Sunday, 17 May 2015

Waiting on God

I didn't record the children's talk. Please scroll down for the podcast of the main sermon.

 Children's talk: What are you waiting for?

When I was a little girl, which was quite a long time ago now, I used to really look forward to my birthday. And the night before, it would be very difficult to go to sleep, just like it was difficult to go to sleep the night before Christmas. My mother used to say, "The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner it will be morning." But that didn't make it any easier to go to sleep!

I wasn't very good at waiting for it to be Christmas, or waiting for it to be my birthday. I always used to peek at presents, to try to guess what they were. Of course, people who are good at waiting never peek, do they? My daughter and my husband never peek – always makes me so cross with them!

Are you any good at waiting? What, if anything, are you waiting for right now? I know soon it will be time to wait for exam results... and that is nerve-wracking.

Do you know what the disciples were waiting for? I don't think they did, really, but they were waiting for the Holy Spirit. They didn't know what that meant, but they knew it when they happened. They had to wait, though. It's okay to have to wait for God – things will happen in God's time. Not much of a consolation if you're as impatient as I am, but it's a lesson we all have to learn.

Sermon: Waiting on God


 

Our reading from Acts is really rather an odd story, isn't it? What did the disciples think they were doing? And why? And who on earth were Joseph Barsabas and Matthias? We have never heard of them before, and we practically never hear of them again!

The thing is, this story happens in a very odd time in the history of the world. Jesus has gone – we don't know the full details, other than the account a few verses earlier than the one we read, or the account in John's Gospel, but we do know that something happened to make the disciples realise that they weren't going to see him again exactly like that. Jesus has gone, and the Holy Spirit has not yet come.

Jesus has gone, and the Holy Spirit has not yet come. A very strange and disturbing time for them. They have been told to go to Jerusalem and wait, which they do, about a hundred and twenty of them, including Jesus' mother, Peter, James and the other nine apostles.

And, of course, they don't know exactly what they are waiting for. They don't know what it's going to be like when the Holy Spirit comes. They don't know that each and every one of them will be empowered to preach the Gospel with boldness and fluency and such power that many, many thousands of people will be converted and that the church they found will last down the years. They don't know this.

We're not told how long they had to wait. We give them ten days, until next Sunday, but it may have been longer. We don't quite know how long Jesus was appearing to them after his resurrection, but we do know it was at least a week – poor Thomas had to wait a whole week after missing Jesus' first visit and being totally sure the others must have been deluded. We do know that the feast of Pentecost, which we in the Church celebrate next Sunday, was the day when the Holy Spirit came, so that gives a last date – roughly six weeks after the Resurrection. So the disciples could have been waiting nearly a month between the final earthly farewells and the coming of the Spirit.

And waiting isn't easy, is it? Especially when you don't quite know what you are waiting for. How will they know when the Spirit has come? We know, of course, that She came in a rushing mighty wind and in tongues of fire, but they didn't know in advance that this is what was going to happen.

So it's not surprising that the first thing they thought to do was to make up the numbers of the Twelve – for Judas, who betrayed our Lord, had never repented the way Peter had, but despaired and died. And the eleven decided that, of the others in the group of 70 around Jesus, it was between Matthias and Barsabas, although we are not told why they thought it came down to these two. Peter said that the criteria were: “He must be one of the men who were in our group during the whole time that the Lord Jesus travelled about with us, beginning from the time John preached his message of baptism until the day Jesus was taken up from us to heaven.” There may well have been quite a lot of those around, and we're not told why specifically these two.

Anyway, they cast lots to decide which one it would be. These days, I dare say, they would have voted, but back then, casting lots – rather like tossing a coin – was thought to be a way of discerning what God wanted. And Matthias gets it – and we never hear of either him or Barsabas again, although I suppose that they were among those in the Upper Room at Pentecost.

Well, we never hear of Matthias again. Barsabas gets a couple of mentions – he goes with Silas to Antioch with the letter from the Council of Jerusalem, outlining the conditions for Gentile believers, and he is described as a prophet, and brought the believers “comfort and strength” before going back to Jerusalem, and we don't know what happened to him after that.

