Sunday, 12 July 2015

Dancing before the Lord




David, we are told in our first reading, danced before the Lord! And if we are to believe his wife, he was really rather over-enthusiastic about it, especially given what he was, or was not, wearing! But what is happening, and what is this story all about?

Well, to answer that question, we need to go back some forty or fifty years, right to the story of Samuel in the Temple. Now, we call it the Temple, but it wasn't the Temple that we think of in Jerusalem, the one that Jesus chased the money-changers out of from. In fact, it wasn't in Jerusalem at all, but in a place called Shiloh. It was the place where the Ark of the Covenant resided.

The Ark had been built very soon after the Israelites had left Egypt. It was a box of acacia wood, gold-plated, and richly decorated. You can read about it in Exodus, if you've a mind to. It was designed to be carried, but you didn't ever touch it – it had carrying-rings through which two acacia-wood poles were pushed, and they were a permanent fixture, apparently. The Ark travelled with the Israelites during their wandering in the desert, and when they stopped, it had its own special place in the inner room of its own special tent. Only the priests were allowed to look at it – when it travelled, it was covered up with hides or material, and only the priests were allowed into the inner room of the tent. When the Israelites reached the promised land, the Ark was taken to Shiloh, and it looks as though a more permanent home was made for it, although we're not told when, or by whom. And it did still occasionally go with the Israelites into battle!

The Ark contained the tablets on which Moses had inscribed the ten commandments. Hebrews tells us it also contained a jar of manna and Aaron's staff that had flowered. But the thing about the Ark was that it was not only a sacred object in its own right, it also represented God.

Anyway, we rejoin the story in the days of Samuel, when Eli was the priest in the Temple.
Back then, being a priest was something that only certain families could do;
and if your father was a priest, you usually were, too.
It’s actually only within quite recent history that what you do with your life isn’t determined by what your father did, and back then, you followed in your father’s profession,
and if your father was a priest, as Eli was, then you would expect to be one, too.

Unfortunately, Eli’s sons were not really priestly material.
They abused the office dreadfully –
taking parts of the sacrifices that were meant to be burnt for God alone,
sleeping with the women who served at the entrance to the temple.
I don’t think these women were prostitutes –
temple prostitution was definitely a part of some religions in the area,
but I don’t think it ever was part of Judaism.
These women would have been servants to Eli and his family, I expect,
and considered that service as part of their devotion to God.
And perhaps, too, they helped people who had come to make sacrifices and so on.
Whatever, Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons, shouldn’t have been sleeping with them,
and they shouldn’t have been disrespecting the sacrifices, either.

There had been a prophecy that the Lord would not honour Eli’s family any more, and that Hophni and Phineas would both die on the same day,
and a different family would take over the priesthood.
Eli had tried to tell his sons that their behaviour was unacceptable, but they hadn’t listened, and one rather gets the impression that he had given up on them.
He was not a young man, by any manner of means.

And then Samuel hears God calling in the night, and when he answers, this is what God has to say. It was not a message of encouragement and reassurance, such as you might expect, but this:

“See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.
On that day I will fulfil against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.
For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever,
for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God,
and he did not restrain them.
Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli’s house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.”

There will be no escape for Eli;
he could, and should, have stopped his sons from being blasphemous,
from disrespecting the offerings of God’s people,
from sleeping with the temple servants.
I get the feeling Eli has rather given up, don’t you?
When Samuel tells him what the Lord has said, his reaction is simply,
“It is the Lord;
let him do what seems good to him.”

And sure enough, there was a battle with the Philistines, and because it was going rather badly, the elders decided to have the Ark brought from Shiloh because it would give heart to people and tell them that God was with them. Big Mistake. The Ark arrived, and all the Israelites shouted for joy. The Philistines were rather disconcerted by this, so they decided to attack again – and things went horribly wrong. About thirty thousand men were slaughtered, including Hophni and Phineas, and the Ark was captured! Eli, too old, too blind and too fat to fight, was so horrified when he heard the news that he had a heart attack or stroke and died. It wasn't so much his sons' deaths, but the loss of the Ark.

But you don't capture the Ark with impunity! The Philistines took it to their capital, Ashdod, and put it in the Temple of Dagon, only to find that the statue of Dagon had fallen down before it, as if in worship. And the next day, they found the same thing had happened again, only this time the statue was in pieces. And the townsfolk began to get ill, so after seven months the Philistines said they would send it back. Only how? Any couriers they sent with it would certainly be killed out of hand. So they decided to load it on a cart pulled by two cows, and allow the cows to take it where they would, assuming that if the Ark wanted to be back with the Israelites the cows would take it to the nearest Israelite town. They also put some gold treasure in a separate box and sent that, too. And, sure enough, the cows went straight to the nearest Israelite town. And eventually the Ark settles down in a place called Kiriath-Jearim, which is about 15 kilometres from Jerusalem, and a man called Eleazer the son of Abinadab is consecrated to look after it.

And the years go by. Saul is anointed king, and then David. The wars with the Philistines continue. David and Saul fall out. There are all sorts of adventures and battles and sadness and misery, and some happiness, too. And now, at last, we come to today's reading. David has now conquered Jerusalem, the City of David, and has decided to move the Ark there, too. So they all go down to Baale-Judah, which appears to be another name for Kiriath-Jearim, and the Ark is put on a new cart to be brought home with great rejoicing. But then, and this bit was omitted from our reading, something dreadful happens – the oxen pulling the Ark stumble, and someone rather thoughtlessly reaches out his hand to steady it. Now that is what you simply didn't do with the Ark, and the man, called Uzzah, fell down dead on the spot. David is very worried, and thinks, well, maybe I'd better not have the Ark in Jerusalem with me if this sort of thing is going to happen, and he leaves it in care of a man called Obed the Gittite for about three months. Until, that is, he learns that God has richly blessed Obed for taking care of the Ark, and he decides that, after all, it can come into the city. And so we see him leaping and dancing before it, bouncing all over the place and, just possibly, showing a little more of himself than perhaps was polite. Whatever, his wife, Michal, was most embarrassed on his behalf – imagine the King behaving like that! And to round off the story, when David gets home at the end of the party – because of course, when the Ark arrived, there was a huge party – Michal says rather snottily, “Oh my, look at this great king exposing himself before all the serving-girls.” And David said, “It was before the Lord, who anointed me King, and bother the servant-girls!” And Michal, apparently, remained childless, although whether that's because she was actually barren or because she and David didn't go to bed together again, I'm not sure. David did, after all, have lots of other wives and concubines.

