Sermon for the Third Sunday of Epiphany

(Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Psalm 19.1-6, 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a & Luke 4.14-21) – Year C

Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God for something incredible, so incredible that we might not even realise what we are asking for.  We pray: “Thy kingdom come’.”  That’s a powerful prayer indeed, but what does God’s kingdom look like?  Not our kingdom, but God’s kingdom.  Not how we would shape the world if we had the power, but what is the world meant to look like were it not for our dreadful disobedience and the lure of sin?

We get a glimpse of the Kingdom in today’s Gospel, as Jesus read from the book of Isaiah, and then simply said, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

What’s fascinating is that after Jesus delivers this pronouncement to the people in the synagogue, two things happened.  Initially the people were amazed and spoke graciously of Jesus; however once they had begun to take on board the challenges of what Jesus was saying they grew so angry that they drove him from the town, up onto a cliff, and attempted to throw him off the top.  That’s a big reaction.

Compare this to when the books of Moses were recited by Ezra to the people, which would have taken at least 5 or 6 hours.  After the return from the Exile in Babylon, the city of Jerusalem was inhabited once again, but it was left in a state of disrepair. Finally, Nehemiah got the people to rebuild the walls and gates, and there is a sense of getting the city back on its feet after the trauma of the Exile.  

Then Ezra read aloud the Law and the people listened in rapt attention.  More importantly, they responded, first in worship, then in repentance and prayer, and finally in action.  Their response to the Bible was not simply to listen, but to act: an example to us all.

So what is so shocking about the words that Jesus spoke?

The actions he speaks of are fairly challenging.  At one level there is nothing to be upset about – of course, we should proclaim release to the captives.  “Wait, what?”  “Is Jesus saying we should open all the doors to the prisons?”  “Will we be safe?  Will criminals come and live here?”

This is actually really challenging, and for anyone working at a purely literal level, frightening.  Now we are not called to judge, but in this fallen world we can’t ignore that our choices and actions in life have consequences.  For punishment, protection and rehabilitation the prison system is part of our society. 

However, imagine God’s Kingdom where all are freed from what binds them, including the mental chains of illness, abuse or poverty that leads people to places of captivity.  Perhaps some people will refuse the offer; we leave them in the hands of our merciful and loving God.

But what a radical and loving Kingdom that would be.  It might still be hard for us to grasp. Indeed such a thought might make us understand better those who got angry at Jesus. Nevertheless these words that Jesus spoke were so powerful that the early Church was known for having large numbers of ex-criminals who heard words of hope and love and a new beginning, and responded – just as the tax-collectors and prostitutes had responded to John the Baptist at the River Jordon.

And that still happens today: for example, Johnny Lee Clary (former leader of the Ku Klux Klan), Chuck Colson (President Nixon’s ‘hatchet man’), and Jonathan Aitken (former MP and convicted of perjury) all became Christians and have dedicated their lives to preaching the good news of Jesus Christ to others. 

And we are called to  be involved in God’s mission too, so how can we help free those who are oppressed?  

It means helping the poor, the voiceless and the vulnerable.   We’re called to think about poverty, addiction, and desperation, and the deadly sins. To learn to recognise the injustices of the world, greed, violence and exclusion; doing the best we can to remedy them through compassionate and merciful actions, whilst combining that with love of those who appear unjust in their actions, praying for transformation, repentance and change. 

We’re called to live for a world where God’s Kingdom has come.  When Christians embrace love and justice, we’re doing that which God commanded us to do: to love God and to love our neighbour, the very fulfilment of the Law.

If we were to respond to this Gospel with the same enthusiasm as the Jewish people listened to Ezra, what would that look like…?

Sermon for the Baptism of Christ

(Isaiah 43.1-7, Acts 8.14-17 & Luke 3.15-17, 21-22 – Year C)

We are now in the season of Epiphany-tide.  Epiphany means ‘manifestation’, so throughout this period, up to Candlemas, we will be exploring the signs recorded in the Gospels to Christ’s identity. 

