Thursday, December 23, 2021

A sermon for Carols on Christmas Eve 2021

 Text:  Luke 2.12

The angels said to the shepherds, ‘This will be a sign to you:  you’ll find the baby wrapped in swaddling bands, and laid in a manger’.  A sign?  A sign of what?

If, like me, you are a fan of social media, you will undoubtedly have come across those clever signs which get erected outside of churches from time to time.  Some of them only work if you can see them – because deliberate mis-spelling is essential to the joke.  But some can be repeated orally.  Like these:

“Forgive your enemies.  It messes with their heads.”

“Come to our annual ‘Fish Fry’ – because our cod is an awesome cod!”

“Honk if you love Jesus!  If you want to meet him, text while driving”

I rather like the sign I saw at another local church recently, which leaves no doubt in the mind of church-goers about where they should not leave their cars.  It simply says “Thou shalt not park here’.  I saw a similar one in the States which says “Parking for the Preacher only.  If you park here, you preach!”.

There are other kinds of signs too.  We all like to look for signs which foretell the future, or which guide us to some deeper reality.  ‘Red sky at night…Shepherds’ delight’ for example.  A surprisingly large number of people still seem to think that the position of certain stars in the ‘zodiac’ might predict what’s going to happen in their lives.  We seem to be hard-wired to want to get some inside information from the Universe about what is going to happen. 

The Bible is stocked full of signs.  Time and again, our ancestors of faith used signs to speak to the people of the reality of God, way before rising literacy-levels meant that signs could be written in words.  Moses lifted up a serpent on a stick in the desert, as a sign that people should look to God for their healing.  Even today, the ancient symbol of pharmacies across the world is still a snake on a stick, thanks to Moses.  The prophet Hosea deliberately married an unfaithful woman, as a sign to the people that they had been unfaithful to God.  The star of Bethlehem was a gigantic sign, across the heavens, which lead wise men to search for the King.  And Jesus performed many supernatural acts as signs of the power of God moving among humanity. 

So what sign was God sending when he sent his Son to be born in a humble stable?  What deeper were the Angels – the messengers – of God pointing to?

The German Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, suggests that the meaning of Jesus birth is something like this (and I quote): 

“Now God’s self [as Jesus] is on our very earth, where he is no better off than we and where he receives no special privileges, but [shares] our every fate: hunger, weariness, enmity, mortal terror and a wretched death. That the infinity of God should take upon itself human narrowness, that bliss should accept the mortal sorrow of the earth, that life should take on death—this is the most unlikely truth. But only this—the obscure light of faith—makes our nights bright, only this makes them holy.

God has come. God is there in the world. And therefore everything is different from what we imagine it to be. . . . When we say, “It is Christmas,” we mean that God has spoken into the world his last, his deepest, his most beautiful word in the incarnate Word. . . . And this word means: I love you, you, the world and [all] human beings.” (End quote).

So, Jesus’ birth, in poverty and complete humility is a sign.  It’s a sign that God truly gets what it means for us to be human, for us to grapple with life.  I’m sure we’ve all being doing a lot of grappling this week…not least trying to decide whether we’ve done the right thing, morally or practically, by coming together to worship God this Christmas Eve.  And that’s just a small part of the grappling which this time of year brings into all our lives.  What presents should I buy?  Who should I send cards to?  Which family or friends should I gather with?  How much food do I need to buy to cope with the shops being closed for a whole 24 hours?! 

What about the grappling we must do with the wider world?  How much should I give to charity, or to the church this year?  Should I buy my energy from sustainable sources?  Shall I buy a new car – which will support car-making jobs, but burn up precious planetary resources?  Which political cause should I support?  What do I think about euthanasia?  And as for the Pandemic….”to jab or not to jab” seems to have become the big question of the day.

Our human lives have become ever more complicated in the centuries since the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have so much more to grapple with, and the complexity of our lives seems to build and build.  Nevertheless, at Christmas time, every year, we are drawn back to the simplicity of the stable.  We are reminded of the most important things of life…the love of a mother for her child, the simple, basic necessities of life (some shelter and a little food) and (through the wise men and shepherds) the kindness of strangers. 

But most of all, we are given a sign – that God dwells with us, grapples with life with us, and offers his life to us.  Oh that we might have the courage to put out our hands and grasp the tiny fingers of the outstretched hand of God in a manger.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Zechariah and Mary - God's holy contrast


Malachi 3.1–4, 4.5–end

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

Luke 1.5766

(This is part of the story of the nativity of John the Baptiser.  In an earlier section of the story, John’s father, Zechariah, had been visited by an angel, told that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, and instructed to call him John.  Zechariah was doubtful, and as a punishment he was struck dumb.  Now we pick up the story…)

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’  They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’  Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.  He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.  Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.


Here we are, on the day before Christmas Eve.  But the Lectionary stubbornly refuses to let us launch prematurely into the Christmas story.  Instead, we are given some more of the background to the story of John the Baptiser.  Doubtless, you will recall that we also thought about him last week, on Thursday, too!

Today, the Lectionary presents us with some words of the prophet Micah, which Christians have always read as predicting the arrival of John, the messenger who clears the way for the Lord.  Micah predicts the coming of the Lord, in terms which have some resonance with the story of Jesus as we know it.  Micah refers to the Lord ‘coming to his temple’ – which Jewish readers would certainly have interpreted as the Lord visibly taking up residence in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem.  Jesus, in fact, didn’t arrive like that at all.  He didn’t ‘come to his temple’, he came to a stable, and to a manger.  Of course, he did subsequently visit the Temple, both as a boy and as a man – but the Temple held rather less attraction for Jesus than the Hebrew prophets thought it would.  This is, of course, a salutary warning for anyone who reads Scripture literally.  Even when Scripture predicts future events, it is rarely accurate on the details!

