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I THIRST

Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

(2 Corinthians 6.1-10 & Matthew 4.1-11 – BCP Lectionary)

The two readings today invite us to see how Christianity, the way of Christ, have elements fo the paradoxical.  Those who do not know Jesus may see us as foolish and weak, but we have confidence that by trusting in God we have wisdom and strength.  

On Ash Wednesday we had the opportunity to have a rather paradoxical cross of ash marked on our foreheads as a sign of repentance and renewal.  The ash, made from burning last year’s palm crosses, is a reminder of our mortality, but the shape of the cross is a reminder that we have a saviour who has put an end to death.  

Holding fast to this knowledge means that we can face terrible calamities, such as Paul wrote about in his letter to the Corinthians – beatings, imprisonments, hardships and hunger – and we can do so with a rejoicing heart.  Not because these hardships don’t matter, but because they do not define us.  Therefore even when life strips us of all we have, we still possess everything, because we have the love of Christ, our Redeemer.

This requires confidence in God, and we are given Jesus as the example on which to model of godly life.  St Paul elsewhere referred to Jesus as the second Adam (1 Corinthians  15.22, 45 & Romans 5.12-21).  Unlike Adam and Eve who could not resist the temptation of the knowledge of good and evil, and thus represent humanity’s tendency to disobedience, Jesus was faithful and obedient, and so provided the path back to righteousness for all humanity.

We see this on the Cross, in the garden of Gethsemane, and as in today’s Gospel reading, during his time in the wilderness.  Not only are we hearing a reverse echo of the choices made in the Garden of Eden, we are also shown a pattern first seen in Exodus. The temptation of Jesus occurred immediately after his baptism in the River Jordan, after which the Spirit led him into the wilderness for forty days.  Compare this with passing through the Red Sea and Moses leading the people into the wilderness for forty years, a longer period than was necessary caused by the Israelites’ disobedience.

Jesus is then offered three temptations, each designed to challenge his obedience to God, and his identity.  

He is offered bread.  Our physical needs are important but again they need not define us.  We are not to focus on material possessions, but rather the word of God.  In Lent we spend time fasting and studying the Bible.  These are, despite what we might think, meant to be joyful activities.  Learning leads us closer to God, and fasting or giving up something for Lent might show us where we have become entangled in bad habits or addictions, which we can then address.

Then Jesus was invited to test his identity, or perhaps a more insidious suggestion, that he should prove his identity as the Son of God.  We live in a world where so many people seem to base their understanding of their worth on how many likes they get on social media, but external validation is never going to be enough.  Jesus did not rise to the devil’s challenge – he was entirely secure in the love of God and in knowing who he was.  Likewise we are invited to rest secure in the knowledge that we are beloved children of God, our identity born in the waters of baptism and with a lifetime guarantee that will last for eternity.

And finally, the devil offered power.  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Jesus showed that God has a different approach to leadership – it is servant-hearted, and it begins in worship of God.  For us, the Lenten disciplines include prayer, confession and Sunday worship, each one drawing us closer to God.  We then live out our faith in alms-giving and works of charity, serving others, not ourselves.

The Gospel reminds us that the devil, the spiritual battle between good and evil, is real.  It’s not about a cartoon character with horns and a trident, but if we look we see sin and evil happening in the world, and we called to resist it.  Lent is part of our response to salvation, and preparation for the choices we must make, the temptations we must resist.

So may the example of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness help you to hold fast to God, resist temptation, and take up your cross and follow him.  

Amen.  

Sermon for the Sunday Next Before Lent

Exodus 34.29-end, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3.12-4.2 & Luke 9.28-36 – Year C

Four days ago I already had my sermon for today.  I was quite pleased with it, actually.  It had an amusing story about how a mistranslation of the Vulgate, the Latin Bible, had led the sculptor Michelangelo to create a statue of Moses with horns instead of a veil.  It had, I think, a light touch.

But as I sat watching the events unfold on Thursday, as tanks rolled into Ukraine, the world became much darker.  A couple of weeks ago there was a whole country who thought they knew what the future held.  It was a time of tentative respite and recovery following two years of pandemic and full of the day to day-ness of life: work, school, and every day special events, birthdays, weddings, a night out at a show, a football match….  

