Tomorrow Can Be Different (a sermon on John 1.29-42)

I want to start this morning by recalling a hilarious scene from the old movie ‘Notting Hill’. For those of you who haven’t seen it, in this movie Julia Roberts basically plays herself—the most famous actress in the world, in this case named Anna Scott—and Hugh Grant plays Will Thacker, the humble bookstore owner who ends up falling in love with her. You’d think that everyone would instantly recognize the most famous actress in the world, but there are one or two who don’t. Will takes Anna to his sister’s birthday party where she strikes up a conversation with his friend Bernie, played by a very young Hugh Bonneville. Bernie asks her what she does, and she says, “I’m an actress.” Bernie immediately starts to commiserate with her, telling her about actor friends of his from university who are barely scraping by on seven or eight thousand a year.

He then asks her what sort of acting she does. “Films, mainly, she replies. “Oh, splendid!” he says. “Well done! How’s the pay in movies? I mean, the last film you did, what did you get paid?”

“Fifteen million dollars.”

“Right, so, that’s fairly good.”

You see what’s happening here? Bernie doesn’t know who Anna really is, so he’s making a fool of himself by approaching her with all the wrong questions and comments. It’s funny for those who are watching, but not at all funny for Bernie!

One of the reasons John’s Gospel is written is to teach us who Jesus is, and then to encourage us to put our trust in him. Earlier on in chapter 1, John the Gospel writer introduced us to John the Baptist, a man sent by God. ‘He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.’ (John 1.7-8).

So Jesus is the true light, the one who gives light to everyone in all the world. John the Baptist isn’t the light; his job is to bear witness—or, as Tom Wright translates it, to ‘offer evidence’—so that we will be convinced of who Jesus is. And he does this not just by sharing stories but also by using names and titles for Jesus. Those names and titles are important, because they help us understand the different ways Jesus is good news for us. This morning I want to look closely at two that appear in today’s Gospel reading.

The first is in verse 29. We assume John’s at the Jordan with his disciples, preaching and baptizing, and he sees Jesus in the crowd, coming toward him. “Here is the Lamb of God,” he says, “who takes away the sin of the world!”

To Jewish people, that’s sacrificial language. They offered lambs as sacrifices to God, often for the forgiveness of their sins. If you’d committed a sin, this is how you received forgiveness. You spent your hard-earned shekels on a lamb, took it to the temple, and gave it to the priest. You would go to the altar with him, lay your hand on the lamb and confess you sin, symbolically transferring the guilt to the lamb. The lamb was then slaughtered, its blood was collected, some of it was sprinkled on the altar and some on you. And so your guilt was taken away, and you could go home in peace.

Many preachers will draw this connection today: Jesus is the one who died on the Cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and that’s why he’s the Lamb of God. But I think the picture might be a little more complicated than that. In the Book of Leviticus there’s a description of the ritual for the annual Day of Atonement, the day above all days when the high priest confessed the sins of all Israel and made atonement for them. To do this he offered several sacrifices and also performed an interesting ritual with two goats. One of them was sacrificed in the usual manner, but the other was not. The priest was to lay his hands on its head and confess over it all the sins of the people of Israel—we assume he gave a summary, or he would have been at it for a very long time! The goat was then taken away into the wilderness, banished from the community of Israel. Leviticus says, ‘As the goat goes into the wilderness, it will carry all the people’s sins upon itself into a desolate land’ (Leviticus 16.22, NLT).

Now it’s true that Leviticus talks about goats and John calls Jesus ‘the Lamb of God’, not ‘the goat of God.’! But nonetheless, when John says that Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’, I can’t help thinking he might have had that goat in mind. Do you know what that goat is called in Judaism? The scapegoat. All the blame for all the sins of Israel is laid on its shoulders, even though it has done no wrong, and it is then banished from the community, removing the guilt.

Now, what can that possibly mean for us today? We’re not in the habit of performing weird rituals with sheep and goats. How is this relevant for us?

It’s true that we’re not in the habit of sacrificing lambs, but we’re still very familiar with the burden of guilt. In fact, I think the age of social media has increased the burdens of people with a sensitive conscience. Social media is all over our imperfections. If you’re against misogyny but you don’t also fight for social justice for LGBTQ people, then you’re a hypocrite. If you’re a politician and you slip up in even the smallest way, your digital accusers are all over you. If you struggle with your body shape, images of perfection are presented to you all day long. And so it goes on.

We may not use the language of sin today, but we’re well aware of the burden. I’ve often mentioned Francis Spufford’s lovely definition of sin: our ‘Human Propensity to Mess Things Up’ (except he uses a much stronger word than ‘mess’!). Many of us are well aware that we’ve caused all sorts of distress and pain in the lives of other people, intentionally or unintentionally. We know we don’t measure up. We don’t even measure up to our ownstandards, let alone the standards of others, or of God! Francis Schaeffer said that on the day of judgement he imagined a tape player hanging around everyone’s neck, on which are recorded all the negative judgements we’ve ever spoken against others. When it comes to our turn to be judged, God will simply lean forward and press ‘play’, and let our own words be our judges. I can’t think of many things more devastating than that!

