Sermon – Epiphany 2

Sunday 17th January 2021

Readings: 1 Samuel 3: 1-20, John 1: 43-end

Why are we here today?

I don’t mean why are you at home on Zoom, whilst Francis, Annabelle and I are in a rather cold church, we know all about that, I mean what makes us gather as a church at all?

What, or who, calls us together?

I am going to put my neck on the line and suggest that beneath whatever surface reasons we have – friendship, upbringing, joining in with community –  I suspect that we are each drawn here for the same underlying reason.  

Whether we really know it or not I believe that everyone who is drawn towards worship, has been called by God at some time and in some way and that we are all ‘here’ in response to that call with a desire to experience something more of the God who calls us.

We are still in the season of Epiphany and the old testament, psalm and gospel readings set for this morning give us examples of different ways in which God calls his people and the way in which his people have their epiphany moment of recognising the One who calls.

The Old Testament reading for today is about God’s call to Samuel. Samuel was then a young boy working as an apprentice in the temple to Eli the priest. To our eyes this probably looks like a strange way to bring up a child but given the importance and the centrality of the Temple to Jewish life to be apprenticed to a priest in the Temple

must have been an incredibly important and sought-after position. 

A bit like being an intern at Google now.

When you read the stories about Abraham and Moses, it is possible to form the view that in ‘Old Testament’ times people were having visions and encounters with God on a daily basis.  But, interestingly we are told at the beginning of today’s reading that in those days the word of the Lord was rare, and there were not many visions. Either God had gone quiet on his people or his people had lost the ears to hear.

Either way God chose to raise up Samuel as a new prophet and we heard that God began by calling his name out loud:

Samuel”

But each time Samuel thought it was his master Eli calling and he came running into his master’s room, saying “Here I am, you called me”. So sometimes God may be speaking to us loud and clear but we simply fail to recognise it.

In verse 7 we are told that Samuel did not yet know the Lord, because the word of God had not been revealed to him. The phrase ‘word of God’ is laden with meanings – it can mean the written word of Scripture, it can mean Jesus as the living Word of God but, in this context, we should not forget that it can also mean the literal, spoken, word that Samuel was hearing for the first time.

God called Samuel in an audible way but because Samuel had never heard the word of God before he mistook it for Eli and it took the older man’s wisdom firstly to discern that it was God and secondly to tell Samuel how to respond. Actually, the first part of his advice to Samuel was “Go and lie down.”

And sometimes we need to do exactly that in order to hear God’s call – to quieten ourselves and our own thoughts and agenda.   To consciously make the space to listen out for God over the hubbub of our lives.

And when God called Samuel for final time we are told that there was not simply a voice but, in verse 10, that the Lord came and stood there and called “Samuel, Samuel.”

When God stands in your room, calling your name, that is a pretty full on, hard to avoid call.

Samuel’s response to God when he called for the final time is actually the ideal response for each of us no matter how we experience God in our lives – he says: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening”.

Those words of quiet obedience cannot help but remind us of Mary’s response to the annunciation: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. 

Although we are thinking specifically about Samuel’s experience of being called it is also interesting to reflect very briefly on what he was being called to. In verse 11 God tells Samuel that he is calling him to do something that will make the ears of everyone who hears it ‘tingle’, as he is to pronounce God’s judgement against the family of Eli, the very priest to whom he is apprenticed. Being called by God does not always lead to cucumber sandwiches – sometimes it means disturbing one’s hearers by seeking to bring them back to God’s call, and many prophets and priests and, of course, Jesus Christ himself, have paid the price for saying things which may make others squirm and disturb their sense of power and entitlement.

The calling of Philip by Jesus in John’s gospel was also a direct and unambiguous call: Jesus simply found Philip and, without preamble, said to him “Follow me”. There is no response from Philip other than immediate obedience. Although this instant response to the call of Jesus can be inspirational it can also be challenging, because it can be so different from the way that we often respond, and many scholars have tried to create a ‘backstory’ for the relationship between Jesus and Philip to explain this lack of preamble and questioning – however I was interested to see something by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship:

“This encounter is a testimony to the absolute, direct and unaccountable authority of Jesus. There is no need of any preliminaries, and no other consequence but obedience to the call. Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and to demand obedience to his word. Jesus summons us to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as the Christ, the Son of God…When we are called to follow Christ, we are summoned to an exclusive attachment to his person. The grace of his call bursts all the bonds of legalism. It is a gracious call, a gracious commandment. Christ calls; we are to follow.”

Samuel heard the call of God the Father in an audible way and that was the call that he needed to begin his prophetic ministry and Philip was called personally by God the Son, Jesus and that was the calling he needed to become a disciple. However, with one or two notable exceptions, very few people are called so directly. The psalm set for today, Psalm 139 which has always been one of my favourites, speaks of a different sort of experience of God and it is one that I suspect more of us can relate to.

