Saturday, 22 December 2012


The angel said to Mary : “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most high will overshadow you...”

Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus. But Jesus could not have been born, and there would have been no story to tell and no good news to proclaim, without the involvement of other ‘key players’ – if I may refer to them like that. First of all there was Mary, of course, and in our tradition she doesn’t always get the attention she deserves. She has her royal place in blue at the centre of the manger scene, but of course everybody looks at the baby – as always seems to be the case. Then there’s Joseph, who gets even less attention, and is generally placed a few steps behind (like Prince Philip!), looking on benignly while the shepherds and the wise men hog the front rows. And that’s a pity really because he clearly plays an absolutely key role both in the birth story and in bringing up this precious boy.

But there’s another key player who generally gets even less attention and doesn’t appear in any manger scene, but without whom there would have been no baby and no story to tell – and that’s the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit who brings God to earth in human form -  a miracle that passes all human understanding.

When God acts on the human stage, it is always and only by the working of the Holy Spirit. It seems to be part of our human nature that we are always trying to do God’s work for him. We plan services and events and organise missions, and engage in evangelism, and say our prayers and read our Bibles. But unless we worship in the Spirit, the liturgy is lifeless; unless we pray in the Spirit, the deepest longings of the human heart never surface; unless the Spirit guides us as we read the scriptures or interpret the words of my lips now to the understanding of your hearts, we are engaged in worthy activities, no doubt, but human breath never quite becomes the breath of life; nor in communion does the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And so we wait and pray and say – Come Holy Spirit and work miracles in our midst. The Holy Spirit is the Agent through whom God works on earth – and we have to wait for him to come or our human efforts are in vain.

The Jewish people had done a great deal of waiting. They had suffered oppression after oppression, and every time they had tried to gain their freedom by their own hands and in their own time, they had been crushed. And so those with spiritual insight had come to realise that nothing of significance happens until God acts – and God acts through the Holy Spirit. It is only when God takes the initiative that the miracle happens, and everything changes.

And so the prophets had seen that nothing lasting would change until God came down among them and acted in the love and power of the Holy Spirit, and in the person of the one they came to call ‘Messiah’ – the One anointed and appointed by God – the new Moses, the new David, the new High Priest, the new and mighty Prophet, the one who would stride out and shepherd his people. And so with every new catastrophe, they flung out their arms and cried to God with their complaint ‘How Long, O Lord, how long?’

Listen to the prophet Habakkuk expressing just this sense of waiting and longing for God to act: “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, Violence! But you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (1: 2-4).

And the Lord replied: “The revelation awaits an appointed time; it speaks of the end and will not prove false. Though it linger, wait for it; it will certainly come and will not delay.” (2:3)

I have mentioned before that there are two words in Greek for ‘Time’. One is ‘Chronos’ – that is clock time, human time (hence all the English words associated with chronology etc). The other word is ‘Kairos’ – and that is God’s time, God’s moment, the time when the Holy Spirit acts, and God’s kingdom is revealed for all those with eyes to see. We pray for those critical moments in history when God acts through the Spirit and the world changes.

And what we celebrate at Christmas is that Kairos - that moment – that began when the angel met with a young village girl from Nazareth, and told her that the Holy Spirit was at work in her life and, through her, the world was about to change for ever. The Holy Spirit is the agent of Mission, and God’s mission to the world had begun in earnest.

Any mission to God’s people, and to the world beyond, can begin only when the Holy Spirit acts. Until then, we must wait and pray, and watch for the signs that God is on the move.

Since time immemorial this has presented us humans with two difficulties. The first is the we become impatient, and try to get on with it ourselves. How many sides of A4 have been written describing what God might do if only we wrote the right mission statement and started the action and made inspirational plans? But Psalm 127 reminds us that “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain” and “in vain you rise up early and stay up late...”. Ours is not an new problem.

The second difficulty we face is that, when the Holy Spirit does begin to work, we don’t recognise it, because the Holy Spirit specialises in doing something new, something we didn’t quite expect – even though the signs were there all along. When Herod learned from the wise men that God was in action and the great king was born, he summoned all the religious leaders and asked where this birth must have taken place. And they put their learned heads together and came up with the right answer – Bethlehem. But it seems that not one of them bothered to go there to see for themselves. And so it was left to humble shepherds to see the angels proclaiming the holy birth, and wise men from far away to notice the star and follow where it led.

When Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism, and came announcing that the Kingdom of God was now knocking at the door, fishermen heard and responded, while the religious leaders denounced it all as dangerous nonsense.

The Holy Spirit does something new and unexpected in Mary, and in Jesus, and the religious people can’t cope with it. It doesn’t fit their traditions, their understanding of the scriptures, their expectations. And so the religious establishment writes off the work of the Holy Spirit as clearly a mistake – some sort of computer error! Sadly, religion doesn’t seem to change much. It’s just happened again at the Church of England’s General Synod. The Holy Spirit has manifestly called women to priestly ministry with all that involves in terms of responsibility, and holy people say ‘No, no – that’s impossible! It doesn’t fit our traditions, our understanding of the scriptures, our expectations! That can’t be right!’ But the Holy Spirit blows a fresh wind – always the wind of change – where he will, and either we feel his holy breath and respond, or we dismiss it all as an aberration. And we hear Jesus, as in Mark 7: 7,8 (quoting Isaiah) ‘These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ And Jesus adds: ‘You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’

Contrast Peter, described in Acts 10, when the Holy Spirit takes him to Caesarea and confronts him with the Roman centurion Cornelius, and presents him with clear evidence that the Holy Spirit has fallen on Gentiles as well as Jews. And Peter accepts the evidence of his own eyes and baptises Cornelius and his household. How far would the Christian mission have got if Peter had responded by saying ‘No, no, this is not possible – it’s against the rules and traditions?’

The Holy Spirit blows where he wills, Jesus tells us (John 3: 8). He blew the breath of life upon Mary, and – probably not being hampered by too much religion – she listened and accepted the angel’s message, and went on to celebrate in words that have rung round the world for 2000 years -  that God has honoured the humble and those who are open to his word, and brought down the proud, the hypocritical, and the self-important – those who think beyond any doubt that they are certainly right.

One of our Christmas newsletters ends with words taken from a certain Professor M’Pherson: I paraphrase slightly...‘The Christian doctrine of the birth of Jesus and the gospel story, argue for an intervention by God, rather than an emergence from the human imagination. It is difficult to believe that humans, on their own, would invent a crucified corpse as a role-model. The gospel story  - part history, part mystery, is too strange and beautiful.’

The story of the annunciation could hardly be a better illustration of that description of the work of the Holy Spirit – so unexpected, so new, so strange, so beautiful.

What does that suggest for us as individual Christians and as St Michael’s this Christmas and in the year to come? I believe it suggests a waiting on God for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Not too many human plans, but a great deal of quiet prayer and an expectation of the unexpected. An openness to the Spirit, who – in your life and in mine, and in our fellowship together – will do something unexpected – new, strange and – in his own special way – beautiful. Here’s to a truly Spirit filled Christmas and New Year!

Monday, 17 December 2012

Sermon for the 16 December 2012 - What Should We Do? – Luke 3: 7-18

John the Baptist is a commanding figure who appears twice during every Advent season. On the second and third Sunday of Advent, John appears, dressed as a prophet in his strange outfit of camel hair and leather belt. His speaking style is gruff and blunt, occasionally even insulting.

He issues a call for baptism, repentance, insisting that his fellow Jews start over again and receive the baptism of water normally required only of converts. The crowds come out to be baptised, they are eager for a fresh start, and what does John call them? A brood of viper's - a bunch of baby snakes! That’ll win a few hearts!

But John had a point, though, it’s simply this. They must not rely on what their faithful ancestors did. They must not rely on his baptism of them in the river. If they are repentant, if they have undergone a change of mind, a change in how they live, then that must appear obvious in their behaviour. Just as the owner of an orchard expects the trees to bear fruit, so they also are expected to produce fruit, the glorious fruits of repentance.

What John says produces a response in those who hear him. They ask the obvious question, "What then should we do?" Three groups of people ask this question, and each group gets its answer.

Let's look first at those most deserving of suspicion: the tax collectors. Let’s keep in mind that tax collectors in John's time and place not only represent an imperial occupying power, but are notorious for keeping the difference between what they can extract from the population and what Rome requires of them. Tax collecting is a lucrative racket for those with little or no conscience.
But these tax collectors have undergone a change. "What should we do?" they ask John the Baptist. He tells them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you."

