Retelling the Story.

June 9, 2013

Widow of Nain(1 Kings 17, 17-24; Luke 7, 11-17)

Those of you who like stage musicals will know that many of them are based on classical plays or stories: ‘Kiss Me Kate’ is based around Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘My Fair Lady’ on Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Les Miserables’ on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name.

Sometimes the original story is updated, to a contemporary setting, as in ‘West Side Story’ where the Montagues and Capulets of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ become the Puerto Rican Jets and working class white Sharks of 1950s New York. Now matter what the setting, the impact of a good story remains.

In our two Bible readings this morning, we see something of the same process at work.  There are obvious parallels between the story of the raising of the dead son of the widow of Zarapheth by the prophet Elijah and the raising of the dead son of the widow of Nain by Jesus. The stories describe the same scenario, and even some of the details and language are identical in the two accounts. As so often, the Gospel writers use a story from one of the great figures from Israel’s past and rewrite it to convey a message about Jesus, his person and his mission.

The widow of Zarapheth was not a Jew. She was a Gentile, from the coastal region of Sidon. Elijah was told by God to seek refuge with her from the anger of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, after he had asked God to send a drought on Israel as a punishment for their wickedness. He met the widow by the town gate and asked her for water and food. Although she had barely enough for one last meal for herself and her son, the widow gave it up to feed Elijah, and in return God provided enough meal and oil to keep the three of them fed during the time the drought lasted.

Having taken the risk and trusted Israel’s God to look after her, the loss of her son was all the more bitter. His death was not just the loss of a family member, it was the loss of her economic security and  her personal safety. As a widow, she had no place in society, no one to defend her and no financial security apart from him. She saw God as a cruel judge, who was punishing her for her sins by his death.

When Elijah restores her son to her, he also restores her faith in Israel’s God as a god of love and mercy.

The writer of Luke’s Gospel appears to have had a particular interest in the prophet Elijah. A number of incidents that are unique to his gospel recall incidents from Elijah’s ministry. Another significant parallel is that Elijah was taken up into heaven and had no earthly tomb, and that his spirit then descended upon his disciple Elisha;  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus ascends to heaven after his death and resurrection and then sends down the Holy Spirit upon his disciples.

All the Gospel writers feature the ministry of John the Baptist, and see him as the prophet whose coming would herald the messianic age. Some seem to see John  as Elijah. But Luke has passages which seem to identify not John but Jesus with Elijah, especially in chapter 4, when, after Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth, he refers to Elijah’s stay with the widow of Zarapheth, implying that his ministry will be welcomed by the Gentiles like her and rejected by his fellow Jews.

The story of the widow of Nain and the resurrection of her son is found only in Luke’s Gospel. The story comes immediately after Jesus has healed the Roman centurion’s servant. The centurion, a rich Gentile, who is sympathetic to the Jewish faith and has built a synagogue for them, expresses faith in Jesus, and his servant is healed from a distance. Jesus emphasises the contrast between him and the lack of faith from the Jewish people by saying “I have never found faith like this, not even in Israel”.

Now Jesus turns to help a member of the ‘anawim’  the faithful Jewish poor who feature so often in Luke’s Gospel as the true believers.  He meets the funeral procession at the town gate (a direct parallel with Elijah). After the miracle, he gives the son back to his mother – another direct parallel.

But there are differences between the two stories, and these are intended to demonstrate that Jesus is not just a great prophet (as the crowd proclaims) but something much greater.

There is no request from the widow of Nain for help. Jesus  interrupts the funeral procession, drawn to help by simple human sympathy, sympathy not just for the human tragedy, but, as so often in Luke’s Gospel, for those in facing economic desperation.  He touches the coffin to stop the procession – thereby rendering himself ceremonially unclean. He shows himself to be above human laws of purity. Whereas Elijah throws himself on the dead boy three times, and cries to God to heal him, Jesus revives him with a simple  command “Young man, get up”.  His healing power comes from within himself, not from outside. To those who believe, he is so obviously much more than a great prophet; he is, as Luke calls him, the Lord.

Immediately after this, Luke tells us that messengers came from John the Baptist, asking whether Jesus was the person John said was coming. His answer was that the blind and deaf had been healed, the lame walked, and the dead has been raised to life. The miracles of the preceding verses are thus an illustration of this ministry. Then he tells his disciples that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven will be greater than John.

The miracles in which people are raised from the dead are probably the most difficult for modern Christians to deal with. I trawled the internet and couldn’t find a single modern example of a ‘resurrection’ without medical procedures which had been independently verified.  But, as the Dean of St Albans reminds us in his book ‘Meaning in the Miracles’ the question of what did or did not happen is an unanswerable, and and, therefore, fruitless question. The real and useful question is what the stories are intended to tell us.

In re-telling a story about Elijah, Luke is reminding us that God was at work through Elijah, as he was through all of Israel’s history. He is reminding us that God is a god of mercy and compassion, with a special care for the poor and defenceless. In retelling the story of the raising of a Gentile widow’s son, Luke is reminding us that greater faith is sometimes found outside the faith community than inside it.

In showing Jesus performing the same miracle by a simple  word of command, he is telling us that Jesus is a far greater miracle worker even than Elijah. In restoring her son to the widow Jesus gives her back her future – as he gives back the future to everyone who believes in him.

All the resurrection miracles in the New Testament look forward to the greatest resurrection miracle of all, that of Jesus himself. The widow’s son is raised to physical life, but he will die again. What the resurrection of Jesus promises is resurrection to eternal life – to a future not just in this world, but for all eternity.

In the Bible, physical death, like physical handicap,  can be a symbol for spiritual malaise. We are spiritually dead when we are in the power of sin, or in thrall to the material things of life. It is only through true faith that we can be raised from spiritual death to eternal life and that is the most important resurrection of all.

The stories in the New Testament of Jesus performing miracles were told to strengthen the faith of those who heard them. They showed Jesus as not just a prophet of words, but as a prophet of actions – and as he told the messengers from John the Baptist, the Kingdom of God was being ushered in by those actions.

