Giving a name is a task fraught with difficulties. For instance a baby’s name should be something the parents like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but some parents don’t like their Albert being called Bertie. Does the first name complement the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.

And if you’re naming a building, you might want to honour a famous benefactor – but what if society’s view of that person changes? More on the Colston Hall later.

Finally, does the name have a meaning? Is it one that you intend? In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel. Surely he will be Zechariah? But the little boy’s mother wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.

Perhaps that’s because this particular baby had been long awaited. However, there’s more going on here. Naming this boy John is an act of repentance, it is a sign that Zechariah is obeying God and doing what he was told. Repentance means turning back to God and doing his will.

Zechariah was a priest, and his number had come up. In those days there were so many priests that their duties were assigned by a lottery. Statistically, a priest had a once in a lifetime chance to serve in the temple. Zechariah’s big day arrives, he goes in and promptly sees an angel who tells him that, despite great age, he and his wife will have a son and they are to name him John. Perhaps years of disappointment have sapped Zechariah’s faith, because his response is to ask ‘How can I know that this will happen?’ For his lack of belief, he is condemned to be struck dumb until the day those things occur.

So when in verse 62 Zechariah asks for his communication aid, and writes on his tablet ‘His name is John’, his tongue is freed and he is able to speak! Through this practical action of naming the child, Zechariah commits himself to God’s will, and demonstrates that he has repented of not believing the angel. He acknowledges that his words and actions were wrong, he asks God’s forgiveness and wants to change. That’s what we mean by repentance.

As we continue our sermon series on prayer, thinking about repentance is really important because it opens the door to God in our prayer lives. Becoming aware of what we have done wrong, saying sorry, turning around, resolving to do better by God’s help is a really important part of prayer. That process of repentance is cleansing for the soul, and it’s a necessary preparation for the rest of our prayers to be really effective.

For it’s no good asking God to rain down blessings upon us, if we’re hiding from him under a great big umbrella! So often the way that God answers our prayers, showers good things onto us, is through our obedience. Which means that if we continue doing the wrong thing, persist in sin, it’s like digging up the seed we so carefully planted. Or our lives are so full of baggage we’re like a stream sweeping along so much dead wood and plastic bags that it can’t flow properly anymore.

Do you know what really annoys me? Really gets me going? It’s when someone asks me for help, to show them the solution to a problem, and then promptly ignores it! I’d rather not be asked in the first place than waste my time telling and showing, and then being disregarded. Yet I know I do that to God all the time. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to give us more self-knowledge, better insight into what we do, honest realism before God. We can’t hide anything from God – but the amazing thing is: however far gone we are, if we are open and honest with him, he accepts our confession and forgives us. Because Jesus died for us, took our sin on himself on the cross, repentance becomes for us the path to life. Properly understand, repentance is good and healthy.

In the story Zechariah acts and he speaks. He writes John’s name on a tablet, and then he praises God. It is important for us to do both of these things. It is good for us to confess our sins, like we do in general terms in church, and privately, more specifically, to God in personal prayer. It’s right that when we have confessed our sins, we then make an effort, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to live differently in future.

Either one of these is incomplete without the other. Words without actions are hollow. There is a real spiritual danger here: because the more times we say sorry for something but don’t change our behaviour, the weaker the effect of that confession becomes and the harder it is for us to be genuinely transformed. Words without action become an unhealthy turning over of the past, a dwelling upon things, or a superficial ‘sorry!’ on your way to doing the same thing again.

Perhaps it’s less obvious how actions without words are also incomplete. If the school bully changes and stops thumping the other children then everyone heaves a sigh of relief. But if that person has never said sorry, then they’ve never really acknowledged the harm their actions have done. Nor have they opened the way to forgiveness and face-to-face reconciliation. Often we’re satisfied when someone’s actions have changed, but words open the way to a deeper healing.

It’s this deeper healing that we see in the ministry of John the Baptist. Our reading from Acts summarises, in verses 24 and 25, what John did. He preached a baptism of repentance for all the people of Israel, preparing the way for Jesus. He turned people’s hearts back to God so that Jesus would receive a ready welcome. And then in verse 26, we find that this message of salvation has been sent to us.

So how does that happen? The good news that we can change if we admit our need of God affects us at different levels. Individuals, the church, the nation.
Like Zechariah the priest, the Church sometimes needs to repent. Pointing to Christ on earth it needs to hold to the highest standards. That’s why there’s been a review of the Church of England’s approach to child protection. Doing DBS checks and safeguarding training takes up a lot of time – but it is part of the church’s response to historic failures. It shows that there is corporate repentance for what has happened in the past, and demonstrates a resolve that such things will not be allowed to happen again.

