The Other Sheep

A sermon on John 10v11-18

Our Gospel reading places us as a sheep belonging to Jesus, our Good Shepherd.  Those who have been coming for a while know that I sometimes like to start my sermons with a joke, just to wake everyone up if the readings were dull or no one knew the last hymn.

I try to find a joke that somehow cleverly fits the theme of the sermon.  This week I was trying to find sheep jokes and failed to find anything remotely relevant.  But this is Marathon Sunday, and lots of our regulars are cut off or at least have their transport here disrupted…  I was tempted to treat it as a teacher treats the last day of term and suggest that you all just “bring in games.”  I have no excuse for the following jokes, other than that I am bringing in games!

So:

  • What do you get if you cross an angry sheep and a moody cow?
  • An animal that’s in a baaaaaaaad moooooood.
  • Why was the sheep arrested on the motorway?
  • Because she did a ewe-turn!
  • What Christian denomination is most popular with sheep?
  • Baaaa-ptist.

Finally, my personal favourite:

A man in a cinema notices what looks like a sheep sitting next to him.
“Are you a sheep?” Asked the man, surprised.
“Yes.” Said the sheep.
“What are you doing at the movies?”
The sheep replied, “Well, I liked the book.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are “the sheep of [God’s] pasture.”  We are the “sheep” for whom the “good shepherd” lays down his life.

Feeling a bit sheepish this morning?

I know that some members of this congregation struggle with the metaphor of God’s people as sheep.  None of us want to be sheep – we want to be powerful and important, not bleating animals that follow the crowd.

One of my standard Christmas talks is about the shepherds on the hillside outside Bethlehem, and how shepherds were outcasts of the day – poor wild men who slept rough on the hillsides – hired for a pittance, barely above beggars in the social hierarchy.

I’ve heard kids use “MacDonalds Worker” as an insult;  in first century Palestine the kids may well have taunted unpromising peers with “Shepherd!”

Shepherds were hired to look after the sheep.

Sheep were not a particularly highly regarded commodity at the time.  They did have some religious significance, but only because they were slaughtered in their thousands at Passover, so that the floor of the Temple ran red with their blood.

If you feel uncomfortable with the idea of being called a “sheep” it’s worth considering that sheep had no better image in Jesus’ day than they do now (and shepherds had a considerably worse image!)

The metaphor of Jesus as a Shepherd and his followers as sheep is not a cutesy image.  It’s about outcasts caring for the insignificant.  But it’s about finding beauty in the everyday.  It’s about saying God is interested in things that society ignores or undervalues or despises.

Having set the scene, I want to spend a bit of time reflecting on one verse and what it might mean to us:  Jesus said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus calls the disciples, the Christian Church in embryo, “a sheepfold.”  The place where God purpose is worked out on Earth…

But Jesus says “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Early Christians were struggling with the Jewish authorities as the two religions began to go separate ways… They were distrusted by the Roman government who were soon to attempt to exterminate them.

They were harassed on every side, it would have been easy to fall into exclusive extremism, but instead they record and pass on the words of Jesus:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

Jesus is clear that although his ragtag band of scruffy, mostly illiterate followers are infinitely precious to God, they are not the only people of infinite value to God:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

We, in the Church of the Ascension, sometimes feel embattled as a liberal church – the hierarchy seems obsessed with money, it seems like the churches that are succeeding are conservative, interested only in evangelism and not in helping their communities, society is indifferent at best, and at worst tars us with the same homophobic brush as it does our fundamentalist brothers and sisters.

But we are doing well and doing important work in our community, but this is not the only place where God’s work is being done:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

But it’s worth considering that there wasn’t another group exactly like the disciples out there that Jesus was referring to when he talked about his “other fold” – Jesus was talking about other religious expressions, outside of Christianity, outside of Judaism:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

What was true in the first century is true today:

In Churches of all traditions, Catholic, Protestant, liberal, radical, conservative, Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

In temples and synagogues and mosques and gurdwaras, in humanists, and campaigners and protestors:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

The Gospel of Jesus is life-changing and life-giving, but Jesus recognised that there were more truths, more ways of giving life, than just one.

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.”

I close with an Interfaith Prayer prepared by Christians, Jews and Muslims:

Eternal God
Save us from weak resignation to violence
Teach us that restraint is the highest expression of power
That thoughtfulness and tenderness are marks of the strong.
Help us to love our enemies
Not by countenancing their sins,
But by remembering our own
And may we never for a moment forget
That they are fed by the same food,
Hurt by the same weapons,
Have children for whom they have the same high hopes as we do.
Grant us the ability
To find joy and strength not in the strident call to arms
To grasp our fellow creatures
In the striving for justice and truth.

Acts 4:5-12
The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. When they had made the prisoners* stand in their midst, they inquired, ‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’ Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is
“the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.”
There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’

1 John 3:16-24
We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows  everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

John 10:11-18
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 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. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

Easter Day 2015

Happy Easter!!  Jesus Christ is risen to day – Alleluia!

We have gathered to celebrate something strange and often poorly understood – the resurrection is a mystery.  It is literally impossible to take it literally because the Gospels disagree on the details.  The resurrected Jesus is solid enough to eat fish by the side of the lake, yet ethereal enough to appear from nowhere in a locked room and mysteriously vanish.

But to totally reject the resurrection leaves us with the baffling mystery of what caused the mostly illiterate scattered followers of a humiliated and executed leader to find heart again and be so full of energy and new life that they turned the world upside down.

The resurrection is the story of how death is followed by new life – whatever the realities of first century Palestine, it’s a meditation on the human condition.

Good Friday shows how bad the world can get: a good and kind and generous and inspiring and loving man, the brightest and best humanity can be, is executed in a barbaric way.  And then on Easter day we are given new hope.

