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Today, it will not have escaped your notice, is Mothers’ Day.
At least, it might be Mothers’ Day out in the world, but here in Church it’s Mothering Sunday,
and that, in fact, is only tangentially about human mothers!
Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent,
and it’s long been known as Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday –
it’s half-way through Lent, and in days when people kept it rather more strictly than they do now, it was a day when you could relax the rules a little.
And the tradition grew up that on that day, you went to the mother church in your area –
often the cathedral, but it might have just been the largest church in your area.
Families went together, and it became traditional for servants to have time off to go home and see their families on that day, if they lived near enough.
In the Middle Ages, servants may only have got one day off a year,
and it was, traditionally, the 4th Sunday in Lent.
Many children had to leave home when they were very young –
only about 11 or 12 –
because their parents simply couldn't afford to feed them any longer.
And, indeed, many of these children hadn't known what a full tummy felt like until they started work.
But even so, they must have missed their families, and been glad to see them every year.
And today is also a day for remembering God’s love for us.
What we remember on Mothering Sunday isn’t just our mothers, although that, too, but above all, the wonderful love of God, our Father and our Mother.
After all, there are people whose mothers have died;
people who didn’t or don’t have a good relationship with their mothers;
and above all, people who would have loved to have been mothers,
but it didn’t happen, for whatever reason.
Many of those will not be in church this morning.
The Church isn't always very tactful about Mothers Day, I'm afraid –
I used to find it very patronising, especially considering that for the rest of the year I was rather left to get on with it,
and was told that the loneliness and isolation and lack of fellowship was “the price you pay for the wonderful privilege of being a Christian Mother!” As if....
The worst Mothers Day sermon I ever heard was from a young curate who had just discovered his wife was expecting their first child –
sadly, he moved away during the course of the year,
as several of us were longing to hear what he would have had to say after several months of the reality of parenthood!
But, talking of motherhood, you will have noticed that our readings for today seemed more like Christmas ones than suitable for mid-Lent.
You see, yesterday was 25 March, exactly nine months to go until Christmas,
so, of course, that is the day when parts of the church celebrate what’s called the Annunciation, when Gabriel came to tell Mary she was going to have a baby.
And even though we Protestants don’t really think about Mary much,
the fact that she’s such an important figure in so much of Christianity means she’s probably worth thinking about from time to time.
So what do we actually know about her from the Bible, as opposed to tradition?
She first appears in our Bibles in this very reading, when Gabriel comes to her to ask her if she will bear Jesus,
and, of course, as we all know, she said she would,
and Joseph agreed to marry her despite her being pregnant with a baby he knew he wasn’t responsible for.
I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary –
how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years.
And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her.
Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth?
Or to congratulate Elisabeth?
Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose?
We aren’t told.
But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”.
Or if it wasn’t exactly that –
that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt –
it was probably words to that effect!
I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy!
And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”
The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple.
I spent a lot of time with that story when my daughter was a teenager –
how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind?
Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?”
and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” –
We don’t see Joseph again after this –
tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary,
and, of course, he had a very physical job.
It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it –
the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”;
if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it,
from designing them,
to building them,
to making the furniture that went in them!
And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him, Joseph has died.
But we see a lot more of Mary.
She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed,
it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine.
And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no –
my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew.
And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.
There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing.
And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.
We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross –
something no mother should ever have to do.
And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John.
And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.
That’s really all we know about her from the Bible, but other early traditions and writings, including some of what’s called the apocryphal gospels –
they’re the ones that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament as we know it –
tell us a bit more.
They tell us that her mother was called Anne and her father was called Joachim, and that she was only about 16 when Gabriel came to her.
One source has it that Anne couldn’t have babies, and when Mary finally arrived, she was given to be reared in the Temple, like Samuel.
And traditional sources also tell us that she went to live in Ephesus, probably with John, and died somewhere between 3 and 15 years after the Crucifixion, surrounded by all the apostles.
And that her body was taken up to heaven.
Well, so far, so good, but how did they get from there to the veneration of her, not to say worship in some cases, that we see today?
This may be something you find difficult to understand –
I certainly do –
and that’s okay.
We aren’t required to do more than honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord;
we mention her when we say the Creed, of course, and there are lots of churches dedicated to her.
My parents’ church in Sussex is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin,
as are loads of other churches around the world.
But we do not think of her as quasi-divine in some way.
We do believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,
not by ordinary human means,
but that this was something that happened in time, not in eternity!