So what do we do with this burden of guilt? One of the truly profound insights of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is the power of sharing our burden with someone else. Step Four of the Twelve Steps encourages us to conduct what it calls ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.’ Then in Step Five, we’re encouraged to ‘admit to ourselves, to God, and to one other person, the exact nature of our wrongs.’

This is called the ‘Fifth Step’, and of course clergy are often asked to be the ones who hear these confessions. There are many other situations in which we hear people’s confessions as well, both formally and informally. I’ve been at this for over forty years, and I’ve lost count of the number of times people have told me things about themselves that they’ve never dared to tell anyone else. And in every case, the simple act of telling the absolute and unvarnished truth, and hearing words of forgiveness spoken instead of words of judgement, lifts a burden from their shoulders.

I would suggest to you that this can be a powerful way of understanding how Jesus ‘takes away the sin of the world’. Psalm 32 talks about the happiness of those whose sins are forgiven by God. The writer talks about his experience with guilt:

‘While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.  Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”, and you forgave the guilt of my sin.’ (Psalm 32:3-5)

God, we assume, is not in favour of sin; certainly God’s Old Testament people would have assumed that. So it would have come as a big surprise to them that Jesus, the Son of God, was gentle toward sinners. Over and over again in the gospels, when people come to him with a burden of guilt, he forgives them. He reaches out to prostitutes and crooked tax collectors and all kinds of people the righteous had no time for. ‘My son, your sins are forgiven’, he says, short-circuiting the whole process of going to the Temple to offer a lamb. You don’t need to do that anymore. He’s the Lamb of God; if you confess your sins honestly to him, rather than being a play-acting hypocrite, then he acts as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Like the scapegoat going out into the desert, he takes the burden off your shoulders, and takes it away to a place you’ll never find it again.

So John the Baptist is preaching the Gospel to us. He’s encouraging us not to wear a mask with God, the kind of mask that pretends we’ve got it all together. We don’t need to do that. We can come to Jesus and share the burden of our guilt with him. We probably won’t hear him with our ears, but we can be sure he’s saying to us what he said to sinners so many times: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ As the first letter of John puts it, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ (1 John 1.8-9).

But that’s not the end of it. Jesus doesn’t just take away the burden of our guilt but leave us unchanged. He gives us access to a power beyond ourselves, to make real change possible. This is the second description of Jesus I want to talk about in today’s passage. Look at verses 32-33:

‘And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit’”.

In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is the power of God active in the world. The Spirit of God descends on warriors and gives them strength to defend God’s people against their enemies. The Spirit descends on prophets and gives them words to speak in the name of God. The Spirit descends on kings and gives them wisdom to rule God’s people well. But the Spirit isn’t given to everyone. In the Old Testament, the experience of the Holy Spirit is reserved for people with a special place in God’s plan.

All that changes in the New Testament. The prophet Joel points forward to our day:

‘Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my Spirit’ (Joel 2.28-29).

This is the promise of Jesus in the New Testament: “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11.13). The same Spirit that gave strength to warriors and wisdom to kings and words to prophets now lives in you and me. That’s one of the gifts we were promised in our baptism.

John the Baptist uses vivid imagery here. He had been sent to baptize people in water, he says, but the one to come, Jesus, will baptize people in the Holy Spirit. ‘Baptizo’ in Greek means to immerse, to sink, so that the immersed object is completely surrounded and filled, like a ship sitting on the bottom of the ocean, or a sponge totally full of water. That is obviously a very powerful experience of the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives.

But I need to say that it doesn’t always feel like a powerful experience. Sometimes it does; some people testify to a strong sense of the joy and love of God’s Spirit. Our friend Joe Semeniuk, who died a couple of years ago, had an experience like that. He told some of us that on his confirmation day, when Bishop Jane laid hands on him and prayed for him, he distinctly felt the Holy Spirit coming down on him and filling him from top to bottom. It was such an amazing experience that every Sunday after that, when he came up to receive communion, he tried to stand in the same space, because he liked to remember, and to relive the memory!

But not everyone has that experience. What tends to happen for most of us is that we find ourselves facing a task God has asked us to do. Maybe it’s to control our temper. Maybe it’s to offer ourselves for some ministry in the church. Maybe it’s to love someone we find it hard to love. We’re daunted by this task, because we know deep down that we don’t have the inner resources to complete it. It demands too much love, too much patience, too much self-control.

So what do we do? We make the choice to do it anyway, but before we do, we pray that God will fill up whatever’s lacking in us with his love and power and wisdom, so that we can do what we’re being asked to do. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. So we ask the Spirit to fill us and make us equal to the task, and then we step out in faith and do it. And when we’re finished, we look back and think, “Well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be!” And then we remember that we had access to help beyond ourselves.

What happens when we make a habit of this? What happens is that gradually God changes us. In Galatians Paul compares this to a tree growing fruit: he says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Galatians 5.22-23) It’s fruit, so it grows slowly and steadily, not quickly and magically. It grows as we step out in faith, do what God has called us to do, and call on him to strengthen us in our weakness and inadequacy.

