Tag Archives: St. Peter’s

Last Friday…

This sermon was preached at the St. Andrew’s 8am & St. Peter’s 11am Holy Communion services on 15th November 2015. The readings were Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-25 and Mark 13:1-8.

Our readings today direct our thoughts to the time when Jesus will return in glory to this world, His world. It’s appropriate for us to look at this today for a few reasons – next week we celebrate Christ the King, then enter Advent as we prepare ourselves for the coming of the King of Kings born into the world as a poor, homeless peasant child; and today we cast our minds back to this time last year as we bid our dear Ian farewell as he went on ahead of us to wait with Jesus for the end times.

Alongside that we have the devastating attacks that have taken place in Paris this Friday, where at least 129 people were brutally murdered while doing nothing more than enjoying an evening out.

At times like these it’s not unusual for our thoughts to turn to the end times – not just our own time, but the end of everybody’s time. On most days this seems so far off as to be inconsequential – but at others it seems so real, the line between this world and the next so thin, that we can almost touch it.

For some this is a comforting thought, for some it is downright terrifying. For some it would depend on what day of the week you asked them.

All three of our readings have elements of Jewish apocalyptic writing – a style that usually anticipates a great crisis to befall the world, but in light of a current crisis afflicting the people it’s written for.

It looks to explain what’s happening in the material world by talking of what is happening in the parallel spiritual realm, with everything happening on earth representing and matching up to a larger, heavenly struggle between good and evil. So it reads into earthly events cosmic significance, and anticipates future events on earth in light of the coming battle between the forces of God and the devil.

This attempt to make sense of current events and experiences by casting them in a larger, cosmic framework should, theoretically bringing comfort or reassurance to people who find themselves suffering or being oppressed. The problem with this style of writing comes, however, when the words are taken out of context and applied to any given situation being faced in a person, or peoples, lives. This is one of the biggest mistakes we make with the Bible full stop –  taking the words away from their original usage, meaning and intended audience & try to apply them with a large trowel to any situation we see fit.

This is not to say God does not speak to us through the Bible, that we won’t find passages that encourage, challenge, strengthen or comfort us, but to understand how they apply to us & what God wants us to take from them requires an understanding of why they were written in the first place. Otherwise it’s like taking the instructions for a washing machine & applying them to a tumble dryer – they’re both big white boxes with a window in the front, but they have different purposes despite their similarities.

And this is the point Jesus is making to His disciples in our Gospel reading today – not the thing about washing machines, obviously, but the warning not to try to lay specific words given for one situation over a different one, even if there are similarities.

To set the scene, chapter 12 of Mark’s Gospel has Jesus challenging the perceived authority of the religious elite at the temple.

Obviously Jesus is secure in the knowledge that God has supreme authority, but for his disciples to hear Him openly criticising the scribes and the Pharisees in public must have been a big indicator, a big wake up call, that their friend and teacher really was prepared to live and ultimately die to give glory to God the Father. With this in mind, I tend to hear the disciples acclamation about the wonderful stones and buildings in a tone of voice that says, “Teacher, have you seen this place. Are we seriously going to take this on?” In response to this, Jesus immediately plays down the perceived permanence of the Temple – after all, while the ancient holy place may have seemed immovable only God Himself is eternal, meaning everything else is temporary in comparison.

He then sits down with His closest companions and answers their very obvious follow-up question – when is this going to happen? To understand His answer again relies on knowing the context Mark was writing in. This Gospel is seen as the earliest of the four in the New Testament, probably written between AD 65-70, and is generally accepted to be the good news as recalled by Peter, which Mark wrote down. So, in light of the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70, which led to amongst other things the destruction of the Temple, this passage seems to be specifically addressing a given point in history.

Contrary to popular expectations in Jewish and Christian apocalyptic circles, war, catastrophe, persecution and the fall of Jerusalem and desecration of the Temple were not sure signs of the end of the world. Though these things had just occurred, ‘the end is not yet.’ The end of history is instead to be associated with the coming of the Son of Man in glory. From now on, for Christians, the return of Jesus replaces the Temple as the focal point of hope for the full realization of the Kingdom of God. The intention of the text is therefore to call the followers of Jesus – those sitting on the Mount of Olives, those reading the Gospel as the Temple was destroyed, and us sitting here today – to hope for the coming of the Christ the Lord.

You see, our situation today is similar to that of the first readers in at least one important respect: The historical signs which many people associate with the end of the world have occurred countless times by now, but the final coming of the Son of Man still lies in the future.

We should call Mark 13 to mind whenever we see news articles, hear broadcasts or even come across people or preachers brandishing calculations that conclude, “This is the time!…” When we read about the Paris attacks, when we see the news footage, it’s easy to believe the world is broken and it’s time to scrap it and start again. But this is where our historical situation is quite different from that of the first readers. The cosmos did not collapse, nor did the Son of Man come in clouds with great power during the lifetime of the Twelve, or during any of horrific events of the past, meaning our Gospel passage offers us a balance. It both gently corrects and reigns in apocalyptic enthusiasm on one hand, while challenging jaded scepticism on the other.

But more than that, this passage also reminds us that, in reality, Jesus will return. Maybe the trumpet is set to sound in about 6 billion years, when scientists predict the Sun’s core will run out of hydrogen, leading it to collapse then grow in size, consuming the orbits of Mercury, Venus and eventually the Earth as well. Or maybe the world will end tomorrow, or the next day – “No one knows when that day and hour will come” as Jesus reminds us in Matthew’s Gospel. So there is never a better time to seek to repair, restore, or even begin a relationship with Jesus – than right now.

This understanding of the need to watch, expectantly, for the return of Christ should help us realize that we really do need to be mindful of God’s presence in our own lives, and allow Him to act through them.

