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Sermon – Epiphany

Sermon Sunday 3 January 2021

The Feast of the Epiphany

Readings:  Isaiah 60:1-6,  Matthew 2:1-1

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

As most of you probably know, before coming here as Vicar I was a curate in the village of Woodchurch.  One of the lovely peculiarities about Woodchurch, which you may not know, is that it is situated in one of the least light-polluted areas of Kent.  There are so few streetlights there, or anywhere nearby, that at night the sky is truly dark and the stars can be seen properly.

One of the side-effects of it being so dark is that we soon learnt to take torches with us whenever we went out at night and it took a little getting used to not having to do that when we got to Hadlow.  But that’s another story.

Because the sky is so dark in Woodchurch it became the meeting place of the Ashford Astronomical Society.  Being a person of curious mind and many interests, I joined them for a while, and ended up with my own small telescope.  I think that some of the other members were a little non-plussed at being joined by a person in a dog-collar as they assumed that Christians couldn’t contemplate the age and size of the universe without having our faith shaken.  I soon put them right on that score.  In fact, I became quite good friends with the chairman and when he wrote a novel which included some religious elements he asked me to proof-read it for him.  But, again, that is quite literally another story.  Oh dear, I seem to have gone a bit Ronnie Corbett today.

Anyway, I soon learnt to enjoy spotting the planets in our solar system and the first time you can see the rings of Saturn for yourself it really is quite something.  Even now it is good to look up and be able to see Mars or Venus against the background of constellations.  

Of course, the reason I am thinking about this now is because just before Christmas there was an extremely rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn, which made them look like one bright star.  It was soon dubbed the ‘Christmas star’ and there was plenty of speculation about whether it was an alignment of planets like this which was the bright star followed by the wise men from the East.

It is always interesting to speculate but, in the same way that our faith should not be afraid of science nor should we feel the need to explain away the miraculous in purely scientific terms.  The fact that the universe is billions of years old need not challenge our belief that it was created by a God who flung the stars into space and the fact that the prophecies of the wise men may have been fulfilled by an alignment of planets does not mean that it was not God who either inspired their prophecies or aligned the planets.  Or perhaps God did what he did with Mary and the Shepherds and sent an angel to lead the way.  

The point is that the wise men were lead towards their Epiphany of recognising the Christ child by being sensitive and obedient to the signs they were sent, regardless of the physics behind those signs. God works in the world both spiritually and physically and we need to discern and respond in both ways too.

This morning’s reading contains not simply an epiphany to the wise men but it also contains, I think, an Epiphany of Herod, but he chooses to react rather differently.

The Herod we are talking about is Herod the Great, not to be confused with Herod Antipas who was the one who had John the Baptist beheaded and played a role in the crucifixion of Jesus.

Although Herod the Great was King of Judea he was only a client-king of the Romans, who could remove him at any time.  Although he rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem he was not much loved by the people who saw some of the Temple systems of money changing and so forth as favouring the rich over the poor.  Herod sat between his Roman overlords and a sometimes restive people who would love to see the restoration of Sion that Isaiah talks about and it seems this made him something of an insecure ruler.

Into this context there arrives in Jerusalem an unknown number of unnamed travellers from across the deserts in the East.  This, of itself, would not have been uncommon, I’m sure.  But they arrive asking a rather strange question:

“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at it’s rising and have come to pay him homage.”

It is interesting to note that the wise men do not say that they have come to bring gifts to the child, but to pay him homage.  This means to bow down, as one would before a king or a God.  This is an important word which we shall see again.

We don’t know how Herod came to hear of these men with their unsettling question but when he did what was his reaction?

“…he was frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him;’

One can see how an insecure King might be frightened by the news of a new king being born but why ‘all of Jerusalem’?  Although those words are not explained one can only speculate that Herod was such a tyrant that if he was afraid then everyone else had reason to be afraid too and, as we shall see, there was good reason to be fearful.

The wise men from the East had travelled many hundreds or even thousands of miles, as an act of faith worthy of Abraham, to pay homage to Jesus and yet, in his homeland, the news was greeted with fear.  His own people did not accept him, as the Gospel of John would have it.

Having heard the question from the wise men Herod gathered together his own band of wise men – the chief priests and the scribes.    He asked them not where the king of the Jews was to be born but where the Messiah was to be born.  This shift in language indicates that Herod understood that the men from the East were not just talking about Herod’s successor as client-king but about the one who was anointed by God to save his people.

Herod’s wise men did not consult the stars but the scriptures and the prophets and they confirmed that the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem.

What was Herod’s reaction to this news?  Interestingly he could have sent either his troops or his own wise men to go and discover the messiah for themselves.  But he doesn’t do this.  Why not?  Perhaps he is afraid that if his chief priests go and find the messiah that they will turn against him and his rule will be undermined.

Instead, he secretly summoned the wise men and told them to go to Bethlehem.  He said:

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.”

There is that word homage again.  However, on Herod’s lips and in the context of his fear it rings hollow.

The wise men set out from Jerusalem towards Bethlehem and then, once again, they see the star.  When they see it stop over the right place we are told that they were ‘overwhelmed with joy.

The wise men reacted with faith at the rising of the star and with joy when it reaches it’s goal.  How different to the fear and weasel words of Herod.

