Epiphany 4. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley – 29th January 2023

Micah 6: 1-8; 1 Cor 1: 18-31; Matthew 5: 1-12

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…

This section of the first letter to the Corinthians gives us an extraordinary insight into Paul’s courage. He has no hesitation in telling it as he sees it. As we know, once he embraced the Gospel message, he did so wholeheartedly, leaving no room for doubt in the minds of his readers and listeners. He lives out the zeal of one whose mind, and life, has been changed. We often think of Paul as a convert to Christianity – we even mark a day in our calendar for the conversion of Paul, and yet, he wasn’t a convert in the way that we now understand that word. Throughout his writings, Paul continues to describe himself as Jewish – and he certainly hadn’t converted to Christianity because there was no such religion at that time. His conversion, if we want to use that language, was to turn away from his previous activities, the focus of which was to stop the Jesus narrative, to get in the way of people hearing Jesus’ teaching or trusting in the gift of his disciples, to challenge the narrative that he was the long-awaited Messiah.

After his experience on the Damascus Road, Paul took on a new mission – to share the Good News of Jesus Christ. He was convinced, and he then set out to convince others. He became the most significant commentator on the life and teaching of Jesus, a person whose own voice carried authority and changed lives. This morning we hear him telling the people of Corinth that central to his faith is the truth of Christ crucified.

The people of Corinth weren’t the easiest to convince. Corinth was a very rich city, and its people had a reputation for a degree of arrogance, a confidence in their own place within the wider society and the self- assured opinions that can accompany that. I guess they had the kind of self-confidence we often see in in people of privilege within our own communities. And this morning, Paul takes them on.

He takes them on with a very serious challenge – the crucified is the one who we proclaim. The crucified is the one for whom we have been waiting. The crucified is the one who has the capacity to bring real transformation into your lives and into our world.

He is essentially saying to the people of Corinth: you might think that what is most important in the world mirrors the values you hold dear, but I’m here to show you a different way of thinking and seeing. The value you place on status is an artificial construct. People have value whoever they are. Your ideas need to be shaken up – because at the heart of Christ’s message is a deep compassion for the people who are most vulnerable, for the people who find themselves pushed to the edges. Christ’s voice is a voice for the voiceless. Christ’s values are not the values of the society that you have created, they are the values of the God’s Kingdom.

Paul singles out two groups of people who have a particular perspective – Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom. A significant percentage of the population would have been Jewish or Greek, and Paul makes a particular challenge to them. You spend your time looking for signs, seeking greater wisdom – you’re looking in the wrong places. Perhaps it’s time to stop looking and to start listening. Because the light of the world has been revealed, if only you were able to allow yourselves to recognize him.

This is in some ways an uncomfortable passage to read in contemporary Scotland. We know that in our communities naming people in such a distinctive way would be a crime against a protected characteristic. But in this context calling out the Jews and the Greeks may not have the undertone that we could easily read into it. What if Paul is actually using that language in order to appeal to the people – to say I know what is most important to you, and I am still able to say that there is a different way. He understands them – but still wants them to know that the message of the cross is that they could look and live through a different lens.

That different lens gives us the parameters for the fundamentals of our faith. That is the faith, that post crucifixion, post resurrection, post Paul’s writing faith, that Hector is about to be baptized into. In a few minutes Janet will mark Hector’s forehead with the sign of the cross. That anointing is a reminder to all of us of the baptismal promises we make – and the nature of the Messiah whom we follow. That anointing is our reminder that we are called to follow the Christ who was not impressed by human wealth or self-importance.
This is the Messiah who came to turn our values on their head. This is the Messiah who asks us to make ourselves vulnerable and to respond to the vulnerabilities of other people. The Messiah who asks us to be aware of the people who find themselves on the edges of our communities, those who become the voiceless, almost by default.

And those of us who are more privileged have a responsibility. We have a responsibility to speak out. To be a voice for those who are more marginalized; to recognise the gifts given to all of God’s people.

Hector, as you grow in years, so you will grow into yourself – into being the person who God made you to be; the person God longs for you to be. Your parents, grandparents and godparents will have a role in supporting you to be your best self. We honour God most when we allow ourselves to fully be the people whom he calls us to be.

We have no idea what you will be called into in later years, but we do know that you will be called to compassion and care; to concern and generosity. Those are fundamental Christian characteristics.
They may not be protected characteristics, but they are the foundation stones that set us apart as people who have been transformed because we know Christ crucified.

We know Christ crucified every time we hear someone challenge the established ways that benefit only one small section of society; we know Christ crucified when we are the recipients of random acts of kindness; we know Christ crucified when we experience the unconditional love of the people around us, a love that is but a reflection of God’s love for us.

Hector, you already know what it is to be loved. You know what it is to be unconditionally cared for. As you journey through life, that knowledge will grow and will help to form the person you are becoming. My prayer for you is that as you grow into the person you will be, your compassion, care and love for others will grow and will be known by all who meet you.

Don’t be afraid to proclaim Christ crucified – it is through him and with him that we truly find ourselves.

 

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway at Palmerston Place Parish Church – Sunday 22nd January

Ezekiel 34.1-10; John 10.11-18

Jesus said: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’

It’s good to be with you, in this Week of prayer for Christian Unity. To practise something of that unity, that coming together, as we together pray for our world, and try and respond to the needs of our city and our time.

We just heard a reading from St John’s Gospel chapter 10. Palmerston Place – you are currently embarked on Sunday mornings in looking at the great ‘I am’ sayings of John’s Gospel – the series of claims, or better, disclosures, that Jesus makes about himself, his identity; a series of sayings that help structure John’s Gospel, and bring into focus who Jesus is. John chapter 10 includes 2 of the I am sayings – last week you were thinking about Jesus’ statement: ‘I am the gate for the sheep’ at the beginning of John 10. That section ends with what perhaps can be thought of as the summary of the whole of John’s Gospel, as Jesus says, ‘I came that they (my sheep) may have life, and have it abundantly.’

And this week, we take up Jesus’ rumination on the sheep, what keeps them safe, and provides life, and the role of the shepherd in that. ‘I am not just the gate through which the sheep pass into pasture, but I am the good shepherd’ declares Jesus.

I’m not sure if this was your intention, but I admire a Presbyterian church inviting its Episcopalian neighbour to offer some thoughts on Jesus as the good shepherd. The image of shepherd is, after all, the main metaphor upon which the understanding and practice of bishops is based. It’s not for nothing that bishops usually arrive carrying a crook. And of course, historically, the presence and practice of bishops has been one of the great matters of dispute between us. Even if, fortunately, those arguments no longer carry the weight and bitterness they once did, I shall resist the temptation, in this week when we pray for unity, to explore that particular avenue!

But I want to resist that temptation, above all, because I think the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and what that suggests about leadership and community that is rooted in him, is of very wide importance to us all. I would not want to miss that significance by narrowing this down to a sermon about bishops.

