Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Crossing the Jordan

Here is the beginning of a new history, after 40 years, a generation of wandering in the wilderness the Israelites are to cross into the promised land. Moses is dead, the covenant has been renewed and Joshua appointed to lead in his place. The book of Joshua begins “The Lord spoke to Joshua, son of Nun, Moses’ assistant saying “My servant Moses is dead, now prepare to cross the Jordan you and all this people into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. This is the land promised to Abraham and his descendants in the book of Genesis. In between the Israelites have received the Law, they know that what they must do first and foremost is to place their trust unequivocally in God. “They came to the Jordan and camped there (before crossing).

There is something about being on one side of a river especially when it is a boundary. I remember the thrill of crossing the Tamar into Cornwall. So many times I have made this journey and always there was a moment of elation, of joy that Cornwall had been reached - it was a long way from the deep countryside of Kent, that for a little while the way of life would be different, something new was beginning. The boundary was tangible and visible.

Now near Jericho the Jordan in Spring overflows its banks and in places is more than a mile wide and treacherous to cross. How to do it? The people followed Joshua not knowing how but with great faith. The ark of the covenant was the most sacred of the tabernacle furnishings and symbolises the throne of of the Lord. So in the account the Lord himself went ahead of his people, as he led them to the land of Canaan. The significance of this cannot be overestimated for the manner of crossing will bring assurance to the nations, that the one true God is with them and that he will surely dislodge the present inhabitants of Canaan. Those on the other side of the river worship Baal, thought by them to be the most powerful of their Gods for he triumphed over the sea-god. By opening the waters of the Jordan, for us a reprise of the parting of the Red Sea, God shows that he is Lord of the waters, just as he was Lord of of the flood and of course of creation (the spirit of God hovered over the waters) Such clear power over water will strike fear in the Canaanites and boost the confidence of the tribes of Israel. Notice too that the ark remains in the river bed until all have crossed. It is through the Lord that the people reach the promised land, they came through the Jordan by his power.

Paul in his letter to the Hebrews begins by reminding his readers of God’s permanence.
“In the beginning Lord you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands, they will perish but you remain: you are the same.”

God’s promises are everlasting, they can be relied on in ways unknown for the promises of man. No matter what the circumstances, God will fulfil them - so the priests after three days on the edge, looking at the waters, without bridge to cross follow Joshua’s instructions and dip their feet in the edge of the water .

Imagine that - the promised land (think of my Cornwall maybe) waited for, for so so long and it comes down to dipping your toes in the water and trusting.



In Checkov’s short one act comedy The Proposal, Lomov comes to propose to Natalya his neighbour’s daughter. After a short introductory scene explaining his purpose it is time to bring Natalya on stage. The question for director and actress is how to do that, how to start. Lomov waits in his evening dress centre stage, nervous, uncertain, bumbling while Natalya ia told by her father that “A merchant is come by claim his goods.”  You need to set her character from this moment - the proposal by the way will not go well and within a few paragraphs they are arguing so as she arrives on stage in her working clothes and apron it has to be clear from her tone of voice and gesture what sort of a person she is. This beginning more than anything in my view is what will make the one act play will work.

Beginnings are important and here this morning as we hear about the start of Jesus’ ministry he comes on stage and he comes to tell us who he is. Our first question might be “Why does Jesus need or want to be baptised?”surely as John the Baptist points out this is upside down. There immediately is a signpost for Jesus’ earthly ministry: He will throughout his time, in his preaching and teaching turn established ideas, particularly those of of the religious leaders, on their heads.  Notice too that Jesus immediately exerts and shows his authority, John consented. We know that Jesus is strong, quiet, persuasive;  we will see him calling the disciples Andrew and John from their fishing boats, Matthew from his tax collecting and they will follow him they will consent.

Jesus comes to fulfil the words of the prophets and returning to our reading from Isaiah we hear:

“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights, I have put my spirit upon him. Thus says the Lord God, the lord who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it - who gives breath to the people.” Isaiah reminding us so beautifully who God is, the creator of all, tells us that he is sending his servant, his chosen one.

Jesus comes to us as man and God - in this first action, he shows it is never going to be only about words and this first gesture shows that he is one of us that he is identifying totally as a person just as all those others who have come to be  baptised by John he submits to be baptised but notice Jesus’ first steps on the stage are not made alone.

