Monthly Archives: January 2015

Facing The Fear

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30 Eucharist on 25th January 2015 – The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The readings were Jeremiah 1:4-10, Acts 9:1-22 and Matthew 19:27-30.

What are you scared of? What makes you truly afraid? Spiders? Heights? The curate standing up to preach?

I think it’s fair to say we all have things that make us uncomfortable, some things that we don’t like the idea of, and some things that, as Timothy puts it, “scare the life out of my skin!” It’s also true that some of these fears are irrational, but some are not – and either way, the fear is no less real. I know we are hugely blessed that, for the majority of us in here, we have less reasons to be afraid than many other people in this world, but this doesn’t make our fears any less valid – just we are probably in less immediate danger, or have more chance of avoiding them in 21st century Roker (unless you truly have a fear of the curate’s sermon…)

But consider how you feel when confronted by even the thought of those fears. Here we are, in a safe place surrounded by good people, yet just thinking about that thing that scares us will have left some here feeling uncomfortable or worse – sorry for that.

But imagine if you suddenly felt God calling you to confront one of those fears. And not just one of the irrational ones – finding a spider in the bath in this country is unlikely to be a life or death matter, however creepy some find them – but a really dangerous one. Ananias finds himself in this position in today’s New Testament reading.

We now know Paul as a great man – a great saint – without whose letters we would lack so much great teaching in the faith, such wonderful writing. And yet we shouldn’t underplay just how scary the prospect of meeting this man would have been for Ananias.

In the chapters of Acts before this reading we see how jealousy and fear of the Romans had led to the persecution of the early church, leading to imprisonment & flogging. When we first meet Paul, at that point known as Saul, it is at the stoning of Stephen. At first he seems more of an observer than a threat – a young man minding the coats while the really scary people get on with the business of killing a man by hurling rocks at him. But the first verse of chapter 8 I find chilling: “And Saul approved of their killing him.”

What would it matter if he ‘approved’ of it or not – unless his opinion was valued by those in charge. Then we see his true power.

“That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”

Saul was leading a campaign of terror against those who professed Jesus name – and seemed ruthlessly good at it. This leads us up to the first two lines of today’s reading which cement all that has gone before.

“Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

Saul was on a mission to destroy this Jesus cult, and was not going to be held back.

Then – a miracle. Jesus himself intervenes. Saul is left blinded and understandably shocked by what happens – all his certainty, all his belief, his zeal his passion shown as misdirected, as against the wishes of the God he thought he was protecting. No wonder he spends the following days fasting & praying, trying to make sense of it all.

So, enter Ananias. And imagine for a moment you’re praying, taking a quiet moment in a busy day, when you have a vision. Is it a daydream, a flash of images, just words? Whatever and however it happens, suddenly you become aware that God is speaking to you – and is asking you to do something unbelievably terrifying, scarier than your worst nightmares. Worse than picking up a spider, looking out from the top of the church tower, or discovering too late that it’s me climbing up to the pulpit. In Ananias case, he is to go to the most dangerous person in the region, a man who is rounding up friends and fellow believers, who has been involved in the killing of his associates, and talk to him about Jesus. To put it in modern terms, it’s maybe up there with one of us being asked to parachute into Northern Nigeria and have a chat with the leader of Boko Haram

But it is unmistakable. God wants Ananias to go, and remarkably says He is going to use Saul as a missionary to the world. So Ananias goes, lays on hands, and the rest is history.

Our history.

For this is a massive part of the story of our faith, of our journey to eternal life and salvation. And it shows, amazingly, the biggest stumbling block to love – to God’s love being shown to the world – isn’t hate. It’s fear.

We spoke a few weeks ago about how perfect love casts out fear, about the way to win the war on terror, to defeat the evils of this age is through love conquering fear, and here is a great example. Because if Ananias had succumbed to the fear of what mortals could do to him – if he had run scared from facing Paul – or if he’d thought more about what ‘people’ said and thought rather than listening to the Lord – I appreciate the offer, Lord, but Saul is evil and terrifying and I, little old me, will have no hope facing him – he wouldn’t have gone.

