Category Archives: Sermons

Sermon – Trinity 6

Trinity 6 – A prophet beheaded

Sunday 11 July 2021

Readings: Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29

There was once a great and united kingdom.  However, as its glory days passed and its power waned it was divided into ever smaller constituent parts, each with its own government.  The part of the kingdom which controlled the capital city was ruled by a quixotic man who was married to a strong woman who controlled his actions from behind the scenes.  The court of this leader was morally bankrupt but when people of faith dared to ‘interfere in politics’ by questioning the dubious moral choices of those at the top then he could be cruel and merciless.  

I am, of course, talking about Israel at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist and Herod Antipas.  

At the beginning of our gospel passage news has reached Herod’s ears that a man called Jesus is going about performing miracles and healings and everyone is wondering who this Jesus is:

“Some were saying, John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead…But others said ‘it is Elijah’ and others said ‘It is a prophet like one of the prophets of old.’  But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

These are the words of a guilty conscience.  Herod knows that he killed an innocent, holy and righteous man and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead.  Fans of Shakespeare may be reminded of Macbeth being haunted by the ghost of Banquo.

As we know, John the Baptist was a fierce preacher and proponent of a return to holy and clean living.  He saw Jewish society being corrupted.  Thinking about our imagery from the prophet Amos this morning, John the Baptist was holding a plumb line, or perhaps a spirit level, up to the society of his time and found that it had gone wonky.  At the top of this part of Jewish society was the Herodian royal family, who lived more like mini-Caesars than as observant followers of God.

Herod Antipas was married to Herodias who had previously been married to his half-brother.  John the Baptist was outraged by this quasi-incestuous marriage and he voiced his indignation to Herod by saying:

It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

And indeed Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 forbids a man to have sexual intercourse with his brothers wife, although, interestingly Deut 25 commands it when his brother died without leaving a son, although that is not the case here.

Although these prophetic words are spoken to Herod Mark tells us that it is his wife Herodias who takes most offence:

“And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him.  But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”

Although Herod had John arrested and taken into custody Mark tells us that Herod may actually have done this to keep him safe from Herodias. 

Of course, John the Baptist is not the first biblical character to incur the wrath of a queen for daring to speak out about their morality – there are real echoes here of the prophet Elijah and his denunciation of Queen Jezebel in 1 Kings, and that is far from accidental as many view John as the returning Elijah, heralding the messiah.

So Herod seems to have John in protective custody but not only did he know that John was a righteous and holy man but, it seems, that Herod was intrigued, if confused, by John’s teachings:

When he heard him he was greatly perplexed,and yet he liked to listen to him.”

It would have been very easy for Mark to have portrayed all of the Herodians as being almost like cartoon villains, but here we are being told that despite all his other faults that there was something going on inside Herod which recognised that there was something special in John and wanted to protect that from harm.  I am reminded here of the way in which Pontius Pilate, and in that case also his wife, recognised the holiness of Jesus.

But despite Herod’s apparent desire to protect John an ‘opportune day’ came for Herodias.  It was Herod’s birthday party and the Herodians had a reputation for knowing how to party.

And as one would expect everyone was there – in our translation it says “the courtiers, officers and leaders of Galilee” – in another translation it sounds even grander as it says : “his lords, military commanders and magnates of Galilee.”  Anyway, you get the picture, anyone who was anyone in the ruling class in that part of the world was invited to this birthday party.

And like all good parties it really got going when the dancing girls arrived.  Although in this case, and perhaps this is indicative of the slightly strange, not to say inbred character of the royal household, the dancing girl is Herod’s own step daughter.  Actually it is even more complicated than that:  She seems to have been Herodias’ daughter by her first marriage and was therefore Herod Antipas’ niece (on her father’s side), his grandniece (on her mother’s side), and his step daughter by marriage to Herodias.  I hope that is clear.

Some commentators have been shocked at the thought that a Jewish king would have a young girl, especially one of his relatives, dancing to entertain a group of men at a party like this, but it should be fairly clear by now that the monarchy at this point had rather departed from traditional or devout Jewish values, and of course that is exactly what John was telling them off for!

In this atmosphere of general debauchery the young girl danced for the men and we are told that is ‘pleased’ Herod, so much so that he promised her half of his kingdom.  I suspect that this was not the polite sort of pleased – this was not a round of applause at the end of seeing a good play – the fact is that Herod Antipas and no doubt many of the men there were extremely pleased at this girl dancing for their pleasure and it was in that atmosphere of drunken, not to say, erotic pleasure that Herod makes his rather rash promise to give her anything she desires, up to half of his kingdom.  And it probably says something about her age that the girl has to go and ask her mother Herodias what she would like and, of course, that is the moment for Herodias to get her revenge on John the Baptist.

Herod has painted himself into a corner – he has given his word in front of all these people.  To break his word and, at the same time, to continue to spare the life of someone who had been so outspoken against his household, would have been the ultimate act of weakness, which is the last thing that any ruler can afford.

Herod was deeply grieved, but he knew he had no option and he sent for a guard to behead this holy man.  And we then have this most grisly scene, in the middle of a feast the guard returns with John’s head on a platter and he hands it first to the young girl and she hands it onto her mother.  One writer referred to this feast as the evil twin of the last supper, and it is easy to see why.

But for me, today, the tragedy of this story is not simply the execution of John.  Herod did not just put John to death – I believe that he put his own better nature to death.  Herod knew that John was a holy man and although John reminded him of his own sinfulness he liked to listen to him.  Despite Herod’s best intentions he ended up ordering John’s horrific execution – whether it was drink, misplaced lust, the desire to show off in front of others we can’t tell exactly but we do know that Herod did something that he did not really want to do – he ended up killing someone that he did not want to kill.  And where did that leave Herod?

Herod ended up being frightened of the reports of what Jesus was doing because this also reminded him of his failure to live up to a higher standard.

And I wonder how much that also applies to us?  We are attracted and intrigued and called by holiness and yet so often we fall down and fail – often perhaps because we don’t want to look silly in front of others.  Everytime we fail to live up to those high standards perhaps we feel a little bit further away from God, perhaps even a little bit afraid to hear about Jesus because that reminds us, that haunts us even, that we are not the people we really want to be, the people that God really fashioned us to be.

Well the good news is this: you are not beyond the forgiveness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus.  No matter how often you have failed or fallen down and no matter how badly you think you have sinned God has not given up on you.  The path to holiness is not a destination it is a lifetimes journey and everytime we recognise that we have fallen short of the glory of God and say sorry we move a little further along that path.  And the amazing news is this: today we are closer to God than we were yesterday and tomorrow we shall be closer still, by the grace of his Son and in the power of his Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 5

Trinity 5 – A prophet without honour

Sunday 4 July 2021

Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-5, Mark 6:1-13

On Tuesday of last week the Church celebrated the two Saints Peter and Paul together.

