The Baptism of Christ

Camille Corot 1844 – 1845

Readings

Isaiah 43:1-7 (NLT)

43 But now, O Jacob, listen to the Lord who created you.
    O Israel, the one who formed you says,
“Do not be afraid, for I have ransomed you.
    I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you go through deep waters,
    I will be with you.
When you go through rivers of difficulty,
    you will not drown.
When you walk through the fire of oppression,
    you will not be burned up;
    the flames will not consume you.
For I am the Lord, your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I gave Egypt as a ransom for your freedom;
    I gave Ethiopia and Seba in your place.
Others were given in exchange for you.
    I traded their lives for yours
because you are precious to me.
    You are honoured, and I love you.

“Do not be afraid, for I am with you.
    I will gather you and your children from east and west.
I will say to the north and south,
    ‘Bring my sons and daughters back to Israel
    from the distant corners of the earth.
Bring all who claim me as their God,
    for I have made them for my glory.
    It was I who created them.’”

Luke 3:15-17;21-22 (NLT)

15 Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. 16 John answered their questions by saying, “I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 He is ready to separate the chaff from the wheat with his winnowing fork. Then he will clean up the threshing area, gathering the wheat into his barn but burning the chaff with never-ending fire.” 

21 One day when the crowds were being baptized, Jesus himself was baptized. As he was praying, the heavens opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit, in bodily form, descended on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.”

Sermon shared with kind permission by Rev’d Caroline Phillips

So how has your 2022 been for you so far? How are your resolutions doing? Has it lived up to expectations? So many of us see a new year as the start of a new chapter, an opportunity to put the past behind us and look to the future with hope. It’s a time of promise, and opportunity and expectation. Shakespeare said that ‘expectation is the root of all heartache’, and others say, ‘learn to expect nothing, and you’ll never be disappointed’. But actually a life without expectations is a dreary one – because expectation is so often about hope, about looking forwards, about seeking fulfilment, that is innate to us.

But have you ever been on the receiving end of others’ expectations? Actually, it’s an unavoidable part of life. Even as children, our parents and carers have expectations of how we should behave – generally that’s a good thing. But conversely, if you’re a parent, our children expect so much from us – I don’t mean just to give them everything on their birthday list, but to provide for them, encourage them, give them opportunities to grow and flourish. Our friends, colleagues, workplaces, organisations will all expect things from us – to keep our word, to be loyal, to offer support, to be reliable. We probably all know the feeling of having let someone down, when we’ve not met those expectations.

Actually there’s nothing wrong with many of the things people expect from us, the problem only comes when they’re unfair or unrealistic – then those expectations can lay very heavily indeed. As Christians, we have expectations placed on us. Obviously, as a vicar, people expect me to behave with integrity, honesty, admit failures – very fair expectations, even though they are a great responsibility! Sometimes people expect me to be negative things – judgmental and condemning of certain behaviour, for example – which I think is an unfair expectation (but understandable when sadly some have seen and experienced some Christians being judgment and condemning). But people will have expectations of all of us as Christians: they want to see that our faith somehow makes a difference in our lives. And rightly so.

Today we remember John the Baptist baptizing Jesus. And if there’s one thing we can learn from John, it’s about how to deal with expectations. Remember how this episode begins… ‘as the people were filled with expectation…’John had appeared on the scene, was a great speaker and prophet. He told people some brutal truths, he told them to sort their lives out, to leave their pasts behind – and as a symbol of this he was baptizing them. He was building up a following, and they were beginning to wonder if he was the special one, God’s son. They were placing his hopes on him, expecting him to fill God’s promises.

But how does John meet these hopes and expectations? He points the people to Jesus. He says ‘I’m not the one, but he is coming’. John got people ready, made way for Jesus, and pointed them to him. John reminds us that that is our job too – it’s our role to point people to Jesus.

People do have expectations of us as Christians. They expect us to have kindness, integrity and that we practice what we preach, but more than that, they expect to look at us, and see something of the Jesus we follow reflected back at them. So often we think people are uninterested or indifferent about faith, but actually I find that people are very interested. They are intrigued by faith, they want to why we have it, that our faith means something to us, that church makes a difference in our lives. There are many, many interested people, people open to thinking and exploring Jesus in their lives – just think of those extra people who worship with us at Christmas, those who have their children baptized, those who still value Christian funerals and weddings. There is openness…it is our job to meet people in their openness and expectation and point them to Jesus, just like John did. People have great expectations of us – which is a great responsibility but a fair one, because WE are the greatest adverts for Jesus Christ, and people should look at us and somehow draw closer to Jesus.

This is the season of Epiphany, the season of ‘revelations’, when we explore who the baby in the manger we received at Christmas really is and means. We’ve thought of the wise men, today we’re looking at Jesus God’s beloved son in whom God is well pleased as he’s baptized. And we’ll explore Jesus the miracle worker at the wedding in Cana, Jesus the one who calls us to follow him as we think of those first disciples, and Jesus the light and hope for the whole world as Simeon and Anna welcome him in the Temple at Candlemas. But I wonder if Epiphany is also about realising that WE are called, like John, to reveal Jesus to the world. WE are to be Epiphanies of Jesus to others, so that when people see us, they’ll somehow draw closer to Jesus. The Great Expectations of others may seem like a weighty responsibility, but as Christians they are also a great privilege. In all that we do this season, this year, here and in our community, in our words and our actions, let’s point people to Jesus, so they may see his light shining through us. Amen.

Prayer

Let us pray that we will be faithful to our baptism

Eternal Father,
you have given us your only-begotten Son
to take our nature upon him,
and revealed him to us
at his baptism in the River Jordan,
grant that we, who have been born again of water and the Holy Spirit,
and made your children by adoption and grace,
may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit,
through Jesus Christ, our Saviour,
who is alive with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Taken from Liturgy.co.nz website

Closing Worship

First Sunday of Christmas – The Boy Jesus in the Temple

Jesus retrouvé dans le temple by James Tissot

Readings

1 Samuel 2:18-20,26 (NIV)

But Samuel was ministering before the Lord—a boy wearing a linen ephod. 19 Each year his mother made him a little robe and took it to him when she went up with her husband to offer the annual sacrifice. 20 Eli would bless Elkanah and his wife, saying, “May the Lord give you children by this woman to take the place of the one she prayed for and gave to the Lord.” Then they would go home…

26 And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favour with the Lord and with people.

Luke 2:41-52 (NRSVA)

Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. 43 When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. 44 Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. 45 When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ 49 He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ 50 But they did not understand what he said to them. 51 Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour.

Sermon

I once left a child in church.  It was during my curacy and a miscommunication between myself and my husband, combined with a well-meaning but disastrous intervention by a parishioner, meant that we left one of our three daughters behind after a service.  Our daughter was completely fine – fussed over and swiftly returned to us by doting members of our congregation – but I will never forget the heart-dropping moment of arriving home and my husband saying: “Where’s Niamh?”  That moment of abject parenting failure was made easier to bear by a recent news story where the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, his wife, and entire security detail had managed to leave his daughter in a pub.  And of course, Mary and Joseph had this experience too.  But other than providing reassurance to every parent who has ever realised that a child is not where they are supposed to be, what might this gospel story have to say to us today?

Our reading today is a rich one.  On one level it is full of very relatable human experience – a lost child, frantic parents, an exasperated question from a frazzled mum, and an insouciant pre-teen wondering what all the fuss is about.  But on another it is laden with symbolism and allusions to other historical and biblical narratives. 

Luke is writing mainly for a Gentile audience, to a culture where the biographies of great leaders frequently included episodes of precocious childhood behaviour.  Caesar Augustus, for example, gave an address at the funeral of his aunt, aged only 12, astounding his listeners.  Luke includes this story perhaps to reassure new Christians who are resisting the Caesar cult that the true Lord – Jesus Christ – had shown similar distinction at a young age.

