Cleansing the Temple Intercessions

Lord God and Father of all, over all and in all and through all: we give thanks for Christ, through whom we can know you and who brings us with confidence into your presence.


Father, we thank you for the vision and generosity of our forebears, who built our church buildings and whose care for them sustains them for today. May we be able to use them creatively for mission, may they be places where the Kingdom grows. May the responsibility of care never overwhelm or dishearten us. WE thank you for those who cherish these buildings, and ask that you will strengthen them. We pray too that those who focus on the architecture and history will find a path to living faith.


Father, we pray for the Holy Land, that its people may know peace. We pray particularly that the Temple Mount may not be a sign of division, but a place of light for all nations. We pray for the conflict in Syria, that it may be resolved and not spread further.


Father, as your Son Jesus purified the temple, so we pray that you will purify our hearts this Lent. Make us ready for your coming.


Father, we give you thanks for all who work in commerce, for those who bring Christian faith into the market place. May they act with integrity, justice and sensitivity towards the needs of those who have little.


Father, Jesus was motivated by love for his suffering people. We pray for those we know who endure illness or difficulty today…


Father, Jesus reminded us that a seed must die before it can live. We pray for those who approach death, that through trust in Christ they may find death to be a pathway to new life. We commend to your care those who have died…


Cleansing the Temple

Wherever you go in the Holy Land, you’re aware of the security situation. Roadblocks, checkpoints, settlements are everywhere. With so many armed guards around, the pilgrim feels safe, if a little uneasy, but there is one particular place where you have to be very careful

The Temple Mount, the site where the Jewish temple once stood, is now a mosque. Non-Muslims are allowed to visit, but the wisdom of doing so depends on the political atmosphere at the time. Recently the state of Israel installed scanners and cameras – but had to take them down following widespread riots.

Some Jewish people would like the temple area back – they are supported by some Christians who, wrongly I think, believe that Jesus will only return once the temple has been rebuilt. Other Jewish people would never walk on the Temple Mount – how, they say, could you be sure you weren’t walking on the site of the Holy of Holies? This sacred ground, significant for three religions, is one of the most contested places on earth

It has been so for centuries. Jesus must have been to the temple many times before, but in our reading something seems to snap. He sees the buying and selling, hears the shouts of the traders and the cries of the animals, feels the pushing and shoving, senses the greed. As verse 15 of Chapter 2 in John’s gospel says, He takes time to make a whip out of cords, and in a premeditated act of violence, drives the traders from the temple. Do we feel uncomfortable about that? Jesus said many pacifist things, he was never violent to protect himself, but he did act for others

‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’ My old college chapel had a wonderful early stained glass window at the entrance, showing a suitably dynamic Jesus casting out the traders. Bill Clinton was being shown round, and someone, I think it was Dennis Skinner, quipped: ‘You see, Mr President, Jesus was no fan of the capitalist system.’

But it’s not that Jesus disapproves of money. Or of buying and selling. After all, his parables recognise trade as a necessary part of the world we live in. Done well, commerce can enable human thriving. God can bless business as part of his general blessing on creation.

Part of the problem with the temple traders was the cheating and greed. You’ll know what it’s like going to a tourist site and being faced with a multitude of ways of having your wallet lightened. The piles of overpriced tat. My particular favourite was the world’s most expensive lettuce. To feed the giraffes you could pay a pound a leaf. I reckon the zoo was making 2000 per cent profit. Then there’re the fees for cameras, and special charges for essential items: the shoes you have to wear to stop your feet scratching the floor, or whatever.

The Temple authorities had hit on a couple of nifty wheezes. First, there was the so-called sanctuary shekel. Roman money wasn’t the same as the money that Moses or Solomon would have used. So the religious leaders decided the temple had to have its own currency. And if you have two currencies, you have to have money changers, and an opportunity to take a cut

And then if you want to offer a sacrifice? Well sir, the law says that God will only accept the best lamb or goat from your flock. It has to be without blemish. But to make it easy, the priests have pre-approved some lambs. And your luck’s in sir, I happen to have one here today. Only 50% premium over the Jerusalem market, sir. What’s that? You’d like to bring your own? Oh no sir, that would never do sir, the priests wouldn’t allow that. It has to be approved. Just hand over your sanctuary shekels

Matthew’s gospel quotes Jesus saying ‘The Scriptures say my house will be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.’ Jesus burns with righteous indignation, he longs for justice. It’s made worse because this market was probably in the Gentile area.

In other words, the outer part of the temple which was set aside for non-Jews to seek God had been taken over by traders. The mission of the temple, the chance for it to be a light to all nations, had been pushed out by profit. It was the vulnerable and the outsider who lost the most

Sadly, it is the same today. I renewed my road tax recently. Not everyone has £130 to hand to spend in one go, so there’s the option of paying by monthly direct debit. But it will cost you. Several pounds extra. In many ways, like prepayment energy meters, people are penalised just for being poor. In our business arrangements, we might well try to give people incentives to spend more, or to cover extra costs incurred through different payment methods – but we should ask, when does that stop being fair? Do we end up discriminating against those who have little? How can we ensure a level playing field

Just think how much trouble could have been avoided if there been the willingness to stick to the Ten Commandments. Funny to say that about a centre of religion, isn’t it? The letter of the law, do not covet, should have banned those cynical get rich quick schemes. The spirit of the law underlying do not steal, should have provided for compassion for the poor. And what of the command ‘You shall have no other God but me’. Did they not realise that in charging people for access to God, they revealed their true priorities, unveiling their idol to Mammon?

There’s a problem with cheating, and there’s also a problem with the location. This is God’s temple. The footstool of the almighty. The place where his Name dwells. The means of sacrifice which brings people close to God. The temple is special – in a way that we may struggle to understand. For while we see our church buildings as holy, we mean something very different. Church buildings are places in which we worship God, we may encounter his presence here, sense generations of prayer which have soaked into the walls. But if it came to it, we could worship God just as well in a hall. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors, and the early Methodists, often met under trees or by a prominent stone.