The broken body of Jesus and his blood spilled by his Roman executioners has become a symbol of life and hope and the centre of the meal that has united Christians for millennia.

The act of Jesus’ judicial murder which scattered his disciples has become the very symbol of his life – the cross the most instantly recognisable emblem of our faith.

Easter does not remove the suffering of Good Friday.

Resurrection is not the denial of death.

Resurrection is what allows us to look at all the horrors of the world, the politically motivated cuts to the health service, the horrific plane crashes, the rise of militant fundamentalists and dictators and warmongers… …we look squarely into the horrors of the world and say – “we will not give you the last word.  We do not believe that this is what defines humanity.”

In the words of Gandhi “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it – always.”

This year I read a fascinating book, one which I highly recommend – its “The Better Angels of our Nature” by Stephen Pinker.

It’s a huge book that goes into huge detail and presents mountains of statistical data and analysis to prove (I think beyond doubt) that violence has been in decline over millennia and that the present is probably the most peaceful time in the history of the human species. The decline in violence is not a small change, it is enormous!  The evidence is seen in the reduction in military conflict, in the decline in murder, the comparative rarity of genocide, the limits paced on torture and outcry it causes whereas it was once commonplace, the increasingly civilised criminal justice system, and the improvement in the treatment of children, LGBT folks, animals and racial and ethnic minorities. He stresses that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue.”

If you disagree and think that the past was better and civilisation was better in the past think about bodies found in peat bogs and permafrost in eastern Europe – from before the dawn of civilisation – the majority of them reveal that they died violent deaths.  A thousand years ago there were a lot more natural deaths, but still a lot of violent deaths,

You only need a History GCSE to realise that five hundred years ago it had improved further and one hundred years further still.  Since the Second World War there has been a steep decline in all-out war between the nations.

Gandhi’s words are not just wishful thinking, they are fact: “all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it – always.”

But progress does not come in an endless easy cycle of improvement, it comes in a painful struggle with death and resurrection followed by death and resurrection followed by death and resurrection.

Gandhi saw his dictators topple, but he paid for it with his life.

Death and resurrection.  Christ showed us the way, and it is the only way.

Easter is not a historic event that we gather to commemorate, it is a present reality that we are invited to take part in.  We are invited to join the struggle for a better world, to strive for justice and create peace, to build the Kingdom to give hope…

I close with a poem that speaks of the challenge of Easter

EASTER MORNING by Edward Conder

You, Lord Jesus, didn’t stay
Quietly dead and hid away,
You’re still here to cause dissention,
To challenge clerical invention.

For there is still a need of men
To respond to as you did then
To overcome their normal fears
And face the world with fresh ideas.

Give us then the strength divine
To step completely out of line,
Going after where you led,
Doing always what you said,

Not putting you upon a throne,
Nor making monuments in stone,
But out there with you doing stuff
Where life is true and life is tough.

Be our strength when we are weak,
Be there when we your comfort seek,
Be there in glory when we win,
Be there in mercy when we sin.

Lord Jesus, with the spirit fill us,
With his awesome power instil us,
For it is then that we can do
and follow truly after you.

Palm Sunday

This Palm Sunday morning I want to reflect on a story of a controversial figure – everyone in the nation had heard of him, he was loved by some and hated by others.  He seemed to always speak his mind , and every word was analysed – and hailed as wit and wisdom by his followers, while being heavily criticised by his detractors.  This man has had enthusiastic supporters cheering him on, and jeering crowds baying for punishment.

The man’s initials are JC.

I am, of course, talking about Jeremy Clarkson.

Clarkson has always been a controversial figure, hated by environmentalists and people with… …a brain; and loved by car fanatics and right-wingers.

If you have spent this week in a cave (who knows, maybe you have been living in a cave for Lent) you may have missed Clarkson being sacked for punching Oisin Tymon, the producer of the BBC show Top Gear.

There have been campaigns and opinion polls and petitions to reinstate Clarkson.

The idea of “Celebrity” is an interesting concept.  The debate was more about people’s love or hate of Clarkson than it was to do with the rights or wrongs of the incident.

The idea of “Celebrity” stops people being people in their own rights, but gives them a deeper symbolism and meaning for those who either love or hate them.  Clarkson is either a bold spokesperson for the beleaguered motorist, standing up to the politically correct consensus… Or he’s an arrogant, vaguely sexist, vaguely racist, vaguely homophobic relic who’s denial of climate change makes him a dangerous idiot.  More likely than that he is a TV presenter you either warm to or want to punch in his smug face…

Palm Sunday is a day where the concept of “Celebrity” or its first century equivalent takes centre stage (which it is in celebrity’s nature to do!).

Jesus has been a wandering preacher for three years.  With mixed success:  Crowds have flocked to hear him.  But he was rejected in his own community, and the authorities hated him.

Then on the first Palm Sunday Jesus Parades into Jerusalem on a donkey.

Our liturgy says:

“Behold your King comes to you,
O Zion!
meek and lowly,
sitting on a donkey!”

However, we would be mistaken if we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as a symbol of Jesus humility.  Riding into a city on a donkey was not a sign of humility, but a sign of Kingship.  A King at war would ride into a city on a horse, but a King coming in peace would ride a donkey.  The crowd certainly understood the symbolism, and hailed Jesus as ‘the Son of David’.

Jesus is defiant as he walks toward his fate.  The crowd, along with the disciples are delirious.  The disciples were euphoric – they thought this was their time of triumph was at hand…  They were marching with confidence into the stronghold of their enemies.  Surly they came to pull down the authorities that condemned them and their leader.  Surely their Messiah would oust the Romans.  Surely the Kingdom of God was at hand, and this was the pivotal moment.

