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.

 

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Walking on water

Everything seems peaceful as the gospel story begins. It’s been an amazing day – Jesus has fed the 5000. But now everything is calming down. It’s a lovely evening on the Sea of Galilee. After the excitement, Jesus goes off to pray and the disciples get into their boats. But Galilee is infamously treacherous. Desert air rises, storms sweep in from the surrounding hills. Wind and waves batter the boat far from land. Jesus walks out to them. Now the disciples panic – is it a ghost? Jesus reassures. Peter goes out to meet him. He doubts. It all goes horribly wrong. Jesus reaches out his hand and catches him

It seems to be calling us to faith – to be like Peter, to step out in faith – to keep our eyes on Jesus and not to be distracted by the storms that come our way. Yet if the tempests of life should overwhelm, Christ is alongside, able to rescue us when we call out to him

I remember seeing this story in a French seaside church on the Ile de Re. The painting covered an entire wall, with life sized figures. The theme’s been done a thousand times. But this one was different. I was deeply moved by it. For the disciples were real people

You know the kind of art you get in churches, where Jesus’ followers are identikit middle aged men with plain but well balanced features, and costume out of Victorian central casting. Instantly forgettable. These guys were real, they had lined weather beaten faces, individual hair, craggy features, warts and all. St. Peter particularly could only have been a portrait. I’m prepared to bet that someone in that village had paid for the painting. Perhaps it was a fisherman giving thanks for salvation after a storm. Perhaps we might see him walking down the street. Someone there was saying ‘I was Peter’.

 

I wonder. Have you been Peter? Have you have felt solidity vanishing under your feet? Have you seen everything you trusted in giving way? Have you felt yourself slipping beneath the surface, when the pressures of life overwhelm? Have you reached rock bottom, where all you can do is cry out ’Lord, save me’?

If so, then maybe you will have known also the hand of Christ. Sometimes we only find him when we have nothing left to cling to and there’s no alternative. But when you turn to him, he holds on to you. You may feel his strength keeping you up. You may not feel anything – but he is there. He will not let go of you

I’ve certainly felt like that at times this past year. With so much going on: the media campaign, being Area Dean, it can at times feel overwhelming. I cannot do it in my own strength. But God’s strength supplies all that I need. I just have to learn to be out there in the deep end, trusting in God.

Maybe you’ve known that love of God. That sustaining power. Or maybe you need it now. Don’t forget that Christ is there, that he loves you. Don’t be afraid to receive his help. Don’t leave it to the last minute to call out. Bring your needs to him in prayer

This has become a much loved miracle, speaking to many people.  What we can forget though is that this wasn’t some great misfortune which happened to Peter. He got himself into it. He was the bright spark who thought it might be a good idea to jump out of a wallowing rowing boat in the middle of a storm. He thought he might be able to walk over water. In verse 28 he said to Jesus: ‘Lord if it’s you, command me to come to you on the water

What amazing faith! Peter says ‘Lord, if you want me to do the impossible, I’ll do it. In fact, that’s the way I’ll know it’s you, because only you would ask me to

Do we see amazing things? Do we challenge God to call us further? One of the things I really like about our churches is that people do step out in faith. Someone said: Let’s reorder the North Aisle and start a new service.. Let’s hold a stewardship appeal as we’re coming out of the worst recession in decades

‘Let’s employ a children’s worker.’ It happened. The grants came in. Do you know that during the time the charity that has been supporting our children’s worker donated about £50,000 to the project but investment performance mean their reserves have only gone down by about £10,000. God is good

Bonkers? Or faith? All those things were thought about carefully. All of them were prayed through. The difficulties may have seemed vast, but people stepped out in faith.

If you want to see great things happen, then be like Peter. Throw down the gauntlet to God. Here I am Lord, send me. Let me know what you want and I’ll do it. I believe Lord that when you call a man or woman you give them what they need

In verses 29-30: So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on water and came to Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind he became frightened, and beginning to sink he called out ‘Lord save me’.

Initial enthusiasm is great. Then you must keep going. Once he’s far enough from the boat to be alone, Peter begins to waver. He gets into trouble. It often happens when you set off in faith. I remember well when after five years planning the church reordering quotations came back. Even the lowest was twice what the PCC expected. Suddenly we were in trouble. We had to turn to God again

Living faith can be like that. We set off; full of enthusiasm, strong in the strength Christ gives. But once out of the safety zone, problems arise. There may be opposition, resolve falters. Then we need to turn to Christ anew. We need to learn through experience that he will provide. Perseverance despite opposition grows our faith.

When he saves Peter, in v.31, Jesus says ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ Why do we doubt? Because when the waves grow high, when the darkness clouds us in, Christ seems hid from view. Or is he?

Is it like Peter in v.30? Is it that we notice the strong wind, we focus on the problem, and we forget the Lord?

I’m not criticizing. I’ve been there. I remember when the time came for me to leave my curacy, you have a year to try and find a job. Sounds plenty! But I was young, inexperienced, in those days no-one wanted to take the risk. It was beginning to get really worrying and I started applying for ever more unsuitable posts. I’d forgotten that God was alongside me, that he had a plan. He often leaves it to the last minute. But when it came it was what he’d been planning all along.

