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Sunday, 16 December 2012

Rejoice, but...

I did, of course, discuss the atrocity in Connecticut that had taken place two days earlier when I came to the part about "dreadful things".

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

"Rejoice in the Lord always;" says St Paul, "Again I will say, Rejoice."

We had a good old cheer just there now, with the children, didn't we?* We were shouting for joy because Christmas is coming, because Jesus is coming, because we are celebrating the return of the Light, at this darkest time of year.

Old Zephaniah knew something about rejoicing, too. It was our first reading:

"Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!"


I don't think I know very much about Zephaniah, do you? He's not one of the prophets we usually read. Apparently, though, nobody knows anything more about him than what he writes about himself. He was a great-great-grandson of a king called Hezekiah – and Hezekiah was the last so-called “good” king of Judah for several generations. But when Zephaniah was prophesying and preaching, his cousin Josiah was on the throne, and Josiah was another good king.


This is one of my favourite stories in the Bible, actually! You see, Josiah's father Amon and his grandfather Manasseh had preferred to worship Baal, rather than God. This is not too surprising, actually, because the next-door kingdom, Israel, had been taken over by Assyria, and although Judah was nominally free, in practice it was a vassal of the Assyrians, so it made sense to worship the same gods that the Assyrians did.

What's more, those gods were a lot easier to worship than the Jewish God was. They didn't ask you to behave in special ways. You could influence htem. If you said the right words and did the right actions at the right time, they would make the harvest happen, that sort of thing.


And they didn't really mind who else you worshipped, or how you behaved, or what your thought. It was much easier to worship them.

Josiah, however, probably prompted by his cousin Zephaniah, decided that he was going to worship the Jewish God. And in 621 BC, when Josiah was about 26, the King of Assyria died, and was succeeded by a much weaker person who didn't mind much about what the people of Judah did. Josiah had already cleared out altars to other gods from the Temple, but apart from that, he hadn't dared do much more. Now, however, he reckoned he could risk cleaning it up a bit.
 
So he sent his secretary, a man called Shaphan ben-Azalia, to go and ask the High Priest how much money they'd had in the collection lately, and to tell him to give it to the builders to repair the place and make it look smart again.

The High Priest was a man called Hilkiah., While he was looking in the storeroom for the money, he found a book about God's law. And he decided to show it to the king. We don't know whether Hilkiah had known the book was there and decided that now would be a good moment to show it to Josiah, or whether it was a shock to him, too.

Scholars think that this book was at least part, if not all, of what we now know as the book of Deuteronomy. They reckon it was written down during the reign of Josiah's grandfather and hidden away safely. Up until then the priests had basically kept their knowledge of God's law in their heads, and it hadn't really been written down, but this was a time of both persecution and indifference, and they were afraid that the time might come when there was no priest in the Temple, and the people's knowledge of God might be lost.

As it was, a great deal had been lost, and the result of the discovery of the book was a great religious reform.

And it's in this context, scholars think, that Zephaniah was preaching. It's actually thought that the book may not have been written down until a couple of hundred years later, because of the style of the writing and so on, but it seems to be based on contemporary happenings. So it was probably written before about 622 BC, and is definitely set in Jerusalem.

Most of the book is rather doom and gloomy. Again, remember that this is being written in a time when most people aren't bothering to worship God, and even those who want to aren't really sure how God is different from the neighbouring gods. So there's a lot of prophecy about gloom and destruction and the usual sort of stuff you expect to read in the minor prophets, but after two and a half chapters of that, we suddenly get this glorious piece that formed our reading today.

The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.


So, you see, it's not just we who rejoice, but God rejoices, too. That's a great comfort, I think. We are called to rejoice in God – there are, apparently, over 800 verses telling us to rejoice and be glad, so I rather think God means it. And with God, if he wants us to do something, he enables us to do it. We sometimes find it very difficult to rejoice, to be joyful.

But joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit – it's not something we have to manufacture for ourselves. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. And this means that it isn't something we have to find within ourselves. It is something that grows within us as we go on with God and as we allow God the Holy Spirit to fill us more and more. Joy grows, just as love, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, kindness and self-control do. We become more and more the people we were created to be, more and more the people God knows we can be.

That doesn't mean we'll never be unhappy, far from it. But we know, as St Paul also tells us, that God works all things together for good for those that love him. Even the bad things, even the dreadful things that break God's heart even more than they break ours. Even those. 

We may be unhappy, we may be grieving, we may be depressed. But we can still be joyful, we can still rejoice, because God is still God, and God still loves us. Okay, sometimes it doesn't feel like that, but that's only what it feels like, not what has really happened. God will never abandon us, God will always love us. God will weep with us when we weep. And underneath there always is that joy, the joy of our salvation.

Christmas can be a very difficult time of year for many of us. People who are alone, people who are ill, people who have been bereaved. Many rocky marriages finally come adrift at Christmas. But we are still commanded to rejoice! Not because of the tragedies, no way. But in spite of them.

"Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."


For John the Baptist, preparing for the coming of the Messiah meant, among other things, turning away from the old, wasteful ways and starting again. Sharing our surplus with those who haven't enough. Tax-gatherers and soldiers are told to be satisfied with their wages, and not to extort extra from people who can ill-afford it.

John got very frustrated when people just wanted to hear him preach and laugh at him, rather than allowing their lives to be turned around. There hadn't been a proper Old Testament-type prophet for a very long time, and naturally people flocked to hear him, but they didn't want to deal with what he was actually saying. But enough people did hear him to begin to make a difference in the world. And they were ready when Jesus came.

It's not just about cheering with the kids, but it's about that, too! We are going to be celebrating the coming of Jesus, of course we are. We're probably also going to eat and drink more than usual, and give one another presents, and watch appallingly ghastly television, and that can be quite fun, too, for a couple of days.

So we will rejoice, but we will be sensitive to those for whom it's almost impossible to rejoice at this time of year. We will remember that the Israelites had to go through terrible times, and their nation was all but destroyed. Paul himself suffered dreadful things - scourgings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, beatings....