We should admit, first of all, that most of us are somewhat distanced from the agrarian imagery that Jesus draws on throughout this chapter. Not many of us are particularly familiar with sheep and shepherds in our day to day life, here in the West End of Edinburgh. Such imagery would have been more familiar to Jesus’ contemporaries and hearers, both in their daily life, which would have been much closer to the land and its produce, but also because Jesus is drawing on well-known images from the bible, that themselves have emerged from among an agrarian people, for whom the skills involved in tending and guarding sheep would have been much more familiar. So when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd, they would have instinctively known something of what that meant. The Good Shepherd is the one who protects, guides and cares for sheep he knows intimately; he is the source of authority too, the one in whom the sheep trust, and so feel safe.

As I say, that’s an image with a long biblical history. We might think of Psalm 23 above all – that beloved psalm no doubt just as beloved in Jesus’ day. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. He revives my soul. Here is a basic, central, image for imagining God and how God is toward us – God who provides every want that we genuinely need, who leads us in good paths and revives the soul, seeks out the good pasture and is our support and comfort in troubling times and the shadow of death. So when Jesus says I am the Good Shepherd he is explicitly linking himself with that understanding and image of God.

And that claim to divinity is made even more explicit by the use of the I am form. You will already, no doubt, have explored the fact that the most holy name for God, heard by Moses in the Burning Bush, is “I am who I am”. That elusive name, I am, is given content by the sayings of Jesus that punctuate John’s Gospel – I am the light, the way, the truth and the life, the bread of heaven, I am the gate; and now I am the Good Shepherd.

The Good Shepherd is not only in scripture an image of God, however. It also is used by the prophets to critique those who have failed to tend the flock as they ought, those leaders who have failed in their duty to nourish and sustain the people – whose leadership is in stark contrast to that paradigm of the Good Shepherd. We heard a classic example of that critique from the prophet Ezekiel:

‘The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds.’

So when Jesus proclaims himself to be the Good Shepherd, he is making a claim about the leadership he embodies, and that distinguishes it from how power and leadership is often exercised. The image of the Good Shepherd, drawing on its deep roots and connections to the agrarian lifestyle of many, became a vital image in the early church – an image of how Jesus continues to exercise power and leadership. The earliest pictorial representations of Jesus that we have – in fourth century mosaics – are of Christ as the shepherd with the lamb slung across his shoulders, the lamb who has strayed but is now brought home rejoicing. From the Old Testament through the New and into the early history of the church, the Good Shepherd is a central image for knowing who God, and then Jesus, is, and therefore what the church is all about, what  we are called to live out.

There are two key elements to what Jesus says about the himself as the Good Shepherd that need to be brought out however. The first is that he pushes the image further than most would usually take it. ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.’ Moat of his hearers, and the readers of John’s Gospel, would have known that that is not usually true. The shepherd would guard the sheep, keep them safe, be alert to danger, and seek out good pasture. But not many shepherds would think it was part of the role to give up their own life if that was called for. There is a going further, an excess, in Jesus’ self-understanding – a going further that is linked to the abundance we identified as central to Jesus.

And the second element to notice is that Jesus is the good shepherd because of the mutual knowledge and indwelling of the Father and the Son: ‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ The mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son is seen in the relationship of the shepherd to the sheep – we are known, and loved, to the very core of who we are. And that love enables us into offering who we are for the abundant life of our world, just as the love of the Father enables the Son to be that Good Shepherd in ways that go beyond the norm.

So what does all this mean for us? Well first of all that the image and understanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd should continue to question and nourish our understanding and practise of leadership. Are those with power and authority more like the hired hand; seeking high office simply for personal gain and egotistical ambition, in it for themselves? Or are they able to articulate, and more importantly display, a sense of calling, so that leadership is offered in the public service, from a motive of wanting to make a genuine contribution to the common good, a glimpse of that abundant life which is at the heart of John’s Gospel. That’s not just a stick to beat our politicians with, however; it’s a question about what has happened to the language of vocation more generally. In our somewhat cynical age it’s a word that seems to have almost disappeared from general use; or at least become shrunk so that it only refers to those who are interested in exploring a vocation to the ministry. But if the insight of John’s Gospel is right – that Jesus is the Good Shepherd because of the mutual knowledge of the Father and the Son, because of that love that flows between them, and into which we are invited to be drawn – so we discover who we are, what we might be, by abiding in that love. And we begin to find the strength to participate too in that excess, that abundance, which Jesus also displays: the language of vocation is about a life of service, of losing oneself to find oneself, of the possibility that every life might find meaning in service of others; that to be ourselves is only possible when that connects us with others.

And the challenge for our two churches is to go deeper into that mutual knowing, within the love of God, so that each of us is enabled to be more fully ourselves. For our unity is not found in becoming the same, but in that deepening mutual knowledge and love, that enables each to be themselves.

‘I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.’ To proclaim Jesus as the Good Shepherd is to be drawn into that love, and know it for ourselves, for the abundant life of our world. Amen.

 

Epiphany 2. 15th January 2023. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley

Isaiah 49: 1-7; 1 Corinthians 1: 1-9; John 1: 29-42

This morning’s Gospel reading includes a fascinating and perhaps unexpected exchange between Jesus and the two disciples of John. Jesus asks them: What are you looking for? And rather than giving a straight answer, they respond with a question: Where are you staying? And the response to that is: Come and see.

What are you looking for? – these are the first words that John records Jesus as saying. We’re at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and his starting place is to reach out to the people he meets and to ask them to set the agenda. He’s asking them to offer some definition and clarity about what is most important to them; about what they think would make a difference in their lives. It’s worth noting that the model is one of responding to their statement of need or desire rather than setting out a programme of plans and assuming that people will fall in with it. This response turns on its head the usual experience of engaging with charismatic leaders where they are often quick to say what they have to offer, perhaps even to tell people what they need. It’s a model that empowers people to take responsibility, to make their own decisions about a hierarchy of importance. It’s a model that we might aspire to in all areas of our lives.

Let’s think for a moment about how we might respond if Jesus were to ask us: what are you looking for? I wonder where your mind is taking you. Are you thinking about what you are looking for when you come to church? What you are looking for when you receive Communion? What you are looking for when you read the bible? What you are looking for when you pray? Maybe you’re drawn to thinking about what you are looking for when you listen to music or read poetry; when you go for a walk or spend time in the garden. What are you looking for?

The quick and easy response is probably: answers. Answers to existential questions; answers to the trickiest problems in our world; answers to the Why questions that niggle away when we least anticipate them. A lot of the time we are looking for certainty – and that’s the one thing that isn’t on offer within our lives of faith. However deep or strong our faith, we eventually reach a place where we have to choose to live our lives as though it were true, knowing that the absolute truth will only be revealed in the next life.

Answering any ‘big’ question is a bit like contemplating an essay question. The answer is actually dependent on your understanding of the question. What are you looking for could elicit the simplest of answers – or the most complex. Maybe we answer differently at different times in our lives.

In response to Jesus’ question, John’s disciples ask their own question. At first sight it seems like a simple request for information, but I think that they are actually asking something very different. Where are you staying? It seems to me that they are wanting to find a way to spend time with Jesus, to go deeper in their interactions with him; to learn from him, perhaps to learn more about him. And he is open to their question – come and see. They may not be directly asking to spend more time with him, but that seems to be the likely outcome of the interaction.

