Tuesday, 12 December 2017

John the Baptist (2)

A sermon based on the one I didn't get to preach last Sunday, because of all the snow . . . and edited and re-posted 16/12/17:

“The Lord has robed me in deliverance and arrayed me in victory, like a bridegroom with his garland, or a bride decked in her jewels. As the earth puts forth her blossom or plants in the garden burst into flower, so will the Lord God make his victory and renown blossom before all the nations.” So writes the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading, words written at the time of the people’s return to their own land, and to Jerusalem. As he sets his people free God’s greatness and glory is displayed for all the world to see.

Then in today’s Gospel we’ve read about John the Baptist, the man sent to prepare the way for another new act of deliverance: the promised Messiah. “He was not the light,” says John the Apostle carefully, “but he came to bear witness to the light.” Only Luke tells us anything about the origins of John the Baptist; and for most of those who heard him, this new prophet must have appeared out of nowhere. But out they came in great numbers to hear him there in the desert. And they could tell from the strangeness of his clothing and lifestyle, and the urgency of his message, that here at last was a true prophet like the prophets of long ago.

Those great prophets like Isaiah were treasured and still studied carefully, for people found in their words a fresh promise, something new that God was about to do: the Messiah, God's chosen and anointed servant, would soon come to liberate his people. And there was John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, eating locusts and wild honey: all of a sudden someone who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. People must have wondered whether he was more than just a prophet. Could this man himself be the Messiah?

But John answered that question with a firm no. He told them that he’d come to prepare the way for one the strap of whose sandal he wasn’t worthy to unloose. That would be a menial slave’s job, by the way. So John was saying “I am less than his slave.”

But he also had a stern warning for the people: you think God’s going to do something new, and you’re right. It’s about to happen, and you’d better be ready. That’s like the things Isaiah and the other great prophets of the Old Testament said to the people of their day: do this now, they said: turn away from living in a way that is making God angry and start again. Take his commandments to heart, and get yourselves ready to meet him.

The words of the prophets were as much about challenge as comfort. The same with John: those who came out to hear thought that their birth as Jews was enough to make them God's people. But John said: “You’re wrong to think that way. To really be God’s people, you must to live as God wants you to, faithfully, obedient to his laws: and the time is short, so take this chance and do it now - begin again, repent, turn away from your old lives, and write God’s law on your hearts: the commandments that for too long you've been watering down, adjusting to fit your own needs.

And John baptized people; baptism was part of the process of becoming a Jew if you hadn’t been born a Jew. So John was treating the people as if they weren’t already Jews by birth. His baptism restored their status as God’s people, making a fresh start. If you’ve ever been to the Jordan, by the way, you’ll know that it’s not one of the world’s great rivers. It’s not the holy Ganges or the royal Nile, it’s not really a match even for the Thames or the Severn. But it was enough to be baptized in; and those who took John's words to heart went into its water to wash their old and sinful self away, and start afresh.

How come John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, the people were longing for change, yearning for freedom. John looked the part and lived the part, and for people tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, he spoke with an authentic voice. And it wasn’t only his words: his whole life was a critique of the status quo; a cry of protest and a call to judgement.

So John I guess was telling people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, his call was one that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard. So here’s a thought as regards the mission of the Church today. How do we click with the priorities, the hopes, the dreams that people already have? Do we need a different approach? Or do we just need to get on with living the faith we proclaim, and waiting for that point when the time is right and people respond? However we answer that, John’s call to us is to be much more than a Sunday Church.

Now John’s was a voice in the wilderness, and we may often think that ours is too. But things were different then. The desert land between Judaea and the Dead Sea is a barren and inhospitable place - but deserts have a positive role in Hebrew thought. The desert is where a person goes to seriously engage with God, leaving the distractions and comforts of life behind. And prophetic voices often come out of the desert. Mission needs to be based in a community that is seriously seeking God, and seriously praying to God, and placing itself at God’s disposal. John the Baptist was a man who claimed nothing for himself. That must have impressed those who were getting tired of the religious teachers of the day, folk who held high status and made a good living. I am nothing, just the messenger, said John. And today the Church will be most effective in mission when it’s most forgetful of itself.