So anyway, that's the story, and some of the background, but what does it have to say to us today? How is it relevant?

I think it's about sacredness, and about whole-heartedness. The Ark was a sacred object. David would have liked to have built a proper temple for it, but God said no, and in the end it was his son, Solomon, who did so. But wherever the Ark was, it was in its own inner room, and it was the most holy place. Only the High Priest ever went in there, and he would always take blood with him, so the letter to the Hebrews tells us. And, of course, Hebrews reminds us that it is Jesus who is our great High Priest, and the Holy of Holies on earth was only a copy, a shadow, of the real one in Heaven. And because of Jesus' sacrifice, we can enter with boldness into God's presence.

The Ark was a sacred object, and nothing and nobody unclean could touch it. It's long since vanished – after all, it was no longer necessary once Jesus had been raised from dead, and you may remember that when he died, the curtain covering the entrance was torn in two. But when it was there, it was a real, and present, symbol of God's presence, and you touched it at your peril. It does serve to remind us that God is holy, and we who are his people need to be holy, too. We can't achieve holiness, wholeness, if you like, by ourselves, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us. But because we are now bound by the New Covenant, rather than the Old, we can enter God's presence with boldness. But we do well to remember, at least some of the time, that God is holy.

And the other thing is about whole-heartedness. David danced before the Lord with all his heart. He didn't care that his hair was all over the place, and his face was red and sweaty, and his loincloth had slipped. He was worshipping the Lord, honouring the One who had brought him from being a humble shepherd-boy to one of the most powerful rulers in the region. David was very far from perfect, as we know, but he never, ever forgot what he owed to God, and he worshipped God with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and strength.

And we? Do we remember what we owe to God? Do we remember that Jesus came to be one of us, to live among us and share what it's like to be human, and to die for us? Do we worship God with our whole being, forgetting to be self-conscious about what we are doing, focussing solely on God?

David danced before the Lord. Do we?

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Goliath and the Storm




Well, these are two very familiar stories that we have just heard read, aren't they? David killing Goliath, and Jesus calming the storm. I'm sure I've known them since I was in Kindergarten, and I expect you have, too. Let's look at them more closely, and then see what, if anything, ties them together and what, if anything, they have to say to us as God's people gathered here this morning.

---oo0oo---

So then, firstly David and Goliath. Just to remind you, in the part of the chapter that we didn't read, as it would have made the reading far too long, we learn that the Israelites under King Saul are at war with the Philistines, and things aren't going well. The Philistines' champion, Goliath, is challenging someone to single combat, which was a recognised way of finishing a war – you often find this happening in novels, especially if you read the sort of historical fantasy novels I do! Anyway, Goliath was rather terrifying and none of the Israelites felt able to stand up to him.

Now three of Jesse's sons are fighting with the army, and David, the youngest, is mostly responsible for looking after the sheep. One day his father tells him to leave all that, and to take some food to his brothers and their commanding officer in the camp, and to come back with news of what's going on and whether his brothers are all right. So David goes off.

And, of course, when he gets there, he hears all about Goliath's challenge, and the reward the king has put up for defeating him – a big financial reward, plus his daughter's hand in marriage and tax relief for his family, the usual sort of thing that heroes always are promised! David keeps asking about this, and his eldest brother tells him to shut up and go home: “You've only come to watch the fighting. Now go away and look after your sheep and stop being such a smartarse!”

But David, quite rightly, takes that as merely elder-brother-itis, and goes on asking until he understands what is happening, and what is at stake. Then he has a little think. He can kill lions and bears and wolves when they threaten his flock, he's been doing so for years. How is Goliath going to be any different? So he goes to the King and says he's up for it. The king says “Don't talk nonsense, you're just a boy, how could you possibly fight a professional soldier?”

David explains about the wild animals and points out that if God has kept him safe from those, he'll surely keep him safe from Goliath. The King is rather desperate by now, so he says, okay, have a go.

They load up David with armour until he can scarcely walk – do you get the impression they are laughing at him? But David, as we heard in our reading, said he couldn't manage with that. And with a stone and his slingshot, he hits Goliath square in the forehead, breaking his skull and killing him. And, just to finish off the story, David grabs Goliath's sword and cuts his head off with it, and the Philistines all run away, so the Israelites are victorious.

There are some rather odd bits of this story, of course – apparently, in the earliest versions nothing is said about David taking food to his brothers, but he's just there with the army all along, and they omit those verses where Saul appears not to know who David is, despite the fact that earlier in the book he has appointed him as shield-bearer and court musician. And Goliath's height is rather more realistic – instead of being over nine feet tall, he is described as over six feet tall, which is still enormous by the standards of the day! So some of the ambiguous bits are probably from a folk tradition of the story that got mixed in. There are also questions as to whether that sort of armour was worn at that sort of date, and whether the tradition of challenging someone to single combat existed in that culture, and so on and so forth. But I don't think they matter, because it doesn't make the story any less true, even if some of the factual details are arguable.

