Saturday, 20 January 2018

Standing at the back of the wardrobe

In the bible study after the service last week, Jenna was telling us that when she was small she would sometimes go into her wardrobe and see if the back opened into a magical land.

She had been reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by CS Lewis, and if you haven’t read it, or the other books in the series, then it is an absolute must. The children in the story enter Narnia, this magical other land, this parallel universe, by walking into and through a large wardrobe.

Pullman, in his Northern Lights series, envisages alternative parallel universes – and there are certain places where the border between that world and this world is very thin, and it can be cut by a special knife. Now I know that he was trying to write an anti-religious book – to do, he claimed, a CS Lewis for atheism – but actually the idea of an alternative world that is just there, but invisible – is one which Jesus touches on in todays reading.

He says to Nathaniel, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’.

In the Old Testament, one of the earliest people who we are introduced to is a young man called Jacob. Jacob is the son of Isaac, and he has a twin brother, Esau. They are very different. Esau loved doing outdoor manly stuff, playing Rugby or ice hockey, while Jacob – he is the more sensitive type - was more than happy to stay at home and spend time on the computer. Well he would have done, if they had had computers then!
And Esau and Jacob don’t really get on. The problem for Jacob is that big manly hairy Esau is a few minutes older than him, and that means he has all the advantages. He will inherit from his father, and to him belongs the special family blessing.
So Jacob, with his mums support – because dad prefers Esau and mum prefers Jacob – relationships were mildly dysfunctional in this family – sets out to deceive his father, and swindle Esau of his inheritance and the all important family blessing. It’s a great story, and you can read it in Genesis 27

But now Esau is mad. And Jacob has to run for his life. His mum gives him a packed lunch and sends him off to visit uncle Laban, who lives a very long way away.

But on the way to Laban, Jacob comes to a place where he falls asleep. And as he sleeps he dreams that he sees a ladder reaching up to heaven, and angels were going up and down that ladder. And in the dream, God speaks to Jacob. In the morning, when Jacob wakes up, he ‘was afraid’. He says, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’ (Gen 28.17). And he named it Bethel, which means ‘the house of God’.

God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and he became the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. And from that moment on, there were particular special places in the history of the people of Israel where God met with his people.
There was the tabernacle, the tent which came with the people of Israel when they were in the wilderness.
There was the sanctuary at Shiloh (that is where Samuel was when he heard the voice of God),
and then there was the Temple in Jerusalem.  

They were back of the wardrobe places, places where the temporal visible world met the eternal invisible world. They were places where the angels ascended and descended between heaven and earth

So when Jesus says to Nathaniel, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man’, he is making a staggering claim.
He is saying that he is now the wardrobe, he is now the knife, he is now the gateway into the eternal world.
If you want to hear heaven speaking to you, you listen to him.
If you want to glimpse what earth looks like from the heaven perspective, you look at what it looked like to him.
If you want to see what it would be like if heaven lived on earth, you look at him.
If you wish to glimpse the peace or the glory of heaven here on earth, then you go to him.

That is why when Jesus is around, water turns into wine.
It is why loaves and fishes become a banquet for 5000 people.
It is why a man blind from birth is enabled to see.
It is why Lazarus was raised from the dead.
With Jesus around, those angels are busy, going up and down, doing overtime.
You can imagine them saying to Jesus, ‘Lord, please give us a break’ – except that they delight in that work.

And because Jesus is the gateway from earth to heaven, if you want someone to take you from here to there, you go to him.

Jesus is not, by the way, saying that there are no longer special places.
There are special places which, by God’s blessing, seem to be places where the barrier between this world and that world is very thin.
They are places which free us to think or wonder or where we encounter peace or something that is ‘other’.
But what Jesus is saying is that if you want to go through the barrier, then you don’t need to go to those places. But, even if you are in those places, you do need to come to him.

Jesus came to earth to be that door, that gateway.
He came to invite people to come through that door

That is what he does here. He calls Philip

We often speak of finding faith, finding Jesus.

There is a cartoon of an evangelist who is standing outside somebody’s open front door. He is saying to the occupant, ‘Have you found Jesus?’  And inside the house, if you look a bit closer, you notice a pair of sandaled feet appearing underneath one of the long curtains. Jesus is hiding!

But here I note that Philip doesn’t find Jesus; Jesus finds him. In fact, Jesus seems to go out of his way to find Philip.
‘The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” don’t find Jesus, but Jesus finds them.

That was quite unusual for the time.
The Rabbi did not find the disciple. The disciple found the Rabbi. They would go to him and say, ‘Can I be your disciple’. It was a bit like choosing a university or college. You do the tour and then you put in your bid.