I want to think for a moment about how we tell Jesus what we are looking for and how we ask for time with him. One way is in prayer – our intercessory prayers; our petitions; our pleas for help and support. Often at those times we are looking for something very specific.  So we turn our attention both inward and outward. We may have a very specific request – for healing; for comfort; for peace of mind. Or we may have something more general in mind – stability in the world; praying for refugees or homeless people. Praying for a particular situation in the world. So often, when we pray in these ways, we are actually looking for answers, perhaps even for solutions.

When we shift into a solution focussed mode, we are actually looking for God to fix things – we name them in prayer and then we want to hand over responsibility. It’s a model that’s akin to the idea of the charismatic leader who has all of the answers and will direct us in what we ought to be doing. But that’s not the model that we’ve observed this morning. From those very first words, Jesus was asking not telling. He was inviting people to journey alongside him, to learn about his ways and his powers, to observe and to experience.  This isn’t about handing over our concerns or our desires and waiting for some magic to happen. This is about getting alongside, perhaps even taking shared responsibility for the possibility of change.

Another way that we might find to take time with Jesus is when we find ourselves immersed in something that is outside ourselves. That could be music or art; it might be while we’re walking or swimming; maybe it’s in those moments between one task and another when we just stop to pause and be. I guess those are all times when we get beyond our ego and allow ourselves to be ourselves. At those moments, we are probably nearest to being the people God longs for us to be. At those moments we are engaged not with our heads but with our hearts and our souls. And it’s from that place deep within that we really respond to Jesus; it’s from that place that we are really able to hear and understand that question: what are you looking for?

What are you looking for? The question, as we explore, seems to be much less about what would you like to have fixed, and more akin to: What is your deepest desire? What is going to facilitate transformation within you? And that is actually where the story, or at least this chapter of the story ends. Jesus fixed his gaze on Simon and said to him: you are to be called Kephas.
Jesus picks out Simon Peter and names his significant role in the unfolding of what will become the Christian story. With that change of name, comes a change in Simon Peter’s place within the narrative. With that change of name comes his transformation which, in turn, encourages transformation within others.

We may not be given new names, but we may be given new tasks and challenges. We may be given new roles and responsibilities. We may be given new opportunities to respond to Jesus, to come and see.

And having seen, we then are invited to take on our part in the responsibility for sharing the message of hope that is at the heart of all we believe and all that we are.

Epiphany 1 (8th January 2023) – Janet Spence, Chaplain

Today’s gospel opens with what we might call a disagreement between Jesus and John the Baptist. John has been baptising many people. His message has been a call to turn around your life, and be baptised, because the kingdom of heaven is near. Jesus comes from Galilee and today’s gospel tells us that John is reluctant to baptise him. And we could say, with good reason!

As I pondered today’s gospel this disagreement niggled at me. My niggle seemed to have two different aspects:

What was John the Baptist’s baptism offering that drew so many crowds? What was he preaching? And how did that fit in with Jewish practices and teaching of the time?

And secondly, what was Jesus drawn to in John’s baptism? What was his intention in going to be baptised by John? What was he hoping for? And what on earth happened when he was baptised?!

From well before the 1st Century of the Common Era and indeed up to the present, a significant Jewish practice is that of ritual immersion in order to be cleansed of ‘ritual impurity’. Such impurity is simply a consequence of living embodied physical lives and is not in any way shameful, nor does it impede daily life.

Nevertheless, in Jewish law it is necessary to be ritually purified before any interaction with the sacred, and so the practice of ritual immersion provides the necessary purification.

But John’s teaching around baptism was concerned with moral impurity which is something quite different, requiring a different response – a response of repentance and then atonement. Moral impurity results from what are considered to be immoral acts, many of them stipulated in Jewish books of the law.

This is why John does not welcome the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism. They are not interested in inner change not recognising themselves as morally impure. But John insists that ancestry is not sufficient; they (as with all people) must first repent – turn to God – in order to receive forgiveness. Moral impurity required a change of heart, and the baptism John offered was an outward public sign of this inner change.

There was also an eschatological dimension to John’s teaching; the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven was imminent, heralding God’s judgement in which , in v.12, ‘the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire’.

And so, the crowds came, and John baptised many.

Until Jesus also arrived, seeking baptism.

Why? What was Jesus seeking? Did Jesus need to ‘Repent’? Did Jesus need to be morally cleansed? Did Jesus need to prepare for judgement day? John clearly didn’t think so, and, in Matthew’s gospel, tries to prevent him, arguing that he, John, needed to be baptised by Jesus rather than the other way round.

How does this ‘conflict situation’ become resolved? Jesus does not get drawn into the argument with John about their relative positions hierarchically or before God. Instead through Jesus’ reply ‘Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness’ – John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus, and his argument are dispersed.

Jesus doesn’t really argue against John, but acknowledges John’s position, reassuring him, this is ok for now. Until this point the focus of John’s teaching has been sin, repentance, and judgement. Jesus turns this around, yes, shining a light on these issues, but reframing so that the focus is ‘righteousness’. So, what does he mean by this?

Righteousness in Scripture is commonly about being in right relation with God (and indeed with one another). It seems significant that Jesus’ baptism is an act that fulfills righteousness in a very public way extending beyond Jesus’ relationship with God, and embracing all people.

How? Well, through his baptism Jesus enters into the waters of the River Jordan with the people … in other words, with us. He literally steps into the river of life with us.

Jesus is a physical incarnate being … with us. Jesus enters into the sorrow of repentance, AND into the joy of new life … with us.

And then, the absolute surprise (perhaps a surprise to Jesus as well as to all the others who were witnesses, we don’t know) is what happens next.

‘Suddenly the heavens were opened to Jesus and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

In this extraordinary event:

God’s voice is heard; and

the dove, the symbol of peace, of new life, of the Holy Spirit, descends.

This event happens in Matthew’s gospel before Jesus’ public ministry has begun. This is Jesus’ first appearance after the birth and flight to Egypt narratives. And what is proclaimed?

He is God’s son (he belongs).

He is beloved (he is precious and desirable). And

God is well pleased in him (he is delightful to God).

What has Jesus achieved at this point that might have earned God’s pronouncement?

Jesus has been born – well … that’s a good start!

Mary and Joseph, with Jesus, have fled Herod, and have lived as refugees in Egypt.

They then returned to Nazareth, and now at this point Jesus seeks out John the Baptist.

His public ministry has not yet begun.

We could say, if we wanted to be provocative, that he’s just been hanging about, not doing anything worthy of mention so far because … well … Matthew doesn’t bother to mention it.

And yet… and yet … what does God say? ‘I am very pleased with him’, ‘I delight in him’, ‘Look at him – he is the apple of my eye’.

Don’t we all long for such a pronouncement to be made about us? To know that about ourselves? And even if we are told it by those who love us, are we really able to believe it?

I think that this struggle to believe that God might call us ‘beloved child’; might say of us ‘with you I am well pleased’ is the meaning of sin. That sin is…

Our inability to truly believe we have a place as a child of God.

Our struggle to really believe ourselves precious to God.

