Advent 2018

Before I say anything else I’d like to begin with a big thank you to the Gauzebrook choir, to Eric our organist, and to Katherine  the conductor. They have been ably supported by a team who have organised rehearsals, produced orders of service and offered readings. This is a true community effort, reflecting the unity and diversity across our Gauzebrook Group. Thank you for giving generously of your time and skills, creating such a beautiful event.

I know that a great deal of preparation has gone into this service. Even before the shops had their Christmas decorations up, way back in September, we were making plans. For several weekends rehearsals have happened here, all preparing for the big day.

And as I thought about this sermon, it was hard not to be distracted by the sounds of joyful preparation echoing through the house. Clonking sounds in the attic as cardboard boxes are thrown aside and Christmas lights located. Laughter and clapping as the nativity set appears, the singing of Christmas carols and the practising of school play lines.

But I also know that tomorrow is my day off, and in my diary for the day there is a big chunk of time blocked out. It’s called ‘Sort out Christmas’. We will have to compose the Christmas letter – what an eventful year! – go through the Christmas card list, rack our brains on what present to get the Aunty who says ‘oh don’t bother about me’, and draw lots on who gets to go out in the wind and rain and dig up the Christmas tree.

So I end up thinking: in the midst of all the Advent preparation, how can we be truly present? How can we be open to God in the busyness? Looking out for those moments of glory where the meaning of Christmas shines through

For I don’t think it’s always matter of either / or. Yes, Sometimes we do have a choice: there are points where Either I take time out to pray, or I fuss about getting another decoration absolutely perfect. I can choose to let go of some of the unnecessary things.

But I feel that much of what we do in Advent and the run-up to Christmas is important, and depending on how we do it we may be able to connect with God. As I sign those endless Christmas cards can I briefly imagine holding each distant friend before God in prayer?

Can you extend the drinks party invitation to the lonely and isolated? In cooking the turkey can I keep the point of it all in sight so that it’s not a stress but a celebration?

For it’s crucial that we keep the first things first. Remember what you’re really doing. I heard a story recently about a company that got a management consultant in. They were quite successful, making drills, but they wanted to see how they could improve. So the management consultant did her stuff, interviewed everyone, pored through the figures, looked at her graphs.

Eventually the day came for the big reveal. Nervously the whole company staff gathered in the canteen – what would the verdict be? Who would lose their jobs?

The consultant began. ‘I have discovered three things about you’. ‘Firstly, you are a medium sized company.’ Right… thinks everyone. ‘Secondly, you make drills.’ At this point senior management are looking anxious – is this what really they paid tens of thousands for? ‘But thirdly – actually you don’t make drills. You help people make holes’.

And as that company thought about it, and invested in what they really did, they stopped making drills and became leaders in a new technology. Now they use lasers to make holes.

Whether we’re talking about Christmas, or the life of the church, or in our own lives being ready for Christ’s ultimate return – the point is the same. Keep focussed on what it’s really about.

The busyness of the festive season, even the organisation of church life, are not ends in themselves. They are means to an end – the ultimate end of being drawn closer into the life of God and finding fulfilment in him. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why churches are here.

This Christmas I hope we shall welcome many people through those doors. They will come with a whole variety of backgrounds, and reasons why they think they’re here. Let us pray for them, and for ourselves, that we shall be able to discern and respond to the love of God, shown to us most of all in the gift of Jesus.

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A God who keeps his promises

It is dark inside the church, and hushed, but with the background rustling and breathing of many people waiting in silence. A match is struck, and at the same time a soloist sings forth ‘Come Lord Jesus’. As candles are lit from one another, the choir sings, and light blazes through the building.

This is one of my favourite times of the year – the beginning of the Advent Carol service. Listening to readings and singing together, we celebrate the dawning hope of Jesus’ coming. The Bible readings speak of God’s relationship with his people, of his faithfulness over the centuries, and the promise that one day everything will be made new. It is a wonderful story of hope.

We live in a world where spiritual things are often conveyed by physical means; human beings are creatures within time. So we need signs of hope – the tangible things and occasions which help us to look beyond the immediate situation. We need stories to tell which change the narrative, moments of encouragement which renew our energy.

