Does God want to change your mind? Matthew 1:18-end and Isaiah 7:10-16

 

Here’s my sermon for the BCP services I led or contributed to at All Saints, Odiham on Sunday. The voice just about held out, and hopefully the 8am congregation weren’t too upset that I stopped the service briefly to check out the source of the noise of running water that some of us could hear… it turned out to be a radiator behind the high altar gurgling air, but then they have just have just had their heating overhauled massively!

Have you ever changed your mind?

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Stop and think. Is God trying to get you to stop and think about something?  Does he want you to change your mind?  (This is one of the wonderful range of Christmas Trees on display in All Saints Church, Odiham last weekend. Thanks to Graham for the photograph, and acting as chauffeur to help me through the day.)

Or had it changed for you?

That ‘still small voice’ might sometimes be of calm, but God has a habit changing our plans, and whilst it might be accompanied by a sense of peace that he’s in control, it won’t necessarily make life easier.

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about: 10 years ago, Peter (the LLM taking the Matins service I preached at) was my Old Testament tutor and I was in my first year studying to be a Reader! God you see had other ideas [point to clerical collar]… it just took me another five years to listen properly, give in to them and do as God wanted!!

Mary’s fiancé Joseph, bless him, didn’t have five years. God had to make the message clear and change Joseph’s mind; overnight.

Ahaz? Well God tried to make him listen through the prophet Isaiah, but with less success. The importance of Ahaz’s story is the battle between faith and unbelief, and whilst there would be a faithful remnant in Israel with whom God would dwell and become incarnate in Jesus, it would be no thanks to Ahaz.

As Christians, we would like to think, or perhaps we would like others to think, that we are aware enough of God being with us, that we can hear his promptings, and respond to them. We’d possibly prefer it if God hadn’t got some unforeseen and imminent parenting role in mind, though for some it would be a welcome miracle. But it’s not always easy either to listen, or believe that God is talking to us, especially when the circumstances or instructions seem impossibly bizarre or difficult.

Ahaz is threatened and afraid of an invading Assyrian army when we meet him in Isaiah 7. If he remains neutral he protects God’s people, if he doesn’t, he won’t. Indecision is worse still. After the failure of one encounter between the prophet Isaiah and Ahaz, God is now metaphorically jumping up and down, waving his arms around and shouting, “pick me, pick me… ask me, I’ll show you what to do!”. But in the feigned piety of his unwillingness to test the Lord, Ahaz puts the lie to any sense of faith-filled readiness to be guided out of the situation by God. He’d rather seek mortals who will make his problem their own.

Joseph is likewise a troubled man, and has given much thought to how he should respond to Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. She has obviously explained to him the story of Gabriel’s visit, for Joseph sees no question of any unfaithfulness. Instead he sees this work of the Holy Spirit as none of his concern, and has resolved out of kindness not to open Mary to inaccurate ridicule and disgrace but leave her quietly to her own and God’s, devices.

Yet, Jesus was to be Joseph’s concern, to be welcomed into Joseph’s lineage, life and home. This was not someone else’s problem, a buck to be passed, but it takes a direct message from God to get the point across to Joseph. God is making himself present in humanity in a similar way to that which he has throughout Israel’s history; by acting unexpectedly to make tangible his powerful love and grace. The name Emmanuel, does not denote a quiet and unassuming presence, and thus, just for starters, God requires both Mary AND Joseph to have their lives turned upside down!

We are not Ahaz, or Joseph. But we do have battles of our own, or encounter unexpected situations among our families and friends. We do have to make difficult decisions about what we should do, whether that be to respond to a call to ministry [smile], or about the ongoing care of a loved one, or anything else. We do look at the decisions made by organisations in which we have an interest, and sometimes think we know better. We do forget to listen for God, not realising that he is leaping up and down trying to attract our attention, or speaking to us in our dreams, trying to show us the way forward.

In Joseph’s dream the angel says the child that Joseph will have joint responsibility for raising is to have a further, more common name than the overtly explanatory Emmanuel ‘God with us’. Jesus is a shortened form of the Hebrew name Joshua, common in that era because the Jews were hoping for a national liberator. But this Jesus was not being born to liberate Israel from the oppression of others, but from their own unfaithfulness to God, their ability to limit his power in their own lives. “You are to name him Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” Joseph is told. For as we will be reminded in the coming days from Isaiah 53:5 he will be pierced for their transgressions, crushed for their iniquities. Theirs, and ours.