We began with the Magi and their 3 gifts – gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh for sacrifice.  Today we celebrate the Baptism of Christ.  And it is John the Baptist who sets out at the beginning, who Jesus is.  He made it clear to his followers that not only is John NOT the Messiah, but there is also a huge difference between himself and the Anointed One.  

The Messiah has power.  John does not.

The way he talked of Jesus, that he, John was not worthy to unite his sandals, implies that Jesus is the Master, and John was simply his servant.

John also made it clear that the baptisms were very different as well.  His were with water.  Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and fire, divine power at work.

Fire links with John’s description of Jesus as the judge, separating wheat from chaff.  The chaff will be burnt with fire, as all that is evil is utterly destroyed.  So this mention of fire has a purifying element.  We’ll hold that thought all the way through to Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit will descend in tongues of fire, a sign that the great sifting of God’s people has begun.

However if baptism, whether with water or fire, is a sign of repenting of sin and being cleansed, why did Jesus need to be baptised?  He was without sin.

Baptism was one of the ways Jesus entered into our human life.  He underwent the ritual, a sign of submission that his followers could easily identify with, to make a new beginning with God.  

He was showing the way to the people – modelling what repentance looks like.  Just as with little children, who notice more than you think, and copy our actions and the way we talk, so too do we look to imitate Christ.

This is such an important event that it remains the key, and I mean that literally, to entry to the Church, the worldwide family of God.  That’s why the font is at the entrance to the church, and not somewhere else.  The whole church is a symbol of our journey in faith, and we enter through baptism.  

Indeed in our service of baptism we use symbols, some of which come from today’s Gospel.

First, there is the water, just as  Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.  Water is vital for life, and this water brings new life in Christ.  Different denominations of the Church baptise in slightly different ways, and each one will draw out a particular symbolism.  So for example, baptism by full immersion, which can happen in a river or a baptismal pool, involves the whole body and head being submerged.  It’s deeply powerful, and underlines the dying to sin, and being re-born in Christ.

Then there is the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit.  In the reading from Acts, the Samaritans had been baptised, presumably with water, but not yet with the Holy Spirit.  So water is just one part of baptism.

In our baptism rather than a dove or fire, the presence of the Holy Spirit is sacramentally acknowledged with the use of the Oil of Baptism and the Oil of Chrism.  It’s a sign of the anointing of God, a setting of a seal on the person of God’s love for them.  

It’s actually where the word ‘Christening’ comes from, because Christ means ‘the anointed one’.  So we use the oil to make a cross on the person’s forehead, making the outward sign of the invisible grace, that they are a follower of Christ. 

And then there is the heart of our Bible reading, Jesus, the Word made flesh, the light of the world.  So every baptism candidate is given both a candle and a Bible, all part of helping them to build their relationship with God.

Finally I want to draw your attention to one, tiny detail in the Gospel reading. 

What does Jesus do once he has been baptised?  What is he doing when the sky opens and the Father’s voice is heard and the Holy Spirit descends?

He is praying.

Yes, Jesus may be fire and light.  He is also silence and obedience, aligning his will with the Father’s.  

It is then that heaven opens, then that his ministry begins…

In Epiphany the Baptism of Christ reveals Jesus to be the Son of God, the one through whom we will be purified and made clean.  It is a time when we remember especially our own baptisms, and so let us prayerfully prepare to renew our commitment to follow Jesus and to keep our baptismal promises:

  • To reject the devil and all rebellion against God.
  • To renounce the deceit and corruption of evil.
  • To repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour.
  • Turn to Christ as Saviour.
  • Submit to Christ as Lord.
  • And come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life.

(Artwork: ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Grigory Gagarin (c.1840-1850)

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas

Psalm 135, Isaiah 43.1-13 & Matthew 7.13-27 (Readings for BCP Evensong)

What a quandary – how do we hold in tension our readings today with how we are feeling? We are tired, it’s dark and cold, and we look to the future, to 2022, for light and warmth, to lift our spirits and give us hope. At Christmas we threw open the doors and said to people come and know Jesus, born for you.

And yet today the New Testament reading is full of challenging teachings from Jesus: the narrow gate, being known by our fruit, ‘not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven’, what is your house built upon?

