Today is the day that the Church
celebrates the Baptism of Christ,
and when I first looked at the
I quite thought I was going to be
preaching on baptism.
But when you look more closely at the
there is another theme that springs out
and that is the Holy Spirit!
In our first reading, from Genesis, we
are told that
“a wind from God swept over the face
of the waters.”
“A wind from God swept over the face of the
Other translations refer to the Spirit of God hovering,
over the face of the waters.
rather love the image of brooding –
as though God’s Spirit
were protecting the as-yet-unmade earth.
Then in our second reading, in Acts,
Paul realises that there is something
missing in the believers at Antioch, and asks them whether they
received the Holy Spirit when they were baptised.
And they are
like, “Er, you what?”
not at all sure what he is talking
So he enquires a bit deeper,
and finds that they had not actually
heard the full Good News about Jesus at all,
but had only got as far as John the
So he has to give them a quick crash course on what
salvation is all about,
so they can be baptised into Jesus and
receive the Holy Spirit.
And our Gospel reading, of course,
is one of the passages that describes
the baptism of Jesus,
and tells us that the onlookers,
or some of them, at any rate,
saw the Holy Spirit coming down on
Jesus looking like a dove,
and they heard the Father speak from
heaven: “You are my
Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Actually,
Mark’s version, which is the one we heard today,
to imply that it was only Jesus who saw the Holy Spirit,
other accounts say that the bystanders did, too.
In the beginning, God.
That says it
all really, doesn’t it?
We know that God was responsible for the
Creation of the World,
and that right there at the start,
the Holy Spirit was there, hovering,
The Holy Spirit was there when the
world was made.
The Holy Spirit was there when Jesus was
And the Holy Spirit came down on the believers, as we
believe he still does today.
As Christians, we believe that the
Holy Spirit is one of the Persons of the Trinity.
That is a rather
formal way of saying it,
but it is one of those things that is
difficult to put into words.
We worship one God, not three,
but we worship God the Father,
God the Son,
and God the Holy Spirit.
Or, if you
prefer, God the Creator,
God the Redeemer,
and God the Sanctifier.
I don’t want to get into a long
discussion of the Trinity here;
time enough to do that on Trinity
All too easy to say the wrong thing.
All we really need
to remember today is that the Holy Spirit is God,
just as the Father is God
and just as Jesus is God.
when God works in us,
it is God the Holy spirit who “does
the doing”, as it were;
someone once described him as “The
executive arm of the Trinity”!
And we see Him “doing the doing” in
our readings today.
We see Him hovering over the as-yet-uncreated
brooding over it, protecting it.
see Him descending on Jesus in the form of a dove,
affirming him and, I rather think,
enabling Him for ministry.
And we see Him descending on those new
believers in Acts, cleansing them, renewing them, gifting them and
enabling them, too, to be Jesus’ people.
And, I hope, we see Him “doing the
doing” in our lives today!
Earlier on, when I did that thing with
it was a bit of a picture, wasn’t
First of all, I couldn’t pour water into the cup until I’d
taken the lid off.
Then, there was rather a lot of stuff inside
no room for any water.
Then, I needed to rinse the cup out
before I could have a drink.
But once all that was done, the cup
was fit for my use.
And that is what God the Holy Spirit did for
the believers in Antioch –
through baptism, they were enabled to
“take the lid off”,
be cleansed and made fit for service,
and then God could fill them and use
I hope we see Him cleansing us,
and enabling us, too, to be Jesus’
I hope we see those lovely characteristics that Paul
described to the Galatians that a person who is filled with the Holy
Spirit will have:
Not that we can probably see it in
these qualities are always easier to see in other
people than in ourselves.
But I hope we do see them in one
another, too, and affirm each other in them.
After all, no matter
how freely we are able to talk about our faith –
and for some of
us, that comes easier than for others, I do know –
it is whether
our lives match up to what we talk about that is important,
that either attracts or repels other
people to Jesus.
If we say one thing, but do another,
then people are going to be turned
If we don’t behave the way Jesus describes His people as
always putting other people first,
always treating other people with the
greatest possible respect for who they are,
not neglecting your family under the
heading of “religious duty”,
and so on;
if we forget that, then
maybe people will wonder whether faith is worth the effort!
I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if
that wasn’t one of the reasons Paul recognised that the so-called
believers in Antioch were actually nothing of the sort.
not allowing God the Holy Spirit to indwell them and it showed.