The wise men enter the house, note that Matthew does not talk about a manger, and they see the child, not the baby, Jesus with his mother Mary.  There is no Joseph and no farm animals in this account, just Jesus and Mary.  What is the first thing the wise men do?  Of course, they knelt down and paid him homage.  This was the king of the Jews, the Messiah, whose star had risen in the East, and who they recognised, yes, through their actions and their gifts, to be king and God and one destined to die for his people. 

Having paid homage they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and they returned home another way.  Although today’s reading ends there, we know that the story did not end there.  When Herod learned that the wise men had pulled a fast one on him and not retuned to Jerusalem with the news about where to find Jesus he was infuriated and he ordered that all the infants of two years and under in Bethlehem be killed.  But he missed killing Jesus as his family had been warned to take him down to Egypt.  This may well put us in mind of the story of Moses and Pharaoh who also ordered the killing of children.  This is not a part of the Christmas story we see on cards or stamps but it is an important part of the story nonetheless.

So we have the same Good News – the Messiah has been born in Bethlehem.  But we have very different reactions.  The wise men have the faith to follow the star, they react with joy and they pay him homage.  Herod’s reaction is not faith but fear and not joy but fury.  Jesus is a king who came to die for his people whereas Herod was a king who ruled by killing his people. 

This season we have all heard the Good News of Jesus Christ, we know that he is the light come into the world and that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us.  But God never removes our ability to choose how we respond to that Good News.  Do we stand in the darkness with Herod, clinging on to our false security and reacting with fear and fury to the prospect of change or do we travel in faith like the wise men and greet Jesus with joy and homage?

We all know what the answer is supposed to be to that question but I suspect that we all have something of the Herod in us – our real epiphany and homage comes when we can acknowledge that but ask God to do his best work in us anyway. 

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

Amen.

Sermon – St John the Apostle

Sermon – St John the Apostle,  27 December 2020

1 John 1   God is Light – walk in the light; John 21 vv 19b – End – Jesus’ rebuff of Peter.   John will probably outlive Peter.

  1. Introductory.   Christmas has ended.   Thankfully Christmas was not completely cancelled although it wouldn’t have been the first time.   During the period of the Cromwellian Commonwealth, 1642 to 1660, the celebration of Christmas was firmly prohibited by Parliamentary decree.   Looked at it in its historic context it was not surprising.   During many reigns, our royal families and nobility had set an example of riotous and immoral celebrations.   I said ‘Christmas has ended’ because in the popular mind Christmastide is coincident with Advent and therefore the Christmas season ends with the climax of Christmas Day.  By government decree we were originally allowed 5 days for Christmas, ending today, albeit it ended up by being more like one day.  I have often wondered why in the Church calendar, Catholic and Anglican, we have a slightly strange grouping of major festival days, immediately following Christmas, namely St Stephen’s Day on the 26th December, St John’s Day, as today, on the 27th December, and then on 28th of December, Holy Innocents’ Day.   I suspect, albeit I can find no authority for it, that the Church in its wisdom decreed these days of obligation to ensure the masters and mistresses gave their servants a good 4-day break from work, an enjoyable holiday.   Today then we celebrate the Apostle John, the brother of James, the sons of Zebedee.   John, with good reason, is the traditionally accepted author of both the gospel in his name and the three epistles in his name, hence the readings today from I John and the Gospel of John.   Rather than focus on a particular verse or group of verses, I am going to give a broad overview of John’s Gospel and First Epistle.

John’s Gospel.      I start then with the purpose that John had in mind in writing the Gospel, stated quite explicitly in the penultimate chapter, where he writes, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book.   But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20 vv 30, 31).   Much, but by no means all, of John’s Gospel, is structured around selected signs or miracles of Jesus.  Signs point to the way ahead, as in road signs, certainly in the days before sat navs, to guide us to our destination and perhaps to tell us from where we have come, so that we don’t go round in circles.   John has selected and records six signs, which I will describe briefly:

The first miraculous sign is at a wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, where the host runs out of wine to give to his guests, and Jesus turns water into wine, one of the two physical elements of the Eucharist.   John quite explicitly states, “This is the first of his miraculous signs that Jesus performed, at Cana in Galilee and his disciples put their faith in him.” (Jn 2 v 11).

The second sign is one of the many healing miracles of Jesus.   Again, He is at Cana, when he is approached by a royal official, who begged him to come and heal his son who was seriously ill with a fever.   The son wasn’t there in Cana but more than 15 miles away in Capernaum.   I guess that the father had been at the wedding feast and knew about the water being turned into wine.   Jesus doesn’t go with the father to Capernaum, but says, “You may go, your son will live.” (Jn 4 v 49).   John records, “This was the second miraculous sign that Jesus performed.” (Jn 6 v 54).    Healing at a distance, and the Church says that in a Zoom service the elements cannot be consecrated remotely!

The third sign is the feeding of the 5000, in which the second element, the bread of the eucharist is the focus, as well as fish, which later became a Christian symbol.   John tells us, “The People saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world.’” and there were those who intended to come and make him king by force, but he withdrew. (Jn 6 vv 14, 15).   The reference to ‘The Prophet’ is almost certainly to Moses’ prophetic statement recorded in Deuteronomy, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet, like me, from among your brothers.” (Deut 18 v 15).

