Sermon today: All Mouth & No Trousers?

Hello, everyone. This is just a quick post (though maybe not to read!!!) from me. Hopefully I’ll have time to post tomorrow, but there’s no promises – completing my bills for September took longer than anticipated today, so I didn’t have time for the other things I had to do, so they’ve been shunted to Monday, which means Monday is fuller than I wanted it to be!!

Anyway, I thought I’d cheat a bit by posting the sermon that I preached today. If it’s not your cup of tea, no problem. I hope that tomorrow’s (possible) post might be more your “thing”!

But, for those who might be interested, here it is.

All mouth and no trousers?

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7/ Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16/ Philippians 2:1-13/ Matthew 21:23-32

There’s a saying where I come from: “He’s all mouth and no trousers” – that is, he is someone who is very willing to voice his opinion, or say what should be done, or promise the earth, but, when it comes down to it, is less than willing to back up those opinions with action, or deliver on those promises. I suppose it’s the equivalent of saying that someone “walks the walk, but doesn’t talk the talk”.

And throughout the readings we have heard, we are given examples of people who have plenty of mouth, but not so much on the trouser front. The people of Israel had already seen God at work in their lives: he had brought Moses to them as their leader, he had led them out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea, so they could escape the pursuing army, showing the way with the pillars of cloud and fire, providing food in the wilderness…All of these things revealing the fact that God was on their side.  When everything was going their way, they were more than happy to proclaim God as their deliverer, to praise him for what he had done for them. But it seems that, as soon as there is a tiny grain of doubt, all the previous evidence of God’s providence and care was not enough for them: when faced with another challenge – the lack of water – they showed no trust in YHWH, their God, but rather started grumbling, and threatening to stone Moses, their appointed leader. “Is the Lord with us, or not?” they demanded – clearly having already decided that no, the Lord wasn’t with them.

Within the hearts of the Israelites there was a distinct lack of humility.  During their wandering in the desert, God tested the Israelites in various ways, putting them in a position where they must declare their true allegiance.  Will the people allow YHWH to be their God by trusting that he will feed and rule them.?  All through the testing the people fail again and again, by grumbling, by a lack of trust, yet God still provides. In this story too, the Israelites still did not trust God. When faced with another challenge, they didn’t hold onto what they had learned about their God, or what they had previously proclaimed, but rather looked for someone to blame for this most recent test, lighting on Moses. But then, as he pointed out, their quarrel was not with him, but with God: in not believing that God can, and will, provide for them, they are declaring that their allegiance lies elsewhere.

We see another reaction to God’s challenges illustrated in the Gospel reading: the Scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and questioned him about who gave him the authority to act as he did. This comes in the midst of Jesus’ last days – he had already entered Jerusalem as a King, welcomed by the people, he had already cleansed the Temple courts of thieves – and the chief priests were getting edgy. They wanted Jesus dealt with. They couldn’t – or didn’t want to – recognise where his authority came from, they couldn’t – or didn’t want to – see that Jesus was doing the work of God. They had seen him healing the sick, they had seen him working miracles, they had heard him preaching of forgiveness, of the end to oppression, the endless love of God but, rather like the Israelites in the wilderness, despite being shown over and over the God that is working for them, they disputed the authority behind Jesus’ actions and words. Perhaps they themselves felt uncomfortable in the face of what Jesus was saying and doing, because their reaction had not been as it should have been. They talked the talk of desiring the Kingdom of God, of caring for others, but when challenged, we can see that they did not walk that walk.

And perhaps Jesus picked up on this, as he went on to tell the story of the two sons in the vineyard – the son who initially refused to help his father, but then had a change of heart, and the other son, who agreed readily, but didn’t follow through on his promise. Which one, asks Jesus, did his Father’s will?  The first, the scribes answer – I can almost hear them thinking “Well, der – obviously the one who did the work!”

And then Jesus deals the killer blow – which are you? He challenges. And then replies, you have heard the word of God, both in the scriptures, and revealed in me, and yet – despite your fine words about following the Law – you do not repent, and truly do as God would have you do. You are like the second son, who promises much, but delivers nothing.

In their quarrelling, and demanding of answers, the Scribes and the other leaders of the Temple reveal themselves to be lacking in humility. They try to trick Jesus, but bicker among themselves about how to answer his questions without showing themselves in a bad light; in refusing to recognise the authority of God in what Jesus is doing and saying, they reveal their lack of allegiance to that God. They are not concerned with following the Word of God for any other reason than because it makes them look good.

And so, throughout the readings we see the thread of how time and again, people react to God’s challenge with a lack of humility, with a concern to look good or to find someone else to blame – but not with a real thirst to do God’s will, and bring his Kingdom about on earth.

We have been challenged in these readings, for the question that was implied in Jesus’ demand “which one of these did his father’s will?” is a question that is put to us: which are you? What do you do when faced with a challenge from God? Sitting here in Christ Church each Sunday, we say, and sing, and pray so many things. But the challenge is: what exactly do we do when we leave church and go into the world?

Are you – am I? –  like the son who says “Yes, Father, I love you and want to do as you ask” but then actually does nothing to back up his promises? Saying all the right words, but never quite following up on them.

Or maybe you haven’t said “Yes” yet? Maybe you are like the first son who has said “No, thank you, it’s not for me.” In telling how this son changed his mind, and finally decided to do as his Father asked, Jesus reminds us that the future is open for you. Like the first son, and like the prostitutes and tax collectors that Jesus referred to, the way to changing your mind and joining the workers is there. Those who work for the Kingdom are welcomed by God, whenever they accept the challenge.

Or are we like the third son? The son who says, “Yes father, of course,” and goes off, happily whistling, to labour in his father’s vineyards until the end of the day.

Hang on, I hear you say, there isn’t a third son! Well, no, not in the story that Jesus told in this situation there isn’t. But in the story that Jesus told in his life, there is. In Jesus’ life we see the Son that is described in Philippians: Jesus, the Son of God. The Son, who doesn’t consider his own status, the Son who was obedient, the Son who did his father’s will and put others before himself.

The Son who showed us the way to true humility: the humility of service. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul entreats them to show the same attitude as Christ, as he says, “each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others” For Paul, these are the actions that reveal Christ in the world. In these verses Paul outlines how this humility of service, this willingness to serve others, can have a truly restorative effect both within the Church and beyond. One commentator states “true Christian love flows from the disposition to unseat concern for self as the driving force of life and replace it with a practical concern for others”.

If we have this true humility, as revealed by Christ, and celebrated in the hymn of Philippians, then there will be true and genuine unity within the church and among believers as we work together to serve God in our community and in the world beyond. Then what a powerhouse for change could the church become. The upper echelons of the Jewish temple who came to Jesus with their challenge, weren’t really interested in doing God’s work, and in genuinely understanding Jesus, but rather in looking good in front of the people. And being so involved in bickering amongst themselves, they failed to uphold the weak and oppressed, the sinners and searchers, in their community.

Christ was willing to sacrifice himself for others, even if it meant dying; in the hymn of praise in Philippians we read “He humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross”. He calls on us to do the same: to put others first, to fight for the Kingdom here on earth.

You may know of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980. He stood up for the poor and oppressed of El Salvador, preaching, serving, working tirelessly for the rights of others. Even when he received death threats he refused to stop highlighting the injustices in his community. We may not be called to sacrifice ourselves to the extent that Romero did, but we are called on to put ourselves last, to put others first, just as Romero did, whatever the cost to ourselves might be.

Romero once said: “A church that does not provoke any crisis, preach a gospel that does not unsettle, proclaim a word of God that does not get under anyone’s skin or a word of God that does not touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed: what kind of gospel is that?”