But with Jesus it doesn’t seem to work like that.
On one occasion someone came and said to him, ‘let me be your follower’, and Jesus puts him off.
On another occasion when a crowd wanted to make him their leader, he went and hid.
Instead it was Jesus who went up to people and who said to them, ‘Follow me’.
That is why he later says to his followers, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you’ (John 15.16).

Christianity is an exclusive club. Before you become a member you need to hear the invitation – from Jesus or from one of his followers. You need to hear his voice. You need to be called.

With Nathaniel it is even more clear: Jesus ‘sees’ Nathaniel even while Nathaniel is being sniffy about Jesus because of where he comes from: ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’. He implies that Nazareth was a bit of a – and you can probably imagine the word that one international senior politician might have used. But when it says that Jesus ‘saw’ Nathaniel, and describes him as being a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit, what we are being told is that Jesus saw Nathaniel and knew Nathaniel. He saw into Nathaniel’s heart. And he knew that Nathaniel would be one of his disciples, followers.
This was not Nathaniel’s initiative.
This was not Nathaniel finding Jesus, but Jesus finding Nathaniel.

Perhaps listening to this, you worry. Have I been invited? Have I received an invitation? Does Jesus know me? Has he called me?

I suggest that because you are here – whoever you are, and for whatever reason you have come: even if it is just to practise your English – if you have ‘heard’ this: heard it with your inner ear – then you have heard the invitation of Jesus. You have been invited. You have been called.

But like Philip and Nathaniel you need to respond.

This is the invitation to come to the back of the wardrobe, to meet Jesus, to put your trust in him and to live as a back of the wardrobe person, with one foot on earth and the other foot in heaven.

I’ve just been reading a very helpful book on prayer, A Praying Life, by Paul Miller. It is about how we live as back of the wardrobe people. It speaks of how we can come as children people to our heavenly Father. It speaks of overcoming cynicism and reminds us that God wants us to ask. And it is about learning to see the pattern of God’s work in your life, to see how God is writing his story on the story of your life.
Of course, that story is not finished here on earth, and so his last chapter is about those prayers and desires that remain unanswered here on earth.
What makes the book very helpful is the fact that he is the father of a severely mentally disabled daughter, Kim. For 25 years he and his wife were praying that she would speak. Those prayers were answered, and she now speaks with an artificial voice through a computer. Sometimes Kim accompanies her father when he speaks, and she says something herself.
On one occasion, when Kim came with her father on such an event, Paul writes, ‘a little girl came up to Kim as we were finishing dinner and asked, “Why don’t you speak?” Kim leaned over her speech computer, which was propped on the table, and typed, “I will have a beautiful voice in heaven”.  

That is what it means to live between heaven and earth.

But I think that this passage teaches us that there is another dimension living at the back of the wardrobe.
When Jesus calls Philip, Philip spontaneously goes and calls Nathaniel.

And when you have responded to the call of Jesus, and come to the person on whom angels ascend and descend, and when you are standing with one foot on earth and one foot in heaven, you will – naturally and spontaneously – want to do what Philip did.
You may not know how to do it. It is interesting that later, when some Greeks come to Philip and say that they want to see Jesus (in John 12), he doesn’t know what to do. He goes and asks Andrew, ‘What do we do?’ And Andrew goes to tell Jesus.
So you may not know what to say, but if you are there, at the back of the wardrobe, as someone who has glimpsed Narnia, heaven or the hope of heaven, you really will want to say to people, ‘Come and see – come and see the one who is the doorway between earth and heaven, the one on whom the angels ascend and descend’.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Notes on John 2.1-11 Jesus turns water into wine

Well known story told of the Irishman – I don’t know why Irish – who had visited the Catholic shrine at Lourdes. He was going through ‘the nothing to declare’ gate at customs, when he was stopped and the official picked up a bottle he was taking through. ‘What is this?’ ‘Oh’, said the man, ‘that is a bottle of holy water from Lourdes’. The official looked at it and said, ‘funny colour holy water’. He opened the top and smelt, ‘funny smelling holy water’. He took a little sip and said, ‘funny tasting holy water. This tastes of whisky’. To which our hero responded, ‘Praise the Lord, another miracle!’

Those who looked at our website, or at our facebook page, will be aware that the Archdeacon picked up on the fact that I’m preaching from the wrong text from the lectionary today. There will be times when we won’t use the lectionary, but on this occasion I have simply switched Sundays – because of course the story of Jesus turning water into wine is very appropriate for a service which includes the blessing of a wedding.

It is a great story, and thank you to those who did make comments on our facebook page. Yes thank you! They were so helpful that they meant I had to rewrite this talk!