Our job, as the present day disciples of Jesus, is to inspire and strengthen faith in those to whom we speak. We can do that by re-telling the stories of God at work in the world, just as the gospel writers did; but  particularly by telling our own stories of the difference our faith makes to our lives. We probably won’t have tales of people being raised from physical death to share, but many of us will have stories of individuals and communities whose lives have been redeemed from economic, moral and spiritual death, and who have been given back their future by people working with them in the power of the Holy Spirit and in the service of the Kingdom of God.

And those are stories which are worth re-telling again and again.

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Into Temptation…

February 17, 2013

SERMON FOR LENT 1 (YR. C)

(Psam 91, 1-2 & 9-16; Romans 10. 8-13; Luke 4, 1-13)

Christ-In-The-Wilderness-Ivan-Kramskoy-small

When the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) was working to translate the services of the Church into modern English, one of the phrases which caused them most difficulty was the last but one petition of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Lead us not into temptation’.

Part of the difficulty stems from the possible meaning of the original Greek of the text in Matthew and Luke, and even of the Hebrew behind that. For instance, the Greek verb translated ‘lead’ could mean taking in an active sense, to lead by going before, or simply to announce. And depending on the understanding of the Hebrew  behind this clause, again it could be active, meaning to cause something to happen; or permissive, to allow something to happen. So, the Syriac version of the New Testament translates this “Do not make us enter into temptation”.

Modern Lord's PrayerAgain, the preposition ‘eis’ and its Hebrew original could imply simply ‘into’ or ‘as far as’ but, more strongly ‘to be placed under the power of’. So, one translation could be “Do not allow us to fall under the power of temptation” that is, be overwhelmed by it.

However, the word which gave the translators most difficulty was the word translated ‘temptation’. The Greek original is found rarely in secular Greek, but very often in Biblical Greek, both in the New Testament and in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, with a variety of meanings. It can mean simply an attempt; it can mean a test in the sense of testing a metal or testing somebody’s competence or conviction (and in this sense it is often used of God testing human beings). It can mean a malicious attempt to trick someone, and is used in that way of the attempts of the Scribes and Pharisees to catch Jesus out by asking him trick questions. It can be used to mean the seduction into sin which is the usual modern meaning of ‘temptation’.That’s how it is used to describe Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. It can mean a trial or ordeal. It can mean to tempt God. In all of these meanings, the form of noun used implies a continuing process, not a one-off event.

Some interpretations of the text are more difficult for us to accept, not because of they don’t translate the original Greek correctly, but because they run counter to our beliefs about the nature of God, and of human beings.

For instance, we believe that God is good, and wills happiness and good for human beings. So how can we even think that God would deliberately seduce us into sin or put us under the power of evil?

Secondly, it is nonsense to pray that we won’t be tempted, because temptation is part and parcel of the human condition. God gave us free will – but there would be no point in having free will if there were no circumstances in which we were tempted to choose to sin. It is  a mark of being a real human being that we can be tempted to do wrong – and that is why the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness is important: it shows that Jesus was, as Hebrews says, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are”. (Heb. 4.15) The one difference is, as Hebrews goes on to say, “yet without sinning”.

So, if we are not asking God not ever to put us into a situation where we are tempted, and we cannot conceive of God deliberately trying to make us commit sin, what are we asking in this part of the Lord’s Prayer?

Modern translations of the New Testament have used a variety of phrases, most of them designed to express the hope that God will not test us beyond what we can cope with, or allow us to be overwhelmed by temptation.

The Good News Bible has “Do not bring us to hard testing” and the New English Bible “Do not bring us to the test”. The Jerusalem Bible has “Do not put us to the test” and the NRSV “Do not bring us to the time of trial”.

Most of the denominations have used a variation on that last phrase in their modern language Trad Lord's Prayerservices, and pray: “Save us from the time of trial”. You will find this version in the Methodist, the URC, the Roman Catholic and other Anglican churches, such as the New Zealand Church. The Church of England could not agree to use the internationally agreed text, and kept  “Lead us not into temptation”  in their modern language Lord’s Prayer as well as in the traditional language one.   I rather like Jim Cotter’s free modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer, which  has: “In times of temptation and test, strengthen us; from trials too great to endure, spare us; from the grip of all that is evil, free us.”

When we pray this petition, we are asking God to be with us as we face the everyday temptations of human life. We are asking for divine protection when we face situations where the urge to sin becomes overwhelming. We are asking for divine guidance when the prompting of our own nature, or the urging of others, bring us to situations where we may be tempted to flirt with sin. We are asking God not to abandon us when our faith, or our bodies are under assault.

When we face these situations (as all of us will) the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness shows us how God answer this petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

We do not have to take this story literally. Jesus may have had an experience like this when he spent time in the desert after his baptism by John, but since he was alone, and the conversations went on inside his head, how would anyone else have known the details? Mark has the simple statement that ‘he was tempted by Satan’; it is only Matthew and Luke who provide details of the threefold temptations. But these are temptations which Jesus would have faced during his whole ministry, as they are temptations which face any of us who try to bring others into the Kingdom of God. So it is perfectly possible to see the story of the time in the wilderness as a word picture of the temptations of ministry for Jesus and for ourselves.

The first is the temptation to bring people into faith by providing for their material needs alone. Perhaps there are secondary temptations also; to provide the basic necessities of life, but only to those of ‘our’ faith; or the temptation, which is so prevalent in our society, to believe that the accumulation of goods will bring happiness, or is a sign of God’s favour. Jesus answers this by affirming the supreme importance of the spiritual – the Word of God – rather than the material – bread.

The second temptation is to use political power, including force, to bring people to faith. We can all think of examples of Christians giving in to this temptation throughout history – from the way the final texts of the Creeds were arrived at, to the Crusades, and the wars of religion that so disfigured Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Jesus rejects this by quoting from Deuteronomy a verse that insists that worship must be given to God because of God’s character, and not in response to political power or force, which are seen as works of the Devil.

