Sermon for the Baptism of Christ
10th Jan 2021
Sermon for the Feast of the Baptism of Christ
“He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him”. Matthew 3.12b.
The Church’s calendar beats to theological time, and this morning as we behold the Baptism of Christ we seem to be a long way from the Magi and the Bethlehem stable. Things then felt ‘Christmassy’. But now, within the space of a few days, all is changed. The Baptism of the adult Christ and the inauguration of his ministry reveals a God-shaped destiny.
The appearance, the manifestation of Jesus, leaves no time for further star-gazing. It’s now a case of ‘first things first’ The Gospel writer Luke makes it clear that Baptism is what comes first. The Gospel account of Jesus’ Baptism has him coming out of the waters and of the Holy Spirit coming upon him. The scene offers an icon for the Holy Trinity. This is a very significant emphasis because in Baptism God is leading both Jesus and all of us in the one call. This call tells us that we are Baptized not only for ourselves and our lives alone but in relation to others too.
One of the most beautiful paintings in the world is hung at The National Gallery here in London. It is Piero della Francesca’s ‘Baptism of Christ’, painted in about the year 1448. The painting is not at all straightforward, and we see that the Baptism does not take place in first century Palestine but in fifteenth century rural Italy amid Tuscan hills, and with a small town, San Sepulcro, in the background. Baptism is always contemporaneous. The painter Piero was interested in placing his figures in a strict geometry and we see that John the Baptist is painted with his right arm and left leg balanced precariously over the waters. In doing this the painting shows us lines of energy which run from the water through the Baptist, who acts as a bridge and a conduit through which the life-giving waters convey a Christ whose body is dazzling white. John's precarious balance allows us to see that the step beyond the water is the one which takes us in a new direction. The comparison with Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for a man, but a giant leap forward for mankind’ is apt. The action is immediate and urgent and specific.
How is our own Baptism to be known and expressed? The first observation is that in Jesus Christ our life is no longer ‘any old life’. Great grace was given in our Baptism and in the blessing with water came the mark and a seal of the Holy Spirit. Now The Church invites us to see our lives in the light of Christ. In St Paul’s phrase we are for all time ‘in’ Christ. What is being asked of us is not that we strive for a whole lot of impossible perfections, but that, in the ordinary course of our lives we go on in a loyal way, and within the confines of our own particular lives and their demands, to do our own bit in the way of being generous and helpful, listening and praying and aiming to stay true to the Jesus who is the patterning for our lives.
But of course the great danger is that we fall into a complacent notion of what constitutes the Christian life 'so long as it doesn't get in our way'. The Baptism of Christ, coming as it does so abruptly, coming as it does as a kind of intrusion, keeps that tension with the ‘quantum leap forward’ or ‘the leap of faith' which it signifies. For we are Baptized into Christ’s death. The waters are the waters of a kind of descent. The re-emergent self is the one which is now readied, in the ordinary things of life and in the emergencies to come, to own that, whatever may befall us, ‘we will be true to God ‘til death’. This is quite a challenge. Here are some words from The Rev’d Prof. Leslie Houlden:
The explosion that was Jesus’ coming and being among us echoes still – and echo it must for each of us: not just rubber-stamping the way we are, but disturbing us and forming us more and more, with sensitivity and love, and even with revolution when the need arises.
The explosion that Prof Houlden speaks, the explosion of Jesus’ entering in on the human scene, is the one which has us live as agents of transforming love. The abruptness of the Baptism of Christ is the reminder we need that the Epiphany glory is not one of fantasy, but one which would set us on a very particular course. I know this, Matthew knew it and no less than the Holy Trinity agrees with us!
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
3rd Jan 2021
Sermon for the Feast of the Epiphany
Today is The Feast of the Epiphany - that great festival on which Christians have celebrated the manifestation, or showing forth, of the glory of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.
Just as the showing forth of the glory of God in Christ takes many different forms, so our season of Epiphany commemorates many different things. First, the coming of the wise men from the East to worship at the cradle of the Infant Christ; then The Baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, with the voice from heaven declaring that this Jesus is the beloved son of God; then the visit of Jesus, at twelve years old, to the Temple at Jerusalem, where the learned doctors were astonished by his understanding and his answers; and then, a series of Jesus' miracles: the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast at Cana; the healing of a leper, and the centurion's palsied servant; and the calming of the troubled sea. Then, at the end of the season of Epiphany, we have prophetic lessons about the final coming of the Son of God, in power and great glory.
Many different things - a great diversity of commemorations; yet they are tied together by one common theme. They are all aspects of the showing forth, the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the divine glory of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, the Eternal Word of God, made flesh. Thus these many commemorations of Epiphany make up a continuing meditation upon the meaning of the Christmas miracle - the miracle of God with us, God in our flesh, Emmanuel, God visible to human eyes, God audible to human ears, God tangible to human touch, God manifest in human life, judging, restoring, and transforming our world by the grace and truth he brings.