Immediately following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus walks on the surface of the Sea of Galilee as he goes out to join the disciples in their boat as they crossed to the other side of the Sea.  John probably reckons by now that there is no need to keep numbering the signs; his readers will have begun to get the message.

So far, we have been in the North of Palestine with an entirely sympathetic audience.   The next sign occurs in the South, in Judea, when Jesus restores the sight of a man born blind by telling him to wash in the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem (Jn 9 v 11).   Having had two cataract operations this year, I am mindful of benefit of improved sight but cannot comprehend what it must have been like for a man who had been born blind, and his healing happened without all the modern medical and surgical advances.   The miracle arouses opposition from Pharisees because Jesus was apparently breaking their strict interpretation of the Sabbath law (Jn 9 vv 14 – 16).   There were though those who challenged the Pharisees, saying, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” (Jn 9 v 16).  

The sixth sign is quite tremendous.   It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Despite Jesus’ deep friendship with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, when he hears the news of Lazarus’ illness, he deliberately delays his departure from the East side of the River Jordan, for two days, knowing that he would be performing this supreme miracle as a sign pointing to, and giving veracity to, his own resurrection.  This miracle resulted in a meeting of the chief priests and a group of Pharisees calling a meeting of the Sanhedrin.   The Pharisees said “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

  What an amazing selection of six miracles pointing to the true nature of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, who was in the beginning with God and was God, without whom nothing was made that was made, leading up to the supreme miracle of Jesus’ own resurrection and thus fulfilling John’s purpose for those who seek after truth, that “You may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may life in his name.” (Jn 20 v 31).

1 John.        My overview of 1 John will be much briefer with a focus on two words, light and love.   Just as with his Gospel, John states quite clearly the purpose of his first epistle.   In his concluding words he states“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 Jn 5 v 13).   Broadly, John’s gospel brings people to faith and his epistle gives assurance to those who have come to faith.   The theme of light is a continuance from the Gospel in which he has written “In him was life and the life was the light of men.” (Jn 1 v 4).   In our epistle reading today, John writes, “God is light;” and he invites the Christian readers to walk in that light”.   In His Gospel, John records Jesus saying to his disciples, “A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another; as I have loved you.” (Jn 13 v 34).   In his epistle he writes, ‘God is love.   Whoever lives in love, lives in God and God in him.”  (1 Jn 4 v 16).   In Greek there are three words that are translated as ‘love’ in English.  There is ‘phileo’, typified as a brotherly or sisterly love.   There is ‘eros’ from which we derive the word ‘erotic’, a more emotional love and thirdly there is ‘agape’ with the sense of a self-giving, sacrificial love.   It is this third word, agape, which is used in the two quotations that I have just made.   Our love for others is to be a sacrificial love after the example of our Lord Jesus.

Conclusion.    We come today almost to the end of a very difficult year and the prospect of anyhow a difficult start to a New Year.   If this has in some way shaken or disturbed your faith, I invite you to read John’s gospel, particularly pausing to think about the seven signs, as a means of strengthening your faith.   In this difficult year people have spoken about light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps particularly with the Covid 19 vaccination becoming available.   Let us as people of the light walk now in the light, being positive about life now.   I finish with a quotation from Winnie the Pooh: Pooh asks Piglet, ‘What day is it?’   Piglet replies, ‘Why, it’s today’, to which Pooh responds with gusto, ‘My favourite day!”

Christopher Miles

Sermon – 4th Sunday of Advent

Readings 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16-end; Luke 1:26-38

Do not be afraid

There can be no doubt that this has been a year of fear and anxiety.  We have spent most of this year following all the rules and guidelines about preventing the spread of Covid, quite rightly so, but there is no doubt that the virus has caused many people not just to be cautious but to be afraid.  I have spoken to those who have spent so long shielding that the thought of venturing out and interacting with others on any level is a source of genuine concern. 

Now, fear can serve a positive purpose.  Bringing my children up I wanted them to have a healthy fear of playing with fire or getting into stranger’s cars. 

A healthy fear can keep us safe – it can stop us from getting burnt – but an unhealthy fear can hold us back – it can stop us from getting warm at all. 

So, I want to pose a very simple question this morning: Apart from Covid, what is it that you fear? 

And the supplementary question: How is that fear holding you back?

Because, we should make no mistake about it; we live in a society which thrives on our fear, and, in my view, much of that fear is unhealthy and cripples us as individuals and prevents us from fully reflecting the image and purpose of God in our lives.

What do I mean when I say we live in a society which thrives on our fear?

On a national level we are taught to live in fear of other nations, sometimes with more justification than others. For most of my younger life we lived in fear of the Soviet Union, to the extent that I remember my parents looking at brochures for nuclear shelters to go in the garden. That cold war fear between East and West saw hundreds of billions spent on defence whilst children in the third world starved.

Since 2001 we have come to fear militant Islam and have spent billions in campaigns in the Middle East with varying degrees of success.

In recent years I think we have been led to start fearing immigrants once again.  When poor and desperate souls wash up on the beaches of this very county in inflatable boats at least half of the media and the internet would have us believe that they have come to destroy our way of life – rather ignoring the fact that their way of life has often been destroyed first. 

