Thursday, 5 March 2020

Let your light shine

9th February 2020 at Great Brickhill


Reading—Isaiah 58

58 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Reading—1 Corinthians 2

2 And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God.[a] 2 For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. 4 My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, 5 so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

6 We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—the things God has prepared for those who love him—

10 these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. 13 This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words.

Gospel Matthew 5

Salt and Light

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The Fulfilment of the Law

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Sermon

A few years ago, Vicky gave me a book for Christmas. In reality, our presents are something we would both enjoy: after almost 48 years of marriage, we have run short of gift ideas. But this book was special: Vicky had painstakingly stuck a gold star against all the places we had visited, and identified other places on our bucket list.

My own ideas of travel destinations does not necessarily agree with the author of this book—but that’s perhaps not surprising. I tend to lose interest quite quickly when vising the Grand Canyon but am fascinated by Japan, and can spend hours discussing the merits of coloured stones displayed under water, or debating the wonders of the top ten gardens.

After the terrible sight of the receding ice cap and glaciers of Greenland, I am not sure I can justify any more trips but at least we have a book of gold stars to remember our past trips, and our new lifestyle in Wendover is compact.

Short haul, Eurostar, and small ship cruises are a more politically correct alternative. Recently we discovered an upside down lighthouse in Northern Ireland. And on two trips to Germany by boat I found a shop in Regensburg where they only stocked herbs, spices, pepper, salt and many other condiments in amazing profusion. One grinder dispensed pink sea salt and peppercorns in one handy action.

I was reminded of both these finds when I looked in my lectionary to check this week’s gospel reading.

The lighthouse on Rathlin Island could not be constructed on the cliff top. It was too high, and the light would shine uselessly over the top of many ships. So they built the light half way down the cliff and the accommodation and facilities higher up. However bright, the light was of no value unless it can be seen clearly, assist navigation and warn sailors.

In Schuhbecks Gew├╝rze you could sample all the salts and peppers—selecting just the right colour and taste. Some salts I found are very salty indeed—others are milder. Now on our dining room table we can season food with salt and pepper in one go.

It doesn’t take a genius to see what I am getting at, and how these two seemingly random experiences illustrate today’s gospel reading.

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Says Jesus. No doubt there were different strengths of salt from the Dead Sea at the time—and of course salt was used as a currency—that’s where the word salary comes from.

If for some reason salt gets damp, it rapidly becomes useless, only fit to be tossed underfoot or on our frozen roads and pavements. You cannot make it salty again, once it has lost its flavour.

A slightly more meaningful illustration is the common allegory of the light throughout Scripture. 14 “You are the light of the world… says Jesus. You can’t hide a village if it is built on a hilltop. Also you don’t conceal a light under a basket. Instead, the lamp is placed high up on a stand where it gives the most effective illumination.

As Christians, we are meant to be obvious—not hidden or weak, but giving light to everyone in the house.

“Look to”—says the bellringer. “Treble’s going! She’s gone”—and the bells ring out loudly—heard throughout the village. This is how we are meant to be. The bells announce the worship of God—who cares if they are sometimes out of time.

The light. The flavour. The call to worship. Which leads me on to my favourite invitation to the Offertory which those who come to BCP will hear regularly. I bet you didn’t know this comes after the mini parable of the Light under the Bushel—where Jesus says:

16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

So let us ensure we maintain the flavour of the good news and not water it down, or become lukewarm. And shine as a light to the world—so that they may see our good deeds and glorify our Father, who is in heaven.

Amen

Death through Adam–Life in Christ

Reading—Genesis 2:15-17,3:1-7

5 The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; 17 but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.”

3 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, 3 but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

4 “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. 5 “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. 7 Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Reading—Romans 5

Death Through Adam, Life Through Christ

12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—

13 To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. 14 Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come.

15 But the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! 16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. 17 For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!

18 Consequently, just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people. 19 For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

Gospel Matthew 4

Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory. The Lord is a great God, O that today you would listen to his voice. Harden not your hearts.

Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness

4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[
c]

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”

10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]

11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Sermon

Our new house was built in 2006— younger than Tattlers but less frequented by trades people. It is one of 6 houses surrounding a courtyard. The courtyard is planted with shrubs, trees and lawns.

Last year two arguments surfaced, very politely, to disturb its tranquillity. The first concerned a Japanese Acer which stands proud in the centre of a large lawn. One of the male residents wanted it cut down, as it seemed to be dropping leaves in the autumn and looked slightly poorly. This proposal was unanimously rejected without much further consideration.