It may be that some of us here need to start believing, really believing, that actually Jesus really does love you; that He really did die for you and would have done even if you were the only person to ever have existed.

Some of us may need to realise that our sins can, and have, been forgiven.

Some of us may need to reach the conclusion that there will never be the ‘right’ time to have the conversation about faith with our friend, loved one or work colleague that we keep putting off, despite the Holy Spirit tugging at our sleeve like a toddler wanting a biscuit every time we see them.

But all of us need to realise that whatever we are facing at the moment, whatever trials or triumphs, pains or pleasures fill our waking and our sleeping, Jesus is right there with us through them, and is preparing us each day for the journey home to be with Him.

Friday’s atrocities may seem like the beginning of the end – in the apocalyptic narrative they serve as a reminder of the fragility of our earthly existence. But the Good News of Jesus Christ should remind us – should convict us – that no matter what happens in this world, the cosmic battle between good and evil has already been won. Death has been destroyed by the resurrection, so we can stand with confidence and proclaim that these terrorists, committing acts of evil while hiding behind a false interpretation of the Islamic faith, may at worst destroy our mortal bodies, but can never take our eternal soul.

The writer to the Hebrews captured this perfectly in our reading today.

“We have a great priest in charge of the house of God. So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water. Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.”

Our hope is founded on the glorious reality that Jesus lived, died and rose again to set us free from sin and death.

We can confidently welcome the stranger, stand firm with the oppressed and marginalised, whatever their background or beliefs, and all because our hope does not rely on mortal men but on the grace and power of the eternal God.

An easy way “to help one another to show love and to do good” is by example, by the way we talk about those who are fleeing the very terrorists who are claiming responsibility for the Paris attacks, or by how we relate to those in our communities who, over the next few weeks, will find their lives made even more difficult purely because their faith has been hijacked, twisted and defamed by people looking for an excuse to kill and destroy.

As Martin Luther King Jr once said:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Our job, especially as we approach the reflective season of Advent, is to listen to Him, help those around us to do the same, and shine His light of love into the darkness of our world as we continually watch for His return in glory.

Amen.

MLK jr

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The Greatest Mam?

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am Eucharist on 15th March 2015 – Mothering Sunday. It was part of our series working, as a parish, through Tom Wright’s “Lent for Everyone – Mark (Year B)” book. With this in mind, the readings were Numbers 21:4-9, Ephesians 2:1-10 & Mark 9:33-41.

So, Mothering Sunday is upon us, and up and down the country we are celebrating the truly remarkable people who we have the privilege to call Mam – whether they are with us or not, their love & care helped make us who we are today. I’m fortunate to have a good relationship with my Mam – or Mum as I should call her or if she reads this she’ll tell me off for talking funny – and truly blessed to have such an amazing wife and unbelievably good mother to our children. Then, take my mother-in-law – somebody, please, take her… no, I’m joking. Since moving to this part of the world she’s looked out for me like her own son.

But for some, it is a day to quietly acknowledging the pain, the difficulty, even the anger that came out of our maternal relationship, or our relationship with our own bairns, or the children we never got to meet. I think, just as for some the image of God the Father is wrapped up in the mess that was their relationship with their own earthly dad, days like today are, for some, a reminder of what never was, or what might have been.

Of course, many of us here know Mothering Sunday originated during the sixteenth century, when people went “a-mothering” – that is, they returned to their mother church, the main church or cathedral of the area, for a service. In later years, it became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. Children would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers, something which eventually evolved into the Mother’s Day tradition of boosting Hallmark & Thornton’s profits – sorry, of giving gifts to mothers.

Many of these cards run along the same lines – “World’s Greatest Mum,” “You’re The Best,” “If Mam’s Were Flowers, I’d Pick You,” that kind of thing. And they sell like hot cakes because that’s how we like to think of, or remember, our Mam – as the greatest. To affirm their role in our lives, to show them we value them and possibly disguise the fact that for the other 364 days of the year we kind of take them for granted. Those Mam’s here today – when you receive a card like this, how does it make you feel? What does the sentiment mean? Because what I think we’re saying, and hopefully hearing, in these cards isn’t the world’s usual definition of being the greatest. Some say their Mam is great because of the way she is or was always there when needed, a constant presence to talk to, confide in, sooth hurts or give encouragement and praise. Some say it’s because of her cooking ability, or at least the provision of food, comfort, warmth, shelter – ♪ ♫ the bare necessities, the simple bare necessities ♫ ♪ – but done in her special way with love & care. For some it’s the sense of protection, sticking up for us when we need it – and then, shall we be diplomatic and say encourage us to re-evaluate our behaviour, but always done to help us learn from our mistakes and to inspire us to be the best version of ourselves we can be.

Interesting, isn’t it. Especially when we look at these ideas alongside our Gospel passage – not thrown up as a suitable reading by the lectionary but here as it’s the next in our Lenten journey together through Tom Wright’s book. The disciples are having an argument about who is the greatest. Ironically, given what is about to be said, it’s a bit like one of those arguments kids have – “my Dad’s bigger than your Dad,” “Sunderland are better than Newcastle,(though not Aston Villa, obviously)” “I bet I can spit the furthest,” you know the kind of thing. The wonderful Sir Terry Pratchett, who sadly passed away this week, wrote in his novel Hogfather

“It was nice to hear the voices of little children at play, provided you took care to be far enough away not to hear what they were actually saying.”

So Jesus, assuming the role of parent, sits them down & explains how the world is supposed to work. Being the greatest isn’t about how much power we wield, what we possess, our status or how many people bow to us. It’s not even about how many years we’ve come to church. It’s about how we are with each other. It’s about putting others first. It’s about love.