Each paragraph can feel like a punch to the gut. So what do we do? Put aside, ignore it? Say ‘we’ll deal with that when things are a bit easier for us to cope with?’ By no means!

After all, Jesus was speaking into a context where the people of Israel had been under Roman occupancy for about 90 years. They were tired and fed up, and in need of light and hope. And yet Jesus still challenged them about their behaviour.

After all, anyone can behave well when everything is going their way. It is how we behave when we are under pressure which shows the depth of our character, and our faith.

Rather than setting this passage from Matthew aside, we should let it shape our approach to 2022. If we live each day as if it were our last, with at the back of our mind the thought that today we will give to Jesus the account of our life, what difference would that make to the choices we make? If today’s sunset were the last we saw, would we treasure it a little more? When I speak, do I chose words of bitterness and malice, or of love and kindness?

These are choices we make every day anyway. The only difference is being slightly more focused on both the choice and the destination we want to head towards.

This is key when it comes to thinking about the narrow gate. I don’t think anyone stands at a crossroad and looks at the narrow and wide gate, knowing what lies the other side, and actively chooses the path that leads only to shadowy nothingness. I think sin is much more insidious than that. We simply take our eyes off of Christ for a moment here and there, we forget where we are going and make poor decisions, and when we do look back, we find the gate has, somehow, got further away. Of course, its not the gate that moves, but us, but almost without us being conscious of it.

As we stand on the doorstep of 2022, these words of Jesus are a signpost, a reminder, to go in the right direction. And if, having looked back to the narrow gate, it feels far off, then this is the time to step out with renewed vigour.

Every year lots of people make New Year Resolutions. They might think about giving up smoking, or start going to the gym more often. Of course, those are good things to do – but they rely on us saving ourselves. And most people can’t keep those Resolutions going. A poll in 2020 found that it takes just 32 days for the average person to break their Resolution.

We simply can’t save ourselves. We need someone else to come and save us – and that is where Jesus comes in. ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.’ Those words from the book of Isaiah are powerful indeed, and worth holding onto in even the darkest of times. ‘When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’ (Isaiah 43.1-2)

Hold onto God, for He is holding onto you.

he Christmas story tells us that when we cannot save ourselves, it is Jesus who comes to give us everything we need, and he brings us salvation.

And therefore everything we do is in response to that. Our good intentions cannot save us, but with a grateful prayer and a thankful heart we can respond to the Christmas story and embrace our life in a new way.

So at the start of 2022 I invite you to reflect on what you’ve received from God and how you would like to respond, how you would like to grow closer to God this year.

Is there something you would like to do – perhaps talk to God more often? Perhaps listen to God more? Or is there something you would like to do to respond to all that God has given you? Get involved with some social justice action or perhaps step into a new role here at church?

None of these things will make God love you any more or less – you have been called, you are redeemed, you are loved, utterly and completely. And you can’t fail at this – because it’s not a resolution that can be broken, it’s simply a step on our journey with Jesus. This is about growing into the person that God is calling you to be, and in 2022 letting your soul shine with the love of Christ.

And as you go forward with your New Year Prayer for 2022, may this year be filled with God’s presence in your life, and may every blessing, however small, bring you joy, hope and love.

(Photo: taken in 2012 on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The doorway to the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, and to enter all must bow.)

Sermon for St Stephen’s Day

Acts 7.51-end, Galatians 2.16b-20, Matthew 10.17-22

Yesterday, Christmas Day, we listened to the Prologue from St John’s Gospel – Jesus is the light of the world, and ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it’ (John 1.5).

Amongst all that talk of light however, John points out that not everyone was wiling to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Later in the Gospel, when Jesus talks to Nicodemus, Christ told him, ‘the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.’ (John 3.19).

And this we see in two of the feast days of this week. We remember the massacre of the Holy Innocents, when Herod’s rage at discovering the Magi were not returning to him to disclose the location of the Christ-child led him to slaughter every child in Bethlehem under the age of two. What fear possessed him to act in such a way? This is an insane response.

And then today, immediately after we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord, we remember the very first martyr, the proto-martyr, Stephen.