The Kingdom of God was at hand.  This was the moment that Jesus ministry had been building up to, but it was not how the disciples imagined as they cried ‘Hosanna’ on the first Palm Sunday.  If they really knew what it was all about they would not desert Jesus on Good Friday, leaving the women to quietly keep the faith.

They came to Jesus for many reasons.  A famous person, doing something unusual in public always gathers a crowd, and Jesus was famous.  He was famous because of the healings that had been reported, and many people would have gathered to see a miracle – to see some magic worked.  Others heard of his criticisms for the religious authorities, and many would have liked that, and come to see the pompous be deflated by this bolshey satirist, whose jibes about logs in eyes of the authorities, and ‘whitewashed tombs’ were the toast of every disreputable inn in Palestine.  Others would have heard the rumours that Jesus was the Messiah, and gathered to see if he really could do away with the Romans.  Perhaps I’m biased, having been brought up in Northern Ireland, but I imagine that it was those desiring political independence, who wanted the Romans to go home, that made up the bulk of the crowd.

And here we part from any simiularity with th host of a motoring show.  Jesus was not an ‘entertainer.’

Jesus words and actions set beople free, he broke down barries that divided people, he accepted the ourcast and proclaimed a new world order where the last and the least were the most important and valued.

But along the way he has upset too many if those with a vested interest in the status quo and a tragedy is about to unfold…

Passion Sunday by Margaret Offerman

We’ve passed the half way mark now on our journey through Lent, the season when we enter into Jesus’s wilderness  experience . Jesus withdrew from everything he enjoyed – the  company of his friends, the opportunity to share his thoughts with his followers, the food and drink which he relished, worship in the synagogue or temple..  We try to discipline ourselves by taking on something extra – last year it was the challenges; this year it’s been the daily bible reading.  These activities don’t begin to compare with Jesus’s desert fast, but they do help us to identify with his struggle with his inner demons, his battle to overcome the influences and temptations  that distracted him from God.

Now we’ve arrived at Passion Sunday, the beginning of the last stage of Jesus’s life.

Passion is one of those words that changes its meaning according to context.  It’s like sanction, which can mean permission to do something  or a penalty for having done it.  Among its meanings, passion can be the word for barely controllable emotion  or intense desire or, true to its Latin roots,  agonising suffering and death.  This is the meaning that has become specific to the arrest and execution of Jesus.  Because of its Latin origin – the Latin word  also gave  us ‘passive’ – we’ve come to look on the events of Passion-tide as the time when things happened to Jesus.  This is a misconception.  Our creeds would have us proclaim that the whole of Jesus’s life was a series of things that happened to him.  He was conceived, he was born, he was crucified, he  suffered death,  he was buried.  Would the Jesus movement have had a remote chance of surviving, growing, continuing to influence and inspire its followers if its leader had been a kind of puppet who sleep-walked  his way around Palestine and then disappeared?

The passion story is very like the nativity story in that it’s a  conflation of  different strands from the four gospels.  No single gospel contains all the elements of the story.  As a continuous narrative it begins on Palm Sunday with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the cleansing of the Temple.  Jesus then spends time in Jerusalem while the Jewish hierarchy refines  its plan to arrest him, a plan that involves the recruitmen of Judas Iscariot.  On Thursday, Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem as he had planned  and predicts that one of his friends will betray him. He uses the facilities laid on there to wash the disciples’ feet. During this  episode he predicts that Peter will deny that he ever knew Jesus.  Knowing that his capture is imminent, Jesus takes some of his friends with him into the Garden of Gethsemane where he prays fervently to be spared his fate.  He surrenders himself to the will of God.

All through this series of events, Jesus is clearly in control and has directed their course .  It couldn’t have been by chance that Jesus rode into Jerusalem at the same time as the Roman governor was riding into the city in imperial state.  Jesus must have arranged for the hiring of a donkey,  so that the scripture prophecy could be fulfilled:  the Messiah would enter the capital in a parody of the show  of power that the Romans were displaying.  He knew that Judas was part of the plot against him.  He knew that he was handing his enemies ammunition when he denounced  the money changers in the Temple.  When he sat down to eat the Passover meal, he said: How I have longed to eat this meal with you before my death.  Never again shall I eat it until it finds its fulfilment in the kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that he was going to be executed.  He knew many of the details  of the process of his arrest and trial.  The first charge against Jesus that really worried Pilate was that he had started causing unrest in Galilee and now it was spreading all over Judea with his claim that he was the son of God..  So  Jesus made the conscious decision to absorb the inevitable  violence into himself.  Caiaphas, the pragmatist, had advised the Jewish hierarchy that in the political climate of the time it would be in their interest  that one man should die for the people.   Jesus offered himself as the sacrifical lamb.

He  could have run away.  Remember when he read  from the prophecy of Isaiah in the synagogue in  Nazareth and interpreted the passage with reference to himself.  The congregation picked up stones and began to throw them at him.  Jesus took flight and someone must have hidden him until the trouble died down.  But  by the time Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the  Passover feast, the divisions were too great and the atmosphere was too charged.  Jesus gave  himself up, ordering his disciples not to meet violence with violence.  This is the cup the father has given me.  Shall I not drink it?

This is not to say that he gave up the intellectual argument.  He left his captors in no doubt that their evidence was spurious and their power merely temporal.  He argued with Pilate and Pilate, losing the  argument, wound it  up by asking Jesus: what is truth?  And in the words  of one of  Francis Bacon’s  most famous essays; he would  not stay for an answer.

Jesus was full of passion, a passion for justice, a passion that his commandment should be obeyed and that his followers should love one another.  He had a passion for life, lived in all its fullness.

As we move through passiontide and reach Good Friday, we have to recognise the nobility, the heroism  of his premature death.