She became the Mother of God –
she was not the Mother of God before Jesus was born.
I wonder, though, just how it happened that veneration of Mary became such a thing among Roman Catholic Christians.
Orthodox Christianity also venerates her, but make it quite clear that she is not divine –
the distinction, sometimes, among Catholics gets a bit blurred.
One theory I have heard put forward is that she gives a female aspect to Christianity, which may or may not be lacking from the Trinity.
Well, if that is so, how come Protestant women have managed without for so many generations?
Having said that, of course, it’s worth remembering the days when Christianity was first spread around the world.
If you were Jewish, you were quite used to thinking of God as Father and Creator,
but if you came from a background which worshipped a virgin goddess,
Mary obviously provided what you found you were missing.
And again, if you were used to worshipping a mother figure, as so many people were,
you found something in Mary that perhaps you missed in the Christian depiction of God.
Don’t forget, in the olden days you had to convert to Christianity when your ruler did,
or the head of your tribe, or whatever,
and if the worship you were used to was suddenly no longer provided,
you had to make what you could of what you did have!
And then, of course, the Catholic Church being nothing if not practical, formalised a great deal of what was happening, and thought, about Mary into doctrine.... and so it went on.
Chicken and egg type of situation, drawing on tradition and practice more than on Scripture.
And so, of course, when the Protestants went back to the Bible, discarding most, although not all, traditional theology,
Mary rather fell back into the background.
We Protestants, of course, do have a choice –
there is a tradition of venerating Mary in some parts of the Protestant Church, but it is far from compulsory.
We honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord –
and we honour her, too, for her bravery in saying “Yes” to God like that. After all, had Joseph repudiated her for carrying someone else’s child, she could have ended up on the streets!
But what, then, can we learn from Mary?
We don’t tend to think of her very much, at least, I don’t.
We don’t necessarily find in her a mother figure to worship.
But there is that incredible bravery that said “Yes” to God –
and remember, she didn’t know the end of the story, not at that stage!
There are times I wonder what she must think of it all!
But she was totally submitted to God in a way that very few people can claim to be.
And, of course, there is what she said to the servants at that wedding in Cana - “Do whatever He tells you”.
And that’s not a bad motto to live by, either:
Do whatever Jesus tells you.
The problem with having
two thousand years of Christian history behind us is that we don't
always appreciate the significance of the stories about Jesus that we
hear so regularly each year.
particularly of this story of the Transfiguration,
because it is so easy
for it to slide over our heads and mean nothing to us.
like Christmas, when we celebrate God's having come to earth as a
It's not like Easter,
when we celebrate
Jesus' death and resurrection, with their obvious consequences for us
It's not even like the Ascension,
when we celebrate
Jesus' going to glory,
so that the Holy Spirit
can be sent upon us.
Does this story
actually mean anything at all to us today?
2. The Story of the Transfiguration
Jesus had gone up the
with his three closest
Peter, James and
And suddenly something happened to him,
and he looked quite
was dressed in white,
and was chatting to two
figures who, we are told,
were Moses and
What I am not at all sure is how they knew they were Moses
and Elijah –
it's not, after all,
very probable that they had their names printed on their T-shirts.
suppose either they were heard to introduce themselves,
or Jesus knew who they
were and said "Hullo Moses, hullo Elijah!"
Anyway, at first the
three friends think they are dreaming,
because they were
but then they realise
And Peter, getting a bit over-excited,
as he tended to in
those days, babbles on about building shelters for the three men, and
so on and so forth.
He didn't really, we are told, know what he
he was just so excited
that he wanted to prolong the moment,
go on being there,
keep it going.
Perhaps, too, he felt
the need to say something to reassure himself that he was still
And then the cloud
they can't see a thing,
they are scared, and cold,
the way you are up a
mountain when the clouds come down.
And then, the voice that comes
out of the cloud:
“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
And they couldn't see
Moses or Elijah any more, only Jesus.
“This is my own dear Son, with whom I am pleased—listen to him!”
It wasn't Moses they
were to listen to,
and it wasn't
It was Jesus.
Now, for us, that makes a great deal of
we are quite accustomed
to knowing that Jesus is far greater than Elijah or Moses.
Peter, James and John –
and, perhaps, for Jesus
it was far
They had grown up being taught that Moses and Elijah
were the greatest historical figures there were.
Moses, in their
hagiography, represented the Law,
the very foundation of
their relationship with God.
And Elijah represented the prophets,
those men and women of
old who had walked with God and who had told forth God's message to
whether or not the
world would listen.
