Gideon

A mini-sermon from our midweek service…

Judges 8:4-28 (NLT)

Gideon and his three hundred men, exhausted yet keeping up the pursuit, came to the Jordan and crossed it. He said to the men of Sukkoth, “Give my troops some bread; they are worn out, and I am still pursuing Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian.”

But the officials of Sukkoth said, “Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your troops?”

Then Gideon replied, “Just for that, when the Lord has given Zebah and Zalmunna into my hand, I will tear your flesh with desert thorns and briers.”

From there he went up to Peniel[a] and made the same request of them, but they answered as the men of Sukkoth had. So he said to the men of Peniel, “When I return in triumph, I will tear down this tower.”

10 Now Zebah and Zalmunna were in Karkor with a force of about fifteen thousand men, all that were left of the armies of the eastern peoples; a hundred and twenty thousand swordsmen had fallen. 11 Gideon went up by the route of the nomads east of Nobah and Jogbehah and attacked the unsuspecting army. 12 Zebah and Zalmunna, the two kings of Midian, fled, but he pursued them and captured them, routing their entire army.

13 Gideon son of Joash then returned from the battle by the Pass of Heres. 14 He caught a young man of Sukkoth and questioned him, and the young man wrote down for him the names of the seventy-seven officials of Sukkoth, the elders of the town. 15 Then Gideon came and said to the men of Sukkoth, “Here are Zebah and Zalmunna, about whom you taunted me by saying, ‘Do you already have the hands of Zebah and Zalmunna in your possession? Why should we give bread to your exhausted men?’” 16 He took the elders of the town and taught the men of Sukkoth a lesson by punishing them with desert thorns and briers. 17 He also pulled down the tower of Peniel and killed the men of the town.

18 Then he asked Zebah and Zalmunna, “What kind of men did you kill at Tabor?”

“Men like you,” they answered, “each one with the bearing of a prince.”

19 Gideon replied, “Those were my brothers, the sons of my own mother. As surely as the Lord lives, if you had spared their lives, I would not kill you.” 20 Turning to Jether, his oldest son, he said, “Kill them!” But Jether did not draw his sword, because he was only a boy and was afraid.

21 Zebah and Zalmunna said, “Come, do it yourself. ‘As is the man, so is his strength.’” So Gideon stepped forward and killed them, and took the ornaments off their camels’ necks.

22 The Israelites said to Gideon, “Rule over us—you, your son and your grandson—because you have saved us from the hand of Midian.”

23 But Gideon told them, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The Lord will rule over you.” 24 And he said, “I do have one request, that each of you give me an earring from your share of the plunder.” (It was the custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)

25 They answered, “We’ll be glad to give them.” So they spread out a garment, and each of them threw a ring from his plunder onto it. 26 The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen hundred shekels,[b] not counting the ornaments, the pendants and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the chains that were on their camels’ necks. 27 Gideon made the gold into an ephod, which he placed in Ophrah, his town. All Israel prostituted themselves by worshiping it there, and it became a snare to Gideon and his family.

28 Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon’s lifetime, the land had peace forty years.

Sermon

Gideon’s story is well known from Sunday School. He was the one whom an angel surprised while he was threshing grain in a winepress to hide from the Midianites. He was the one who asked God to prove his call was true by “laying a fleece”: he asked God to let the ground be dry and the fleece be wet, and when God did that, to be absolutely sure, Gideon asked God to do it the other way round! And finally Gideon was the warrior who God decided had too many men, so Gideon sent some home and then – when that left him with still too many men – God told him to take the men to the water and select only those who drank in a certain way, leaving him only 300. They then surprised the Midianites with their torches in jars and trumpets and defeated them.

What is less well known is what happened next. Gideon pursues the Kings of the Midianites, Zebah and Zalmunna. In their pursuit, he and his 300 men go to two towns looking for food, but are refused. These are Israelite towns ravaged by famine and who have suffered decades of Midianite oppression. Perhaps they should have helped him, but you can understand why they didn’t. They haven’t the food to spare and if they did share and Gideon and his men lose – as all the armies had before – they would have nothing good from it.

Gideon does capture the kings and defeat their armies and then returns to exact vengance from the two towns which had refused to help him. He captures and compels a young man from one of them to give him a list of his town’s leaders, and they are humiliatingly and painfully punished. The second town, Gideon simply executes all the men.

Then he talks to Zebah and Zalmunna and realises that they killed his brothers, and overcome with grief tells his young son to in turn kill the kings. It was undoubtedly intended as an insult to them. But the young boy is scared, and so his father completes the task.

Afterwards, the Israelites ask Gideon to be their ruler and his sons after him, but Gideon declines. However, he immediately does a very ruler-like thing and asks for gold from the people. The gold is used to make an ephod which brings status to Gideon’s home town, but ensnares the people as it becomes an idol.

The story of Gideon is a hinge point in the book of Judges. It starts very much like the previous stories: the people forget God and worship other gods, their neighbours are allowed to oppress them and finally they cry out to God for deliverance and he raises up Gideon to achieve a miraculous victory. So far, so usual.