This reading in the lectionary is paired with the childhood of the Old Testament leader, Samuel, and there are strong links between the two passages.  Both have children left in a Temple – although in Samuel’s case, this was on purpose – both are closer to God than the adults around them, both will strive to draw God’s people back to God and both stories finish with the conclusion that the children grew in stature and favour with God and people.

But my favourite allusion is to the Emmaus road story – remember the one where on Easter Sunday two disciples are walking away from Jerusalem, broken after the death of Jesus, before he meets them, teaches them and then reveals himself to them in the breaking of the bread.  There are so many parallels between the two tales.

Despairing, frantic and confused, on the third day, Mary and Joseph found their son.  Despairing, frantic and bemused, on the third day, two travellers encountered a stranger on the Emmaus road.  In both cases, these closest to Jesus pour out their hurt and confusion.  In both cases, there is a gentle reminder of what Jesus was about.  To Mary and Joseph – did you not realise, I MUST be in my Father’s house- or as other translations put it – about my Father’s business.  To the disciples on the Emmaus road – Was it not NECESSARY that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?  The Greek word behind the phrase must be and necessary is the same one – dei.  It means it is binding, it is necessary, it is proper; in short it is inevitable.  Anyway, more of why these two readings mirror each other in a moment.

The words Jesus speaks in our reading today are the first things he says himself in Luke’s gospel, and they are worthy of a bit of attention.  Firstly, is the use of the word “Father”.  It brings us up short, coming as it does straight after Mary’s words: “Your father and I have been searching for you…”  This child Jesus, just on the cusp of maturity, knows who he is, knows that despite his devoted earthly father, Joseph, his true Father is in heaven.  I am told that it was not usual for Jews of that time to refer to God as their Father, and Jesus using this language indicates an intimacy of relationship with God which is new in human experience. 

The phrase “in my Father’s house” has been difficult for people to translate, with other options being “about my Father’s business” or “about my Father’s concerns”.  I would suggest that “my Father’s house” does not simply mean the geographical space of the Temple, although it works on that level, but also the work of faith he was engaged in there.  A household in New Testament times was not just a home – it was a community of family members and sometimes servants, it was an economic unit, a family business of sorts, where all who were of an age to do so contributed to the work of the household, often defined by the trade of the head of the house.  As a child of his Father’s house, Jesus is engaged in the work of his Father

And what was that work of the Father?  Our story from the other end of the gospel, from the road to Emmaus, brings our answer.  It was to fulfil the scriptures, suffer and die, before rising again in glory, to make a way for all God’s children to be forgiven and welcomed home.  As Mary and Joseph searched frantically for their son, how much more is God determined to find us?

These two stories bookend the ministry of Jesus and remind us of what he was about – he was the Son of God, about God’s business, which was nothing less than the redemption of all creation.  That is the message of Luke’s Gospel – that is the hope we celebrate at Christmas.

But one last thing. In writing about this Bible passage, Tom Wright also makes the link between these two readings.  He says:

You might call the pair of stories something like “The Jesus You Thought You’d Lost”  And if that is the message of the two passages, maybe Luke is wanting to tell us something about his gospel as a whole: maybe he is writing, at one level, at least, for people who have some idea of Jesus but find he is more elusive than they had imagined.  Finding him will normally involve a surprise.  Jesus doesn’t do or say what Mary or Joseph or the two on the road were expecting.  It will be like that with us, too. Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood him, he will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking.  Discipleship always involves the unexpected.[1]

Anyway, this reflection hit a chord with me in the midst of one of the most chaotic and uncertain Christmases ever.  Where is Jesus in all that we are experiencing right now?  Perhaps we, like Mary and Joseph, feel frazzled, anxious, broken.  Well, the reality is he will be where he always is – about his Father’s business of sharing faith, hope and love.  If we do likewise, even in the smallest of ways, we cannot fail to bump into him.  It will probably when we least expect him, possibly when we feel least prepared, but undoubtedly we will be greeted with love and a gentle reminder that this, this work of faith, hope and love, is what Christmas is all about.


[1] Wright, Tom, Luke for Everyone London SPCK 2001 p29-30

Collect Prayer

Almighty God,
who wonderfully created us in your own image
and yet more wonderfully restored us
through your Son Jesus Christ:
grant that, as he came to share in our humanity,
so we may share the life of his divinity;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Closing Worship

4th Sunday of Advent – Magnificat!

Readings

Micah 5:2-5a (NLT)

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    are only a small village among all the people of Judah.
Yet a ruler of Israel,
    whose origins are in the distant past,
    will come from you on my behalf.
The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies
    until the woman in labour gives birth.
Then at last his fellow countrymen
    will return from exile to their own land.
And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
Then his people will live there undisturbed,
    for he will be highly honoured around the world.
    And he will be the source of peace.

Luke 1:26-38 (NLT)

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27 to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28 Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favoured woman! The Lord is with you!”

29 Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel told her, “for you have found favour with God! 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”

34 Mary asked the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin.”

35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God. 36 What’s more, your relative Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used to say she was barren, but she has conceived a son and is now in her sixth month. 37 For the word of God will never fail.”

38 Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” And then the angel left her.

Sermon by Colin Udall

A couple of weeks ago I preached at a friend’s church and asked who was ready for Christmas.  Only one person in the congregation raised her hand to say she was ready.  Christmas celebrates the coming of Jesus as a baby.  But of course, Jesus tells us a number of times that we should always be ready for Him.  In a sense, as Christians we should always be prepared for Christmas because we never know when He may be coming.  The Old Testament prophets did their best to tell everyone to be prepared and to prepare them, and the prophet Micah is no exception as we read in this short passage.

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting’.  Bethlehem, the small, seemingly insignificant town, but with a great Biblical history, not least of which the young David was anointed King in Bethlehem and it was where David had fed his father’s sheep.

But at this time of year we remember that to Bethlehem went a young couple during the census in the days of Caesar Augustus. There was born, “a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord.”  Angels acknowledged Him, and shepherds worshipped Him. The wicked sought to destroy Him, for our kinsman-redeemer drew near. The very heavens which He had created led wise men to Him.

Whilst we often quote and remember Isaiah at this time of year, it is good to be reminded that other prophets pointed the way to Jesus as forbearers to John the Baptist.

In our Gospel reading we find Mary, who has just heard the news that she is to bear Jesus, going to meet her cousin Elizabeth, who has been carrying John in her womb for the past 6 months.  Here we see Elizabeth recognising Mary for who she is and Mary then responding with the song tat we now know as the Magnificat, though it has roots elsewhere in Scripture and particularly in the Books of Samuel.

“Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah,  and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.”

It’s not certain where Zacharias and Elizabeth lived, but as Zacharias was a priest at the Temple he would have lived in or close to Jerusalem, making Mary’s trip about 100 miles, which would have taken her around four days to reach her destination.

We can easily believe today that she had been there before. In that day, you didn’t call or send an email or message that you were coming – you just turned up

So, Mary arrives as anyone would in that day – unexpected. When she came into the house, she would have offered a greeting that is also a blessing.. We hear this blessing explained by Jesus when He sends out the 70 in Luke 10 – “5 But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’” So there is nothing out of the ordinary in how this visit is unfolding… except that both of these women have experienced a wonderful miracle.