There really could be no people greater than
Moses or Elijah.
No wonder they didn't say anything to anybody
until many years later, when it became clearer exactly Who Jesus is.
Because they'd been
told not to listen to Moses,
not to listen to
but to listen to
Well, that's all very
well, but we know that.
It doesn't mean anything to us today,
so why do we remember
Well, sometimes I
actually wonder whether we do remember to listen only to Jesus.
not that we don't mean to, but we get distracted.
And I think
sometimes we find ourselves listening to Moses, or to Elijah.
3. Not Moses
If Moses represents the
Law, then I think we listen to Moses a great deal more than we mean
We know, in our heads,
that what matters isn't how well we keep the various rules and
regulations we impose upon ourselves,
but whether we are
walking with Jesus.
But sometimes we act as though what we do
As if whether or not we
pray, or how we do it, was more important.
As if the various
restrictions we impose on ourselves were more important.
whether or not we read the Bible every day, were more important.
what really matters is our walk with Jesus.
If we are walking with
Jesus, then we are His people,
and that fact matters
far more than the various ways we may try to express that walk.
And sometimes –
I am a bit hesitant to
say this, in fear you misunderstand me –
sometimes we even put
the Bible in place of Jesus.
It's an easy mistake to make, because
we do sometimes call
the Bible the Word of God.
But it's actually clear from the Bible
that Jesus is the Word of God.
And the Bible is, if anything,
words about the Word.
But it's from the Bible that we learn about
it's from the Bible
that we learn who God is,
and what sort of people
we will become when we become His people.
And it's not too
surprising if, sometimes, we get confused.
I have heard people say
"Oh, I do love the
with the kind of
fervour you would expect them to use only of Jesus.
I always want
"but surely it's
Jesus who you worship, not the Bible!
Surely it is Jesus you
are following, in that sense."
Of course, we do follow
we would be very silly
if we didn't.
If we didn't read our Bibles and learn from them,
we wouldn't know how to
follow Jesus, and we'd go off on all sorts of tangents.
course, even if we do read our Bibles and learn from them, we can
still go off at all sorts of tangents,
and get things
Look at the Crusades –
hundreds of years ago,
they genuinely believed that fighting and killing Moslems was what
God wanted them to do;
they seem to have taken
some of the bloodthirstier parts of the Old Testament a bit
Er – has anything
changed much? People do seem to want to worship a bloodthirsty God,
a God who is judgemental and harsh, who wants nothing more than to
and looks for any
excuse to do so,
And, sadly, they apt to
You only have to look
at some of the stuff coming out of the USA these days, the Biblical
literalism that demands that men have control of women’s bodies,
that believes it is all right to hate people of certain ethnicities,
or certain sexualities.
And similarly, if
we come to it looking for a God who is loving and kind,
wanting nothing more
than not to condemn people
and looking for any
excuse not to do so, then that is what we are apt to find!
So while the Bible is
we have to be careful
We can't rely on the Bible without knowing that we are to
rely on the One to whom the Bible points.
The Bible alone, Moses
alone, cannot save us.
"This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to
4. Not Elijah
And if Moses alone
cannot save us, how much less can Elijah!
Elijah was on that
mountain-top representing the prophets.
We are to listen, we are
told, to Jesus.
That doesn't mean that
prophets are not important to us.
Prophets, of course, are those
people who speak forth God's word, whether as preachers –
although not all
preachers are prophetic, many are –
or whether more
in the sort of setting
where the so-called charismata are used.
Of course if someone is
telling you what he or she believes God is saying to the assembled
company, that is very important,
and you would do well
But you also have to weigh it up,
to make sure that this
is what God is really saying.
They do say, don't they, that one of
the marks of a cult is when the leader's words are given an
importance equal to, or greater than, the Bible.
Which would not,
I suspect, happen if the leader's followers weren't prepared to let
I don't know about
but when I come to
preach, I have to remember two things.
The first is that all I
have is words.
They may be very good words, or I may have written
a load of –
but all they are is
And unless God takes those words and does something with
them, we might as well all go home!
My job is to provide
God's job is to do the
The other thing I try
to remember when I come to preach is a story I read when I was
Two men were coming out of church on a morning when the
preacher had been more than usually dull,
and the first man had
not only been bored, but had had a severe case of chapel-bottom!
And he said to his
"You know, there
are times I really don't know why I bother!
I have heard a sermon
nearly every Sunday for the past 40 years, they have mostly been very
dull, and I can hardly remember any of them!"
