Passion Sunday – OT Series 4

How many people here have seen the most recent Star Wars film? The Force Awakens? My childhood was spent playing with little plastic figures and a toy X-wing so I would very much like to see it – though I think I’ve left it too late for the cinema. It will have to be on DVD.

Part of the reason I haven’t seen it yet is the difficulty of finding a free evening with the right timings. Partly it’s because I’m married to someone who claims not to have seen any of the original films, and is not keen to start now. In vain do I claim it’s not really sci-fi – Chantal says it won’t make sense if she’s not seen all the others beforehand.

I guess there’s some truth in that. People say the film is perfectly good as a stand alone but I imagine you’d get more out of it if you knew what a Stormtrooper does and who Luke Skywalker is. The background is important and helpful even if the story does make sense without it.

Often the Bible is like that. The life and teaching of Jesus is wonderful and if those gospels were all we had we could still have a Christian faith. Yet if we understand the background we can get so much more out of what Jesus says.

Take the readings we just heard as an example. If all we had was that gospel we would understand that Jesus knew he was destined to die, we would see that a woman called Mary poured her incredibly precious perfume over him as a gift of love and worship. We would feel the tension between the practical, rational Judas who has a hidden agenda, and Jesus who understands extravagant generosity. We see there is no calculation in love. Jesus gave himself to us so freely – and if we’ve understood that love then we will love him unreservedly too.

That all makes sense. But if we want to understand why Jesus was heading towards that destiny then we need to know the previous story. That’s where our reading from Isaiah in the Old Testament comes in.

It was written at least five hundred years before Jesus but it includes some incredibly accurate predictions about him. God told his people what was going to happen.

Throughout the Old Testament God points the way towards Jesus, so that when he comes people will be able to understand him. This reading Isaiah 53, is a prophecy of the events around Jesus’ death and resurrection.

v.8. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. An innocent man, Jesus was condemned in a show trial. Pilate knew Jesus was not guilty yet washed his hands of the whole affair

v.12. He made intercession for the transgressors – in other words he prayed for those who were doing wrong. As his hands were being nailed to a plank of wood, Jesus prayed: ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do.’ What amazing compassion.

v.9. They made his tomb with the rich. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, took the body of Jesus and laid it in the tomb he had had made for himself.

Some of the things that are said here wouldn’t have made much sense until Jesus came and made it clear. For instance, verses 8, 9 and12 clearly say that God’s servant is killed. He is dead. And yet in v.11 ‘out of his anguish he shall see light’. If he’s dead how can that be? Unless he has come back to life again. The Resurrection makes sense of it.

These remarkable, accurate, predictions show us that God knew what was going to happen. He declared it beforehand. Jesus understood that, and yet freely went towards his destiny. But why did he go through all that suffering? What motivated him? Love for you and for me.

Here again Isaiah explains. In v.4, anyone looking at a cross would see a naked, tortured man. It was a horrible death, and at the time people widely believed that if you were crucified you were cursed by God. Although ‘we accounted him stricken’, Isaiah tells us that Jesus ‘bore our infirmities and carried our diseases.’ Jesus, God’s own Son, identifies with us so closely that he even shares human suffering.

So whenever we are in pain we know that Jesus has been there too. We can pray to him and ask for his help knowing that he understands.

When my son was born early as a result of a car accident I was so traumatised – and yet there was an almost tangible sense of God’s presence with me. It’s impossible to put into words just what a difference it makes knowing that God really cares. God is not some distant deity in a steely heaven, Christ has tasted everything this world can throw at you.

And there’s an even deeper meaning to this. In v.5 it says ‘he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.’ This is a profound truth that the sufferings of Jesus give us healing. Not long ago I heard of someone who jumped into the sea to save struggling children and did so, but succumbed themselves. Jesus is like that, he gives himself to rescue us: his death saves us from sin.

Remember the beautiful story Jesus told of the Lost Sheep? How the one sheep from a flock of a hundred wanders off and the shepherd goes to find it, searching high and low until he returns with it safely. I’m sure Jesus had verse 6 in mind. ‘All we like sheep have gone astray’. I expect most of us have at some point in our lives been like the sheep wandering from the right path. I suspect we all still do and say and think things that we’d be embarrassed about if everyone knew them.