The wind and the waves are so distracting. The problems can be like little goblins gibbering away in your face. You have to put them to one side. You have to make a conscious effort to focus on God. To look to him first, and then to lay down the problems at his feet

Now someone may be thinking: wouldn’t it be a lot easier to stay in the boat? Perhaps it would. But think what you’d be missing! What you wouldn’t achieve. How you wouldn’t grow. How much of knowing Jesus you’d miss out on. To be able to walk on water you have to step out of the boat

Christ calls us to follow him, wherever he goes. But we should be aware that getting out of the boat is only the beginning. We need persistence and the ability to keep fixed on Jesus. Even if we do get into difficulties – and if we try and do anything worthwhile, there will be problems – even if we do get into difficulties, Christ will save. 

He can do this because he is God. And I think that is the main point of the story. Although we tend to identify with Peter and the imaginative use of the story, nevertheless, Matthew’s emphasis is clear. Right at the end, the disciples are overwhelmed. They say: ‘Truly, you are the Son of God’. That’s what Matthew wants us to know. And it’s the same for the other Evangelists. Neither Mark nor John relate the incident with Peter – the main point for them is that Jesus walked on water. It is, pure and simple, a proof of divinity. The miracle was yet another piece of evidence that Jesus is divine

That, incidentally, is why you can’t explain away the miracle. Granted, it’s not an easy one to believe. And apologies if you’ve been sat here throughout the sermon thinking, ‘yes but did it really happen?

There have plenty of attempts to rationalize the miracle. For instance:  some say Jesus only appeared to be walking on water – he was actually walking by the lake! Going for an amble on solid ground. Or: Jesus wasn’t walking on the waves, there was a handily submerged mudflat, just so deep beneath the surface! As if it’s possible to walk securely on a submerged mudflat in the middle of a storm! Today, you too can walk on water. You can go to Lake Galilee, and for a few shekels you can wander about on a plastic sheet suspended in the lake. Hey presto, walking on water!

It’s bonkers! The gospel writers were not crazy. Those experienced fishermen would not have been fooled by Magic Circle tricks. When the gospel writers recorded this, they believed there were describing a miracle. They weren’t daft, they knew walking on water doesn’t happen unless it’s God. It’s evidence that Jesus is divine.

We can take it or leave it. We could believe it because if he were God then he could do that. Or some people disbelieve it and I suppose they have to say the evangelists made it up, created a myth with a spiritual meaning. The problem with believing it’s a just symbolic myth is that you end up with a spiritual meaning disconnected from physical fact.

But what you can’t do is water it down and take the meaning out of it. If you do, you end up with something that probably didn’t happen like that anyway, wasn’t what the Evangelists intended and is still pretty incredible.

The point of the miracle is that Jesus saved Peter. He saved Peter and was able to do so because he is the divine Son of God. He can intervene in our lives because he is the Son of God. And so we do all become Peter. Our own lives, our trials and tribulations are reflected in that dark and stormy night. Each one of us is the willing but fallible disciple. We too are full of enthusiasm one moment and doubting and fear stricken the next. And each one of us is also the disciple saved by Christ – the hands of Jesus reaching out and taking hold of us. So we too can know the wonder and love of the disciples. We too can exclaim with renewed faith: ‘Truly you are the Son of God’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vocation 5, Ezekiel 3 and Matt 28

Ezekiel left the refugee camp behind and stood on the banks of the River Kebar. Grand name for an unpleasant reality.  The drainage ditch was filthy, polluted with a scum of green algae and unspeakable things. Gloomily he stared at the water and felt utterly miserable. His life was pointless. Messed up, and there was no going back.

What is a priest supposed to do without a temple? A servant of the Lord far away from the Lord’s land? Ezekiel’s 30th birthday was meant to be the high point, the time when he could begin the ministry for which he had spent his life training. But the Babylonians had come. War, capture, and now exile. In the prime of his life, Ezekiel’s future was forced labour. He’d missed his vocation. He was far from home. What a waste.

To cap it all a storm was brewing in the North, and fat raindrops began to fall. Turning for shelter, he looked back at the black cloud – and saw visions of God. As it says in Ezekiel 1 v1 ‘In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened and I saw visions of God.’

It may be obscure, but this is one of my favourite verses in the Bible. Because it says that no matter where I am, no matter what awful things are going on around me, no matter how much I may have messed up – God is there. However veiled it may be, his glory is ready to be revealed. The sovereign Lord is present and he is in ultimate control.

Ezekiel realised God was there. Even by the river Chebar God was there. When all hope had fled, God showed Ezekiel that he is still Lord, that he rules. It was the beginning of something new: a prophetic ministry that brought Israel back to their God; a call to repentance; the rebirth of Judaism.

Up until that point the Jewish people had more or less gone along with the idea that each nation had their own god. And that each nation and god had their own territory, the place where they belonged. Of course, they knew the God of Israel could defeat the gods of Egypt. But Ezekiel discovered something new: that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. He’s not restricted to one place – he is everywhere.

In the gospel, Jesus similarly tells us all authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. For those who have eyes to see it, God’s glory is potentially everywhere. Not just in the temple, or the Holy Land, but here in life and joy, the beauty of creation all around us, the love of family and friends. We can be aware of God when we stop and pray, we sense his presence in a holy place. But Jesus means more than this.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve had to learn is that is often most known in times of trial. In the hardest moments of my life I have felt God more closely than in the times of blessing. He is alongside us in pain and suffering. In our darkness, when we experience difficulty, we can find God. Isn’t that the message of the cross on Passion Sunday? That God enters human suffering and we can find him in the midst of it? The cross gives us the deepest insight into God’s heart. For God cares about his world, and calls us to work with him in putting it right.