The temple was different. For the temple provided the way that people could come close to God. They didn’t imagine that God lived there – but it was certainly the special place where he was present like no other. So the temple was where sacrifice was offered – to give thanks, to pray for blessing, most of all to forgive sins. If you had done wrong, and you sought God’s forgiveness, you had to sacrifice at the temple

I get a bit annoyed when there are kiosks charging a fee to enter a cathedral but I know that I can go anywhere else if I really want to pray. The same choice was not open to the 1st Century Jew. That’s why Jesus got so angry: people were being charged for access to God. They were being swindled when they came for forgiveness. How can you set up barriers between people and God for profit

Access to God is free to everyone. Through Jesus, anyone can pray. Because of Jesus and what he did on the cross, anyone can ask for forgiveness, and it comes without price. Several places in this gospel reading point to Jesus’ unique role

Firstly, verse 17 is a quote from Psalm 69: ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’. Perhaps John sees Jesus as the perfect man, the one in whom all human aspirations are most sincerely felt

He is also fully divine. The whole episode reminds us of the Old Testament book Malachi, Chapter 3, verses 1 and 2: ‘The Lord whom you seek will come to his Temple. But who may abide the day of his coming?’ The people had been saying ‘If only God would come. If only he would return to his temple.’ Yes, he will come, says Malachi. But be careful for what you wish. Judgement always begins with the house of God. His people must be purified first. When we long for God to act, when we pray for revival – and I hope that you do – we must also be ready for God to purify us. Greed, self-deception, injustice – it must all be cast out of our hearts. We must allow the Holy Spirit to purify his temple.

When we think of the body as a temple, we might well remember St Paul writing about how the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. In this chapter, Jesus means something slightly different. 

The Jewish leaders ask him: ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ He replies in v 19: ‘Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.’ How can he do that when it took 46 years to build and still wasn’t finished? Well, says John, the temple of which he spoke was his body

Remember, the temple was about forgiveness. Sacrifice. It was there to being people close to God. Now in Jesus, the symbol has been replaced by reality. The Old Testament sign has been fulfilled. We no longer need the temple as a way to get close to God – because in Jesus God has come to us. We do not need to go to a temple for forgiveness, because Jesus told people their sins are forgiven. We do not sacrifice animals because Jesus gave himself as a ransom for sin – he is the Passover lamb sacrificed for us so that we could come close to God

In other words, Jesus replaces the temple. We can go a step further. He is the real temple. He does perfectly everything that the temple building was trying to do

What does this mean? Firstly our church buildings are not like the temple. Yes they are places of worship where we gather together to experience the presence of God – but they are not the way that we come to God. We cannot just read the Bible and wherever it says temple think ‘church building’. That also means we have a different attitude to sacred space – we are able to use it in different ways and for a wider variety of purpose.

Secondly, the Jerusalem temple should not be a crucial thing for Christians. It was a sign pointing to Christ, and is now fulfilled. Judaism learnt to manage without the temple when the Romans destroyed it. Christianity has no need for the temple. We have to recognise the modern location is a political reality, a flashpoint but we must not believe those who want to rebuild the Jerusalem temple.

For, thirdly, it is Jesus who brings us all to God. The temple had different grades of holiness – for priests, men, women and last of all non-Jews. But whoever we are, we can come to God equally through Christ. There’s no hierarchy of Christian believers. Wherever we are, we can have a relationship with God through Christ. Even if someone is alone – housebound, in prison, lost in the middle of nowhere, they are in the presence of God. He sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts – he is with us always, so that each one of us becomes the temple, the place of his Presence. Let us acknowledge his presence with us now. Amen.

Image of the invisible God

Over the past year I’ve learnt a lot about the media: what they value in a story; how one article feeds off another; which newspapers are always at each other’s throats. It’s been particularly interesting to observe the tricks of the trade – like ‘noddies’. The TV producer interviewing someone wants some shots of them nodding as they listen to a question – but it’s hard to get that in the actual interview. So you sit there at the end, being filmed nodding wisely – hence the term ‘noddies’.


I wonder if anyone here has been in a recording studio? I haven’t, but it must be a strange experience. Watching as a succession of musicians record their pieces in isolation. First there’s the drummer, a solid rhythm for several minutes. Then the bassist plays a few riffs. The guitarist come and goes, then the singer tries a few times to get it right. That’s why they do each separately – so if there’s a mistake they don’t get everyone doing it again. Hearing the piano, the backing vocals and every part separately sounds really strange, but then the tech guys work their magic and it ends up as a beautiful synthesis.


The Bible passage we heard from Colossians 1:15-20 is also about a beautiful synthesis. It describes how everything is held together in Christ – how believing in him gives a comprehensive world-view. Jesus makes sense of life and every area of human activity falls into place.


Yet for many of us, and for our society, our beliefs may feel more like being in that recording studio. We have a bit of scientific understanding here, maybe some superstition ‘touch wood’ there. We go to church on Sundays, but can end up with a different morality under pressure at work on Monday. There’s the person I am at home, and the happy image I project on Facebook. We easily end up living a compartmentalised existence, allowing Jesus into the smart, well-kept hallway and sitting room of our lives, but no way is he allowed to see the mess in the kitchen or all the rubbish we moved upstairs when we heard he was coming round.


It’s similar in our broader society: Christianity is one faith among many. It is tolerated in the public sphere. Christianity may be seen as a matter of curious personal morality, a spiritual comfort blanket, or a part of our heritage and custom to teach children at school.


But what Colossians 1:15-20 tells us is that Christ is the integrated centre. Believing in Jesus gives us a coherent world-view. For years science has been searching for a unified theory of everything. Remarkably Colossians tells us we already have it in Christ.