But we can still remember, as we await the coming of the King, that:

"The peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Amen.
* I am not publishing the children's talk as it was not original, and I have lost the source, so can't give an attribution, but mainly, we shouted for joy because Jesus is coming. 

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Preparing for Christmas?

So today is Advent Sunday. It's the first Sunday in the Church's Year, and, of course, the first in the four-week cycle that brings us up to Christmas. Christmas is definitely coming – if you go by what the supermarkets do, it's been going on since September!

It seems strange then, doesn't it, that the readings for this Sunday are about as un-Christmassy as you can get! This from the Gospel we've just heard:

“There will be strange things happening to the sun, the moon, and the stars. On earth whole countries will be in despair, afraid of the roar of the sea and the raging tides. People will faint from fear as they wait for what is coming over the whole earth, for the powers in space will be driven from their courses. Then the Son of Man will appear, coming in a cloud with great power and glory. When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.”

It's all about the end of the world! The time when Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, as we say in the Creed. Now, there are frequently scares that the end of the world is about to happen – some cult or other claims to have deciphered an ancient text that tells us that it might occur on any given date – I believe some people think that an ancient Mayan calendar proves it's going to end on 21 December this year. I do hope not – what a waste of all the Christmas presents we've been buying and making! However, it is only one of a very long line of end-of-the-world stories which people have believed. Sometimes they have even gone as far as to sell up all their possessions and to gather on a mountain-top, and at least two groups committed mass suicide to make it easier for them to be found, or something. I don't know exactly what.... And because some Christians believe that when it happens, they will be snatched away with no notice whatsoever, leaving their supper to burn in the oven, or their car to crash in the middle of the motorway, a group of non-believers even set up an organisation called After the Rapture which you can sign up to, and if and when it happens, they will look after your pets for you! They assume that, as they are not believers, they will be left behind.

But the point is, Jesus said we don't know when it's going to happen. Nobody knows. He didn't know. He assumed, I think, that it would be fairly soon after his death – did anybody expect the Church to go on for another two thousand years after that? Certainly his first followers expected His return any minute now.

What is clear from the Bible – and from our own knowledge, too – is that this world isn't designed to last forever; it's not meant to be permanent. Just ask the dinosaurs! We don't know how it will end. When I was a girl it was assumed it would end in the flames of a nuclear holocaust; that particular fear has lessened since 1989, although I don't think it's gone away completely. These days we think more in terms of runaway global warming, or global pandemics of some disease they can't find a cure for, or something, or a major asteroid strike. But what is clear is that one day humanity will cease to exist on this planet. We don't know how or when, but we do know that God is in charge and will cope when it happens.

Christmas is coming. Jesus said, of his coming again, “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

No, we are still reading Jesus' words today. And just as we know summer is coming when the days get longer and the leaves start to shoot, so we know that Christmas is near when the shops start selling Christmas stuff! But Jesus goes on to give a warning:  “Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you suddenly like a trap.  For it will come on all those who live on the face of the whole earth.  Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”

Certainly we appear to celebrate Christmas with carousing and drunkenness, more often than not. And who isn't weighed down with thoughts of all the preparation for the big day that is going to be necessary? Whatever am I going to give this person, or that person? So-and-so wants to know what I should like – what should I like? Have I got all the turkey-pudding-mince pies-Christmas Cake-Brussels Sprouts and so on organised? Who have I not sent a card to, and won't they be offended? You know the scenario. 

But what is Christmas really about? In much of the country it's been reduced to an extravaganza of turkey and booze and presents. And the Christians, like us, chunter and mutter about “Putting Christ back in Christmas!”, as if He was not there anyway. But even we tend to reduce Christmas to a baby in a manger. We render it all pretty-pretty, with cattle and donkeys surrounding the Holy Family, shepherds and kings, and so on. Which is fine when you're two years old, like my grandson, but for us adults? We forget the less-convenient bits of it – the fact that Mary could so easily have been left to make her living as best she could on the streets, the birth that came far from home – at least, in Luke's version of the story. Matthew's version says that they lived in Bethlehem anyway. We forget about the flight to Egypt that Matthew tells us about so dramatically, and the children whom Herod is alleged to have had killed in Bethlehem to try to avoid any rivalry by another King of the Jews. We forget that it was the outsiders, the outcasts – the shepherds, outcast in their own society, or the wise men from the East, not Jewish, not from around here – it was they who were the first to worship the new-born King.

But the point is, it's not just about that, is it? We'll teach the babies to sing “Away in a Manger”, and it's right and proper that we should. We kneel at the cradle in Bethlehem, yes – but we worship the Risen Lord.

We worship at the cradle in Bethlehem, but we also worship Jesus all year round, remembering not only his birth, but his teachings, his ministry, the Passion, the Resurrection, the Ascension 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. Emmanuel.

And that brings us full circle, for whether we are celebrating once again the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, or whether we are looking towards the end times, as we traditionally do today, what matters is God with us. Emmanuel. Jesus said “When these things begin to happen, stand up and raise your heads, because your salvation is near.” We know that we will be saved, we have been saved, we are being saved – it's not a concept I can actually put into words, as it's not just about eternal life but about so much more than that. But “our salvation is near”. Dreadful things may or may not be going to happen – and they probably are going to happen, because Life is Like That – but God is still with us.

Talking about the end of the world like that is called “apocalyptic speech”, and very often, when people talked apocalyptically, they were addressing a local situation just as much as the end times. The prophets certainly were; they had no idea we would still be reading their words today. When Jeremiah said, as in our first reading, “The people of Judah and of Jerusalem will be rescued and will live in safety,” he was thinking of a fairly immediate happening – and, indeed, we know that the tribes of Judah did return after exile and live in Jerusalem again. But his words apply to the end times, too.

And the same with Jesus, I think. Much of the disasters he spoke of will have happened within a few years of his death – the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, for one thing. Don't forget that he was in an occupied country at the time. And all down the centuries there have been plagues and wars and floods and famines and earthquakes and tsunamis and comets and things; every age, I think, has applied Jesus' words to itself.