Bearing in mind that most Saints, even ones you have never previously heard of, get a day all to themselves it may look a bit odd that these two pillars of the church, have to share.

It looks even more odd when you realise how different they were in so many ways.  Peter was a ‘salt of the earth’ fisherman from Galilee, not very learned, often a bit impetuous.  Paul was more of a scholar, advanced in his studies of Judaism and an early persecutor of the church.  Even as apostles they did not always agree with one another.

But, despite their obvious differences in character and temperament, they did have something significant in common.  They both responded to the call of Jesus on their lives to make a difference in the world.  Peter was called by Jesus in person to leave his nets and become a fisher of men. Later he was called to be the Rock on which the church would be built. Paul was called spiritually by Jesus whilst he was on the road to Damascus, to stop being a persecutor of the church and he became its greatest evangelist.  

What I love about these two saints being celebrated together is that we are reminded that the church is not built on those who are like us and who agree with us in all things.  The church was never intended to be a club for the like-minded but is the place where the whole world is redeemed, and the whole world includes people who are different from us in all sorts of ways.

So, the sharing of this day by two great saints says loud and clear that the church can live with difference and diversity and even disagreement.  We can choose our friends but we can’t choose our family and the Church is a new family.

This time of year, often called Petertide, is also about the calling to minister within and to the church.  Peter and Paul were both called and ‘ordained’ to their different ministries and most Dioceses in the Church of England ordain their deacons and priests at this time of year, and my Facebook and Twitter feed has been full of ordination photos and memories.  

Although this ordination season is a source of joy and excitement, and it is always a privilege to respond to God’s call on your life, and to see others do so, we are also reminded that ministry can be a costly business, even for Jesus.

Last week we heard that Jesus healed a woman merely by her touching his cloak and that he brought a 12 year old girl back from death. It is clear to all those around him that Jesus is a powerful miracle worker, a prophet of God and perhaps even more than that.

And then Jesus returned to his home town of Nazareth – the place where he had grown up with his family, had been surrounded by friends and neighbours – in short the place where he had been known since being a young child.

When Jesus started preaching in the synagogue things seemed to be going well at first. We are told that the people who heard him were ‘astounded’ at both his words of wisdom and the deeds of power that he had been doing. And they wondered “Where did this man get all this?” The obvious implication being that such power and wisdom must come from a place above and beyond his humanity – that it comes from God.

But in the blink of an eye the astonishment of the people in the synagogue turned to doubt and to cynicism:

Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary – are not his brothers and sisters here with us?

The crowd allowed their knowledge of Jesus as a person – a person with a family and a history – someone they may well have seen scampering around the streets of Nazareth as a child – to destroy any possibility that there was something else, something divine, going on here. And we are told that they ‘took offence at him’.

I am reminded here of not one but two Monty Python sketches.   In the first John Cleese enters a room dressed smartly in a suit and his elderly mother and one of her elderly friends are there. He says “Good evening Mother” and the two old ladies are amazed that he can walk and talk until, eventually, he says: “Mother, I am the Secretary of State for Trade.” and that sets them off again.

And the other is, of course, from the Life of Brian when Brian’s mother says to the gathered crowd, “He is not the Messiah, he is a very naughty boy.”

And we can probably understand the human nature of what is going on. Here in Hadlow, where no one knew me as an 8 year old, I am the Vicar and many people like to imagine that Vicars drop from the sky fully formed. But when I visit friends and family I am not the Vicar, I am simply Paul and rather than getting to preach I usually struggle to get a word in edgeways.

But of course, the whole point of the incarnation is that Jesus was fully human, a person with a family and a history of growing up in Nazareth who was also fully divine. God works through real, living, breathing human beings not only in the person of Jesus but also in his church – sometimes that makes it hard to discern the divine through the human but it is a useful reminder that we need to open our eyes to the divine presence in the familiar and the material – ordinary bread and wine are transformed to divine service but so too are ordinary men and women – even those we may have seen growing up and even those we know to be fallible human beings.

So, the encounter in the synagogue that started well with the crowd being astounded with Jesus ends with him being amazed at their unbelief. 

In many ways this passage should be a comfort to those of us in ministry who may have unrealistic expectations about people liking us because we are seeking to do good or being won over by our preaching. And, indeed, when Jesus sent out the apostles he made it very clear that just as his ministry was not welcome in Nazareth so there will be times and places when the apostles are not welcome either.   It is the apostle’s responsibility to go in the name of Christ and do what they are commanded to do but if the people won’t respond then that is the people’s responsibility.   Likewise it is the prophet Ezekiel’s responsibility to go to the people, but it is up to them how they respond.

With the exception of Jesus himself, who still had to suffer the disbelief of his home crowd, all those called and ordained into the service of God including Peter and Paul and this Paul are fully human beings with pasts and with faults.  Do we choose to take offence at the humanity of the preacher or do we choose to listen to the divinity of the message?

What is that message?  God loves you and he calls you to love him and love each other, even those who are unlike you in every way.

How will you respond to that message this week?

