Second Sunday of Lent

Collect

Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, by the prayer and discipline of Lent may we enter into the mystery of Christ’s sufferings, and by following in his Way come to share in his glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty God, you see that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

These things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’ But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’ He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. 11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him.

When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.’

Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18

Psalm

1    The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?
The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?

2    When the wicked, even my enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh,
they stumbled and fell.

3    Though a host encamp against me, my heart shall not be afraid,
and though there rise up war against me, yet will I put my trust in him.

4    One thing have I asked of the Lord and that alone I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,

5    To behold the fair beauty of the Lord
and to seek his will in his temple.

6    For in the day of trouble he shall hide me in his shelter;
in the secret place of his dwelling shall he hide me and set me high upon a rock.

7    And now shall he lift up my head
above my enemies round about me;

8    Therefore will I offer in his dwelling an oblation with great gladness;
I will sing and make music to the Lord.

9    Hear my voice, O Lord, when I call;
have mercy upon me and answer me.

10    My heart tells of your word, ‘Seek my face.’
Your face, Lord, will I seek.

11    Hide not your face from me,
nor cast your servant away in displeasure.

12    You have been my helper;
leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.

13    Though my father and my mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.

14    Teach me your way, O Lord;
lead me on a level path, because of those who lie in wait for me.

15    Deliver me not into the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen up against me, and those who breathe out violence.

16    I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.

17    Wait for the Lord; be strong and he shall comfort your heart;
wait patiently for the Lord.

Psalm 27

Epistle

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

Philipians 3:17–4:1

Gospel

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Luke 13: 31–35

Sermon on Second Sunday of Lent

“… Some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. …’”

I think this is a very odd incident, don’t you? Throughout history, the Pharisees and the Sadducees have been vilified as “the bad guys”, haven’t they? Why have they now come to Jesus and warned him about Herod’s murderous plan? This gives the lie to the usual picture of this group of people, doesn’t it? Why would they warn Jesus, if they were at odds with him? It would be even more unlikely if they were mortal enemies.

The wider context of our reading confirms that conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. In verses before and after our reading, there are explicit statements about the antagonism between them. So why do we have this story about this cooperation? Why would the Pharisees warn Jesus about a plot against him?

We can take a cynical view about this incident and say that the Pharisees did not want to be implicated in the murder of Jesus by “that old fox”. This is quite understandable, isn’t it? Who wants to be part of vile treachery? I know that I don’t want to be a part of the machinations of friends and acquaintances against others. People are too willing to do anything to get their own way. We can see this selfish dimension in so many events all around us, can’t we?

I think there is another way to look at this incident, a more charitable one. Perhaps it shows the confused nature of human experience. Do people really want to see the destruction of their opponents? Do we really want to see the people with whom we disagree to be eliminated completely in such a drastic way?

This incident proves that Shakespearean truth which states “conscience doth make cowards of us all”. The Pharisees are listening to their conscience, and they do not want to follow Herod in his plot against Jesus.

I think this story confirms that some Pharisees actually did listen to their conscience, but more than that, some Pharisees actually also listened to what Jesus had to say. (You may remember that Jesus did go to a Pharisee’s house and that Nicodemus was “a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin mentioned in three places in the Gospel of John.”) So shouldn’t it be possible that in spite of everything we think we believe, we might do something out of our everyday, ordinary character? Isn’t it possible that the Pharisees might in this one instance have done something which was antithetical to what they had professed at other times?

We have all behaved in this way, haven’t we? Saying one thing and doing another. I have done it myself, so it does not surprise me that others do so. For instance, I may call my brother scurrilous names and yet profess my love for him at every other moment in my life. I can contradict myself, just like the Pharisees have done in this instance in the life of Jesus which Luke records.

So just why has Luke remembered this event and told us about it? Where did such a story come from? Whom did Luke intend this story to reach? These are interesting literary questions, aren’t they? There are a lot of other questions when we consider the overall content of this episode. We don’t know the audience or the source of these verses, so it is difficult to place it in a context, and we all know how important context is for everything, don’t we?! NT scholars tackle all these sorts of questions, questions which are not at the heart of my Sunday morning’s rambling normally. But let’s consider them for a moment to put our minds on a track to understand just what Jesus says to Herod.

Here we have Jesus speaking to a group of people who, at best, are ambivalent towards him and he is clearly telling this crowd what he is doing amongst them.

‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen[, Herod,] I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.”’

This is a conscious statement of who Jesus knows he is. Jesus is telling everyone that he is doing prophetic work. Jesus proclaims to Herod, the Pharisees and everyone down through history just what his mission is – and he is doing this by miracles. In fact, the preacher says Jesus is speaking to us. What of these words? Casting out demons and performing miraculous cures are the things people touched by God have done in the history of Israel, and amongst the heathen, gods have performed such miracles. Jesus is making an explicit statement about his place in the world and it is up to us to understand his place in heaven.

But this is not an eternally available offer. Just like all the sales in the shops and online, this offer is time sensitive and limited. Jesus is offering all this proof to Herod for only three days. Then his work is done. – Three days only! That is quite something, isn’t it? We christians think of what Jesus offers on the cross as an eternal event, don’t we? We think that we can turn to Jesus at any time, now or later. But Jesus tells Herod that he has to choose immediately, within three days, then he will be gone, like everything in our experience.

I think there is something else going on here. Here Jesus is foreshadowing what will happen very soon. We know from the context of the Gospel that Jesus is going into Jerusalem. Here we are, reading this story at the beginning of Lent. As christians we should be able to figure this out, shouldn’t we? He is going to the cross on Calvary. We need to be conscious of what Jesus knows of his own prophetic mission – that with all the other prophets of God, his life will end in Jerusalem. He will expound the message from the Lord, but will any hear?

There is an urgency here in this little episode from Jesus’ life as Luke tells it. We must decide about this prophetic Jesus right soon. We cannot delay. We cannot be ambivalent like the Pharisees. We must see the good Jesus has done, for the possessed and the incurable – for every one of us. We are being enabled to believe here and now. We cannot put it off any longer, the time limit is short, and Herod, that fellow who danced around his swimming pool in Jesus Christ Superstar, while awaiting a miracle, has to decide immediately about Jesus. We need to decide about our faith. We cannot secrete ourselves off into a den to hide from faith with that old fox. We now know what is real. Jesus has told Herod and so he has told us as well through these words Luke remembers and puts down in the gospel. We have to act here and now.

Amen

First Sunday of Lent

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ fasted forty days in the wilderness, and was tempted as we are, yet without sin: give us grace to discipline ourselves in obedience to your Spirit; and, as you know our weakness, so may we know your power to save; 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.

or

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, you have renewed us with the living bread from heaven; by it you nourish our faith, increase our hope, and strengthen our love: teach us always to hunger for him who is the true and living bread, and enable us to live by every word that proceeds from out of your mouth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, ‘Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.’ When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Deuteronomy 26:1–11

Psalm

1    Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
and abides under the shadow of the Almighty,

2    Shall say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my stronghold,
my God, in whom I put my trust.’


9    Because you have made the Lord your refuge
and the Most High your stronghold,

10    There shall no evil happen to you,
neither shall any plague come near your tent.

11    For he shall give his angels charge over you,
to keep you in all your ways.

12    They shall bear you in their hands,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.

13    You shall tread upon the lion and adder;
the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.

14    Because they have set their love upon me, therefore will I deliver them;
I will lift them up, because they know my name.

15    They will call upon me and I will answer them;
I am with them in trouble,
I will deliver them and bring them to honour.

16    With long life will I satisfy them;
and show them my salvation.

Psalm 91

Epistle

But what does it say?

‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’

(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Romans 10: 8b–13

Gospel

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’

 Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’

Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’

When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Luke 4:1–13

Sermon on First Sunday of Lent

Here we are at the beginning of the great fast of Lent. We are being tempted just as Jesus was in the wilderness. In the gospel reading, we hear about the devil and the tests Jesus underwent. Jesus countered the devil with quotations from the bible at every turn. I wonder what I would reply if there were only stones around me and I was famished, or if I were on the top of the temple in Jerusalem. And what would I reply now if I were shown all the countries of the world and were offered all power to control everything, especially in light of the events of the last week?

I may not, in my own experience, have the vision of all the empires in the world, but I can imagine that there are people who are tempted to take up that offer of world domination. Even in our private lives there are many who wish to lord it over others. There are so many bullies in the schoolyard! Aren’t there multitudes who want everyone else at their beck and call? We have seen these people domineering in friends’ lives, in work or on committees. We have even seen this in many countries’ leaders, let alone in the people we know personally. Leaders in the United States have been seen to be bullies personally and politically. However, politics is off the agenda, but our leaders are examples we can use to understand ourselves.

Becoming someone who wants to rule the world requires two things, the will to do what is not part of the social contract and the opportunity to do so. The social contract is our living one with another in the love of God, in our own love one for the other. We mutually benefit from this respect, this charity which we share with one another. It is a communal love which commends ourselves to others with no expectation. When we truly love, as I have said before, we want nothing back, we only want to give and when I truly love one person, everyone around me benefits.

But this love is not easy to accomplish in our ordinary lives, when this and that gets in the way of our intentions. Like that weak flesh Paul complains about, when his spirit wants to soar to sit in the heavenly kingdom with the Lord and Master of his life.

In our own lives we are confronted with decisions which we find very difficult. These are the temptations we have in front of us daily – we have to choose to love our neighbour and God beyond all things. We are confronted with the choice to do the right thing or not. Good or evil – that is the eternal choice – and the temptation to do something questionable is always right there in front of us. It would be so easy to slip into it.

To rise above all things and to do what is good, seems to be beyond our ability. We do not know how to achieve what is righteous in our lives. Here I am using the word, “righteous,” in the way the rappers do. They see that good deed as beyond the ordinary, beyond the everyday. It is not part of our usual experience, is it?

The temptations of Christ in the wilderness are extreme examples of the everyday choices we all make day by day. We don’t have the opportunity to be idolised by the world as in that temptation the devil enticed Jesus with, but I think we can see that we want to enthral one person. “If only she would love me!” is something I said so many times about heartthrobs before I met my wife. I want to be able to cajole that one person to my way of thinking, into my way of being in the world with me. Isn’t this where the bully starts? Don’t we start on that road of good intentions when we want to overwhelm the other with our so-called “declarations of love”?

This is a far cry from the devil obliging us to choose to acknowledge him, but the reality is the same – to decide to do what is good or not.

    ‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’

We all know about the Word of God, don’t we? We all know that it is as close to us as our hearts beat within our very selves. But do we really see what that word is in our everyday lives? Acknowledging the good in life that we could and should accomplish is a far step away from what we do day by day. Don’t we race through and do what is convenient and expedient? We never want to place our hand on the tiller to give guidance to our friends and neighbours or ourselves because we always think that what is good is always too hard for us to do. Certainly, I always tell myself that the Word of God is beyond my powers.

What about that fundamental experience of temptation by the devil which we read every first Sunday of Lent ? Do we know about that wrenching of conscience? Do we counter the bad choices by quoting scripture as a means of giving ourselves strength and wisdom in our everyday lives?

Then what about those of us who are not clever enough to quote scripture at any time, let alone at the right moment! How can I hope to counter the temptations of the devil, all the evil in my life, if I do not find biblical succour in my mind? Can I touch the sure foundation of the biblical Christ for my life? Is there any hope for me?

Well, I think there is. But it is a more difficult task. I have to start at first principles time and time again. I seem never to make any progress because I begin at the two great commandments and develop everything from that golden rule Jesus taught. I fail so often, but I am happy to begin again in the hope that one day I will succeed. Well, today is the day we begin our great fast once more collectively. What will we give  up? — I don’t think chocolate is the most important thing to give up. That is one of those things that are a minor annoyance in life. I want to give up something even more important in everyday life – and here the stories about Jesus in the desert should guide me.

During these awful times, after lockdown through which we seem to have learned nothing, now at the beginning of a conflict which could overwhelm the world, we must turn to that Word which will guide us, that Word which will show us the path through all conflict and danger. What is that Word? You know what I am going to say, don’t you? I have said it so many times before: Love – a love so profound that I am willing to give up everything for the sake of another. Would that our world leaders and our neighbours would hear that Word! If only I could live that Word day by day! — Lent is not just the forty days before Easter – Lent must be every day of our everyday lives.

Amen

Fourth Sunday Before Lent

Collect

O God, you know us to be set in the midst of so many and great dangers, that by reason of the frailty of our nature we cannot always stand upright: grant to us such strength and protection as may support us in all dangers and carry us through all temptations; 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.

or

Go before us, Lord, in all we do with your most gracious favour, and guide us with your continual help, that in all our works begun, continued and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name, and finally by your mercy receive everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord of the hosts of heaven, our salvation and our strength, without you we are lost: guard us from all that harms or hurts and raise us when we fall; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.’

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

[ And he said, ‘Go and say to this people:

“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;

keep looking, but do not understand.”

Make the mind of this people dull,

   and stop their ears,

   and shut their eyes,

so that they may not look with their eyes,

   and listen with their ears,

and comprehend with their minds,

   and turn and be healed.’

Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And he said:

‘Until cities lie waste

   without inhabitant,

and houses without people,

   and the land is utterly desolate;

until the Lord sends everyone far away,

   and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.

Even if a tenth part remains in it,

   it will be burned again,

like a terebinth or an oak

   whose stump remains standing

   when it is felled.’

The holy seed is its stump.]

Isaiah 6:1–8[9–13]

Psalm

1    I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods will I sing praise to you.

2    I will bow down towards your holy temple and praise your name, because of your love and faithfulness;
for you have glorified your name and your word above all things.

3    In the day that I called to you, you answered me;
you put new strength in my soul.

4    All the kings of the earth shall praise you, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.

5    They shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
that great is the glory of the Lord.

6    Though the Lord be high, he watches over the lowly;
as for the proud, he regards them from afar.

7    Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you will preserve me;
you will stretch forth your hand against the fury of my enemies; your right hand will save me.

8    The Lord shall make good his purpose for me;
your loving-kindness, O Lord, endures for ever; forsake not the work of your hands.

Psalm 138

Epistle

Now I should remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to someone untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace towards me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them – though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.

1 Corinthians 15.1–11

Gospel

Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5.1–11

Sermon on Fourth Sunday before Lent

And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

When I read these words, I thought of the fear and trepidation I felt when I read the words of Malachai last week, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Again, I am in a dreadful state, for like Isaiah I am thrust into a mood of uncomprehending apprehension. I look around me and see so much that is wrong, in particular the lying and blasphemy emerging from the mouths of my contemporaries – and on occasion even myself, if I am honest – and now I see there is something that should direct life – “the King, the Lord of hosts!” With Isaiah I cry in agony, and, I suppose, just like Paul as well, when I consider what my life is like. Paul bewailed his behaviour because he was among the harshest critics of those who proclaimed Christ the way, he even says he was foremost in persecuting the nascent Church harshly in the reading for today.

No wonder he was at odds within himself, just as I am – I am dumbfounded by my faith and my actions – just like the time Paul writes, “My spirit is willing, but my flesh is weak.” There is a fundamental contradiction within me. Like Isaiah, I suppose we all can say the same, that although we know what is good, we do not accomplish it in our lives. We tread the route everyone else has taken, and we are loathe to take that road less travelled by – in our case, the way of Christ. We find ourselves within that uncomprehending crowd and we may even be content to hide ourselves away in its midst all too often.