There is so much in this story, and I’m almost tempted to come back and revisit it next week.

It is very significant, because John tells us that it is the first of the signs that Jesus did.

And the fact that it happens at a wedding is important.

It was not just an affirmation of marriage, as many of the Church fathers write, but more than that. 
It happens 'on the third day'. What does that remind us of?
It is a glimpse into the future

John finishes the book of Revelation, the last book of the bible, telling us about a wedding: not any old wedding, but our wedding: the wedding of the people of God, made holy, with the glorified eternal Son of God. (Revelation 21.2). 

Jesus is a guest now. He will be the bridegroom then. And it will really be the best then.

But it is also a sign because it tells us about Jesus: who he is and what he came to do.

1.      This is a story about God’s provision

Wine was essential to a wedding!

To run out of wine is a disaster. The people organising the wedding would have been embarrassed. The family would have been embarrassed. The couple would have been embarrassed.

And yet Jesus miraculously provides for them. The one who was in the beginning, with God, the word of God – who spoke and creation exploded into being – takes water and turns it into wine.

And he doesn’t just provide a few bottles of wine. Jesus was not stingy.
He produced 180 gallons of the stuff.
Jesus is like the Moscow city authorities at Christmas with their lights. They don’t say, we need some festive lights, so we will put a light here and a light there. They plaster the place with lights.

And Jesus did it for a local girl and a local boy at their wedding.

God cares for us, each one of us, even if we know that we are not important.
And he does provide for us – maybe not as dramatically as this – but he gives us what we need.
No, more than that, he gives us far more than we need, he gives us an abundance of joy.

I hope that you can think of times when God has provided for you:

And I’m meaning more than in providing us with this world, with life, with each other, with the gifts of laughter and happiness and music and beauty.
As believers he has given his forgiveness, his presence, the promise of his Holy Spirit,  promise that we will be with him and that we will be transformed into the image of Jesus. He has given us new desires that go along with the old desires, and the new desires – if we let them – start to subvert and transform the old desires.

But here he provides wine – it is very solid and material.
And God does provide for us.
He gives us our 'daily bread'
And he provides for our material needs. Let me give just one personal illustration. In the early 90’s, Alison and myself were exploring the possibility of doing Christian work here in Russia. We contacted a number of organisations and nobody really knew of any openings. And then we had a phone call from someone asking if we could come to a conference in Riga in 2 weeks time. We didn’t have the money, but we felt it right to accept. I would like to say we prayed, but I’m not even sure we did that, but out of the blue, without us saying anything, someone from the church offered to pay for us.

And today, we are thinking about a wedding.
God has provided Olga with Simeon. And he has provided Simeon with Olga.

As a 27-year-old I had never had a girlfriend. It was a not a case of sweet 16 and never been kissed. It was a case of not so sweet 27 and never been kissed! And I was, as you sort of overdramatically do, resigning myself to the thought that I will never be married, and that I would be single and celibate for the rest of my life. And then God provided Alison, who was actually the person that I needed – and who I pray needed me.

I’m very aware that talking like this raises many questions.
What about those of you who are single now – whether by choice or by circumstances – and who would dearly love to meet someone, but it hasn’t yet happened?
Does that mean that God has not provided for you?
Far from it.
First of all, let God be in charge of the timing. Here, as Giles pointed out, he kept the best till last.
But the problem is that we are often blind to what God is providing for us. We have our own agendas and we don’t look to see what he is actually giving us.
For instance, our world tells us that we need to have sex if we are to be fully human.
That is rubbish.
But because of that lie we downplay so much the importance of platonic friendships.
And we treat people who don’t have a partner as if they are somehow lacking something, when actually the bible speaks of singleness as a precious gift, possibly more precious than marriage.

John Stott, who was a Christian writer, and single all his life, writes: ‘We shall not become a bundle of frustrations and inhibitions if we embrace God’s standard, but only if we rebel against it. Christ’s yoke is easy, provided that we submit to it. It is possible for human sexual energy to be redirected (‘sublimated’ would be the Freudian word) both into affectionate relationships with friends of both sexes and into the loving service of others. Multitudes of Christian singles, both men and women, can testify to this. Alongside a natural loneliness, accompanied sometimes by acute pain, we can find joyful self-fulfilment in the self-giving service of God and other people.’’

One of the interesting things about this wedding at Cana is that most of the guests would not have known that a miracle had taken place. They had one sort of wine, and then the servants brought some different wine. Yes, it was good wine, very good wine, but probably all they said is ‘Where can you get this from?’ They just took it for granted, assumed it was life, after all, wine is served at weddings. And they were blind to the provision of God.

Look again, not at what you don’t have, but at what you do have – and I think you may begin to see the abundant, joy giving, provision of God.