So we are living in the end times no more and no less than any other age has been. And in our troubled world, we hold on to the one certainty we have: God with us. Emmanuel. Amen.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Becoming Ourselves

“So, friends, we can now—without hesitation—walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body. So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. He always keeps his word.”

That's a modern translation of part of our first reading today, from the letter to the Hebrews. I don't know how much you know about this letter; it's thought to date from around the year 63 or 64 AD, before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and before the Eucharist became a widespread form of Christian worship. Nobody knows who wrote it, either; arguments about its authorship go back to at least the 4th century AD! Probably one of Paul's pupils, but nobody actually knows who.

The Temple in Jerusalem is still standing when this letter is written. The author uses it to contrast what used to be – in the olden days only the High Priest could go into God's presence, and he had to take blood with him to atone for the people's sins and his own. Nowadays, only Christ, the great High Priest, can go into God's presence – but he can and does take us with him. We can go with Jesus into the very presence of God himself, confidently, just like you'd walk into your own front room.

The thing is, of course, that it's all because of what Jesus has done for us. We can't go into God's presence, as the prayer says, “trusting in our own righteousness”. If we are to go in with any degree of confidence, it is because of what Jesus has done for us, arguably whether or not we recognise this.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Christ takes us in there in his own body. I don't know about you, but for me that rather helps clarify what St Paul said about our being part of the Body of Christ – and in that Body, we can go into God's presence.

There is nothing we can do to make it any easier or any more difficult; it is all down to Jesus. We are made right with God by what Jesus has done, end of. It isn't about whether we have confessed our sins – although I hope we have faced up to where we have gone wrong. It isn't about whether we have accepted Jesus as our Saviour and our Lord – although I very much hope we have done so. Neither of those things will save us. Only God will save us – and as soon as we reach out a tentative finger to him, and sometimes even before, he is there, reassuring us that we are loved, we are saved, we are forgiven.

The trouble is, all too often we focus on sin as though that were what Christianity were all about. We even tend to think the Good News goes “You are a sinner and God will condemn you to hell unless you believe the right things about him.”

Erm, no. Just no. We do things like that. We are quick to condemn, especially people in public life. Just read any newspaper, any day. We are slow to forgive – we don't believe people can change, we keep on bringing up episodes in the lives of our nearest and dearest that might have happened a quarter of a century ago!

But God is not like that. God is love. God is salvation. We don't have to do anything, only God can save us. Yes, following Jesus is not an easy option, we know that. If we are Jesus' person, we are Jesus' person in every part of our lives – it isn't just something we do here in Church on Sundays. It affects who we are when we are at work, or at home with our families, or going to the supermarket. It affects what we choose to do with our free time, who we choose to spend it with – not, I hope, exclusively people who think the same way as we do.

You see, the thing is, you never know exactly what God's going to do. An acquaintance of mine is a fairly well-known author whose books have been published both here and in the USA. She is my age – a little older than me, in fact, as she was 60 on Friday and I won't be 60 for another 6 months and 25 days!

And two months ago, quite unexpectedly, she met Jesus. As she describes it on her blog*, “'you know Who I am, don’t you?  It’s time.  It’s over time.  Stop dithering and follow Me.’ And she adds that everything changes. Everything.

It was, I think, incredibly brave of her to “come out” like that on her blog. What if half her fan base would disappear, snorting that she'd totally lost it and would no longer be worth reading? She is a solitary introvert, and now has to find a church family! She writes: “A friend pointed out that there’s a perfectly good tradition of solitary whatever in Christianity, and there is, but that’s not where I’m being led/dragged/shoved like a balky kid going to her first day of kindergarten.

Yes, everything changes. Another fairly well-known author – well, well-known to me, anyway, but if you don't read science fiction or fantasy you'll not have heard of either of these lovely women – confirmed in the comments on this blog that she, too, is a believer, although you couldn't have actually read some of her books and not realised that. Anyway, I loved her particular comment on Wednesday, which read, in part: “I'm still who I was, probably more so. . . . I was scared of the other – of becoming the cookie fresh from the cutter, just like every other cookie. But individuality and diversity appears to be built in to the design concept.”

Individuality and diversity appear to be built into the design concept. Yes. God has created and designed each one of us to be uniquely ourselves. When we are told that we will become more Christ-like as we go on with Jesus, it doesn't mean we'll all grow to resemble a first-century Jewish carpenter! We will, in fact, become more and more ourselves, more and more who we were intended to be.

So where does this leave our reading? Jesus, in our gospel reading, reminded us that we mustn't go running this way and that way, convinced of doomsday scenarios every time we hear a news bulletin. Yes, the world as we know it is going to end some day – it wasn't built to be permanent, just ask the dinosaurs! We don't know how and why it will end; in my youth, I would have assumed it would end in a nuclear war that would destroy all living things. These days that is less probable, but what about runaway global warming or an asteroid strike? Or just simply running out of fossil fuels and unable to replace them? The answer is that we simply don't know. Unlike the first Christians, we don't really expect Jesus to return any minute now – although I suppose that is possible. We do, however, accept and appreciate that this world is finite and that one day humanity will no longer exist here.

But we are also taught that we will be raised from death and go on Somewhere Else. We don't know what that Somewhere Else will be like, nor who we'll be when we get there – although I imagine we'll still be recognisably ourselves. But we do know that Jesus will be there with us, and that we will see Him face to face.

But eternal life isn't just pie in the sky when you die, as it is so often caricatured. If we are Christians, we have eternal life here and now; so often, it's living it that's the problem. So I'm going to conclude with part of the quote from Hebrews with which I began: “Jesus has cleared the way by the blood of his sacrifice, acting as our priest before God. The “curtain” into God’s presence is his body. So let’s do it—full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out.”

Let's do it! Amen.

* http://robinmckinleysblog.com/2012/11/13/the-road-to-damascus/



Sunday, 7 October 2012

Becoming Human

Genesis 2:18-25

The Old Testament reading today was about God, and a Man, and, ultimately, a Woman.