The same is true for predictions about John.  Micah clearly calls the messenger of the Lord ‘Elijah’, saying that the prophet Elijah himself will be the one to prepare the way of the Lord.  But, in actual fact, an Angel tells Zechariah (John’s dad) that the child’s name will be John.  Names always have meaning in Scripture.  Elijah means ‘My God is Yahweh’.  And John’s name translates as ‘God is gracious’.  This is a signal to us that the coming of the Messiah would be an act of grace on the part of God.  Nevertheless, in the New Testament, Jesus affirms that John is the spiritual successor to Elijah.  So, we can, if we wish, combine the meaning of both Elijah and John together.  If we do, we can suggest a meaning which goes something like ‘My God is Yahweh, who is gracious’.

This might be a good moment to remind ourselves of what ‘grace’ is.  Grace is when God give us what we don’t deserve.  That, as I’ve said before, stands in contrast to ‘mercy’, which is when God withholds from us the punishment which we DO deserve.  God’s act of sending first John, then Jesus, is an act of grace.  We human beings, with all our incompetent failures, don’t deserve that God should care for us.  We ignore him, we ignore his wisdom, we ignore his simple rules for life.  We build our empires, destroy the world he has given, fail to care for each other, fail to give God the worship he deserves as our creator, our very life.  But still God loves us.  Still he sends his messenger to us.  Still he sends his son.  Oh what amazing grace this is!

There’s another aspect of this story that we should not overlook – namely the way that Zechariah, John’s dad, is struck dumb for his unbelief in what the Angel tells him is going to happen.  It seems a bit severe, doesn’t it?  But I think this story is given to us to mark the contrast between Zechariah’s attitude and that of Mary.  When Zechariah is told his news, he replies “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”  He basically demands proof – from an Angel, standing right in front of him! 

You can imagine the Angel’s reaction, can’t you?  And Luke does a good job of revealing the Angel’s reaction:  “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”  Gabriel is understandably rather peeved, to say the least!

Then we contrast Zechariah’s reaction with that of Mary, who says: “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.”  Simple, trusting faith.  A faith on which the Kingdom of God will be built.  Mary, the simple peasant woman is contrasted with Zechariah, the ‘know-it-all’ religious leader.  Under normal circumstances, you’d expect the religious leader to be the one who gets what God is up to.  But, it is through the simple, humble and trusting Mary that God’s act of grace will come into the world.

This is, of course, a warning to all of us religious leaders!  I know that I can be guilty of sometimes thinking that my learning and my religious ordination makes me more qualified than my congregation to be able to interpret what God is up to!  But, God has a way of working around such arrogance on the part of church leaders.  Over the centuries, he has pulled down many of the edifices of doctrine and rules which we leaders have a habit of erecting.  Slavery was abolished, despite the protestations of religious leaders who owned slaves.  Women were emancipated, over the objection of religious leaders who sought to keep them in their place.  Women entered the priesthood, and then the House of Bishops, over the protestations of those who were (and some who still are) quite sure that God will be very very cross if a women should celebrate the Eucharist.  And right now, I think God is doing something quite profound about the church’s attitude towards people whose gender identities and sexual preferences are different from what many religious leaders would consider ‘correct’.

The process begun in the striking dumb of John the Baptiser’s dad, and the raising up of simple, humble Mary, continues today.  God’s grace is still being poured out over his church, despite the legalistic barriers which some religious leaders try to erect.  The gentle, loving, yet persistent force of God’s grace continues to flow.  And may it ever do so!  Amen.





Friday, December 17, 2021

A Christmas Carol - is that it? A Sermon for the Annual Community Carol Service with Havant Rotary Club.

Text: John 1 

I have a confession to make.  I like the Muppets’ version of A Christmas Carol.  It’s one of my innocent pleasures at Christmas time. 

“It's in the singing of a street corner choir

It's going home and getting warm by the fire

It's true, wherever you find love it feels like Christmas”

As you all know, I’m sure, A Christmas Carol tells the story of three ghosts, visiting the old miser Scrooge.  They confront him with some realities, and they set his path on a new future of joy, hope and love.  Scrooge’s inner-humanity is awoken by a reawakening his sense of connection to his past in a happy community, making him feel guilty about the poverty of his workers in the present, and by terrifying him into realising that no-one will mourn his passing in the future.  

Of course we all love the scene at the end, when a repentant Scrooge changes his ways, and joyfully showers Bob Cratchet and his family with long-overdue love.  ‘God bless us, everyone’ indeed.  But is that it?  Is that the message of Christmas?  That happy childhood memories, a dose of guilt, and the threat of a lonely death, might encourage us to put our hands in our pockets for the poor?

Perhaps that is enough.  After all, the poor of the world can certainly use our help.  And if it takes a bit of tugging on the heart strings to get us to release some of the wealth we hoard, then so be it.  If some mistletoe and wine gets us to think of others for a while, instead of ourselves, then it is to be welcomed.  I’m sure that Rotarians the World over can see nothing wrong in that – with their motto of ‘service above self’.  But I ask again, is that it?

Interestingly, according to Charles Dickens, Scrooge’s radical transformation happens without any recourse at all to the origin-story of Christmas itself.  There is no manger, no baby, no God, in Dickens’ Christmas parable.  And this, I suggest, should make us wonder…

You see, I fear that A Christmas Carol, and all our many traditions of Christmas, are in danger of scratching the surface, without ever penetrating to the heart of the Christ Mass.  We can all enjoy some mince-pies and present-giving.  I always look forward to the Dr Who Christmas Special.  But unless we penetrate the heart of the Christ Mass, what are we achieving.  When the decorations are taken down and boxed up, and the gym memberships soar in January, what actually have we achieved?