But I don’t like displaying my weakness and inadequacy. I’d much rather have you all see how strong and capable I am! And maybe this is one of the reasons why I don’t experience baptism in the Holy Spirit as often and as vividly as I’d like. Maybe I’m too scared to step out in weakness and trust God’s power. Maybe I need to remember that instruction that’s given in the Bible more often than any other command: “Don’t be afraid!” And maybe you need to remember that too!

So here’s the good news; Jesus takes our burden of guilt on his own shoulders, and in its place, he gives us access to all the power of God’s Holy Spirit. And this means that our future doesn’t have to be a carbon copy of our past. Our sins and weaknesses and failures don’t have to define us. The Lamb of God can take away our guilt, and the Spirit of God can give us power to change.

So when you come for communion this morning, come ready to receive what Jesus has to offer you. Be honest about your sins and failures. Share the burden with him; he’s more than ready to carry it away. Hold out your hand to receive the bread, and with it receive God’s forgiveness and God’s strength. Tomorrow can be different from today. God can make that happen. So let’s trust in him and not be afraid.

A few thoughts on clergy self-care (mainly directed to myself!)

A couple of things have happened in the last few weeks have made me think about self-care, and why we clergy are often not very good at it.

First, I had the opportunity on January 5th to sit in the congregation at St. Margaret’s while my honorary assistant, Susan, led the service. This is something I haven’t done before. I was on holiday, and usually when I’m on holiday I don’t go to church at St. Margaret’s, because try as they might, people find it difficult not to treat me as the rector. Or at least, in my mind, they find it difficult.

Turns out I was mostly wrong about that. Mainly, they were very good about it. It was my Mum’s last day with us (she was flying home to England mid-afternoon), and some of our kids came to St. Margaret’s, too, so we took up a whole row in the church. Susan did an excellent job of leading the service and preaching; she’s highly competent, as well as being relaxed and natural, and it was a wonderful experience to receive communion at someone else’s hands, rather than being the one who gave it to everyone. And for the most part, people treated us as ordinary members of the congregation. It felt incredibly peaceful.

The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with someone who reads my sermons online. This person is part of a parish far from here where there isn’t a particularly good or consistent preaching ministry, and she was expressing appreciation for the fact that, through reading my sermons, she ‘got fed’ spiritually in a way she didn’t experience at her own church. And I found myself thinking, “I know exactly how you feel, because week by week, I’m the one that does the feeding.” Very rarely do I get to listen while someone else opens up the Bible for me and applies it to our daily lives. That was something else I really appreciated about January 5th.

Which leads me to ask: why do I feel guilty when I take an hour to read a good theological book (even though my to-do list isn’t getting any shorter), or do some self-directed Bible study that’s not aimed at producing a sermon? And why do I so very rarely give others the chance to lead? After all, I have an honorary assistant who’s very willing, and six lay readers as well. It’s not as if I couldn’t give them more scope for ministry. So why don’t I let them do more? Is it something to do with ego, or the need to be needed? Surely I’m not that immature, am I?

I’ll let you be the judge of that. Meanwhile, it turns out I need to have a talk with someone about being accountable for my own self-care. I suspect I’m not alone in that!

Where Do You Start? (a sermon for the feast of the Baptism of Jesus)

When someone walks into a church for the first time, or when they first encounter Christian faith in some other way, it can seem like a confusing mass of ideas and images. Actually, I think it can seem that way for those of us who’ve been around for a long time, too! Bread and wine, commandments and services, God and Jesus, helping the poor, loving your neighbour, trying to love your enemy, giving to support the church and asking for God’s help when you need it: so many ideas! Or maybe we think of all the stories in the Bible: Noah and his ark, Daniel and the lion’s den, Jonah and the whale, the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus on the Cross, Moses crossing the Red Sea with the Israelites and all that. What’s it all about? What’s the plot of the story? What’s the big picture, and what’s the starting point?

There are two things I want to share with you this morning, on this feast day of the Baptism of Jesus. Let me tell you what they are right from the start, and then we can explore them together. First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God. Second, the starting point is baptism.

First, the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven. To get this big picture we have to go back a few verses from our gospel for today. Matthew chapter three starts with the story of John the Baptist and what he was up to, proclaiming God’s message and baptizing people in the river Jordan. From there we go on to read about Jesus coming down to join John’s movement and being baptized by him, which was our gospel story for today. But at the beginning of chapter three we read these words:

‘In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”’ (Matthew 3:2).

Let’s be clear that when Matthew uses the language of ‘the kingdom of heaven’, he’s not talking about ‘dying and going to heaven’. ‘Kingdom of heaven’ is a phrase Matthew uses when Mark and Luke say ‘Kingdom of God’, but all three writers mean exactly the same thing: God’s power coming into this world, to set wrongs right, to fix broken things, to heal wounded things, to end injustice, and to restore all things to the way he originally intended. It wasn’t just about saving souls; it was about fixing a broken world.

Let me give you an example of what Matthew’s Jewish hearers would have thought about when they heard John’s message. Listen to these words from Isaiah:

‘In the days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths”.
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord!’ (Isaiah 2:2-5).

That’s the Kingdom of Heaven: God working in the world, inviting all people to come to him and learn the ways of justice and peace. And the result is the healing of the world.