The glorious order and beauty of creation – however we think it came to pass – find their meaning in God. The wondrous things of this world are not purposeless but reveal God’s glory. By their life and flourishing and vocation they show his wisdom and love. This universe is God’s, so his presence can be discerned everywhere, we can look for meaning by his Spirit. The rulers and authorities about whom we worry so much are not all powerful – they are under God’s authority. Even the brokenness that we see all around is being redeemed. The new creation is beginning with the church and it will be fulfilled in its marvellous destiny: healed, reconciled and full of the love of Christ.


It’s worth looking at this passage more closely, so please do have it in front of you. There’s so much here – but we can’t spend all day!


v.15 says that ‘Christ is the image of the invisible God’. In other words, Jesus makes God known. When we look at Jesus we see what God is like, and he completes our understanding of God. On my computer I have a 3D printer app. It’s very clever: the idea is that I can design anything at all – from an alien spacecraft to a new hip joint. I could draw it in 3D on the laptop – and then send it over the internet to a company who will 3D print it, and drop it off to my door. It could do anything – there’s even an old lady walking around who’s got a 3D printed replacement lower jaw!


Through a 3D printer, the unseen idea becomes visible. The image becomes concrete. In Jesus, God, who is unseen, reveals himself. God who dwells in unapproachable light makes himself known to us through his Son.


So when we look at Jesus we get an accurate picture of God the Father. For me, that brings God so much closer. ‘God’ can be quite a loose word – we can have different ideas of what ‘God’ is like, depending on what we’re like. If I’m a guilty sort of person, then I’ll probably have an image of a vengeful God. If I’m complacent, then my idea of God may be a Santa in the skies. Or maybe my God won’t bother me if I don’t bother him. We can very easily make God in our own image.


But if Christ is the image of the invisible God, then we know what God is like. When Jesus heals the sick we feel God’s compassion for the suffering creation. When Jesus weeps at Lazarus’ tomb we see God’s commitment to defeat death. When Jesus rebukes the Pharisees we hear God’s passion for justice. When Jesus clears the temple we see God condemning greed and idolatry. In his words we hear God’s perfect will for us, in his forgiving embrace we feel God’s love for the world.


So, when you think of God, do you think of Jesus? If not, why not? Are there bits of the character of Jesus that you do and don’t have in your image of God? If so why? And how can you imagine God in a more Biblical way?


Jesus shows us God’s love in this physical world. For God is not part of this creation. Militant atheists like Dawkins are fond of saying that the chances of a supremely intelligent, hugely capable being arising in the universe are infinitesimally small. Which is correct. But God isn’t part of this universe, that he should arise within it. God is totally other.




The Son of God is eternal too. But in the incarnation he takes created flesh. God’s Son becomes a human being. That’s what it means in v.15 when it says that Christ is the firstborn of all creation – he also has the right of a firstborn, of inheritance. As v.16 says, everything was made by him and for him.


This doesn’t commit Christians to a naïve view of creation, as if Christ makes the world out of a kind of divine plasticine. The Big Bang and evolution are perfectly compatible with Christianity, they fit with the belief in John’s Gospel Chapter 1 that the creation is ordered and intelligible – and that sense and reason is derived from the Word of God. Paul expresses the same belief in v. 17: ‘He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.’ Christ is the Wisdom of God and that Word of God becomes flesh and dwells among us.


Does it then seem a bit odd for Paul to start talking about the church? We’ve had this amazing scenic sweep through all creation, a grand theory of everything in which Christ is the pinnacle, and now Paul’s talking about the church?


We so often sell the church short. The church is not a group of people meeting on a Sunday where we might decide to turn up if the music’s good enough. The church is spread throughout time and space, a vast army of those who have trusted in Christ, people from lands we have never heard of, people who have gone before us, who are alive with God now. The church is eternal, timeless, Christ’s treasured possession and the beginning of his new creation.


The church is all about Jesus. Particular denominations here on earth can get distracted by all kinds of issues, but we need to remember that the church’s job is to point to Christ.



There are many great things associated with the Christian faith: art, architecture, music, education, spirituality, community. Yet none of these is the ultimate purpose of the church. They’re all good things, but they need to be built on Jesus. He is the cornerstone, all else follows. That’s what we’re here for! The church is only the church insofar as it is faithful to the teaching and example of Jesus. We are here to bear witness to the resurrected one.


Verse 19 reminds us that ‘in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell’. In other words, Jesus is fully divine. Knowing Jesus we can know God. If anyone wants to know what God is like, point them to Jesus.


For above all, Jesus shows us the immense love of God. As an accurate image of God, Christ reveals amazing things we could never have imagined had he not come.


Picture a naked man, bleeding, battered, gasping his life away, nailed to a rough wooden frame. Not exactly the first image that comes to mind if we’re asked to picture God. But that is the reality. The cross shows us the depth of God’s self-giving love. Paul has been leading up to this picture – the crucifixion of Jesus is the deepest insight into the nature of God, the most profound image of God we can have.


A God who loves us so much that he did not leave us unforgiven. He did not leave us hopeless, unable to help ourselves. Despite the immense cost, Christ sacrificed his life for us, reconciling us to God.


Later on in Colossians, Paul reflects on how this happens. In Chapter 2 verses 13-14 it says: ‘God made you alive together with Christ, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside nailing it to the cross.’


It’s like there’s a record of all the wrong things we have done. The trespasses, the things we did that we shouldn’t have – and the things we didn’t do that we really we ought to have done. For some of us this record will be long, for others a bit shorter, but I guess for each of us we wouldn’t have to think for long to appreciate what would be on that record – or how we might feel about it.