In the year 2000 a film came out called ‘What women want’. The blurb describes it thus: ‘After an accident, a chauvinistic executive gains the ability to hear what women are really thinking.’ So someone is talking to him and he not only hears what they are saying but he can also hear what they’re thinking too. Imagine though if we could all do that! Life would become impossible. I think I’d stop talking!

Many people go through life with a vague sense of unease or even guilt about this. They have their standards but know they often don’t reach them. If they believe in God, they’re not sure how he’ll deal with the times they do wrong. Perhaps we don’t like to think about that much because it feels uncomfortable, perhaps we hope for the best but are not sure on what grounds, maybe we try and build up our credit balance with a few good deeds here and there – or a mixture of all three.

The thing is: Isaiah tells us there’s no need to be uncertain. Clarity brings healing and confidence. Isaiah is very blunt but there’s a kind of healthiness and lack of self-deception about what he says. He doesn’t beat around the bush but recognises that we all need God’s forgiveness. We do wrong. It has consequences.

But accepting this can be good news if we also receive what Jesus has done for us. Isaiah shows that Jesus took the punishment for sin on himself. In v.11 ‘The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.’ That’s what we remember on Passion Sunday. Jesus gave himself for us. Not even death could stop his love.

Perhaps what I’ve been saying is familiar to you – if so do remember it this Easter and let that truth inspire you with love for Christ who did so much for you. If you once knew this but had forgotten – don’t slip back into that vague unease but be confident that God loves you and forgives you when you return to him. So accept for yourself what he has done.

Now it maybe that what I’ve said has been new to someone. If so, that’s great. I hope it’s made sense and you feel able to accept what Jesus has done for you. If it’s new and you’re not sure you’ve understand it then please pray to God to make it clear and please do talk with me afterwards – I’m not in a hurry today! What we’ve just thought about it the good news God wants us to hear – not just this Easter but always!

Let’s finish with a prayer:

‘Lord God, we thank you for Jesus who shared everything in human life. We thank you for the great sacrifice he made for us. Help us to understand and accept what he has done so that we can know your forgiveness and love’ Amen.



So, tell me Mum and Dad, why would you like your baby baptised? It’s great you’ve made a positive choice that this is what you’d like for little Jack – because not everyone does have their children christened nowadays. Can you tell me a bit about what the baptism means to you?

It’s interesting what responses I get in the baptism visit. Of course there are occasionally parents who say, well actually, it’s for Nan really, she feels they ought to be done. I even heard of a Gran somewhere who was going to cut all the grandchildren out of the will if they weren’t christened. And there was once somebody who came to see me rather anxious because Grandma had told her that you had to be baptised if you wanted an operation on the NHS! In those situations there’s a lot of reassuring and myth-busting that has to be done.

But most parents have thought about it and what it means to them. We’d like to give Jack the best possible start in life. Being brought up in a Christian home meant a lot to me and I want that for Emily too. We want her to be part of God’s family and brought up the right way. When you have a baby it makes you think about what really matters and we’ve decided this is important to us. Well actually, Vicar, Jamie had a really difficult start in life and we just want to give thanks that he’s here. We want to bring him into God’s house.

All these things are going on in the New Testament reading from Luke chapter 2, and a lot more besides. When Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple they start him off in Israel’s faith, with celebration. It is also about giving thanks for a safe delivery and enabling Mary to return to normal life after being isolated during childbirth. The fact that Jesus is her first-born son is also important: according the Old Testament Law the first male in the family belonged to God and had to be bought back or redeemed by presenting an animal for sacrifice instead.

There’s a telling little detail there in v. 24. They ‘offered a sacrifice of two turtle doves or young pigeons.’ It was supposed to be a lamb and a young pigeon. But a whole lamb is expensive, so the Law compassionately allowed the poor to give a second pigeon instead.

