Sermon for Evensong on the 21st Sunday after Trinity, 21st October 2018

Psalm 141: Matthew 12:1-21 – ‘Smite me Friendly’

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works with the men that work wickedness, lest I eat of such things as please them.

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

That’s from Psalm 141, which is the one set in the Lectionary for tonight.

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth

and keep the door of my lips.’ Make sure that I only say the right things. But if I should inadvertently stray off-piste,

‘Let the righteous rather smite me friendly

and reprove me.’

I rather like the idea that the righteous should ‘smite me friendly’! Anyway, I have been warned.

As quite a lot of you know, I haven’t been very well. I’ll spare you the details, but I spent a week in Epsom Hospital three weeks ago, and then had a quiet week at my daughter Alice’s outside Exeter, before spending last week getting back up to speed at home in Cobham. It was very nice to hear from so many friends from St Mary’s, and to have some lovely visits too. Thank you for all your kindness!

I don’t know what it is that makes this happen, but my irregular stays in hospital have coincided with momentous events in the world outside. The last time I was in Epsom Hospital, in 1997, coincided with the death of poor Princess Di. I became quite an expert on all the various theories and odd facts surrounding that sad story. Now, just recently, and again in Epsom Hospital, I’ve been trying to keep on top of all the twists and turns in the Brexit negotiations, and particularly the ideas which our government and the European Commission have each come up with in order to avoid creating a ‘hard border’ around Northern Ireland.

Now you will realise why I adopted the ‘smite me friendly’ words from Psalm 141. I may find that you’re smiting me, but not friendly, if I’m not careful when I talk about Brexit!

Well, here’s the thing. There’s a nightmarishness about all the twists and turns of the Brexit process. If you go one way, you bump into an obstacle, perhaps something we’ve agreed beforehand or that Parliament has decided on, which rules out what you now think might be a good idea. So you turn down another entrance, and head off in another direction. You come up with something that you think will square with what the EU will accept – but your own MPs don’t like it. Nightmare. And of course, all the time there are plenty of people reminding you that they feel that nothing can compare with what we already have, as members of the European Union.

People are very passionate about it. Friendships have been broken. Families aren’t speaking to each other. And the worrying thing is, that no-one seems to agree how to decide who is right. People cling to the principle of democracy. More people voted to leave than to remain: 52% to 48%. But other people point out that 67% didn’t vote to leave. So people even disagree about what the democratic outcome was.

A factor in all this, this inability to decide who is right, is that there has been a lot of cheating and lying. There was the infamous red bus which had a banner down each side saying that, if we left the EU, there would be £350m a week more for the NHS – whereas even before Brexit day, as soon as the vote to leave was passed, the NHS has taken huge hits, from the devaluation of the £, making many drugs 20% more expensive, from doctors and nurses from the EU leaving, because they feel that the Brexit vote shows that people don’t like them – and from the 98% drop in numbers of nurses from the other EU countries applying to work here. The message on the bus was a wicked lie.

How do people know whom to believe? What is true in all this? Is it just a question of shouting louder?

Sitting in my hospital bed, and on Dr Alice, my daughter’s, couch, I started to wonder. Does it make a difference if you are a Christian? What would Jesus have done?

Today’s lesson from St Matthew shows him facing a rather similar set of conundrums to the ones that Mrs May and Dominic Raab, our MP, who’s now the Brexit minister, have to wrestle with. The question of eating on the Sabbath. Maybe what was held to be wrong extended to the act of gleaning, picking up the ears of wheat left at the edge of the field. Healing sick people, again on the Sabbath Day. Conflicting realities. Being hungry; worse, being ill: and you have the means to solve the problem. You can see where there is food freely available. Just pick it up. You have the power of healing. Just get him to stretch out his withered hand, and you can restore it to full strength. Does it matter if the Sabbath rules make it wrong to do these things?

Jesus gives a scholarly answer. He quotes the Hebrew scriptures to show that there are exceptions. King David and his men ate the bread offered on the altar in the Temple when they were hungry, which was something only the priests were allowed to do. Jesus pointed out that they had moved on from the limits of the old Temple worship. He was here. He was something else, something more. In Hosea [6:6] is a prophecy which includes these words, ‘I will have mercy and not sacrifice’. In Hosea those words follow a prophecy about rising again from the grave on the third day. This is all about Jesus, Jesus as much more than just a teacher, a rabbi. More than ‘a priest of the order of Melchizedek’ as the letter to the Hebrews describes him. (Hebrews 5:5, 5:10)

And he goes on to give the lovely example of a shepherd rescuing one of his sheep which has fallen into a pit on the sabbath day. We always want to help if an animal is trapped or hurt. That is why I was angry the other day when our local Painshill animal rescue team were not able to be on duty because the austerity cuts had reduced their numbers, so that a cow which had fallen into a ditch locally, and was in distress, had to wait for a crew from Sussex to come. Never mind what Jesus would say about austerity – the point is that He said that the animal, the sheep, must be saved, whatever day it is.

And finally Jesus quoted from Isaiah chapter 42, a prophecy again about the Messiah. Gentle, quiet – and trusted, even by the Gentiles, the non-Jews. ‘A bruised reed he shall not break’.

What can we bring from this, from how Jesus squared the circle with the Pharisees about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath? He, Jesus, rises above any day-to-day considerations. The Temple rules don’t apply to him. But almost more important, Jesus is the servant, the gentle spirit of kindness. He expects mercy, not ritual sacrifice. It’s not about Him, but about the ones in need. The man with the withered hand, maybe a Thalidomide victim, in today’s world; the sheep which has fallen down into a hole.

So what could we learn from Jesus about the Brexit ‘conundrum’, as Godfrey [Revd Godfrey Hilliard, Rector of Stoke D’Abernon] calls it? What principles can we use as followers of Jesus, as Christians? Obviously no-one can say for sure what Jesus would have said or done. But surely it would be good if we at least thought about it.