He then uses a child to drive home his point. What can be seen as less powerful, less important in a worldly, material sense, than a child? They don’t provide anything of material worth, they just consume. They don’t cook or clean or bring reasoned, rational debate – but they do bring laughter, comfort, tears, heartbreak and love. Bairns, our own and other peoples, keep us grounded and realistic by the way they wear their hearts on their sleeves and ask the awkward questions that we as adults are too tactful, or too scared to ask. Why do we do it that way? Why can’t I eat the sweet things before the main meal? Why do you tell me I need to love my neighbour when you just called Mr Smith at 23 that word I’m not supposed to say…

It has been a real privilege to be here when children come round to visit this church with their schools, and the work the education group has put in so far has been amazing. The children feel welcomed, at home & remark with wonder on the building and the history and ask questions about God & Christianity. Sometimes they are noisy, sometimes the questions seem a bit silly, but they are usually asked with honesty and a desire to understand.

I wonder if today, when we walked in here for the service, we felt a sense of wonder, excitement, anticipation about being in this place, coming to worship, speak to and hear from the living God?

If not, can we remember the last time we did? Did we come here to give as well as receive – not just financially, but our hearts, our attention, our praise & thanks? Did we come here to serve as well as to be served?

The Church as an institution, the church as us, the body of Christ, has a great deal in common with a Mother. It is, or should be, always there when needed, with not just the clergy but also fellow members of our church family a constant presence to talk to, confide in, sooth hurts or give encouragement and praise. It provides food – spiritually, metaphorically and physically – as well as comfort, warmth and shelter – with love & care. It gives a sense of protection, sticking up for us when we need it – occasionally encouraging us to re-evaluate our behaviour, but always in a way to help us learn from our mistakes and to inspire us to be the best version of ourselves we can be, through the love of Jesus and the presence of His Holy Spirit with us, as well as the through the accountability of our loving, non-judgmental relationships with each other and all who come to us. At least, it should.

And I think, a lot of the time, it does. But just as some of us here may struggle with difficult, even painful memories on Mothering Sunday, some have been hurt by fellow Christians, or by the Church itself. Perhaps some of us fear we have hurt others somewhere down the line? Maybe it was done with the best of intentions, but nonetheless have made them feel they are not welcome – possibly in this church, possibly in God’s family.

And if we recognize any of that, today is as good as any to ask God to help us forgive that hurt, to seek reconciliation and set right those things that have gone wrong, and begin to seek again that sense of loving relationship that a church family can bring, that blessing we as St. Peter’s can be to the whole community.

So today, I want to finish with two things. Firstly, we should give thanks for mothers everywhere – especially our own – and pray for those who find today hard for so many reasons. And secondly, a bit of a challenge. Are we ready and willing to be parented – to be loved and valued as much as the greatest mother loves her children, to come with childlike awe & wonder into God’s presence again? And are we ready to parent all those whom Christ puts in our path to care for, both inside & outside of this Church?

Lent is a pretty good time to think about this kind of stuff. And, although it seems really tough, I truly believe we can do this together. Don’t just take my word for it – as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we can do this because

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. By grace we have been saved. He raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”

Amen

Mothering Sunday 2

So, This Is Christmas…

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s Midnight Eucharist on 24th-25th December 2014 – Christmas Day. The readings were Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4,5-12 and  John 1:1-14

So, this is Christmas. And what have you done?

Are you hanging up your stockings on your wall? It’s the time when every Santa has a ball.

For every mother’s child, is gonna spy, to see if reindeer, really know how to fly.

Are you waiting for the family to arrive? Are you sure you’ve got the room to spare inside?

With logs on the fire & gifts on the tree, a time to rejoice in the good that we see.

Music, for good and for bad, surrounds us at this time of year, and it’s amazing how these songs have become part of the fabric of Christmas for so many of us, for society in general. But there’s one song we hear a lot, in many different versions – in fact that I heard being sung on this very spot at the Dame Dorothy Christingle last week – that I believe to be one of the scariest songs ever written.

I think you’ll all know it – a little ditty called “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” It’s a great Christmas song, especially the way Bruce Springsteen does it, but have you ever stopped to think about the lyrics.

“You’d better watch out. You’d better not cry. You’d better not pout, I’m telling you why.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.

Santa Claus is coming to town.

He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.

He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!”

I mean, that’s positively terrifying. Who is this fat bearded man & what is he going to do to me & my kids?!?! I really don’t think it does Santy justice to be fair. But however you look at it, the message is clear – he’s coming.

Now, this isn’t the only song with this problem – and it’s not just with pop music where we get caught up with the tune and the feeling we get from the music without taking stock, thinking about, the words we’re singing along to. Jerusalem, anyone?

John, in our reading tonight, is reminding us that there is power in words. But, more than that, there is great power in The Word. As you read through John’s gospel, there are occasions where Jesus spells out who he is to those around Him – particularly in the I Am sayings, also in other things He says & does – but still they didn’t get it.

“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

The religious people, even His own disciples, missed things that, to us, in hindsight, seem obvious. Or do they? We talk about a lot of Jesus life in church, we sing about it, read it in the liturgy printed in our service sheets, live in a society whose laws and customs and public holidays are primarily built around the teachings and life of Jesus – but do we actually get it. Do we want to get it?

Some carols suffer from the theological equivalent of the Santa Claus is coming problem – to be fair, some are not the most accurate description of the nativity accounts, of the coming of the Christ-child. But as we sing along, the message is clear – He’s coming. He came.

