How do we make sense of the Second Coming?

When I was at primary school I had a thing about dinosaurs. I think it drove everyone round the bend. It didn’t just stop at a plastic Tyrannosaurus fighting a toy Triceratops – I had to go the whole hog and convert my bedroom into a museum. Birthday presents were dinosaur themed – usually the latest book on prehistoric monsters.


I remember one book which was properly scientific, written by a leading expert. In one chapter he discussed a great mystery: why did the dinosaurs become extinct? In the early ‘80s this was a complete unknown. Of course, there were some ideas that were completely bonkers: they were all eaten by cavemen or wiped out by asteroids.


But as we now know, it was an asteroid wot done it. Since that book was written, scientists have discovered a whacking great crater in the Yucatan peninsula. There, 65 million years ago, a 6 mile wide space rock slammed into a shallow sea, blanketed the world in a cloud of dust that dropped global temperatures and finished off the dinosaurs.


Now, you haven’t taken a wrong turning today and ended up in a palaeontological lecture! The reason I’m saying this is that in the past few decades modern science has proven that truly catastrophic events do occur. Things that we once considered bonkers, wild fantasies, the result of an overactive imagination, are now respectable scientific fact.


I remind myself of that whenever I come across passages like this one from Mark’s gospel, chapter 13 verses 24-37. Because, if I’m honest, when I read things like v.24 ‘the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven’, it all sounds a bit way out. Weird and scary and hard to understand.


Do you remember that time a couple of months ago when there was a storm and lots of dust got whipped up from the Sahara? The sunlight turned red. The sun itself was the colour of blood. It felt really freaky. Windswept but no birdsong. As if something was about to happen. I could see how events like that might make people think the end is nigh!

So what does this reading mean? Are we meant to take it literally or as a symbol? Does Jesus here foretell a dramatic end of the world event, like a supernova, before he comes again? Or is it religious language for a revolution in society, turning the tables as the Kingdom of God comes?


Whichever way you look at it, clearly it describes a remarkable act of God. The Lord intervenes to transform the status quo and then Christ will reign. So firstly it asks us if we do believe that God can act? Can God transform situations? I believe that he can – I’ve seen it happen.


You may be aware that a couple of years ago my son Jonathan was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension. This is a bit of a one way street, to be honest, it can’t be cured. The doctors weren’t even treating it, because of the medicines’ side-effects. Anyway, a few weeks ago Jonathan had his cardiac check-up – and the results were normal. No sign of it. I can’t explain that. It seems miraculous.


Nothing is beyond God’s power. The God of the Resurrection can resurrect a dying world. A dramatic end to existence as we know it, and the beginning of a new creation, is within God’s power. This is the hope of the church. Why we are here. To be a sign of the Kingdom.


So why might it feel hard to believe? Is it perhaps a failure of imagination? Type verse 26 into Google images: ‘son of man coming in clouds’ and you’ll see what I mean. The artwork doesn’t help – it’s straight off the pages of a Jehovah’s Witness magazine. What is described here is beyond the abilities of our limited imagination.


It may help to realise that Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament. V. 26 comes from Daniel 7 verses 13-14 about the Son of Man being given power in God’s presence. Verses 24 and 25 are from Isaiah, in the middle of a passage talking about the historic fall of Babylon. Isaiah describes the total destruction of the enemy city, which will never be built on again. Only this kind of apocalyptic language can do it justice.

Bishop Tom Wright, who’s a respected New Testament scholar, argues that people at the time of Jesus were not really expecting the stars literally to fall from the sky and the moon turn to actual blood. Tom Wright says they used this language to speak of dramatic world changing events, times when God does something completely new. After all St Peter quotes those exact verses to explain the arrival of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. The moon did not literally turn to blood that day, or even just turn red – something more remarkable happened: God through his Holy Spirit came to live in human beings.


Yet Jesus doesn’t just quote, he adds to the words from Isaiah. In v 27 he talks about the angels gathering the elect from every corner of the earth. He really does seem, in v.32, to have a particular event in mind, that he will actually return, whatever signs accompany that day.


And Jesus says all this, not to satisfy idle curiosity, but so that we can be prepared. Take a look at verses 28-29: ‘from the fig tree learn its lesson, as soon as the branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves you know that summer is near. So you also when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near.’ Is summer a good thing? Yes! By February how we long for sunshine! Are figs good? Yes, they’re delicious! Is the coming of Christ therefore good? Yes.


Jesus tells us that he will reign, he will be a loving and just king, that the creation will be the beautiful and joyous place that God intended. When we read these parts of the Bible we can get overwhelmed by the challenge, the warnings, the tribulation. But Jesus tells us that these are the birth pains – what you have to go through to get to the new life. Yes evil will be destroyed. Yes, there will be a judgement.


God tells humanity this so that we can turn from evil, be forgiven, and enjoy the new life that is to come. If we trust in Christ we have nothing to fear at the judgement because we are forgiven. Christ gave himself on the cross, taking the punishment that should be ours, so that our sin can be wiped away. It asks us: have we accepted Christ as our Saviour?


It is good news, but when will it happen? Verses 30-32 seem to pull in different directions. V.31 says that ‘this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place’. As you read the New Testament it seems clear that some people in the Early Church expected Jesus to return very soon – within a few years of his Ascension. The Second letter of Peter tells us that when Jesus did not come back quickly, scoffers began to say ‘where is this coming?’ to which Peter replies ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day.’ Expectations had to be adjusted.


But in v.32 Jesus had said that ‘no-one knows the day or the hour, neither the angels in heaven, nor even the Son himself, but only the Father.’ So if it is unknown we must be prepared. It is like a boss unexpectedly dropping in on a factory to see what’s really going on. Like OFSTED inspectors who give a school just 24hrs so you can’t make it up!