And alongside this, if Paul’s fears had got in the way, he too would have run a mile. What if he’d sat there thinking of all the things he’d done in his life – the persecution, the pain & misery, the mistakes he had made – and decided he wasn’t worthy of being a follower of Jesus. That he wasn’t good enough. Or if his pride had put up a barrier – if he’d worried about what this change of heart was going to look like to those around him. Imagine what would happen if a well-known atheist like Richard Dawkins suddenly came out and said he’d become a Christian. That he was wrong about Jesus & faith and was now not just a believer, but truly committed to helping others find a relationship with their creator.

Paul had to overcome the fear of what people would say, how people would react, the complete change of direction his life would have to take because of his newfound belief in Jesus. And thank God he did. Because there is a distinct possibility that, without Paul’s mission to the Gentiles, without Ananias listening to God and facing his fears, we would not be here today – or, more importantly, would not have the love, hope and amazing privileges that come from being in a relationship with God our Father, though Jesus His Son by the power of His Holy Spirit.

Through prayer, through time reading the Bible, we have direct access to the one who made us, loves us and wants the very best for us, in this life & beyond. Who knows us better than anyone – just look at the words spoken to Jeremiah in our Old Testament reading.

So I don’t know about you, but I think this story of Paul’s conversion should bring great comfort and courage to us all. Because once again it shows ordinary people being called to do extraordinary things by God – and then being equipped to do them. It shows nobody is beyond salvation, no matter what has happened in the past. It shows there is true forgiveness for sins, true redemption of lives. It shows people like you and me overcoming fear with love, and changing the world.

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Je suis la lumière…

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 9:30 Eucharistic on 11th January 2015, celebrating the Baptism of Christ. The readings were Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19:1-7 and Mark 1:4-11.

I’ve discovered since having children the delight that can be had by being a bit counter-cultural. I know as Christians we talk of being in the world but not of the world, a challenging idea in a catchy phrase, but as we escape the Christmas hype & the incessant demands of a commercialised society there is real joy to be had watching the bairns discover for the first time things that you have loved since you were their age, that the marketing men probably see very little value in any more. So we have recently watched old episodes of “Button Moon” on YouTube, sung along to my 3 year-old’s new favourite band – Jethro Tull – and played a board game called “Escape from Atlantis,” a staple of my childhood that nobody else in the whole world, apart from the bloke selling it on eBay, had ever heard of.

But probably my favourite thing recently has been watching my eldest firstly pick up, then devour rapidly C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. Since then the eldest three have watched through all the BBC adaptations I just so happened to own on DVD & have thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of the Pevensie children as they negotiate the pleasures and pitfalls of the strange land of Narnia. Of course, the books are steeped in Christian symbolism & allegory, something my eldest was quick to pick up on. She was delighted to link Jesus to the great and powerful Aslan, who throughout the novels tends to appear on the scene suddenly before rapidly moving from place to place in great leaps and bounds. At one point in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe it proclaims “he rushes on, never missing his footing, never hesitating.”

It’s interesting to note, therefore, that St. Mark and his Gospel have long been symbolised by the image of a lion. The four gospels are traditionally represented by four images of heavenly beings found firstly in Ezekiel 1:10, then similarly in Revelation chapter 4: Matthew symbolised by the one with “a face like a human face,” Luke the ox, John the eagle & Mark the lion.

And, just like the great lion Aslan, Mark’s Jesus literally bursts onto the scene.

In his own counter-cultural way, eschewing the usual beginnings of a biography of the time, Mark gives us none of the preamble of the birth narratives, family history or genealogy as in Matthew or Luke, or even the majestic & cosmic opening of John. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is all we get – then we’re off with this fully grown God-man as He sets about His mission. Immediately we meet John the Baptizer, who lives well outside society’s norms: dressing strangely, talking to the religious people in a way that they thought was completely out of order, and enjoying a diet lifted straight from an “I’m A Celebrity” bush tucker trial.

