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

Advent Sunday

Readings

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

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

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

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

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

Homily by the Rev’d Kate Pearson

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

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

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

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

So what are Christians waiting for anyway?

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

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

And how will we wait?

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

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

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

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

Because Jesus is coming.

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

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

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

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

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

Intercessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Worship

That’s Our King!

St Paul’s Church Stockingford

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

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

That’s Our King!

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

That’s Our King!

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

That’s Our King

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

That’s Our King!

Amen!

Christ the King

Readings

Daniel 7:9-10,13-14

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

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

John 18:33-37

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

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

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

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

37 Pilate said, “So you are a king?”

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

Homily

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

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

Now that’s my King!

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

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

That’s my King!

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

That’s my King!

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

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

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

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

I wish I could describe Him to you

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

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

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

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

Amen!

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

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

Intercessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Worship