And now the people of Ukraine are facing the reality of war.  Incredibly brave people are protesting against the war in cities across Russia, knowing they risk arrest and worse.  People are fleeing their homes, or making the unspeakable decision to take up arms.   For them the world has changed.  For us too.

There will be time enough later to reflect on what this all means, to ask the difficult questions, such as ‘where is God in all of this?’  and ‘what, if anything, could we have done differently to prevent this?’  What words we speak now must be chosen with care, for broken hearts and open wounds will feel sharply even the slightest mis-touch.

This is also a great responsibility which now falls upon the priests and ministers of Ukraine and Russia, to care for and comfort their people, and to lay so many to rest.  Without realising it, people will be looking to them and there will be expectations upon them, and they will need our prayers to help them.

Because prayers matter.

It would be easy to hear today’s Gospel reading on the Transfiguration with its vision of Christ’s future glory, and get the idea that it doesn’t matter that nation rises against nation, with all the pain that entails because everything will be alright after death.  

But the Incarnation of Jesus denies that – Jesus came in human flesh because God cares about us, body as well as soul, right here and now and in eternity.

So what are we left with?  We are left with three readings which are about encounters with God face to face.  The New Testament readings underline who Jesus is.  The Transfiguration is a moment when we see heaven and earth touch, and we are given a glimpse of just who has come to save and redeem us.

Peter, James and John did not know that their journey was taking them to stand at the foot of the Cross; however we do.  It means that as we enter Lent we do so with this image of the Transfiguration in our minds, of Jesus radiant with the glory of God.  We take that knowledge with us as we travel with Christ to the Cross, for we know we are walking with our God, who understands our suffering, feels our pain.  And he walked that path to bring us life, life in its fullness.

Even when the clouds descend and overwhelm us, we are encouraged to keep listening for God’s voice, for his invitation to listen to his Son, Jesus, his chosen and beloved.  Trust in Jesus, and as we spend more time with him, we will be changed from glory into glory as we become more Christ-like.

As we go into Lent, it’s worth taking the time to think how we could use these 6 weeks as a spiritual journey of peace with Jesus, just as Peter and James and John did, out of the busyness of our daily lives, to a quiet space, to pray, to study, to read the Bible, the Law and the prophets, and to simply be with God.  

We don’t have to worry about what will happen on the other side of our encounter with Jesus.  We don’t have to plan ahead and start building.  We can simply spend this time in wonder and awe as one who is invited to come and listen to Jesus.  

And do not underestimate the power of prayer.  Prayer transforms our hearts.  It gives us strength and courage and inspires us to action. 

And ask God to protect the innocent, to hold back hands that harm, to inspire those in positions of authority to influence decisions that will make for a just and lasting peace.  Prayer matters.  Prayer changes things.    

This Lent by gazing upon the light of Christ, may we too be transformed and then reflect his light into the world.  For the world is more in need of it than ever before.

 Amen.

(Artwork: ‘Dove of Peace, 1949’ by Pablo Picasso)

Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent

(Genesis 2.4b-9, 15-25, Psalm 65, Revelation 4 & Luke 8.22-25) – Year C

Jesus asks a lot of questions.  It you look at the Gospels closely many of his encounters begin with him asking a question.  Often he responds to a challenge or a test from his opponents by asking them a question in return.  Some open up a pastoral encounter (e.g. ’What do you want me to do for you?’ in Mark 10.51).  Others, like in today’s passage, require courageous learning, from those he was speaking to there and then, and from us. 

He asks: ‘Where is your faith?’

As the storm rose and engulfed them and Jesus lay asleep, perhaps the disciples thought he didn’t care, or didn’t understand the danger they were in.  The disciples who had made their living from fishing, they certainly knew the danger.  Jesus, on the other hand, was the son of a carpenter and a teacher – perhaps they assumed he had very little experience of sailing.  No doubt they put all their experience to good use as they struggled with the sails, but as the boat was starting to sink, they finally decided to wake Jesus.