Mark, in his hurry to move us along, doesn’t show just how threatened the religious authorities were by this wild prophet – but he does show just how much the public connected with him, as “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

But John was quick to point away from himself to Jesus which, as we all know, is the point of baptism – it’s a way of connecting with, of joining with Jesus. And Mark’s Gospel, for all its pace & brevity, is a clever lion. The next time baptism appears in it, Jesus uses it as a metaphor for His death, when He asks James & John if they can “drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” in chapter 10. Alongside this, there is no gentle “opening” of the heavens, as in Matthew & Luke. No, in Mark the heavens are “torn apart” before the voice declares “You are my Son.” The only other time Mark uses the Greek schizo is when the curtain of the Temple is “torn apart” after Jesus death, and the centurion declares “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” So the baptism and crucifixion bookend the whole Gospel – Jesus appears from nowhere to be baptised, and is baptised in order to die.

As we enjoy the first weeks of a New Year we are reminded, in our first reading today, of the beginnings of the world. God spoke His Word and light suddenly appeared.

The sudden, dramatic arrival of light in total darkness is an indescribable, unimaginable thing. So maybe that’s the point Mark is making by his sudden start to the Gospel. John takes the time at the start of His to explain Jesus is the Word, present at the very start of all things, that through Him all things came into being. In Mark the Christ suddenly appears, the light of the world arriving as dramatically as the light at the dawn of time, and remains until “At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon;” at the point of Jesus crucifixion.

At times it feels like our world is still struggling with this darkness. The events in Paris this last week, with people murdered in the name of God leaves some again asking the obvious question – where is God in this? Surely, if He’s a caring & loving as we say He is He would intervene – step down into the darkness & change the way people act, people think, and defeat evil, sin & death once and for all.

Well, here’s the thing. He did. He has. God in Jesus, who lived and died and rose again for us here and the whole of creation has changed the world.

Sadly there are still people that maintain the violence, terror and evil that perpetuates war-torn regions, land-grabbed areas and fierce reprisals against those they disagree with. However, football fans get understandably frustrated when the minority of people, who actually turn up for the trouble & not the match, are held up to represent them and thus all get painted as hooligans. Our Muslim friends suffer in a similar, yet far worse way when people such as the Kouachi brothers & so called Islamic State carry out atrocities and legitimise their lust for violence & glory by using the name of God. And that got some people thinking. One journalist put it like this

“What if the terrorists who attacked Paris were merely pretending to be offended by cartoons, in order to give themselves an excuse to commit murder? Murder so horrifying, on a pretext so unWestern, that non-Muslims – blinded by grief and rage – turn on Muslims. Blame them. Persecute them. Burn their book, attack their mosques, threaten them in the street, demand their expulsion from Western societies. Actions that, in turn, scare Western Muslims, isolate them, alienate them. And thus drive some of them to support – and even become – terrorists. Result: terrorists swell their ranks for a civil war they long to provoke.”[1]

This is a pretty scary thought, and there are times, like the back end of last week, when it appears terrorists seem to be closer than ever to achieving this – especially when certain political figures add fuel to the fire to try to achieve their own agenda.

But now turn our thoughts back to Jesus Himself. He was mocked, beaten, spat on, tortured and eventually murdered, but did not raise a hand in violence and in fact healed and forgave his aggressors. As He told Peter,

Put your sword back in its place…for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

In this, Jesus taught us the way to defeat evil. With love. This sounds trite and maybe overly passive, but love is the greatest weapon we possess in the so-called “war against terror.”

That “love your neighbour” thing. He meant that. Because by loving those around us, we break the cycle of fear. By treating seeing those around us through the eyes of Jesus we learn to recognise our common humanity, recognise we were all created by the same Father and Jesus died and rose again for each one of us. And this great love, arriving like the brightest, warmest light suddenly appearing in the darkness burns through the hate and despair. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.”

To blame the vast majority of Muslims for these acts of terror, to demand they apologise even, is akin to blaming all the Newcastle fans for the actions of the one who punched a horse the other year – or all Norwegian Christians for the attack carried out by Anders Breivik in 2011.

