Saturday, 10 October 2020

Sermon on John the Baptist - Luke 3:1-16

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
 make straight paths for him.
 Every valley shall be filled in,
 every mountain and hill made low.
 The crooked roads shall become straight,
 the rough ways smooth.
 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, 
“Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Before I start talking about John the Baptist today, I want you to have two images in your head. Imagine a door fixed on a hinge, the whole door swings around that hinge, and imagine you can open it fully one way, and then swing it right round 180 degrees until it's open the other way. John the Baptist is like that hinge for the whole Bible, as you swing it right round from the Old Testament to the New. Or think of a running river with a bridge arching over it, joining the two banks together. John the Baptist is like that bridge.

John the Baptist is an almost unique figure in the Bible in that way, because more than anyone else he connects the world of the Old Testament and Covenant with the people of Israel, and the New Testament and Covenant with the whole world. John appears solely in the New Testament, in the Gospels, but he is an Old Testament prophet, last of a long line going back a thousand years. At the same time John the Baptist, was just a prophet, he was not the Saviour himself, but one who pointed to Christ.     

In the Old Testament God spoke to his people through a long-line of prophets, men and women filled with the Holy Spirit who spoke the truth to their people with God's own insight. These men and women taught, they warned, they begged and they raged, depending on what was needed in different times and places. They were particularly called to speak in defence of the poor, and the vulnerable, the widows and the orphans. They rang out in condemnation of unjust societies that allowed the poor to be exploited, and declared that even the most diligent religious rituals were worthless in the eyes of God unless there was justice and compassion, for the poor and the weak. They warned God's People not to turn away from the God who created the whole Universe and brought their people out of Egypt, warned them not to worship the false gods of the neighbouring peoples, whose worship included the human sacrifice of children, and women being forced to act as prostitutes in the temples. They called God's People to loving and faithful devotion to God and his Law, rather than seeking glory in power and military might.

Now at that time the people of Israel were a small people surrounded by these huge powerful Empires - Egypt, Babylonia, Persia - huge Empires, and they were like this little boat tossing and turning in a great political storm. But the prophets did not just talk about what was happening then, they looked far into the future, and saw at time when God would come in person to his people, and when he would reveal his salvation to all peoples, and begin the process of gathering all peoples in to worship him in peace and brotherhood. In the Old Testament you get snatches of this vision here and there, spread throughout the prophets, and then things go quiet.

The Old Testament ends with the words of the Prophet Malachi, who brings God's words promising that the "Surely the day is coming [...] for those who honour my name, when the Sun of Righteousness will rise will rise with healing in its wings", and very finally "See, I will send the Prophet Elijah to you before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes". And then silence. And for an awfully long time, for 400 years, there were no more prophets who came to the people of God with God's word, there were no more visions of the coming Messiah, God's Saviour.

But then John came.  And once again there was a prophet in Israel, speaking with the power of the Holy Spirit. Always the Holy Spirit had called the Prophets to challenge the people of their time, particularly those holding wealth and power. By John's time that meant the power of the Temple Priesthood, who held great authority in Israel working with the Roman Authorities; and the Pharisees, who were recognised as the experts in Jewish Law in the synagogues and communities. Just like the prophet Amos and others, we see John challenging the people not to trust merely in their blood descent as Jews, but warning them that it is faithfulness to God's message and will that is what makes them a chosen people, Abraham's children. This message is repeated many times in the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the teaching of our Lord Jesus. 

When he is asked about what this means John is equally clear, and echoing the line of Prophets before him, going back a thousand years: those with lots of possessions must make sure others have what they need as well, those in positions of legal and financial authority must not use it to exploit the people beneath them, and those with physical or military power must not take advantage of the weak. John lived out that message through his simple lifestyle, deliberately avoiding the temptations of wealth and power, and living out in the wilderness where he would be free to speak God's truth without having power over anyone.

And John also takes up the other great theme of the Prophets, the coming Messiah. The "one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie." But this is no longer a vision of the distant future, it is now 5 minutes to midnight and the Messiah is coming now! "I baptize you with water, [...] he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit!" In other words some of those same people who John baptised with water would be baptised with the Holy Spirit in their own lifetimes. And so it was.