When I ask people what they think the central message of Jesus was, they often say “Love thy neighbour”, and of course it’s true that Jesus taught us to love one another. But the thing that got him up in the morning, the thing that fired him up and motivated him to keep on with his mission of preaching and healing, was the Kingdom of God. Almost all his parables are about the Kingdom: it’s like a treasure hidden in a field, he said, or like a tiny seed you plant in the ground that grows up to be the largest of plants, or like some yeast that a woman took and mixed in with flour until all of it was leavened. The prayer he taught his disciples to pray was “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earthas it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10), and he told us that we should “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). The kingdom of God, or the kingdom of heaven, was right at the heart of Jesus’ message.

And right at the heart of the kingdom message was the experience of forgiveness and reconciliation. God comes among us in Jesus, and what do we do? More to the point, what do our best and our brightest do—our political leaders, our priests, our religious teachers? They find God a threat to their power, as we all do. Why does God have to interfere so much? Why can’t he mind his own business? And so, like them, we reject him, we mock him, we whip him, we nail him to a cross and we leave him there to die. Maybe then he’ll leave us alone.

Any self-respecting god from the ancient world would have known how to respond to an act like that. Zeus would have scorched the earth with thunderbolts. Thor and Odin would have wiped out their enemies in a river of blood. But what about this God who came to us in Jesus? What does he do? He does exactly what he had taught his disciples to do: love their enemies and pray for those who hate them. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This is how reconciliation begins: someone decides not to strike back, but to respond with forgiveness instead. And in Jesus, God decides to be that someone. In Jesus, God reaches out and offers forgiveness to the whole world.

In Matthew 24:14 Jesus calls his message ‘the good news of the kingdom’. It’s good news because it tells us that God has not given up on this world; that God intends to keep on working until the whole world reflects his original vision of justice and compassion and peace. And it’s also good news because everyone is invited, no matter who they are and what they’ve done; everyone can experience this reconciliation with God. You can be forgiven, and you can be welcomed into this movement of nonviolent revolution by which God is at work transforming the whole world. You can know God as your Father and the people of Jesus as your sisters and brothers. No one is left out unless they choose to count themselves out. Everyone is invited to come in.

This is the big picture. Now, how do we come in? What’s the starting point?The starting point is baptism.

But it sometimes seems like such a strange starting point! It seemed strange to John the Baptist that Jesus should ask for it; after all, Jesus was the Messiah, the one John had been talking about:

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

Imagine how great this person must be! John could take his hearers and plunge them into the Jordan River in the act of baptism, but the one who was coming could do a far greater thing: he could take people and plunge them into the power of God’s Holy Spirit, so that the Holy Spirit would fill them and surround them and empower them to do the will of God. How could someone like that need water baptism from John? ‘“I need to be baptized by you”, he said, “and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness”’ – or, as the New Living Translation helpfully puts it, “It should be done, for we must carry out all that God requires” (vv.14-15).

This is counter-intuitive. Surely if we’re looking for the starting point in God’s kingdom, it should be something wedo – giving our money to the poor, or reading the Bible and praying, or helping someone beside the road who’s been beaten up. All these are good things, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing them. But they aren’t the way we start as disciples of Jesus. Jesus himself said to his followers, “Go therefore and make all nations my disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20a). In other words, the way you become a disciple is by being baptized; after that, you start learning to put the teaching of Jesus into practice.

Baptism is something God does for us. It isn’t something we do for ourselves. It’s a sign of being washed from sin and evil, a sign of being filled to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, and a sign of adoption into the family of God: as God says after Jesus is baptized, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). Notice that he says this befor eJesus does any ministry. Jesus has yet to heal a single sick person, preach a single sermon or cast out a single unclean spirit. In other words, this saying comes to Jesus as a gift of the Father’s love. “You’re my boy, and I’m proud of you”.

What a wonderful thing for a child to hear their father say! You and I need to receive that gift too, because words of love like that are a rarity in our world. And most of them are based on achievement: we do a good job, and we get praised for it. But the love of God for us isn’t based on our achievement; it’s based on nothing but God’s own mercy and grace.

So the big picture is the Kingdom of Heaven: God healing the world of evil and sin and restoring it to his original intention. That’s what the work of Jesus is all about. And the starting point for those who want to be a part of that is baptism; it’s how we become disciples of Jesus. Of course, those of us who were baptized as babies have to make our own decision about that, as we get older and come to grasp for ourselves what it is that Jesus is up to. We all have come to the point where our parents’ faith becomes our faith—not something second-hand, but something we experience for ourselves. But it’s still not based on our achievement; it’s based on God’s steadfast love for us.

It needs to be said, of course, that baptism is the starting point, not the ending point! Some people argue against infant baptism because they’ve seen too many cases where it isthe ending point: parents bring children to church to be baptized, but then make no effort to continue to be part of the community of followers of Jesus. They don’t teach their kids about the gospel or help them grow a faith of their own. They’ve been baptized, and that’s the end of it.

We’ve already seen that that’s not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus told his disciples not only to ‘baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’, but then to go on to ‘teach them to obey everything that I have commanded you’. We baptized Christians commit ourselves to a life of discipleship: learning to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives. This is how we ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness’ (Matthew 6:33). And we can’t do this alone. Jesus never called people to follow him alone; he called them to be part of a community of disciples. That’s what the church is meant to be: a community of people learning together how to follow Jesus.