But the amazing thing is: God has taken that record away and nailed it to the cross. Does that mean it is gone forever? Yes! Because when something’s nailed to the cross, it’s the charge against you. That’s what they used to do with the charge against criminals. If a thief had been caught and sentenced, the record of their crime was nailed to the cross with them. So ‘the record that stood against us, with its legal demands’ has been nailed to the cross of Christ – the cross on which Jesus died.


The meaning is clear: Jesus died to deal with our sins. The verdict, the punishment that stood against us, has been paid for by Christ. Basically, he dies in our place. God’s Son suffers the pain involved in forgiving, gives up his life that we might live.


It’s not only for us either, but for all creation. Back to Chapter 1, verse 20: ‘through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself All Things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.’ If you wonder about the future of our planet, if you fear for our earth and worry about how the environment can survive, then this passage can give you hope. The new beginning for us, will also be a fresh start for the whole world. God’s plan is not just for us, it’s huge.


In this we see above all what God is like. Through the whole life and ministry of Jesus, God reveals himself to us. On the cross he pours out his love for creation and calls us back to himself. What an amazing God Jesus has made known!



Mark 1:21-28

What difference does following Jesus make? Or, to put it another way, what would life be like if you weren’t a Christian? What would you miss? What hope would be absent?


Jesus makes a difference to people’s lives. He transforms us, changing us in many ways. Our reading from Mark 1:21-28 tells us that Jesus makes a difference in our lives today because he is the Son of God, because he has authority.


That authority comes up several times in the gospel reading. We first see it in verse 21 ‘They went to Capernaum.’ Who is ‘they’? Simon, Andrew, Peter and John. The fishermen who left their nets in response to Jesus’ call and followed him.


Do we imagine this as a completely spur of the moment decision? The reading we had from John’s gospel a couple of weeks ago suggests that Jesus had met at least some of these men before. Some of them had been disciples of John the Baptist, who pointed Jesus out to them. So it wasn’t a completely random leap into the unknown. They knew Jesus, had seen and heard him, had a chance to be convinced. When he called, they put down their nets and followed him.


Maybe you’ve known the call of Jesus as voice beckoning you on? As an irresistible draw, a deep longing, a knowledge that he has what you’re searching for, an understanding that life without him will never fulfil. Some people he commands clearly and suddenly, others grow towards him like a plant seeking the light.


And Jesus keeps on calling us. When we decide to follow him, our journey is only begun. In each different circumstance of life Jesus calls us to be faithful, to discern his will and grow the Kingdom of God in the best way we can. Sometimes he calls us to other places, to something new. Sometimes he calls us to an adventure in the place where we already are. Don’t imagine you have to become someone else to respond to Christ’s call. Ask him what he wants you to be, here, now.

When we respond to his call, we begin to change. I wonder if you have seen this happen with someone else? A new light in their eyes, a new demeanour, the sharp edges being rubbed off as the Holy Spirit gets to work, a more compassionate more servant hearted personality.


The disciples in the reading are only beginning their journey with Jesus, and they still have a lot to learn. If you ever take a trip to the Holy Land, one of the highlights is the tour round the ruins of Capernaum. You can still see a synagogue, built later on top of the one in which Jesus taught that very day.


It’s interesting that Jesus did teach. For he wasn’t a priest. He hadn’t been to the university or scribal school. And yet, as v.23 tells us ‘They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes.’


What does that mean? If you look at records of teaching from those times, it often follows a particular pattern. There will be a Bible verse –and someone will ask a question about it. So there’s a verse in the Old Testament which talks about lying. Somebody asks, are white lies ok? Here’s a real example: they ask: should you say a bride is beautiful, even if she’s not? Rabbi Shammai says no, you should never lie. Another Rabbi, Hillel, says all brides are beautiful on their wedding day. And then the teachers would discuss the relative merits of each viewpoint.


It reads like case law. It cites verdicts and appeals to precedent. It’s practical, wants to do the right thing, but is backward looking and often patriarchal. Seldom in this approach does God’s Word come to life, it feels like a dusty text, the object of study in a museum case.


Jesus is completely different. He goes straight to the heart of the question. When they asked him ‘Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ he asked for a coin. ‘Whose inscription and image is this?’ ‘Caesar’s’, they replied. ‘Well then, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ He always had a new angle.


Jesus recognised this himself. Often in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches: ‘You have heard that it was said’ – referring to the arguments of the Rabbis – ‘but I say to you…’ I say to you? Who is this who can sweep aside centuries of tradition? Who has the audacity to ignore the opinions of the elders, and set forth his own as a replacement? Who can speak as if he alone knows the true meaning of God’s law? Who does Jesus think he is?


God’s own Son. Only the Son of God could reinterpret God’s Word with such authority and clarity. Only He could distinguish so clearly between the true intention of Scripture and the layers of encrusting tradition. The way Jesus teaches shows us his authority as Son of God. When we read Jesus’ teaching, let’s not turn it into a dry study. Let’s not make it a project of acquiring knowledge. Let’s ask him to show us the living beating heart of his word. His glorious will for us.


The implications of the way Jesus teaches may not be clear to everyone in the reading, but one man grasps it. With supernatural insight, in verse 24 he cries out ‘You are the Holy One of God!’ He is correct in that, but Jesus tells him to be quiet. For this revelation has not come through the Holy Spirit, but though spiritual forces opposed to God. ‘Have you come to destroy us?’ they cry in fear. No, Jesus has not come to destroy people but to set them free.


And so Jesus heals the man and liberates from the spiritual power which oppresses him. This is really important, because it is a sign of the Kingdom of God. When evil is defeated, when people are set free from spiritual darkness, then the Kingdom of God really is among us.


I knew of a woman who had got involved in the occult. At first it seemed fun, fascinating even. Then it was an opportunity to make money, as friends turned to her for readings and mediumship. But after a while, the darkness began to grow and take over. She started experiencing weird things, hearing voices, she was no longer in control, running scared.