Apart from the Lord Jesus himself, his life and death, and resurrection, only 2 other people and one event in the New Testament were prophecied in the Old Testament. That was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and the coming of John the Baptist. Because it was his important role to swing open the door, from the Old Testament into the New Testament. Because once he began his teaching the time was almost ready for Jesus Christ to appear. John the Baptist was honest, dedicated and brave. He abandoned all luxury and ordinary life, and physically left behind civilisation to go out into the Wilderness and call the people out to repent. He feared nobody, and he spoke the same to ordinary people, to leaders and authorities like the Pharisees and Priests, and to the King himself, even though speaking honestly to the King cost him his life. But he was not the Messiah.

Prophets were God's messengers, filled with his Holy Spirit, but they were just messengers, delivering God's words, they were never God himself, they could only point people to repent and turn to God. But at last John the Baptist is fulfilling the words of Scripture, "prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for our God [...] and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed". These words are clear, it is God himself who is coming, and it is Jesus Christ who came. He is not just a messenger, or a servant, a man who has been given the words of God, he is God himself, come as a Man among Men.

Now Jesus often sounds like a prophet, he fulfills all the functions that a Prophet fulfills, but he is also a High Priest, who represents us to God the Father, and he is the infinite Sacrifice himself, that covers over and washes away all our sins, and he is the Rabbi, the teacher who guides us in God's own ways. He is all this and more because he is the only Son of the Father, God himself. A prophet is someone who speaks the words God has given him and points to God outside himself, whereas Jesus Christ points to himself. Across the Gospels he forgives sins, and heals, and fulfills the prophecies of the coming of God, all in his own name. John the Baptist knows this, and he knows the difference.

John was a brave man, eventually his brave and honest speech got him arrested, and thrown in prison by King Herod. His preaching and teaching abruptly cut short, John must have been near despair. Was he wrong about his calling from God? Had God abandoned him? And he sends messengers to Jesus, asking him if he is the Messiah? Or has John made a terrible mistake? And Jesus answers them saying, "Go back and tell John what you have seen: The blind can see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor. In other words, Jesus is also fulfilling prophecy, the greater prophecies of the Messiah, and through Jesus Christ the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality in the world wherever he goes.

And once that starts it does not stop. They killed Jesus to prevent the Good News he was spreading, but through his death and resurrection he brought the forgiveness of sins and the start of a glorious new life for all people. They could not stop him. And God's Holy Spirit and Kingdom continue to spread among all those who give their hearts to God in Jesus Christ, and today there are more than 2 billion Christians in the world. After John there were no more prophets like John or all the prophets who came before him, who pointed into the future, to the coming of God's Messiah. Because Jesus came, and that changes everything. Every time we have Communion, and particularly every Easter we say, Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. Since Pentecost, recorded in the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is present with us. 

So we do still look to the future when God will be All-in-All, but we also look to the past when Jesus walked on earth, and we know in the present that God's Holy Spirit is among all of us. The prophets until John glimpsed into the distant future and "saw only like a reflection in a cloudy mirror", but through Jesus walking among us we have seen God "face to face". That is why Jesus said, "among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he". We are the Kingdom of God if we have faith in Jesus Christ, and so welcome the Holy Spirit into our hearts. Then we have the power to be greater than John the Baptist. How is that possible? 

Well, John was a prophet, and that means he called for justice. And Justice is always important, justice is one of the great themes of the Bible, and the cry for justice rightly continues today, here in this country and many countries across the world. But the wisdom of the Gospels is that Justice alone can be brittle and hard. If Justice just means one person demanding something from another, the wrong may be real, and the demand entirely correct and right, but if that is the only focus you can get trapped in a destructive cycle of grievances. You get societies like Northern Ireland or Israel-Palestine where both sides have lists of wrongs going back centuries, and people can never agree on how the wrongs can be righted. If we only call for justice, it will slip through our hands again and again. It is love and forgiveness and sacrifice for one another that creates the space to leave pain behind and heal wounds, and so create a true, living justice which lasts. That is why when the Messiah finally came, he did not come as a stern Judge, but as a loving Servant. 