Such incidents strengthen hope, yet we do not base our hope on them. Christian hope is grounded on the character of God – a God who, as we hear in Advent, keeps his promises and is faithful. Advent calls us to believe that history belongs to God, that the Kingdom of God will come, and that the whole world will be healed and renewed. So Christian hope is not fleeting or uncertain (I hope I will win the lottery!) but firm because it is based on who God is. Even when the way ahead is unclear, or troubled, Christian hope makes the decision to trust in God. As a Cardinal once said:

To hope is a duty, not a luxury.
To hope is not to dream but to turn dreams into reality.
Happy those who have the courage to dream dreams
and who are ready to pay the price
so that dreams take shape in other people’s lives.

Wealth and the Kingdom of God. Mark 10:17-31

I wonder if there is somewhere you’ve always wanted to go? That’s captured your imagination? For me one of those places is the remote Scottish island of St Kilda. A rugged rock in the middle of the Atlantic, St Kilda was home to a unique way of life. The people hunted the sea birds which nest on the cliffs, and subsistence farmed the shallow soil. If you have the stomach to spend hours in a small boat in rough seas, you can visit the ruins of the deserted village they called home.

 

It seems incredibly romantic, but you wouldn’t actually want to live like that. Why would anyone voluntarily return to grinding poverty, to a short hard life?

 

In first century Palestine there was no Welfare State. No workers’ rights. An accident at work, like a broken leg, could mean a rapid descent into poverty. Hunger illness and death could follow for the entire family. No-one would choose poverty.

 

Surely therefore those who were well off could count themselves blessed by God? Throughout the Old Testament wealth is seen as a gift from the Almighty. For instance, Abraham became very wealthy because God had blessed him. Solomon’s wealth came because God approved of his request for wisdom. Job was a rich man who lost everything, but when God vindicated him Job’s fortunes and bank balance recovered.

 

To be sure, the Old Testament also recognises that there were many bad rich people. Prophets like Amos rail against those who gained wealth by injustice. Just because someone was rich didn’t necessarily mean they were good, but people in Jesus’ time would believe that, in general, God provided for and blessed those with whom he was pleased.

 

So the teaching of Jesus in v.25 that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God would have seemed crazy! And yes, Jesus really is talking about a big beast of burden and small hole in a sewing implement. It’s that hard! That’s why the disciples say in v.26 ‘Who then can be saved?’

 

Why is this so? Why does Jesus tell this wealthy young man to give it all away? What does wealth do to us that can be spiritually dangerous?

 

Firstly, there’s the risk of injustice. In Biblical times in Israel the productivity of the land wasn’t particularly high. No artificial fertilisers, not much irrigation. If you wanted to increase your profits you could reduce your labour costs by paying your people less. Or you could try and get economies of scale by snapping up the ancestral land of those who fell into debt. This is why the letter of James has such harsh words for those who are rich – he can reasonably assume that those who have reached the top of the pile have done it by scrambling over others.

 

His words have resonance today. If you want goods in time, at a reasonable price, chosen from a wide range, delivered to your door, where do you go? Amazon. For sheer convenience it’s hard to beat. But at what price? Low wages, workers reliant on benefits. Amazon paid less tax in the UK than the singer Ed Sheeran.

 

It needn’t be like this. Money can be a force for good. The Timpson family who own the shoe repair business deliberately give jobs to ex-convicts. In John Lewis the staff are not called workers but partners as they each own a share – which of course is a good incentive too. And if anyone’s looking to invest, I’d recommend Oikocredit which gives loans to individuals starting businesses in developing nations.

Why is wealth not used in positive ways more? One answer might be that we easily end up justifying the situation: I’ve worked hard for what I’ve got – but actually where did it come from? The problem with thinking that riches are a reward is that the flip side is that those lot are poor because they deserve it. They’re not working hard enough, they can’t get organised, they’re spending it on fags and satellite TV. Listening to the real stories of those who are struggling, those near to us, will give us a much more balanced view than the tabloid hysteria.

 

Perhaps a third spiritual danger of wealth is that we get used to it. The more you have, the more you want. The more you want, the less satisfied you feel.

 

I bought a car last year. One of my criteria was that it should have a built in sat-nav. And indeed, I’m much less likely to get lost now. If I’m likely to be late I have a Bluetooth connection to my phone so I can ring up and say that I will be delayed. It is brilliant, and I wonder how on earth I coped beforehand?

 

Well the answer is: I managed pretty well. Twenty years ago I drove to Elgin in a one litre Nissan Micra with no air conditioning and a half-broken radio. There are many people in the world who would still be grateful for that! Yet once you have become established in a level of living it is hard to give it up – and this rich young ruler knows that well. In v.22 he goes away grieving, because he has many possessions.