Mary wants to talk about what has happened to her and so she turns to someone she knows has had a similar experience.  She will have heard about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy.  She will probably been at family gatherings to celebrate the miracle.  She will, no doubt be there when John is circumcised after his birth.  She wants to share her good news with her cousin.  But before any of these more intimate conversations can happen, Elizabeth recognises what has happened through her unborn infant’s reaction to Mary’s voice. In turn, Mary can no longer hold in her joy and praise and thanksgiving, and so sings this wonderful song.  This rebellious song.  This song that is full of its own prophesy.  It’s a dangerous song, because it talks of turning the world upside down, of relationships being reversed, of bad things happening to the rich and good things to the poor, which is not the expected thing, especially in Roman occupied lands where power and might were seen as the be-all and end-all.  People were not seen as equal in Roman eyes, indeed not particularly in Jewish eyes, either.  This was the overwhelming message of what is to come and of Jesus Himself – that we were created equally and we should all be treated as equals and with equal justice and fairness.

This first few seconds of meeting reveals the truth of what is happening to the pair of them, and the Magnificat is in part a reaction from Mary to the dawning of that truth upon her.  The penny drops. She realises it and bursts out in a song of praise to God, “My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” She is voicing that wide-eyed wonderment of the truth that the angels have spoken to her and Elizabeth and the greatness that their sons will be born to.

The majority of the Magnificat is, however a prophesy.   It is an account of God’s mercy, love and faithfulness to “the humble.” Mary tells us why and how it happened and is still happening: “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants for ever, even as he said to our fathers.” Mary’s message is that the coming of Jesus into the world is the fulfilment of God’s promises. As we remember in our Advent cycle of lighting candles, we, as Christians are linked to the biblical prophets and we can refer to Abraham and other founders of our faiths as ancestors as a result.

Mary was sure that God had remembered “to be merciful … even as he said to our fathers.” God never forgets, he cannot forget! We may pass through wilderness experiences but the Magnificat is a powerful reminder not to despair. We may have all had different experiences over the past couple of years in dealing with the pandemic in our personal ways and with family members and this may have affected us deeply, both mentally and physically.  These are the sorts of wilderness experiences that we have when our faith is shaken and we do not understand God’s hand in it all.  I recently read a book called “The Silence”.  In it, a Portuguese priest witnesses the oppression, torture and murder of Christians in 14th Century Japan.  All the while, he believes that God is witnessing it too and the priest cannot understand why God seems silent on the issue; the silence of the title. But Mary reminds us that God is a covenant-keeping God. In the Incarnation, He has given the final proof that all His promises are sure, that He is faithful to everything He has ever promised.  We may not understand, but be faithful to God and He is faithful to you.

Mary’s Song also makes it quite clear who will benefit from this Covenant and these promises.  “He has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” These are exactly the terms of the Beatitudes, the opening sentences of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus condemned those who thought that, by their own actions, they merited God’s praise. In fact their so-called righteousness was fatally flawed; they were the “rich” who were sent empty away. God’s values are in reverse to those of this world.  Here is the dangerous teaching that the Pharisees will come to dislike so much and eventually bring about Jesus’ death on the cross.  This is the dangerous teaching that led to the initial Roman persecution of Christians and to many persecutions down the years.

This is the essential message of the Magnificat: that only in Jesus is there salvation. It’s by believing in Him and trusting in His redemptive sacrifice on the Cross that becomes the new covenant with God; that through Jesus we can have sins forgiven and we can have a personal relationship with Him and his Father

And so today, let us reflect that out of the humble town of Bethlehem came the Messiah that was promised for so long.  That out of humility came greatness.  Let us reflect on the great things that God did for Elizabeth and Mary and how He does good things for us too and that we should follow Mary’s example and thank and praise God for what He has done.  And even when we are feeling low and lost and without God, or that He is there but not answering, we should know that He is there and that if we believe in Him, we, like Mary and Elizabeth can have a hand in turning the world upside down.

Amen

Prayer

In this Advent of expectation
draw us together in unity,
that our praise and worship
might echo in these walls
and also through our lives.

In this Advent of expectation
draw us together in mission,
that the hope within
might be the song we sing,
and the melody of our lives.

In this Advent of expectation
draw us together in service,
that the path we follow
might lead us from a stable
to a glimpse of eternity.

(from faithandworship.com)

Closing Worship

Second Sunday of Advent – Waiting!

This weekend we are celebrating the second Sunday of Advent.  Our readings for this week will be:

Malachi 3:1-4 (NLT)

“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

“But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.

Luke 3:1-6 (NLT)

It was now the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius, the Roman emperor. Pontius Pilate was governor over Judea; Herod Antipas was ruler over Galilee; his brother Philip was ruler over Iturea and Traconitis; Lysanias was ruler over Abilene. Annas and Caiaphas were the high priests. At this time a message from God came to John son of Zechariah, who was living in the wilderness. Then John went from place to place on both sides of the Jordan River, preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had repented of their sins and turned to God to be forgiven. Isaiah had spoken of John when he said,

“He is a voice shouting in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!
    Clear the road for him!
The valleys will be filled,
    and the mountains and hills made level.
The curves will be straightened,
    and the rough places made smooth.
And then all people will see
    the salvation sent from God.’”

Homily

Ever since I started at St Paul’s, as a congregation, you have cared deeply about the young people of our community. I arrived shortly after your youth worker Kim moved to a new job. For five years, you supported her in caring about local teenagers. As I arrived you were trying to recruit a replacement – but after a couple of attempts no one applied. You kept going trying to meet the needs of young people in our parish, but lack of energy, lack of contacts and lack of volunteers meant that gradually and sadly various things ended. Then the dream of the Arbury Road Cafe, which would have been a perfect location for youth work, frustratingly fizzled out. Almost seven years after my arrival, what was once a full-time youth ministry was now our youth group – which is still absolutely brilliant – and sporadic warm contact with a local high school.

Now, hear me say this clearly, what we have today is still something many churches across the Church of England would be delighted to have. To have a youth group of a dozen teens supporting one another and learning about life, values and faith together is a remarkable thing, and I cannot thank Steve, Sarah and Emma for all they have done to keep this going and to Deb, Nigel, Latoya and Sarah for ensuring it can continue. Also, to have a local senior school who welcome their local church, however intermittently, is a great gift, and I am so grateful to the overstretched staff and especially to Jo’s efforts during her curacy to keep that relationship going.

But, I do know that in many ways, these years will have felt like wilderness years for those of you who see the needs of young people in our community and wish we could do more to help. If we feel God has called us to serve Stockingford in this way, why has it all been such hard work? Such an uphill struggle? Why have we gone backwards, rather than forwards? Did we not hear God right? Perhaps this wasn’t what God was calling us to after all…

This experience might help us as we think about the two readings we heard today. The first from Malachi, the final book of the Old Testament, gives us that great promise – God is coming to us! The God they eagerly await, the God they long to see, will come! This is God’s word to them and it is true. But then there is a 400 year gap, and God hasn’t come. In fact, the temple – rather than welcoming the Almighty God – has been invaded by the Seleucids and made a centre for a hodge-podge of Jewish and Pagan worship. There was guerilla warfare, an uprising, a massacre and harsh suppression of Jewish worship. You can forgive the people for wondering if they had misunderstood. Had God really said that God would come to God’s people? Had they heard right? Was God talking to them?

One of my children’s favourite picture books was called Owl Babies. Three little owls – Sarah and Percy and Bill – live in a hole in a trunk of a tree with their owl mother. One night they awake and their mother is not there. The owl babies wonder where she might be, share their fears and try to comfort one another. Finally they close their eyes and just wish their mother would come. And then – she came.

I am reminded of this as we turn to our Gospel reading. After centuries of waiting, wondering, worrying and wishing, into a specific moment and specific place in history, God came. They had not misheard. The promise was true. God was on God’s way, God was at work, and it was time for God’s people to get ready. After all that time when it felt like nothing was happening, there is an urgency in the ministry of John the Baptist – get ready, prepare, shake off your despondency and complacency, shove away your cynicism, get ready for something amazing!