This is the final sermon in our series on vocation. So far we’ve thought about how God calls everyone to himself, adult or child – we are all called; how God uses our gifts, and how we may have to overcome our reluctance to respond. Today we’re looking at how God calls us to serve him in the world. The call of Ezekiel in Chapter 3 tells us that people may or may not listen to God’s message – but fear of that reaction should not hold us back. And, when we witness to Christ we must be rooted in God and genuinely caring for the people we serve.

Look at v.4. ‘Mortal go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them.’ Right at the beginning of this series, I said that the most important thing in calling was that we are called personally to know God. I said that being called is not about doing a job, but about being in a relationship with God through Jesus. He wants us to know him.

It’s also true that the more we get to know God, the more we will share his love for his creation. It’s like a fire within us, his compassion will lead us to serve. So relationship with God is bound to make us look outwards. Christian faith must lead to practical service, a better world.

Ezekiel was given the job of conveying God’s words. So, in a general sense are we. We may not all be called to be evangelists or Bible teachers, but all Christians are called to bear witness to Jesus. We are meant to be lights in the world, and speak of our faith.

That’s what the church is for. In the gospel reading, Jesus sent the apostles out to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey everything he had commanded. The church continues that task and we all have a role to play. Lost for Words?

Like Ezekiel, that may meet with rejection. V.5-6 describe how Israel, who knew God, will not listen, even though those with foreign languages would. Do we not see that still today? In China, South Korea and Nepal, huge numbers are becoming Christians. England, with a long history of Christian faith, is resistant to the gospel.

But I don’t think we should over-emphasise that. I’ve found that many individuals are willing to listen and discuss. I had respectful discussions with atheists, good arguments with articulate Muslims. I find that Agnostics Anonymous is much appreciated – someone even travels from Bristol to join us. Younger people can often be very open because they haven’t had religion drilled into them. They really respond if they see a genuine faith that makes a difference in our lives.

So non-believers are not necessarily hostile. They may be searching for meaning, they often find alternative lifestyles interesting. One of the biggest traps is when we assume we won’t get a hearing, and so don’t speak. Often I have been pleasantly surprised.

When I became a curate my vicar said to me: ‘We’ve got these paperback gospels. Drop them into people’s letter boxes would you? It was some kind of evangelistic initiative. I didn’t even have to knock the door. Yet even such a timid effort with minimal contact brought a two people to a real faith. Any of us could do that, couldn’t we? It doesn’t need much courage to drop off the parish Christmas cards, or publicity.

But fear inhibits us. ‘Oh, I couldn’t speak about my faith’; or ‘I can’t do children’s work’. ‘What if I messed up?’ Well, what if? So it went wrong – at least no-one died. Put it down to experience and try again. Fear like that is a devil’s trick – he exaggerates the danger so we don’t share our faith. What really is the worst that can happen? Being seen as a religious nut? That pales in comparison with what Jesus did for us. Never forget that Matthew 28 is a resurrection appearance. Christ sends the disciples out to tell the story of a God who died to save us.

Christ’s love compels us. But we do have to acknowledge the fear we sometimes feel. We should bring those fears to God, praying he will take them away, or give us courage to overcome them. As he says to Ezekiel in v. 9. ‘Like the hardest stone I have made your forehead’. Like him we may feel that the concerns we had just evaporate, or we are given strength to carry on.

God also commands Ezekiel not to fear. Sometimes you just have to step out in faith and get on with it. For courage is not the absence of fear. John Wayne said ‘courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.’ So let’s take a chance, stick our necks out for God. It may well be that we get an encouraging response and something good happens – particularly if we’ve prayed beforehand.

Isn’t it encouraging that Jesus’ disciples doubted even when he appeared to them. How did they doubt? Did they wonder if it was really Jesus? Were they in two minds about whether he was actually alive or a vision? Or did they doubt the appropriateness of worshipping him?

The word for doubt is the same one that’s used when Peter gets out of the boat to walk on water, and then sees the wind and waves and gets scared. So doubt isn’t incompatible with faith. Nor does doubt necessarily stop us from being useful to Jesus. He told these doubting people to start the church! He used them for an enormous job. We may have doubts too. It doesn’t mean that we aren’t true Christians. Nor does it mean that God can’t use us.

So be encouraged to step out for God. Don’t be shy of speaking of your faith for fear that you don’t know all the answers, or have worries or doubts. Often a real story of faith, honestly told with times of joy and of sorrow and doubt can be much more compelling than one which is so confident that it sounds otherworldly.

And of course, what we do and say needs to be a fair reflection of God’s word. As it says in v.10 ‘Receive in your heart’ – God’s word must be true in our lives. We need to take it to heart. It’s said that a preacher always preaches to himself first. Anyone who tries to speak about God is not a mere mouthpiece nor a typewriter keyboard, conveying a message without understanding. Instead, we should be more like a dancer, who interprets and embodies the script. People instinctively know when the story doesn’t ring true. That’s why, in v 12 and 13, Ezekiel has visions of God, so he can reflect what he has seen. So use your own words to describe your faith, not Christian cliché. (LFW)

Unfortunately a spiritual high can be followed by a big comedown. We can’t spend forever up high in spiritual experience, you have to descend to the hurly burly of train tickets and the school run. It’s a shock. Sometimes people can be really bitter because there’s such a contrast between the joy of their conversion, and the hard work of being faithful to Christ day by day. There can even be anger at what we’ve been called to do. But that’s o.k. God’s big enough to cope when we bring it to him. Ezekiel describes it in v. 14 ‘I went in bitterness of Spirit’.

But the hand of the Lord was upon him. It was less obvious, but God’s presence was still there. If any of us are finding life hard, we should remember that. Present, not in felt glory, but present nonetheless.