But then the story begins to change. In the mopping up after the victory, Gideon seeks help from two Israelite cities and is incensed when he doesn’t receive it. He returns from battle and exacts horrific revenge on these fellow Israelites. It is the first time in the book that Israelites kill one another. Gideon forgets his vocation to be the deliverer of Israel instead focusing on the insult to himself. We see a similar response to the Kings of Midian. He does not execute them because it was what he thought God wanted him to do, but because they had killed family members. He is not acting in the best interests of his countrymen or in accordance with what he believes is the will of God, but guided by his own emotions.

As Gideon’s leadership begins to unravel, we see consequences begin to emerge. The young are exploited – first the young man from Succoth, and then Gideon’s own son. In the laws that God has given Israel, there is a special care for those who are vulnerable: children, widows, foreigners. However, as Gideon’s leadership becomes more about himself and less about his calling, these priorities are no longer at the centre of his care.

Gideon disclaims his right to be ruler, but then does very ruler-like things. He is the first Judge in the book to receive monetary reward for his work. Before the reward was the deliverance of Israel and the peace that followed – it was a communal good, not a prize for the leader. And this change of focus from the people to the leader is unhealthy, with unhealthy consequences. Gideon who once destroyed his father’s altar to Baal leads his people back into idolatry.

It is an old story, but can serve as a cautionary tale for our times. We live in a time when communities are divided against one another, when the vulnerable are no longer at the centre of our communal care. People who say the right things, but then do exactly the opposite – well, I will just leave that one there – and a tendency to be distracted by the glitz and sparkle of the world and fail to commit to the everyday faithfulness of living God’s way. Perhaps we can see something of our own times in Gideon’s example.

However, there is grace. Grace because even in this mixed character, God is able to do good. God is faithful even when the people are not. Despite the downward spiral, God is not absent. God is there and God still cares…

The Book of Judges

This mini sermon series was inspired by the excellent commentary in this challenging book: “God of Justice and Mercy: A Theological Commentary on Judges” by Isabelle Hamley.

Judges 4 (NLT)

After Ehud’s death, the Israelites again did evil in the Lord’s sight. So the Lord turned them over to King Jabin of Hazor, a Canaanite king. The commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-haggoyim. Sisera, who had 900 iron chariots, ruthlessly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. Then the people of Israel cried out to the Lord for help.

Deborah, the wife of Lappidoth, was a prophet who was judging Israel at that time. She would sit under the Palm of Deborah, between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites would go to her for judgment. One day she sent for Barak son of Abinoam, who lived in Kedesh in the land of Naphtali. She said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: Call out 10,000 warriors from the tribes of Naphtali and Zebulun at Mount Tabor. And I will call out Sisera, commander of Jabin’s army, along with his chariots and warriors, to the Kishon River. There I will give you victory over him.”

Barak told her, “I will go, but only if you go with me.”

“Very well,” she replied, “I will go with you. But you will receive no honor in this venture, for the Lord’s victory over Sisera will be at the hands of a woman.” So Deborah went with Barak to Kedesh. 10 At Kedesh, Barak called together the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali, and 10,000 warriors went up with him. Deborah also went with him.

11 Now Heber the Kenite, a descendant of Moses’ brother-in-law[a] Hobab, had moved away from the other members of his tribe and pitched his tent by the oak of Zaanannim near Kedesh.

12 When Sisera was told that Barak son of Abinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor, 13 he called for all 900 of his iron chariots and all of his warriors, and they marched from Harosheth-haggoyim to the Kishon River.

14 Then Deborah said to Barak, “Get ready! This is the day the Lord will give you victory over Sisera, for the Lord is marching ahead of you.” So Barak led his 10,000 warriors down the slopes of Mount Tabor into battle. 15 When Barak attacked, the Lord threw Sisera and all his chariots and warriors into a panic. Sisera leaped down from his chariot and escaped on foot. 16 Then Barak chased the chariots and the enemy army all the way to Harosheth-haggoyim, killing all of Sisera’s warriors. Not a single one was left alive.

17 Meanwhile, Sisera ran to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because Heber’s family was on friendly terms with King Jabin of Hazor. 18 Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come into my tent, sir. Come in. Don’t be afraid.” So he went into her tent, and she covered him with a blanket.

19 “Please give me some water,” he said. “I’m thirsty.” So she gave him some milk from a leather bag and covered him again.

20 “Stand at the door of the tent,” he told her. “If anybody comes and asks you if there is anyone here, say no.”

21 But when Sisera fell asleep from exhaustion, Jael quietly crept up to him with a hammer and tent peg in her hand. Then she drove the tent peg through his temple and into the ground, and so he died.

22 When Barak came looking for Sisera, Jael went out to meet him. She said, “Come, and I will show you the man you are looking for.” So he followed her into the tent and found Sisera lying there dead, with the tent peg through his temple.

23 So on that day Israel saw God defeat Jabin, the Canaanite king. 24 And from that time on Israel became stronger and stronger against King Jabin until they finally destroyed him.

Sermon

The book of Judges is one of the most challenging in the Bible. If it was a film, it would definitely get an 18 certificate due to the unsettling amounts of violence. As it is, I have chosen the excerpts we will be using over the next three weeks carefully, avoiding some of the most disturbing passages. It is impossible to avoid violence altogether. As I introduce it, you might wonder why I am even attempting to preach on it? Why, you might ask, is it in the Bible at all? And how can this book about warring tribes in the Bronze Age have anything to say to us now?