Finally there is the temptation to encourage faith by demonstrations miraculous power, which is, in effect, to tempt God. Again, we can all think of times when churches have tried to prove that they have the one true faith by appeals to signs and wonders, or miraculous cures to which they alone have access.  Jesus again quotes from the Hebrew scriptures which forbid testing out God’s support in this way. During his ministry he always refused to provide miracles ‘to order’ to prove his credentials.

Jesus was saved in his time of trial, and delivered from  evil because of his close relationship with God, and his total reliance on God’s love and support. Psalm 91 assures us that God’s love and support is with us through the difficult times too. For Jesus, his relationship with God was founded on his deep knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and the tradition (in his case the Jewish tradition), his constant reference to God  through prayer, and his submission to God’s will in humility.

As we face the tests and temptations of our lives, these same resources and this same relationship with God can  save us too from trial and temptation and deliver us from all evil.

The Gentle Revolution.

December 22, 2012

(Micah 5, 2-5a; Luke 1 39 – 55) (Advent 4 Year C)

Windsock-Visitation.McGrath

Today on the last Sunday of Advent, as we light the fourth of the Advent candles, our thoughts turn to Mary, the mother of Jesus; and this year, our readings remind us also of the role of another mother, Elizabeth, in preparing the Way for the coming of God’s Kingdom.

Both of them were mothers of prophets who preached about the coming Kingdom of God, and urged people to respond to that coming by changing the way they lived. Both of them must have had a significant influence on the thinking and actions of the children they raised. Both of them are heralds of the Kingdom. Elizabeth, we are told, had her child in her old age, Mary had hers as a young woman.

I wonder how you picture Mary? Most of the pictures and statues of her show her as very imagesMaryyoung, very pretty, dressed in blue or white, with her eyes either cast down to the ground, or raised to heaven, sitting or praying, cradling her baby or her dead son. She is portrayed as a passive participant in the drama of salvation. That’s the way she has been portrayed in a lot of Christian literature too, starting with the gospel of John, which shows her as the perfect disciple, following her son without question.

Walking MadonnaIn complete contrast is the statue of her by Dame Elizabeth Frink, known as the Walking Madonna. This is the description of it by Elspeth Moncrieff: This is no conventional, modest Madonna lurking in the security of a Cathedral alcove. She strides with singleness of purpose oblivious to the distractions of those around her. There is an integrity in her gaze, a sense of purpose and iron strength in her gaunt frame. Most importantly, she has turned her back on the sanctuary and security of the Cathedral; choosing instead to stride out into the town to meet the world full on and grapple with the fundamental condition of mankind.

This is a mature Mary, who has been touched and changed by the experiences of motherhood and the Crucifixion. This is an active Mary. This is the Mary that Luke presents us with, who questions the angel who announces she is to bear the Saviour and challenges Jesus about his disappearance in the Temple; she is the one who ponders the events of his life in her heart, and is included by Jesus among those who hear the word of God and do it (Luke 8.21) This is the Mary who speaks the words of the Magnificat, proclaiming the coming of her son as the fulfilment of the Old Testament hopes and prophecies, the inaugurator and executor of God’s decisive intervention to transform the world. This is Mary, the gentle revolutionary.

It is sometimes difficult for us to hear the radical message of the Magnificat, especially when it is so often set to beautiful music, and frequently sung by a small choirboy. Perhaps we might appreciate its revolutionary message better if we sang it in the modern version by Fred Kaan, especially when one of the tunes you can sing it to is “O Tannenbaum’ also known as “The Red Flag”

Sing we a song of high revolt;
Make great the Lord, his name exalt:
Sing we the song that Mary sang
Of God at war with human wrong.
Sing we of him who deeply cares
And still with us our burden bears;
He, who with strength the proud disowns,
Brings down the mighty from their thrones.

By him the poor are lifted up:
He satisfies with bread and cup
The hungry folk of many lands;
The rich are left with empty hands.
He calls us to revolt and fight
With him for what is just and right
To sing and live Magnificat
In crowded street and council flat

This is the call to change our ways represented by the Mary who turns her back on the safety of traditional religion and strides out into the messiness of the world, just as her son did, and just as Elizabeth’s son did.

The Magnificat proclaims a religious revolution: that God has chosen a woman to be the vehicle which inaugurates his decisive revelation to the world, and a young, unmarried mother at that. As the prophets have proclaimed, but reality has rarely echoed, God’s favour is shown not to those who hold high positions in the religious hierarchy, nor to members of a Chosen People, nor to those who keep themselves pure and untouched by the world but to those who hear and obey his commands, whatever their background and circumstances.

It proclaims a social revolution: that the proud, those who think themselves better than other people, will be brought down, and the humble, the despised and the outcast will be seen as the true recipients of God’s favour.

It proclaims a political revolution: that the powerful will be defeated and the oppressed will be freed and given fullness of life. It proclaims an economic revolution, that the hungry will be fed, and those who are rich now will feel what it is like to go short.

All this, Mary proclaims, is the fulfilment of everything that God promised, through the prophets of  the Old Testament, to those who love and obey him.

Why do we not often hear this revolutionary message?

Perhaps because the Church through the ages has tended to turn this into the proclamation of a spiritual revolution, the exaltation of the spiritually poor, and humble; but it has not lived even that revolution. Once the Christian faith became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and the dominant faith in Europe and Northern Asia, and the lands they colonised, most people in the church reverted to the previous status quo, serving and associating with the rich, the powerful, the wealthy, and reversing the values of the Kingdom. Most used the weapons of the old order to support secular rulers, and to enforce conformity with one interpretation of the faith. The institutional church sidelined the quiet revolution, and forsook the teachings of the gentle revolutionaries who proclaim the values of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I don’t believe the Magnificat and the Gospel of Luke are just speaking about a spiritual revolution; nor that the reversal of the old order is just something that will come after death, or at the end of time. I believe it is speaking about a change that Jesus urged his followers to work for in the 1st century; that he and John the Baptist  urged the people who came to hear him to put into practice, challenging the rich, the powerful, the soldiers and the tax collectors to repent and change their ways, working for change through peaceful means. I believe it was a revolution that Jesus lived, as he  touched the unclean, women, lepers and the sick, as he associated with those outside genteel society, and as he allowed himself to be abused and killed, rather than physically resisting violence.