God became man; the Word, present at the beginning of the world, who set all things into being at the dawn of time, became flesh, walked among us and remains with us today through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Are we willing to take these words, this Word, on board? Because Jesus is not just for Christmas. As we follow His growth from baby in a manger to crucified man to resurrected saviour through the Church year, do we have the courage to follow Him in our daily lives, to make room for in our hearts & not try and keep him parked in the stable round the back, to be visited at Christmas and on our terms, but not allowed to make a huge impact on our lives, like an awkward relative.

As He said himself, Jesus is the light of the world. Dare we allow that light to brighten our lives, to brighten the lives of others, this Christmas?

Dare we give the gift of Christ to our friends, families, communities this Christmas, this coming year, this lifetime? As Isaiah says,

“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation”

Do we dare to be that messenger?

So sing along loudly to your favourite tunes this Christmas, but as you belt out the words, take a moment to consider the Word who became flesh; a helpless, vulnerable bairn in a barn, for you – because he loves you.

Who lived and died and rose again for you – because He loves you. Because He loves us, loves me, loves you.

So hark now hear the angels sing, a king was born today. And man will live forever more because of Christmas Day.

Amen.

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Advent 4.0: A Good Sermon To Die Hard

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am Eucharist on 21st December 2014 – the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The readings were 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, Romans 16:25-27 and Luke 1:26-38.

Your starter for ten – what’s my favourite Christmas movie…

Die Hard. Yep. That’s right. Die Hard. It’s tricky to do the film justice in a paragraph, but it’s widely recognised as one of the greatest action films of all times, turned Bruce Willis from a comic actor into a Hollywood tough guy & is referenced to this day in movies, comedies & cinematic in-jokes.

For those who’ve never seen it, or haven’t for a while, Bruce Willis is Detective Lieutenant John McClane, a New York City police officer who has travelled to Los Angeles in the hope of reconciling with his estranged wife Holly at her office Christmas party. While he is changing his clothes the building is taken over by terrorists, led by the excellent Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber, who are looking to steal the $640 million in bonds in the company vault. They hold the employees hostage, execute the boss & set about their elaborate plan, not reckoning on the tough cop lurking unseen in the building. McClane sets about taking out the terrorists & trying to rescue the captives while the LAPD & FBI try unsuccessfully to sort out the situation their way.

Some of you may think this is a strange choice, especially for a man of the cloth. But, as we see in our Gospel passage today, the old “God moves in mysterious ways” cliché really holds water.

To many of us the annunciation in Luke is a familiar story. But, like so many of our readings at this time of year, their familiarity can lead us to miss their significance as we rush headlong to the manger and the birth of Christ. In it we see a really human reaction to an extraordinary spiritual event. Luke emphasises Mary’s response to the angel – the response of a young woman, promised in marriage & old enough to know where babies come from, who knows what is expected of her when she is wed… and the consequences of what happens to girls who are seen to have done such things before they are married. Yet she is somebody who is innocent enough, possibly naïve enough, to trust the angel’s words, to accept them wholeheartedly, and to allow God’s will to be done through her. But just stop a moment and consider Mary. She isn’t at all an obvious choice for this job. While it’s true for Christ to be both fully human & fully divine he has to be born of a woman, why one unmarried? Why one so young? Why create such scandal?!

At this point she doesn’t know how Joseph will react – we know the punishment for a woman caught in adultery, spelled out very clearly in Leviticus 20:10 and John 8. There was a strong possibility Joseph could just get the stones out – she can only trust he’ll do the right thing. And although society has moved on from that point of view, at least in the west, we shouldn’t forget how some girls and women who fell pregnant outside of wedlock were treated by those claiming to represent God even within some of our lifetimes. You only need to read or watch ‘Philomena’ to get an idea.

So Mary only has her faith in God, her trust in the angelic messenger, to carry her forward.

Surely her cousin Elizabeth would be the far better choice – respectably married to a priest in the line of Aaron, barren and “in her old age” so able to provide the ‘miraculous’ element of the birth – maybe calling to mind Sarah and Abraham, to give the establishment something to hang the story on to? A far more sensible, “White Christmas,” “It’s A Wonderful Life” kind of choice.

But God needs to create the scandal – He needs there to be no doubt in Mary’s mind the Christ-child has been conceived of the Holy Spirit & not of man. So Mary through her willingness ends up carrying the weight and expectation of the whole of Israel and, ultimately, the whole of humanity. She accepts what is said as true and allows Jesus to make His home inside her, with the full knowledge that one act will change not just her life forever, but also the lives of those around her too. And when we read this passage alongside the section of 2 Samuel we just heard, it strikes me that since the beginnings of the people of Israel, since the Exodus where they became God’s chosen, He sought to be amongst His people in amazing, new and unexpected ways – appearing in the burning bush, leading and guiding them in pillars of cloud and flame, giving assurances of his presence in the Ark of the covenant. But as time went on, the people sought ways, for good or ill, to contain God and keep Him set apart in a special place where they could go and worship, but at an appropriate distance.

David has the bright idea of settling God in a house – after all, God has blessed him with a safe & settled place, so why should he not repay the favour. But God turns this around –

“Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.”

This as a king is a great thing to hear for David – ideas of a long lineage & settled kingdom for the people of Israel may have filled His head. But God is getting at something even more amazing. Think of the opening chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, tracing “the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

Eventually Solomon does build a temple, the Hebrew people come & go across the centuries, the temple is rebuilt after destruction, and God does live with them, remains with them, through their trials, troubles & triumphs – but through the incarnation, the word made flesh through Mary’s willingness to accept the task given to her, God finds a new way to dwell with his people – by dwelling in His people.

But I can’t help thinking we, all these centuries later, have begun to make the same mistakes as our spiritual ancestors. Standing here, opposite that amazing wall, you can almost feel the centuries of prayer, blessing and worship surrounding us – the great cloud of witnesses joining with us this day and every time we meet here to glorify the risen Lord. But if the Christmas story, if Mary’s story, teaches us anything, it’s that God’s plan for His creation is to live in us, work through us, thanks to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and His gift of the Holy Spirit.