The second argument concerned the lawn. It was infected by chafer bugs. The resident rooks could hear the little blighters below the surface, and dug them up with their huge beaks, leaving a wreckage that resembled the battle of the Somme. The only sure-fire cure was offered by a lawn treatment company, but this was quickly rejected as it contained nicotinoids which were banned by the EU. So we ended up digging up the whole lawn and returfing it. The jury is out on whether or not the bugs are still down below and whether the stronger grass roots with deter the rooks.

Just after the lawn was re-laid, we received instructions on how to look after it. We organised a rota to water it every day, barring rain. We bought a new hose that extended like a serpent. And we had to avoid walking on the new turfs for at least 6 weeks.

One or two people were keen to walk over the lawn in order to remove dead leaves and plant some bulbs under the tree. It won’t be harmed, they insisted. They were just saying that to cover themselves. We resisted temptation, and even the serpent could not prevail against the prophets of hope, like myself.

The Genesis story is, of course, an attempt to explain why things are the way they are. Putting together these readings from the lectionary for the start of Lent adds a more modern perspective. The passage from Romans describes how Sin entered creation through the actions of human beings. This led to death through Adam, but to life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

To try and understand what the writer of the letter to the Romans is saying, you need to penetrate the dense and complex text, but the main thrust is clear:

15 ….the gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many!

As we have discovered with increasing horror as time goes on, Sin is toxic in the world. As the citation to VE75 starts:

When VE Day dawns on 8th May 2020 it will be 75 years since the guns fell silent at the end of the war in Europe. Years of carnage and destruction had come to an end and millions of people took to the streets and pubs to celebrate peace, mourn their loved – ones and to hope for the future….

Wherever it is found and however it impacts, Sin cannot be taken for granted. In recent years, we have experienced many examples of institutional as well as random acts of Sin.

The salvation offered by Romans could not be taken for granted after the incarnation that first Christmas. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus’s freedom from any sin was still tested in the Wilderness. The temptations by Satan are clearly appropriate to what Jesus must have been feeling at the start of his ministry, but when the devil left him, he was not gone for good and re-emerged prior to the crucifixion and in the garden of Gethsemane.

Individually these temptations invite Jesus to turn aside from faith and trust in the Father.

1. In the first, the devil invites Jesus to prove his sonship through a display of power; that is, by establishing his validity through his own abilities.

2. In the second, the temptation is to test God's fidelity.

3. In the third, Jesus is promised all the power and glory the earth can offer if he will give his allegiance and devotion to the Tempter.

In each case, Jesus rejects the temptation and fixes his identity, future, and his time here on earth on God's trustworthiness and grace.

The temptation of Christ harks back to the wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness. One lasts 40 days and the other 40 years. Both concern what it is to be human. Both are temptations to mistrust God and put our faith, not in him, but in our own worth and abilities. But so often we come up against the awareness that we are insufficient and not complete in ourselves. Our experience of temptation does not end after a certain period of time. Our own temptation lasts a lifetime. May the Lord God give you strength to withstand and hold out for as long as we endure. Amen

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Brooding presence of the Light overcomes malevolence of Darkness

Wingrave Church – Midnight Mass

Reading Isaiah 9:2—7

2 The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Gospel Acclamation

Alleluia, alleluia.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.

All   Alleluia.

Gospel Luke 2:1—14

The birth of Jesus


In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.

4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’

Sermon

Two readings—Isaiah 9—Luke 2.
Both are familiar—read each year on the night before Christmas. You might have thought they are entirely different—both in intention and separation by nearly 750 years. But not so—we are justified in placing these two pieces of prophecy side by side.

Reading from first book of Isaiah—2 The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
—is set around 732BC. Northern kingdom of Israel has fallen to Assyrians—Assyrian army is conquering the whole region. Barely 2 centuries later Southern kingdom of Judah will also fall—this time to Babylon and sent into exile.

All is darkness and failure—but the prophecy sets a different tone. People who walk in darkness have seen a great light—and they are to be joyful and rejoice—for a child is born who will reverse their fortunes and save them—he will become a great governor—a man of peace—there will be justice and righteousness throughout the kingdom.

“Great light” is actually a theme continued from the chapters before. In Isaiah 7, God offers to all of Israel a prophetic sign of peace in the face of imminent political disaster from conquering nations.

This sign is the birth and name of an actual child, Immanuel, which means “God-Is-With-Us.” This child is meant to be a physical sign of God’s assurance that no disaster will befall Jerusalem. But the frightened and faithless king ultimately rejects it, and with it, God’s saving help. 