I believe the Magnificat is speaking about a gentle revolution that the Church should be proclaiming and living today, and that the yearly observation of Advent reminds us about.

It is a reminder that our Christmas is not like the world’s Christmas. It is not an escape from the world of poverty and violence and conflict, it is a commitment to do something about it, in Jesus’s name. It is not about tradition or about buying and getting, it is about change, and giving away possessions and privilege. It is not about getting away from struggle, it is about struggling in the right way to change the way people see the world, about leading people to ‘repent’ in the proper Biblical meaning of the word, and about seeing the world through God’s eyes.

Today Christians often complain, especially in the USA, that there’s a ‘War on Christmas’. But I give you the words of a minister who recently wrote that he would sign up to support the War on Christmas because: I’d make the argument that the dominant face of Christianity, as it is seen on television and promoted through news programming, is itself far from what Christianity is supposed to be. It is a sort-of white-washed, sanitized version of Christianity that every year presents an increasingly cleaned up version of the Christmas story to the viewing public.

You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.

But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough, in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.

So, “War on Christmas?” Sure, sign me up. I’m pretty sure I’d prefer the elimination of what our modern “celebration” has become to the increasingly white-washed version we hear every year.

The Christmas story has been hijacked by a dominant culture. Places of power and positions of prestige have warped the comeuppance sensibilities of the original Christmas story. 

God’s vision of liberating the oppressed, the downtrodden, has been slowly replaced year after year with a story that no longer brings fear to the Powers that Be, but rather supports the big business agendas of profit and mass consumerism.

 

Perhaps many of you would not go as far as Pastor Mark Sandlin; and the celebration of the traditional Christmas does give a lot of joy to families, and promote a good deal of charitable giving. But if the coming of Christ into the world is supposed to be a life changing experience, and if what we are celebrating is not just that Christ has come 2000 years ago, but also that Christ is coming now to change the world, we ought to open our ears and minds to hear the challenge of the words of the Magnificat anew, and ask ourselves how we can join Mary and Elizabeth and their sons to become God’s gentle revolutionaries to bring in his Kingdom afresh this Christmas.

Who’s Calling?

January 15, 2012

Who’s Calling?

(1 Samuel 3, 1-10; Psalm 139, 1-6, 12-17; John 1, 43-51)

I’m not the sort of person who has visions; and I can’t say that there was a distinct moment when I was converted, as some people have: I was simply brought up in a Christian household, and continued to attend church when I was an adult. Nor can I identify a moment when I was ‘called’ to the ministry of Reader (or Local Preacher in Methodist terms). I began by speaking at family services, and ‘ghost writing’ some sermons for my then Vicar, and one day I had to take over and actually ‘preach’ one at a Parish Communion. It was at that point I decided that I ought to get myself properly trained and authorised if I was going to continue. So I did! And this particular ministry has felt right for me ever since.

Was that experience a calling from God? I don’t know!

Our readings today, in their different ways, explore the idea of being called by God.

In the first, from the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament, the boy Samuel is called to the life of a prophet, speaking ‘The Word of the Lord’ to the people of Israel. The second, from Psalm 139, explores the relationship with God to which we are all called, from before our birth to our death. The passage from John’s Gospel describes the calling of two disciples, Philip and Nathanael.

The passage from 1 Samuel can be heard as a rather sweet story, of a small child coming to personal knowledge of God for the first time. But, set in its context, it is a much more frightening and serious tale. The previous chapters of I Samuel have interwoven the story of the birth of Samuel with a description of sins of Eli’s sons, and therefore the failure of his role as a father and a priest. Eli’s sons have exploited their hereditary position to satisfy their greed and their lust, by taking the best meat of the sacrifices for themselves and using the women of the temple as prostitutes.

The beginning of our passage shows that, at first, Eli fails to discern the Lord speaking to Samuel; but eventually, he does recognise that this is the divine voice speaking, and he not only teaches Samuel how to respond, but demands to hear what Samuel has been instructed to prophesy, however bad it may be for him and his family.

The following verses of 1 Samuel describe the fate that God has in store for the priestly family: the death of the two wicked sons, Eli’s blindness and his eventual death, and the descent of his family into poverty.

Yet, they also describe Eli’s acceptance of all this as “what is good to the Lord”. No matter how much he has failed God, no matter how much his family has misused their position of privilege, he has not departed so far from his original calling as to fail to recognise the voice of God calling, nor to reject the truth when he hears it.

God’s call to the young Samuel is to a ministry that proclaims the replacement of the old, failed order of priests, represented by Eli and his sons, with a new order, of prophets, who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. Samuel is to become the first representative of that new order.

Psalm 139 (a favourite psalm of many people) describes how God calls us: how God searches us out and knows every one of us from the first moments of our existence in the womb. It is because God knows us in such an intimate way that we can know God. As the end of our passage reminds us, the knowledge is not equal: God will always know much more about us than we can ever know of God. The psalm reminds me of the theology of Paul Tillich, who speaks of God as both transcendent, existing outside and beyond all that is, but also as immanent and intimate, ‘the Ground of our Being’.

Perhaps we may be alarmed by the idea of a God from whom we can never escape, no matter where we run to, and who knows every detail of our lives before we live them. We all of us have our ‘dark side’, the bits of ourselves that we prefer others not to see, lest we be judged wanting. But there is no sense in this psalm of judgement, simply of a God who understands, loves and provides for us from before birth until after death. It speaks of what Martin Buber called the ‘I-Thou’ relationship.