The Christ Mass, which we will mark at 11pm on Christmas Eve, is the most Holy Night of the year.  Together, we will gather here in the dark of the night, to declare that the Light has come.  In the words of John Chapter 1, we will remember, and celebrate, that “the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”   Amid the turmoil of a world being ravaged by a pandemic, in which markets are collapsing, old alliances are crumbling, 100,000 Russian troops are poised on the edge of Europe, and 5 billion human beings are living in poverty, we will declare the coming of the Light. We will announce, celebrate and assert that the darkness WILL NOT overcome the Light.

[Turn off the lights]

Look what happens in the dark.  The light of the few candles we have lit tonight penetrate the might of the darkness.  There is darkness all around us…but even one candle would not be overcome.  The darkness cannot put out the light.  The light shines in the darkness…

[Turn the lights back on]

The light, of course, is a metaphor….for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.  We are asked to take a step of faith, a leap into the darkness, in fact.  We are asked to trust that God has a plan for the world, a plan which finds its greatest expression in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

It’s a plan which we see unfolding, in a thousand tiny lights, every day, here at St Faith’s.  Whenever someone visits a lonely housebound parishioner, or when someone is helped to move forward with a Discretionary Fund gift…  When an alcoholic finds support, or a sufferer with dementia experiences love… When a youngster finds their creative spark through Dynamo, or a homeless person finds warmth and care… In these and a thousand other ways, light shines in the darkness, in the name of Jesus Christ in whose honour this place is built.

Jesus, you see, is the antidote to the darkness.  In a world which valued imperial power and mighty palaces, Jesus was born in a stable to demonstrate that there is another way, the way of simplicity and humility.  In a world which took sickness for granted, and blamed the sick for their own illness, Jesus offered healing.  In a world in which education was the luxury and privilege of the elite, Jesus offered teaching and wisdom to all.  Then, in a world which used violence to put down dissent, Jesus offered no violence in return, but transformed the violence into resurrection life.  

Ebenezer Scrooge found salvation, of a sort, by being forced to reflect on his life, his choices, and his future.  Shame, and the fear of death were his motivators.  But Jesus offers us salvation through focusing on his life, his choices, and his future. 

In Jesus, our shame is wiped clean, and our future is assured.  His light shines in the darkness.  He invites everyone to his table, at the Christ Mass on Christmas Night, and every Lord’s Day after that.  I hope you’ll hear his invitation. I hope you’ll come too – not just to the stable at Bethlehem, in its warm soft glow.  But to the refining fire of a life of faith in the Word made flesh, the only hope of the earth, and the Saviour of the World!  Now that’s a Christmas Carol worth singing!  Amen.

Mary - the feminisation of the World! Advent 4

Text: Luke 1.39–55 (Mary visits Elizabeth, and signs 'the Magnificat')

Why is it, I wonder, that more women seem to be attracted to worship than men?  At least, that is the general picture across the breadth of traditional churches.  Actually – I’m not sure that it is true for us here at St Faith’s.  I haven’t done an actual count – but we certainly have a larger than average number of men in our congregation.

Church sociologists have wondered, from time to time, whether the larger number of women, on average, might be to do with what’s known as the ‘feminisation’ of churches.  The theory goes that after the First World War, especially, when men were in short supply, women started to gain power over the way the church looked.  This led, it is suggested, to a greater emphasis on flowing robes, trimmed with lace, heavily decorated Altar coverings, and the rise of the scourge of Vicars everywhere, The Flower Ladies!  (Again – not here, I have to say!).  It is suggested that this ‘feminisation’ process ultimately led to men turning their back on the church.  They sought a more ‘muscular and manly’ expression of faith. Lacey cottas, serene music, and fabulous flowers just weren’t what they were after. They wanted uniforms and metaphors of war.  The Salvation Army, the Church Army, and Onward Christian Soldiers!

There may be some truth in these observations – although, in my experience, there are plenty of men who also enjoy the more beautiful aesthetics of worship.  Just get yourself invited to a gathering of Anglo-Catholic clergy, and you’ll see what I mean!  It’s also worth saying that we must always be careful of assuming that either men or women all think alike, or that they have the same aesthetic tastes.  That’s clearly nonsense.  There are huge numbers of men for whom soldiering, football and beer are undiscovered countries.  And there are plenty of women who don’t sew, knit, or arrange flowers, and who choose to join the army!

The Bible, on the other hand, comes to us largely as a product of men. It was written by men, and it tells the doings and deeds of great men, by and large.  Its heroes tend to be men who have conquered something, or someone, by great strength or through manly planning, cunning and guile. The Saviour of the World even comes to us as a man – not least because had he arrived as a woman in such a patriarchal society, he would not have been given the time of day.  He certainly wouldn’t have had the right to be a Rabbi, or to teach in the male-dominated synagogues and temples of the day.  The Temple in Jerusalem, for example, had an outer Court of the Women.  Only men could enter the inner courts.  Only men, by and large, could be the leaders of society, and wield the power of both religion and the state.

But into this male-dominated, patriarchal society, a process of feminisation begins.  And it starts with the startling story of Mary and Elizabeth, bearers of the Saviour and his Proclaimer. The male characters in the birth stories are largely silent.  Joseph says nothing, in any of the Gospels: no words of his are recorded.  Zacharias, the father of John the Baptiser, is actually struck dumb by God!  Instead, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth are brought to the fore…and Mary’s tongue is inspired to speak the magnificent Magnificat, filled (as it is) with powerful language about the overthrow of manly systems of power.

