Archives for posts with tag: Isaiah

Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 23rd October 2016
Ecclesiastes 11,12, 2 Timothy 2:1-7 Falling off the High Wire

Cast your bread on the waters. Take a risk. Buy a ticket in the lottery, perhaps. ‘Have a portion in seven, or in eight’. What on earth does all this mean? 

In Hebrew Qoheleth, the ‘preacher’, or ‘teacher’, or ‘the speaker’ – whatever the Latin word ‘ecclesiastes’ means – has a rather cynical outlook. You don’t know how a baby takes shape in the mother’s womb. You don’t know how God decides that one baby should spring to life and another not. If you are a young person with all the grace and beauty and energy of youth, make the most of it. Because it won’t last. 

But this wonderful asset, of being young, is ultimately useless, is ultimately ‘vanity’. We will all have to meet our maker at some stage and account for what we have done in our lives. There is nothing for it; the only thing you can do is to obey God’s commandments and do your best.

It’s rather an odd set of sentiments to find in the Bible. Usually we read about how God cares for us; that if we follow God’s commandments, or turn away from bad things that we have been doing, we will be ‘saved’. What sort of salvation is it? Perhaps we shall be saved, in the sense that the Good Samaritan saved the man who had fallen among thieves on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho: saved, taken to hospital, picked up in a lifeboat – saved in an earthly sense. Or alternatively, there is the vision of heaven, the vision of eternal life. Being saved in the sense of having eternal life. 

I gave a birthday present to the lady who is my personal trainer at David Lloyd’s gym the other day. I should say that, as you can see, I am not her model student, apparently because of the things I like eating and drinking rather than because I’m doing the wrong exercises. But even Charles Atlas couldn’t do a better job on me than Liz Ferrari.

Anyway, I decided to give her a book, a book that she would enjoy; and I found a lavishly illustrated and beautifully produced travel book. But it was a travel book with a twist. The idea was that, in each of the exciting or beautiful places around the world, there was an activity which you could do. You could run up mountains or cross bottomless gorges on rickety rope bridges. You know, all those rather extreme sports. She likes that sort of thing.

Liz was pleased with the book. But it got us talking about risky activities. I confessed that I don’t really like going to the circus. I know that unfortunately the lion tamer and the elephant man or the beautiful girl choreographing sea lions in evening dress are not what they seem, and circuses don’t have them any more. Unfortunately there was a lot of cruelty involved in training those animals. We know better now.

But what about the Cirque du Soleil, those circuses that have no animals, but just have acrobats, trapeze artists and people on high wires? I can’t bear to look. I can’t bear to look because it seems to me that the risk of falling is terrible. Is there a safety net? If there is a safety net, thank goodness, because if they fall, we can hope that they will not be badly hurt.

But why is it often somehow more exciting, a bigger box-office draw, if the artist on the high wire does it without a safety net? Why do people pay more to see something like that? Something really dangerous. When Philippe Petit walked on the tight-rope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, 107 storeys up, why was that to be celebrated? If he had fallen, like the people who jumped out of the windows of the burning towers on 9/11, he would likely have been dead, we understand, before he hit the ground. 

I can’t bear to watch it. I don’t want these people to risk being maimed or killed just for the sake of giving spectators a thrill. I’m not even sure what that thrill is, really. We don’t have wild beast shows like the ancient Romans – and that’s good. The Romans who went to the arena to watch these shows – gladiators and Christians against each other, and against lions – and, I suppose, people who go to bullfights or boxing matches – all go because they want to see somebody surviving even through there is a terrible risk, and some people get hurt. 

They want to see Cassius Clay; but they’re not so fussed about Joe Frazier or Sonny Liston or George Foreman. I don’t think people really want to go to see people or animals being hurt, but I really wonder how the thrill works. Because it could happen. The man could fall off the high wire. The girl might not catch the hands of her partner hanging down from the trapeze. It’s a risk. 

And somehow people say that it is a good thing to have an ‘appetite for risk’. It’s supposed to be good for the character of children to do risky things. Of course there has to be a ‘risk assessment’ to make sure that the risk is not too great.

I’m sorry, but I think this is all nonsense. ‘They shall not hurt or kill on my holy mountain,’ says God, through the prophet Isaiah. ‘The lion shall lie down with the lamb, and the little child shall play on the hole of the asp’. There will be salvation. But how? Ecclesiastes points out how in individual cases it may not work. ‘Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.’ 

I just went to see probably one of the most disturbing and terrifying films that I’ve ever seen. It didn’t involve dinosaurs; mountains didn’t explode like they do in James Bond films; Bruce Willis didn’t slaughter half the world. There was no terrifying car chase, and there was no love interest.

But nevertheless, it’s a film which will live on in my mind’s eye for a very long time. It was about what happens when you fall. Why do you fall? Why could you fall? Was it because you were a bad acrobat, if you somehow deserved to fall? When you are lying, maimed, on the ground, can you reasonably expect that there will be somebody to care for you and put you back together again? 

I won’t spoil the plot for you. All I would say to you is that you should go and see ‘I, Daniel Blake’ before very long. 

Ecclesiastes doesn’t really offer any answers, for all his pretty words. ‘A time to laugh: a time to cry. … For everything there is a season.’ That’s Ecclesiastes. Vanity. Is that what we believe? Where are the seeds of salvation, and what is salvation? On God’s holy mountain, there. And there, ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’.

But where is that mountain? It’s not a place for extreme sports. Is it all right that in the trapeze artistry of life, some people don’t make it? They fall. But as Ecclesiastes says, we don’t know which ones they will be. Then we see the refugees in their dangerous boats, or the young ones in Calais, who, whatever the newspapers may say, are young – but look old. They look old because of the risks that they take every night, trying to jump on trains and into lorries to get through the tunnel.