---oo0oo---

So let's fast-forward nine hundred years or so and go a little further north along the Mediterranean until we reach Jesus and the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. We don't know exactly where they were, it doesn't say. What it does say is that Jesus has been teaching all day, and vast crowds came to hear him, so he stood in a boat so that everybody could see and, we hope, hear. And at the end of the day, he suggests that they cross to the other side of the lake, and he collapses, exhausted, on to a cushion in the stern and falls asleep while the disciples row across.

I don't know if you've ever been to Galilee? I haven't, although my parents have. But some years ago now, one of the ministers in the then Brixton circuit went, and when he came back, he told us that he had actually been on a boat on the lake when one of the sudden storms blew up, and that it really had been quite scary. And I've been looking at some videos on YouTube, and it really does seem quite stormy. I believe these easterly winds can blow up very suddenly, too, and it might have been fine when they set out.

So there are the disciples, many of them experienced fishermen who know about the sea of Galilee, struggling to control the boat in the storm, and there is Jesus, sound asleep. So they wake him up and yell at him: “All hands on deck, there! Don't you go sleeping as if you don't care whether we drown or not!”

And Jesus, instead of helping to pull on the oars, which is probably what they expected, addresses the storm and it calms down as quickly as it came up. And he asks why they were still so afraid? Where, he wonders, was their faith.

But of course, this demonstration of his power over nature made them even more afraid than ever.

---oo0oo---

So, then, what is the link between these two stories, and what do they have to say to us today?

I suppose the obvious link is that, in each story, people were out of their depth. They couldn't control the situation. The Israelites had no way of coping with the Philistine army, and especially not with Goliath and his challenges. The disciples couldn't cope with the storm. They were out of their depths, and everybody was afraid.

David, when he went up against Goliath, or so we are told, said firmly that he was going in the Lord's strength, not in his own. He refused to put his trust in bronze armour, but in the weapons he knew, backed up by the Lord's righteousness.

The disciples were unable to trust in their usual methods of getting home safely when the wind started to blow. The oars simply would not co-operate, as the winds were too strong, and those who didn't know how to row were wanted to bail, but they couldn't keep up, either. It wasn't until Jesus intervened that they were safe.

So it's a bit about trusting God when things go pear-shaped, but, as we all know, that is easier said than done! So maybe it's a bit about not panicking when things get out of control. If we can't trust God – and, as I've just said, that is often easier said than done – if we can't trust God, then let's look round for someone who can. In the Israelite's case, this was David. He trusted God, he didn't panic when he faced Goliath, and he trusted that God would use his skills to defeat the enemy. And that is exactly what happened. The Israelites relied on David's faith, and God saved them.

And for the disciples, their faith was fast asleep in the back of the boat. They, at that moment, couldn't trust God to save them, but Jesus could, and did. He didn't panic when he saw the boat was swamped, he trusted that God would use his power to still the storm. And that is exactly what happened. The disciples relied on Jesus' faith, and God saved them.

Now, all too often, we are the ones who panic, who can't cope, when the situation has got out of our control. I know I am. But wouldn't it be lovely if we were the ones who people could rely on to have faith? To not panic when we saw what the situation was, to trust God to use our skills – or to intervene directly in some way – to save the situation.

Mind you, if we were like that – and I'm sure some of us are, although not me – then it is just as well we don't know it, or we'd start to rely on our faith and not on God. It's one of those paradoxes, like it always irritates me – does it you? - when people talk about the power of prayer, as it isn't the prayer, it is the God who answers prayer.

But I think we should all aspire to be that kind of person. And you can't be one just by wishing. It is really only by God's grace, by God's power at work within us, that we can become the people God created us to be, people who don't panic when life gets out of control but who trust God, either directly or through the use of their skills, to sort things out again.

But we can grow into that kind of person, by using the means of grace available to us – prayer, fellowship, the Scriptures, Holy Communion. But being aware, as Wesley was aware and reminds us in his sermon on the means of grace, that they are only a means, not an end in themselves. They need to be used to bring us closer to God, so that God can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, make us more the people we were created to be. We will become more like David, and less like Saul. Amen.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Talents and Calling




This is a very special occasion, isn't it? It's such a rare thing – far too rare – that we commission a Local Preacher on to the Full Plan. And it's a wonderful thing when it happens, when the Church acknowledges that not only has God called Felicia to this wonderful work, but that she has worked as hard as she could to prepare herself.

Those of us who are preachers – and perhaps some of us who are worship leaders, too – will probably be remembering their own commissioning services. I wonder how you felt? I remember feeling very scared – somehow, for some reason, they thought I was ready! Even now, the best part of a quarter of a century later, I sometimes wonder when they'll find out what a fraud I really am.....

Yet I know I was called, as we know Felicia has been called, and as all of us have been called to serve God in some way or another. As in the Gospel reading we have just heard, where three people were given very particular gifts.

This story is a very old friend –
most of us, I expect, have known it since our nursery days.
Indeed, it is –
or used to be –
often employed by teachers and so on to push children on to practice and work hard.
If God has given you talents, they say,
then you must work to make the absolute very best of them.

But, of course, it isn’t so much about talents in that sense –
although it can be taken that way.
It’s about money.
Or at least, in Jesus’ story it’s about money.
It is about gifts, and the way we use them, but on face value, the story is about money.

A talent was serious money back then.
Maybe about twenty years’ wages for your average labourer;
maybe more.
Serious money.
So the master was not messing about when he asked his slaves to look after it for him.
One slave was given five talents, another two and the third just one.
I suppose in these days they would be share portfolios,
and the slaves would be young investment bankers or stockbrokers or something like that.

The master goes away, for whatever reason, and shares out the money.
And then he goes away, and doesn’t come back and doesn’t come back.
Maybe he is away for months, maybe years, maybe even a decade or more:
the text just says “A long time”.
And while he is away, things happen.
The first and second servants both go into business for themselves using their unexpected capital.
Perhaps they deal on the stock exchange.
Perhaps they open up a business of some kind –
a restaurant, say, or buying and selling houses.
We’re just told they traded with their money.