Finally, in v.15 ‘I sat there among the exiles, stunned for seven days’. Ezekiel remained one of the people, he continued to share their lives. If he were just to speak God’s message with God’s fearlessness, he might have come over as condemning, unloving, hard. But he sat as one of them; as Jesus did, sharing our weakness, loving us, acting with compassion and praying to God for us. Anyone who would share their faith with friends and neighbours should be the same. Christians cannot set ourselves apart and criticise from a distance. We must sit among our people – one beggar telling another where to find bread.

So, God has called us to himself. That means we are also sent, from God’s presence, equipped with a vision of his glory and strengthened by his love and courage. In the words of Christ in the gospel: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

 

Vocation sermon 2

Genesis 41:15-36, Luke 12:35-38

Thanks to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is one of the best known stories from the Old Testament. It was even used by the BBC as a follow up to ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria.’ – where a group of hopefuls auditioned to play Joseph in a West End production.

So I’m guessing that the central story of Joseph is familiar: the spoilt dreamer who so wound up his brothers that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. He endured many difficulties and imprisonment, before we get to today’s passage, where we hear how his ability to interpret dreams saved Egypt from famine. And, in so doing, it also rescued from starvation his own family, with whom he eventually got reconciled.

Where the musical and film are different from the Bible story, is that they don’t recognise the part God played. In the Genesis account, it’s clear that God works everything together for the good, so that his people will survive. God looks after Joseph and protects him. And it’s clear too – as in v. 25b, that his dream interpretation is a gift from God.

It’s those gifts from God that I want to think about today in our second sermon in the Vocation series. Last week in the evening we looked at what vocation actually means. And fundamentally it’s not about your job. Vocation is bigger than being a priest, missionary or teacher. The key to vocation is that God calls you as a person. He calls you to know him individually. That’s the point. God doesn’t call us because he wants jobs to be done. He calls us because he wants us to be his friends. So don’t think about vocation as being about careers. Think about it as God’s call to you – have you responded? Do you continue to respond by spending time with him? Because he values time with you.

That’s why each of us has a vocation – everyone can be the person God wants us to be. He’s made us unique. He’s given us special gifts and interests – things that make us tick. They have been implanted by the Creator. And it’s part of our vocation to make the most of them.

We glorify God by what we are. Joseph did it through his dreams. Sometimes our gifts can be used in a clearly religious way. I read an article by an evangelist who reaches out to walkers in the Scottish Highlands. He had seen the job advertised and wasn’t sure whether or not to apply, so consulted a friend. ‘Richard,’ the friend said, ‘what sort of God do you believe in? One who wants you to do things you don’t enjoy? Or a God who wants you to flourish? Your two passions in life are hiking and bringing people to Christ. This job is made for you!’

In my curacy church, there was a man with learning difficulties. Couldn’t read. But he was a real people person, a great welcomer, and loved being useful. So he became a sidesman – and no-one ever took the offertory plate up with a greater sense of occasion.

Using our gifts doesn’t have to be stereotypically religious. Do you remember the film Billy Elliott? – about a boy from a mining community who has a natural ability to dance, and takes up ballet? Can that glorify God? Yes, I think it can, because whenever the gifts that God gives us are used well, then that is a glory to our Creator. It shows off the beauty and wisdom of his world.

So, if each of us has a vocation, and if that vocation can evolve over time, then it makes sense to be aware of it, to search for it. Where to look? Start with what you’re good at, the things you love. If there’s anything that you’re enthusiastic about, whether it’s astronomy, flower arranging, or writing, develop it, invest in it and see what happens.

Encourage your children or grandchildren to take up their interests. Of course, there may be a risk in this – their chosen career may not be as stable or as supportive as a parent might wish. But then, what do we value? Wealth or service? Success or fulfilment? I knew a man who was a great musician, but Father felt it was an unpredictable career, so he was pushed into an unhappy 9 to 5 at the bank. Taking up our vocation may have some sacrifices, but we’ll consider that next week.

Does vocation stay the same? Quite possibly not. A particular talent or interest may come into its own at a certain time and place. Joseph was called to be a son, which took him a long time to work out how to do well, and for a while it looked as if that vocation had died. He was called to be a good servant, until he was set up and thrown into prison where his vocation was to be a witness. Finally his gifts came into their own as an able administrator.

Today someone who chooses to marry takes on a vocation as a husband or wife, perhaps also parent. In younger years your vocation may take you abroad with a company, but later on you may be called to a change of career. Within a career, vocation develops. Many who are ordained come to that call later on in life – and I don’t think that means they were missing their purpose until that point. Vocations can evolve.

We may go through times when our talents seem unfulfilled. Early on we hear how the young Joseph had prophetic dreams in which the sun, moon and eleven stars bowing down to him. It’s pretty obvious that referred to his father mother and eleven brothers – that one day he would be greater than them. But it was perhaps unwise to share it! Early on, Joseph’s dreams just caused friction.

Only later, after the suffering of kidnap, slavery, false accusation, and imprisonment, did Joseph’s dreams really come into their own. Or perhaps his experiences gave him the wisdom to deal with them appropriately. It’s one thing having gifts, it’s quite another knowing how to use them. As someone said: ‘Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is actually a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.’

More seriously, it’s interesting that as Joseph’s gifts develop, he seems to become more dependent on God. He says God enables him to interpret dreams. How might we give God glory for our talents?

Furthermore, any ability can be used for good or for evil. A well known example: nuclear technology could power the world without carbon emissions, or it could blow us all up.

It’s down to humanity what we do with it. Gifts and talents are given by God to be used for the good, but people can twist them to wickedness.