They are risk-takers. But they’re not risk takers for someone else’s enjoyment. They have no alternative. Their houses are destroyed. Their relatives are gone. They are unable to work – although they’d like to. Why them, and why not us?

What is it about the fact that we happen to live here, where they want to be? For them to be in England represents salvation. In Ecclesiastes, there is no salvation. It’s just the luck of the draw. Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity. What a bleak vision. It must look like that when the bulldozers come, and the gendarmes escort you to a bus, to take you heaven knows where. Where they definitely don’t speak English. 

But Jesus says, ‘Love your neighbour’ – love that young man, who is, you know, just an economic migrant. Think about it. Of course he’s an economic migrant. He is hungry. He has no money. He has no money and he is hungry, because he is a refugee, because he has been driven out of his home. 

How would we feel, if we were driven out from our home? Just imagine if London had been invaded by IS/Daesh. Just imagine if large parts of greater London, including Cobham and Stoke D’Abernon, had been flattened in the fight. If our brave boys had had to become guerrillas and fight house to house. In the eyes of the enemy, we had become combatants. And we had to leave. We had to get away from our dangerous place. Everybody who could had to pack up their cars and get away. But where would we go?

Could we get on a ferry, or through the Tunnel? And find a new life in safety, in Europe? Would they welcome us? Would we be able to speak the language? That must be what it feels like to be a refugee. There are hundreds of thousands of them – millions, even – and about 12,000 of them on our doorstep. About 1,000 of them are children. Is it vanity? Is it emptiness, just a spectator sport?

Although some people do like watching people on the high wire, I do hope that, in this area, we won’t: I hope that we realise, as a society, and for those in power as a government, that there are some risks that should not be taken. There should always be a safety net. Not as in Ecclesiastes, for whom, however awful things are, it’s just too bad: everything is vanity. 

Instead, we Christians should feel very confident that we have a better example, the example of the man who said that we should love our neighbour.

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Sermon for Evensong on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016
Isaiah 5:1-7, Luke 20:9-19

Did you see the Shetland pony this morning? The children made a beautiful tableau and there was a Shetland pony pretending to be a donkey for them to ride on, to make a procession, to remember Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem for the last week. It’s really a bittersweet message. For that lovely hour or two, Jesus led a procession of people who believed that he was God’s chosen saviour, God’s chosen saviour in a triumphal sense, like a Roman general returning in triumph from conquests overseas, leading a procession into the capital.

But the sad thing is that that was then, but the mood darkened very quickly thereafter. The clouds started to gather and Jesus started to challenge Jerusalem. This parable, the parable of the vineyard, some of which, on one level, was simply a retelling of the story from the prophet Isaiah, sets the tone.

Holy Week is about divine judgement; for God, against God. For man, against man: ‘Judge eternal, throned in splendour’. Isaiah made a prophecy of the kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah – the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is Israel, and the men of Judah are the plant he cherished – ‘He looked for righteousness but found it denied, for righteousness but heard cries of distress.’ [Is. 5:7, NEB] Jesus put out this story as a challenge. You are the chosen people, Israel. You have all the advantages. God has done everything he can to make the vineyard a good one.

Then he let it, to professional winemakers, tenants. Those tenants are the human race. The human race rejected God’s son and eventually killed him. What will God do? What will the landlord of the vineyard do? If we, who are tenants in his vineyard, have a lease on life in this world? What will God do if we have killed his son? It is a truly terrifying prospect.

Even so, we don’t really appreciate its force these days. This morning I said my theme was that we know what comes next. There was a sort of spoiler alert. We know that after the Passion, after Jesus’ terrible suffering, after Jesus dies, after God is killed, God rises again in glory on Easter morning.

Maybe we can’t really help knowing what comes next, but still, we ought to appreciate the force of the Passion story. We ought to appreciate that we are still like the tenants in the vineyard. If we have no care for God, if we do the things which killed Jesus, if we have no love for him and no love for each other, if we pursue false gods, then we are like those hard-hearted people who figured that it was to their advantage to free Barabbas and crucify the son of God.

Whatever we have been doing by way of Lenten reflection, in prayer and abstinence in the last four weeks, in this week of all weeks we should remember that we are tenants in God’s vineyard.

Maybe, just as with a new story, if we know what happens, we should keep it to ourselves – spoiler alert! – we should actually be cautious about saying we know what happens next. What will the owner of the vineyard do? We’re very cavalier. We just carry on. We live our lives as we’ve always done. We don’t receive the stranger, and take him in: we don’t give him clothes, when he’s shivering with cold. Is he a real refugee, or just a migrant?

But Jesus wouldn’t have made that distinction. In that time of final judgment, when Jesus separates the sheep and the goats, he will decide, he will judge, by what we have done for the hungry, for the thirsty, for the homeless stranger, for the person with no clothes. [See Matt. 25:31f]

It is disgraceful that there are still thousands of people in Calais and Dunkirk who are marooned without proper habitation, without washing facilities and proper sanitation. These are people whose homes in Syria have been bombed, whose families have been decimated. Some of the children in the camp actually have a legal right to join relatives in this country, but it’s not happening.

We are going to take the Foodbank van over there soon. There was some confusion at first, and we couldn’t find out how to get access to the camp; but now we have established contact with the local Guildford charity, Guildford People to People, and we’ll be able to get in. Many of you have already given clothes and blankets, which is great. I’ll let you know if there are any other needs which we can supply. We must do it. Jesus will ask us, when he was a stranger, a refugee, what did we do?

Then again there was another terrible story in the paper this week. An MP, Stella Creasy, had actually thrown the chief exec of a charity out of her office – called a policeman to throw him out of the Houses of Parliament – because she was so cross with him.

