Sunday, 27 December 2015
Sunday, 20 December 2015
20 December 2015 at Soulbury
Old Testament Micah 5.2—5a
2 ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.’
3 Therefore Israel will be abandoned
until the time when she who is in labour bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
to join the Israelites.
4 He will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.
5 And he will be our peace
when the Assyrians invade our land
and march through our fortresses.
Epistle Hebrews 10.5—10
5 Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:
‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
6 with burnt offerings and sin offerings
you were not pleased.
7 Then I said, “Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll –
I have come to do your will, my God.”’
8 First he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’– though they were offered in accordance with the law. 9 Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Gospel Luke 1.39—55
Alleluia, alleluia. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Alleluia.
Mary visits Elizabeth
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!’
46 And Mary said:
‘My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me –
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.’
The prophet Micah lived through a time of turbulence. He lived in the 8th century BC, when small countries like Judah were dominated by the power of the Assyrian empire. Micah foretold freedom from the yoke of Assyria. He prophesied a ruler would come, who would stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord.
Micah foretold a saviour, who would bring peace, nourishment and prosperity to the people who had been oppressed. But this could not happen until the moral and social decay in the land had been purged. The poor were evicted from their property. Officials took bribes. Weights and measures in the marketplaces were fixed. The rich abused the poor. Corruption was rife.
God’s wrath was directed, not only against the perpetrators of sin, but also against the prophets and religious leaders, who should have been standing up for the downtrodden and oppressed. In the end, he says, out of devastation will come a time when righteousness and peace is restored. Swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and everyone will sit in the shade of their own vines, olives and fig trees.
This tale of widespread corruption, oppression, and fear sounds like a contemporary description of so many places in the modern world, rather than what was the case almost 3,000 years ago.
We read the words of Micah’s prophesy as applying to the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas. We are right to do so – Jesus himself is steeped in Old Testament prophecy, and clearly applies many passages of Scripture to his own mission here on earth. The original prophecy was addressed to Micah’s contemporaries, but God speaks to all people at all times.
God is outside time, so his words apply to Micah’s age, as well as to Jesus and our own time too. To regard Micah’s prophecy as merely foretelling the coming of the Saviour Jesus is to miss the word of God applicable to our own situation.
In today’s gospel reading, two women fill the frame: Elizabeth and her cousin Mary. Elizabeth, like her forebears Sarah (in Genesis) and Hannah (from I Samuel) is unable to bear children. Her condition was thought to be her fault. She was looked down upon by society. She was considered unable to fulfil her role as a woman. Yet here she was, miraculously 6 months pregnant, visited by Mary the mother of Christ, and foretold by the likes of Micah and Isaiah.
Hannah, the mother of Samuel, is not just someone’s mother and someone’s wife. She is a prophet in her own right. Hannah’s song is much like Mary’s song. The first verse sounds much like the opening of the Magnificat:
"My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
Everything is upside down. God has brought down the mighty, and elevated the humble and meek. He has scattered the proud and fed the hungry. The rich go hungry. The poor are fed.
This idea of social justice is at the heart of the Christian gospel. Wrongs will be put right in the fullness of time, with the coming of the Kingdom of God. Whenever we talk of the Kingdom, we ask the question “Is the Kingdom a present or a future reality? Are these events just for the end times, or in some way can we enjoy them in some sense right now?
There’s no absolutely definitive answer, but if we turn to Scripture it is clear the Kingdom is not just a future reality, but is somehow already in our midst. Here’s what Luke 17 says:
20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, 21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”
It’s not easy to understand exactly what Jesus means. He goes on to talking at some length about the end of times, when the Son of Man will return, and how elusive and impossible to predict that will be. But surely we can be sure that if the Kingdom is in some sense already in our midst, we must strive to put right the wrongs sung about by Mary, Zechariah and Hannah today, and not leaving striving for justice for the vulnerable and dispossessed to a future Apocalypse. Crisis at all times, not just Crisis for Christmas. The Kingdom of God in our midst right now, not just at the end of times. Preparing for the coming of the Saviour all year round, not just in Advent. ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ Amen
Monday, 7 December 2015
6 December 2015 at Stewkley
Old Testament Mal 3.1—4
3 ‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness,4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
Epistle Phil 1.3—11
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.