Well, they couldn't, could they –
they had not heard of the Holy Spirit.
They weren’t acting like believers, if you like!
knew that something was wrong.
They were like the cup with the lid
there was no way God could use them.
Now, there are various ways we can
react to this sort of sermon.
We can reckon it doesn’t apply to
God wouldn’t use us anyway.
But, in fact, that’s not
God can use you, wants to use you, and very probably already
does use you, if you have made yourself available to be used.
you are sincere in wanting to be God’s person, then God will use
You can also react to this sort of
sermon by feeling guilty.
You feel that if only you were holier,
or more pious,
or a better Christian,
or even a better person,
God could use you more.
also not really a sensible response.
You see, it isn’t about you
trying hard. You don’t have to be perfect before God will
come to you.
Rather the reverse –
after all, if you did have
to be perfect,
that would rather negate the whole
point of the Gospel!
My cup didn’t have to empty itself
and clean itself before I could use it, did it?
I did all
And likewise, we don’t have to become perfect before God
can use us.
All we have to do is to be willing to let God work in
be willing to co-operate with God, if
God the Holy Spirit will, if we ask,
come and indwell us,
make us whole –
and then we can be used.
God doesn’t just make us whole in
order to use us, mind,
although that too.
God wants to make
us whole so that we shall be whole.
Through the Holy
Spirit, God makes us whole for our own sakes,
but by doing that, he enables us to be
We become the sort of person Paul described,
full of those qualities I mentioned
We leave behind the sort of qualities we aren’t
supposed to have,
and develop the sort we are.
God the Holy Spirit was present at
He, or She, if you like – the word used at creation,
Ruach, is feminine –
was present when Jesus was
She was present when the believers of Antioch were
And She is present here with us, now, today.
God our Father,
We confess that we have allowed
ourselves to become empty,
Not filled with your Spirit, not fit
for your use.
We pray that you will fill us anew,
cleanse us, gift us, and make us whole, both for our sakes and so
that you can use us in your service.
This we ask in the power of that same
Holy Spirit, through Jesus Christ your Son, who died for us. Amen.
It’s almost an anomaly nowadays, isn’t it? Out in
the world, people are starting to celebrate Christmas already – the
shops have had their decorations up since the beginning of last
month, or even earlier,
the round of office parties, works celebrations, school festivities
will be starting any day now. And the endless tapes of carols and
Christmas songs that are played in the shops, I should think they’d
drive the shop assistants mad!
here in Church, Christmas hasn’t started yet, and won’t for
another four weeks. We are celebrating Advent,
it seems to be another penitential time, like Lent. Those churches
that have different colours for the seasons have brought out the
many will have no flowers except for an Advent wreath.
Advent is really a season of hope. We look forward to “the last
day when Christ shall come again”
establish the Kingdom on earth. We also look back to those who’ve
been part of God’s story, including John the Baptist and Jesus’
though, our readings are about the coming King.
Our first reading,
from the prophet Isaiah, tells how the prophet,
perhaps the people for whom he was speaking,
and longed to see God in action.
that you would rend the heavens and come down,
the mountains would tremble before you!
when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil,
down to make your name known to your enemies
cause the nations to quake before you!”
think that this part of Isaiah was written very late,
the people of Judah had returned from exile. They would have
remembered the stories of the wonderful things God had done in the
the days of Abraham and Sarah,
Isaac and Jacob,
of David the King – and then, they would have looked round and
hey, why isn’t any of this happening today?”
reckoned the answer must be because they were so sinful.
come to the help of those who gladly do right,
remember your ways.
when we continued to sin against them,
then can we be saved?
of us have become like one who is unclean,
all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up
like a leaf,
like the wind our sins sweep us away.
calls on your name
strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us
made us waste away because of our sins.”
does sound very much as though the prophet were longing for God,
somehow couldn’t find him, in the mists of human sinfulness and
this world’s total abandonment of God. You know, there’s
nothing new – we complain that people don’t want to seek God
our churches stand empty,
there was the prophet saying that thousands of years ago!
of course, as it turned out,
hadn’t abandoned his people at all! Jesus came to this earth,
lived among us, and died for us,
Isaiah’s people now knew the remedy for their sin.