To which his friend,
who was somewhat older, replied,
been married for 40 years,
and my wife has cooked
me dinner almost every night of those years.
I can't remember many
of them, either –
but where would I be
today without them?"
In other words, our
sermons are to be daily bread.
They aren't supposed to last a
life-time, and be life-changing –
if they are to be,
that's God's job, again, not ours.
It is Jesus that matters, not the preachers and
prophets of our age.
They are at best conductors –
they bring us to
They are not Jesus, and we are very silly if we trust them
more than Him.
They cannot save us;
only Jesus can do that.
It is not Moses we must
Moses who represents
the Law, or the Scriptures.
It is not Elijah,
Elijah who represents
the prophets and preachers.
It is Jesus.
"This is my Son,
my Chosen; listen to him!"
Of course, the Bible is
Of course, our prophets and preachers are
But they are only important in so far as they lead us
That is what matters.
They do not, and cannot, of
themselves save us;
only Jesus can do
And do note that I said
only Jesus –
all too often we use a
form of shorthand, when we say that we are saved by faith!
Mostly we know what we
but it is not our faith
that saves us.
It is Jesus.
Sometimes we talk and think and act
as though our faith saves us.
saved by what Jesus did on the Cross,
not by what we believe
Nor by what we read about it.
Nor by what our
preachers tell us about it.
Salvation is God's idea, and God's
job, not ours.
And that, I think, is
the message of the Transfiguration.
"This is my Son, my
Chosen; listen to him!"
This will not actually be preached, as it turns out the church I'm Planned for just has a token service - a "Parliamentary" service, if you will - to keep it open pending a new building. I could wish I'd known this before spending two days of my life writing this, but as it has been written, I might as well publish it!
“Be perfect, just as
your Father in heaven is perfect”
I was reading an
article the other day by an American pastor called Amy Butler, whose
church, like us, follows the Revised Common Lectionary. Not all of
her article is relevant to us, as she lives in the United States, and
the culture there is somewhat different to ours, of course, but this
first bit is, and I’m going to quote it directly:
“In these weeks after
the Epiphany we are hearing parts of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’
famous teachings from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5-7. Last
Sunday in worship, instead of preaching a sermon I had written, I
decided to “preach” the entire Sermon on the Mount – two full
chapters with no breaks, the words of Jesus.
In coffee hour after
worship, several people came up to me to tell me they really did not
like or agree with some of the parts of my sermon that day. Two
chapters. Read from the Bible. The words of JESUS.
Most of us really like
certain parts of the Sermon on the Mount – the parts about the
lilies of the field and where your treasure is there will your heart
be also. But there are lots of other parts of the sermon, and
frankly, many of them are quite onerous. There’s the love your
enemies part, direction about not being a hypocrite, hard words about
divorce, and a warning against religious leaders who smile too much.
If you listen to the whole thing instead of picking and choosing the
passages you like, I will guarantee you’ll feel uncomfortable …”
And I don’t know
about you, but the verse “Be perfect, just as our Father in heaven
is perfect” really, really, really makes me feel uncomfortable!
How on earth are we
going to be perfect? No matter how hard we try, no matter how
fiercely we discipline ourselves, we are never going to be totally
Look at the Pharisees,
for instance – they really wanted to be God’s people, and thought
that they could succeed by doing. The trouble was, that they were so
busy trying to act correctly that they forgot all about what God had
said about looking after people, things like we heard in our first
reading this morning:
“When you cut your crops at harvest time, don’t cut all the way
to the corners of your fields. And if grain falls on the ground, you
must not gather up that grain. Don’t pick all the grapes in your
vineyards or pick up the grapes that fall to the ground. You must
leave those things for your poor people and for people travelling
through your country. I am the Lord your God.”
The Pharisees were so
busy trying to tithe everything, even the product of their herb
garden, that they forgot to look after their elderly parents or the
travellers. They didn’t mean to be unkind; they just got rather
self-righteous about things. They were too engrossed in how holy
they were being that they didn’t have any spare energy to help
their neighbours. And Jesus picked them up on it, pointing out, as
I’m sure you remember, that it didn’t really matter how you
washed your hands, or what you ate – what mattered was what you
thought and felt inside, and how that expressed itself in practice.
Being perfect, in
Jesus’ terms, appears to be more about who you are than what you
do. We are told in John’s gospel that if we believe in him we are
not condemned, but have passed from death to life. The letter
to the Hebrews reminds us that we can enter God’s presence with
boldness because of what Jesus has done. The whole thrust of Paul’s
letters is that we should rely on grace, not on the law. Jesus has
taken the law to a whole new level; it’s not just about what you
do, it’s about who you are.