Desperate, she turned to the church and was prayed for. She repented of what she’d done, turned to Christ and was delivered from the oppression. It was an amazing liberation for someone very troubled.


We might not think that kind of thing happens very much, but you’d be surprised. The name of Jesus has power – to bring peace to disturbed homes, calm into troubled lives. The Kingdom of God defeats evil.


In many ways, Jesus’ authority can set us free, from all sorts of things. I know a man who was dependent on alcohol. Not strictly an alcoholic, but relying on a drink or two to get through the day. The power of Jesus has set him free.


Now, that man has to watch himself in future. He knows that a single drink might make him fall off the wagon. The legacy of his past will probably stay with him for the rest of his life. There is healing, but not to make the problem vanish. He must still depend on God. I know several faithful Christians who are just about managing to keep their heads above the water. People who are using all the grace God can give to deal with depression, ME or other illness. It’s a real struggle for them to get by.


Why does God not simply take it away? If Jesus has authority over the chains that bind us, why does he not set us completely free? Why this day to day struggle? Why a kind of partial healing, depending on God until the day comes when we are fully free? It feels like that with physical healing too. In the verses after this reading, Jesus heals Peter’s mother in law. She has a fever, and Jesus helps her up and she recovers completely. Jesus has power over sickness, so why is that not always experienced?


I live with that question all the time. I live with a child who in many ways has received healing. People have prayed earnestly, and he has done much better than expected, miraculously he keeps on going. His capabilities have exceeded anything anyone dared to predict. A week on Monday he will be the subject of a documentary about his political campaigning and poetry – yet he still inhabits a broken body.


To Jonathan the power of Jesus to change lives is real. He knows the difference God has made – and is the most content person I have ever known. He looks forward to the day when he shall be made complete, healed in eternity. That overarching perspective reminds us that the Kingdom of God is not yet complete, that our final liberation is yet to come.


For in this reading, the King, the Chosen One, the Son of God begins to bring in his Kingdom. The signs of the Kingdom of God are everywhere. All around us. We see the Kingdom of God when people find new life in Jesus. When lives are transformed by Christ’s authoritative teaching. We experience the power of the Kingdom of God in victory over evil. When lives are set free, broken creation is healed and restored. We respond as Jesus calls us to journey with him and play our part in growing the Kingdom of God.


The Kingdom of God begins, and it continues to grow, until eventually it will be fulfilled in God’s presence. Jesus changes lives. He did so then, and he does so now. This is the message, and the power, that he invites us to share. Let us seek to live by Christ’s authority in every area of life. Let us submit everything to him. And may we see his power to bring change impact positively on those around us.


Come and See

When was the last time that you just had to tell the world? When you got so enthusiastic about something – a new car that you couldn’t wait to demonstrate to a friend? A grandchild’s winning sprint posted on Facebook? Or even just boasting about the Jamie Oliver puddings you picked up for £2.50 in the post-Christmas sales?


In this reading from John’s gospel, Chapter 1 verses 43 to 51 the first disciples get so enthusiastic about meeting Jesus that they just have to tell someone. It invites us to think about how we meet Jesus today, what he means to us personally, and how we might invite others to him.


This church season of Epiphany focusses on Jesus being revealed, people discovering who he is. So several of the gospel accounts we read come from the beginning of his ministry. Here Jesus returns from the desert regions to Galilee and chooses his disciples. He’s already called Andrew and Peter, and in verse 43 he says to Philip ‘Follow me’.


And then something important happens. Philip finds Nathanael and says to him ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote: Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Philip has found Jesus. He searches out his friend Nathanael and full of enthusiasm, he shares his discovery, in his own words. Philip is the first ordinary person to tell someone else about Jesus. He does something so important – for if people everywhere will become part of the Kingdom of God, then one must tell another. We too can share our faith – it is a duty and a joy to do so.


But Philip’s efforts don’t meet with a warm response. ‘Nazareth? Can anything good from there?’ The place was totally unremarkable. About ten acres in size, with a population of 200 to 400 peasant farmers. They lived in houses which were half building, half cave burrowed into the soft rock. Can anything good come from there? But isn’t that the point? Precisely the place where God enters humanity at its humblest, identifies most closely with us by sharing human hardships. That’s what the incarnation is about – the dump is where God is most likely to be.

Rather wisely, Philip just replies ‘Come and see’. Give Jesus a chance, try him out and make up your own mind. Philip says ‘Come and find out for yourself. Experience and find out if it’s true.’


At Christmas we got given a board game – it was one of those that has complex symbols printed on a board, hundreds of little plastic shapes, piles of cards that all mean different things, and tiny tokens to punch out and lose. The instructions ran to a small booklet – two whole pages on just setting the game up!


Did we sit down and read the manual aloud to the assembled players? Did we work it through in our minds before we began to play? Of course not! We just started playing and found out the rules as we went. ‘Now it’s your turn. Move your token. Roll the dice. 7. What’s that mean? The plague – what are the rules for the plague?’ And so on.


Now there were some complaints that Daddy was finding new rules at times which suited him. Yet overall, it worked really well, and it was a fun, well designed game. Ok, for the first time we were a bit confused. But when we played it again, and again, we really got the hang of it.


It can often be the same when people encounter Jesus today. There is a proverb that people belong before they believe. In other words people appreciate the friendship of a Christian community, they are drawn to the joy and mystery of worship, they take part, even get stuck in – and then something of faith stirs and grows into understanding. People come and see, experience the living Christ, and then believe.


Even before someone comes through those doors, they will have seen the Kingdom of God at work in the world. Maybe the church’s work in a food bank or a Romanian orphanage, or a kind friend, will lead someone to take faith seriously, will help them realise that those words mean something. The Christian faith is experienced, desired, caught, which generates the willingness to learn and understand.