Jesus himself tells us, in our second reading,
his coming to live in Palestine as a human being isn’t the end of
the story, either. Somehow, someday, he will come back again. He
obviously doesn’t know all that much about it while he is on earth,
rather discourages us from speculation as to when or how. But he
draws pictures for us:
sun will be darkened,
the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the
the heavenly bodies will be shaken.
that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great
power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect
from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the
is a scary thought, isn't it, with the world as unstable now as at
any time in the past century.
more today, as at no other time in history,
are such that if Jesus were to come back,
know about it almost as soon as it happened – look how quickly
news spreads around the world these days.
the time you hear about it on Facebook or Twitter before the BBC has
even picked up on it. And Jesus' return would be something
lots of generations before ours have thought that Jesus might come
back any minute now,
Christians throughout history have lived their lives expecting him to
come home. We have remembered Jesus’ warnings about being
prepared for him to come, but He hasn’t come. And we get to the
stage where we, too, cry with Isaiah:
that you would rend the heavens and come down,
the mountains would tremble before you!”
Isaiah, we long and long to see God come and intervene in this world,
and wish that He would hurry up.
that’s perfectly natural, of course. Some folk have even got to
the stage of believing it won’t happen, and have given up on God
completely. But Jesus said it will happen,
one has to assume He knew what he was talking about.
that doesn’t mean that we can blame God – if
You had come back before now, this wouldn’t have happened. Every
generation has been able to say that to God,
it’s not made a blind bit of difference. So maybe there’s
see, in one way, Jesus has come back. Do you remember what
happened on the Day of Pentecost,
that upper room? God’s Holy Spirit descended on those gathered
like tongues of fire,
with a noise like a rushing mighty wind,
the disciples were empowered to talk about Jesus. And we know from
from our own experience,
God the Holy Spirit still comes to us,
of the purposes of these so-called penitential seasons is to give us
space to examine ourselves
see if we have drifted away from God,
to ask to be filled anew with the Holy Spirit. Then we are
empowered to live our lives
Jesus would wish.
don't have to struggle and strain and strive to “get it right” by
our own efforts. God himself is within us, enabling us from the
inside. Jesus doesn’t just provide us with an example to follow,
but actually enables us to do it, by the indwelling of the Holy
and I very much enjoy ice dancing,
we have never been very good, and as we get older,
don't get any better, either!
no matter how hard we've worked, we've never been much good. But
supposing somehow the spirit of a very good ice dancer could get
actually make our bodies move in the right way,
show us how it's done from the inside.
would be so much better than anything our coach could tell us, or
anything we can learn from watching videos.
would be enabled to dance better.
that’s what God does – by indwelling us with his Holy Spirit,
He not only shows
us what to do, but enables us to do it.
of us will face the end of the world one day.
It might be the
global end of the world, that Jesus talks about, or it might just be
the end of our personal world. We expect, here in the West, to
live out our life span to the end, and many of us, I am sure, will do
just that. But we can’t rely on that. You never know when
terrorists will attack – or even muggers, or just a plain
accident. We can’t see round corners; we don’t know what
will happen tomorrow.
whether it is tomorrow,
twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years from now,
day we will die, and then, at last, we will meet Jesus face to
face. And we need to be ready. We need to know that we have
lived as God wants us to live – and when we’ve screwed up,
we always do and always will,
come back to God and asked forgiveness,and asked God to renew us and
refill us with his Holy Spirit.
can only live one day at a time, but each day should, I hope, be
bringing us nearer to the coming of the King. Amen.
I forgot to record the children's talk, sorry. Scroll down past it for the recording of the main sermon.
Okay, so who can tell me something
about sheep? Why do farmers grow sheep? What do they provide?
(Meat; wool). We don't see many sheep her in London, do we?
Sometimes we see pictures of sheep in the Bible, often we see a
shepherd carrying one round his neck, like a scarf. Well, my brother
is a shepherd, and he tells me that this is one of the best ways of
carrying them, only what the Bible doesn't show is the very nasty
things they are apt to do all down your front while you are carrying
Shepherds have to look after their
sheep all the time. They can get horrible illnesses – their feet
can get dreadfully sore, and sometimes flies can lay eggs in them,
and the maggots try to eat them. And the wool can get all icky and
manky, especially around their tails, so the shepherd tries to keep
that area clean, and often shorn.
And quite often, there isn't enough
grass in the fields for them, so the shepherd comes round with a
tractor and trailer every day to provide extra feed for them – and
yes, the stronger sheep do push the weaker ones aside, just like
sometimes at school the bigger kids push the little ones aside. And
when that happens, of course, the teachers intervene to make sure the
little kids are able to have their turn in the playground, or at
lunch, or whatever.