The advertising industry is almost wholly based on making us fearful about what will happen if we do not buy their products. As parents we are taught to fear that unless we buy the right things for our children that they, and by extension we, will be failures and social outcasts.

And in many ways English culture makes us fearful – afraid that if we say the wrong thing to the wrong person using the wrong pronunciation that we will be adversely judged. Of course, the biggest fear for all English people is that of being embarrassed and when you are English there are simply so many ways in which one can be embarrassed!

What is one of the worst social faux pas that an English person can commit in polite society?  Talking about faith.  There is a cartoon doing the rounds which basically says that the best way to get a seat and plenty of space on public transport is to wear a T-shirt saying: “Let’s talk about Jesus.”  Can clear a bus in seconds.  But when we talk about the growth and life of the church we always need to ask the question, when did I last say anything about my faith to a non-Christian?

Fear holds us back.

Because of fear, we become increasingly curtailed in our thoughts and actions in both the public and private sphere.

We are not alone in that and many cultures have very strict rules about acceptable behaviour and some have very strict punishments for deviation which go well beyond English embarrassment. In the Jewish culture of 2000 years ago the punishment for adultery or having a child outside marriage was death by stoning – we know that Jesus encountered and saved a woman on the verge of being stoned for adultery.

But when the Angel Gabriel appeared to a young Mary he told her that God’s plan for her was to bear a child out of wedlock and not even by her betrothed. The consequences for Mary could have been huge – she was stepping well outside the bounds of acceptable behaviour. But when Gabriel appeared to Mary he also said something else:

Do not be afraid.”

I think that he was saying not only that Mary should not be afraid of the fact that an Angel had appeared in her room unannounced, although that must have been quite terrifying, but also not to be afraid of what God was calling her to do. God, through his messenger, was telling Mary to put her fears aside and to trust him and his plans for her and the world through her.

It is important to re-iterate, as I am always keen to avoid schmaltz and platitudes, that trusting God and his plans does not mean an easy ride.  Mary’s ‘yes’ made her into the bearer of God, it gave her the joy of the Magnificat, the wonder of the presentation at the Temple and the mystery of bringing up the child Jesus who  lingered at the Temple as a boy to teach the rabbis, but it also gave her the pain of journeying to Bethlehem and giving birth in less than ideal circumstances, it gave her the fear of fleeing to Egypt as a refugee from Herod’s killing spree and it gave her the pain of being at the foot of the cross.  Saying yes to God means finding our deepest joy in playing our part in his plan for us and for the world, but it does not mean a future free of pain or challenge.  That is not how God works.

But what if Mary had been overwhelmed by fear of the Angel or fear of her calling or fear of its consequences? I believe that God did not take away Mary’s free will and she could have allowed her fear to make her say no. How would God have worked out his plan for the world otherwise? Of course, we don’t know but if Mary had let fear rule the day I suspect that we would not know of her or Joseph or even the man Jesus at all.

But Mary said ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’

This was not an act of weakness but a choice of great courage and strength, and one that changed the world forever.

Mary became the bearer of God, in Greek, the Theotokos.  In our first reading we heard an exchange about the dwelling place of God.  This was before the Temple had been built in Jerusalem and the presence of God dwelt in the ark of the covenant and moved around with his people.  If we believe that Jesus is also God then, in a very real way, by bearing him in her womb Mary became a new ark of a new covenant. Many people in the Protestant tradition are keen to downplay the role of Mary, at least outside school nativity plays, but the Angel told Mary that God ‘highly favoured’ her.  If God highly favoured Mary and choose her not only to bear him into the world but to nurture Jesus and to stick with him from the first to the last and beyond then who are we to say otherwise? 

A fearful ‘no’ is a dead end. A putting aside of fear and saying ‘yes’ to God prepares the way of the Lord into the world. In addition to Mary, many of the stories in the bible, and many of the saints’ lives throughout the history of the church, are the stories of those who put aside their fears and said yes to God despite the cost. It is only when we say yes to God despite our fear that the Kingdom of God, in us and in the world, can grow, because it will never be forced upon us.

What is God calling you to, how is he calling you to express, develop and live out your faith in this world? And what is it that you are afraid of and how is your fear holding you back from responding to God?

Let us truly hear the message of the angels to not be afraid and, like Mary, to let our yes to God bring forth Christ into the world.

Amen.

Hadlow Advent Windows Trail

24 windows around Hadlow will be decorated throughout Advent with a Christmas theme. On each day of December a different window will be unveiled.

Follow the trail around Hadlow. Downloadable map here.

The windows will be lit from 4pm until 9pm. Trail maps are also available in St Mary’s Church, Hadlow Parish Council Office and some village shops.