So for Christians, when we seek to share our faith, let’s remember that explanation is important – and it is made real by genuine experience of God’s love. It is fine to issue an invitation – which will be effective when it is backed up by a faith that making a difference in the world. Neither words nor actions are enough on their own. We must have both.


And then Jesus will do his own thing. I have learnt not to try and control people’s path to faith. For Jesus has his own way of dealing with each person. He knows them far more intimately than I do. So it is my place to watch and listen for what he is doing – speak the word in season, invite when the Holy Spirit prompts, challenge when appropriate, all the while trying to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.


Jesus works his own particular way. The conversation in 47 onwards is rather odd. Jesus greets Philip with the words ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.’ In effect ‘Here’s a genuine bloke, there’s no messing about with this man. He’s an honest seeker.’


Nathanael seems to recognise this is fair, but he is surprised: ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus replies ‘I saw you under the fig tree, before Philip called you.’ Apparently this is enough to convince Nathanael who immediately jumps to the astonishing conclusion ‘Rabbi you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel!’


What’s going on here? V.50 suggests that Jesus had seen Nathanael by some kind of prophetic insight. A supernatural ability which combines with Philip’s words and the presence of Christ to convince Nathanael.


Probably also Nathanael is meant to be an example. He’s the open minded, fair, faith-filled and hopeful Jewish person waiting for the Messiah. Perhaps there were such people among the first recipients of the gospel. Perhaps they themselves were puzzled as to why so many of their fellow-Jews did not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Indeed the Christians had been expelled from the synagogues. Perhaps Nathanael is an example to them of what ought, what could be.



For us too, Nathanael reminds us that some people will get it. Jesus meets them and wham! Perhaps we may know people whose initial scepticism has been replaced by faith. Suddenly the Holy Spirit surprises us by what he can do in someone’s life. Meeting Jesus in worship, acts of service, prayer, stillness is incredibly powerful.


We have to face up to the fact that many Christians today, myself included, often have a negative assumption about how people will react when we speak about faith. We assume they won’t be interested. Or we give up at the first sign of reluctance, when maybe the invitation to come and see might be effective. Perhaps we are conditioned by the secular society around us not to share our faith or to be shy in doing so. In reality, folks are curious to find out about other people’s lives – if we share humbly and don’t lecture we often get an interested hearing.


Perhaps also we think that the people around us know about Christianity. We’ve all been brought up with it, we heard it all at school. What can I tell them that’s new? For starters, you’d be surprised what people don’t know! And for those who feel they’ve been there and done that, a radical servant Christianity brings them up short and makes them realise that the Kingdom of God changes lives.


Perhaps faith seems too big a thing to convey – after all it’s easy enough to enthuse about a bottle of wine – but faith is so life changing and so big it’s hard to sum up adequately. So maybe the answer is to try and convey a bit at a time. To respond to ‘how do you cope?’ with a personal explanation of the real difference faith makes in that situation. To be ready to explain the particular life choices we make due to faith. And to be ready to say ‘Come and see’ – not try and fix it with our explanations but invite people onto their own journey of discovery.


Bringing people to encounter Jesus, giving birth to faith is ultimately the Spirit’s work. Our role is to pray, listen, serve, speak, invite and accompany. For when we make space for the Spirit to work, he can do amazing things through us. Very soon the person we have taught will be teaching us things!

If there hadn’t been Nathanael, there wouldn’t have been v.51. Maybe it is a bit obscure: ‘you will see heaven opened and the angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’


But for those who were brought up with the Hebrew Bible, they would have instantly thought of Jacob. This Old Testament patriarch was running away from home. While sleeping rough, with a stone as a pillow, he dreamt he saw heaven open and a ladder connecting heaven and earth. Angels were ascending and descending on the ladder. Jacob took it as a sign that God was with him. In the morning he set up his stone pillow as a pillar to remember that God is here.


Jesus says that the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. On himself. He takes the place of the ladder linking heaven and earth. This one is the fully human, fully divine, son of man. In him God’s eternity and creation come together. In his body – perhaps hinting at the cross – he bridges the gap.


We do not climb a stairway to heaven by being good or keeping all the rules. It is Jesus himself who brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven. This is what is unique about him. Jesus does not point to a code to follow, nor a culture. The centre of Christianity is Jesus himself. That is why we say ‘Come and See’. Come and experience the life of the community in which Christ lives. Come and join the worship, come and receive the word and sacrament in which Christ is known. Come and serve, build the Kingdom of God on earth as in heaven. Come and see.



Epiphany is about Kings – but which ones? This story from Matthew seems to focus on kings– but not the ones we might think of. ‘We three Kings of orient are’ goes the carol – yet the Bible doesn’t call them kings, rather Magi, often translated wise men. Perhaps if they had been had been wiser, their gifts for a new mother might have been nappies, enough casserole to last a week, and a plentiful supply of chocolate…


So the Magi aren’t kings. What about Herod? Yes, he’s just a puppet of the Romans, yet Herod has real power over life and death. However v.1, in that little double edged phrase ‘in the time of King Herod’ hints that Herod’s time is passing away. The first readers of Matthew’s gospel would have known that Herod died soon after these events.  His earthly kingdom will not last.


Really, the king here is King Jesus. Herod in his splendour, the wise men with their gifts, these are not the true kings. The baby lying in the manger will grow up to be God’s king. In Jesus, God’s promised Saviour comes to reign. He offers us the way into God’s Kingdom. How then we will we respond?


It’s worth thinking about what we mean by the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom does not just mean that God reigns in heaven and one day we shall go to join him there. If that was all it meant, then why did Herod feel so threatened? Why bother to kill Jesus if his purpose in life was just to sort out what happens after we die? If Jesus came preaching a privatised spirituality or a personal morality then why was he crucified?


The Christian church has often misunderstood the Kingdom of God; narrowed it down, turned it into something purely spiritual. Often we’ve focussed so much on the truth that Jesus offers us eternal life, that we’ve forgotten that this world matters to God too. Both are important. We’ve emphasised that Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven – without realising that also means that all of God’s glorious creation will be healed. He plans a total restoration.