“And when Jesus had been baptised he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove. And a voice from heaven said “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

So as Jesus comes in from the wings we are straight away introduced to the Trinity, there are Father, Son and Holy Spirit on this occasion and to my reckoning only on this occasion manifested to us all at the same time. Jesus the Son rising from the water, the Holy Spirit as a dove and the words of the Father coming from heaven. Now good theologians and Christians that you all are you doubtless thinking “But the three persons of the Trinity are always with us always together what is Steve on about?” This is the only time that we do see them all at once and I emphasise again this is the beginning, the people on the bank of the Jordan do not yet know that Jesus will promise us the Holy Spirit, the advocate, the counsellor, they do not know who Jesus is -even the disciples will not know until almost the end of the Gospel, yet it is all here at this first entrance.

Jesus comes to turn things upside down, to be authoritative,to fulfill the words of the prophets, to show us he is incarnate and to tell us and show us the love of the Trinity. In these four verses is the perfect beginning.


Monday, 25 November 2019

Christ the King Future or Present

[Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43]

I found myself on a long car journey going to a new destination in the US for a critical meeting. I was driving and in the passenger seat was a Jeremiah. He, the Jeremiah was map reading and the whole trip was punctuated by doom laden pronouncements -  not I hasten to add about my driving but things like: Well the traffic will surely mean we will be stuck for hours; I expect this hire car map is out of date; if the bridge ahead is not closed which I expect it will be, we could cross the river there; anyway it will probably snow and we will be stuck for months. It was by the way a bright September day!

Jeremiah, the biblical one, had a justified reputation for being doleful he was ever giving warnings to the leaders and people of Israel, but I am  not sure that I agree he was always pessimistic. Today’s reading from chapter 23 is extremely hopeful and ultimately uplifting. Jeremiah has been having an argument with Jehoakim, the king of Israel who among other things has been condemned in Jeremiah’s eyes for building a grandiose new palace and for neglecting his people. In fact Jeremiah is a vigorous opponent of the king and he begins our passage “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” a clear reference to those present day leaders who can expect nothing good. He goes on though to say

“I the Lord will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them and they shall not fear any longer nor be dismayed. I will raise up for David a righteous branch and he shall reign as king and deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

This idea of a king and of God as king of Israel bringing justice and order permeates the Old Testament.
Jesus’ teaching was in some respects in line with the apocalyptic view of his contemporaries. They would have understood that they were waiting for the coming of a God who would exercise the right and proper functions of a king as they understood they should be and would bring justice to all and deliver Israel from its oppressors.

We can surely relate to this feeling, perhaps more so in these weeks when we are choosing , not a king of course, but a government at our ballot box. Do we long for the promised God given realignment of society, do we sometimes feel powerless to change anything? Do we, like the Jews, thirst for a different and better age?

As we celebrate the feast of Christ the King this morning, this Sunday which is the last in the church’s calendar we hear again the promise of this new order. And rightfully so for here we are at the pinnacle of the story with Jesus now in Paradise - The thief on the cross reminded us of that and Paul too reminds us who Jesus is:

“He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body of the church, he is the beginning of the first born from the dead.”

He is Christ the king. Now the trouble with this vision, glorious as it is, is that it must exist in tension with other things that Jesus said about the kingdom, that it is here now, that it had come with him. As Paul said in the same passage we heard: “he has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his blessed son.”

So which is it that we celebrate today? The kingdom of Jeremiah , not my downcast navigator, but of the real Jeremiah, the hopeful one, the kingdom that we are yet waiting for or are we celebrating the the transformation brought about by Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection?

The answer is of course both - Yes at the end of the story, at the end of the church’s year we remember the promised kingdom but there is something to celebrate today, I mean now, this minute, for the moment that you allow Christ to enter your life and to be in charge of it - to continue the metaphor to be king of it - then for each of us a new way of being, a new society a new kingdom has already arrived.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Stick to the knitting

Begin with some knitting

The other day I found myself among a group of grumblers. Things were not ot their liking, the structures they were working within were top heavy and growing more so, the financial costs they had to bear were too great, they were insufficiently appreciated for the impossible tasks they attempted to perform, their customers were deserting them for greener pastures, and, you have guessed already this was a group of clergy men and women.