As for Matthias, the Bible never mentions him again, but there a few stories from the traditional sources. Although there are several different stories, it looks as though he ended up preaching and evangelising in what is now modern-day Georgia, and died there; there is, however, one source that claims he was stoned to death in Jerusalem, and still another says he died of old age. You pays your money and you takes your choice, if you ask me!

So were they wrong, do you think, to try to appoint another apostle? After all, it is not very long before Paul is converted and becomes the self-proclaimed “apostle to the Gentiles”. And God used his education and literacy to spread his interpretation of the Good News, as written in the Epistles, far and wide and so down to us today.

But I don't think it mattered. I am sure God honoured their decision to appoint Matthias, even though it turned out not to have been necessary. After all, they are fidgety. They are waiting for something, and don't know what it is or when it will happen. The temptation to go home, to go back to Galilee and fish, must have been almost overwhelming. They have done this once, though, and were told to go back to Jerusalem to wait.

And here they are, waiting. And waiting. I hate waiting, don't you? I am not a patient person, and I might have been tempted to have left Jerusalem and got on with my life. I hope I wouldn't have, but, well.....

It really isn't always easy to wait for God, is it? I'm sure you've had the experience of praying for something, and it not happening and not happening and not happening, and then all of a sudden it does happen. And you can't help wondering whether you had started to do something differently, or what, that made it happen, when, of course, it was just that not everything was ready for God to answer your prayer.

Waiting for God isn't a bit easy. Who was it prayed, "Give me patience, Lord, and I want it now!"? We always have to think we know better than God does – we want whatever it is now, and we don't see why God is delaying letting us have it. So then we whinge and moan at God, and some people even want to give up being God's person altogether.

Trouble is, of course, if you do that, if you try to know best, what you are saying, even if you don't realise it, is "Do it my way, God! Don't do it your way, do it my way!" And that is not a very sensible thing to say, because, quite apart from anything else, God can see round corners and we can't!

Sometimes it takes time until we can say to God, "Okay God, do it your way! Don't do it my way!" Jesus had to say that to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, do you remember? He really, really didn't want to have to go through with it, and he had to absolutely fight with himself until he got to the point where he could say "Do it your way!" to God.

And sometimes, of course, God's answer simply isn't the answer we would have chosen. The person for whom we were praying doesn't get better, but dies. The job is given to someone else. You child's going to be in the one class you hoped he wouldn't be next year. The election result appears to be disastrous. You know the sort of thing.

Part of it, of course, is that we can't see consequences the way God can. We can't see the future. The apostles had no way of knowing that Saul of Tarsus would experience a dramatic conversion and become possibly the greatest ever evangelist. So they appointed Matthias, who was probably fantastic in his own right, but not the person God meant to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.

We can't see round the bend in the road. We don't know what's going to happen next. I'm sure some of us were very unhappy indeed about the result of last week's general election – I know some of my friends were, very. But again, we can't see what's going to happen next year, or even tomorrow. And we know, too, that God can't always stop dreadful things from happening as it might interfere with someone else's freedom of action. If I am walking down the street and a young man jumps out to stab me because I am a Christian preacher and he thinks that's God's will – well, I hope it won't happen, but I know that God won't, or probably won't, miraculously blunt that knife, and it would probably be very nasty....

But that is unduly pessimistic! This Sunday the Church throughout the world celebrates waiting, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Waiting isn't easy, but for those who held out, for the hundred and twenty in the upper room, for us, if we wait, we will, eventually know the power of God at work within us. We will be given gifts with which to do God's work; we will grow into the kind of people we were always meant to be. We will be the sort of people who have rivers of living water flowing from them - not that we can see it, or touch it, but that people will know that we are in touch with the source of all healing, and come to us for comfort. And we, we hope, will be able to point them to the right place where they can find healing for themselves - we will be able to point them to Jesus. Amen.


Sunday, 19 April 2015

Children of God


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Very similar, but not quite identical, to one preached in 2009 with the same title.  Moreover, the presence of two small boys in Church meant that I departed from my script more than somewhat, so the podcast is different again!

I thought that today, for once, we wouldn’t look too closely at the Gospel reading,
as Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after the Resurrection
is very similar to the account in John’s gospel,
which I expect you looked at last week.
The only thing I will point out is that Luke says Jesus actually ate with them –
ghosts, after all, don’t eat!
So that particular detail is, for the gospel writer,
just another proof that Jesus really was raised.
He wasn’t just a ghost;
he wasn’t just a figment of their imagination.
He ate some fish –
and there’s the dirty plate!