Two weeks ago, I popped into our local high school for a chat with their part time chaplain about a school carol service. Hosting this service in church over the last six years – when covid has allowed – has been one of our ways to maintaining that school-church relationship. Six years of moving chairs, giving out chocolate and eating mince pies. Six years of smiling and saying yes to as much as we possibly could. It was always a joy to do this, but it felt such a little thing to be able to offer. Anyway, I went along to the meeting looking forward to a catch up with a great colleague, but not expecting anything out of the ordinary. But God had other plans.

Firstly, after some really tough years, the school is in a really good place – all those prayers we have prayed for your local schools over many years, well, they are being answered. Hallelujah! Their excellent headteacher, has now been promoted to look after a number of schools and a lovely new head of school and deputy head are in place. The new head and deputy came along to my meeting with the chaplain, were very excited about the year 7 carol service, wondered if they could arrange something to do with the year 8s at Easter and 9s at Harvest. Oh, and while we were on the subject, they wondered if the church might be able to offer a safe hangout space for stressed year 11 students during summer term – you know, just a friendly space with encouraging caring adults about? Ideally in the church building, as a community space away from school, and they would be happy to introduce to the Year 11s to it and promote it…

Well, I walked away from that meeting half dazed. Seven years of waiting, working, wondering, wishing and when I had no expectation left, this happens. God is still calling St Paul’s to serve the young people of our community, just in different ways and different timescales to the ones we imagined. But now this is happening – can we be ready?

Advent is a time of waiting and preparation, not just for individuals but for us as a community. After seven years of waiting, after two years of pandemic, if God is offering us new opportunities, can we be ready to accept them? It will mean new people getting involved. Those who already run the Stay and Play and Messy Church and SPOGs are already busy enough. But all I ask today is that you pray – pray for the opportunities God seems to be offering, pray for God to call people to care passionately about this work, pray for God’s abundance to emerge from perceived scarcity and pray, pray, pray for our local schools and young people, that they may be sustained and enfolded in the love of God.

One of my Twitter friends shared this quote this week: Never let the wait make you doubt what God said. Let’s hold fast to all God has called us to be, and when the time is right, be ready…

Prayer

Dear Lord Jesus,
I thank you for our local school. I pray that your Holy Spirit will move throughout them
so that they are places of peace and joy. Give the teachers and staff the skills they
need today to do their jobs well and give them supernatural energy when they
need it. Help all the children to listen carefully, concentrate and understand. Be
with those children especially who need extra support or struggle to keep on
track. Send your Holy Spirit over the playground may it be a place of laughter and fun,
a place where no one is left out and children are kind to each other. Protect our
children from harm and give wisdom to those who manage and make decisions.
Amen

By Yvonne Campbell
General Secretary Congregational Federation
Member of Wavertree Congregational Church in Liverpool

Closing Worship

Advent Sunday

Readings

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13
 
How we thank God for you! Because of you we have great joy as we enter God’s presence. 10 Night and day we pray earnestly for you, asking God to let us see you again to fill the gaps in your faith.

11 May God our Father and our Lord Jesus bring us to you very soon. 12 And may the Lord make your love for one another and for all people grow and overflow, just as our love for you overflows. 13 May he, as a result, make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. Amen.

Luke 21:25-36
25 “And there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. 26 People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then everyone will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory. 28 So when all these things begin to happen, stand and look up, for your salvation is near!”

29 Then he gave them this illustration: “Notice the fig tree, or any other tree. 30 When the leaves come out, you know without being told that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see all these things taking place, you can know that the Kingdom of God is near. 32 I tell you the truth, this generation will not pass from the scene until all these things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will disappear, but my words will never disappear.

34 “Watch out! Don’t let your hearts be dulled by carousing and drunkenness, and by the worries of this life. Don’t let that day catch you unaware, 35 like a trap. For that day will come upon everyone living on the earth. 36 Keep alert at all times. And pray that you might be strong enough to escape these coming horrors and stand before the Son of Man.”

Homily by the Rev’d Kate Pearson

We have arrived at the beginning of Advent. The season of waiting. I wonder what we’re waiting for and how we’re going to wait?

This week my friend’s tortoise, Freddie the Flash, went into hibernation. At nearly 100 years old, he’s got this waiting thing down to a tee. Freddie is waiting for the spring, when his body temperature will rise and he can dash about the garden once more. Until then, he’s gone to bed. Well, he’s gone to bed in a box, in a fridge.

Hibernation is the ultimate snub to the winter. And it’s tempting to think that’s what we need to do. With a new Covid variant coming into the UK; fears about supplies of food and gifts; another Christmas party at risk; 27 desperate lives lost in the Channel. Perhaps the tortoise has got it right and attempting a form of hibernation through the next couple of months is what’s called for.

Or, maybe we have something else to wait for, and an invitation to wait in a different way.

So what are Christians waiting for anyway?

We’re waiting for Jesus. We know the first bit of that wait for Jesus well, we’re waiting along with the people of God 2000 years ago for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, God incarnate. But that is just a remembrance of waiting. What are we waiting for today? We can lose track in our Christian faith that Jesus not only promises he’ll never leave us, not only sent his Holy Spirit to be with us always but also promises to come back. Jesus will return. Now I’m not going to predict how that coming will look – no-one pre-Darwin could have predicted that creation would have involved evolution after all and we’d be foolish to try and attempt to decide what Jesus’ return might involve.

But there are promises and they are of hope and of drying tears. Of seeing all of our loved ones again. Put away those dreadful medieval images, which take passages out of context to scare us into behaving. The hope of waiting is for true freedom; healing; wholeness – we’re waiting for joy. Because if the life, death and resurrection of God incarnate, Jesus, tells us something, they certainly tell us that joy always comes and love always wins. It can just take a while. And so we wait.

And how will we wait?

In a box in a fridge, stored at 5 degrees celsius to ensure a calm and safe hibernation like my friend’s tortoise? Or perhaps, whatever is going on, we get to wait with expectation, with hope, celebrating those glimpses of joy that will come as we journey through life.

Our hope cannot have us hiding in fridges, waiting for the dawn to come – this waiting is active. It’s not desperate, but it is active.

And the God we wait for is active too. There are signs of God’s love all around us. Perhaps a practice for Advent might be to look for the gifts of that love each day – kind words from a friend; a nod from a stranger; a letter in the post at the right time. This is prayer. Prayer is enter into the divine conversation that is going on all around us all the time. We can make prayer very complicated. But it’s really very simple, it involves staying still long enough for God’s love to reach us. Really it’s just a form of waiting.

When my friend’s tortoise emerges in the Spring, the first thing he’ll do is find a stone to prop himself up on so that he can point his shell directly to the sun – soaking up the rays that come. He can’t rush this, he can’t make the sun burn brighter in order to warm his body. But he can turn up and he can wait. No fancy words are needed in prayer. And any time we give to the notion of entering this conversation with God is eagerly and lovingly taken up by Jesus who is delighted to hear from us. Sometimes prayer involves words, sometimes it can just be sitting quietly, waiting for the rays of God’s love touch us. I wonder how that might look for us this Advent – start small and manageably, maybe just a few minutes a day as we learn to wait with hope and expectancy for our active and loving God.

Because Jesus is coming.

I’ll leave you with a poem by Rowan Williams called Advent Calendar.