The parallels in Luke 2 are evident—similar background is oppression, failure, separation from God, and despair—all symbolized by the brooding presence of darkness—again the theme of light. From this unpromising context there emerges hope—the birth of a saviour from the line of David.

On this eve of another Christmas—we gather once again in the place of meeting to await the coming of the Christ-child. This time—unlike Isaiah 9—God’s promises will not be frustrated and fail—regardless of the malevolent presence of evil that leads Immanuel to the cross. Even this apparent failure is not the end.

The dawn brings the new light—there will be rejoicing—this is a statement of faith, hope and gratitude. Just as it appears the powers of this world have a firm hold on humanity—God’s power brings the final victory.

How can we Christian listeners fail to hear in the words of the 8th C prophet the whole reason why we are here tonight?

6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Amen—Come Lord Jesus.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Christ the King

Wingrave Methodist Church – 24th November 2019

Old Testament Jeremiah 23:1—6

The righteous branch

23 ‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. 2 Therefore this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: ‘Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the Lord. 3 ‘I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number. 4 I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing,’ declares the Lord.

5 ‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord,
    ‘when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
    and do what is just and right in the land.
6 In his days Judah will be saved
    and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
    The Lord Our Righteous Saviour.

Colossians 1:15—23

The supremacy of the Son of God

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behaviour. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation – 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Gospel Luke 23:33—43

33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’

38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’

42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

Sermon

Back in 1925, Pope Pius XI instituted a new feast day in the Roman Catholic church. He called it Christ the King.

Other churches adopted the feast day with the Revised Common Lectionary. It was moved to the last Sunday in Advent, where it remains today. There is also another name for this Sunday, which comes from the post-communion prayer, but I will leave you to discover that for yourselves. Listen out for when I pray this prayer after the sermon.

The Pope apparently wanted to highlight the increasing secularism of the age. People were more keen to live in the kingdom of this world than look towards the kingdom of heaven.

You may be wondering what was the link between secularism and Christ the King. In truth, the Pope was keen to settle an argument that had been debated in the church since as far back in time as St Cyril of Alexandria. The theological difference of opinion concerned the supremacy of Christ over all things.

And so, as we prepare to begin a new church year next week with the First Sunday of Advent, and the coming of Jesus, not only in Bethlehem, but the second coming as well, we pause and reflect upon who Jesus the Christ is in our lives.

To challenge our thinking we turn, not to stables and shepherds, but to the final trial of Jesus. If we are to live in God’s Kingdom, we, like Pilate, need to know the answer to the question “are you king of the Jews?” or in other words “Are you Christ the King?”

So, let’s have another look at Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate from John’s gospel.

1. The opening scene of the trial begins when Jesus is brought to the Roman procurator’s headquarters. Pilate asks what is the charge, and gets no answer—except that Jesus is a criminal.

2. Pilate retreats into his palace to interview Jesus privately. “Are you King of the Jews?” he asks. Pilate is not concerned whether or not Christ is the anointed one. 35 “Am I a Jew?” he scoffs. But if Jesus is a political leader who might challenge the supremacy of Rome, and with it Pilate’s position and power, that is a very different matter.

From our perspective in the modern age, we know that John has been telling us, from the beginning of his gospel, that Jesus is in fact the King of Israel. When seeking Jesus, whom his brother, Phillip, has told him is the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets, Nathanael declares, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49).

The gospel then goes on to explain that Jesus is not a king that the world would ever recognise. He is a king who speaks to the lowly and the rejected. He is a king who serves rather than being served. Jesus is a king who enters the holy city, not triumphantly on a horse, but seated on a donkey (John 12:14). He is the Servant King.

Pilate asks what crime Jesus has committed. Jesus replies that his kingdom is not of this world. Pilate cannot understand such a king as that.

We know that Jesus is the Word of God that has become “flesh and lived among us.” Jesus has come from God and has come “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16b).

We also know that, in order to recognise this king, this only Son, we must be “born from above” (John 3:3). Unless we have experienced this new birth, we, like Pilate, are unable to recognize the kingdom of God that surrounds us on all sides—this is the reign of Christ the King.

In the end, Pilate mocks both Jesus and the Jews. He could never understand that Jesus is a king not of this world, and not like any in this world. But in the end, Pilate unknowingly speaks the truth. “Here is your king” he says to the people.

And over the cross Pilate places the announcement for all to see, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19)

Today’s gospel passage shows the practical effect of belief in Jesus Christ—both as anointed one and king of the Jews. Jesus has been brought to the ‘Place of the Skull’ as is crucified along with two criminals.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’

The only one to express any faith was the second criminal, who said.