Jesus underwent the whole emotional gamut  of a person facing death.   Another one of Francis Bacon’s essays begins: Menn fear death as  children  fear to go in the dark.  Jesus  didn’t want his death  to happen – he prayed that he might be spared the agonising process  of death.  He raged against the unfairness of his trial.  He felt the treachery of the friends who had abandoned him and he  was anxious about those who would be bereft.  He lost his dignity but he  never lost his self-esteem.  Finally he had a sense of completeness as he consciously handed his earthly being back to God.

It’s against that background that we’re able to rejoice at the resurrection.  There’s a resurrection drawing by Michelangelo of a naked man in the prime of life leaping out of a sarcophagus with all his muscles tense with the effort.  One hand is pointing to the sky.  In Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel of Jesus at the creation of the world, he’s horizontal, with an almost palpable burst of energy connecting him to God the father.  In the artist’s resurrection drawing the figure is like a bolt of lightning travelling vertically from earth to heaven.  If it were possible to superimpose one work of art upon the other, the figures would form a cross.  The cross stands for energy, for dynamism, for the triumph of the divine spirit as it became flesh in Jesus.

Happy Lent to you

Lent is upon us.  For many of us, long hard weeks without chocolate, or biscuits, or alcohol are about to begin.  I’m going vegan again – which I did last year and at first it felt hardcore-Lent-to-the-max!! But I quickly felt better and more alert & had more energy.  But in a few days some of us will be biting our nails, looking forward to Easter Day and stuffing our face with our forbidden foods, or drinking the few celebratory pints that we may have denied ourselves for forty days.

Some of us will fail in our Lenten disciplines, but we should all try.  All of us should think about the value of making some kind of special effort during Lent.

So what are we to do?  Give up something?  It would seem that giving things up, making a sacrifice, is an important part of the Christian message ‘Anyone who loves their life loses it; anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.’  (John 12.)  The central image of Christianity is of a man being executed, giving up his life, making the ultimate sacrifice.

I think as we are all adults here I can tell my favourite story about giving things up for Lent (sensitive souls may want to cover your ears!).

Robert Runcie was, for a time the principal of Cuddesdon theological college, and one day at teas he asked a group of young men who were training for the priesthood what they were giving up for Lent.  I’m not sure if the young man was being serious or not, but one of the ordinand said he was going to give up “masturbation.”

Runcie was not at all phased by this, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “what a delicious way to spend Easter morning.”

The suspicion of sex (even sex when alone) is a real problem in the psyche of the Christian religion.  I have spoken before about the religious tradition in which I was brought up, which stressed sacrifice above all else (especially sacrifice from women, but that is, as they say, another sermon).  It was very puritanical, and taught that if you didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t use foul language, didn’t sleep around, and ‘gave your heart to Jesus’ you would go to heaven.  The options seemed stark – a miserable life on earth in return for eternal life in a kind of cosmic Centre Parcs with harp music; or have fun on earth and spend eternity in the flames of Hell (where the company would be more interesting, but your really good conversations with Oscar Wilde or John Lennon would be constantly interrupted by sessions of torture with Satan and all his minions).

Of course this is not really sacrifice at all, it is just an investment with high returns.  I give God my misery for four score years and ten, and God gives me joy for all eternity.  My problem is that I firmly believe that God wants us to be happy here and now on Earth.  Even in Lent God wants us to be whole and happy.

So what then does our Lenten discipline mean?  Why is it good to do something special in the run up to Easter,  to either give something up, or take something on?

In Matthew Gospel we hear Jesus say the following:

“…whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We are not to make ourselves miserable, and certainly not to show everyone how miserable we are.  Fasting (and out Lenten disciplines are a sort of fasting) is not about punishing ourselves.  We are not denying ourselves something we like, just so that we can miss it.  Nor are we giving things up just so that we can feel self-righteous like the hypocrites Jesus talks about, at how much we are able to give up for God.  We make a Lenten discipline in order to grow in faith, to learn to increase our love for God, for our neighbours and ourselves.

If we give up something we are fond of we are not punishing ourselves.  We may do it for the good of our health, out of respect for the bodies God has given us.  We may do it to help change our outlook.  The things we love in life and base our lives around are not necessarily the things that lead to fulfilment.  Sometimes we need help to detach ourselves from unhelpful or unhealthy obsessions.

A few years ago I spent a week working with people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol.  The people I met were not bad people, but they had an obsession.  For those on hard drugs, their life revolves around their drug.  All their time is spent either taking drugs, or looking for money to buy them.  The drug becomes their life.  If they are to be fulfilled as human beings they must give up the drug that is their reason for living.  They must give up their reason for living.  They must loose their life in order to find it.  And so it is with all of us.  We all have obsessions, and concerns that stop us from being fulfilled.

Those of us gathered here today may be obsessed with status, money, security, feeling needed.  None of these are wrong in themselves, just as even heroin is not wrong of itself (it can be used to relieve the pain of the very ill).  It is when they become obsessions that they are no longer healthy.

Self-sacrifice is not the beginning and end of Christianity.  God has created a good world for us to enjoy.  And while we do honour God by denying ourselves, we also honour God by enjoying the good gifts God has given us.

I must stress, at this point, that I am not trying to persuade you to stop whatever you are planning to do for Lent, I just want us all to think about why we are doing it.  We may need to take time out this Lent to make a sacrifice to help us get our life and loves into a better perspective.

God asks us to give up only the things that stop us from being fulfilled, the things that stop us from loving.  Because it is in loving, loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving ourselves, that we reach our full potential.

All our possessions and money and position, do not bring fulfilment, only love, given and received, can do that.

We may want to give something up, or we may want to take something on.  Like five minutes of prayer, or meditation, or Bible reading every day.  Our weekly email has gone daily again for Lent.  Not with challenges like last year, but with a prayer and a reading for every day.  This is in itself a sacrifice – a sacrifice of some of our time and energy.