Would Jesus have wanted the Jews, his people, to get their independence from the Romans? Was it a bad thing to belong to the great Roman empire? After all, St Paul did very well out of being able to say, ‘Civis Romanus sum’ (‘I am a Roman citizen’, Acts 22, after Cicero, In Verrem, 2.5.162) – and indeed he was very proud of being able to say that. Jesus himself seems to have felt the same way: ‘render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, is what he said. (Matt.22:21)

What about immigration? The Jewish law protected the widow, the orphan – and ‘the stranger that is within thy gate’ (Deut. 10:19, Leviticus 19:34). That stranger is in the same position as the injured man in the story of the Good Samaritan. He was saved by a Samaritan, who was a foreigner, not someone Jewish people would ordinarily have wanted to have living next door. But this foreigner showed compassion and kindness. He showed that human dignity, human rights, the right to life, the right to medical treatment if you are hurt, are far more important than nationalistic considerations. Being a neighbour, a good neighbour, is far more important than what flag you fly.

But as I sat on Alice’s couch I realised that I wasn’t hearing those sort of arguments very much. There are some of our bishops who have said things along the same lines. [See, e.g., https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2016/1-july/news/uk/church-leaders-seek-to-unite-divided-country] But it occurred to me that we ought to try to work through it, through the Brexit conundrum, with Jesus on our shoulder. What would He think of as important? Would He ‘smite anyone friendly’ for things they said? What about that red bus? What else do the politicians know about that they aren’t telling the ordinary people? Aren’t all the doctors and nurses from other countries who work in our NHS ‘Good Samaritans’, just as Jesus would have wanted?

And we, when we argue passionately for one side or the other, do we give any thought to what our Christian faith might bring to the argument? And if not, why not? I have a feeling that things might work out rather better if we did – and if our leaders remembered Psalm 141.

Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth 

 and keep the door of my lips.

  O let not mine heart be inclined to any evil thing 

 let me not be occupied in ungodly works ….

  Let the righteous rather smite me friendly 

 and reprove me.

Advertisements

Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after the Epiphany, 13th January 2019

Isaiah 55:1-11; Romans 6:1-11

What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?

Isaiah is saying to the Israelites, come back to the true God. Don’t follow pagan idols. 

‘Why spend money and get what is not bread,

why give the price of your labour and go unsatisfied?

Only listen to me and you will have good food to eat,

and you will enjoy the fat of the land.

Come to me and listen to my words,

hear me, and you shall have life:

I will make a covenant with you, this time for ever,

to love you faithfully as I loved David’ [Is. 55:2-3, NEB]

Salvation is coming. The Messiah will come. He will not be what you expect – he will be like a suffering servant, even – ‘ despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief’ [Is. 53:3f]. But ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’. You can hear Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in it – but you mustn’t be seduced by the beautiful music into not hearing the Bible underneath.

It’s the major theme of much of the Old Testament. The chosen people, the Israelites, ‘like sheep have gone astray’. They have worshipped false gods. Isaiah asks, ‘Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?’ 

We can recognise ourselves a bit in this, even though it was written nearly 3,000 years ago. Your eyes will probably glaze over if I say this. Yeah, yeah. Of course we shouldn’t get hung up on new cars and posh extensions to our houses. But – we do. What harm does it do? Worse things happen at sea.

Well, Isaiah said to the Israelites, according to some scholars about 700BC, that they needed to ‘Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord.’ It could still be valid for us today.

Because what the Israelites were doing was sin; they were sinning against the one true God. But he offers them a second chance. ‘Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.’

Sin is, in a sense, doing bad things. But underpinning that is the reason that something is sinful. It is, that it shows that the sinner is turning away from, is separated from, God. So if you steal, or envy someone their things, or elope with their wife, those are bad things, but they are also sins, because you are going against God’s commandments. ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’ [John 14:15f].

But in our other reading, from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we have flashed forward 700 years from Isaiah, to the time of Jesus, and St Paul. Isaiah’s prophecies have come true. The Messiah has come. This morning in our services we were marking the Baptism of Christ. Christ meeting the last of the prophets, John the Baptist. You might perhaps think that because of the story of Jesus, there isn’t any need to bother with the Old Testament, with 60+ chapters of Isaiah and things, any more. But remember that Jesus himself said, ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’ (Matt. 5:17). So when the dove came down on Jesus after his baptism in the River Jordan, and the voice from heaven said, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased’, it was a pivotal moment, joining the prophetic time with the incarnation of God on earth.

Paul made powerful use of baptism in his preaching to non-Jews. Baptism was a ritual common in Greek cults as well as in Christianity. ‘To his pagan converts it appealed as a sacrament parallel to those of the Greek mysteries’ (C.H. Dodd, 1950 (1920), The Meaning of Paul for Today, Glasgow, Wm Collins Sons and Co, p.130). In the Greek mysteries, by performing sacramental acts ‘spiritual effects could be obtained’ (Dodd).

Running through St Paul’s letters is the idea of the Christians being ‘in Christ’, intimately bound up with Christ. So, in a sense, Christ’s baptism was a symbol of being dead and then resurrected; going down into the water and then rising up out of it.  By being baptised ‘along with’ or ‘into’ Christ, Christians were symbolically sharing in his death and resurrection. 

At the same time, there was a problem: even after being baptised, Christians were still human, they still did sinful things. Paul said that we need to be ‘dead to sin’ in the way that Jesus was. That is, as Jesus died, he couldn’t be prey to sinful influences. He was ‘dead to sin’.  So as a Christian, if I am ‘alive to Christ’, baptised, sacramentally dead and resurrected with him, I too should be ‘dead to sin’. 

But it isn’t magic. It’s a sacrament. The essence of a sacrament is that it is ‘an outward visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’, as the Catechism in the BCP puts it (p294 of the Cambridge edition). It’s worth reading this bit of the Catechism. Things aren’t as fierce today as they were in the 16th century, when the heading to the Catechism in the BCP was ‘an Instruction to be learned of every Person before he be brought to be confirmed by the Bishop’. That is, learned by heart, at about 10 years old… 

Anyway, if you’re up for it, this is what you have to learn about being baptised.

‘Question.

How many parts are there in a Sacrament?

Answer.

Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace.

Question.

What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer.

Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question.

What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer.

A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question.

What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer.

Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.’

‘A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’. That’s what you get in Christian baptism. But just as sin doesn’t just mean doing bad things, so conversely, being a child of grace doesn’t mean just going with the flow, being baptised and doing nothing in consequence of it. You need repentance, μετάνοια, change of mind, as a prerequisite.

Paul has posed the problem, the puzzle. Why is there still sin around, or rather, can we still get away with committing sins, after we have been baptised? Indeed, he starts with a rather nerdy argument that sounds as though it has come out of a philosophy essay, to the effect that we need to carry on sinning in order to demonstrate by contrast the weight of grace which we have got. It’s almost like saying you can’t understand what it is to be black unless you have white as well.

Paul answers his puzzle not philosophically, but by explaining how we are joined with Christ in the sacrament. Dead with him; dead to sin.  Alive, resurrected, with Christ. So, I come back round to my original question. ‘What difference does it make? You know, being a Christian. We are past the lovely Christmas baby-fest. Now what difference does God-with-us, Emmanuel, make?’

This is tough stuff. It really means that, if we put our heads above the parapet and let people know that we are Christians, it should be evident in what we do, evident in how we behave. 

It means that in business, if we say that our actions are dictated solely by the need to make value, or profit, for shareholders; or in public affairs, if we say that we would like to do something good, but that money, or the market, dictates otherwise; if we see poor people risking their lives to escape poverty and danger, and try to keep them out instead of giving them a place of refuge; in all those cases, we will show ourselves as still not being dead to sin and alive to Christ. 

Think of Jesus’ teaching. God and mammon: the good Samaritan; the prodigal son; giving and not counting the cost. As Jesus said just before he was baptised, in St Luke’s Gospel, ‘The man with two shirts must share with him who has none, and anyone who has food must do the same.’ It’s not enough – although it’s a good start – just to go to church. Think what you have to do, to really do, in order to be really dead to sin.


‘But I thought you were our friends’, said a German friend when I was in Hamburg soon after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. ‘So did I – and you are’, I answered, churning with embarrassment.

Since then I have been puzzled and disappointed by the fact that not everyone, whom I would have expected to be, is solidly opposed to Brexit, which fact, in my view, flies in the face of the EU’s worth, as the most successful movement for peace, security and comity between peoples ever in Europe. 

I believe that the European Union has brought 70 years of peace in Europe; that it has brought about a consensus, which has become law in all member states, that human rights (defined by a British-drafted convention) shall be upheld and the exploitation of workers outlawed; introduced limits on working hours and requirements for the active provision of safe places in which to work and play. It is an area where students can study freely in any member country, and academics are free to work in whatever nationality of university they choose. The vision of Europe United seems to me to be profoundly Christian, in that it espouses the idea of a brotherhood of mankind, that all humans are children of God and dear to Him, irrespective where they come from. This is the ‘human values’ side of EU membership, if I can put it like that.

There are economic benefits of membership in the EU, based on free trade and the absence of customs duties for movement of goods between EU countries, as well as freedom of movement and common standards for food and various types of hardware: the ‘four freedoms’ – movement of goods, capital, services and labour – guaranteed by the Single European Act of 1993. The ‘single market’ this has created has become one of the biggest trading blocs in the world.  None of the proposed forms of Brexit would avoid major harm to the UK economy when compared with the status quo.  This is the economic side of EU membership. We are better off remaining where we are. It is true that the nations who are members have given up some of their individual sovereignty, but this is in return for being part of a much greater collective whole, and therefore they are actually more powerful as such than they would be on their own.

But yet there are people who, one would think, would agree with all this and be enthusiastic about it, but who favour Brexit. One such is Revd Canon Dr Giles Fraser, and another (probably) is Jeremy Corbyn. There has recently been a podcast discussion between Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, Dr Maurice Glasman, the founder of the so-called ‘Blue Labour’ movement (listen at https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/confessions-with-giles-fraser-unherd/id1445038441?mt=2&i=1000426741962) in which they both ‘confessed’ – or rather, celebrated – that they were both in favour of Brexit, despite both being generally in favour of the ‘human values’ side of the EU. Both are Labour Party members, and both practise their religious faiths.

This was – is – because they both see the EU as a powerful instrument of neoliberal economics, under which the rich get richer and the poor poorer, big corporations have unfettered power to harm our lives, and the values of the market trump all others. They both see value in nationhood and patriotism, and they believe that the rules of the Single Market would prevent a future Labour government from giving state aid including borrowing to invest in the steps necessary to rectify the effects of the current Conservative government’s austerity programme. They distance themselves from the overtones of racism and xenophobia which often seem to arise in the context of Brexit.

Fraser is, otherwise, a caring social liberal. His most recent article for the ‘UnHerd’ website created by the founder of ‘Conservative Home’, Tim Montgomerie, is ‘Why Brexit Britain should welcome more Refugees’ [https://unherd.com/2019/01/why-brexit-britain-should-welcome-more-refugees/]. 

As an aside, I am rather unsure whether I like ‘UnHerd’. Apart from Giles Fraser, its contributors all seem to be right-wing. In the body of Fraser’s article are suggestions for further reading. I show these links above. One gets an uneasy feeling that this is not really an enlightened, liberal publication in the way that Dr Fraser’s previous home, the Guardian, is. Some of the images used are quite disturbing. ‘Economic rationalists … immigration’ is alongside a picture of our leading black – British – politician, Diane Abbott. ‘How bigoted is Brexit?’ appears alongside a picture of orthodox Jews playing what looks like a playground game. In both cases, one asks why these images were used, if there is not some appeal to unenlightened instincts.

Pace what the Brexit faction alleges, the EU is democratic, and upholds democracy. There is an elected European Parliament and an elected Council of Ministers, which bodies are sovereign. The European Commission is the civil service, the administrative arm, of the EU. Its powers are analogous with those of our British civil service as between themselves and the elected bodies. We currently enjoy considerable influence on the policy-making of the EU. Brexit would deny us any representation or control of EU policy in future. In ‘taking back control’, Britain would risk being governed by people who are not so committed to human rights, for example. One recalls that when he was a justice minister, Dominic Raab wanted to abolish the Human Rights Act.