The last verses of our two New Testament readings this morning are :

2 Thessalonians 3:13 “Brothers and sisters, do not weary of doing what is right.”
Luke 21: 19 “By your endurance you will gain your souls”

Jesus, as Luke tells us,  was more than aware that his disciples down the ages would face many challenges: war and insurrections, earthquakes, plagues, famines, betrayals and persecutions. In the light of this it is perhaps surprising that his followers who personally knew his ministry and heard hs words expected His coming again to be quite soon, but they did and we know now that it was not to be and that these “in between times” are still with us”

 In May 2019 the Bishop of Truro published his report into religious persecution where he concluded that Christians are the most widely persecuted community. It is an issue that stretches across 144 countries and in eleven of these the persecution is officially described as extreme. [previously this was only the case in North Korea] Alongside this the present world order is destabilising and I think we might say that at the very least  there is a rise in national sentiments for example in Hungary, Germany and Spain among others. Nation still fises against nation and we read in Luke that we “are not ot be terrified for these things must take place first.”

The “in between times are difficult to live in.” This week at morning prayer we have been saying a prayer set for the period between All Saints and Advent:

Blessed are you sovereign God, ruler and judge of all
To you be praise and glory forever
In the darkness of this age which is passing away
May the light of your presence which the saints enjoy
Surround our steps as we journey on

This age will pass away and the question then is how shall we behave in it in these challenging years, what should we model? Well, Malachi the last book of the Old Testament also has something to say to us:

“But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” In other words that is what we are called to do; to continue to revere God, to endure and to never weary of doing what is right.
When I sat among my grumbling group my advice was “to be patient, to be faithful, to continue doing the work we are called to do”  More simply put

“Stick to the knitting”

When I do that  I feel in good company with Malachi, with Paul and with Luke.


Sunday, 10 November 2019

“For those who laid down their lives for God and country”

In my old village there was some discussion at the parish council about the wording of the new memorial plaque that they planned to lay on the green in front of the church. They could not agree among themselves so they decided to write to the vicar and ask his opinion.

We gather today in common with millions of people to remember and honour those who have fought for their country and after this service we will lay our poppies at the memorial as a symbol of our remembrance. The remembrance collect we have just read includes the words: “Hear our prayers and thanksgivings for all who we remember this day.”

But I wonder if this is enough? Yes we should surely remember and give thanks for the men and women who gave of themselves and who are still doing so in hostile environments, deployed across the world in the many conflicts that continue to rage but I think that I want us to do more

To quote from Archbishop Temple broadcasting in 1939 on the home service at the outbreak of war: He said:

“No positive good can be done by force; that is true. But evil can be checked and held back by force and it is precisely for this that we may be called upon to use it.”

We might very well think about the first part of the sentence – “no positive good can be done by force“ in reference to recent conflicts and we have as a nation reevaluated the modern wars in the Middle East where the use of force has been seen by some to have had unwelcome consequences. That no positive good can arise  is of course why we avoid using force wherever possible. But the second part of Temple’s sentence can also be seen to be true “Evil can be checked and held back by force.” We saw the evil of the Second World War when liberating soldiers discovered Auschwitz, Buchenwald,and the camps in Asia, we saw the evil in Serbia and in Rwanda, we have seen the evil of violent men in European cities London, Paris, Manchester  and the evil we shall discover in Northern Syria.

Those who gave their lives gave them to preserve a way of life, to preserve our rights, freedoms and liberties; theirs was a struggle for good against evil a good that resided in shared values especially in the way they believed and understood that we should behave towards one another.

And that is why the village concluded that the words on the stone were not simply “for those who laid down their lives for country”– but “for those who laid down their lives for God and country” because there was more to it – there were those values - and the best values the best ways of living together come from our understanding of God and his message of love. On the memorial in Burnham Market there are some of the words form John’s Gospel

 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you, no-one, ”says Jesus “has greater love than this – to lay down one’s life for ones friends.”

So - when we lay our poppy or wreath on the stone I would like us to also think about this:  Is our society the one they were fighting for, do we as a community and as individuals do more than remember, do we still struggle to uphold and live by these values that they fought for and for which many are fighting for still?