His response is immediate.  He spoke and there was a calm.

Who is able to do such a thing?

The act of calming the storm might be enough to guess, but it is in scripture that we are shown, over and over again, exactly who has command over creation.

Reason tells us that it must be someone who was involved in creation, that spark of life that brought the universe into being.  In Revelation we are given the wonderful words of praise which we will hear echoing through the Memorial Acclamation in Eucharistic prayer: ‘who was and is and is to come.’    And St John went onto to write, “for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”  And so the final book of the Bible, Revelation, leads us back to our first reading and the first book of Bible, Genesis.

Furthermore in our psalm today, psalm 65, which is a great hymn of praise to the creator of the world, we find in the middle an acknowledgment of the power of God, not just to create but over creation:  ‘You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of the waves and the clamour of the peoples.’

Who then is Jesus?

Jesus is the one who can do all these things. 

Jesus is the one we can trust to bring us peace. 

Jesus is God.

So why does he asks the disciples, ‘where is your faith?’  

He asks because they has already seen so much of his work that by this point they should not only have understood his identity but also have begun to trust in him, and yet they still haven’t got it.  What would it take for the truth to sink into the disciples hearts and minds?

Our relationship with Jesus changes the way in which we see the world.  As we start to understand who Jesus is, then we can begin to trust in him in a completely new way.

The problem is: trust is something people find difficult to do.

Self-reliance has become one of the modern idols of our world.  We fear relying on God.  It feels much safer to rely on ourselves, on our own abilities.  Then we can’t be let down by others.  

But if these last two years have taught us anything it is that relying solely on ourselves is exhausting, and ultimately futile.  In the whole history of humankind, never have we had so much knowledge, the ability to travel across the world, even to control our homes from our phones.

The past two years have been like an endless storm.  We’ve gone from super busy to suddenly super alone and isolated.  Even now we have not passed into a calm.  

We need space to breathe and to be refreshed; to lament what we have lost, and to revive our hope in what is to come. 

As we reflect on Jesus, serenely asleep in the boat, I wonder whether it would be a good idea if this Lent we gave up being competent.  How might our lives look if we stopped trying to do everything, stopped relying on ourselves to save the world, and trusted a little more in Jesus?

How would you feel about letting the storm go?  

If amongst the chaos of life, we said to Jesus, ‘I’m going to sit down beside you.  I’m trusting in you, Lord.  After all, what can happen to me if I am with you?’

The truth is we do not know if this particular storm is coming to its end, or if there are more variants to come.  We do know it will not be the only storm of life we will face.  

But we can face them with a lighter heart if we spend the time we have living life to its fullest, joyful and vibrant, by sharing it with others around us, and, very importantly, with God.  The more time we spend with God, the more we come to know him, the more we will trust him.  

And when the wind and the waves do once more roar around us, then we will open our eyes to find that Jesus is right there beside us, and we will find true peace and calm.

(Artwork: ‘Christ asleep in his boat’ by Jules Jospeh Meynier)

Sermon for the Third Sunday before Lent

(Jeremiah 17.5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15.12-20 & Luke 6.17-26 – Year C)

The Beatitudes are some of the most beautiful, challenging, radical words in the Bible.  They are glorious in their hope, their victory, and their compelling push for change, in ourselves and in the world around us. 

The words of the Sermon on the Plain, as it is reported in Luke’s Gospel, point to a future, the eschatology, where God will bring justice to people who suffer.  The hungry will be fed, tears will be wiped away. 

Is it enough? 

Can we look the other way feeling safe in the knowledge that even if people are struggling now, it will be alright in the long-term, even if that means after death?

And who would be the person brave enough to go and speak to those queuing at the food bank or making the choice whether to heat their home or to buy food, and ask them if they felt ‘blessed’ about being poor and hungry?

There are two versions of the Beatitudes, Matthew 5 and Luke 6.  One was a sermon on the Mount, the other on the Plain.  Nothing odd about that – Jesus as a teacher and preacher who moved around to different people in different places no doubt shared his thoughts as he did so.  