Just as Mary chose to let the Christ come to birth in her & through her, we are challenged to avoid leaving God in church as we walk out on a Sunday, avoid leaving Jesus in the manger as we pack away the Christmas decorations, and let Him be born in us today and every day.

Think back to where we started. The whole plot of Die Hard revolves around John McClane being the only one who can save those who are held captives – as he is on the inside. We all face varying degrees of darkness inside ourselves. Some things, some people on the outside help, and some hinder. But without the presence of the saviour within, the darkness has more opportunity to overrun, to seek to hold captive or even to destroy the good. Part of the climax of the film – so close your ears if you don’t want to spoil it – is the terrorists take all the hostages up to the roof in an apparent concession to the authorities. In fact, they plan to blow up the roof, killing the hostages & faking their own deaths so they can escape. What looks like a path to freedom, created by the goodness in society, is actually the path to destruction.

Only the saviour on the inside can rescue them from this and lead them to freedom. Only the true saviour, Jesus Christ, can lead us to real freedom by His Holy Spirit living in us. To accept this can seem a big ask. It has scary consequences – the metaphorical sticks and stones may be thrown in our direction, the terrorists and elements of darkness won’t like the light emanating from us and will seek to extinguish it. But as we just heard from the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans,

“God is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed.”

As advent draws to a close, as we prepare to celebrate the light of the world breaking through the darkness, dare we follow Mary’s example & accept God’s will, allow the Holy Spirit to be poured out upon us and let Jesus Christ, the son of God, make His home in us, make us His holy temple, and build His kingdom in and around us?

So don’t pray for the courage of a vest-wearing New York cop – pray for the courage of a young Middle Eastern virgin. Don’t look for help from a tough guy with guns and explosives, but from a defenceless baby in a manger. We don’t need an action hero, but we do need a saviour.

Amen.

Black (and Blue) Friday

This sermon was preached at St. Peter’s 11am and St. Andrew’s 6pm services on 30th November, the First Sunday of Advent. The readings were Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Corinthians 1:3-9, and Mark 13:24-37.

It amazes me that, amongst all the pre-Christmas hype that starts from back around mid-August, as shops push harder & harder to remind us of the true meaning of the season –

spending shed loads of money on stuff we don’t really need, eating & drinking enough to sustain us through the first few days of the New Year’s resolution diet, maybe something about penguins?

– that the advent calendar remains popular to this day. Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that the majority of them aren’t purchased to countdown to presents & Santy, or to provide the excuse for that early morning chocolate fix we miss through the other 11 months of the year.

In fact, this year the “Ship of Fools” website asked readers to vote for the best/worst (depending on the way you see it) Badvent calendar – the calendar that was furthest from the true meaning of Christmas as could be. Nominations included a Barbie calendar with accessories for everybody’s favourite disproportionate doll behind each door; a heavy metal calendar with a hard-rocking Santa sitting on a spiky seat, foot resting on a reindeer skull – well maybe after all the glasses of sherry he’d fancied a “Donner” kebab…; or maybe he’d been working through the whisky advent calendar, yours for just £149.99 with a different dram behind each door – maybe perfect for St. Andrew’s day, if we want to use racial stereotypes? And then there’s the palatial mini-manor fold out calendar with 24 different nail polishes, probably for when Mary had her feet up on the back of the donkey & blinging up to meet the kings.

The eventual winner was by our friends at Ann Summers, featuring a naked man reclining by a Christmas tree, eyes smouldering into the camera just inviting you to remove the strategically placed present. Behind each door resides chocolate recreations of various bodily parts – and no, not hands, ears, or spleens. I was going to say use your imaginations, but actually don’t!

So all across the land, a huge number of people are, for fair means or foul, counting down to, waiting for, Christmas.

And despite our national obsession with queuing, we as a nation aren’t very good at waiting anymore.

We’ve moved from the satisfying crackle & hiss of a proper record starting up, (that’s vinyl for the young hipsters amongst us), the sound of anticipation filling our ears as we gently placed the needle into the groove, to the CD with its crystal clarity and ability to skip to wherever we wanted to be, to the digital download where we get the music instantly available without even leaving the house or waiting for the postman. We can get strawberries in December and Easter eggs in January. Instant credit, payday loans and BrightHouse finance deals mean we can get the goods we want without the hassle of saving up so we can afford them.

But these things all come at a cost. Digital music means more illegal downloads to the point where it’s reckoned that 42 per cent of people surveyed believe its ok to illegally download music and films for personal use. This rises to 57 per cent among those aged between 15 and 24-years-old.

It’s estimated one site, set up by a lad from North Shields, cost the music industry £240 million. Growing strawberries all year round, or shipping them across from overseas, has financial and environmental implications. And as the Archbishop of Canterbury is keen to highlight, the credit industry boom is costing people more than just the thousands of percent interest they are charged.

And then we get on to Black Friday. Anyone who saw the news on Friday & Saturday of shoppers’ queuing for hours to get into stores at a minute past midnight to fight over tellys with £50 off must think the world had gone mad.

“Darling, Happy Christmas. You wouldn’t believe how many people I had to punch to get you that…”

But it’s a sign of how our perspective can be so easily shifted by the society around us – things are a bit more subtle than the “don’t forget the Fruit Gums, mum” slogans of old, but shops have been winding up the populous over the last few weeks for these “once in a lifetime” deals, then herding them around like cattle (in some places) before producing a small pallet of limited stock. Somebody I know put a picture on Facebook – the top half was people clamoring for some electrical goods on sale in Manchester, the bottom people in a third world country reaching out for food.

