Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas Year C
27th Dec 2015
Sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas – Year C
Colossians 3:12-17 and Luke 2:41-52
My father lost me twice. Once in Plymouth market and the other time at Plymouth Argyle’s football ground. I must have been six years old. My dad had gone through the adult turnstile and I through the children’s one and we never met at the other end! I was found by a stranger and ended up in a secretary’s office, who put me in front of her huge typewriter and gave me paper and lots of sweets. I was very happy, and the loss having been sounded on the Tannoy, my father returned to collect me none the worse for wear.
Jesus, at the age of 12, at a time of the Festival of Passover is also lost in the vast crowd that would have overwhelmed Jerusalem. He is much later found in the temple in Jerusalem discussing religion with Jewish leaders. His parents only realise their loss when returning to their homeland among an equally dense crowd of followers, who as an extended family, might be expected to care for the boy. But once realising he was lost Mary and Joseph return to Jerusalem to find him in the Temple.
Only three days ago we were celebrating his birth of Jesus. Now we’re hearing about Jesus at the age of 12. What’s been happening in those years about which we know so very little? It would seem that Jesus has been developing a sense of who he is and of his special relationship with God. He has been acquiring knowledge and understanding of the scriptures and it seems now that he is enjoying this opportunity to learn from others and discuss his own ideas and ask questions.
Just as we know so little about his first twelve years, so too we have very little information about the next eighteen years until he is thirty. What was happening during those years? We are told that he grew in wisdom and I think that he used this time to work out his own interpretation of the Law until he had a solid foundation on which to build his public life and ministry.
I think the foundation that Jesus laid for himself was the summary of the law which we’ve been hearing during Advent and will hear again during Lent.
“Hear O Israel,
the Lord our God is the only Lord.
You shall love the Lord our God
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength”
“Love your neighbour as yourself”
“There is no other commandment greater than these”, says Jesus, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” For Jesus, everything that God requires of us follows on from these commandments.
We have just celebrated the birth of new life and we are about to celebrate or at least notice the ending of this year and the beginning of the next. Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on new beginnings and new opportunities. Perhaps we sense an invitation from God to go back to basics and reflect on what it means to us to live out our faith in the world around us, or to pay attention to a particular area of our spiritual life.
Paul’s words which we heard earlier might give us a very good starting point for reflection. Paul too thought through his faith and what it meant to live it out in the world. His words may sound fairly straight forward and simple but they actually present a challenge to us to re-think how we relate to people.
It may sound simple to show compassion – but that means showing compassion to people we might think are suffering through their own fault or who have shown no compassion for others.
It may sound simple to be kind – but that means being kind to everyone, not just those who are grateful and appreciative.
It may sound simple to be patient – but that means being patient when every fibre of your being is screaming out for action or change.
It may sound simple to forgive each other – but it means forgiving even those people we said we could never forgive for what they’d done to us or to someone we love.
How do we clothe ourselves with love when we’re feeling thoroughly bad tempered and irritable?
How do we let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts when we’re so stressed out we’ve hardly got time to breathe never mind think or reflect?
To let the word of Christ dwell in us richly we need to read the word of Christ and think about it so that we take into our lives what we hear God saying to us through that word.
Going back to basics is not an easy option.
Living out the commandments is not an easy option.
Living the Christian faith requires commitment, discipline and a willingness to learn and grow.
It may sound daunting but we are not required to do this on our own. As we seek to put God firmly at the centre of our lives, as we learn to love others (and perhaps to love ourselves) we are in fellowship with others on the same journey, learning the same lessons and making the same mistakes. We can learn from each other, share with each other and encourage one another. Perhaps our greatest encouragement is the knowledge that, as Paul says, we are called by God as his beloved people.
We are called today by God. Wherever we are we can begin again, today, with a new start knowing also that we are God’s forgiven people.