Soon after the early Church began its work, it became clear that it was growing at a vast, exponential rate. The Apostles had been leading the work, teaching and preaching, delivering pastoral care, healing the sick and feeding the hungry. The Apostles simply couldn’t keep up with the workload, and people began to complain. Despite all finding a new identity in Christ, arguments fell along old division lines with the Gentiles complaining that their widows were not getting their fair distribution of food in comparison to the Jews (Acts 6.2).

The Apostles, perhaps after rolling their eyes a little, made a decision which would shape the Church going forward, even to this day. They chose seven deacons to focus on the pastoral care of the community, allowing the Apostles to concentrate on prayer and the Word of God.

The word ‘diakonos’ literally means ‘servant’, and they began their service around the charitable works of the church. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we see them filling the roles of messenger and treasurer, so these godly men, and later women (e.g. Phoebe mentioned in Romans 16.1-2) enabled the work of the Church to expand and grow.

As well as distinctive deacons, today all priests are first ordained as deacons, wearing their stole across their body as a reminder of Christ tying a towel around his body as he washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper. Ordained ministers are called to be servant-hearted.

St Stephen, as well as being involved in pastoral care ,was also a great evangelist, preaching with power and grace, and it led to his arrest. Standing in front of the Council he was able to speak eloquently of the history of the Jewish people, if not tactfully about the role played by the Council in the lead up to Christ’s death.
Again, we see the darkness of rage consume the people as they mobbed Stephen, dragging him out of the city and stoning him to death.

Last week I watched a very powerful documentary by David Baddiel on social media and rage. It explored how the anonymity of the internet abets vile behaviour, and the fury which is unleashed when we think we are right and therefore those we disagree with have no right to exist, can be devastating, emotionally and even physically in some cases.

It is this type of behaviour that we see in the crowd who killed Stephen. And note the chilling detail that they laid their coats at the feet of Saul. I wonder how what Paul witnessed that day impacted him: as Saul, did it make him all the more fierce in his persecutions of Christians? Did it haunt him after his conversion? Did the words of Stephen give him strength as he faced his own death, enduring to the end in the name of Christ?

For this is what we learn from Stephen – Christmas is not a festival of a cute baby, or even generosity and giving; it is a festival about God sending his Son to save the world from the darkness of sin and death, and to bring eternal life to those who believe in him. That is why as Christians we celebrate Christmas all the way through to Epiphany and Candlemas – because we continue to celebrate the full identity of Jesus Christ, the light and life of the world. Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Saint Stephen’ by Sir John Everett Millais)

Sermon for Midnight Mass

(Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-14)

In previous years, I’ve invited those who have attended Midnight Mass to put themselves in the shoes of the shepherds, to imagine themselves out in the dark hills surrounding Bethlehem.

This year I don’t think we need imagination to picture ourselves in the dark.  We have been living through it.  For 21 months we have as individuals and family groups and communities, been struggling with the impact of Covid.  

We know what it is like to be isolated and lonely, frightened, even angry and resentful.  I know that some of you will have suffered from illness, either Covid or the impact that has had on the NHS’s ability to treat other illnesses.  We’ve been separated from loved ones, especially those in care homes, and some of you will be grieving for those who have died, and have been unable to hold them at their end, or gather together for the funerals.  

Yes, we understand better than before what it means to be a people who have walked in darkness.  The people of Israel had faced centuries of slavery, and later threats from neighbouring countries, and they felt the fear that we recognise now.

So therefore, more than ever before, we need to listen to the words of the angel of the Lord.  To those who are terrified, fearful of what tomorrow will bring: “Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people.” (Luke 2.10)

When everything is rosy those words can seem quaint.  We can push them back so that they are simply words we sing in a carol.  But dare to believe that they are true, and they open up a world where everything changes.  ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ (1 John 4.18), so no wonder the response that Isaiah foretells is joy.  When you have walked stumbling in the darkness, light is a joyful thing.

And if you’ve been wondering, where is God in all this, everything that is going on around us right now, I point you  to the mystery of the Incarnation.  For Jesus is here with us.  That’s why he came.  He never promised that everything would suddenly become easy, or that the very stuff of life, that is the way we choose to live our lives, would change.  We still have free will; people can still make bad decisions if they choose.  And we are still subject to the forces of this world, the laws of physics and biology, and the fact that we are mortal.