Next some soldiers approach him. These soldiers are Jewish men in the service of the local ruler who governs at the pleasure of imperial Rome. They are in the unenviable position of enforcing the will of an occupying power in their own homeland. Local patriots despise them as traitors.  They ask the same question as the tax collectors, "What shall we do?"
Jesus tells them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."

But the bulk of the thousands of people who are cut to heart by John's call for works of repentance are neither tax collectors nor soldiers; they are not public figures but private individuals. Like you and I. They also ask about the fruit they must produce. "What are we to do?"  John responds, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."

John the Baptist tells these tax collectors, soldiers, and private citizens that the glorious fruits of repentance include much that is ordinary. They are to cease from extortion, bullying, and grumbling about money. They are to share with the destitute their surplus clothing and food. John does not ask for anything explicitly religious such as fasting or temple sacrifices. He does not demand the extraordinary, such as his own relocation to the wilderness. What he tells these private citizens, soldiers, and tax collectors is that opportunities to bear fruit appear right in front of them every day. He does not lay down an exhaustive program, a complete way to live, for those who have undergone a baptism of repentance. He simply points out the first step they can take in a new direction. By their repentant behaviour - by what they abstain from doing and what they choose to do - they will leave themselves open to wherever God directs them next.

John presumes that those listening to him will keep asking this question as their situations change: "What should we do?" Later the answers they hear may not come from the lips of a prophet, but from their own struggling hearts.

If those newly baptised in the Jordan have the opportunity and obligation to bear fruits of repentance, certainly those who have received the far greater baptism bestowed on them by Jesus with the Spirit and fire, are expected to bear such fruit as well. The opportunity and obligation to do so will appear in the place John indicated: right in front of them and us. The here and now.

In New Testament Greek, the word for repentance is metanoia, which means literally a change of mind that determines how we live. What opportunities for metanoia appear right in front of us now? What do those opportunities ask of us? To raise the question again, this time about ourselves, "What should we do?"

We could look at our lives. Recognise the places where it is broken. With whom do we need to reconcile before the feast of Christmas comes?
We could look at how we use power (not the electric stuff). Do we use it justly, or are we part of the problem?
We could look at what you have, in our wardrobes, our fridge/freezer, our bank accounts. If we own two coats, if we possess food in abundance, is it time for us to share?

Today's gospel identifies John's gruff and blunt demands as good news. These demands are targeted at us too. When we hear them in faith, we also recognise them as good news. They speak of the fruit we can produce. And when our faith produces fruit, then the world becomes different and so do we.

This in itself is good news. So too is other people's realisation that Jesus remains active in the world, a realisation that comes to them, that consoles and challenges them, because they see it in our lives.

Let us pray.
Holy Spirit, you trouble our hearts with the question, "What should we do?"
Help us recognise how answers to that question are near at hand, right in front of our faces.
Help us to act on our faith by daily choices we make for reconciliation, for justice, for sharing, for joy. May we never cease to ask, "What should we do?" and may we never stop trusting that you will give us an answer. Amen.