2.      It is a story about God’s transformation

Jesus turns water into wine.

At a theological level Jesus is saying, I have come to take purification water, Pharisaic Judaism with its law and its rituals, its do’s and its don’ts, and I have come to transform it into utter joy

Jesus does that: he takes the ordinary (good) and makes it extraordinary.

He turns five stones beside a brook into giant killers, which set a people free from slavery.
He turns five loaves of bread and 2 fish into a meal that feeds 5000 famished people
And even today he turns the bread we break into, to use Paul’s words, a participation in the body of Christ.
He transforms gifts, so that they take on a completely new dimension.
Someone with an ability to play music begins to see that it is a gift of God, and they offer it to him to be used for his service, and it is transformed.
Someone with the gift of hospitality – they’re always inviting people around or taking them out for meals – begins to realise that their love of people is a gift from God, and so they offer it to him to be used in his service, and they discover that God opens up completely new areas of ministry

He transforms circumstances.
Olga, on facebook, wrote how Jesus has turned her salt tears into sweet ‘wine’.
Jesus can take our pain, our mixed up relationships, our grief and despair and emptiness and lonliness and he can transform them into that which brings joy
Paul writes, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God’ (2 Cor 1.3)

And Jesus, and I think this is what it really is all about, transforms people.
He takes ordinary men and women and and transforms us into sons and daughters of God.

We see that: people who are transformed. I can think of at least 4 people in this church who I know have been met by Jesus and have begun to be transformed in the last year or so.

3.      It is a story of God’s blessing.
Jesus blesses a young couple at their marriage.

He not only saves them from embarrassment,
but he makes their wedding an event that
a)      brings great joy to the guests,
b)      has been spoken about for 2000 years,
c)      points to who Jesus is and what he came to do.

Olga and Simeon, forgive me for saying this, but I suspect that people will not be speaking about your wedding in 2000 years’ time. Wouldn’t it be great if I had got that wrong.
What we do pray though is that by the blessing of God, your marriage will bring not only joy to both of you, but also joy to many other people – your family and friends, those who you meet, and those among whom you live, work and minister.
And we pray, that by God’s blessing, your marriage will be one that always points to who Jesus is and to what he came to do.

And how did all this happen?
Why did this wedding become so special?

Very simply, it was because two, maybe three, people listened to Mary and did what Jesus said.
Mary says to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you’, and they – even though he told them to do something that was simple, but utter madness and guaranteed ridicule and instant dismissal – did exactly what he said.

They’re the heroes of this story. We’re not told their names. We’re not told what happened to them after this. But they stepped out in faith and put their trust in Jesus’ word.

We really cannot overestimate the significance of even just one or two believers taking God at his word and doing what he says, especially if it seems foolish or counter intuitive and if it means stepping out in faith.

It might be something big – like moving countries, or beginning a new work, or making the decision to get married.
Or it might be something small: like praying for someone who we don’t like, speaking the truth when we have been lying, or simple daily costly obedience.

But when we do that, God will be honoured, people will be blessed and we will know joy.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Notes on Luke 2.15-21. Why did the shepherds praise?

What brings you great joy? Or if you struggle to think of that, what makes you happy?

Talk together for a minute or two.

Some suggestions!
Arsenal winning FA cup!
Cats or children – not necessarily in that order
Really great meal
A performance
A glass of cool beer on a hot day

Have you noticed that we praise what brings us joy?
‘They played such flowing football. It was beautiful to watch’
‘The cat is so cute. Look at this photo of her’
‘That steak was outstanding’
‘That production was brilliant’
‘This beer is so amazing’

We praise what brings us joy.

So why do the shepherds praise God?

I suspect the shepherds praise God because they have been given meaning and hope. And I think that they praise God because they have met with him. And that gives them joy

1.      They had been given meaning.
The angels had come to them and so they knew that they mattered to God.

And for people who were despised and marginalised – which is what shepherds were – that must have come as an amazing revelation. The angels had come to them!