We do not know when Christ will come. You and I may still be around when he returns. Or we may return to him first. We do not know the day of either of those events! There’s another way of looking at it: Jesus may come in the crucial encounters of life.


Think about it: the times when we have to make decisions, when the rubber of our faith really hits the road, when we react one way or the other to another person. Those also are times when we encounter Christ. In a sense Christ comes at any time when our instant reactions reveal the attitudes and habits we have built up over the years. When we see if we are truly in him. That’s why the church is here – to encourage and support us as we try and be faithful to God.


How then should we live? In 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verses 3-9 Paul gives us a very simple answer. We should live by grace. Let’s just turn to that briefly.



Grace is the gift of God. Freely given, received as a gift, not earned by us. When I was a student there was a poster with a big picture of Jesus on it and the words ‘Jesus is coming. Look busy’. That’s a trap we can easily fall into with all these warnings about being prepared, keeping watch, and so on.


But Jesus does not look for us to be busy. He wants us to live by grace. Paul teaches us, in v.4, that it is the grace of God which calls us into a relationship with God through Christ Jesus. In verses 5-7 it is the grace of God which gives us all the gifts that we need as we serve Christ and one another. And in verse 8 and 9 it is God himself – his grace not our efforts – it is God himself who strengthens us so that we may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.


It’s as we live by grace, as we trust God, that we become ready for Christ. It is through depending on him that the life of God’s Kingdom appears within us. However he comes, whenever he comes, may he find us trusting in God and abiding in him.


Sheep and Goats

I never thought I’d say this, confession time, but Saturday evening in our household is Strictly Come Dancing night. The girls are totally hooked to the costumes, the dancing and the excitement of who will get chucked off each week. I wander in and out as I get things ready for Sunday – but I have to admit, in a strange way it draws you in.


One of the things I find fascinating is how people react to being judged. Sometimes they seem on the verge of tears – which I find quite understandable – you’ve given your best to something, not your natural talent only to have your efforts archly, condescendingly ripped apart. But of course the contestants could take the judges’ comments as advice, timely warnings that if taken could avert catastrophe. If only Jonny had managed to do what they said and keep his rear tucked in!


When we hear passages about judgement in the Bible, like the gospel reading from Matthew 25, we face a choice in how we approach it. The message of judgement will not be comfortable, it would be tempting to stop up our ears, carry on and hope for the best, but if we listen and take note, it will do us a lot of good.


If you had come to this church 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation, this chancel arch would have been one huge painting. Up at the top, Christ was seated in majesty, judging the world. On his right, and your left, the blessed rise out of their graves to everlasting life. On that side, demons haul sinners away to the gates of hell. I imagine that when the sermon got boring, our predecessors would look at the picture – maybe some got drawn to the images of bliss, others of a more nervous disposition were fascinated by the gory scenes on their right.


And when we read Matthew 25 verses 31 to the end, we may identify more with one than another. Do you see yourself as a sheep, looking forward to eternal life in the presence of Christ? Or does a guilty conscience trouble you, as you worry about the fate of the goats?


Christianity comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable. It may be that if we identify with the sheep, we might need to be challenged. And if we worry about being goats, maybe we need to hear the good news of God’s invitation, to be forgiven and free. So as we think about this part of the Bible, please do consciously engage with the bits that might not at first sight appear to apply to you.


When I prepare a sermon I always ask ‘Where’s the good news here?’ For however challenging or difficult a part of the Bible is, we must believe that in the end God’s message to us is good news. There is a lot here!


Firstly, it tells us that Jesus will reign, that’s what we remember this Sunday as we think about Christ the King. Kings and Queens today are either found in fairy tales, or they are constitutional monarchs, like our own Queen and Prince Philip celebrating 60 years together. The Biblical background to Christ the King is an all-powerful monarch who nonetheless gives himself to save his people. In v. 31: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.’ Even now, Jesus is at the right hand of God, and one day his kingdom will come with power. The whole world will be as God intended it to be. Over it all, as King, will be Christ.


Secondly, we are invited to join that Kingdom. If we have faith in Jesus, that promise of verse 34 applies to us: ‘You that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ It has always been God’s plan that his people should live with him in a perfectly renewed creation forever. He invites us – so let us respond, take up the invitation.


Thirdly, the good news is that good will triumph and there will be an end to evil. We see very clearly here that kind, loving, serving deeds are rewarded by Jesus. These are simple practical actions in verses 35-36: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick.

It’s not hard to think of equivalents today: Doing the shopping for the housebound lady next door, putting a tin or two in the supermarket’s box for the homeless. Popping in to check on those who are unwell, phoning those who are going through hard times. Sharing garden produce, welcoming the less well-off to a church social. Giving to charity. Defending those who are oppressed. Hosting a refugee family.


Some of these actions are simple: like the guy who approached me at Chippenham station and pointed out I was standing on a platform where there were no train tracks, and the one I wanted was over there. Others are more complex – I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s given money to a beggar, feeling sorry for them and a bit guilty too because I’m also wondering how it will be spent. I got sent this excellent guide: ‘How to help homeless people’ by the Church Housing Trust, because we have to be both generous and wise.


In the first century AD, when Jesus taught, most people lived in small communities. They knew their neighbours but not much further afield, they knew who was in need, and were mutually accountable to one another. Today we are so interconnected that we daily see images of suffering people from the other side of the world, yet at the same time we may have little relationship even with the folks next door.


We are so aware of need, we could give our all, but what then? We can be bewildered as to how to respond, feel guilty turning away the charity doorstepper. As St Paul says in Corinthians, it is important to give prayerfully, generously, without compulsion and responsibly. God wants us to develop maturity in our giving, so each one of us needs to work this out for ourselves. And the question is not ‘How little or how much must I give?’ but ‘How much of me, my life in Christ, and all that God has entrusted to me is reflected in my giving?’ For giving changes us. We are transformed, and others are transformed by our gift.



