Friday, 17 December 2010

PARISH COMMUNION 19 DEC 2010 JOSEPH – THE UNSUNG HERO Matthew 1: 18 – end, Robert

When children are putting together a manger, there is generally one figure who causes some puzzlement. ‘Who’s this - another shepherd?’ No – this is Joseph! Who’s Joseph, then? ‘Well, he’s Mary’s husband’. ‘Oh, so he’s Jesus’ father,’ ‘Well – not exactly....’

Joseph gets scant attention in the birth narratives, and then disappears from the New Testament almost completely. There are one or two indirect references. When the family can’t find the twelve years old Jesus in Jerusalem and eventually discover him in the temple, Mary scolds him: ‘Why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.’

In Matthew 13:55 Sceptics at Nazareth ask: ‘Is not this the carpenter’s son?’ And in that same verse we learn that Mary and Joseph have four more sons, James, Joseph, Simon and Judas, and it’s probable that Joseph leaves a legacy in that one of those sons, James, becomes head of the church in Jerusalem. But actually we know virtually nothing about Joseph.

But as we celebrate Christmas, let’s ask ourselves: Who was the organiser behind the scenes? Who got Mary and the unborn child safely to Bethlehem? Who eventually found somewhere where Jesus could be born, and guarded Mary and the tiny, vulnerable newborn baby through those nightmarish days? Who organised the flight to Egypt and led the way, and then decided when it was safe to return? Who settled the home at Nazareth and set up in business so that Jesus could grow up in a settled family life? Who was Mary’s husband who had the task (with her) of bringing up this extraordinary child, disciplining him, training him, teaching him, and ensuring that he grew up a balanced and mature adult? Answer, Joseph.

So I want to nominate Joseph as my unsung hero. Patron saint of all those who work behind the scenes, make things happen, and get little or no credit. Patron saint of all those without whom, all the main events in the world simply wouldn’t work.

Let’s celebrate today as very important Christians, all those in our Church whose work is seldom seen – organising, helping, cleaning, teaching, administrating – a large team who (in the prayer of St Francis) labour and seek for no reward, save that of knowing that they do God’s will. Let’s thank God for those who never appear up-front, and might well shrink from any public vote of appreciation.

Let’s celebrate all those who quietly use their faith in their daily work, upholding Christian values, setting a Christian example, and sometimes suffering discrimination because they won’t take the short cuts, or take advantage of the system.

Let’s pray today for that vast number of anonymous, faithful Christians in many parts of the world, who seldom reach the headlines, but are being disgracefully persecuted in Muslim and other countries because of their Christian faith, and whose fate we shall never know in this life, as is the case so often in Pakistan because of the iniquitous blasphemy laws.

What can we do to celebrate Joseph? Well, Church and society need volunteers, part of this much heralded ‘big society’. Can we make time to contribute something, even if it’s only our time and presence, to help a Church or other voluntary organisation work better?

Or, coming at it from a different direction, when something offends the Christian faith on radio or television or in the media, instead of just moaning, will you actually sit down and take the trouble to write a short letter? Not an outraged, furious letter, but a dignified, reasonable letter. It’s really amazing how much notice is taken of a letter. Just putting pen to paper, or sending an email sensibly phrased, really does make a difference – and it’s all done quietly and behind the scenes.

Do you make a reasonable, quiet but firm complaint when something happens that offends your faith? People of other faiths do, and are both heard and respected when they stand up for their faith – why so seldom is it the Christian voice that is heard. You don’t need an outraged letter to the Daily Mail – it is usually the quiet word and the explanation of your personal hurt which goes home far more effectively than you think. For example: ‘I just want to tell you that I am a Christian, and what you are doing – or saying – really hurts me.’ You will be surprised at the reaction sometimes.

Over the last few days it happens that I have heard several stories of school nativity plays which even include angels and the like, but the missing characters are Mary, Joseph and the baby. If every Christian parent registered verbally and in writing that this is not acceptable, they might not be fobbed off with explanations about how difficult it is. We can also make it clear that there’s no reason why other religious festivals should not be celebrated as well, but each must have it’s own integrity if the children to understand and gain anything worthwhile.

Of course, we need really prayerful judgment about when to speak and when to keep silent. Also getting the tone right is vital. But if every Christian – quietly but firmly – stood up for their faith, society would notice and perhaps change. Let Joseph be our role model this Christmas and into the coming year. Someone hardly seen – not a celebrity – but whose quiet influence and actions behind the scenes, enabled the New Testament story to unfold. I wonder what would have happened to Mary and Jesus if he had not been there. And I wonder what will happen to our Christian Church if we are not in his shoes today.