His charity had sold some flats which it owned, all of which had been occupied for years by poorer people who thought that the charity was looking after them. The charity sold the flats to a developer, who promptly gave all the poor tenants notice to quit. The MP raised this with the chief exec of the charity. Was it not wrong that their old tenants, old people, should be made homeless in this way? He shrugged his shoulders and said,’It happens’. All that mattered was that they had raised a lot of money by selling the flats. ‘It happens’ is what people say, far too often. We have to try to stop ‘it’ happening. ‘It’ is the sort of thing which has killed the son in the vineyard.

Let’s not be like the tenants in the vineyard. Let’s not do the things that kill the landlord’s son. Jesus was challenging us, us just as much as he was challenging his contemporary audience. We must not throw Him out; we mustn’t leave him shivering outside; we must make room in our hearts for Him.

Sermon for Mattins on Palm Sunday, 20th March 2016

Zechariah 9:9-12, 1Cor.2:1-12
We know what happens next. Or as people say nowadays, ‘Spoiler alert!’ ‘Ride on, ride on in majesty’. If you’ve just been to the family Eucharist at 10 o’clock, and seen the lovely tableau which the children presented, and maybe you have admired the Shetland pony on your way out, you will know why, when you were little, Palm Sunday was one of the best Sundays in the year to go to church. Donkeys are, alas, in rather short supply these days: there are now rather strict rules about what you have to do if you are going to carry a donkey around.

Mind you, in Stoke D’Abernon, many of the Mums do have the right vehicle for towing a horse box. Somewhere around here there is even a Range Rover with the registration number KT11 MUM! Anyway at St Mary’s we have had a lovely Shetland pony, and I am sure that Jesus would not have turned his nose up at a ride on him.

Processions are fun. Walking down the hill in a happy throng following someone riding on a Shetland pony was a very jolly thing to do. You can wave your palm leaves and your palm crosses. People do get quite carried away when they get caught up in supporting somebody who seems to take away their cares and blot out the annoyances that they have to put up with.

It’s quite noticeable, for example, that Donald Trump seems to have caught the imagination of a lot of people who feel left out by mainstream politics in the United States. They feel that big government doesn’t listen to them. Trump is their champion.

The Israelites had been in exile, and then under foreign domination, in their own country, for hundreds of years. At the time of Jesus, of course, the Romans were in charge and the Jews were second-class citizens. They were looking forward to the coming of a messiah, a deliverer, a king who was going to liberate them. They looked back to the various prophecies in Isaiah: the servant king, and in Zechariah was this strange image of a king coming on a donkey.

The basic model for the procession was what Roman generals did when they came back from foreign wars. If they had been successful, they were granted the right to have what was called a ‘triumph.’ A triumph was a magnificent procession through the centre of Rome, parading their captives and soaking up the applause of the people.

You can see that it would very much depend on your point of view how such a procession, with Jesus at its head, would be viewed. Even though Jesus was riding on a donkey, it might look rather challenging to the powers that be. In Palestine at that time, the ‘powers that be’ were both the Romans and the Jews, (the Pharisees and the scribes), because the Jews had a form of self rule, under the overall authority of the Romans. So if this big procession came over the hill from Bethany and down the Mount of Olives, it’s fairly understandable that both the Jewish authorities and the Romans might well have found it disturbing.

Even today, although we are supposed to be very liberal in our approach to free speech, you have to get permission for a demo to take place. You can’t just have a procession through the centre of the village, so that it blocks the traffic. For people in authority, processions are a sign of discontent.

There was a raw energy about to this crowd. In St John’s Gospel, we are told that the people were particularly excited because they had heard about Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life from the dead. Jesus, riding on a donkey, was a fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy. It all added up to a moment of great hope for the people. A man who could bring a dead man back to life could certainly be the king that they were looking for, to throw off the yoke of Roman rule so that Jerusalem would be liberated again.

But we know what comes next. ‘Ride on, ride on, in lowly pomp ride on – to die.’ A huge amount of the New Testament is devoted to the events of next week, Holy Week. A quarter of St Luke’s gospel; a third of Saint Matthew and St Mark and nearly half of St John’s Gospel. This is what Christianity is all about. And certainly, in this week, it is not about a triumph. It is not about conquest. It is more like a catalogue of suffering and failure.

When you’re little, you can only really take in nice stories about people riding on the back of donkeys. Good Friday is not something that we go into in great detail with our children. It is in a very real sense what in the cinema would attract an X rating. It is something which is too shocking. What we are talking about is the death of God, people putting to death the man who was also God. Five days earlier this man was being feted as the returning hero, as the Messiah, the king from over the water.

Nevertheless he, this same man, was going to be strung up on a cross along with common criminals.

Saint Paul says that the authorities would never have done it if they had known the full story. ‘We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery which none of the princes of this world knew; for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.’ [1 Cor. 2:8]

In Spiritual Cinema next week, on Tuesday, we intend to show the shortened, animated version of Ben Hur. We debated what would be an appropriate film to show during Holy Week. One film which we have shown in the past, which I felt was perhaps the very best one, was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A few years ago, we actually showed it in St Andrew’s Church, in the church itself.

For those who haven’t seen it, it is a very harrowing film, because it does show, in a very realistic way, exactly what happened to Jesus; how he was flogged, humiliated and ultimately crucified. Somehow it brings home to you the awfulness of what he suffered in a way that cold print on a page just can’t do. It would be a shocking film if you were watching somebody – just anybody – suffering in that way. Nobody should be treated in such a brutal and bestial way. But Jesus did suffer in that way, and he was the son of God.

The contrast with the jolly man on a donkey could not be more profound and more complete. We know what happened next. What must it feel like if you have just committed the most terrible crime, and realise what you have just done? What will the Judge say? What will your sentence be? What if that crime is to kill the son of God?