Of course, who you are
is going to inform what you do. Jesus reminds us that his people
will love their enemies, as well as their friends; they won’t fight
back when they are abused; they will pray for those who treat them
badly, and in return, treat them as they would wish to be treated.
That’s not to say
that God’s people are going to be doormats, letting others walk all
over them. And it’s certainly not to say that you never pull up
someone you see doing wrong. Remember our first reading?
“You must be fair in judgement. You must not show special favour
to the poor. And you must not show special favour to important
people. You must be fair when you judge your neighbour. You must not
go around spreading false stories against other people. Don’t do
anything that would put your neighbour's life in danger. I am the
“Don’t secretly hate any of your neighbours. But tell them
openly what they have done wrong so that you will not be just as
guilty of sin as they are. Forget about the wrong things people do
to you. Don’t try to get even. Love your neighbour as yourself.
I am the Lord.”
“Tell them openly
what they have done wrong”.
Of course, like any of
these things, it can be misused. We all know those people who like
to “tell you the truth in love”, which invariably means they are
going to be incredibly rude about something that’s none of their
But, by and large, it
is not incompatible with loving our neighbours, of course. Look how
we discipline our children, and remind them of the standards of
behaviour we expect from them. Look at the demonstrations, the
petitions, the upsurge in popular feeling that’s taking place in
America at the moment, and to a lesser extent here. Many people feel
that the attitudes and actions of Donald Trump and his government are
not those that they can condone, and feel the need to stand firm
against what they perceive is wrong. Many of us feel that our own
government’s refusal to receive immigrant children who have lost
touch with their families is very wrong indeed.
And, of course, there
are others, equally sincere Christians, who hold just the opposite
view to us. Especially, it seems, in the USA, where Christianity is
very often allied to extreme right-wing views, extraordinary though
we may find this. And, sadly, the extreme right seems to want God to
be judgemental, harsh, unloving – the kind of God who says “You
must be perfect” and condemns you for not being.
Well, I don’t believe
God is like that. If God says “You must be perfect”, there must
be a way of being perfect. The Pharisees thought it was about
hundreds of very detailed rules and regulations which, if you kept
them perfectly, would keep you right with God, but Jesus said it
wasn’t that. Jesus said, so often, that it was who you are, not
what you do, that matters.
John Wesley very much
believed Christian perfection was a thing. He didn’t think he’d
attained it, but he reckoned it was possible in this life. He
preached on it and it’s one of the sermons we local preachers are
supposed to have read – you can find it on-line easily enough.
Anyway, he said about perfection was that it wasn’t about being
ignorant, or mistaken, or ill or disabled, or not being tempted –
you could be any or all of those things and still be perfect. Wesley
reckons – he goes into all sorts of arguments here, mostly putting
up straw men and demolishing them, but by and large he reckons that
the closer we continue with Jesus, the less likely we are to sin. I
believe he didn’t reckon that he’d got there himself, but he did
know people who had. He said even a baby Christian has been cleansed
from sin, and mature Christians who walk with Jesus will be freed
from it, both outwardly and inwardly. I hope he’s right....
But the point is, we
simply can’t be perfect in our own strength. You know that, and I
know that. Trying to be will only wear us out and make us either
give up in despair or become one of those harsh, unloving Christians
who worships out of fear rather than out of love. We become Biblical
literalists, and try to dominate women and feel it’s all right to
hate people who are not like us.
No, the only way to
become perfect is to allow God the Holy Spirit to make us so. To
allow God to fill us with his Holy Spirit right up to overflowing.
To let go, and let God, as they say. Amen.
Our readings today are both very familiar ones.
The passage from Micah, reminding us that nothing we can do can take
away our sin, but that God has told us
“what is good;
what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love
and to walk humbly with your
Micah of Moresheth, incidentally,was a prophet in
8th-century Judah, more or less a contemporary with Isaiah, Amos and
Hosea. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, particularly
because they were simply dishonest and then expected God to cover for
them: “Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a
price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon
the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come
upon us.” But Micah said, “Ain’t gonna happen!” As one modern
paraphrase puts it: “The fact is, that because of you lot,
Jerusalem will be reduced to rubble and cleared like a field; and the
Temple hill will be nothing but a tangled mass of weeds!” Israel,
back then, was a theocracy, rather like present-day Iran. Religious
leaders held an enormous amount of political power, but they were not
elected, and nor were the kings. So you had an unelected power-base
who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary people. But
“What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to
and to walk humbly with your God?”