On the Feast of Epiphany we commemorate the coming of the wise men. Those learned travellers - perhaps Chaldean scientists, astronomers (actually, we know very little about them) - came first to Jerusalem, the Royal City, the obvious place to look for the new-born Jewish King. But, instructed by the Scriptures, they were directed further on, to Bethlehem, and it was a strange sort of King they found there: they found a little child there, with Mary, his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. There, at the stable in Bethlehem, they offered their symbolic gifts; gold, acknowledging a king; incense, the symbol of God's presence; and myrrh, the ancient funeral spice, recognizing the mortal human nature of the Son of God, destined to suffer and to die in sacrifice for all mankind.
What was there, after all, about the humble manger scene to suggest the divinity, the kingship, and the sacrificial destiny of the Infant Christ? How was divine glory shown forth there? Surely, it was a glory visible only to the eyes of faith: faith, to see in a helpless infant, who cannot even stutter, the Almighty Word of God; faith, to see the King of Kings, and Lord of all the worlds, in a swaddled baby, who cries for mother's milk; faith, to see the Very Son of God in the poverty of a cattle stall, exposed to all the bitter winds of human indifference and disdain and the arrival of impending danger.
It does seem unwise of the wise men to come to Bethlehem and to seek after a helpless babe born of Jewish artisan parents. But this is their wisdom: a restless wisdom which seeks to find something previously unknown, something that will change their lives and the lives of others for their own good. This is a reminder that faith ever calls us back, to work out our salvation in the common, everyday life of the Christian fellowship, the disciplined routines of Christian worship, prayer and study, and in works of Christian charity. And yet faith also beckons us forward, is a point of departure, and our response to the given-ness of God’s grace is to accept it and to follow our guiding star, wherever it will lead us…
Christian life is not about emotional excitement: it is rather the careful, thoughtful learning of the Word of God, day by day, year by year; the nutriment of the Christian sacraments, and the deeds of love and mercy which flow from Christian charity. In the normal, everyday things of the Church's life - the words of Scripture, prayers and sermons, the outward signs of sacraments - the world sees only human words, only poor and common things: halting human speech, a bit of water, bits of bread and wine, and so on. But faith has eyes to see in all these things the shining forth, the "Epiphany" of the Son of God, the miracle of God with us, Emmanuel. And faith has gifts to offer him; not much, perhaps, in worldly terms, but by his own grace we have that one best gift, acknowledging his divinity, his kingship, and his sacrifice, the gift he treasures most - the gift of adoration, the gift of the humble obedience of mind and heart.
Epiphany is a time to go with the wise men and “to see what things have come to pass”. It is a time to follow our deeper instincts and to go for that which has the power to make us whole. And our response is one which finds us here at worship, in this place and at this time each week we kneel before the God who appeared to the wise men as an infant child and who comes to us now as our life’s true nourishment and with it the experience and the promise of the glory which was and is and is to come.
"Fear not to enter his courts, in the slenderness
Of the poor wealth thou canst reckon as thine,
Truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness,
These are the offerings to lay on his shrine.
O Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
Bow down before him, his glory proclaim;
With gold of obedience and incense of lowliness
Kneel and adore him; the Lord is his Name!"
Sermon for Midnight Mass 2020
24th Dec 2020
Midnight Mass 2020
“May you live in interesting times" is an English expression that is claimed to be a translation of a Chinese curse. While seemingly a blessing, it is normally used to mean the opposite: that life is worse in "uninteresting times", the “boring times” of peace and tranquility than in the "interesting" ones, which are usually times of challenge and upheaval. Christmas 2020 catches these opposites of blessing and peace and of disjunction and troubledness. This unbelievably challenging year and all its stresses now brings us to a place of stillness, a place where we may stop and stay. And the message of God in our interesting time is that God is ever with us and that the gift of Jesus is the one which above all communicates God’s trust in our vulnerable humanity.
"Ho, ho! ho!" As Father Christmas might say. Tonight we inhabit God’s time of joy and hope. Tonight we join Christian congregations from around the world. Amidst all the uncertainty that we have had to live with we, like the shepherds, now wonder at these things which have come to pass, and which now come to life in this Midnight Mass. We welcome tonight’s online congregation from around this country, in Birmingham, Plymouth, Wales and Essex as well as from the United States and Africa. I send you greetings from Tom and Tor in Battersea, who themselves are awaiting the birth of their first child at any moment.. I send you greetings from our own Naomi Akrong in Accra, Ghana, and from Sophie and Austin in Connecticut, USA, as well as those who cannot be here…
It’s really difficult for us all to know in our own lives how precisely things are going to turn out, isn’t it? We may often find ourselves worrying about the future. I remember hearing the one great regret expressed by someone of a hundred years old that they had spent so much of their life worrying over things that were beyond their control. They regretted the great waste of life. In modern life we are called upon to accept more and more uncertainty as a fact of life, but called by God to accept it and to reach out beyond it. To find a way is to discover God.