View the windows open so far: Advent Windows Gallery

DateLocationDateLocation
114 The Forstal139 The Maltings
2Hadlow Pharmacy, High Street1415 Smithers Close
327 Maltings Close1525 Tainter Road
412 Littlefields, High Street1637 Maltings Close
5Court Cottage, Court Lane1732 The Forstal
6Court Cottage, Court Lane186 Smithers Close
7ASW, Latters House, High Street19Church Place, Church Street
8Parish Office, Old School Hall20Hadlow Bakery, The Square
9Natal House, High Street2138 Carpenters Lane
1010 Carpenters Lane22Walnut Tree Cottage, High Street
1119 Great Elms23Lyndale, Court Lane
1213 Maltings Close24St Mary’s Church

Sermon – Advent Sunday

Sermon at St Mary’s Church Hadlow
on Advent Sunday 29th November 2020

Isaiah 64 vv 1 – 9   A prayer for God to intervene
Mark 13 vv 24  – E The distress of the last days

  1. Introduction.   “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Perhaps many Christians, and others would echo that prayer of Isaiah at the beginning of our first reading, to come down and save us from this plague or as we prefer to call it in modern times, pandemic.   We long for an end to the restrictions associated with Covid19, especially having just been put in Tier 3. We may be fearful of the impending effects of climate change.  As I write a robin settles in the hawthorn bush at the end of our garden, and bobs up and down in agreement.  Birds, as well as humans, are under threat. The world seems to be in turmoil.   We long for God to come and sort out our mess, to save us in every sense of that word, remembering the words of the Psalmist, “God saves both man and beast” (Ps 36 v 6).

          Jesus, in our gospel reading, warns us that cataclysmic times not only on earth, but in the heavens above, will preceed his return to earth.  

          Today we begin not only the season of Advent, but the beginning of the Church’s year.  In the Book of Common Prayer there was not so much consideration of Christ’s return, going straight from the last Sunday after Trinity to Advent Sunday. The Alternative Service Book introduced us in 1980 to the Sundays before Advent and this has been continued into Commom Worship.  We have had quite a lead in to the climax of Advent Sunday, not only on the last few Sundays but also in weekday Morning Prayer, reading right through the book of Daniel and much of Revelation.  Today we begin Common Worship Year B with a focus on Mark’s Gospel in our Sunday readings.   In our Gospel reading today Jesus warns us to be prepared, to watch, to which Luke adds Jesus saying, ‘and pray’ (Lk 21 v 36).

2. Be prepared.           ‘Be prepared’, but for what?  As three of the evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, were  writing the their gospels, there were two events that were still in the future for them.  The first was the destruction of Jerusalem, and in particular of the Temple and the second was Jesus return to earth.  One needs to read the whole of Mark 13 to understand what Jesus is saying.   As Jesus and his disciples leave the temple, one disciple draws Jesus’ attention to the magnificence of temple stones.  You may have seen some of these huge stones in the Western Wall, where Jews today pray individually and conduct religious ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvah.  Jesus, whilst having a great respect for the temple, prophesise that the temple will be destroyed in the lifetime of many of them.  This may explain the difficult verse at the end of today’s reading, where Jesus says emphatically, “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.”  The temple was destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A. D, following a 4-year siege of Jerusalem, some 40 years after Jesus was speaking and so within a generation. However the verse is difficult because it seems to refer to his Second Coming, as this preceeds it in today’s reading.  I would like to think that Jesus is saying,  “I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have been generated.”  I am told that neither the Aramaic nor the Greek texts support such a translation.   The Greek word for generation is ‘genea’, which actually can be translated ‘age’.   It could well be that Jesus is saying of the destruction of the temple that it will happen within a generation, but his coming will happen at the end of the age.    There is a link between the two, for the destruction of the temple is symbolic of the end of the Old Covenant and Jesus’ return will be the climatic end, the full accomplishment, of the New Covenant.    It is of course Jesus’ return for which we must ‘Be prepared’, to use the motto of the Scouts, or to ‘Watch and pray’ to use Jesus’ words.  

3. Signs.            ‘Watch’ for what? Jesus gives us the parable of the fig tree.  He tells us to watch out for the leaves coming, because soon the young figs that have over- wintered as little lumps, no bigger than my little finger nail, will start growing, then in summer to develop into full-grown ripe figs.  Last Autumn I cut down our fig tree, as in 19 years it produced no more than about 5 edible figs.  What though are the signs of fulfilment that we should be watching out for?   As I mentioned earlier, in weekday Morning Prayer in the pre-Advent season we have been reading through the books of Daniel and Revelation.   Not easy books to read and I am wary of trying to select from them precise signs of the coming fulfilment of  the Kingdom of God at the return of Christ.  I will just point up two signs from Jesus’ own words in the gospel accounts of the end of the age.

Firstly, Luke records Jesus as saying, “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Lk 21 v 24).   This time, I suggest, clearly began with the sack of Jerusalem in 70 A. D.  From that time forward Jerusalem was under Gentile control right through to the 20th Century, when in 1919, the UK was given a League of Nations mandate to establish in Palestine a homeland for the Jews, with finally Israel becoming an independent state in 1948.

Secondly Jesus says, as recorded by Mark, “First the Gospel must be preached to all nations.” (Mk 13 v 10).   You may say, hasn’t this now happened?  I think there is not a country without Christians.  Perhaps North Korea is the only country without an established Church, but the Gospel has been preached there.  Let me though just amplify this a little from the book of Revelation.  John says, “After this (this refers to the 12 tribes of Israel), I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” (Rev 7 v 9).  Several chapters on, John says, “I saw an angel flying in mid-air, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth – to every nation, tribe, language and people.” (Rev 14 v 6 ).  In Mission Aviation Fellowship’s book, ‘Above and Beyond’, in the final section, entitled ‘To the end of the age’ it states, “ According to the Joshua Project, today over 40% of the world remains unreached with the Gospel, and our teams remain committed to going above and beyond to make sure those living in extreme isolation are given the best chance to thrive in the fullness of Christ.”   So this second sign may take another 100 years to be fulfilled.  Very appropriately the book concludes by saying, “It is our hope that you will join us in the Great Commisssion, knowing that our Heavenly Father will always be with us, to the end of the age.”