Those who reject our call to faith will often claim that religion has been the cause of a lot of the bad stuff in human history: war, suffering, division. That’s often been true, and religion is still doing damage in the world, and in doing so offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to be acting and speaking. There’s far too much bad religion around. But true mission is not about selling religion. John the Baptist was not selling religion. He wasn’t converting people to religion, He didn’t need to: these were already religious folk.

What John did need to do was to convert their religion into faith. He was preaching to people who did all the religious things, but they’d lost touch with God. I’m sure that’s why John didn’t teach in obviously holy places like synagogues or shrines or indeed the temple itself. That’s where people met to teach and discuss and debate religious matters, but that’s not what John was doing. He was preparing the way, not debating about God, but to speaking directly for God: speaking God’s own urgent word of renewal.

Words like renewal, reform, reformation, revival are scattered throughout the history of the Church, along with names like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham. Why so much reform and revival? Because religion needs constant conversion, if it doesn't it gets sidetracked into existing for its own sake, serving its own interests, its own hierarchy or toadying up to the powers that be. It starts to get faithless. Revival is about the renewal of faith, reconnecting with God. And through history, mission happens when revival happens. Mission to those outside the Church begins with mission to those inside it.

So we should never get too comfortable with how we are now, nor too much at ease with the way the world around us does things, or indeed with our own selves. Advent is one of the times when we’re challenged to think things out afresh, to tune into God, to re-create ourselves. John said to the people then: get ready, for the King is on his way; and that prophetic message is just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, for the Church today.

Monday, 11 December 2017


My "Nature Notes" for January - a second go at writing about one of my favourite birds . . .

I’ve written about starlings before, but the other day a friend was showing me some great pictures of a winter murmuration of starlings around the pier at Aberystwyth, and that has persuaded me to write about them again. Starlings were an everyday part of our lives when I was a child. Our back garden was always full of them, and you heard them singing every day from the housetops. Where we are now, however, we hardly ever see them. For the most part we might just see a little flight pass over, or notice one briefly perch on a neighbouring roof or aerial.

I used to love the sound of our back garden starlings, because they are natural mimics. They will imitate other birds, but often include other noises too. They are quick-witted in other ways too, and able to exploit a wide variety of food sources, though they are basically insect-eaters. In the late summer we do sometimes get a family group of starlings at our garden feeders. They’ve never visited for more than a couple of days, but in that time they do tend to take over; every other bird gets pushed out when a squad of starlings arrives.

Starlings might be the “other garden black bird” - except that their glossy coats are not really black, but have a sheen almost like oil on a puddle, with glints of many colours. In the winter though, their plumage is duller, more matt, and very spotty. Their narrow bills, yellow in summer, are now black. That is a good insect-eating bill, though, designed for probing and stabbing.

Starlings love lawns, and one factor in the decline in the starling population maybe that there aren’t as many garden lawns around; and maybe our homes and gardens are just to tidy for this naturally hole-nesting bird. They are still common, but a lot less common than when I was a child. And declining numbers of common birds should concern us just as much as the disappearance of rare ones. Starlings are also country birds, and impacted by changes in agricultural practice and land use.

At this time of the year, continental starlings join our native birds, so there are many more to be seen, especially in the places (like Aberystwyth) where murmurations are common. Towards the end of the day, starlings gather together in great flocks that behave rather like the flocks of  wading birds like dunlin. I sometimes think that starlings resemble them more than they do the robins and tits and blackbirds with which they share our gardens.