41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man [Jesus] has done nothing wrong.’

42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

Today is the last Sunday in the church’s year. Today we are invited to respond, in preparation for Advent which is coming. Are we willing to accept Jesus as our King, or are we drawn more towards the kingdoms of this increasingly secular age, with all its evils and distractions?

Do we live in the time of God’s new reign? Are we followers of the Servant King? Does the way we live our lives reflect that service? Do we reach out to the least and the lost? In short—are we fully citizens of God’s Kingdom? And can we answer Pilate’s prophetic question: “What is Truth?”

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Stand Firm

2nd Sunday before Advent—17th November 2019—Gt Brickhill

Gospel Luke 21

Alleluia, alleluia. Welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. All Alleluia.

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’

7 ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?’

8 He replied: ‘Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, “I am he,” and, “The time is near.” Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.’

10 Then he said to them: ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

12 ‘But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

Sermon

Jesus has a generally positive attitude to the Jerusalem Temple, which makes his predictions of the Temple’s destruction all the more stark.

We have been reading through Luke’s gospel. He tells us, for example:

  • Simeon enters the Temple ‘guided by the Spirit’ (2:27);
  • It is a place of ‘fasting and prayer’ (2:37; 18:10; 19:45);
  • The boy Jesus was discovered there learning (2:46);
  • Jesus attempts to protect the space as a “house of prayer” (19:45).

The destruction of the Temple was not therefore something to be desired.

After the prophecy in today’s reading, Luke records Jesus as teaching in the Temple on several more occasions; and the final verse of Luke’s Gospel reports not only the disciples worship of Jesus (in itself quite shocking for first-century Jews!) but also how they remained ‘continually in the Temple blessing God’ (24:53).

In Acts, Luke’s follow-on from his gospel:

  • Peter and John attend the ‘hour of prayer’ at Temple (3:1-3) and heal a disabled man who ‘entered the Temple with them’ (3:8-10);
  • The apostles teach in the Temple area regularly (5:20-25); in fact, ‘every day in the Temple’ they taught Jesus as Messiah (5:42);
  • Paul claims to have done nothing wrong ‘against the temple’ (25:8);
  • Paul even received his ‘revelation’ (of Jesus’s Gospel) in the Temple itself (22:17).

Now, you may be thinking of the words of Jesus when he threatened to destroy the Temple and rebuild it in 3 days. You’ll recall that this promise was used by his accusers during the trial leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion.

In John 2:18ff he says:

18 The Jews then responded to him, ‘What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?’

19 Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.’

20 They replied, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?’ 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

The same accusation is made in Matthew 26 and Mark 15—as well as against the early Christians at the trial of Stephen, the first martyr.

These accounts are rather different from today’s passage. Jesus seems to be warning the disciples about the so-called end times and how they should behave. How do I know this? Well, it’s the mention of earthquakes, famine, pestilence and persecution—all characteristic of eschatology.

For most of my life, I have lived in a benign religious environment where most faiths are tolerated, but the changing aspects of our multi-faith environment have led to shocking scenes of persecution against Christians where previously various different religions were practised side by side. This is even the case within the UK, so perhaps we should give more attention to the words of Jesus about eschatology in general and persecution in particular.

Jesus’s words of advice and command were of course addressed to a contemporary audience—and so we must be wary of adopting every saying as equally relevant to a contemporary audience. But we can distil Jesus’s commands into 5 pieces of advice:

· Be prepared to ‘testify’ (Luke 21:13);

· But do not prepare to testify in advance (21:14);

· Depend on Jesus’s ‘Wisdom’ (21:15);

· Family breakups will be part of this time (21:16);

· Do persevere (21:19).

Ultimately, although the teaching brings mixed news of persecution and family breakup, Jesus affirms:

18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

Persevere. Stand firm—because whatever happens in this world all around us, the victory will in the end be ours. Amen

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

It’s all about looking down on others

Last after Trinity—27 October 2019—Ivinghoe Benefice

Gospel Luke 18

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector

9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

13 ‘But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

14 ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

Sermon

It’s rare for Jesus to explain to whom his parables are directed. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector is one example when he does.

Jesus explicitly aims it at those who are confident in their own righteousness, who look down on others.

Which includes me, of course…. As you may have seen, many priests are good at spiritual superiority.

In getting to grips with this parable, we need to forget all we know about the stereotypes of Pharisees and Tax Collectors.

Pharisees

The Pharisees of the first century were not “legalists” who were trying to earn God’s favour. They were a Jewish movement that emphasized the importance of obedience to the law of Moses.