4. Prayer.        Finally, I will take up the point made by Jesus as recorded in Luke’s gospel, that we should not only watch but pray.  When we talk of prayer, we so often think of asking God to do something for us or for other people.  There is nothing wrong with that. I began with Isaiah’s prayer, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down”.  Let us though put a stronger emphasis on prayer as aligning ourselves with the will of God.  We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Your will be done on earth as in heaven, your kingdom come.’  The kingdom of God will not come in all its fulness by us trying to twist God’s arm, praying for him to hurry up, but rather by us seeking his guidance, being open to the Spirit, in His prompting about the little things of life, as well as discernibg the way forward in the big decisions of education, career and life partnerships.

5. Conclusion. In conclusion, Jesus warned us that the end of the age would not be an easy time.  We are still passing through the the restrictions, the heartache and the myriad impacts of the coronavirus, Covid 19.   As the writer of a recent article in the Church Times, wrote (Voice from out of the rubble by Anna Carter Florence, Church Times 20th November 2020 p15) “We can choose to walk through the pandemic, dragging the carcases of our predjudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us.   Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world and ready to fight for it.”  Let us go into this Advent season, this new year of the Church, trusting in Our Lord Jesus Christ, in hope of a wonderful future.   I conclude with the final verse of Stuart Kine’s hymn, ‘How great thou art’.

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!
Then shall I bow in humble adoration
And there proclaim, my God how great Thou art.

Christopher Miles

Sermon – Christ the King

22 November 2020

Today is the 22nd November which means that Christmas Day is only just over a month away. Given our current uncertain and parlous state I expect that many of us are thinking about Christmas with varying degrees of joy and apprehension.

But, as I alluded to last week, although Christmas is not far away chronologically there are still two important Church seasons to come first.  One is Advent which starts next week, and Advent, like Lent, should be season of prayerfully waiting and preparing ourselves to remember Jesus’ birth into the world.   Sadly, it almost goes without saying that most of the world tramples over the true purpose of Advent and are so bored with Christmas by the time it actually arrives that they chuck out the tree on Boxing Day.  It should not be so with us.  Regardless of how locked down we are in December let us keep Advent properly this year.

But there is another season to complete before Advent, and that happens today. 

Although it is easy to miss it because of special events such as Remembrance Sunday, for the past few weeks we have been travelling together through the Kingdom season and we have been listening to and thinking about Matthew’s parables concerning watchfulness, patience and using our God-given gifts to best effect so that we shall not only be ready to greet the master when he returns but so that we shall be ready to give a good account of the time and talents that have been entrusted to us.

And today we reach the end of that particular journey as we come to the feast of Christ the King and we see Jesus not as a baby in a manger, nor as a preacher nor even as a resurrected man but as a King sitting on a throne in heavenly glory. But not only as king of a renewed creation but also as the judge of us all.

Now I accept entirely that this is an image of Jesus and an aspect of Christianity that does not feature too highly in our church or our society at present.  After all we live in a post-modern world in which all values are relative, no values are absolute and therefore no one can be judged one way or the other. On Facebook I saw a story about a man of 45, i.e. 7 years younger than me, who had just become a great-grandfather. You heard that right – a great-grandfather – his grandchild had themselves just become a parent at the age of 12. I made some quite innocuous comment about this and one of my vicar friends chimed in and said that I was being too judgemental.

In a society which has only a constitutional monarch it is hardly conceivable to think about judgement being handed down by an absolute monarch and, therefore, the image of Christ returning as King and Judge can be side-lined either as medievalism or as belonging only at the crankier ends of the church.

But in my view to side-line Christ as King and Judge does our faith a grave injury for at least 3 reasons:

Firstly it ignores the fact that this image is not merely the product of a few random verses of the bible that have been leapt upon by the nutty brigade – rather it is a central tenet of our faith which, as I said last week, we proclaim each week in the Nicene Creed and shall do so again in a moment.

Secondly to ignore Christ as King is to take away the end of the Christian story – admittedly the end of the story does not always make comfortable reading, and I will come back to that in a moment, but to ignore the end because it makes us uncomfortable is surely the ultimate wimping out not to mention a betrayal of our baptismal calling to be transformed by our communion with Christ; and

Thirdly, but in many ways most importantly, to ignore the whole concept of judgement is to let ourselves off the hook – if we buy into the concept of Jesus as no more than a spiritual indulgent uncle who will simply usher us into the presence of God regardless of how we have lived then what possible incentive do we have to change from what we are to what we are called to be?

Without judgement what is the point either of repentance or transformation?  Yes, God accepts us all as we are, but he does not want to leave us where we are.  Rather we are called into God’s presence precisely in order that we might slough off our sin, be changed into his likeness and do the things he would have us do.

Gosh, I have mentioned the words sin and judgement in the same sermon. If I disappear during the week you will know that I have been taken to a CofE political re-education camp – please send bread and wine!