Well, 3000 years have passed and much has changed in the world, but sadly human nature hasn’t, and so this book which charts the slow unravelling of the early Israelite community is a cautionary tale to us all. It is also a book which tells us something about God – although not always what the characters in the book expect. So let’s pray that as we explore the overarching story of Judges that God speaks to us afresh through the gift of this ancient tale.

The book of Judges is set in the generations following Joshua. Through Joshua, the Israelites claim the land that God had promised to them; the land that was essential for their survival. But they did not complete the task God had given them in driving out the other tribes from their new homeland. Now, we might not see a problem with this – peaceful coexistence with those who are different to ourselves is something we value. However, this was a different stage in God’s revelation to the world. God had chosen them to be people in covenant with God, not simply for their own benefit but so that the whole world might know God. People were to look at Israel and see what human living could be under the care and guiding of God. They were to be distinctive, a living example. In mixing with other tribes, adopting some of their practices and customs, the Israelites were failing in their God-given purpose. The God of Heaven and Earth ran the risk of being regarded as one god among the many tribal gods of that society. In those days, you had gods you offered to for the harvest and gods you offered to when you needed victory in battle. It was slot-machine spirituality – you put your offering in, you get divine favour out. But God is not a slot-machine deity – God is the Lord Almighty – and God desired so much more than that for humanity. God was inviting Israel into a covenant relationship of trust and honour with a God beyond their wildest imaginings, and through them to bless the entire world.

Sadly, the Israelites struggled to grasp this, and so the book of Judges consist of a series of cycles – or rather cycles on a downward spiral, which look something like this: The Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, frequently worshipping other local gods. God allows the tribes around them to oppress them. The people cry out to God in distress. God raises up a Judge from the people to be God’s agent and deliver Israel. There is a victory and the land has rest.

This story of Deborah and Barak has many of those features. We are told that after Ehud, the previous Judge, had died, the people did evil in the sight of the Lord. So God allowed King Jabin from a neighbouring Canaanite tribe to oppress them cruelly. The detail about 900 iron chariots shows that the enemy army have the technological advantage over the Israelites. Finally the Israelites cried out to their God. And according to the formula for these tales, God hears them and raises up a judge or deliverer – Deborah.

Consistently throughout the book of Judges, those raised up by God to lead tend to be unexpected characters, and Deborah is no different. It was a male dominated society, and she was a women, yet Deborah was a prophet and leader who had the confidence and trust of her people. God called her to lead them in this time of crisis. She in turn calls Barak to help her in this task, and he invites her to accompany him to battle. Over many years, I have heard sermons about how this made Barak weak, faithless or not a proper man. However, the text does not say this. Deborah’s warning that he will not be given the credit possibly says more about society than the man. The reality is that Deborah and Barak together make a strong team and through them, God delivers Israel. They gather men from three of the tribes of Israel and together they face the might of Sisera’s army. The narrator by emphasising that they faced all Sisera’s chariots and all his warriors makes it clear that they are still outgunned and outmanned. But God has promised victory, and trusting God and Deborah, the troops advance and defeat the enemy army resoundingly.

And so to Sisera’s disastrous escape. He flees to the tent of a Kenite woman. Kenites were outsiders in this fight – distant relations of the Israelites through Moses’ father-in-law but in recent times had been allies of King Jabin. Sisera assumes that the loyalty of the head of the household will bind the rest of his household and expects sanctuary. He has no thought for how his arrival might affect Jael. If she doesn’t welcome him, he could be violent towards her. If the men he is fleeing find him in her tent, they might be violent to her. He has no concept of her as an equal, an agent in this story. He has no insight that her loyalties might be more complex than he expects. He sees her as an object without power, someone he can use and command to his ends. His arrogance was fatal.

Jael was not a warrior, but in nomadic communities the womenfolk put up the tents. She would be handy with a tent peg and mallet. She uses the skills she has to protect herself and her tribe. When Sisera’s pursuers do find him, she has ensured her family’s safety.

The loss of Sisera and this defeat in battle also marks a turning point for Israelite freedom. After a song of triumph sung by Deborah and Barak in the following chapter, the story concludes with the final part of the cycle: the land had rest for forty years.

So what might this story have for us three thousand years on? Well, this story comes from the beginning of Judges. The Israelites have not entirely forgotten the days of Moses and Joshua and they remember the covenant – even if most often only when they are in a mess. And there are hopeful signs for this society in spite of their mistakes. They recognise God at work in Deborah, despite her womanhood, respect her and seek her counsel. They trust her ministry enough to face a terrifyingly advanced – for their day – army. Multiple Israelite tribes forget any rivalry to work together for their freedom. Women and men work together to deliver Israel. Even the vulnerable outsider, Jael, has a vital part to play.

I suppose if there is a word that captures the best of that society it is relationship. However imperfectly, the Israelites are in relationship with their God. More importantly, their God – the God of Heaven and Earth – does not forget his relationship with them. Women and men exhibit respectful relationships and work well together. (The one man who doesn’t, Sisera, meets a sticky end.) The tribes of Israel are in relationship and can call on one another for help in times of crisis. And lastly, those who live on the margins, who are other, are included in God’s work of deliverance.