The challenge to believe that God delights in us.

Sin – our inability to accept this truth – is what makes right relationship, or righteousness, with God so difficult; and thereby what makes right relationship with others difficult.

Yet our Scriptures tell us repeatedly, that God gazes at every one of us, as though nothing else was as important, and whispers to each of us ‘You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.’

And what can happen when we begin to believe this? Then we are nurturing right relationship with God.

When we begin to believe this, then we are nurturing right relationship with one another (because we suddenly are able unequivocally to recognise that others too are beloved children of God, and to delight with God in that).

When we begin to believe this, then we come a little closer to being the child of God that the Holy Spirit calls us to be in all parts of our lives – with ourselves, with God, with one another, and with all creation.

Let us celebrate that, and maybe today hear God’s voice – for you are a beloved child of God, in whom God is well pleased.

Amen

 

 

Christmas 1 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st January

Hebrews 2.10-18; Matthew 2.13-23

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Today we move from the joyful acclamation of Christmas Day, toward something much darker – a portent perhaps of the life that this Christ child will be called into. A life lived in the midst of dark forces, the abuse of power, and fear. But rather than try and rationalise the irrational, smooth over the tragedy of infant genocide that today’s Gospel describes; instead of trying to make sense of unimaginable loss, I want to offer you a reflection I wrote many years ago – when I was curate here in this Cathedral, on a similar Sunday after Christmas; a small attempt to imagine things from the perspective of Rachel, weeping for her children, and to gesture at what Matthew is doing in placing this heartbreaking narrative right in the middle of the nativity.

And Rachel said:
They came in the night. Preceded by cries of anguish from next door, and from further away, it was still impossible to escape – or hide him, hide my child, my son. They’d done their homework – spies had done their job – they knew the score, where everything and everybody was, knew I’d got a boy, a baby – my son. And they were everywhere – there was no running, no fleeing. Of course I hid him – behind the stone jars in the kitchen – hurriedly wrapped in swaddling clothes, to keep him warm. But it was no use – he cried. In his innocence, in his need, he cried. The soldiers froze, stopped their searching. He cried, and the game was up, the quarry found. I was there first of course, wrapping myself around him, holding him close, pleading with the soldiers – what had he done, what had he done?

“Sorry miss,  but it’s orders, from Herod.” That’s all they would say at first – as if that explained everything – orders, orders from King Herod. But my son, my son? How can a defenceless, vulnerable child threaten a King? “Danger to security, miss. We’ve had reports, rumours of a usurper – potential rival claim to the throne. Doesn’t do, miss – upsets everything in the long run – leads to anarchy, no order, no stability. Before you know it he’s raised an army of disaffected people and he’s storming Jerusalem, setting himself up as a rival, and then you’ve got civil war. We’ve seen it all before. Better by far to nip it in the bud. It’s orders miss – King Herod, he knows best. We are sorry it’s your boy, truly, but take our word for it, there is no alternative.”

I wasn’t budging, but what could I do against armed soldiers? And so cursing them, incoherent with rage and grief, I was dragged out into the night and darkness enveloped me. Dragged out to join a chorus of lamentation. And my son became no more. And I shall never forget him.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

I have joined the ranks of grieving mothers, a victim of history written by others, by kings, and emperors. We don’t get to make history, to say what should happen, to demand life, life in all its fullness, for our children. We just suffer at the hands of others, at the hands of their preoccupation with power, and status, and wealth. “It’s orders, miss, orders from above.” And my son is no more. It’s a long, bloody, roll call – this history of the powerful, and the power hungry.

“We’ve had reports, rumours of a usurper.” Well, I heard them too – tales that buzzed round the town about strange foreign magi, astrologers of some sort, coming here to acclaim God’s messiah, to greet the expected one. And some of the other women, well they’re already saying it’s like when Moses was born – Pharaoh slaughtering children to keep his power, to put a stop to the one who will end oppression and injustice, free the people. That’s what some of them reckon, but I don’t know, is that simply clutching after straws in our grief? I don’t want to be some bit part in God’s eternal plan to save the world. The weak and helpless are always shoved to one side in the machinations of the powerful. After all, Moses only freed the people after the first born of the Egyptians were themselves killed. Why can’t God listen to our cry, the cry of the grief-stricken? I’ve got more in common with those Egyptian mothers, than with those who believe it can all turn out right, that God’s on our side, that Herod, and the Romans and all the others will get their just deserts at the hands of God, or his Messiah. Because my son is dead, and nothing is going to bring him back, and I have had enough of killing.

You see, there’s some who reckon God’s in charge – that this history of the powerful will finally be overthrown by the Most Powerful, the omnipotent God or his Messiah. But when you see history like I do, from the underside, with your dead child in your arms, that story rings a little hollow. As I said, I feel for those Egyptian mothers, cradling their murdered sons. Call it the work of God if you like, but count me out, because if that’s God, he looks a lot like Herod.

I hope he got away, the one the magi came to see. I heard his dad knew someone in Egypt and they left before the soldiers arrived. I hope they did – some of us weren’t that lucky – but maybe he got away. And maybe he will come back to lead us to freedom, into God’s promised land. It’s just that I don’t know what that means anymore. Leastwise I only know that it doesn’t usually include the likes of me, those who endure history rather than write it, the forgotten and the unloved. It’s not that I’ve got nothing to say, it’s just that the fighters for freedom I know are more interested in the power of fist and weapon than in the power of tears, the solidarity of grief, and the yearning heart. From the bottom of my heart, I cry “no more”. I have no desire for revenge. I long simply for the killing and the waste and the brutality to stop. That is my son’s gift to me: an unquenchable longing for peace. If the Messiah knew that longing, if he proclaimed and brought in that peace, then I would follow him to the ends of the earth. But how could that be? Such a one would stand silent before those who wield power. Could such a one free us? Not while God remains in charge, enthroned on high. Perhaps if God, like a grieving mother, knew the anguish of holding a dying son in her arms, then maybe the rich and the powerful would not have the final word. For if God endures such grief, then maybe God knows that what is finally important is that my son cannot, will not, must not be lost forever, but be held by God, in God. If God knows the depths of separation and grief then maybe God knows that it is this that must be redeemed.

At times, in silence, I glimpse another way, I know something of the God beyond power and status, who holds all time and all things in being, not just the Herods of this world. In silence I receive the gift left to me by my dead son: that longing for peace. In silence before a now vulnerable God I find the strength, from the wellspring of grief, not revenge, to better accuse those who have murdered my son, and demand God’s peace for all. But the way is hard and lonely; I need companions for the journey. It is all so elusive; the only concrete fact the body of my son, who is no more.

They came in the night … And my grief feels bottomless and inconsolable. Oh God, hear my cry.

Christmas Day – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway

Isaiah 9.2-7; Luke 2.1-20

A Happy Christmas to you all!