So on what basis does the returning Christ the King judge us – how does he separate the sheep from the goats – those who belong to his flock and have heard his voice and those who have not?

In today’s gospel reading the people are judged and sorted using one simple criteria – the extent to which they have loved and cared for the poor and disadvantaged in society.  Have they fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick, visited those in prison?  Christ is clear – those who have done those things for the least in society have done them directly for him and they will be rewarded with eternal life.  Whereas those who have ignored the needs of the outcast have effectively ignored Christ and he will ignore them for eternity.

What is especially interesting about this basis for judgement are all the things that are not included, but to which we often ascribe such importance – the debates about sexual orientation with which the church ties itself up in knots about would make you think that it is a primary issue directly related to salvation and yet it receives no mention here at all. There is no mention here of denomination or even religion, no mention of worship style or belief about particular issues.  There is certainly no mention here that we are saved on the basis of who we are against which is how many Christians sadly seem to treat their faith.

The sole basis for Jesus’ judgement here is the extent to which we love others and how we demonstrate that love in practical action – that is the salvation issue – not what we believe in our heads or profess with our mouths but what we do with our hands for those most in need.

The more theologically minded amongst you may now be thinking that this all sounds a bit like salvation by works rather than by faith.  Surely, you may say, if we have faith in Christ then we don’t need to do any good works such as looking after the poor and needy in order to be saved.   The answer is that faith in Christ is in many ways a prerequisite for being part of this story but if that faith does not lead to the fruits of love for others then to what extent was faith ever more than skin deep?  As St James, the brother of Jesus, said in the second chapter of his letter: “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” and as St Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13: “…if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

Our love of God, our faith if you will, is one half of the equation and it is our desire to worship and encounter God that brings us here on a Sunday.  But our love of others, especially the poor and needy and those most unlike ourselves, is the other half of the same equation and it is that love which should empower and motivate us to serve Christ in those around us when we are not here.

I know that as individuals and as a church there is lots of good charitable work going on here.  We have certainly sought to feed the hungry locally with our foodbank here, our support of the Paddock Wood foodbank and supporting the needy internationally with our support of MAF, the Delhi Brotherhood and others. 

But I wonder whether we sometimes think of such charitable work as merely an optional extra to our faith – a nice thing to do if can afford it and if we have the time.  Is our charitable giving, not to mention our charitable thinking, the first thing to go when pushed?

Today we are reminded, as boldly as it could be put, that our charity for others is not an optional extra but is a primary salvation issue and the basis on which we shall all be judged.   If we believe that Jesus was born into the world as a baby and are happy to celebrate that next month, then we must also believe that Jesus will return to the world as our King and Judge and we shall face him and he shall ask – ‘did you feed me, did you clothe me, did you give me water?

What is your answer?  What is our answer?

AMEN.

Paul White

Sermon – 2nd Sunday before Advent

15 November 2020 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Matthew 25:14-30

I don’t know whether you have ever seen it but there is a T-Shirt available which expresses in a very succinct way the message that it is possible to take from this morning’s readings – the T-shirt says: Look busy – Jesus is coming,! 

Now, of course, that slogan is meant as a joke but it contains both an important truth about our faith as well as a significant misunderstanding.

The important truth is that God, in the person of Jesus, is coming, and that with Jesus comes judgement – especially judgement about how we have lived our lives in response to the Gospel – and that judgement has consequences that last for an eternity.

In this post-modern era in which all values are relative and no values are absolute the image of Jesus as judge is not one that seems to receive much prominence or even much credence in today’s church.  And, if I am being brutally honest with myself, that image is not one that features at the forefront of my theology on a day to day basis.

However the concept of Jesus returning to judge the world is not limited to just a few passages of the bible and of interest only to the hellfire and brimstone brigade – it is, in fact, one of the central tenets of our faith and one that we repeat each week in the words of the Nicene Creed:

“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”

Now if you are told that someone is coming to see you it is not unnatural to ask when?   If Vivienne and I have someone coming over for dinner, which we don’t anymore for obvious reaons, we like to know when they are coming firstly so we can have some food ready and secondly so that we can make the place look a bit respectable.

So, if Jesus is coming back, when is it going to happen?  That was a question that exercised the early Church a great deal as the first disciples believed that it would be during their lifetimes and when that didn’t happen the church had to work out what it meant to be a church-in-waiting, a church that exists between the first coming of Christ that we will be celebrating at Christmas and the paruosia or the return of Christ.  This led to the two main answers that we saw in today’s readings and which also appear elsewhere in the NT:

The first answer is that it is futile to try and guess when the second coming will happen – it will happen in God’s time and, put simply, God does not work to our timetable! 

As it says in Psalm 90:4 “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.” 

Some Churches (not Anglican ones in the main) do spend an inordinate amount of time working out and then announcing the exact time and date of Christ’s return – but of course those dates pass and the followers get disillusioned and Christianity as a whole is slightly embarrassed by the whole activity.  As it said in the reading from 1 Thessalonians: “…about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”

The second answer is that because we don’t know when it will be we have to remain watchful and faithful at all times and that we will be judged at least in part on extent to which we have continued the work that has been entrusted to us.