It’s intriguing though that it is Luke, whose care for the poor, sick and marginalised is so obvious throughout his gospel, that he includes the challenging Woes.  Matthew, who might have done so to repeat the pattern of the Jewish Old Testament as we saw in Jeremiah, does not include them.  And it’s interesting that it is Matthew’s Beatitudes, a longer list of those who are blessed, that is more well known.  There is a lot of good news in the Beatitudes, and perhaps it is natural that we gravitate towards the blessings and avoid the woes.

However, as Christians we must be doubly careful that we don’t ignore the corresponding Woes of Luke’s passage.  There is a stark reminder from Jesus that we, who have much, if we hoard it like misers, will have that as our reward now, rather than the fruits of eternal life.   

The passage from Jeremiah reminds us that it has always been so – God knows our inner thoughts, our hearts and minds, and looks to our actions as the outward sign of our faith.  God will examine our ways, the “fruit of our doings” (Jeremiah 17.10).

This is challenging because it also means we have to face the reality of God’s judgement.

So what are we called to do? 

The Beatitudes give us a starting point: be pure in heart, merciful, thirst for justice and so on.  

It also reminds us that we can call upon our blessings.  If we are well-off, able to buy food easily, have no trauma in our lives, and so on, then these are gifts we are able to share.  So the food bank, homeless shelter, Family Support Work and so on, can look to us for support.

Sometimes we might feel at risk of being conned, but remember this – if someone is in need and we have the means and opportunity to help them, what we choose to do says something about our character, and about our faith.  If someone lies to get that money, then that says something about their character.  We all have to live our lives how we think we should, and as Christians that means living a Christ-like life.

It also means living it in a way that puts our trust not in the good works that we do (however marvellous they may be), but in Christ.  In the First Letter to the Corinthians St Paul says that if our faith is based on nothing, if none of it is true, then we are to be pitied.  I still say even so, this is the life I would want to live, and I just happen to do so with absolute trust that our salvation is based on the fact that Jesus lived on earth, was crucified and was raised from the dead.  

So be like the blessed of the Beatitudes.  

Strive for holiness.  

Strive for heaven.  

Strive for God. 

Amen.

(Artwork: ‘The Beatitudes Sermon’ by James Tissot)

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

(Psalm 2, Amos 8 & 1 Corinthians 1.26-end of 2, for BCP Evensong)

You might have been told when you were younger that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, or to quote Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

The prophet Amos would probably not agree.  He might easily be described as the type of prophet who told things as they really were, someone who didn’t sugarcoat his message.  

Sometime in the 8th century BC this farmer of sheep and figs crossed over into the land of Israel to tell the people there the message he had received from God.  He was deeply respectful of God, and praised all that he had done for his people, and although just an ordinary business man, Amos had heard the word of God and felt compelled to share it.

And my goodness, how he did so!  The whole of the book of Amos is afire with righteous anger.  He cut through Israel’s self-satisfied veneer of religious piety, he condemned idolatry, and pointed out their contempt for the poor and needy.  You will not be surprised to hear that his words were not received well, and he was thrown out of the country.

In today’s reading he poured his scorn upon those who abused their power and wealth.  The price for such behaviour was to be a famine, but not of the harvest.  God was about to withdraw his presence from the land.  The result of cheating the poor, the ones to whom they owed a duty of care under the Law, would be God’s silence when they finally did call upon him.   The consequence of choosing other gods to worship is they would be left entirely alone.

This is part of the topsy-turvy world of God.  As Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, what is weak to shame the strong.  The goal of life is not about being rich or powerful or having great status; and it is certainly not about thinking that having those things gives us a free pass in our behaviour.  

Going back to Amos, it’s interesting that he, as a business man, saw the corruption in business.  He specifically called out those who clock-watched over the holy days so they could get back to their nefarious dealings, those who used false weights, or sold the sweepings of the wheat to those who were desperate, even selling people into bondage.

But what does any of this matter to us today?

In 2021 the Trussell Trust recorded a 33% increase in people using food banks, with just under a million emergency food parcels going to children.  In 2015 the Trussell Trust gave out 1.1million parcels, last year 2.5million(i).  I mean, thank God for the work of the food banks, but why are they needed at all?  