The Pharisees’ attention to things like rituals for cleansing one’s body or one’s cookware was part of a larger effort to encounter God’s holiness in everyday life.

Not only did the Pharisees seek to follow the Law, but they also spent time developing the Torah—the oral body of interpretation of the Law. Even if the Pharisees became arrogant and contemptuous of others—they certainly were not villains, otherwise Jesus would not have spent so much time debating with them.

Tax Collectors

It’s hard to be sure what part the tax collectors played in collecting individual taxes, but we know private citizens were encouraged by the Roman authorities to bid for contracts to collect taxes, and to line their pockets with whatever they could recoup over and above what was properly due.

Forcing people at point of dagger to hand over more than was due did nothing for these men’s social standing—nor did the fact they were prepared to collude with the Romans. But tax collectors were not murderers or anything more than petty scoundrels—otherwise Jesus would not have socialised with them, nor reached out to them as objects for his mercy and compassion.

Justification

Having understood a bit about the Pharisees’ search for holiness and the Tax Collectors’ pursuit of money—we can now turn to look at what was the point of the parable.

The Pharisee gave an account of all he did—with thanks to God for his righteous and holy life. What help did he seek? None. He was not looking for forgiveness. He did not have to ask for mercy, because he did not feel in any need of it. After all, following the Law was what God asked of his chosen people, and that’s exactly what the Pharisee did.

The tax collector on the other hand could not bear to look up to heaven and pray to God. All he managed was “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Yet Jesus says:

14 ‘I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

When the tax collector leaves the temple “justified,” he goes home unburdened. Vindicated. In restored relationship with God.

But when Jesus says, “This man went down to his home justified” we should imagine his words taking his audience’s collective breath away. The tax collector is not the kind of person one might expect to be so easily restored. Beating his breast in sorrow, the man utters a simple request for mercy and confesses his sinfulness. But he does not promise to change. He does not offer to pay back what has extorted nor find another job.

Justification, for the tax collector, comes with simple, real, costly contrition. Forgiveness will almost certainly lead to repentance and reconciliation—but that is for the tax collector to offer.

Contempt

But what follows from the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is not the full explanation. The Pharisee’s main problem is that his prayer regards the tax collector with such contempt. He assumes his corrupt neighbour has placed himself beyond God’s mercy when in truth he has not. So the message of the parable—for me—is one of contempt not just sin.

The parable exposes the disdain we harbour. What is disdain? It is the manifestation of a belief that we know better than God who should receive mercy and how they should receive it. Disdain is the failed attempt to put ourselves in the place of God. That’s the ultimate sin, and the rationale behind this small but powerful parable Jesus told.

Contrition or Contempt?

Contrition or Contempt. All of us—priests, parishioners, publicans, Pharisees, pastors, politicians, or perpetrators—are capable of either contrition or contempt. Those attitudes express themselves in how we view our neighbours and in what we rely upon to guide our daily lives.

Take the example of the tax collector—he could not bear to look up to heaven and pray to God. All he managed was “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Amen

Parable of the Shrewd Manager

14th after Trinity—22nd September 2019—Wendover


Gospel Luke 16

The parable of the shrewd manager

1 Jesus told his disciples: ‘There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, “What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.”

3 ‘The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg – 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.”

5 ‘So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?”

6 ‘“Three thousand litres of olive oil,” he replied.

‘The manager told him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifteen hundred.”

7 ‘Then he asked the second, “And how much do you owe?”

‘“Thirty tons of wheat,” he replied.

‘He told him, “Take your bill and make it twenty-four.”

8 ‘The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.

10 ‘Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?

13 ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’

Sermon

The parable of the shrewd manager

The parable of the shrewd manager or dishonest steward comes after a similar passage in Luke chapter 15—the parable of the Prodigal Son.

In both parables, a subordinate is accused of squandering resources belonging to his superior— either the prodigal son’s father or the master of a house steward.

The Parables follow one another, but I will leave you to judge whether or not they are linked. They do seem to have several things in common.

Both stories run counter to our ideas of justice and fairness. The prodigal son comes to his senses and returns to face the music. He is rewarded, but his elder brother (who did not waste or squander anything) is left in self-imposed exile from his father's grace and mercy. His story can indeed be called The Parable of the Lost Son.

The Shrewd Manager on the other hand, at first seems to be treated very badly. When called to see his master, the report of his inefficiency is accepted without further enquiry, and the manager is summarily dismissed from his job and his future livelihood.

For the moment, we’ll assume he has been guilty of dishonesty, since that seems to be the implication of the teaching with which Jesus ends his parable. But what happens next is very strange.