There is also the question of the nation. Can a country say sorry for the things its ancestors did wrong? Recently a pardon was issued for the wartime codebreaker Alan Turing, which was very right and proper.

But words are easily said. Action is more difficult. And action is untargeted if we don’t think deeply. So for instance, we need to ask why the 18th century Bristol merchant Edward Colston was widely seen in his time as a good chap, a generous benefactor and philanthropist?
Why did someone who appeared to be a Christian just not see that there was a problem in having business interests which included the slave trade? How did he possibly think that was ok? How did he justify it? Did it even occur to him that it needed to be justified?

Until we ask those questions and engage with the history then we learn nothing. All we get good at is judging others by our own standards. The mistakes of the past will not shed light on our own times, or help us to discover our own hypocrisies and failings. Do we know what shares our pension funds own? How is it possible to buy a suit and shoes for £80?

Words which express regret are fine, but ‘what do we do?’ is a more difficult question. Is compensation appropriate to those directly affected by an injustice? Or to their descendants? What are we doing about racial equality and other forms of inclusion today? What about those who cannot speak for themselves because disability means they have no voice, or who cannot speak because they’ve not yet been born?
Repentance as a nation is complex, yet sometimes a whole society does realise it has taken a wrong turn. Sometimes nations do recalibrate, change their priorities and act. When we look back through history we see that national repentance often follows a change in the church, which itself follows on from repentance in the lives of individuals.

John the Baptist spoke directly to individuals in ways which were relevant to them. ‘Tax collectors, don’t take more than you’re entitled to. Soldiers, don’t use force to take stuff from the population. Rich people, share with the poor’.

He called everyone to repentance. Individuals, the religious establishment, the nation. How effective was it? Several times in the New Testament we read that the real sinners, the tax collectors and prostitutes, responded to John’s message. They knew they were doing wrong. They didn’t need anyone to point it out. They could see the good news, love and mercy in the message of Jesus and John.

But the religious professionals, the Pharisees and scribes didn’t. They thought they were doing ok. Their problems were less obvious but no less real: greed, self-righteousness, double standards. The challenge for churchgoing Christians today is obvious – religious commitment brings its own temptations. May we never be proud of our religious credentials. God forbid that we are proud of being Christians.

God can speak to each one of us. He can shine his gentle light into our hearts, showing us the places where we can change. If we ask him to, God will send the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and help us understand ourselves. He will give us self-knowledge and the desire to be transformed. Like taking out a rotten tooth, the process may not be comfortable, but you’ll be better off when it’s done! And if we encounter resistance within ourselves, then make that the subject of your prayers. For repentance is a gift from God, a way to life, and a core principle of prayer.




A model for the church?

Acts 2:42-47

What would we do if 3000 people got converted one day? If you turned up to church and there was a queue of 3000 to get in? That was the amazing thing that happened on the Day of Pentecost shortly after the first Easter. Jesus had promised the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit came in power. Crowds gathered, Peter explained what was going on, and as it says in v. 41 of Acts Chapter 2: ‘Those who welcomed his message were baptised and that day about three thousand persons were added.’

3000 new Christians, all in one day, in small city: Jerusalem. It must have been astonishing, the most incredible thing to be part of – I doubt if anyone got any sleep that night they would have been totally buzzing! Or perhaps they did sleep from exhaustion. After all, if 12 apostles are baptising 3000 people, that’s 250 each. And if it takes a minute to baptise each one, then that works out at four hours solid!

Maybe the whole group of disciples, which Luke describes in Acts 1:15 as 120 strong, played a part. Even so, as a pastor you’d want to take everyone’s names and addresses to keep in touch – imagine doing that before the days of handheld devices. And as I think about the Hullavington reordering I wonder where they would all meet? Thank God for the temple courts and a warm climate! It would be the most glorious, chaotic unprepared challenge – providing teaching and pastoral care to all those brand new believers. But how wonderful!

Even 1% of that number would be remarkable if it happened here. 30 newcomers would double the size of the congregation. How would we help them settle in? We might need new children’s groups, it might give the chance to start a band. If something on that scale happened, it would be the most important thing all year, surely it would be the highest priority for the church’s life. Pray for such things!

So as we look forward to starting our Alpha course on May 11th, what happens if through that three people come to faith? What do we do to help those new to Christianity? And to help ourselves grow?