It may do so in a deep way. Martin Luther King said: ‘We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring’


For instance it is good that the government has reduced the waiting time for Universal Credit – people claiming benefit just don’t have 6 weeks’ living expenses in their back pocket.


Making structural changes involves difficult issues, and I have sympathy for those who implement them. One thing we can be sure of, our fourth point: that when the Kingdom of God comes, suffering will be no more. Evil will be destroyed. This is really the other side of the same coin. If the new creation is entirely good, there can be no evil. None at all. I used to homebrew wine – make a gallon at a go, but if a single tiny fruit fly got in the whole lot would turn to vinegar. Even a tiny bit of wickedness would spread.


The challenging thing about the people in the passage who are described as goats is that if we met in the street we wouldn’t think they were bad. In v. 41-43 Jesus does not call them murderers, thieves, adulterers, drunkards – because they weren’t. They probably seemed very moral. They just didn’t help those in need. Maybe they lived in nice bungalows with well maintained gardens; they were quiet neighbours, kept themselves to themselves. Never hurt a fly. They just didn’t help either. ‘Not my problem. The state will sort it out. If I get involved where will it stop? It’s probably their fault anyway.’



I know that I’ve reacted to the needy like that at times. Rather than responding out of guilt, I should remember that fifth piece of good news: that when we help those in need we help Christ himself. In v.44 they ask: ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you?’  -the implication being that if they knew it was Jesus they would have done something. But Jesus says ‘Whatever you do (or do not do) for one of these, you do for me.’ In serving others, we serve Christ.


One of the big questions in this passage is when Jesus talks about ‘members of my family’ who does he mean? Does he mean Christians, who certainly often suffer double discrimination? Or does he mean that we are all children of God? It’s not entirely clear.


Maybe the biggest question though is what am I? Am I, are you, a sheep or a goat? Which side of the chancel arch are you? Destined for eternal life, or destruction?


The temptation is to respond by reflecting on what we do. how well do we measure up? So I do try and respond to need. But sometimes I walk on by – it seems too complicated or I’m caught up in my own world or don’t want to be drawn in. I give to charity but how much? – I suppose I could go the extra mile like John Wesley who gave up drinking tea so he could give to the poor. There’s always more that could be done.


Am I therefore a sheep or a goat? I feel like both. Which predominates? Have you done enough good, been enough of a sheep, to outweigh any goatish behaviour? To compensate for the wrong done? Let alone any good not done?


How do I know where I will be when Jesus divides us in two? How can anybody reach God’s perfect standard? Surely the answer is that We can’t. We cannot wipe away our sin, that foul spot never washes out, except when God forgives us through Jesus.

We could never do enough to reach some divine standard. The only offering that will satisfy is the perfection of Christ, his sacrifice of himself for us on the cross.


Our mixed nature, the sheep and the goat within each of us, can only be dealt with by being born again in Jesus. When we commit ourselves to him we receive new life that lasts for eternity, and the old way finally perishes the day that we die. In the light of the rest of the Bible, we cannot read this passage as an exhortation to do more so that we can be saved. It is not that. Instead it tells us that true faith results in actions.


If we trust in Christ, if we are truly his, then we will want to make a difference for others. If Jesus’ spirit is in us, then we will feel compassion for those in need. Yes, we may be puzzled by how best to help, yes we will still wrestle with our innate selfishness, but by the grace of God we should see progress. We will do something! Motivated not by guilt, but by his love, the love that was first shown to us, we will reach out in love to those in need and in so doing serve Christ himself.

1 Thess 5:1-11 and Mt 25:14-30

One day as I was walking to church, I saw two suspicious characters hanging around aimlessly. They were about my age, and in that town 15 years ago it was unusual to see anyone under the age of 30 out and about before 10 am on a Sunday. ‘Morning’ I said. ‘Ah Vicar,’ one of them improvised, ‘my Gran would like to come to church. What time is the service? And how long does it last?’ ‘It’s at 10 o clock,’ I said, ‘and it lasts for an hour and a quarter. And the great thing is, if your Gran comes in a car, she can leave it here safely because we have a retired policeman patrolling up and down the road all through the service.’ Funnily enough, Gran didn’t turn up, and we didn’t have any break-ins that day either

As Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s gospel: ‘if the householder had known what time the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. So you too should be prepared.’


We do not know when the time of trial will come, when problems will descend. Life goes its own untroubled way but then suddenly something changes. Scientifically, we do not know how long our world will exist, we do now know the span of our own lives. In v1 of our reading from 1 Thessalonians, St Paul tells us that we cannot predict the end, so we need to live in a way that is prepared. ‘For you yourselves know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’. Jesus will return at a time we do not expect, so let us be ready. (Biblical)


It is rather strange thinking of the return of Jesus being like a thief. Chantal and I were burgled when we were on our honeymoon – I think the thieves had seen it in the Parish Mag. Fortunately not much was taken – I lost some obscure indy CDs but all the wedding presents the thieves were after were at the in-laws.  But it wasn’t the loss which was upsetting – it was the thought that someone had broken into our house, that even before my wife had lived there someone had been through all our stuff. Thieves might think ‘oh they’ll get it back on insurance’ but insurance doesn’t deal with the emotional impact.

Thieves cause grief and hassle out of all proportion to the value they get from the things they take. So it does feel distinctly uncomfortable likening the return of Jesus to a thief in the night. Isn’t the Advent of Christ supposed to be good news? Doesn’t Jesus bring in God’s Kingdom of justice and joy? Isn’t this the hope of a new world? Of creation reborn? Of every tear wiped away and evil destroyed?


But maybe that’s the point. Evil will be destroyed. For instance, justice is good news for many – except those who treat others unjustly. Tears being wiped away brings joy, except to those who enrich themselves by oppressing others. The destruction of evil is great news, provided we do not cling to the evil in our hearts, for if we do we shall be swept away with it. What is happening in Zimbabwe may turn out to be good news for many – but to Mugabe it may feel like the thief in the night.