But how can we love our neighbours, and our enemies, and everyone in-between, sometimes it can feel like that is just piling on a burden we cannot bear. The answer is we cannot do these things through our own power, but because God became Man, we as men and women can join in and draw on God's own infinite love and forgiveness for our neighbour, and our enemy and the whole world. Not through our own strength, but by his power, and that is a depth of love that cannot be exhausted.

Jesus is the Christ, the most Mighty One, and we know this because he made himself the least and most humble, even to death on a cross, but that did not defeat him. Jesus is unique among leaders because everything he taught, he did himself first, and that makes him worth following. John could teach about justice, but he could not bring justice. Jesus Christ taught about God's love, forgiveness and sacrifice, and he lived it, and he showed it. And because he is God, through his own death and resurrection he brings us the power to join in God's love and forgiveness and sacrifice; which is the meaning of God's Kingdom on Earth.    

John at the end of his life sent men to Jesus to ask, "‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" That's a good question, but we know the answer. Yes, Jesus is the Christ, and we know this because he did not just point to the future Kingdom of God, he brings the Kingdom that is spreading to this day, and we can be a part of, because he is the King, now and forever. One we can all rely on.

Amen.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Sermon on Doubting Thomas - John 20:19-29

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.  Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”
But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Hello everyone, it's good to be here with you. I hope you're coping well with another unusual week. The reading we've had today contains one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Jesus passed through death on Good Friday, and now has risen to new life that will continue forever. Across this chapter of John's Gospel, the realisation that Jesus is risen ripples out through the disciples as they come to understand what has happened.

Mary Magdalene was first to the tomb in the garden, early in the morning, followed by Simon Peter and John. Then that evening Jesus appears to the gathered disciples, and shows them the wounds in his hand and side. But Thomas, alone of the twelve disciples, was not there. I can't imagine how Thomas felt when the rest of the disciples caught up with him, and all told him that Jesus is risen. Have you ever gone into a room and everyone was talking about a piece of news you hadn't heard? Have you ever been the last person to learn something? 

A friend recently asked me, "Why did Thomas not believe what his friends told him?". Perhaps in one sense he should have. After all, this was his entire community, everyone he trusted, all telling him they had experienced the same thing, something he wanted more than anything in the world to be true. But still he held back. We don't know exactly why. His famous name, Doubting Thomas, always suggests that he was more cautious than the rest. But I don't know if that is right. After all, he only asked for exactly the same proof the other disciples received.

I wonder if it was the shock of it all, you know. Thomas and the others had already been through a very challenging emotional journey. They had been with Jesus day and night, they believed in him, they followed him, they left everything for him, they saw him not only as a leader and teacher, but as God's promised Messiah, who would transform the world and turn everything on its head. And when Jesus rode into Jerusalem welcomed by a cheering crowd on Palm Sunday, it must have been the most exhilarating, hopeful experience of their lives. But then it all turned into darkness, Jesus was taken and killed, and the dream, the beautiful sparkling dream, collapsed into ash, and fear, and regret. Not just the loss of a friend or leader, but literally overnight, the loss of the whole focus of their lives. To process and accept that, in only a few days, would have been mentally and physically exhausting.

Hardly though, have they processed their tragedy and loss, than their world is turned on its head, yet again. And they are faced with the reality that Christ is indeed risen from death. Mary weeps brokenly by the tomb when she thinks Jesus' body has been taken away. But then she basically walks into Jesus, and knows the truth. We don't know what state the other disciples were in, but they are faced that same day by the physical presence of Jesus. Thomas must have been just as devastated as the rest of them, but there is a difference. He is the first person asked to accept Christ's resurrection without being immediately faced by Christ himself in the flesh. He is the first person we see hearing the news from someone else and needing to respond to it. I think having gone through an incredible emotional journey to accept the fact that Jesus had died, the news of his resurrection was just too much for Thomas. Because to accept that Jesus is risen, would be to change everything for him, emotionally, personally, and spiritually, and to accept the enormous consequences for his life, and for the world.  