 

The question for us is: Do I really need such and such? What difference will it make? Perhaps it would also be good for us to live simply from time to time – say at Lent.

 

Fourthly, we become invested in places and things. We sense that we are finding our place in the world, whereas in reality the world is finding its place in us. Money can tie us down.

 

Every holiday I have my estate agent’s window moment. A few days in, when I’m enjoying myself, I begin to think ‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a holiday cottage? I could nip down on my day off…and have another lawn to mow and another set of gutters to clear!’ As we buy things, particularly the big ticket items, we tie ourselves down with more and more commitments. And while in one sense commitment is good, it is good truly to belong to a place, good to be committed to people, there are other commitments which are perhaps more of a tie. Are you still able to respond flexibly to God’s call?

 

It’s interesting that many really successful businesses started off in someone’s garage. A big existing company might not risk its funds on an unproven technology – but the little guy has the freedom to invest everything he’s got and become an entrepreneur. Do we, do our churches have the freedom to be entrepreneurial for God?

 

Finally, perhaps the most significant risk in having a bit of money is that we put our trust in it rather than God. The fact that our money can help us through a hard time may be wise planning – but it must never become what we rely on.

 

It seems to me that self-reliance is what Jesus was driving at in our reading from Mark. In v.17 the rich young man arrives to see Jesus and he has a most peculiar question: ‘Good Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ That’s odd – you don’t usually do anything to inherit – it comes to you as a gift. Although I suppose there are people who carefully cultivate wealthy great aunts.

 

But this man seems to think he can do something to inherit eternal life. Jesus’ response seems equally strange. ‘Why do you call me good – no-one is good but God alone.’ Actually, he’s pointing out to the young man that if only God is good, then trying a bit harder to be a bit better is unlikely to be the path to eternal life. Self-reliance won’t get you there, but reliance on God who is good will.

And if the man recognises that Jesus is good – well that might well be a pointer to the divinity of Christ. That’s why following Jesus, in v.21, is the path to eternal life. Think about it, if Jesus meant to say that, he Jesus, wasn’t good, if Jesus meant to say that he was a sinful person just like anyone else, then it would have been utterly crazy to suggest that following that Jesus would be the way to eternal life. What Jesus is doing here is pointing us to his divine nature, and saying that when we follow him we receive the greatest gift of all.

 

Yet why does the man need to give away his wealth in order to follow Jesus? Perhaps it was a tie, but it seems there’s more going on. In v.19 Jesus lists the commandments – but interestingly he misses out the tenth commandment ‘thou shalt not covet.’ Sincerely, the young man says that he has kept all these.

 

But then Jesus strikes to the heart of the matter: ‘You lack one thing, go sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and come follow me.’ He sets this huge challenge because he knows it is the one thing the rich young man struggles with. This is the crux of the matter.

 

Jesus doesn’t do this because he wants to catch him out. v. 21 says that Jesus loved him, he wants what’s best for him, he wants him to recognise this problem and address it. Only by going for it head-on can he address this self-reliance. Would we be able to do this? Does it feel as if Jesus asks too much? Do you doubt you could do it in our strength? If so, good. Because Jesus means us to understand that we can’t. We need God. We couldn’t do that on our own. We need God.

 

It could have turned out differently. If the young man had said ‘Help me’, if he’d said ‘Lord, this is tough, I can’t do it in my own strength but you can enable me do it.’ then that would have been enough. Jesus can work with the smallest willingness – as long as we will let him in. Isn’t that what he says in v.27? ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. With God all things are possible.’

In other words, this man was approaching it the wrong way round. His success, his wealth, had made him self-reliant. He asked what can I do to inherit eternal life – when it actually comes as a gift through trusting in the only one who is good, Jesus himself.

 

When we have put our faith in Christ, we can work out its implications. This is the only way to be set free from the love of riches – by trust in the God who provides. This is how we really grasp God’s generosity – and are set free to be generous ourselves. This is what a Christian attitude to money is – whether rich or poor we trust in God, and use what we have to bless others. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Ephesians 5:15-20

A few years ago now, WWJD bracelets were all the rage among teenagers. These were little cloth wristbands, with, woven into the fabric, the letters W, W, J, D. It stands for What Would Jesus Do? So young people finding themselves in difficult or potentially challenging situations would stop up short and think, what would Jesus do? How would he approach this?