If we want to find our way out of a tricky situation, or find our thoughts invaded by an unwelcome army of concerns, how often do we seek other people who we can persuade to agree with us, buy us time, or get us out of trouble? Or how much do we rely on our own judgement of what we are capable of coping with, and leave others to go it alone with the difficult situations they find themselves in? Perhaps it’s not about changing other people’s minds… but about changing ours?

Our sins, those that Jesus came to save us from, are often not the obvious crimes which we might well associate with the Ten Commandments and think ourselves well distanced from, but perhaps more closely linked to an inability to listen to God, who in Jesus the sin bearer is also the guide actively seeking to show us our way forward. Ours, not anyone else’s.

If we believe in the divinity as well as the humanity of Christ, we have to believe in his sovereign power to speak to us. If we believe that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus the Emmanuel is still with us seeking to liberate us from our sin, it may be necessary to change OUR minds, OUR thoughts on the best way forward, OUR plans, so that they are in line with GOD’s mind, GOD’s way forward, and GOD’s plans.

 

 

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Facing our fears this Christmas – Isaiah 35:1-10 and Matthew 11:2-11

 

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St. Nicholas, Newnham in the North Hampshire Downs… that existed long before the larger village nearby, Hook. (Cameraphone photo by Graham)

This morning involved a first. It was the first time I’ve led Sung Matins, and I don’t think the little congregation at St. Nicholas, Newnham twigged, so I feel relatively pleased as to how it went.

And here’s what I preached:

We’ve got two weeks. Exactly two weeks.

For those of us who have not yet written a Christmas card, wrapped a present, iced a cake, nor hung up a decoration, Christmas still seems like something that lies a little beyond our anticipation, wrapped more in stress than holiness.

For those of us who know they’ll be alone, or sharing Christmas around strained and broken relationships, who are concerned that this might be the last Christmas with a loved-one who is ill or frail, or who are worried that celebrations will be tempered by physical pain and the drugs required to mediate them, the holiness of the season isn’t just marked by stress, but by fear.

Fear of isolation.
Fear of the emotional turmoil.
Fear of imminent bereavement.
Fear of admitting we aren’t coping with life, let alone Christmas.
Fear that the Messiah isn’t who we thought he was.
Fear that Jesus isn’t coming for us.

In our Gospel reading this morning, with just two weeks to go until Christmas, we are quite deliberately taken away from our preparations for and anticipation of the Christmas story, and asked to confront our fears. Our fears, and those of John the Baptist who we visit this morning not in the desert proclaiming judgement, but locked in a prison cell, awaiting a fate that we know ends in his beheading.

The rufty-tufty desert man, who announced the coming of God’s kingdom and proclaimed Jesus as God’s anointed, expected the world to change with the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel. Now caged, John, wondering why he hasn’t yet heard that promise is being kept, is probably disappointed, definitely vulnerable to doubts, but still gutsy enough to voice them to the one they are concerned with.

John, who after all is cousin to Jesus and will have grown up with the prophesies that were spoken around the births of both of them… John is having his doubts about the identity of the Messiah because Jesus isn’t living up to expectations. Even in his response to John’s question, Jesus doesn’t seem to be talking like a strong leader strengthening God’s people (Isaiah 35:3) for battle, or a saviour come to bring vengeance (Isaiah 35:4) on an oppressor.

Yet, Jesus, in word and action, DOES fulfil the prophesies about him, the ones that say he will heal the blind, the deaf, the mute and the lame (Isaiah 35:5-6). Indeed even the dead are raised (Matt 11:5), though when John receives Jesus’ return message, I wonder if he might again have been disappointed, wishing that Jesus could also set the prisoners free (Luke 4:18) – starting with his cousin John!