There is a moral ambiguity about this in the story of Joseph. After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams he then displayed another gift. In verses 33 to 36 he advised Pharaoh on what to do about the looming famine. After all, Biblical prophecy is never given for idle curiosity, it was so that people could act upon it.

Sometimes, that’s so they can avert disaster by repentance. Here, in v32 says Joseph suggests they build up food reserves for hard times ahead. Pharaoh is so impressed with Joseph’s wisdom, that he gives Joseph the job of organising the plan. And so the original dreams of greatness are fulfilled, and Egypt is saved.

God uses this to bring healing in Joseph’s family too. Far away in Israel they are affected by the famine and come to buy grain, and after a complicated sequence of events, Joseph’s real identity becomes clear, he forgives his brothers, and the family move to Egypt permanently. So all’s well that ends well? Well, not quite. Later in the story In chapter 47 the famine is still ongoing…and then in verse 19b ‘the people said “buy us with our land in exchange for food. We with our land will become slaves to Pharaoh, just give us seed”. In times of plenty Joseph took the excess grain. In hard times he sold it back to the people – in exchange for their money, livestock, land, and very selves.

Power corrupts? Perhaps. Just following our God-given desires and developing our inbuilt talents is not enough. They have great potential, for better or for worse. We must ensure that we use our abilities, our vocation for the good.  

As the gospel reading reminds us, we have been given a trust. We should be ready with our gifts, able to serve. Using our talents for the good of all, our vocation to the glory of God. So that when the moment of truth comes, Christ will find us prepared.

Vocation 1

Today our churches are beginning a Lent series on Vocation. The sermons for the next five weeks will look at the theme of Vocation.

I wonder if I’ve lost anyone already? Anyone thinking ‘Well that’s not for me, I’m a priest or a missionary’. Or perhaps: ‘I’ve had my career, I made my choice years ago.’ Well, I want to say that each of us has a vocation. Because vocation is much wider than your job. Vocation means more than a career in religion, or the caring professions.

Some common English phrases suggest this. For instance: ‘He’s found his vocation’. Hearing that we might think of a say widow who throws herself into organising jumble sales and hospital visiting. I read about a lawyer earning a six figure salary and a London house with swimming pool who gave it all up to become a human cannonball. It was his dream.

But finding your vocation can mean taking a promotion, putting a bigger vision to good effect. We often think of vocation as stepping out of the rat race, less job, more time. Yet it can mean stepping up to greater responsibility. The common theme is that those who’ve found their vocation find meaning and value in what they do. It’s about finding a place in life which seems as if it were designed for you.

Another phrase we can learn from is ‘Vocational qualification’. Did you know that McDonalds offer GCSE equivalents? Yes, the burger chain has its own recognised vocational qualifications. Someone who can manage a busy outlet, control a multi-million pound turnover and supervise 50 staff can now be assessed and graded, and given a certificate to prove it. Not as traditional as Physics– but maybe they’ll use it more!

‘Vocational qualifications’ remind us that almost any job can be vocational, part of your calling. Your work can be an offering to God if you do it well. Whether paid or unpaid, work can be part of our call – yet our calling is much bigger than whether you have a job or not.

These phrases point us towards a real Christian truth: we all have a vocation from God. It’s easy to give a lot of attention to the special people in the Bible who heard God’s voice and had a unique role: people like Mary, Joseph, Isaiah and Abraham. Our lives may be more like the walk on parts: the farmers, priests, soldiers and mothers who make up much of the Bible. Yet they’re important too. It’s only when they do their bit well, that God’s plan goes forward.

So each of us has a vocation. And it’s far more than what we do to earn a living. It’s who God made us to be. Who we are in relationship with God. At the heart of the idea of vocation is God’s call (vocare). And he doesn’t just call us to work. First and foremost, God calls us to be in a relationship with him. In the gospel reading, Jesus called Matthew to follow him.

Matthew was rich. But Jesus didn’t ask for Matthew’ money. Matthew was experienced and capable. But Jesus didn’t ask him to sign a contract. Jesus called Matthew to walk with him, share a meal, chat around the fire. That relationship with God comes first. Our main calling as human being is to know God and be known by him. Perhaps later we find out that he wants us to do something for him.

In the Bible, God rescues the people of Israel from Egypt and only later makes it clear what role he wants them to have. And in the New Testament, Paul often writes of Christians being part of one body through the Spirit – and in one body exercising different gifts.

So let’s not think of vocation as a job, still less a purely religious one. The heart of vocation is that God invites us to know him, and thereby become more truly ourselves.)

today we baptised a little baby. As a tiny baby, Maisie’s vocation is just being. Being herself, the smiles and gurgles. Glorifying God just by living, and being loved – such a source of joy. As she grows, she will give love back. She’ll develop her own abilities and talents. There will be things that only Maisie can do. That is her vocation – being known by God, being who God made her, doing the things God has put her on earth to do.

As St. Augustine said, ‘You have made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.’ One of the classic images of the hope and meaning we find in responding to God is in our Old Testament reading, from Ezekiel 37.

The background to this is that the people of Israel had been in exile for several years, and they could see no end to it. As it says in v.11, their hope had dried up. They were like the bones of a defeated army, lying in a desert valley, scattered and picked over by scavengers, bleached and crumbling in the sun. There is no life in those bones, just sad memories of failure, disobedience and defeat. But, in v.7 and in v.10 God brings them to life. At the return from Exile, it was like moving from death to life, an amazing miracle.