I expect they made themselves seriously rich, too.
They would have felt able to pay themselves a good salary,
while all the time preserving and adding to their Master’s capital.

But what of Number 3?
He’s quite comfortable already, thank you.
He has a good, secure job;
he would really rather be employed by someone than go into business for himself.
It doesn’t occur to him that, of all the slaves,
he was the one chosen to see what he would do,
whether he would have the courage to invest that capital.
And in any event, he doesn’t have that sort of courage.
Supposing something went wrong and he lost it all?
The consequences don’t bear thinking about!
Better play safe.
Very safe.
Not the bank –
not with the current banking crisis, thank you very much!
Okay, maybe his money would be safe,
but he wouldn’t be comfortable thinking about it, just in case it wasn’t.
Better just dig a hole in the ground and pretend you’re planting carrots or potatoes.
So that’s what he does;
the sort of moral equivalent of putting it into
old sock under his mattress, or in his underwear drawer.
And he gets on with his life.

And then, one day, the Master comes back.
I wonder whether they had ever really expected that he would,
or if they had almost forgotten they weren’t in it for themselves.

And the first and the second servant come swanning up with all the trappings of wealth –
chauffeur-driven Rollers,
Philippe Patek watches,
Louis Vuitton briefcases,
the best smartphones on the market,
and, finally, able to present the Master with
share certificates
and bank statements
and other records of profit and loss to show him that they had each doubled their investments.

The Master is delighted.
“Well done, you good and faithful servant.” he says to them.

“You’ve been faithful in little things” –
not that little;
a “talent” was, as I said, serious money –
“now you’ll be put in charge of great things.
Enter in to the joy of your Master!”

And then along comes the third servant.
On a pushbike.
And he presents his master with a filthy dirty and rather crumpled envelope containing the original bankers’ order.
“I couldn’t face it, Master!” he explains.
“supposing it had all gone wrong
What would you have said to me?
You’re very harsh, and you do like your people to make you lots of money,
and I was too scared to try.
So I have kept it safe, and here you are!”

And the Master is seriously annoyed!
“Oh, look here!” he said.
“So you didn’t want to play the stock market or start a business, okay,
but couldn’t you at least have put it on deposit somewhere for me,
so I could have had the interest?
Just not good enough, I’m afraid.
Take him away!”

The story is, of course, part of Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom of Heaven,
and I think it isn't easy for him to put things into words that really don't go into words!
You may remember other stories he also told about it,
trying to find an illustration that would make sense to his hearers,
talking of the tiny grain of mustard seed that grew to become
a huge shrub,
or the tiny bit of yeast that was needed to make the dough rise.
I don't know if you realise that these stories don't say to us quite what they said to Jesus’ first hearers,
as mustard was a terrific weed, like stinging-nettles,
and nobody in their right mind would plant it deliberately.
And yeast –
or sourdough, more probably –
was not really associated with people of God,
since what you had at the holy feasts was unleavened bread,
which was then, by association, considered slightly more “proper” than ordinary bread.
And the thought of a woman baking it may well have turned people up a bit –
women tended to be rather “non-persons” in those days.

And, actually, it’s the same here.
Particularly for the third slave –
you what?
He should have put his money in the bank​?
To earn interest?
I don’t think so!
Jewish people in that time and place took very seriously the commandment that “thou shalt not lend out thy money upon usury”.
So here is the master telling the slave that he should have done just that?
Yikes!

So what does it all mean?

How is it relevant to a commissioning service?

This whole story comes in a section of teaching about the End Times,
something we don’t really like to think about these days.
Jesus has been saying that nobody, not even he, knows the day and hour –
there will be all sorts of signs and symbols and symbolism, but they don’t necessarily mean anything.
And people will say “Oh, Jesus is coming on this date,” or “the end of the world is coming on that date”, but not to believe them.

He says nobody knows when it will happen –
and these days, increasingly, it’s or even if it will happen –
but the idea is to be prepared.
“Who,” Jesus asks,
“are faithful and wise servants?
Who are the ones the master will put in charge of giving the other servants their food supplies at the proper time?
Servants are fortunate if their master comes and finds them doing their job.
You may be sure that a servant who is always faithful will be put in charge of everything the master owns.”

The earlier part of this chapter
told the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids,
and whether you would rather be with the wise bridesmaids in the light,
or the foolish ones in the dark....
well, not quite that, but you know what I mean.
The sensible girls were prepared and ready –
the silly ones hadn’t even thought they might need to light lamps if it got late.

So again, Jesus is trying to draw pictures of things that don’t go into words very well;
he’s trying to make his hearers understand what it’s going to be like,
when he himself doesn’t have a very clear picture of it.
But one thing he does know –
we need to live as if he were never coming back,
but be prepared for him to return any second now!
It’s one of those Christian paradoxes that our faith is so full of.

It’s not just about what we do with our money, or with our time –
although obviously we need to make sure we are good stewards of both.
It’s maybe more, I think, about what we do with our relationship with God.

We are all, I expect, Christians here;
all people who enjoy a reciprocal relationship with their Creator.
And some people make the most of it!
Most of us do, I am quite sure.
We make a point of learning who we are, so we can be honest with God,
we make a point of learning from the Bible who God is,
and making a point of developing the relationship by spending time with God each day.
We don’t find it easy –
nothing worthwhile ever is easy –
and, of course, the ones who are really expert at it tend to make it look easy, which tends to make us feel inadequate.
But, of course, most of what we do to grow as a Christian is actually done by God;
our job is to be open to being grown –
and to use the “means of grace” that we have been given to do that.