Mary’s powerful entry is of course preceded by her virginal conception – something I’ve always treated, frankly, with some hesitation.  I have often dismissed the idea as being implausible, and as an attempt to bypass the messy issue of sex.  But I’m grateful to Frank Hillebrand for sending me an article by theologian Brian McLaren, which has offered a new and helpful insight, and which I’d like to share.

McLaren suggests that (and I quote) “the doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counter-violence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered “the weaker sex” that God’s true power enters and changes the world” (end quote).  In the Magnificat, Mary exults that through her Son, God is inaugurating a new world, in which the mighty men of power are to be put down from their thrones.  In what, in her world, was undeniably a more feminine action, the humble and the poor would be lifted up.  The feminisation of the world was underway, through the womb of Mary.  As McLaren says, (and I quote) “Mary presents herself to the Holy Spirit to receive and cooperate with God’s creative power. She surrenders and receives, she nurtures and gives her all, because she dares to believe the impossible is possible. Her son Jesus will consistently model her self-surrender and receptivity to God, and he will consistently prefer the insightful kindness of motherhood to the violent blindness of statehood” (end quote).

I want to avoid stereotypes, as much as possible.  But it is undeniably true that rule by violence and power is generally a male characteristic.  Occasionally, we men are capable of producing a Ghandi or a Martin Luther King – but more often than not we revert to violent words, or violent actions to gain power over our world, or our problems.   But in the New Testament, the feminisation of the world begins, first with Mary.  Throughout Jesus’ ministry, women are raised up and acknowledged.  The woman caught in adultery is pardoned and blessed.  The Samaritan woman at the well is most unusually spoken to by the Rabbi Jesus, and given the honour of announcing him to her people.  Mary Magdelene is given the honour of being the first to witness the resurrected Jesus, and the first to tell his story to the male disciples.  Time and again, in a radical, earth-shattering re-balancing of male and female power, women are given power by Jesus.  Creativity, nurture, self-surrender, and receptivity to God become the new normal in the Kingdom of God. 

And so, on this Fourth Advent Sunday, when the first of our three Advent Candles have been lit to honour men, today we honour Mary.  Let me give the final word to McLaren:  “Let us, in our own hearts, dare to believe the impossible by surrendering ourselves to God, courageously cooperating with God’s creative, pregnant power—in us, for us, and through us. If we do, then we, like Mary, will become pregnant with holy aliveness. . . .”  Amen.


Thursday, December 16, 2021

Baptist or Baptiser...who is right?

Text: Luke 7.28.  Jesus said “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John (the Baptiser); yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’

How can someone be, in Jesus’ mind, the greatest human being ever born, and yet the least in the Kingdom of God?  It’s a puzzle isn’t it?  Well…let me try to un-puzzle it!  I’m afraid that to do so, we need to get a little bit theological.  

First we must focus on the intriguing question of whether John was a Baptist or a Baptiser…as it’s a subject which I know is of some interest to some of our online community. Recent translations of the Bible by the more (small ‘c’) catholic churches have insisted on calling him the Baptiser specifically to denote that he wasn’t an actual member of the Baptist church.  

Anabaptists (meaning ‘second baptisers’) grew out of the Reformation.  They believed that the church’s practice of baptising infants didn’t have the warrant of Scripture.  They were concerned that baptism, as practiced by John in fact, required first an act of repentance, on the part of the baptisee.  So they offered ‘second baptism’ – also known as ‘believer’s baptism’ to those who had been already baptised as children.

They also held that the mainstream church’s practice of baptising infants was a form of ‘cheap grace’ – an idea which got them very exercised.  ‘Cheap Grace’ is the doctrine of baptism without repentance, or communion without confession.  In other words, the mainstream church supposed that God’s gracious salvation could be offered without any repentance actually being expressed by the ‘baptisee’.  This led, said the Baptists, to a lot of people claiming that they were Christians (because of their infant baptism) when in fact they had never repented of their ways, and never made a conscious effort to walk The Way of Christ.  They were ‘cradle Christians’ – brought up from childhood in the faith, but never actually taking seriously.

You can see where the Anabaptists were coming from, can’t you?  They rightly sought to purify the church, and to make active repentance a real thing in the life of all Christians.  They wanted people to get serious about their faith…to actively and purposefully engage with it.  For this, I gladly commend them!  But I also have some theological questions about their approach.

The Baptist approach implies that our salvation relies on us, making a decision to follow Christ (and to repent of not doing so up to now).  The mainstream churches, on the other hand, have always taught that salvation is a gift of God, given through his church.  It is God who saves us, through Christ, and not as a result of anything we ourselves can do about it (as St Paul taught).  This is a picture of God to which I am drawn.  God’s whole will is bent towards the salvation of the world…whether I repent or not, God desires, offers and, through the church, confers my salvation.  

The (small ‘c’) catholic church’s approach to baptism is therefore to baptise anyone who will accept the gift.  It’s such a precious gift that we want to do it just as soon as it’s possible – with parents’ permission if the person is not old enough to assent, themselves.  Through baptism, they are given the gift of salvation.  The fight is over, the battle won.  Salvation is offered to all.  It then only remains for us to decide, perhaps as we grow older, whether or not we will grasp hold of that salvation, and to choose to follow The Way of Christ.  In the catholic churches, that moment of decision comes at Confirmation – when we confirm that we wish to carry on in the state of salvation-grace that we have been freely given.