It seems to me that we would have more chance of being able to put right the cruel excesses of austerity if we are inside the EU and able to benefit from its collective strength. If Jeremy Corbyn feels that, if he were Prime Minister, he would be able to negotiate more favourable Brexit terms than those obtained by Theresa May, then surely he ought to be confident that, among his many socialist colleagues in European parties, if we remained in the EU, he would be able to build a consensus away from neoliberalism.  After all, just as neoliberalism has failed in the UK, it has clearly not succeeded in several parts of the EU: certainly in Greece, and probably also in Italy, Spain and Portugal, the case for a change to Keynsian economics is strong. Note, incidentally, that the leading economist and former Finance Minister of Greece, Prof. Yanis Varoufakis, does not think that either his own country, Greece, or the UK, where he teaches, should leave the EU. Reform from within is the better route.

The argument that EU rules on state aid would frustrate Labour policy on rebuilding a fair and humane welfare state has been demolished by the leading competition lawyer, George Peretz QC. See https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/dec/27/four-reasons-jeremy-corbyn-wrong-eu-state-aid. 

Now, with weeks to go before the date recklessly set by the government for Britain to leave the EU, I do hope that those respected thinkers on the Left such as Giles Fraser and Baron Glasman, as well as the Labour leadership, will come round to a similar view to that held by Yanis Varoufakis, that reform from within is possible, that the EU need not necessarily always be in thrall to neoliberalism, and that Brexit is ‘a disaster for Britain’ – see https://www.yanisvaroufakis.eu/2018/12/22/talking-brexit-bernie-and-left-internationalism-with-yanis-varoufakis-vice/. Then the Labour Party can solidly oppose Brexit and ensure that the Article 50 clock is stopped in order to allow a further referendum to take place, in which the people can decide whether they really want to make our country catastrophically poorer and less influential in the world, by leaving the EU (either under the current May ‘deal’ or without a deal), or whether, now that they can see what Brexit actually involves, they would prefer to remain in the EU.  Then I can hope to greet my friend in Hamburg and be recognised again as his true friend.

Hugh Bryant

5th January 2019 

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday after Christmas-Day, 30th December 2018

Isaiah 61; Galatians 3:27-4:7 (http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=412935020)

Do you remember when Jesus started to read in the synagogue – it’s in Luke 4, from verse 17 – and he read out from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, and then said, ‘This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.’ In other words, He was the Messiah, which Isaiah had prophesied about, had foretold in our lesson tonight, chapter 61, and chapter 61 was what Jesus was reading out.

That prophecy is all about the salvation of Israel, deliverance from its oppressors, from the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Egyptians – and latterly, it would be, from the Romans – deliverance from slavery; because the Israelites were the chosen people of God, and God would keep his promise to them.

That’s as you would expect. Jesus was Jewish, he was an Israelite. He was brought up in the Jewish culture. The gospel of St Matthew, aimed at a Jewish readership, is at pains to set out his genealogy, tracing it back to King David, son of Abraham.

But truly, if the story of Jesus had just been a Jewish story, just been a story about Israelites, that story would have remained a footnote in history. But the genius of St Paul was to realise that the one true God is the god of everyone. There isn’t just a god for the Jews, or for another national group – or in those days, for the Romans. God is far bigger than any question of nationality or origin.

And so we have this great passage in the Letter to the Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. [Gal. 3:28f]

Just as Isaiah had prophesied,

I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
And their seed shall be known among the Gentiles, and their offspring among the people”

God’s chosen people are no longer to be regarded as being just the Israelites, but rather all those who are ‘in Christ Jesus’, who are Christians. They are God’s chosen people now. ‘Their seed shall be known among the Gentiles’, just as much as among the Jews.

Paul’s mission to the ‘nations’, (which is what the Latin-based word ‘gentile’ means), to the non-Jews, opened the door to Christianity becoming a universal religion, and there is no bar in it to anyone on the grounds of nationality, or colour, or origin: being, and becoming, Christian, and indeed that key expression in St Paul’s thought, being ‘in Christ Jesus’, is integral to the way he understands God: that God is at the heart of everything, the ultimate creator and sustainer of all our being.

But although Jesus’ coming as the Messiah meant that we should look wider than just the sons of Abraham, the Israelites, in order to find who are God’s chosen people, nevertheless, in Isaiah’s prophecy, there are some key truths which, maybe, started as distinctive Jewish or Israelite concerns, but nevertheless now have a worldwide or universal importance.

Important among these is the concept of justice.

‘.. to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, and the day of vengeance of our God’

This is all about the rule of law. In the Jewish Law, the ‘acceptable year’ is the Jubilee year, is the year one-in-seven when debts were forgiven; when people were allowed a new start. Not that the law disappeared, but that its application was tempered with mercy. ‘The quality of mercy is not strained’, if you prefer Shakespeare. [The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene 1]

‘For I the Lord love judgment, I hate robbery for burnt offering’. Don’t go out and pinch your neighbour’s things so as to be able to afford to put more in the collection plate. The Lord loves judgment. The Lord loves the law. Do the right thing. And the right thing is a message of renewal and, as I have observed so often, and particularly in Advent, the message of the Bible is one which is full of the counter-intuitive, it is often contrary.

See, Isaiah foretells opposites: ‘ … beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness’. This is not a message of despair: this is a message of hope. But it is hope based upon a fresh appreciation, on repentance, on throwing away the old truisms; casting off slavery; slavery, which means forcing people to work for less than they need in order to pay the rent and to buy food. And look, in this vision of justice, Isaiah sees that

strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, and the sons of the alien shall be your plowmen and your vinedressers.’

Strangers. Sons of the alien. That is what the Millennium looks like. There is nothing wrong with people coming and joining our society and doing useful jobs. But note that, both in Isaiah and in St Paul, it’s not the case that origins and nationality are obliterated. It’s more a question that there is no hierarchy of worth, based on nationality or origin.

‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female.’

It doesn’t literally mean that. It means that the connotations of being Jewish, or the connotations of being Greek, what it means to be in slavery, what it means to be free, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, do not include connotations of worth: or to put it another way, they are all equally worth.

It doesn’t mean to say that they are all the same. But it means that you can’t say, just because somebody is from a particular country, for that reason, they are less entitled to share in the world’s riches than someone who is from Hollywood – or from the British Hollywood, Cobham.

So as we begin 2019 on Tuesday these are very timely lessons. In the good society there is no room for xenophobia or nationalism – although we can celebrate our differences and enjoy the riches of each other’s culture. We can explore new foods, new literature, new ways of looking at things, that come from different places of origin.

I was blessed, earlier in my life, in having ten years of fairly constant travel, to all sorts of other countries. I really enjoyed learning about different ways of life and making friends with people in other countries. But today, there is a worldwide movement against this, based on nationalism and xenophobia. Freedom of movement, for our young people to be able to do as I did, to travel freely throughout the world, to live and work and different places; and the other side of that coin, for people from other countries to be able to come freely here, to make their life here if they want to do so, by working hard and contributing to our society, that freedom is being overtaken, overtaken by narrow nationalism.

We should recognise that there is ‘neither Jew nor Greek’ in the Kingdom of God: that we are all sons and daughters of God, descendants of Adam and Eve: and Jesus is the second Adam, ‘a second Adam to the fight’ as the hymn puts it. He is really Everyman – He is for everyone.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 23rd December 2018

Isaiah 10:33-11:10, Matthew 1:18-25

‘In the bleak midwinter’; ‘Snow had fallen, snow on snow’; ‘Good King Wenceslas looked out … deep and crisp and even’. But Bethlehem is a hot place, dusty rather than snowy. I suppose carols and hymns can be rather an unreliable source of proper geographical information. ‘And did those feet .. walk upon England’s green and pleasant land?’

I don’t suppose they sing ‘Jerusalem’ in Italy, or in France or in Germany. Or if they do, presumably those feet were walking in the Black Forest or on the Palatine Hill, or maybe, in the Bois de Boulogne. There is, if we are literal about it, quite a lot of nonsense which we happily tolerate at this time of year. Things that appear to go completely contrary to common sense; like snow in Bethlehem. It probably was quite cold at night in the stable, once the sun had gone down. But there certainly wasn’t any snow.

One of the things that these carols are doing is assimilating the story of the birth of Jesus into our homes, or rather into an idealised version of our homes, because even here in England a white Christmas is, of course, very rare. I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that we won’t have one this year either.

And as well as the carols, the Bible readings that we traditionally use at this time also contain things which look contrary. Isaiah’s wonderful vision of the peaceful life on ‘God’s holy mountain’, after the Rod of Jesse, the Saviour, has beaten the Assyrians, and saved God’s chosen people, isn’t just a pastoral idyll.

It deliberately puts almost impossible companions together. The wolf and the sheep; the leopard, the kid; the calf, the young lion, the cow and the bear – the little child, leading them, like a party of schoolchildren following their teacher around the Tower of London, say.

Or perhaps it’s a classroom, full of these unlikely neighbours, who are not busily eating each other, but they are sitting attentively in class, being kept in good order by a little boy, like my two-year old grandson Jim. In your dreams, Sunshine!

Well, yes; in Isaiah, in Isaiah’s dreams. In the words of the prophet, telling his hearers what God has spoken to him and said, that the Rod of Jesse would come and slay the Assyrians, and then that they ‘would not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.’

Interesting that it is on a mountain, on a high place. The Greek gods were on a mountain too; on Mount Olympus. And in the Old Testament, the heathen gods, the Baals and the Astartes of the Chaldeans, were worshipped with sacred poles, which were ‘in the high places’. ‘High places’ was almost a synonym for where God lived. We ourselves look up, look up to heaven, because conventionally, God lives in Heaven, and Jesus sits at God’s right hand ‘on high’, we say. Think of our Psalm this evening.

Unto thee I lift up mine eyes:

O thou that dwellest in the heavens. [Ps. 123]

But again, it’s not literally true. Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut, was said by Nikita Krushchev to have gone into space ‘but not to have seen God there’. The early astronauts didn’t find a man with a white beard sitting on a golden throne and floating above the clouds. John Gillespie Magee’s wonderful poem, which is often read at the funeral of a pilot, ‘High Flight’, comes to mind. ‘Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth … put out my hand and touched the face of God’. And so, on God’s holy mountain, children can safely play with cockatrices, vipers, and with asps, cobras. ‘Sheep may safely graze’.

It’s a much better outlook for the Israelites. The Messiah would come along and free them from slavery. The Rod of Jesse would mete out retribution to all their foes. That’s something that we can certainly relate to. ‘If only ..’, we say. If only: what would you call in the Rod of Jesse to do in your life? But maybe we are too comfortable, too well settled to really empathise with how the Israelites must have felt.

But there are people who are in exile, who are not free, who may even be subjected to slavery, even today, not far away. On Friday I did my first Father Christmas duty of this Christmas, up at Brooklands College, where there is a project for children who are asylum seekers and refugees. I gave out splendid big stockings full of goodies donated by the supporters of the project and by Elmbridge CAN, our local refugee support group, to 26 young people, teenagers and in their early 20s, who had come from Eritrea, from Syria, Ukraine, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Afghanistan. Some were black Africans, some were Arabs, a couple were Chinese, and a couple were white Europeans. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to stay.

Some were learning to read and write for the first time; although typically, the ones who hadn’t been able to read and write were amazingly good at mental arithmetic. They were learning English, of course, and learning how to fit in with English society. The first words that they are taught are ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘sorry’, because none of those are necessarily expressions that you come across in some of the countries that they have come from. Part of Father Christmas’ visit was a huge lunch, of Middle Eastern and African delicacies, that one of the volunteers from Elmbridge CAN had made. For about half the children, this would be their only meal that day. One meal, if you’re lucky. This is in Weybridge!