Christ preached a gospel that unsettled, because it offered a future to the untouchables, the prostitutes, the tax collectors.  Christ proclaimed a word of God that got under peoples’ skins, because it told them -and us – that injustice and oppression were not to be tolerated, that the sin of mouthing words of love for God and neighbour but not revealing that love in action was not acceptable. And this the Gospel we are called to preach. This is the love we are called to act on.

And we can only reveal that same revolutionary love in action if we are willing to put others before ourselves, if we are willing to acknowledge that what we have is through the grace of God, to declare that our allegiance is with him, because we have seen the goodness and provision and love of God in what he has done for us. And in that humility before God and before those we serve we can answer the challenge that he sets before us.

It’s a bit scary, isn’t it? It’s a big thing.

And how many of us (and, I promise you, I am including myself in this question) are sitting here, listening, and saying “Yes, I will do it.” – but, actually, probably won’t.

And how many are sitting here, already knowing that it’s beyond us, saying “Nope. Sorry, God, I won’t.”

Wherever you are, just remember, the way is open, the future isn’t over. With God’s grace, we can always change. The future is open for all. In the story of the two sons, we know that the first had a change of heart, and, having initially refused, delighted his father by doing his will. We know too that the second son showed willing, but finally did nothing – but we don’t know if, the next day, he too apologised, changed his mind, and did as his father asked. The story is left open.

Our story is left open.

But with humility we can follow the example of the true son, the Son who emptied himself for others, who served his Father, and brought the Kingdom of God to the earth.

I have spoken of Oscar Romero, a man of the Church, who lived his life for the poor and oppressed, who served his God with humility and love. I would like to finish with a prayer written by another man of God, who worked with the poor of his time, bringing the word of God to a society where the rich amassed more wealth at the cost of those who worked below them. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote that that greed and self-interest is ‘destructive of that faith which is of the operation of God; of that hope which is full of immortality; of love of God and of our neighbour, and of every good word and work.’ He recognised that if we are only concerned about ourselves, our possessions, our self-worth then we cannot truly love God, we cannot truly serve others.

And in recognition of this, he wrote a beautiful prayer, which is part of the yearly Covenant service in Methodist churches. And for me it echoes the words of that hymn in Philippians, which reminds us what Christ did for us. This prayer reminds us of what we can do for God and for others.

It is actually a very scary prayer. I read it at my baptism, and every time I have read it since , I know that I am a bit like the second son, saying the words that his father wants to hear, but not following through. But I so want to mean them. And so, I hope that finally I may be like the first son who changes his mind, who changes direction and finally takes the road that is open to him to do what his father asks:

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing, put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,

exalted for you, or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.

Amen.

 

Advertisements

Last week’s sermon: The Good Shepherd

This is a bit of a cheat, posting my sermon, but I do like to share them. If it doesn’t float your boat then you can hang around for the next installment of the Cyclo’s trip, which I’m hoping to post tomorrow. But I know some people are interested, so here it is:

READINGS: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; John 10:1-10

Every Sunday, when I was young, my parents took my brother, my sister and I to my Nana’s home, where we would spend the day. We would go to church with her, and then have our roast dinner at midday. Nana would make scones, or potato cakes, and then we would troop back to church, where she would hand out bags of freshly made baked goods to her friends and neighbours, and I would go to Sunday School. This took place in the basement of the huge edifice that was County Road Methodist Church, and I remember that on the walls of the basement room were various pictures considered suitably edifying for young minds. There was Holbein Hunt’s “Light of the World” and there was also a rather insipid painting of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Wearing a long white gown – eminently unsuitable for life in the fields, I would think – an extremely Caucasian Jesus was holding a lamb in his arms, while other lambs and sheep pressed against his legs. It was a comforting picture – there were rolling green hills in the background, the sheep were plump and just-washed white, there were no predators lurking behind bushes, licking their lips, and dreaming of lamb chops for dinner. Jesus as the Good Shepherd. We as the lambs.

And it is this picture that is reflected, at least to a degree, in the Psalm that we read together, the Psalm that is probably best known of all. The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. What a glorious image that is, even to those of us who nothing about animal husbandry; we imagine that picture of the shepherd carrying his lambs, caring for his sheep.

The Psalm tells us of a Shepherd God, who leads his flock to green pastures and still waters, who knows exactly what they need and provides this. All the sheep need to do is to trust their shepherd, to follow his voice, because they understand that he will not lead them to harm. After wandering in the dryness of the hillside, the shepherd finds a place where his flock can rest and be nourished by the green grass. For us, as human beings, the words “he leads me beside still waters” will conjure up ideas of peacefulness and calm; in fact, in sheep terms it is much more important than this. Sheep are not great fans of rushing water: they will drink from it, but they are reluctant to do so, as they are afraid. They prefer still, or gently flowing water where they can drink, without fear, to their hearts’ content. The Shepherd knows this and he brings them to those places where they can feel safe, and take the opportunity to be refreshed.

The Psalmist goes on to say that even in the ravines that the Shepherd leads them through, the sheep can feel secure, as they know the Shepherd will protect them. Even when they cannot see him, they hear the tap-tap-tapping of his staff against the rocky path. They know that his rod, the cudgel he wears at his belt, will fend off any predators who come near. They are safe.

And we can read this Psalm, and feel comforted by the picture that it gives us of our God as a caring Shepherd: if we trust him, he leads us to places where we can be at peace, where we can be nourished; he does not confront us with things of which we are fearful, but instead brings us contentment. Like the flock following their Shepherd, we don’t necessarily need to know where we’re headed, all the details of the journey. Only that we are in the right place, right now, just where we should be. And even when we have to face problems, then we can rely on him to be there, still leading the way and protecting us. Everything is calm, everything is beautiful, everything is rosy. It is that pastoral picture of Jesus cuddling a lamb, with the washing-powder white flock surrounding him, looks of sheepy contentment on their faces.

But, as Rob said last week, it is not in these situations of comfort that we grow. He talked about times of loss and struggle as being the catalysts for knowing and learning. Learning about ourselves; learning about God. As Christians – as human beings – we get very used to being in our “comfort zone”. We do things a certain way, we believe certain things, we behave in certain manners, and when we have to step outside of this zone, we begin to feel uncomfortable, and challenged, and maybe scared. Suddenly we are being asked to do things in a different way, our belief system is being questioned, and we have to consider something we’ve never thought of before.

So far, we have pictured our sheep as obedient creatures who, trusting their Shepherd, will follow him wherever he leads, doing whatever he tells them to do, and responding to his voice. But if anyone has watched One Man and his Dog, or seen sheep being rounded up, they know that this may not always be the case. Sheep are not as dim witted as we often imagine, but – rather like us – they prefer their comforts, they prefer feeling safe to being challenged. However, the sheep can’t spend their whole lives in the sheepfold, no matter how safe the enclosure may be. There’s no food in the fold, after all. The sheep may be comfortable and safe, but they must follow the shepherd out of the fold in order to find sustenance, in order to live.

And this is where Jesus’ picture of himself as the Good Shepherd comes into play. In today’s reading, we don’t hear Jesus actually use this metaphor – that comes a few verses after those we read today – but we do hear him talking about how his flock know his voice. The shepherd of the sheep calls his own sheep by name and leads them out., says Jesus, and then he continues. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

It is while researching this sermon that I found the answer to something that has often perplexed me about this Gospel reading. I have always been a little surprised how in this passage Jesus skips between metaphors, first saying he is the gate to the sheepfold, and then a couple of verses later, refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. It has never seemed to make sense, as usually Jesus takes just one image and develops it to lead his listeners to understanding what he means. However, I discovered that , in the Middle East of Jesus’s time, the sheepfolds were not individual folds, where each shepherd kept his own flock, but rather they were communal affairs, probably built into a hillside, with stone walls protruding out, narrowing to an entranceway. Various shepherds would bring their flocks to the fold where they would all mix together as they rested for the night. Once the sheep were all in the fold, the shepherds would lie in the entranceway, acting as a gate effectively securing the sheep, and protecting them from harm, from predators and thieves. Then, in the morning, the shepherds would call and chivvy their own sheep out of the fold to find grazing for the day.