What’s the connection with vocation? Simply this: that God did this because he loved those people and wanted what’s best for them. He desired to bring the people, and us too, into life-giving, healing friendship with God. From death, meaninglessness into the life of hope.

Look at v.14 I shall put my spirit within you and you shall live. The Spirit will give you life – truly, freely, not held captive by regrets and dreams, but life in all its fullness. And in v.13, ‘you shall know that I am the Lord’ is Ezekiel’s way of saying that they will acknowledge and worship the one true God. In other words, God calling them to himself. Not because he wants slaves to build a pyramid. Not because he wants piles of sacrifices. But because he loves them. Their vocation, and ours, is to know God and glorify him for ever.

In a small kind of way vocation reminds me of my hens. Chantal and I used to keep hens – and until the fox got them it was wonderful. Yes they ate the raspberries and pooped everywhere, but chickens were great fun. Islay laid little eggs for eight months of the year. Evita popped out a sky-blue egg alternate days between from Mothering Sunday to midsummer, and the rest of the year she was on strike.

They were eccentric, at times a nuisance, but we loved them. Hens have surprising character. Watching those lardy lumps trying to fly would make anyone laugh. The point is, we kept them, not because they were prolific layers – they weren’t, but because we liked them.

I wonder how God sees us? Is he better off because he’s called us? Does he put up with our occasional awkwardness because we’re useful? Or is it just that God actually likes us? Surely the whole point of vocation is that God calls us because individually we matter to him.

So, remember that you matter to God. Today we think about Maisie especially, but this is for all of us. God cares about you, and invites you to know him. What you are is important. For your character is created by God. Your interests, whether in football, shooting clays or making gateau are part of your beauty in God’s eyes, and should be cherished. Don’t imagine that being closer to God means becoming less yourself. Rather, it is more so, you become the person he created you to be. Later in our series we’ll look more deeply at how God uses our natural abilities and inclinations.

And finally, remember that God calls you into a relationship with him. He appreciates it when we pray, because we’re making an effort to keep in contact. Just as parents like to hear from their children, whether it’s the fumbling efforts of a four year old to describe the school day, or the Sunday afternoon phone home to aged Mum, so our heavenly father values time spent with him in prayer.

One vicar I worked with had a wonderful way to describe his prayer life: wasting time with God. What a lovely picture – prayer as a long summer evening’s chat with a glass of wine. Of course, prayer is a duty as well, and a task to be undertaken for others, and there should also be an element of awe in approaching the throne of the Almighty. But let that not squeeze out the simple fact of a relationship with God, because he calls us to know him. And that is the heart of vocation – that God calls us to be with him. He has a plan for each one of us, and it’s as we get to know him, as follow Jesus day by day, that the plan becomes clear.

Epiphany

I wonder if you did much travelling over Christmas and the New Year? And if so, how was it for you? A long journey that must just be endured before you arrive at the destination? Traffic jams, road closures, pop songs playing in the back, until at long last we reach Granny’s and the celebrations can begin.

For many of us, much of the time, the point is the destination, not the journey. But there can be times when the journey itself is significant. For me, driving over to the 8 am communion is a spiritual preparation – the stillness of the sleeping villages, the orange-misted sun rising over the frosted fields – it’s a time to connect with God and prepare for the day. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination – in The Canterbury Tales we hear the stories the pilgrims tell on the way, but Chaucer never describes their arrival.

Our reading today from Matthew 2:1-12 shows us the wise men on a journey of discovery. Like a treasure hunt, they follow each clue until eventually they arrive in the presence of the infant Christ. Today the story encourages us to think about life’s journey. How does God speak to us now? How does he call you and me to know Jesus better?

For God is a God who guides. The God of the Bible communicates. He calls us to know him; he invites us to respond to Christ; he tells us what is best for us. The story of the wise men wouldn’t make sense at all if it weren’t for a God who guides. It completely depends on the idea that God is drawing these people towards Jesus. It’s often worth looking at unstated assumptions – and the big one behind this story is that God wants to communicate with people and can communicate with people.

That may seem obvious. But it’s really worth pointing out, because this is quite distinctive in the Christian view of God. Some faiths and forms of agnosticism believe in a God who is distant and leaves us to the task of working out what’s best. Even many Christians imagine God giving us direction in the 10 Commandments, then leaving us to get on with it.

But Biblical faith believes in a God who’s interested in each one of us individually, who cares that each person should encounter Christ, who guides us through our own situations and prayers. We believe in God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit, and I want to reflect on that today.

And what a surprising God we worship! I did briefly wonder about showing a clip from The Life of Brian at this point – because Monty Python really do get the complete bizarreness of it. The grand visitors from the east, their peculiar gifts, worshipping a baby Messiah in a peasant’s house.

The wise men are not the people you would expect, nor the guidance that’s obvious. Magi were the scientists of the day, wise ones who studied the stars. Yet mixed in with their planetary observations and predictions of orbits was a great deal of what we would call magic. The science of astronomy was not yet separated from the superstition of astrology – about which the Old Testament is sometimes disapproving.

Somehow though God spoke to the Magi through this star – they grasped its symbolic significance. He can speak to people today through natural wonders: many see in the order and beauty of creation a testimony to God. And it’s true that there are many scientists who are also Christians. Indeed God is perfectly capable of revealing himself to all sorts of people who, perhaps even unwittingly, are seeking him. There are many stories of Muslims having dreams in which Jesus calls them; accounts of New Age spiritual seekers sensing the presence of God. They may be doing unorthodox things, but that is no barrier to God who can call anyone to a better understanding of himself.