So pictures of the Israelites, in exile and under the oppressor’s boot, could still in certain circumstances be a picture of contemporary life, for refugees and asylum seekers today. Think what life in the refugee camps must be like, in Jordan, for example. No snow there, either!

As well as the mythical snow on this fourth Sunday of Advent, just on the eve of Christmas itself, St Matthew tells us the story of the other half of the Annunciation. This isn’t about Mary but about Joseph her betrothed. Again, the Christmas story is so familiar that we perhaps gloss over the bits that seem rather unlikely. Joseph’s original reaction when he finds out that his wife-to-be is pregnant, although he has had nothing to do with it, is what you might expect. His first thought is that the wedding is not going to happen.

Who is the Angel Gabriel? Have you met any angels recently? Or at all? It seems to depend a bit on where you come from and what you’re used to. In Africa and in Southern Europe, people are much more ready to believe in the existence of angels than perhaps we are. I don’t think that we can explain the Virgin Birth in the same way that we could explain how to bake a perfect soufflé – or whatever it is they do on the Great British Bake-Off.

But look at it functionally. Jesus definitely lived. He was a human being, although during his life and afterwards, things happened which have led us to believe that he was more than human, that he was divine as well as human. So somehow he must have been born, been conceived. All the things that show that he was really born, that he really was human, just like the other miracles, turning water into wine, miraculously healing sick people, raising Lazarus from the dead – none of those can be explained: so Jesus’ conception is equally mysterious and impossible to understand.

But notice how Jesus’ earthly parents, wonderfully, accepted the situation; and of course Mary said the Magnificat, which we’ve just sung together. God has chosen me; God has magnified me; God has made a big thing out of me.

Is it just a pretty story, then? Is it just a convenient excuse to have a nice time at Christmas? Think about what Mary said. Think about the message of the Magnificat, and the message of Isaiah, about the animals on ‘God’s holy mountain’. ‘He has put down the mighty from his seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ Are we the mighty? Or are we the ‘humble and meek’?

We need to think about it, and to do something. Perhaps the other thing about God’s holy mountain is that a little child shall lead them. Shall we say that that is the Christ Child? You know, in snowy Bethlehem? And another thing. ‘No crying he makes’. This is some baby!

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,

I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air….

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.

Where never lark, or even eagle flew —

And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee (1922-1941)

Sermon for Holy Communion on the Third Sunday of Advent, 16th December 2018

Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18 – Vipers?

For the readings, see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=411967662

‘You brood of vipers!’ said John the Baptist. You’re all damned, unless you repent and change your life. Oh dear. Actually I’m not going to give you a work-out from John the Baptist’s play-book this morning – partly because I covered the same ground last week, about living each day as if it is going to be your last; sharing your food and clothes with people in need; and if you are in a position of power or authority, as a soldier or as a tax inspector, not exploiting your power to bully people.

I’m not even going to try to bring the shenanigans over Brexit in this last week into my message, although there is a temptation to see some of the politicians involved as a brood of vipers. It is so sad that this business has been so divisive. This week I read that the Dean of Southwark has made a prayer, which I’ll come back to, to ask for God’s help in healing the divisions and bringing wisdom to the conundrums.

Instead, even though this is still the season of Advent, and there are definite challenges to repent still undoubtedly facing us, it is Rose Sunday today, with a pink candle – the Sunday when we can look up joyfully and sing ‘Rejoice! The Lord is king.’ Robert had a lot of nice Advent hymns to choose from today, but that splendid Charles Wesley one, ‘Rejoice! The Lord is king’, has had to wait on the bench this time. It’s hymn number 563 if you want to look it up. It’s a great hymn. It is based on our epistle, our letter, Paul’s letter to the early church at Philippi, whom he was very fond of. ‘Rejoice, again I say, rejoice’.

If you follow the story of St Paul’s three missionary journeys in the book of the Acts of the Apostles – and this bit is in chapter 16 of Acts – you will read about his visit to the important Macedonian city of Philippi, founded by Philip the Great in 348BC, which was a Roman colony by the time Paul went there in about 50AD. Philippi was where there was Lydia, who was the first European to be converted to Christianity, Lydia, the woman who had a business dealing in purple cloth, who invited Paul and his companions, probably Luke, Silas and Timothy, to stay with her. Her house became the first Christian church – the first ‘house church’ – in Europe.

Then after Paul and Silas were arrested and thrown into jail in Philippi, and the jail was broken open by an earthquake, the jailer was so grateful, because they did not run off and escape, that he and his household asked to be baptised and become Christians too. After Paul had let on that he and Silas were Roman citizens, which meant that it was not lawful for them to have been whipped and thrown into jail in the first place, the magistrates came and apologised to them and they were allowed to go free. Philippi was truly a happy place for St Paul.

But when Paul wrote his letter, his Epistle, to his friends in Philippi, he was again in prison – most probably in Rome. In this short letter – only four chapters – there is some memorable teaching by St Paul. Is it better to die, and go to heaven, or to survive and preach another day? He is ‘torn two ways’ [Phil.1:23].

And there’s also this famous passage: that Jesus humbled himself, and made himself nothing: but ‘God raised him to the heights and bestowed on him the name above all names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and … every tongue confess him Lord of all’ [Phil. 2:6f]. This is a real echo of the gospel theme, Jesus’ rather contrarian teaching that ‘the first shall be last’. It reminds me also of the revolutionary lines of the Magnificat: ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and exalted the humble and meek.’ It’s upside-down. Upside-down Jesus Christ.

Perhaps another reason why St Paul was so warm towards the Philippians was that, as he thanks them for doing, they sent him two lots of contributions towards his expenses, when he was at Thessalonica. None of the other early churches had done this. He mentions it, and he praises the Philippians, right at the end of his letter.

In our passage today, Paul forecasts (because his letters were written before the Gospels), or rather he parallels the message that we’ll find in the Gospels, teaching by Jesus about not being too concerned with material things. According to St Matthew, Jesus said, ’Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin; [but] … Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these’ (Matt. 6:28-29). Paul wrote very much in the same vein, ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.’