So Mary and Joseph did not have much. They lived in a household where every coin mattered and you had to watch what you spent. If getting by is difficult for any of us, remember that Jesus knows what it is like trying to make ends meet. And if we are better off, let us remember that Jesus’ words about generosity and the way that he lived, are all the more remarkable coming from someone of limited means.

In everything that he did, Jesus practiced what he preached. As an adult he lived by the Old Testament law. He didn’t do so grudgingly. He affirmed it wholeheartedly. Because he knew it was God’s will.


That’s important for us today – Jesus had a high regard for the Old Testament and so should we. It was his Bible, it was the culture he lived in. If we want to understand him, we should also get to grips with the Old Testament Scriptures he lived, breathed and recited every day.

Jesus did not come to tell the Jews ‘You’ve got the wrong idea and I’ll teach you the right way’. Yes, there were things that the Pharisees did that were over the top, legalistic and strict – but Jesus argued with them over their interpretation of the Law, he didn’t say the Law itself was wrong. Yes, many people in his time had forgotten that the promise of the Messiah was for all nations – but Jesus called them back to it, as Simeon does in v.32. Jesus didn’t abolish, he fulfilled.

Jesus did not say that the Old Testament was a ritual dead end. God did not have a Plan A Old Testament, and when that went wrong he came up with Plan B New Testament. Instead he fulfilled it, he brought it to completion, he shared its true meaning. That’s what we see in this reading, not the Old Testament set aside, but brought to completion.

Those of you who are married, do you remember what it was like being engaged? A time of promise, hope and expectation? Lots of organisation too. Now that you’re married, would you go back to being engaged? Probably not. Being married is better than being engaged. So does that mean that you now look back on the time of engagement and think of it as a dreadful time you’d rather forget about? Of course not! I remember romantic meals and much excitement. It was lovely.

Just because the engagement has been fulfilled in marriage, doesn’t mean you look at it as a useless time. Just because you wouldn’t want to go back doesn’t mean it was all dreadful. So why do many Christians think of the Old Testament like that? Why is two-thirds of our Bible a closed book to many? The Old Testament is like the engagement, and the New Testament like the marriage. The new brings completion to the old, the old lays foundation for the new. Both have their valuable place.

I passionately believe that the Old Testament is not archaic history for those who like that kind of thing. It is not something Christians can throw off with a hearty sigh of relief ‘thank goodness we don’t have to follow that kind of religion anymore’. Instead, the Old Testament is the background, the scaffolding, the foundation on which my faith is built. Jesus doesn’t make sense without the Bible he used.

That’s why, during this Lent, I’m going to be preaching a sermon series on big themes from the Old Testament. It’s why our Lent course will take the biggest Biblical ideas and tie them together – showing how Jesus fulfils what came before him.

You can see it all through today’s passage. It’s incredibly symbolic. For instance, we’ve thought about why there was no lamb – because Mary and Joseph were poor. But there’s a symbolic level as well. There is no lamb because the Lamb of God himself is there. Jesus is the lamb.

He will give himself for our sins, just as the lambs were sacrificed to bring peace with God. The one who will replace the temple comes to the temple. The one through whom we meet God is presented to God.

It’s all of this that Simeon and Anna have been waiting for, all through their long years. They know that Messiah is coming, and now they have seen him. Our situation is not that different. One day we shall see Jesus. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, now we see as through a glass darkly, then we shall see face to face. We shall see him in glory.

I’ve heard a story of an old Methodist lay preacher who lay seriously ill in bed. The doctor came to him and gently broke the news that he was dying. The man was elated – at last he was going to see his Lord. Apparently he got so excited that he lasted several days longer than anyone expected!

If we have faith in Christ, like Simeon, one day we shall see him. The waiting will be over, the engagement passed. Term time will be finished and the holidays begun. Let us live in the light of that promise, so that we won’t have wasted our time here. Let’s stir up ourselves to faithfulness, long term persistence and courage like Simeon and Anna. Let’s strive to walk in Christ’s way, with his light shining upon us. Let us count all else but dross except for knowing Christ, so that we can truly say

‘Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,

according to thy word.

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people

To be a light to lighten the Gentiles

And to be the glory of thy people Israel.’




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.