And do you know what. Some people will have bagged a bargain. And I’m happy for them. Some will have to look at themselves in the mirror the next day & contemplate their behavior. I pray for them. But there’s a very good chance that an awful lot of people will find that deal they fought so hard for, in some cases literally, will be repeated later in December, or in the Boxing day sales, or the thing was cheaper online or in a different store, and they’ll feel cheated – if only I’d checked, taken my time, waited…

So waiting is sometimes a good thing, and Advent is the season where we wait, we anticipate the arrival of the Son of God. And we watch. Advent is a time to make ourselves ready for the coming king, to prepare ourselves. We’ve spoken a few times over the last few weeks about anticipating the return of Jesus, and how believers in Christ, those already walking with Him and in relationship should not fear the Day of the Lord as we are already children of the light, and have been given gifts befitting of this status – but also the great responsibility for the building of His kingdom this brings with it.

Advent affords us the opportunity to really focus this waiting, to consciously set time to prepare ourselves.

There is so much darkness around in our world at the moment, and I don’t know about you but sometimes I think we all must feel just like Isaiah at the start of our Old Testament reading today:

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!”

If only God would come down, break into the here & now & solve the problems, stop the wars, heal the sick, make everyone kneel before him. But then, as we look at our own lives, our fears, those little dark corners where the things we’re not proud of or unsure of lurk and hide – so maybe we don’t want that just now; maybe it’s easy to see where Isaiah was coming from when he continues,

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

This is all quite scary stuff. If only I had some time to prepare. I don’t know the day or the hour, but if only there was a way of making a difference in my own life, someone who could help me make the changes that would put those wrong things right, that would help me to make a positive difference on those around me, to help them to find the way, the truth, the light in these dark times:

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

He is with us, he can help us to be the people he has called us to be, to be the change we want to see. “In every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s words give us hope that we are equipped for the task. Yes, it can be painful – facing the truth can be like turning on a lamp first thing in the morning, when the light burns your eyes and leaves you blinking. But then, as our vision clears, we see things as they really are. And that’s important – we need to be prepared, which is why “He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So my request this advent is we all try to commit to one thing that will help us prepare for Christmas – really prepare for Christmas. I’m going to read “Walking Backwards To Christmas” by Stephen Cottrell, which tells the Christmas story in reverse-chronological order, helping to get to grips with the darkness in the narrative as a counterbalance to the way we usually approach the nativity. But find something that works for you – Bible readings, a devotional book, music, art – just approach it sincerely, prayerfully and dare to allow the Spirit to move within you as you do it.

Mark’s Gospel reminds us

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

We see the darkness around us. The whole of creation is straining to see “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.” Let us prepare ourselves, as his elect whom the angels will be sent to gather, for His coming. For God is faithful; by him each one of us has been called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”

He will find us ready because, if we let Him, he will help to make us ready. Amen

Relight My Fire

This sermon was preached on 16th November at St. Andrew’s 9:30am (in a slightly edited form) and St. Peter’s 11am services. The readings were Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 and Matthew 25:14-30.

When I worked in the bank I knew of a customer who insisted his money was safer at home than with us. He maintained an account solely to receive his pension electronically, then would withdraw the lot and, after paying his bills, hide it around the house. Eventually he died, rather unexpectedly, and his adult children cleared out his house. They brought in over £11,000 in cash that they had discovered in various places around his home. Some was out of date, where the notes had been re-issued. Some was dirty & smelly. Some was badly scorched – it had been hidden in a light fitting which had set fire to the cash when it was switched on by the unsuspecting heirs. The children, though surprised at what they’d found, were also a little miffed. “He could have done so much for himself & others with this,” they said. “Why did he just hide it away?”

The section of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians we just heard picks up on last weeks’ readings theme of being ready for the Lord’s coming – of not knowing when we will see the Lord face to face, be it in this life or the next.

But he takes it a step further. When we casually read this passage the phrase “like a thief in the night” has a tendency, I think, to kind of wash over us. It’s become a common expression, possibly conjuring up Take That’s “Relight My Fire” (But like a thief in the night, you took away the love that I knew…)

But, when you think about it, the thought is actually almost as scary as my singing.

“When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them.”

It’s the middle off the night, the very point we think we at our most secure, locked tightly in the house & snugly settled in our beds. Suddenly, the peace is shattered by a window breaking, a door being kicked down, and somebody has broken in, taking what we thought was ours, leaving us scared, vulnerable, violated. Think how much the customer we just spoke of must have feared such an event. It is that kind of image Paul wants to bring to mind – that sudden lurch from the normal banality of the everyday to the sudden crescendo of THE day of the Lord.

And here at St. Peter’s many of us know that feeling, as we’re going through it right now. We are facing a time of great change already. Around us great material works are happening. But perhaps the biggest change is the loss of our dear brother Ian. He is irreplaceable, in many, many ways, and things will never be the same without him. His passing into glory leaves a big hole in all our lives and, for some of us, not just the upset of losing a loved one but the fear that this place, this church, will not be able to cope without him.

And it’s ok to feel like that. The fear we have lost a big part of our identity as a church – not just Ian’s work and faith but his distinctive music as well – makes us feel suddenly less secure in the church we belong to. And ultimately the church should be a place where we are safe and secure, where we trust the people around us will love and care for us as we love and care for them, where we can speak freely, confident that what we say will not become gossip-fuel or used as a rod to beat us with, where we will be forgiven mistakes and be prepared to apologise ourselves when we mess up.

And Paul alludes to that as the letter continues – he wants the people of Thessalonica to have confidence in their identity as believers in a time when the outside world seems to at best see them as deluded and at worst see them as a threat or troublemakers – as I’ve said before, his was not an easy time to be a Christian. To stand apart from the cultic norms of society could lead to at best social separation, but also the possibility of stoning as an atheist.