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Intercessions

In joyful expectation of his coming
we pray to Jesus, saying,
Maranatha.*
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to your Church as Lord and Judge.
We pray for our world as it deals with
the pandemic, climate change and a refugee crisis.
Help us to live in the light of your coming
and give us a longing for your kingdom.
Maranatha.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to your world as King of the nations.
We pray for our country
for health for our Queen,
wisdom for her government,
compassion for all in need.
Before you rulers will stand in silence.
Maranatha.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to your people with a message of victory and peace.
We pray for all troubled by temptations,
addictions and weaknesses;
who struggle to forgive themselves for harming
themselves and those they love.
Give us the victory over death, temptation and evil.
Maranatha.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to us as Saviour and Comforter.
We pray for all who are unwell in mind, body or spirit;
for those struggling to face the week, the day or the hour ahead;
for those grieving and broken with the pain of loss.
Break into our lives,
where we struggle with sickness and distress,
and set us free to serve you for ever.
Maranatha.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to us from heaven, Lord Jesus,
with power and great glory.
Lift us up to meet you,
with all your saints and angels,
to live with you for ever.
Maranatha.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

*This Aramaic word is traditionally translated, ‘Our Lord, come.’

Closing Worship

That’s Our King!

St Paul’s Church Stockingford

Inspired by SM Lockeridge’s “That’s My King” sermon and to celebrate the end of the church year and the feast of Christ the King, the congregation of St Paul’s co-created this. Each person had a scrap of paper and was invited to write something about Jesus. They were a group of 50 ordinary Anglicans, aged 13 months to 90 years and this was what they wanted to say…

He is the person whom I turn to and pray in all aspects of my life.
He listens to good and not so good times.
He is my everything, who
guards me,
consoles me,
comforts me,
saves me from troubles,
feeds me,
clothes me,
blesses me throughout my life –
without HIM I am just void.
He is King and God of love.
He alone can perform miracles.
He is the most loving and merciful God.
He is ever-living and everlasting.
He is the way, the truth and the life.
He is a channel of ultimate forgiveness and love.
He is faithful, good, always loving and kind,
a friend, a healer, a comforter
and my King.
He is the Christ,
all love and goodness,
beyond my imaginings yet personal,
for always
my friend and saviour.

That’s Our King!

He is all-knowing
he is all powerful
he is all seeing
he is all around us
he is always aging but not dying
he is friendly
he is the creator of life
he is the creator of the universe.
He is love
he is the light of the world
he is my guide.
He is my role model.
He is our hope and salvation:
he has come to save us all.
He is the centre of the Trinity
yet God made man
who walked the roads of the Holy land
and met and loved all manner of humankind.
He is the miracle of the age!
He is Lord of all lords!
He is my Saviour
my friend, my Father
he makes me feel loved and safe.
He has been with me since the day I was born
and guides me every day.
I pray and talk to him daily:
he’s my Father in heaven
and I love him.
He’s my guiding light.
He is everlasting love.
He is my inspiration.
He is my support.

That’s Our King!

He is a kind, gentle man
who is our King
and Leader of Heaven
next to God.
He is the light
he is totally unique:
HE IS.
He is my Saviour, Lord and King.
He says “I am the way, the truth and the life”.
He is King of creation
he is shepherd of the flock
he is the great life giver.
He is our Saviour through faith
and performs miracles when you least expect it.
He is:
Lord of peace
Lord of hope
Lord of forgiveness
Lord of healing
Lord of wisdom:
He is the message.
He is the hardest act to follow
(Although I fail,
I will keep trying.)
He is indestructible life
he is undefeatable love.

That’s Our King

He is brave and very supportive.
He is my constant companion.
He is marvellous
he is indescribable.
He is divine
he is all-loving
he is the King of the Jews
he is incarnate
he is indescribable
he is uncontainable
he is a teacher.
He is the Son of God:
my Lord and Saviour.
He is loving.
He is my central point.
He is our friend and loves us all.
He gives us hope for the future.
He is Lord of all.
He is my friend
he is the bridge between heaven and earth
he is the light to light the way through life
he is
always
and
forever.

That’s Our King!

Amen!

Christ the King

Readings

Daniel 7:9-10,13-14

I watched as thrones were put in place
    and the Ancient One sat down to judge.
His clothing was as white as snow,
    his hair like purest wool.
He sat on a fiery throne
    with wheels of blazing fire,
10 and a river of fire was pouring out,
    flowing from his presence.
Millions of angels ministered to him;
    many millions stood to attend him.
Then the court began its session,
    and the books were opened.

13 As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, honour, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed.

John 18:33-37

33 Then Pilate went back into his headquarters and called for Jesus to be brought to him. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked him.

34 Jesus replied, “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about me?”

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate retorted. “Your own people and their leading priests brought you to me for trial. Why? What have you done?”

36 Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.”

37 Pilate said, “So you are a king?”

Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”

Homily

SM Lockeridge, a pastor and preacher from the US, once finished a sermon with this description of Jesus.

The Bible says
He’s the King of the Jews
He’s the King of Israel
He’s the King of Righteousness
He’s the King of the Ages
He’s the King of Heaven
He’s the King of Glory
He’s the King of Kings
and He is the Lord of Lords

Now that’s my King!

David says
The Heavens declare the glory of God
And the firmament showeth His handiwork
No means of measure can define His limitless love
No far seeing telescope can bring into visibility the coastline of His shoreless supply
No barriers can hinder Him from pouring out His blessing

He’s enduringly strong
He’s entirely sincere
He’s eternally steadfast
He’s immortally graceful
He’s imperially powerful
He’s impartially merciful

That’s my King!

He’s God’s Son
He’s the sinners’ Saviour
He’s the centrepiece of civilisation
He stands alone in Himself
He’s august
He’s unique
He’s unparalleled
He’s unprecedented
He’s supreme
He’s pre-eminent
He’s the loftiest idea in literature
He’s the highest personality in philosophy
He’s the supreme problem in higher criticism
He’s the fundamental doctrine in true theology
He’s the cardinal necessity of spiritual religion

That’s my King!

He’s the miracle of the age
He’s the superlative of everything good that you choose to call Him
He’s the only one able to supply all of our needs simultaneously
He supplies strength for the weak
He’s available for the tempted and the tried
He sympathises and He saves
He guards and He guides
He heals the sick
He cleansed the lepers
He forgives sinners
He discharges debtors
He delivers the captives
He defends the feeble
He blesses the young
He serves the unfortunate
He regards the aged
He rewards the diligent
And He beautifies the meek

Do you know Him?
My King is the key of knowledge
He’s the wellspring of wisdom
He’s the doorway of deliverance
He’s the pathway of peace
He’s the roadway of righteousness
He’s the highway of holiness
He’s the gateway of glory
He’s the master of the mighty
He’s the captain of the conquerors
He’s the head of the heroes
He’s the leader of the legislators
He’s the overseer of the overcomers
He’s the governor of governors
He’s the prince of princes
He’s the King of Kings
And He’s the Lord of Lords

That’s my King
That’s my King!
My King

His office is manifold
His promise is sure
His life is matchless
His goodness is limitless
His mercy is everlasting
His love never changes
His word is enough
His grace is sufficient
His reign is righteous
His yoke is easy
and His burden is light

I wish I could describe Him to you

He’s indescribable
He’s indescribable
He’s incomprehensible
He’s invincible
He’s irresistible

I’m trying to tell you
The heaven of heavens cannot contain Him
Let alone a man explain Him
You can’t get Him out of your mind
You can’t get Him off of your hands
You can’t outlive Him
And you can’t live without Him
The Pharisees couldn’t stand Him
but they found out they couldn’t stop Him
Pilate couldn’t find any fault in Him
The witnesses couldn’t get their testimonies to agree
And Herod couldn’t kill Him
Death couldn’t handle Him
And the grave couldn’t hold Him

That’s my King!
He always has been
And He always will be
I’m talking about
He had no predecessor
and He’ll have no successor
There was nobody before Him
and there’ll be nobody after Him
You can’t impeach Him
and He’s not going to resign

That’s my King!
Praise the Lord
That’s my King
Thine is the Kingdom
And the power
And the glory
The glory is all His
Thine is the Kingdom
And the power
And the glory
For ever
And ever
And ever
And when you get through with all of the forevers
Then
Amen

Amen!