But there are others around –
not here, I don’t suppose, not for one moment –
but I’m sure we know people who joyously responded to God’s call upon their life –
and then got stuck.
Didn’t grow, didn’t, maybe, even want to grow and change.
Stayed as baby Christians, still drinking milk when they should have been weaned on to meat, as St Paul puts it.
And maybe, one day, they will have to explain themselves, too.
“You had all these opportunities to become the person you were meant to be, but you wasted them.
Why?”

But Felicia has not done that. I've known her for some years now, ever since she first began to be aware that God was calling her to be one of “Mr Wesley's preachers”. I know how hard she's worked to get where she is today, not least because when she started out, her English really wasn't very good, and she sometimes struggled to understand what was going on. It's been a long struggle, and I know there were times when she didn't find it easy. The London Course, which is how she trained, is very intensive – for fifteen months they meet almost every week, and there are several weekends away for periods of more intense study. No long holidays, the year you do it! And you have to preach every couple of months, and a qualified preacher has to listen to you and then send a critique to your tutors which you aren't allowed to see first! Really hard work. But Felicia did it, and I've had the privilege of watching her grow and become better and better at it over the last few years. So congratulations, Felicia!

And may we all follow your example. We're not all called to preach, but we are all called to be God's people. We need to allow God to work in us, to make us the people we have the potential to be, and maybe even to make us more than that.
We need to become what we can become, in God.
Much has been given to us already;
now we need to be open to God working in us.
Amen.


Sunday, 17 May 2015

Waiting on God

I didn't record the children's talk. Please scroll down for the podcast of the main sermon.

 Children's talk: What are you waiting for?

When I was a little girl, which was quite a long time ago now, I used to really look forward to my birthday. And the night before, it would be very difficult to go to sleep, just like it was difficult to go to sleep the night before Christmas. My mother used to say, "The sooner you go to sleep, the sooner it will be morning." But that didn't make it any easier to go to sleep!

I wasn't very good at waiting for it to be Christmas, or waiting for it to be my birthday. I always used to peek at presents, to try to guess what they were. Of course, people who are good at waiting never peek, do they? My daughter and my husband never peek – always makes me so cross with them!

Are you any good at waiting? What, if anything, are you waiting for right now? I know soon it will be time to wait for exam results... and that is nerve-wracking.

Do you know what the disciples were waiting for? I don't think they did, really, but they were waiting for the Holy Spirit. They didn't know what that meant, but they knew it when they happened. They had to wait, though. It's okay to have to wait for God – things will happen in God's time. Not much of a consolation if you're as impatient as I am, but it's a lesson we all have to learn.

Sermon: Waiting on God


 

Our reading from Acts is really rather an odd story, isn't it? What did the disciples think they were doing? And why? And who on earth were Joseph Barsabas and Matthias? We have never heard of them before, and we practically never hear of them again!

The thing is, this story happens in a very odd time in the history of the world. Jesus has gone – we don't know the full details, other than the account a few verses earlier than the one we read, or the account in John's Gospel, but we do know that something happened to make the disciples realise that they weren't going to see him again exactly like that. Jesus has gone, and the Holy Spirit has not yet come.

Jesus has gone, and the Holy Spirit has not yet come. A very strange and disturbing time for them. They have been told to go to Jerusalem and wait, which they do, about a hundred and twenty of them, including Jesus' mother, Peter, James and the other nine apostles.

And, of course, they don't know exactly what they are waiting for. They don't know what it's going to be like when the Holy Spirit comes. They don't know that each and every one of them will be empowered to preach the Gospel with boldness and fluency and such power that many, many thousands of people will be converted and that the church they found will last down the years. They don't know this.

We're not told how long they had to wait. We give them ten days, until next Sunday, but it may have been longer. We don't quite know how long Jesus was appearing to them after his resurrection, but we do know it was at least a week – poor Thomas had to wait a whole week after missing Jesus' first visit and being totally sure the others must have been deluded. We do know that the feast of Pentecost, which we in the Church celebrate next Sunday, was the day when the Holy Spirit came, so that gives a last date – roughly six weeks after the Resurrection. So the disciples could have been waiting nearly a month between the final earthly farewells and the coming of the Spirit.

And waiting isn't easy, is it? Especially when you don't quite know what you are waiting for. How will they know when the Spirit has come? We know, of course, that She came in a rushing mighty wind and in tongues of fire, but they didn't know in advance that this is what was going to happen.

So it's not surprising that the first thing they thought to do was to make up the numbers of the Twelve – for Judas, who betrayed our Lord, had never repented the way Peter had, but despaired and died. And the eleven decided that, of the others in the group of 70 around Jesus, it was between Matthias and Barsabas, although we are not told why they thought it came down to these two. Peter said that the criteria were: “He must be one of the men who were in our group during the whole time that the Lord Jesus travelled about with us, beginning from the time John preached his message of baptism until the day Jesus was taken up from us to heaven.” There may well have been quite a lot of those around, and we're not told why specifically these two.

Anyway, they cast lots to decide which one it would be. These days, I dare say, they would have voted, but back then, casting lots – rather like tossing a coin – was thought to be a way of discerning what God wanted. And Matthias gets it – and we never hear of either him or Barsabas again, although I suppose that they were among those in the Upper Room at Pentecost.

Well, we never hear of Matthias again. Barsabas gets a couple of mentions – he goes with Silas to Antioch with the letter from the Council of Jerusalem, outlining the conditions for Gentile believers, and he is described as a prophet, and brought the believers “comfort and strength” before going back to Jerusalem, and we don't know what happened to him after that.

As for Matthias, the Bible never mentions him again, but there a few stories from the traditional sources. Although there are several different stories, it looks as though he ended up preaching and evangelising in what is now modern-day Georgia, and died there; there is, however, one source that claims he was stoned to death in Jerusalem, and still another says he died of old age. You pays your money and you takes your choice, if you ask me!

