#AdventBook2016 – Week 4: Tuesday

On Fasting and Lasting Treasure – Matthew 6.16-24

One of the things I take from this passage is that the most important things we do are often the things nobody notices. This is certainly so in ministry.

Hundreds of people (thousands in the last fortnight) may see me standing up to lead a Carol Service. But there are many things I do that are far more important, and noticed by no-one, or very few.

Many people see the way we include children with special needs at our church, and commend it. What they don’t see is the hours that go into producing a visual timetable and a social story and meeting the family for a visit to the church, so that one little boy can seem so happily integrated on a Sunday morning. And there is no reason anyone should see all that,of course.

But it is as much to the glory of God as any public leading of a high-profile act of worship could be.


#AdventBook2016 – Week 4: Monday

Loving Your Enemies – Matthew 5.38-48

“Love your enemies” – one of the most challenging and, to my mind, most important parts of Jesus’ teaching and example. This is where the rubber hits the road. It’s easy to love the people you like. It’s quite easy to love the people you pity (although is it really love, if it comes with a side-order of condescension?!). But loving the people who don’t seem to love you, or just loving the people you don’t much like – there’s the challenge.

And there too is the gospel. Good news for all means good news for all – including the people to whom we might not particularly want to bring good news. Because the gospel isn’t ours to bring, we are only the messengers. It is Jesus who invites, and he invites all.

The same all-encompassing grace which gives me a place at the table will see my own worst enemy seated there beside me. That is the radical nature of what Jesus does. If we want to embrace – and be embraced by – the gospel, it has to be all of it. The good news is not “you are saved”. It is “the whole world and everyone in it is being restored to the image of God”. It cannot be good news at all if it is not good news for all.

Sermon for Advent 4, Year A

Advent is a time of waiting. We’ve been waiting for 3 weeks so far this Advent, and we’ve still got one more week to go. What are we waiting for?

Yes, Christmas. But we’re waiting for something else as well.

In our reading, we heard about Mary and Joseph waiting. They were waiting for Jesus to come. But they didn’t know quite what – quite who – they were waiting for until the angel told them. And even then, they couldn’t have known quite what Jesus would be like until he arrived, just like any parents awaiting the birth of a child.

Some waiting is exciting. Some waiting is frustrating. [Eg.s]

I’m waiting to open this present. I can know some things about it. [Weight, size, shape?] I might even try to guess what it is [Suggestions] but I won’t know quite what it is until I open it on Christmas Day.

So what are we waiting for this Advent? We are waiting for the fulfilment of God’s promises. Just as Mary and Joseph waited for the coming Messiah, so we are waiting for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth when Jesus returns in glory.

Did Mary and Joseph know exactly what it would mean for Jesus to be the Messiah? They can’t have done. Even with angelic revelations, they can’t have foreseen what the life, death and resurrection of their tiny new baby would be.

Can we know exactly what it will mean for Jesus to come in glory? I don’t think so. We know something of what it will be like – Isaiah foretells a kingdom of perfect peace – but what will that look like? What will it feel like? We, who live in a world which has never come close to perfect peace, can’t possibly know.

It is like my wrapped present – we can know something about it, we can guess at what it is, but we cannot truly know it until it is finally fully revealed. It is this final, full revelation of God’s kingdom that we await as we keep Advent together.

One thing we can know: whenever God makes promises, like the angel’s promise to Joseph in today’s reading, they come with the words “Do not be afraid”. Whatever the fulfilment of those promises may look like, it is not something to fear, but to hope for, long for, pray for, work for.

As we prepare to enter a new year – especially after such a year of uncertainty and surprises – we cannot be sure what lies ahead. But we can be sure of one thing: God is faithful, God keeps God’s promises but, as with Mary, not always in the way we expect.

It is an act of faith to look into an uncertain future and say “God’s will be done”. But that is what it means to live as people of faith, to be willing as Mary was to become the instruments by which God’s promises are fulfilled to a waiting world.

And so with trust in the promises of God – those we have seen fulfilled, and those yet to come – we say “Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus”.

#AdventBook2016 – Week 3: Friday

The Challenge of Forgiveness – Matthew 18.21-35

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”

Most days, these are probably the most challenging words I say. And I say them every day. But do I live them every day?

“Forgive us… as we forgive…” How do I forgive? Begrudgingly? Sparingly? Selectively? With a sense of superiority? Selfishly?

And how do I want to be forgiven?


#AdventBook2016 – Week 3: Thursday

Matthew 12.15-21

“Not to be served but to serve,
And give yourself that we might live”

Not surprising that today’s reading reminded me of The Servant King, a favourite item in our school worship band’s repertoire.

I have been thinking about serving this week, as I have moved chairs, mopped floors, collected up rubbish, and fetched and carried instruments, microphones, etc. I have also led worship, prayed and preached, which is a different kind of serving.

I have been reflecting on how surprised people are, especially those used to working in a very formal hierarchy, when someone they perceive to be “in authority” rolls up their sleeves and gets stuck in. It changes things. It changes relationships – generally improving my relationship with those in serving roles, sometimes at the cost of being less respected by those at the top of the organisation. It also changes my perspective.

Of course, people were far more surprised when Jesus took on the role of a servant, subverting everyone’s expectations of the Messiah. He built relationships with those at the bottom of the heap and didn’t care when it cost him the respect of those at the top.

Perhaps that’s the model we need to follow in ministry. It’s very easy, especially in some types of ministry, to get sucked into being part of the “in crowd” – friendly with the mayor, the MP, the Councillors, the professional middle classes – enjoying status and respect in the community. But Jesus is more often found with the out crowd, the down-and-outs, the servants, the slaves, the unclean and unloved. Perhaps that’s where we should be looking for him too.