But the people the prophet was talking
to would have known about sheep more than kids in school, so his
picture made sense to them. And when the Prophet said that God would
send a King to be their shepherd and take care of them, who do you
think he was talking about? Jesus, of course! And today is the day
when we think extra specially about Jesus as King, and we remember
that He is also the Good Shepherd. Amen.
powered by podcast garden Main Sermon:
the very last Sunday of the Christian year, and it is the day on
which we celebrate the feast of Christ the King.
I wonder what
sort of images go through your head when you hear the word “King”.
Often, one things of pomp and circumstance, the gold State Coach,
jewels, servants, money…. and perhaps scandal, too. What do you
think of when you think about a king? The modern monarchy is largely
ceremonial. Our Queen reigns, but she does not rule. All the
same, I’d rather be represented by a hereditary monarch who is
a-political than by a political head of state for whom I did not
vote, and whose views were anathema to me! But it hasn’t always
been like that.
We think of good, brave kings, like Edward the
Third or Henry the Fifth: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,
once more”. We think of Elizabeth at Tilbury: “Although I have
the body of a weak and feeble woman, I have the heart and stomach of
a King, and a King of England, too, and think foul scorn that Parma,
or Spain, or any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders
of my realm.”
Actually my favourite Elizabeth quote
is when she was very ill, and one of her courtiers said to her, “Your
Majesty, you must go to bed!” to which she replied, “Little
man, one does not say 'must' to princes!”
Or we think of Richard the Lionheart – I’m dodging about
rather here – who forsook England to fight against Muslims, which
he believed was God’s will for him. Hmm, not much change there,
But there have been weak kings, poor kings, kings that
have been deposed, kings that have seized the crown from others. Our
own monarchy is far from the first to become embroiled in scandal.
Think of the various Hanoverian kings, the Georges, most of whom were
endlessly in the equivalent of the tabloid press, and cartoonists
back then were far, far ruder than they dare to be today. You may
have seen some of them in museums or in history books. The ones in
the history books are the more polite ones.
the role of a king was to defend and protect his people, to lead them
into battle, if necessary; to give justice, and generally to look
after their people. They may have done this well, or they may have
done it badly, but that was what they did. If you’ve read C S
Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, you might remember that King Lune
tells Shasta, who is going to be king after him: “For this is what
it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last
in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as
must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh
louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land.”
when we think of Christ as King, we come up against that great
paradox, for Christ was, and is, above all, the Servant King. No
birth with state-of-the-art medical facilities for him, but a stable
in an inn-yard. No golden carriage, but a donkey. No crown, save
that made of thorns, and no throne, except the Cross.
we know that God has raised him, to quote our first reading, “from
death and seated him at his right side in the heavenly world. Christ
rules there above all heavenly rulers, authorities, powers, and
lords; he has a title superior to all titles of authority in this
world and in the next. God put all things under Christ's feet
and gave him to the church as supreme Lord over all things.” Christ
was raised as King of Heaven.
And it is the Kingdom of Heaven
that he preached while he was here on earth. That was the Good News
– that the Kingdom of God is at hand. He told us lots of stories
to illustrate what the kingdom was going to be like, how it starts
off very small, like a mustard seed, but grows to be a huge tree.
How it is worth giving up everything for. How “the blind receive
their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear,
the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to
Jesus does lead us into battle, yes, but it is a
battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the
cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces
of evil in the heavenly places.” And through his Holy Spirit, Jesus
gives us the armour to enable us to fight, the helmet of salvation,
the breastplate of righteousness, et cetera, et cetera.
requires that His followers forgive one another, everything, all the
time. Even the unforgivable things. Even the abusers, the tyrants,
the warlords…. Even Jehadi John, and the other leaders of Islamic
And in that Kingdom of Heaven, he will
judge the nations, so our reading tells us. We will be separated
into the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. I gather
that in ancient times, your flocks tended to be mingled, sheep and
goats together, and sheep didn't really look like today's sheep, so
it was not always easy to tell them apart at a casual glance. But
the King has no problems; they are separated, the one group to be
rewarded for the way they have fed the hungry, clothed the naked and
so on, and the other to be punished for the way they have failed to
It is often rather an awkward sort of
passage for us, as we believe – and rightly – that salvation is
by faith, we cannot earn it. No, of course we can't; it is God's
free gift to us through Christ Jesus, we know that. But we also know
that faith doesn't happen in a vacuum. If it means anything, it
changes our lives. Things are never the same again.