Today is exciting. It’s a day of new beginnings. It’s the start of a new adventure. We can stay where we are, not wanting to risk the unknown. Or we can step forward, thinking, asking questions, exploring ideas, willing to change and grow in the knowledge that Emmanuel, God with us, is our companion on the journey
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Year C
20th Dec 2015
Sermon for Advent 4 Year C (2015)
“The almighty has done great things for me and Holy is His name”. Luke 1.49
As a child I remember an old lady who always sat in front of us in church. Her name was Miss Raddle. She was very short sighted and frail and used to sing from her hymn book both through the thick lenses of her spectacles and also using a very large magnifying glass and gazing upon the words with a perpetual frown.
The same old woman had arrived on our doorstep some years before in the driving rain with a parish magazine and an invitation to come to church. Her house call that evening did indeed bring us to church. It was a visit that was God-given. Despite her frailty and her pebble glasses she was a woman of burning Christian integrity. She magnified not only the words of her hymn book, but also in her own person magnified the meaning of God in a way that was direct and present and heart-warming to us.
In this morning’s Gospel we learn of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in St Luke’s Gospel. How like Luke the physician to include the fact of the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb at Mary’s greeting! The baby’s kick draws from Elizabeth a blessing and a prophecy; that what has been promised to Mary by the angel is to be fulfilled, and that Mary is ‘Mother of my Lord’. The exchange between the two women sites the ordinariness of their meeting in the little Judean hill town with the coming of salvation promised by God and spanning across past, present and future time. Mary responds not meekly and demurely as at with the annunciation from the angel Gabriel. No; here she bursts into song, and the song is what the Church calls ‘The Magnificat’. St Augustine once said that to sing is to pray twice, but to sing is also to experience a deep joy and the sense of joy in the Magnificat is very intense. She sings of the favour God has shown to her, and of her own lowliness. She boldly declares herself to be most blessed over future generations, and then she speaks of God who through her own ‘yes’ makes immediate and present something that is expressed by Mary in the past tense:
She cries, ‘He has scattered the proud’, ‘He has raised up the lowly’, ‘He has brought down the powerful’ ‘He has filled the hungry with good things’ and ‘He has sent the rich empty away’…
The Magnificat is a songful cry from a lowly peasant girl who has recognised and accepted God’s call for her life. Mary not only magnifies her God like Miss Raddle; she sings the Magnificat in the joy of the fact that God will, through her and through the child she will bear, magnify himself to the world through ‘all generations’:
‘Of the Father's Love Begotten’
Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore! Prudentius (348–413)
As we think on these things, two things emerge. The first is the influence of the idea of the visit or visitation. The second is the idea of a relationship that emerges between the divine and the human disclosures. During the Christmas season, there will be many visits to friends and relatives. People will be travelling to get back to family or friends, or travelled to get away on their own. The promise with a visit is that the encounter will be kind and gracious. Visiting has been very much a staple of the Christian ministry, and it would be a pity if our Christian ministry, both ordained and lay, were to forgo home visits and replace them with grand mission strategies which did not touch the hearts and lives of the many. I find myself visiting people whom I hardly know and as a priest and am welcomed unquestionably into people’s homes. I am invited into a special place of trust and it is a privilege to be shown family photographs and to talk in the comfort of the home in a way not so easily possible in other environments. The promise with a visit, and its encounter is what I understand to be ‘the sacramentality of conversation’, and of good conversation allowing for trust and understanding in our knowing of one another. Mary’s sings her Magnificat as a song of joy in the experience of the God whose presence is rich in loving mutuality. God’s offers his love to us in the risk of its being rejected or unheeded. But no matter… The seeking of mutuality that is the point. St Athanasius reminded the Church that “God became human so that we might become like God”. He visits us through Mary’s child-bearing – He expresses himself in ‘lowly’ form so that we can understand our own relation to Him as one of direct contact.