These great flocks of starlings can look almost more like clouds or smoke than a flock of birds. Predators like sparrow hawks may be attracted to these flocks, but in fact the individual bird is much safer within a murmuration than it would be on its own. The hawk finds it hard to focus on any one bird, and will be confused by the constant changes of direction. And eventually the cloud settles down, and the starlings roost safely together. Tykes they may be, but our lives would be much poorer, I think, without starlings.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

The Prophets and John - for Advent 2

Comfort, comfort ye my people. Words from the first reading, Isaiah chapter 40. The Lord is about to act to save and restore his people. Their long years of exile and suffering are over. Isaiah was writing at the time that Israel was restored, and the people were allowed to return and to rebuild Jerusalem; but his words have also been taken as looking forward to the promised Messiah, or Christ.

But as we read on into today’s Gospel our focus settles on the strange figure of John the Baptist, and there seems to be little about comfort in what he has to say.  Only Luke tells us anything about where John come from - Luke tells us that John was the son of a temple priest called Zechariah, and that John’s mother Elizabeth was a kinswoman of Mary the mother of Jesus. The other Gospels say next to nothing about John’s origins, and so far as those who came to hear John preach were concerned, this new prophet had appeared pretty much out of nowhere.

Isaiah and the other great prophets of old were treasured and carefully studied: their words spoke of a new thing that God was about to do: the Messiah, God's anointed servant, would come to liberate his people. But since those days the prophetic voice had vanished from the land, and there'd been no real prophets for centuries. Until John. John, living in the desert, dressed roughly in camel skin, and eating locusts and wild honey, was a man who lived and looked and sounded like a real prophet. And could he be more than that, the people must have wondered? Could this man be the Messiah?

But John answered their questions with a firm no. He had come only to prepare the way, he told them. But be sure that God is about to do a new thing among you, and you need to be ready for that. And here the message of John matches very well the theme we find again and again as we read the great prophets of old. For the most part, there is little comfort in what they have to say.

The word of the prophets is more often challenge than comfort. You believe your birth makes you God's people, but you're wrong. That’s what John told those who came out to hear him, and it’s a constant theme of the Old Testament prophets. You think you’re God’s people, but to really be God's people you have to live in God's way - and you’ve not been doing that. Time is short, and you need to change: begin again, repent and turn away from your old lives - take to heart the commandments you've watered down and adapted to fit your own needs.

So John was a new prophetic voice, giving good news, yes, but with a challenge attached, an urgent call for change. If you’ve ever been to the River Jordan, you’ll know that it’s no great water-course like the Ganges or the Nile, sacred rivers to other faiths. In fact it hardly even matches the Thames or the Severn. In places it's hardly more than a marshy stream - but it was enough. It was  enough for baptism. And those who took John's words to heart went into that water to wash away their old and sinful selves, and to declare that here and now they were turning back to God.

So how was it that John made such an impact? Well, the time was right, and the people were longing for change, and itching for freedom. John looked like a prophet, and lived like a prophet, and, yes, no doubt some of the people who came to hear him were there as much for the spectacle, the novelty as anything else; but there were many who’d longed to hear a new voice of prophecy, and a new call from God.

And, more than that, John was the fact that this man clearly lived the message he preached. People were tired of hearing the second hand preaching of the priests, and John's was an authentic voice: not only his words but his whole life spoke of protest, judgement, and God's urgent call to repentance. He was telling the people something that in their heart of hearts they already knew, a call that in the depths of their souls they’d already heard.

And his was a voice in the wilderness. Today that would mean a voice no-one heard, but things were different then. The limestone desert between Judaea and the Dead Sea is one of the most hostile and inhospitable places in the world, but in Hebrew thought the desert is a positive place. This is where you go to seriously engage with God, leaving behind the distractions and comforts of life. Where else would you expect to hear God’s prophet speaking God’s word?

And the humility of John would have impressed those who were tired of the religious teachers of their day. They could make a good living, and gain high status in society - compare that to John who was seeking nothing for himself. I am only the messenger, he told them. Among you is one the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. To fasten or unfasten shoes was a slave's duty; so John was saying 'I am less than a slave, compared to the one God is sending to you.'

Those who have no time for faith in God often point to the fact that religion was been the cause of more human war and suffering than almost anything else. Sadly that’s often been true. And far too often still we find religion offending against the very God in whose name and with whose authority it claims to speak.