After getting the sack, the Shrewd Manager comes up with a plan of action to ingratiate himself with his former master’s debtors. He could not make deals on his master’s behalf if his cash books—the symbols of his agency and his authority to make deals—had been taken away from him on the spot, so we have to assume his dismissal was not quite so summary as it seems.

His plan was to call in his former master’s debtors one by one and come to an accommodation with them, which was highly advantage to the one who owed money and prejudicial to the one who was owed. Debts were halved or heavily reduced in full and final settlement of what was due.

Now you might have thought the master would kick himself for not taking away his former steward’s authority. Far from being angry, the master commends his former steward for being shrewd.

This is where our sense of right and wrong rebels. The next few verses defy any simple explanation. Perhaps we should start at the end—the punch line Jesus is working towards.

13 ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.’

This proverb picks up the master’s first words when finds out what the steward has done:

For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.

Luke loves contrasts. Economic restitution is part of the joy of Mary's Magnificat (Luke 1:53) and the gospel proclaimed to tax collectors such as Zacchaeus. When Zacchaeus restores what he had defrauded four-fold, he is justified, as proclaimed by Jesus, “Today salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:8).

What Jesus is saying is that, in a time of oppression of the poor, fraud, overcharging and violent debt collection, the debts the steward managed were almost certainly exorbitant, and all he had done was charged a fairer sum. In doing so, no one was really wronged, and the jobless steward might get another job from one of those merchants by showing himself honest and fair dealing.

Remember that no Jew was permitted by their law to charge interest, let alone reduce it, and all debts were written off automatically each jubilee year for everyone.

Going back to Jesus’s punchline, the disciples are sometimes called ‘children of light’ and those outside the Kingdom are contrasted as the ‘children of this world’ who love darkness more than light.

If your standards are the same as those practised by this evil world, and you cannot be trusted to behave in a distinctly better way, how can you expect to be trusted with the things of the Kingdom of God?

The steward redressed a number of wrongs by his own changed standards, and the master commended him for it.

No one, God says, can serve me and behave as the world does. Either they will love one and hate the other or hate the one and love the other. You cannot have it both ways.

As if by way of a bookend, Luke then follows up with another Parable that might also be linked: the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Lazarus loved the good things of life, but ignored the poor beggar sitting by his gate. When the rich man dies, he petitions Abraham to reverse his fate—or at least warn the rest of his family to repent. But Abraham replies:

Son remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

The rich man passing Lazarus on a daily basis received his comeuppance. It was too late for him to repent. But the shrewd manager was commended by his former master for his actions: for that man, it was not too late.

Amen

Monday, 15 July 2019

The Good Samaritan–Wingrave 14 July 2019

Gospel Luke 10:25-37

The parable of the good Samaritan

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

26 ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’

27 He answered, ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind”; and, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”’

28 ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbour?’

30 In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half-dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. “Look after him,” he said, “and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.”

36 ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’

37 The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’

Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Sermon

The Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son are among the best loved of all Jesus’s teaching.

The Prodigal Son—or Parable of the Lost Son—is the more complex in my view, especially when you realise the message is as much about the elder brother (or lost son) than about the Prodigal who repents and is found.

The Good Samaritan on the other hand is fairly easy to understand, but is so important that it bears repetition and further thought, every time the Luke passage is set in the lectionary.

It’s fair to assume that when the man who is introduced as an “expert in the Law” asks for Jesus’s interpretation of the Law, the answer is already well known to him. We can find it in Leviticus chapter 19:

18 ‘“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbour as yourself. I am the Lord. 33 ‘“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not ill-treat them. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

Not much doubt about that then. On the other hand, it’s also fair to assume the lawyer well knew this was not the interpretation applied by the Jews, regardless of what was laid down in the books of the Law.

The lawyer probably thought he took good care of his immediate Jewish neighbours—helping them in hard times—providing for their needs—and lending them money interest free. But the Samaritans were clearly not eligible for consideration. On the contrary, they were reviled and thought unclean, even though they believed themselves Jewish and worshipped the same God on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem. In effect, they were untouchables, as we will discover.

Why was this, especially when care for the stranger and alien is a repeated theme throughout the Torah? Here’s another sample from Deuteronomy 10:

17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18 He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19 And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

A good sermon will need examples, and today these are not hard to find. We are surrounded by people who need our help.

We, like the Jews and the Samaritans, are a tribal people at heart and habit. We are most comfortable with, and care most about those like us. But now we live side-by-side with people of many different tribes as did the Jews and Samaritans.