It starts when God had nearly finished His creation. In this version, he hasn't made humankind as male and female, but he has made all the animals birds and the first Man. And the Man is in the Garden, but he is alone. God shows him all the animals and all the birds, and gets him to give them names. There are horses to ride, to help with hunting. There are cattle to milk, and to pull the plough, and to give meat and leather. There are sheep to provide wool, milk and meat. Goats, too, provide milk. Then there are chickens and ducks of various kinds for eggs. There are deer for hunting, and other game, too – even wild boar, although perhaps not domesticated pigs. There are cats to catch mice. But there are no companions. Even the dogs, faithful and friendly as they are, helpful in the hunt as they are, aren't real companions. They don't think the same way as Man does.

“Well,” says God, “If none of these will do – and I quite see that they won't – there is only one thing for it!”

And he causes Man to sleep and from his body creates Woman. The perfect companion to Man, who will work alongside him. Together they will create and raise children. Together they will run their home, perhaps doing different things, but alongside one another, equal with one another. In each generation, the man will leave his parents' home and make a new home with his wife.

Or that was the general idea! Of course, we know that on one level these are only stories, what we call creation myths to explain the origin of humans, and of our relationship with God. We know that humankind originated in Africa's Rift Valley, not in the Middle East. We know that farming, which did originate in the Middle East, came only after who knows how many generations of hunter-gatherers. We know that animals have different names in different languages, and the universal Latin names were only given in the last century or so. We even know that these stories were not written down until comparatively late.

But on another level, of course, they are profoundly true. They are about us, and about our relationship with our creator. In the next chapter, we learn about how it all went horribly wrong, how humanity disobeyed the creator and has never been really comfortable with him, or with itself, ever since. Again, stories that explain this that are, on one level, only stories and on another level profoundly true.

And it did go horribly wrong, didn't it? Because the Woman was created last, after all the animals and birds, and after the Man, she has been seen down the centuries as somehow inferior; her role, instead of being different-but-equal, was seen as very much there to serve. Not helped, of course, by the misapprehension that she was just the soil in which a man planted his seed, rather than contributing equally to the genetic material of the next generation.

And the picture of marriage that was painted in these stories hasn't quite worked out, either, has it? Jesus said, in our gospel reading, that Moses had had to allow a law permitting divorce because there were times when it simply didn't work out. But how many women have been able to leave a husband who abused them, physically or mentally? In how many cultures has the man been able to get a divorce on a whim, but a woman must stick to her marriage no matter how ghastly it is. Quite apart from anything else, throughout much of history the only alternative has been a life on the streets.

Even today in the United States there is a worrying trend to try to take control of a woman's fertility away from her, and place it in the hands of men, as though it wasn't her own body. In some states they are trying to make it illegal for a doctor to say if there's something wrong with the baby she's carrying, in case she should decide to have an abortion – but of course, they aren't, as far as I know, making appropriate provision for care and support of badly disabled children. You remember the row the other week when a senator blithely repeated that old, and untrue, chestnut that you can't get pregnant from being raped. Sigh....

It all sounds frightfully doom-and-gloom, doesn't it? I don't mean to sound that way, because, of course, there are so many cases when things have gone right, when people have been happily married for years, supporting one another and alongside one another, just as seems to be the Biblical ideal. I only have to look at my own parents, who, three weeks ago, celebrated 60 years of married life together, and got a card from the Queen. Which is pretty amazing really – not the card from the Queen bit, of course, but the rest of it.

But I'm also sure that, if you asked them, they would say – reluctantly, as that generation doesn't really care to speak of its faith – that part of it has been their kneeling together side-by-side in worship several times a month in Church. Part of it. And I'm not saying you can't have a successful marriage without being a Christian, which would be an extremely stupid thing to say and easily disprovable; I am, however, saying that I am sure this is part of it.

But it's the same for all of life, really. We make a pretty good job of being human without God, but we seem to make a much better job of it with God.

On the other hand, we have done some dreadful things in God's name – crusades and jihads being the least of them. Those abuses of women I just talked about? Done in God's name. Slavery – done in God's name. Even apartheid was originally set up in God's name; people genuinely believed that God wanted people of different skin colour to live separately. 
And from that, a small step to thinking that they are somehow different or inferior.
Ridiculous to our modern way of thinking, of course, but I'm sure you will tell me that the effects of such thinking linger on to this day. And think of the cultural damage that missionaries, no matter how well-meaning, have done – it's only really in the last twenty or thirty years that we have begun to hear hymns that have their origins in other cultures.

I could go on and on. And that's just humanity in general. Shall we come to us in particular? Hmmm, let's not, and say we did! I don't know about you, but I don't like facing up to the fact that I'm not perfect, and that I have to admit that to myself in God's presence. But why would I be special? Humankind, down the years, has done some appalling things. We read of appalling atrocities in our newspapers every morning – some of them, alas, done in God's name, even today. I am not different or special. It's only through God's grace that I haven't done dreadful things, and at that, maybe I have. Not newspaper-headline dreadful, but hurting people, putting myself first all the time, that sort of thing.

Because that's what it's all about, isn't it? About putting ourselves first, which all of us do, all the time. It's only natural. Look at a baby asleep in its pram – it doesn't have the first idea that the world doesn't revolve around it, with people running to do its bidding whenever it expresses displeasure at its current state! My little grandson is just over two, and is only now beginning to learn this. He has to learn to share his toys and to take turns; he is learning, slowly, that when Mummy or Daddy are working at home and the door is shut, they can't give him their attention – but that doesn't stop him asking, sometimes.

As we grow up, we are supposed to learn that the world doesn't revolve around us. But our natural inclination is always to put ourselves first. And yet we know, from the Bible and other sources, that this isn't really the way to true humanity, true happiness. We just think it is.

One of the quarrels I have with evangelical Christianity is that it does make the good news start “You are a sinner!” And my sermon today has done that, rather, hasn't it?

But, of course, that's not where I want to leave it. We all know we are sinners, we know that we're always going to put ourselves first if we get half a chance, and sometimes we do dreadful things, even if we say it's in God's name. We know that.