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, [a] you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

This speaks not of hearing God speak audibly or even of meeting Jesus face to face but of an inescapable sense of God’s presence – of simply knowing that he is there whatever we do and wherever we go.   And we should not be surprised that a sense of God’s presence, which we may call the Holy Spirit, is the way in which most people will be aware of God in the present age because Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit on the church to be our comforter until he returns in glory. So this is by no means a second rate manner in which to experience the call of God as we worship one God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So perhaps we are gathered today because of a calling by God – whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit.

But maybe you don’t feel that you have ever encountered the call of God and you are here because your friends are here. Well, that is within the divine economy too.   Turning back briefly to the gospel reading there is another type of calling: The first thing we see Philip do as a disciple is to call Nathanael to follow Christ by saying ‘come and see’. 

Nathanael wasn’t called by Jesus personally but he was called by another disciple to come and experience something of the Jesus that he had discovered. I suspect that may be the way many of us first heard the call of God – from another disciple saying ‘come and see’ and, of course, it is a way that we, as disciples, can call others to see the Lord – ‘come and see’.  

Of course the callings of Samuel, Philip and Nathanael are not exhaustive of the way in which God calls his people – the bible is absolutely full of different ways and, I suspect, that God speaks to each of us in the way that we need. If you are bookish and quiet and prayerful then God will likely call you in quietness, if you are loud and active then God may have to speak a little louder.

So why are we here? Because God has called each of us in myriad ways to gather together around the word of God, and everyone here has responded to that call. That is an awesome thought. But God does not call us to sit still and he continues to call each of us in our different ways.

As individuals and as a church we could do a lot worse than to follow the example of Samuel and say: “Speak, LORD, for you servant is listening” and to your friends, “Come and see”.

AMEN.

Sermon – Baptism of Christ

Sunday 10th January 2021

Readings Acts 19:1-7, Mark 1:4-11

I started trying to write this sermon on Thursday morning, not knowing quite how the world would look whenever, or indeed if-ever, I finished writing it, never mind by the time we came to this morning. 

Generally speaking I try not to talk about the sermon writing process when I come to preach.  After all, when you are eating sausages and eggs, or tofu for the vegetarians, you don’t normally want to know where they have come from or how they been made.

But I don’t mind saying that this is the hardest time I have ever known to try and write.  After 10 months of the ups and downs of dealing with the covid situation, which have included isolating twice because of family members having symptoms and not being able to get tests or results quickly, this third lockdown, and the other events of the past week, has hit me quite hard.  

Why is that, I wonder, surely I should be used to it by now?

I think it is because over Christmas we had the choir back in church, the vaccines were promised and I dared to hope, for a moment, that we were on a smooth slope back to normal life.

And then, of course, like everyone else we spent the week between Christmas and New Year stuck at home unable to go and see all our family and friends, which was a bit of a downer, and then it was only on Monday of last week that the new national lockdown was imposed.

My particular struggle, with the new lockdown, was what to do about in-person worship in church.  Unlike the first lockdown 

the government did not ban communal worship and the bishops were leaving it up to individual clergy and PCCs.  You all know where we got to on that and, as I said on my round-robin email, no one gets ordained in order to ask people not to come to church so that has been a real, almost existential, issue.  I have no regrets about reaching that decision, and doing so quickly in the circumstances, but it gives me no joy to be in an empty church building once again.  I know that the true church is the living stones who are you out there, but that doesn’t make it any less empty in here.  I want nothing more than to have you living stones back here and for the place to resonate with your voices once again.

But the new lockdown has also had other personal implications such as the children being home from school, possibly for many weeks, and considerable uncertainty about Annabelle’s end of year exams.

That was Monday and Tuesday.

Wednesday morning was a good and productive time in church, not only celebrating communion, albeit into a camera on my own, but also being able to serve at least five families from the foodbank.  Although tragic that we have to do that it felt good being able to do so.  

On Wednesday evening, which for me is last night as I write this, we had the incredible images from Washington DC of the mob urged on by Trump to invade the Capitol building.  Such sights I never thought to see outside of a movie.  People wearing Nazi T-shirts and carrying confederate flags storming the home of American democracy whilst elected senators feared for their lives.  Unbelievable. 

By Thursday afternoon, things in America appear to have calmed down a little and Congress has formally certified Joe Biden as the next President, although what Trump’s next move will be is anyone’s guess.

But the new covid death figures have just been released and, as I write, it is over 1100 people dead in 24 hours and a nursing home in Crowhurst reports that it lost half of its residents to covid over the Christmas holidays.