Oh, you say, but we didn’t. We weren’t there. It was the bad people, even the Jews. But in a sense, we were there. In a sense, the turnover, from his triumph to his downfall and being lifted up on the cross, was entirely predictable. It made sense in human terms to the powers that be. It wasn’t specifically because they were Jews or because they were Romans or whomever. They were just ordinary fallible human beings. They didn’t recognise his divinity. Pontius Pilate having the inscription put over the cross, naming Jesus as the King of the Jews, says it all. In one sense, he was the king of the Jews, but in that the Jews were the chosen people of God he was also king of heaven.

In Lent we have been encouraged to reflect, to deny ourselves, maybe to fast, and to pray. Now in this week, this Holy Week, we are invited to think about the full awfulness of what Jesus suffered, and why he suffered it. Maybe we should do it without a spoiler alert. Maybe we should say, we don’t know what comes next. Maybe we aren’t too comfortable. If Jesus died for all of us, for all of humankind, we should reflect that the sort of evil which pushed Jesus on to the cross is still with us.

People are still hurting each other, pursuing gain without thought for the loss to someone else that that gain entails. We are still returning an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We are still going by on the other side. We are still worshipping false gods.

‘Ride on, ride on in majesty. In lowly pomp, ride on to die.’

Sermon for Evensong on the Third Sunday in Advent, 13th December 2015
Isaiah 35; Luke 1:57-80

So where are we up to in Advent? This is the third Sunday, and we are thinking about John the Baptist. Our second lesson was about Zacharias and Elisabeth, the faithful old couple who were way past having children when an angel visited Zacharias and told him that Elisabeth would have a son and that they would call him John.

Not surprisingly, Zacharias was rather worried that this was all not real. He asked the angel for some sign that he was telling the truth, and the angel said that he would be struck dumb until the boy was born. At about the same time, the angel Gabriel went to see Mary.

These were instances of special children, children with links to God, being born to women who had previously been unable to conceive, which had happened before in the Old Testament, in the book of Samuel. Hannah was infertile, but she prayed in the temple that if God granted her a son, she would give him up to be a priest. According to the book of Samuel, this happened.

So: John the Baptist. The angel had said that ‘he shall be great in the sight of the Lord and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost … And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ (Luke 1:15-17) It was the beginning of the Kingdom of God, the time when all the happy things described by Isaiah in our first lesson would happen, the lame man leaping as an hart, like a deer: ‘then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing.’ [Isa.35:5f]

John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord. But what did he actually do?
He baptised people. What did that really involve? Obviously, dunking them in the river Jordan was what he was doing physically, but why did people turn out in vast numbers, as they apparently did, in order for him to submerge them in the Jordan?

Baptism by total immersion still happens today. The last Deanery confirmation and baptism service was at St George’s, Ashtead, where they have a built-in baptism pool. One of the faithful at St Andrew’s, a grown-up, was duly baptised there this Autumn. According to him, the pool was not heated, but he didn’t seem to mind.

The symbolism of baptism is fairly straightforward. It is a symbolic washing way of all our sins, all the bad things about us. If we are making a stand against evil, and trying to be closer to God, this washing will symbolically wash away the obstacles to our closeness to God. You can see what the washing is intended to signify.

Well that in Ashtead was a couple of months ago, but going back to Biblical times, the story of Zacharias and Elisabeth and their son John needs to be related to the context of the Old Testament. The significance of John’s arrival in this miraculous way has to be understood as it would have been understood at that time, in the context of Old Testament theology.

What John was doing in baptising was not just giving people a wash, but it had ritual significance as well. In the Jewish cult, that is, the way in which the Jews worshipped God, there are all sorts of procedures laid down, particularly in the book of Leviticus, among them for what was called ‘purification’. The Jewish religion was a religion of sacrifice, holiness, purification and atonement.

At every stage in life, Jews had to come before their God and propitiate him, turning away his anger and regaining his love by giving him things, by making sacrifices in his favour. This mostly involved killing innocent animals, unfortunately, and then burning them on the altar. I won’t take you through the whole ghastly procedure. If you really want to look it up, it is in Leviticus chapters 11 to 15.

The Jewish religious rules also laid down foods which were permitted to be eaten and which were not. Jewish people still abide by this – although some of my Jewish friends seem to have given themselves some latitude where bacon sandwiches are concerned!

I always smile when we read Romans chapter 14 about the Christian attitude to foods which were ritually proscribed. ‘One believes that he may eat all things, another, who is weak, eateth herbs’ – or, as for once in my life I prefer a modern translation, ‘the weak eat only vegetables.’ [NRSV, Romans 14:2]

Be nice to your vegetarian friends!

But there is an urgency about this, a dynamic to it, which perhaps we don’t quite ‘get’, if all we understand about John the Baptist and about baptism is a kind of symbolic washing, or even a kind of initiation ceremony. As we say, anyone who has been baptised is welcome to eat at the Lord’s table. That’s not really the full flavour of how it was in the Old Testament. The Jews were God’s chosen people, and their worship was designed to acknowledge that they had been singled out by God.

The whole dynamic of the Old Testament concerns the interaction between the Jews and God. They disobeyed God, and were enslaved by the Egyptians and Babylonians. They obeyed God; God loved them again, he freed them and took them to the Promised Land. It’s an idea of God, a picture of God, which I don’t think we would find convincing today.

Take the stories, that we were brought up on, of the soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, perhaps 100 or 150 yards apart, the Germans and the Brits so close that they could hear each other talking. So close that they could hear each other saying their prayers. They were both praying to the same God. What were they praying for? To survive, not to be hurt, and, dare one say, to win.