2.      They had been given hope.
They knew that God had sent them in Jesus a Saviour and a Lord

I wonder how they lived the rest of their lives knowing that the baby that they had seen in Bethlehem was the Saviour and the Lord?
Did they follow his career?
I’m not quite sure how they would do that in days when there was no VK or facebook, or newspapers.
They would have probably kept an eye on him for the first couple of years in Bethlehem, and maybe gone out of their way to support his parents.
They would certainly have known of another night in Bethlehem, when the soldiers came and slaughtered the little children – maybe even their own children. And when they heard the soldiers say that they were looking for a king, they would have known that it was connected to Jesus. But he and his parents had simply disappeared.
And then what? Maybe when they had to obey orders issued by the local kings and rulers, they thought secretly, but there is another king. And we know that somewhere out there, there is someone who is coming to save us. They may not have known how or what from, but they do know that he will bring peace and he will be king.
And maybe they continued to tell people of the night when the angels appeared, of what was said, and of how they went to see the baby Jesus. But I guess as the years went by and nothing happened, maybe they spoke less of those events
And for those who were still alive when Jesus began his ministry 30 years later, would they have connected this man doing astonishing things and saying amazing stuff with the child born in Bethlehem? And would the hope have again begun to be aroused in them.
And if they had connected Jesus the baby with Jesus the man – remember there were quite a few people with the name of Jesus at the time, so it would not have been obvious – I wonder what they made of the crucifixion?

Hope is a funny thing.
It is there – and it gives us joy. It is taken away – and there is emptiness. It returns and joy is rekindled, and then it is taken away again and there is nothing

But then they heard rumours of the resurrection ..

3.      They knew what they had suspected for many years – that God existed.
They saw the evidence with their eyes – the angels had come to them
and they went to Bethlehem and found out that what the angels said was true.
But more than that, I suspect that they were filled with joy not just because they knew that God existed, but because he had met with them – or at least, on that holy night, he had come very very close to them.
And like many people who have become Christians, who have encountered God, who have heard him speaking to them – not necessarily as dramatically as the shepherds – but who have been touched by joy, they cannot stop speaking of God, and they cannot stop praising him.

Why, my friends, do we find it so easy to praise a meal or a football team or a cat, which bring us fleeting joy, and yet we find it so difficult to praise God, who is the eternal joy giver?  

Of course, we praise him when we come to church on Sundays.
We praise him when we say our prayers during the week.
We praise him when we pray the Lord’s prayer: ‘Our Father in Heaven, Hallowed be your name’.
And don’t despise that even if, much of the time, you find that they are just words that you are speaking.
We’re speaking truth
And often when we declare the truth, particularly about God, that truth comes and lives in us, and transforms us, so that in time we feel what we declare. I often find that when I sing hymns or a song in my own prayer time.
And as CS Lewis said, ‘We worship God today as a duty in the hope that we will worship him freely and with great joy tomorrow’

But why do we find it so hard to praise our God as naturally as we might praise a theatre performance.
Is it because we have set our meaning and our hope in the things of this world?
Is it because we are looking to find our significance in what others say about us, and not what God says of us?
Is it because we are looking for hope in the things that bring us delight in this world?

Of course, we should praise the things that bring us joy here and now. Please learn to be people of praise. If you don’t feel like doing it, go out of your way to make yourself do it. If you can’t praise the physical, how can you begin to learn to praise the spiritual?

But I suspect that it is as we begin to realise just how fleeting and shallow the things of this world are, and just how real and solid the things of that world are, that we will begin to discover that our real joy does not come from things here – but from things there.

And when – by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us -  that happens, we may ponder like Mary, but we will also praise like the shepherds.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Christmas midnight communion: when the extraordinary embraces the ordinary

In 1915, Bishop Herbert Bury wrote about St Andrews.
He says it is ‘startlingly .. like a London suburb’. And continues, “But as I saw it on Christmas Eve last year it was Russian enough, the great courtyard was full of troikas and sledges, and the clear air musical with tinkling bells as the people came driving in from far and near, clad in warm furs, for the service.”

Well I do see a bit of snow, but I don’t see many troikas outside. But however you came it is lovely to see you

Christmas eve is a magical night. We have gravity defying reindeer and legends of animals that speak at midnight.

But there is something very special about tonight. Because on this holy night, we believe that the extraordinary meets the ordinary, and the ordinary touches the extraordinary.


It is about the extraordinary: prophecies that go back over 2000 years being fulfilled, appearances of angels, remarkable dreams, a virgin birth, an unexpected star, visitors from a foreign land

And it is also about the very ordinary: It is about innkeepers and shepherds. You can’t get more ordinary than that.
If I am honest, the innkeeper is not mentioned in the story, but his inn is – but the innkeeper or two have a role in most school nativity plays. I like the story of the little boy who wanted to play Joseph, but got relegated to the part of first inn keeper. His only line was ‘no room, no room’. He thought this wasn’t good enough and wanted to make his role much bigger. So when the big day of the performance came, and all the mums and dads were there, and Joseph knocked on the innkeeper’s door and asked if there was a place where Mary and he could stay, the boy replied, ‘Yes of course, please come in’.
And shepherds come and visit. They are the most ordinary of the ordinary.
People told jokes about shepherds. Jesus told a joke about a shepherd. He had 100 sheep and he lost one. So he abandoned the 99 in order to go after the one lost sheep. And while people were still laughing at the stupid shepherd, Jesus turned it around and said, ‘God is like that’. Each person is so precious to God that he would leave 99 others in order to find you.
But it is about the very ordinary.  There was nothing special about Joseph and Mary, a carpenter and his wife, a young couple alone, unnoticed in a town that was full of people. And at the centre of this story is a young woman giving birth to a baby. Now I know that to the couple that is far from ordinary, but on a grand scale – 15000 babies are born every hour.