It is tough to concentrate on writing a sermon.

There is just too much big stuff happening all the time.

But something else also happened on Thursday at 4.00 pm.

I joined a Zoom call with 55 other members of the Sodality of Mary, many of whom are from the United States, and we prayed a rosary together for the healing of that nation.

And as we prayed I was, to use C.S. Lewis’ phrase, surprised by joy.

Our two readings today have one person in common.  It is not Paul or Apollos or John the Baptist or even Jesus.

The one person, and I use the term advisedly, who appears in both the reading from the book of Acts and the Gospel of Mark is God the Holy Spirit, and does so in the context of Baptism.

In the book of Acts Paul returned to Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey, and there he spoke to 12 followers of Jesus who had been previously baptised.  It does not expressly say that they had been baptised by Apollos, who has gone off to Corinth, but that is the strong implication.  It turned out that they knew nothing about the Holy Spirit and that they had only received the ‘baptism of John’, as they put it.  So Paul baptised them again, presumably using the Trinitarian formula, and this time the Holy Spirit arrived in power and they started prophesying and speaking in tongues.  

Why did the baptism of John not work for the disciples in Ephesus?  We can only speculate but in today’s Gospel reading John the Baptist himself said that his baptism was only with water, whereas Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit.  Of course, John’s baptism worked for Jesus, but then the whole Trinity was present so John feels almost redundant in this process. 

Why did Jesus need to receive John baptism of repentance, when he was without sin?

Again, without knowing the inner mind of God we can only speculate but we know that the one who was without sin would also take on the sin of the whole world and, importantly, as Jesus was baptised with water he was also visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father announcing that this was his beloved Son.

Today we are remembering not only the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan but also the baptism of the 12 disciples in Ephesus and also, of course, our own baptisms.

And when we remember our own baptisms we are viscerally reminded that we follow where Jesus has gone before in this and in all things.  We are baptised with water and the Spirit because he was first, we share bread and wine because he commanded us to do likewise, we are resurrected because he was first and we are lifted into the life of God because of his ascension.   

But today we should especially remember that because of our baptisms, performed in the name of the Trinity, we too receive the Holy Spirit – that very same person of God who alighted on Mary, on Jesus, on the disciples in Ephesus, on the church at Pentecost and on the church throughout time.  

The Holy Spirit dwells within all the baptised, bringing forth fruits and gifts, which include not only prophecy and tongues, but also joy.  And when we make space and time for God, chiefly through prayer, so they gifts and fruits can show more and more fully in our lives.

Whilst it has undoubtedly been a difficult and sometimes shocking and sometimes depressing week I have kept praying – by myself, with others on Facebook and with my sodality priest friends.  It is only through that constant cycle of prayer and the constant exposure to the psalms and to scripture that I remain constantly exposed to God and to the work of the Holy Spirit in me.  And that is why, in the midst of it all, I can still be surprised by joy.

Remember your baptism.  Remember the Holy Spirit dwells in each of us because of our baptism.  That Holy Spirit draws us together and points us always towards Jesus who lifts us to the Father.  Pray constantly and ask the Holy Spirit to bring forth all the gifts and fruit he has in store for you.

Prepare to be surprised by joy.

Amen.

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.

Sermon – 3rd Sunday of Advent

Gaudete Sunday 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, John 1:6-8, 19-28

As you have no doubt already guessed today is slightly different from the other Sundays in Advent.  Rather than lighting a purple candle we have lit a pink, or a rose, candle and today I get to wear my fetching rose, or pink, vestments.  This represents a shifting of the mood from strictly penitential and preparational, to something lighter and, yes, more joyful. 

Today is called Gaudete Sunday, and it takes this name from the Latin introit: “Gaudete in Domino semper” – or ‘rejoice in the Lord always’.  So ‘gaudete’ means ‘rejoice’ and today is sometimes called ‘the Sunday of Joy’, which is a rather splendid name.

But, before we go too far we need to be honest.  This Sunday of Joy poses us with a serious question.  What does it mean to be joyful, to rejoice always, when life is actually pretty tough?

As we approach the end of 2020 I think it is uncontroversial to suggest that this has been an extremely hard year for most people.  Covid has cut a swathe through our country, through the world and through many pre-conceptions.  Vaccines are on the way, which is magnificent, but in this country alone around 500 people a day have been dying for some time.  Around the world 12,500 were dying daily last week and over 1.5 million have died in total.  When large numbers of people are involved there is always the temptation to de-personalise them, to deal with them as statistics and charts.  But every one of those people was a real, living, person made in the image of God and they leave behind those who mourn for them. 