So, for catholics (and most Anglicans) Salvation is offered, even conferred, through baptism.  But it is still possible to subsequently reject God’s loving, merciful, graceful gift.  I believe that this is what Jesus meant when he said that there is one unforgiveable sin – the sin of ‘grieving the Holy Spirit’.  For what could be more likely to grieve the Spirit of God than to have his loving gift of salvation refused, and rejected.

So to summarise - the Anabaptist’s view, I think, is that my salvation depends entirely on my action of repentance to have effect.  Whereas the (small ‘c’) catholic view is that Salvation is entirely God’s gift, and God’s action – though I am free to reject it.  Theologically, we are splitting hairs.  Baptists are just as saved as Anglicans – so Baptists reading this -  you’re my brother or sister!  Because however you come to the waters of baptism, it’s the baptism itself which confers God’s grace and salvation.  But it’s on these kinds of hair-splitting exercises that entire religious movements get born – so it important to wrestle with them.

Understanding this distinction might, finally, give us a handle on why Jesus thought that John was the greatest human being to ever live, and yet was also the least in the Kingdom of God.  You see, I think Jesus saw that John was rooted in old ways of thinking – which included the notion, prevalent at the time, that human beings had to earn their salvation.  Salvation was earned under the Law, by living well, and following all the many laws of God – that’s what the Scribes and the Pharisees taught.  John the Baptiser’s call for repentance prior to Baptism was the latest iteration of this idea.  ‘Repent (first) and then be baptised’.  In other words – meet God half-way, and he’ll do the rest.

John was rooted in this old way of thinking – but he also saw that in Jesus, God was inaugurating something new.  He pointed to Jesus, he declared his coming – and in this respect, his eyes were open.  That’s why, I suggest, he was the greatest human being to have ever lived at that moment – because he saw the Messiah, and recognised him.

But, John failed to grasp the radical new thing that God would do in Jesus.  He failed to see that through Jesus, and through baptism in his name, salvation was being offered as a free gift. This gift could be accepted or rejected, but never earned.  John, it seems, was unable to make the transition into the new Kingdom of Grace.  He never actually became a disciple of Jesus.  And so, sadly, Jesus was forced to pronounce that even the least in the Kingdom of Heaven was greater than John.  Because Kingdom People see the overflowing love of God for all humanity, not just the repentant.

However you or I came to be baptised, Baptist or catholic, it’s the baptism itself that matters.  That’s where the grace pours in.  Just as Jesus comes to us in Bethlehem, he comes to us again in the waters of baptism, and again and again in the Eucharist.  He speaks to us of God’s favour, and announces good news for all the people, on whom that favour rests.  Amen.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Advent 3 – Repent! You brood of Vipers!

 Text: Luke 3.7-18

Q: How many Pentecostals does it take to change a light bulb?

A: 10, that’s one to change it and 9 others to pray against the spirit of darkness.

Q: How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?

A1: None. They use candles instead.

Q: How many TV evangelists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: One. But for the message of light to continue to go forth, send in your donation today.

Q: How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Change?

I thought I’d start with a little light humour today.  Humour seems to get a sermon off to a good start.  A joke helps people to relax, and become somehow more receptive. So, what was John the Baptiser was doing in the opening verse of our Gospel reading?  I not sure that you would be all that receptive if I had started this sermon just now with a cry of “You brood of vipers”!

Well, as always when we read scripture, context is everything.  The opening verse of this section gives us the explanation of both John’s insult, and his subsequent address:  Verse 7:  “John said to the crowds that came out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers’ “.  Who were these crowds?  They were crowds of ordinary people - citizens of Israel.  They were those who, in verse 8, could claim Abraham as their ancestor.  Verses 10 to 12 tell us that among their number were relatively wealthy people - those with more than one tunic -  along with tax collectors and soldiers.  In other words, a cross section of the general public of Israel.  

Were they ordinary people?  Again, context is everything. Having described them as vipers, John immediately asks the question, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”.  So rather, or perhaps as well, as describing his audience as malicious evildoers, John invokes a picture of snakes running away from an advancing fire...the fire of the Christ which he promises later, in verse 17, will “burn up the chaff”.

So what have we established about this crowd?  They are ordinary people - soldiers, civil servants, butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers.  They are relatively wealthy, free citizens (not slaves) who have the freedom to go out into the desert.  They are people who have left the security of the city to go out to meet John. They are people who have a religious and cultural heritage...they describe themselves as the children of Abraham.

Actually...they sound rather like us, don’t they?  We are ordinary people. We are relatively wealthy - compared to 90% of the world.  We have come away from the warmth and security of our homes to worship in our little building in the middle of Havant.  We also have a common heritage - we are also children of Abraham in a spiritual sense!  We too sense that something important is going on here...we are, in a sense, those who want to be rescued, and saved, by our Saviour - not burned up like chaff with unquenchable fire.

So, does John’s message apply to us as well?  I think it might.  There is a sense in which as we read the Bible, it has a way of reading us too...scripture has a way of pointing to our lives, and our situations, and saying…”this is for you too, you know”  So what is John’s message to us?  

I think it can be summed up in one phrase, at the beginning of verse 8:  “Bear fruits worthy of repentance”.  In saying this, John acknowledges, first of all, our repentance.  He is speaking to people who have made their confession, been baptised, and received forgiveness.  They, like us, have received their spiritual inheritance.  “But,” he says to them and us, “repentance alone is not enough”.  John calls for a change of lifestyle that reflects the genuineness of our repentance - it must produce fruits.