But on the first Christmas night, the extraordinary met the ordinary. Angels greet shepherds. A star appears to astrologers. And the eternal Son of God, the one who was there before there were any beginnings, the creator of all things, strips off his divine status, strips off his eternal privilege and power and, in the words of St Paul, empties himself and becomes a human. He becomes a baby, born to a peasant couple.

St Augustine wrote: 
 Maker of the sun,
 He is made under the sun.
 In the Father he remains,
 From his mother he goes forth.
 Creator of heaven and earth,
 He was born on earth under heaven.
 Unspeakably wise,
 He is wisely speechless.
 Filling the world,
 He lies in a manger.
 Ruler of the stars,
 He nurses at his mother's bosom.
 He is both great in the nature of God,
 and small in the form of a servant.

This holy night, the extraordinary meets the ordinary.
The eternal Son of God allows himself to be embraced in the arms of a peasant girl.

And this holy night is also about

That is why we are here.
We’ve come to worship. We’ve come to hear again the message, to declare the praises of God.

We, limited by space and time, have come to reach out for the unlimited 
We, mortal men and women, have come to reach out for the eternal

We have come to reach out to the one who – in choosing to be born as a human being – bestowed eternal value on each human being. God became like you.

We have come to reach out to the one who was born as a human being because he loves you.
Now please do not get this wrong.
When I say he loves you, I do not mean that he loves you like an indulgent grandfather who lets you do whatever you want. That actually is not love.
Real love looks at us and sees us. He sees the muck in us, the sin, the greed, the perverted twisted desires that control us, the bitterness and unforgiveness, the lies and deceit, rebellion and disobedience, the self-centredness that thinks that life and everybody and everything should rotate around us – and he hates it.
He hates it because it is a denial of everything that he is, because he is holy and he cannot look on that sort of stuff.
He hates it because it destroys other people. It denies their eternal significance and it turns them into tools who are there to satisfy us.
And it is destroying us, shrinking us, shriveling us up, making us into nothing.

And real love looks at what we were made to be, and it will pay any price so that we might become what were created to become.

So in his love, he reaches out to us, he comes to live as one of us, to live a perfect life. And he comes to die on the cross so that we can be forgiven;
and now he offers to change us – so that we become beautiful on the inside (and in eternity radiant on the outside) - and so that we do not need to shrivel up and become nothing – but we can flourish and grow and become like Jesus, become like God.

And we have come to reach out to the one who is Emmanuel. When God tells Joseph that Mary is going to have a baby, he calls him Emmanuel. It means God with us.
Yes of course God was with Mary and Joseph in an oh so real way. And God walked and talked and laughed and ate with the 12 disciples and many others 2000 years ago. But Jesus has said that even though now we cannot see him, he is no less Emmanuel. He is beside you. He is closer even than your breathing. He is with us.

So when we worship, when we praise God in the carols, when we bow down and confess our sins – and say that he is right and we are wrong, when we hear and believe his word, we are reaching out to touch the face of the one who is with us.

This holy night, we the ordinary are reaching out to touch the extraordinary                                      

But this holy night something even more remarkable can happen.

Forget gravity defying reindeer, forget speaking animals - this is the night that our deepest dreams can come true


This is the night when frogs and beasts can become glorious princes
This is the night when scullery maids can become radiant princesses

I know that this is the language of poetry. But it is very real.

When the early church fathers preached, they used a simple phrase: The eternal Son of God was born as a human baby, so that human beings might become sons and daughters of God.

Or, as John writes, even more simply, ‘to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God’.  

You can become a child of God. You can know God as your heavenly Father. You can have intimacy with him for eternity. And you can be changed so that you can begin to become like him. You can begin to know his desires and share his desires – so that the prayer ‘your kingdom come’, ‘да прийдет царстве твое really becomes your deepest desire.  
You can begin to see people and things and situations as he sees them. You can be filled with his love, with his mercy, with his generousity, with his goodness. You can also begin to glimpse evidence of his power beginning to work in you and through you.

And it is all possible because of this holy night, when the extraordinary became ordinary and lived among us.  