So were they wrong, do you think, to try to appoint another apostle? After all, it is not very long before Paul is converted and becomes the self-proclaimed “apostle to the Gentiles”. And God used his education and literacy to spread his interpretation of the Good News, as written in the Epistles, far and wide and so down to us today.

But I don't think it mattered. I am sure God honoured their decision to appoint Matthias, even though it turned out not to have been necessary. After all, they are fidgety. They are waiting for something, and don't know what it is or when it will happen. The temptation to go home, to go back to Galilee and fish, must have been almost overwhelming. They have done this once, though, and were told to go back to Jerusalem to wait.

And here they are, waiting. And waiting. I hate waiting, don't you? I am not a patient person, and I might have been tempted to have left Jerusalem and got on with my life. I hope I wouldn't have, but, well.....

It really isn't always easy to wait for God, is it? I'm sure you've had the experience of praying for something, and it not happening and not happening and not happening, and then all of a sudden it does happen. And you can't help wondering whether you had started to do something differently, or what, that made it happen, when, of course, it was just that not everything was ready for God to answer your prayer.

Waiting for God isn't a bit easy. Who was it prayed, "Give me patience, Lord, and I want it now!"? We always have to think we know better than God does – we want whatever it is now, and we don't see why God is delaying letting us have it. So then we whinge and moan at God, and some people even want to give up being God's person altogether.

Trouble is, of course, if you do that, if you try to know best, what you are saying, even if you don't realise it, is "Do it my way, God! Don't do it your way, do it my way!" And that is not a very sensible thing to say, because, quite apart from anything else, God can see round corners and we can't!

Sometimes it takes time until we can say to God, "Okay God, do it your way! Don't do it my way!" Jesus had to say that to God in the Garden of Gethsemane, do you remember? He really, really didn't want to have to go through with it, and he had to absolutely fight with himself until he got to the point where he could say "Do it your way!" to God.

And sometimes, of course, God's answer simply isn't the answer we would have chosen. The person for whom we were praying doesn't get better, but dies. The job is given to someone else. You child's going to be in the one class you hoped he wouldn't be next year. The election result appears to be disastrous. You know the sort of thing.

Part of it, of course, is that we can't see consequences the way God can. We can't see the future. The apostles had no way of knowing that Saul of Tarsus would experience a dramatic conversion and become possibly the greatest ever evangelist. So they appointed Matthias, who was probably fantastic in his own right, but not the person God meant to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.

We can't see round the bend in the road. We don't know what's going to happen next. I'm sure some of us were very unhappy indeed about the result of last week's general election – I know some of my friends were, very. But again, we can't see what's going to happen next year, or even tomorrow. And we know, too, that God can't always stop dreadful things from happening as it might interfere with someone else's freedom of action. If I am walking down the street and a young man jumps out to stab me because I am a Christian preacher and he thinks that's God's will – well, I hope it won't happen, but I know that God won't, or probably won't, miraculously blunt that knife, and it would probably be very nasty....

But that is unduly pessimistic! This Sunday the Church throughout the world celebrates waiting, waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Waiting isn't easy, but for those who held out, for the hundred and twenty in the upper room, for us, if we wait, we will, eventually know the power of God at work within us. We will be given gifts with which to do God's work; we will grow into the kind of people we were always meant to be. We will be the sort of people who have rivers of living water flowing from them - not that we can see it, or touch it, but that people will know that we are in touch with the source of all healing, and come to us for comfort. And we, we hope, will be able to point them to the right place where they can find healing for themselves - we will be able to point them to Jesus. Amen.


Sunday, 19 April 2015

Children of God


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Very similar, but not quite identical, to one preached in 2009 with the same title.  Moreover, the presence of two small boys in Church meant that I departed from my script more than somewhat, so the podcast is different again!

I thought that today, for once, we wouldn’t look too closely at the Gospel reading,
as Luke’s account of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after the Resurrection
is very similar to the account in John’s gospel,
which I expect you looked at last week.
The only thing I will point out is that Luke says Jesus actually ate with them –
ghosts, after all, don’t eat!
So that particular detail is, for the gospel writer,
just another proof that Jesus really was raised.
He wasn’t just a ghost;
he wasn’t just a figment of their imagination.
He ate some fish –
and there’s the dirty plate!

You may have read the first chapter of this letter from John last week, too.
I want to focus on the passage we read today, in a minute.
It isn’t quite a letter, is it –
it’s more of a sermon.
He doesn’t put in the chatty details that Paul puts into his letters,
nor the personal messages.
Nobody seems to know whether it was really the disciple that Jesus loved that wrote the Gospel and this letter,
or whether it was someone writing as from them, which was apparently a recognised literary convention of the day.
But I noticed last week that right at the very beginning of the letter, or sermon – hey, let’s just call it an Epistle and have done –
right at the very beginning, he says:

“We write to you about the Word of life, which has existed from the very beginning.
We have heard it, and we have seen it with our eyes;
yes, we have seen it, and our hands have touched it.
When this life became visible, we saw it;
so we speak of it and tell you about the eternal life which was with the Father and was made known to us.

In other words, the writer, too, claims to have seen, known and touched Jesus!

But to today’s passage.
“See how much the Father has loved us!
His love is so great that we are called God's children
and so, in fact, we are.
See how much the Father has loved us!
His love is so great that we are called God's children
and so, in fact, we are.”

We are God’s children!
You know, when you come to think of it, that’s a pretty terrifying concept.
People tend to think of themselves as serving God, or as worshipping God.
But to be a child of God?
That’s a whole different ball-game.
After all, if we worship God or serve God,
that doesn’t necessarily imply that God does anything for us in return.
But if we are God’s children?
That’s different!
That implies that God is active in caring for us,
in being involved in our lives,
in minding.