Come along to one of our midweek services in Lent – Morning Prayer if you are free or our new midweek Eucharist at 8.00 on Thursdays (in Lent it will be followed by an episode of Rev and some discussion…

The gaining of life is the goal of Christianity.  The sacrifices that we make are not things we give up in this life, so we can have a wild time in the next life; nor are they a way to punish ourselves; nor are they a way to show off.  We sacrifice (our time, or something we enjoy) to grow as human beings, to grow right here and now.  Jesus came to give us life and life more abundantly.  Even in Lent God wants us to be happy.

On Ash Wednesday we measure our lives with some sobering words:

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

These ancient words are gloomy and difficult.  Difficult to say as a priest, difficult to hear… But this reminder of our mortality is necessary if we want to gain perspective on our lives.

This Lent,and always, may we grow in our love of God, our neighbours and ourselves, and in our detachment from the false treasures of this world.

The Authority of Jesus (a sermon on Mark 1:21-28)

Jesus Preaching

An Icon of Jesus Preaching in the Synagogue

Mark 1:21-28

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

When I studied theology at university (over 20 years ago!) the accepted wisdom was that Jesus was probably formally trained as a Rabbi.  The idea of Jesus as a carpenter was thought to have been a later invention.  (To be fair we wouldn’t know Jesus connection to carpentry if it wasn’t for the story where he is rejected in is own home town, recorded twice in the Gospels in it Matthew 13 Jesus is dismissed as “the carpenter’s son” and in Mark 6 he is dismissed as “the carpenter.”)

Scholars thought (and I’m sure some still think) that only someone with scholarly training cold be so wise and teach with such authority.

I find this offensive to both my socialism (which as a student was bordering on Communism!) and my working class upbringing.

But learned academics could not bring themselves to imagine that the person they had devoted their lives to studying was not also a learned academic like them.

Knowledge is important.  The truth sets us free, but as that cerebral over-thinker St. Paul admitted “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up!”  knowledge is not enough, being correct isn’t enough, it’s not enough to be right, the Christian life is less about knowledge than it is about a way of life, less about facts than it is about relationships, less about doctrine all about love.

The wisdom of Jesus does not rely on academic training, to follow Jesus doesn’t require an R.E. A Level or even a G.C.S.E….

The wisdom of Jesus is profound and deep and life-changing, but it is as simple and as difficult as learning to love.

Jesus’ teaching was not designed to show off his knowledge and scholarship, his teaching was accessible:

  • No one can serve two masters
  • A city set on a hill cannot be hidden
  • A camel cannot pass through the eye of a needle
  • You cannot pluck figs from thistles

Yet these words and parables had more authority than the rulers and teachers of the day.  I wonder if there are some parallels to religious leadership today?

I think the Church of England is obsessed with authority. It comes across in our hymns, our liturgies, in the discussions we have a General Synod, in conversations with and about bishops… The Church used to have real influence, real authority in the life of the nation and of individuals… This influence has not just disappeared, it is simply no longer focussed around splendid buildings like this one or people with funny collars or pointy hats…

Christians played a key part in education (as the number and success of Church Schools demonstrates), in healthcare, in charities from Christian Aid to Amnesty International, in the trade union movement.

Our influence has dispersed, decentralised, secularised, but a lot of what is good about our culture comes from the Church.

However, many churches are in decline and the sexism and homophobia demonstrated in the structural life of the church is very off-putting to people of good conscience.

This week it it marvellous that we saw the consecration of our first women bishop – but it’s kinda embarrassing that it’s taken until 2015 to appoint one.

Please do pray for Libby Lane, she has joined a boys club (and while “macho” may not be the best word to describe a bunch of men in fancy hats and dresses, it is a very ‘male’ environment)

Libby Lane joins a House of Bishops that has lost its practical and moral authority.

But we shouldn’t despair – this is where the church should operate…

All of the good things the church has given our culture were not enforced by authority, they were created by a Christ-inspired love for justice, or a Christ-inspired compassion for the poor, or a Christ-inspired desire for all people to reach their full potential.

We have lost our practical and moral authority.

This is where  Jesus operated.

Jesus did not reinforce his words with authority, he did not say “listen to me, or I’ll tell my daddy on you!”  He did not say “listen to me, or God will strike you down!” (A popular tactic with Prophets of all religions!)

But Jesus’ authority was not backed up by power structures or based on threats (which is ironic for a church that has used both in his name).

I suspect that part of the sense of authority that Jesus has to do with him not being inside these structures that care about themselves than the message they are supposed to transmit.

Jesus’ authority is the authority of truth, the truth often visible only to the outsider, who can have a perspective that insiders lack.

Ouida said “familiarity is a magician that is cruel to beauty but kind to ugliness” – and outsider reminds us of what is beautiful and what is ugly…”

The American comedian Ellen DeGeneres said, “Sometimes you can’t see yourself clearly until you see yourself through the eyes of others.”

So what does the outsiders wisdom look like?

Well, our reading gives an example: in the Synagogue at Capernium a man creates a scene.

“What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” he screams, “Have you come to destroy us?”

If, like me you grew up watching the Exorcist and the Evil Dead you will have a clear idea of what this could have looked like!  But I think it is more helpful to think of as someone who was sick, broken, isolated, unloved, who had lost their dignity and lost their self-worth.  Someone who, despite the grim state of their life, was stuck and feared change and what new terrors change could bring.  “Better the devil you know” seems to be a saying written for this occasion…

In the man’s shout of “leave me alone,” Jesus heard a cry for help – and he accepted him in his brokenness and healed him.

Jesus could see beyond the stagnating power structures to the need of a man in deep need.

The authority of Jesus was a rejection of the power structures, based on the power of truth, and the power of love.