BUT – Jesus came to free us from all that stops us from being the people God made us to be.  We can choose to follow Jesus, and live a life in the light.  It won’t always be easy, but Jesus is here with us.

Indeed, Jesus always comes to those in the darkness, to bring them his light.  So where is God?  

He’s in the Covid wards with the frightened. 

He’s in the care homes with the isolated. 

He’s in the pathetically ill-prepared boats that are crossing the Channel. 

He’s in the houses with the little children who cannot escape their abusers.  

There is a lot of darkness, but the good news is that Jesus is the light of the world, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  Through his life, death and resurrection we have been given access to salvation, and we can use our free will, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to change the darkness of this world.  We can show the world that there is another way to live, self-controlled, upright and godly.   We can reflect Christ’s light, and make this world shine a little brighter every day.

Because, and this is really important, if the Christmas story is true, then not only is this the most powerful event in the whole of space and time, but it should also change our lives for ever.  If it’s not true, then it’s of no importance at all.  The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.  

And because God never forces his will on us, it’s your choice.  You get to listen to the words of the angel and decide – just as the shepherds did.  Don’t stay, waiting in the darkness, hoping it will go away.  Get up and make your way to kneel before the Lord who was born for you, lived for you, and died for you.  

And tomorrow, as you sit down to celebrate with your Christmas feast, raise a glass of good cheer in the name of your Saviour, who brings light to the darkness, who brings life to the world. 

What good news!  What joy!  What a Christmas!  Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Shepherds and the Angel’ by Carl Bloch, 1879)

O Emmanuel – God with us

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

(O Emmanuel Antiphon )

We come to the conclusion of our reflections with O Emmanuel, O God with us.  This antiphon truly crowns all the titles of God, for it is in the mystery of the Incarnation that we come to know our God.  

All the other titles and the prophecies are brought to their fulfilment in Jesus’ Incarnation.  To be the key of David, the root of Jesse, the morning star, and so on – these would all be wondrous insights to God on their own, but to have them within a God who is so loving and humble, that he came to earth as a vulnerable baby, to live and die to save us from the bondage of our sins and to offer us eternal life, is extraordinary.

In John’s gospel the importance of this singular fact is present from the very beginning – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” (John 1.14)

Everything which follows, Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection and ascension, all occur because he was born at all.

John stresses that Jesus, the Word, pre-existed before his birth, holding this in tension with his fully human existence (“made flesh”).  We sing this every Christmas, “God of God, Light of Light, lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb.”

Furthermore, those words that The Word “dwelt among us” are also important.  There is a link to the dwelling of Wisdom in Israel (Sirach 24.8), and the traditional link between the Logos and Sophia, both expressions of God’s Wisdom.

In the Old Testament, whilst the Israelites were in the wilderness, they had a holy meeting Tent, the place of God’s dwelling among His special people, and that word we know as ‘tabernacle’. 

The Jewish Feast of Sukkot (which translates as the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths) is a Torah-commanded holiday which we know Jesus celebrated (John 7), and indeed was pressed to reveal himself at before His hour had come.  

And at the Transfiguration, Peter felt moved to offer to build tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah – an echo of God’s dwelling or tabernacling with his people.

It is why we call the place where we keep the reserved sacrament the tabernacle, for God still dwells with us.

If we turn our attention to the last words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel we are reminded how that is still the case:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  (Matthew 28.19b)

Everything about the Christmas story reminds us that we do not worship an absentee landlord of a god.  Our God is fully present with us, knows and loves us, and is involved in our lives. In our prayers we open our hearts to God and invite His Holy Spirit to be at work in us and in the world.  At Christmas we celebrate the intimacy of God’s relationship with us.  At the Eucharist heaven and earth touch, and Christ is present in bread and wine, body and blood. 

If this is all true, then how can we respond except by falling to our knees in wonder and praise?  For our God is with us.