Sunday 12 December 2010

The sermon was delivered by the Sunday Club who staged the Nativity.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Advent 2 – Preparing the Way – Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13

Last week we saw the beginning of the Advent Season; the start of preparing the way for the Birth of Christ and even though we are in difficult times and things may be down scaled then last year, there’s little doubt about what most of us will be doing in the next four week – the Christmas rush to get everything organised, cards written, gifts bought and sent, the preparation of food, plans about whose turn it is to go visiting, and anxieties about who’ll be offended if we don’t pay them enough attention…. The rush is on, and it’s not surprising that there’s often a hint of panic in people’s conversations – I’ll never be ready!”
In three weeks it’ll all be over, in four a new year will have brought us another set of resolutions, in five the decorations will have come down, the furniture of life will be back in place, and we will be back to – what? Will life be just the same, or will we be changed? If we take Advent seriously, I hope we WILL be changed, because we shall have had the opportunity to reflect again on what it means to say that God came into the world in the humility of the birth at Bethlehem, and that he still comes into the world in all its mess and pain and joy, longing for us to recognise him.
Advent is a godsend, a gift which stops us in our tracks, and makes us realise that we hold dual citizenship (of this world and of the kingdom) and we hold them in awkward tension. We are part of the scene – Christians sometimes appear to be rather superior about what we call commercialisation, and say that the real Christmas isn’t about that. But the real Christmas is about precisely that: it’s about God coming into the real world, not to a sanitised stable as we portray it in the carols and on Christmas Cards, but to a world that needed, and still needs, mucking out. Advent reminds us that the kingdom has other themes to add to the celebration, themes that are there in the Scripture readings for the season: Repent, be ready, keep awake, live in the light, He comes.
Advent reminds us that not only do we live in two worlds, the one that appears to be going mad all around us, and the one that lives by the kingdom of God’s values, but that we operate in two different time scales, in chronological time, and beyond it. And the point of intersection is NOW. Passages of Scripture read during Advent, and the Prayer Book Collect for Advent which is often used, remind us that NOW is the time when we have to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. NOW is when we meet God, because we have no other time.
Repent. It is not a word we use much nowadays, but there are few words that better express the message at the heart of the Gospel. To become a Christian is not just about accepting a truth or confessing our faith in Christ. Nor is it simply an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and seeking forgiveness. It is about a change of direction, a reorientation of life, pursuing a different course. The essence of the Gospel is that we need to turn from our old way to the way of Christ. For some that change, initially at least, may be more marked than others, their past life-style standing in stark contrast to their new-found faith, whereas those who have been brought up within the circle of the Church may find the outward change needed so negligible it is almost impossible to see.
Repentance, though, is not a one-off thing – if only it were! We go on making mistakes every day of our life, inadvertently going astray with monotonous regularity. Before we know it, we are on the wrong road again; in all likelihood heading back the way we have come, like a game of snakes and ladders, up the ladder, down the snake, hence the need to repent yet once more. The word may be archaic but the meaning is not. Whoever we are, whatever we have done, however many times we may have done so before, it is never too late to change course.
John the Baptist was telling people to prepare the way for the Lord when he spotted the Pharisees and the Sadducees and he called them a brood of vipers. Why? Their coming to be Baptised was just more of the same – one more religious observance for an already observant people. John knew the hardness of their hearts. John knew they could not repent because they didn’t believe there was anything wrong with them. John knew they couldn’t repent because they were quite happy with themselves just as they were. John knew they could not repent because they had no intention of changing, and John was not about to Baptised people who didn’t really believe that they needed to change. Maybe we don’t think we need to change, maybe there is nothing in us that we need to repent of, Ok, are we bearing fruit? Jesus is not going to work in our lives if we don’t think we need him in it. If we just play lip service about Jesus and His coming and about repentance, then he will not take us seriously. Just as John pointed out to the Pharisees and Sadducees when he called them a brood of vipers, we too can have the finger pointed at us when we pay lip service or our motivation is not in keeping with the kingdom values. John in so many words said to the Pharisees and Sadducees recognise your need for repentance and forgiveness, change the direction of your lives and when you have shown me that you are serious about repentance I will begin to take you seriously.
In the Romans reading, it shows us how we should be to one another, the strong must bear the weak and help them grow, and that takes love and patience. If we live to please ourselves, we will not follow the example of Christ who lived to please the Father and help others. God saved the Jews so that they might reach the Gentiles and lead them in praising the Lord. God has saved us so that we might win others. In order to do this we need to prepare for Jesus, we need to cobwebs swept and the dust removed so that Jesus can be in the nooks and crannies of our hearts to illuminate us so that others will see His likeness in us.
At whatever level we operate, Advent is a time for preparation. And what ever else we have to do, there are only so many PRAYING and REPENTING days to Christmas. It is prayer that gives us the opportunity to focus our recognition of God in every part of our lives. Prayer is not just what we do in what we call our prayer time. Prayer is how we give our relationship with God a chance to grow and develop and, just like any other relationship, it needs time. We don’t stop being related when we are not with the person concerned. We don’t stop being a wife, husband, child, parent or friend when that person is out of sight, or when we are concentrating on something else, But we become less of a related person if we never give them time.
So, Advent says, make time, pray and repent and create a space so that our understanding of God’s love for us, and our love for God in response can grow. The world is saying, ‘Get on with it – don’t wait for Christmas to hold the celebrations.’ Advent says. ‘Wait, be still, alert and expectant, light your candles and live by the light.’
Some people find it helpful to have a focal point for their stillness; perhaps a lit candle. Any candle will do, but there are candles with the days marked on them, so that we don’t have any excuses for not remembering. And using a candle like this reminds us that before there were clocks people used candles to measure time. Christmas is bound up with time as well as eternity. We’re celebrating God becoming involved in our world in Jesus, and God invites us to make time for him.
The shopping days will come to an end – there will come a moment when we really can’t do any more. But the point of the praying/repenting days is that we get into the habit of remembering God who comes to us every day, and longs for us to respond with our love and service. Amen.
What have you given up on? (Not “What are you giving up?”)
What are you looking forward to?
What are you about? (If I asked this question to three men hauling wheelbarrows. One might say “Can’t you see I’m hauling rocks?!” The second: “I’m earning food for my wife and children.” The third: “I’m building a cathedral.”) What are you about?