Saturday, 8 December 2012

Sunday 9 December 2012, Advent 2, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6, Bruce
God is at work in the most surprising places.  Luke carefully tells us all the important people who are in charge; he names the emperor Tiberius, the governor Pilate, the tetrarchs Herod and Philip and Lysanius, and the high-priests Annas and Caiaphas.  But where is God on the move?  Today he might have said that it was when Elizabeth was queen, and David Cameron was PM, and Boris Johnson was mayor of London, David Hodge was leader of Surrey County Council, and Bruce Mansell was mayor of Surrey Heath, that the word of the Lord came to someone you never heard of, who lives in a shelter in the woods behind Tomlinscote.  And he starts to quote Chaucer or Shakespeare with reference to today.
As we start a year with Luke, we notice his attention to historical detail, and his concern that all are included in the good news.  “And all people will see God’s salvation.”  He is not quoting merely a poet or playwright from the past, but the scriptures that would be read and studied every day, and he is applying them to everyday life, even in a backwater like the wilderness of Judea.  The coming of Jesus is significant for every single human being, and every effort must be made to share his love and make him known.  If you are expecting an important guest, you make every effort to get things nice and in order for them.  How much more should the coming of a king mean the complete transformation of the roadway to ease their passage?  Many of us have perhaps witnessed the preparations that are made when a VIP comes to town.  In the same way John quotes the words of Isaiah that valleys must be filled in and hills levelled off to make it easier for the monarch to pass.  There is a rumour that the hill outside St Michael’s was lowered because Queen Victoria did not like it.
John is of course talking about each of individual lives.  He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The path that must be smoothed is the way for Jesus to come into our hearts.  The obstacles to be removed are everything that prevents us from responding to and surrendering to his love.  Advent is a season for reflection, a mini Lent, when we prepare our hearts to meet the king.
It is meeting the king that is uppermost in Paul’s mind as he begins his letter to the Philippians.   He is writing from jail.  The letter is sometimes called the epistle of joy, because Paul so often mentions being joyful or giving thanks, but it is also a letter that reveals him to be aged, frail, and enduring hardship.  He seems to feel that his time on this earth is drawing to a close, and so he is frank and direct in all that he says.
Everything he writes is in the context that the day of the Lord is drawing near.  God has begun a good work in us, he says, and he will continue it until he completes it when the day of Christ arrives.  In other words, we have this Advent hope that there is a new world coming, a new heaven and a new earth.  At the moment we are living in the time between the first coming of Jesus and his second.  His life for us and his death for us on the cross has broken the power of sin and given us forgiveness and new life, but we do not yet see the fulfilment.  We are living as citizens of heaven (3:20) now, today, even when we can be suffering and in chains (1:14).  We are part of a church and a world where people can seem to be motivated by selfish ambition (1:17), vain conceit (2:3), whose god is their stomach (3:19), who can fall out like Eudodia and Syntyche (4:2).  Paul is in prison in Rome, possibly on trial for his life, but he is thinking of his friends in Philippi.  He talks of the deep affection that he feels for them – literally a feeling in his bowels.  He prays for them that they would be one in love for each other, living lives worthy of the gospel of Christ, standing firm in one spirit, striving together as one for the faith (1:27).
This Advent, as we hurry on our preparations for Christmas, motivated by a desire to make it a wonderful celebration for family and friends, so may we also deliberately make our preparations for the future.  We want to be ready, blameless, on the day that we meet Jesus.  The place and time of preparation is here and now.
Today, set aside some time for silence, reflection and prayer.
Today, invite Jesus afresh into your life, open all the doors to every part of your heart.
Today, be on the watch for people you can bring a blessing to, by a word or gesture or kindness shown.
May God give to each of us a heart where mountains are brought low, valleys are filled, where our love may abound in knowledge and depth of insight, and where the king can come in and continue his work to change us to be like him.


Ephesians  : 1 – 7 & 11 – 16       John 17 : 20 – 24

On this Advent Sunday we reach the last of our sermon series on the subjects covered by the Alpha Renewed Course – and it’s entitled “What about the Church?”.

Up to now the Alpha Course has concentrated entirely on personal faith. What is the true basis of my Christian Faith? How can I come to true faith, grow in faith, and grow in personal Christian maturity? Then we covered subjects such as prayer, Bible reading, guidance and healing – all from a mainly personal perspective.

Each of these is indeed a deeply personal matter which you need to examine for ourselves – no-one can do it for you. But we are not supposed to do any of this entirely on our own. The Church is the Family of God and it is essential that we are embraced within that family in order that we may find loving mutual support. Our Church exists in order that we may together find a deepening faith, a growing faith; that we may worship God and pray to Him together as well as on our own; that we may grow in our understanding of the Bible together as well as on our own; that we may find mutual support and guidance, both giving and receiving. It is indeed in the practical and spiritual support that we give each other within God’s Family that we ought to be at our most attractive to those outside. So many people are lonely, isolated, longing for true loving support. So many frankly have lost their way and searching around rather sadly and desperately for the way forward. So many want a family to belong to which will not dominate, manipulate or fail them in times of need or when they have made mistakes. Christmas is advertised as a family time, but too often family reunions result in disharmony and breakdown. Can the Church be a true model of the Family of God? Sadly we often fail – but we should never stop trying to live up to our calling from God.

I want to suggest that we look at this under three headings this morning. The Family in Harmony; The Family in Action; and The Family Journey.