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity 4

Trinity 4 – The Church as place of healing27th June 2021

Rev’d Christopher Miles

Readings: Lamentations 3 vv 22 – 33    God’s faithful love

Mark 5 vv 21-E     Healing of the sick woman and raising of Jairus’ daughter

  1. Introduction.         As we progress hopefully towards the end of Covid restrictions it is good to have the two positive readings today to encourage us.  The reading from Lamentations, speaking of God’s love for us and the reading from Mark’s Gospel with such positive accounts of Jesus’ ministry to those in distress.   It is good that, with these accounts in mind, we should consider both the spiritual input to the healing process and the Jesus’ ministry in relation to the specific ministry of the Church as an institution.  There are also difficult questions that I cannot even touch on, such as “Why does God inflict plagues on this worldwide level?”  Firstly a few words about the readings. 
  2. Lamentations.       The book of Lamentations follows the book of the prophet Jeremiah.  In the older, Hebrew, Jewish Bible it is simply labelled ‘Lamentations’ but usually attributed to Jeremiah, because in the 2nd Century Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, it is entitled ‘The lamentations of Jeremiah’ and opens with the introductory words, ‘And it came to pass, after Israel was taken captive and Jerusalem was made desolate, that Jeremias sat weeping with this lamentation over Jerusalem and said’.   Much of the book is the author questioning why God seems to have deserted his people and brought this terrible desolation on Israel and especially on the capital city, Jerusalem.  So, its theme is appropriate to our current national and global situation.  It is good that within that context Jeremiah can come in with such a strong positive note as we had in our first reading this morning, beginning, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end (3 v 22).”   There is one verse that seems a bit difficult and calls for comment.  V 27 reads, “It is good for one to bear the yoke in youth”, in otherwards to experience some hardship when young.  When I was young, I experienced all the usual childhood diseases, namely mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, measles and German measles.  Perhaps that has given me some immunity later in life.  In a wider sense I think that this is what Jeremiah is saying.
  3. Mark’s Gospel.     Now let us turn to Mark’s Gospel.  What a wretched time the sick woman had had.  She had suffered a great deal under many doctors.  Medicine has developed a long way in the last 2000 years, but still does not have all the answers.   It is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate the woman’s dilemma.  She was aware of Jesus’ healing ministry, yet for a woman in public to approach a man, other than of her own family, was a ‘No, no!’ and certainly not to touch him in any way, yet she had both a strong belief that Jesus could heal her, that he had healing power, and that healing power needed to be transmitted physically.  Her scheme was a cunning compromise, that in the crowd, she could come up, perhaps from behind and just touch his robes.  How terrified she naturally was, when Jesus called out, ‘Who touched me’.  She was in danger.  Because of her bleeding she would have been regarded as ‘unclean’ and to deliberately touch a rabbi was a serious sin.  No wonder Mark records that reluctantly and trembling with fear the woman admits to what she had done.  Far from condemning her, he responds, “Daughter your faith has healed you.  Go in peace and be freed from your sufferings.”  An attitude towards women that we are only now 2000 years later, catching up with!

Mark then goes on to narrate the account of the raising of Jairus’ daughter.  These two accounts occur in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke.  One may consider the event an equivalent of the raising of Lazarus in John’s gospel.  Jesus’ strict instruction to Jairus, his wife and the three disciples, who had accompanied him, not to tell anyone about the event may seem surprising.  You may feel that he had tried to provide a cover for the situation by saying “The girl is not dead but sleeping”.  Matthew tells us, “News of this spread through all that region.” (9 v 26).   Jesus knew though that such a dramatic miracle would arouse the concern and even wrath of national leaders.  His instruction is in contrast to that in the previous chapter where he tells the healed demoniac, Legion, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” (5 v 19).  On that occasion He was in the tetrarchy of Philip on the East side of the Sea of Galilee, well away from national leaders, whereas in today’s events he has returned to Galilee on the W side of the lake.  Albeit not in Judah, he was nearer to Jerusalem and in an area of Palestine of greater concern to the national leaders. 

  • Implication of Jesus’ healing miracles.            It seems to me that there are three possible responses to today’s Gospel and Jesus’ healing miracles generally:
  • Firstly, some Christians might regard the healing miracles as unique to Jesus, as evidence that he was God’s chosen Messiah, or Christ, to use the Greek term.
  • Secondly some Christians might regard prayer and healing as a phenomenon of the early Church, a ministry of the chosen apostles to give the Church a kick start but not applicable today.
  • Thirdly others might say that with the development of modern medicine, spiritual healing has no place these days.

To the first group, regarding non-medical healing as solely proof of Jesus Messiahship, I would say that Jesus sent out the 12 disciples and then 72 disciples telling them to preach this message, “The kingdom of heaven is near. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons” (Mtt. 10 vv 7, 8). Then, when he sends out 72 disciples, he tells them, “To heal the sick and tell them that the kingdom of God is near you” (Mtt. 10 v 9).

To the second group I would point to Paul’s epistle to the Church of Corinth, where he writes of gifts of healing as one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12 v 28).

To the third group I would point to the Epistle of James, where in his final chapter (5 v 14, 15) he writes, “Is anyone of you sick?  He should call the elders of the Church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.”  Oil, probably olive oil, was used because of its healing properties. Here the physical and spiritual go hand in hand.

Healing today.       Where does this lead us as Christians today?  It seems to me that scripture and experience strongly point to a place for healing ministry in the Church today.  This ministry may be exercised in direct co-operation with established medical treatment through chaplaincy in hospitals etc.  For 5 years, early on in my retirement, I served as a part-time chaplain in the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells Health Trust, mainly at the Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells but also in Pembury Hospital and occasionally in Maidstone Hospital.   I had conversations with a great variety of patients as I went round the wards and generally, I offered to pray for the person I was visiting.  This was nearly always accepted, even in the case of a Muslim.   We had a sizeable chaplaincy team with a full-time ordained chaplain and many lay volunteers, one of whom was a doctor.  We always had at least one chaplain available, day and night.   There was one amusing incident where the doctor had been seeing a patient.  She then said to the doctor, “Now I would like to see the Chaplain”.  “Yes, I am right here” the doctor responded.   The patient had great difficulty in understanding that a doctor could also be a chaplain.    There is of course a place for healing ministry in the local church.  Clergy and lay ministers have the opportunity in visiting people at home to offer to pray with and for people.  There is of course no reason why any of us should not pray with and for friends and acquaintances.  Each Sunday we pray for the sick.  It is not appropriate, nor is there time to speak of the particular needs of individuals.  Let us though consciously pray for these people believing that God will work in their lives.  Perhaps you could remember one name and pray at home during the week for that person.   Whilst touch and physical presence can be valuable, the work of the Spirit is not confined.   Jesus healed by a remote word.  Some churches have an opportunity for specific individual prayer, perhaps in a side chapel so that people returning from receiving communion can receive prayer.  Not every local church has members with gifts of healing.  My gift is more aligned to healing of church lightning protection systems!  That must very definitely be aligned with science, and engineering!   But as shown in my stole I recognise that I exercise that gift under the hand of God.  In conclusion let us develop our belief that our risen Lord Jesus is at work through his Church to redeem, heal and renew us as we seek to serve him. 

I finish with 3 verses from Psalm 103, verses which we said at Morning Prayer on Tuesday, the day on which Jenny Hopkins was licensed as a lay minister.

“Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and forget not all his benefits;

Who forgives all your sins and heals all your infirmities.”

Sermon – Trinity 3

Faith in stormy times…

Sunday 20 June 2021

Readings: Job 38:1-11, Mark 4:35-41

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

There is nothing quite like being at sea during a storm to put the fear of God into you.

Some 20 years ago now I signed up to take part in a charity fund-raising trip, sailing an ocean-going clipper down the coast of Norway and across the North Sea back to London.

But before myself and the rest of the novice crew were let loose on the boat we had to go on a training sail for the weekend – to literally learn the ropes.

The training sail took place in the Solent between Southampton and Cowes.  The plan was that we would be sailing for 24 hours continuously in a watch system to get us used to the 5 or 6 days it would take us to get from Bergen to London.

During the day the weather was fine and all the other sailors on the Solent had a good laugh at us struggling to pull up sails, tack the boat and all the other things we had to learn how to do.  