So what does John suggest will be the sort of fruit that true repentance will produce?  The crowd to whom he is talking are curious too:  verse 10:  “What then should we do?” they ask him.  John was cast in the mould of the Old Testament prophets, and especially of Isaiah.  Filling valleys of poverty, and flattening the mountains of wealth and power are integral to his message.  And so it comes as no surprise that John’s first response to the question focuses on economic justice.  Verse 11:  “In reply he said to them ’Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise”.

But John’s challenge goes further than the simple necessity of sharing.  He says, effectively, “Your entire way of life must reflect the totality of the gospel!.  Share your coat, and your food.  Yes.  But also,” as he says to soldiers and civil servants in verses 12 to 14, “be content with what you have.  And bear fruits...not just a single fruit...of your repentance – for ‘every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Repentance means ‘to turn away’ from human ways of living, and to turn towards a new, Kingdom way.  Truly repentant people learn to integrate all of the calling of the gospel into their lives.  Our way of life, our priorities, our commitments, our personal relationships, our passion for peace and justice, our acts of compassion, our prayerfulness, our praise, our prophetic edge...all these, blended together, will give evidence of our repentance – of our willingness to walk on the Narrow Way of Jesus Christ.

Advent, and John the Baptister invite us to be ready to receive the Christ, this Christmas.  But this is not just the candlelit Christ of the Stable, with all the warm, cosy, images that conjures up.  John reminds us, in the final section of this morning’s reading, that this is also the Christ who comes with the Holy Spirit, and with fire.  Immanuel - ‘God with Us’ - means God among us, challenging us, stimulating us, leading us – and yes, judging us.  John talks of the Christ who comes with a winnowing fork to separate the useful wheat from the wasteful chaff.  There is encouragement in these words of John...but warning too.

So as Christmas approaches, we are invited to use these final days of Advent to examine ourselves, in truth.  We need to be honest with ourselves, and with God, about the priorities of our own lives.  Perhaps it in only after such self-examination that we are able to really say - as we shall later in today’s service - that we willingly offer ourselves as living sacrifices to our Saviour and Heavenly King.  Amen

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Bible is a violent place

Matthew 11.11–15

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

The world of the Bible is a very violent place.  From the days when Cain murdered Abel, violence was endemic in the lives of the Bible’s people.  The pages of Scripture are marked by that violence – with their record of seemingly constant warfare between the ‘chosen people’ and those whose land they believed God had given them to possess.  There is violence in the fall of Jericho, and violence in the wars against the Philistines (the ancestors of today’s Palestinians).  There is violence in the stories of Exile, perpetrated (in that case) on the chosen people, not so much by them. 

The Hebrews both suffered and gave out violence (in the establishment of the Land called Holy).  And so it is hardly surprising that their understanding of God included a level of violence too.  God is conceived as a mighty warrior, who will strengthen the arm of his people.  In the words of Isaiah 41 (today's other reading) ‘I will help you, says the Lord.  I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them!’.  This is the language of warfare, of the conquering and subjugation of one’s enemies.

On occasion, the Hebrews’ God even appears to carry-out violence on their behalf.  Look, for example, at the violence perpetrated on the first-born of all Egyptians, or the way that the Egyptian army was drowned in the sea.  These are violent acts, perpetrated by an apparently violent God.

But where did all this violence get the Hebrews, and indeed their competitor-nations?  What did violence achieve over the roughly 4,000 years of history leading up to Jesus?  To read the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) is to read a litany of violence begetting violence.  By the time of Jesus, the Land called Holy had been occupied and oppressed by many other violent conquerors.  The Babylonians had a go, so did the Selucids and the Egyptians.  The Greeks were in charge for a while, and then (by the time of Jesus) the Romans took over.  Constant warfare had not achieved very much at all, for the self-described ‘chosen people’.  After Jesus, further violence would lead to the destruction of the very Temple in Jerusalem, and the scattering of the Hebrews to the four corners of Earth, for nearly 2,000 years.

Jesus, of course, recognises this problem.  As he cautions Peter, ‘he who lives by the sword will die by the sword’.  Instead, Jesus ushers-in a new Kingdom of peace…by refusing to collude with the violence all around him.  Ultimately, he chooses to let the violence of the state, of soldiers and of religious leaders wash over him.  He absorbs their violence on the cross, and transmutes it into new life in the Resurrection. 

But at the point we’ve reached in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is reflecting on how violence is all around his new Kingdom.  He gives praise to John the Baptiser, as being greater than anyone yet of woman born.  But, in a surprising twist, Jesus then says that ‘the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he’.  Why is this?  I suggest that it’s because he recognises that John the Baptiser is still subject to, and a product of, the violence of the Hebrews' history.  John has no army, and he doesn’t advocate violence as such.  But his language is rooted in violence.  He addresses his followers as the ‘brood of vipers’.  He envisages the coming Messiah as about to arrive with a winnowing fork in his hand, threshing the grain and separating-out the wheat from the chaff.  Just as in the language of Isaiah, violent threshing imagery is used to declare the imagined purposes of God.  John employs the same aggressive language as all the prophets before him.

But, Jesus notes, such violence achieves only more violence.  Reflecting, no doubt, on the death of John the Baptiser, Jesus observes that since the days of John until now, the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.  Herod employed such violence, when imprisoning and then beheading John.  And now, violence against Jesus and his followers was being contemplated by the religious and secular leaders of the day.  The violent were attempting to take the Kingdom by force.

But this will not do, for Jesus.  ‘When someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him your left.  If you live by the sword, you will die by it.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’.  Jesus’ radical message was that violence will not do.  Whether it’s the violence of warfare, or the violence of poverty imposed on the poor by the rich. Jesus won’t even put up with the violence of words.  None has a place in his Kingdom.