So what shall our prayer be? In this time it is truly difficult not to worry, difficult not to feel animosity against people who, you might well feel, are threatening our cosmopolitan way of life and our comfortable standard of living – and you may well feel that, whichever side you are on. So this is what the Dean of Southwark has written, the prayer that he suggests we might use. Let us pray.

God of reconciling hope,

as you guided your people in the past

guide us through the turmoil of the present time

and bring us to that place of flourishing

where our unity can be restored,

the common good served

and all shall be made well.

In the name of Jesus we pray.

Amen.

Amen. So be it.

Sermon for PBS Evensong on Saturday 24th November 2018 in the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse

Readings – Isaiah 10:33-11:9, 1 Timothy 6:11-16 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=409977794

Psalm 119:1-32

We have a picture of the Messiah in Isaiah chapter 10, and a job specification for an elder in the church, a vicar, even, in 1 Timothy. The two lessons relate to each other. If you are a vicar, if you are taking the place, representing, the Messiah, the Lord incarnate, then it’s relevant to look at the characteristics of the Messiah: his gentleness, the judging honestly, the peace and harmony between God’s creatures that He has to promote. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain:’ and there is this beautiful picture of unlikely animal bedfellows. ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.’

This is all very picturesque and nice. But what lesson are we supposed to draw from it? Are all vicars fair judges, promoters of peace and harmony, following Isaiah’s vision of the rod of Jesse, the Messiah? Or, following the first letter of Paul to Timothy, is a vicar supposed above all to ‘follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness…. [to]

Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life’?

If you put out a Parish Profile when you were looking for a new vicar, and you put those characteristics in the job specification, I don’t know what sort of a vicar you’d attract. No hurting or destroying. Right. Good judgement. ‘…with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth’. OK, all right.

But what sort of a vicar is he? Is he evangelical? Happy-clappy, even? He could be. But the job spec doesn’t help. Children playing ‘on the hole of the asp’ is something that I would have thought any decent vicar these days would regard as desperately dangerous, and put a stop to! It doesn’t go into any of the things that a modern congregation would look for. If he – or she – isn’t an evangelical, is this ideal vicar traditional? An Anglo-Catholic? Indeed, is this vicar an Anglican, even? Maybe he’s an RC, or a Methodist, or a Baptist.

People sometimes talk about the ‘theology of the Prayer Book’. In the ordination service, ‘The Ordering of Priests’ in the Prayer Book, the priest is asked to affirm that they will ‘teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture’. Sola Scriptura – only Scripture – is the basis of theology for our priest.

If we are looking for the ‘theology of the Prayer Book’, we have to bear in mind that Cranmer wrote it in the white heat of the Reformation struggles. Cranmer had been to meet the other reformers in Geneva and Zurich, Calvin, Bucer and Zwingli, and he may even have met Martin Luther. The Anglicanism which the Prayer Book represents is described as ‘Catholic and Reformed’. Just think of Henry VIII. He was a good Catholic, who just had a little local difficulty with the Pope. The Protestantism started later, under the boy king Edward.

If you follow the various versions of the Prayer Book from the 1549 original to the 1662 final version which we use today, for example the words of administration of Holy Communion, and the theology it signified, actually changed. Originally in 1549, it was, ‘The body (or blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given (shed) for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life’. That was a Catholic formula – the elements, the bread and wine, had really become the body and blood of Christ. It was called the Real Presence. In 1552, three years later, the words ‘The Body (Blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ’ had been deleted. No Real Presence. A pure Protestant Eucharist. But in 1559, five years after Cranmer’s death, Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth’s Archbishop, brought in the formula which we now use, which will work whether you believe in Transubstantiation or not.

Still I’m struggling to find guidance from the Prayer Book about how to choose my new vicar. Richard Hooker, the great Elizabethan theologian, who was born just before Cranmer died, in his great work ‘Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’, argued that the basis for the Church of England’s theology were ‘revelation, reason and tradition’ – ‘revelation’ meaning the Bible, Scripture. It went further than the Reformers’ ‘Sola Scriptura’. You needed to interpret scripture, with the help of common sense and with the benefit of ancient wisdom, of the work of previous scholars and the decisions of bishops, church leaders, too.

The elephant in the room, I would say, is that there’s nothing which I have found so far which would equate with a ‘Prayer Book theology’, in the way that some people talk about today. I fear that that expression may actually be code, a code expression to stand for a consciously archaic approach: no gender equality; maybe no women priests; literal approaches to sexual questions; homosexuality is sinful, even. Not things that I, for one, believe in for one minute.

It’s something to talk about over our splendid Carthusian match tea. I think that, far from burying a church in the past, if its vicar really does try to uphold the ‘ancient formularies’ of the Church of England, indeed including the Book of Common Prayer, the clever thing about it is that the Prayer Book gives words to the via media, the middle way. It’s neither Evangelical nor Anglo-Catholic. Not necessarily happy-clappy. Not necessarily formal. It’s not necessarily literal either. Look closely at the Communion words next time, and try to decide whether you are meant to believe that the water and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Could be – but might not be. The truth is whatever is in the heart of the believer. I don’t think that the 39 Articles or the Catechism have anything to upset this conclusion either.

When we think about the coming of the Messiah, the ‘rod of the stem of Jesse’ as we go into the season of Advent, as Prayer Book enthusiasts we must be careful not to elevate the BCP above ‘Scripture, Reason and Tradition’, as the basis for our theology.

So when you do need a new vicar, of course the advice that St Paul gives Timothy is relevant; of course the vision of heaven, that the vicar will point to and try to lead his flock to, will be as Isaiah sets it out, on God’s ‘holy mountain’. But our Prayer Book will still give us the words, although actually nothing more. But that is, surely, an embarrassment of riches.

Sermon for 8 o’clock Eucharist on the Second Sunday of Advent, 9th December 2018

Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

The voice of one crying in the wilderness. ‘Every valley, every valley shall be exalted … the crooked straight, and the rough places plain’. Perhaps in your head you can hear the great tenor Mark Padmore singing this in Handel’s Messiah.