But, as darkness fell, the other boats went home and we carried on sailing around the Isle of Wight.  

And then, out of nowhere a bit like this morning’s reading, a vicious squall came up, a force 8 wind that whipped the sea into a frenzy.

We still had the large mainsail up, which meant that the boat tipped right over, the waves were breaking over the sides and washing down the decks.

In this state we had to try and reef in the mainsail, to make it smaller, and change the foresails.

Which might sound easy but which meant leaving the relative safety of the cockpit, strapping yourself onto the jackstays, going forward into the breaking sea and struggling with complex ropes and heavy sails while the wind and waves are doing their best to knock you over.  

I don’t mind telling you that there was quite a bit of fear around while that was going on and I wonder what we would have said if Jesus had been having a bit of a doze on a cushion in the back while we were fighting for our lives, or so it felt.

Let’s remind ourselves of what the disciples, many of whom were experienced fishermen, said in Mark’s gospel:

         “Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?”

These are strong, challenging words to Jesus and you really get the sense that they come from a place of genuine fear.

In the other synoptic gospels this challenge to Jesus is somewhat toned down.  In Matthew the disciples say:

         “Lord, save us!  We’re going to drown!”

and in Luke:

         “Master, master, we’re going to drown!”

But in Mark, who is always more direct, forthright and forceful, the disciples perhaps echo our own voices in times of distress, of which we have had a few recently:

         “…don’t you care…”

They say that there are no atheists in a foxhole, as those without God may find him in times of crisis, but here it is those who are literally with God who are challenging his perceived inaction when an unexpected challenge arises.

We are first told that Jesus is asleep in the stern during the storm.  It really does look as though Jesus doesn’t care what is happening to the boat or the disciples.  But is this the reality, or is it merely the disciple’s perception of what is happening?  Is God really absent and uncaring in this situation or is he acutely aware of what is happening but waiting for the disciples to make the first move towards him?

They don’t simply make a move towards Jesus, they actually wake him up.  We aren’t told quite how they did this, but given Jesus was managing to sleep through a storm I suspect that they had to give him quite a shake to get this attention.  If you think that prayer is always a super-spiritual activity which involves lots quietness then imagine the disciples in a state of real fear having to shake Jesus awake to get his attention.  Which I suppose is an act of faith in itself, after all why bother waking someone up if you don’t think they can do something?

As Jesus wakes up the first thing he hears is their complaint: “Don’t you care?” 

I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for Jesus or the disciples at this point.

But Jesus answers the question decisively – he ‘rebukes’ the wind and the sea, and there is a dead calm.  Interestingly if you think that you want some dead calm in your life remember that we do need some wind in our sails to move our boats at all.

Having rebuked the elements, Jesus then challenges the disciples:

Why were you afraid?  Have you still no faith?”

They don’t answer this question, because they were in ‘great awe’ and spoke not to Jesus but to one another:

How can this be?  Even the wind and sea obey him!”

The disciples seem almost as scared by this action as they were of the previous inaction. 

The answer to ‘how can this be?’ is not given in today’s Gospel but is strongly hinted at in the reading from the book of Job.  And, of course, the book of Job itself is an exploration of the question of where is God when trouble strikes.  After many chapters of Job complaining to God and challenging his decisions part of God’s response is found here, although it is not always comfortable reading.  God essentially says to Job ‘who are you to question me – who laid the foundations of the earth.’  

and

‘Who shut in the sea with doors…’

“…and said ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,

and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”

The message is clear – the doubt of the disciples is on a par with the doubt of Job and the answer is the same – the God who created the sea can stop it in it’s tracks and the God we see in Job is the same God we see in the person of Jesus in the back of a boat on the sea of Galilee.

He is the God who made heaven and earth.  The God of creation has power over creation.  This is the God we have faith in and he is there all the time.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question him or shouldn’t metaphorically shake him awake in our fear.  Questioning God is a good thing if it leads us from a state of not thinking about him at all to realising that he is with us always.  But, as Job and the disciples discovered, we need to realise that God answers our questions and our prayers in his terms and not ours.  

God is not asleep to our suffering and our distress but often it is we who are asleep to God.  In seeking to shake God awake perhaps it is our own faith and prayer life that is being woken up.

Sometimes the storm passes and we return to normality, although I hope not dead calm.  And sometimes the storm does not pass but we find ourselves able to cope better with the situation.  When we have faith and perseverance amazing things can happen.

My shipmates and I not only survived that long night on the Solent but when we eventually sailed from Norway across the North Sea we had a storm then too.  Because of our experience of being challenged we found that we have been transformed from terrified novices into salty sea dogs – and rather than clinging on for dear life and wondering when God was going to make it stop we found ourselves riding the waves with joy and rejoicing in a God whose creation is bigger and more vibrant than we can possibly imagine.

Amen.

Sermon – 2nd Sunday after Trinity

St Mary’s Hadlow Sunday 13th June 2021

Readings: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17, Mark 4: 26-34

May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I’m sure you have all heard the saying: “Never judge a book by its cover.”

However, if you have ever been to a bookshop, ever bought a book or ever read a book you will know that this is complete nonsense.

Publishers employ artists and designers for the express purpose of selling their books to the right readership by making the covers look both attractive and appropriate to the genre.

I happen to have a couple of books with me. 

The first is by a Russian author Vasily Grossman, called Life & Fate.  It is set in the Second World War and is all about the Battle for Stalingrad.  The cover features a red and black sky, perhaps signifying blood and death, and there are some very serious and gloomy soldiers of the Red Army, who also look as though they have seen a lot of blood and death, looking out of the picture with 1000 yard stares. 

Just by looking at the cover you know that this is going to be a serious book, by a serious writer, featuring, yes, a lot of blood and death.  And, by the way, Vasily Grossman spent 1000 days fighting on the front, so he knew what he was writing about.

And then we have Utopia Avenue, by the English writer David Mitchell.  It is a novel about a band who make it big in the 1960s and the cover has lots of swirling psychedelic patterns which, if you look closely, include some vinyl records, which sends the clear message that this book is about music, about the 60s and about drugs, which is all true. 

No matter what genre of books you read publisher go to great lengths to ensure that you can judge a book by its cover.

But, of course, the saying is not really about books at all, it is about people. 

We are told that we should not be judging what a person is really like by judging their appearance. 

Which we all do all the time.  In fact psychologists tell us that we have normally made up our minds about someone within micro-seconds of meeting them, mostly because of their appearance and, if you are English, by their pronunciation. 

When I arrived as Vicar in Hadlow someone, who shall remain nameless, said to me: “I only have one question to ask you – how do you pronounce the word ‘faith’?”