As St Paul says in v.4 to the believers ‘For you beloved are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief, for you are all children of the light.’ Clearly the implications, the idea of Jesus coming like a thief in the night partly depends on our response.


The image of the thief emphasises unexpectedness. It’s the shock of waking up and finding things gone. A jolt of unwelcome reality when we thought we were comfortably bumbling along. The car that pulls out in front when you’re driving along minding your own business. Even if we are children of the light, it’s important that we are ready and alert.


Perhaps that’s why St. Paul suddenly talks about being sober. I don’t think Paul’s against alcohol –the Bible talks about it as a gift from God. But I do know that if I’ve had a drink it’s harder to concentrate on work, prayer is less focussed. So it’s a decision: am I at work? Do I want to spend some time catching up with God? Is this a moment to relax and enjoy good company and good wine? And what’s the balance between those activities? Something would be wrong if I come home from work and always open a bottle, if I cannot be sociable without a glass in hand.

So how should we be then? If Jesus will return unexpectedly, if we may be called back at a time we do not predict, how then should we live? During November we hear different parables of Jesus which tell us how to live in readiness for him. This week it’s the parable of the talents.


A talent in the parable is a whacking great lump of silver. About half a million pounds worth in fact. So a not inconsiderable amount of money. But under the influence of this parable, a talent has also come to mean gifts, skill. In reality it can stand for anything with which we are entrusted. For God the Creator is the ultimate source of our abilities, our possessions, our money, even our time. All things come from God, and we are accountable to him for how we use them. Like the parable, God wants us to use our assets, time and skills well.


Some have one talent, others have five. From those who have been given much, more will be expected. The servant who had five talents produced five more, the one who had three earned another three – but that was fine. We should not be jealous of the abilities of others, but fulfil our own vocation. When I meet God he won’t ask me: ‘Why weren’t you Nicky Gumbel or Bill Gates?’ He might ask me: ‘Why weren’t you Christopher Bryan? Why weren’t you all I made you to be?


The bad servant gets in trouble because he hasn’t made even a minimal effort. Fearful, he buries the talent in the ground. Even just leaving it with the bankers would have earned interest – a rather dubious assumption these days! But he can’t be bothered, or maybe he’s frightened of failure.


Is God like this boss character? Is Jesus saying: make the most of what God’s given you, or else? Could we perhaps see it as saying that God wants the best for us? From us? After all, the best for us will involve giving our best.

Imagine a God who didn’t care. A ‘yeah whatever’ God. Would that be attractive? Would people be drawn to a church which bumbled along with minimum effort and asked for zero commitment? In my curacy parish there was an excellent choir. The demands on children were high – they were expected to attend and practice. There were rewards, ribbons, badges. They put a lot in and got a lot out.


Nobody wants to be part of an organisation which is a bit shabby because it’s run on a shoestring, or a church where you can be on the rota but nobody really minds if you don’t rock up to do your bit. Surely it’s better to belong to a church which encourages you to give your best, which has great plans even if people are challenged to give 10% of their income? What we see in our society is that people are drawn to quality, even if that asks a significant amount of them.


I don’t want to be a one talent, hide it in the ground sort of person. I don’t want our churches to be like that. I want to be the kind of person who does something with their talent. Whether it’s five, three or one, I want to grow, I want to be stretched through the risky process of putting talents to work. I want to step out in that journey with a God who honours our willingness to be used by him.


God knows we will not always get it right. God knows that we will learn through failures as well as success. God does not need us to be perfectionist. We’re not trying to earn salvation, find our way into God’s favour by doing things for him. What does Paul say in v. 9? ‘God has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ He died for us, so that whether awake or asleep we might live with him.


If we trust in Christ, our destiny is secure. If we believe Jesus has died for us, we need not fear the end. If we trust him for forgiveness, we are not fearfully looking over our shoulders. We can live our lives freely, making the most of our talents, being ambitious for him. Amen

Matthew 24:1-14

As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Caribbean in September, one group of people knew exactly what to do. Richard Branson, his family and his staff headed down into the wine cellar of his luxury retreat on Necker Island. Underground, not sure if they would survive, they did the obvious thing and started on the high quality contents of the cellar. I imagine them emerging after many hours, bleary eyed in the bright sunlight and taking in the devastation around.


Branson can rebuild, but others have lost everything. Fair play to him though, despite media interest he insisted the story was not about his experience but about the thousands of poor people in the British Virgin Islands who had lost homes and livelihoods.


I wonder how we would react in a similar situation? What would you do if you thought it might be your last few hours on earth? Some people eat drink and be merry; some might take the chance to do something they’d always wanted to do; others might tell those most precious to them of their love, or feel the need to make their peace with God.


Those range of reactions will be familiar to us from any number of disaster movies. It may be floods and giant waves, alien invasion, asteroids or flesh munching zombies – whatever the peril our culture seems to be fascinated with end of the world scenarios.


I wonder why that is? Do those apocalyptic films address some kind of deep fear within us? Of chaos bubbling up? An anxiety that our complex society is actually rather precarious? That despite all our knowledge and technology we are still not in control of our lives? Do we perhaps instinctively know that there will be an end, that we shall eventually stand before God and be accountable to him?


It is after all a common theme in the Bible – that God will one day create a new heaven and a new earth. From the Old Testament to the Book of Revelation there is this great promise.

Our broken world will not always be this way. God will destroy all that harms his creation. There will be an end to sickness, pain, death and evil. Which is bad news for those who cling to evil – part of this renewal is the judgement when every person is accountable to God for their sin. Those who cling to evil will be swept away with it, but there’s a great hope for those who trust in Christ to be forgiven and start again.