There is hope, however! There are moments of enlightenment – moments when we can see what we should do. In those brief instances we might seize the opportunity to do what is right and good. And when we do so, we are totally out of our everyday character.

We stand upright, ready to act, because we have the courage to be, to be faithful, and, perhaps, moral upright people. We no longer have the unclean lips of the crowd which brays its hatred of what does not conform to itself. The cauterising coal of the Word of God has paused on our lips and we can speak of a better way of life, forsaking what is dubious and fastening on to what is true and steadfast. At that moment we latch on to something timeless, that something the philosophers are always going on about, what the theologians find in faith, that final and first cause of all.

No wonder we can stand on our own and speak without fear. But we do have to still ourselves and realise just what we are. We have to forsake our feet of clay and lips unclean. We have to still stand to allow our comprehension of that sight, when the King, the Lord of Hosts, comes into focus.

The coal which touched our lips has freed us. Instead of sealing our mouth tight shut as cauterising a wound normally would, that coal from the altar has transformed us so that we can speak out with purity. We can utter the truth amongst our contemporaries without any thought about being different – that fitting in is no longer our main concern. Rather, standing tall in the truth is our only focus, to speak to and for the vulnerable and weak – to strengthen them. Our obligation is to speak for the widow and orphan, the people who have no voice in the world we know.

Our collect for today takes up the same truth Isaiah voices. Isaiah is fortunate to be strong in a way so many of us cannot attain. The cleansing burning coal from the altar has been pressed on his lips and he can no longer be part of the silent majority. He must speak out as a prophet in his time, just as Martin Luther King did in mine. Who will speak to us today? Whose clean lips will speak to this generation? Whose fingers on the computer keyboard will penetrate the uncaring cyber world in which we live today?

Where are the new prophets who will speak to the future? – and about the future! Looking around us today in the church, there are no children, no one to take the message forward. It has to be up to us to do so. We are the people who must speak up. Each of us can do so in our very ordinary lives.

I have said it before, just smiling with our eyes at passers-by might be enough to change the world. Those “random acts of kindness” which have transformed our lives should not be denied others.

And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

Have we been able to arrive at that point in our lives? Are we able to say that a vision of the King, the Lord of Hosts, will now direct our movement in life? Will I keep my nerve and continue on that way which the King has revealed?

Just as I stand in trepidation at my unworthiness in life, so I stand in boldness with this new commission to speak to the world about the good and righteousness which it is possible to accomplish in our lives – to convey the glory of promised life in all its fullness.

It is extraordinary that we can feel the same emotions when we want to hide away and when we want to stand tall and brave. This is the mode of the hero, isn’t it? The hero is always challenged to take up a quest, to accomplish a seemingly impossible task. You know the sort of thing – cleaning the Aegean Stables and Hercules’ six other labours – to destroy the One Ring by that humble and insignificant Hobbit – to speak your heart the first time to the person who becomes the love of your life. The task is as varied as each one of us is. Nevertheless we are given a task. It is our choice whether we acknowledge it as our destiny or not. That is where these emotions begin, isn’t it? Don’t we say at first, Why me? Then as time goes by, the calling to courage mounts and we decide we must take up the challenge. We must become heroes in the style of Paul and Isaiah, or a Samson and David. We all must be able to say, “Here I am!” I will go forward as the good bids.

We must begin the quest for salvation, and as we plough on, share the stories with any who would have the time to listen to our tales of derring-do. Like the heroes of old, we come back to where we began our journey – to our ownmost selves, those selves who see the King, the Lord of Hosts as the true ruler of hearts and minds, that King whose rule of love subsumes all to itself, if only we would see its primacy. We must return to what the philosopher calls the final cause of life, the alpha and omega of our own possibility. We must complete the quest of our self in the homecoming of the Kingdom, like prodigal children, accepting the joy of our father as true heirs at the final banquet.

Amen

Candlemass

Collect

Almighty and ever–living God, clothed in majesty, whose beloved Son was this day presented in the Temple, in substance of our flesh: grant that we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts, by your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

Lord Jesus Christ, light of the nations and glory of Israel: make your home among us, and present us pure and holy to your heavenly Father, your God, and our God.

Post Communion

Lord, you fulfilled the hope of Simeon and Anna, who lived to welcome the Messiah: may we, who have received these gifts beyond words, prepare to meet Christ Jesus when he comes to bring us to eternal life; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachai 3: 1–5

Psalm

7    Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

8    ‘Who is the King of glory?’
‘The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord who is mighty in battle.’

9    Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, you everlasting doors;
and the King of glory shall come in.

10    ‘Who is this King of glory?’
‘The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’

Psalm 24

Epistle

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2: 14–18

Gospel

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons.’

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.

Luke 2: 22–40



Sermon on Candlemass

I can never hear the words from Malachai without Handel’s Messiah singing them to me – “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” What do you imagine when you hear either Messiah or this reading? I am filled with dread. The whole of this passage from our first reading makes me nervous for myself and for all humanity in these dark times.

The coming of God’s messenger who will purify all in a furnace of fire “until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness”. Don’t you find these words of Malachai spine-chilling? – Don’t we have a lot to fear in the light of that day?

I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and [against those who] do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

There are all sorts of people being singled out for judgement. Let’s look at them – sorcerers, well I don’t know anyone who fits that description, but they may lurk somewhere in the shadows. Adulterers, they are few and far between, and I don’t know of anyone who is in an adulterous relationship, but they may be near by just unknown to me. Then those who swear falsely – this is a trickier group of people to determine. Do white lies count? What about when we sugar-coat the truth? Are these falsehoods? There are, it seems, people who tell a big lie and are perfectly happy that they don’t confess their lying. But everyone listens to the lie and makes nothing of it. They have sworn falsely and everyone has to accept the consequences of that deceit. This has been highlighted in the news recently, hasn’t it?

Then there are businessmen who do not treat their workers fairly, and there are other people who do not treat the vulnerable well. The vulnerable widow and orphan throughout history have relied on the care of others, especially if they were in a parlous way. Those who oppress knowingly, or not, is a very large group of people, isn’t it? Bullying or just name-calling can be part of this charge, and certainly prejudice of any sort falls into this category of bad behaviour. Then there are people who mistreat the alien in our midst – this can be “the incomer” into a local community, or someone who has arrived in a small boat somewher on these shores. The alien resident in our midst is hard to spot sometimes, but even so, they can be badly treated, and often are.

I think we can see ourselves in any of these groups of people who have done something wrong knowingly or not. But we don’t see ourselves as evil, do we? We sometimes just bend the rules a bit. How can I be “evil”? I am doing this or that to make life better for myself!

But the most heinous accusation Malachai voices is that we “do not fear […] the Lord of Hosts”. Malachai builds up the charges against the individual as he lists the wrongdoing all around him. The misdeeds get less specific as the weight of their unacceptability goes up. Sorcery leading up to unfaith is how the scale of charges looks. We know how sorcery may appear, but what about a lack of faith? How does someone appear who does not fear the Lord? This is a charge which has no particular manifestation. I can do good deeds whether I fear the Lord or not, but I can also do deeds which cause misery. However, do people who have that fundamental fear of the Lord do bad things? I think the fear of the Lord guards us in life. It is something fundamental to the good life and I don’t think the good life of the philosopher is what the crowd pursues.

That is why the reading from Malachai causes me to tremble right down to my boots. I need to be singular in order to be good and fear the Lord. In order to be “pleasing to the Lord” I need to be able to stand up to the world and overcome its dreadful tendencies. I need to be righteous in the sight of the judge of all, and I cannot do that standing in the midst of a baying crowd. I must stand alone before God apart from all others. That is the presentation we must deal with in these modern times. The temple is gone. The rites undertaken on behalf of the babe of Bethlehem no longer obtain. However, we must still be appropriate offerings to God.