When I said “Faith” with a T H they seemed satisfied.  Had I said “Faiff” with a double F, I suspect not.

No doubt there are important evolutionary reasons why we judge people so quickly based on outward appearances – if someone looks like us and sounds like us then they are probably one of our tribe, or a close relation, and they probably won’t kill us, so we can relax and let them into our circle.

Whereas if they are different we need to be wary, and we need to keep them at arms length.

But the world has moved on in many ways, and our Stone Age brains need to catch up. 

Judging others on their outward appearance, and specifically on how much like us they appear to be, is, of course, the driving force behind racism, sexism, classism and most other forms of discrimination.

But there is another reason why we should not judge other people by their outward appearance. 

And that is because God does not look at us or other people in that way. 

It does not matter how old or young we are, how fat or thin we are, how white or black we are, how rich or poor we are, how posh or common we are, God is not fooled for a minute. 

We can’t blag God with the way we pronounce ‘faith’ or by going to Eton and quoting some Latin, or even by pretending to be ever so ‘umble and Christian.  The being that created us and knew us before we knew ourselves and will know us long after we have departed this mortal coil sees past the clever design of our cover, our dust jacket, and looks at the text being written every day by our lives, and not just at the text of our words and actions but also between the lines of our thoughts and our motivations.

On one level this is a judgement issue – as St Paul says in the reading from 2 Corinthians “for all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ” and there we can only give a truthful account of who we are and how we have used our God-given time and talents.

But there is also more to it than end-of-time judgement.  It is also about living our lives as the person God made us to be and, this is important, looking at other people in that deeper way too.

As St Paul goes on to say:

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer that way.  So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new!”

I mentioned last week, and in this week’s pew news’, about how being in relationship with one another because of Jesus creates a new family.  Those who are unrelated by physical birth become brothers and sisters by the new spiritual birth of baptism.

Here St Paul takes that even further and says that because of being in Christ we have become a whole new creation – everything old has passed away and everything has become new. 

As Christians, we don’t look at Jesus merely as a carpenter from Nazareth who did and said some good things, but we see also the Son of God.  So, we no longer see him from a purely human point of view.

We already know that God does not see us from a human point of view, but sees the real us, which might be scary or it might be encouraging.  If it is very scary then I am happy to talk further.  Seriously.

We can see beyond the cover of Jesus’ humanity and God sees beneath the cover of our humanity – we’ve got that.

But how do we look at one another?

Do we use our Stone Age brain to make instant judgements about each other based on dress and colour and accent?  That may be our human nature but we know that we are called beyond that and called to be more than that – indeed, a whole new creation and a whole new family in Christ.

“From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.”

What a challenge and what an opportunity.

We are given permission to set aside the mass of prejudices that we think make us who we are, to be the new creation that we really are and to see those around us not only as brothers and sisters but as whole new creations who are loved and known by God, just as we are. 

None of us are as holy as we pretend to be but, because of Christ, all of us are holier than we could possibly imagine – and so is the person next to you and so is the person you may encounter for the first time tomorrow.

Never judge a book by its cover.

Hang on a moment, these covers appear to be the wrong way around.

Amen.

Sermon – Trinity Sunday

Sunday 30 May 2021

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

In the name of the most holy and blessed Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Last Sunday was Pentecost and, as I said then, the two Sundays of Pentecost and Trinity, taken together, force us to think more deeply about the God we worship and with whom and towards whom we travel.  

Whilst we thought about the sending of the Holy Spirit on the church last week, and whilst we are encouraged to think about the Threeness and oneness of God this week, of course, both the Holy Spirit and the Trinity should inform our thinking, our praying and our worship all 52 weeks of the year.  These should not be things which we grapple uncomfortably with for 2 weeks and then pop back in the box so that we can get back to thinking about Jesus for the rest of the year.  To be followers of Jesus is to be in relationship with the whole of God the whole of the time.

Trinity Sunday could also be known as the Sunday of Inadequate Metaphors, in which preachers try to demonstrate how something can be one and three at the same time by trying to relate it to eggs and ice and so forth.  Last year, on my first Sunday back from Sabbatical, I looked at most of those metaphors and challenged some of the heresies they contain.  I ended up dwelling on the icon of the trinity by Rublev, which remains one of the best illustrations of the concept.  However, as beautiful and meaningful as that is, even that is an abstraction.

So this year, rather than dealing in metaphors and abstractions, I simply want to look at the gospel reading and see something of Father, Son and Holy Spirit shining through the words we are given.  

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.  He came to Jesus by night…”

Despite being an establishment man, Nicodemus found himself unable to ignore the Jesus phenomena, albeit that he made his initial approach under cover of darkness.  There is something quite modern and relatable in that reluctance to be seen in public with Jesus.

But, despite it being uncool and dangerous, Nicodemus wanted to know the truth about this man Jesus.  And, despite his own position of importance he had to approach Jesus as someone willing to learn at the feet of a teacher.  His first words are:

“Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who comes from God, For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Nicodemus recognises, at the least, that Jesus is a teacher blessed by God, that he is with God, and Jesus uses that starting point for a dialogue which leads us further into who Jesus really is.

“Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

In Greek the word which means “born from above” is very similar to one which means to be “born again” and Nicodemus interprets that a bit too literally and asks Jesus how an old man can be given birth to a second time and this leads Jesus onto to explain that, of course, he does not mean a second physical birth but, rather, a new birth of the spirit:

“What is born of the flesh is flesh and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

Nicodemus asks the question that is on everyone’s lips at this point:

         “How can these things be?”

It is a simple question but the most profound.  If we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without being born from above, having a second spiritual birth, then how does this happen, what do I have to do?  

Of course, we can’t give birth to ourselves spiritually, any more than we can give birth to ourselves physically.  Our spiritual re-birth comes only from the Holy Spirit. 

I spoke to someone at length during the week who had had a dramatic and life-changing experience of being ‘born again’ through the actions of the Holy Spirit, her life had been completely transformed. But, being ‘born from above’ doesn’t have to be dramatic to be real – I wouldn’t be here without the Holy Spirit and you wouldn’t be there.

Each of our lives are already different because we seek to follow Jesus in the power of the Spirit.  But, despite being Anglicans, we can still pray continually for the awareness of and renewal by the Holy Spirit and that the fruits of the Spirit would become ever more real in our lives and in our church.  

It may no longer be Pentecost but we can still say: “Come Holy Spirit.”

It would make a great evangelistic story if Nicodemus had responded that he wanted to be born again, had received the Holy Spirit there and then and become another one of the first disciples. But the truth is sometimes a bit messier and Nicodemus does not respond to Jesus at this point and he fades into the background for a few chapters.  It should be a sobering reminder that when even Jesus himself evangelised on a one to one basis that immediate and obvious conversion were not always the result.  Although I think that Nicodemus did become a disciple of Jesus, albeit a less public one, as it was he and Joseph of Arimathea who wrapped Jesus’ body in linen following his crucifixion, when the more public disciples had gone into hiding. 

