawn for us, or terrible night of darkness?

The issue really is not, when it will be; or how will we know it is coming
The real issue is, are we ready?
How are we preparing ourselves? With what attitude are we waiting?

The parable of the talents in Matthew’s gospel occurs in Jesus’ final teachings
This series of teachings is the so-called ‘eschatological discourse’
Because in these teachings Jesus talks about the last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell
Jesus talks about these things here because he is facing his own end
This is just two days before a woman anoints Jesus with expensive perfume at Bethany, and Judas is so outraged he goes to the authorities and betrays him

What these episodes show is that there are two ways to respond to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ
– One is with a sense of expectancy
– The other is with denial

Expectancy is faith, not certainty
– The search for certainty bogs itself down in looking for signs. Jesus says, not even I have that kind of certainty
– The right kind of expectancy is watchfulness: living your life as though God is constantly watching (which he is)
– Constantly knowing that every moment of your life is a precious gift, and living it as an offering to God

The really troubling bit about this reading is its final lines
You are building up a warm and comfortable image of the master
He gives his good servants that lovely invitation, ‘Enter into the joy of your master’
You think, even if these servants had lost his money in trying to make more for him, he would have forgiven them

But then comes the chilling conclusion
‘From those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.
‘As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Why so harsh?
Simply, I think, because the unworthy servant is guilty of denial
When he buried his talent, he denied his master
To deny God’s gifts in you is to deny God
To deny God is the worst sin of all
We must live in expectancy, not in denial: and that I think is what Paul is saying in our other reading

Paul was often surrounded by people who thought, Jesus is coming back soon: maybe even tomorrow
He is coming back so soon, in fact, we can put our lives on hold
We can stop paying our taxes, give up our day jobs

They say, our faith gives us a special perspective that places us above moral struggle
We can turn inwards, and concentrate on looking for the signs of Christ’s return
But Paul recognises this as a form of denial
A denial of everything Jesus had actually called them to do in his name

Paul knew how dangerous that way of thinking was
Paul says, be watchful
Knowing what we know, expecting what we expect, if you aren’t prepared to be watchful, you must be either asleep or drunk
Avoiding reality in the same way as everyone who either hasn’t heard, or has chosen not to listen to the gospel

There was no room in the early church for escapist tendencies
Time was short not just because the end might come
The danger of persecution was always there
If time was really short that was all the more reason to live out the gospel as fully as possible in the days that were left

In some ways, Paul’s situation is the opposite of ours
In a much more important way, it is exactly the same

We find ourselves surrounded by people who say, it’s been 2,000 years
If this Jesus of yours was coming back, he’d be here by now

In faith terms, people who look at Christianity this way have put their lives on hold
They have embraced a spurious sense of safety
They live in a state of denial

They don’t feel any need to search for spiritual truth or stable values
They ignore even the real, physical threats created by our western life styles
– of ill-health, environmental destruction, and imbalances of wealth and opportunity creating violence around the world
They say, it doesn’t matter how we live: nothing much is going to happen

The real trouble is, this kind of thinking affects even Christians
They don’t feel the need to make any urgent moral decisions
They don’t feel any desperate need to live differently from their neighbours
They don’t feel any urgent need to put their relationships right
They don’t feel driven to pass on the gospel to their friends and get them into church

They act as if they believed, there’s no rush, and there’s not much at stake
Whereas the truth is, the present is the only time we have, and everything is at stake

So what do we do?