You may have read the first chapter of this letter from John last week, too.
I want to focus on the passage we read today, in a minute.
It isn’t quite a letter, is it –
it’s more of a sermon.
He doesn’t put in the chatty details that Paul puts into his letters,
nor the personal messages.
Nobody seems to know whether it was really the disciple that Jesus loved that wrote the Gospel and this letter,
or whether it was someone writing as from them, which was apparently a recognised literary convention of the day.
But I noticed last week that right at the very beginning of the letter, or sermon – hey, let’s just call it an Epistle and have done –
right at the very beginning, he says:

“We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning.
We have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes;
yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it.
When this life became visible, we saw it;
so we speak of it and tell you about the eternal life which was with the Father and was made known to us.

In other words, the writer, too, claims to have seen, known and touched Jesus!

But to today’s passage.
“See how much the Father has loved us!
His love is so great that we are called God's children
and so, in fact, we are.
See how much the Father has loved us!
His love is so great that we are called God's children
and so, in fact, we are.”

We are God’s children!
You know, when you come to think of it, that’s a pretty terrifying concept.
People tend to think of themselves as serving God, or as worshipping God.
But to be a child of God?
That’s a whole different ball-game.
After all, if we worship God or serve God,
that doesn’t necessarily imply that God does anything for us in return.
But if we are God’s children?
That’s different!
That implies that God is active in caring for us,
in being involved in our lives,
in minding.

Many of us here this morning have had children of our own.
And all of us have been children!
Perhaps some of us didn’t have very satisfactory childhoods,
or our parents weren’t all they should have been.
The model of God as Father isn’t helpful to everybody, I know.

But I still want to unpack it a bit, if I can, as I do think it’s important.
We are all children of God, so we are told.
We are not servants.
We are not just worshippers.
Children” implies a two-way relationship.

Actually, it almost implies more than that.
It implies that God does the doing;
we don’t have to.
No, seriously, think about it a minute.
I have a daughter –
she’s grown up and married now, of course,
but for eighteen years she lived at home,
and for many of those years she was totally dependant on Robert and me for everything, and her little boys are on her and her husband –
for food, for clothing, for education, you name it!
And babies – my younger grandson is only just a toddler, rather than a baby – need their parents even more than older children do.
Nicholas can't even keep himself clean yet;
someone has to change his nappy for him every few hours.

Parents look after their children.
Quite apart from the seeing to food, clothing, education and so on,
it’s about the daily care –
seeing to it they get up and so on.
All the things we need to remind them to do or not do each day:
Have you washed your hands?
Have you cleaned your teeth?
Put your shoes on.
Put your coat on.
Pull your trousers up, please.....
Don't bite your nails!
And so on and so forth.
But it is, of course, because we care for and about our children,
and want them to grow up to be the best possible person they can be.

And parents do this because they love their children.
Ask any new parent –
all those sleepless nights,
the pacing up and down, the nappies, the lack of sleep –
and yet, they are delighting in that precious baby,
and will show you photographs on the slightest provocation.
And that is just how God feels about us!
Pretty mind-blowing, isn’t it?

And yes, God does want us to grow up to be the person he designed us to be.
And sometimes that will involve saying “No” to us,
as we have to say it to our children.
No, you mustn’t do that;
no, you can’t have that!”
Not to be mean, not because we are horrid –
although it can feel like that sometimes when you’re on the receiving end –
but because it is for their best.
You can’t let a child do something dangerous;
you can’t allow them to be rude;
they can’t eat unlimited sweets or ices.... and so on.
My elder grandson once said, with a deep sigh, when reminded that sweets weren't very good for him:
Is anything good for me?”
And the same sort of thing with us.

God loves us enormously and just wants what is best for us.
And because we are, mostly, not small children, we tend to be aware of this, and allow Him to work in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

John goes on to comment about sin and sinfulness.
It is rather an odd passage, this;
we know that we do sin, sometimes, because we are human.
And yet we know, too, that we are God’s children and we abide in Him.
Yet John here says nobody who sins abides in God.
If he were right, that would mean none of us would, since we are all sinners.