So, Jesus could refer to himself as both the gate and the Good Shepherd, because any good shepherd acted as the gate to the sheepfold. Jesus’ listeners would know this, and so when he referred to himself as the gate, protecting his sheep in the fold from thieves and bandits they would immediately picture the Shepherd lying down between his flock and those who would harm them. Literally, laying down his life for them.

There we have it, that image of the Good Shepherd who cares for his flock, and the group of sheep trooping obediently after their Shepherd, because they know his voice, they trust him, they love him.

Well…not exactly.

You see Jesus’ choice of words here is telling, but our translation into English does rather obscure the particular word that Jesus uses. “When he has brought out all of his own, he goes ahead of them,” says Jesus in the version we use in church. In this verse, there’s a fairly weak rendering of a Greek word that appears over and over again in the Gospel. We hear this word every time Jesus casts out a demon. We hear this word when Jesus makes a whip and throws the moneychangers out of the temple. We hear this word when Jesus speaks of driving out the “ruler of this world.” In every instance of this word in the Gospel, Jesus is doing some sort of battle: he is pushing, pulling, throwing, yanking, driving, exorcising, casting out. But in this instance about the shepherd and the sheep, the translators decided a nice, safe, neutral translation was better. The shepherd simply “brings” his sheep out of the fold.

But this pushing, this shoving by the Shepherd is something that we so often need. Just as the sheep may actually prefer to stay in their fold, surrounded by safe stone walls, don’t we prefer to stay where we feel comfortable? We want to know that we have money in the bank, and a roof over our heads, we feel we need our jobs, our cars, our possessions that surround us. We feel that if we have these things that society tells us are so important then we are doing okay. We don’t want to let them go, because then we might have to face up to facts that we don’t like. We want to hold onto the beliefs we have held dear since childhood, and don’t want them to be challenged, because then we may have to face up to a God that isn’t just on our side, but on the side of the outcasts and the not-quite-our-sort-of-people. We want to feel safe. We want to stay in our comfort zone, in our sheep fold. We want to huddle together with people like ourselves.

But, as I said earlier, if the sheep stay in their fold they will not be fed. It is not good for them to stay there, and so the Shepherd will force them from the restrictive stone walls and bring them out. Because he knows what they need. It is when they are released from the confines of the fold that they will have the freedom to find the nourishment they need. The good grass that will help them to grow, to have life.

A few verses later Jesus says Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. …. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

So what is this abundant life that we can have, if only we allow ourselves to be challenged by our dynamic Shepherd-God?

I believe that this is what is illustrated in the reading from Acts, which told us about how the early church lived and worked together. Let me remind you of what we heard: All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

Here we read about how the early Christians accepted the challenge set before them by their Lord. We have a picture of them, no longer clinging to their possessions, to what was theirs, to what made them feel safe. Instead they were open to providing for those who were in need. Yes, they retreated into the safety of the sheepfold – spending time together in the Temple – but they did not stay there. They also lived out the Gospel in their everyday lives. One commentator I read talks of the early church “gathering for growth and worship balanced by scattering for work and to communicate the Gospel”. This is the life that our Shepherd challenges us to live: yes, by all means, retreat to the sheepfold at night, where you feel safe with others from your flock. Rest, and be comforted in the sheepfold of the church flock. But do not stay there. In the morning, go out into the world to find nourishment in following your Shepherd. He will lead you to unexpected places, but they will be places where he will go before you, guiding you and taking you further and higher than you might even believe you can go. There will be challenges, but by facing those challenges you will be fed and you will learn about yourself, and your relationship with the one who leads you, because it is only when we are taken out of the places where we feel comfortable that we learn who we are and what we can do. It is only in leaving the safety of the sheepfold that we can be nourished, and grow, and truly learn what abundant life God offers us.

And so, I would like to finish with the words of Adam Thomas, a young minister in Massachusetts, who writes:

The message of the Resurrection is this: life cannot be conquered– not by death, not by sin, not by the powers of darkness. Life happens–fully, intensely, eternally. Indeed, Jesus told us: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” The Resurrection of Jesus Christ ripples out to touch every life, everywhere, for all time. The wonder of Easter morning shows us the utter lengths that God goes to in order to offer us abundant life.

And yet, while life cannot be conquered, life can be delayed, put on hold, made dormant. When we retreat to the safety and comfort of our own personal sheepfolds–whatever they may be–we refuse to participate in the fullness of a life lived in God. Of course, existing in the sheepfold is easier, less demanding. But existence is not life. Ease does not bring joy. And less demanding often means less fulfilling.

We cannot import into our sheepfolds the abundant life that Christ offers us because the very fullness of that life cannot fit inside a safe, comfortable enclosure. Christ drives us out of the sheepfold so that our lives have the opportunity to expand, that we may embrace God’s unrestrained abundance. During this season of Easter, join God in the expansive life found in the Resurrection. Listen for the voice of the shepherd calling you by name, calling you out of complacency. And give Christ the chance to cast you out of your sheepfold so that you may find the fullness of a life lived in the abundance of God.

Sermon: Choose Life

Hello Dear Readers.

Here I offer you tomorrow’s sermon:

CHOOSE LIFE

Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand: 12.02.17

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matthew 5:21-37

I think that there has been conclusive proof offered that Rob and I are children of the same era – when we read the Lectionary for today, and organised our thoughts – he for his piece in the newsletter, and I for my sermon – two words obviously sprang out for us both, as we both latched onto these words, and made the same connections. “Choose Life”, we read in Deuteronomy, and both of us thought immediately of the 1996 film “Trainspotting”. This film has been described as “seminal”, as summing up the essence of life for young people in that time and it seems appropriate to be talking about it now, as the sequel to this film has just been released. I have to admit that I have never seen the film, although it received much critical acclaim, but there is one speech from the film which has become famous, and almost universally recognised; the speech at the beginning where the heroin addict anti-hero, Renton, exhorts us to “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends…” he continues with a list of the must-have possessions of the era, and finishes with “But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose something’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”

Renton’s words echo with contempt – or possibly envy – for the banality of a middle-class life; he talks of choosing possessions over experiences, of aiming to acquire everything possible, because it is the collection of Stuff that we feel we have achieved something. These things – the CDs, the washing machines, the dental insurance, even the career – they don’t make us into a useful, fulfilled person, he says, they are just a panacea, something that makes us feel that we are getting somewhere, that we are achieving something. No, these things are not for me, Renton tells us, I chose heroin.

As I said earlier, when I read the part of Deuteronomy we heard today, the words “choose life” leapt out at me – perhaps because of the reviews I have been hearing about T2: Trainspotting, but also because all the readings that we have heard today are about choices. All the readings put in front of us the stark fact that God calls us to make a choice. Not a choice of which pieces of Stuff we are going to acquire next, but rather what is the driving force in our lives? Do we indeed choose life?