There is something broken in our society, and the stories on the news mean we know that this is only going to get worse   This week we have seen the average household’s energy costs rise by £693.  Interest rates are heading back up to make borrowing more expensive.  And the cost of living is rising –  a basic food shop has nearly doubled since 2012, but benefits and wages haven’t (ii) – so people are making very hard decisions about food, heating, rent and just the day to day things we buy.

Perhaps we need an Amos to come and point out to our nation that we’re not paying attention to God’s call to care for the poor and vulnerable, the hungry and the homeless.  If we pick up and read the Bible, God’s commandments are very clear, and He says them a lot.  We just need to listen a lot more carefully, and be instructed by the Holy Spirit.

This isn’t about party politics, but politics is part of the Christian life.  How we respond, individually and corporately, is part of how we show our faith, and in our actions we live out out what we believe.

As St John Chrysostom once said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find Him in the chalice.”

Footnotes:
(i) https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/
(ii) https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/jack-monroe-inflation-cost-of-living_uk_61f1d5e2e4b094ce54a5b052

Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Ezekiel 43.27-44.4, Psalm 48, 1 Corinthians 13.1-13 & Luke 2.22-40 (Year A)

What does love look like?  Is love, actually, all around us?  

We recognise it in the faces of our loved ones when we’ve been separated for an hour, or a week or even years.  There is always something moving about those moments on tv specials when long-lost relatives are reunited for the first time in decades.  There’s joy and tenderness, tears shed at lost time, hope for time to spend together in the future.

Is that love?

Or is in our behaviour, our acts of loving-kindness?  

There’s a reason that the passage from 1 Corinthians 13 is the most requested reading for weddings, as it is such a stand-out example of what people yearn for from their relationship.

We know, I know, that I get things wrong all the time, so I’m grateful for people being patient with me, and for encouraging and helping me, rather than scoring points at my moments of distress.  

And given that I think none of us wants to be irritable or resentful or rude, it can be hard to know we behave in such a fashion to our loved ones, again trusting in their patience to put up with us.

Of course, St Paul was actually talking about God.  Love is all the things he described because they are of God.  It is God who is patient and kind, who is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  When we see patience, kindness, hope and joy in someone, we see the very reflection of God.  That’s why, in the words of Victor Hugo in ‘Les Miserables’, to love another person is to see the face of God. 

And what would it feel like to look into the face of Love, not as in a mirror dimly, but fully face to face?  Would it be overwhelming or humbling or just plain joyful?

This is, I think, captured perfectly by the artist Ron DiCianni in his painting ‘Simeon’s Moment’.  As the old man cradles the Christ-child, he holds him tenderly, wrapping his arms around this precious bundle.  But look at his face!  Such exquisite joy, it brings tears to the eyes to share in this moment.   He looked with love into the face of Love, and saw the salvation of the whole world.

Both Anna and Simeon, who loved God, had shown they were reflections of God.  They had been patient, enduring and waiting over the years for the consolation of Israel, the arrival of the Messiah.

And think about this: even though Simeon knew that this moment would also mean his own life was now going to draw to a close, he found nothing but joy at its arrival.  He could end his life in peace, knowing that he had been witness to the light of the world.  It shows that Simeon was living life with his eyes wide open to the truth, so when the Holy Family arrived through the doors of the Temple, he knew that the time had come.  He was full of faith and hope and love.

Just because we’re talking about a baby, it doesn’t mean that this is just sentimentality.  Simeon was able to prophesy to Mary, the shadow of the cross ever present in the reality of God’s love.

Imagine yourself in the place of Anna or Simeon, in the Temple, taking this tiny child into your arms and realising that you hold the hope and light of the world.  As Love looks at you in the Christ-child’s gaze, know that there is nothing you need to do to earn or deserve that love.  It is a gift freely given by God who just wants you to know how much you are loved.

If you want to know what love looks like, look at Jesus, and know you are his beloved.

(Artwork: ‘Simeon’s Moment’ by Ron DiCianni)

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.)

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