Jesus authority is not demanded, not enforced.  Jesus invites us to follow, to voluntarily follow.

And the more authority we give Jesus, the more we will transform our lives.

Amen.

Psalm 111

Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,

in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the works of the Lord,

studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honor and majesty is his work,

and his righteousness endures forever.

He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;

the Lord is gracious and merciful.

He provides food for those who fear him;

he is ever mindful of his covenant.

The works of his hands are faithful and just;

all his precepts are trustworthy.

They are established forever and ever,

to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.

Holy and awesome is his name.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;

all those who practice it have a good understanding.

His praise endures forever.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.“Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

Farewell Heston & Lydia – a sermon by Heston Groenewald (and a bit more)

This morning we’re starting a series on John’s gospel, and Lydia and I are also saying farewell…

It’s been wonderful to meet you these last few years, and we’ve loved being in the neighbourhood. Just as we’re moving out of the neighbourhood, St Johns invites us to think this morning about God moving in. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us – or as the Message bible puts it, God became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood.

St John is saying that ‘Jesus’ is what it looks like when God comes to meet us. And it’s not very dignified!

Jesus told a story about God coming to meet his people- the story we call the Prodigal Son, with a Father who runs with open arms and open heart, casting aside his dignity to meet his wayward child and welcome him back into his presence.

The image of ‘arms and heart opened wide’ is one we have in our Eucharistic liturgy as well- Jesus opened wide his arms of love upon the cross- he cast aside his dignity to die in shame, naked and disgraced.

That’s what St John says it looks like when God comes to meet us. God is ready to throw respectability and pride out of the window, because that is what you do when you’re acting in love. God was born in poverty and died in disgrace- and thought it well worth while for our love.

This love is the life that is the light of the world, and the light of all humankind. St John is suggesting that if we can put aside our respectability and pride, our barriers pretences and suspicions, if we can open our arms and our hearts WIDE, then we will find ourselves living eternal life, life in all its fullness. We’ll find ourselves living the life of heaven, here on earth. Just like the Prodigal Father, and just like Jesus.

‘Like it or not, heaven is other people. Did you think it was God? You are right; but it is God in people, just as it is God in you.’  John.V.Taylor

As Lydia and I have moved into your neighbourhood and met you, we’ve discovered that St John is right! We’ve learned to see God- to see heaven- in you, as we’ve opened ourselves to you.

So I’d like you to have the chance to do the same! God came to meet us, let’s go meet each other.

[BINGO TIME! – a break to play “Human Bingo”]

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In him was life, and that life was the light of all humankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…’

Our world can seem full of darkness, but every bit of that darkness can be overcome if people do what we’ve just been doing. Meeting each other. Just like God came to meet us in Jesus Christ. That’s very simple, but it’s also very profound and true.

As we leave, please will you carry on doing this- mixing, meeting, breaking down barriers and creating friendship and love. Then your life will shine like a light in the darkness.

Meeting you- in all your diversity and craziness!- has been the most invaluable lesson for us these 3+ years. Thank you and we love you!

*  *  *

A short thank you address on behalf of the Church of the Ascension, by Trevor Donnelly:

I’m going to keep it really, really short

I’m just going to begin with a quote, end with a prayer and say very few words in between…

Rowan Williams spoke to a group of people preparing for ministry and he talked about the things that destroyed ministry, the greatest enemies of doing God’s work:

“Now these three abide: laziness, anger, and fear—and the greatest of these is fear.”

There’s something profound for us all to think about there, but I realised that Heston and Lydia do not need that advice, in fact their work across the team has showed the very opposite:

  • hard work
  • serenity
  • confidence

hard work:

Heston has worked tireless and with commitment that puts myself (and pretty much every minister I know to shame).

As his training incumbent my advice was never to “do more” but rather to maybe take more time for himself…

serenity:

My personal vote of thanks has to be for the time I had to fly off to Belfast at very short notice.

I would phone him on a Saturday night and ask him to take the service at the Ascension on top of a service at Holy Trinity and St. John’s and I was greeted with a “no problem, do what you have to do.  I will be eternally grateful…

confidence:

Heston and Lydia have great confidence – confidence in the people of our Churches, confidence in you all, confidence in the power of love to change lives and confidence in the Gospel…

I have a few small tokens of thanks from your friends at the Ascension, which I will give in a moment.

The people of Leeds are lucky indeed.

I end with a prayer by John Henry Newman, although it is written in the first person, add you ‘Amen’ to make it your prayer too:

God has created me to do him some definite service.  He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.  I have my mission.  I may never know it in this world.  But I shall be told it in the next.
I am a link in the chain.  A bond of connection between persons.  He has not created me for naught.  I shall do good.  I shall do his work.  I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep his commandments.
Therefore will I trust him.  Wherever, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away.  If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve him;  in perplexity, my perplexity may serve him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve him.
He does nothing in vain.  He knows what he is about.  He may take away my friends, he may throw me among strangers, he may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me… still…
He knows what he is about.
Amen.

Stairway to Heaven – a sermon by Heston Groenewald

Last sermon at Ascension! Boo hoo. But we have some very appropriate readings for the occasion, with lots of ascension happening, up and down these stairways to heaven.

Stairways to heaven are a very foundational idea in Jewish and Christian thinking- heaven and earth are two dimensions of the same reality, and they are linked together. This understanding runs right through our scriptures, starting in Genesis where the heavens and the earth are created as God’s temple, and humans are placed into this temple as the ‘image’ of God. Heaven and earth are created to be interlinked and continuous- God comes and goes freely between them both, and the humans who are made in God’s image don’t seem to know that there’s any distinction to be made.