We know all this. We have seen it
happen, if not to ourselves then to our friends. We know all about
the little voice that says “I need someone to go on Facebook and
send a loving message to X”, or “I need someone to see to it that
this church is kept clean and tidy”, or “I need someone to knit
Christmas stockings and Easter bunnies for church funds”, or
whatever. Even sometimes the bigger things: “I need someone to be
a street pastor” or “I need someone to stand for election as an
MP”.... we all know that voice.
Yet too often we ignore it. We go
about our business as though we were no different from anybody else.
We act as if the Kingdom of Heaven was something completely
irrelevant to us. And worse, we act as if the King of Heaven was
irrelevant. This poem was written sometime between 1603 and 1648
possibly by someone called Thomas Ford, and it is still true today:
“Yet if his majesty our sovereign
Should of his own accord
Friendly himself invite,
say "I'll be your guest to-morrow night."
How should we
stir ourselves, call and command
All hands to work! "Let no
man idle stand.
Set me fine Spanish tables in the
See they be fitted all;
Let there be room to eat,
order taken that there want no meat.
See every sconce and
candlestick made bright,
That without tapers they may give a
Look to the presence: are the
The dazie o'er the head,
The cushions in the
And all the candles lighted on the stairs?
chambers, and in any case
Let each man give attendance in his
Thus if the king were coming would
And 'twere good reason too;
For 'tis a duteous thing
show all honour to an earthly king,
And after all our travail and
So he be pleas'd, to think no labour lost.
But at the coming of the King of
All's set at six and seven:
We wallow in our sin,
cannot find a chamber in the inn.
We entertain him always like a
And as at first still lodge him in the manger.”
“We entertain him always like
And, as at first, still lodge him in
Must we? Shall we not follow this
King, whose Kingdom is not of this world. He is the king who rides
on a donkey, the king who requires his followers to use the weapon of
forgiveness, the king who surrendered to the accusers, the scourge,
and the cross.
Are we going to turn away from this world, and
its values, and instead embrace the values of the Kingdom? I tell
you this, my friends, most of us live firmly clinging to the values
of this world. I include myself – don’t think I’m any better
than you, because I can assure you, I’m not! We all cling to the
values of this world, and few of us truly embrace the values of the
Kingdom. We still lodge the King of Heaven in the manger. But He
will forgive us as we acknowledge our failure and try again to
embrace those values, which are so foreign to our own.
As we reach the end of one church year
and look to the beginning of a new one, may the one whom we know to
be King of the universe and ruler of our lives guide us in our
journeys of welcome and forgiveness, that our churches may include
all whom God loves, and our hearts may find healing and wholeness.
My father claims he has heard of a
preacher who concluded his sermon on the Gospel passage we have just
heard read by asking his congregation “Would you rather be with the
wise virgins in the light, or with the foolish virgins in the dark?”
which did not, of course, get the answer he was hoping for!
But the point of that reading, as,
indeed, the point of the one from Thessalonians, is that we can't see
the future. We can't see round “the bend in the road”. We don't
know when we will die, or, indeed, whether our dear Lord will return
before that happens. We have no way of knowing the future, and
therefore, we need to be prepared for almost anything.
But today is Remembrance Day, when we
think of the past, rather than the future. Never an easy day for
You know, of course, that Remembrance
Sunday was instituted in about 1920, after the end of the First World
War. That war, known then as “The War to end all Wars”, was
seriously terrible for those who participated in it. Many millions of
young men went to their deaths in the killing fields of France and
Belgium, and barely a family in those countries that were part of it
did not lose somebody. Both my grandfathers were involved in this
war, and each lost a brother. In fact, one of my grandfathers was
only just recovering from a serious wound when the news came through
that his brother had been killed. The family could easily have lost
both its sons. Indeed, many families did lose all their sons – it
was a hard time. And the flu epidemic that came immediately after
caused yet more deaths and unhappiness.
Those of you whose roots are in this
country will have similar tales to tell, no doubt, and, indeed, some
of you may have lived through the Second World War, in which so many
civilians were killed and wounded, or at best lost their homes and
livelihoods, in the Blitz. My father was at school when it started,
and a member of the Home Guard, as many senior schoolboys were, but
before it ended he was in the Army, and was wounded, and spent over a
year in hospital. My aunt was working in a rather top-secret job
organising the invasion of France. And so it goes on. There are
things our parents’ generation just don’t talk about, since the
horrors they lived through weren’t something to share with the next
generation. My grandfather, the one who was not wounded in the first
war, was career army, and saw service in the desert, I believe. He
came through unscathed, except for breaking his leg in a trivial
accident that had nothing to do with the war, and was glad of it as
he took the opportunity of the enforced leave to visit his family,
who had not seen him for four very long years. But many didn't
survive – either casualties of war, or of the concentration camps.