In Acts 2:42 St Luke describes the key practices of Christian discipleship, and in verses 43-47 he expands upon them. These are the things the early church focussed on to support each other in following Jesus. The disciplines we need today if we are to be strong and effective in Christ’s service.

Firstly, they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. Presumably this meant hearing the stories and sayings of Jesus, learning the explanation of what God had done through Christ. And putting it into practice – verse 43 describes the signs and wonders done by the apostles showing that the Kingdom of God is at hand. For us, the apostles’ teaching has become the New Testament and it’s important that we read and reflect on it regularly.

Secondly, they gave time to fellowship. Fellowship is a bit of a jargon word but it basically means meeting together, talking about what’s going on in your life and particularly your faith, praying and encouraging one another. It’s one of the most important things in strengthening our faith. If you just turn up to church once a week, it’s like learning to drive through a weekly lesson. But if you have fellowship it’s like getting real driving practice in through the week.

Today, you can find fellowship in a structured way like through a housegroup, Lent lunch and the Mothers’ Union. Or it can be informal – Chantal has a prayer partner she meets over coffee from time to time for a chat and to pray for one another. I’d really encourage you to think about how you could do this because when you look at different churches you usually find that the places where people are enjoying their faith, the places with a sense of vibrancy, are where those people have a way of meeting up midweek.

It can also build incredibly deep community. I know of someone who a few years ago needed to exchange contracts on a house. They had the money, but not in the right place, and a bridging loan couldn’t be done in time. So they sent out a message and within a day had been lent tens of thousands by friends. It’s a modern example of v 44 – they were together and had all things in common.

Thirdly, the believers joined in breaking bread together. This may well refer to the Eucharist, which in those days was part of a shared meal. Verse 46 describes them sharing meals at home with gratitude – I always think it’s such a blessing when the church comes together to eat.

Last of all, Luke mentions the prayers. This probably means worship, the praising God of v.47. Perhaps it also includes coming together specifically to pray. Holding a prayer meeting for our world, the churches’ work, the people we know. If I’m honest, I think this is one area I’d really like to improve in the Gauzebrook Group. We do have prayer meetings – Pause and Pray, Saturday mornings at Sherston – but are they at the wrong time or wrong place? Or is there a particular style that would help people take part? I’d love to know because prayer is so important. We’re having a 24 hours of prayer on May 26th based in Norton – I’m hoping that can be the beginning of a prayer renewal across our area.

The apostles teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers. These are the bread and butter of the Christian life, our regular balanced diet. And they make all the difference. Over twenty years I’ve seen people come to faith who’ve grown and grown, who’ve blessed those around them and had a real influence for good. I’ve also seen people make an initial profession of faith and seem keen for a while, but then you see them less and less and their commitment fades.

I think there are two key differences between those who grow and those who fade. Number one is the midweek commitment – do they get support in a group? Number two is ministry – do they get stuck in? It’s fine being a passenger on a cruise ship, but I don’t think you’d want to live that way. Often those who drift away from the church have only ever received and not been given the chance to give something back. Having a ministry of your own helps you grow. Having an area of responsibility, whether that’s doing a reading or being a churchwarden, means you have to step out in faith, you find that God is trustworthy and he equips you with what you need. Having some form of service is a great way to grow in faith.

So are you getting that midweek connection? Do you have some form of service? And if not, how might that happen?

For as v47 shows, these are the things that lead to growth. When we as individuals grow, then the church does too, because that kind of Christian life is attractive.

Of course, the Early Church had one huge advantage. It was new! Imagine if nobody in England had heard of Jesus! You wouldn’t meet those who say ‘Oh, I’ve heard it all before. Had it drummed into me at school’ Imagine if Christianity was a new exotic faith, not seen as part of the past. It wouldn’t then be cool to rebel against Christianity, because it wouldn’t be part of the Establishment. And that is what the Christian faith is like in places like Nepal.

Familiarity breed contempt. So perhaps the answer for Christians in the West is to be less familiar. More radical. More distinctive. After all, if we lived like the Christians in Acts chapter 2, people would certainly notice. They might not like it, they might call it a cult. But it couldn’t be ignored.

There is however an elephant in the room. An enormous grey-trunked beastie which we can’t ignore any longer. I’m going to name that pachyderm and hope that by naming it we can tackle it.