3000 years on what makes for healthy society is exactly the same: relationship. Relationship with God, who is always seeking relationship with us. Respectful relationships between women and men, but also between different ages, races and sexual identities, between those who are rich and those who are poor, between those who are disabled and their able-bodied neighbours. Supportive relationships with others who are working to the same ends – in Bronze Age Canaan, these were the fellow Israelite tribes, but what might they be today? The community groups who also seek the wellbeing of our community; the schools which work to bless our young people; the sister and brother churches that try to share the Gospel, our friends of other faiths who seek peace and wellbeing for all. And always relationship and respect for the outsider, the marginalised, the ones it is too easy to overlook or use for our own ends – for God is often found at work there.

In an increasingly divided world, valuing our relationships with others can be a way in which we become that distinctive living example those early Israelites were called to be. The quality of our relationships can be a way in which we bless the world. But it all flows from our relationship with God, who is both one and a community of three persons in loving, mutual, respectful relationship. The God who at God’s very core is relationship invites us to join in that aspect of God’s nature and so share something of God with the world.

So some questions for you this week:

How is your relationship with God?

How are your relationships with your friends and families?

What might you want to consider doing differently?

Next week, we will be looking at the story of Abimelech and what happens when all those relationships begin to unravel…

Faithfulness

Not quite a sermon, but a talk I wrote for our local Baptist Church Women’s Fellowship reflecting on Long Covid and the faithfulness of God.

Let’s start with a verse from Deuteronomy 31:8

It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.

Almost a year ago, I had the great privilege of leading an ordination retreat. In the Church of England, our ministers tend to be ordained together at a service in the Cathedral, and the most common time to do this is around the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on 29th June. In the days leading up to the ordination, the ministers to be go away for a few days of retreat, prayer, rest and reflection, under the guidance of the retreat conductor. That retreat conductor was me. It is a huge responsibility to guide and care for people at such a momentous time in their spiritual journey. I was hugely excited and honoured, but also terrified. Early one morning when I was praying and preparing for a day of the retreat, I confided my fears to God. “I am afraid I will let everyone down,” I said. And I sensed God replying: “You can only let them down if I let you down, and I will never let you down.”

God never letting me down has been a real lesson of the past 18 months. On the 21st September 2020, I caught covid and it really wasn’t that bad. I have had worse cases of flu. But I have never fully recovered. I have become one of those estimated 1.3 million people living with Long Covid. I have gone from being someone who could work all the hours God sent, live at a hundred miles an hour, take up any challenge thrown at me, to being someone who has to diary in naps and rest days due to overwhelming fatigue and aches. It is a bit like having a mobile phone with a dodgy battery – one minute it is working normally, next it is a useless lump!

It has been quite interesting to discover how much energy things take. In the early days, I spent most of my time lying down because sitting up took energy. My family live in Scotland and precovid we would often spend hours on the phone, but with post covid fatigue after quarter of an hour I would have to say goodbye as talking and listening took energy! Other people with long term illnesses will be familiar with all of this, but it was a new experience to someone for whom health and strength was the norm. I hated not being able to do things, having to cancel things, let people down, ask others to step in… But, the reality was, that even when I wasn’t there checking on it, the world kept turning. In my church, God was still worshipped, those needing love or help attended to, whether I was on top form or not. There is something quite liberating in realising that you are not as indispensable as you think you are.

Furthermore, as someone who was always busy doing, it was quite a revelation when I stopped to realise that God didn’t love me for what I did but for who I was. Now of course, I knew that, but there is a huge difference between knowing something here (head) and knowing it HERE (heart). God’s faithfulness during those early months, enfolding this bewildered, frustrated child with love was a memory I will treasure. My task in those days was to rest, and repeatedly in the last 18 months, I have be reminded of that great verse in Isaiah 30:15: In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.

However, after a few months of this, I felt I had learned my lesson. “That has been a very helpful exercise, Lord, but can I go back to normal now?” Of course, it doesn’t work like that, does it? And so the last year of fatigue and aches, of blissful windows of normality followed by days when I cannot walk upstairs without palpitations and breathlessness, has been something of a trial. God’s faithfulness took new forms in the people who still supported me and believed me and encouraged me to care for myself. When you have an invisible fluctuating illness, it can be easy to doubt yourself – are you just being pathetic? Why is it so hard to climb the stairs today when you went for a long walk yesterday? (Answer: you probably cannot climb the stairs today BECAUSE you went on a long walk yesterday). It also showed in the ways that God still used me and my ministry to bless others abundantly when I felt like all I had to offer were crumbs. But again that is the truth of God’s economy. The God who took a few loaves and fishes to feed a multitude; the God who used a handful of frighten disciples to build a church that encompasses the globe – it is amazing what God can do with a few crumbs of willingness.

One of my favourite books in the Bible is Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. It is written from a time of affliction. In the opening verses, Paul writes:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.