Many of us here this morning have had children of our own.
And all of us have been children!
Perhaps some of us didn’t have very satisfactory childhoods,
or our parents weren’t all they should have been.
The model of God as Father isn’t helpful to everybody, I know.

But I still want to unpack it a bit, if I can, as I do think it’s important.
We are all children of God, so we are told.
We are not servants.
We are not just worshippers.
Children” implies a two-way relationship.

Actually, it almost implies more than that.
It implies that God does the doing;
we don’t have to.
No, seriously, think about it a minute.
I have a daughter –
she’s grown up and married now, of course,
but for eighteen years she lived at home,
and for many of those years she was totally dependant on Robert and me for everything, and her little boys are on her and her husband –
for food, for clothing, for education, you name it!
And babies – my younger grandson is only just a toddler, rather than a baby – need their parents even more than older children do.
Nicholas can't even keep himself clean yet;
someone has to change his nappy for him every few hours.

Parents look after their children.
Quite apart from the seeing to food, clothing, education and so on,
it’s about the daily care –
seeing to it they get up and so on.
All the things we need to remind them to do or not do each day:
Have you washed your hands?
Have you cleaned your teeth?
Put your shoes on.
Put your coat on.
Pull your trousers up, please.....
Don't bite your nails!
And so on and so forth.
But it is, of course, because we care for and about our children,
and want them to grow up to be the best possible person they can be.

And parents do this because they love their children.
Ask any new parent –
all those sleepless nights,
the pacing up and down, the nappies, the lack of sleep –
and yet, they are delighting in that precious baby,
and will show you photographs on the slightest provocation.
And that is just how God feels about us!
Pretty mind-blowing, isn’t it?

And yes, God does want us to grow up to be the person he designed us to be.
And sometimes that will involve saying “No” to us,
as we have to say it to our children.
No, you mustn’t do that;
no, you can’t have that!”
Not to be mean, not because we are horrid –
although it can feel like that sometimes when you’re on the receiving end –
but because it is for their best.
You can’t let a child do something dangerous;
you can’t allow them to be rude;
they can’t eat unlimited sweets or ices.... and so on.
My elder grandson once said, with a deep sigh, when reminded that sweets weren't very good for him:
Is anything good for me?”
And the same sort of thing with us.

God loves us enormously and just wants what is best for us.
And because we are, mostly, not small children, we tend to be aware of this, and allow Him to work in us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

John goes on to comment about sin and sinfulness.
It is rather an odd passage, this;
we know that we do sin, sometimes, because we are human.
And yet we know, too, that we are God’s children and we abide in Him.
Yet John here says nobody who sins abides in God.
If he were right, that would mean none of us would, since we are all sinners.

But then, are we?
I mean, yes, we are, but the point is, we are sinners saved by grace, as they say.
God has redeemed us through his Son.
We don’t “abide in sin” any more.

St Paul tells us that when we become Christians, we are “made right” with God through faith in his promises.
I believe the technical term is “justified”, and you remember the meaning because it’s “just as if I’d” never sinned.
However, we also have to grow up to make this a reality in our lives.
That’s called becoming sanctified, made saint-like.

One author described it like this.
Suppose there was a law against jumping in mud puddles.
And you broke that law, and jumped.
You would not only be guilty of breaking the law,
you would also be covered in mud.
So when you are justified, you are declared not guilty of breaking that law –
and being sanctified means that you wash off the mud!

So we no longer abide in sin, but are we washing off the mud?
That’s not always easy to do –
the temptation to conform to the world’s standards can be overwhelming at times.
We all have different temptations, of course;
I can’t claim to be virtuous because I don’t gamble,
since gambling simply doesn’t appeal to me!
But I am apt to procrastinate, and can be horrendously grouchy at times, particularly when stressed, as I am at the moment.
Robert is to retire next week
NEXT WEEK, oh help
and our lives are going to change in unimaginable ways.
And my parents are selling the house they have lived in since 1958, and that is also going to bring huge changes.
I am not very good at change!
I am also very inclined to suffer from self-pity,
and the other day I posted a really self-pitying update on Facebook because of all this stress.
And two posts down, someone from Brixton Hill had posted:
Cast all your anxiety upon Him, for he cares for you!”
That was me told, then!
I laughed, and deleted the status, and have tried to do just exactly that, but it isn't always easy, is it?

And, of course, there are those who have not said “Yes” to God,
who perhaps have no idea of doing so.
In this model, they are not God’s children –
but that doesn’t mean they are not loved!
Indeed, God so loved the world that he sent his Son while we were still sinners, so we are told.
God loves the worst and most horrible person you could imagine,
just as much as he loves you or he loves me.
Even terrorists.
Even paedophiles.
Jesus died for them, too.
Just as he died for you, and just as he died for me.

And we, we are Children of God.
We are God’s precious Children.
We are not just servants of God.
We are not just worshippers.
We are children.
And the Risen Christ calls us his friends.
Amen.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Presentation of Christ in the Temple


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This Sunday is one when the Church traditionally celebrates the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, which is the story we heard in our Gospel reading today.

Until very recently, Christian women in many denominations would be “churched” about six weeks after giving birth – either at a special service, or as a special prayer said in the main service, to give thanks for a safe delivery and so on. It seems to have died out now, largely, I think, because the service was not transferred to the modern prayer books, and arguably because childbirth is so very much safer than it used to be. Shame, really – it would be a lovely thing to happen whenever someone appeared in church with a new baby!

For Jewish women, though, the ritual was also about purification. They would, traditionally, go to be purified forty days after giving birth. I am not totally sure what the process involved, but fairly certainly Mary would have had a ritual bath before going to the Temple to make her thanksgiving, and to present the baby.

The text says Mary and Joseph took a pair of pigeons to sacrifice – interesting note that, because that's what you took if you were poor; richer people sacrificed a sheep. And if you were really, really poor and couldn't even afford a pair of pigeons, I believe you were allowed to take some flour. But for Mary and Joseph, it was a pair of pigeons.