Now of course, non-violence (or pacifism) has a tricky history.  It raises very tough questions about how we should respond when tyrannical warlords seek to take control of our lives and our destinies.  Who could criticise British soldiers for taking up arms against thugs like the Nazis?  And yet, Jesus invites us to do just that.  How can we reconcile this?  How do we make sense of Jesus’ clear pacifist message, in the real world of despots and tyrants?

Part of the answer is that Jesus’ Kingdom transcends national boundaries, and national protectionism.  He invites us to see ourselves as citizens of a Kingdom that exists outside, above and beyond such historical lines.  To that extent, it doesn’t very much matter who is in charge of the land on which we live – for we owe our lives, and our allegiance to a higher power than any earthly king, president or dictator. We are invited to see, and strive for, a bigger picture – a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

I recognise, of course, that such a goal is mightily hard to achieve.  There are causes for which I might be prepared to take up arms.  If enemy tanks rolled down Havant’s High Street, threatening to exterminate anyone who was not deemed worthy to live under some new dictator or other, I’d be the first one on the church tower to try and defend my town!  In this respect, I recognise, of course, the tension between Jesus’ vision, and the hard reality of human life.  But, while recognising the tension, let us not stop striving for the better reality, the better prospect of a better way.  Let us never cease asking whether violence is the only way to deal with our challenges and problems.

For when the angels declared to the Shepherds the glory in the highest heavens, they sang of ‘peace on earth’ and of ‘goodwill between all peoples on whom God’s favour rests’.  If such a picture of peace and goodwill was good enough for the angels, it’s good enough for us too.  Amen.





Sunday, December 5, 2021

Making the rough places smooth...

 Text: Luke 3.1-6  & Malachi 3.1-4

“In the 32nd year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, when Robert Runcie was the Archbishop of Canterbury, and when Torvill & Dean won gold at the Olympics, the word of the Lord came via Billy Graham at Wembley Stadium.”

That’s something like how Luke’s readers would have heard his opening words of chapter three. Dates are interesting things, aren’t they?  The problem for Luke, when he wrote his Gospel, is that no-one had come up with the idea of dating years by numbers.  In Luke’s day, events were tied to the reigns or activities of significant people.  Which is why he begins his account of John the Baptiser’s ministry with the rather long list of posh people!

Luke wants his readers to know that the events he is reporting can be traced to a particular time and place.  He is saying: “Pay attention!  Listen up!  I’m telling you about something that happened in living memory!  A herald came with an urgent message from God”.

And what was that message?  John the Baptiser quotes Isaiah’s vision of the massive earth-works needed to build a road across a wilderness – reconfiguring the landscape shovelful by shovelful.  Because that ultimately is how you build a kingdom…brick by brick, shovel by shovel, or…if it’s a spiritual Kingdom, person by person, or soul by soul.

The prophet Malachi – who wrote our first reading for today – had similarly dramatic ideas of what God’s coming means:  God is in the precious-metals business, refining, purifying gold and silver by putting it through the fire to reveal its pure state; God is a consuming fire.  

In another stunning image, God is a washerwoman armed with fuller’s soap – not soft, perfumed lavender-scented handwash, but abrasive laundry soap that scrubs and scours.  Fulling is the art of cleansing wool – to strip out all the oils, dirt, manure and other impurities.  Pure white wool has been “fulled” – with some pretty abrasive chemicals!

In Jesus, Luke sees a vision of the sheer purity that is the goal for all humans. That holiness is what God made us to share when we were made in God’s image.  God challenges us to be what we were created to be.  And in Advent, these flamboyant images of fire, scrubbing and highway-engineering describe what it is like to prepare to experience the salvation of God.

God’s purpose is always to restore the original beauty that has been lost to sin.  Malachi’s name means “my messenger” – and he was part of God’s plan to clean things up.  He roundly condemned the laxity and corruption of the leaders of his day.  John the Baptiser, in the verses that follow today’s reading, goes on to call the people who heard him a ‘brood of vipers’.  If either of them were around today, they would have many people to hurl such insults at, wouldn’t they?  Perhaps they would have hurled their ire at corrupt politicians, tyrannical dictators, greedy bankers, ultra-capitalists and space-faring billionaires.

But John and Malachi would not have confined themselves to the mighty people of society – even if the calendar depended on them!   They would ask not just about the economic elite, but about how you and I use our wealth and power too. 

I wonder whether we really grasp how sharply our society is divided – especially between the rich and the poor.  It is arresting to reminding ourselves, sometimes, that the people who queue in Waitrose and those who queue in food banks are not actually from two different species.  The family at the foodbank, or the starving child in drought-stricken Kenya are my siblings, my brothers and my sisters.  And they feel the pain of the fundamental unfairness of the world today.  What can I do to lift up the valleys in their lives, and to make their rough places plain.

I think the rich need to beware of constantly pressing down on the poor.  The rich will suffer from the injustice of our present way of life too.  They are forced by their own greed to retreat behind their high walls and fences.  They must always live with the fear of losing what they have amassed; constantly afraid of burglary or fraud.   He who has nothing, has nothing to fear losing.  But the rich have bars at the window, paid security guards, CCTV systems and continuous anxiety.  They end up living in gilded cages, forged by their own greed.

Christmas is a time for giving.  It is good to give gifts to our families and friends, of course. – because friendship is a wonderful gift to celebrate and strengthen.  But we who are among the wealthiest people in the world can also choose to level the playing field, to fill up the valleys of poverty, and lower the mountains of greed.  Shovelful by shovelful.  Pound by pound. Penny by penny.