That all changes when they get kicked out of the garden, out of God’s presence, and life on earth suddenly seems far less heavenly. Then things go from bad to worse- Genesis 3-6 murder of Abel, Tower of Babel, the flood- as humans either forget the divine image that they bear, or they deliberately turn away from it. And so God invites Abraham and Sarah and their family to reclaim the divine image and offer it to the world. That was never going to be an easy calling, as their family name suggested- the patriarch Jacob was renamed Israel- wrestles with God- and that set the tone for the story of Israel and humanity- heaven and earth are more at odds that at ease. Not so easily continuous anymore.

And so it’s a very hopeful thing that Jacob- Israel- has this dream about a ladder which connects heaven and earth, as the messengers of God ascend and descend. He calls the place Beth El, the house of God. And that’s exactly how the Israelites understood the Jerusalem temple when it came along- the house of God- this was the place where heaven and earth overlapped, the temple was a little piece of heaven here on earth.

Jesus was also convinced that heaven and earth are connected and interlocked, but he had something new and special to say about that idea. He describes the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, so the place where heaven and earth overlap isn’t a place or a temple anymore, it’s a person- the person of Jesus.

Jesus went around doing the things that the temple was there for. He forgave sins, he healed people and restored them into the community, he taught the Torah and its application on his own authority. He told people that he was the true way to God. He was acting as though HE was the place where heaven and earth overlap. HE was now God’s address on earth- if you want to be in God’s presence, don’t go to the temple, come hang out with Jesus.

And that makes the resurrection and Ascension of Jesus very interesting, especially for us lot who call ourselves the church of the Ascension. Jesus ascends into heaven, and once again there’s a being who can move freely between heaven and earth, and is completely at home in both dimensions of reality. Just like God and Adam and Eve at the beginning of Genesis- in Jesus, divinity and humanity have been reunified, heaven and earth have been reunified.

That suggests, that we should be able to see or sense heaven in the world around us. Barbara Brown Taylor talks about being a ‘detective of divinity’- she goes around ‘collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks that God has left for her to follow.’ She says our earth is shot through with heaven, and there are pointers all over the place- in the beauty of nature, in the creativity of art, in the discoveries and mysteries of science, in the longings of our hearts, for love, for justice- all of these things are little bits of heaven breaking into our earthly life.

That’s exactly the idea behind a ‘sacrament’ – a little bit of heaven that has broken into life here and now. The Eucharist is one that we share every week – but if we’re being detectives of divinity, surely we should be looking out everywhere for sacraments- for bits of heaven…

The Sacrament of a joke, the funniest story

The Sacrament of tears in your eyes

The Sacrament of a meal, slowly cooking,

The Sacrament of a round glass of wine

The Sacrament of a child’s first, wide-eyed, steps

The Sacrament of all that trust in you

The Sacrament of bass, drum, guitar

The Sacrament connected to the… hip bone

The Sacrament of being there, right place, right time

The Sacrament of a listening ear

The Sacrament of the novel you can’t put down

The Sacrament of the poem with no rhyme

The Sacrament of starlings, in V-formation

The Sacrament of eye-contact (with a dog)

The Sacrament of a lie-in, the long weekend

The Sacrament of getting paid or getting laid

The Sacrament of your sweet lips on mine

The Sacrament of You and Me

The Sacrament friendship, rough and smooth

The Sacrament of the days, the months, the years

The Sacrament of questions with no answers

The Sacrament of silence. Enough said

The Sacrament of a life baptised by love

The Sacrament of the divine

In bread and wine.

(Sacrament – Martin Wroe)

As we turn to the Eucharist, there’s a brilliant prayer of preparation: By the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled himself to share our humanity.

And that’s a mind-blowing hint that we can be detectives of divinity, but really Jesus invites us to be AGENTS of it. To share in the life of heaven and make it happen in the world around us. And isn’t that an awesome and humbling thing. As we follow in the way of Jesus, WE are the places where heaven and earth meet. Where God’s good will is done, on earth as in heaven. And isn’t that exactly what our world needs, with all its relentless bad news…

The glory of God is a human being fully alive, and full life consists in beholding God. Let’s go ‘behold’ the hints of heaven that are everywhere around us, and then let’s go live the life of heaven and spread it everywhere we go. Let’s go be the church of the Ascension!

Epiphany: the journey of the Magi

Today is the feast of the Epiphany when we celebrate the visit of the wise men.  The word epiphany means revelation – suddenly seeing something true.

The ‘Epiphany’ that season focuses on is the epiphany of Christ to the magi, although in the following Sundays that make up a whole “season” of epiphany we hear about the epiphany of Jesus’ baptism (when God the Father speaks and the Spirit appears as a dove when Jesus enters the waters of the river Jordan) and the first miracle of Jesus (when the change faith can make in our lives is symbolised by boring-old-water being changed into rich, intoxicating wine)

But the “Epiphany” of the magi did not come easily.  It’s not simply that any long journey was challenge in the ancient world, this was a mysterious quest with puzzle at its beginning, a shocking conclusion and a middle shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.

The vision of the 3 Kings that has developed in our religious culture is worth unpicking.  We will finish this service with the carol “We three Kings” but we sing it to celebrate an inspiring story, not as a hymn to historical accuracy.  It is often imagined that three Kings who had a hobby of stargazing, saw a star in the sky and decided to “follow” it.  The star led them first to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem and a directly to a stable where they found the baby Jesus.

The Biblical story is less straightforward:  If we read the Bible we find that the wise men there were not ‘Kings’ and we don’t know how many of them there were.  They brought three gifts so it was assumed there were three, but the Bible gives no number.

The bible says these wise men saw a star “as it rose” and says nothing about the star guiding them.  They were astrologers who saw meaning in a strange celestial phenomenon.  The star is not mentioned until much later in their journey, in inference being that it disappeared for a time, and they travelled in darkness.  This certainly fits in with the story that they had to make inquiries, and traveled to Herod’s palace to see if he knew anything about the birth of a new king.