The recognition of our mutual humanity is an act of compassion. In Elizabeth’s visit to Mary, various levels of recognition are considered by the Gospel writer, Luke. A simple greeting becomes a song of prophecy and praise in recognition of the One who has disclosed himself in a very particular way. For in this encounter the divine and the human disclose themselves to one another in the one place. As we come to the end of this Advent Season, typified as one of hopeful waiting, we come also to its climactic point this morning in the divine disclosure. A simple visit to a cousin in a small village in the Judaean countryside, as with Miss Raddle’s visit to a family one evening in the driving rain were both to prove the point of Luke’s Gospel, that “God has become like one of us so that we might become like God”. God’s disclosure of himself is not only one of word and song but also of life, a life which is about to come to birth, as Emmanuel, God-With-Us. The Almighty has done (and is doing) great things for us, and Holy is his name.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent Year C
13th Dec 2015
The Third Sunday of Advent
13th December 2015
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year C)
"The people were filled with expectation" Luke 3.14
In today’s gospel we once again meet John the Baptist. John is invariably defined by what he is not: he is not the light; he is not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. He is unworthy to untie the strap of the sandal of the One coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the One he proclaims will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and the priests and Levites do not recognize him. The English court composer Orlando Gibbons composed a breathtakingly beautiful piece entitled ‘This is the Record of John’ which pictures John in a series of questions about his identity, most of them answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’, Jesus, serves to make his prophecy suspenseful and telling.
But John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from his 'being not' what Jesus is, his prophecy is passionate and embodied. The man and the prophecy are one. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am one the voice of one crying in the wilderness’. No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John has.
And in acknowledging that he stands in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, he links us to the prophecies of our first reading today, that joyous vision of the good news of deliverance. The whole passage overflows with joy at the vision is of a just king who frees the oppressed, comforts those who mourn, repairs ruination, and hates all the sin and wrongdoing which disfigure the world; a God who makes an everlasting covenant with his people, and promises them that they are the people whom the Lord has blessed. This is John's task as a witness, to proclaim, to testify to, this glorious message: the time has come, the time is now, the Messiah is amongst you. And this note of joy or rejoicing is so apt for today, as the wearing of this pink vestment signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season. The Latin word gaudete is one which signifies rejoicing.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice? We rejoice because Jesus will show us God. He has brought the God who formerly unveiled his countenance gradually, first to Abraham, then to Moses and the Prophets, and then in the Wisdom Literature – the God who revealed his face only in Israel, even though he was also honored among the pagans in various shadowy guises. It is this God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the true God, whom he has brought to the nations of the earth.
He has brought us God, and now we know his face, now we can call upon him. Now we know the path that we human beings have to take in this world. Jesus has brought God and with God the truth about our origin and destiny: faith, hope, and love. It is only because of our hardness of heart that we might think this is too little. Yes, indeed, God’s power works quietly in this world, but it is the true and lasting power. Again and again, God’s cause seems to be in its death throes. Yet over and over again it proves to be the thing that truly endures and saves.
In this church a cause for rejoicing lies in the many people who come here to visit, and that moment at which they find themselves in awe of what they see. This building helps us to envisage God and to anticipate, as John did, his existence as a distinct reality, conveyed in the architecture of pillars, arches, steps and the play of light and shadow, the glint of gold, and then in the knowledge of his presence: this is no ordinary place but filled with prayer and a sense of of God and filled with its own indefinable spiritual quality. Remember that John came as a witness to this same light. This then proves to be a place where time spent in prayer here, in often an almost empty building, proves to be one in which God is found and known.
John the Baptist gifts us the Christian realization of the existence of God. He is the one who proclaims the coming of the Messiah not as something vague and for the future but something which is with us in the here and now. He is the promised one who is with in lives lived in all their various shades and shadows, lights and glories.
This is what Gaudete is all about; this is our joy. That we have found God in the Church and that he was and is and will remain for us, our true life’s meaning and its ultimate worth, our freedom and our hope. We praise him and thank him for all that he was and is and is to come. We give thanks for John the Baptist, the One who is understood both by what he is not and cannot be, but one who, like the Church itself, now cries in a wilderness full of hope.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
6th Dec 2015
The Second Sunday in Advent 2012
Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain.
Isaiah 40.4., Luke 3.5,6.