A few years ago, when I was at my previous church, I had a phone call from someone asking to meet up with me for a conversation and advice. It transpired that they were a counsellor in Glasgow, and had recently begun meeting with a number of refugees housed in the city – helping to talk through with them various traumatic incidents that they had experienced in the homelands from which they fled. The counsellor had quickly discovered that she was somewhat out of her depth – not because of the subject matter being gently explored, but because, as she told me, those she was counselling all talked about God, and looked to God and prayer as a response to their trauma. Her counselling training had left her somewhat unprepared for that – in fact she had been explicitly told to leave God out of any counselling encounter. But now God was being evoked and brought central – their need of God is all they want to talk about, she told me, God is central to their understanding and response to the world – and so she arrived in my study to try and make sense of that for herself. She was discovering, through the eyes of refugees, the gift that God brings.

Today we celebrate that God comes into our midst, as gift in our brokenness, as healing for our hurts.

We’re very good at giving gifts at this time of year. It is after all, we tell ourselves, ‘more blessed to give than to receive.’ But I wonder if it’s harder to receive a gift sometimes – that takes a certain humility, or at least a sense of what we might need. And we don’t always have that humility or know our need, to recognise the gift that comes at Christmas.

Hanging on our very fine Christmas tree at the back of the Cathedral is a small bookmark-shaped Christmas decoration. It has a series of coloured bands running across it, largely deep blue at the top, and then becoming, by and large, progressively lighter as your eye travels down, before the bands begin to turn orange and then deeper red. Each stripe is a graphic representation, by a climatologist from the University of Reading, of the average global temperature for each of the last 150 years, compared to the average global temperature of the period as whole. The shades of blue indicate cooler than average years, while the red indicates those years that were hotter than the average. The deep red stripes at the bottom – the most recent years – show in stark terms the rapid heating, and commensurate climate chaos, that is happening to our planet, our home.

Our need, beyond the more obvious needs that press in on us, our need is for a gift that regenerates our relationship with and on the earth. That should be clear, but do we yet recognise it? And the other needs of our fractious, divided, anxious age, they too cry out for a gift that heals. And yet what gift comes this day? A baby born to fraught and pushed around parents, soon to be refugees themselves. A baby born to a young Mary and a bewildered Joseph. A baby who will grow up and, in course of time, break bread to share as himself, so that this day, he might be given into our hands as his body and blood. What is this gift?

In the opening 2 chapters of Luke’s Gospel, some of which we heard this morning, an angel, or angels, appear 3 times. First to a disbelieving Zechariah, to tell him of the coming birth of John the Baptist; then to a surprised Mary, to announce the birth of Jesus and seek her consent; and finally, as we heard, to the astonished shepherds in the hills above Bethlehem. And there is one phrase common to each of these 3 angelic appearances: each time, they first declare – ‘Do not be afraid’. We maybe think that such an address is in response to the understandable trepidation of those suddenly encountering an angel. But I think there is something more than a command to calm down being offered here. The first gift, given by the angels, is the gift of courage – do not be afraid. For the opposite of faith is not doubt, as if faith were certainty. Rather the opposite of faith is fear. Jesus himself will go on to declare again and again in his encounters – ‘Do not be afraid.’ For the opposite of faith is fear, and how much of our politics and discourse stems from fear.

Courage is the gift that many new parents discover as they begin to learn to respond to this new life given them. It is the gift we discover we didn’t know we had when confronted by many a new challenge. In our need, courage is the gift that enables us to grasp the opportunities and possibilities that love opens up for us. But joy and wonder are given too in the gift of this child. Joy and wonder lead us to expect those opportunities and possibilities that courage might seize. And love is what moves hands and hearts to respond, to wrap in swaddling clothes, to feed, to nurture, to embrace.

Courage, joy, wonder, love – these are the gifts given this day, in a child born, in bread and wine shared. They are gifts we need more than ever, if we are to negotiate the challenges ahead, of climate change and our divided society. Mary and Joseph, like new parents down the ages, discover that joy, wonder, courage and love – and their unexpected depths – in the gift of this child today. The shepherds are invited to share in that joy and wonder, that invitation into courage, and so return to their fields in love. And likewise we too are invited into joy, wonder, courage and love, if we are humble enough not simply to give, but to receive, today, and always. Amen.

Advent 4 – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 18th December

Isaiah 7.10-15; Matthew 1.18-25

During this new church year, we will be reading, on Sunday mornings, through the Gospel of Matthew. Today we heard Matthew’s sparse telling of the birth of Christ – no annunciation, or shepherds, or choirs of angels for him. Before we return to that story, a quote from an introduction to Matthew’s Gospel that A.N. Wilson wrote about 20 years ago for the Pocket Canons edition. It’s a lengthy quote – but worth it, I hope you will agree. A. N. Wilson writes:

You are holding in your hands a tiny book which has changed more human lives than The Communist Manifesto or Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: a book which has shaped whole civilizations: a book which, for many people, has been not a gospel but The Gospel.

And you are bound to ask, because you are born out of time in a post-Christian age, into a world of newspapers and investigative reporting and science – ‘Is it true?’

Did a Virgin really conceive and give birth to a boy-child in Bethlehem? Did wise men, guided by a star, come to worship him? Did he grow up to be able to walk on water, to perform miracles, to found the Church, to rise from the dead?

Stop, stop. Don’t ask. They are all questions which seem reasonable enough, but they will lead you into the most pointless, arid negativism. Your educated, scientific, modem mind will decide that no one ever walked on water; no Virgin ever conceived; that corpses do not come to life. And by rejecting this Gospel, you will reject one of the most disturbing and extraordinary books ever written; not, as you might think, on intelligent grounds, but because you (and I, alas) are too hemmed in by our imaginative limitations to see the sort of things this book is doing.

Before you apply to it the supposedly rational tests which you would apply to a newspaper report or a television documentary, imagine the chapters which describe the trial and Crucifixion of Christ set to music in Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Consider the millions of people who, for the last 1900 years have recited the prayer which begins ‘Our Father’. Think of the old women in Stalin’s Russia, when the men were too cowardly to profess their loyalty to the Church, who stubbornly continued to chant the opening verses of the Sermon on the Mount in defiance of the KGB. ‘Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted.’

This is a book, not of easily-dismissed fairy tales but of power and passion; more arresting, disturbing and truthful than most reading-matter which you could buy for the price of a magazine on a station bookstall or in the paperback store. This is the Gospel of Christ, in all its terribleness, its wonder, its awe-inspiring truth and its self-contradictions.

A. N. Wilson is on to something very important, in his normal trenchant style. To return to this morning’s gospel reading, it is undoubtedly the case that it is the ‘mechanics’ of the birth described there that trouble many people. I have had countless conversations about stumbling over the line ‘born of the Virgin Mary’ from the Nicene Creed that we will shortly say. Why that line in particular causes people difficulties, I’m never sure – there is plenty else, it would seem to me, that should give us at least pause for thought – and maybe that is at least part of the point of the creed. But undoubtedly that is a bit that causes many difficulties. It points toward the ‘supernatural’ events that surround the birth – the angel visiting and speaking to Mary; it seems to make claims about the suspension of the normal laws of nature – laws that science has to greater and greater extent revealed to us. That’s not how God acts, we protest, to suspend the laws of nature. Or at least we don’t see any evidence of it elsewhere, where such intervention might be very welcome. And perhaps above all, in the role of the Holy Spirit, and the exaltation of Mary’s virginity, Jesus’ humanity is thrown into doubt. The Virgin birth  makes him fundamentally different to us, whereas the heart of the Christmas message is that Jesus is one of us, one with us.