So the big picture is the work of the Kingdom of God in the world, and the starting place for us is baptism. Let me close with a few brief words of further application.

First, many of us Christians need a bigger perspective. We’ve lost our sense of what Christianity is all about. We’ve gotten caught up in little details: whether we should use old hymns or modern worship songs, or whether or not ministers should wear robes, or whether or not women should preside at Holy Communion, or whether we should call God ‘thee’ or ‘you’—none of them subjects on which Jesus seems to have had an opinion. We very much need to remind ourselves of the big picture: The Kingdom of God. And one way of focusing this vision is to ask ourselves: if God were to answer our prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” what would that look like? What would be different in our lives, and in the world around us? When we can imagine an answer to that question, we can then learn to live into it ourselves, and work toward it in the world.

Second, we need to pay attention to the right voices. I suspect many of you here today have heard negative messages all your life. You’ve been told you don’t fit in. You’ve been told you’re the wrong body shape. You’ve been told your work doesn’t measure up. You’ve been told you’re a bad person. You’ve been told it’s your fault, you’re to blame, you’re the guilty one. You’ve been told you’re not important enough for people to care about. And so the list it goes on.

What I want to say is that the most important thing, the thing we should really be paying attention to, is what God says about us. In Jesus’ baptism, God said “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). And that’s what he says to you in your baptism as well. I really like the way Mark phrases it in his version of this story: it’s addressed to Jesus in the second person. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).

Imagine the power of hearing God say that to you! If you really believe it – if you believe that’s what God says to you in your baptism—then you can walk out of this building today with your head held high. You won’t need to worry about what other people say about you. You won’t need to define yourselves by other people’s opinions of you. You’ll know, deep down inside, that this is the most fundamental truth about you: you are a child of God, adopted into God’s family, gifted with the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. None of this is earned. None of it needsto be earned. It doesn’t come to you as a reward; it comes to you as a gift of God’s grace—not because you’re lovable, but because God is love.

When you know that, you can go from this place today in the strength of God’s love, to strive first for God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, knowing that nothing in all of heaven and earth can separate you from God’s love. May it be so for you and me, brothers and sisters, today and every day. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘I must’ or ‘I choose’

I’ve been reading and reflecting on Brené Brown’s excellent book The Gifts of Imperfection, which is subtitled Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. A big theme of the book is authenticity—which I as a Christian would define as ‘taking the risk of being the person God designed me to be, not the person I think I should be or the person other people want me to be.’

It has reminded me of something C.S. Lewis wrote to a god-daughter on the day of her confirmation service. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it’s something like this: ‘Always remember that there are only three things anyone must do: (1) duties, (2) necessities, and (3) things we take pleasure in.’

‘Duties’ means moral imperatives: commands of God, given to guide us in wise, loving and holy living (eg. ‘Love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself’). ‘Necessities’ means things we have to do to live and be healthy and well (go to work, eat sensibly and get good exercise, brush your teeth etc.). ‘Things we take pleasure in’—well, that of course will vary widely, depending on our tastes.

The problem is, so many people have added fourth and fifth categories: (4) ‘things other people want me to do’, and (5) ‘things I think I should do because I think they’re what other people expect.’

Of course, ‘things other people want me to do’ can be duties and/or necessities—for instance, if they’re part of my job. If I’ve taken a job that includes certain responsibilities, I can’t then turn around and say ‘I don’t want to fulfil some of those responsibilities because I don’t enjoy them.’ They’re job requirements, and if I want to draw a pay cheque, I’m obligated to fulfil them.

But in so many cases, (4) and (5) aren’t job requirements; they’re things I feel compelled to do, so that other people will like me and approve of me. Many of us are so insecure that we bend ourselves into pretzel shapes, trying to be who we’re not and do what we’re not suited to do, in the desperate attempt to win people’s liking and approval. And it’s all an empty quest, because even if we succeed, the person they like and approve of is not the real me; it’s a fake persona I’ve created to impress them.

I’ve noticed that some people seem bound by the language of compulsion: ‘We’ve got to do such and such’. I often feel like saying, ‘No, we don’t. We live in a free country, and we can choose what we do. But every choice we make leads to consequences, so we get to choose which set of consequences are important to us.’

I’m commanded by Jesus to love my neighbour as myself. But that doesn’t mean I have to do everything my neighbour wants me to do or asks me to do. Some of my neighbour’s expectations of me may well be unreasonable and/or impossible. Some will be things my neighbour can and should do for herself. And some of them are legitimate needs, but better suited to the expertise of others. For instance, my neighbour may need some repairs to his vinyl plank flooring, but I’d be foolish to offer that help; I’d just make the problem worse!

As I look back over my life, one of the things I regret the most is the amount of time and energy I’ve wasted on being a people-pleaser, rather than a person who relaxes in the certainty of God’s love for me, and chooses freely to love people appropriately and wisely, not out of a sense of compulsion. The Gifts of Imperfection is helping me reflect on that problem, and find a better way forward. As I go into this new year, I look forward to the next steps on that journey of freedom.