But John the Baptist was not converting people to religion. He didn’t need to do that, for they were already religious folk. Their problem was that their religion had lost touch with God.  So John's task wasn’t to make them religious but to convert their religion. To do that John moved away from the expected religious places synagogues and shrines, the temple, the places where people taught and discussed and debated. For John had come to speak for God, and not about God. His words sprang directly from God, and not from a religious system of doctrine that might claim to have God locked inside it.

Words like reform, reformation, renewal, revival are scattered through the history of our faith, along with names like Francis of Assisi, Martin Luther, John Wesley and Billy Graham. Why so much reform and revival? Because religion needs constant conversion, so it doesn't get sidetracked into existing for its own sake or serving its own hierarchy or the powers that be. And because we should never be too comfortable with where we are and how we do things, or at ease with the things that are wrong and harmful and unjust in the world around us, or indeed within ourselves. That’s what Advent is for: fresh thinking, tuning into God, re-creating ourselves. Prepare yourself, for the King is coming, said John the Baptist to those people then; a prophetic message that’s just as vital, just as challenging, just as necessary, when we hear it now.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Light a Candle - sermon for Advent 1

Last Saturday I was doing a stint as day chaplain at Hereford Cathedral. I like to go down there from time to time and just spend a day wandering about, chatting to visitors and doing my best to answer the questions they have, and saying prayers every hour on the hour. And having a nose round the Cathedral shop, where last Saturday I found they had some “real Advent calendars” - others are available, but these are the real ones. What makes them real? Fairtrade chocolate for a start, but also the Christmas story, told in the windows you open, and also in a little booklet that comes with it. They’ve got them in Tesco as well, if you’re interested.

I bought three, one for each grandchild, though we do expect a fourth to have arrived by Christmas. Mind you, he’ll not need any chocolate just yet. So I went from Hereford to Bromsgrove, where Evie and Alex and Ben live, and presented them with their Advent calendars as well as managing to cadge a bit of their evening meal. They were busy learning Christmas songs for their school nativity play, including this one which I knew. It goes:

"Light a candle in your window, let the night know that you care,
Light a candle in the window, it may guide the Christ child there."

As well as Advent calendars, we also always gave the children in my church when my own kids were the age of my grandchildren now, Advent candles. They were marked with dates down the side of the candle, along with some festive holly leaves, and you lit the candle each day and let it burn down to tomorrow’s date. Another way of counting down the four weeks of Advent. Well, we say four weeks but in fact it’s four Sundays. Today is as late as the season of Advent can start, because this year Christmas Eve and the last Sunday of Advent are one and the same, and Advent is just three weeks and a day.

But I do rather like candles. Candles can be found more in chapels these days than they used to be, but they are of course much more church than chapel, and high church at that. We have lots at the cathedral of course, quite a few points in the cathedral where people can light candles as a focus for prayer, and maybe to remember someone, and people do that in great numbers. Two weeks ago we had a baptism at one of the churches I help at, and we gave a lighted candle to the newly baptized child - or in fact to her older brother to hold for her - while we prayed that she would “shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God.” Candles used in this way become signs of new life, hope, new beginnings. On the altar or communion table of a church candles are used as symbols of holiness and prayer, and signs of blessing. But we use candles in plenty of other places too. On the dinner table, for example, where candles can stand for fellowship, friendship, family - and, of course, romance.

But it's when we get power cuts that any candles we might have really come into their own. Till then they’ve been a delightful optional extra, but suddenly they become essential. I hope you've been stocking up, as my sixth sense tells me this is going to be a long winter, and power cuts are generally part of the package. 

There's a click, and suddenly it's all gone dark. "I'm a Celebrity, get me out of here" has vanished from your TV screen, the joint remains half-roasted in your oven (I speak here for those like me who lack an Aga). Even if you’re not electrically heated you’re in trouble, because the pump on the central heating has stopped. We scrabble to find a match, and to find a candle and a saucer to stand it on; but then at least we've got enough light to do something: in my case to find the basket of logs, so that we can get the burner lit and heat as much of the house as we can reach. We've got a fair few logs I think, and if we do run out then we start chopping up the furniture.

