Thursday, 19 December 2013

Watching and Waiting Sometimes Even Saints Doubt: Matthew 11:2-11 and John the Baptist

People are interesting.  The biggest sales for newspapers and magazines are always related to people stories.  The magazines that sell best are gossip magazines.  We love our stories about celebrities.  We especially seem to like to find out that they are different.
This third Sunday in Advent we have a real pre-Christmas celebrity.  He does not figure much in the Christmas nativity, but he played a large role in the Gospels and in the life of Jesus particularly at the beginning.  Who is John the Baptist? 
      John the Baptist was first and foremost a forerunner.  He came to fulfil the scriptures in Isaiah and Malachi that one would come first to prepare the way for the Messiah.  He is, well, not the normal sort of forerunner.  He was not even a very normal religious leader for his day.  He dressed in camel hair shirts—not very comfortable from what I hear.  He ate natural foods, locust and honey, before natural foods were popular.  Most likely he was part of the movement known as the Essenes. They stood for purity in the temple and in the priesthood.  They wanted reform and they did not participate much in the ritual and religious life of Jerusalem, often keeping themselves outside the city to avoid contamination from the corrupt religious elite. (Qumran is a good example of an Essene community.)  Hence we hear about the people going out to John to be baptised.  Essenes were into ritual cleansing to symbolise their commitment to being holy and righteous.  So to prepare people for the coming of God’s special agent and the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, John baptised people in the Jordan.
John was also a prophet.  He foretold that God was coming to break into the routine of life in Palestine.  He prophesied that the reign of God was breaking into the lives of all around him.  He called people to repent, to change their ways to get ready for what God was doing.  His basic message was this, ‘Someone so great and awesome is coming he makes me insignificant.  If I were you, I’d get on your knees and get your life in order quickly’.  Strong words.  John was so dramatic with his funny clothes and his powerful preaching. 
We need to hear his message again.  He foretells of the one who lies in the manger meek and mild.  He warns us that this little child will rise up to confront us and to call us to God’s rule and reign in our hearts and lives, in our homes and churches, in our communities and nation.
Who is John the Baptist?  Jesus says he is more than a prophet.  Jesus says that he is the greatest among those born of a woman.  Jesus says he is the promised return of Elijah to herald the arrival of the coming Messiah.  Jesus says that John the Baptist is the fulfilment of scripture, the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel and the world.  Jesus honours John the Baptist with powerful words.
And when does Jesus say these kind and grand words about John the Baptist?  He says them not when all the people were clamouring to come out to the desert to hear his powerful sermons, not when the papers and news were all talking about the strange man in the desert warning the nation to get ready.  No Jesus says these affirming and impressive words when John was in prison, when John sends a messenger to Jesus to ask him, ‘are you really the messiah or was everything I said and did wrong?’ 
Who is John the Baptist?  He is one of us.  After growing up hearing of the miraculous and astounding birth of Jesus with angels singing and shepherds and wise men coming to greet him, John wonders, is this the one we’ve been waiting for?  After seeing Jesus heal the leper, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and even raise the dead; after hearing Jesus confound the scribes and Pharisees in parables and debate; and after hearing Jesus speak of the love of God to the poor and oppressed, John asks, should we look for someone else? 
John is one of us because like him, when we see the works of God in our midst in bread and wine, in the kindness of the stranger, in the innocence of the newborn, in the beauty and abundance of the universe, we doubt.  Like John, when we hear the stories of Jesus in the Gospel, of Paul’s teaching of salvation by faith, of the testimony of the one sitting next to us, we wonder if it is all true.
As we prepare for Christmas and the advent of God coming into our lives in surprising and unexpected ways, it is normal to doubt, to question.  But let us hear the words again.  Jesus said, Go and tell John the Baptist what you hear and see.  And so Jesus says to you and me today: remember what you have seen and heard; remember what God has done in our midst all these years in this church; remember the gifts we have received as we knelt at the altar, the gifts we have received from the stranger and from one another.  Today let us remember the one of whom the angels sing, the one the prophets promised would come, the one of whom the gospel writers proclaimed, the one about whom Paul and Peter and John wrote in their letters.  Let us remember the one who loves us even when we feel unloved and struggle to love ourselves…Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Shaun Speller writes about the FoodBank Tree at St Nicholas' Christmas Tree Festival, and considers our response to those in need.

This week at St Nicholas, we host the Christmas tree festival.
Nearly 70 trees, brightly and wonderfully decorated, by any number of groups in our local community. One of the trees makes what I imagine is a first appearance - the FoodBank Tree.

I suspect it will not have escaped our attention that Food Poverty is one of those unwelcome terms that occupies us today. The Trussell Trust, a christian charity responsible for founding many FoodBanks throughout the country, estimates that some 350,000 people used them in the last year, a threefold increase in the preceding period. They are springing up all over the country, and their use is on the increase.

So what do we make of them?

Well we can draw the political lines in the sand and argue over whose fault it all is - lack of personal responsibility, or the damaging effect of government policy - but that doesn’t really deal with the immediacy of the issue, and in fact risks ignoring those directly affected by it. And it doesn’t acknowledge that all of those 350,000 people have a story - a personal story that reaches beyond the categorization of the broad issue. You might want to take a look at some of those personal stories: real-stories.