In Deuteronomy, we hear Moses exhorting the people to follow the commandments that God has set before them, because it is this way that life lies. I think it is important to realise that the Commandments set before the Israelites is not just a set of rules – or a set of tick boxes similar to Renton’s list, about which one could say “Yep, done that…and that…Aren’t I doing well?” If we see them as this then they become nothing more than that panacea that makes us think we are doing the right thing, getting on with life as we should, but without any real meaning. No, the spirit behind the commandments is much deeper and broader than a tick list set of rules. They are clues and signposts to the unimaginable depth of God’s wisdom, and it is when we mould our lives around the loving essence of this law that we are drawn more closely to the pulse of God. But it is our choice: we can choose the life full of love and wonder that God offers, or we can turn our backs on it and live lives of shallow acquisition.

In the topsy-turvy way in which God so often works, the commandments that were given to the Israelites were not the constraining rigid set of rules that they are often seen as being, but rather they are setting out the way to freedom, to life, if only we make that choice when it is offered to us.

As one commentator, Alan Brehm, writes: We find freedom when we commit ourselves to doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven; we find freedom when we live our lives in harmony with God’s justice and peace and mercy. We find freedom when we embrace a way of living that is defined by love”

In other words, we find freedom when we choose life.

At the beginning, the commandments were about – ARE about – forming a relationship with God and committing to it wholeheartedly. They are not meant to be a burden, they are not an endless list of dos and don’ts, but rather they are parameters enabling us to live a life full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love towards God and each other. If we view the commandments only as burdens we miss the important fact that they begin with “the good news of what the liberating God has done” As God says as he gives the Commandments, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” I have brought you freedom.

But as the years passed, and humans argued and discussed, and forgot about the essence of the Commandments, then perhaps the Torah did start to become a burden. The notion of a relationship between God and humankind slipped, the good news of liberation and life through obedience was lost. Perhaps it did seem that all God had done was to give an impossible ideal to live up to, so finally people were reduced to treating the Law as a tick list, so they could say “Well, I know I’m not perfect, but at least I’ve kept this commandment, and not broken that law…”

So, when Jesus speaks to the people in the reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel, he isn’t “setting us free from the Law” as so many commentators suggest, but rather he is calling on us to understand that the laws of God are central to living in relationship with him. The Gospel of Christ is not about rules – it is about relationships and this is what these difficult sayings of Jesus are all about.

He says that anger is as damaging to relationships as murder is. If we allow anger and fear to fester in our heart, then we are killing the relationships that are at the heart of life. If we allow ourselves to hate a person – whoever that person is – then we cease to see them as human, and we do not care about them or their fate. Equally, He says that if we look at a woman, or man, with a lustful eye, we are objectifying them, and seeing them as less than human. And from there it is only a few steps to treating them badly, or ignoring their needs and wishes, because they do not really matter.

I don’t really think that Jesus wants us to pluck out eyes, or cut off hands – but these images are put in front of us to shock us into realising how important Jesus’ words are. How often have you justified your feelings of anger, or jealousy, or desire by saying “Well, I wouldn’t do anything about it…”? By suggesting that we should rather cut off your hand than objectify someone, Jesus is telling us that thoughts matter, because it is our thoughts that shape our opinions, and it is our opinions that motivate our actions.

I think that by his exaggerated images, Jesus is saying that now, rather than being told exactly what to do, and when to do it, the whole of the Law is thrown open to us. Jesus is telling us that we are being given the grown-up responsibility of observing God’s loving will in all its ideals.  In choosing life, in choosing to follow God, we are giving our whole selves into God’s hands – including the hidden parts, the thoughts and the opinions, that might well colour and affect our actions.

When I was at college, my main area of study was Religious Studies – and in one seminar we were asked to discuss the epithet from St Augustine “Love and do what whatever you please”. It was the first time I had heard this statement and to begin with it seemed a little trite and meaningless (if I dare say such a thing about St Augustine’s words!) But the more you unpack the meaning behind them, the more the words come to support what Jesus said when he reminded us to love God, and to love our neighbour. Especially when you consider the second part of the quotation from the Saint, which is less well-known: Love God and do whatever you please:  Augustine writes, and then he continues: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.

Because we love God, and have made the choice to align ourselves with the fulfilment of God’s justice and peace in the world then there is nothing in the ten commandments that will limit or restrict us. Because we love God we will find ourselves free to love our fellow human beings, and we find that this is what we want to do. Jesus shows that God trusts humankind to – eventually – get it right. When we understand God’s love for us, and accept this love, then we and all our aspirations, desires and longings are transformed. When secured in love and transformed by unconditional acceptance, humankind is capable of doing good, true and beautiful acts. This is something that fearful rule-makers and law-keepers will never understand.

But of course, we are human. And we fail. Sometimes we fail spectacularly.

Recently I was working with some of my English language students on proverbs – we were looking at English proverbs, unpacking their meaning, discussing if they were actually true, and comparing them to the French equivalent. Did you know, for example, that in English we don’t count our chickens before they’ve hatched. In French, we are advised not to sell the bearskin before you have killed the bear. Or whereas in English you can’t have your cake and eat it, in French you can’t have the butter and the money for the butter. But for me, one of the saddest proverbs, or sayings, in English is “You’ve made your bed. Now lie in it. » That is to say – you’ve made your choice: now live with the consequences. Once your choice is made, you can’t go back on it.

Thankfully, for God, this proverb doesn’t exist. Because for Him, the choice is always there. It’s not a once-only offer, that expires tomorrow. We can choose to turn our backs on him; we can take the easy way of forgetting that our neighbours need our love and our giving; we can fail God’s will time and time again, but he is always there, offering us the choice to turn back to him, to align ourselves with him once more and to move forward towards the life that he offers. As Rob wrote in the newsletter: You can choose. Yesterday’s bad choice or your own personal history is not a perpetual contract. Every moment contains that threshold and that doorway to life.

Through all of the readings runs the theme of choice – In Deuteronomy God sets the way before us: choose life, he says; “Choose to walk in the ways of the Lord,” the Psalmist reminds us. And the Gospel reiterates again that in choosing to give every part our lives over to God – both the parts that we show to the world and the hidden parts – we are aligning ourselves with his will to bring justice, freedom and love into this world.

We find freedom when we embrace a way of living that is defined by love.

We find freedom when we choose life.

...or else the evil eyed Kitty will come to get you!
…or else the evil eyed Kitty will come to get you!

Preaching again!

I’m leading the service next Sunday, and as today is a day with no lessons planned, I wanted to get ahead and plan the service… Of course, if something horrendous happens between today and Sunday things may change dramatically!

I am using a sermon I’ve preached before, but I have changed it a little, to link with the readings, and to be relevant to our church. I thought you might like to read it…

PROPHET

Readings: Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

There is the test that psychiatrists are supposed to carry out in order to understand some deep aspect of the psyche, when they say a word and the patient has to say the first thing that comes into their head, thus giving away their very secret thoughts. Of course, with us, the image that would pop into our heads would perfectly normal – because we are all normal people…  So, if I say the word “prophet” I wonder what you think of?

Now, I don’t know about you, but if anyone said the word “prophet” to me, my first thought is someone rather grubby, dressed in a hairy garment of some description, wandering in the desert, and declaiming gloomy predictions of doom and despair. No offence meant, but I certainly wouldn’t think of someone like Father Rob or Laurie. But I would be wrong. You see, “prophet” means “one who speaks God’s word”: that’s all. It doesn’t mean prediction of the future – although that is often part of a prophecy – it doesn’t mean someone who wears hairy clothes. It simply means someone who speaks God’s word. And that is anyone of us here today.