And I gather the years straight after the war were full of confusion
and muddle, as countries tightened up their borders and decided who
should, and who should not, live there.
But then, my generation grew up with
the threat of the atom bomb over our heads; we knew, no matter how
much our parents tried to shelter us, we knew about the Cold War, we
knew that the Soviet Union was perceived as a threat, and that we
would probably not live to grow up because someone would press the
red button and the world would go up in what was called Mutually
Assured Destruction. Right through the 1950s and 1960s we expected it
to happen, almost at any minute. Then the United States was
distracted by the Viet Nam war, and the Soviet Union by its war with
Afghanistan, and then came 1989, and the end of an era.
And, of course, during that time there
was also the Six Day war and the 1973 war in the Middle East, and the
Falklands Conflict here, and some of you may have experienced wars of
independence, or other wars, in your home countries. Peace is very
rare and very precious, and it is amazing how much peace there has
been in this country, relatively speaking, in my lifetime.
Of course, once we had got past 1989
and the Communist Bloc was no longer a threat, we had to look around
for a new enemy. And we seemed to find it among some of the Muslim
community. Hmmm – when you consider that they, as we, are People
of the Book, and when you consider the results of anti-Semitism
during the Nazi era in Germany, it strikes me that there is something
wrong with this picture.
But then, people forget. There is a
saying that if you do not remember the lessons of history, you are
doomed to repeat them. Maybe we do. Our history in this 21st
century hasn't been exactly grand, has it? We have been pleased,
this past couple of weeks, that our troops have finally left
Afghanistan – but over 400 of them never will leave. And should
they have been there in the first place? It's a vexed question.
But there was the invasion of Iraq, for
which the atrocities of 9/11 were just a pretext. And now there is
unrest in so many places in the near East – Ukraine, for a start.
And Syria, life must be absolutely awful there. It doesn't seem five
minutes since we were watching a documentary about education in
Syria, and now children are probably very lucky if they get to school
So, we wonder, where is God in all
this? What have all these events to do with God? Or, indeed, why, as
Christian people, should we be paying tribute to those who were
involved in some of these hideous things – for whatever we our
taught, our own side usually does just as dreadful things as the
other side; well, we know that, don’t we – look at those soldiers
who were convicted of torturing Iraqi prisoners. And who knows –
they may just have been the tip of the iceberg. If there was a
culture of treating your prisoners with disrespect.... and then
people wonder why you get extremist organisations like Islamic State
– I know, and I know you know, that the vast majority of Muslims
feel just as much horror and despair about Islamic State as we do,
but I can also see, and I expect you can, too, just how they got
pushed into extremism by the behaviour of some of our troops, and the
attitude of not only our troops, but also our governments.
It’s difficult, isn’t it. “Blessed
are the Peacemakers”, said Jesus. But he also said that there would
always be wars, and rumours of wars. We are told to make peace, even
while we know we will be unsuccessful.
Robert and I visited New York less than
a fortnight after the World Trade Centre was destroyed, back in 2001.
We had planned our holiday months earlier, and decided not to allow
terrorism and war to disrupt our lives more than was strictly
necessary. Besides, what safer time to go, just when security was at
Anyway, the first Sunday we were there,
we felt an urgent need to go to Church, to worship with God’s
people. Not knowing anything about churches in Brooklyn, we went to
the one round the corner from where we were staying, which turned out
to be a Lutheran Church. And I was glad we went – the people there
were so pleased to know that people were still visiting from England.
They knew they faced a hard time coming to terms with what had
happened, and that the future was very uncertain, yet they knew, too,
that God was in it with them.
And God is in it with us, too. Whatever
happens. God was there in the trenches with those young men in the
first War; God was there in the bombing and occupations of the Second
War. God was there in the Twin Towers that day, and in the hijacked
planes, too. God is there in Afghanistan, and Syria, and Ukraine,
and South Sudan, and Palestine and all those countries where there is
no peace, and life is very frightening.