Usually the power isn’t off all that long. But sometimes it is. Thank goodness we had some candles in, we say. We don’t manage very well without light, but even the fragile light of a single candle is enough light to roll back the darkness and keep us sane. 

Many churches and chapels these days have Advent candle rings: four candles (no jokes please) round the ring to count down the Sundays to Christmas, and one in the centre for the Christ child himself. Each candle around the ring represents one component of the narrative of Advent: the scriptures themselves; the great prophets who foretold the new things God would do; John the Baptist, the forerunner who prepared the way; and Mary’s obedient yes to the angel’s message to her. For me the candles of the Advent ring are a reminder that the spiritual countdown to Christmas is every bit as important as all the other things we dash about to do. More important, really: for the season of Advent isn’t only about getting ready to celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the baby in Bethlehem - it’s also a chance to think about his second coming, and to reflect on the theme of judgement and the ultimate sorting out of things.

Is it fair to say that Christians these days don’t seem to think as much about judgement as maybe our forbears did in the days of fire and brimstone sermons? Or for that matter, going further back, the sort of New Testament congregations that Paul was writing to. Since those early year another two thousand have rolled round, and they seem to keep rolling. In the first century Paul and Peter were writing to churches whose members expected that second coming almost any day. They believed they were living in the last days. I don’t know how confident you are about the state of the world today: there’s plenty to worry about - global warming, nuclear accidents, terrorist attacks or maybe a rogue asteroid, but the last judgement as prophesied in scripture is not usually uppermost in our minds.

Candles could remind us just how dark a place the world can be. Candles are often a sign of love, but those who light candles of love - especially in the troubled places and situations of our world - often make themselves vulnerable, a target even. Candles at Advent can remind us that God - who is love - makes himself vulnerable among us as the child newborn whose praises we’ll be singing three weeks from now. Jesus is hailed as the King of Love.  But remember, he is also the King of justice and righteousness, and we and the world stand under his judgement.

Light a candle in the window, let the night know that you care, goes the carol my grandchildren are learning. At the Millennium we handed out candles to every member of our church in Minsterley, as did people in churches and chapels up and down the land: what was asked that as the year 200 dawned there should be a candle lit in every Christian window. It was I think one of those occasions when those of us who’re often meeting in very small groups in our own church or chapel are reminded just what a lot of us there really are.

The reason Christmas is celebrated at this time of the year is that this is the darkest time, this is the time when the world is in most need of light. We don’t know when Jesus was actually born, but now is a good time to celebrate him: as light kindled in the depths of winter; as light when the world seems uncaring and cruel, as light when life seems futile and hope goes begging. When we light a candle we don’t usually stop at one (especially if there’s a power cut); from the first light we light more. And from  the light of Christ many lights of love have been lit and are lit still, and the darkness is driven back, and the night does know that we care. What do these lights consist of? Acts of love and charity, of compassion and care, work to heal and restore and build bridges of peace, to seek out the lost and raise up the fallen. Acts in which we imitate and pass on the love of our Lord.

When you use one candle to light another, and so on so that many are lit, sometimes you’ll look back to see that the original candle has gone out. It’s done its job, and other lights must now carry the work on. We look back and give thanks for those whose lights, whose Christian witness and teaching, have helped to start us burning. But the light that starts it all, the light first lit among us at Bethlehem, that light, once lit, burns for ever. That love, once revealed, lasts for ever. That hand once raised to bless, is a continual and forever blessing for our world.

The child born as a new light is also the King for whom we wait, who promises to come to us and comes in judgement, so that we will one day answer before him. When he comes, how will he find us? How will he find the Church that bears his name? Will we be sleepy and forgetful, will our candles be burning low and guttering out? Or will we be found alert and watchful, caring, compassionate, passing on the flame: with care and courage and prayer, and with a faith that isn’t just a Sunday faith, lighting new candles to reflect and share his love?