Gospel Luke 3.1—6
Alleluia, alleluia. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Alleluia.
John the Baptist prepares the way
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar – when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.”’
Advent is a season of hope, of expectation, of waiting, of preparation for the coming of the Saviour. Today is the second Sunday in Advent, when we think about John the Baptist, the forerunner, the one who looks back to the prophets of the Old Testament whilst announcing that all things will be new in Christ.
The readings are familiar to us. The gospel comes from Luke chapter 3, which is split between the first 6 verses which we read today, and the remainder of the chapter next week. At this time of year, it’s easy for us to sit back and let the pre-Christmas readings wash over us, without thinking too hard about what is going on, or what the words mean in the modern day. Somehow I have to bring something new to the passages, pose some new questions, or get you to look at the familiar words in a new light.
As we know, all the gospels are different in approach. Luke is the more historical and methodical. He starts his gospel by declaring his purpose. Luke’s material, he claims, has been handed down by eye witnesses. He has made a careful investigation and drawn up his own account of events, so that you may know with certainty his version is true.
Luke starts his gospel with the birth of John the Baptist. He is asking us to believe the miraculous events involving an aged couple — Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth. Zechariah has an angelic vision that he will have a son who will make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
This same angel, Gabriel by name, appears again to Mary in the Annunciation. Mary then visits Elizabeth, John the Baptist is born, and Mary and Zechariah sing songs of praise to God.
In chapter 2, Jesus is born. Luke sets the date in the governorship of Quirinius who rules Syria. There are angels, shepherds and astrologers, Jesus is presented as a baby in the Temple, and then 12 years pass before he visits the Temple again.
We know quite a bit about Quirinius. He was a Roman aristocrat — an ambitious young man rising rapidly up the ranks. Herod Archilaus the tetrarch of Judea had been banished, and Quirinius was appointed to be governor of Syria in his place. Judea was added to his domain, and one of his first tasks was to assess the people taxation, hence the census which seems to have been around 6AD according to Luke, but may have been 2 or 3 years earlier.
Luke cites 7 religious and political leaders to anchor his account historically, which gives it a certain authenticity — but it’s clear Luke’s gospel is not just a narrative of events. It is a confession of faith, as well as a work of history.
By naming all these authorities, Luke is keen not only to fix his chronology but to show how John the Baptist invites his audience to turn away from the religion and politics they stand for, and to turn towards the Messiah. He wants them to renounce the powers that be, and return to the true faith in God. In doing so, John posed a continual challenge that eventually got him killed.
This is why Luke is not as concerned as the other evangelists about John’s appearance or how he behaves, but he’s keen to portray John as representative of the Old Testament prophets, and probably the last of them. So Zechariah is descended from a priestly line; his son John calls the people to repentance, the word of God comes to him just like the prophets of old, and John foretells the Messiah, the salvation of Israel.
The best way of describing the place John the Baptist fills in the narrative is that he is the hinge between Old and New Testaments. The old age is closing, as the new opens.
Given the fate of both John the Baptist and Jesus — John is beheaded by one of the people Luke mentions and Jesus is crucified by another — their paths were not exactly made straight, the valleys were not filled in, the hills were not levelled, and the rough paths were not made smooth.
Is all this just a history lesson I have foisted on you, or is it more important than that? Firstly, I would say that to anchor our faith in fact is a good thing. Luke’s account does not read like a myth, and our faith is stronger, especially when challenged, if it is founded on real historical events. But secondly, on the world stage John the Baptist, without Jesus whom he foretells, is nothing. No one would have heard of John without the Messiah who comes after him. So the message of today is not so much about John as Jesus.
And what is that message? I think it comes at the end of the reading from Isaiah that Luke quotes. John the Baptist is the voice crying in the wilderness, foretold by the prophet Isaiah. John’s purpose is to prepare the way of the Lord, Why? So that all people will see God’s salvation. So, in all today’s sermons about camel’s hair, locusts and wild honey, we concentrate on his clear message — that we will see God’s salvation for all people.
John baptizes with water. He must diminish, as Jesus grows in stature — the one who is to come, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.