Thomas knew what Christ's resurrection meant, that God had indeed turned the world upside down, not just for him, but for everyone; and in a manner far stranger and more profound than they had imagined; not through force and conquest and triumph, but through weakness, and love, and God allowing himself to suffer death as we suffer, and so to take on the grief and sin and suffering of humanity, and then through his Resurrection to give back the Grace and Freedom and Power of God. Because you can always use force to solve a problem, like smashing a bulldozer through a wall, but as it turns out with every politician and King, you just create more problems. But Christ laid down his own life, so that through him we all may live, filled with God's hope and love, and in turn be inspired to lay down our lives for others, in many different ways. For as the disciples knew, this truly transforms the world in a way that lasts.

Thomas knew what it meant if Jesus is risen, and after everything he could not accept it at first, good news though it may be. His words in response are echoed, at one time or another, in every one of us who was not there to see the risen Jesus in the flesh. Who has not ached to "see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side", and so to have the ultimate proof. Thomas asked for what the other disciples had already been given, he is not particularly skeptical or untrusting compared to the rest, but he is the first who has to hear the news of the Resurrection from another fallible human being, and respond to that. But Jesus did not leave him with less assurance. He came and showed them the wounds in his hands and side again, so Thomas knew this was the same Jesus who had hung on the cross, and Thomas responded powerfully with that ringing declaration of faith, "My Lord and My God".

But where does that leave us? We have not been blessed to see the physical Jesus after his resurrection, but Christ and the Apostles knew that billions of people would follow who had not been there in Jerusalem, two thousand years ago. Jesus' words at the end of the reading reflect that awareness. “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” It is one of the moments in the Bible that makes a shiver run down my spine, because it seems in the middle of a conversation to the disciples, Jesus turns and stares right out the page and addresses us directly. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed". That's you and me, and over two billion other Christians around the world today.

This saying of Jesus reminds me of the Beatitudes, where Jesus turns around various things often seen as signs of shame and defeat in the world's eyes. Blessed are the meek, the poor, the persecuted, and more. We are blessed by God, our faith is declared more valuable than the Apostles themselves, if despite not having the advantage of seeing Christ's risen body, we still believe. And knowing God values our faith that much is a wonderful thing. Our position is different to the first Apostles, and our role is different, but no less valuable. Those who saw Christ's risen body were driven by that experience to do incredible things. Thomas travelled along the trade routes of the Middle East to preach about Christ as far as India, where the community of St Thomas Christians named after him still exists. Simon Peter and the other disciples travelled to Rome and Egypt, and beyond, and many were killed for spreading the news of what they had seen and touched, but they founded the Church we are still part of today, along with people in every country in the world. 

We perhaps have the humbler tasks, of living with faith, courage and love in the ordinary lives we have, and though we have not seen, still believing. But we can and do meet Jesus, only in a different way. We cannot put our hands where the nails have been, and touch the scar on his side, but we can really meet with the Risen Jesus in spirit through one another, and through Christians all around the world. St Paul makes clear that it is the whole community of believers who are the Body of Christ on earth. If we are being the Church right, then his words are on our lips, his love is in our hearts, his generosity guides our actions, and he is with us when we meet together. And anyone, can meet with the Risen Jesus, through us, and the testimony of the generations of believers who came before us.  

And fundamentally that is what the Bible is. It is the words of the Apostles testifying that they saw the risen Jesus, and St Paul in his letters that he in turn heard the Good News from those who saw Jesus, and that message has been carried down from generation to generation until it meets us. The Gospels are clear that they are recording exactly who saw the risen Jesus, so we might know where the truth we have comes from. But for me the greatest assurance I have, is not a paper trail leading into the past, though as a historian that is important. No, the greatest assurance comes from reflecting on the wonder of God, who created all things, coming to be born as one of us, to choose to suffer betrayal, abandonment, pain and death, in order to make us all part of God's own Family; and to see the effect that can have on other people. 

"No greater love has a man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends", said Jesus. Well, no greater Love could God have than this, that he should lay down his life, for his children; and consider it no shame, no stain on his holiness, and greatness, and glory; and teach mankind to do the same. Once I grasped this, and have seen how it can change lives and whole civilisations, no other idea of God can match up. The disciples were nobodies before they knew Jesus: fisherman from unimportant villages, tax collectors who everyone hated, and women with no status outside the home. But these men and women changed the world forever, because they met the Risen Jesus. They had been fearful and confused, but they became courageous, tireless, unafraid. The Jewish leaders could not break them, the Roman Empire could not break them.