I think that most people would think of the prophets of the Old Testament if that word was said to them, possibly assuming with me that they were all the grubby, hairy creatures of my imaginings. But of course, they were as many and varied as we are today. There was not a blue-print, a template labelled “Prophet” from which all of them were cut. They were different. There was Amos, from whom we heard this morning, who was originally a shepherd and a dresser of trees, before he was called to be a prophet, while Zephaniah was a person of considerable social standing, possibly related to the royal line. There was Elisha, who appeared to be a farmer of some type, as Elijah first came across him ploughing. Ezekiel was a Jew in exile, married and living in his own home in Babylon. And the list could go on for some time longer, for there were many prophets.

All very different people, with different backgrounds, and different ways of delivering their message.

But however different the Old Testament prophets were, they had two things in common.

First, they all had a living relationship with God. This relationship was not bounded by conformity with the world around them, and did not follow the rules that bounded the religion of the time. It was real, it was dynamic and it fuelled their whole lives.

We see this in the passion that Elijah had for God, and the understanding of the great holiness of their Lord that shines through the visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel.  All the prophets stress the need to follow the laws of God, but not the legalistic nightmare of prohibitions and demands that the Jewish religion seemed to be becoming, but rather as a way of understanding God’s will, and thus finding the way to true holiness of life.

The second thing that was held in common was that the prophets all had a firm grasp of the situation and the needs of the people around them. They rebuked the religious people for their compromise and insistence on the minutiae of the Torah, while ignoring the needs of the poor and vulnerable. The prophets had a passion for justice, angered by the oppression that they saw going on around them and they spoke up, condemning the complacency that they saw everywhere they looked.

Every Old Testament prophet, whoever he was, spoke a message that was unwelcome to those who heard, but carried on regardless of what this would mean. Almost all the prophets in the Old Testament were either ignored, or positively persecuted because of what they were saying. Some, like Ezekiel did not meet opposition, but rather indifference. Those who listened to Ezekiel were condemned for having “eyes to see but do not see, and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people”. Ezekiel had to struggle to light a flame in the hearts of people who didn’t really care about what was going on around them, for they were too concerned about their own lives. We heard how unwelcome the message of Amos was, as he was accused of conspiring against the King with his message prophesying the end of Jeroboam’s reign. Other prophets were hounded near to death: there were death threats against Jeremiah, for criticising the King, and Elijah had to flee the wrath of Jezebel, only to discover the still, small voice of God, as he hid trembling and downhearted in a cave on Mount Horeb. A prophet’s lot was not a happy one, and the reason for this was their message. They pulled no punches, they didn’t dress up what they had to say in pretty pictures. No, they went in, straight for the jugular ~ and that made people very uncomfortable!

And the message that was so unwelcome? It was that failing to follow God’s way would lead to disaster. The prophets understood that actions have consequences and that humankind is responsible before God for the results of its actions and attitudes. It was this message that they were trying to get across to the people.

But to be honest, these prophets were fairly few and far between. These are particular men called by God to speak to one nation, to Israel, the Chosen People, and to say that God was displeased by the actions and attitudes that he saw, and that there would be judgement on the people for these. One such prophecy was that of Joel, who foretold a plague of locusts and a severe drought that would devastate Judah, and he saw this as judgement from God, a harbinger of the “great and dreadful day of the Lord. Confronted by this crisis. He calls on everyone to repent, describing the locusts as the Lord’s army, and as a reminder that the day of the Lord is near. He smashes the popular notion that the Day of the Lord will be a day of judgement on the other nations but a day of great blessing for Israel; rather he points out that in its complacency and its unfaithfulness to God, Israel too will be judged and found lacking. Restoration and blessing will come only after judgement and repentance.

But as well as this, Joel looks forward to a new time; a time when God will pour out his spirit on all people, when sons and daughters will prophesy, and all will see the wonders of God. He anticipates the time when everyone could enjoy the inspiration and vision of the Spirit when only a few had done so previously. This was a highly radical vision, with no distinction being made between old and young, or male and female. Equality at last!

This is the time that Moses too, had dreamt of, saying in Numbers 11, v 29 “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets that the Lord would put his Spirit upon them”

And this OT hope was realised in the new covenant with Jesus. It is through his coming that we can all know God more clearly, and that we can learn what the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, can mean for us. It is no longer the men only situation of OT times; Joel’s prophecy has come to fruition, as we read in Galatians 3 “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”

I find it fascinating that it is Joel’s prophecy of what will happen after the judgement and repentance of the people of Israel that is used by Peter at Pentecost in his speech to the people of Jerusalem.

It is as though Peter was saying that before the coming of the Messiah, only the chosen few could be the prophets, for it was only they who were authorised to speak the word of God. But now, the Messiah has come. In a way, the judgement of God has come, and the punishment has been meted out, as threatened in the prophecies of old. But the punishment was not borne by us, even though we deserved it. Somehow, in the great mystery of our faith, the punishment was meted out by God, but also borne by God; he condemned us for our sinful attitudes, but he took the consequences. With the repentance that comes after judgement, as Joel foretold, then God’s Spirit is poured out upon all God’s people, and all will become prophets.

It is no longer only certain men of God who are called to be prophets, but all those who have repented and received the Holy Spirit are the prophets of God.

So what does this mean for us, today, here in Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand, called to be prophets in our time, as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel and Micah were called?

Well, if we go back to look at the very roots of the message that every prophet from the Old Testament gave, we find that it means the same for us as it did to them.

First, we can do nothing unless we have a living relationship with God, and that relationship begins with repenting of our past life and accepting that Christ carried our sins with him to the cross. With this true repentance comes the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who filled the prophets of old and gave them the words to say and the strength to say them. But now, through Jesus the gift of the Spirit is now available to all instead of to the few prophets of OT times.

Jesus has opened the way to a new relationship with God, bringing a clearer understanding of what it means. He said “On that day” that is, the day the Spirit comes,” you will understand that I am in the Father, and you in me, and I in you”. When we receive the gift of the Spirit of truth we come into a deeper relationship of understanding and truth with God. If we are Christians, then we too have been anointed as Jesus had. The Spirit of the Lord is upon us also, regardless of whether we have spoken in tongues, as the first disciples did. If we have accepted Jesus as our Lord, then we have also received the Holy Spirit. We are anointed as children of God, and we have been anointed to bring good news to the poor.

And then, together with the prophets of old, we need to see the world around us as it is, to have a grasp the situation and the needs of the people. Our challenge is the same challenge that those prophets had – to speak out to individuals, to the church and to society on the issues of the day, and to show that the status quo, the way it is done, is not the way that God wants to see life led. As Hosea speaks out about the cheating that he sees going on around him and the Israelite’s unfaithfulness to the God who saved them, as Isaiah condemns Israel for its treatment of the most vulnerable members of society, so we are called to challenge what we see in society as contrary to the will of God.

Each prophet had his own particular message for his particular time; each had their own way of presenting this message. As Jesus used parables to teach his message, using simple, everyday experiences to point out the truth of what he was saying, so too did the prophets. They told their message in such a way that people could understand, in such a way that people could not fail to see what God was telling them.

In this way, for example, Hosea was led to act out his prophecies in his own life. He told of God’s sorrow at the faithlessness of Israel by marrying a wife who took lovers; as Israel had turned her back on God, so Gomer, his wife, turned her back on Hosea. Israel had become as a harlot, immoral, uncaring and false. Jeremiah was told to announce the words of God through examples – he was at the potter’s house, and used the example of the potter breaking a clay pot to remake it as a better pot as an allegory for how God will punish Israel. Each prophet knew how to get through to the audience he was speaking to, and he only knew this because he had lived among them.