 

Excellent idea, particularly as teenagers need all the help they can get in living a distinctively Christian lifestyle. In fact, there were plenty of adults who took it on too!

 

However there’s also a teenage rebel in me who says ‘Yes but… How does knowing what Jesus would do help me?’ After all, Jesus was Jesus. He could do all sorts of things I can’t. Jesus could turn an argument around with a clever question, he could cut the Gordian knot. Faced with 5000 hungry people, the disciples suggested buying food, but Jesus worked a miracle. Jesus could heal, raise the dead. What Would Jesus Do? Something incredible! What should I do? Not sure.

 

To which Jesus might respond, in John’s Gospel: ‘Anyone who has faith in me will do greater things than I have been doing.’

 

But the serious point is that you and I are not called to be Jesus. What we are called to be is more like Jesus.  We become more like him in love, compassion wisdom and following God. As we do so we also become more fully ourselves. Jesus does not take us over and force each person into an identikit mould, a little copy of himself. Instead he helps each one of us become a more Christ like version of ourselves.

 

That is the second key doctrine of Christian vocation: that we are called to be ourselves. Whether father, brother, uncle, priest, farmer, retired, sick or well, our vocation is to a particular station in life, and to fulfil that role as a disciple of Christ. God has a plan for each person’s life.

One implication of this is that the activities we enjoy, the work that gives us pleasure may well be the very same things that God is calling us to do. God often speaks to us through our innate talents and loves.

 

I said the fact we are called to be ourselves is the ‘second key doctrine of Christian vocation’. The first is in Ephesians chapter 5 v15-20 where Paul commands that we understand what the will of the Lord is. And what is the will of the Lord? Those sentences could be summed up in the word ‘worship’. Above all, our calling is a response to God, we are created for his pleasure and to worship him.

 

When we think of worship we should consider more than what we do on Sunday. Worship is the whole of life. In v.15 Paul writes: ‘Be careful then how you live’. The word ‘then’ tells us that we need to look at what has gone before. Paul has been talking about how Christ will return, evil will be judged, and those who have trusted in Christ will live with him forever.

 

So if evil will be destroyed, don’t live that way! If the Kingdom of God begins now and lasts for ever, start living God’s way now! That’s why Paul tells us to live as those who are wise, not as those who are unwise.

 

‘Make the most of the time’. Do you ever find yourself wondering where all the time went? What happened to the day? The internet can swallow time up, so can television and gossip. More subtle things can end up occupying more of our lives than is healthy: the endless quest to make the house or garden just that little bit more presentable. It’s the good things like that which can get in the way of the best – sometimes we need to be disciplined and stop so that we can focus the right thing.

 

That needs discernment. So in v.17 ‘Do not be foolish, but understand the will of the Lord’. As we read the Bible, pray and listen; as we reflect on God’s word to us and our experiences; as we seek to live God’s way then our characters become more like that of Jesus.

One example is ‘Don’t become drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery.’ What’s the opposite of drunkenness? Not what you might expect! Paul doesn’t say ‘Instead be sober. Be dull boring.’ In v. 18 he writes ‘Do not get drunk with wine, instead be filled with the Spirit’. One type of Spirit replaces another! The Holy Spirit brings joy, satisfaction, sufficiency. Rather than drowning our sorrows, the Holy Spirit brings them to God who strengthens us and gives us joy even in the midst of them.

He enables us to sing the song of God’s people. One of my favourite tasks as a priest is when I have enough time to choose hymns well. Not rushed, but really thinking through what will work with this Sunday? How will these themes fit with the Bible reading? What tune will be well known and lift people’s hearts? When I have done that, I end up humming through the rest of the day.

 

Music captures our emotions, provides a way of communicating to God without words. If we are prone to negative thinking or obsessing over things, music replaces the voice in the head with something positive. It gives a language which sums up any human experience, even those that are too deep for words.

 

Perhaps it’s ironic that I’m saying this at a said service where we have no music. I wonder if we ought to be more confident and willing to sing up – there are styles of music which do not need accompaniment. The Bible says make a joyful noise to the Lord – tuneful is good but joyful is most important! We are so blessed nowadays with music to hand – radio, CDs, MP3, so put something good on. Enjoy and praise God.