Whether or not we live in multiracial parts of the country, or whether our neighbourhoods are made up of rich or poor—still we are close to places that are very mixed indeed and pass through them regularly.

How do we react to those sitting begging? What is our deep-down instinctive reaction when surrounded by people of another tribe, who are fundamentally unlike us? How did increasing immigration and asylum seekers impact on our attitudes? Who do we help, and how?

In Jesus’s parable, the priest was not a bad man. He saw the need, but he would have rendered himself ritually unclean were he to touch a dead body and one that was unclean anyway.

Likewise the Levite was not a bad man. He checked that the injured man was not one of his tribe—that would have been obvious from the victim’s dress—but like the priest, he did not bother to discover whether the injured man was alive or dead.

It’s no different really from the occasional reports from the streets of London when a homeless person dies and crowds of passers-by step over him, assuming him to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol—not wishing to intervene.

As familiar as the parable of the Good Samaritan is, it needs constant repetition, because the messages are so necessary to understanding what Christianity is all about. Each of us must wrestle with our conscience.

The Christian faith, following Jesus, reaches out beyond our tribal walls. Supporting homeless charities. Donating to Crisis for Christmas. Volunteering in a homeless shelter. Reaching out in other ways. At the very least, acknowledging that the person who needs our help is a human being—a child of God, made in his own image.

The Good Samaritan might be an easy parable to understand, but it is one of the hardest to follow. Deep down, the message is simple. Who are our neighbours? Our “neighbours” are those who need us. Amen

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Two Lost Sons–One Found

St Mary’s Wendover – 31 March 2019


Gospel Luke 15:1—3;11b—end

15 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering round to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.’

3 Then Jesus told them this parable: ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So, he divided his property between them.

13 ‘Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17 ‘When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.” 20 So he got up and went to his father.

‘But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms round him and kissed him.

21 ‘The son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

22 ‘But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” So, they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Meanwhile, the elder son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 “Your brother has come,” he replied, “and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”

28 ‘The elder brother became angry and refused to go in. So, his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!”

31 ‘“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”’

Sermon

The last-minute chance to talk about the Parable of the Two Lost Sons is too good to pass up, even if I cannot do it justice in the time available to me.

I’d like to introduce you to a Middle Eastern theologian whose name is Kenneth Bailey. His book Jacob and the Prodigal interprets Jesus’s retelling of the Genesis story of Jacob, traditionally known as The Prodigal Son.

What sets Bailey apart is that not only does he scrape the barnacles of time from the parables but he explains in detail how the characters would have behaved, and the reaction of the tax collectors and sinners to what they heard—all through Middle Eastern eyes.

The story opens with the background. A father has two sons. The younger son makes a request. He wants his father to divide up his inheritance without further ado.

What is not clear to us today is how shocking is the younger son’s request. His father is likely the head man of the village, or at least a very important and powerful individual. Property was not passed on until death—and the elder son would have inherited the entirety. The younger son’s request was tantamount to wishing his father dead, as well as depriving him of his standing in the village and authority, and robbing his brother.

Jesus’s audience would have gasped at the sheer horror and sin behind the request.

Most people would have expected the father to react with fury—and his fellow land owners to have gathered together to shun the younger son for what he had done. But the father accedes to his son’s request—no doubt to the consternation of the elder son.

When the Prodigal Son gathered together his new-found wealth, and set out for a distant land, no one wanted to see him back ever again. But after squandering his money on riotous living, he was left penniless and starving when famine struck, and all his fair-weather friends deserted him. He was abandoned in Gentile territory, as we know from the mention of pigs whose food he was reduced to sharing.

But we are told he repents—and comes to his senses. There was nowhere further to fall—he was at rock bottom—and decided to throw himself on his father’s mercy and repent. The best he could hope for would be to be taken on as one of his father’s servants. The worst—utter rejection.

But the younger son’s reception by his father was full of grace. Had other men from the village spotted him first, they would have banded together to chase him away, exclude him from the village to protect his father from further unwise action, and very possibly kill the son. But his father sees him from far away—and literally runs down the main street to meet him and welcome him home.

The senior men in the village were horrified. They would never run, and never hitch up their robe to expose their legs. Instead, the father is extravagant in his forgiveness without precondition, and the other villagers can only fall into line, since to refuse an offer of a great celebration would cause grave offence to the host who has asked them.

The parable does not end here though. We tend to forget there is an Act 2. This concerns the elder brother, who to most of the villagers had behaved impeccably throughout, never refusing to work for his father, but ever resentful for the way his younger brother had been treated.