Paul, the human dynamo, has clearly experienced something which has profoundly impacted him and made him aware of his human frailty. And it is out of this trauma that some of his most beautiful writings spring. There is an authenticity in his writing which speaks across the centuries. His learning in his afflictions do indeed console not just the community in Corinth, but generations of Christians who have read his words subsequently. It is later in the letter that he will say…

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

Whenever I am trying to explain the gospel to people who have no language of faith – often people at the funerals I conduct – I tend to explain it this way: because of Jesus, death and darkness never have the final say, love, life and light do! I think this is what Paul is saying in this passage. Our lives, as Christians yet as part of a fallen humanity, will not be without their struggles, however, by God’s faithfulness, these struggles will not be the final word, and even in our weakness we can witness to the overcoming love of Christ. Furthermore, that witness will be all the more powerful because it cannot be attributed to human strength or talent – it can only be through God’s abundant and faithful work in us. It is a hope I cling to in a time of personal weakness.

Later in the same letter, Paul will write – after sharing a story of a vision God granted to him:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

With Paul, I long for God to remove my thorn in the form of Long Covid. I long to be my old self. I am hopeful that with medical research there might yet be an answer to and treatment for my symptoms. But as I wait, I have the promises of God. That God’s grace will be sufficient, that in my weakness there is strength because of the unending faithfulness of God.

Today in the Church of England, we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, when Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, and there – an elderly woman who thought all chances had passed her by, and a young unmarried unremarkable teenage girl – rejoice in the outrageous loving faithfulness of God. God was fulfilling God’s promises to God’s people – the promises to rescue us from our sins and ourselves – in the most characteristic of ways, by using the most unexpected, unlikely agents in God’s great work of salvation. If humanity were to recruit for the mother of the Messiah, there would be nothing on Mary’s CV to get her past the sifting stage. Yet, what mattered was only her willingness – God’s faithfulness took care of the rest. And, as God is so incredibly kind, she had her cousin to share with her, to encourage her, to rejoice with her.

And perhaps my trip here to you today is another little visitation. I will confess you are a daunting lot in many ways – you are such a prayerful, godly group, who have served your Lord for so many years. Who am I to speak to you of anything, far less the faithfulness of God? But perhaps as I share what God has done for me – as Mary shared with her cousin – you will respond “Yes, God has done that for me too. Great is the faithfulness of our God!”

At home…

Bible Readings

Acts 16:9-15

That night Paul had a vision: A man from Macedonia in northern Greece was standing there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” So we decided to leave for Macedonia at once, having concluded that God was calling us to preach the Good News there. We boarded a boat at Troas and sailed straight across to the island of Samothrace, and the next day we landed at Neapolis. From there we reached Philippi, a major city of that district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. And we stayed there several days. On the Sabbath we went a little way outside the city to a riverbank, where we thought people would be meeting for prayer, and we sat down to speak with some women who had gathered there. One of them was Lydia from Thyatira, a merchant of expensive purple cloth, who worshiped God. As she listened to us, the Lord opened her heart, and she accepted what Paul was saying. She and her household were baptized, and she asked us to be her guests. “If you agree that I am a true believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my home.” And she urged us until we agreed.

John 14:23-29

Jesus replied, “All who love me will do what I say. My Father will love them, and we will come and make our home with each of them. Anyone who doesn’t love me will not obey me. And remember, my words are not my own. What I am telling you is from the Father who sent me. I am telling you these things now while I am still with you. But when the Father sends the Advocate as my representative—that is, the Holy Spirit—he will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I have told you. “I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again. If you really loved me, you would be happy that I am going to the Father, who is greater than I am. I have told you these things before they happen so that when they do happen, you will believe.

Sermon

Our first reading today is a wonderful model of how to share the good news of Jesus with others. It begins with dreams – dreams that God gives to those who long to be God’s servant. The dream God gives Paul, and which Paul will spend the rest of his earthly life fulfilling, is the dream of taking the good news of Jesus out of Asia and into a new continent – Europe. Inspired by this dream, Paul goes. Our missions, our adventures with God, often begin with God-given dreams.

But on arrival at Philippi, where should he start? Normally, Paul begins at the synagogue, but it may be that there is not one in Philippi. You need ten male adult Jews to have a synagogue and it may be that the Jewish community in the town is small. In the absence of a synagogue, it was the custom for Jews to gather in a peaceful place, read scriptures, pray and talk together. Perhaps in the several days Paul and his friends were in Philippi they were finding out the lie of the land. Where could they have conversations with the people who would be most open to the good news of Jesus? He found them on the riverbank.

In sharing the good news of Jesus, we too would do well to follow Paul’s example and take time to learn the lie of the land. We are no longer in a world where the church – both as a building and as an institution – sits at the heart of its community. The traditional ways of telling people about Jesus are no longer readily available to us. A bit like Paul who suddenly finds himself without a synagogue from which to launch his ministry, and who looks in new places for the people who are open to faith, we need to look at our community with fresh eyes, find new people to partner with in God’s work and imagine new ways to share God’s love.

Paul finds a partner in the Gospel in Lydia. From what we can discern, she is a wealthy independent businesswoman and a natural leader in her community. She welcomes Jesus into her life and invites Paul and his friends into her home, instantly putting all she has at the service of the early church. The early Christian community that will gather in Philippi becomes one very dear to Paul’s heart for the rest of his ministry. Sometimes, as Christians, we feel like we always have to be the ones who do things for others, but accepting other’s kindness and hospitality is a powerful thing. It builds loving relationship. The church isn’t a service provider and those in our community service users. Our relationship with our neighbours is not a transaction. We are instead a community, messy and muddled, yet centred around Jesus Christ, and sharing the love of God in giving and receiving kindness, justice, mercy and joy.