So we are right to condemn, in the strongest terms, the actions of those who commit terrorist attacks. We are right to pray for an end to such terror, for those responsible to be brought to justice.

But to truly have a chance of hastening the end of terrorism, whoever’s name it is carried out in, we need to pray as Jesus prayed & love as Jesus loved – which includes praying for the terrorists. After all, that “love your enemies” thing – He meant that too.

This takes courage – to love like this can be a scary, seemingly counter-cultural thing to do. But just as Aslan is not a tame lion, Mark’s Gospel is not a tame, comforting book. It reminds us that we have a responsibility as adopted sons & daughters of God to live His way, as shown by Jesus, whose power was realised in suffering, and whose kingship was proclaimed in death.

But take heart. The strong, brave lion of Christ is with us, to lead and to guide, to carry us when we falter, to inspire us to love. Because, “if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

He will show us the way the Father delights in, and help us to teach it to those around us – and by the power of the Spirit make the light of the world, present from the very beginning, shine into the darkest of places.

Amen.

[1] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/11332535/We-think-the-Paris-terrorists-were-offended-by-Charlie-Hebdos-satire.-What-if-were-wrong.html

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Breaking Into The Norm

This sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s 8:00 & 9:30 Eucharistic services on 4th January 2015, celebrated as Epiphany Sunday. The readings were Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12 and Matthew 2:1-12. 

When does Christmas end for you?

For some it’s Boxing Day as they roll out of bed & head off to work. Some say New Year, some good Christian folk remember it’s a season & say Epiphany – and some just remember the 12 days of Christmas song. But whenever it ends, there’s that bit most of us experience where we take down the decorations. However long they’ve been up for, whether it’s a little tree or a house covered from top to bottom in lights, tinsel & shiny paper, they all come down, get boxed up & stored for next year. And even if you don’t really go in for that kind of thing, suddenly Sea Road & the supermarkets have hauled theirs down and the music piped through the stores has reverted to generic pop. I don’t know about you, but suddenly everything looks a bit sparse, a bit bare & plain – all the hype, the build-up, the expectation, packed away in a box and hidden away until the end of next year. Well, more like the middle if the shops get their way, but you know what I mean?!

I’ve been thinking this week about what it was like for Mary & Joseph after the birth of Jesus. Obviously life with a new baby is tough for anybody, and once the excitement has died down & the visitors have melted away you have to get on with the job in hand – learning to understand, care for & protect this little person who relies on you for everything. But this wasn’t just any baby. This was the Son of God, conceived of the Spirit. They weren’t just any visitors – a strange band of shepherds, directed by an angel to drop in & say hi. It wasn’t even a nice warm hospital, house or hostel.

We read the Bible, and the Church breaks down the Bible, in such a way that we leap through periods of history in a short space of time, slow down for some key events, then zoom off again. But during those in between times life went on. Between Jesus birth & the visit of the magi, around two years passed. The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened in that period, but I’d guess Mary & Joseph’s first task must have been to find somewhere to live. They didn’t head back home, as they are still in Bethlehem when the wise men arrive.

So as we pick up the story, I guess we find them trying to live out ‘normal’ life again, Joseph supporting the family as a carpenter, Mary looking after Jesus. But what would it have been like when the dust settled?

Take a moment to think back over the last couple of years of your life. The highs & lows, the everyday things that came & went. A lot can happen in two years.

With the Bible we have the benefit of the next bits of the story of Jesus & His parents but, as we all know, life doesn’t work like that. It must have been really hard for Mary & Joseph, after such a strange set of events, to suddenly go back to normal life. Like our houses minus the decorations, the period after Jesus’ birth may well have seemed a bit of an anti-climax. All that was left was the memories – did that really happen, or did we dream it. After the string of disturbed nights, incessant feeds, endless pooing…you get the idea. The angels stopped singing, the shepherds went back to their flocks, the innkeeper wanted his stable back, the baby needed caring for. And Christmas can be a bit like that for us now – actually, life in general can.