There is of course real uncertainly in the story of the birth of Jesus. Mary and Joseph are travelling to Bethlehem as displaced persons. There is no certainty that they will find a place to stay for the night; there is no telling how or where Mary’s confinement will take place or under what circumstances, or of how things will turn out in the longer term. King Herod poses a perpetual threat and the Holy Family are living in mortal danger. And yet it is within these dread circumstances that God chooses to reveal himself. The child Jesus is to be born in reduced circumstances - in this way and in no other way. The travails of this and of every age will find in this simple birth the revelation of something that speaks deeply and truthfully of our common existence and destiny. From the carol ‘It Came upon the Midnight Clear’ comes the wish that hope and joy may prevail over suffering and grief:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing!
The Christmas story reminds us that our lives are God given and therefore we need not act as though we had to be in entire control of things. We must resist the desire to ‘have it all our own way’. The generous God is always and everywhere and at all times and in all places and all ways near to us; with us; and never more than tonight.
And so, on this holy night, may we find joy in the sight of the infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling bands and lying in a manger; in the love of Mary and Joseph, in the journeying of the shepherds and the wise men and in the company of the angels. In the giving of the name Emmanuel, which means ‘God-With-Us’. It is through this child Jesus that ‘the woes of sin and strife’ and all that remains tragically unresolved in us and in our world may be healed. For God has chosen an ‘interesting’ way. He has come to us a new-born baby. He has made himself dependent and weak, all too human, in order that His love might manifest itself in our own human vulnerability, too.
In the birth of Christ, the human soul, burdened by the fear of the unknown, may now find joyful utterance as it reaches out to God. For us tonight, and for the millions accompanying us around the world, many in lockdown, we sing together a Christmas song of hope and confidence and joy, a cry of freedom which echoes the first cries of the baby in the manger and the song of the angels. “In this child”, the angels might have said, “We welcome; we accept interesting times”. Our hope is undimmed:
Hail, thou ever blessed morn!
Hail, redemption’s happy dawn!
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.
Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent
13th Dec 2020
Sermon for The Third Sunday in Advent (Year B) Gaudete Sunday
John 1.6-8; 19-28.
He came as a witness to speak for the light. John 1.7
In today’s gospel we again meet John the Baptist. John is for ever 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 tie the sandals’ of the one coming after him. While he baptizes with water, the one he proclaims will baptise with the Holy Spirit. And he knows who this person is, for he (Jesus) is standing right there among the priests and Levites sent to question him; and yet 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 an interrogation about his identity which is answered in the negative. And the emphasis on the negative identity of John alongside his passionate avowal of ‘The One Who is to Come’ serves to make his prophecy more suspenseful and powerful.
John is transformed into the key figure at the beginning of Christ's ministry. Far from the 'being not' of all the things that Jesus is, John is refreshingly certain about what he is and what he has to do. He is like a witness in court giving testimony - in fact the New Standard Revised Version of the Bible uses just this word ‘testimony’ to describe what John does here: 'This is the testimony given by John… I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.' No-one before or since has proclaimed God as John did. And his words beckon us now.
John 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 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. John's task as a witness, is to give expression to this glorious message: and, crucially, he reminds his hearers that the time has come, and this time is now, for the Messiah is ‘even now amongst you’. This note of passionate joy is so apt for us today, as the liturgical colour pink signifies a rejoicing in the midst of the glorious solemnity of the Advent season, and for us a joy in the midst of the strain of pandemic.
From what cause do we as Christians rejoice on this ‘Rejoice’ or ‘Gaudete’ Sunday? The rejoicing lies in the bigger and the smaller picture from which Advent and Christmas is viewed. The smaller one is the one which involves us all in the preparation for what is to come, the remembering to send cards to those we hold dear, the putting up of decorations and the pleasure we always get in transforming our public and domestic places with shimmering light and with the Christmas tree, and in this church each year, the altar turned inside out to make the stable scene at Bethlehem, to which we begin to focus our hearts and minds.
It’s to this Bethlehem scene that we arrive at the bigger picture - in which the birth of the Christ child happens within the great arc of universal time, and it is within the compass and the trajectory of this great holy time, that we are directed to the God who comes to the world at one singular, revealing moment in time. We are reminded in this way that our lives can only truly be seen through the eyes of God. We live in an obvious sense in our own time, even at this time of Coronavirus. But more importantly, Christians believe that our lives are regarded from the point of view of God’s time and of God’s purpose. In this way, all life may be received with thanksgiving as his gift. And his greatest gift is the gift of his Son Jesus Christ, the gift of a child.