That is why this reading from Malachai is appropriate for Candlemass – The Feast of the Presentation? In the gospel, his parents bring the baby Jesus to the temple “to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord…)”. The child was “designated as holy to the Lord.” Isn’t this a little like what Malachai is talking about in that passage? That each and every one of us has the opportunity – and the duty – to be presented holy to the Lord, tested in the refining fire of the messenger from God. Aren’t you a little anxious as you stand here in God’s presence, as we present ourselves to the Lord of Hosts, just as that innocent babe was given over to the Lord on that day of presentation, just as that babe was handed to Simeon who was present in the temple on that day, the day of his coming? No wonder Simeon was happy that his eyes had seen the coming of the Lord and he could depart in peace. Are we like him – “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation”? Do we live like Simeon in the fear of the Lord?

We do live in very peculiar times, just as perilous as those of over two thousand years ago when Malachai spoke in the name of the Lord. That is an obvious fact. The last ten years have been most anxious for us – on the world stage we have wondered about climate change and how we can stem that threat. Then there is the uncertainty of the UK’s place in the world after its withdrawal from Europe. On the personal level we have had to cope with the worry of Covid. And that personal responsibility has played itself out on the national scene, hasn’t it? Now there is chaos in public and private life because all the rules have changed yet again and we are still uncertain about how safe the nation is. How are we to protect ourselves and others in these uncertain times? Or do we go along with the crowd?

Everything, both globally and personally, is in flux. Today is about Presentation – not just the babe in the temple, but all of us have to present ourselves as holy, as pure offerings. We present ourselves to the world, to that unseeing and uncaring crowd as well. We have to overcome that deception of normality in order to obtain our ownmost possibility of what is right and good.

We all know about earworms, those little ditties which continue to echo once you hear them. My earworm continues to be Handel’s setting of these words, “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” What will be your earworm today?

Amen

Epiphany 3

Collect

Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; 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.

or

God of all mercy, your Son proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed: anoint us with your Holy Spirit and set all your people free to praise you in Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Almighty Father, whose Son our Saviour Jesus Christ is the light of the world: may your people, illumined by your word and sacraments, shine with the radiance of his glory, that he may be known, worshipped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth; for he is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Readings

Old Testament

all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

Nehemiah 8:1–6, 9–10

Psalm

1    The heavens are telling the glory of God
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2    One day pours out its song to another
and one night unfolds knowledge to another.

3    They have neither speech nor language
and their voices are not heard,

4    Yet their sound has gone out into all lands
and their words to the ends of the world.

5    In them has he set a tabernacle for the sun,
that comes forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber and rejoices as a champion to run his course.

6    It goes forth from the end of the heavens and runs to the very end again,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.

7    The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the simple.

8    The statutes of the Lord are right and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure and gives light to the eyes.

9    The fear of the Lord is clean and endures for ever;
the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

10    More to be desired are they than gold, more than much fine gold,
sweeter also than honey, dripping from the honeycomb.

11    By them also is your servant taught
and in keeping them there is great reward.

12    Who can tell how often they offend?
O cleanse me from my secret faults!

13    Keep your servant also from presumptuous sins lest they get dominion over me;
so shall I be undefiled, and innocent of great offence.

14  Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Psalm 19

Epistle

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.

I Corinthians 12:12–31a

Gospel

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

    ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

    because he has anointed me

    to bring good news to the poor.

    He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

    and recovery of sight to the blind,

    to let the oppressed go free,

    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Luke 4.14–21



Sermon on Epiphany 3

Imagine the scene, everyone in Slimbridge is down by the roundabout. They are agitated and there is murmuring – they want the clerk in orders to read out the Ten Commandments, the Thirty-nine Articles, and the historic Creeds.

Well, if you can’t imagine that, let’s think about our reading from the prophet this morning.

all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, …

We don’t have gates into the village, but the roundabout is the main entrance, isn’t it? Everyone, it seems, comes in to, and goes out of Slimbridge on St John’s Road and at the roundabout go straight on to Dursley, left to Gloucester and right to Bristol. In Jerusalem, the Water Gate is one of many gates into the city, gates which go to particular places. Everyone in Jerusalem knows this particular gateway to the city, as they must have used it to get water.

Do either of these scenes seem to be a real story to you? Do you really think anyone would clamour to listen to a recital of the Law? Or would you want to listen to that newly discovered book of the Law here and now? Would your friends and neighbours wish to listen to the historic formularies of the Anglican Church?

Or if you were transported back to Jerusalem two and a half thousand years, would you want Ezra to bring out the book of the Law and read it to you?  – How many of us really want to be reminded about how badly we behave by such a recital?

This public reading is nothing we have experienced, is it? No longer does the town cryer walk the streets ringing his bell, and announce the news at major points in the town. Happenings of importance are disseminated by facebook or twitter nowadays, even the news programmes of radio and television have been forsaken for an app on the mobile.

So what do we consider of such great moment that we would gather together in a public place to hear what is really happening? I don’t know. Life has become so isolated, for we don’t even talk over the garden fence any more, do we? – When was the last time you just nattered with your neighbour for no particular reason?

Not just a “nice weather we are having” – not a five minute chat about whether the clouds mean rain or fog or whether the sky will clear and it will turn out to be  wonderful weather. That’s the way socialising tends to be seen, isn’t it? So much so that the television channel Dave has a catchy quote, “One freezing day gives two weeks of conversation in the UK.”

I would say that there is a thirst for something more than superficial chats in Jerusalem so long ago and everywhere today. We should be able to see this all around us. Even those mundane words about the weather can reveal a yearning for something greater than whether we should expect rain or shine.

But what do we do day by day? We fall into the habit of only talking about the weather – and nothing else. We have forgotten that everyone we meet has the same yearning which each one of us has. You have that longing – so do I. So why do we only speak about the weather when we are really interested in something else? Partly it is easier to have a passing comment about the weather than settle into a more drawn out conversation about how we are coping with life. How many of us want to listen to a detailed recalling of another person’s day or all their troubles? Don’t we say, that their stories have nothing to do with me?

Is that loving our neighbour as ourselves? – But that is a question for another time.

Let’s look at the public reading at the Water Gate in another way. Last week we heard about the gifts of the Spirit – this week Paul writes to us about the singleness of life in diversity. The gifts are all derived from the Spirit – one Spirit, the same one, expresses itself in each individual differently. The metaphor Paul uses this week is the body. Hands, eyes, legs – these all compose the body, they are different to one another, but they become a unity when one considers the interaction of one part to the other.

The reading gathers together the diverse members of the population, just as the body is composed of many parts. All of us have gathered together in this place to unite ourselves through listening to the old, old story being recounted here in prayer and reflection, and in the liturgy’s language. Like the people of Jerusalem we here have gathered to hear the recital of something which has nothing to do with the weather, but everything do to with the good life.

Just like the people of Jerusalem, we too want to hear that recital of something greater than how cold the day is turning out to be. We want to know the direction of life in our ultimate concern. Isn’t that why the people wept when they finally heard the words Ezra read and interpreted for them at the Water Gate? The great weight of moral responsibility finally landed on them. Hadn’t the direction of their ordinary lives become clear to them?

Why did they weep? Perhaps the people realised just what the everyday concerns had done. When they finally heard the Law being read to them, when it was discussed thoroughly amongst “all who could hear with understanding”, how could anyone be content with the life they had been leading?

all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then [Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites] said to them, ‘Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’

Instead of bullying the people about their bad behaviour, what does the leadership of Israel say, “Eat and drink with joy, and now share your feast with others who have nothing.”