We, who call ourselves Christians,
sometimes refuse to fight for our country, believing that warfare and
Christianity aren’t really compatible. I am inclined to agree, but
for one thing – do we really want our armed forces to be places
where God is not honoured? That’s the big problem with Christian
pacifism – it leaves the armed forces very vulnerable.
But we must do all that we can to make
peace. I don’t know what the rights and wrongs of most of these
campaigns were. I do know, though, that people are suffering,
through no fault of their own. People are still suffering in Dafur
and Jerusalem and Damascus, and other places where they lost loved
ones. They are still suffering in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are
suffering in other places where Muslims are despised because of their
faith – and, indeed, in places where Islamic State or Boko Harum
has any say in the matter.
War causes suffering. It is never
noble, or glorious, and I’m not quite sure whether it is ever
right. Even if it is, it is horrible. And inevitable. And we
Christians must do all we can to bring peace, and we must wear our
poppies and remember, each year, those who had to suffer and die.
For who knows when it will be our turn?
The foolish virgins in Jesus' story were the ones who reckoned it
would never happen, and failed to make preparations. We must and
will remember those who died in war, but we will also remember that
we have asked God to be in control of our lives. So we must be ready
for whatever He might ask us to go through. And always, always be
prepared to help make peace. Amen.
Please note that although this starts off the same as the sermon preached on this Sunday in 2011 and 2008, it finishes very differently.
Has anybody got penny on them? Or
even a pound coin? Okay, whose picture is on the front of it?
used to our coins, aren’t we – we barely even notice that they
have a picture of the Queen on one side, and a few odd remarks in
Latin printed round the picture. They basically say Elizabeth, and
then DG, which means by God’s grace; Reg, short for Regina, means
Queen, and FD means Defender of the Faith – a title, ironically,
given to Henry the Eighth when he wrote a book supporting the Pope
against the Protestant Reformation, long before he wanted to divorce
Katherine of Aragon and had to leave the Catholic church.
I was a little girl, though, before decimalisation, coins were even
more interesting, as they didn’t all have pictures of the Queen on
– the old shillings, sixpences, florins and half-crowns had often
been issued during the reign of George the Sixth and pennies were
often even older – it was not unusual to find penny that had been
issued during the reign of Queen Victoria, even! My father used to
make us guess the date on the coin, based on which reign it was, and
if we were right we got to keep it. Not that we ever were right, so
it was a fairly safe game for him, but it made sure we knew the dates
of 20th-century monarchs!
Different countries have different
things on their coins, of course; if you look at Euro coins, they
have a different design on one side depending on which country issued
them: the German ones have a picture of the Brandenburg gate, Austria
has a stylised eagle; the Irish ones have a harp. Those Euro
countries which are monarchies have a picture of their monarch on
them, as we would if we joined the Euro, and the Vatican City ones
have a picture of the Pope! I don't know what the newer Euro
countries, like Estonia and Poland have, but it wouldn't be
impossible to find out! That might be a nice game to play with my
grandsons when they are a little older, perhaps – but they would
learn them too quickly, I think.
This convention, of showing
the monarch on your coins, dates back thousands of years, and was
well-known in Jesus’ day. But unfortunately, this raised a problem
for Jesus and his contemporaries, as the Roman coins in current use
all showed a picture of the Emperor, and the wording round the side
said something like “Son of a god”, meaning that the Emperor was
thought to be divine.
You might remember how the earliest
Christians were persecuted for refusing to say that the Emperor was
Lord, as to them, only Jesus was Lord? Well, similarly, the Jews
couldn’t say that Caesar was God, and, rather like Muslims, they
were forbidden to have images of people, either. So the Roman coins
carried a double whammy for them.
They got round it by having
their own coins to be used in the Temple – hence the money-changers
that Jesus threw out, because they were giving such a rotten rate of
exchange. But for everyday use, of course, they were stuck with the
Roman coins. And taxes, like the poll tax, had to be paid in Roman
coins. You might remember the episode where Jesus tells Peter to
catch a fish, and it has swallowed a coin that will do for both of
their taxes. But that was then, and this is now.
Now, Jesus is
in the Temple when they come to him – in the holy place, where you
must use the Jewish coins or not spend money. “They”, in this
case, are not only the Pharisees, who were out to trap Jesus by any
means possible, but also the Herodians, who actually supported the
The question is a total trick question,
of course. They come up to Jesus, smarming him and pointing out that
they know he doesn’t take sides – so should they pay their poll
tax, or not? If he says, yes you must, then he’ll be accused of
saying it’s okay for people to have coins with forbidden images;
it’s okay to be Romanised; it’s okay to collaborate with the
occupying power. And if he says, no don’t, then he’ll be accused
of trying to incite rebellion or terrorism.