And yet, Jesus is trying to set John free, to bring him some joy. Free from the doubts as to whether all the locusts and honey, the rough desert living, the run-ins with the authorities, and indeed the imprisonment, have been worthwhile. John hadn’t been failed, nor had he failed, or let God down. Jesus is affirming that he is indeed the Messiah, fulfilling the prophesies that had been spoken down the centuries about him, including John’s. But with the new Kingdom comes new ways, and they put the weak, the lonely and the broken first, the new covenant before the old which in effect has been closed with John the Baptist’s work.

Jesus the baby in a Bethlehem manger, Jesus the itinerant healer, is also Jesus of the cross, and it won’t be until the temple curtain is torn in two and then the stone is rolled away, that the saving power of Jesus the Messiah, will be fully revealed. Sadly, John doesn’t live to see and hear that revelation. But we do.

While Matthew’s portrayal of John and his doubts is striking, maybe it’s not so odd to hear about them in Advent, when we, too, at times, may feel stuck between God’s promises made and God’s promises kept. Like John the Baptist, we may feel we are are hung-out-to-dry between Christ’s first coming at Bethlehem and his second in glory; disappointed by ourselves, the world, and even God; fearful that we’ll not be released from the prison of our fears.

We regularly try to hide our insecurities and fears behind our houses, our careers and (dare I say it) church attendance or, for that matter, our failings and infirmities. Until, that is, the word “cancer” or “redundancy” or “divorce” is breathed within our family circle and we know ourselves to be just as fragile and vulnerable as anyone else. Even the word “vacancy” can set up a myriad insecurities and fears within a Christian community! And at these moments – the impact of which is heightened at this time of the year – we need to turn again to the words and actions of Jesus for comfort, hope and joy, all the more because we know they are accompanied by the cross and resurrection.

If ‘the hopes and fears of all our years’ are to be ‘met in him’ not just tonight or in a fortnight’s time, but ALWAYS, then we have to view the babe in a manger in the light of the whole of his story. When God became incarnate as a human baby, he took on our hopes and fears and not only moved to heal those he could in Jesus’ earthly life, but then watched them get nailed with the Christ-child to a cross on Good Friday, breaking the hold of any sense of failure that first Easter morning.

That wasn’t just for then. It is for now. Whatever our disappointments, we don’t let God down by having or expressing them. God comes to us anyway, eager to join us in our weakness, to hold onto us in our insecurity, and to comfort us in our fears. For God in Jesus came not for the strong and the proud, or to fight physical battles on the fields of history, but he comes the weak and the vulnerable, the lonely and ill, and the broken. We, who may feel that we’re the ‘least in the kingdom’ and out in a desert place, by grace have an honoured place at Jesus’ side, because he comes to us where we are, offering us the strength to withstand the winds and rough cloth of our lives, bringing the joy of his presence into our lives.

There is no reason why we shouldn’t admit our hopes and fears, and like John, question him with our doubts, but God in Jesus, comes for us.

[With thanks to the Working Preacher for inspiration: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2911]

 

Praying in Advent through five festivals

5-candlesRegular readers will be aware that I’m currently on placement in the North Hampshire Downs Benefice. One of the mini-projects that I’ve been focusing on is leading the prayer element of a couple of Prayer Suppers in the Parish of Odiham.

Alongside the re-ordering of the physical church, the people of All Saints Odiham have also been focusing on prayer as part of their own re-ordering as a community of Christians. The ‘bring-and-share’ style suppers (an hour for fellowship and food, followed by an hour for prayer) are a part of this process, and the vicar and I will be reflecting on how they have gone before I complete my placement.

This particular hour of prayer was inspired by the Service of Five Candles celebrated each Advent Sunday in All Saints Church, Minstead in the New Forest (where I grew up). That service involves children processing five large ‘pascal’ sized candles with appropriate motifs, readings and collects, one for each of the five main Christian festivals. It was brought to the parish in the 1960s by the then Rector, Rev’d Clifford Rham.

This pattern of prayer involves ordinary-sized candles, shorter but appropriate readings and collects, and uses them as an inspiration for prayer, which need not be restricted to the bullet point suggestions provided.