And they present the baby – they would, I think, have done this for any child, not just because Jesus was special. And then it all gets a bit surreal, with the old man and the old woman coming up and making prophecies over the child, and so on.

Actually, the whole story is a bit surreal, really. After all, St Matthew tells us that the Holy Family fled Bethlehem and went to Egypt to avoid Herod's minions, but according to Luke, they're just going home to Nazareth – a little delayed, after the census, to allow Mary and the baby time to become strong enough to travel, but six weeks old is six weeks old, and it makes the perfect time for a visit to the Temple. The accounts are definitely contradictory just here, but I don't think that really matters too much – after all, truth isn't necessarily a matter of historical accuracy.

Come to that, I don't suppose Simeon really burst into song, any more than Mary or Zechariah. Luke has put words into their mouths, rather like Shakespeare does to the kings and queens of British history. Henry the Fifth is unlikely to have said “This day is called the Feast of Crispian” and so on, or “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more”, but he probably rallied the troops with a sentiment of some kind, and it is the same here. Zechariah, Mary and Simeon probably didn't say those actual words that Luke gives them, but they probably did express that sort of sentiment.

Although I often wonder why it is that when Jesus reappears as a young man, nobody recognises him. We don't hear of an elderly shepherd hobbling up to him and saying “Ah, I remember how the angels sang when you were born!” But perhaps it is as well – it means he had a loving, private, sensible childhood. Which, I think, is partly why we see so very little of him as a child, just that glimpse of him as a rather precocious adolescent in the Temple. He needed to grow up in peace and security and love, without the dreadfulness of who he was and why he had come hanging over him.

But on this very first visit to the Temple, he can't do more than smile and maybe vocalise a bit. It is Simeon we are really more concerned with. His song, which the Church calls the Nunc Dimittis, after the first two words of it in Latin, is really the centre of today's reading. He is saying that now, at last, he has seen God's salvation, and is happy to die. The baby will be “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God's people Israel.”

“A light to lighten the Gentiles”. This is why another name for this festival is Candlemas. Candlemas. In some churches, candles are blessed for use throughout the year, but as we are no longer dependent on candles as a light source, it might be more to the point to bless our stock of light bulbs! Because what it's about is Jesus as the Light of the World. A light to lighten the Gentiles, certainly, but look how John's Gospel picks up and runs with that. “The Word was the source of life,and this life brought light to people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.” And John's Gospel reports Jesus as having said: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness.”

Jesus is the Light of the World, and that's part of what we are celebrating today.
We rather take light for granted, here in the West, don't we? We are so used to being able to flick on a switch and it's light that we forget how dark it can be. We had a brief power-cut last Saturday, and it felt very dark indeed! Even though we have a really good emergency lantern and, of course, torches on our phones. And candles, come to that – I make sure we have a supply of emergency candles, just in case.

Not that a candle provides very much light, of course – you can't see to read by it very well, or sew, or any of the things people did before television and social media, or, come to that, before houses were lit by electricity. But even a candle can dispel the darkness. Even the faintest, most flickering light means it isn't completely dark – you can see, even if only a little. And sometimes for us the Light of the World is like that – a candle in the distance, a faint, flickering light that we hardly dare believe isn't our eyes just wanting to see. But sometimes, of course, wonderfully, as I'm sure you've experienced, it's like flicking on a light switch to illuminate the whole room. Sometimes God's presence is overwhelmingly bright and light.

And other times not.

This time of year is half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. It's not spring yet, but the days are noticeably longer than they were at the start of the year. There are daffodils and early rhubarb in the shops, and the bulbs are beginning to pierce through the ground. The first snowdrops will be out any day now. In the country, the hazel trees are showing their catkins, and if you look closely at the trees, you can see where the leaves are going to be in just a few weeks. We hope. Candlemas is one of those days we say predict the weather – like St Swithun's Day in July, when if it rains, it's going to go on raining for the next six weeks. Only at Candlemas it's the opposite – if it's a lovely day, then winter isn't over yet, but if it's horrible, Spring is definitely on the way. The Americans call it “Groundhog Day”, same principle – if the groundhog sees his shadow, meaning if the sun is out, winter hasn't finished by any manner of means, but if he can't, if the sun isn't shining, then maybe it is.

So it's a funny time of year, still winter, but with a promise of spring. And isn't that a good picture of our Christian lives? We still see the atrocities, the horror of terrorist attacks, the awfulnesses perpetrated by organisations like Al Qaeda and Boko Haram. We still see that we, too, can be pretty awful when we set our minds to it, simply because we are human. We know that there are places inside us we'd really rather not look at. It is definitely winter, and yet, and yet, there is the promise of spring. There is still light. It might be only the flickering light of a candle in another room, or it might be the full-on fluorescent light of an overwhelming experience of God's presence, but there is still light.

The infant Jesus was brought to the Temple, and was proclaimed the Light to Lighten the Gentiles. But, of course, that's not all – we too have that light inside us; you remember Jesus reminded us not to keep it under a basket, but to allow it to be seen. And again, the strength and quality of our light will vary, due to time and circumstances, and possibly even whether we slept well last night or what we had for breakfast. Sometimes it will be dim and flickering, and other times we will be alight with the flame of God's presence within us. It's largely outwith our control, although of course, by the means of grace and so on we can help ourselves come nearer to God. But it isn't something we can force or struggle with – we just need to relax and allow God to shine through us. Jesus is the Light of the World, and if we follow Him, we will have the light of life and will never walk in darkness. We will, not we should, or we must, or we ought to. We will. Be it never so faint and flickering, we will have the light of life. Amen.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Samuel

The text is almost the same, barring updating, as this sermon, so I won't repeat it here.  You can check the differences by listening to the podcast!



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