What does mean for us? If we have found Christ, we will want others to know him too. We must understand that people will express their spiritual hunger in ways that may challenge and stretch us. We need to be able to engage with them, hear well, listen for the presence of God, and share without condemnation but with love and clarity.

It’s good to think about how we might explain our faith in ways that make sense to them, without slipping into a kind of relativism in which all beliefs are portrayed as equally true. You know the kind of thing: it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it! Yet that ignores the differences between faiths. Nor does it explain why the Magi bothered.

For the Magi represent all Gentiles, All nations now invited to be part of God’s family. They show the good news is not just for the Jews, but for everyone! Anyone who comes to Christ can be part of God’s family. This was revolutionary in the first century – in our time the idea that everyone needs to come to Christ might sound radical. We are used to hearing the idea that all religions are essentially the same. But if that is true, why did the Magi bother? Why travel all that way if they already had the truth? Why ask all those questions if they already had the light?

The other thing we can learn from the Magi is that they act. They see, they understand, and they do something about it. If you want to steer a car you turn the wheel, but if you’re not moving, the power steering will just grind holes in your driveway. Similarly, with God’s guidance we need to be moving to get a sense of direction.

If we have an important decision to make, we should pray that God will show us what he wants us to do – and then try and push some doors to see if they open. Apply for that job, look at some houses, test out a new ministry. For instance, the Diocese are holding a day entitled ‘Am I called to be a LLM’ – if the thought has ever even crossed your mind do go along –Reader ministry may be different from what you expect!

So the Magi act. A huge contrast to the Priests in v. 4-6. Imagine it, the Magi have turned up, announcing the birth of a new King. Everyone knows about it – verse 3 says all Jerusalem is in turmoil. So Herod calls in the religious experts, who know all the answers. ‘In Bethlehem of Judea just like the prophet said’. And, er, that’s it.

So exotic visitors say ‘We’re looking for the new King of the Jews. We’ve seen his star. Can you tell us where he is please?’ And the priests reply: ‘What, the Messiah? The promised Saviour? The one who will redeem Israel? The one for whom the prophets looked? Promised and foretold these three thousand years past? The long-awaited Redeemer who will be the fulfilment of our religion? He’s been born? He’ll be in Bethlehem then. Good luck and cheerio.’

How could they not go? Did they not actually believe it could be here and now? Would the coming Messiah upset their comfortable position? Had it just not occurred to them that the words might require action? Or were they afraid of Herod and his reaction against the truth?

Lord preserve us from hearing the words of the Bible and thinking it does not apply to us! Lord protect us against having defended hearts explaining away every Scriptural challenge! Lord keep us from saying with our lips ‘Christ will come again’ whilst never imagining in our hearts that it might be in our time! Lord strengthen us against the fear which says ‘We could never actually do what Jesus teaches because…’

Whereas the Bible is the main way that we get general guidance from God, there are many ways that he can guide us individually. The Old Testament told the Magi in which region to look, the star guided them to the precise house. With us the essentials for living as a disciple of Christ are all in God’s written word – what it is to have faith, how to treat one another. The individual decisions: where to live; what career step next; how to be involved in the community – these are discerned through personal prayer.  So it’s important that we spend time with God regularly, because prayer enables us to see him at work.

We might also notice that the Holy Spirit can give us the benefit of hindsight. No doubt the wise men’s gifts seemed bizarre at the time, but when the gospel was written down, Matthew would have seen in them a prophecy of the death and resurrection of Christ.

So was the journey more important than the arrival? Or has the journey only just begun? In one sense the Magi have reached their destination, they have found Christ. But in another sense, this is the beginning of their story. Now they must return to their own country, work out what it means to live by the promise of a world’s redeemer. For Mary, Joseph and Jesus too a new episode unfolds: of sudden flight, refugee status, and being uprooted to a new home. Much of it is left to our imagination as the journey continues.

So too with us. Finding Christ is only the beginning. Then follows a lifetime of discipleship, of listening to God. How will he guide us? Through the world around us – earthly wisdom and good friends; through his Word; through prayer as we seek as his personal direction.

I wonder with which of those you are most familiar? And which might need development? Could you watch to see God at work in the world around you? Reflect on your own background, formation and understanding? Could you benefit from the shared wisdom of others? One of the best things about our Lent groups is the way that members from different churches share their experiences and thoughts and we learn so much from one another.

Is it Biblical guidance that you could develop most? If so, there’s nothing which builds up our understanding quite so much as reading a passage of the Bible each day. It needn’t be long, in fact it’s better to read a paragraph or two slowly and thoughtfully than try a big chunk in one sitting. It needn’t take a lot of time – a few minutes before bed or in the morning each day quickly adds up and makes a huge difference.

Or would you want to focus on developing your prayers? Again, a time each day for prayer is a great blessing. At the end of the day, try looking back at it. Where can you sense God’s presence? What has he been saying to you? How has the day been guided, held in his love?

And above all, act. When God speaks, may we hear him and put what he says into practice. May our lives be like the Magi, characterised by a listening obedience. Amen.

 

A New Year Covenant

I wonder how those New Year resolutions are going? Three hours since we woke and still going strong! Someone once said that a resolution goes in one year and out the other. My favourite is the chap who said: ‘May your troubles last as long as your New Year’s Resolutions.’

Why do they have that reputation for fading quickly? Perhaps it’s because of what they are. A resolution could be defined as a promise to make a dramatic, sudden and major change in one’s life, usually for one’s own benefit, and attempting to do so by one’s own will power and strength. Often once the resolution is broken, we throw in the towel and go back to having a drink every day, or whatever it may be.