So Jesus asks for
a coin. I expect it was the Herodians who produced one – the
Pharisees would probably not have admitted to having one in their
pockets, even if they did. And he asks whose image – eikon, the
word is – whose image is on the coin? And they said, puzzled,
Caesar’s of course, whose else would it be?
And we all know
what he said next: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar; give to God
what belongs to God.
It’s kind of difficult, at this
distance, to know what he meant. Was he saying we need to keep our
Christian life separate from the rest of life? God forbid, and I mean
that! If our commitment to God means anything at all, it should be
informing all we do, whether we are at worship on Sunday or at work
on Monday or out at the pub on a Friday! There is a crying need for
Christians in all walks of life; whether we are called to be plumbers
or politicians, bankers or builders, retired or redundant! Wherever
we find ourselves, we are God’s people, and our lives and values
and morals and behaviour need to reflect that.
So what is
Jesus saying? It’s about more than paying taxes or not paying them.
It’s not about whether we support our government or whether we
I think he’s saying that there doesn’t have to be
a conflict. The image of Caesar is on the coin – but we, we are
made in God’s image! If we were coins, the writing around us would
say “A child of God”, not, as for the Caesars, meaning that we
are gods ourselves, but meaning, quite literally, that we are God’s
beloved children. There isn't really any difference between what
belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God, because, ultimately,
everything belongs to God. Even the holy people, the Pharisees, had to use these coins when they went to the market. There isn't really much difference.
Yes, we need to be good citizens –
both Jesus and Paul make that clear, one way and another. And yes,
that includes voting as and when we're entitled to do so, and paying
such taxes as we rightfully owe, but it also includes making a fuss
when things aren't going as they should.
For instance, why do we still need food
banks and soup kitchens? I think it's disgraceful in this day and
age, and I emailed my MP about it; of course I only got back the
vague sort of answer that if and when his party came to power they
would Do Something About It – I'd really like him to be asking
Questions in the House every week or so to find out what the
Government is doing about it.
And maybe we should be writing to him –
or her, if you're up this end where it's Kate Hoey, rather than down
my end where it's Chuka Umunna – about traffiking. As I said at
the start of the service, we've been asked to think about that today,
as yesterday was World Anti-Traffiking Day.
We've all read horror stories about
people who came over here in all good faith, thinking they were going
to be found a sensible job and somewhere to live, and then they found
themselves enduring slavery, and worse than slavery. There was even
a case here in Brixton, not just so long ago. And the people
involved are afraid to get help, as they are here illegally, and may
well have fled very difficult situations in their home countries.
The people who offered to “help” them, quote unquote, were
preying on their fears as much as on their hopes.
There was the case of the Chinese
cockle-pickers, some years ago, in virtual slavery up in Morecambe
Bay, who were forced to work when it wasn't safe and were drowned.
We have all read stories about girls
forced into prostitution, and so on. And I have a horrible feeling
that these ones are only the tip of the iceberg. We must and we will
pray for these people, obviously, but also, if you even suspect
anything like that is going on near you – report it! If you don't
want to go to the Police, I'm sure Anti-Slavery International or Stop
the Traffik would help – in fact, I recommend a visit to their
websites as there is a lot of information on there, including ways in
which we can help.
You see, there isn't really much
difference, is there, between giving to Caesar what is Caesar's, and
giving to God what is God's. These poor people are, each and every
one of them, someone for whom Christ died. Someone who God loves so
impossibly much he couldn't love them more. I'm sure God's heart
breaks when one of his beloved children is sold into suffering,
raped, beaten, overworked, not paid at all.... and I'm afraid it
happens rather more frequently that we would like to admit it does.
One of my favourite books is called
These Old Shades, and in it, a child character is taken to
Versailles, where the King is holding court. And on the way home,
the child says, “The King was lovely, just like on the coins”. I
often wonder whether, if we were an image on a coin, people would
recognise us. Perhaps, if we are whole-hearted about giving to
Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God, and
recognising that really, there's very little difference, maybe they
would. And in the meanwhile, let's do what we can to stop the
injustices of our modern world. Amen.
Welcome! I am a Methodist Local Preacher, and preach roughly once a month, or thereabouts. If you wish to take a RSS feed, or become a follower, so that you know when a new sermon has been uploaded, please feel free to do so.
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