We get past Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, then things start to go back to ‘normal.’ The visual clues – however annoying they can be – that surround us at Christmas time disappear, and society wants to hurry us to the next thing without giving us time to take stock over what is frankly a reminder of one of the most cataclysmic and important events in human history – God becoming Man, the Word becoming flesh.

For example, I was in Sainsbury’s up the road on New Years’ Eve & they were selling off Hot Cross Buns that nobody had bought. Hot cross buns! On New Year’s Day Cadbury’s Crème Eggs hit the shops – it won’t be long before we see their bigger counterparts too. Actually, after I’d written that I saw a picture from a friend on Facebook, a Curate based in Grimsby. He’d been in his local Tesco who, surprise surprise, had Easter eggs up for sale already. As somebody commented, “He’s only just been born & they’re trying to kill him already!”

You see, our culture is now so ingrained with commercialism that we are driven from one event to the other without pause – the shops don’t want us to sit and reflect on what has just happened, what we just experienced, because however much we spent last week they need the same or more this week.

So we go from the Black Friday of Advent to the Boxing Day sales, many of which started on-line on 22nd December. The company Experian predicted £748m would be spent by UK shoppers alone on 26 December, following hot on the heels of an estimated £636m shopping spree on the net on Christmas Day itself. Then it’s the January Sales, which fade away in time for Valentines, then Mother’s Day & the big Easter EggStravanganza – which the good people of Grimsby have been stocking up for since yesterday – and suddenly it’s nearly summer.

So Epiphany is important. Epiphany reminds us that, in amongst the return to normality, the extraordinary happens. The wise men arrived unannounced & unexpected, bearing opulent gifts that would have been beyond the wildest imaginings of this poor young couple & turned their world upside-down once again. They reminded them, if they needed reminding, of the true impact this boy’s arrival had had on the whole world, not just on them.

And, let’s be clear here, Matthew is doing something amazing in his telling of the Gospel at this moment. He shows Jesus not just to be the Jewish Messiah – something He highlights frequently by showing His fulfilment of the scriptures – but more than that, Jesus is the saviour of the whole world, including the gentiles. These travellers are our spiritual ancestors, and work as a perfect seed planted for Jesus words at the end of Matthew’s gospel. “Go and make disciples of ALL nations…”

So this is a key message for us today – because we live in a world that desperately, desperately needs of the love of Christ. If we stop for a moment to look past the commercialisation of Christmas we’ll remember this building, in fact all three of our churches, full of people celebrating Christmas. But then the baby Jesus goes back in the box with the other decorations & is safely stashed away until next year, and as the post-Christmas blues kick in we are encouraged to fill the hole with more stuff, spending more money, battling our resolutions, eyes fixed on the next celebratory occasion.

We, as individual disciples of Jesus – we, as the body of Christ – can change that. Like the Magi we can bring an unexpected, miraculous gift to those around us – the gift of Christ Himself. We can help our friends and neighbours to replace the excess alcohol or 10 step detox with the living water of the Son of God. We can explore in ourselves the wonderful gifts God has bestowed upon us, worth more than gold or precious fragrances, and use them to lift the spirits, ease the burdens, reignite the lives of those who we know and love, those who we meet for the first time this year. And we can take those gifts and reinvigorate our own lives too. Life with a new baby can be tough, and having the baby Jesus in our lives doesn’t make them easier. But speaking from experience, however hard life is with a baby in it you wouldn’t go back – you wouldn’t swap it. So it is when we allow our relationship with Jesus to grow, to mature.

Luke 2:19 tells us, after the shepherds and the shenanigans of Jesus’ birth, “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

As we begin to turn the pages of our own life story, a new year spread before us full of excitement, expectation, trepidation & unknowing, maybe we should resolve to ponder what we have heard about Jesus, what we hear about him in the coming weeks, the ways we experience him & receive from him. Let’s rejoice with him in the good times & let him carry us through the bad. That way we can experience “the boundless riches of Christ, and [help] to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known;” in Sunderland, in Roker, in our own lives.

Amen