And then that incredibly familiar, perhaps
over-familiar passage from Matthew, which we call the “Beatitudes”
– the blessings with which Matthew opens the collection of Jesus’
teachings we call the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the poor
in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven”, and so on.
So what are we to make of all this? Why do the
lectionary compilers think that the Sermon on the Mount is so
important that it deserves several weeks’ study?
I think, don’t you, that it’s because we don’t
hear the words any more. We don’t hear how they would have struck
the first listeners. We don’t notice them – they are part of our
culture, part of the stuff we have “always” known about
I’ve been looking at a few modern paraphrases of
this passage, to see if they can make it feel more relevant. I
particularly like this one, from a church in Australia:
“Those who depend entirely on God for their
have got it made,
because they are already at home in the culture of
“Those who are stricken with grief
have got it made,
they will receive the ultimate comfort.
“Those who allow
others to have first claim on everything
got it made,
whole world will be given to them.
“Those who hunger and
thirst to see the world put right
have got it
because they will be
“Those who readily treat others better
than they deserve
have got it made,
because they will be treated with extravagant
“Those whose hearts are unpolluted
have got it made,
they will see God.
“Those who forge peace and reconciliation
in places of hostility
have got it made,
because they will be known as God’s own
“Those who are attacked and abused for sticking to
what is right
have got it made,
because they are already at home in the culture of
“When people turn on you
do all they can to make your life a misery;
when they make false
allegations about you
and drag your name
through the mud,
because of your association with me,
really got it made!
Kick up your heels and party,
because heaven is coming
and you will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams!
You are in
because they were just as
to God’s faithful
messengers in the past.”
The thing is, back in the day, people thought –
as we are inclined to think today – that when all is going well,
when we have plenty, or at least enough, when life is smooth and
there aren’t any humps in the road, then, they thought back then,
and we think today, that God is blessing us. And, of course, that is
But it’s just when things are going well, when
life is smooth and we are happy that we are inclined to forget God.
Oh, we may go on going to church and so on, but we aren’t
necessarily living a holy life. God is basically part of the
background, not front and centre.
And so God asks, in the words of the prophet
“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you?
And the people, irritated – after all, who needs
God when life is going smoothly? The people respond, “Well, okay,
what do you want? Doves? Sheep? Rivers of olive oil? Herds of
oxen? Our firstborn child?”
And God responds, “Don’t be silly;
You already know what’s wanted:
To do justice, and to love kindness,
walk humbly with your God!”
“To do justice, and to love kindness,
to walk humbly with your God!”
God is saying pretty much the same thing here as
in the Beatitudes, isn’t He? We are blessed – God blesses us –
when we hunger and thirst after righteousness. We are blessed –
God blesses us – when we are merciful, kind, treat others better
than they deserve. And so on.
It’s interesting, I always think, that if you
read Luke’s version of the sermon, he doesn’t say “Poor in
spirit”, he just says “Blessed are you poor”:
“Blessed are you
who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
you will laugh.”
And he goes even further:
“‘But woe to you who are rich,
have received your consolation.
‘Woe to you who are full
for you will be hungry.
you who are laughing now,
for you will
mourn and weep.
‘Woe to you when
all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the
I don’t suppose that Jesus means that it is
wrong to be happy, or to have sufficient for our needs, or whatever;
it’s not about misery now in order to rejoice in heaven. After
all, he is on record as saying that he has come that we might have
life and have it abundantly! And given his own track record of
providing several hundred gallons of wine at the fag-end of a
wedding, and enough food from a small boy’s packed lunch to have
twelve basketfuls of leftovers, he can scarcely want us to live in
poverty and want!
But – people do. Refugees. Victims of war.
Victims of famine. People who are homeless for whatever reason,
often due to mental illness, but not always. And while one other
person is in want, then we should not be content. You read awful
things on the Internet about churches – mostly in the USA, it has
to be said, but not invariably – where people are not welcomed
because they are different, perhaps their sexuality is different, or
their skin colour. And, of course, we in the UK have a very poor
track record on that last one. No, we should not be content.