Now these are questions that in many ways I share, and I never want to disparage honest questioning. But, following A N Wilson, I worry that our imaginative limitations are blinding us to something vital and important. To truths that are bigger, and more vital, and life-giving, than those revealed by science and the narrowing of our conception of truth to facts.

Matthew is telling his story of Jesus’ birth in a context where Jesus’ humanity is not in doubt; rather it is the claims about his divinity that Matthew is advancing. Luke and Matthew, in presenting Nativity stories, are wanting to say, from the outset, that there is something about this human life which discloses, enacts, God’s purposes in the world. Here is someone in whom God was and is encountered. The birth stories make that claim in dramatic fashion – set the template for what is to come. The gospel writers are in no doubt that Jesus was a human being: they are witnesses, or at least know first-hand witnesses to that humanity. What they are wanting to assert is the divinity that was and is met in and through him, and that makes claims upon us.

From the beginning of its proclamation of the Good News of Christ, Christianity seeks to witness to both the humanity and divinity of Christ. So the birth is, of course, a biological event in history. Christmas is about a baby born, the Word become flesh. The virgin birth is a way of speaking about a dazzling, extraordinary yet biological happening that has overturned the world.

But the biological event described in Matthew and Luke does not stand as a bald medical claim. That is not the question that the gospel writers are interested in. In putting together his account, Matthew draws on the story from Isaiah that we heard as our first reading. A child is given to King Ahaz as a notice that the present world should neither be feared, nor overly trusted, for the known world is not permanent. By the time this child is eating curds and honey, and is learning good from evil, Isaiah tells the king, the landscape of the world will have completely changed. It is not to be treasured or relied upon.

For Matthew, the birth of Jesus is another such moment; this is a birth that will change everything for ever. And the season of Advent is about entering into that challenge thrown down to King Ahaz – standing under the judgement of God to imagine what in the landscape of this world will change in two years because God is God. What threats that we imagine to be overwhelming will dissipate? What evil that we think permanent will be overcome? What chances for responding to God’s call and love and justice will be taken — or missed? The whole passage is a prophetic reminder to King Ahaz and to us that the present world is not locked into predictable patterns, of either safety or continuing fragmentation. Faith is about the belief that the world is open, the future not determined and fixed; the world is open and on the move, precisely because God is God. The Virgin birth is not presented to be simply a source of fascination but a sign of that ability of God to be God and build a different future. For as the name of the child – Immanuel, God with us – anticipates, the earth has become the place of God’s presence.

Faith in God who creates a new future for us and with us, is what Matthew proclaims in his nativity story. The question it poses for us on the brink of Christmas is not whether we believe in the biological impossibility of it, but whether we stand with Mary in sensing God’s purposes and responding, ‘Here I am, let it be with me according to your word.’ Or whether we stand with Joseph in heeding the surprising voice of an angel and graciously enabling God’s new thing to come to pass. The birth we celebrate at Christmas is not simply an event that happened, for us to believe in or not. It is an event with a future. It is a sign of God’s ability to open new ways and establish fresh vocations in us. To express faith in the virgin birth is about living lives as odd and unacceptable to prevailing reason and cynicism as any biological miracles.

For the first birth was a sign to King Ahaz that the world was shifting; Christ’s birth in Matthew’s telling will be a threat to King Herod; and every Christmas should rattle all our settled ways of thinking and acting. For this is God’s good news, and the exploding of our imaginative limitations.  God is now with us. And we have yet to learn to take that fully into account. Amen.

Advent 3 – sermon preached by Canon Prof Paul Foster – Sunday 11th December

Matt 11:2-11

I do not like waiting. It just seems like a total waste of my time. I have so many things to do and so little time to do them in. So waiting just seems to rob me of opportunities to get on with my “to do” list and to make real progress. The type of waiting I hate the most is the unplanned or unforeseen waiting, when circumstances beyond my control seem to delay the things I want to achieve. In particular, I remember making a plane trip from Edinburgh to Australia. Everything was arranged, the itinerary was straightforward. Edinburgh to Heathrow, just under two hours to change planes, then on to Australia. At the last minute, I was informed that the Edinburgh-Heathrow flight had been cancelled. Instead, I would fly to Manchester, then from there on to Australia, and, oh yes, the email also informed that there would be a seven and a half hour wait between planes in Manchester airport. Now I do not know if any of you have been to Manchester airport? Those of you who enjoy dining at Burger King might not have been as frustrated as me. However, if that is not your number one culinary choice then perhaps you might have some sympathy with my sense of being incarcerated for an intolerable length of time and losing autonomy over my own existence – for nearly eight long hours.

Our gospel reading takes us to the scene of a more severe and unjust incarceration. Despite, or probably because of his successful preaching ministry and critique of those in power, John the Baptist found himself imprisoned by Herod Antipas after questioning the legitimacy of his marriage to his brother’s wife. John had been a busy man. Actively and repeatedly beside the Jordan river he called people to better way of life. He castigated the religious teachers and leaders of his day (that is people like me) and he called-out the abuses of power of political leaders. His activism engendered in him an expectation of God’s sudden and soon intervention to bring about a better and more just mode of existence. And then he found himself imprisoned with nothing to do, with no activity, just waiting, left to his own thoughts. It is at this stage our gospel reading picks up the story.

Despite his imprisonment, John was still able to receive news from the outside world. He was informed about the ministry of Jesus, but his isolation made him uncertain whether Jesus’ actions were truly bringing about the kind of change for which John had been agitating. Consequently, John sent some of his own disciples to seek greater clarity from Jesus – was he really the coming one, or just another pretender? There is more than just a neutral enquiry for information in John’s question, “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” It appears that what John had heard of Jesus’ activities neither aligned with his own fiery preaching of coming judgment, nor with wider expectations of a political and militaristic messiah who would rid the people of the Roman overlords. In this sense, John’s question comes with implied confusion and disappointment. John the busy man, who when left waiting with his own thoughts, pondered whether the one he had baptised and upon whom he had seen the Spirit descend was truly God’s messiah.