How could there be a God who favoured one side over the other? Or both sides against each other? Just as a matter of simple logic, it doesn’t work. It surely can’t be how God works.

Of course some people don’t take it any further than that and simply say that it means that God does not exist. I think in a way that is just as big a mistake as imagining God as some kind of divine helper who can fix things when they are seemingly hopeless, and more importantly, who can favour one lot of people over against another.

Of course the Emperor Constantine, in 312AD, had a vision, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, that if he and his soldiers painted the sign of the cross on their shields, God would give them victory. They did paint the sign of the cross on their shields and they were victorious.

After that, Constantine adopted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. That was probably one of the biggest factors in making Christianity a world religion instead of just being a local middle eastern cult.

But it is rather doubtful whether Constantine actually believed in anything which modern Christians would recognise as Christianity. We certainly would not imagine that God would work some kind of magic so that someone would win a battle.

But certainly in the Old Testament time, the time of Moses and Elijah, Jews believed that they had to perform these various sacrificial rituals as part of their proper worship of God. There was a vital significance to this, that unless they worshipped properly, God would be angry with them. If so, God would ultimately enslave or destroy them. Ritual cleansing was all part of this worship.

These days, I don’t really ‘get’ the idea of ritual washing. I’m as fond of a nice spa as the next person, but that has to do with simply enjoying a pleasant experience. If somebody said to me that, in order to get closer to God, to put myself right with God, perhaps to atone for past wrong, for things which I have done, I needed to be baptised, I needed to have a ritual bath, I’m not sure whether I would believe in it.

Perhaps we should look again at what the work of John the Baptist could mean today.

For instance, the idea of purification. In the Jewish religion, purification has a connotation of stripping away things which are not true, bringing people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation.

Such a purification, a weeding out of things that are not true, that are wrong, could still make sense. There are plenty of things that are wrong today. If they were purified, refined back to their true essentials, would it indeed help to bring people to the true God, to the vital reality of creation?

Vital reality. I wonder why it is, therefore, that today there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of urgency. Quite a lot of people, after their Sunday lunch, and perhaps a little walk, may indeed have watched Songs of Praise, but now instead of coming to Evensong, they will be settling down for a pleasant evening catching up with the doings of some Norwegian detective.

I wonder whether we ought to be quite so blasé. Some of the things, which we take as being facts of life, perhaps aren’t. They might perhaps be better for some purification.

Take money for example. We all understand the idea of money: that money is something which stands for things which you can exchange for it. A certain amount of money gets you a certain amount of goods or services. Until 1933, a £1 note could be exchanged for a gold sovereign. There was a gold standard. The idea was that money had a fixed worth.

Clearly that is not true any more (if it ever was). Why is it, for example, that if a poor person goes into debt, maxes out their credit cards at Christmas and then is made redundant, they are immediately in trouble, and there is no one to help them; but if the banks go bankrupt, as they did in 2008, governments will step in to bail them out? It’s all the same stuff: all money.

Indeed the banks were bailed out largely by the government creating money. Clearly that money did not necessarily represent, or have any equivalence with, goods or services in a way we would understand. Is that the reality that suits us human beings best? Is it a true reflection of how things are? Perhaps we need some kind of washing. Perhaps this whole system needs to be washed through, cleaned.

Maybe John the Baptist still has something to say to us. It is something to think about when you are next in the Jacuzzi.

Sermon for the Sunday next before Advent, Christ the King: 22nd November 2015

Daniel 5

Today in the Christian year we celebrate, we talk about, the idea of Christ the King. The expression ‘King’ comes up when he is on trial in front of Pontius Pilate, which seems to have been the most extraordinary scenario. ‘Are you a king?’ Pilate asks.

Pilate seems to me to have been a rather normal bloke, in a difficult position, having to deal with a bunch of fanatics who were zealots who caused a lot of trouble: possibly we might say they were in the line of ancestors of the people who are Zionists today, contributing to dissent and and unrest in the Holy Land. 

Well, perhaps that’s not a legitimate thing to say, but we can say that the Jews presenting Jesus for judgement by the ruler, by Pontius Pilate, were certainly not thinking about how to promote peace and harmony in the long run; they just wanted to rub out Jesus. He was asking awkward questions, which they did not find easy to answer. It was said that he was King of the Jews.

The idea of the kingdom of God in Jewish theology is a mixture of the idea of the Promised Land and the theology of God’s Holy Mountain. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9) – the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and so on. We all know to some extent about Jesus’ rather upside-down concept of kingship. The first shall be last, washing people’s feet, giving up all that you own and giving it to the poor, when dealing with somebody described as a “rich young ruler”, a sort of prince.

But I’m afraid that I will rehearse all these stories, and then add a couple of pious sentences, saying that somehow you should follow them – and then you will forget this sermon and the ideas that it contains, probably before the end of the service, if not a few moments later.

I’d be very doubtful if a sermon, which concentrates on telling you, just in an academic way, what the meaning of kingship was in relation to Jesus Christ, would influence your life in any meaningful way, because you would find the way of life then so different, so alien from what we do now.

We have to build a bridge. What would Jesus do if he were here today? If we go back to the trial before Pontius Pilate, there’s an awful lot of irony in it. Pilate clearly is the representative of the ruling establishment, of the empire of Rome. So the idea that somebody else should come forward and present themselves as a king looks rather counter-intuitive, when it was so obvious that the ruler was a Roman.

Maybe Jesus’ kingship was a bit like all those grandly-named sort-of kings that survived in India after independence – I think largely for the purpose of owning classic vintage Rolls-Royces. The Maharajah of Jaipur, or the Nawab of Pataudi, for instance. Possibly Pontius Pilate had something similar in mind when he was tackling Jesus. ‘Are you a king?’ Meaning, ‘Are you one of those symbolic kings?’