THE FAMILY IN HARMONY. St John tells us that, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all Christians who would come after them, that ‘all of them may be one’ and that the Church might be ‘brought to complete unity to let the world know that you (Father) have sent me...’

Similarly Paul urges his readers in Ephesians 4: 3 ‘Make every effort to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace...’ And to achieve this every Christian needs to be ‘completely humble and gentle; patient, bearing with one another in love.’

If we are not united in love together as a Church, we are failing God, failing each other, and failing the world outside, to which we are supposed to be setting an example of loving harmony which will irresistibly draw people in.

Advent is time to consider God’s judgment. Advent is a time to wake up out of sleep and look to our laurels. Advent is a time for repentance – for putting right anything that has gone wrong. How can we celebrate the glory of Christmas together if we, as a Church, are disunited and not at ease with each other? How indeed can we share the Peace together unless we truly mean what we say and what our gestures convey?

That is not, of course, to say that we will always agree with one another about everything. The dynamic of the family means that – if we all agreed about everything – we would be a rather tame, lifeless body, stifling creative debate and initiative and standing still when we ought to make progress under the Holy Spirit.

The question is rather how we handle different ideas and opinions. The Christian is called upon to be prepared to sacrifice our preferences; to allow practical love to have the final word; to exercise the Fruit of the Spirit which (as Paul tells us in Galatians 5: 22,23) is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And to that he adds in Colossians 3: 13: ‘Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.’

If we could demonstrate a family life together like that, I am convinced that people from outside would be beating a path to our door. If the Lord of Advent were to return today, how would he find his servants? We need to search our hearts and – as necessary – be reconciled with our brothers and sisters and with God. St Michael’s must be a united, loving family, attractive and welcoming to all who come. And if we are not living up to that high standard, Advent is the time to reflect, repent, and change.

THE FAMILY IN ACTION. Alongside harmony goes diversity. God has made each one of us different, and his Holy Spirit has endowed each one of us with different gifts. This principle is laid out very clearly in our first reading this morning from Ephesians 4 and (as we don’t have time to study it in detail now) take this printed sheet home with you and muse prayerfully over this important passage.

Every one of us has a gift from God – probably several – which He wants us to contribute to the family. One of the most exciting experiences I have had over my years in parish life has been to see people discover their gifts – mostly gifts which they didn’t know they had – and see them blossom. Often those gifts are not the obvious ones or the most spectacular. They are the gifts of observing someone’s need and responding imaginatively; gifts of knowing how to encourage people; gifts of sharing their experiences in a way that reaches the hearts of others and draws people into faith. Gifts of practical love and caring, of knowing how to resolve differences constructively, gifts of bringing people together and creating harmony where there would otherwise be tension.

Alongside these are so many people who find out exciting things about themselves. We have Pastoral Assistants who – a few years ago – would probably never have imagined themselves representing the Church, and finding that they can do it well. People undertaking Growing Leaders Courses who would never thought of themselves in leadership positions; potential preachers who are discovering new gifts. People starting by taking on small, practical tasks and finding their confidence grow and blossoming. The Church needs such a wide variety of gifts, from the gift of hospitality and hosting the tea and coffee, through the gift of generous giving, to the gift of teaching, evangelism, and charismatic leadership. And not one of these is superior to another – we need them all, just as (in Paul’s illustration), the body needs its small and apparently insignificant parts (often working behind the scenes) just as badly as those parts which appear more important.

The Church Family which is working in loving and effective harmony, and making use of all the gifts provided by the Holy Spirit, is the Church we must strive for, pray for, work for.

THE FAMILY JOURNEY. No Church stands still, just as no Christian stands still. Either we grow or we decline. We are all on a journey towards the heavenly city to which Advent summons us – and that summons is to each one of us. Wake up! Repent! Renew your first love and faith. This is the Advent call spelt out for us by Paul in Romans 13 : 11 – 13 : “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.”

We are journeying together towards a promised land – journeying towards the light. If we can catch the vision of Advent and then Christmas in the right spirit, we will feel ourselves driven -  impelled - by the Holy Spirit to become a Church Family that is truly in harmony, using all our gifts, and travelling forward together into a new year which will then be full of promise. What changes will you make this Advent?