In the reading from Luke, we heard the lawyer asking Jesus a question to trick him into saying something that could be used against him. Jesus, like the Old Testament prophets before him, told a parable that spoke of the issues of the day. When asked “what does God require of us?” Jesus sketched out a story of a divided community, where it was the outsider who cared for the person in need. He spoke to the people around him with a message that went straight to their hearts and their understanding.

So it is with us. We are all different, and we will all have different ways of speaking out God’s word to the community in which we live. But speak it out we should. We should be telling people that the way life is lived in this world of ours is not God’s way, that the poor and vulnerable are oppressed, and that there is cheating and a lack of care for everything around us. As the prophets of old, we need to demonstrate that we will all be responsible before God for the results of our actions and attitudes.

Maybe your prophecy is action, feeling called to be involved in providing relief for the refugees who are still desperately searching for safety; maybe your way of speaking out against oppression is to join Amnesty International; maybe you are show God’s way by getting involved in the Fair Trade movement. Or maybe you are just called to speak God’s word by living as a Christian in your place of work, unafraid of standing up for your beliefs, challenging racist attitudes or standing up for the vulnerable when refugees and asylum seekers are slagged off as “spongers”. Whatever it is, we have been anointed by the Holy Spirit to do this task. As each of the Old Testament prophets had their call, when they accepted the mantle of prophethood, so we have had ours. As Christ declared himself to in the synagogue in Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. When we became Christians we were anointed for that same task, and we should embrace it. In Colossians Paul prays that those to whom he writes “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding” and this is my prayer today – that all of us here might be filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit, calling us to stand up for the weak, the oppressed; to speak God’s word in a world that has eyes to see but does not see, ears to hear, but does not hear; calling us to love the Lord your God with all our heart, our soul, our strength, our mind; and calling us to love our neighbours in a way that reveals God’s love.

And so, the prophet of my imagination, of grubby hairiness, is not the prophet God has anointed us to be. He has anointed us as today’s prophets, to go out into the world, secure in our relationship with him, and determined to speak out against oppression and the injustices of this world we live in. He has called us, in the words of another prophet, Micah, “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Tomorrow’s sermon

I’m preaching tomorrow. Here’s the text of the sermon, should you care to read it…

THE JOY OF FORGIVENESS

Readings: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15; Psalm 32; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3

There is a story of two sisters, who had fallen out sometime in their past, probably over something not very serious, but in such a way that neither would climb down and apologise. So over the years, their disagreement grew and grew until they both refused to speak to the other, to have anything to do with the other, to even acknowledge the existence of each other. Their separation was complete. And as they grew older, each became more bitter about the whole affair. Then one of the sisters became friendly with a woman from the local church, she started going along to services, she heard the Good News of forgiveness and reconciliation, and she started to remember that on top of the wardrobe in the spare bedroom there was a portable typewriter. And her thoughts of this typewriter became more and more frequent; it seemed that every time she went into the room she thought about the typewriter, she couldn’t get it out of her mind. Then she had the strange urge to get it down and to write a letter to her sister whom she had not contacted, about whom she had not spoken for years, and to ask her forgiveness for the rift that had developed between them. And so, eventually, that is what she did. And even before she posted the letter, as she was folding it up to put it in the envelope, she said her whole body felt as if it was being washed all over and she had a sense of being forgiven. The burden had been lifted and she felt free of the bitterness and hurt and rejection that had been a part of her life for so long.

And this really is the theme of Psalm 32 – it is about the joy of forgiveness, and how it feels to know that sins truly are cleared away and gone. The first verses speak of this fact. “Happy are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sin is put away. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, and in whose spirit is no guile”. In some versions the Psalm reads “Blessed are those…” but I like the more exuberant translation to “happy” reminding us that we should be joyful in being forgiven. Sometimes Christians are accused of being too “po-faced,” of not enjoying life; but we have New Life through the wonderful forgiveness of Christ and we should in fact be the happiest people on earth – and show this in our actions, in our demeanour, in our whole living. Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.

In the New International translation, the first two verses of this Psalm read: Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. The expression “whose sins are covered” can be a little confusing; it sounds as though we are talking about “covering up” a sin, hiding it away so that it isn’t known about. But in this case, it means forgiven, as it does in 1 Peter when Peter says, “love covers a multitude of sins”. It forgives a multitude of sins, not hides them. As the Psalmist continues, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against him” we are reminded that we have been forgiven, we are blessed because, in the slightly old fashioned phrase we have been covered in the blood of the Lamb” – it is the sacrifice of Christ that brings us forgiveness, it is through his blood that we are cleansed. Our sins no longer count for God. It is through him, through his love, that we are brought true happiness by forgiveness of our sins.

The next verses read: “While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, because of my groaning all day long. For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.”. This reminds us of the belief of the ancient world that unforgiven sin caused physical illness. You may remember the story of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof by his friends. Jesus did not heal the man by saying, “Get up and walk”. No, he was more perceptive than that; he knew that the man believed it was his sin that held him there on his bed, and so Jesus’ words were “Your sins are forgiven”. It was that forgiveness that released the man from his sickbed so that he was able to face the world – and his creator – again.

In these verses the Psalmist speaks of the physical distress he felt when he did not confess his sins, when he knew he was hiding what he had done from his Lord. Like the old woman in the story, he was growing bitter, and ashamed of his rift from God, and it hurt.  But, as he affirms in verse 5, in acknowledging his sin and confessing to God, he is brought release from his guilt and his pain. Just as when the old woman climbed down from her position of pride and wanting someone else to make the first move she discovered a sense of freedom and forgiveness, so it is with us.

In Scotland there is the island of Iona, where the Celtic saint Columba lived having brought Christianity from Ireland to Britain. There is the Abbey, which he founded, and a guesthouse, where pilgrims can stay and rest, learning more about their faith. I remember when I was staying with a group on the island; we followed the pilgrimage around the island, to places of significance in the life of Columba. We arrived at the beach where the saint landed his tiny coracle-boat hundreds of years before, and there the leader told us to find a pebble from the many thousands that were lying there. We all picked one up, and standing, looking across the sea, and feeling the weight of the stones in our hands, we remembered the secret sins that were on our hearts; then we asked God’s forgiveness and flung those stones as far into the sea as we possibly could. Our hands were weightless – our sins were forgiven.

Now think of the woman in the Gospel reading. We do not know who she was, we do not know what she had done, but what we do know is that she was truly sorry. She knew that her sin was weighing her down, that she would have done anything to rid herself of the dis-ease, the shame, the pain of the knowledge of what she had done. And she was offered the opportunity to throw all of her burden at the feet of Jesus – and she did. Finally, for her, there was no hiding, no deceit, no pretending: she came, broken and hurting before her Lord and gave it all to Him. And he took it, and he forgave it all. It no longer counted against her. Like the stone thrown into the sea on Iona, it was gone.

The Psalmist’s first impulse on recognising the joy that comes from sins forgiven is to tell others. “Therefore, let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them. You are a hiding place for me, you preserve me in times of trouble, you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.” I wonder if that is the case with us. When we know the joy of God’s forgiveness are we so filled with the joy of it that we share it with others? When we have been to church, when we have been at our devotions do people recognise that we have been with Jesus? I wonder…

When Moses had been on Mount Sinai, speaking with his God, on his return his face was shining, so that all could see that he had been with God. When we return to our homes after Church are our faces shining with the wonder of having been with our God? I can only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure the answer is No more often than it is Yes. Perhaps today, bearing in mind what we can learn about the true joy of God’s wonderful forgiveness, we can return home and shine, just a little bit for God!

Then, when people we know ask us questions, we can share more convincingly the Good News of how Christ is our refuge in times of trouble. How, when the mighty floods of calamity hit us, we know that we can trust God to be there for us. I thank God that so far in my life, I have not been sorely tested; I have not suffered the difficulties in my life that others have. But every now and then, I look ahead, and pray sincerely that, whatever life may bring, I will be able to trust God to be my refuge.