As St John reminds us, if we don’t love our
brother, who we have seen, how can we love God, who we haven’t? If
we exclude people for any reason, we are not doing God’s will –
and it is those who we exclude who receive God’s blessing. If we
say horrible things about people, we are not doing God’s will –
and it is the ones we are horrible about who receive God’s
For Jesus’ followers, what he was saying was
revolutionary. He couldn’t mean that, could he? He couldn’t
really mean that God wasn’t blessing the rich and the powerful? It
was the “little people”, not the influential ones, who mattered
But the Bible has always said that! “To do
justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It
wasn’t unique. Over and over again the prophets, perhaps
especially Micah, but not only him, inveigh against those who use
false measures, those who rob the poor, those who get rich at the
expense of others. Over and over again we are taught that other
people matter just as much as we do, if not more so.
And over and over again we forget. Over and over
again we start to think that because God loves me, and I’m like
this, the people who God loves are all going to be like this. We
forget that God loves everybody. Even Donald Trump! Even members of
But seriously, that’s why we need to be reminded
of these passages every so often. God does actually mean it! “You
are blessed” “You are happy” “You’ve got it made!”
However we may translate it, it’s true that God smiles on those who
this world considers of little importance. And we, who have been
blessed so very richly with the material things of life, we need to
keep an eye on ourselves lest we become complacent, and lest we
forget God. Amen.
You might be wondering
why I have chosen to have two Gospel readings today, and no readings
from other parts of the Bible. The thing is, the lectionary
isn’t at all clear which to use, and gives both. So I thought,
well, why not have both, for a change? They both, I believe, have
things to say to us today.
From John chapter 1,
and verse 11:
“He came to his own
country, but his own people did not receive him.”
“He came to his own
country, but his own people did not receive him.”
The “He” we are
talking about is, obviously, Jesus, and we are looking at part of the
great Prologue to John's Gospel that we sometimes call the “Christmas
incidentally, that this first chapter of John is thought to have been
written last, a sort of summary, almost, of the whole thing,
or it may have been a
paraphrase of a then-current hymn, rather like Paul quotes one in
Not that it matters, of
course, not at this distance;
it is the Prologue to
John's Gospel, and it tells us of the Word of God,
the Light of the World,
who was rejected by his
own people but who adopted any and all who did choose to believe in
Which is basically the
whole of the Good News in one sentence, no?
Anyway, the thing about
this second half of the Prologue is that it spells out quite clearly
that anybody who does believe in Jesus becomes a child of God, not
through physical birth, but through spiritual birth.
John doesn't tell us
about the Wise Men coming to see Jesus –
only Matthew does that.
But the Wise Men are a
vital part of the Christmas story,
however strange a part.
Next week is the feast of the Epiphany, when you will be thinking a
little more about the coming of the Wise Men, but this week, we have
the second half of the story, the What Happened Next. And it doesn’t
make for pleasant reading.
Matthew tells us the
story largely from Joseph's point of view, of course, and there are
some very serious differences, not to say contradictions, between his
version of events and Luke's.
Matthew seems to think
that the Holy Family lived in Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, which
was where they moved to for safety after they came back from Egypt.
No mention of mangers
or inns here –
and not even Luke says
the manger was actually in a stable!
As far as I can tell,
when he talks about the “inn”, he means the guest room that
many, if not most, houses had on the roof, and where Mary probably
expected to go to be confined, but if this was full of relations come
to town for the census, she had to give birth in the kitchen. The
manger would have separated the animal part of the house from the
human part – people lived together with their animals in those days
for warmth, as much as anything else. And we don’t know what time
of year it was, but probably not in the depths of winter, because the
sheep wouldn’t have been out in the fields then. So if the animals
were in the fields, the manger would be empty, and make a very
convenient cot for a tiny baby!
But none of that
matters, of course, not against the real truth, that God became a
the Word became Flesh
and lived among us, as our passage says:
“The Word became a
human being and, full of grace and truth, lived among us.
We saw his glory, the
glory which he received as the Father's only Son.”
That is what matters.
The details are just
details, and are not important.
So we are told that the
wise men came from the East – as far as we know, there weren’t
necessarily three of them, and they weren’t kings, either. But
they came from the East to worship the new-born King of the Jews, and
when they found out that He was to have been born in Bethlehem, off
they trotted – it’s only a few miles – and found Joseph the
Carpenter’s house easily enough. But when they had seen for
themselves – quite possibly, by now, a toddler staggering around
and falling over and being shy.... they went home by a different way
and avoided Jerusalem.