‘Could life really go on like that?’ I wonder if you’re like me – whenever I read this passage I think ‘yes, but…’ Surely if they sold all their goods and share the proceeds, eventually they’d have no goods left? And if day by day they spent much time in the temple, well I guess that the washing pile could be left to build up – but if you want to eat the sowing and reaping must be done. You can sustain a heightened tempo for a while, but the leaky downpipe won’t fix itself. Surely also human nature will intervene? People fall out? The momentum slow? Is this just Luke’s ideal view of the church, not reality?

I think there are three possible responses. I want to challenge the assumption that these things can’t be sustained. There are signs and wonders today. Yes, there was persecution, but the courage of the Early Church meant that in Acts 4:3 they grew to 5000 members. Yes, there were fallings out, but the way they resolved conflict in appointing the first deacons was a huge witness and another point of growth. Yes, they did sell and share, but like a good overseas aid budget, if that money was invested in people they could become economically self-sufficient. So think twice before dismissing this passage as ‘just for those days’.

And when I think like that I also have to look at my priorities. Why is it not possible to meet regularly for prayer? Because there are so many other things to do? Why not rather put in prayer as my first commitment and fit in the meetings around it? If coming to worship is difficult, is it because I’m trying to have everything in my life?

I also want to recognise that there are seasons in a church’s life. It’s like the farming year – there are times when the plants grow and just need the occasional spray. There are other times when the combines are out harvesting by headlight at 3 am.

 (In Sherston it feels as if we’ve done a lot of ploughing, a lot of patient sowing and now we’re in May, seeing the young plants grow. In Hullavington it’s like we’re digging up the whole farm to put in field drains – it’s busy, intense and we need to look out for one another)

So I don’t believe that this passage is just for back then. I don’t believe it’s an impossibly idealistic vision, or a template than we can never even come close to. It’s there to challenge us, to set out what could be, the blessings that can be attained, something to which we can aspire – a living model for the church. Amen.




The Lost Coin – Luke 15:1-10

One of the small hidden bonuses of being a Vicar, is that I am never short of an umbrella. Whenever it rains, whether I am in church or at home, I know there will be a healthy stock of unclaimed lost property. It’s remarkable how many things are never reclaimed: glasses, coats, even car keys (with that latter I wonder: how did that person get home?)

Some items are so essential that you just can’t give up searching. Have you ever lost your phone with diary on it? Occasionally happens with me, and the house must be turned upside down.

Jesus parables often use familiar situations, like anxiously mislaying something precious and spending all day looking for it. The story of the lost sheep is perhaps the best known of all parables, and the lost coin is its less familiar cousin. (The plot is virtually identical: v.8-9.)

It always struck me as a little bit odd that the woman throws a party. She loses her coin, finds it again, and hosts a celebration. So how does she pay for the food and drink? It’s as if she gets her coin back and gives it away again.

But, I’ve discovered, apparently it was the custom for women to wear their dowry as a kind of headband. The coins would be linked together on a string across her forehead. This woman has ten silver coins, given by her family when she was married. They represent the family’s investments, and her savings in case her husband dies before her. Losing one of them is like mislaying a tenth of your pension fund. No wonder she lights a lamp, spring cleans and searches high and low.

As she was given it when she was married, the coin is also like a wedding ring. I was with Susannah at a play park when a little girl’s grandpa lost his wedding ring in the sand. You can imagine the anxiety as family were called over. Fortunately granny was level headed: Don’t move grandpa, she called. They couldn’t see it on the surface, so they gently raked the sand, there was a glint: all was well and there was great celebration when the lost was found.

The value of the ring may have been a few hundred pounds, yet the sentimental value was far more. It’s the same for the woman in the parable – the coin stands for her husband’s love, the bond uniting them.

And Jesus tells us in v.10 ‘Just so there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents’. The point is that we matter to God even more than the coin matters to the woman. God loves us immensely. Not for what we can do for him –who is God that he should need us? God is not some kind of hard up factory foreman who needs all the workers he can get. No, he searches for us because he loves us, because he values us for who we are.

Understand that and it can make a big difference to the way you see yourself. For knowing that you are loved by God is the most stabilising foundation. So many people’s self esteem depends on their achievements or what people think of them. Not so for the Christian – we know that we are treasured by God. Many insecurities come because people are not sure they are valued. The lost coin tells us that each one of us is valued by God.

It teaches us grace too, because the love of God is freely given. We do not have to win God’s regard, nor do we need to strive to stay within the Lord’s affection. His love for us is constant. He longs for those who have wandered to return to him and allowed Jesus to die to save them. Yes, God urges us to repent, to turn away from sin, not because sin stops him loving us, but because the barriers we raise cut us off from his cascading love. So when we do good it is not to justify ourselves, but rather it is a grateful response to his love, and a recognition that doing good is the right way to live.