I remember the example of a bishop who once told me that, wherever he went, he washed up 10 cups. At the time, I thought it was a slightly eccentric tokenistic gesture. It has taken me years to see that doing this gave him the opportunity to spend time with the people doing the washing up – not necessarily the people anyone would make a point of introducing the bishop to. His discipline of washing up helped to keep him in solidarity with those who serve unnoticed. I can see the wisdom in that now.

It is only in taking on the role of the servant, and in spending time with those who have no option but to serve, that we can begin to see the world from the perspective of the Servant of whom Isiah speaks in this passage.

#AdventBook2016 – Week 3: Wednesday

The Raising of the Little Girl – Matthew 9.18-26

This raises some uncomfortable questions for me:

Who do I treat as ‘unclean’? I would like to be able to say “nobody”, but I know that isn’t true.

How close am I willing to get to them? I would like to say “of course I would reach out and touch them, just like Jesus”. But my attitude and actions would call me a liar.

Questions to ponder, and act on.

#AdventBook2016 – Week 3: Tuesday

(Post delayed due to late-running Carol Service – apologies!)

The Healing of the Paralytic – Matthew 9.1-8

In a day when the news is full of the horrors unfolding in Aleppo, this passage leads me to ponder the nature of authority. “Someone must do something,” clamours my social media feed. But who? And what? There are no easy answers, and it tempting to think that the situation is hopeless.

But the hope Jesus gives is that there is – there can be – a different kind of authority, a different kind of power. And with it will come a different kind of Kingdom, a different kind of world.

But it relies on us, each of us, choosing to see and to use that different kind of authority, to relinquish our own power so that the power of God in us can break through. That requires an enormous vulnerability. It requires a willingness to lay aside our ideas about authority and power and control, to question our deep-held assumptions.

“Someone must do something.” Of course. But it is so tempting to think that the ‘something’ must be part of the existing structure of power and authority. A military strike. Sanctions. Even a diplomatic solution is, necessarily, part of the world’s idea of what authority looks like. Which isn’t at all the same as what Jesus calls ‘authority’ in the gospels.

What if instead of “someone must do something” we said “everyone must do something”, and not just in the moment of crisis, but all the time. We have a shared responsibility to reexamine the structures and ideas of authority and power which have led us to this point so many times, and will again. We have a responsibility to keep challenging, as Jesus does, the insidious notion that “this is just the way it is.”

Some Christians (myself included) do that through an explicit commitment to non-violence. Our pacifism does not mean that we are passive – quite the reverse. It means a commitment to thinking more deeply about the use of power and authority at every level of society. It means challenging the received wisdom of society with the radical authority of Jesus. It means maintaining that there is another way to live, which Jesus himself has shown us – if only we would open our eyes and see.

You can find our more about the Christian pacifist movement on the Fellowship of Reconciliation website: http://www.for.org.uk/ 

#AdventBook2016 – Week 3: Monday

On Following Jesus – Matthew 8.14-22

I have been thinking about one of the questions Tom Wright poses at the end of today’s reflection: “What demands does Jesus make on his followers?”

What does Jesus demand of us? The easy answer, of course, is “everything”. Easier said than done. Perhaps another answer is “do justice, act mercy, walk humbly with God”. But that too is easier said than done, and what does it really look like, to live a life of justice, humility and mercy, with God at the centre?

What does Jesus demand of us? Often what we least expect, at the time we least expect it, and with consequences we could never have forseen. In the words of the children’s song, “it’s and adventure following Jesus”. And you never know where an adventure will lead.

#AdventBook2016 – Third Sunday of Advent

Jesus and John the Baptist – Matthew 11.1-11

Things have not panned out as John expected, to say the least. He is in prison and, to make matters worse, the Messiah for whose sake he has suffered this punishment is not behaving at all how a Messiah should. Is he really the one they have been waiting for?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t answer this question directly. Instead he says “say what you have seen”. What they have seen are miraculous works of mercy. And that is, in a way, the answer to John’s question. That is the sort of Messiah Jesus is.

Perhaps John was, quite understandably, looking for a Messiah who would come in power , throwing off the yoke of oppression, dramatically changing the course of history, and proving that he, John, had been right all along.

Perhaps, on some level, that’s what we all want to see: a God who intervenes to save us, brings change with is obvious and immediate, and in doing so proves us right (and righteous).

But that isn’t what John got, and it isn’t what we get either. Instead, we see the outrageous mercy of Jesus, freely offered to everyone without exception, whether we like it (and whether we like them) or not. It was outrageous then, and it still is now.

All the people you’d rather be rid of, Jesus welcomes.

Those you consider beyond the pale, Jesus embraces.

Your worst enemy, Jesus died for.

And those with whom you think you are forever and irreconcilably at odds, Jesus invites to sit at his table beside you.

And so everything changes.

But not in the way John expected it to change. Not with thunder and flashes of fire, a display of invincible might. But with a meek humility which is stronger than any power. Jesus is transforming all things, all people, the whole of creation, more and more into his own likeness.


#AdventBook2016 – Week 2: Saturday

Matthew 26.69-75

I read this passage this morning, and then (as usual) I said morning prayer. And, because it is Advent, morning prayer included these verses from Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord
Or who can rise up in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to an idol, nor sworn an oath to a lie.

As we read these word, it struck me that this is exactly what Peter has done in today’s reading – he has sworn an oath to a lie: “I do not know the man.”

It is a sign of Jesus’ upside-down kingdom that Peter’s betrayal, his swearing an oath to a lie, does not make him unfit to serve God. He is, despite (or perhaps because of) all his failings and frailties, the rock on whom the church is built.

Which is good news for those of us trying to serve God’s church today. Whatever our failings, weaknesses and sins, Jesus still uses us. Not because we are worthy, but because we are willing. Just like Peter.