People in Jesus’ time were not that different from us. They too thought about earth-shattering events, the end of the world as they knew it.

Look at verse 1 in our reading. The disciples were simple country types from Galilee. They were overawed by the huge buildings of Jerusalem; the vast white stones weighing over a hundred tonnes each. Herod’s temple was so grand that even the little spikes to keep off the pigeons were plated with gold. But Jesus is not so impressed, in v.2:


‘Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another, all will be thrown down’. Barely thirty years later this prediction came true. Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in a lengthy siege. With much suffering the city fell, and the temple was burnt to the ground. All that remains is a layer of stones at the bottom of the Wailing Wall.


For the disciples such an appalling event, the destruction of God’s own temple, could mean only one thing. Surely the end of the world must follow? How could the world carry on without Jerusalem? Without the temple? So they want to know, in verse 3: ‘Tell us when will this be, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’


But notice how Jesus doesn’t give them the answer they’re looking for. He pointedly doesn’t give them a date – in fact in v.36 he says ‘About that day or hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.’ Only God knows when this will happen. Jesus also refuses to give the disciples clues, precise signs that will allow them to work out that the end is just about to happen. Instead Jesus tells us how to live our lives in the meantime.

It’s all very practical. Keep faithful. Don’t be panicked by events in the world around. Endure persecution. Stay steady to the end. Don’t waste time on speculation but live in readiness for Christ, whenever he comes.


After all, if we knew when our time would come, if we knew how long the earth had left, would it change human behaviour? And if so, for better or for worse? I read an interesting novel over half-term. It’s called ‘Numbers’ and it’s all about a teenage girl who has what I suppose you would call a psychic ability. Whenever this girl looks into someone’s eyes she sees the date when they will die. So how does she react? Does she tell them? Do they believe her? Can they change the future? And if she tries to change the future, do those new events just lead to what was going to happen anyway?


It’s a fascinating idea. If we knew when Jesus was coming back and it was a long time, would people’s love grow cold? If it’s a short time, would people change their behaviour? But then if it’s right to live a certain way, surely it’s right to do that whether the timescale is long or short? Would knowing make a difference? Should it?


It doesn’t stop people trying though. The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted it in 1920, and then again for 1975. The predictions keep on coming from all over.


So the first thing Jesus says in verses 4 and 5 is: Don’t be taken in. Many false Messiahs will come, many people will be deceived by cults which claim to have found secret codes. I’m amazed it keeps on happening because Jesus says very clearly that if anyone tells you the date, don’t believe them! The new creation will happen one day, in God’s good time. Jesus affirms what the rest of the Bible teaches. He says there will be a judgement, and a new beginning. But it will come at a time we will not expect. Don’t waste your life reading Nostradamus!


Secondly, Jesus says: don’t be alarmed by what is going on in the world. I wonder if you’ve heard of the Doomsday Clock? This is an imaginary clock in which midnight represents global human-made catastrophe – nuclear war and the like. How close the minute hand is to midnight represents how bad the situation is. Anyone like to guess where we are at the moment? Apparently it’s two and a half minutes to midnight, up from 14 minutes to midnight at the end of the Cold War, and the second worse it’s ever been, after the year in which hydrogen bombs were first tested.


Whether that’s an objective assessment of risk, I don’t know, but it certainly says a lot about society’s anxiety levels. What does Jesus say? In verse 6: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but don’t be alarmed for this must take place, but the end is not yet.’ He’s not at all saying that we shouldn’t care about these events; he’s certainly not saying that we shouldn’t do everything in our power to prevent famine and climate change. Compassionate Christians have to act. We have to bring these things to God in prayer. We will feel the pain of our world!


Yet almost every generation has fallen into the trap of thinking that their times are so bad that they are unique, that there is no hope, or that the end is nigh. Jesus teaches us to be hopeful, to trust in God. God’s plan is not derailed. As he says in verse 7: ‘Nation will rise against nation, all this is but the beginning of birth pains.’


An important image to hang on to. Birth pains are not much fun – so I’m told. At the time they’re all encompassing. Afterwards, the pain is forgotten in the joy of a new life. What comes afterwards should make it all worthwhile. Keep that picture in mind as we look at the last few verses in our reading.


In verse 9 to 12 Jesus tells his disciples to stand firm, to keep faithful, even in the midst of persecution. Opposition, violence, even execution were a reality for those disciples. Jesus wanted them to be prepared.

Christians today in many parts of the world suffer for their faith. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to own a Bible or a crucifix. In Pakistan recently a schoolboy was beaten to death by his classmates because he was the only Christian in school. We must remember our brothers and sisters in the suffering church, pray for them, give to the charities that support them.


We too should be prepared – the words of Jesus envisage that faithful Christians could be persecuted anywhere. In our society we need discernment. We need wisdom to see clearly those things on which we cannot compromise, as opposed to fighting battles which make Christians look ridiculous or legalistic.


As Jesus says in verse 13, ‘anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.’ Therefore be confident because your time is in God’s hand. Your lifespan, the world’s existence, is held by God. The end, the new beginning will come, in God’s good time. For the good news must be preached to all nations.


So do not worry, but be faithful and consistent. Stay in the grace of Christ, keep on using the means of grace he has given us. Pray, meet together, worship, serve. For in so doing we work with God’s plan, and we wait for that day when his plan is gloriously fulfilled. Amen.

Arts Festival at Harvest Time. John 15:1-11

When I think of an artist, my grandfather always comes to mind. Les Swann had always enjoyed drawing – I still have a pen and ink sketch that he drew of Hyderabad Cathedral during his wartime service. He used his demob grant to train as an art teacher. Being head of art in all-boys secondary school meant that he was both competent in all sorts of media, and a lethal shot whether with a cricket ball or board rubber.