 

Perhaps music is important because it can be such a pure form of worship, with no purpose other than, as it says in verse 20 ‘giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

That is a call to put worship and prayer at the top of our priority list. Our Christian vocation is not chiefly about the work we do, nor about our various ministries in church. Our Christian vocation centres on our relationship with God, mediated by worship and prayer. It is in communion with him that we find out who we really are. It’s as we praise him that we find ourselves transformed and renewed.

 

 

 

 

1 Samuel 9:4-20

How do you pass things down the generations? Yesterday we enjoyed a great fete – lots of people having fun. What made it notable is that a younger generation were organising. The people in their 60s and 70s handed over to those in their 40s – and it’s going well.

Doesn’t always though. A certain media empire wrestles with the question: Is it better to keep it in the family? At times the  White House doesn’t seem keen to bring in expertise from outside.

 

Countless businesses have struggled with the same question. And it’s a tricky one. Maybe there just isn’t anyone who wants to take on the family farm. Or perhaps the younger generation are keen – but they want to do it their way, with their ideas, not the way grandpa did it. What might just work for a business isn’t best for a nation. Our reading today from 1st Samuel 8 considers, how will a good ruler be chosen?

 

Don’t do what Samuel did. His big mistake came before our reading, in v.1-3. He appointed his sons as judges, but they became corrupt. A familiar story from the lives of many leaders. What’s particularly strange though, is that Samuel started his career when his predecessor Eli made exactly the same mistake. As we heard last week, Eli the priest had sons who were corrupt so God sent a message to Samuel telling Eli that their conduct would not be tolerated any longer. So you might expect Samuel to have learnt – yet it seems he has no more control over his sons than Eli did.

 

Three times in today’s reading the word listen is used. It’s a passage all about listening and obedience. But this isn’t the listening of a well-trained sheepdog which follows its master’s whistle exactly. This is about people who don’t listen to God. Alarmingly, it’s also about a God who allows us a scary amount of freedom. As we continue our sermon series on prayer this is a salutary reminder that we worship a God who listens to us. He is a God who believes in our freedom, who might even allow us what we want, even if it’s not the best thing for us.

So it starts with Samuel, who had heard the message to Eli. He had seen what happened to Eli’s sons, and yet he failed to learn the lesson himself. He chose his successors from his own family.

 

The principle goes wider. It can be tempting for managers to promote people who agree with them, or who make them feel good – but flatterers are fickle and yes-men rarely have leadership qualities themselves. Some leaders choose lieutenants by repaying those who are owed a favour or do it on the basis of dead men’s shoes. Neither of those approaches leads to the best stewardship, nor to public service.

 

Those of us who act as leaders should choose our colleagues not for our own convenience, but remember that we have a wider responsibility.

In this light v.4-5 might seem reasonable. The people state the facts, somewhat baldly. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways – appoint for us then a king to govern us like other nations.’ Clearly they cherish and admire Samuel even if their tact is lacking. But Samuel takes it personally, in v.6, Samuel was displeased.

 

How easy it is to take opposition to heart! How easy to confuse the role with the person. To imagine that if your idea is opposed that people don’t like you. Or to go off in a huff. But sometimes role and person must be separate.

 

For instance, the first women priests had a lot of opposition. Some said it was easier to cope when they realised that the opposition wasn’t directed at them as people – it was what they represented. Interestingly, in many cases once congregations had got used to the person they were also able to accept the role. It’s very important for everyone in whatever situation to be able to keep the distinction between person and role, so that it doesn’t get too personal.

 

 

Sometimes it’s God who’s actually being rejected. Just as it was for Samuel. In v.7b ‘The Lord said they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them’. Again, there’s a failure to listen. The Biblical book of Deuteronomy is clear: God is their king. That’s why early Israel didn’t have monarchs – they were ruled by God who made his will known through prophets and judges like Samuel. Asking for a king was actually a profound rejection of the Lord.

 

So isn’t it all the more surprising that God seems to give in? What does he say in v7: ‘Listen to their request!’ Might he not have refused? There is a frightening responsibility here – God gives us what we ask for. Sometimes I hear people talking about their past and saying that such a thing must have been God’s will because he allowed them to do it. Implying that if God hadn’t wanted it, it wouldn’t have happened.

 

That’s not the way God works. Our heavenly Father gives us free will. He gives us the opportunity to choose, for better or for worse. And it wouldn’t be a free choice if the consequences weren’t truly open.