In our New Testament passage we heard John’s description of the calling of two more disciples, Philip and Nathanael. Previously Andrew has been called from being a disciple of John the Baptist, and has brought along his brother, Peter. Now, having returned from the Jordan to Galilee, Jesus calls Philip, possibly a Gentile, who in turn brings along his friend Nathanael.

The passage seems to reflect a certain amount of rivalry between the towns of Galilee. Philip, Peter and Andrew are natives of Bethsaida (which means ‘house of fishing’) and Nathanael from Cana, where the first of Jesus’s seven signs which John describes takes place. Nathanael clearly doesn’t think anything worthwhile can come from Nazareth and particularly not the expected Messiah! Since Nazareth was located right on the border with Samaria, you can understand why those from other parts of Galilee might consider it a dodgy place!

Since this is John’s Gospel, the simple story is full of hidden meanings. Jesus describes Nathanael  as an Israelite, a son of Israel. The former name of Israel was Jacob, and Jacob means ‘trickster’ or deceiver’. But Jesus says Nathanael is not a deceiver.

Jesus says he saw Nathanael sitting under a fig tree. The fig tree is often a symbol of peace and prosperity, and of the Jewish nation.  Was Jesus then calling Nathanael from his old life as a faithful Israelite to a new life as a disciple of the Messiah?

Nathanael certainly thought so. He acclaimed Jesus with the Messianic titles, ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’.

But then Jesus immediately refers back to Jacob again, with his reference to a ladder along which angels pass from heaven to earth. His ministry will be one where heaven and earth are open to each other, where God and human beings are connected. But whereas, when Jacob saw the ladder, it marked a holy place, Bethel, where God was encountered,  now it marks a person, Jesus, where God is encountered.

None of the Gospels tells us much more about Philip or Nathanael. In this story of their call, they seem to represent the disciples in the post-resurrection church. They have seen the miracles of Jesus; they are aware of his supernatural knowledge. The only proper response to the this person’s command to follow him, is to do so, and to worship him as King and Messiah.

But that is not the end of the story. The disciple is to follow Jesus, and to believe. But the disciple is also to extend the invitation to others to “Come and see”. This section of John’s Gospel emphasises the important role of personal connections in the making of new disciples. It is an invitation to us, as well as to those first disciples. We who have seen the Word made flesh, we who have heard the Word of the Lord are not supposed to keep it to ourselves. We are to go and invite others to come, and see, and hear for themselves.

And what are we inviting our family, and friends, and workmates and neighbours to come and see? We are inviting them to meet a God who knows us intimately, and who is present in everything we do; who is with us in the bad times as well as the good, who accepts our dark side as well as the light in us.

We are inviting them to meet a God who accepts us as we are, who chooses the most unlikely people to bear the divine message: a small child, being raised by an elderly failed priest in a corrupt environment; a foreigner; a cynical adult, deeply prejudiced against people from a rival town, and supremely, a man from a rough border town.

We are inviting them to meet a God who is transforming the world, replacing the old order of evil and corruption with a new one, led by those who hear and proclaim the true Word of the Lord. We are inviting them to meet a God who is not distant, but who comes to us in human form, who invites us into the relationship of intimacy and co-operation with the divine for which we were created.

We are inviting them to meet a God who calls human beings to become agents of the divine in changing the world and making transforming it into the Kingdom of heaven.

Who’s calling?

God is!

Come and see!

Hark, the Herald!

December 4, 2011

(Sermon for Advent 2 & St Andrew) (Isaiah 40, 1-11; Mark 1, 1-8)

Last week, the vicar wished you a Happy New Year, as we celebrated Advent Sunday. Today I’m going to wish you Happy Birthday, as we celebrate St Andrew’s Day, our Patronal Festival or Feast of Dedication, and so the ‘birthday’ of this particular church and parish.

St Andrews-tide is traditionally kept as a time of reflection on mission. Both the ASB and Common Worship have a Day of Intercession and Thanksgiving for the Missionary Work of the Church on 29th November, the day before St Andrew’s Day.  It is therefore very appropriate that, as we celebrate St Andrew on the Second Sunday in Advent, our readings should concentrate on sharing the Good News of God.

Second Isaiah announces to the Jewish people that God is going to get them out of jail. They’ve served their sentence (twice over, with no remission), paid their debt, and now they’re going home! The first word of the proclamation is ‘Comfort!’ Comfort originally meant ‘give strength’: the good news not only makes them feel better, it makes them strong.

The prophet then relays God’s command to clear the way for his progress, and that of his people. This is no minor task, but is compared to a major engineering project, the building of a road all the way from Babylon to Jerusalem, levelling hills and bridging valleys through hostile and barren countryside. There are to be no obstacles to this freedom march!

Isaiah speaks God’s assurance that this will happen, because it is rooted, not in the weakness and fickleness of humanity, but in the promise of God.

God then speaks through his herald (and in Hebrew the word for herald comes from the same root meaning as the word for evangelist does in Greek) who is to proclaim from Jerusalem the good news that God is doing a new thing, where no new thing seemed possible. He is to alert the people to the truth that God is coming among them, as their strong protector, and as a gentle shepherd of the weak and vulnerable. The message the herald brings is of captivity turned to homecoming, despair turned to hope, darkness turned to light.

Mark, like all the evangelists, sees John the Baptist as that herald, that prophet speaking God’s message, that one who prepares the road for the one greater than him to travel. He prepares for the Messiah by saying that people need to repent, to change the way they think, and turn their lives round into a new way. He gives them baptism, a ‘sacrament’, an outward and visible sign, to remind them of that change. He tells them that God has forgiven their wrongdoing, and that when the Messiah comes, they will receive the Spirit of God within themselves, just as the prophet Jeremiah foretold.

John, like the ancient Jewish exiles, is seen as travelling in the wilderness. But that wilderness is theological and spiritual, not geographical. The wilderness is the place where nothing is available to keep people going. The wilderness is a place where nothing bears fruit.The wilderness is a place where people’s spiritual lives die – unless they have the help of God, who alone can lead them through the wasteland to enjoy life in all its fullness.