Having taught Nicodemus about the work of the Holy Spirit Jesus then spoke about the relationship between himself and God the Father:

“No one has ascended into heaven except the one descended from heaven, the Son of Man” 

And perhaps the most famous evangelistic verse of all time, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the World that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.” 

Some people may tell you that the concept of the Trinity was invented by the church a long time after the bible was written.  But today, in a space of only 17 verses, Jesus has told Nicodemus, essentially that it is not sufficient to worship God as a far-off being,

Rather, in order to enter the fullness of relationship with God that he desires for us we need to be ‘born from above’ by the power of the Holy Spirit and believe in the name of Jesus, his only Son, who was himself conceived by the Holy Spirit and blessed by the Spirt at his baptism.  

God the Father sent his Son to the world out of love and the Father and the Son send the Spirit upon us out of love.

We don’t need metaphor or abstraction today we just need to know that the whole of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, love us and want us to have eternal life by being born in the Spirit, in the name of the Son and to the Glory of the Father.

Amen.

Sermon – Pentecost Sunday

Readings: Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

May I speak this morning in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

This week is Pentecost Sunday, and next week is Trinity Sunday, and those two weeks together ought to remind us, loud and clear, that there is much more to God then we can possibly imagine.

Actually, why don’t we try that for a moment.  Close your eyes and imagine God.  

 And now come back to Earth for a moment.

Focusing our minds on God in this way is doubtless a good thing, and it may be a first step to moving us deeper into contemplative prayer, but here is the thing: whatever we imagine God is like, is wrong.  The theologian Anselm said that the God we can imagine is never the real God because, if we tried a little bit harder, we could probably imagine a greater God.  Whatever image came to mind a moment ago I am sure, if you tried again, you could imagine something bigger and older and more loving.

If we struggle to remember the name of that nice person we met yesterday or which Christmas it was that Auntie Bertha dropped the Christmas pudding, then let’s not kid ourselves that we can truly imagine the fullness of the God who spoke the whole universe into being, who upholds it from moment to moment, and who knows the beginning and end of all things.

The wholeness of God is beyond our human imaginings.  But that doesn’t matter and should not cause us any consternation, because we were not created to understand God, as if he were an equation or a text book, but to enter into a relationship of love and worship towards him.  And if you think that love needs understanding then I can tell you that I don’t understand my wife and children most of the time, but I still love them. And sometimes worship them, but not in an idolatrous sense.

God is not simply a creator who stands apart from his creation, like a watchmaker observing the cogs, but that he continually reaches out to it, and participates in it.  We see that primarily through the incarnation of Jesus but, because of the events of Pentecost we are reminded that God continues to reaches out to the world through his Holy Spirit.  

I once heard a preacher say that the Holy Spirit came into being at Pentecost, but of course that is nonsense – the church as we know it came into being at Pentecost, but the Holy Spirit had been with God and been part of God since the beginning – in Genesis 1:1 we encounter the Spirit of God hovering over the waters.  The Holy Spirit is evident throughout the Old Testament, primarily in the lives of the prophets.  But the New Testament is full of the Holy Spirit, and much of that before Pentecost.  The obvious example is the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowing’ Mary at the Annunciation but the Spirit is also present in the story of John the Baptist, with Simeon and Anna at the Temple and at the Baptism of Jesus.

Prior to his Ascension Jesus promised his followers that he would not leave them comfortless, and we heard those words of promise in our Gospel reading this morning – Jesus would send his followers an advocate.  When I was a lawyer I often acted as an advocate and, as such, one steps into the shoes of the client and speaks on their behalf, saying the things they would say if they had the knowledge and vocabulary so to do.  But the job of the advocate is not just to represent their client’s case to the court, it is also to explain to the client how the system works and what is happening.  So the advocate is not just a mouthpiece but is better understood as an interpreter – translating client speak into court speak and vice versa.

Jesus says that the ‘Spirit of Truth’ will testify on his behalf and will prove the world wrong about sin, and righteousness and judgement.  So the Spirit will stand in the shoes of Jesus and continue to speak into the world.  But the Spirit doesn’t just speak into the world – Jesus says that the Spirit will also speak what he hears and declare it to the followers of Jesus, because they are not able to bear everything now.  So, in that sense, the Advocate, the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit is representing God to the world and to the church.   But we also believe that in our baptisms each of us becomes recipients and dwelling places of the Holy Spirit and as that Spirit leads us into truth we hope also that he acts as our Advocate to God, saying what we would say if only we had the knowledge and vocabulary.

In our reading from Acts we saw the events of the first Pentecost, and we also learnt an important lesson.  God the Holy Spirit doesn’t just exist ethereally or in the abstract, rather the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the body of the church – on their own wind and flames are unintelligible and unknowable but when they land on the church and people start to speak as they hear from the spirit, then barriers are broken down and individuals become a church.  In a very real sense, if Jesus is the incarnation of God the Son then the Church is the incarnation of God the Holy Spirit.

Whilst we celebrate and remember Pentecost as the Holy Spirit giving birth to the church we should also remember that this was not a once and for all occasion.  Only a couple of weeks ago I spoke about the Pentecost of the Gentiles, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on Cornelius and his family in Joppa, I have already mentioned the work of the Holy Spirt throughout the Old and New Testament, in John’s Gospel Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on his followers even before the Ascension and we believe that the Holy Spirit continues to be poured into the church, which, of course, also does not exist ethereally or in the abstract, but only exists through each and every one of us.

The God who created the universe is not just ‘up there’ but is also in here and in each of you and, therefore, in us collectively.  As Christians we are not just called to be nice to one another but to remember that we are filled with the fullness of God.   

God is vaster than we can ever imagine, but he also looks at the world through your eyes and cares for the world through your hands, because the Holy Spirit dwells amongst us and within us.

When you imagined God a moment ago did that picture also include Jesus who took our humanity into heaven?  Did it include the Holy Spirit who fills each of us right now?

Our homework for this week, as we prepare for Trinity Sunday, is not to constrain God by the limits of our imagination but to allow the fullness of God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us enter into proper relationship with him, with ourselves and with one another.

Amen.

Sermon – 6th Sunday of Easter

Sunday 9 May 2021Easter 6

Readings: Acts 10:44-end, John 15:9-17

May I speak this morning in the Name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Next Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension, when we remember the resurrected Jesus returning to be with God the Father.