Our Gospel reading builds on this. It comes from the section of John’s Gospel called the Farewell Discourses – basically, Jesus’ final teaching before he is taken at Gethsemane. It begins with that beautiful passage, so often a comfort at funerals, where Jesus tells his friends not to be troubled. He is merely going ahead to prepare a place in his Father’s house where there is plenty of room for all. One day, we will all go home to the God who love us. What a promise that is!

However, later in this same conversation, Jesus says that he and his Father will come and make their home with us, echoing that language from before. This will happen when we love Jesus and – by that love – live as loving community. The Christian hope is not for heaven, but begins with us, here, now. When we love and live in loving community, God will be in the midst of us. That – more than the most eloquent sermon, the most fantastic bible study, the most organised community project – will enable people to meet Jesus. The Holy Spirit, God with us and in us and between us, will both make this possible and keep us learning and growing in God’s truth and love.

Wow!

So, what does this mean for us as a church. Well, a few things, actually. It is a huge encouragement. So often we can look at other churches doing fancy pants stuff and think that we are second best, but really it is the quality of relationships we share – enabled by the Holy Spirit, because God is at home with us – that are the most powerful way of showing people Jesus. It is also a huge responsibility. Building and maintaining a loving culture is something we all share. It is not the Vicar’s job, or the churchwardens or the PCCs or the pastoral care team, much as they should all try to help. It is something we do together, supported and inspired by God, and we all have a part to play. But as we do it – imperfectly, messily, undoubtedly with a few hiccoughs along the way because we are human beings – God makes God’s home among us.

This week I was at a conference in my role as Dean of Women’s Ministry. I met with the national network of representatives from across the Church of England and we had inspiring speakers, fruitful conversations and we encouraged and built each other up in the work we were doing. It was truly brilliant. However, because of Long Covid, I missed 7.45am Morning Prayer both days I was away and at one despondent moment wondered if I had missed God completely. As this crossed my mind, another picture filled it – only for a lightning flash moment – but I saw an image of God, as a beautiful black woman, standing in the midst of those queuing at the coffee machines we used in our breaks, head thrown back in laughter. God was delighting in what we were doing. God was present in the loving faithfulness, the hopefulness and the struggles for justice these women embodied. In the community we shared those days, God made her home among us.

So, as the hymn I chose for my installation service here reminds us “Let us build a house where love can dwell” and in that house dream dreams, find new ways of connecting with those who might share our dreams and grow a commmunity centred on and infused with God’s love.

Prayer

God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us
to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Easter 4 – Belonging to the Shepherd

Bible Reading

Acts 9:36-43 New Living Translation

36 There was a believer in Joppa named Tabitha (which in Greek is Dorcas[a]). She was always doing kind things for others and helping the poor. 37 About this time she became ill and died. Her body was washed for burial and laid in an upstairs room. 38 But the believers had heard that Peter was nearby at Lydda, so they sent two men to beg him, “Please come as soon as possible!”

39 So Peter returned with them; and as soon as he arrived, they took him to the upstairs room. The room was filled with widows who were weeping and showing him the coats and other clothes Dorcas had made for them. 40 But Peter asked them all to leave the room; then he knelt and prayed. Turning to the body he said, “Get up, Tabitha.” And she opened her eyes! When she saw Peter, she sat up! 41 He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then he called in the widows and all the believers, and he presented her to them alive.

42 The news spread through the whole town, and many believed in the Lord. 43 And Peter stayed a long time in Joppa, living with Simon, a tanner of hides.

John 10:22-30 New Living Translation

22 It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication. 23 He was in the Temple, walking through the section known as Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The people surrounded him and asked, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

25 Jesus replied, “I have already told you, and you don’t believe me. The proof is the work I do in my Father’s name. 26 But you don’t believe me because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, 29 for my Father has given them to me, and he is more powerful than anyone else.[a] No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.”

Sermon

Today we welcome B into the family of God through baptism, and the set readings for this Sunday couldn’t be better. They contain a promise, some advice and an example.

The promise is simple. To those who choose to follow Jesus, there is eternal life. This is something not best understood simply as going to heaven when we die, but a fullness of life NOW, the assurance that even in the face of the deaths and destructions of this world, we can have hope – God’s life and God’s love will never fail us. And this hope can never be taken from us. We will not be snatched from God’s hands. As the words we will say later in the service assure us: Do not be ashamed of Christ. You are his for ever. Or as St Paul in his letter to the Romans proclaims: NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

The advice is simple too. For those who seek to follow Jesus, we need to get to know his voice, like a sheep learn to know their shepherd. Although not exactly the same, it reminds me of a story told by Yorkshire vet, James Herriot, in one of his books of life in the Dales. He was conducting some treatments at a local farm, and to do this the mother sheep have to be separated from their lambs for a short time. There was utter chaos as hundred of distraught sheep baa-ed for their lambs and their equally distraught lambs baa-ed back. “How on earth are we ever to reunite them all”, he thought, “it will take forever!” But within a few short minutes of putting sheep and lambs in the same space, each mother was reunited with their offspring. They knew one another. I had a similar experience as a new mother almost 19 years ago. I left my sleeping baby in her cot by my bed to have a very quick shower. On my return, from the reception area, I heard my baby crying. There were dozens of crying babies in that ward at any given time, but I knew that cry was mine. God only knows what mixture of maternal hormones made that happen, but it did.