So this Advent – reflect on God’s presence in your life, and take a little time to prepare yourself before you come to worship the Christ-child this Christmas – like the shepherds with obedience and humility, like the Magi with wisdom and trust, like Mary and Joseph with all the love in your hearts.

Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent

Micah 5.2-5a, Psalm 80.1-8, Hebrews 4.4-7, Luke 1.39-55 (Year C)

Both the prophecy from Micah and our Gospel reading have a striking feature in common – it is the little clan, the teenage girl, the post-menopausal woman without children to whom God addresses his good news.  There is silence from the grand tribes of Israel, the priest Zechariah, even Joseph’s words are unrecorded words of support. All our attention is focused on those whom Mary mentions in her song of praise, the Magnificat – the humble and the lowly.  How powerful, this close to Christmas, to spend time with such people, rather than ‘the great and the good’ that the world admires so much.

This is very much the focus of Luke’s Gospel, with its strong theme of including those who had been previously ignored – the poor, the sick, the Gentiles, and women.  

The Bible is full of women, but they rarely get a voice.  But if you look around the edges, the women are there, and they play more than just a little part in God’s story of salvation – to name but a few, Ruth, Esther and Deborah in the Hebrew Scriptures, and Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Jesus’ friends Martha and Mary in the New Testament.

So imagine, if you can, Elizabeth.  She was an older woman, who thought herself unable to have children, and so would have felt a deep shame.  Today, many couples who have gone through fertility treatment, miscarriage or stillbirth would understand Elizabeth’s pain.  The desire of motherhood is keenly felt, and although thankfully social shame is no longer associated with infertility, there can still be a feelings of pain, or of something missing.  

At this time of year with adverts depicting happy families every second of the day, it can be particularly difficult, for it takes time to come to terms with what is not to be.

And so it must have been for Elizabeth.  At some point she would have put her hopes aside.  

And then…and then…one day her husband Zechariah came home from the Temple.  Something had happened that day – he’d received a vision from God and was unable to speak.  We don’t know what Elizabeth thought about the silence of Zechariah, but we do know that there was a loving moment of intimacy and a miracle – Elizabeth was pregnant!

She must have been overwhelmed as well as overjoyed!  God can change our plans in an instant, and we have to adjust our thinking.

For Elizabeth time passed, and then her young kinswoman, Mary, arrived, also pregnant.  Two women at very different parts of their life, both facing the prospect of first time motherhood. 

It is a considerable distance for Mary to have travelled, from Nazareth to Ein Karem, about 80 miles, so she stayed about three months.  Oh, to have been a fly on the wall during that time that Mary stayed; the conversations these two women must have shared!  Mary may even have helped at the birth of John the Baptist – after all, how else did young women learn about childbirth but by being present at such occasions.  There was no Google, no ante-natal classes. Just life.  This encounter is a record of the support that people provide to one another when they are going through extraordinary events. 

For Mary there was the added support of being able to talk to someone about the godly nature of what had happened to her.  In Elizabeth Mary had a companion, an older relative who had also been blessed miraculously by God. Elizabeth understood the importance of what both of them were going through. 

Her first words to Mary were inspired by the Holy Spirit, as she cried out ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’ (Luke 1.42).  These are words so wonderful, that along with the greeting the angel Gabriel gave to Mary at the Annunciation, they form the core of the Hail Mary prayer, a prayer said daily by millions of Christians.

Elizabeth praises Mary, not because she had conceived the Messiah, the Christ, but because she believed the angel’s words: ‘Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (Luke 1.45). This is an acknowledgement of faith and trust, and we are certainly encouraged to follow Mary’s example of the strong faith we need in these troubled times. Both Mary and Elizabeth remind us that God can do what we think is impossible.

And in Elizabeth and Mary we are given two examples of how to respond to God in trust.  Hearing, believing, obeying, and being blessed.  That is to be the template in our faith journey.

As Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, the main focus of their conversation is praise of God. Mary’s encounter finishes with what is known as the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” says Mary, echoing words and phrases from the Old Testament and weaving them together into a new and glorious song of praise.  

Like all the hymns we find in Luke’s Gospel the Magnificat follows a pattern – God promises, God fulfils, and in return the person praises God. 