So Paul wants them, wants us, to realise the full scale of what is to come, and the urgency with which we should treat the Lord’s coming – but also to offer reassurance that the dramatic events of the day of the Lord shouldn’t worry believers, as we are children of the day – not we will become, or hope to be, but are children of the day. We are not stuck in darkness like those who do not know the Lord, but are fully awake, alert to the imminent coming of Jesus and living out our lives accordingly. At least, we should be. Because God has given us the tools to be prepared.

This translation doesn’t quite make Paul’s point in the way it was intended. “Let us be sober, and put on…” sounds like we are being told off for not wearing them, like mornings in my house as I try to get the kids into their school uniforms.

The original Greek is more like we are actually already clothed in the breastplate of faith and love and the helmet of the hope of salvation. These three are granted to us as gifts from God – faith in the promises of the Good News of Jesus, confidence that leads us to turn to follow Christ, and love that embodies that faith in concrete actions both in and out of our Christian community. And, as Paul wrote elsewhere, “the greatest of these is love.”

But read alongside our passage from Matthew’s Gospel, we suddenly realise the challenge in Paul’s words. The parable of the talents is often used to remind us to use the gifts & skills God has blessed us with in His service. And that’s not a bad reading of it. Each one of us here has amazing, God given gifts. When we use them, we glorify Him and are never more ourselves, more the person we were created to be, than when we use our talents in His service. And as we’ve just heard, even if we feel at times we have no gifts, that we are not in any way, shape or form able to measure up to the Saints and superheroes we think we see around us,

Paul tells us God has granted us three amazing gifts as believers – and that’s just for starters! But that’s not the whole story here.

With great power comes great responsibility, as Voltaire (or possibly Spiderman’s Uncle Ben), once said. We are called to further the kingdom of God, to let people know the greatest story ever told, to “make disciples of all nations” as we are commissioned to do at the end of Matthew’s Gospel. This parable speaks to us of the gift of the Holy Spirit, God Himself with us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and our call to share that presence, that hope, with all we meet. We are challenged to not just take our knowledge of the Good News and keep it to ourselves. To create our own “personal Jesus,” if you like.

God cares deeply for, died horrifically for, each of us in this church today. But also for each and every person out there today – those still in bed, those at work, those playing or watching football. But the problem is, a lot of them don’t know that. A lot of people think they know about Christianity, or church.

A lot of people are stuck with the view that Christianity is, to quote the Alpha course, boring irrelevant and untrue. We have the means to change that perception. Are we willing to take up the challenge?

If I asked for a show of hands as to who would like to see this church grow, to see more people here in this service every week, to see more money in the collection plate, I’m sure I’d see a positive response from everybody. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, the reality of proper church growth is a scary thing. Because unless we mean we want more people who are just like us, growth inevitably leads to change. Every addition to the body of Christ in this place means one more living, breathing, thinking person, with their own ideas and preferences and the possibility that the Holy Spirit may work through them, as he can through us. So, if we’re not careful, we can find ourselves caught in the paradoxical whirlpool of hoping the church grows around us while staying exactly the same as it always has.

Now this isn’t the curate trying to set up a raft of new things for next year, or to scare off any of you amazing, faithful people who contribute so much to the life of this church. It’s certainly not the curate trying to make us move on from Ian’s passing too quickly. It’s just a little question to ponder as we struggle to cope with the changes we face. Do we really want to be a church that grows, that truly is welcoming to all who God calls to walk with us? Because I know, just as the church in Thessalonica new, the outside world can be a scary place. But, as those who have taken up my “read the Gospel of John” challenge know, Jesus said “But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.”

As I mentioned last week I gave a copy of John’s Gospel to each pupil of Seaburn Dene Primary school last week for Armistice Day, and asked them to read it. At break time afterwards, a girl from year 4 ran up and said “Reverend Child, I’m up to chapter 4 already.” All the teachers, and the other staff, also wanted one. Somebody asked if they could have more than one for a friend. I was asked in the playground by some adults if they could have their own copy.

People have been telling me all week they have been looking at it, reading it. Does this mean they will all come flooding through the doors of this church? No, probably not – though we will have their school choir here for the Christmas Presence service on the 7th December, and Years 6 and 3 will both be paying visits here before the end of the year. So it does show that all around us, in this community, in this Parish, people are willing to engage with the church, and more importantly with Jesus, if we give them the chance. Are we willing to give them the chance? What if they did suddenly come flooding in?

The Church is not a rest home for Saints, but a lifeboat for sinners. Are we prepared to look honestly at the way we do church and ask if it is welcoming to the stranger, relevant to the society around us, and then do something about what we find? Or are we happy to bury the treasure God has given us deep down, and on the last day give it back to Him and hope that was all He wanted.

The nights are drawing in. Will we choose to leave our community to face the darkness, the darkness we ourselves may fear we’re facing at this time, or are we willing to ask the Lord to relight our fire, to allow Him to fill us with His Spirit, to make us beacons of hope in our communities that guide His people back to Him, then trust He will guide us safely through the change to come?

Amen

“To Be Read Daily”

This sermon for Remembrance Sunday was preached at St. Peter’s 11am service. The readings were Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-251 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Matthew 25:1-13.

This Tuesday I’ll be going into Seaburn Dene Primary School to conduct their Remembrance Day assembly. This is a great privilege for me – to stand in front of the rows of waiting, expectant faces and lead them in a time of silence, reflection and, dare I say it, prayer, as we join with the rest of the country in silence. And this year, in memory of the start of the First World War, I have the extra special honour of giving each child a copy of St. John’s Gospel, designed to look like the copies that were handed out to each serviceman as they were sent to war 100 years ago. The front cover commands the Gospel is “to be read daily,” and I will encourage those in front of me to do just that.