There was no guiding star – only theories and prophesies and rumours.  Their journey was full of dangers and doubts and difficulties.  But they persevered.  And then the star appears again as they approach Bethlehem, and they take this as confirmation of their mission, but the first confirmation from the heavens since their quest began.

Finally they meet the child prophesied to be King, but not in a palace, not in luxury, not with an entourage of midwifes and doctors, but in poverty, born to a couple of poor, illiterate peasants.  And here the Magi earn the title of “wise men” for they recognise the poor child and offer their gifts of God, Frankincense and Myrrh.

The Biblical version of the story is much more inspiring than the popular version (although both may be at odds with history)

We too are on a journey, when we started, in the enthusiasm of youth, most of us were attracted by something bright – an ideal or a vocation, a vision of hope.  But this ‘star’ does not remain in the sky the whole way through our journey, we lose sight of it, and our path grows dark.

The magi can be role-models for our journey, they lost sight of the star but kept going, they made inquiries, they studied and reflected and they kept on going… until eventually they saw the light again and found their way to Bethlehem and offered their gifts

I’d like to close with a famous poem that captures the struggle of the journey, the alienation of the wise men in a strange land, and foreshadows the end of Jesus life with its lines about “three trees on a hill” and playing “dice” and “pieces of silver”

The Journey Of The Magi by T.S. Eliot

‘A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.’

And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,

Lying down in the melting snow.

There were times we regretted

The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,

And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling

and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,

And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,

And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly

And the villages dirty and charging high prices:

A hard time we had of it.

At the end we preferred to travel all night,

Sleeping in snatches,

With the voices singing in our ears, saying

That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;

With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,

Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,

And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.

But there was no information, and so we continued

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

Wilderness & Vineyard – a sermon by Heston Groenewald

This morning we are thinking of prophets in our Advent preparations. And the gospel reading gives us John the Baptist, this iconic wild man in the wilderness. John stands in a long tradition of Jewish prophetic voices- voices that are calling for things to be different- calling for a society and a world that is better, more fair, more just and more equal.

These prophetic voices usually come from THE WILDERNESS. And that’s an interesting thing. God’s people started their life in the wilderness, so it is a special and important place in their- and our- theological imagination. The wilderness is the place where God gave the law to Moses and the people, it’s the place where God led the people in a pillar of cloud and fire. The wilderness is a place where God’s people know where they- we- stand with God, and we know what God wants of us. In our dealings with God, morality and life, the wilderness is a place of clarity and vision, of black and white.

But when God’s people enter their promised land, they stop wandering and build a civilisation. Their economic and social life changes, and their symbol becomes a vineyard (eg. Psalm 80) rather than a wandering nomad. A vineyard is structured and organised, and it’s a far less simple place than the wilderness. With a vineyard, you have to be productive, which means dabbling with wealth and power structures- you have to make compromises and choose between two evils, and morally there’s much more grey than black and white.

Things go wrong for our vineyard Israel. They’re surrounded by huge powerful empires in Egypt Assyria and Babylon, and they are seduced by the trappings of power as they set up their little nation. As they start running after power and wealth, they effectively turn away from God’s blueprint for their society, which is all about ‘Jubilee’ (Leviticus 25, Deuteronomy 15, Luke 4, Acts 2:42-47) – equality and generosity. Turning away from equality means oppressing the poor and hungry in their society. And whenever that happens in the vineyard, God sends them prophets- in the wilderness- to speak truth to power, to remind them who God is and what God requires of them.

And so Isaiah, Micah, Amos, John the Baptist and Jesus all use very colourful ‘wilderness’ language to remind the vineyard people that God requires them to ‘Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God’ (Micah 6:8). And that means they have to look after the people who are poor and hungry and marginalised in their society, and it means they have to stop chasing after the false gods of power and money. The wilderness voices call them to return to the way of life they were given in the Torah- in the wilderness- which means loving neighbours and a society of equality and Jubilee.

This equality is described in some wonderful ways. From our readings this morning and Handel’s Messiah: every valley shall be exalted, the rough places made smooth and the hills brought down… To prepare the way of the Lord.

This is not just geological talk. This is the same language we know from the Magnificat, where Mary rejoices that God casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty – this is about the levelling of society.

And this is a good thing for us to hear from the wilderness this morning. Advent invites us, as God’s people, to do some self-evaluation and soul-searching. Here at the church of the Ascension, we are often ‘wilderness voices’ within the wider church, as we call for equality and a better society and world. But at the same time, here in Blackheath we are very firmly in the vineyard. We are settled and comfortable, and we’re bought in to the structures of society- which means that to some extent we dabble with the gods of power and wealth.

So what do the voices from the wilderness have to say to us this morning? The same thing they’ve always said. They call for a society and world which is fairer and more equal- more level. They call for a society where everyone has enough; where no one has too much, forcing others to go without food, electricity, etc. Equality and justice is a HIGHLY relevant message for our unequal, divided society, and for us within it.

Prepare the way of the Lord this Advent. That means levelling society. God wants to bring down the mighty from their thrones and thereby raise up the lowly. The mighty is US! We have too much, and so God invites us to humble ourselves so that others can be raised up and have enough.

‘Comfort, O comfort my people’ is the wilderness message of Isaiah this morning. How about making that our message this Christmas…

How do we do that? With our Christmas presents! How about buying and giving Christmas presents in a way that doesn’t just benefit people who already have a lot. How about buying and giving Christmas presents in a way that shares our over-abundance with our brothers and sisters who have too little to live on.

In this way, we ‘prepare the way for the Lord’ – we level  the mountains and valleys, we equalise the inequality in society, and we bring comfort to God’s people.

http://lydialivinglightly.org/being-a-conscious-consumer/gifts/