God enables us by the Holy Spirit to hear Jesus’ voice: to just “know” as I knew my new baby’s cry that something is right or wrong or needs doing. But we can work with the Holy Spirit to become better at listening. Reading the Bible, or in Benjamin’s case Bible stories, help us know God better and recognise that this is just the sort of thing God would say. Prayer and worship – spending time with God – helps us to tune into God’s voice and hear it better through the rest of our life. And being part of God’s family where we are helps us encourage and advise one another when we might not always hear clearly.

And lastly, the example – Tabitha. We might not have known Tabitha’s name if it were not for the miracle God enabled Peter to perform, and that would have been a shame. Tabitha uses her skills and abilities not just to promise people a happier life in the hereafter, but to contribute to their fullness of life now. In short, in the light of heaven to come, she works to bring a little bit of heaven’s peace and joy to those around her. And what a testimony to her work – the people of her community, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, grieve her and long to have her back among them. And God hears them. There is a beautiful quote which goes something like “A local church should be able to get a reference from their poor neighbours”. Tabitha had a glowing one, and that sort of recommendation is a delight to God our Father. Tabitha wasn’t doing anything grand – she wasn’t an Apostle or a church leader or someone who would otherwise make their way into the Book of Acts – but God honoured her and made her a way that many came to believe in Jesus for themselves. It is probably too early to know exactly what B’s gifts and skills will be, but if he uses them well to help others in whatever way he can, God will see and rejoice.

So, these readings contain much wisdom and encouragement for B as he begins his journey of faith. Now, at St Paul’s, we rarely have a baptism in the main 10am service, for a million, good practical reasons, but it is nice when we do, because this wisdom and encouragement is not just for Benjamin, but for every baptized person here. Whether you began your journey of faith last month or 80 years ago, today is a chance to renew our commitment to follow Jesus: to trust in his promises, listen again to his voice and commit to using whatever skills, gifts or opportunities we might have to bring heaven’s hope and joy to those around us.

May we all leave here ready to shine like stars in the world – radiating God’s life and love – to the glory of God our Father.

Easter 3 – Discombobulated Disciples!

Bible Reading

John 21:1-19 New Living Translation

Epilogue: Jesus Appears to Seven Disciples

21 Later, Jesus appeared again to the disciples beside the Sea of Galilee.[a] This is how it happened. Several of the disciples were there—Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed the Twin),[b] Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples.

Simon Peter said, “I’m going fishing.”

“We’ll come, too,” they all said. So they went out in the boat, but they caught nothing all night.

At dawn Jesus was standing on the beach, but the disciples couldn’t see who he was. He called out, “Fellows,[c] have you caught any fish?”

“No,” they replied.

Then he said, “Throw out your net on the right-hand side of the boat, and you’ll get some!” So they did, and they couldn’t haul in the net because there were so many fish in it.

Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It’s the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his tunic (for he had stripped for work), jumped into the water, and headed to shore. The others stayed with the boat and pulled the loaded net to the shore, for they were only about a hundred yards[d] from shore. When they got there, they found breakfast waiting for them—fish cooking over a charcoal fire, and some bread.

10 “Bring some of the fish you’ve just caught,” Jesus said. 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and dragged the net to the shore. There were 153 large fish, and yet the net hadn’t torn.

12 “Now come and have some breakfast!” Jesus said. None of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Then Jesus served them the bread and the fish. 14 This was the third time Jesus had appeared to his disciples since he had been raised from the dead.

15 After breakfast Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?[e]

“Yes, Lord,” Peter replied, “you know I love you.”

“Then feed my lambs,” Jesus told him.

16 Jesus repeated the question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord,” Peter said, “you know I love you.”

“Then take care of my sheep,” Jesus said.

17 A third time he asked him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt that Jesus asked the question a third time. He said, “Lord, you know everything. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Then feed my sheep.

18 “I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others[f] will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.”

Loving God, by your Spirit, may my words point us towards your Living Word, Jesus Christ. Amen.

It feels like a very strange time to be celebrating Easter.  Easter which reminds us that death and sin will never have the final say, that love and life win, sits at stark contrast to the world in which we currently live.  We are still recovering from a global pandemic in which millions have died.  Just as the end might seem to be on the horizon from that major collective trauma, President Putin does his best to start World War 3, fuel and food prices go through the roof – leaving many wondering how they can afford to live in this country, but even more so in some of the poorer communities round the world.  And goodness only knows what our leaders are doing, suggesting that rather than welcoming some of the world’s most vulnerable people, we send them to internment camps in Rwanda.  If anyone is in any doubt, I am firmly with the Archbishop of Canterbury on this one!  And of course, then there is the climate crisis, which is already causing immense harm around the world.