The Prophets, the Scribes and the Levites all concur in this message of the Law, don’t they? Because there is such agreement amongst all the leaders of Israel, is it any wonder that the people weep?

Will that crowd all disperse with joy after their great meeting at the Water Gate? They were all “who could hear with understanding” – just like us. So will we “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord” today after we have met at this Water Gate, where we have partaken of the water which will never leave us thirsty ever again?

Amen

Epiphany 2

Collect

Almighty God, in Christ you make all things new: transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your heavenly glory; 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.

or

Eternal Lord, our beginning and our end: bring us with the whole creation to your glory, hidden through past ages and made known in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God of glory, you nourish us with your Word who is the bread of life: fill us with your Holy Spirit that through us the light of your glory may shine in all the world. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

   and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

   and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,

   and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name

   that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,

   and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,

   and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;

but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her,

   and your land Married;

for the Lord delights in you,

   and your land shall be married.

For as a young man marries a young woman,

   so shall your builder marry you,

and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,

   so shall your God rejoice over you.

Isaiah 62:1–5

Psalm

5    Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens
and your faithfulness to the clouds.

6    Your righteousness stands like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep;
you, Lord, shall save both man and beast.

7    How precious is your loving mercy, O God!
All mortal flesh shall take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

8    They shall be satisfied with the abundance of your house;
they shall drink from the river of your delights.

9    For with you is the well of life
and in your light shall we see light.

10    O continue your loving-kindness to those who know you
and your righteousness to those who are true of heart.

Psalm 36

Epistle

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

I Cor 12:1–11

Gospel

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:1–11



Sermon on Epiphany 2

“Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’…”

I wonder whether this verse is actually the shortest of commentaries on the OT book of Job. Because, if we remember correctly, Job is having a lot of trouble and is constantly asking, “Why, O Lord?” as he loses friends and riches, his family and even his health. However, in his isolation Job keeps faith – he never curses God for his tribulations. He may condemn the day of his birth, but all he curses is his human experience, never the divine.

What about us? Do we ever curse God because of our circumstances? Do we ever blame God for what most would call, “Ill fortune”? We suffer bad luck, don’t we? After all, don’t we sing with Albert King, that famous blues brother of B B King, “If it ain’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all”?

Do we blame God for our circumstances? We may condemn our situation, calling down God’s wrath, but do we ever curse God for the ill that happens in our world? Theologians have always discussed this problem of the existence of evil in everyday life, and they have a name for it – “Theodicy”. Sometimes they come to the conclusion that what happens in our lives is merely random. At other times they opine that everything happens for a reason and all is going to God’s plan which we cannot fathom. This grand plan is the result of the watchmaker God, everything interacts in a way that we cannot quite comprehend because we have not put all the parts together. Perhaps we never will put it all together. After all, we don’t understand why there are those wicked mosquitos, do we?!

In our non-comprehension, we are like the steward at the wedding-feast at Cana – we taste the new wine and are amazed at the quality now revealed.

However, we are not at Cana, are we? I don’t think any of us have tasted such a vintage as that wedding’s steward. Instead, our parents and we ourselves have tasted a very different wine. Our teeth are set on edge, so much so that we fear our children will taste the same bitter draught, and we are afraid that even our grandchildren and their children will have to drink from the same vintage which has made our eyes smart and may have even tempted us to forsake the grape forever.

In the confusion of our tastebuds, we curse the world, the flesh and the devil, all of which are conspiring to take any joy out of our lives. We may even be tempted to rail against the source of all creation because we are under attack from all sides, just like Job. This is nothing new, this siege mounted against the individual is eternal. Job complained of it. Shakespeare wrote of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and we wonder whether we have the strength of body and mind to overcome them. We ask ourselves whether we have the stamina to win the day and enjoy the sweet wine of the Lord’s promise, that sweet everlasting drink for us as foreshadowed at Cana.

Part of the riches of the kingdom are the gifts Paul explains in our reading this morning. Healing and wisdom are but two of the extraordinary gifts which manifest the Spirit here and now. Sometimes we can see it in this benighted life, the one in which we suffer so terribly. More often than not, we don’t see such joy.

On occasion we pronounce something. We are surprised when someone says, “You really helped me yesterday when we talked.” This is well beyond what we consider our pay grade. We have a glimpse into something close to heaven on occasion and we have hope for the future, which seems to be well out of our experience.

We may have helped someone heal through our unconscious wisdom, thoughts which arise spontaneously as we live in the moment, that uncharacteristic moment of caring dialogue with another, a conversation we may not remember, but which has a profound effect on the other. In those golden moments we participate in something greater than the deranged world around us.

We sit in that great banquet with those who have helped us, and those whom we have helped. That is the mansion of the kingdom, that mansion of so many rooms through which we have moved during our lives. In the midst of pain and suffering, there is joy to be shared – even if we don’t recognise it as it happens.

The Buddha recognised what Paul is writing about, what Job’s story is all about. That there is chance and change throughout life, and we need to transcend it to experience the Spirit which transforms all into the best of all possible worlds,  a heavenly realm. This is not the life of a Candide, it becoms a moment of absolute reality, the ultimate reality in which we understand our ownmost possibility for the course of life.

I want to take Paul’s comment as a confirmation of the message of Job’s suffering – that although so much must be borne, we must impute all evil to our ignorance of what is good. That is why Paul says no one can curse God and still be in the Spirit, and no one can acclaim Jesus as the Christ except she or he be in the Spirit. In other words, you can’t have it both ways.

Nothing in life is straightforward at all. Isn’t our life full of contradiction and temptation? Don’t we often misconstrue what is right in front of us? The philosopher teaches us about perception and moral acts in the midst of the maelstrom of the everyday, when we are confused by so many voices. Paul says, “You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.” We are no longer those “pagans” – rather now we are enlightened and listen to the Word of God, no longer fixated on an object in the confusion of the voices all around us.

A true voice can be heard, a voice which speaks to our very silent, suffering selves. It does not chatter, nor does it distract, but it gives focus, a focus which helps us cut through the bitter taste of that drink we too often think life is. The steward of the wedding feast stands before us inviting to drink of a marvellous vintage. We expect nothing to be the same again, but that will be true only if we never let things return to the same old ways.

I think this is a message for us all in the worry of the pandemic, of economic confusion, of what has been the normal of the past. The message is that everything is changed in an instant, the instant we taste that new wine and see that it is good, when we share the life of the Spirit with all around us.

Amen

Epiphany

Collect

O God, who by the leading of a star manifested your only Son to the peoples of the earth: mercifully grant that we, who know you now by faith, may at last behold your glory face to face; 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.

or

Creator of the heavens, who led the Magi by a star to worship the Christ–child: guide and sustain us, that we may find our journey’s end in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

Lord God, the bright splendour whom the nations seek: may we who with the wise men have been drawn by your light discern the glory of your presence in your Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings
Old Testament

1    Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

2    For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

3    Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

4    Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

5    Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

6    A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
all those from Sheba shall come.

    They shall bring gold and frankincense,
and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

Isaiah 60

Psalm

[1  Give the king your judgements, O God,

   and your righteousness to the son of a king.

2  Then shall he judge your people righteously

   and your poor with justice.

3  May the mountains bring forth peace,

   and the little hills righteousness for the people.

4  May he defend the poor among the people,

   deliver the children of the needy and crush the oppressor.

5  May he live as long as the sun and moon endure,

   from one generation to another.

6  May he come down like rain upon the mown grass,

   like the showers that water the earth.

7  In his time shall righteousness flourish,

   and abundance of peace

      till the moon shall be no more.

8  May his dominion extend from sea to sea

   and from the River to the ends of the earth.

9  May his foes kneel before him

   and his enemies lick the dust.]

10  The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall pay tribute;
the kings of Sheba and Seba shall bring gifts.