Advent Sunday 28 November 2011, Romans 13:11-end, Matthew 24:36-44, Bruce

He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:

From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead:

Welcome to the season of Advent, a time of reflection and preparation for the coming of Christ. The next four weeks are seen by many as the countdown to Christmas, but they are far more than that. We can spend time looking for and waiting for God.

When Jesus comes again, it will be to judge the world. This is a good thing. This world was created beautiful and pure, and it has been corrupted and spoiled. Every day we hear of war and insurgency, poverty and disease, rapes and murders, evil being perpetrated in the name of good. Jesus is coming back to sort things out and to bring in a new heaven and a new earth.

We need not fear judgment. Yes, we feel remorse for our part in bringing this world to its present parlous state. Michael Mitton starts his book for Advent “A Handful of Light” with a short chapter on lament, as we acknowledge that we also face judgment and merit punishment. Therefore we confess our sins, confident that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from each and every sin. We seek to repair and build up relationships wherever possible. We seek to be ready for the hour of Jesus’ appearing. We still will face judgement: 1 Corinthians 3 says “But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”

We have confidence, however. In Romans 10 we read “ If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

We remember that when we were God’s enemies, still he loved us, and Jesus freely and joyfully gave his life for us.

This does not mean that God says that evil and cruelty and sin do not matter; he has not gone soft. Romans 1:18 says “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness”. There is furious debate about the second verse of the hymn we have just sung, with people wanting to substitute new words, because in their opinion God should not be angry with sin.

Is this not the problem, that we would like to be the ones in charge, making the rules, shaping God in a way that we find comfortable? And is this not really the heart of idolatry? We do not worship statues, but we do make sure that God is cut down to a size with which we can cope.

Consider that when the ‘powers that be’, appointed by God and charged with ruling in his name, make it known that they “do not do God”, they in effect raise themselves above judgment. They feel themselves free to follow any policy, wage any war that seems convenient or that seems to be a good idea to them. But of course there will be a weighing in the balance and a judgement.

Advent is our time to ponder these things and to allow God to reassure us of our Salvation and to continue his work of Sanctification, changing us to be like Jesus, ready for when he comes again.

No-one knows when that will be. In the long passage from Matthew that our gospel fragment has come from, Jesus starts by talking about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, and links this with the Last Day when he will come in judgement. They are linked in terms of their meaning, in that the fall of the temple makes clear that it is the new covenant in Jesus’ blood that now brings us forgiveness and salvation. They are linked in the awesomeness of the events; Jesus borrows language from the Old Testament, from Daniel, to paint a stark almost frightening picture of what is to come. Much of this was reflected in the events of AD 70 when Titus destroyed the temple. Much else we are still seeing worked out in the events of world history.

And our response? Jesus makes it abundantly clear that only the Father knows the times. Many strange sects and persuasive preachers have claimed to predict the date and the time, but they were wrong to attempt to do so. The angels do not know. Jesus does not know. Only the Father.