The attached document forms a folded A4 sheet that anyone could use for a an Advent reflective service or similar. The illustration above shows how the five candles can be used and decorated.  advent-hour-of-prayer-through-five-festivals

If Jesus chose to return today? An Advent reflection

p1090449cwI’ve been preparing some Advent materials, and in doing so found this old reflection, dated November 2006, so as I started Reader Training and before this blog was started!

It is by way of a response to the following questions:

If Jesus chose to return today, how would you react?
What might you say? How would you feel?

 

Why did you not come sooner?

Don’t get me wrong Jesus,
it is good to have faith rewarded.
But if you’d come last week those
four soldiers would not have died;
If you’d come last year those
bombs would not have shattered lives;
If you’d come twenty years ago
millions of children would not have suffered.

So why now Lord? Why here?
Why this room, these friends?

Is our pride, our business,
our self sufficiency and security,
really part of the pain you’ve come to relieve?
How can we be worthy of your interest?

Come to the kids loitering in our street,
our friend who lies in a hospice;
Relieve the bereaved, the prisoner
or hassled mother coping on her own.

Relive their pain, forgive their sin,
remove the evil from their lives.

And then, perhaps then…

consider me.

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I’ve missed the point:
I see it in your eyes and feel it in your touch.
You are there too, aren’t you Lord!

If you’ve come back, you’re here for all;
Each house, each home;
each hospital and prison;
Each tank, and battlefield;
each parliament and throne.

Your Majesty, now considers …
me;
Replays the video of my life,
freeze-framing those moments in the journey,
When I forgot to phone a friend,
to say a prayer, to comfort a relative,
To leave a space,

for you.

And now Lord,
on my knees,
At your feet
surrounded by your glory…

I wait upon you.

Photos by Graham taken at St. Mary’s Old Basing, December 2014

Cutting out the canker – Romans 15:4-13 and Matthew 3:1-12 #Advent2

 

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The remaining, canker free, fruit trees in my garden – from which the birds are largely benefiting at present!

I’m still on placement in the North Hampshire Downs, and was blessed today by a stunning run between the villages, scattering Redwings and other thrushes to the four winds, and narrowly avoiding a flock of Partridge who had less concept of what wings are for! The less said about People In Lycra On Cycles the better.

On the liturgical front, celebrating Holy Communion in a rural church (Tunworth) lit largely by candles was lovely, though with no heating I breathed ‘smoke’ through the whole service and found my hands frozen by the silverware at the altar – all of which made the warm cup of tea provided from an urn in the open church porch much appreciated! At least at the second service (in Greywell), the Eucharistic Prayer was not accompanied by a loud quacking from the river that runs past the churchyard… this time 😉

Some might say as a trainee on secondment I should have pulled the punch that this week’s Advent Gospel packed, but there has to be an integrity with the season, and why should those living among parishes in vacancy not be challenged to consider how they may be being called to consider how God might be calling them to change their ways, just as he calls me to change mine as I write?

 

When we moved to Yateley about 18 years ago, there were 4 fruit trees in the garden. An apple, a Conference pear, a plum tree and a cherry. It is a small garden, but the intention was to keep them all; we are big fans of fresh, home-grown produce.

But within the first 12 months, it became abundantly clear that the plum and the cherry had canker; areas of damage to the bark that at times oozed a nasty brown slime. They were the two smaller, weaker trees, and unsurprisingly they produced no fruit. Since the canker was in the main stem, we couldn’t simply remove an infected branch, as the fungal infection that causes canker would have remained.

We cut them down to ground level, treated the stumps with something so that we didn’t get sucker growth from the roots, and took the stems away to the tip, since bonfires aren’t allowed in our neighbourhood. We didn’t want the infection getting into our compost heaps or otherwise spreading through the garden. The apple and pear have survived, and after a good frost-free flowering period, bear a good crop of fruit.

In our Gospel reading this morning, John the Baptist is effectively likening the Pharisees and Sadducees, the spiritual leaders of their community, to a canker infection in a tree that needs to be cut out and thrown on the fire. The canker itself is the overwhelming arrogance and pride that the Jewish elite took in their inherited relationship with God, forgetting that their God is the maker, creator and hope of all things and all people, the Gentiles included as our Epistle highlights.