Hands Down My Favourite New Christmas CD This Year…

Xmas-CD-Banner…was Megson’s brilliant ‘A Yuletide Carol’!

The blurb says: ‘It features a sparkling mix of traditional carols, Elizabethan yuletide songs as well as two Megson original tracks all arranged for mandolas, guitars, banjos and Megson’s trademark soaring vocal harmonies.’ And sparkling is truly the right word!

Here‘s the link to the page about it on their website. Here’s the link to the CD in their shop. OR you can get it from Bandcamp and get both the CD and digital downloads (which is what I did).

Find out more about Megson on their website here.


Books I read (or re-read) in 2019

In the back of my journal, I keep a little list of the books I read. I don’t do this as a kind of score-keeping exercise; more as an aid to reflection. Here’s the list for 2019, in the order in which they were read:

Kate Moorehead: I Witness: Living Inside the Stories of Advent and Christmas
Rachel Kadish: The Weight of Ink
Roy McGregor: Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada
Rachel Kadish: Tolstoy Lied: A Love Story
Philip Yancey: Disappointment with God
Ian Cowley: The Contemplative Minister
Karen Swallow Prior: On Reading Well
Louise Penny: Still Life
Karen R. Keen: Scripture, Ethics, and the Possibility of Same-Sex Marriage
Simon Armitage: The Unaccompanied
Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories 1955-2010
Jonathan Bate: John Clare: A Biography
C.S. Lewis: An Experiment in Criticism
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Emmy Kegler: One Coin Found
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Billy Bragg: The Three Dimensions of Freedom
Richard Wagamese: One Story, One Song
Andy Weir: The Martian
Adrian Plass: The Sacred Diary of Adrian Plass
Charles Martin: Water from My Heart
David Lyle Jeffrey, ed: English Spirituality in the Age of Wesley
John Goldingay: Psalms for Everyone, Part 2
John Grisham: The Last Juror
Mark Noll: The Rise of Evangelicalism
Heidi McNaughton: Forever My Girl
John Grisham: Grey Mountain
Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
George MacDonald: Thomas Wingfold, Curate
John Grisham: The Reckoning
John Grisham: Sycamore Row
George MacDonald: Paul Faber, Surgeon
Alan Jacobs: How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds
C.S. Lewis: The Discarded Image
Rudy Wiebe: Big Bear
Gary S. Selby: Pursuing an Earthy Spirituality: C.S. Lewis and Incarnational Faith
Thomas Cahill: Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter
Paula Gooder: Phoebe
Ada Bezancon-Spencer: 2 Corinthians
John Grisham: The Broker
Anthony Bloom: Beginning to Pray
Thomas Cahill: Mysteries of the Middle Ages
Anthony McGowan: How to Teach Philosophy to Your Dog
Rupert Shortt: God is No Thing: Coherent Christianity
John Grisham: The Guardians
C.S. Lewis: The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings
Rupert Shortt: Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good?
The Revised English Bible, with Apocrypha

And now, a few reflections.

Best book of 2019? Rachel Kadish’s brilliant novel The Weight of Ink. Superb plot, very vivid writing style, amazingly believable characters, superbly researched (it’s set in London, partly in the 17th century and partly in the 21st).

Runner up? Probably Paula Gooder’s Phoebe, a brilliant imagination of what life may have been like in one of the house churches that first received Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paula says it’s not really a novel, but I think it is! However, the scholarship behind it is superb.

Least enjoyable book of 2019? Probably Ada Bezancon-Spencer’s commentary on 2 Corinthians in the People’s Bible Commentary series. It may have been our fault; we were reading it as a daily devotional commentary, but we found the readings so often lost the wood for the trees. Too much extraneous detail.

Best re-read: Anthony Bloom’s brilliant little book Beginning to Pray, which I think i last read in the 1980s when I certainly wasn’t ready for it. Simple but profound treatment of contemplative prayer, which I will re-read again in 2020 and take as a spiritual guide.

I also enjoyed re-reading the Harry Potter series. I see I re-read some John Grisham as well; he appears to be my go-to relaxation when I’m not feeling 100%!

Finally, I used the ‘One Year Bible’ reading plan to make my way through the entire Revised English Bible day by day through the year. The REB has been on my shelves for years but I have never read it all the way through, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Now, on to 2020!

Is God Working His Purpose Out? (a sermon on Matthew 2.13-23)

Well, that was a nice Christmas, wasn’t it? For a few brief moments we enjoyed the magic—the story of a child born far from home, laid in a manger by his mother, visited by shepherds and wise men who were guided to his cradle by angels and the light of a star. This is the part of the story that all the carols sing about.  But then we come back to hard reality with a bump. Right after the story of the visit of the wise men comes today’s gospel reading. The wise men were warned in a dream not to go back and tell Herod where to find the child, so they took off home by another route. When Herod heard of this, he was outraged, and he ordered the slaughter of all the baby boys in Jerusalem under the age of two, just to make sure he had wiped out the potential threat to his throne.