But then, are we?
I mean, yes, we are, but the point is, we are sinners saved by grace, as they say.
God has redeemed us through his Son.
We don’t “abide in sin” any more.

St Paul tells us that when we become Christians, we are “made right” with God through faith in his promises.
I believe the technical term is “justified”, and you remember the meaning because it’s “just as if I’d” never sinned.
However, we also have to grow up to make this a reality in our lives.
That’s called becoming sanctified, made saint-like.

One author described it like this.
Suppose there was a law against jumping in mud puddles.
And you broke that law, and jumped.
You would not only be guilty of breaking the law,
you would also be covered in mud.
So when you are justified, you are declared not guilty of breaking that law –
and being sanctified means that you wash off the mud!

So we no longer abide in sin, but are we washing off the mud?
That’s not always easy to do –
the temptation to conform to the world’s standards can be overwhelming at times.
We all have different temptations, of course;
I can’t claim to be virtuous because I don’t gamble,
since gambling simply doesn’t appeal to me!
But I am apt to procrastinate, and can be horrendously grouchy at times, particularly when stressed, as I am at the moment.
Robert is to retire next week
NEXT WEEK, oh help
and our lives are going to change in unimaginable ways.
And my parents are selling the house they have lived in since 1958, and that is also going to bring huge changes.
I am not very good at change!
I am also very inclined to suffer from self-pity,
and the other day I posted a really self-pitying update on Facebook because of all this stress.
And two posts down, someone from Brixton Hill had posted:
Cast all your anxiety upon Him, for he cares for you!”
That was me told, then!
I laughed, and deleted the status, and have tried to do just exactly that, but it isn't always easy, is it?

And, of course, there are those who have not said “Yes” to God,
who perhaps have no idea of doing so.
In this model, they are not God’s children –
but that doesn’t mean they are not loved!
Indeed, God so loved the world that he sent his Son while we were still sinners, so we are told.
God loves the worst and most horrible person you could imagine,
just as much as he loves you or he loves me.
Even terrorists.
Even paedophiles.
Jesus died for them, too.
Just as he died for you, and just as he died for me.

And we, we are Children of God.
We are God’s precious Children.
We are not just servants of God.
We are not just worshippers.
We are children.
And the Risen Christ calls us his friends.
Amen.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple


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This Sunday is one when the Church traditionally celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is the story we heard in our Gospel reading today.

Until very recently, Christian women in many denominations would be “churched” about six weeks after giving birth – either at a special service, or as a special prayer said in the main service, to give thanks for a safe delivery and so on. It seems to have died out now, largely, I think, because the service was not transferred to the modern prayer books, and arguably because childbirth is so very much safer than it used to be. Shame, really – it would be a lovely thing to happen whenever someone appeared in church with a new baby!

For Jewish women, though, the ritual was also about purification. They would, traditionally, go to be purified forty days after giving birth. I am not totally sure what the process involved, but fairly certainly Mary would have had a ritual bath before going to the Temple to make her thanksgiving, and to present the baby.

The text says Mary and Joseph took a pair of pigeons to sacrifice – interesting note that, because that's what you took if you were poor; richer people sacrificed a sheep. And if you were really, really poor and couldn't even afford a pair of pigeons, I believe you were allowed to take some flour. But for Mary and Joseph, it was a pair of pigeons.

And they present the baby – they would, I think, have done this for any child, not just because Jesus was special. And then it all gets a bit surreal, with the old man and the old woman coming up and making prophecies over the child, and so on.

Actually, the whole story is a bit surreal, really. After all, St Matthew tells us that the Holy Family fled Bethlehem and went to Egypt to avoid Herod's minions, but according to Luke, they're just going home to Nazareth – a little delayed, after the census, to allow Mary and the baby time to become strong enough to travel, but six weeks old is six weeks old, and it makes the perfect time for a visit to the Temple. The accounts are definitely contradictory just here, but I don't think that really matters too much – after all, truth isn't necessarily a matter of historical accuracy.

Come to that, I don't suppose Simeon really burst into song, any more than Mary or Zechariah. Luke has put words into their mouths, rather like Shakespeare does to the kings and queens of British history. Henry the Fifth is unlikely to have said “This day is called the Feast of Crispian” and so on, or “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, but he probably rallied the troops with a sentiment of some kind, and it is the same here. Zechariah, Mary and Simeon probably didn't say those actual words that Luke gives them, but they probably did express that sort of sentiment.