Ordinary people were flocking to John the Baptist in their hundreds to receive baptism in the river Jordan. They knew from their scriptures that the Prophets had said that God would come back to his people, when they repented. So people came in droves to repent. Confessing their sins, they were baptised with water in Jordon; not just a symbolic cleansing of individuals, but God doing a new thing in history as they went through the Jordan a second time, 1000 years after the Exodus.

God’s defeat of all evil and the establishment of his kingdom on earth as in heaven, is proclaimed by their actions as imminent. It was the beginning of a true repentance at the heart of ordinary people, that wasn’t just sorry for the day-to-day things they had done wrong, but would be life changing for those who recognised the one who would come immediately after John: the Messiah, the new King of the Jews, the inaugurator of God’s new Kingdom. His roots might be in the House of David of whom Jesse was the father, but this new Kingdom wasn’t just for Israel but for the whole world.

Of course, when the spiritual leaders of Israel sussed what was happening, they didn’t want to miss out on the excitement and anticipation that ordinary Jews were experiencing; but they were met with a very different reception. Not for them the immediate new life and forgiveness symbolised in the waters of baptism. John you see knew that at the heart of their presence was pride in their own status, and the ancestry of the Jewish people as a whole; a purity which they sought to protect.

John prepared the way for Jesus coming, knowing that God really is God; God isn’t simply a kind, indulgent parent who seeks to gently correct his children. Jesus would balance his mission of forgiveness, healing and comfort, with the solemn and stern news that when the Kingdom of God is completely fulfilled, God will demand complete allegiance. In Gospel of St. John we hear Jesus say, “I am the Real Vine and my Father… cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes…” (John 15:1-2 MSG). The vine does not even need to be suffering from canker to find itself pruned hard so that it bears fruit!

The spiritual leaders needed to have that made very clear to them, right from the start, and that was part of John’s role. They would find that the easy way to avoid being cut out and thrown on the fire would be to show they were fruitful trees, not hidebound by pride to their traditional rules, regulations and arguments around those bits of scripture they found convenient. In urging harmony between early Christians rooted in both Jewish and Gentile cultures and spiritualities, St. Paul uses our Epistle this morning to takes us back with them to the Old Testament prophesies that not only Israel, but all nations are summonsed to worship, submit to and praise God.

In this Advent season of preparation, we remember today that John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets even though we encounter him in the New Testament. We also anticipate both our remembrance of God’s incarnation as an ordinary baby in a manger, and the completion of the Kingdom of God at Jesus’ coming again. Binding those ideas together today is John’s challenge to the traditional spiritual leaders of his time echoing forward into our own church congregations who are called to be the spiritual leaders of our own generation, taking our part in the coming of God’s Kingdom. It is a call to take a long hard look at ourselves, individually and collectively, and identify where there might be a certain unhealthy pride in our lifestyle, our roots in and attitudes toward others in the community in which we live, or the practices with which we prefer to manifest our faith.

Before we flock to Jesus for the annual ‘love-in’ at the manger this Christmas, we need to look at where we need to accept God’s challenge and judgement in our own lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:13). Where is there canker in our lives that needs to be cut out? What in our lives are we being summoned to repent of? It’s not just about being sorry because we can’t seem to help ourselves from making mistakes, but consciously setting aside that which inhibits our ability to share the love of God with others.

The collect that accompanies our Advent wreath today says that Jesus is the incarnation of God’s ‘power’ and ‘love’. Peace should flow from the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ out through those of us who believe not just in his birth, but the truth of his crucifixion and resurrection too. But it will only come from us understanding that this peace with God and with our neighbour, stems from accepting and responding to both the ‘love’ and the ‘power’ of God visible in that incarnation; the balance between healing from God and obedient allegiance to God. The peace of God, which is part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5) in our lives, will only be seen when the canker of pride and arrogance that makes us think we don’t need to change anything, has been well and truly cut out, and placed on the fire for God’s disposal.

Collect for the Advent Wreath: Advent 2

God our Father,
you spoke to the prophets of old
of a Saviour who would bring peace.
You helped them to spread the joyful message
of his coming kingdom.
Help us, as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
to share with those around us
the good news of your power and love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ,
the light who is coming into the world.
Amen.