But we also know that we are saved. That God loved his creation so much that he came down to live as one of us. He knows what it's like to be human. And his death in some way assures us that we are loved and forgiven. And the Holy Spirit indwells us, if we allow him to, and enables us to live far more in the way that God intended – in harmony with ourselves, with each other, with our world, and with God. Amen.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Wisdom

Jesus says: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

Wisdom says: “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

“Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

They sort of resonate, don't they? At least, they do for us, since we are used to thinking of bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ when we make our communions; and however we understand it, we are used to hearing “This is my Body, given for you,” and “This is my Blood, shed for you,” every time the Sacrament is celebrated.

So when Jesus talks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, we don't really turn a hair. But it was very different for his first hearers – they would have had no idea that he would take the Jewish Friday-night ritual and lift it and transform it into something very different, yet essentially the same. For them, when he said, “You must eat of my flesh and drink of my blood,” what they thought was cannibalism.

And, of course, that was seriously offensive to them, as it would be to us.  Perhaps even more offensive than it would be to us, since we have no taboo against eating blood.  But the Jews, like the Muslims, do have a terrific taboo against it, believing that the “life is in the blood”, and so to them it is probably not only unheard-of to drink blood, but rather sick-making, too.  Whereas other cultures – the Masai – certainly, drink blood as a matter of routine.  And even we have our black puddings, although I think we’d blench at being offered a nice warm glass of fresh blood.

And, of course, there are things that we wouldn’t normally think of as food that other cultures eat routinely – think of the Chinese and their dogs and snakes, for instance.  Or even the French with their snails, which are actually delicious if you like garlic butter!  And I know that many West Indians follow the example of the Jews and Muslims and eat no pork, and probably feel rather sick at the thought, just as I expect Hindus do about eating beef.

I expect you remember that Jack Rosenthal play, “The Evacuees”, where the two Jewish children are presented with “delicious sausages” for their supper and expected to eat them.  And although they’ve been told and told that as it is a national emergency, they may eat food that is normally forbidden, they simply can’t bring themselves to try.  The taboo against eating pork runs so deep, for them, that they simply can’t overcome it.

And Jesus’ followers certainly felt most uncomfortable at his words.  To start with, they simply couldn’t understand what he was on about:  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  Visions, there, of Jesus cutting great chunks out of his arms, I shouldn’t wonder.  Or of people cutting up a dead body and preparing to eat it – in some cultures, that would be considered quite normal, and the correct way of honouring the dead, but not for the Jews, any more than for us.

We know, from later on in that same passage, that many of Jesus' followers found the whole thing too hard to stomach, quite literally, and abandoned him, and it appears that the rest of his followers stayed on in spite of, not because of, what he had said.

In fact, what Jesus had said appears very far from wise. But to those of his followers who did stay with him, and so down to us, it does echo, doesn't it, with the passage from Proverbs:

“Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

Wisdom, here, is personified as a woman. There is a lot more about her in the Bible, especially in Proverbs Chapter 8, of which we read only a small extract this morning. Listen to this, for instance:
“Her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand
in her left had are riches and honour.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her:
those who hold her fast are called happy.”

And then again:
“All the words of my mouth are just;
none of them is crooked or perverse.”
“I love those who love me,
and those who seek me find me.
With me are riches and honour,
enduring wealth and prosperity.
My fruit is better than fine gold;
what I yield surpasses choice silver.
I walk i the way of righteousness,
along the paths of justice,
bestowing wealth on those who love me
and making their treasuries full. . .”

The old testament writers tend to personify Wisdom, and even to identify her with God. Lady Wisdom, or Sophia, to use the Greek term, is very definitely one aspect of Who God is. Incidentally, it can sometimes be instructive to pray to God as “Lady Wisdom” - don't if it feels really awkward and unintuitive, but it is a valid form of address and some people find it helpful.

But what is the point of all this? What does it say to us this morning?

Well, I am irresistibly drawn to the first chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles,  but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

To the Jews, what Jesus said about eating his flesh and drinking his blood seemed the height of foolishness – and of disgustingness, too! Yet more foolish, perhaps, was that the Messiah, God's chosen one, should die a criminal's death – not just killed honourably in war, but put to death like a common criminal.

And yet, and yet. The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom; the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is only when we come to God in our weakness that God can act. If we try to know best, if we forge ahead without seeking God's will, then we will very probably come to grief.

I come back so often to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was so dreading the Cross – well, who wouldn't? He begged and prayed that he wouldn't have to go through with it, and it took him a long time, and an enormous struggle with himself, to come to the place where he could say “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”

That may have seemed a foolish decision – the disciples certainly thought it was. How could it work for their teacher to allow himself to be put to death? How, indeed, could it work to eat his flesh and drink his blood? But the foolishness of God was wiser than human wisdom, and through the Cross, the ultimate foolishness, if you like, through the Cross we are saved. And through eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Sacrament, and the other means of grace, of course, we learn to know him, and are made more like him.

There are many, many examples of what seems like foolishness by our standards that turned out not to be so when measured by God's. People like George Muller, who founded homes for orphan children in Bristol, and who was resolved not to ask anybody for help but to wait until God laid it on their hearts to do so. God always did, and people always responded – sometimes not until the very last minute, but I gather they simply never went hungry! The Overseas Missionary Fellowship, to this very day, doesn't publicise specific needs, and although there's a link on their website to enable you to give, if you wish, they don't push it. They trust God for all their income, even today.

So do we trust God's foolishness or do we try to rely on our own wisdom? I know I am far more inclined to rely on my own so-called wisdom; I'm always quite sure I know better than God! But I also know that I can't see round corners the way God can. What might seem the ultimate in foolishness to me may well turn out to be the best thing that could have happened!

“Come,” says my Lady Wisdom, “eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways and you will live.”