He seemed to be able to turn his hand to anything, from oil paintings of abandoned tin mines, to orders of service for funerals. These leaflets, in the days before photocopying would be pressed out individually in the garden shed using an ancient raised type printer. It took me some time to realise that the pictures and floral patterns round the edge were not mere embellishment to the words within – they were just as much part of the message, the medium conveying an overall impression.

The Christian doctrine of Creation is similar. It appears at first sight to be focussed on words. ‘Let there be light and there was light.’ ‘In the beginning was the Word and the word was God and the word was with God’. The beginning of John’s gospel gives us the belief that God the Father creates the world through God the Son. Not yet incarnate as Jesus, God the Son in creation is called, in the original Greek, the logos which is often translated Word. It would misleading though to think that Word exhausts the meaning of what God is doing in creation. As if God speaks the universe into being and that is it. Logos means so much more.

For the creative work continues, God is intimately involved in his creation. The glories of the world that we see around us: its beauty, diversity, exuberance, are all part of the gift of God and bear witness to his creativity. So art is not just a useful way of making a point which could be more concisely put in words – rather art is part of God’s self-revelation to us. Art is not mere illustration – it can reveal part of God. Christianity without art would be deeply impoverished. As we are creative, as we allow our artistic gifts to develop, we can draw close to God.

When I remember my grandparents’ house, for some reason I always picture the stairs. They had one of those carpets that you never see nowadays, you know the ones that don’t quite cover the tread of each stair. Half-way up was a large window, which flooded the hallway with light, and on the window sill were several pots. One in particular deeply impressed me: large secretary birds stomped round it in an eternal quest for prey. I wonder how many tries it took my grandfather to get that pot right?

Watching a potter work is an engrossing experience. I find it fascinating how a pot emerges like a living organism from a featureless lump of clay. Yet forming a pot is much more than an idea in the potter’s mind becoming embodied. As if he thinks and does. Instead there’s almost a conversation between the clay and the potter – the texture and density of the clay will affect the type of pot that can be made. Small imperfections will be smoothed out, variations in the spinning speed may alter the final design.


It is the same with our relationship to God in creation. As the prophet Jeremiah observed, if God is like the potter then we are like the clay. Trusting ourselves into his hands, we are moulded into the image he wants us to be, fully expressing the potential that lies within. God’s work in us does not involve extinguishing our personality – quite the opposite, as God works with the clay of which our character is formed. We can trust his perfect design.

In the act of Creation, God makes something that is not himself. The God who is everywhere, in a sense has to limit himself so that there is the space for other beings to exist. That self-restricting act gives us freedom. God makes the space which gives us the ability to fulfil God’s destiny for us, or to turn away, as the case may be.

Sometimes the potter gives a little sigh, and before you realise what is happening, has collapsed the pot into a ball and started again. So it is with us: our mistakes may mar the design, but there is always the chance to turn back to God, repent and begin again.

Something similar is happening in our reading from John’s Gospel Chapter 10. The gardener goes along the vine, pruning, sometimes so alarmingly hard that we wonder: can the plant ever survive? He knows what he is doing, and the next year the harvest is abundant.

As Jesus says in verse 2: ‘He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch in me that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ There is a cost in fulfilling our greatest potential: distractions must be pruned away, unworthy vices rubbed off, selfishness cut out. This is not done against our will, we must give our permission, desire to be what we cannot in our own strength.

For the ability to be transformed comes from the grace of God, and this power, this energy, arises from within the vine itself. From Christ who is our root and stem. As he says in verse 5: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ As the creative logos, he is the source of the life within us. His divine power gives us all we need.

So what does it mean to abide in him? How can that be a reality for us? Abiding in Christ means a conscious turning to him. Wishing to be what we can be through the gift of God, hoping to fulfil the destiny he has for us. As we do so, his spirit enters in and we become aware of the signs of his love within us.

Abiding in Christ involves an action. It will mean making the space through stillness, silence and prayer, in which we can respond to his Holy Spirit. Letting him prune away all that does not bring life, and allowing the fruit to grow as we look beyond ourselves to others. Abiding in Christ our creativity reaches its fullest expression. But above all, his creativity, his life, his wondrous power finds its expression within us. Amen.


Two sons

Learning to help is part of growing up. It teaches children responsibility and new skills. I was thinking this the other day when I was holding a step ladder against the shed while 8 year old hands manipulated a hammer alarming close to my head. It may have taken longer than if I did it, but I’m proud she can now knock in roofing tacks.


And as they get older, the help that’s offered becomes really useful. Picking, gathering, tidying takes less time than it once did. Garden jobs particularly are good for children. In Biblical times the whole family was involved in farming, there was always something to do and everyone had to lend a hand particularly during the Harvest.


Nowadays farm machinery can do the job of many people – a couple of weeks ago we were spreading gravel over a church car park and it was set to take all day until the farmer turned up. Many hands make light work – especially if one of them is driving a big green bulldozer. Nowadays the village where I live has a population of 850, with maybe a dozen working on the land. In the year 1386 the population was 1500 – almost all of whom would have been peasant farmers.


It was like that in Biblical times, which is why so many of Jesus parables are about farming. When we think of vineyards, like the one that’s mentioned in our gospel reading, I guess we think of wine? But they were important for raisins too – vitamins through the winter months and a food that could be carried around. Any surplus above the family’s needs would be a useful source of income. So the father needs his sons to do their bit.


What follows is a familiar scenario: the workman who turn up keen to get the job, quotes a sensible price in good time, yet when it comes to it just cannot be found. And then on the other hand there’s the child who sulks when asked to help with the washing up, buries his head in the ipad, only to appear suddenly at your side with tea towel in hand.


The moral in the Gospel reading from Matthew 21:23-32 is clear: Actions speak louder than words. We can huff and puff all we like, but we’ll be judged on the basis of what we do.