Getting to grips with the message of this parable may also change our prayers. If we know that God loves us for who we are, then it follows that he enjoys knowing us. He appreciates our company. So prayer is more than presenting a list of requests to the Lord, it is spending time in his presence.

You can talk to him about the day, look back on what has happened, let him into your worries for the future. You can be honest with him, essentially chat. A vicar I knew had a wonderful way of describing prayer: he said it was ‘wasting time with God’. In the way that you might just sit and waste time, leisurely chat with a friend, enjoy their company. There are bound to be times when prayer feels more like a task or a duty, but remember when you pray, God wants to know you.

And if he wants to know you, he wants to know others too. Verses 1 and 2 tell us the background to these two parables: ‘Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and Scribes were grumbling and saying ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

How tragic is that! They couldn’t see that here were people coming to life and truth! They couldn’t see the wonder and joy of bad people being forgiven and made whole! They Pharisees couldn’t see that they themselves were sinners, and needed God’s forgiveness! It’s been said that evangelism is ‘one begger telling another where to find bread’ – but they couldn’t see it like that. And so rather than rejoice over the growth of the kingdom they chuntered about Jesus’ poor taste in company. Happily, Jesus’ words did bring change, and Pharisees like Paul eventually shared in going to find the lost.

If we’re to hear the message of this parable, I think it means three things. Firstly, God’s people need to seek out the lost. The shepherd didn’t stand in one place calling out ‘Come by’. He sought out the lost sheep. Churches throughout history have been very good at being visible in one place and inviting people ‘Come in and see’. But we also need to go out. We also need to act intentionally to reach those who haven’t heard the gospel.

Just last week our Children’s Worker and I had a visit from a major grant making trust. They’re deciding whether to support Becky’s work here – please pray that they do! One of the key questions for their trustees is: ‘Do we try and get people to come to church, or do we go to where they are?

The Trust Secretary was telling me that in Northern Ireland there’s a new move away from the church setting up toddler groups or lunch clubs. They find it’s too heavy on resources and you spend all your time trying to get people to come to things. Instead Christians in Northern Ireland are helping the groups that already exist, and being salt and light there. Interesting idea.

In our own Group, Becky provides Sunday clubs for children and we want children to grow up in the church. But we also recognise that if we want to reach them all then we have to go to the schools – for that’s where the children are. Like the shepherd, we have to go out, intentionally seek the lost.

How do you and I do that? In our villages and at work?

On the 22nd September at 7.30 pm we’ve got a meeting in Holy Cross to plan our vision in the Gauzebrook Group for the next three years. Questions like that will be really important and I want to hear your views. Please come.

Secondly, the parable tells us ‘Don’t be like the Pharisees. Rejoice over the lost!’ I know a Vicar who got his first parish a few years ago. The church was looking for someone outgoing who’d grow the congregation. They got what they asked for – and some more! After a while he made some changes to the morning service. Which worked – the congregation doubled!

It wasn’t long before he got complaints. ‘We need to buy more coffee nowadays and we don’t know how much’. ‘All these children are very noisy.’ ‘The Vicar doesn’t have time to speak to us anymore.’ That church got what they asked for, but they also found that growth involves sacrifice. Like the Pharisees, rejoicing in the lost didn’t come naturally, it was easier to see the challenges that the lost brought.

So thirdly, Jesus invites us to enter into the world of lost things. To imagine life without God – what does it feel like to be lost? Do you remember a time when you had no direction, were not aware of God’s presence? When you had no-one to turn to? Surely we can feel for those who live and die without having heard God’s call to turn to him and be forgiven? Surely people’s eternal destiny puts our little inconveniences into perspective? When we think on these things and ask for God’s heart of love, we can begin to feel his passion for the lost.

Some of the lost are more like the sheep, others like the coin. What about us? Were we like the sheep, wilfully wandering from the right path, its own worst enemy, before God sought us out and called us back? Or were we like the coin, fallen down a corner, mislaid in a dark world that has lost its way, our spirituality all dusty and cobwebby? Jesus describes two slightly different situations, but the response in both cases is the same: God seeks the lost. He looks until he has found. And when a sinner responds to God’s call, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God.


Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. Traditionally it is the day when the church remembers Mary, the mother of our Lord, and the important role she plays in the story of salvation. Without her openness to God’s call, without her care for the young Jesus, would we be here in church today?