I wonder if you had to describe Jesus to someone, what you would say. I wonder as another church year draws to a close what you have learned – or perhaps learned again – about the Jesus we follow. Which of the two Bible readings we have heard today most resonates with you – the Jesus who is the all powerful Ancient of Days, sitting in glory in heaven, or the Jesus who stood before Pilate, ready to give absolutely everything, even his own body and blood, that we might be free, forgiven and live forever in God’s love. Think of the journey we have taken over the past year: the promise and hope of Advent, the God-with-us of Christmas, the realisation that this child, this man is God’s own son during Epiphany. And then the self-examination of Lent, the sorrow of Holy Week, the brokenness of Good Friday. But then the glory, the joy and the victory of Easter, the fulfilment of Ascension and the commissioning of Pentecost. And over recent months, we have, as Jesus told the women at the tomb, returned as his disciples to Galilee to walk again with Jesus and learn how to be his disciples. Today, we proclaim Christ again as our King and pray for the fullness of his kingdom.

But what sort of King is Christ for you? In church, we will be attempting to co-create our own That’s my King sermon with everyone contributing a line. Perhaps you want to reply in the comments below. Is Christ your King? Do you know him?

Intercessions

United in the company of all the faithful
and looking for the coming of the kingdom,
let us offer our prayers to God,
the source of all life and holiness.

Merciful Lord,
strengthen all Christian people by your Holy Spirit,
that we may live as a royal priesthood and a holy nation
to the praise of Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Bless our bishop and all ministers of your Church,
that by faithful proclamation of your word
we may be built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets
into a holy temple in the Lord.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Empower us by the gift of your holy and life-giving Spirit,
that we may be transformed into the likeness of Christ
from glory to glory.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Give to the world and its peoples
the peace that comes from above,
that they may find Christ’s way of freedom and life.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Hold in your embrace all who witness to your love in the
service of the poor and needy;
all who minister to the sick and dying;
and all who bring light to those in darkness.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Touch and heal all those whose lives are scarred by sin
or disfigured by pain,
that, raised from death to life in Christ,
their sorrow may be turned to eternal joy.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Remember in your mercy all those gone before us
who have been well-pleasing to you from eternity;
preserve in your faith your servants on earth,
guide us to your kingdom
and grant us your peace at all times.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

Hasten the day when many will come
from east and west, from north and south,
and sit at table in your kingdom.
Lord, in your mercy
hear our prayer.

We give you thanks
for the whole company of your saints in glory,
with whom in fellowship we join our prayers and praises;
by your grace may we, like them, be made perfect in your love.
Blessing and glory and wisdom,
thanksgiving and honour and power,
be to our God for ever and ever.
Amen.

Closing Worship

Remembrance Sunday

Bible Readings

Hebrews 10:11-25 (NLT)

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honour at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy.

15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies that this is so. For he says, 16 “This is the new covenant I will make with my people on that day, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” 17 Then he says, “I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds.” 18 And when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.

19 And so, dear brothers and sisters, we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus. 20 By his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way through the curtain into the Most Holy Place. 21 And since we have a great High Priest who rules over God’s house, 22 let us go right into the presence of God with sincere hearts fully trusting him. For our guilty consciences have been sprinkled with Christ’s blood to make us clean, and our bodies have been washed with pure water.

23 Let us hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm, for God can be trusted to keep his promise. 24 Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. 25 And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.

Mark 13:1-8 (NLT)

As Jesus was leaving the Temple that day, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at these magnificent buildings! Look at the impressive stones in the walls.”

Jesus replied, “Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!”

Later, Jesus sat on the Mount of Olives across the valley from the Temple. Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him privately and asked him, “Tell us, when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to be fulfilled?”

Jesus replied, “Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah.’ They will deceive many. And you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in many parts of the world, as well as famines. But this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come.

Homily by Rev’d Kate Massey

In the summer, I was privileged to lead an ordination retreat at the Cathedral of St Edmund in Bury St Edmunds. It is an amazing building, but only a fraction as impressive as the Abbey it replaced. The old Abbey had a tower several times as high as the existing cathedral tower. On those flat fenlands, it must have been visible for miles – to the peasants of the area, a remarkable reminder of the all-powerful God they served. It must have been such a shock when the dissolution of the monasteries after the English reformation meant this incredible building was reduced to ruins.

The temple in Jerusalem would have a similar impact on visiting pilgrims. If you have ever seen a photograph of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you can see what the disciples were talking about in our gospel reading today. Huge shaped stones make up the remaining wall of the temple the Herods built. They would be impressive in any age, but in an age when there were only basic tools, the impact must have been quite something. It would be unthinkable that only a few short years after its completion – a task of building which had taken many decades – the temple would be reduced to rubble.

Although no one is completely certain, most scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel was written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. The Jewish people revolted against their Roman occupiers in the late 60s AD, with some initial success. But the uprising ended in a siege, and then most of the inhabitants of the city were killed and its beautiful temple destroyed. It was a cataclysmic event for the people of the time.

Regardless of their new faith in Jesus, it must have been a very difficult time for the early church. In Acts, we hear how they regularly met in the Temple courts. For Jews and Christians alike, the destruction of the Temple must have been a blow. And so, as part of his gospel, to encourage new believers, Mark records this conversation between Jesus and his friends. Jesus knew such things were coming and that, apocalyptic as they seemed, they weren’t the end of the world – yet.

I wonder what are the defining moment for generations? For Jesus’ contemporaries, the fall of Jerusalem. For the peasants of 16th century Suffolk, the reformation. For my great-grandparents, it would have been the Great War; for my grandparents, world war two. For my parents, the cold war and unrest in Northern Ireland. For mine, 9/11. For my children, covid and the climate crisis. Each has been cataclysmic in its own way and shaped us and how we see the world.

On Remembrance Sunday, we remember the victims of war, especially in the two great conflicts of the last century and especially the servicemen and women who lost their lives. As the generation who lived through these events leave us, there can be a real risk of romanticizing these wars. However, if covid has taught us anything, it has taught us that living through a global crisis is anything but romantic. It gave us just a small taste of what it was like to be separated from loved ones for months at a time, to have to put our own liberties and preferences second to the wellbeing of all, to live through something not knowing how many of us would see the end of it, to face uncertainty, insecurity and even death. Some people have been heroic, but others have been selfish. Some have given their all, while others have made a killing – metaphorically speaking. Bits of the pandemic were exciting and inspiring – the incredible development and roll out of a vaccine in record time, for example. But much of it was tedious, frustrating and depressing. Should we expect our ancestors’ experiences of great crisis to be anything else? One of my friends is a military chaplain and she once told me that a huge amount of being on active service was a boring, stressful waiting…

Just as there will always be wars and rumours of wars in the world which is struggling and straining to become the world God made it to be, there will be all varieties of human behaviour – the unselfish and selfish, the heroic and the feeble, We, too, are in the process of becoming. Neither of these things is a surprise to Jesus. Our reading from Hebrews reminds us that Jesus has given himself so that our sins could be forgiven, so we could be made holy and approach with confidence the God who loves us – so we could have hope, a hope which we can hold to without wavering because God can be trusted. The challenges each generation faces are not the end of the world. Our human failings are not an insurmountable obstacle to God’s love. Have hope. One day our broken world and our broken humanity will be made new.