This single text is attributed both to the prophet Isaiah (c. 400 BC), and also to St Luke five centuries later (c.100 AD). They are profoundly connected. In the voice, the cry, of John the Baptist we witness Isaiah’s prophecy re-written into Luke’s message of forthcoming deliverance. The scripture passages set for this Sunday repeat their messages to one another and complement one another in a harmony, rather like a choir singing a chorus. And the chorus "Every Valley..." echoes down the three centuries since Handel set them to music in his ‘Messiah’ of 1742. Scripture envisions in ‘the exalted valleys’ and ‘the mountains made low' a spiritual earthquake; a complete re-making of the world’s moral and spiritual compass: the divine realignment of the world’s bearings in a new social and terrain founded in Christ: “Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight and the rough places made plain” It is in the witness of John the Baptist, the desert dweller, the man feeding on locusts and wild honey, the zealot, the last of the Old Testament prophets and the herald of glad tidings, that we cast our gaze in this time of Advent. It is through him that this quantum leap in the fortune of humankind is envisaged.
In our Gospel Reading this morning Luke places the life and witness of John the Baptist in strict historical and chronological time. Man’s time. The Emperor is the corrupt and weak Tiberias, son of the murderess Livia and stepson of the Roman Emperor God Augustus (remember ‘I, Claudius?’). Pontius Pilate is Governor of Judaea and Herod is Tertrarch of Galilee. Written into the Gospel of Luke is the clash between this historical time, Man’s time and God’s time. Ordinary history is is seen as leaden, time bound, specific and limited in its scope and confined to a history of doubtful characters. But Luke is writing God’s history, and the coming of John the Baptist points to the coming of our salvation, and with it a new kind of time, which is God-filled time. As we say in the Easter blessing of the Paschal Candle “Christ yesterday and today, the beginning and the end, alpha and omega. All time belongs to him and all ages…”
Advent rests upon God’s time over chronological or ordinary time. And yet it is in ordinary time that God’s activity manifests itself. It was after all almost exactly two thousand years ago that John the Baptist walked this earth and proclaimed his message. And it is in the ordinary and in the ordinary things of life that we witness to Christ. Christ for us will come to inform everything we are and do; he will come to inform and then transform the ordinary into the likeness of his coming kingdom. As The Church we believe that the presence of Christ is active and transformative for our human condition and the parish is the local manifestation and the engine of this transformed life.
Three years ago I used this sermon opportunity to mention that the great green prefabricated shed, the Nissen hut, which served as a concourse for King’s Cross Station, had finally being pulled down. Since then, the gorgeous, vaulted and cathedral like space it has replaced now expresses something of the hope and optimism for a regenerated London. Undergirding and over-arching physical, architectural regeneration must also come that social regeneration which provides for a sense of human worth and belonging and which contributes to a greater social harmony. The opposite is of gross or excluding places which only increase the sense of isolation.
Inclusive churches must surely provide places and spaces where that truer harmony may be found. God’s divine purposes for all of us can be met and experienced both in the ordinary pace of time and in the invitation God holds out to experience a new kind of society, in which we find ourselves in mutual recognition of our own existences and become active in the welcome and care of others from a Christian base. The Church’s vocation is to ‘push the boat out’. This invites a kind of revolution whose hope is that at the human level, ‘every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill be made low, the crooked straight and the rough places made plain’ a description of the emergent architecture for a renewed and redeemed humanity. It is also a Church which lives its life full of hope and expectation for the present and the future.
Here at Holy Cross Church we will once again be appealing for a small group of volunteers to support the work of the Camden Cold Weather Nightshelter. The night shelter project sees seven local churches working each day a week in the middle of Winter to provide supper and breakfast and a bed for the night for those who would otherwise be living on the streets. It in this initiative, and many more like it, lunch clubs, drop ins, church sitting groups, open groups, Bible study groups, that we become one in Christ and in which we declare our koinonia, our holy fellowship to be transformative of the human condition. In these works and in their outcomes lie the new terrain of which the Gospel writer Luke speaks. They are echoed in the words of Isaiah five centuries before and brought to us in music by Handel more than two thousand years later : “Prepare a Way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough places made smooth, and all mankind shall see (and indeed experience) the salvation of God”. This is the promise of the one-who-was-and-is-and-is-to-come, the Messiah, Jesus, the promised One.
“Handel says he will do nothing next Winter, but I hope I shall persuade him to set another Scripture collection I have made for him…I hope he will lay out his whole skill and genius upon it, that the composition may excel all his former compositions, as the subject excels every other subject. The subject is ‘Messiah’”.