This, by the way, was entirely in character with what we know of Herod the Great from history. He was a fanatically insecure ruler who had his wife, his mother, and several of his sons murdered because he suspected them of plotting against him. At his death he had several of the leading citizens of Jerusalem rounded up and murdered, because, he said, he knew no one would mourn for him, and he was not going to die without tears being shed. This is exactly the sort of man to be frantically worried by news that a royal pretender had been born in Bethlehem, the ancestral hometown of the family of King David, and he would certainly be ruthless enough to wipe out the children in the manner described in this story.

This is a difficult story for Christians, and I suspect there won’t be very many sermons on it today. The theological point Matthew’s trying to make throughout this passage is that God is working his purpose out in the midst of a world dead set against him and his plans. Jesus isn’t born in an idyllic time in human history; he’s born in a time when ordinary life is cheap and when great rulers carry out their plans with no regard for how they will affect the lives of ordinary people. In Luke’s story of the nativity, Jesus arrives in Bethlehem as a result of one such event, the decision by the Roman emperor to order a census which would require everyone to travel back to their ancestral towns. There’s no thought of how this will disrupt trade and cause chaos in the lives of ordinary people; the powers that be decide this is what’s going to happen, and you have to obey. And yet Luke sees God at work here; Jesus’ family lived in Nazareth, but as a result of this census they returned to Bethlehem so that the old prophecies about the birth of the Messiah would be fulfilled. God is working his purpose out.

Interestingly enough, Matthew doesn’t seem to have known this story. Apparently, he thought Bethlehem was Mary and Joseph’s home town, and they made the move to Nazareth after their return from Egypt. But Matthew too wants to show us how God was working his purpose out, and he does this by connecting the story of Jesus to the old prophecies.

In Matthew’s gospel we’ve already seen several examples of old prophecies being fulfilled in the life of Jesus. In today’s passage three more prophecies are mentioned. First, Hosea 11:1 talks about Israel as God’s son and says ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’, referring to God bringing his people out of slavery in Egypt and into their own promised land. The way Matthew sees it, Jesus is reliving in his own life the story of Israel. Israel went to Egypt and back, and so does Jesus. Israel came through the waters of the Red Sea and Jesus comes through the water of baptism. Both Israel and Jesus are tested and tempted in the desert, and so on. So Matthew sees this as a legitimate application of Hosea’s prophecy to Jesus.

Verse 18, about Rachel weeping for her children, is taken from Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel was one of the great mothers in the time of the patriarchs, and Jeremiah wrote symbolically about her weeping as, hundreds of years later, her descendants were taken into exile in Babylon. The way Matthew sees it, the misery inflicted by a foreign army at the time of the exile has come again to Israel through the cruel actions of Herod, so the prophecy is fulfilled in the story of the slaughter of the innocents.

Verse 23 is more mysterious; no Old Testament prophecy that we know of says ‘He will be called a Nazorean’. However, Isaiah 11:1 might have been in Matthew’s mind; it mentions a coming ruler, a ‘branch’ from the family of David, and the Hebrew word for branch is ‘nezer’, which sounds a little like the name ‘Nazareth’. Matthew may be making a pun here, but a pun with a serious purpose: Jesus is the ‘branch’, the ruler God has sent for his people.

The point in all these prophecies is that God is working his purpose out. Jesus is born into a world much like ours, where human beings rebel against God and sin against each other. And we’re not talking about little personal sins like overindulging in Christmas turkey or cheating on your expense account. Those sins do have consequences, of course, as your EKG reading or the frown on your boss’ face will testify! But in the world we live in, some people’s sins have horrific consequences. Children are captured and turned into child soldiers or sold as sex slaves. People are killed because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time—because their house happened to be near the place the bomb was targeting, or they happened to live in the path of the invading army, or they were walking the street when the gunfire erupted between two rival gangs.

These outrages happen all the time, and it doesn’t seem to be God’s normal practice to rescue people from them. God’s usual policy seems to be to let the world experience the consequences of sin, while all the time calling on us to repent and learn a new way of living, the way of love and peace and justice. But he won’t impose this way on us; his ‘prime directive’ is to respect our freedom of choice.

And yet, in all of this, God is working his purpose out; this is the testimony of the whole Bible. So in the book of Genesis an earlier Joseph is a bratty kid who exploits his position as his father’s favourite and exasperates his brothers, to the point that they sell him as a slave into Egypt and tell his father he’s been killed by a wild animal. Joseph goes through years of suffering and hardship in Egypt, and God doesn’t rescue him from them. Eventually, through a long and complicated series of events, he becomes a sort of Prime Minister of Egypt, and he turns out to be in exactly the right place at the right time to help his father and brothers when they come down to Egypt to escape from a famine in their own country. God is working his purpose out.

This theme is repeated in many places in the Bible. We naturally love best the stories of God sending miraculous deliverance to his people, but they’re relatively few. In most cases, God doesn’t rescue his people from the consequences of human evil. And yet he’s always quietly at work, turning evil events around and bringing good out of them, so that his plan of salvation goes forward.