We’ve sung a prayer this evening:
O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
            Be born in us today    

That is what we need to do.
As we tonight reach out to touch the extraordinary who became ordinary, so now, if we wish, we need to ask him come into us – just like the bread and wine that we will eat and drink in a few minutes. We need to invite him to live in us, as our Saviour – the one who rescues us; as our Lord – the one who we obey; and as our friend. Because then, this holy night, we the ordinary can begin to become extraordinary.

Monday, 18 December 2017

John the Baptist: pointing to Jesus

We look today at John the Baptist

The people ask John who he is, and he replies, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord’.

So what is John saying about himself?

1.      He is the voice.

I was speaking with a lady this week who said that her daughter had been invited for an interview by the owner of the TV programme ‘The Voice’. Those of you who know the programme will know that what is important about the contestants is not who they are or what they look like: the judges don’t know anything about them and they can’t see them. All that matters - at the beginning - is their voice.

John is very aware that he is simply a voice, the messenger. What is important about him is not who he is, but his voice. What is important is the message that he has come to bring.

They ask him if he is the Messiah. He says no. He says no, quite emphatically.
The apostle John who wrote the gospel is quite clear about that: “He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah’.” (John 1.20)
So then they ask him if he is Elijah or the prophet?
Malachi prophesied that before the ‘great and dreadful day of the Lord comes’, Elijah, one of the great prophets of the Old Testament would return. (Malachi 4.5)

And John says no.
That is a bit strange, because John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, is told that his son would ‘go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah’ (Luke 1.17), and Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah who will come. (Matt 11.14; 17.12; Mark 9.13). He speaks of John as the greatest of all the prophets

So it seems that others are aware that John the Baptist is that predicted figure who will come before the Messiah. But either John is not aware of it, or if he is, he is not letting on. I think that John knows that if he tells people that he is the Elijah figure promised in the Old Testament, then people will focus on him, and they will not listen to the message.

And he wants them to know that he is a voice – and they have to listen to what he says.

There is something extremely attractive about John’s self-denying ministry.
John tells his followers, “I’m not even worthy enough to kneel down at his feet and to untie his boot laces”. And when some of his followers start to speak of Jesus and are drawn to follow him, John blesses them, “He must become greater and I must become less”.
Here he says, ‘I baptise with water, but he will baptise with the Holy Spirit’.

It is very easy for those of us in ministry to become obsessed with our own importance.
That is particularly the case in a society which treats priests or pastors with respect. I have been called ‘sir’, ‘your grace’ and ‘your eminence’. I have probably been called quite a few other things which I haven’t been able to understand, and which are probably unrepeatable.

And it is very easy for churches to be built around personalities: I’m of Clive, or I’m of Simon or I’m of Malcolm

But actually, those in the ministry, whether pastors or priests or bishops or archbishops, need to remember that we are nothing.
A number of years ago, I was at a service at St Edmundsbury Cathedral when we were saying goodbye to our Diocesan bishop. He came into church dressed in all his regalia. During the service, he took it all off, he left it at the foot of the cross, and he walked out as Richard.  

What is important is not us, but our message. We too are simply voices.

And what was John’s message? We’re told in the very next verse after our reading.
‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1.29)

If we are to be faithful, and now I am speaking to all of us, then we are primarily voices and we point people away from ourselves, and we point them to Jesus. Because it is Jesus who was the eternal Son of God, who stepped from heaven to earth, from eternity into time, and who became a human being because he loves us. It is Jesus who died on the cross for our sins and our forgiveness and it is Jesus who rose from the dead. It is Jesus who gives the Spirit, it is Jesus who is our Lord and our saviour and our friend. And it is Jesus who takes us by the hand and who leads us into the presence of his Father, so that his Father becomes our Father.

So we need people like John the Baptist, people who see themselves as nothing, as nobody - but who know that God has given them a message. We need people who are prepared to simply be the voice

  1. He has come to cry out in the wilderness

We had a discussion in the confirmation group about whether the church should be more professional in its approach to making the message known.

Maybe we should, but I note that John isn’t.
He doesn’t go to the centre of population
He doesn’t try to influence the shakers and movers of society
He doesn’t have the equivalent of a high social or media profile.
Basically, he doesn’t do any of the things that I - rather pathetically - try to do.

Instead John goes out into the wilderness, the most remote place possible.
He doesn’t make it easy for people, or go out of his way to be nice to them when they come.
Instead he expects God to bring people to him, and when they come to him he preaches an uncompromising message about repentance and changing the way you live. And he baptises those who are willing to publicly repent.

It is not the way to win friends or influence people and it was an approach which eventually cost him his life.

But the fact that he is in the wilderness is very significant, and I am going to go so far as to say that we are never going to really meet with God unless we are prepared to be led into the wilderness.