I’m pretty sure that that’s not what the earliest Christians, what the contemporary readers of the Gospel, would have had in mind. The idea of some kind of symbolic king without any power just doesn’t chime with the whole of Jewish history. It’s more likely that they thought of a king as being like King Belshazzar the King of Babylon, the King from Ur of the Chaldees, portrayed in the wonderful fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

That King’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, was so confident in his own legitimacy and strength that he had invaded the kingdom of Judah, overrun the Temple, and nicked all the treasures, the gold goblets, plates and things used in the Temple rituals; he turned them over for use at parties, at his court banquet. It was pretty insulting to the Jews, but he had the power. 

Was their God so weak, so inferior to Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar’s god? The Jews didn’t believe this. What that King did, what Belshazzar did, was sacrilege to the Jews. Even today, in theological debates, now between Moslems and Christians, the heart of the matter is precisely that both sides think they have the correct understanding of the most important question ever, namely, what the nature of God is.

But then, despite all his power, Belshazzar encountered the writing on the wall. What did it mean? And Daniel, the Jew, explained. Despite all his power as a king, Belshazzar was finished.

What would happen today, if the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate was re-run in a contemporary environment? Was Jesus a king? And if so, what sort of king? Well, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus very clearly reserves his position, and points out that the kingdom that he rules as a king is not of this world. So we can’t judge him by how big a country he rules or how big an empire: or whether he has given up his power and become a constitutional monarch like the Queen; or whether he is still an absolute monarch, like the Saudi King, for example.

There’s a faint colour of artificiality about the move which I’m trying to make, between Jesus the king in the Bible and some kind of contemporary interpretation. But never mind; let’s pursue it. I’m confident that it will illustrate what needs to be said here. 

What would the kingdom of God look like? Is it like Belshazzar’s banquet, or is it ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ as Jesus proclaimed in St Luke chapter 4 [4:19], fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah [Is. 61:1,2]? Is it ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’? Or is it, ‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last’, in the Gospel story itself? [Matt. 20:16]
What does it mean to be a king? I think that the idea of kingship can be taken in more than one way. 

You can of course look historically at who has actually been a king, and identify the qualities these historic kings actually had. But equally, another way of looking at it is to see kingship as a kind of metaphor for the whole business of government, of leadership of people. What would a really Christian government look like – a government where Christ was really in charge?
Would he be democratic, for example? Surely yes. We believe that God loves every single one of us: indeed that he has called us all by name [Isaiah 43:1], and that therefore we are all worth knowing. That would imply that we should each have a vote; it would imply a need for democracy. 

But would Jesus approve of our particular version of democracy? So many people didn’t vote in the last general election. So, although the government claims a majority, in fact I believe that only 24% of the electorate as a whole actually voted for them. Many more, 36%, didn’t vote for anyone. It’s at least arguable that our current arrangements are not as democratic as one feels they might be, if we were trying to create heaven on earth. It’s something to think about.

Again, after Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’, we now understand that the Kingdom of God isn’t in a particular place, where Jesus, the Lamb or God Himself is, up there somewhere on their thrones. In a spiritual sense, the Kingdom is with us here and now. We are God’s workers – ‘Take my hands and let them move | At the impulse of thy love’, as the hymn says [Common Praise no 581]. It’s up to us to work to bring about the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus is our King – not in a temporal, earthly sense, as he says when Pilate questions him – but he does rule; he rules in our hearts. 

I worry a bit, when I say that. I worry because I think that it might be the same type of reasoning which IS, Daesh, uses in support of its ‘Caliphate’. They talk about their Islamic State having a king, a ‘caliph’. But the difference is that, whereas their caliph is to be a sheikh, an Arab king, who is defined as the successor to, or deputy for, Mohammed, in Islam, and is king, caliph, by virtue of that divine authority, in Christianity, as Jesus says, the king is not a secular ruler. ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, he said, in John 18:36.

And definitely, on our God’s holy mountain there will be peace: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9). It’s so tragic that people who support Daesh believe that God supports violence. We understand that Moslems as well as Jews all worship the same God as we do – but the IS people don’t recognise that if their Islamic State were a real Caliphate, governed by God, then God ‘will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’: 

that we agree on; but we believe that 

‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ 

That’s in our Bible, in the Book of Revelation, 21:3-4. To be fair, I think that most Moslems do not support the idea of a a militant ‘caliphate’, based on terror. They wouldn’t recognise a Daesh Caliph as a real ruler, whoever he might be.

So, even if there’s no kingly pomp, let us give our allegiance, let us indeed sing hymns and praises, sing the National Anthem of the Kingdom of Heaven, even, to our King, to Jesus.