Th answer that Jesus sent back through John’s messengers is enigmatic, and we do not know how John responded to the answer. What provoked the question in the first place was the report John had received about the deeds of the messiah. Jesus response to John’s disciples is they should report to John the things Jesus is doing. In other words, it is simply more of the same without a clear answer. Jesus recounts six types of activities in which he has been engaged – I won’t list them, you can check them in the first paragraph of our gospel reading. They are also actions described in both of our readings from the Old Testament. Before listing similar activities in the Book of Isaiah, that list is prefaced with the statement, “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.    He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’” The judgment that John may have regarded as the hallmark of the coming one is only part of the scriptural vision of Isaiah. Isaiah sees such recompense as a precursor to God coming to save the people. Similarly, our reading from the Psalms presents actions of the type that Jesus reports to John as being those that demonstrate that God is at work among the people, giving hope and bringing about justice. Therefore, both by reporting his actions to John and describing them in ways that align with prior biblical texts, Jesus provides scriptural warrant for a redefined view of messiahship that rejects popular political and retributive understandings of the expected deliverer. Thus, what characterises the works of the coming one is healing rather than retribution, hope instead of hatred, and justice in place of judgment. Is Jesus the coming one as John asked from the bleakness of his prison cell? Jesus simply gives him the evidence to work the answer out for himself. Jesus rounds off this section with a challenge not to John, but to the crowds. It is a challenge that is perennially relevant to all who hear about the deeds of Jesus. He says, ‘blessed is the one who takes no offence at me.” The challenge is to apprehend the reality of God’s workings in Jesus without demanding undue proof. John’s doubts from his prison cell, and at times our own doubts, are understandable. However, Jesus calls people not to remain in a state of unbelief, but instead to reflect on his transformative actions that every day open eyes and impart life. By doing so, unbelief is replaced with a deeper understanding, and despair is transformed into hope.

As John’s followers exit the scene, Jesus speaks directly to the crowds about John’s role and status. Whereas John had been uncertain about Jesus own identity, Jesus provides a clear statement about John’s identity and function. Here there is a certain ambivalence concerning the role of John. The first thing Jesus says about him is that he was not a crowd pleaser – John was neither regal nor finely dressed. If John’s destabilising ministry could be placed in any category then it would be as a prophet, one of those disturbing and disquieting figures who challenged oppression and social privilege, and looked for a more egalitarian society based on faithful and godly living. Again, citing a scriptural text drawn from the prophet Malachi, Jesus describes John as a messenger, one sent to prepare the way for Jesus. That is John is seen as the eschatological forerunner, the one who arrives prior to the long hoped for coming one, the messiah. Then Jesus makes a statement that both periodised time, and also to some degree relegates the significance of John. Among those belonging to the previous dispensation, John, in Jesus’ estimation, was undoubtedly the greatest. However, Jesus brings in a new era, the age of the kingdom to which, on Jesus’ schematisation of history, John does not belong. In that new way of existing, spiritual insights are so significant that those belonging to the kingdom are ranked even more highly than John himself. The point here is not to demean John at a personal level. Rather, Jesus tells his hearers something fundamental about the new age which he ushers in. It will be a time when the longed for hopes of the prophets will be realised and when spiritual understanding will result in blessings and benefits beyond those enjoyed by John and his generation.

I used to be a bit of a “news junky.” I had to get my fill of updates on events foreign and domestic. Now, however, I can hardly bear to turn on the news or to read the BBC website. There seems to a constant tirade of gloom and depression. Wars and conflict rumble on unresolved while innocent people continue to be maimed and die, the cost of living escalates and those around have to make the choice between heating or eating, workers find that their activities are not valued, and political leaders at times leave us with a sense that we should have better. I want an end all this oppression and injustice, and I hate waiting for it to come about. Where is the figure who will act decisive to bring about the required change? However, today I am forced to think about the answer of Jesus to John. That change does not come about instantaneously, but rather gradually as the works of the Christ are performed. It is when those who are privileged to be part of the kingdom, even the least in kingdom like me, it is when such people bind up the broken, offer new hope and insight to those who cannot see beyond their present circumstances, when we sit with the dying, and visit those in prison that such change takes place.

This Advent, I need to become better at waiting and recognise that it is not inactivity, but preparation. Around the middle of the last century a man sat in a prison cell. He wrote the following, “celebrating Advent means learning how to wait. Those who learn to wait are uneasy about their way of life, but yet have seen a vision of greatness in the world of the future and are patiently expecting its fulfilment.” The man who wrote those words was called Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a person who called into question the legitimacy and ethical values that stood behind the Nazi regime. Like John, Bonhoeffer did not live to see the realisation of the end of the old order. Two weeks before the concentration camp to which he was moved was liberated, he was killed. Yet, I believe he had more liberty, more hope, and even more life than those who thought they held power over him.

This Advent we remember the Baptist, we remember Bonhoeffer, we remember all those bound – in physical prison or imprisoned by circumstances and inner torments. It is for all of humanity that we need to perform the works of the Christ. And as we do those things, we need to learn to wait, to be patient but yet not passive, to become uneasy about the sufferings of the oppressed, and wherever possible to perform the works of Jesus on behalf of all people. For it is when we actively wait that then we shall recognise that we are not bound by the gloom of this present time, rather we are part of that kingdom that brings hope, justice, and love for all. And at that moment, we will know that we do not need to wait for another, for the Christ has come and is with us – this Advent and for ever more, Amen.

Advent 2. Sermon preached by the Vice Provost, Marion Chatterley. 4th December 2022

John the Baptist is our main character this morning. Matthew’s account makes sure that we experience John as powerful, strong, fierce, dramatic. He’s not someone to be passed over or ignored – he may only appear as an adult in one brief passage of Scripture, but it’s certainly not a passage to be skipped over. He was a person who commanded interest and engagement from the people who encountered him. And I guess that people trusted him – they were coming to confess their sins and to be baptised with John’s baptism of repentance. They clearly valued what he was able to offer.

So people came to John at the banks of the Jordan and they ‘fessed up. They held up their hands and admitted to the wrongs they had done – or the good they had not done. And the baptism washed away their sins and they understood themselves to be good as new. They could start again, and again.

We know that John recognised the limitations of his baptism – he was clear with people that something far more significant was just around the corner. A different kind of baptism was just out of sight, just out of reach, but was God’s promise for all people.
John’s baptism of repentance feels like something that resonates in our contemporary world. In fact, I might suggest that it feels like something that twenty-first century self-help has reinvented. There are many sources that will tell you how good it is to unburden yourself from the weight of guilt that you carry. Sources that encourage truth telling, public self- shaming, and sometimes even tracking down people who you wronged many years ago. And there is no doubt that telling all can help people to feel better about themselves. The problem is that it often stops right there. It’s one thing to bare your soul; to own up to some home truths and to even dare to speak all of that out loud. But it’s quite another thing to do something to change our own patterns of behaviour.

It’s relatively easy to say sorry, to be sorry, at any given moment, but that’s not enough. We need the baptism of Jesus to help us towards fundamental change. Our prayer book absolution spells out the theology of our church: May the Almighty and Merciful Lord grant unto you (pardon and remission of all your sins), time for true repentance, amendment of life, and the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit.

The theology of our church is rooted in our Baptism into the Body of Christ. The absolution that is offered each time we come before God to own up to our own sinfulness spells out what is required: true repentance and amendment of life.

And that is where it all gets a bit more challenging – not just for those who commit crimes or easily recognised bad behaviour towards others, but for each and every one of us. We can all look around – at those who commit acts of violence; those who undermine or intimidate; those who abuse their power – and identify the need for change. How much harder we find it to identify the ways that we need to make fundamental change.