11    All kings shall fall down before him;
all nations shall do him service.

12    For he shall deliver the poor that cry out,
the needy and those who have no helper.

13    He shall have pity on the weak and poor;
he shall preserve the lives of the needy.

14    He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence,
and dear shall their blood be in his sight.

15    Long may he live; unto him may be given gold from Sheba;
may prayer be made for him continually
and may they bless him all the day long.

Psalm 72.[1–9]10–15

Epistle

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles – for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

Ephesians 3:1 – 12

Gospel

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

    “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

    for from you shall come a ruler

    who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2: 1–12

Sermon on Epiphany

Let us pray:

Creator of the heavens, who led the Magi by a star to worship the Christ–child: guide and sustain us, that we may find our journey’s end in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We are celebrating The Epiphany today and this prayer encapsulates the significance of this event in the life of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Let’s see it the way our contemporaries might look at it.

First of all, we address God as the “Creator of the heavens” – we then describe one of the mighty acts of God – this miracle is the guiding of the Magi to Bethlehem and their consequent worship of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes who was laid in a manger. What does the ordinary person make of this description of God, that is, if they even consider the deity as a reality at all? I think it substantiates the attitude of many who say that they left Church because they grew up, and out of the stories they were compelled to accept as children.

I actually don’t blame them, for I, too, could easily give up on the whole enterprise, if I stopped listening to this prayer at this point – if I were only to accept that a star guided three men to a stable in Bethlehem. But the prayer goes on! We have more to consider. After addressing that beyond which nothing can be conceived (as St Anselm calls God), the prayer petitions that we should find our journey’s end, that we shall be guided and sustained in our course of life. We are asking for help from something far beyond anything we know, that Creator of the heavens whom we address here because we are searching for that journey’s end right now, whether we know it or not.

When we take in the imagery of our prayer’s address, when we understand the reality of the meaning of the first phrase, we can comprehend the significance of the whole prayer, don’t you think? So many get stuck with the symbols of our faith, as if the symbols themselves are the fundamental reality. “Creator of the heavens” – that is a symbolic utterance describing our very selves and our place in the world. We are at a loss as to where we are, in a creation which includes everything we know, heaven and earth, the universe and all that constitutes life as we know it.

Such symbolic utterance compels us in our lives, doesn’t it? We can see it all around us every minute of the day. When we call our partners, “Beloved,” we are speaking in symbols. “Beloved” is not my wife’s name, but she knows it as a symbol for herself when I use it. And she realises the very real significance she has in my life.

Many use the meme “OMG”, don’t they? I would say that they are acknowledging the extraordinary in their experience. They expostulate “OMG” when they are surprised at something, something they don’t expect, something far out of the ordinary. “OMG” is heard when they are happy and when they are upset, just as we who come to church might use it. Don’t you? Well I certainly do.

We in church use more sophisticated language. It is more symbolic than descriptive, pointing to something beyond itself. “OMG” must be seen as an equivalent to “Creator of the heavens” which we use now because it expresses wonder and surprise. We acknowledge something far beyond ourselves with this address of our prayer, just as someone who uses “OMG” is amazed at something, albeit in a very different way, we might say in a very much more limited manner.

One of my teachers wanted his students to see the continuum between the mystic’s use of the phrase “Creator of the heavens” and the child’s automatic, unthinking use of “OMG”. His writing and lectures were full of examples of language which echo each other, as do our two phrases, “OMG” and “Creator of the heavens” presently.

Let’s do another word study. You have often heard people say that they have had a moment which was an epiphany, haven’t you? When their understanding was transformed, when their world was turned upside down – for example as when Paul was walking on the road to Damascus. That was an epiphany in the sense we are using it, in fact we might say it was a Theophany, the moment when God appeared to Saul and he became Paul. That is the moment of epiphany, when everything was changed in a moment, even that man’s name.

Tradition says The Epiphany is when the three wise men approach the child lying in the manger. The magi give presents to Jesus, the famous “gold, frankincense and myrrh”.

Psychologists see thoughts and actions revealing the ultimate focus of a person’s life. This can be a conscious activity, but for many of us we ourselves are not very aware of what ultimate drives us. We often do not know what is guiding us – in the imagery of our prayer and the gospel, we don’t have the guiding light of that bright star. Psychologists look in at our lives and see those very important symbols in the unconscious understanding of all of us.

A little before Christmass there was a program called “Vienna Blood” on the television, I wonder if anyone else saw it. This particular episode concerned the murder of a monk. But the prologue over the credits to the episode was very interesting, because it set forth Freud’s theory of religion and the story filled out one possible interpretation of religion in life. The prologue told about how human being ranges between the deepest, most pathetic emotions and the highest and most spiritual refinement of rational thought. Freud suggests that religion is the emotional response to life, quite uncontrollable and completely controlling. Everything rises out of, and is covered by, sentiment. He says feeling pervades all life and must be transcended. Freud suggests that people are crushed by religion, and formal religions use that emotion to subjugate believers to its strict hierarchy. But I don’t believe Freud for a second, although I believe he gives us a very important description of faith. —— Religion does unite the whole of life – emotion and sprit find expression in both the phrases, “OMG” and “Creator of the heavens”. These memes are the linguistic outpouring which point to our individual journey’s end. They reveal, if we reflect on it, what is important to us, as we exclaim our disappointment at bitter times and our wonder at better times. –  I would like us to conclude our reflection this morning, by saying with feeling and full intent, “Oh my God … ”

Amen

Second Sunday of Advent

Collect

O Lord, raise up, we pray, your power and come among us, and with great might succour us; that whereas, through our sins and wickedness we are grievously hindered in running the race that is set before us, your bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honour and glory, now and for ever.

or

Almighty God, purify our hearts and minds, that when your Son Jesus Christ comes again as judge and saviour we may be ready to receive him, who is our Lord and our God.

Post Communion

Father in heaven, who sent your Son to redeem the world and will send him again to be our judge: give us grace so to imitate him in the humility and purity of his first coming that, when he comes again, we may be ready to greet him with joyful love and firm faith; through Jesus Christ our
Lord.

Readings


Old Testament

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as
a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

Malachai 3:1–4

Psalm

Benedictus

Epistle

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day
of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defence and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion
of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for
the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1.3–11

Gospel

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’

Luke 3.1–6

Sermon on Second Sunday of Advent

We read these verses in the gospel today.

‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,…”’

We all know about this quotation from Isaiah used in the gospel, don’t we? We have heard it every year at Advent for all the time we have been christians. That lone voice is declaring that the way of the Lord must be prepared. That voice crying is John’s voice, isn’t it?

However, I want to take a step back, because we english-speaking christians have been reading this quoted Old Testament verse incorrectly. A Jewish friend pointed out that the voice is crying that “the way of the Lord is to be prepared in the wilderness”. That is how the Hebrew scriptures preserve Isaiah’s words. That is quite different to the quotation as used in Luke.

How has this happened? To understand this we have to look at the artefacts of the ancient world to understand this. An ancient manuscript of the gospel has no punctuation, nor do the words appear separately, and sometimes there are contractions and abbreviations to help confuse matters. Letter follows letter in one long, flowing stream. The biblical scholars parse the letters into words and add punctuation. Other scholars translate the newly formatted text and we read their work in various versions, like the RSV, the NIV and the NEB. Most recently the NRSV.

When we read a commentary on this passage, we find there are variations in original manuscripts and how these might affect translation. Is this change in word order significant?

In my more cynical moments, I say that we should be very careful about being dogmatic about any particular translation. But, usually, I don’t think we have to be on the alert because as christians we stand in a tradition of interpretation and translation. That tradition should protect us from error. Another protection is that I have always thought a great test for reading the bible correctly is to ask how it applies to you, in other words we should read any passage in the first person. So let’s think about this verse through that lense of interpretation this morning. Whose is that voice? Is it Isaiah’s voice? Or John the Baptist’s? Or can I say that that
voice is my own? Is that voice yours? Who has the courage to cry out the word of God?