We have already sung a hymn today, called Rock of Ages, which was written in the 1700s, by Augustus Toplady. I must confess that it is nowhere near number one on my list of favourite hymns, but it fits so well with the theme that I wanted us to sing it today. You see, Toplady wrote this hymn – or at least had the idea for it – when he was riding to a preaching engagement, and was caught in a horrendous storm. There was thunder and lightening, a complete downpour of rain, and the only place he could find to shelter from the storm was a small cave, hardly more than a crack in a rock. And as he cowered there, safe from the storm raging around him, he realised how Christ was the only refuge he had from the storms of his life and the guilt of his sin. “Rock of Ages,” we sang, “ cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee”.

May God give us all the strength that we need to face the storms that are in our lives now, or those that are to come. He may not necessarily take those storms away, but he will always preserve us and be with us. We only need to take his hand and cry out in our fear, and he will be there.

The next verses remind us of this loving care. One translation reads: “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. Do not be like a horse or a mule without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with a bit or bridle”.  “I will counsel you with my eye upon you” I must admit that I can’t help thinking this sounds a little threatening.  When I was teaching it was a phrase I used a lot, “Just remember,” I would say to the unruly brats, “I’ve got my eye on you.” Basically, I was saying, “I know what you’re like, I know that you’re likely to get into trouble, so I’m just waiting for it. I’m watching…”

I suppose, sadly, that is the case with God. He DOES know what we’re like; he DOES know that we’re likely to get into trouble. But all the same I prefer the translation that says, “I will counsel you and watch over you” – it sounds more loving and less threatening. Whichever translation we prefer the meaning is there: God watches over us, God cares for us. Sometimes I know it doesn’t feel like it, but we must learn to trust him and follow his ways for us.

And in the last verses we are reminded again of the rewards of trusting in God “Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord”. The Hebrew word that is translated here as “steadfast love” is a word that is used when talking about the covenant made between God and Abraham, but it has a more emotional content as well, taking it far beyond a sense of legal obligation. God has made the covenant with those who put their trust in him, but it is not simply a legal covenant. It is a covenant full of love, and compassion and life. The rewards of taking this covenant out with God are so great, how can we refuse? Those of us who have made a covenant with God, those of us who have opened our lives to him, know this steadfast love. We know that we can trust God to be always there, to take our hand and to lead us in the paths of justice and of truth. And those of us who haven’t? Who still hold back from making the step that will bring us freedom, and reconciliation and forgiveness… Well, God is waiting. I was going to say, he is waiting for you to take the first step, but he isn’t, because he has already taken the first step by coming to earth as a man, by showing us the way, by dying a terrible death on a cross and by rising again. He has taken every step necessary except one. And God is there, waiting for you to take that last step, the one that takes you into his loving arms and opens the way to full and free forgiveness for all the sins that are holding you in your life of paralysis, the step that leads you to new life.

And then we can all follow the exhortation in the final verse: “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” What else can we do? When we look at the wonderful gift that God has given us through his death and resurrection, when we realise that the guilt of unforgiven sins is taken from us, we are shaken from our paralysis and brought to life. We can but sing for joy, we can but rejoice and thank him, so that all who we meet do indeed know that we have been with Jesus.

***

As you may have noticed, I have played around with the order of service today – usually with morning prayer we have our confession at the beginning of the service, but today I wanted to put it after this sermon. I want us to really think about the joy that real remorse and forgiveness can bring. Remember the woman who came before Jesus, weeping and full of sorrow for her sin, and her joy when she received Christ’s forgiveness, confirming her, re-affirming God’s love for her, even after all she had done.

And today, in place of the words of confession from the service book, we are going to listen to a beautiful song from one of my favourite worship bands:

I am broken at Your feet
Like an alabaster jar
Every piece of who I am
Laid before Your majesty

I will bow my life
At Your feet, at Your feet
My lips, so lost for words
Will kiss Your feet, kiss Your feet

Oh, the gravity of You
Draws my soul unto its knees
I will never be the same
I am lost and found in You

 

As you listen, consider your sins, confess them to our God, and ask his forgiveness, and his help to walk once more in the ways he has planned for you. Bow your life to him, give him all that you are, that being lost you may be found in Him.

 

 

A bit of a cheating post

Sorry, dear Readers. I always have great intentions of posting regularly and then never do! Perhaps I should have tried the post-every-day-in-Advent that some of my bloggy friends have done. But I’m not going to.

I’ve posted over at Fat Dormouse but here has been thin on the ground. And it is still thin on the ground! I’m going to cheat here by posting my sermon for tomorrow. My rector is in Canada, meeting his new granddaughter, so I am leading the service and preaching. I have recycled an Advent sermon preached over 10 years ago (but updated) so it hasn’t been a too arduous task.

So…here it is: THE WAITING TIME: a sermon for Advent 2

Today is the second Sunday in Advent, the season when we look forward to and prepare for Christmas, the coming of Jesus to earth as a human. But it is also a time when we look forward to the Second Coming of our Lord, in glory, as foretold by the Prophets so long ago.

Traditionally, Christians have allocated a theme to each Sunday in Advent. Some use the words of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love, reminding us of those values that Christ brought into the world, and it is those themes that we have used today when we lit the Advent Candle. Other traditional themes reflect our fore bearers in the Christian story: On the first Sunday in Advent, our thoughts turn towards the Patriarchs, those great men of early Judaism who trusted God to fulfil his promises. On the second Sunday come the Prophets, who spoke God’s word, assuring His people that they were not forgotten, and speaking of the great works to be done in God’s name. Around this time we think most of Isaiah, who speaks moving words about the coming of the Messiah, the Wonderful Counsellor, the Prince of Peace. The following week comes John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, who looked forward to the Messiah and recognised how he would come. And finally, the Sunday before Christmas we think of Mary, as she waited patiently for the birth that would change the world.

And the common theme that joins all these people together is waiting. They were all waiting and looking forward to a great event. They were preparing themselves for something momentous. For the Patriarchs and the Prophets they may have seen this as being far away; for John the Baptist and for Mary they were aware of the closeness of the events for which they were waiting.

Our readings today echo that waiting, that longing for the coming of something wonderful, yet also something awful – in the old meaning of full of awe. Malachi prophesies the coming of the Messiah, but he warns us too in the words who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? Yes, he is coming, but He will be as the refiner’s fire. In the Gospel reading we heard the echoes of the prophet Isaiah calling on us to play a part in bringing about the Kingdom of God. Prepare the way of the Lord, he says, make his paths straight.

And our responsive reading was the Song of Zechariah, a song uttered after the birth of his son, the Forerunner, John the Baptist. This also speaks of a waiting and longing for the coming of the Messiah, and all that this means…A mighty saviour who would save us…giving us knowledge of our salvation by the forgiveness of our sins…

We are so used to the Christmas story, to the characters of Elizabeth and Zechariah, of Joseph and Mary, that we forget ~ or do not realise ~ what they must have gone through before they accepted the peace of God, before they accepted the fact that they had been blessed.

Did Elizabeth ask “Why NOW? Why not twenty or thirty years ago, when I was full of energy? Why have I had to live through the ignominy of childlessness in my youth to be pregnant in my old age?”Did Zechariah wonder whether he would be able to understand the needs and wants of a growing child; would he be an adequate father?

What did it take for these two people, settled into their lives, to be shaken out of their childless old age, and pitched headlong into a totally alien situation?Was it truly a case of “As God wills let it be done.” ? Or did they question, and worry, and wonder?