Importantly we should also not lose sight of the fact that whether or not Christ returns to judge the world during our physical lifetimes is actually of supreme unimportance – because even if that does not happen for another 100,000 or 1,000,000 years as far as each of us are concerned we will experience the moment of judgement after our own death and, of course, like the return of Christ the moment of death is likely to come as a thief in the night without making an appointment.  As it says in Psalm 90:12:  “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

But what are we to do whilst waiting for the day we meet Christ, whenever that will be?  Well, whilst parables should always be handled with care, perhaps we are given some parabolic hints in the gospel reading this morning.  As we heard the owner of the three slaves was going away on a long journey but he knew that he will be coming back and he wanted his wealth to increase whilst he was gone – so he gave some money to each of the three for them to invest and grow.  Whilst these men are slaves they are not the menial labourers that we may associate with that word but, rather, they are obviously highly trusted stewards as the sums involved are surprisingly large.  The average days wage for a labourer in Roman era Judea was 1 drachma.  100 drachma equalled 1 mina and there were 60 minas in a Talent.  This means that 1 Talent was equivalent to 6,000 days or 16 years wages for a labourer – and the most senior of the three was entrusted with 5 talents which would have been 82 years wages!     We are not quite talking A Rollover Jackpot on the National Lottery but we are still talking about very large sums of money and the slave owner wanted that money to be wisely invested while he was gone.

The first two slaves kept themselves busy and they both doubled their master’s money while he was away – we are not told exactly how long he was away for but 100% return is good in anyone’s books.  The master congratulated and rewarded the industrious slaves saying that they will have charge of even greater things and can now “enter into the joy of your master”. However, the third slave failed in the task given to him – he simply dug a hole in the ground and put 16 years of someone’s salary into it and later handed it back to his master without even receiving any interest on it.  This man was deemed a “worthless slave” and his investment fund of 1 talent was handed over to the more productive fund manager and the worthless slave was thrown out of the household into the outer darkness.

On one level the moral of this parable is easily accessible – if we use the gifts that God has entrusted to us wisely then those gifts will increase and we can offer the growth back to God and we will share in the joy of our master by entering into the kingdom of heaven; conversely if we bury and neglect our gifts out of fear or laziness then we will have no part of the kingdom as we have done nothing to increase the kingdom.

Given the message of this parable it is easy to see where the “Jesus is Coming, Look Busy” mentality comes from and we can probably all sometimes be guilty of thinking that the more we do the more acceptable we make ourselves to God.

Of course, the point is that it is not about looking busy nor is it even about being busy for the sake of busyness.  God is not fooled by our outward appearances or by any good works that are motivated out of making ourselves look good. 

Rather God looks first and foremost at the motives in our hearts – if we live every day in genuine expectation of meeting Christ, and in the knowledge that any moment could be our last before we face judgement, then I believe that that constant contemplation of the reality of Christ in our day to day lives will transform our hearts and that purified hearts will lead, inevitably, to a transformation of our actions and motives.  Our desire to put God’s gifts to good use by loving action towards others will then become a fruit of our ongoing salvation and not a cause of our future salvation.

Unfortunately that sentiment does not fit quite so easily on a T-Shirt.

I said a moment ago that we need to treat the parables with some caution as they are not meant to provide straightforward answers or, if they are, we may not be asking the right questions.  It is easy, if we are not careful, to form the impression that the return of Jesus is coming at an unexpected time in order to catch us out in order to cast us out.  I don’t think that God wants to jump-scare us.  I believe that God’s greatest desire is for us all to enter into his glory and that is why we are told be diligent and vigilant. 

As it says in the 1 Thessalonians reading:

“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.  He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”

Amen.

Paul White

Hadlow Advent Windows

Do you have a window that could help light up Hadlow this December?

PressReader - Country Living (UK): 2017-12-01 - LIGHTING UP THE LANES

We are looking for homes to take part in an Advent calendar with a difference.

We need up to 24 windows in the village that can each be seen from the street, decorated with a scene on a Christmas theme. On each day a new window will be revealed – just like an Advent calendar.

Get the family involved! We want to make this a real community effort.

For more information or if you are interested in taking part, please contact Janice Massy or email: hadlowadventwindows@gmail.com

Advent Windows 2017

All Souls – Remembering Those We Loved

Monday 2 November

All Souls Day is when the church traditionally remembers all the dear departed.  In recent years we have celebrated a Memorial Service in the Spring, not least because the imagery of remembering our loved ones in the Springtime always feels more uplifting than doing so as the nights draw in.

However, it was not possible to hold that service last Spring and it would be a shame to miss it entirely this year.  We also don’t know what will be allowed next Spring!  

We are therefore intending to celebrate a Requiem Mass for All Souls at 12 Noon on Monday 2 November at the main altar in St Mary’s.  The Eventbrite link for this service is:

https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/requiem-mass-for-all-souls-tickets-126113018433

40 tickets have been allocated for this service, but it will not possible for everyone to be in the choir stalls so it will be necessary for people to exercise discretion and normal social distancing.

During the service the names of everyone to be remembered will be read out as part of the intercessions.  

If there is anyone you would like us to remember, please either email Rev’d Paul at pauljohnwhite@gmail.com or Janice at the office email address: office@stmaryshadlow.org.uk . We are happy to remember anyone you would like, regardless of how long ago. We are also happy to remember them whether or not you are able to come to the service.