Do you bewail your situation in loneliness, despairing of everything that is happening to and around you? Or is your voice prophetic? Do you call down justice like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream? Are you that lone voice decrying the errors of the present?

Do you see yourself in the desert where the way of the Lord must be prepared? Do you want to civilise the world around you?

Doesn’t moving that phrase “in the wilderness” define the interpreter’s place in the world, the interpreter’s self-understanding? Don’t we think that the interpreter’s task is singular – to clarify the text? The interpreter is to deal with the text in order that it will make sense for everyone. There is a secondary result of this activity to clarify the text as it
affects the message being interpreted for those listening to the new translation. This clarification – like clarifying butter – takes out the impurities of self interest and makes the interpreter of no consequence. We arrive at the text itself with proper interpretation. In other words there is no “spin” as there has been in our political lives, a fact that has become
very clear during the last few years.

The verse we are looking at is problematic, because if we see ourselves as “a lone voice in the wilderness” our intention about this verse is very different than if we see ourselves calling for the way of the Lord to be made in the wilderness. In either case our voice is raised alone, for it
is one single person crying out the words for all to hear.

If we see ourselves as isolated, don’t our actions and words take on a different cast? Don’t we show ourselves over against others in a very different way than when we place ourselves amongst others to declare the human enterprise of making the way of the Lord a reality in the desert of our experience?

Whether the way of the Lord or the voice is in the wilderness, tells more about us in our translation of the world than it does about the phrase in the text – we reveal our own spin on the place the wilderness has for ourselves. This discussion of our verse from Luke is important because
it reveals that wherever we place these words, “in the wilderness”, are valid ways of understanding this verse from the gospel. This discussion shows how connected we are to the subject matter which we are trying to understand.

There are times when we are speaking from a remote, perhaps even hostile, point of view and there are other times when we speak amongst our fellows about what should be done for the sake of God.

Interpretation exposes our prejudices and predilections – interpreted text reveals our most human desires. Sometimes it is all very clear, at other times they have to be teased out in a long and difficult exercise. This is everyone’s task – interpretation is an everyday, constant task.

Interpretation is our understanding of something. The philosopher talks about this task as circular. Every conclusion we come to, drives us on to another position which must be understood anew in the same way, and so we go on around again, every new insight forcing us to look at everything all over again. I think we are able to understand ourselves and our place in the world when we struggle to interpret. We do this every day when we try to read people, don’t we? We piece them together, just as we put this text from the bible together – in order to understand.

So where do we place the words “in the wilderness” in our text today? That is the problem I pose this morning.  I am asking each one of us to interpret the text for ourselves. I only hope we don’t get lost in the wilderness during our preparations for the holy day of christmass.

Amen

Third Sunday Before Advent

Collect

Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

or

God, our refuge and strength, bring near the day when wars shall cease and poverty and pain shall end, that earth may know the peace of heaven through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.


Jonah 3.1–5,10

5    Wait on God alone in stillness, O my soul;
for in him is my hope.

6    He alone is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

7    In God is my strength and my glory;
God is my strong rock; in him is my refuge.

8    Put your trust in him always, my people;
pour out your hearts before him, for God is our refuge.

9    The peoples are but a breath, the whole human race a deceit;
on the scales they are altogether lighter than air.

10    Put no trust in oppression; in robbery take no empty pride;
though wealth increase, set not your heart upon it.

11    God spoke once, and twice have I heard the same,
that power belongs to God.

12    Steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord,
for you repay everyone according to their deeds.

Psalm 62.5–12

Epistle

For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgement, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.

Hebrews 9.24–28

Gospel

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Mark 1.14–20

Sermon on Third Sunday Before Advent?

Can you imagine Ninevah – a city so large that if you were to walk from one end to the other, it would take you three days to make that journey? I suppose London and its environs would rival that great city of the ancient world in every way.

We can imagine the goings on in Ninevah because we can see the same sorts of things happening in London today. Is God wroth because of what is happening today, just as God was incensed with the citizens of Ninevah so long ago? Certainly we are upset with all the evil we see today, from the mild forms of rude behaviours like swearing at the innocent, which we have seen and perhaps experienced, to the reprehensible acts of knife crime and even murder reported on the news daily.

Then there are all the other shameful acts of bullying, exploitation and harm of all sorts which fill the spectrum of wretched human activity, all made known to each of us, either by responsible news gathering or mere gossip which travels faster than the speed of light.

When we hear such reports, don’t we all condemn such wicked behaviour in the same way that Jonah must have done in the name of the Lord, as he looked over at Ninevah? Why else would he be so upset when God changed his mind about the destruction of that great city? However, this is a very human reaction, isn’t it? That the promised event which was well deserved has been passed over. We all want the bad guy to get his or her comeuppance, and we are bitterly disappointed when we are not vindicated by such a well deserved punishment for evil acts perpetrated against the innocent – in other words, especially when they go against all I have done!

Jonah does take this all very personally, just as do we, when we see the evil people do, when we say that such evil deserves punishment and expect those dire consequences at every moment. But when it doesn’t happen, what do we do? We sit in our tents like Achilles and fester, or we rail against heaven like Jonah.

But Jonah’s prophetic work was effective! He prophesied about doom and destruction because of evil. The message was heard and people changed their ways. Ninevah was saved because God decided he no longer needed to destroy the city. God changed his mind, and Jonah is bitterly disappointed. Don’t we know all about this? Don’t we want to see the punishment of all that wickedness? Don’t we want to see good triumph over all that evil? Of course we do. Nothing else would be appropriate – even if everything had been turned around, even if everyone concerned had transformed what they had been into the righteous and good.

God changed his mind when there was a general conversion. He saw and it was good, to re-use that phrase from the creation story, and when the floods subsided he placed the rainbow in the sky for our hope and to remind all of his eternal mercy.

Why don’t we change our minds when we see genuine remorse and a transformation of behaviour – from that despicable to the good? The people of Ninevah discarded the gaudy, sensual silks for the sackcloth and ashes of repentance – they declared a fast and converted their behaviour from the shameful to the laudable? God was able to change his plans for all of Ninevah, wasn’t he? No longer was he going to level that great city to a pile of rubble because he saw that all had changed their ways.

Can’t we see what is happening to us today in much the same way as Jonah observed Ninevah? I am not saying the pandemic is a plague from the righteous God of Judgement, though some might argue that is the case. No, I am seeing the pandemic as if it were Jonah’s preaching of the destruction of civilization as we know it. And it did threaten just such a destruction – we only have to look at how many families have lost loved ones and how those lives have been wrecked. No, I would like to see the pandemic as a wake-up call for everyone to the precarious nature of life. This virus flitted through the world, bringing destruction in its wake – even it if is not the desolation of that great city – but the world is on the brink, isn’t it?

The health of the population of the whole world is at risk, we like the Ninevites changed our ways, and total depopulation was averted. We went into isolation, we wore  our masks – we changed our habits of work and play.