Although I often wonder why it is that when Jesus reappears as a young man, nobody recognises him. We don't hear of an elderly shepherd hobbling up to him and saying “Ah, I remember how the angels sang when you were born!” But perhaps it is as well – it means he had a loving, private, sensible childhood. Which, I think, is partly why we see so very little of him as a child, just that glimpse of him as a rather precocious adolescent in the Temple. He needed to grow up in peace and security and love, without the dreadfulness of who he was and why he had come hanging over him.

But on this very first visit to the Temple, he can't do more than smile and maybe vocalise a bit. It is Simeon we are really more concerned with. His song, which the Church calls the Nunc Dimittis, after the first two words of it in Latin, is really the centre of today's reading. He is saying that now, at last, he has seen God's salvation, and is happy to die. The baby will be “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God's people Israel.”

“A light to lighten the Gentiles”. This is why another name for this festival is Candlemas. Candlemas. In some churches, candles are blessed for use throughout the year, but as we are no longer dependent on candles as a light source, it might be more to the point to bless our stock of light bulbs! Because what it's about is Jesus as the Light of the World. A light to lighten the Gentiles, certainly, but look how John's Gospel picks up and runs with that. “The Word was the source of life,and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” And John's Gospel reports Jesus as having said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”

Jesus is the Light of the World, and that's part of what we are celebrating today.
We rather take light for granted, here in the West, don't we? We are so used to being able to flick on a switch and it's light that we forget how dark it can be. We had a brief power-cut last Saturday, and it felt very dark indeed! Even though we have a really good emergency lantern and, of course, torches on our phones. And candles, come to that – I make sure we have a supply of emergency candles, just in case.

Not that a candle provides very much light, of course – you can't see to read by it very well, or sew, or any of the things people did before television and social media, or, come to that, before houses were lit by electricity. But even a candle can dispel the darkness. Even the faintest, most flickering light means it isn't completely dark – you can see, even if only a little. And sometimes for us the Light of the World is like that – a candle in the distance, a faint, flickering light that we hardly dare believe isn't our eyes just wanting to see. But sometimes, of course, wonderfully, as I'm sure you've experienced, it's like flicking on a light switch to illuminate the whole room. Sometimes God's presence is overwhelmingly bright and light.

And other times not.

This time of year is half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It's not spring yet, but the days are noticeably longer than they were at the start of the year. There are daffodils and early rhubarb in the shops, and the bulbs are beginning to pierce through the ground. The first snowdrops will be out any day now. In the country, the hazel trees are showing their catkins, and if you look closely at the trees, you can see where the leaves are going to be in just a few weeks. We hope. Candlemas is one of those days we say predict the weather – like St Swithun's Day in July, when if it rains, it's going to go on raining for the next six weeks. Only at Candlemas it's the opposite – if it's a lovely day, then winter isn't over yet, but if it's horrible, Spring is definitely on the way. The Americans call it “Groundhog Day”, same principle – if the groundhog sees his shadow, meaning if the sun is out, winter hasn't finished by any manner of means, but if he can't, if the sun isn't shining, then maybe it is.

So it's a funny time of year, still winter, but with a promise of spring. And isn't that a good picture of our Christian lives? We still see the atrocities, the horror of terrorist attacks, the awfulnesses perpetrated by organisations like Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. We still see that we, too, can be pretty awful when we set our minds to it, simply because we are human. We know that there are places inside us we'd really rather not look at. It is definitely winter, and yet, and yet, there is the promise of spring. There is still light. It might be only the flickering light of a candle in another room, or it might be the full-on fluorescent light of an overwhelming experience of God's presence, but there is still light.

The infant Jesus was brought to the Temple, and was proclaimed the Light to Lighten the Gentiles. But, of course, that's not all – we too have that light inside us; you remember Jesus reminded us not to keep it under a basket, but to allow it to be seen. And again, the strength and quality of our light will vary, due to time and circumstances, and possibly even whether we slept well last night or what we had for breakfast. Sometimes it will be dim and flickering, and other times we will be alight with the flame of God's presence within us. It's largely outwith our control, although of course, by the means of grace and so on we can help ourselves come nearer to God. But it isn't something we can force or struggle with – we just need to relax and allow God to shine through us. Jesus is the Light of the World, and if we follow Him, we will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness. We will, not we should, or we must, or we ought to. We will. Be it never so faint and flickering, we will have the light of life. Amen.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Samuel

The text is almost the same, barring updating, as this sermon, so I won't repeat it here.  You can check the differences by listening to the podcast!