John prepares the way for Jesus in more than his proclamation. Jesus repeats John’s message of repentance, and of God’s forgiveness for what is in the past. Jesus proclaims God’s presence with the human race, saying the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s imperial rule, is close at hand. Jesus gives people a sacrament, the Communion, as a sign of this. But John prepares the way for Jesus in his life, too. Jesus, like John, will tread the road of persecution, suffering and death because of the message he preaches.

Both of them are saying, like Isaiah, God is here; God is doing something new among you; what are you going to do about it?

As some of us have discovered, in the study of Mark’s Gospel we have been following over the last couple of months, Mark frames his Gospel around Jesus’s invitation to the disciples to follow him in the way to life through service, suffering and death. In Mark

El Greco St Andrew

Jesus urges people to think about life in a different way, to proclaim the reality of God’s rule in the present time, and to be prepared to suffer and die (metaphorically or literally) because of their allegiance to God. His call to Andrew and the other disciples was to repentance, mission, service and crucifixion – because that is the only way to resurrection. He calls us to follow the same way.

We are all called by our baptism to be missionaries, to be heralds of the Good News. At the moment, in this church, we are engaged in a process of Mission Action Planning as part of the the diocesan initiative of ‘Living God’s Love’.

But before we can plan our mission, we need to be clear about what we are proclaiming to those around us. What is the Good News we have for the people of this parish at this time?

The MAP questionnaire, which  many of us filled in, identified the major strength of this church as ‘friendliness’. That is a good thing. Research into mission strategies shows that most people are brought to church membership by another person, often a member of their family or a close friend. Friendship evangelism works!

But as Bishop Alan pointed out in his address to the Diocesan Synod in June, there are two sorts of friendliness: there is the sort of friendliness between like minded people that builds them into a strong, supportive, but inward looking community (what is called in the jargon ‘bonding social capital’); or there is the sort of friendliness which impels a group to look outwards, beyond itself, to support and welcome those who are different from themselves (bridging social capital). Which of these sorts of friendliness will be Good News to those we seek to reach with our mission. Which of these sorts of capital will require a real repentance, real metanoia, real ‘change of mind’ on our part?

Our responses to the questionnaire also identified the lack of members, especially young people and children, as a weakness, and as a hindrance, or obstacle, to our mission. So a major question in planning our mission is going to be “What in the Christian faith will be Good News to this group of people?”

The Good News that Isaiah proclaimed in our Old Testament reading was freedom from imprisonment and exile. So what imprisons and exiles the younger generation from their true selves, the people God created them to be? According to Mark, Jesus proclaimed the Good News by healing people from their sickness, casting out demons from them, and welcoming in the outcasts. So what are the sicknesses of our culture, what demons enslave people today, who are the outcasts in our society?

We won’t find out unless we are prepared to listen. And that will involve being where young people and those outside the church communicate with each other, even though it may appear to us that such places are ‘the wilderness’: listening in to what contemporary music and fashion says, reading newspapers and magazines, watching TV and films and listening to the radio, and most crucially of all, engaging with social media, like Twitter and Facebook and MySpace, where so much opinion nowadays is formed and exchanged.

It won’t be comfortable, in the usual sense of the word – the world inhabited by people outside the church may seem like a wilderness to us – but then Andrew’s call to mission was not a comfortable one either! He and the other disciples were sent out by Jesus, without much training or equipment, to do the same work he did in the towns and villages of Galilee; and later, they were sent by the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth, and, many of them, to their own deaths, with the same mission.

In spite of this, they went out with joy, the joy that shines through the readings today. It is the joy that comes from knowing that there is no need to prepare for God’s coming, because God is already here in the world, already at work, healing and exorcising, defending and caring for the people of God. So, the mission of those of us who are charged to be heralds of the God’s Good News is simply to reveal, through our words and through our actions, that God in Jesus is already here, and point the way to him. As someone said on Twitter recently: a church should be a signpost not a destination.

Happy Birthday! Happy St Andrew’s Day! Happy Advent!

Happy Mission Action Planning!

Whose side are you on?

January 9, 2011

(Isaiah 42, 1-9; Matthew 3,13-17)

Has anyone ever said to you “Whose side are you on?” It usually happens when you are involved in a discussion, and you make a point which demonstrates that the issue is less clear cut, less ‘black and white’ than other people thought.

 

Through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, God says to the Jewish nation in exile that he is on their side. It may not seem like it to them. After the glory days of King David and King Solomon, the kingdom had split in two, and first the Northern Kingdom of Israel, then the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been defeated and overrun and their elites deported to a foreign land. This was explained by the prophets as God’s punishment for their lack of loyalty to the Covenant.

 

But through second Isaiah, God proclaims that he is going to do something new. He is going to restore them to their position as his people, renew the covenant with them,  and make them a light to the whole world. There will be no doubt that he is on their side. But he is going to do it in an unexpected way. They might expect God to send them a warrior King, who will defeat their enemies and establish their dominance by force of arms. But the King God will send will be a Servant, whose main task will be to bring God’s justice to the world.

 

He will do so in gentleness. He won’t make a great fuss about it, or be high-handed or brutal. His way will be so gentle that it wouldn’t break a bent reed or snuff out a lamp. Both of these metaphors tell us God’s servant will have a special care for those people the rest of society thinks useless or unimportant. A bent reed was no use to make a pen for writing, or for building with; all that could be done with it was to break it and use it for fuel. A dimly burning wick was worse than useless,it was a danger. As it burned towards is end,it grew dim, and the wick could break and fall onto the rush covered floor,causing a fire; the only safe thing to do would be to extinguish it. But God’s servant would do neither. He would bring liberty, teaching and the rule of God not just to the Jewish nation, but to the furthest ends of the earth.

 

Though his way would be gentle, he wouldn’t be ineffective or weak, because he would be sustained by the strength of the God who created the earth and gave life to all humanity. God had chosen the Servant and God delighted in him. He was to be sent to do God’s work on earth.