This is the second Sunday of Advent, the time when we look forward not only to Christmas, to celebrating and commemorating the birth of Jesus, his first coming, but also to his second coming at the end of time, to the day of judgement.

The ‘one crying in the wilderness’ was John the Baptist, and the words are from the book of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40.

There’s a sort of creative tension in the themes of Advent, between our looking forward to the happy Christmas time, and our thinking – if we do think about it – about the Last Judgment.

In our morning prayer services – which we have at 9.15 here on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – at this Advent time the prayers end with:

May the Lord when he comes

find us watching and waiting.

We say, ‘Amen’. Amen – so be it.

I wonder really what the background to John the Baptist was. St Luke gives him a precise historical context, ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea’, and so on – which all translate, the historians say, to about the year 29 AD – or CE, Common Era, as we say nowadays. By the same reckoning, Jesus’ crucifixion was in the year 33, so this was four years before the crucifixion.

But apart from the date, there’s not much else in the historical context to say why John the Baptist appeared at that point. Why did the people in Judaea need to be told to ‘repent’, to change their mindset, at this particular point? What were their ‘sins’ that needed to be forgiven?

Perhaps before trying to answer that, I should just say something about what this word ‘sin’ might mean. Although we sometimes use the word ‘sin’ to mean a bad thing, a bad thing that someone’s done, the church’s teaching has always been that ‘sin’ is not the same thing as crime. The idea is that ‘sin’ is something that drives a wedge between us and God. The Greek word used in the New Testament is άμαρτια, ‘missing the mark’, missing the target.

This is all linked to the Last Judgement. Did we pass the test? Or will we miss the mark? What do you have to do, in order to to pass the test?

You can work out what the Baptist had in mind, if you read on in this third chapter of Luke’s gospel. What do we have to do? people asked him. You have to prove that you have changed your mindset. Like a tree, you will be judged by whether your repentance bears fruit, whether there’s a practical consequence to it.

St Paul has a prayer for his friends in the congregation at Philippi, which echoes what John the Baptist was preaching. He says,

And this is my prayer, that your love may grow ever richer and richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, and may thus bring you the gift of true discrimination. Then on the Day of Christ you will be flawless and without blame, reaping the full harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (3.9-11)

What they were doing wrong when John the Baptist appeared has to be deduced from what he was telling them they ought to do, in order to show that they had repented. It wasn’t enough just to say they were God’s chosen people – ‘We have Abraham to our father’.

They had to do something to show for it. If you read on in the Gospel passage – it could be your little extra thing to do over coffee before you get down to Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer today – you will see that John says, if you have two coats, give one away to someone who hasn’t got one; if you have more than enough food, share that; and specifically he answers the tax-gatherers, who were privatised, if you remember, and soldiers, telling them to do their jobs ethically, the tax inspectors not extorting too much from the taxpayers, and the soldiers not to be violent – presumably this meant, not violent when they were off duty – and to be content with their pay.

So we can perhaps infer some things from that. People were being mean. Perhaps they were saying that poor people were poor because they were lazy or indolent, that they were not ‘deserving’. How does anyone know why someone is poor? The only safe thing is to follow the Golden Rule: do as you would be done by. What does it feel like to have to go and ask for a food voucher for the food bank? What does it feel like if you have a chronic illness, which means you can’t work – but you might look OK? What would it feel like if someone said you were just a skiver?

I think the injunction on the army not to beat people up in pubs and things is straightforward. But what about the tax gatherers? As I said, they were privatised. In the Roman Empire you could acquire a franchise to collect taxes for the government. You passed on whatever the government set as the required amount, and to the extent that you could extract more from the taxpayer, you trousered it.

We used to have a rather similar system with insurance brokers, pension fund managers and financial advisers. Now the law requires them to be transparent, and show how much they are charging by way of fees and brokerages. The point is now, just as it was in the time of John the Baptist – that people shouldn’t exploit their economic strengths in order to screw their customers.

And finally, interestingly, soldiers were supposed to be content with their pay. I must confess that I don’t really see how that one fits in with the general objective of showing that you’ve changed your mindset, that you’ve repented. Perhaps one of you could put me right on your way out in a minute.

Sharing your clothes – not putting on two cloaks, as Jesus told his disciples – and not exploiting your economic strength – are very like what Jesus was preaching in the Sermon on the Mount. If somebody wants to sue you, and take your coat, give him your cloak as well – Matthew 5:40; you can’t serve both God and wealth, God and Mammon – Matthew 6:24. And again the Golden Rule, do unto others, is at Matthew 7:12.

As St Paul explained at great length later, salvation doesn’t come just from doing good works. You are ‘justified by faith’ (Romans 5:1). But at the great Day of Judgement, what you do to show it will matter nevertheless. We could say it was necessary but not sufficient. Jesus said he would say at the great Day of Judgement, ’For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’ Look at Matthew 25, from verse 35 on. When people queried how this had happened, Jesus said that he would say, ‘Just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matt. 25:40f).

I don’t know whether we really believe in a Day of Judgement any more. The ‘Dies Irae’ (Latin for ‘the day of wrath’) is perhaps more familiar as a spectacular part of Verdi’s Requiem – which some people say is more of an opera than a solemn mass, a religious service. Certainly I don’t feel shaken or apprehensive when I hear it, as I expect I would if I really thought that someone had pressed a nuclear button.

But then, I think that the idea of trying to live each day as though it is your last, is not necessarily bad. Just as we don’t know – by definition we can’t know – how God works, we don’t know when or how or if Armageddon might come. Both John the Baptist, and Jesus after him, though, said we should try to be ready, whenever it might come.

If that sounds a bit sombre, think of the adverts for the National Lottery. The odds are millions against – but ‘It could be you’. So when we remember John the Baptist, and perhaps also Jesus’ story of the Unwise Bridesmaids, perhaps we can also think about how happy it can make you, as well as how sensible, how wise you will be, if you expect the unexpected, and make good preparations for it. Is there anything in our lives that we need to repent of, to change our attitudes about? That’s the message of John the Baptist, and it still makes sense today.