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Sunday, 11 January 2015

Baptism and the Holy Spirit


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Today is the day that the Church celebrates the Baptism of Christ,
and when I first looked at the readings,
I quite thought I was going to be preaching on baptism.
But when you look more closely at the readings,
there is another theme that springs out –
and that is the Holy Spirit!

In our first reading, from Genesis, we are told that
“a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
“A wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”
Other translations refer to the Spirit of God hovering,
or brooding,
over the face of the waters.
I rather love the image of brooding –
as though God’s Spirit were protecting the as-yet-unmade earth.

Then in our second reading, in Acts,
Paul realises that there is something missing in the believers at Antioch, and asks them whether they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptised.
And they are like, “Er, you what?”
not at all sure what he is talking about.
So he enquires a bit deeper,
and finds that they had not actually heard the full Good News about Jesus at all,
but had only got as far as John the Baptist.
So he has to give them a quick crash course on what salvation is all about,
so they can be baptised into Jesus and receive the Holy Spirit.

And our Gospel reading, of course,
is one of the passages that describes the baptism of Jesus,
and tells us that the onlookers,
or some of them, at any rate,
saw the Holy Spirit coming down on Jesus looking like a dove,
and they heard the Father speak from heaven:
“You are my Son, whom I love;
with you I am well pleased.”
Actually, Mark’s version, which is the one we heard today,
seems to imply that it was only Jesus who saw the Holy Spirit,
but other accounts say that the bystanders did, too.
In the beginning, God.
That says it all really, doesn’t it?
We know that God was responsible for the Creation of the World,
and that right there at the start,
the Holy Spirit was there, hovering, brooding, caring!
The Holy Spirit was there when the world was made.
The Holy Spirit was there when Jesus was baptised.
And the Holy Spirit came down on the believers, as we believe he still does today.
As Christians, we believe that the Holy Spirit is one of the Persons of the Trinity.
That is a rather formal way of saying it,
but it is one of those things that is difficult to put into words.
We worship one God, not three,
but we worship God the Father,
God the Son,
and God the Holy Spirit.
Or, if you prefer, God the Creator,
God the Redeemer,
and God the Sanctifier.

I don’t want to get into a long discussion of the Trinity here;
time enough to do that on Trinity Sunday!
All too easy to say the wrong thing.
All we really need to remember today is that the Holy Spirit is God,
just as the Father is God
and just as Jesus is God.
And that, when God works in us,
it is God the Holy spirit who “does the doing”, as it were;
someone once described him as “The executive arm of the Trinity”!

And we see Him “doing the doing” in our readings today.
We see Him hovering over the as-yet-uncreated earth,
brooding over it, protecting it.
We see Him descending on Jesus in the form of a dove,
affirming him and, I rather think, enabling Him for ministry.
And we see Him descending on those new believers in Acts, cleansing them, renewing them, gifting them and enabling them, too, to be Jesus’ people.

And, I hope, we see Him “doing the doing” in our lives today!

Earlier on, when I did that thing with the water,
it was a bit of a picture, wasn’t it?
First of all, I couldn’t pour water into the cup until I’d taken the lid off.
Then, there was rather a lot of stuff inside –
no room for any water.
Then, I needed to rinse the cup out before I could have a drink.
But once all that was done, the cup was fit for my use.
And that is what God the Holy Spirit did for the believers in Antioch –
through baptism, they were enabled to “take the lid off”,
be cleansed and made fit for service,
and then God could fill them and use them.

I hope we see Him cleansing us,
renewing us,
gifting us
and enabling us, too, to be Jesus’ people.
I hope we see those lovely characteristics that Paul described to the Galatians that a person who is filled with the Holy Spirit will have:
love,
joy,
peace,
patience,
gentleness,
goodness,
loving-kindness,
faith….