And so, in the light of that hope, we are to encourage one another to acts of love and kindness. Today, we remember those people who were human and flawed like you and me, yet found it in themselves to be unselfish and brave as they fought for a world they might never see. How can we honour them by doing likewise in the challenges that face our generations. What might generosity and courage look like as we continue to live through a pandemic, or as we face the climate crisis? Can we like the people we remember today give our best, give our all, for what we believe to be right, for the future our children and grandchildren will inhabit?

One of my favourite quotes is from Lord of the Rings. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

There are many things we wish were not happening in our times, but for humankind it has been ever thus. All each generation has to decide is how it will play its part. If Remembrance Sunday is only about the past, it will soon become nothing but a self-indulgent fairy tale. However, if our remembering helps us live well in our present, it will be a true tribute to those who gave their all in previous generations, in previous struggles.

And we do not do this alone, but in the love and equipping of Jesus, to whom our brokenness and the brokenness of the world is no surprise, but rather something he came and gave his all that we might overcome. That we might have hope.

Intercessions

Let us pray for all who suffer as a result of conflict,
and ask that God may give us peace:

for the service men and women
who have died in the violence of war,
each one remembered by and known to God;
may God give peace.

All   God give peace.

For those who love them in death as in life,
offering the distress of our grief
and the sadness of our loss;
may God give peace.

All   God give peace.

For all members of the armed forces
who are in danger this day,
remembering family, friends
and all who pray for their safe return;
may God give peace.

All   God give peace.

For civilian women, children and men
whose lives are disfigured by war or terror,
calling to mind in penitence
the anger and hatreds of humanity;
may God give peace.

All   God give peace.

For peacemakers and peacekeepers,
who seek to keep this world secure and free;
may God give peace.

All   God give peace.

For all who bear the burden and privilege of leadership,
political, military and religious;
asking for gifts of wisdom and resolve
in the search for reconciliation and peace;
may God give peace.

All   God give peace.

O God of truth and justice,
we hold before you those whose memory we cherish,
and those whose names we will never know.
Help us to lift our eyes above the torment of this broken world,
and grant us the grace to pray for those who wish us harm.
As we honour the past,
may we put our faith in your future;
for you are the source of life and hope,
now and for ever.

All   Amen.

Interfaith Sunday

Readings

Genesis 16 (NLT)

16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

John 14:1-7 (NLT)

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

Homily by the Rev’d Kate Massey

When Liam and I first moved to England, we lived in hospital accommodation in Warwick. Reflecting the diversity of the NHS staff we worked alongside, our block of flats was quite an international and multifaith community. One Christmas, when the work commitments meant that we couldn’t go to Scotland to celebrate with family, we invited our friends to celebrate with us. It was the best and most complicated Christmas meal we ever had. Our gathering comprised three Christians, an agnostic, two Muslims, a Hindu and a Jew. Liam spent hours working out how to make a traditional turkey dinner with vegetarian and pork-free options for our guests. As we began our meal, Liam and I asked if our friends would mind us saying grace. No, cried our Muslim neighbour, Jesus is my favourite prophet anyway!

This Sunday is Interfaith Sunday, and I thought it might be good for us to spend some time thinking about how we, as Christians, engage with people of other faiths and backgrounds. Now in doing this, I am leaving my comfort zone far behind. I am fairly confident talking about the Bible and traditional Christian belief. But I am not particularly knowledgeable about other faith traditions. I might really put my foot in it. I might say something horribly offensive without realizing. But I think – even if we risk making mistakes – it is important to talk about how we live well as a faith amongst others in our multifaith society.

I think that the Christian tradition offers us three values which might support us as we engage well with neighbours of different faiths.

The first value is openness. I have spent some years in churches which had a very suspicious attitude towards people of different faiths. And there are certainly plenty of passages in the Bible which may seem to support antagonism towards those who believe differently to ourselves. However, Jesus modelled openness. His most famous parable tells people they must love their enemies including those detested Samaritans who had different beliefs and different places of worship. We don’t always remember that the Good Samaritan is an interfaith story. So, whatever the faith of our neighbours, we are to love them and seek their good.

Now what might this look like in real life. During lockdown, we hosted a Zoom evening with an author called Andrew Graystone, who was promoting his book “Love, Faith and Mischief”. He told a story of how he went along to his local mosque just a few hours after the horrific mosque shootings in New Zealand with a sign that simply said “You are my friends. I will keep watch while you pray” and stood outside the building. After Friday prayers (during which the iman had mentioned him) people came out and spoke to him and thanked him. Someone took his photo. The image went viral and he became a global sensation for a few days. But it was a simple as noticing that his Muslim friends had just had some horrible news and wanting to show a bit of care and solidarity. Our love for our neighbours of different faiths is about everyday kindness and an openness to friendship. Whatever differences in belief, we are human beings, made in the image of God, worthy of dignity and respect, worthy of being seen as individuals and not some cartoonish stereotype, people with whom we have more in common that that which divides us.

This brings me neatly on to our second value, which is celebrating what we share. Our first reading today tells us of the birth of Ishmael. His mother, Hagar, was a remarkable woman. A slave and a surrogate, she is the first person to give God a name. The God who sees me. It is a powerful thing to be seen as we are – to God she was not a servant involved in the smooth running of a household, she was not a vessel from which Abraham’s offspring might come. She is a person with her own concerns and dreams. God sees beyond the labels that others have placed on her and sees her as a person. God gives her a promise of her own, as he already has to Abram and Sarai. Our personhood is one of the most basic things we share with neighbours of different faiths. We all have concerns and worries. We all have hopes and dreams. We have family and friends and food and work. There is always common ground if you choose to look for it.

And Hagar is the mother of Ishmael, whose descendants, tradition tells us, were the first Muslims. We share many things with people of other faiths. At the most basic level, we are all looking to something beyond ourselves for meaning, wisdom, purpose and guidance. We all have practices of worship and prayer which raise our gaze from ourselves to the divine. We have sacred texts and wisdom gathered over centuries which our tradition holds are inspired and inspiring. In the Abrahamic faiths, there is considerable overlap. We share the Old Testament with our Jewish cousins and many of our Biblical stories and characters can be found in the Qu’ran. Mary, whom Muslims call Mariam, even has her own book! We have festivals we celebrate. And we have values and ethics which, despite some problems and the many scare stories you might find in the press, tend to point us towards community, generosity, goodness. In many ways, people of faith (despite our differences) have more in common with each other than with those who hold no faith. So perhaps in a world which can be increasingly individualistic and money driven, we can work together on old values like community, thankfulness, generosity and love. Again, what might this look like? Well, the winter before the pandemic, our neighbours at the Frank Street mosque joined with churches across the town to help run the Winter Night Shelter for the homeless. We have different beliefs but we are united around a value for human dignity and a determination that people shouldn’t sleep rough in the coldest months of the year.

My last value is knowing what you bring to the table. This takes a little explaining. Basically, in interfaith work from a Christian perspective, there is a spectrum of views on how we engage with others. At one end of the spectrum is the belief that the only way to God is through the Church. Personally, I see too much of God in the lives of people of other faiths and none, many of whom would never darken the door of a church building, to be able to accept this position. It also seems a little too much like telling God how God can operate and we do such things at our peril. The other end of the spectrum is the “many roads up a mountain” argument which argues that all faiths lead to God in their different ways and are pretty much interchangeable. This is quite a popular view, but I struggle with it. I don’t think it takes seriously the specific truth claims that Jesus makes about himself. In our Gospel reading we hear Jesus say clearly “I am the way, the truth and the life – no one comes to the Father except through me!” So, where does this leave me?