In addition to those who have died or been very ill there has been a substantial shut-down of our society which has caused real damage the economy, unemployment and poverty have increased and will continue to do so for some time. Lockdown has damaged children’s’ education and social isolation has caused all sorts of mental health issues.

On top of Covid, which has affected most of the world, we are also uniquely challenged in this country by Brexit and, in Kent, we are challenged more than much of the country.  Regardless of how you voted in 2016 it is both remarkable and unsettling that we are only 2 weeks from leaving and we still don’t know what that is going to really mean for us, and it ain’t looking great. 

In addition to both Covid and Brexit it is also winter.  I flipping hate the winter.  Some people seem to like the comforts of log fires and hot chocolate but I can’t stand the dark and the cold.  There was a reason I wanted to go to Africa for my sabbatical.  Which was cancelled because of Covid, after only 10 years of waiting.  Just saying.

If you are familiar with Venn diagrams I have often thought of myself, recently, as sitting somewhere at the intersection between Covid blues, Brexit blues and winter blues.  Vivienne says that I can be a miserable sod sometimes and, I think it is fair to say, that this year and over the last few months I have often felt pretty miserable about the state of lots of things. 

Hello, my name is Paul.  Sometimes I wear pink dresses in public and sometimes I feel a bit depressed.

But today is the Sunday of Joy and what did the reading from 1 Thessalonians say?

“16 Rejoice always,”

Surely, when it says ‘always’ it must only mean when things are going well for us, when we are feeling happy, when all the external circumstances of life are just as we would want them to be.  Right?

Not quite.

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 

Wow.  Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God.

I won’t deny that this is a hard teaching for us 21st century Christians to accept.  Arabic speaking Muslims have a phrase you may have heard: “Inshallah” – this means ‘God willing’ or ‘If God wills it’ and the word Islam itself means submission to the will of God.  I would respectfully suggest that Muslims have a much more highly developed sense of accepting God’s will in their life, whatever the circumstances.

But this is not, and should not be, an alien concept to Christianity.  We even have our own Latin phrase for it, Deo Volante, and I just happen to have a framed version of that phrase which I found in a Dungeness art gallery. 

I have even stayed once in a monastery in Crawley Down called the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.

Deo Volante, God willing, the Servants of the Will of God.

How uncomfortable are we feeling right now?

Surely, as modern people living in an affluent part of a reasonably affluent country, if something is not going well for us, if circumstances are not to our liking, if we are feeling down, then there must be something that can be done about it.  We can complain to someone, we can work harder, we can take pills, we can get therapy.  Surely, we can control our circumstances and when we have adequately manipulated the world to our exact liking we can then be allowed to be happy.

But have we become so used to manipulating the circumstances of our lives to achieve our own happiness that we have stopped looking for the will of God?  The Inshallah, the Deo Volante, the Will of God which manifest themselves in our circumstances are all subjugated to our will.

How can we truly rejoice in God’s will if we spend all our time being unhappy with the circumstances that God gives us?

Perhaps we have forgotten joy in the pursuit of happiness?

Because, perhaps, happiness and joy are not the same thing, and perhaps that is the cause of our confusion, our modern malaise.

Happiness, I would suggest, is a surface emotion.  Happiness comes and goes like a wave lapping at the shore.  A bit of roast lamb may bring happiness whereas vegan hotpot may cause it to recede.  Happiness is related to our circumstances as a wave is related to the wind which passes over the surface.

But joy, I would suggest, goes much deeper than happiness.  If happiness is the ripples on the surface of the sea then joy is a deep undercurrent.  Joy is not an emotion, it is a state of being, and it is not something which changes with our brain chemistry it is given to us by God and, indeed, is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

          “19 Do not quench the Spirit.”

We definitely live in difficult, troubled and troubling times.  But, here is the thing which challenges me and should challenge you, so did Jesus.  The world in which Jesus was conceived when Mary said yes to the Holy Spirit was a dangerous place; Mary only just escaped being divorced and possibly charged with adultery because Joseph listened to the same Holy Spirit and, when he was born, Jesus only just escaped the Slaughter of the Innocents, the world in which John the Baptist was preparing the way for Jesus was a dangerous place and John lost his head and we know that the world was dangerous for Jesus as it condemned him to die on the cross.  Yet despite the abundance of danger, despite the outward circumstances of life often being less than ideal, the story of God got told because of the people who looked for the will of God in the situation they found themselves in and found their true joy in saying yes to that, regardless of the pursuit of personal happiness. 

So, on this Sunday of Joy, I think that we can learn to find joy and thence can learn to rejoice when we stop trying to bend God to our will and make Him in our likeness and start learning to look for the will of God in the world as it is, say yes to His will for our lives in this world and allow him to remake us in His image.

Rejoice always, I say to you, rejoice.

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