And so we wait. We watch. We look for the dawn. We light our candles. We live in the light. We make it our priority each day to walk in the Spirit, looking for the fruit of his Spirit to be formed in us. We clothe ourselves each morning with the Lord Jesus Christ, allowing him to be central to our lives. We cooperate with him as he trains us to think in new, godlike ways. Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Questions for Discussion

1. How would our society be different if more people took seriously the second coming of Christ and his claim to be king?

2. What difference does it make practically in our lives that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead”? What might we do differently in the future?

3. What would you say to a Christian who was still worried about facing the judgement of God?

Sunday 21 November 2010, Christ the King, Luke 23:33-43 Bruce

During this last week we have had the announcement of a royal wedding and speculation about how the Duchess of Cornwall should be styled in the event that her husband should succeed to the throne. These are fascinating questions, but I have to ask what difference they will make to our everyday lives? We no longer believe in the absolute right of rulers to rule, and have developed a democracy that functions well as the least worst system; we do not look to one person as the source of all decision making, for good or ill, just as they should decide. In the ancient world the king would make the decisions based on his personal will. Of course a wise ruler would always take advice, but ultimately what he or she says goes.

One result is that our thinking about Jesus has changed. We call him the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Greek form of the name Joshua; it means God is my Saviour; it alludes to the work Jesus did dying for us and bringing us salvation, forgiveness and new life. Christ is not a name but a title. It comes from the Greek word for Messiah, the Anointed One; he is the one who was foretold, who was drenched in the Spirit, and who now drenches us, baptises us in his Spirit.

And Lord? Dominus, Kyrie, standing for all the Hebrew words that denoted the almighty, sovereign ruler of the universe. It indicates that we are to make our highest priority the hearing and obeying of the commands of God; we are to allow Jesus to rule in our lives.

And this is where our thinking has changed. We are attracted to the Christian faith perhaps because it offers a supreme code to live by. We find the company of fellow church members salubrious and we are aware of the research that says that religious people are generally happier and live longer. We have been deeply touched by the story of Jesus, of all that he has done for us, by his unblemished character, and would like to offer him our thanks and some form of service. In all of this we somehow remain in control, so that there are areas of life and belief where we reserve the right to opt out or go our own way. We are happy to have Jesus in the car with us. We do not necessarily keep him hidden under a blanket in the back; we may be happy to have him in the passenger seat next to us and let him be seen. The condition is that he will get out if we ask him, and we will certainly not let him take the driving seat!

And so we come to the feast of Christ the King. It is obvious from our gospel passage that there were those that day who were determined not to acknowledge his kinship. They offered him physical violence and death. They mocked him with an ironic title and suggested he should save himself since he had saved others, blind to the fact that it was only in dying that he could actually achieve that salvation for us.

Let’s face it, Jesus did not look like a king. He looked like a pathetic, washed up, deluded failure. Even one of the criminals hanging next to him, who was facing an equally bleak and short end to his own life, hurled mockery and bitter insults at him. “Aren’t you the promised Messiah? Save us! What use are you?” The Greek text says that this man ‘blasphemed’ Jesus – he is aware of Jesus’ claim to divine kingship, and he rejects it utterly.

It is the other criminal, however, is one of the most mysterious and inspiring characters in the whole of salvation history. He has been with Jesus through the trial, the painful walk through the streets of Jerusalem, heard him perhaps say “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Perhaps he was at first inclined to share his companion’s opinion of Jesus, at least Matthew suggests so.

But now he looks at this bleeding, contorted, doomed individual next to him and sees .... a king. A ruler who can somehow deliver him from his terrible predicament. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” This is the essence of faith – to rely absolutely and absolutely upon Jesus to bring us to God.

And Jesus graciously responds “today you will be with me in paradise”. So, is this the last pathetic raving of a madman, akin to Hitler moving imaginary armies to stave off the invasion of Germany?

Or is this one of the last acts of our loving Saviour and King, caring for another.

What do we learn from this man?

· It is never too late to turn to Jesus, but we must turn to him with our whole being.

· Keep praying for those who do not yet acknowledge Jesus; they may be lost at present but it is not yet the end of the story.

· We do not need to be good or morally upright; we merely need to be aware of our need and respond accordingly.

· We do not need to wait for tragedy to strike before we turn to God. It is amazing how we strive to put in place a religious life that satisfies us, and which seems to do the trick when things are going well. It is interesting how often troubles in our lives remove the distractions and allow us to see Jesus as he is.

· Jesus offers a fresh start and a new life to each and any of us.

Discussion Starter Questions

1. What examples can you give of Christians living as if Jesus is NOT Lord?

2. If Jesus is King, how do we learn his commands?

3. What do you think of a criminal receiving salvation at the very end of his life?