That’s why Amazon and eBay are so big on. Those little gold stars allow us to cut through the advertisers’ waffle and see if they really deliver. Jesus said ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’ – not by their disclaimers! We confess what we believe with our mouths, but you can tell it’s real by how we live our lives.


It’s easy to say that ‘Actions speak louder than Words.’ Hard to put into practice. We have to make choices, be consistent. Recently I’ve been looking at getting a new car. I want to minimise my carbon emissions, I talk about the environment quite a bit. So I have I gone for the smallest car with the least polluting engine? Well not quite. There’s more va va voom then there would be if all I was looking at was green credentials. I can at least take comfort in the fact that newer technology means it’s less damaging than my old Skoda.


With that kind of example, legislation helps. Recycling is a faff if you’re the only one doing it, but if there are good facilities and provision for everyone it becomes second nature. You may have noticed that Wiltshire council have a recycling questionnaire online – do fill it in! Virtue is much easier if everyone’s doing it, if there are incentives to do the right thing.


Or is that just an excuse? The human heart is devious – we can fail to notice our own hypocrisy – when we say one thing but do another. We can become hypocritical when we justify ourselves, or when we give reasons why in our particular case there’s a good exemption. Or sometimes it’s just a lack of self-awareness. I knew someone who was always offering to host a church social, or do some paperwork. But it never happened. I don’t think she did it on purpose, she wasn’t deceiving or trying to look good. I just think she didn’t recognise the gap between what she wanted to do and was actually able to undertake.


Strangely though, the people Jesus takes aim at are the religious leaders. Some of them were Pharisees, who made it their life’s work to create a society where doing the right thing was easier. They laid down clear boundaries between right and wrong, they looked at the grey areas and decided what you could and couldn’t do. The Pharisees really tried to support one another in living out their approach to Jewish faith.


But in the first part of our reading, verses 23-27 they are challenging Jesus. ‘Who gave you authority to do this?’ they ask about his teaching in the temple. Not a bad question, although one might ask them the same thing –who gave you authority to judge? Instead Jesus asks them ‘What about John the Baptist? Where did his authority come from?’


Instantly, their hypocrisy is revealed. For, as they say in v.25, ‘if we say from heaven, he will ask ‘Why didn’t you believe him then?’ But if we say ‘From Earth’, then all the crowd will stone us, because they believe that John was a prophet’


You see what has happened? Nobody thought to answer with their actual opinion. Maybe they think John the Baptist was a prophet – but if so why didn’t they listen to him? More likely they think John was a liar. If so, say so. But they can’t, because they fear the consequences. Either they will look foolish and concede a debating point to Jesus, or they will lose the support of the crowd. So, lamely, they respond ‘We don’t know’.


How did the chief priests and elders end up like that? What went wrong? The great flaw in their approach is that if you lay down clear boundaries between right and wrong, it’s easy to think that you’ve done your duty. Anyone can legislate for ritual but it’s much harder to legislate for kindness. The Pharisees even gave a tenth of your herbs. That’s an easily measurable outcome – but forgiving someone who sins against you is fuzzier. Compassion isn’t a legal thing.


So outward observance became the principle. Rather like the cornerstone issues in American politics today: many conservative Christians voted for Donald Trump because he held a traditional position on abortion – regardless of anything else he said or did.


Hypocrisy can easily happen when we focus on easily measured outcomes. Or when believing the right thing is more important than living with love and kindness. That is a particular challenge for the church today: our society is extremely sensitive to anything which is perceived as judgemental. No amount of right belief will count for anything in the eyes of the world if the church is experienced as unloving. We have to work very hard to demonstrate the love of God.


But let’s also be clear what hypocrisy is and what it isn’t. Hypocrisy is not falling short, making mistakes. It is not hypocrisy when we say: ‘This is what I believe I am meant to do. I try to do it. I don’t always get it right. But I repent, God forgives me and I try again.’ That’s not hypocrisy. That’s admitting that we fail to live up to our standards. If we recognise our imperfection, if we are open about how we struggle to get it right in a broken world, if we show that we depend on God’s grace then that gets over a truly Christian message about forgiveness.


That’s why Jesus praises the tax collectors and the prostitutes in verse 31. They know their need of God and are returning to him. They are aware of their sin, they’re not trying to cover it up, but they repent and God forgives them. Jesus isn’t saying that God is comfortable with sin, he’s not arguing that these people don’t need to change. After all in the parable of the two sons Jesus did say that the second son had disobeyed his father at first. What Jesus is doing is praising the humility of the tax collector who prayed ‘Lord have mercy on me a sinner’. God can work with their self-knowledge, their obedience in the end – ultimately that they turn to God because they know their need.


Nonetheless it seems to me that there is a still better way. How often have you had to cancel an event because not enough people have signed up – only to get a flurry of enquiries about tickets? Or have you ever decided that you can’t go out after all, cancelled your table – and the very next minute the babysitter finally sends the text you’d been waiting for? Surely it is best of all to say ‘Yes’ to God – and obey.


Ideally, let’s aim for the outward ‘yes’ and the following action. The willingness to serve God and the ability to do it. Jesus is realistic, he knows that much of the time we can’t manage that, but he tells this parable as an invitation: to repentance, to come back to God and to start again. Amen.



I wonder if anyone has ever complained to you? If you work in a service industry, or in education you probably get it all the time. Some people’s jobs are all about dealing with complaints – it’s euphemistically called the Customer Service Department.


You may be surprised to hear it happens in church too. I found an interesting bit of informal research on Twitter. Someone had asked church leaders to send in the strangest complaints they’d ever received – here is a selection:

          Our expensive coffee is attracting too many trendy people

          You need to change your voice

          We need to start attracting more normal people at church

          Your wife never compliments me about my hair or dress


Fortunately I’ve never had any of those comments made to me. But I’m sure that you can think of things that have been said to you that are equally ridiculous. Dealing with complaining is a part of life, and often it seems to go in phases.