Not that we can probably see it in ourselves –
these qualities are always easier to see in other people than in ourselves.
But I hope we do see them in one another, too, and affirm each other in them.
After all, no matter how freely we are able to talk about our faith –
and for some of us, that comes easier than for others, I do know –
it is whether our lives match up to what we talk about that is important,
that either attracts or repels other people to Jesus.
If we say one thing, but do another,
then people are going to be turned off.
If we don’t behave the way Jesus describes His people as behaving –
always putting other people first,
always treating other people with the greatest possible respect for who they are,
not neglecting your family under the heading of “religious duty”,
and so on;
if we forget that, then maybe people will wonder whether faith is worth the effort!

I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if that wasn’t one of the reasons Paul recognised that the so-called believers in Antioch were actually nothing of the sort.
They were not allowing God the Holy Spirit to indwell them and it showed. Well, they couldn't, could they –
they had not heard of the Holy Spirit.
They weren’t acting like believers, if you like!
So Paul knew that something was wrong.
They were like the cup with the lid on –
there was no way God could use them.

Now, there are various ways we can react to this sort of sermon.
We can reckon it doesn’t apply to us –
God wouldn’t use us anyway.
But, in fact, that’s not true.
God can use you, wants to use you, and very probably already does use you, if you have made yourself available to be used.
If you are sincere in wanting to be God’s person, then God will use you.

You can also react to this sort of sermon by feeling guilty.
You feel that if only you were holier,
or more pious,
or a better Christian,
or even a better person,
God could use you more.
But that’s also not really a sensible response.
You see, it isn’t about you trying hard.
You don’t have to be perfect before God will come to you.
Rather the reverse –
after all, if you did have to be perfect,
that would rather negate the whole point of the Gospel!

My cup didn’t have to empty itself and clean itself before I could use it, did it?
I did all that.
And likewise, we don’t have to become perfect before God can use us.
All we have to do is to be willing to let God work in us,
be willing to co-operate with God, if you like.
God the Holy Spirit will, if we ask,
come and indwell us,
cleanse us,
fill us,
renew us,
make us whole –

and then we can be used.

God doesn’t just make us whole in order to use us, mind,
although that too.
God wants to make us whole so that we shall be whole.
Through the Holy Spirit, God makes us whole for our own sakes,
but by doing that, he enables us to be used.
We become the sort of person Paul described,
full of those qualities I mentioned earlier.
We leave behind the sort of qualities we aren’t supposed to have,
and develop the sort we are.

God the Holy Spirit was present at creation.
He, or She, if you like – the word used at creation, Ruach, is feminine –
was present when Jesus was baptised.
She was present when the believers of Antioch were baptised.
And She is present here with us, now, today.
Let us pray.

God our Father,
We confess that we have allowed ourselves to become empty,
Not filled with your Spirit, not fit for your use.
We pray that you will fill us anew, cleanse us, gift us, and make us whole, both for our sakes and so that you can use us in your service.
This we ask in the power of that same Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ your Son, who died for us.
Amen.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Be joyful always

I'm not putting the text up, as it was, in all but minor details, identical to that which I preached three years ago, which can be found here.



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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Advent Sunday 2014


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So, Advent.
It’s almost an anomaly nowadays, isn’t it?
Out in the world, people are starting to celebrate Christmas already –
the shops have had their decorations up since the beginning of last month, or even earlier,
and the round of office parties, works celebrations, school festivities will be starting any day now.
And the endless tapes of carols and Christmas songs that are played in the shops, I should think they’d drive the shop assistants mad!

But here in Church, Christmas hasn’t started yet, and won’t for another four weeks.
We are celebrating Advent,
and it seems to be another penitential time, like Lent.
Those churches that have different colours for the seasons have brought out the purple hangings,
and many will have no flowers except for an Advent wreath.

But Advent is really a season of hope.
We look forward to “the last day when Christ shall come again”
to establish the Kingdom on earth.
We also look back to those who’ve been part of God’s story, including John the Baptist and Jesus’ Mother, Mary.

Today, though, our readings are about the coming King.
Our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, tells how the prophet,
and perhaps the people for whom he was speaking,
longed and longed to see God in action.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!”