What Paul says in his letter applies just as much to our time as it did to his
We have to stop sleep walking; we have to recover our sense of purpose
We have to develop an attitude: we have to be watchful, expectant

We have to stand out as individuals;
We have to be different from non-Christians: as different as night and day
We have to be seen to be faithful, hopeful, and vigilant

We have to stand out as a community
We have to stand out as something other people will want to be a part of
A community that watches out for each other
A community where people encourage each other
A community where people build each other up

It’s been a long wait: but Christ will be worth waiting for
When he arrives, his first question will be, not how long we waited, but HOW we waited

Isaiah 59:6b-8, 15b-19; Luke 1.68-79

Every year we remember the fallen of two World Wars, and many other wars

The negotiators met to discuss how to bring the First World War to an end, while the guns were still firing
They were thinking how they could make the end of the war stick in people’s minds
Because they were determined there would never be another war

So they chose a memorable date and time for the Armistice
The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month
The 11th of November, 1918

The problem was, people did not remember
Or they remembered the wrong things
They turned their memories of the past into fantasies, that justified new hatreds, and new hostilities

In the years after 1918, Adolf Hitler remembered how Germany had been humiliated
He remembered or thought he remembered how Germany had been betrayed by the enemy within – the business classes and especially the Jews
His twisted version of history drew in other Germans, who shared his feelings

By 1939, twenty one years after the Armistice, the world was at war again

The IRA bombed a Remembrance Sunday parade in Enniskillen in 1987
Eleven people died, and dozens of people were injured

So every year we try to remember what war was like, the deaths, the atrocities, the destruction
The futility and the waste
The terrible danger to the world that the threat of another war represents

It’s not enough to remember these things once a year
The danger is always there: the danger that arises when people and leaders forget

If we remember the evils of war on one day of the year, on Remembrance Sunday, the danger is we forget during the rest of the year
If there’s one day set aside for remembering, there are 364 days we can allow ourselves to forget
Remembrance Sunday itself loses its intended message: it becomes a sentimental occasion; a day for nostalgia
It’s like coming to church once a year, at Christmas

This morning’s readings are all about the importance of remembering
They tell us that God reveals his goodness by always remembering his people
His people reveal their sinfulness by forgetting their God

To remember is to be faithful
The people of Israel, in exile in Babylon after Jerusalem was destroyed, said

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion. (Zion is another name for Jerusalem)

And they said,

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you

Jerusalem was God’s holy city
So remembering Jerusalem was a way of remembering God

To remember God is to re-experience God
Remembering Jerusalem meant hearing again God’s promise to bring them home, to rebuild their city and their relationship with him, in spite of everything they had done wrong

All the great Jewish festivals like the Passover are occasions to remember God
By remembering all the great things he has done for his people: like bringing them out of Egypt in the time of Moses

All the great Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter are also occasions to remember God
To remember especially what God did by sending his Son Jesus to live a human life, here, with us

But the idea is not just to remember God once or twice a year
The idea is always to keep God in mind: every moment of every day

Forgetting clearly is the opposite of remembering
To forget God is to deny God

I saw a TV programme recently which talked about Kristallnacht: the night in 1938 when Hitler turned his uniformed thugs loose on Jewish businesses and homes
I remembered as I watched those images of the boots of uniformed men running through the streets, with weapons and lighted torches in their hands, the words of Isaiah we heard today:

Their feet are swift to the shedding of blood; the way of peace they have not known

‘The way of peace they have not known’
The way of peace is God’s way; not to know the way of peace, is not to know God

It’s easy to forget God when you look at the news
It’s so hard to see the hand of God at work in so many terrible events

But what we always have to remind us of God is God’s promise
What God promises us is peace and freedom
‘The peace that the world cannot give’: the peace that politicians cannot deliver

God makes his promises through special people we call prophets
We hear a prophet speaking in our gospel reading today, from the gospel as told to us by Luke

That prophet was Zechariah, who was the the father of John the Baptist
Who came to tell everyone that Christ the Messiah would soon be here

The promise of God that Christ comes to fulfil is the promise of peace
– Freedom from fear
– Freedom from enemies
– Freedom from everything that prevents us knowing and worshipping our God

The promise God makes through Zechariah is that Christ will go before us
Jesus will not be an invisible God, somewhere outside the universe
Jesus will be a human being, standing right there in front of us
Jesus will meet with us, speak with us, walk with us
Jesus will be the one who always reminds us of the promises of God
He will be the one guiding our feet into the way of peace