But sometimes it seems hard for us to see how this is happening, especially when it’s the innocent bystanders who suffer the consequences of human evil. Imagine what it would be like, years later, if you’d been one of the mothers of the children of Bethlehem, and you’d happened to hear this story from the gospel of Matthew read for the first time. Let’s imagine Susanna and Joachim, a young couple in their early twenties, with their firstborn son, little Davey, named after old King David because they lived in David’s home town. Imagine little Davey at eighteen months old, having recently learned to walk, getting into everything, beginning to learn to talk; he’s a healthy, happy child and they’re a happy family.

And then one night the king’s soldiers surround the town of Bethlehem, and at first light they come into the town. They order all parents with small children into the town square, search the houses to make sure that they haven’t missed anyone, and then without a word they kill every boy under the age of two. “Just following orders”, they say. It’s a cruel world, and that sort of thing happens all the time.

Susanna and Joachim, of course, are devastated; for months and years they go through periods of numbness, anger, and bitterness, before gradually coming to a place of acceptance. Maybe friends and neighbours try to give them easy theological answers about ‘God calling him home’ and ‘God always calls the best’, but Susanna and Joachim just can’t buy this. Instead, they find new meaning in the words of their prayer book, the psalms. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ ‘Break the teeth of the wicked, O God’. And yet they still turn to God somehow; there’s nowhere else to turn.

It’s taken years, but they’ve come to a place of peace about all this. They’ve had other children, but they still remember little Davy and pray that God will raise him from the dead on the day of the resurrection of the righteous. Later on they hear the story of Jesus and become Christians; they experience the gift of the Holy Spirit and find some comfort in the sense of God’s presence in their lives in Christian worship and fellowship. Until one day when a newly written document is read out loud in the worship of their church, a book about the life of Jesus, written by a man called Matthew. Joachim and Susanna are old now, in their eighties, with great-grandchildren, and yet a chill falls on their hearts when they hear of how God warned the family of Jesus in a dream, and he was able to escape from Bethlehem. And now all the old questions resurface, and they wonder whether they love Jesus so much after all. If God could protect him, why not their little Davy?

I would love to be able to give you an easy answer to this question this morning, but there is no such easy answer. What I will point out, though, is that as tough as this question is, it’s just one example of an even bigger dilemma. For every blind person Jesus healed there were hundreds more in Israel he didn’t heal. For every son of a widow he raised from the dead, there were thousands more widows whose only sons had also died.

You see, for thinking Christians answered prayers are sometimes more problematic than unanswered ones. If God answers the prayer of one person in trouble, what about the others? No doubt a Christian who had been booked to fly on one of the 9/11 airliners, and had been prevented from flying at the last minute, would thank God for rescuing him. But if he told that story publicly, relatives of those who had died would ask themselves angrily ‘How come God didn’t rescue my son or daughter too?’ And in wartime family members of soldiers always pray that God would protect their loved ones in battle, but how does God choose which of those prayers he’ll answer and which he’ll ignore?

Of course the real answer involves the abolition of war altogether; that’s the only way to be fully just about these things. A world where there’s no more sin, no more selfishness, no more lust for power, no more evil, is the only sort of world where the prayers of everyone can be answered. And Jesus has assured us that one day we’ll live in that sort of a world. In fact, he’s told us to pray for it to come soon: ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. But of course we need to be careful about how we pray that prayer. We live in the richest part of the world and enjoy a far greater percentage of the world’s wealth than justice would allow. How would God answer our prayer without asking us to live with less so that others could simply live? That’s the dilemma God faces, you see: every answered prayer has consequences somewhere else. So what’s the good news in this passage? Should we stop praying altogether?

Not at all. Jesus encourages us to pray and bring our requests to God. Not only that, but we just can’t help ourselves, can we? If you’re a person of faith, and you have people you love, you can no more stop praying for them than you can stop breathing. I have four children and two grandsons who I love more than I could even have imagined before they were born. Don’t tell me I can’t pray for them!

But as we pray, we realize that in the present imperfect state of the world, a perfect outcome for everyone isn’t going to happen. Evil is still present, sickness still exists, and human beings sin against each other with horrible consequences. God weeps for this, like Rachel weeping for her children. And he’s not far removed from it. He came and lived among us as one of us. He had to run to escape from Herod’s death squads. He lived as a refugee in Egypt, a displaced person, probably an illegal immigrant. Later on he was misunderstood by his family and even his closest friends. He was betrayed and given over to the power of the state and the empire, and they tortured him and nailed him to a cross. This is what it meant for him to be ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’.

And yet, through it all, in a way we can’t usually see or understand, God is working his purpose out. The death of Jesus, the vilest deed human beings have ever committed, turned out to be the way of reconciliation between God and human beings. Over and over again, in the history of Christianity, the sufferings of God’s people have somehow led to great advances for the kingdom of God. And the day will come, Jesus assures us, when those who have committed evil deeds will be held accountable for them—although, if I want God to have mercy on me for my sins, I might want to be careful about demanding too loudly that he punish the evil deeds of others.

The story of the slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem is a tough one for us to understand, but the Bible doesn’t whitewash these tough issues. Ultimately, this story leads us to pray ever more fervently for the coming of God’s kingdom. And meanwhile, in this gospel reading, Matthew encourages us to believe that in the midst of all the evil in the world God is working his purpose out, and that the day will come when every hurt is healed and every tear wiped away. And in the end, that is our Christian hope.