Perhaps we might add up what we will spend this year on Christmas celebrations, and then make an appropriate donation to charities on top?  Then, people who have no one to give them a gift can receive a gift from us.  In this week’s Chronicle, for example, can be found ways to give to the Churches Homeless Action scheme.

Getting the balance right over these things is of course only a small part of what it means to prepare for God’s coming among us, during Advent.  What does it mean, for example, to prepare ourselves spiritually for the coming of the King?  How can the crooked parts of our lives be made straight?  How can we help to lay the straightening road through the wilderness?  One shovelful at a time. One person at a time – beginning with ourselves.

Both John the Baptiser and Jesus himself learned to say ‘Yes’ to the call of God on their lives.  Are we also learning what it means to say ‘Yes’?  Yes!... to the chance to go deeper, to live more fully, to expand our spiritual horizons – engaging with all the opportunities that there are in this parish for the worship of God, and service to the community.

Advent is a call to wake up and respond to God’s initiative.  “In the 69th year of the reign of Elizabeth the 2nd, when Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister and Justin Welby is the Archbishop of Canterbury, the word of God comes to us: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.”.  How shall each of us respond to this heavenly call?


Thursday, December 2, 2021

Sand in your foundations?

Text: Matthew 7.21, 24–27

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.

 ‘Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!’



Today’s Gospel reading is one of those which always takes me back to Sunday School.  Do you remember the song?

 “The wise man built his house upon the rock (repeated three times)

And the rain came tumbling down.

The rain came down and the floods came up (repeated three times)

And the house on the rock stood firm.”

Then the whole thing got repeated for the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, till ‘the house on the sand fell FLAT’ (at which point we would clap and laugh hysterically!)

The surface meaning of this parable is, of course, completely obvious.  Those who build their lives on the teachings of Jesus will have strong and stable lives.  But those who build on other foundations are doomed to live on shifting sands.

This principle has always been true for Christians.  Millions upon millions of us can attest that a life built on the teachings of Jesus is a life filled with purpose and meaning.  It’s a life of hope and love.  A life of service and fulfilment.  But what are the alternatives?

I think that recent events in our World have offered us a whole new desert of shifting sand to contemplate.  As a society, we have built our entire house on some very perilous shifting sands.  In the last hundred years, this foundation of sand has become so ubiquitous, that we hardly give it a second thought.  It is so ingrained in our society, so much a normal part of our lives, that we almost never stop to examine it or question it.  What am I referring to? 

I’m talking about the sand of consumerism.  And I think the consequences of that sandy foundation are now becoming all too plain to see.  Our house is sinking fast.  The floods are rising….quite literally in the case of climate change caused by rampant consumerism. 

Have you ever noticed that every world economy is measured not on levels of happiness, or by the way it takes care of its most fragile members, or the benefit it offers to the climate, or the benefit it offers to the intellectual and spiritual health of humankind?  Instead, the single most important factor in determining the health of an economy is said to be growth.  Which is, frankly, nuts.  If the economy of every country grew by just 2.5% per year on average, then in 10 years time, the world would need to produce 25% more stuff than it does now.  25% more smoke in the air.  25% more plastic in the sea.   It’s crazy.  It’s the self-defeating, civilisation-ending strategy of the mythical lemming.  Something has to change.  Something has to shift.  Or we’re quite simply not going to make it.  The house on the sand will fall FLAT!

CONsumerism – the clue is in the name.  It’s a CON.  It’s a con, perpetrated on the whole of our society by the con-men who currently pull the levers of power, and whose yachts, mansions and now space-ships demand that we carry on consuming, consuming, consuming.  We act like a virus upon with planet…consuming everything around us until we will find there is nothing left, and that our lives were built on sand. 

Against this terrifying vision, Jesus offers us a solid, rocky, alternative.  His teachings are granite-hard foundations on which we could choose to build.  Jesus wasn’t an economist.  But the principles he espoused can be converted into economic theory, without very much effort at all.   Imagine how different things would be right now, if we valued healthcare, education, medicine, scientific enquiry, spiritual growth, rest, retreat, and community service as much as we value restaurants, pubs, cappuccinos and department-store shopping.

How can we change this?  How can any of us hope to turn around the Titanic of consumerism which is about to crash into the ice-berg of destiny, taking us all to the bottom with it?  We do it one person at a time, just as Jesus did.  One soul at a time.  We spread his word, person by person and we live his life.  And we encourage others to do the same.  Consumerism only took root in our society because one by one, we allowed it to.  The opposite is also true, and also a possibility.  One by one, we can stand up and say that enough is enough.  Frankly, it’s the only hope we have.

So, if you agree with my hypothesis…what will YOU do about it.  What changes will you make today, to fashion some life-boats for the Titanic.  Will you, once more, fall prey to the marketing gurus who will have you buy billions of plastic toys for children, and Christmas cards to people you will see - perhaps even in church - this year?  Will you fall prey to the titans of industry who want you to decorate your home with their laser lights, and their plastic trees?  Will you succumb to the message that comfort and joy can only be found through an over-stocked larder, a Christmas edition of ‘Strictly…’ and a mountain of chocolate.  Will you build on sand again, this year? 

Or will you stand up for Jesus – and for his way of life?  The way of charity, simplicity, and love? Will you take time to draw apart from the madness, find some simplicity and some peace? 

Will you prioritise charity over chewing, giving over getting, and loving over living-it-up? And will you call others to do the same?  For this is the good news we have to share…that it is possible to build a life on rock, instead of sand.