But before we look at the passage I’m aware that I need to pause for a moment and just acknowledge that amongst our own congregation, and elsewhere, there may be a range of very different reactions to the idea that the church might commemorate Mary.

In parts of the Roman Catholic Church of course, Mary has an immensely prominent role – there will scarcely be a Catholic church without a colourful statue of Mary and candles burning in front of it. The Hail Mary may be said or sung, reflecting a spirituality in which people ask Mary to pray to her son for them. There are also doctrines like the Immaculate Conception and Assumption which the Roman Church asserts from its own tradition but the Protestant churches do not accept as they cannot be proved from Scripture.

If Anglicans reject the extremes of Marian devotion, we must be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. The example of Mary can teach us a lot, she is like a signpost pointing beyond herself to her son, it would be a shame to lose sight of some truly Biblical insights. So let’s turn to Luke’s gospel, chapter 1 verses 39-45.

Of course, this story only makes sense in the light of what has gone before. Verses 26 to 38 tell of how the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town named Nazareth. He announces to Mary that she will bear a son, named Jesus, who will reign over the house of David.

We can only begin to imagine how Mary felt. Surprise and fear at the angel, surely. Perhaps delight at being chosen as the mother of the Messiah? Or feeling unworthy of this honour? Interestingly neither of those feelings seem to be in the Biblical reading – only the immensely down to earth question: ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’

The angel answers at a practical level – it will be a miracle of God. But he doesn’t answer all the unspoken questions. What will this sudden pregnancy mean for Mary? Will she try and explain it as the angel told her? Will anyone believe her? What risks will she run to her health, safety and reputation? Will Joseph believe her and what might he do? Mary will have her own cross to carry. Motherhood in general has a cost and hers in particular.

Although Gabriel’s words about Jesus are couched in traditional Old Testament terms of kingship and rule, although there is no hint of the crucifixion in his speech, nonetheless a great deal is being asked of Mary. She has very few answers, can only see dimly what is involved, and yet she says yes. In verse 38 ‘Here I am, the servant of the Lord, may it be to me according to your word.’

In stepping out into the unknown, in following without fully understanding, Mary becomes an example of someone who responds wholeheartedly to God’s call. Any call, any new venture, indeed life itself is like that. We cannot understand completely what is involved, there will always be surprises. The nature of the call or circumstances around it may change. Unforeseen things will crop up. We will be challenged and grow in ways we never thought possible.

But if it is God’s call we are responding to, if we are living in his way, then he promises that he will always be with us. We need not fear the unknown pathway if he will be our guide. It’s probably better that way – to be honest, if we knew what was ahead, we might never set out! Yet God gives us the strength for each day, a day at a time.

One of the ways God blesses us is through the ministry of other people. In v.39 Mary sets out and goes with haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Is she running away from her home town, fearing reactions? Matthew’s gospel suggests that there was some time between Joseph finding out about the pregnancy, and him having a dream in which the angel reassures him. Is it during this gap that Mary seeks sanctuary?

She goes to Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, who is herself miraculously pregnant carrying John the Baptist. Elizabeth was a much older woman, the wife of a priest with a righteous reputation – yet Mary finds not condemnation or judgment, but hospitality and understanding.

An older person can be a great help to a young person who is in difficulty. Sometimes all that is needed is a welcome and the time to provide a listening ear. Appropriate wisdom, given when sought, can put things into perspective. But often what helps most is the space and hospitality to order one’s own thoughts.

I wonder if you know of a younger person, perhaps a mother, who is struggling? Are there ways it might be appropriate to help? It also makes me wonder what reputation we might have? What would a young mum or dad in trouble see in you or me which might make them want to turn to us?

There is a third generation in this story – the unborn John the Baptist who already seems to have the gift of prophecy. In verse 44 ‘As soon as I heard the voice of your greeting the child in my womb leapt for joy.’ Verses 26 and 56 tell us that the child is at the six month stage – and God is already overshadowing his destiny – is it too much to say that his character is already being formed?

With today’s medical care a baby born at that stage stands a fifty/fifty chance of survival. And yet it is also legal to abort a healthy baby up to 24 weeks.

There is so much promise and hope in a child, and yet so much vulnerability. I suppose the vulnerability of the child is part of the gift of motherhood – otherwise there would be no need for care and love. And vulnerability is part of what parents take on – we accept the risk and openness of having children, the step into the unknown of what might happen, the commitment it demands of us if something does go wrong.