So – shall we be wise with the wisdom of God? Shall we let go and trust God, or do we want to keep on knowing best? I know what I want to do, which is to trust God to be wiser than me. I don't always succeed, but that's what I want. What about you? Amen.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Mary Magdalene

Today, July the twenty-second, is the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, if you are the sort of church that celebrates that sort of thing. Which we aren't, of course, but nevertheless I can't resist having a look at Mary Magdalene today, because she is such an intriguing person. We know very little about her for definite:

Firstly, that Jesus cast out seven demons from her, according to Luke chapter 8 verse 2, and Mark chapter 16 verse 9.

From then on, she appears in the lists of people who followed Jesus, and is one of the very few women mentioned by name all the time.

She was at the Cross, helping the Apostle John to support Jesus' mother Mary.

And, of course, she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and according to John's Gospel, she was actually the first person to see and to speak to the Risen Lord.

And that is basically all that we reliably know about her – all that the Bible tells us, at any rate.

But, of course, that's not the end of the story. Even the Bible isn't quite as clear as it might be, and some Christians believe that she is the woman described as a “sinner” who disrupts the banquet given by Simon the Leper, or Simon the Pharisee or whoever he was by emptying a vial of ointment over his feet – Jesus' feet, I mean, not Simon's – and wiping it away with her hair. Simon, you may recall, was furious, and Jesus said that the woman had done a lot more for him than he had – he hadn't offered him any water to wash his feet, or made him feel at all welcome.

Anyway, that woman is often identified with Mary Magdalene, although some say it is Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus. Some even say they are all three one and the same woman!

So if even the Bible isn't clear whether there are one, two or three women involved, you can imagine what the extra-Biblical traditions are like!

Nobody seems to know where she was born, or when. Arguably in Magdala, but there seem to have been a couple of places called that in Biblical times. However, one of them, Magdala Nunayya, was on the shores of Lake Galilee, so it might well have been there. But nobody knows for certain.

She wasn't called Mary, of course; that is an Anglicisation of her name. The name was Maryam or Miriam, which was very popular around then as it had royal family connections, rather like people in my generation calling their daughters Anne, or all the Dianas born in the 1980s or, perhaps, today, the Catherines. So she was really Maryam, not Mary – as, indeed, were all the biblical Marys.

They don't know where she died, either. One rather splendid legend has her, and the other two women called Mary, being shipwrecked in the Carmargue at the town now called Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, and she is thought to have died in that area. But then again, another legend has her accompanying Mary the mother of Jesus and the disciple John to Ephesus and dying there. Nobody knows.

And there are so many other legends and rumours and stories about her – even one that she was married to Jesus, or that she was “the beloved disciple”, and those parts of John's gospel where she and the beloved disciple appear in the same scene were hastily edited later when it became clear that a woman disciple being called “Beloved” Simply Would Not Do.

But whoever she was, and whatever she did or did not do, whether she was a former prostitute or a perfectly respectable woman who had become ill and Jesus had healed, it is clear that she did have some kind of special place in the group of people surrounding Jesus. And because she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and went to tell the other disciples about it, she has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles”. So what can we learn from her?

Well, the first thing we really know about her is that Jesus had healed her. She had allowed Jesus to heal her. Now, healing, of course, is as much about forgiveness and making whole as it is about curing physical symptoms. Mary allowed Jesus to make her whole.

This isn't something we find easy to do, is it? We are often quite comfortable in our discomfort, if that makes sense. If we allowed Jesus to heal us, to make us whole, whether in body, mind or spirit, we might have to do something in return. We might have to give up our comfortable lifestyles and actually go and do something!

What Mary did, of course, was to give up her lifestyle, whatever it might have been, and follow Jesus. We don't know whether she was a prostitute, as many have thought down the years, or whether she was a respectable woman, but whichever she was, she gave it all up to follow Jesus. She was the leader of the group of women who went around with Jesus and the disciples, and who made sure that everybody had something to eat, and everybody had a blanket to sleep under, or shelter if it was a rough night, or whatever. Mary gave up everything to follow Jesus.

Again, we quail at the thought of that, even though following Jesus may well mean staying exactly where we are, with our present job and our family.

But Mary didn't quail. She even accompanied Jesus to the foot of the Cross, and stood by him in his final hours. And then, early in the morning of the third day after he was killed, she goes to the tomb to finish off the embalming she hadn't been able to do during the Sabbath Day.

And we know what happened – how she found the tomb empty, and raced back to tell Peter and John about it, and how they came and looked and saw and realised something had happened and dashed off, leaving her weeping in the garden – and then the beloved voice saying “Mary!” and with a cry of joy, she flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.

She tells the rest of the disciples how she has seen Jesus. She is the first witness to the Resurrection, although you will note that St Paul leaves her out of his list of people who saw the Risen Lord. That was mostly because the word of a woman, in that day and age, was considered unreliable; women were not considered capable of rational judgement. At least Jesus was different!

So Mary allowed Jesus to heal her, she gave up everything and followed him, she went with him even to the foot of the Cross, even when most of the male disciples, except John, had run away, and she bore witness to the risen Christ.

The question is, of course, do we do any of these things? We don't find them comfortable things to do, do we? It was all very well for Mary, we say, she knew Jesus, she knew what he looked like and what he liked to eat, and so on.

But we don't have to do these things in our own strength. The Jesus who loved Mary Magdalene, in whatever way, he will come to us and fill us with His Holy Spirit and enable us, too, to be healed, to follow Him, even to the foot of the Cross, and to bear witness to His resurrection. The question is, are we going to let him? Amen.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Grief, healing and resurrection

 Note to self: Do check you have all the pages of the sermon before you leave the house.  It doesn't do to find the last 150 words or so are Not There!


“Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the Teacher any more?”
“Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the Teacher any more?”  Jairus was bringing Jesus to his home, to heal his daughter.  Not such a little girl now; she was twelve years old, probably expecting her parents to start thinking of a husband for her within the next couple of years – her culture, you were more or less grown-up at 13.  And then she fell ill.  Seriously ill.  The doctors were shaking their heads; nothing they could do.  

But there was this Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth they called him.  He was beginning to get a reputation locally for healing, as well as teaching.  What had Jairus to lose?  “When he saw Jesus,” we are told, “he fell at his feet.  He pleaded earnestly with him, ‘My little daughter is dying.  Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’”  And Jesus agrees, and goes with him.