 

Therefore Samuel had to explain to the people what a king would do. The grass seems greener on the other side. Sometimes people need to know what the alternative actually involves. They have to be brought back to the real world. Occasionally we might look at an unhappy present and imagine a future ideal. Dreaming like that isn’t harmful – it can inspire us – provided that we face that fact that choices have to be made between real-life situations. And perfection is rarely possible. Maybe next time you meet someone complaining about something, it might be worth asking them: ‘what’s your solution?’

 

And that’s what the prophet does in verses 10-17. He tells what the king will do. The king will take the best for himself. He will take a whopping 10% for his people. Shows how much things have changed, that in those days an oppressive rate of tax was 10%! But then again, it was only for the armed forces and the king. No welfare state back then!

Yet the people do not listen. ‘No but we are determined to have a king over us. There are two reasons: We want to be like other nations. Not an informal coalition of tribes, relying on the worship of one God. Not living radically as a witness to the Gentiles. We want to grow. We want identity. Boundaries. Power. More land. Empire. We want a king.

 

Israel was meant to change the world. Instead they ended up being changed by it. Rather than listen to God and share that good news with the world, they listened to the world and asked God that they might be the same. The same challenge faces Christians today. Will we be witnesses? Or will we be conformed? Are we light in the world, pointing the way to Christ? Or do we seek to be like the other nations, taking our values from the world? What do we really value, and why?

 

And then their second reason ‘so that our king may govern us and go about before us and fight out battles.’ Perhaps we can sympathise with this. They did face real threats of invasion. Rule by God must have seemed a bit of a gamble. Is God really there? Does it make a difference in battle? And if God chooses the leaders by giving them his Spirit, well who will he send? Will they be up to it? At least with a king you know where you stand. You can see him!

 

It’s about trust, isn’t it? Following God is step into the unknown, a leap of faith. Faced by an alternative radical lifestyle, and the seeming uncertainty of God as King, the people opted for the allure of the nation state and the security of a human king. The irony was, they were less secure. For no human king would be up to the challenges the nation of Israel would face. Many were tried and found wanting. Only those who depended on God made the grade. Only he could ultimately save.

 

So God says again ‘Listen to them’. They are set in their way so he will allow them what they want. Yet the amazing thing about the way this story turns out is that God did not give up on them. Yes, the kings of Israel often did do exactly what Samuel had said. But there were also kings who ruled wisely: David, Hezekiah, Josiah. Maybe the institution was flawed from the start, but God in his grace was able to use the monarchy for good. It’s a reminder to us that, even when we mess up, God does not give up on us. He can take our mistakes and turn them round. If there’s anything in your life that you wished never happened, a mistake you made, bring it to God, see what he can do.

 

For God can even turn our mistakes into blessings. The change God brings is so great that even our errors and sins can be transformed and become something good. Look at the beginning and end of the Bible.

 

The Bible begins with two naked people in a garden. When they do wrong they cover their shame with clothes. Their descendants try and build a city which reaches to the skies, but their pride is punished when God divides their languages so they cannot understand one another.

 

What then would we expect at the end of the Bible? All being put right, a return to the golden age, of nakedness in a garden?

 

The Bible ends with a great multitude, from every tribe and language, clad in white robes as a glorious city descends from heaven. God has not put the clock back. He has taken human sin, and its consequences and totally transformed everything. The path we have taken cannot be untrodden, instead it is planted with flowers.

 

That’s exactly what God does with the idea of having a King. It becomes a model for Jesus. The one who would lead and serve perfectly. The one who now reigns with God.

 

Jesus was sent to be a King. Jesus too was rejected, the people did not want him as their Lord. We heard that in the gospel reading. And so they crucified him. Yet God turned that rejection into redemption. Jesus’ death in our place, on account of our sins, opened the way for all humanity to return to God. His love really is that awesome.

 

And so, to conclude. Our readings today challenge us – to whom do we listen? Do we listen to God and try to share that sensitively with the world around? Or do we take our values from the world around and hope that God won’t mind? Do we take responsibility for our decisions – for that responsibility is given by God and respected by him.

 

Recognising that we all make mistakes, can we see the hand of God in redeeming them? Will we allow God to transform our lives, not by putting the clock back, but by taking the hand we have dealt ourselves, and with it creating something beautiful and wonderful?

Mark 1:21-28

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Epiphany

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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