Joshua 3.7-17; Matthew 23.1-12

The Lectionary often brings unexpected passages together – that’s good
It shows us how one passage of Scripture comments on another, in unexpected ways

Today we have our first reading this year from the book of Joshua
And one of our final readings from the gospel of Matthew

Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ final debate with the Jewish authorities
After this, they stopped asking questions, and Jesus stopped arguing with them in public
That doesn’t mean he stopped condemning them

Our passage today continues the theme we saw Jesus exploring in our reading last week
The relationship between past and present: history, inheritance, and destiny
We see those themes very clearly when we set our readings from the Old and New Testaments side by side

Our New Testament reading is about how the religious authorities of Jesus’ time understand history, and how they use tradition to legitimise their own claims to authority
Our Old Testament reading earlier was about how Joshua commanded the priestly tribe of the Levites to carry the Ark of the Covenant across the Jordan, into the Promised Land

The religious authorities of Jesus’ time would use that kind of episode in Scripture to back up their own claims to claim certain titles, and their authority to interpret and enforce the law according to their own understanding

– They might interpret it to say, that the members of a priestly caste have been given sole custody of the Law: because the Levites were chosen to carry the ark
– They might interpret it to say, that the members of this priestly group control access to God: because the Levites were the only ones holy enough to draw close to God
– They might interpret it to say, that because their ancestors were given the task of leading the people across the Jordan and into the Promised Land, their own priestly group should lead the way and set the direction for society as a whole:

This is the problem of simplistic readings of Scripture
People draw out of the Bible simple statements that appear to back up their own preconceptions about how the world ought to be

But Jesus says to them, you are wrong
You don’t have ownership of the Law, because you don’t live according to the Law
All you have is the trappings of the Law
All you do is use learning and tradition to turn the Law into a burden for other people

What we hear Jesus say this week follows on from what we heard him say last week
Then, Jesus was asked, “which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Jesus replied, ‘You shall love the Lord your God.’ … And, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

The commandment to love transcends all other commandments
It reveals the fundamental meaning and purpose of all other commandments
It swallows up all human preoccupations in the obligation to love God
And to see the whole world through the eyes of God’s love

What Jesus says, is that we do not need an expert, professional priesthood: because, to borrow a phrase from a well-known hymn, the Law is interpreted by love
Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are the supreme example of how love interprets the Law
How loving action reveals the Law as the expression of God’s covenant, and his blessing
The cross is the perfect interpretation of the Law

Jesus creates a new order of priesthood: ‘the priesthood of all believers’: a priesthood of love:
This is our priesthood
Our worship is simply to perform works of love for others
Our sacrifice is ourselves

If you read this week’s passage from Joshua with these words in mind, it takes on a whole new meaning

Firstly, if we want to understand the Law, we must put it into practice: by loving our God, and loving his image and likeness in other people

We must shoulder the load, as the Levites did when they carried the ark
Not by lifting a wooden box on poles, but by accepting our ethical responsibility for other people
Putting their well-being ahead of our own

Secondly, we will not regard the Law as a burden that weighs us down and limits what we can do
The Levites picked up the ark, and they walked out into the waters of the Jordan
Which at that time of year was in full spate
They trusted in God to preserve them and show them the way to the other side

As a church we must do the same: we must step out in faith, and demonstrate our belief in the miraculous
We must be prepared to take chances: to accept the risks of change, rather than try to keep everything the same

Thirdly, obedience to the Law is something we must demonstrate by example
So we must do what the Levites did: we must go ahead of the people

The Levites had to walk a long way ahead of the people, because what the ark contained was so holy
We do not lead the way because we think we are so special
We go ahead because Jesus has conquered the fear that held us back

Spiritual authority and spiritual leadership are not the same – we are not called to be anyone’s boss
We must be prepared as Christians to be visible; prepared to be morally accountable
But above all prepared to demonstrate the reality of God’s love, by showing God’s love to others in our words and actions