There is a Biblical alternative. A model which has very deep roots in the Christian tradition and Judaism before it. Something we’ll be doing later in the service. It speaks, not of a one-off change, but of being continually transformed by grace. It calls us, not to a brittle promise, but a lifelong journey with God, where when we fail we are picked up again, forgiven and filled with the Holy Spirit.

This Biblical alternative is the Covenant. A committed relationship, a promise of faithfulness between God and his people. It’s almost like an agreement: there are duties set out, blessings for obedience and consequences for failure. But it’s not a legalistic thing like a property covenant – a Biblical covenant is always held in God’s grace and love, and though people broke them many times, God never broke faith.

Why today? We’re thinking about Covenants this Sunday because the 1st January is the eighth day of Christmas, and as it says in our reading from Luke 2:21 ‘On the eighth day it was time to circumcise the child and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.’ Jewish people circumcise male children because it is commanded as one of the Old Testament covenants. Circumcision for Jews is a sign of belonging to God’s people.

The background is that when God promised Abraham he would become a great nation, God also commanded that all Abraham’s descendants should be circumcised as a reminder of this promise. There were other covenants God made with his people – for instance the giving of the Ten Commandments after the Exodus was also part of a covenant.

There’s a pattern we can see. The initiative is always God’s. God called Abraham. God rescued the people of Israel from Egypt. It wasn’t the people who approached God, rather he moved in grace and love towards his people. Then, as they respond to his call, God instructs them in the right way to live. He shows them how to thrive. These commands are for their good, so if they keep them they will experience blessings showered upon them. But if they turn away from the right path, it’s like putting up an umbrella against the shower of blessings. In other words, sin stops us enjoying the life God has called us to.

The idea of the covenant is that God and his people are bound together forever. Think of a marriage – which is often described as a covenant, the relationship is meant to endure through thick and thin. For richer and poorer, for better and for worse, God will be faithful to his people. When they sin they experience his faithfulness as judgement, discipline which brings them back. When they repent, God’s faithfulness means they are forgiven. It’s not two-faced but two sides of the same coin.

Let’s get one thing clear. A covenant isn’t about winning God’s favour. Sometimes people think that a covenant is all about doing good and avoiding evil so we can get into heaven. That is not Christianity. That would be like one of those comedies where someone is trying to catch a train – their legs go faster and faster but still the carriages draw away from them.

True Christianity teaches grace: it’s more like Jesus is the train driver who stops for us so we can get on. And a covenant is a bit like not doing anything stupid while you’re on the train: don’t get off before the destination; don’t stick your head out of the window when a tunnel is coming up. Covenants keep us abiding in the grace of God. His love brings us in and the covenant stops us messing up.

Christians don’t see a covenant as an attempt to earn salvation, because Jesus has already done it for us. That is what St. Paul is saying in our reading from Galatians chapter 4. In verse 4: ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law’ – this refers to the circumcision we thought about earlier. Jesus lived in the covenant, he kept the Jewish law fully, the only person ever to keep it both in letter and in spirit.

In verse 5: ‘In order to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as children’. Redeem means buying back, giving a payment in order to rescue someone. The payment that Jesus makes is his own life. He offers himself as the perfect substitute in our place, a sacrifice which brings forgiveness and wipes away the wrong we have done. Only a sinless person who did not have to account for his own sin could stand in our place and take our sin upon himself.

The result is in verse 6 ‘Because you are his children, God has sent his Spirit into your hearts, crying Abba Father.’ So we are no longer slaves but children, and if children then also heirs through God. In other words, because Jesus was perfectly good, we can be forgiven in him, and we can have perfect confidence coming to God through Jesus.

That is the covenant God makes with us now. To gives us peace, forgiveness and new life through Christ. It is God’s initiative, his covenant. That’s why Christianity is not a religion of outward observance. Christians don’t need to keep Old Testament law – but we also don’t have to do the external things which are so important in other religions.

Sikhs have their turbans and Kirpan daggers, but Christians do not have to wear a cross. Muslims pray 5 times a day and fast during Ramadan. But Christians can pray anytime, wherever they are; Christians can fast during Lent – if it’s helpful, or any other time, but we don’t have to.

Rules do not define Christians, because the heart of our faith is a relationship with God through Christ. Jesus fulfils God’s perfect requirements for us; we then live out our faith, not in ritual observances, but in love and in service for God and one another.

For Christians that covenant begins in baptism. It is continued in confirmation. But it can also be helpful to renew those promises from time to time – and what better occasion than the New Year?

As we look to the future and think about how we would like to act in 2017, our New Year service invites us to affirm our covenant with God.

There are some wonderful words of commitment and openness which we’ll be hearing in a moment. Let me just quote some:

Christ has many services to be done: some are easy, others are difficult;

some bring honour, others bring reproach; some are suitable to our natural inclinations and material interests, others are contrary to both… We’re invited to trust in God’s use of us, to be at his disposal.

and later on we say together:

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,

It’s a radical openness to God. Whatever may come our way, God will be faithful. He sees a bigger picture that we cannot; he knows what is best for us, what will grow us and how we can benefit others. God walks with us on the journey, leading and teaching us through the hardships. He will not allow us to be tested beyond what we can bear.

We can trust in God utterly because he is faithful. He has made a covenant with us, the covenant we remember at the Eucharist, the blood of the new covenant. God has given us a promise which is unshakeable because it is grounded in his consistent character, his covenanted love.

I’ll end with a poem which is well known, deservedly so. It was quoted by King George 6th in his 1939 Christmas broadcast – if we think we live in uncertain times, how much more so back then!

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”