And Joseph and Mary and
the child had to flee, too, in the middle of the night. Some people
say the massacre may never have happened as there are no external
sources referencing it – but then, would there have been? I mean,
how many boys under the age of two were there likely to have been in
a village that size? They reckon Bethlehem held about 1000 people of
all ages, so probably only a handful of boys under the age of two –
and, sadly, probably no more children than are killed every day in
Syria. Absolutely awful for the parents, but not global newsworthy,
even back then.
But the Holy Family are
out of it, and have fled to Egypt. I’ve never been there, but my
mother went and sent me a picture of the Pyramids with the comment
that they would have been old when Jesus saw them as a boy! I wonder
whether he remembered that in later life?
We aren’t told how
long the family had to stay away, but with Joseph’s skills, he
would have had no trouble making a living for the family.
“Carpenter” isn’t quite an accurate translation of the word
“Technion” - it’s the word we get “Technician” from.
Basically, if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it – from
designing them to building them to making the furniture for them....
so no shortage of skilled work. And it’s probable that, because
they were, as far as we know, the only refugees at that time, they
were able to take a proper house in a village somewhere, rather than
have to live knee-deep in mud in a makeshift camp. But all the same
– a stranger, in a strange land. Joseph was glad, I suspect, to
pack up and go home again when he heard that Herod had died. But
even then he couldn’t go home, not back to his old home in
Bethlehem, but up to Nazareth, in Galilee – really provincial and
in the sticks if you were the sort of person who’d always lived
near Jerusalem. But it was safe, and the neighbours were Jewish, so
you felt far more at home there... and it was a lovely place to bring
up a growing family.
But we know that, once
he was grown, it was a different story. Once again, “his own
people did not receive him”, and he could do no miracles in his
home town when, home on a visit, he preached in the synagogue and
appalled the locals by saying “This Scripture has come true in your
And we know, too, that later on “ his own people did not receive
him” when the people who became his first followers were the
outcasts, the prostitutes, the collaborators, even the Gentiles, the
non-Jews. But we also know that “Some, however, did receive him
and believed in him; so he gave them the right to become God's
children. They did not become God's children by natural means, that
is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was
God himself is our
How true that is!
And isn't God great?!
The magi came to
Bethlehem to worship the new-born infant,
and we are invited to
do the same.
But we don’t just
worship him as a baby –
it’s not about going
smiling down at a baby kicking on a rug,
and saying “Oh how
clever” when he picks up a toy, or staggers a few steps unassisted.
No, worshipping the
Baby at Bethlehem involves a whole lot more than that.
worshipping Jesus for Who He became, and what he did.
We kneel at the cradle
in Bethlehem, yes –
but we worship the
We celebrate Christmas,
not just because it’s Jesus’ birthday,
although that, too,
but because we are
remembering that if Jesus had not come,
he could not come
And he could not be
“born in our hearts”, as we sing in the old carol.
Christmas isn't just a
remembering thing, I think, although that too –
it's also about
allowing the Lord Jesus to be born in our hearts,
about renewing our
relationship with him.
We worship at the
cradle in Bethlehem,
but we also worship
Jesus all year round,
remembering not only
but his teachings,
and the coming of
the Holy Spirit.
And we worship, not
only as an abstract “Thing”–
what was that song:
“I will celebrate
Nativity, for it has a place in history....” –
it’s not just about
worshipping a distant divinity,
but about God with us:
Jesus, as a human
being, can identify with us.
He knows from the
inside what it is like to be vulnerable, ill, in pain, tempted.....
Jesus would have been
educated, as every Jewish boy was,
and probably taught to
follow his father’s trade.
After all, we think he
was about 30 when he started his ministry,
and he must have done
something in the eighteen years since we last saw him, as a boy in
I wonder, sometimes,
what he said when he hit his thumb with a hammer, as he undoubtedly
did more than once.
A friend and I were
discussing this once, and could come up with nothing more specific
than “Something in Aramaic!”
God with us:
a God who chose to live
an ordinary life,
who knows what it is to
be homeless, a refugee;
who knows what it is to
work for his living.
Who knows what it is to
be rejected, to be spat upon, to be despised.
Who knows what it’s
like to live in a land that was occupied by a foreign power.
Who came to his own
people, but his own did not receive him.
“Some, however, did receive him and believed in him; so he gave
them the right to become God's children. They did not become God's
children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of
a human father; God himself was their Father.”
This, then, is the God
we adore. We sing “Joy to the World” at this time of year, and
rightly so, for the Gospel message is a joyful one.
But it is so much more
than just a happy-clappy story of the birth of a baby.
It is the story of the
God who is there. God with us. Emmanuel. 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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