And while this is happening, here is the other person to be healed that day.  The one for whom twelve years was not so much a lifetime as a life sentence. The one with the haemorrhage. Twelve years of constant nagging, dragging pain. Twelve years of constant blood loss, of constantly feeling unwell, of constantly being tired and anaemic.
 

And nothing was helping. She’d spent all her money on seeing doctors, but they hadn’t been able to help, and the problem was, if anything, growing worse. She was becoming weaker, and knew that soon she would be too weak to carry on. Her life, too, was drawing to a close – and it may well be that she was profoundly grateful that it was happening.

But then, a rumour swept through the crowds. Jesus of Nazareth was visiting Capernaum today! Everybody had heard of Jesus of Nazareth. He had done some spectacular healings. Maybe, just maybe....

He was coming to look at Jairus’ daughter, the rich man’s kid.  Jesus wouldn’t look at the likes of a poor old woman, no doubt. She didn’t have any money. She didn’t have clout, like a synagogue leader. She was just a lonely old woman.

But the crowd was so huge that Jesus could barely walk up the street. The disciples were going, “Excuse me, excuse me, make way there now, oh would you please shift your – er – yourselves”, but progress was very slow. And the woman, caught up in the crowd, suddenly plucked up the courage and just, with one finger, touched his cloak.

And Jesus felt it. In all the crowd, with people everywhere, jostling and rubbing up against him, he felt that one deliberate touch. "Who touched me?" he asked. We aren't told the tone of voice he said it in. Sometimes, preachers seem to reckon he was irritated, angry even. I don't think so. I think he was full of compassion and love. He knew. He may not have known who she was, but he knew why she was hiding.

And yes, he did have time for her.  It wasn’t about money.  It wasn’t about social status.  It was about compassion.  And also, of course, it was about knowing that she was now well, that she could resume her rightful place in society.  That she would no longer be poorly all the time.  So he lifts her up: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

And then they come out of Jairus’ house to tell him that it is too late.  “Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the Teacher any more?”

But Jesus was undaunted.  He grabbed his three closest associates and told everybody else to butt out.  And he reached out to her and held her hand. "Get up, little one!" he said. And she did. She woke up, yawned, and stretched, for all the world as if she had just been enjoying a lovely, refreshing nap. "Get her something to eat," Jesus said, what could be more practical? And he didn't want her surrounded by the media of the day all yelling at her and stressing her out, either, so he suggests the parents don't tell anybody.

Well yes.  And the story is a lovely, hopeful story  –  and we, here at King’s Acre, are having our antepenultimate service before we are closed down.  What has this story to say to us today, as we grieve for the death of our church?

It is about faith, of course.  It’s about not losing hope.  About not despairing.

Jairus must have despaired when they came out to him and told them  his daughter was dead.  Or perhaps he despaired before that, when the doctors told him there was nothing more they could do.  

The woman must have despaired long since, when the bleeding simply would not stop,  when the naggy, draggy pains in her uterus wouldn’t go away.  Maybe she had been a young woman, looking to start a family.  That wasn’t going to happen now.  She despaired.

But Jesus didn’t despair.  Not ever.  Not even in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was pretty close, I think.  “ ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’  Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”

“Not what I will, but what you will.”  I wonder how much struggle it took for Jesus to get to the place where he could say that.  Quite a lot, I shouldn’t wonder.  It isn’t easy, is it?

I know when this thing of King’s Acre closing was first mooted, my immediate reaction was, “Look here, God, if you do that, I’m never speaking to you again!”  Mind you, on sober reflection I decided I couldn’t actually cope without God, so I changed it to, “If this is seriously what you want to happen, please make me willing to accept it!”

I do wish he’d hurry up!!!

Seriously, though, it’s all very well, isn’t it, reading these stories and thinking about them, and reminding ourselves that we do not need to despair.  Right now, I don’t know about you, but for me right now that feels like rather a huge ask.  

And yet the rational part of me knows  –  not just believes, KNOWS  –  that God is going to bring something great out of this.  I don’t know what, yet, and it is not yet time to even think of finding out.  But we know, as St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, that God works all things together for good for those who love him.  We also know that there is resurrection.  Even in nature.  Jesus said that if a seed didn’t fall into the ground and die, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  And look at caterpillars.  To become a butterfly, caterpillars have to be completely remade.  While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there.  It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again. The caterpillar more-or-less has to die before it can become a butterfly.

I wonder what sort of butterfly we will become.  What sort of fruit we shall bear?

We don’t know yet.  And maybe now is not the time to find out.  Now, and these next two Sundays, is a time for grieving.  We need to grieve.  We need to acknowledge our emotions, our sadness, our anger, our whatever else we may be feeling.  That’s okay, and it’s right to be sad  –  even Jesus wept, you may remember, when his friend Lazarus died, even though he then went on to raise Lazarus from death.  He had no thought that there was anything wrong with grief.  Yes, he removed the mourners from the little girl’s bedroom, but that was basically so she wouldn’t be frightened when she woke up.  There was nothing wrong with grieving for her death.

But within all that we also need to be aware that there is hope.  There will be resurrection  –  perhaps not of King’s Acre as we know and love it, but of something.  In the Psalm we had for our first reading, we were reminded that:
“weeping may stay for the night,
   but rejoicing comes in the morning.

And the Psalm finished on a hopeful note, too, didn’t it:
“You turned my wailing into dancing;
   you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
   Lord my God, I will praise you for ever.”

Today we grieve, and it’s right and proper that we should.  But there will be resurrection.  God will remove our sackcloth and clothe us with joy.  It may not happen this month, maybe not even this year, but one day it will happen.  The woman who was bleeding had to wait for twelve solid years.  I don’t for one moment think we will have to wait so long  –  some of us can’t, anyway.  Let’s be on the lookout for it, whenever it happens!  Amen.