Having seen Jesus die on the cross and then having undergone both the disbelief and the joy of the resurrection the disciples, and perhaps us by extension, have become used to having Jesus around again.  But he can’t stay in the world forever – it may be interesting to imagine a world in which Jesus simply never died and never left – but that was not God’s plan for the world and for the church.  So Jesus is now getting ready to return to the Father and, perhaps more importantly, he is also getting his followers ready for a world without his physical presence. 

If you cast your minds back over the previous several weeks I hope you will recall the lengths that Jesus went to in order to demonstrate not only that he had been risen from the dead but that he was physically real.  He was neither a ghost nor a purely spiritual being – he had hands and feet and a side still bearing the wounds of the cross.  He ate and drank with the disciples both to prove his physicality but also to continue to share fellowship with them from the other side of the cross – the Last Supper was not really the last at all. 

But if the resurrected Jesus was physical then, of course, the Jesus that ascended was also physical.  Whilst we may seek to put God into a space marked ‘spiritual’ and ourselves and the world into a space marked ‘physical’ it seems to me that the incarnated, resurrected and ascended person of Jesus takes away that distinction.  

By being born into human flesh, which was created in the likeness of God and which becomes literally the image of God in Jesus, by defeating death which entered the world through disobedience and by being lifted up to the Father in the flesh we are shown time and again that God wishes to reconcile the whole of our being with him.  God came to us in Jesus so that we could be lifted back to him.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

How are the followers of Jesus to cope in the world, without Jesus being with them?

In the Gospel reading Jesus tells his disciples that they should ‘abide in his love.’  This word ‘abide’ was also in last week’s Gospel when Jesus used the image of the vine branches abiding in the vine.

We would usually abide in our abode.  Our home.  Our dwelling place.  Somewhere where we bide our time, where we want to spend our time.

Jesus is saying that his love is our home – the place where we can and should abide.

We should live in the love of Jesus.

And if we live in the love of Jesus then we know that we are living directly in the love of God the Father, because Jesus abides – lives and spends his time – in that love. 

Jesus says that if we live in his love that our joy will be complete. 

The world can be a difficult and dark place but if we feel that in May in 21st century Kent then never forget that the world has been much more difficult and dark in most other times and places.

Jesus knew that, because it literally crucified him.

But, despite that, it is possible for our joy to be complete if we make our home, our dwelling place, in the love of Jesus.

However, abiding in the love of Jesus does not, and never meant a purely private, spiritual, relationship between Jesus and individual followers.

Jesus makes it clear that the fruit we bear when we make our home in his love is that we love those around us – ‘that you love one another, as I have loved you.’

‘As I have loved you’. 

How did Jesus love?

By giving everything he had, including his life, for those that he loved. 

The love Jesus had for his disciples and the love he commands them to have for one another is never a purely spiritual love.  It is the opposite of a ‘thoughts and prayers’ love, which rarely results in thoughts, prayers and certainly not in action.  The love that Jesus has, and the love he commands us to have, is a love which finds expression in thought, word and deed.  The Good Samaritan loved the injured man by taking costly action.

So the disciples, and by extension us, learn to cope without the physical presence of Jesus here on earth by dwelling in his love and allowing that utterly spiritual but deeply real and practical love bear fruit in the world for all those around us.  We cope with the absence of Christ by making Christ present.

But Jesus knew that we needed some extra help with that and we know that in two weeks time we shall celebrate Pentecost when the Holy Spirit arrived in power to breath new life into the disciples so that they would become the church, the body of Christ on earth.  I shall keep my powder dry for that but in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we see that the Pentecost was not simply a one-off event for the very first members of the early church but that the Spirit of God comes to all those who believe. 

Homily – Maundy Thursday

Homily for Maundy Thursday 2021

Readings: 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-17, 31b-35

Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for.

When we think of The Last Supper it is difficult not to think of that depiction. 

I am sure you are right now.

Jesus and his disciples, all wearing brightly coloured and clean robes, artfully arranged along one side of a table, inside a room which looks like a palazzo, and with windows facing onto a Tuscan landscape.

The real scene, in an upper room in 1st century Jerusalem would have been, somewhat, different.  The room, less palatial, the robes more workaday and travel worn.  They probably sat on both sides of a more rustic table, without a thought to the poor artist.  The reality would have been less posed, more incarnational, more real. 

Even the title, The Last Supper, are not words that will be found in the bible or the lectionary.  Only two people present that night would have had any idea that it was a last supper and not just, well, supper.

Tonight, we celebrate not The Last Supper but Maundy Thursday, Commandment Thursday, Holy Thursday, the Thursday of Mysteries, Sheer Thursday.

A Thursday of many names and many meanings which can be understood on one level at a first reading but, as we dig deeper and seek to live those meanings out, may also sustain a lifetime’s discipleship.

There is the institution of the Eucharist itself.  The living Jesus giving us everyday items of bread and wine and making them into the body and blood of Christ in order to sustain the body of Christ which is his church.

Judas’ betrayal, with its themes of freewill and predestination which can cause all sorts of discussion at Lent courses.

Peter’s characteristic but, oh so relatable misunderstanding of Jesus and his subsequent headlong rush of enthusiasm. 

We have the commandment to love and serve one another, demonstrated by Jesus getting down from the table and washing the feet of all the disciples, including both Judas and Peter, one of whom was about to betray him to death, the other to deny knowing him and all of whom would flee at his arrest.  Jesus knew that, but still he washed their feet.

Feet.

In your mind’s eye, look again at Leonardo’s Last Supper and perhaps Google it later.  Feet may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but look under the table and there they are – some wearing ancient Birkenstocks and some looking bare. 

The painter makes those feet look as clean and fresh as the robes but, again, the reality was somewhat different.  They were probably dusty, dirty, battered and imperfect, perhaps even smelly.  Their feet were as fully human and varied and weird and wonderful as our feet. 

I know that some people are embarrassed about having their feet washed at this service, perhaps because they don’t want anyone to see their imperfections, their ingrowing toenails, their bunions, their verrucas, their athlete’s foot or, perhaps worst of all, their chipped nail varnish. 

That is the point.  We are not called to bring our perfections to Jesus for him to admire.  We are called to bring before him those bits of our lives that we would rather not be seen, not just our fungal infections but the deepest imperfections of our lives, and allow him to wash us clean. 

We don’t need to get our feet sandal-ready before we bring them to Jesus, rather we get ourselves service-ready by bringing the whole, messy, incarnational reality of our lives to him.  As my children would say, we need to get over ourselves, get over our English reserve and let God do what needs to be done to restore his image in us.

Because when we have been washed clean by Jesus, when we know ourselves to be truly and deeply cleansed by the one who took on the sins of the whole world, then we are freed to love and serve others in his name. 