Jesus did not just tell us how to live as we wait for heaven – he told us how God’s Kingdom begins, grows and changes this world.


The Kingdom of God breaks in whenever God’s reign is recognised. We join it when we accept Jesus as Lord – and we grow the work of the Kingdom as we live God’s way. The Kingdom of God brings justice, joy, peace, forgiveness, a new community following Jesus. It has implications for all of life: political, economic and environmental.

People sometimes say that the church is irrelevant – but look at the places where the church is making a difference today: debt cancellation; campaigning and practical steps to end modern slavery; providing food banks so families in a poverty trap can get a decent meal; inquiries like that for Hillsborough which bring truth and justice.


So when we look at our New Year’s resolutions, how does faith make a difference? Are the things we hope to do all about ourselves: lose weight, eat better, drink less, get healthier – or can we include hopes, steps towards a better world? Where can we see the Kingdom of God growing around us? Can we listen to what God is doing and join in?


For the Kingdom of God affects this world. It’s obvious in the passage we’ve just read: the Magi are Gentiles which tells us that this Jewish Messiah has come for all people. Even the natural world is affected as a star points the way to his birth. It is a Kingdom for this earth, in all its messiness, making a real change because it comes in a different way.


There was a remarkable example of the way earthly kingdoms work just this past week. Kim from North Korea had boasted about his nuclear button. Donald from the States went onto Twitter to say that his nuclear button is much bigger than Kim’s, and what’s more it works.


That’s all about power and force. But the Kingdom of God doesn’t work this way. The Kingdom of God doesn’t even move forward by the good guys being stronger, in a traditional way, than the bad guys.

The Kingdom of God is not about doing what the world does. Nor is it about doing something a little bit different, more moral, but in a bigger and better way. Its ethos is radically different.


I wonder who’s seen the new Star Wars film? I really enjoyed it – it’s a break with tradition, refreshing. And to get the best from the action, it’s really worth seeing in the cinema.  I’ll try not to give too many details away – hopefully this doesn’t need a spoiler alert! There’s a bit where one character saves another – and she says: ‘that’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.’


It reminded me of the cross. Those gifts that the wise men bring are a kind of prophecy. Gold speaks of royalty; frankincense symbolises an offering; while myrrh is used at the time of death. This is a king who will bring in his kingdom in a totally new way.


The gospels point towards the cross as the place where Jesus wins his victory. They allude to it as being like a throne. Which seems a bit odd – given that to all intents and purposes death by crucifixion looks like an abject failure. Yet this is God’s way of victory. For Jesus does not defeat evil by having a larger army. He doesn’t squish empires by force of arms. What happens on the cross is that God’s Son Jesus, as a representative of humanity, allows evil to do its worst to him. He offers himself, makes himself vulnerable, and evil pours itself out in hatred upon him until it has nothing left. Jesus wins the victory by draining sin of its power, by dying our death, saving us whom he loves.


Which may help us to face the obvious objection: If you say God is the King of our world, have you looked out the window recently? Since 2018 began we’ve had stabbings, riots and threats of nuclear war. So if God’s supposed to be reigning what’s he up to?



Our reading from St Matthew is well aware that evil can still wreak horror. Immediately after this reading, Matthew tells of how Herod in his jealous rage ordered the death of every boy under the age of two in Bethlehem. Herod planned to wipe out the infant Messiah.



Yet for all his anger, Herod was unsuccessful. God’s plan was not thwarted. Today evil still rages in our world, but its ultimate defeat is guaranteed. Jesus has won the victory on the cross – and the Kingdom is growing. Small at first, like a mustard seed or a handful of yeast it will nonetheless spread through all the dough. And eventually the time will come when Jesus returns and the whole creation will be judged and renewed.


When William Wilberforce and his friends won the key vote to ban slavery in the British Empire, there were still struggles. The law had to be implemented, patches of resistance cleared up. Even in our own day, people are had up for forced labour and domestic servitude. But the passing of that law was the decisive victory.


In a similar kind of way, Christ’s victory has been won on the cross, but God’s people may still be called to follow in that way of the cross. Working for the Kingdom of God may involve sacrifice – the wise men travelled many miles, endured danger, and gave generously. Staying in God’s plan may involve us setting off into the unknown, like Mary and Joseph who fled to Egypt.


As we begin a New Year, we do not know what the future holds. We may be called to trust God in the midst of darkness. We may be asked to make sacrifices. If we do, let us remember that we do so knowing that Christ is King and that the world is his. If we face challenges, let us remember that Christ has won the victory. And may we, like the wise men, know the presence of the King and be filled with his joy.


mark 1:1-8

The world’s most expensive Advent calendar costs – well, would you like to take a guess? Is it a) £100, b) £1000 or c) £10,000? This year the most expensive Advent calendar contains 24 little bottles. Each 30cl dram – that’s right, barely a single measure each – each one is a rare and ancient single malt whisky. And it costs £10,000. Mind you, that’s a snip compared the year that Porsche produced a million pound advent calendar with gifts including a yacht and a luxury watch.


It seems a far cry from the days when my brother and I used to race each other downstairs to open a little cardboard window with a picture and a Bible text inside. Replacing that with a chocolate calendar didn’t actually increase the anticipation and excitement – for the fun of Advent is all about getting closer to the great day.


Advent is a time of preparation, getting ready for the coming of Christ. In our gospel reading, from Mark chapter 1 verses 1-8 we heard how God prepared the way for Christ. Interestingly, Mark’s gospel doesn’t have the familiar Christmas stories that we know from Matthew and Luke. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ birth or childhood. Instead, it bursts into action with this mysterious character – John the Baptist. He appears in the wilderness with a message for God’s people: ‘Get ready, because God is doing something new.’