So too we are called to praise God, for we can trust God to continue to fulfil his promises, of salvation and eternal life.

We have already been blessed by God though Mary’s Son, Jesus, and God blesses us with his love every day.  In return we come here to praise and worship him.  All that we have heard, all that we will see in the next week, reminds us of how much we have received already, knowledge of God’s love and truth, and in the world to come, life everlasting; so let the song of our daily lives reflect this and let us sing out: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’  Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Meeting of Mary and Elisabeth’ by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1866)

O Oriens – An Advent Reflection

O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

(O Oriens Antiphon )

We continue our reflections with O Oriens, O Morning Star.

Of course, we now know that the bright morning star is the planet Venus making its way across the sky, but science cannot strip the beauty and poetry from this title. It is a still a star which shines brighter than any other. It can still be used to guide travellers when modern technology fails. If we stop being busy for a moment and gaze upon the starry skies above us, we are reminded of the immensity and pure wonder of God’s creation, and of our own place within it. It is a joyful experience to stand and watch the skies transform from inky blue to the golden pinks of dawn, as the day lies open before us.

This title of Morning Star or Dayspring reflects probably the most common of all Christian and biblical symbols, that of light.

At the beginning of the Creation God made both day and night; both belong to him, and both are valued by him. Don’t underestimate our need for night – without it sleeping and rest would be difficult, and a myriad of creatures would not be able to go about their daily lives.

However, God saw that the light was good (Genesis 1.4), and from that point there has been a special relationship between God and light.

Indeed, it is our human nature which turns night problematic. It is our sinful nature that leads people to commit sins under the cover of darkness. It is lack of preparation for the coming of the Lord that leaves the corners of our lives and souls in shadow, dusty and unattended.

For the Israelites who had suffered hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, followed by the threat of neighbouring countries and exile in Babylon, and finally the oppression of the invading Roman Empire, the words of Isaiah had deep resonance – it was a land of deep darkness.

These words sound like Narnia, trapped in a constant winter, cold and harsh. The Messiah was to come and change that. He would be the coming dawn of freedom, justice and righteousness.

Of course, it turned out that when Jesus came, it was not immediately obvious to everyone that he was the dayspring. But, there were plenty of signs, for those who looked.

The Magi followed a star as it travelled across the heavens. Such a journey was not the same as following a satnav, and at least at one point the Magi let their own expectations lead them to the palace of Herod, rather than the outbuilding of Bethlehem. But the star guided them there, and they knelt in homage.

Simeon in the Temple saw and understood. He, with great joy, echoed the words of Isaiah as he praised God for sending this child, who was “A light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2.32).

A small number of the disciples also were shown how Jesus was the Light from Light, as Christ’s identity was revealed at the Transfiguration, as “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17.2).

After that experience it is of little wonder that when John came to write his Gospel, he began by mirroring the Genesis narrative, and declaring that Jesus is the light of the world who will bring to light all purposes of the heart. He frees those who are bound in the darkness of slavery or marginalisation – for his light raises the humble from where they have been pushed aside, and gives them their due worth as children of God, made in his image. He sends light into all those dark corners of the soul, and yes that can be uncomfortable, but after a good sweep out, we know ourselves to be closer to what we called to be.

So this Advent – reflect on where you would like Christ’s light to shine, in the world and in your life. Do not be afraid, but trust that this light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

Zephaniah 3.14-20, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18 (Year C, 2021)

We are halfway through our season of Advent, the season of hope and repentance, and the church calls today Gaudete Sunday.  It takes its name from the Introit – the opening sung as part of the Eucharist, which changes each week.  

Today’s begins ‘Gaudete in Domino semper’, the Latin for ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’, which comes straight from the epistle to the Philippians. 

Gaudete means ‘rejoice’, so our penitential purple is lifted in rejoicing to a lighter shade of rose, which we see in today’s candle.  And that joy really comes through our first readings.  The prophet Zephaniah tells the Israelites that when the Lord comes amongst them they shall ‘rejoice and exult with all your heart’ (Zephaniah 3.14), and the passage from the Philippians sums it all up; rejoice because the Lord is near (Philippians 4.5).