It’s in God’s time that this church of the Holy Cross has been moving and growing. I said this at this time last year:
“In the coming year we will be restating our claim to be a church active in the service of our local community as these new opportunities for service open up. John the Baptist calls this morning for an opening up of the pathways that lead to and from God through an active willingness to make his way plain. John’s voice may be seen as one still ‘crying in the spiritual wilderness’ but it is also resonant and life giving. It is the voice in harmony with God’s voice, a voice for our time and for all time and especially for our church at this God given moment in our history”.
In and with God, the intervening time of Coronavirus does not undermine the steady hope we have in God’s promise.
May this same hope be our present and future gaudete; our joy. My friends, watch and wait, as you must do this Advent, but rejoice now because the promise to come is also being made in the active present.
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
6th Dec 2020
Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2020
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places made plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”. Isaiah 40.5
Our three readings this morning all act as one chorus and anticipate the coming of Christ as (literally) ground breaking. Isaiah and then the Gospel writer John envisage an altered spiritual and social landscape. It opens up a channel from which may flow a new and enriched communication of trust between God and his world. It will be one in which an experience of God in human form will shape a whole world consciousness. This is Mark’s ‘Good News’ - not just a single news item but the avowal of the transformation of lives in relation to the One who is to come. God is to be made more real than ever before…He has come to live with us and to be Emmanuel; God-With-Us.
Welcome back to Advent church! We have lived in these past Covid months with our daily routines resting on the explanations, instructions and the promises of politicians and experts, and by and large, we have learnt to do as we are told. Our lives have boiled down to what ‘The Jungle Book’ bear Baloo called ‘the bare necessities of life’ and this ‘bunkering down’ has felt rather weird and unnatural, and we have had to adapt to an altered social terrain. It has not been easy. In fact it has been painful, and the cumulative effect of so much provisional living has been to test us, with many experiencing more stress and strain, which has remained even after the determination to put on a brave face. On top of this many have lost their jobs and have had their livelihoods threatened or ended. Distressed relatives have been unable to visit their loved ones, students have been imprisoned in their campuses and children have led a more confined, constricted existence than would otherwise have been the case. Many have unexpectedly buried their dead.
I met online this week with the Bishop of London and several other clergy, and we were all aware of how the timing of the pandemic has punctuated the time keeping of the Church's calendar. We began the first lock down in mid-Lent, anticipating the suffering Christ and now we are coming out of a second lockdown in early Advent and anticipating the revelation of God’s glory in the coming of Jesus Christ. The promise of Christ’s coming is for all Christians and the singular moment of God’s discourse to a world which is stressed and strained, a world whose life has been threatened. Our time has been measured in retreat and re-emergence, in remembering to go out with a mask and of keeping social distance.
The promised vaccine has come when church’s expectation, realised every year in this Advent Season, if expressed in new life emerging out of the old, of human hope itself being rekindled and of the expectation of a Christmas joy. Christmas has been fought for and won for all of us this year and we will be able to enjoy a Christmas window of greater freedom before we once more lead the careful life to which we have become so accustomed to. The incredibly impressive arrival of the Covid vaccine informs us more than ever more the need to practice patience both with the slow progress of things and the acceptance of further constraint with the waiting for the better times to emerge. In a grave crisis we rely upon unsung and unseen heroes and we give thanks for their commitment to the greater good of us all.
The message of Advent breaks through this year for the glad realisation of hope in all of us. It lies in the sure anticipation of the God who, gives himself to us in his Son Jesus Christ, and if we would open our hearts and souls, would come to us and abide in us. Because of God we have no need to behave as though we had been left entirely to our own devices, even though we are sometimes low. All time is God’s time. The great arc of the Church’s time has come full circle and we return at this time of the year to rekindle our spirits.
We return this morning to that same hope given in the prophecy of Isaiah and made visible I. the tested life of John the Baptist and which promises new horizons and, God willing, the emergence of a world which after pandemic and crisis, may learn from its experiences, may establish new priorities emerging out of them, and may sit more humbly and learn to love more fully our common existence in all its vitality and vulnerability. Christians may come to realise that ‘simple bare necessities of life’ are the bedrock upon which is built the one thing necessary, even God alone, who in the promise of the coming of his Son Jesus Christ, now lights our way into an equally God-promised future.
(On a Theme by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Look how long
the weary world waited,
locked in its lonely cell,
guilty as a prisoner.
As you can imagine,
it sang and whistled in the dark.
It hoped. It paced and puttered about,
tidying its little piles of inconsequence.
It wept from the weight of ennui,
draped like shackles on its wrists.
It raged and wailed against the walls
of its own plight.
But there was nothing
the world could do
to find its own freedom.
The door was shut tight.
It could only be opened
from the outside.
Who could believe the latch
would be turned by a pink flower —
the tiny hand of a new born baby?