Returning home from his work in the fields, the older son asks what the noise of celebration is all about. No one seems to have sent for him in the fields—he hears from a servant that his father has killed the fatted calf and showered honours on his wayward and sinful brother. Who can blame him for his deep resentment and anger? Who would join the revelry—given what the younger son had done—who would have thought the father could be so weak-minded and unfair?

When the elder son refuses to go in, what does the father do? Does he wait for his son to come in and show proper respect? No—the father reaches out to his son, in exactly the same way he did for the younger one. He leaves the feast in search of the missing son.

Of course the wronged brother has a point. He should have had the entire inheritance—now he has to make to with half—he should have been honoured for his stalwart service—instead his brother is treated with honour and respect, and he is left out in the cold.

The punchline of the story is hard to swallow:

31 ‘“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”’

Who is who, in this parable? Clearly God is represented by the father. Through grace, he has humiliated and shamed himself in order to forgive and receive back his sinful sons. What is surprising is that the Prodigal Son repents of all his wrongdoing and is freely and fully forgiven. The older son’s actions are commendable, but he shows no grace and remains mired in sin, without repentance, and asking no forgiveness.

Who are the two sons meant to represent? Well—I’ll leave you to decide. Perhaps the two sons stand for you and me? If so—which is me? Which is you? Amen

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Clinging to the Worldly Measure of Glory

Sunday 3rd March 2019 at Wingrave Parish Church


Reading Exodus 34: 29—end

The radiant face of Moses

29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterwards all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

Reading 2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. 15 Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. 16 But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Gospel Acclamation

I am the way, the truth, and the life, says the Lord. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Gospel Luke 9:28—36

The transfiguration

28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.)

34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

Sermon

Transfiguration Sunday this year occurs on Tuesday 6th August, but most of the liturgical churches following the Revised Common Lectionary observe the Transfiguration today, as is obvious from all three readings from Scripture.

The radiant face of Moses shone on Mount Sinai when he had been speaking to the Lord, with the result that no one would come near him and he covered his face with a veil.

This theme is developed by the writer to the church in Corinth. We are not like Moses he says, whose veiled face prevented the Israelites seeing what was passing away—the old covenant—but whenever anyone turns to Christ, the veil is taken away. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom, and we are transformed into his image with ever-increasing joy.

I’m sure you’ve heard many sermons in the past about Luke’s account of the Transfiguration in his gospel. I won’t repeat what is often said about the event, but maybe just pick out a few interesting points for you to reflect on.

Luke anchors his timeline to “about eight days” after Jesus had predicted his own death. He also warned his disciples:

‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.

Despite everything that has been said, it will take more than an apocalyptic revelation before the disciples understand Jesus’s true vocation, identity and mission. Some are not ready—and so the only witnesses to this theophany are Peter, James and John. Even they misinterpret what they see. The signs are all there—a light bright as a flash of lightning—the presence of the OT Law and Prophets in the form of Moses and Elijah—the voice of God masked by a cloud—Jesus’s shining face— and God’s seal of approval ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’

In case you should think this was some sort of vision or a dream, Luke makes it perfectly plain that Peter and his companions were wide awake and correctly interpreted at least part of what they saw. But why did they tell no one about it?

As soon as Jesus descends from the mountain, he is accosted by the father of a demon-possessed boy. The remaining disciples had failed to effect a cure whilst Jesus was up the mountain praying, with Peter, James and John. As if to underline their lack of comprehension, Jesus reveals his frustration and says: 41 ‘You unbelieving and perverse generation,’ […], ‘how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?

The answer was ‘not long’—and in case the disciples did not get it the first time, Jesus immediately follows up with a second prediction of his death. These visions of glory will not be consummated until after the crucifixion and resurrection.

Even so, the disciples cling to their worldly measure of glory—they compete among themselves for status—and James and John put in a request for seats of power on Jesus right- and left-hand side, when he comes into his Kingdom.

You may have wondered at the presence of Elijah and Moses. Apart from representing the Law and the prophets, Luke tells us they are discussing Jesus’s departure with him. The actual word used is ‘exodus’ which gives us a clue of how the crucifixion and resurrection are to be regarded.

Very soon now, Jesus will set out for Jerusalem, where the prediction of his death will be fulfilled. Looking forward, Luke is concentrating our attention on the resurrection, and not on Jesus’s death. The exodus imagery evokes liberation. As Moses led the people out of Egypt, so Jesus’ death and resurrection usher in an era of salvation and blessing.

But when the cloud dissipates, and all becomes clear, we are left with the ringing endorsement—the divine approbation ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.’ Amen