 

Isaiah didn’t identify who God’s Servant was. It could be he was speaking of an individual. It could be he was referring to the Jewish nation, or a faithful remnant of them.  It is clear that the gospel writers identified Jesus as the Servant, since there are constant references to the Servant Songs of Isaiah in their writings. So when we hear the Servant Songs, we hear them as referring to Jesus and his ministry. But they could equally refer to anyone who does God’s work of bringing justice into the world. They refer to those who are on God’s side, as God is on theirs.

 

The Hebrew word for justice means so much more than our contemporary English word. ‘Zedakah’ means much more than doing things according to the law; it goes well beyond retributive justice (an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth)  or equal application of the law. In the Old Testament it is frequently paired with the words for compassion and grace. Justice is equivalent to righteousness, and loving-kindness, which show a particular concern for the defenceless, the sick and the vulnerable, and which are characteristics of God,.

 

In New Testament Greek, too, the same word, dikaiosune, can be translated as integrity, virtue, charity, piety, godliness, righteousness, justice. This is the word which Jesus uses when he answers John the Baptist’s objections to baptising him. he thereby affirms that he sees his ministry as doing God’s will, and as applying God’s standards of justice.

 

His baptism is affirmed by the descent of the Spirit (the spirit which Isaiah prophesied would be given to God’s Servant) and by the voice from Heaven, which proclaims (again, like the Servant) that God delights in him. In Matthew’s version, the message is addressed not just to Jesus, but to everyone. It is a proclamation that he is on God’s side, and God is on his.

 

Righteousness and justice are particularly important in Matthew’s Gospel. In his birth story, he says that Joseph was a just or righteous man. This did not mean that Joseph simply kept the rules; if he had done so, he would have denounced Mary and had her punished when he found out she was pregnant. On the contrary, he went against the rules, shielding her from punishment by resolving to divorce her quietly; and then standing up against public opinion by marrying her and adopting her son as his own. Like the Servant, he was strong but compassionate.

 

Righteousness also features twice in the Beatitudes, as a human characteristic which will bring blessing from God. For Matthew, this is a defining characteristic of the Christian community, the followers of Christ, those who have made the choice to be on his side. Matthew, more than any other Gospel writer, presents his readers with the necessity of making that choice before it is too late.

 

His baptism by John in the Jordan is shown in the Gospels as the moment when Jesus made public his commitment to work for God’s justice and righteousness. John the Baptist proclaimed the same standards; he rejected the approaches of the Sadducees and Pharisees because they didn’t really understand how far their understanding fell short of what that meant. Jesus later said that his followers must have a higher concept of righteousness than those of the religious elite: unless their idea of righteousness and justice exceeded that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, they would not enter God’s Kingdom.

(Matt 5.20).

 

Our baptism is the moment when we decide, and make public whose side we are on. We are called to recognise who Jesus is, and to follow him in doing what he did. We promise, as he did,  to do God’s will, and to be God’s faithful servants for the whole of our earthly lives.

 

For some of us, that commitment was made for us when we were infants; but we take responsibility for it ourselves when we are confirmed, and every time we re-affirm our baptismal vows, and every time we have to make a decision about how to act. Will we act in accordance with earthy standards of righteousness and justice – or in accordance with God’s standards?

 

It is very, very easy to forget what a radically different standard of righteousness baptism commits us to. It is all to easy to fall back into a less demanding definition, which simply asks that we keep the rules and accept the current definition of what is good or bad or the traditional interpretation of what it means to be righteous.

 

If we study it carefully, the Bible can open up to us the full richness and complexity of God’s standards of righteousness. The Bible can be interpreted in a restrictive, judgemental and negative way, reinforcing human concepts of righteousness, which teach , that only a few who consciously believe and don’t break any rules will be saved. Or it can reveal to us the full glory of the God who will go to any lengths to save even those who consciously reject his call: his judgement on human evil, yes, but also his compassion for human weakness and the repeated offer of forgiveness and eternal life to all who turn to him in repentance and humility.

 

Christian baptism calls us to Live God’s Love (as the Bishop of St Albans has titled the current diocesan initiative). The Feast of the Baptism of Christ today is another chance for us to reconsider exactly what that means in our lives, and decide once again whose side we are on.

 

Isaiah 11, 1-10; Matthew 3, 1-12.

In the time in which our Old Testament passage was written, there were three groups of people through whom God communicated with the Jewish nation.

 

The first were the monarchs, descended from David, the son of Jesse. By the time First Isaiah was writing, the high hopes raised by the reigns of David and Solomon had diminished, the early promise of the dynasty was unfulfilled. The kingdom had split into two, the Northern Kingdom was about to be destroyed by Assyria, and there had been a number of kings who ruled badly and served foreign gods as well as the one true God. The kings were supposed to defend the people from attack, and administer justice in God’s name, according to the laws set out in the Mosaic covenant. The later Jews also believed in another covenant, between God and the House of David, which promised that his house would rule for ever.

 

The second group were the priests, from the tribe of Levi, descendants of Aaron. Their task was to serve in the Temple, offering the daily sacrifices, and the sacrifices for sin and of thanksgiving, as set out in the covenant. They also offered prayers on behalf of the people and the nation, and,  initially, they were also responsible for teaching the people about the law of God. By the time of Isaiah, there was also  some disillusion with their role as mediators between God and his people, and some criticism of the cult. Later their role of explaining the law was taken over by the Scribes.

 

Some of the original prophets were associated with the temple, and were ‘seers’ using methods of divination to try to foresee what would happen; but the great prophets whose words are recorded in the Bible were those who spoke to the people as the messengers of God. Their Hebrew name comes from a root meaning ‘hollow’ or ‘open’, indicating they were completely open to be filled with God’s Spirit, and to offer warnings, rebukes and commentary on events as God’s mouthpieces.