Yes, we lay our poppy to remember and honour but also let us think deeply as we do about our lives and how we live together, how we care for one another, how we converse with one another  let us again resolve to live up to the values of those who sacrificed themselves for us and for the way of life they dreamed for us.


Monday, 4 November 2019

Tripping over joy

Tripping over Joy

What is the difference
Between your experience of existence
And that of a saint?

The saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God.

And that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over joy
And bursting out in laughter
And saying “I surrender”

This poem which I have read to you in translation was written by a celebrated Persian Poet called Hafiz who lived about the same time as Chaucer so in the second half of the 1300’s. For hundreds of years his burial place in the garden city of Shiraz was a site of pilgrimage and it was Goethe who mainly introduced his poems to the west. His collected poems are a classic of the mystical, meditative and poetic tradition of his country. In this poem he asks us a question - what is the difference between you and a saint? He tells us that if we look up from ourselves, out from our introspective lost strategic maneuvering our human ineffectual grappling with the idea of God, the games we play to place God within our understanding we will discover that God is truly there.
Which of course is what the saints we celebrate today discovered and when we do that we will trip over joy bursting into a laughter of delight.

Written much earlier of course is Psalm 149 which is an eschatological hymn looking forward to the end of time when God has won the final victory and we are at his feet and we know who He is. We are exhorted to rejoice in anticipation, sing his praises to the congregation of the faithful but not only you notice with our lips but also by worshipful body movement and by melody of percussion and strings: “Let them praise his name in dance, let them sing praise to him with timbrel and lyre”

Often when we speak of heaven we talk of peace, of rest and quietness; there will be some of that in our service of thanksgiving this evening and it is comforting. I wonder if this image has something of retirement about it : books, grandfather clocks, good claret maybe? The funeral collect expresses this hope - “the fever of life is over and our work is done; then grant us a safe lodging, a holy rest and peace at the last. Nearly all the retired people I meet by the way, and by now I have met quite a number, say something like “I don’t know how I found the time to work!” Now I am not entirely sure why this should be so and I am, not quite yet you understand, ready to find out but I am in time hoping to find out what heaven is like and it may be that this image of passive rest and peacefulness is wrong:

In heaven we will be exceedingly moved to worship God, there we discover that we can praise him and there we may discover that heaven is a place that gives us rest but we are moved to worship day and night.

In the book of Revelation we read that even the angels are to be found before the throne and they worship him day and night in his temple. The most excellent of creation, who have never sinned, who are with God continually, not only cover their faces but fall in humblest adoration before the Lord.

If they are moved in his presence to do this then surely Hafiz is right at the last we will trip over in joy, burst out in laughter and surrender ourselves to total praise in every way imaginable. 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

John's first letter : 1 John 1:1-2:11

John 1:1

We declare to you that what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands concerning the word of life. This is John, writing towards the end of his life, beginning his epistle by reminding his readers, (most probably the church at Ephesus) that he had been at Jesus’ side. Robert Browning’s poem “A death in the desert” speaks of JIhn being the last of the close disciples:

When my ashes scatter
There is left on earth
No one alive who knew (Consider this)
Saw with his own eyes and handled with his hands
That which was from the first the Word of life
How will it be when no more saith “I saw”?

I have asked before “what would we do if Jesus came in that door now, walked up this aisle”?
This letter of John tells us . “Consider this ..” JOhn did see and in his Gospel and three letters and the book of Revelation he proclaims the transformative power of being with Jesus. Firstly, John tells us that HE is light, there is no darkness at all, mot a single tiny speck. Jesus is in this respect unlike us for if we say that we have no sin in us we deceive ourselves and there is no truth in us.

If Jesus is here, there in front of us now we would all see that. So blindingly that we would confess our sins. I am convinced there would be no stopping us,because as John says “the light is already shining”. Remember John was there, he saw it, this testimony of John’s lives so that we may have the fellowship that he John had with the Father and the Son. We would be irresistibly moved to expunge the darkness in our lives.

And we know the message of John - God is love and we must walk as he walked. Now this might seem far to high a target, we cannot reach this it is beyond our poor mortality to be as perfect as Christ was perfect. But “Consider this ..” if we could see and hear and touch we would be motivated beyond all previous driving force we may have experienced in our lives to be like HIM. We shall be so inspired to love our brother and sister that there would be no cause for stumbling and we would indeed love and be loved.