Scholars think that this part of Isaiah was written very late,
after the people of Judah had returned from exile.
They would have remembered the stories of the wonderful things God had done in the olden days,
in the days of Abraham and Sarah,
of Isaac and Jacob,
of Moses,
and of David the King –
and then, they would have looked round and said
But hey, why isn’t any of this happening today?”

They reckoned the answer must be because they were so sinful.
You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No-one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

It does sound very much as though the prophet were longing for God,
but somehow couldn’t find him, in the mists of human sinfulness and this world’s total abandonment of God.
You know, there’s nothing new –
we complain that people don’t want to seek God today,
and our churches stand empty,
but there was the prophet saying that thousands of years ago!

And, of course, as it turned out,
God hadn’t abandoned his people at all!
Jesus came to this earth, lived among us, and died for us,
and Isaiah’s people now knew the remedy for their sin.

But Jesus himself tells us, in our second reading,
that his coming to live in Palestine as a human being isn’t the end of the story, either.
Somehow, someday, he will come back again.
He obviously doesn’t know all that much about it while he is on earth,
and rather discourages us from speculation as to when or how.
But he draws pictures for us:
The sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

It is a scary thought, isn't it, with the world as unstable now as at any time in the past century.
What’s more today, as at no other time in history,
communications are such that if Jesus were to come back,
we’d know about it almost as soon as it happened –
look how quickly news spreads around the world these days.
Half the time you hear about it on Facebook or Twitter before the BBC has even picked up on it.
And Jesus' return would be something totally unmistakable.
But lots of generations before ours have thought that Jesus might come back any minute now,
and Christians throughout history have lived their lives expecting him to come home.
We have remembered Jesus’ warnings about being prepared for him to come, but He hasn’t come.
And we get to the stage where we, too, cry with Isaiah:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!”

Like Isaiah, we long and long to see God come and intervene in this world, and wish that He would hurry up.

And that’s perfectly natural, of course.
Some folk have even got to the stage of believing it won’t happen, and have given up on God completely.
But Jesus said it will happen,
and one has to assume He knew what he was talking about.

But that doesn’t mean that we can blame God –
if You had come back before now, this wouldn’t have happened.
Every generation has been able to say that to God,
and it’s not made a blind bit of difference.
So maybe there’s something else.

You see, in one way, Jesus has come back.
Do you remember what happened on the Day of Pentecost,
in that upper room?
God’s Holy Spirit descended on those gathered there,
looking like tongues of fire,
and with a noise like a rushing mighty wind,
and the disciples were empowered to talk about Jesus.
And we know from history,
and from our own experience,
that God the Holy Spirit still comes to us,
still fills us,
still empowers us.

One of the purposes of these so-called penitential seasons is to give us space to examine ourselves
and see if we have drifted away from God,
to come back
and to ask to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit.
Then we are empowered to live our lives
as Jesus would wish.
We don't have to struggle and strain and strive to “get it right” by our own efforts.
God himself is within us, enabling us from the inside.
Jesus doesn’t just provide us with an example to follow, but actually enables us to do it, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Robert and I very much enjoy ice dancing,
although we have never been very good, and as we get older,
we don't get any better, either!
Rather the reverse.
And no matter how hard we've worked, we've never been much good. But supposing somehow the spirit of a very good ice dancer could get inside us,
and actually make our bodies move in the right way,
and show us how it's done from the inside.
That would be so much better than anything our coach could tell us, or anything we can learn from watching videos.
We would be enabled to dance better.
And that’s what God does –
by indwelling us with his Holy Spirit,
He not only shows us what to do, but enables us to do it.

All of us will face the end of the world one day.
It might be the global end of the world, that Jesus talks about, or it might just be the end of our personal world.
We expect, here in the West, to live out our life span to the end, and many of us, I am sure, will do just that.
But we can’t rely on that.
You never know when terrorists will attack –
or even muggers, or just a plain accident.
We can’t see round corners;
we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.

But whether it is tomorrow,
or twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from now,
one day we will die, and then, at last, we will meet Jesus face to face.
And we need to be ready.
We need to know that we have lived as God wants us to live –
and when we’ve screwed up,
as we always do and always will,
we’ve come back to God and asked forgiveness,and asked God to renew us and refill us with his Holy Spirit.

We can only live one day at a time, but each day should, I hope, be bringing us nearer to the coming of the King.
Amen.