 

Some  may have come from within the religious establishment, but some (such as Amos, the shepherd) were outsiders. All of them tended to end up as outsiders, because they frequently voiced criticism of the king and the cult as they recalled the people to the full implications of the Covenant. Some of them, as well as speaking and writing, acted out their messages, performing often bizarre actions to make their point. Many of the prophets suffered ridicule, persecution, abuse, and some were even killed, since their messages inevitably disturbed those who were in power, and sought to change the old ways of doing things. Their message was sometimes about the religious practices of Israel; but more often they criticised kings, judges and politicians, for acting unjustly, and oppressing the poor and the weak. Social justice was as important to them as ritual purity.

 

Our passage from Isaiah begins by looking at the reality of the moment – that the royal house of David is now so degraded that it is no more than a stump or a root. But then the prophet looks forward, to anticipate the reign of a new king, another descendant of David, who will fulfill the promise of the covenant. Like a prophet, he will be filled with the Spirit of God. He will rule not with physical force, but through the power of his words.

 

He will carry out the traditional roles of the king and administer justice without favour, giving justice equally to the poor and the rich. He will be both righteous and faithful.

 

This is a picture of an ideal monarch, one who follows so closely the will of God that the conditions of the Garden of Eden will be restored on the earth – traditional enemies in the animal kingdom such as the lion and the lamb will be reconciled, and even the snake, symbol of the Fall, will no longer injure human children. The benefits of this king’s rule will be enjoyed not just by his own people, but by the whole world.

 

No one king of the House of David ever lived up to this ideal – and the portrait of the ideal ruler came eventually to be applied to a heavenly Messiah who would be sent from God to save and rule his people – and Christian writers naturally applied the prophecy to Jesus, which is why we hear these Messianic passages from Isaiah during Advent and Christmas.

 

By the time of Jesus’ birth, it was felt that prophecy in Israel had ceased – but then along came John the Baptist! You can see him as the last of the Old Testament prophets, recalling people to the Covenant; or the first Christian prophet, preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus; but either way, he is a difficult character to understand, with a fairly unpalatable message for his people. If Luke’s account is to be believed, he came from a priestly family, but he rejected that vocation to become a prophet.

 

His way of life was an acted parable: he lived in the desert and ate food from the wild, as did the people of Israel during the Exodus, when they found God again and entered into the Covenant. His dress recalled that of the first great prophet, Elijah.  He baptised people in the Jordan, a ritual which carried two messages. First, it was the rite through which Gentile converts entered Judaism, so he was saying that Jews could not rely on their birth to make them children of God: they had to repent and make a new start. Second, the Jewish nation passed through water to  escape slavery in Egypt and to take possession of the Promised Land: so, to be ready for the Kingdom of God which was coming, they needed to pass through water again.

John’s proclamation of the coming of God’s Kingdom was an disconcerting message for those  who were comfortable in the existing religious regime. His picture of how God would judge his people was far from reassuring: he used images of violence – the winnowing fork, the threshing floor and the fire. And, like Isaiah, John also looked forward to the arrival of a major figure, a servant of God endowed with the Spirit, who would separate out the righteous and punish the wicked.

 

Like the Old Testament prophets, John warned people that something new was about to erupt into their world, something that would disrupt all that was old and destructive in their religious, social and political lives. He warned them that they needed to make concrete decisions to re-order their lives in accordance with the rules of God’s Kingdom. He told them that they didn’t have much time to do this. He instructed them not to rely on their traditions, or their previous religious practices, or their birth, but only on God, his Spirit and his Anointed One to bring them salvation.

 

That is also his Advent message to us, as we prepare to welcome Jesus, God’s Messiah.

 

Our monarchs don’t really have much influence on our religious lives today, although the Queen is still Supreme Governor of the Church of England. That simply means that she opens new sessions of General Synod, speaks to the assembled delegates, rubber stamps the appointment of bishops and signs any church legislation that goes through Parliament. Some people want to get rid of even that slight involvement and disestablish the Church of England.

 

The priesthood disappeared from the Jewish religion with the destruction of the Temple in AD 70. Christianity, however, adopted priestly leadership, and was run exclusively by priests for most of its first 2000 years. The Church of England may now give the laity a voice through synods, but they are still outnumbered two to one by clergy representatives in the houses of priests and bishops. A religion run by priests tends to be traditional and conservative. This can bring stability and comfort in times of change – but can also lead to inertia and ossification.

 

And what of prophets? There has been no recognised role for prophets within the Christian Church since the time of Paul. But of course, there have been prophets, people who have spoken out in God’s name, criticised the church’s practices both ritual and social and urged it to return to the teachings of Jesus. Like the Old Testament prophets, like John the Baptist, many of them were persecuted, punished and killed by their monarchs and priests and their representatives. Some of them, however, were heard, and they became the great reformers of the Church, like the founders of monastic movements and leaders of the Reformation and social reform.

 

And do we need prophets in the church today? Not if we want a quiet life! Prophets are always disturbing and disruptive. They call us out of our comfort zone, and challenge us to listen anew to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

 

There are several voices claiming to be prophets within the church today, from very different parts of the theological spectrum. One such is a website run by fundamentalist Christians, which seems simply to be promoting hatred of Muslims, gays and women. Other groups see themselves as prophets, calling Anglican Christians back to what they claim is orthodox belief and practice. But from the other end of the theological spectrum, there are people who claim that attempts to define and impose orthodoxy will stifle the prophetic voice in the church; they would say the voice of prophecy is coming from those who want Christians to go back to the example and practice of Jesus Christ, rather than the written word, and include everyone within the covenant people.

 

 

But, as in Old Testament times, the voice of prophecy may sometimes come from outside the religious establishment. Those of my age will remember a Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s, which contained the line “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls”. John the Baptist spoke his prophecy from the wilderness, outside the limits of society. God is not confined to speaking through official channels; the word of the Lord may come to us from a place we don’t expect. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit to discern the true from the false prophets.

 

As we prepare to welcome again the One who is both Prophet, Priest and King, may we always be alert to hear the words of the prophets, no matter how they come to us, no matter how disturbing they may be.