That is the big picture, but each of us lives our own lives against that backdrop.  Of course, many of us will have joys which sustain us, which we celebrate and for which we thank God.  But as individuals, there are also griefs from the pandemic, the price hikes – yes – and also our own losses and fears and regrets.  In this season of Easter, maybe bits of life, maybe bits of ourselves, seem stuck in Good Friday with its pain and loss.  Perhaps, it is difficult to know what to do with Easter joy in the midst of such current pain and bewilderment?

If you can relate to this at all, there is some comfort in knowing that we are not alone.  This tale from our gospel has to be one of my favourites.  In John’s Gospel, the disciples have seen the Risen Christ – in everyone but Thomas’ case, at least twice.  They have, in John’s account, received God’s Spirit – as God breathed life into the first Adam in Genesis, Jesus breathed his resurrection life into the first Christians.  And yet, they are still a little bruised, a little bewildered, a little unsure what to do with this Easter eruption of life which is as disruptive as it is delightful. 

The disciples have been through a really disorientating trauma.  They failed and deserted the leader they loved and followed, the friend who held all their hopes and dreams, and while he died the shameful death of a criminal slave, they hid fearing they would be next.  And then, Jesus was back, showing them that everything he promised was true – which is amazing – but they are still left with their own trauma, their own guilt, their own confusion.  This sort of stuff, even in the light of Easter, doesn’t disappear overnight.

So they are at a bit of a loss of what to do with Easter in lives still shredded by Good Friday. I have this idea of them sitting like the vultures in the Jungle Book cartoon.  “What do you wanna do?”  “I don’t know – what do you wanna do?”  “Oh don’t start that again!”  And finally, Peter – always a leader, even when he leads them in the wrong direction – says “I’m going fishing”.  And they follow him.  But of course, it is a disaster.  I was pondering this over the last few days: the only two times we hear of the disciples fishing they catch nothing, but actually, this must have been quite unusual or they would struggle to run a business as fishermen.  To catch nothing, nothing at all, when they were already feeling rather rubbish about themselves, must have been a new low. 

But then, just after daybreak – timings are always important in the Gospels and light and dark are such a theme for John, that this is significant.  The new day, the new light dawns and a stranger calls to them from the beach.  Throw your net over the other side!  And of course, there are more fish than they can pull into the boat.  Memories surface of another frustrating night, another stranger, another catch of fish, and John – the disciple Jesus loved – shouts “It is the Lord!”

Forgive me a momentary tangent, but I often wonder what Heaven will be like and what it will be like to be reunited with ones who have gone before.  Will I recognize them in their new heavenly body, especially those whom I knew only when age and illness had limited their earthly one.  But I think my heart will recognize their heart, and in this we see, first John who loved Jesus so dearly, and then the rest slowly recognizing this stranger, not by sight, but by their hearts.

And bless him, for everything Peter gets wrong, here is one thing he gets absolutely right.  At the first hint it might be Jesus, he goes to him as fast as he possibly can, half wading, half swimming, despite his fears, his regrets, his shame, he goes to Jesus, because if anyone can sort out this muddle of grief and trauma, delight and hope, shame and regret and hope, his friend can.  How often when we are struggling do we hide ourselves away from God feeling unworthy, afraid of what our reception might be.  Well, let’s be more Peter.

Peter’s confidence is not in vain.  This beloved stranger has made them breakfast, tending to their weary bodies and weary hearts, feeding their hungry stomachs and hungry souls in the same way he later tells Peter he must do to others.  Whatever it might look like to learn to be Easter people in a Good Friday world, they don’t have to work it out alone.  Jesus is with them.  Despite their weaknesses and failing, he still calls them and cares for them.  And he commissions Peter on behalf of the Church he will lead to be with, to tend and to feed God’s children throughout the world.

My mother-in-law sent me a little Easter devotional booklet, and last night’s reading seemed like a very good fit for what I am trying to say today.  It reads:

The world in which we live can seem far from the one promised us by faith.  Our faith can be shaken by experiences of evil, suffering, injustice and death.  These real, earth-shattering and life-challenging experiences can be a temptation against faith.  But it is precisely in those moments of doubt or uncertainty that God draws closest to comfort and console us.

We see this tenderness in Jesus on the beach as his bewildered disciples try to make sense of Easter in a world which is outwardly the same yet will never be the same again.  And that same tender Jesus is there, ready to support and tend us as we work out how we can be Easter people in a world still wracked by pain and sin.  The devotional goes on to say:

God raises us up on eagles’ wings, making us soar high on the wings of grace poured out in the gifts of faith, hope and love.  Nothing is impossible when we have faith, and nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

These bewildered and broken men, who couldn’t even catch a few fish, went on to share their faith in Jesus, hope because of Jesus and love for Jesus.  Through them, the message of Jesus spread.  Within a hundred or so years a tenth of the Roman Empire were Christians.  Two thousand years later almost a third of the global population follow Jesus.  The disciples were ordinary people, yet they had two incredible things in their favour – Jesus was with them and the Easter message was true.  Death and sin will not have the final say – light, life and love do, and nothing, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus.

So, if you are finding it hard to celebrate Easter in a very Good Friday-ish world, take heart, have courage.  You are not the first and you are not alone.  Draw near to Jesus and allow him to feed you and tend to you, and then in his strength and love consider how you might feed and tend to this hurting world.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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