I would like to say the individual became valuable again. It was no longer the economy driving thought and prayer. We began to change what was normal – we even began to hope that there was a new normal which would keep those new values, especially as we began to think globally on the level of the individual. The environment has become key. How do we make the world safe for each and every one of us – for the future? Many saw indications that a global awareness of the individual was rising from the darkness of forgetfulness. There was an enlightenment on the horizon, if only …

But we have not had the conversion of the Ninevites, have we? Instead we have burst out of our bubbles and have dismissed everything we learned through lock-down. Even though we are in danger of spiralling into greater and greater numbers of covid instances we have made decisions to go back to the “old ways” – indiscriminate association, lack of protection, all those things which were the lessons learned in lock-down have been forsaken. We have returned to thinking in terms of economics rather than humanity, in terms of acquisition rather than the other and altruism. What would Jonah be thinking if the Ninevites had acted just as we are doing now? I think he would be prophesying destruction again, I think he would be expecting the end of that great city of Ninevah yet again. Their short fast and the wearing of sackcloth has been forgotten. Now we wear their silks and feast on extravagant dainties. Jonah would rightly be expecting the destruction of the modern Ninevah. I have to ask now – Have we returned to that old normal? I don’t think we have achieved the new normal of the conversion now. We need to remember the lessons of lock-down and forsake that past. After all, that old normality led us to the pandemic. We need to transform our lives in order to live to the fullest in the sight of God. This is what the prophets have always said. This is Jesus’ message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is right here among us.” I pray we have now truly changed our ways in order to be worthy of heaven.

Amen

All Saints

Collect

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living that we may come to those inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; 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.

or

God of holiness, your glory is proclaimed in every age: as we rejoice in the faith of your saints, inspire us to follow their example with boldness and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion

God, the source of all holiness and giver of all good things: may we who have shared at this table as strangers and pilgrims here on earth be welcomed with all your saints to the heavenly feast on the day of your kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings

Old Testament

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt-offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them for ever. Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.

Wisdom 3: 1–9

Psalm

1    The earth is the Lord’s and all that fills it,
the compass of the world and all who dwell therein.

2    For he has founded it upon the seas
and set it firm upon the rivers of the deep.

3    ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord,
or who can rise up in his holy place?’

4    ‘Those who have clean hands and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to an idol, nor sworn an oath to a lie;

5    ‘They shall receive a blessing from the Lord,
a just reward from the God of their salvation.’

6    Such is the company of those who seek him,
of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob.

Psalm 24: 1–6

Epistle

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

‘See, the home of God is among mortals.

He will dwell with them;

they will be his peoples,

and God himself will be with them;

he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.’

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

Revelation 21: 1–6

Gospel

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

John 11: 32–44



Sermon on All Saints Sunday

What are your children and grandchildren going to do tonight? Are they going to join their friends ‘trick or treat’-ing? If they are older have they been involved in any of the film fright fests that are on television? If they have left home, have they been involved in some dark practices we don’t know anything about? This is a spooky time of year, when the clocks change, the darkness lands earlier, and we are more inclined to think the worst.

Today is Halloween, the evening when we think about the other world. In line with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’s year, we have gathered to remember during this season after the green season of Trinity of those who have passed before us. This is the red season of Remembrance, the saints and souls during  the week coming, with next week bringing Remembrance Sunday when we call to mind those who have died in service to the country, in war overseas and active service here.

Today, then, is All Hallows Evening, the day we anticipate the Feast of All the Saints, when we celebrate the saints who have passed before us. The Church is not the only entity looking forward to this celebration. The media has been full of ghouls and monsters, the scariest of the unworldly has made its way into public view. Why has Halloween taken on this frightening face, rather than remaining the anticipation of a day of celebration of all that is good and holy? The answer could be long and tedious, especially the way I tell it, but suffice it to say that we normally find it easier to frighten ourselves than to enlighten ourselves.

So let’s look on the positive side of this day of anticipation.

The other Sunday, someone said “You know, the Roman Church names ten thousand saints.” That person was amazed at the number of recognised saints. – How could there be that many? was the soeaker’s unasked question. But aren’t there more? We might retort? Couldn’t we ask: Aren’t there so many holy people who are unrecognised? Like all those heros in the background of our own day? In the bible we hear about the saints in Jerusalem, they were the whole congregation gathered in that place, and Paul writes to the saints in other places, doesn’t he? and they are all un-named. The implication is that all believers can be counted in that number of the holy. Don’t some of us use the phrase “of blessed memory” when we mention someone who has died? So don’t you think we attempt to sanctify those who have gone on before? How many of our remembered ones have not been officially named saints? Do we need to name each and every one? What if we forget someone?

A long time ago, a preacher was talking about the saints ambivalently. On the one hand, he could name all the wonderful deeds the saints had accomplished. The healings and teaching, the public witness to the gospel – all the deeds the saints accomplished, all sorts of great things. However, on the other hand, he delighted in listing all the recalcitrant and the ornery, all those difficult people who were named as saints. St Augustine for instance was one of that preacher’s examples, Augustine wanted to be good according to the Church’s teaching, “but not just yet!” as he says in his book, The Confessions. There are other demanding people who also became saints – some were misanthropic and wanted to live alone in the desert, others were happy to live in community, but they were difficult to get along with. St Ignatius of Antioch was one saint who was killed in a persecution of the Church. But he challenged the authorities to make him a martyr, and they obliged. His letters are full of provocation to the pagan leaders, goading them into making him the martyr he wanted to be. He became, just as he wished, the finest wheat milled by the teeth of the lions in the Colosseum.

There is such a range of personalities amongst the saints. Why shouldn’t there be an infinite number of these holy people in the sight of God? After all, salvation, which is entry into the Kingdom of God,  is being offered to all of creation.

Then another question is: Why don’t we consider ourselves saints on a par with Anselm or Beckett? Mother Teresa or Joan of Arc?

One of the marks of a saint is the joy they have in life, like Francis of Assisi who looked at all of creation and saw his brothers and sisters in everything. His joy in creation overflowed to such an extent that people crowded around him and became the Franciscan Order, which continues with that joy of life in whomever they meet.

Let’s try to understand that. There are a lot of people around us who have joy in their lives, and they show it individually. You and I, for instance, may enjoy a piece of Bach the organist plays, but we show our happiness differently. But that joy, that deep joy, undergirds how we express it. I might go very quiet, and meditate on the notes and their relationships one to another. You might become very excited, perhaps even swaying or tapping in time with the rhythms being produced. The organist enjoys Bach in a very different way to us listeners. Through sight and touch, the sound is produced and the joy of heavenly melody overtakes. We have all engaged in the joy of Bach so very differently, but it is joy which unites us.

That common joy which underlies so many expressions of enjoyment is a profound reality, something we often lose sight of, when it comes to comparing ourselves with each other – for instance, when we promote someone to the status of saint. I think we should change our perception of who a saint is. Let us see that we all have the possibility to be  considered holy through the lives we lead.

That underlying joy, that joy of faith, is the link for all the saints as they gather around the banquet to which Jesus called them. That underlying joy is our link to the saints and to one another. Even though we may not get along with everyone, we all enjoy that faith which drives us on.

Don’t we all say monks and nuns are close to becoming saints because they were driven to escape the world we live in? Their lives are lived in a holy order. They create a world of their own – a world which we all wish to understand in some way. In the earliest period of the Church universal, there were the people who fled to the desert to perfect their life in the presence of God.

The Desert Fathers had many people visit them in those desolate places where they struggled amongst themselves and confronted the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil. We all want to know how to win that battle, don’t we? Don’t we ourselves “visit” unworldly people ourselves? Perhaps even by just coming to church we dissociate ourselves from the everyday world for that holy hour. Our life of worship is so very different from our ordinary life that it does draw us to that other-worldly reality which we attribute to the saints, that it does make all the everyday worthwhile.

Maybe that is why the other-worldly and the unwordly come to prominence at Halloween. Perhaps even in our worldly everyday life we hanker after something the world itself does not offer. The orderly world of commerce and social respectability give way to the chaos of trick or treat. The ordinary is upset and so we revel in the orange and black of jack’o’lanterns. So, I would like to say – That is what happens when we celebrate all the saints. We recognise we want a different order in our lives, the order of heaven where the banquet is prepared for all – all the saints and souls we remember.

Amen