Perhaps we can see reflected there part of what it means for God to be our parent. He creates us, gives us free will in the full knowledge that we may go our own way. Christ gives himself, accepting suffering so that God’s children may be redeemed. God holds out the hope of our return, without any guarantees that we will respond. In this lovely passage, God in Christ unconditionally opens himself to the vulnerability of this world and thereby also its love.

Here we see three generations, called by God. The old, the young and the unborn, each with a vocation in his plan. Through these three, and their relation to one another, the story our salvation unfolds. Amen.






A vicar got up one Sunday and announced to his congregation: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is God has provided us with enough money to pay for our building repairs, parish bills and employ a youth worker. The bad news is it’s still out there in your pockets.”

I’m going to be speaking about giving today. Not because we’ve given out the leaflets about the Schools worker programme, although that is an excellent cause. Nor am I thinking about Norton church funds particularly, because Christian giving is much more than keeping church buildings going. It’s about supporting God’s work, giving to those in need. But I’m preaching on giving because it’s in the reading set for today from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. And because it is such an important part of Christian discipleship.

It’s not very English to talk about money and our attitudes to it. Jesus had no such inhibition – he talked about finance a lot. Allegedly he talked more about money than he did about heaven. ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart is also’. He knew that our attitude to wealth and how we spend our money is a real indicator of how much we have allowed our faith to transform our lives.

In the reading, St Paul is organising a whip-round. There is a famine in Jerusalem, fellow Christians are suffering. As followers of Jesus they have been expelled from the synagogues which means they are cut off from one of the sources of welfare. Nor was there a welfare state in those days. People paid tax but it did not go to help those in need. So Paul appeals for help from the churches he has founded. As we read his request we see much guidance for us about our giving, not just to the church but for all kinds of charity.

Those Christians had never met each other. Many in Corinth were Gentiles, most in Jerusalem Jews. The Jewish church kept the Old Testament Law, the Gentile church did not. That was a point of real friction. By comparison, it puts many of today’s arguments into the shade. And yet they were committed to supporting one another. They helped people miles away they had never met, with whom they didn’t entirely agree, because they were brothers and sisters in Christ. Generosity bridges gaps. And in parishes which regularly support a charity it’s wonderful to see the benefit the parish receives.

In v.7 Paul writes: ‘As you excel in everything, so excel in this generous undertaking.’ He’s saying that giving is a privilege and a joy. If you passionately support something you like giving to it. I know a financial advisor who doesn’t exactly love giving tax to the government, but he pours money into his golf club. In the children’s hospital there are many homemade posters for fundraising events – a family has had a child endure a rare illness and now they’re putting heart and soul into raising money for a cure. If we have the resources to make a difference to something we care about then that is a gift from God. So what do you care about enough to support?

The act of giving can be a joy. I’ve seen a video of a church in Africa taking a collection. When we take the offering in England we pass around a little bag solemnly and people look rather glum as they drop an envelope into it. In Africa everything is done with joy and celebration. People dance up the aisle bearing their gifts. Cash may be scarce. So the gift might be vegetables, grain, even a live chicken. Sometimes the chicken makes a break for freedom. It is colourful, chaotic, filled with laugher. They delight in giving. And while that may not be the British style, perhaps we could learn from that pleasure in supporting what we believe in, enjoying being able to make the world a better place.

Part of the joy comes from it being a free gift. There should be no compulsion in giving, no guilt or emotional blackmail. As we have seen in the tragic case of Olive Cooke, unethical fundraising is wicked. In v.8, Paul writes: ‘I do not say this as a command’. Now in the Old Testament the tithe was a command. You were supposed to give 10% of your income, and indeed many Christians do that today, seeing it as a good principle. But it is not meant to be legalistic. Some are able to give more, some less. Whatever we give must be our own free choice. Made in a spirit of prayer, realism and open generosity

I must say I’m very impressed by the way this Diocese asks PCCs for money. In many other places it is a kind of church tax – each parish is given a figure. If you don’t pay it they come after you. My parents’ parish has years of debts to pay off. But here in the Diocese of Bristol each PCC is asked to pray about it and decide what we can afford. We give what we want to support God’s work.

The church authorities didn’t need to do it this way. It’s a huge risk. But they’re putting a Christian principle into practice. They’ve got a vision, showing the way towards greater maturity and interdependence. What a step of faith and trust! It’s been fascinating to see how some of our parishes took a brave step last year in raising their parish share – and how God has been faithful and blessed them with the best fundraisers they’ve ever had!