Friday, 22 June 2012

God's In Charge


It's a funny old story, isn't it, this story of Job. Do you know, nobody knows anything about it – what you see is totally what you get! Nobody knows who it was written, or when, or why, or whether it is true history or a fictional story – most probably the latter! Apparently, The Book of Job is incredibly ancient, or parts of it are. And so it makes it very difficult for us to understand. We do realise, of course, that it was one of the earliest attempts someone made to rationalise why bad things happen to good people, but it still seems odd to us.

Just to remind you, the story first of all establishes Job as really rich, and then as a really holy type – whenever his children have parties, which they seem to have done pretty frequently, he offers sacrifices to God just in case the parties were orgies! And so on. Then God says to Satan, hey, look at old Job, isn't he a super servant of mine, and Satan says, rather crossly, yeah, well, it's all right for him – just look how you've blessed him. Anybody would be a super servant like that. You take all those blessings away from him, and see if he still serves you!

And that, of course, is just exactly what happens. The children are all killed, the crops are all destroyed, the flocks and herds perish. And Job still remains faithful to God: “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So then Satan says, well, all right, Job is still worshipping you, but he still has his health, doesn't he? I bet he would sing a very different tune if you let me take his health away!

So God says, well, okay, only you mustn't kill him. And Job gets a plague of boils, which must have been really nasty – painful, uncomfortable, itchy and making him feel rotten in himself as well. Poor sod. No wonder he ends up sitting on a dung-heap, scratching himself with a piece of broken china!

And his wife, who must have suffered just as much as Job, only of course women weren't really people in those days, she says “Curse God, and die!” In other words, what do you have left to live for? But Job refuses, although he does, with some justification, curse the day on which he was born.
Then you know the rest of the story, of course. How the three "friends" come and try to persuade him to admit that he deserves all that had come upon him – we've all had friends like that who try to make our various sufferings be our fault, and who try to poultice them with pious platitudes. And Job insists that he is not at fault, and demands some answers from God!

Which, in the end, he gets. But not totally satisfactory to our ears, although they really are the most glorious poetry. We just had the first of the three chapters this morning, but Job chapters 38, 39 and 40 are the most glorious celebration of God's creation that there is! My father, indeed, says that when he dies, he wants Job chapter 39 to be read at his funeral, and I don't blame him, it really is lovely! Sit down and read them sometime, when you want to be cheered up!

But, of course, God's creation can be a frightening and terrible place sometimes – there are earthquakes and tsunamis and volcanoes and storms.... and in our second reading, there was a storm.

I've never been to the Holy Land, but some years ago now a minister in this circuit did go, and he said that while he was there, just such a storm blew up on the Sea of Galilee! He said he really understood this particular story for the first time ever.

The disciples were with Jesus, of course, but Jesus was asleep. He'd been teaching all day, and may well have been very tired. Or perhaps he felt a bit seasick, who knows? Whatever, there he is, curled up in the stern, head on a pillow, snoring. Well, we aren't actually told he was snoring, but people do very often snore if they fall asleep in uncomfortable positions – you should hear my grandson when he falls asleep in his pushchair! So Jesus might well have snored. Whatever, there he is, fast asleep....

And a storm blows up.

I don't know why the disciples were so scared; after all, Peter and Andrew and James and John were all fishermen, and knew all about Lake Galilee, so you would have thought they would have been able to cope. Perhaps the non-fishermen among them were frightened and hampering the fishermen in their work. Perhaps it was a smaller boat than they were used to, and the Bible does say that it was beginning to fill with water. Anyway, whatever, they are terrified. So they do the most sensible thing they can; they go to Jesus and wake him up, asking for help. And Jesus tells the winds and waves to be still. And they are still. The storm stops. The wind drops. The sun comes out. And Jesus says, “What were you so afraid of? Where is your faith?”

Now, that seems a nasty thing to say. After all, the disciples had seriously thought they were all going to drown, including Jesus. But the point was, he had been with them. They could have trusted him, in spite of appearances.

When it comes to God's creation, we are not in control. The disciples weren't in control of the weather conditions on the lake. And God reminds us in the book of Job that we aren't, either:
‘Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?
Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, “Here we are”?'

But God is in control. God is always in charge, even when we are not. That's sometimes a comforting thought when things happen that are beyond our control. God is still in charge.

The Bible promises, in Romans chapter 8, that God works all things for good to those who love him.

Mind you, sometimes – frequently – it doesn't feel like that. When bad things happen, when someone gets a really nasty illness or dies out of time, when a relationship ends, when they close down your church, sometimes it feels as though God has kicked you in the face. But I've found, over the years, that most of the time that is not what has happened, only what it feels like. If I've gone on trusting God, and gone on trying to be his person in spite of everything – and right now this is being horrendously difficult for me – then I've usually found that in the very end God has worked things out. As I'm sure will happen this time, although I do wish he'd hurry up! God is never surprised by what is happening; God can always work things out, and will always work things out for good.

Now, some people have said that because God is always in control, and because he always does work things out, we should praise him and thank him even for the bad things. I don't see how we can do that – I mean, we know that God's heart breaks when a child is killed on the roads, or when an earthquake devastates a country. How are we supposed to give thanks for things that make God Himself weep?

I don't think it means that. I think it's more about having a thankful heart. About acknowledging God's good gifts to us. About – okay, if you like, about counting our blessings. We can't, and I don't think we should, thank God for the dreadful things – but we can be aware that God is there, in the midst of the dreadful things, and we can certainly thank him for that. We can be aware that in all things God does work for good for those who love him. And I think, too, we may ask to be shown exactly how God is working whatever dreadful situation it is for good.

The book of Job is an attempt to show why bad things happen to good people. And the only answer it can really come up with is that God is in control, and we are not.

It isn't always easy to let God be in control. Even our dear Lord struggled with it in the Garden of Gethsemane. But in the end he came to the place where he could say “Do it your way. Your will, not mine, be done!” and the result was that all the things we mean by the Atonement were able to happen.

It isn't easy. But when we have a God who controls even the winds and the waves, when we can trust him, when we can say “Your will, not mine, be done!”, then, I am sure, that in the words of Julian of Norwich, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. Amen.