It’s a wonderful image, isn’t it? All the Tommy’s packing up their Old Kit Bags and, because they were all good Church-attending young men, sitting down daily to absorb the wonderfully written Fourth Gospel, steeling themselves to battle the evil sent to destroy them and all that was decent by the Kaiser.

 

But, truth be told, although many more people probably did attend church on a Sunday in pre-war 1914, reading the Bible away from this social & habitual act may not have been very high up the list of many of the population, especially those on the front line. Many of those given out to service personnel were kept as talismans – a common remark being, “Yes, I’ll ‘ave one, sir; you never know your luck, it might stop a bullet!”

According to the Anglican chaplain GA Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known as “Woodbine Willie,” the attitude of most soldiers to the Bible was akin to the way “a decent man thinks about his Grandmother. It’s ancient, and therefore demands respect; but it is utterly out of date and cannot be taken seriously, except by parsons.”

But, as with the congregations of the past – as with the congregations of today – some took the whole thing a lot more seriously than that. For some the church wasn’t just where they went because it was what was expected, or what you do on a Sunday, or even their primary social occasion.

For some, even while ensconced in the trenches, their faith was as alive as Jesus Himself, and the Bible their inspiration, their comfort and their joy. For others, being suddenly walking a much thinner line between life and death, the things they had heard Sunday after Sunday began to resonate, and they explored the Scriptures properly for the first time, thanks in part to those who had the foresight to provide them with the Gospels in the first place. Cyril Falls of the 36th (Ulster) Division remembered “It was not uncommon to find a man sitting on the fire-step of a front-line trench, reading one of the small copies of the New Testament which were issued to the troops by the people at home. The explanation was that, on one hand, religion was near and real to them; on the other, that they were simple men. They saw no reason to hide or disguise that which was part of their daily lives.”

So it is men and boys like these we remember today, and will stand and remember on Tuesday, alongside the many brave men and women whose lives have been lost in conflicts since “The War To End All Wars.”

But as the years go by the majority of those who actually remember World War 1, who lived through it, have passed away. Our memories come from the stories they told, mainly recorded in books. And this is a timely reminder that our Christian history is recorded for us in the very Bibles we have just been talking about. In it we find a collection of works, each written by at least one person, thousands of years ago. Each of the 66 books is a snapshot into the lives of our ancestors and the development of our understanding of God – what the people believed was important to record about Him, what He inspired them to do and write and remember. But unlike the history books recording the war, the Bible has something more. We can learn from the mistakes and successes of the past, but the Bible gives us a means of listening to God’s will for our lives today, a way He can guide us to fulfilling our full potential and prepare us for His coming in glory or the time we go home to be with Him for eternity.

That’s pretty mind blowing stuff, when you think about it. God speaks to us through the Bible.

Stop a moment and let the thought marinade for a bit.

It’s one of those things that those of us who have a Christian faith probably already know, but the magnitude of this statement is lost in its familiarity.

As we just heard, Paul wrote “we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” We have been given access to a huge amount of God-inspired writing which touches every part of the human condition – birth, death, love, hate, times when God seems distant or even against us, times when God is so real it’s too much to take. And on a day like today, one so loaded with emotion now amplified as we come to terms with the news of Ian’s death, that’s important. Jesus knew the pain of losing somebody close to Him, and wept despite knowing full well He was able to do something about it. It is with this knowledge that He walks alongside us today.

Paul, in his masterful way of writing the truth, brings us comfort at this time of remembrance in this letter –

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have died.” We know, as believers in the risen Lord, that death is not the end.

We have the sure and certain hope of being reunited with those who we love but see no more, something that must provide great comfort to those living through dark and terrifying times of war, and hopefully does for us today as we remember the loss of our dear brother Ian.

But there is also the reminder, in both this letter and the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, that we may not have to wait until our own physical death to be with Jesus. “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” As the foolish bridesmaids discovered to their cost, we do not know the hour the Lord will choose to return.

The Bible is big on remembrance. In a few moment we will break bread and pour wine in remembrance of the greatest sacrifice of all time – while the war to end all wars failed to live up to its billing, Jesus death to end all death was, and still is, a complete triumph, a resounding victory, whose effects are still felt two thousand years later.

Our act of remembrance does not point backwards to the past but points us to the future – our future, and the future of our family, our friends, our community, ultimately our world.

So keeping your Bible safely on the shelf, or tucked in your pocket like a talisman is all well and good – who knows, it might help stop one of life’s bullets – but to reach our full potential, to experience life in all its fullness means spending time actually reading, studying, even questioning the Bible.

So can I suggest – actually, can I urge each of us, myself included, to take up the challenge I’m setting the pupils of Seaburn Dene and read John’s Gospel over the next few weeks, albeit for the 1st time or the 51st time! Let’s allow ourselves to spend time with Jesus, the living Word, and learn from Him, listen to Him, work, rest and play with Him.

That way, as we ready ourselves for His coming, as we keep the lamps of our lives well-tended and burning brightly, we’ll suddenly discover we illuminate the lives of others, leading them with us to the ultimate feast.

Both today and Tuesday we remember those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. The whole purpose of our lives is to use that freedom to be in a relationship with our creator, and to further His kingdom on earth.

So as we hold before the Lord those who have gone before us, those who we love but see no more, let us commit them and ourselves into his strong, love-scarred hands. Let us strive to know Him more intimately, to love Him more deeply, so when the day comes that we ourselves are stood before Him, whenever that may be, He holds open the door and welcomes us home.

Amen