You’d imagine that there’s more moaning in a community when life is hard. Oddly though the Exodus reading we’ve just heard happened very soon after the highest point, the pivotal event in the Old Testament – the Exodus itself. God rescued his people from slavery, he judged the Egyptians, he brought the Israelites through the Red Sea. All these incredible things had happened – but then people started to complain.


Maybe it’s the feeling of let down after the most amazing events. Whenever there’s a high, you have to come back down to earth, and sometimes that can be with a jolt. You get a new car, and it’s wonderful at first, and then you start finding little flaws. I find with medical crises that Adrenaline can sustain you through difficult times, but oddly it’s when the crisis has passed and life is slowly returning to normal that it can be most difficult. One of our churches is enjoying a wonderfully reordered new building right now – you just have to go and see it, it’s a glorious space, there’s so much to be thankful for. 


There will be a point though where that church has to get to grips with the routines and costs of a new building, there will be a realisation that the church’s mission and outreach must carry on – we can’t just rely on a new-build to do the work for us.


That jolt of reality is natural, and I think that we also have to remember that as human beings we can be quite extreme in our views and reactions. I suspect that from God’s perspective it’s never as bad as we sometimes think it is, and this side of heaven it’s never as triumphant either! Do you know Kipling’s poem If? I find it rather too Stoic in its emotional detachment, but on this particular point he hits the nail on the head: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same’ – with a healthy scepticism.


Moses and Aaron certainly keep their head when all around them are losing theirs. Their response is a model of how we should act when faced with complaint and criticism, in whatever situation:


Firstly, they entrust it to God. They don’t try and solve it in their own strength. When we’re criticised we can give as good as we get or bark back with self-justification – and only once the situation has deteriorated turn to God in prayer. But here God tells Moses and Aaron what to do, they do it, and they give him the glory in front of the people.


Secondly they pay attention to God, and then if it’s right to do they address the complaint – how easy it is to modify what we do! We need to listen to what’s being said, if someone makes the effort to give feedback they need to know they’ve been heard, but we also need to have courage to stick to our course if it is undoubtedly the right thing to do.


Thirdly, Moses and Aaron find their identity in God in verse 7: ‘who are we that you complain against us?’ Moses had learnt the hard way that he alone could not save the Israelites. He had killed an Egyptian slave-master – and spent 40 years in the wilderness. Now he has learnt: his identity is not rooted in being a saviour, in solving all their problems. He does not depend on others for his self-worth. 

Whatever our role, whatever kind of authority we exercise, we need to know who we are in the eyes of God – accepted, loved, forgiven by him. His child first and foremost. When grounded in that identity as a child of God then we won’t be tempted to create our own identity or seek refuge in one made for us by others.


So far I’ve been speaking as if you and I identify with Moses and Aaron. But what if we’re the crowd? What if we’re the grumblers? Do we ever make life difficult for those in authority over us? I find it so easy to complain about such and such that ‘the diocese’ has done – but ‘the Diocese’ is always people. Do we complain to God about the task, or the people he has entrusted to our care? Do we need to repent and change? I guess that at various times in our lives each one of us can be Moses. And each one of us can be in the crowd.


God is incredibly gracious. Remarkably often he responds to complaint in a loving way. Think of the book of Job: Job has lost his flocks, his wealth, his family and his health. He complains bitterly to God – but God answers. Indeed God even affirms that ‘Job has spoken rightly of me!’ Job’s complaint was born out of faith. He believed God was good, and held on in prayer. There is a long history of Biblical, faithful complaint to God.


So when is complaining not faithful but just whinging? An unhelpful grumble. Perhaps it’s when it’s trivial. Like the person who really did say to a minister: ‘The loo roll in the ladies is the wrong way round. It’s rolled under.’ More significantly, it’s the tone that makes it a whinge or a workaround.


There’s a world of difference between ‘Why do we never have hymns we know?’ and ‘For Pentecost, could we have such and such?’ One just creates a problem and dumps it on someone else. The other owns the problem, shares concern and offers to work together in solving it.


I suppose the Israelites could have prayed to God rather than complain to Moses. If they weren’t sufficiently familiar with this God to pray, perhaps they could have said to Moses: ‘This God who can bring locusts and part the Sea, do you think he could give us some food?’


Firstly God answers in a natural way – the swarm of quails is a recognised desert phenomenon. And for me that’s a source of hope. God is gracious.

He responds to our needs. Indeed, the complaining leads to action. God in his love responds to their needs. Secondly, he answers in a miraculous way, through the manna.


But the manna will be a training experience for Israel. There are hints in this chapter of what will come later – elaborate instructions for when the Israelites can gather manna and when not. Why not give them enough for a week? Why have to go out gather each day? To learn that we must do our bit in order to work with God. So pray for healing, and keep taking the tablets. Pray for revival, and spread the word. Why gather twice as much for the day before the Sabbath? To learn obedience and trust in God. To learn that God will provide throughout the day of rest.


I wonder if you know anyone who has a tiny baby? Just a few weeks old? Watch that baby next time you meet them. Look at how the baby gazes at its mother, clearly believing that Mummy is all capable, all knowing. But listen to what happens when baby is hungry – the yelling and sobbing, the desperation, the urgency. And that’s just the parents!


A very little baby has to learn that its needs will be provided for. When it is really tiny it doesn’t understand that – so when baby feels hungry it is the end of the world. As the baby grows he learns to trust his parents, he realises that food will come, nappy will be changed. He discovers that Mummy and Daddy are reliable and that where they have been faithful in the past, they will be faithful again.


The Israelites had to learn that about this God who had rescued them. Maybe we too need to learn what it means to trust God. If he has been faithful to us in the past, we can trust him for the future. If the way has seemed dark but God knew what he was doing, surely the same is true today. If we seek guidance, if we need resources, if we want resilience, turn to God. For he is faithful.