Who is the Peter in your life?  Who is the Judas in your life?  Knowing what you know about those people, imagine washing their feet and seeing not their imperfections but seeing them as Jesus sees them, as he sees us. 

Tonight is Maundy Thurday and Jesus wishes to wash our feet.  Tomorrow, on Good Friday, his feet will be nailed to a cross for us and for the whole world.

Leonardo Da Vinci has a lot to answer for, by which, I mean that we shouldn’t allow his depiction of beauty make us forget the reality of the original events, because Jesus came to deal with our reality. 

But, and this is where I let the artist off the hook, when Jesus is allowed to deal with our reality then he transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary, the travel worn into the glowing, the incarnated into the transcended, the imperfect feet which we all have into the beautiful feet on the mountain of those who proclaim the good news, which is Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen. 

Sermon – Palm sunday

Sunday 28th March 2021Palm Sunday

Readings: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Mark 11:1-11

On Thursday I had the immense privilege of being invited to speak about the Christian belief in the Messiah.

One of the things that was discussed was the fact that the Jewish people do not accept Jesus as the Messiah because they still expect that the one anointed by God to save his people will be a human, rather than a divine, saviour and that the salvation he brings would be the physical conquest of oppressors and the physical restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Against that measure Jesus simply did not measure up – in purely human terms he was a disappointing Messiah, and I think that comes across strongly in today’s Gospel reading about the entry into Jerusalem.

For two or three years prior to the entry into Jerusalem Jesus had been healing and preaching and telling people about his relationship with God the Father but now there was a sense that his ministry was reaching its goal and he was riding into the City of David to achieve something great – to do what he had come to do.

But what was his goal? Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem? The crowd thought that they knew – they spread cloaks and palm branches before the colt on which he rode and they shouted:

Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!

They thought that this worker of miracles, who so obviously had God on his side, had come to Jerusalem for one purpose only – to overthrow the Roman occupiers and to re-establish the Jewish monarchy and so restore the Kingdom of Israel to its rightful place as the home of God’s chosen people. When Pilate uses the term “The King of the Jews” in the passion gospel, which we heard last week, he is not giving it the spiritual quality that we now associate with that term – he thought, and the people thought, that Jesus had come to be the earthly King of the Jews and so the crowd greeted him as a returning king and as a saviour from foreign oppression –

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!

But what did Jesus himself think he was coming to do in Jerusalem? We know from earlier readings that he had a quite different understanding of what awaited him. In Mark 8 Jesus taught about what awaited him in Jerusalem and the end of his Journey:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me Satan!” He said, “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples did not understand what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem and had in mind the things of man rather than the things of God  then it is hardly surprising that the crowds who lined the road into Jerusalem did not understand either.

The tone of the people at the City gate is one of triumph and great expectation – the crowd expected great things of this successor of King David. The entry into Jerusalem is like their favourite singer coming onto stage – the crowd are going to get what they want from this person.

And yet how quickly things change and how quickly the mood of the crowd changes.

Even before we get to the events of the arrest and death of Jesus I would suggest that, on a human level, even today’s reading ends of something of an anti-climax.

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”

Jesus had passed through Bethany already that morning, as is mentioned at the start of the reading.   Bethany lay a couple of miles outside the walls of Jerusalem and was the village where his friends the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus lived.  In order to go back to Bethany it is more than likely that Jesus and the disciples exited Jerusalem through the same gate that they had just entered it.

So Jesus had ridden into the city to great acclaim and to great human hope.  He was greeted as a returning King.  But what happened next?  Did he give a stirring speech to rally the crowd? Did he promise to kick out the Romans, depose the Herodians and restore proper Jewish rule to Israel, as the Zealots wanted?

No, he went for a visit to the Temple and, because it was getting late, Jesus and the Disciples left the city the way they had come.  They may have walked and ridden over the discarded palm branches left there by the crowd earlier.  Some of the people who had waved those branches with such hope and enthusiasm perhaps only a few hours earlier may have watched them exit the City the way they had come in.   

What must those people have thought?  Was this the promised Messiah?

Within only a few days Jesus was arrested and then taken before Pilate. I have no doubt that this arrest was in part motivated by Jesus clearing the money-changers out of the Temple and thereby threatening the money and power of the Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests. But I also suspect that the crowds who had expected Jesus to start an insurrection and throw the oppressors out of Jerusalem were disappointed in Jesus. Yes, he had overturned the money changers tables but other than that he had spent his time in Jerusalem preaching in parables, answering tricky questions meant to catch him out, praying and having supper with his friends.

This was not the sort of revolution the people wanted – they wanted a true man of action – someone prepared to kill for the cause, a true man like Barabbas.

And so when Jesus is arrested how quickly the shouts of the crowd turn from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!”

Which, of course, we know that they did and, on a human level, we know that Jesus died on the cross.

I find it interesting that other faiths are keen to deny that the death was real.  Because if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the sacrifice for our sins wasn’t real and if the death on the cross wasn’t real then the resurrection wasn’t real and without the resurrection, as St Paul tells us, then our faith is in vain.

On a purely human level Jesus did not fulfil the expectations of the Jewish people for their messiah and, also on a purely human level, Jesus was either dead on the cross and his ministry was at an end or he somehow survived a Roman execution and snuck away quietly.

Which is why our expectation and belief in Jesus as the Messiah are not founded simply in the humanity of Jesus but also in his divinity.

Because it is only as God the Son that the death on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world makes sense, it is only as God the Son does the resurrection make sense, it is only as God the Son can Jesus ascend to take his place back at the right hand of the Father and it is only as God the Son can Jesus send the Holy Spirit to us.

We do have much in common with our Sisters and Brothers in both Judaism and Islam and I look forward to continuing to learn much more about both.

But, as I did say on Thursday, it is our belief in our nature and work of Jesus as Messiah which is our prime departure point.  Jesus was not the fully human Messiah that the Jews were expecting and nor was he a prophet of God in a line of prophets ending with Mohammed.  For Christians Jesus was a fully human being who died fully on the cross but he was also fully God the Son who transformed that death into new life through the resurrection and beyond.

We are now entering into Holy Week and, like today’s readings, it is a week of contrasts and emotions. It has drama, it has tragedy and, without wishing to spoil the ending too much, this time next week we will be celebrating the greatest victory of all. It is the most important story and the most important drama in human history and, amazingly, each of us is expected to play a part in that story and we have absolute freedom to choose our role, as we have also been reflecting in the Lent course.

Are we the crowd who, because of our disappointment with our own desires continue to cry “crucify him” or are we like the soldier at the foot of the cross who recognises both the humanity and the divinity of the one who hangs in front of us and proclaim in awe and wonder: “This man is really the Son of God.”?

Amen.