And down the years, and still today, people are changed by meeting Jesus, though his risen body ascended into Heaven and now sits at the right hand of the Father. Occasionally, this happens in dreams and visions, like St Paul on the road to Damascus, but overwhelmingly it is through the example carried by other Christians, people in whom the words and love of Jesus live.  

This week I opened an email from Barnabas Fund to hear of a 27 year old woman in Nigeria, called Rose, whose husband was murdered by Islamist terrorists, only recently, who found the courage and grace to say about those killers, "My prayer is that [they] will get to know this Jesus I know. I do forgive them and will pray that the Lord saves their souls". She has met Jesus, and she is showing Jesus to others. In Iran, another young woman, 21 years old, Mary Mohammadi, a convert to Christianity, has been convicted by a kangaroo court for peacefully protesting against the oppressive Iranian government. After being beaten and stripped in prison, she says, "I am proud of sympathizing with human beings in the real harsh environment of the streets. This is my conviction and the cost." She has met Jesus, and is showing him to others too.

And there are of course more examples around the world every week. Those two young women stand alongside the Apostles, and like I said, we may have more simple and ordinary tasks to fulfill. But still, I know I was changed by meeting Jesus in the love of other Christians in this country, and I am still being inspired and changed more and more. And I know that's true of many people.

In these difficult times we live in I hope we can ensure more people meet Jesus, through the support we give, and in the patience we show, and the hope we share with each other and the wider community around us. Because the beautiful thing is anyone who wants to can come and meet Jesus, and join the Christian community and share in this great mission, to spread the Kingdom of God's love to everyone, until in the wonderful vision of Revelations that ends the Bible, God has "wiped away every tear from their eyes", and "there will be no more mourning or crying or pain". That may seem daunting, but with people all round the world we've come a long way since that first day in Jerusalem, when Thomas could not quite believe the news. 

And I am certain with God's Grace, one day we shall succeed. 

Amen.

The Critic - A Certain Modesty for Numbers Men

In The Critic magazine again, this time writing about Expertise in Difficult Times.

The response to Brexit and Covid-19 both hinge in different ways on how we relate to experts and expertise.

When do we just have to trust the experts? And when should we use our own judgement?

There's a real difference between questions of hard, material sciences and the social and political responses to policy and leadership: Materials have the decency to follow consistent laws; People can be shaped, inspired and lead, or not.

As the modern world gets more complex more crises will hinge on expertise. We need to get better at realising what questions have black and white scientific answers, and which depend on assumptions, judgements and political leadership.

Article Below.
https://thecritic.co.uk/a-certain-modesty-for-numbers-men/

Saturday, 15 February 2020

The Critic - Towards a Social Neo-Conservatism

I have another article published online with The Critic Magazine, arguing that a Modern Social Neo-Conservatism is a coherent idea, and doesn't mean going back to the 1950s.
Relative political positions (Lib vs Con) change all the time. A modern Social Conservatism should mean policies that encourage and support commitment to families and communities, within the liberal freedoms that exist in law.

I'm hoping to get a number of further articles published exploring what a modern Socially Conservative platform would look like on issues ranging from Immigration, to Architecture, to Family Policy. So watch this space.

The current article is below:
https://thecritic.co.uk/our-ideology-in-the-north/

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Critic - I think, therefore I speak very carefully.

A new conservative magazine, The Critic has kindly published an article of mine attempting to cast, more Light than Heat, on the concepts of sex and gender rapidly being integrated into our society.
In summary, my argument is that we owe Trans people respectful, compassionate and decent treatment that includes access to the medical treatment that will relieve their dysphoria, and ensures society grants them the same respect and opportunities everyone else receives.

But that shouldn't mean people have to accept strong claims about the definition of sex and gender that are both very historically recent, and also ultimately metaphysical in nature. Nor should the law be enforcing them. The whole argument can be found below.
https://thecritic.co.uk/i-think-therefore-i-speak-very-carefully/