And Joseph… How did he feel? Even after the visitation from the angel, what was his frame of mind? Remember, he too was older, maybe he had been married before, and now, taking on a woman carrying an illegitimate child… Was his an unquestioning acceptance? Or again, was he still wondering, and worrying.

And there was Mary, young, and seemingly disgraced by her pregnancy. In the Bible story, she accepts with joy the honour brought on her by God, the fact that she was carrying the Son of God… but afterwards, did she start to wonder whether she was going mad, imagining angels, and pregnancies? And when she began to show, how did she cope with the gossip, as she could hardly go round telling everyone that it was all right, it wasn’t an illegitimate baby, it was actually the Son of God… What were her thoughts? Her questions? Her worries?

Four people whose lives were totally and utterly turned upside down by God; they hardly knew what to think… How on earth, how, in heavens name, did they find peace in the Waiting time, in the Advent of their lives?

I can only think that it was through having implicit trust in God… Through the turmoil, through the upset, through the doubts and joys, through the incredible roller-coaster ride that was the year before Jesus’ birth, the four main players in the story held onto what they knew of their Lord: that he was loving, and good, and was by their side through it all. It was through the easily said, but difficult to do “Letting go and letting God” that they found the inner peace that they so desperately needed to sustain them through the waiting.

And this is what echoes through the earlier characters in the Advent tradition. Trust in God. The Patriarchs, Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob – all of those great men and women who trusted that in all of their lives, whatever was happening, God was there, in control, at the helm. He would fulfil his promises. The prophets must have had a hard time of it – when it seemed that all the people of Israel were turning their back on God, and when the Prophets themselves were vilified and oppressed they had to believe that the message they were preaching was indeed from God and that it spoke of a better future. Yet through it all comes the trust that they had in God. And John the Baptist: he knew full well that what he was preaching was dangerous, and could lead to his death, but he continued, preaching against the evil that he saw around him, and preaching the Good News of the coming Kingdom of God. Then there is Mary, and her trust in the God who asked her to take part in the miraculous events that were to save humankind.

Trusting God: this is what we must do. We are in a waiting time, in more than one sense, and through it all we need to learn to let go of our human worries and cares, and to let God bring peace into the restlessness of our lives.

In the here-and-now, we are waiting for Christmas, for the celebration of Christ’s coming amongst humans, for the celebration of Christ becoming human. And, as we know all too well, it is hard to keep a hold of the religious side of the season, as we get drawn into the present buying, the card sending, the rush, the busy-ness. I believe that it is only by consciously taking moments to rest with God that we will be able to keep hold of God’s peace, the inner calm that we need so much. And through that resting with him we will find that Christmas takes on its true significance, its true meaning… and we might even find a meaning in the rush too. Let God take part in your Christmas shopping and it too can become a religious experience ~ REALLY! Being aware of him with you as you search lovingly for the right gift for a friend, as you mix with the crowds in the centre of Clermont Ferrand, as you send a card to someone you’ve not seen for ages, it makes everything a little easier, because he is sharing it with you. Letting go, and letting God into all of your Christmas preparations, will bring the peace and love of which the angels sang on that first Christmas night.

But we wait too for the coming of Christ in the future, the coming of Christ in glory, the second coming… And, if you are like me, maybe it’s something you are happy to keep looking forward to, but would actually rather not have happen quite yet, thank you very much! If I am honest, when I think of the second coming I get a bit worried… maybe I’ve made a mistake and I’m going to end up with the goats!

But again, it is here that, like Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, like all those we remember during Advent, I have to rely on what I know of God. He is loving, he is merciful, he is just, and he cares for me. Despite my failings, despite the fact that I have to ask forgiveness so many times, I am still a Child of God, and I can surely rely on him to carry me home when he comes again in glory. There is a piece that I read in my daily devotions, from Mark’s gospel that talks of the second coming, and in the New English Bible is translated “Hold your head up high”… and that is what we will be able to do when Christ returns, for he has come to take us home. We will not have to grovel in fear, scared of God’s anger, hiding our faces. We will be able to hold our heads high, secure in the knowledge that we are members of God’s family, loved and wanted by him.

So, in my waiting time, when I am worried about my worthiness to stand before my God, I should remember to let go of my wonderings, and to trust in the God that I know loves me enough to become a helpless babe, to live as a peasant, and to die, hung on a cross. THAT is the God that I am waiting for, and so I can wait with confidence. The waiting might be hard, I might be full of questions about Why? But I can hold peace in my heart, for I know that the gift, which God has for me, is a gift of wonder, of joy and of love.

You may have gathered that I am a fan of Rend Collective. The reason I love this group so much is that all their songs seem to capture something of my walk with God. I want to play a song of theirs for you which reminds us that the Messiah for whom we wait with such expectation is the one who brings love, not fear. So even when Malachi warns us that he will be as refiner’s fire, we need not be afraid, for God has saved us and he has more wonderful things in store for us than we can ever dare to imagine. As the song says:

More than all our sin
Than all our shame
Stronger than the grave
You are immeasurably more

I can’t help but sing
Can’t help but praise
My heart cannot contain
You are immeasurably more

No eye has seen, no ear has heard
What is coming, what is coming
Never-ending joy, never-failing love

You are coming…

We look for God’s coming in glory. Amen. Thanks be to God.

Things I Don’t Understand…

There are moves a-foot to “reactivate” my licence as an Licensed Lay Minister, and to make it all official again. As I’m an Anglican LLM worshipping and working in an Episcopal parish there needs to be some coordination between bishops, but I’m guessing it may happen. I can’t find my Licence to preach – I’ve asked for duplicates, but I don’t know yet if they can be provided. On verra

However, I do know that I have been very lax on my studying and serious reading – even since I finished my training I’ve not really kept up with any. I’m not actually very good at studying. When I’m preparing for a service that’s fine: there s a goal ahead, and a deadline, but studying just for the sake of it. Hmmm. I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep that up. Still, I think I need to start. Father Rob has given me a book “Faithful Persuasion” by David S Cunningham, subtitled “In aid of a Rhetoric of Christian Theology” – I’m not sure I understand what that means! If I can’t understand that I can’t help thinking I’m going to struggle with the rest of it. I have a lovely new notebook with a yellow cover and pink pages which is too good to use for teaching notes. I shall use it to encourage me in some Serious Thinking And Reflection

And while we are considering things I don’t really understand, here is an illustration I used in a sermon once that makes some kind of sense about the Trinity, as today is Trinity Sunday:

Well, I’m not a scientist, and so I struggle a little to understand this, but Andrew, who is more of a scientist than I am, pointed out to me that there exists the electro magnetic spectrum, that goes from long radio waves, through micro waves, infra red light, U V light to X-rays. There are all of these waves and they all move at the same speed, but out of these, it is only the light that we can see.

So, for the Trinity, just as there are the different waves moving at the same speed so there is God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, all moving at the same speed, with the same purpose.

The x-rays that enable doctors to see through our bodies, could represent God, as He can see right through to the very core of our being, and with his infra-red can warm our hearts and bring us to life. The light waves, the only part of the spectrum we can see, could represent Jesus, as the light of the world, as the part of the Trinity that humankind could see. The radio and television waves, that enable us to hear the news spoken, could represent the Holy Spirit, working through people today, telling the good news of God. All electro-magnetic waves, moving together, with the same purpose, at the same speed. Creator, Saviour, Comforter, moving together, with the same purpose, at the same speed.

 Sure, this too has its weaknesses, but it’s an illustration that appeals to me, not least because although I’m not absolutely sure I understand it, that doesn’t seem to matter… Just like the Trinity itself!