Sermon for Evensong on Remembrance Sunday 2015

Isaiah 10:33-11:9; John 14:1-29
‘We will remember them.’ This has been a time of remembrance today, looking back in remembrance on all those brave people who have given their lives in the service of their country in war. Now in the evening of the day, ‘at the going down of the sun,’ it is time perhaps for us to look forwards, and reflect on the question of peace.
‘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 …. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’ This beautiful and mystical scene is the prophecy of Isaiah. And then in St John’s Gospel, ‘In my father’s house are many mansions …. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.’
When I started to study Latin and Greek, the Latin was Julius Caesar, De Bello Gallico (‘about the war in Europe’), and the Greek was Xenophon’s Anabasis, another history of war. Julius Caesar, as you know, invaded Britain in 55 and 54BC – less than a century before the time of Christ. It was definitely a warlike time throughout the Roman Empire.
Jesus grew up surrounded by wars. Before then the world of the Old Testament was permeated with lots of violence and wars. The story of the exodus from Egypt was very violent and the entry into the promised land equally involved a number of battles.
In the passage we have read from St John’s Gospel, Jesus says, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments.’ Presumably, that includes ‘Thou shalt not kill’. But even so, Jesus himself also said, ‘I came not to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt. 10:34). So would Jesus have belonged to the Peace Pledge Union, and worn not a red poppy, but a white one, today? Just as today most people see war as something to be avoided if possible, but never to be ruled out as a last resort, in Jesus’ time, war was an unavoidable fact of life.
Following St Thomas Aquinas, the church developed a doctrine of the ‘Just War’. (See Summa Theologiae 40.1). This is what Aquinas says. ‘If a war is to be just, three things are needed. It must be waged by the due authorities, for those who may lawfully use the sword to defend a commonwealth against criminals disturbing it from within may also use the sword of war to protect it from enemies without. … the cause must be just, …. And those waging war must intend to promote good and avoid evil.’
It might be instructive to compare these principles with the principles laid down in the United Nations Charter allowing a modern nation lawfully to declare war – or at least to make war, even without a declaration – on another. These days the requirements for a war to be just are: that it should be in self defence; or because a treaty obliges us to wage war to protect another nation – as we were obliged by treaty to protect Poland at the beginning of WW2 – or because the approval of the United Nations has been obtained.
But the original ‘just war’ principles are still influential. War can only be waged lawfully by a sovereign nation: you cannot have private wars, vendettas, as they have in Sicily between Mafiosi. The cause must be just. A nation can’t wage war simply in order to benefit itself. So Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum, literally, ‘living space’, territorial aggrandisement, was not a legitimate occasion for making war.
And the means employed must be proportionate. Proportionality is an old legal principle dating back at least to the lex talionis, an eye for an eye, (Deut .19:21): the point is that it is just an eye for an eye, not more. There were similar provisions even earlier, in Babylonian law and the laws of Hammurabi.
There must also be a reasonable expectation that the war will be successful. This does still come, perhaps, from Aquinas. He says, “The Lord’s words, ‘I say to you, offer the wicked man no resistance’, [Matt. 5:39 ] must always be borne in mind, and we must be ready to abandon resistance and self defence if the situation calls for that.” (Summa Theologiae 40.1) Pyrrhic victory might not be lawful. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus certainly went much further than the Lex Talionis.

Are we content that there is, or there can be, such a thing as a just war? Does it matter that some of the wars which have been waged, at least arguably, as just wars, have not achieved their objectives? See for example the situation in Iraq today, or even more tragically, in Afghanistan.
Is it reasonable to ask, what would Jesus do? Would he have something to say, for instance, about the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, (the rationale behind the holding of nuclear weapons), or of ‘shock and awe’ as used in Iraq. Would these doctrines square with the doctrines of just cause and proportionality in the case of MAD, or proportionality, in the case of ‘shock and awe’?
The theory of nuclear deterrence does not depend on the rightness of one’s cause. The opponent is deterred not because we are right, but because we can kill him. Perhaps it is proportional to respond to a threat of global annihilation – with what? With a threat of global annihilation. But perhaps that simply illustrates that the principle of proportionality is inadequate in the context of nuclear weapons. And again, what about a nuclear suicide bomber? MAD will not affect them.
I for one was very encouraged when Parliament refused to back military action in Syria. It seemed to me that the criteria for a just war were indeed not properly met. There was no threat against this country, so as to raise a question of self-defence. There was no treaty obligation to help some of the Syrians against the Syrian government – how could there be? And what was the likelihood of success – if indeed one could agree on what would constitute success? Of course, the question may come up again soon.
So much of our Remembrance Day liturgy and poetry was inspired by WW1. That was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’ – which must be a perfect example of Aquinas’ second test for a just war, that the cause must be just. There can surely be no more righteous cause than the eradication of war for the future.
But even in this most worthy objective, war was not a solution. Indeed the seeds of the Second World War were sown in the aftermath of the First one. Can we honestly point to many wars and say they have really achieved anything?
Perhaps universal pessimism is not justified: it was vital that Nazism had to be defeated: war was the only way to do it; the war succeeded. The war on Nazism succeeded at least in that the military threat to this country was removed – it was justified according to the principle of self defence.
But one cannot change people’s minds by war against them. Just as there are still people who are Nazis, even in this country, and there certainly are still Nazis in mainland Europe, it is certainly arguable that people have been inspired to take up terrorism by their believing that the West has waged war unjustly in the Middle East.
This is a terribly difficult area. Clearly we can be, and we are, really thankful for the bravery and sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and airmen. That is the main purpose of Remembrance Sunday. But it is much more difficult to know where our duty lies as Christians in the face of the threats to peace which the world now faces.
We must say our prayers, we must pray for world peace. But also we must be alert, we must scrutinise everything that is done in our name, especially if warlike acts are being prepared. ‘At the going down of the sun’ we will remember. We must remember – and because of what we remember, we must be careful. And we must be just.

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Sermon for Evensong on the First Sunday after The Epiphany, 11th January 2015
Isaiah 42:1-9, Ephesians 2:1-10

‘Time was when you were dead in your sins and wickedness, when you followed the evil ways of this present age, … We too were of their number: we all lived our lives in sensuality, and obeyed the promptings of our own instincts and notions.’ [Eph. 2:1-4, in the New English Bible]

The people of Ephesus were, before they discovered Christ, debauched and decadent. There’s something in this passage, in St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, which is rather reminiscent of things that I have read and heard in connection with Moslem fundamentalists, in places like Bradford, parts of Birmingham or even nearer to home, from where young people are going to join Islamic State – or whatever it’s now called – in Iraq.