When John says, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness’, he is quoting the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel who have experienced the terrifying judgement of God. They’ve rebelled against God, they have put their trust in false gods and they have disobeyed him. And now they have been defeated, and crushed. The temple has been destroyed and the people have been taken away to Babylon, into the desert.

But Isaiah’s message in Isaiah 40, is now not one of judgement, but of comfort.

If you have listened to the Messiah recently then you will probably have been struck by the aria, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God’. Those are the opening words of Isaiah 40. Isaiah has come to declare to a people who are in the wilderness, that God has not abandoned them, that there is forgiveness of sins, that there is hope and that he will lead them into a new place of abundance.

The wilderness is the place of judgement. It is the place where all the little gods in which we put our trust – money, status, strength, beauty, education (I was at Cambridge, I am at MGU), fitness, entertainment, hard work, the mobile phone, music, family – are taken away. And it is the place where all the little goals that we give ourselves become rather meaningless. There really is no point in trying to prove – to the world, to our family, to ourselves - that we are somebody, that we are important.
Because in the wilderness we are not. We find ourselves stripped naked. And we are brought face to face with ourselves: with our sinfulness, our pride, our inability to really love, the desires that overwhelm us, our sheer pathetic helplessness and our mortality.

It does not have to be a literal wilderness, although some people find that it is helpful to go right away from everything. Or when we fast we can find ourselves walking into the wilderness. Or – and this is more often what happens - the wilderness can come to us: in the shape of catastrophic failure or sickness or depression or abandonment or bereavement.

But the wilderness is also not only the place of judgement, where our little gods are judged, it is also the place of comfort, the place where God comes to us.
It is the place where God met with Moses and Elijah.
It is the place where Isaiah was called to preach, and where John went to preach.

And the Son of God came to us at Christmas in the metaphorical wilderness.
He was laid in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn.
He was crucified on a hill outside the city.

And it is when we are in the wilderness that we begin to hear the word that comes from God: that we are beloved, that there is one we can turn to for help, that we can change and that we will be changed, that we have a hope and a future.

I’ve spoken quite a bit about Michael who had Motor Neurones disease.
For the last year of his life Michael had to sleep with an oxygen mask on his face. When his mask was on he could not make himself heard, and since he could not move, he was completely cut off from the outside world. Nobody would hear him if he cried out. That strikes me as being pretty extreme wilderness.
And yet he spoke to me about how those times were both very dark and yet very special. He was utterly dependent on God, and at those times it was only him and his God.

  1. He has come to make straight the way of the Lord
It is very interesting that in John’s gospel, John the Baptist makes straight the way of the Lord not by calling people to repentance, but by simply being in the wilderness, pointing people to Jesus.

A few weeks ago, Alison and myself visited the Tretyakov gallery. We whisked through the first few rooms because we wanted to get to the icon section, and I didn’t know any short cuts, but as we walked past one gallery we looked in and saw this. It is a huge canvas that takes up a whole wall, Ivanov’s Opus Magnus of 20 years, the painting of ‘The appearance of Christ before the people’.

We stopped and spent about 20 minutes with this painting. It is very striking. John points people to Jesus. Behind him are John the apostle, Peter, Andrew and (the rather reluctant and pensive) Nathaniel. On the right are the soldiers and the Pharisees. And in the centre, walking on the rock towards them is Jesus.

John sees Jesus coming toward him and declares: ‘Here is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’ (v29).
And in case you don’t get it, in v36, John says to Andrew and another disciple, ‘Look, here is the lamb of God’ (v36).

The faces in this image are remarkable, and well worth a study. But two of the faces that really stand out for me are the two people in the centre directly under Jesus. We see the face of the old man as he is being helped to his feet and the face of the slave helping his master to dress (he has a rope round his neck, and we assume he hasn’t been baptised). Both hear the news about Jesus and are full of joy.

John the Baptist points those in the wilderness to Jesus. And Jesus has come to bring joy to those in the wilderness: to those who are enslaved, to those who are struggling with declining health. It brings joy to those who know that they need God.

Today we are called to make straight the way of the Lord, and we do that by being a voice, and by speaking to those who are in the wilderness

So I speak to those who do find themselves, for whatever reason, in the wilderness
I speak to those of you who have begun to realise that you will never find joy in the little gods and goals that we build our lives on.
I speak to those of you who have become aware of their sin and their need for forgiveness
I speak to those of you who are aware of their own brokenness and need for God

And I point you, like John the Baptist, like Ivanov, to the one who offers forgiveness, power to change, peace, intimacy and hope, to the Son of God. I point you to Jesus.