Most of our sinful behaviours are habitual; we don’t even always notice that we do them, or we haven’t worked out ways to manage them. We’re not good at noticing the things we could have changed, but don’t. And I would suggest that many of those behaviours are rooted in our own insecurities and the damage that has been inflicted upon us by others. Those hurts and the ways that we hide them are all too familiar to us, and all too difficult to let go.
We don’t always realise that we choose not to take responsibility for making changes. We can be quick to excuse ourselves and slow to recognise the challenges that others live with. We might like the idea of amendment of life rather more than we like the reality.

Amending our lives is hard. It means actively choosing to behave and respond differently from the ingrained patterns that shape our lives and that are pretty well instinctive. Amending our lives usually means facing up to the darker parts of ourselves, taking stock and not shying away from what we find.

And Advent is an ideal time to grapple with all of this. It’s a time to watch and wait, a time to prepare to welcome the Christ child, the one who came to offer us unconditional forgiveness and the opportunity for real and lasting change.

Listen to what John told his followers about the baptism that Jesus would offer: He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

This new baptism will be a dynamic baptism. A baptism that will bring the energy of fire into your life alongside the support and comfort of the Holy Spirit. This new baptism brings with it a new confidence that fundamental change might be both possible and manageable.

Speaking about bringing fire into our lives suggests something that is alive, something that we keep alive when we give it oxygen and fuel. We talk about having fire in our belly; being fired up; being on fire – all of those phrases carry a suggestion of active engagement. There’s nothing passive about this baptism into the ways of the Christ. It’s a demanding and active commitment to a distinctive way of life.

It’s not just about putting aside today’s sin and finding ways to be and do good; it’s about committing to repeating that pattern day after day – and re-committing when, inevitably, we fail. It’s about firing up our commitment to the promises we make – in baptism, in confession, when we receive absolution. It’s about giving oxygen and fuel to those promises so that they have life and become life giving.

One of the things people experience when they actively repent, is that they make room in their heads and their lives. If you’re not carrying a burden of guilt, you create a space to carry something else. You create a space for the Holy Spirit to be an active part of your life. A space for the Incarnate Christ to have access to oxygen and fuel, to grow and deepen and transform.

Our Baptism commits us to active engagement with the ways of God. To taking seriously the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. Taking seriously the promise that we are forgiven, and setting that promise of God’s forgiveness alongside a promise to ourselves to find different ways of being and responding and living.

John’s baptism of repentance shows us the direction of travel, helps us to begin that journey towards true repentance and genuine amendment of life.

 

27th November 2022 – Advent I – Janet Spence (Chaplain)

God of hope, take these words and open our minds and hearts to hear your Word.  Amen

Happy Advent!

The festive lights around the city are gradually being turned on, the shops filling up with signs that tell us to ‘get ready!’, usually by spending lots of money (that we may not have) or going out celebrating, and by singing the round of Christmas songs that greet us everywhere we turn (even in here last week for those who joined in the filming for the Watchnight service!).

In Isaiah we hear the call, ‘Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ where this time of walking in the light of the Lord is described as a time when ‘swords will be beaten into ploughshares, when spears will become pruning hooks, and when nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they learn war any more’… This is surely reason to celebrate!

But wait …  Today we are living with the desperate fact of war in Europe.  Young Ukrainians and Russians are having to ‘learn war’. Tens – some estimates say hundreds – of thousands of people have already been killed in this war that is just one amongst many across the world.

The theme running through our lectionary readings on this first Sunday of Advent is not Jesus’ first advent – the arrival of Jesus as a baby born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph.

Today’s readings are about how we are to prepare for the second Advent, the second coming, the Apocalypse or the Revelation, which is not yet completed and is to come at a time known to no one.  Matthew’s gospel tells us, ‘Stay awake! Be ready! But about that day and hour no-one knows: neither the angels of heaven; nor the Son; but only the Father’.

So what might preparing and being ready for this second coming look like?

I watched a film recently, called The Wonder, in which a young girl, in a desperate attempt to make amends for her late brother’s troubled life and early death, and to guarantee for them both a place in the heavenly Kingdom at the second coming, becomes so fixated on the afterlife that she chooses a life of extreme denial likely to lead to her death. She believed that this was how she must prepare for God’s judgement.

Such extreme religiously driven life choices may be uncommon, but nevertheless behind her extreme choice lies a tendency that is to be found in some religious circles to read passages such as today’s as an instruction to us to focus on the life hereafter rather than the life here-and-now. Is this really what the Scriptures instruct us to do?

The first part of chapter twenty-four of Matthew’s Gospel describes signs of the second Advent but it moves from this imaginative vision of what is to come, to the more practical message of how to live in order to be ready for that time, even though no-one can know when it might be.

In the verses of this chapter after today’s gospel, we find very practical words about how we are to live in these waiting days.  In verse forty-five we read of a servant who does no more (or less) than give food to the other servants at the correct time. This servant cares for others to ensure they are not in need, are not hungry, are not without their daily bread.

Jesus’ teaching on how to ‘be ready’ is that ‘being ready’ is about being faithful in the ordinary; that this is what demonstrates holy watchfulness… being faithful in the ordinary.

In today’s gospel we have the puzzling metaphor for the Second Advent as being like a thief who breaks in at night.  A thief represents a threat – is this who God will be – a threat who breaks in when we are at our most vulnerable?

I don’t think so.  This ‘thief God’ I believe is a thief only with regard to their unexpected arrival, and comes not to steal from this deepest vulnerable me, but rather to encounter this deepest vulnerable me.  I think Jesus is instructing us to be true to our deepest personhood – to be true to that private person we are when asleep in our beds at night, away from the eyes and judgements of the world, away from the persona that we prepare before we leave our homes and go into the world.

I believe the Second Advent will offer life in all its fullness to each one of us; to the person that God knows, the person that God treasures, and the person that reveals who I truly am.  I think that being ready, means seeking to be true to this deepest me, and that when this happens I become faithful in the ordinary, and we are reminded of this every time we join together in the Eucharist.

Soon, in our Eucharistic prayer we will hear the words of Jesus: ‘Take, eat, drink … do this in remembrance of me.’ – we are invited to the table.

Then we say together ‘we recall his blessed passion and death, his glorious resurrection and ascension, and we look for the coming of his Kingdom.’  – we commit ourselves to looking for the second Advent – following which we gather round the altar table and are fed in the Eucharistic feast.

And finally as we prepare to leave we are instructed to ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’, and we reply ‘In the name of Christ, Amen’. We commit ourselves to living this life of love and service in our daily lives.

To be ready is to continue to root ourselves in God, to respond to God’s invitation to be nourished, in order to live in faithfulness and love each and every day, and to continue to be hope-filled; for we are called to keep watch with hopeful hearts for the Second Advent.

And how do we keep that hope alive, in our own and others’ hearts? By offering simple acts day after day after day: caring for one another; serving food to the hungry; loving the unloved; welcoming the homeless and the refugee; offering comfort to the afflicted.  And noticing the signs of God’s presence in this world today. We don’t know when it will be completed, but the second coming will come in the midst of ordinary life.  Maybe it is already happening …

Today we have lit the first Advent Candle which is, the candle of hope.  Its flame is already piercing the darkness.  And it may be small, but may we work to keep it alight throughout this season, and always in our hearts.  With that hope kindled in our hearts I return to where we began – Happy Advent!