In Matthews recounting of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, Jesus has an
instant response to the crowd that have followed him and find themselves in
need of food.

Firstly, he has compassion on them; and then secondly, when
the disciples come to him and suggest that the crowd be sent away to find
food, Jesus says: “ They need not go away: You give them something to eat ”.
What’s Jesus saying here? There is no prevarication; no absolving of
responsibility; no reproach for the crowd. Instead he asks the disciples to be
part of a solution, rather than to pass on a problem that they think they are ill
equipped to deal with.

Shortly before embarking on a short term building project in Nepal some years ago, I was struck by the abject poverty and hunger that I was confronted with. Like the disciples faced with the needs of the five thousand, I asked my team leader what on earth do we do about it.
“ Well ”, he said, “ we feed one at a time, and then we feed the
next ”.

The point is this. Questions might be our first reaction, but need not be our
first action.
In Christ's physical absence we might do well to hear afresh the
words of Theresa of Avila:
“ Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which to look out
Christ's compassion to the world
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about
doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless men now.”

Our hands, as with those of Jesus’ disciples, are the hands by which he may
bless others. As a community of God’s people, we have recognised the issue
of food poverty and are generously looking to offer our time and money to be
a tangible blessing to others. We would hope, beautiful though it may look,
that there be no need to display the FoodBank Tree again. But Christ calls us
to be watchful, and to respond, with the compassion that he had for those he
saw in need; that all his people might flourish as is his intention.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


Ready and waiting: this is one of the themes of Advent.  The Advent wreath has four candles and we light one each week waiting and anticipating the day when the light of Christ is lit on Christmas eve.  Some say the four candles represent the four hundred years from the prophet Malachi until the birth of Christ. Did the people of Israel begin to think the Messiah was never coming, that the day of the Lord foretold in Malachi was not going to happen?  They waited four hundred years.  Here we are two thousand years and we are still waiting for the return of Christ.
Our reading from Romans (ch.13:11-14) reminds us that our salvation is nearer to us than when we first began.  Matthew (ch.24:36-44) writes, ‘you also must be ready for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour’.  Are we reading and waiting?
You all know what it is like to wait.  Ever waited for someone to arrive, like the repairman who says they will come between 2 and 6pm.  You make sure you are home.  At 2pm you wonder if the door bell will ring or a knock will come.  You kind of know that you should not expect them; you know they usually come towards the late side of the time slot.  But you anticipate and wonder and hope that they might come at 2pm.  Then you get on with things, chores, cleaning, whatever.  Your ear is alert for that knock at the door, that bell ringing.  You do not go too far away just in case you don’t hear.  As it nears 3pm and 4pm you look out the window to see if the van is in sight.  After 4.30pm, you just get on with things and hope you hear the door if they arrive; your waiting is not active but very passive, thinking they might still come, but never mind.  At 6pm you wander near the door and wonder where they are and sit in chair expecting to hear them any minute. They must be coming now.  But it passes and it goes on to 6.15 and 6.30.  By now you are pretty certain they are not coming and you decide, oh bother, never mind.  I’ll ring tomorrow and find out what happened.  It gets to 7pm and by now you are certain they are not coming and you are preparing the meal you delayed.  Then the bell rings.  Were you ready and waiting?
We speak of the Christian life as a journey.  For most of us that journey begins at our baptism as a child, for others at a moment of what we call conversion or coming to faith.  For many of us, we grow up in a Christian home and the Christian faith is simply part of our lives.  Oh in our teenage and young adult years we may have not gone to church much.  But then after getting married or when the first child arrived and you had them baptised you went back to church more regularly.  For others, faith came as a kind of surprise and grabbed hold of you in later years, as a teenager or at university or older.  For all of us there is a time frame of some kind in which we began our Christian journey.  But the question comes, are you ready and waiting?  What does that mean to each of us?
Theologians speak of the three stages of salvation: justification, sanctification and glorification.  Justification is that time frame in which we come to faith, be it at our baptism and Sunday school or later as some point of conversion or confession of faith.  Sanctification, the second stage, is that process whereby we seek to live out our faith and grow in our discipleship.  The evidence is a transformed life.  Glorification is when our salvation is complete, often related to our death when we are united with Christ or at the end of time when Christ comes again and establishes the new heaven and the new earth.
Right now we are all in the phase of sanctification, awaiting our glorification.  Are we ready and waiting?  It is easy to get passive and nonchalant.  But to be ready and waiting is to be active in our anticipation, to deepen our Christian faith and life.  So Paul writes to the Romans to confront any passivity, ‘wake from sleep, lay aside the works of darkness, put on the armour of light’.  He reminds them that they should not let their lives be marked by sinful acts and to not gratify fleshly desires.
Our sanctification is a process of becoming more holy.  Now all of us are fleshly.  We need to eat and sleep.  We are all sexual beings.  We all are meant to enjoy life and the gifts of this life, like a good bottle of wine.  So what makes a life sanctified?  It is a life that is not marked by excess; it is not being captive to our fleshly needs and desires.  It is life that seeks what is good and holy and pure.  What do you think that means for you? 

In that way, in pursuing a life that is marked a balanced, holy life; that is marked by the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—we show ourselves to be ready and waiting.  Hear again the call to sanctification, the call to be ready and waiting from St Paul: Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light;  let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.