Many years ago, I had a tutor at college who really made me think about all this. He used to be a vicar in a parish in Leicester, where the population was 90% Muslim. He supported his parishioners in the aftermath of 9/11 and the War on Terror. To the horror of them all, a flat in his parish was used by the 7/7 London Underground bombers in preparing their attack. It was an incredibly difficult time for that community. He made close friends with local imans and would fast during Ramadan with them. He went on a joint pilgrimage in the Middle East. He really really loved the Islamic faith. But he remained a Christian. Why? It was a question he asked himself and the answer was always Jesus. There was just something about a God who would come and die on a cross which he found utterly compelling.

As Christians, Jesus is what we bring to any encounter. Jesus is the gift we offer in our shared search for God, and so we shouldn’t be embarrassed about the differences or distinctive claims of our faith. Our faithfulness to our own tradition helps us share generously and hopefully with others. For me, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. He is the way through which all humanity can be forgiven, the world redeemed, the cosmos renewed. But this is not an exclusive statement which denies those honestly seeking and serving God through other traditions. Rather it is a promise of hope for us all.

So this Interfaith Sunday, may we be open to loving friendship with neighbours of other faiths, may we celebrate what we share and work together for the good of our world, and may we – with humility and love – offer our greatest treasure, Jesus, in our shared search for God.

Prayer

Courage comes from the heart
and we are always welcomed by God,
the Croí (heart) of all being.

We bear witness to our faith,
knowing that we are calledto live lives of courage,
love and reconciliation in the ordinary and extraordinary
moments of each day.

We bear witness, too, to our failures
and our complicity in the fractures of our world.

May we be courageous today.
May we learn today.
May we love today. 

Amen.

(Corrymeela Prayer for Courage by Padraig O’Tuama)

Closing Worship

Bible Sunday

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Readings

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 (NLT)

14 But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. 15 You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 17 God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

I solemnly urge you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus, who will someday judge the living and the dead when he comes to set up his Kingdom: Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching.

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths.

But you should keep a clear mind in every situation. Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you.

John 5:36b-end (NLT)

The Father gave me these works to accomplish, and they prove that he sent me. 37 And the Father who sent me has testified about me himself. You have never heard his voice or seen him face to face, 38 and you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you.

39 “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.

41 “Your approval means nothing to me, 42 because I know you don’t have God’s love within you. 43 For I have come to you in my Father’s name, and you have rejected me. Yet if others come in their own name, you gladly welcome them. 44 No wonder you can’t believe! For you gladly honor each other, but you don’t care about the honor that comes from the one who alone is God.[e]

45 “Yet it isn’t I who will accuse you before the Father. Moses will accuse you! Yes, Moses, in whom you put your hopes. 46 If you really believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me. 47 But since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

Sermon by Colin Udall (Licensed Lay Reader)

There is a story in Africa that is told about missionaries.  The source I read attributed it to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, but I think it is one of those stories that does the rounds all the time.  The story goes that when the first missionaries arrived in Africa, they had the Bible and the Africans had the land.  The missionaries told the Africans to close their eyes and pray and they did so.  When they opened their eyes, the missionaries had the land and the Africans had the Bible.  I think we got the better deal.

Today is officially Bible Sunday, though it is also true that there is open permission to observe any Sunday in the local Church as Bible Sunday. I read that there has been an official Bible Sunday in America since 1915.  I couldn’t find a date for the UK.  Perhaps it has always been around.  Surely you can argue that if you are preaching from the Bible, then every Sunday is being treated as Bible Sunday anyway because we are celebrating God’s word?

As Christians our sole source for matters of faith and practice is the Bible. Although reason, tradition, and experience aid our interpretation of the Bible, the Bible alone is the basis for our Christian faith and our personal relationship with God.  Different versions and translations of the Bible exist and maybe you have a favourite translation.  I have always enjoyed the NIV, although with some of it’s male-orientated language, I realise it is not perfect for today’s society.

Today Bible Sunday calls each one of us to be what John Wesley called “homo unius libri,” – a person of One Book. Christians are “People of One Book” because the Bible is the divinely inspired Word of God Himself. As we have heard in our other reading today, Paul testifies in the 2nd letter to Timothy that, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” The original term Paul uses for “inspired” literally means “God breathed.”

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus refers to the writings of Moses.  He says that Moses wrote of Him.  The books of the Old Testament, whether history, poetry or prophesy all lead to the arrival of the Son of God in Jesus as told in our Gospels and then reflected and further interpreted in the letters and other books we find after the Gospels. The sixty-six books of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures speak with Divine authority. As I said, there are different versions of the Bible and Catholic and Orthodox traditions have extra books in their Bibles and some Catholics argue that we Protestants lose out because there are many New Testament references contained within these “missing books” of our versions of the Bible. Although God spoke through the unique personalities of the persons He selected to pen his written Word, He directly communicated His message to each of them. It has been up to others who were leading the early church to feel inspiration from God on which books should be contained in our Bibles from the many books and letters that were available to them at the time.

We can literally see in Moses writings where God has spoken directly to the writer. Note Exodus 24:12, “The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.”

The Hebrew prophets were inspired by God to pen their prophecies. We continually read the phrase in the Old Testament, “The Word of the Lord came to me.” The Christian writers also affirm their messages come directly from God. Paul continually identifies himself in his epistles as “Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ,” and other writers of New Testament Scripture identify themselves in similar fashion. In beginning the Book of Revelation John testifies, “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. The voice that spoke and told John to “write in a book” was the Risen Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Some versions of the Bible have what is called a “red letter edition”, those words of Jesus are written in red signifying they come directly from His very mouth. The Bible is our sole authority for faith and for practice because it is “God breathed.”

Many people find the Bible a source of inspiration, a foundation for their faith and a place of strength and peace which is difficult to describe in a sermon.  You will all have different descriptions for it, I am sure, just as we all have different “favourite passages, stories and quotes from the Bible that feed and sustain us.  A few years ago in the Church Times there was a long discussion carried on through the letters pages about the place of the sermon in our services.  Essentially the provoking question was, “What is the point of a sermon, which can take hours to prepare, when it is forgotten by most before they leave the building?”  The letter that seemed to close the subject said something like, “I have been married for 50 years and in that time I have eaten countless meals which have largely been cooked and prepared by my wife.  Sometimes they were straight out of a packet or a tin, sometimes they were lovingly prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients and accompanied by good wine.  Mostly I have forgotten those meals by the time I come to the table ready to eat the next one.  Occasionally a meal has stood out so much that we have conversations which begin “Do you remember that meal…?”  But all of those meals have been what I needed to feed and sustain me through each 24 hours.  And so it is with the sermons I have heard throughout the years.  Mostly I have forgotten them, but sometimes one is inspirational and causes me to re-think, but each sermon has been what I have needed at that time to feed and sustain my faith alongside the Bible which feeds and sustains me also.” 

On September 7, 1864, a community group called the “Loyal Colored People of Baltimore” presented a Bible to President Abraham Lincoln for his kind and humane outreach to their people. Lincoln gratefully responded with these words: “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.”

So, like John Wesley, may each one of us be “A Person of One Book.” Our Bible is “God breathed” and our source for encouragement, faith and hope at all times.

Intercessions

We pray that Christ may be seen in the life of the Church.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us into the family of those who are
the children of God.
May our love for our brothers and sisters
be strengthened by your grace.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be a temple
where the Holy Spirit can dwell.
Give us clean hands and pure hearts,
so that our lives will reflect your holiness.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be a light to the world,
so that those in darkness come to you.
May our lives shine
as a witness to the saving grace you have given for all.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be members of your body,
so that when one suffers, all suffer together.
We ask for your comfort and healing power
to bring hope to those in distress.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
in your mercy, hear us.

You have called us to be the Bride,
where you, Lord, are the Bridegroom.
Prepare us for the wedding feast,
where we will be united with you for ever.
Jesus, Lord of the Church,
hear our prayer,
and make us one in heart and mind
to serve you with joy for ever.
Amen.

Closing Worship