The apostle teaches: when you give, give what you have decided freely in your heart. We should consider wisely, pray about it and plan. Standing orders are great as they allow an organisation to plan and stop one’s giving being haphazard. Think about the charities you give to. Don’t just respond to the emotive appeals which fall through the letter box, but seek out things you really believe in. I don’t respond to chuggers, phone calls or mailings, and as a result I don’t get hassled much. But I do give to the things I believe in.

Things which make the world a better place. For example our PCC often gives some income to charity. When we had a fundraiser we gave part to the Water Aid project in Uganda. They use local organisations, which are much less susceptible to corruption than governments. And providing people with wells and pumps gives them the ability to help themselves out of poverty. As the well-known quote goes: ‘Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man how to go fishing and he eats for the rest of his life.’ Wisely used, our support can transform lives.

Ultimately we give because God gave to us. Christian giving is inspired by the creative love of God and the redemptive love of Jesus. In v.9. Paul writes: ‘for you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.’ Jesus left the glories of heaven for a harsh life on earth. The Son of God submitted himself to death so that we could be forgiven. He gave up everything he had for us, he died for uoi and me, and what we give can never repay that. When we really understand that, when we grasp the depths of Jesus love, that sets our hearts free to give.

Are there any guidelines about how much we should give? Two animals, Pig and Hen, were asked by the Vicar’s wife to contribute towards the Harvest Meal. It was a ham and egg supper. ‘Ooooh’, clucked Hen, ‘Isn’t it good to be able to help the church?’ Pig wasn’t so sure. ‘You make a donation,’ he grunted, ‘but I make a sacrifice.’

Ten pound a week may be a huge sacrifice for a widow on a pension but only a drop in the ocean for a successful professional. So in v. 12 Paul teaches that ‘the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have’. In other words, we should give according to our means. God looks at the heart; the intention, the generosity, what it means to us.

So we should try and give realistically. From time to time our income and expenses change so it’s good to review our giving regularly – say once a year. Remember to allow for inflation. When I was a child a pound was a lot of money. But what can you buy for a pound today?  It’s worth 25% less than it was ten years ago.

Because of that we may think we haven’t got enough income to give some of it away. And in a sense that’s true – we’ll never have enough for all the things we could desire. Those who hoard everything to themselves never have enough. And those who wait until they’re rich enough never get there. But the people who give a proportion of what they earn find out what they real priorities are. They receive God’s gift of contentment.

For if we give according to our means then the last two verses in our reading come true: ‘The one who had much did not have too much and the one who had little did not have too little.’ Those who are hard pressed are relieved and those who have plenty are blessed in helping them. God provides for us when we are generous.

This is Christ’s vision, that we should follow his example of amazing generosity. That in giving to those in need we may find joy in doing good. That in supporting his work we ourselves may be blessed. Being able to give is a gift, may we discover it. Amen.

Babel unbabbled

It was a very spiritual atmosphere as the little group of pilgrims celebrated Communion together in the Shepherd’s Cave near Bethlehem. All was done in a very Anglican style: calm and peaceful. At least it was until the charismatic Catholics from South Korea began their Eucharist nearby, complete with amplified rock band, dramatized re-enactment of the Nativity and dancing girls. Had I been able to understand it, it would have been great fun.

Different cultures worship in different ways, but the gospel translates into every dialect and style. Christians do not have to read the Bible in one official language, we can hear the good news in our own tongue.

That is part of the message of Pentecost. The diverse crowd in Jerusalem that day did not have to learn Aramaic before they could respond to the message. Instead the apostles, inspired by the Holy Spirit, addressed the crowd in their own native languages. Ever since, missionaries have laboured to understand local cultures and Bible translators have dedicated their lives to producing versions which people can read in their mother tongue, making the good news of Jesus intelligible to all. It is a momentum we must continue today, as we explain Christ to an ever changing culture. We in the church need to make the effort to ensure the message can be heard and understood.

For God cherishes human diversity. It is often said that Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel, that the many languages and mutual incomprehension, which were a judgement on human pride, are now undone. This is not quite correct. Pentecost is not a reversal of Babel, but a transformation and healing.

Pentecost does not set things back to how they were before the Babel story, to an original single language. Rather, using the different languages, the Holy Spirit expresses the one message in ways which all can understand. The story of Babel is taken up, healed and made whole, not simply reversed.

We see this in the Book of Revelation, which ends, not with a return to the Garden of Eden, but with a vision of new Jerusalem. We see that the Risen Christ bears the scars of the cross. In other words the story of human history with all its brokenness is not simply wiped away, but it is instead made whole, transfigured, so that through it can shine the glory of God.

Christopher Bryan