Mark says that John the Baptist was fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies. V.2 quotes from a couple of passages where God promises that he will send a messenger to reconcile his people to one another, and thereby prepare the way for God to come to them. V.3 is from Isaiah, where the prophet speaks about people returning from exile and God making the paths straight for them. Now though, Mark perceives a further meaning, hidden deeper in the traditional texts: it is the Lord himself who is coming and he has sent someone to get his people ready.



And they needed the help. Life was tough in first century Judah. The Romans were an occupying force, people longed for liberation. The freedom they seek will ultimately be found in Jesus, but before his ministry can begin, John the Baptist must prepare the way.


There is a recognisable pattern here and elsewhere in the Bible: people experience challenges; they go through a time of spiritual preparation and turning to God; eventually God blesses them. We can see that pattern in the history of nations: the Methodist revival which transformed 18th Century England, bringing hope and self-sufficiency to the poor, began with a few Oxford undergrads trying to live for God.


The same pattern happens in church life: somebody once asked Sandy Millar, the previous Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton, how the growth of that church and the Alpha course had begun. He replied: ‘it all started when a few older ladies got together to pray.’ Perhaps we have also seen it in our own lives: when times are hard yet we can also see God preparing us to encounter him and be used in greater ways.


I think there are signs that the same pattern: of challenge, preparation and blessing can be seen now. As a nation we’re going through great uncertainty, big questions about our future direction in a changing world, at a time when our spiritual identity is also unclear. Yet Christians are turning to God more profoundly, open to his call.


There is a new national movement of prayer: led from the front by the Archbishops in the Thy Kingdom Come week, which was joined by many different denominations. There’s a willingness to change, a programme of reform, seeds of God renewing his church so that it can be prophetic light in the nation. I think those times of preparation are beginning.



I see it locally too: for a couple of years we’ve tried to get a regular Gauzebrook Prayer Meeting but it’s never quite happened. Until last week – and hopefully the last Wednesday of every month from now on. Suddenly the leaders of other churches are keen to meet up with us, and in our churches there’s a willingness to try new things. On the 22nd Feb we have a special evening to pray and think about the future.


So as we look at how John the Baptist prepared the way, let’s apply it to our nation, our church, our own lives and even the run-up to Christmas!


‘John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ Who here has been baptised? Who remembers their baptism? I certainly don’t. Like many of us, I was baptised as a baby, marking the beginning of a Christian life, the start of growing in knowledge of God.


Now the people who came to John were Jewish. They hadn’t been baptised. In fact nobody had been baptised before then – it hadn’t been invented. Jewish people used to bathe regularly to keep ritually keen, and if any non-Jew decided to convert, a full body wash was part of the ceremony. But the way John did it – a splash under the water in a river – and the meaning he gave it was completely novel.


Imagine people coming to see John. Dirty, tired from a long journey, it’s a real blessing to leave the desert and come to the greenery of the Jordan. The cool water refreshes their sore feet. Waist high in water, they confess their sins, and then John immerses them. Dirt washed away, light pouring upon them as they come up out of the water, it is like a new birth. A fresh start. The old life washed away, the beginning of something new.



When John baptised people, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Repentance is a technical word, but it basically means turning back to God. Whenever we say sorry for the wrong we have done, ask God’s forgiveness and his help to live the right way – that’s repentance. Baptism is a symbol of repentance: sin being washed away and entering into a new life close to God.


Repentance is absolutely fundamental when God begins to move. It’s when a prisoner looks at himself in the mirror and doesn’t want to live like that anymore, and cries out ‘God if you’re there, help me’. It’s when a mother who’s snapped and hit her child sobs ‘God, I need help.’ It’s when a church that’s been shrinking comes to its senses and realises that tinkering around the edges is not going to bring the life of the Spirit that God desires. It’s when a nation looks aghast at an atrocity and wonders ‘what sort of society have we created? We must change’


If that turning away from evil and determination to do right does not include God, then those good intentions do not last.  But if it includes turning to God, true repentance will bring life, and as in v.8, unleash the power of the Holy Spirit. Absolutely central to our personal and corporate renewal is repentance, turning back to God.


A couple of years’ ago I went to the Holy Land, and saw the place where John is supposed to have baptised people. The Jordan is surprisingly small – deeper than the Avon at Malmesbury but not much wider. While I was there, somebody was baptised, and because it’s so intimate you know exactly what’s going on. It’s a very public declaration of faith. For the person being baptised it was obviously very emotional and important. Part of that may be because they were standing up and being counted, they were saying: I choose to follow Jesus. That public decision will give that person confidence in the years to come.



So do people know that you are a Christian? Neighbours, those at work, family, do they know what faith means to you? How might you let them know in a way which is sensitive, appropriate and attractive?


One culturally acceptable mark of Christianity is giving up things for Lent. Not that everybody who does is therefore a Christian, or that all Christians must – but it can indicate commitment. Why stop at Lent? Traditionally Advent is also a fast, although I have to say it’s a rather more difficult one with all those mince pies and port.


As verse 6 tells us, John the Baptist was clothed with camel’s hair, and ate locusts and wild honey. Fasting can be a sign of dependence on God, it is one of the things God uses to prepare us. Giving something up for a while can create space to draw close to God, it reduces our dependencies, it grows self-discipline. Perhaps most of all, it can help us focus on Christ.


For that’s the point. That’s why John came: to get people ready for Jesus. That’s why they needed to get their hearts ready and return to God in repentance – so that the Messiah would find a fertile soil for his message. That’s why people stood up and made a commitment – so when Christ called they would leap to their feet. That’s why John fasted and prayed – to develop self-discipline in following Jesus.


As he did then, so now. God can do great things with us. I trust that he will do wonderful things in our nation and church. As that begins, he prepares us. Let us then prepare ourselves to seek him. Amen.