To rejoice, to be full of joy, is a very Christian response.  It is more meaningful than pleasure, and deeper than happiness, a word which actually has its origins in the concept of ‘luck’, hence haphazard and hapless.  It is joy we desire, not luck.

And it is for a very specific reason that for centuries Christians have sung out ‘Joy to the world’ at Christmas.  We celebrate the birth of a child – now anyone who has held a new born baby will know what a miraculous and wonderful occasion that is, but this is not any baby.  He is the saviour of the world, so rather we are celebrating what Jesus came to do.    The reason Christians are so joyful can be seen in the mystery of the cross.  We can’t have the Christ of Christmas without the Christ of Easter.

The cross reaches up to heaven from where Christ came, right down to the ground where he joined us in human form.  And the arms of the cross stretch out as far as the eastern shores to where the sun sets in the west.  This is salvation for all the world.  How could we respond with anything other than joy?

Again I will say, Rejoice.

So why in the middle of all of this is John the Baptist giving the sternest of warnings: ‘You brood of vipers,’ he says (Luke 3.7).  It seems somewhat at odds with our joy, our rose candle, our uplifted spirits.  

Let us look first at whom John the Baptist was speaking.  These were specific people who had gathered in the wilderness to hear him preach, and come to him for baptism.  John was prompting them to think about their response.

To the first group of people he warned them against thinking that just because they were Jews they were automatically safe from God’s judgement, what he calls ‘the axe’ that ‘is lying at the root of the trees’ (Luke 3.9).  He pointed to the stones on the floor, and said that God, if He so chose, was able to raise up new descendants of Abraham from the very ground.  If we take that warning to heart, what are we in the church to take from it?  

Well, perhaps we need to repent of the times that we thought that just because we are Christians, just because we are baptised, or churchgoers, that we somehow are more important in God’s eyes, that we have some greater claim on Him.  God will always see the righteous of heart.  God will see the Abrahams, the Cyruses, the Ruths.  He will always be able to spot those who though they have not come to know Him as we know Him, have a pure heart.  Do we view people in that way?  As less?  As equal? 

Let us return to the crowds gathering by the River Jordan.  When the people demanded more advice, asking how to respond with their lives, John the Baptist gave sensible and ethical advice.  He told tax-collectors and soldiers to be honest, and he warned them against extortion, bribery and oppression.  

Now this is extraordinary because both of these groups of people were, of course, collaborators and agents of the occupying force in Israel at that time, the Roman Empire.  And yet John the Baptist said to them – you can respond to God in your life.  

Perhaps that is the biggest message for us today in the season of Advent.  It is after all a season of repentance AND hope. 

Again I will say, Rejoice.

John the Baptist used this strong language because he appreciated the urgency of the situation.  He knew that at any minute the Messiah would arrive, and Jesus would be expecting a response.  If we are blind to the situation, if we’re not listening, or if we think we can respond in a half-hearted manner, John wants us to know that God will see through that.  And John wanted people to return to God so much that he did everything in his power to get people to understand it.  

I think John the Baptist would have agreed whole heartedly with Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1960s and 70s, when he said “The duty of the church is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.”  The Good News is always good news, but to different people it will feel like very different things.  To the overly comfortable Jewish leaders, there was a call to humility and repentance.  To the tax-collectors, the sinners who knew they needed God’s mercy, there was a message of inclusion and hope.  

There is a Book of Common Prayer Compline or Night Prayer absolution from 1928 that reads ‘May the almighty and merciful Lord grant unto you pardon and remission of all your sins, time for amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.”  That is what John the Baptist wanted people to understand.  To hear the genuinely Good News, and turn their lives around, turn their lives so that they are facing and focused on God.  

And for every person who does that…?

Again I will say, Rejoice.

And if you are still wondering how to fit the hope and repentance together, especially when you hear that strong voice of John the Baptist, I encourage to reflect back to the fact that in the womb of Elizabeth, his mother, when she greeted the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist’s very first response was joy.  He recognised and reacted to Jesus, as Luke wrote recording Elizabeth’s words to Mary, ‘For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy’ (Luke 1.44).

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.   Amen.

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