The Western world, according to their lights, is supposed to be decadent and depraved, godless; whereas they learn, in their madrasahs, that if they follow the prophet Mohamed, this will be the real thing, the true path to salvation, to God. In St Paul’s time, decadent Ephesians became decent Christians through faith. Today, wide boys from Halifax, through their faith, can become martyrs, according to the ISIL propaganda.

This is a terrible week to have to think seriously about the various challenges to Christianity and our Western way of life, from the various Muslim fundamentalist groups, in particular, Islamic State, and from the various groups which claim to subscribe to Al Qaeda.

The events in Paris and Northern France have been truly shocking, and they come on top of extraordinary brutality and cruelty shown by the ISIL terrorists in beheading people that they have kidnapped, and in forcing people to do things for them on pain of death. We must not forget the terrible atrocities of Boko Haram in Nigeria as well.

St Paul’s great message was that the gospel of Jesus was a gospel for the Gentiles just as much as it was for the Jews. There are these slightly recondite discussions in his letters about whether it’s necessary to be circumcised or not, and what the status of the Jewish Law is: must you, in effect, become a Jew before you can become a Christian?

It was, if you like, a very early example of inter-faith dialogue. True, St Paul was actually trying to proselytise, was trying to convert people, which is something which is not supposed to happen in inter-faith communications today. Rev Richard Cook, the recently retired vicar of Goldsworth Park in Woking, who was very much the Diocese’s expert on Islam, and is a good friend of the imam of the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, which I believe is supposed to be the oldest mosque in this country, used to say that, whenever he met his friend the imam, for a cup of tea or something, the first thing that the imam always said, after he had inquired after his health, was whether Richard was ready to convert to Islam or not.

He didn’t get too upset when Richard politely declined. Trying to persuade each other of the relative merits of their particular understanding of God is something that happens all the time. We can still talk to people of a different religion, exchange ideas with them, try to understand their position better, even if they are at the same time trying to convert us.

This civilised dialogue is a world away from the murders at Charlie Hebdo. The terrorists’ assault, which some of our newspapers characterised as ‘an assault on free speech’, an ‘assault on democracy’, was indeed an assault on the way of life of a civilised country.

The hallmark of free speech is said to be that, even though I disagree with what you say, I would defend to the last your right to say it, your freedom of speech. Equally, as a consequence of our all being God’s creatures – or just our all being human – as a matter of human rights – we are democrats: we have the right to choose our own government, by majority voting. To the extent that our voices are silenced, by people like the terrorists who attacked Charlie Hebdo, it is an assault on democracy.

But amid this outpouring of grief and solidarity, solidarity with the journalists at Charlie Hebdo and with all journalists, who not unnaturally feel that this has been an attack on them all collectively, alongside all that, there have, perhaps unfortunately, been some notes of discord.

Earlier in the week, in his LBC radio phone-in programme, Nick Clegg encountered a questioner called Omar, who asked him whether he didn’t agree that the journalists at Charlie Hebdo had in fact brought their demise on to themselves, by their blasphemy. Nick Clegg was very angry on air, and insisted that the attack on Charlie Hebdo could not be defended under any circumstances or on any grounds.

But it was plain that the questioner, Omar, either didn’t understand what he was saying or, certainly, didn’t agree with it. And there was a piece on Radio Four involving some vox pop interviews with people in Bradford. They were British; they had Yorkshire accents, and were probably second or even third generation since their ancestors came over from the Indian subcontinent. Nevertheless they also commonly came up with the view that the Charlie Hebdo attack was brought on by the journalists themselves, by their blasphemous publications.

There was no concept, in these people on Radio Four or in Omar on LBC, that somehow the principles of human rights, of free speech, of democracy, could trump the seriousness of any alleged blasphemy. We say that the merits of democracy, of free speech, are self-evident: we all live by them. Anyone trying to contradict the principles of free speech or democracy is, in effect, attacking our society.

At which point I ask myself where we get our sense of human rights, of free speech, free will, of democracy, from. Because it seems to me that in fact they are not simply true or desirable in themselves. It’s not necessarily true that, because you’re a human being, you will automatically agree that democracy is a good thing, or that free speech is a good thing. Omar and Co are evidence of that.

There are many nations in the world today where democracy, the rule of the people, is subservient to the idea of theocracy, rule by God or by God’s representatives, by mullahs for example. It’s not the case that everyone, simply by virtue of being human, will assent to the proposition that democracy is pre-eminently a good thing, or that free speech is a good thing.

Even we to some extent accept restrictions on free speech – sometimes for commonsense reasons, so you are not allowed to shout ‘Fire!’ in a cinema – but also, ironically, for the purpose of collective security, in order to prevent the attacks on our way of life which terrorists have made and have threatened in future. We accept limited restrictions on free speech in order to preserve the right to free speech in general.

We justify the idea of free speech, the idea of human rights and so on, I think, not on the basis that they are self-evident truths, but rather ultimately because of our Christian belief. We believe that God made us equal in His sight, and that He gave us the freedom to choose good or evil. Muslims also believe in God, and possibly, in the same God. But they believe that free speech doesn’t come into it. If you blaspheme, according to them, you forfeit your right to life.

So we are in disagreement with Muslims, disagreement over something very important, about how God works. Although I would stress that this is not an argument for anti-Semitism, one could draw a parallel with the disagreements between the Jews and the Christians in the time of Jesus. The Jews and the early Christians were in disagreement. Jesus was a threat. He challenged the orthodoxy of the Pharisees and the scribes, their cherished beliefs. They dealt with the problem by killing Him.

In an evil way, the terrorists in Paris may also have felt that they were somehow solving the disagreement that they felt, between their own vision of the good life and what they perceived to be the contradiction to it in decadent Westernism, by killing what they saw as a major source of the decadence and blasphemy which they so disagreed with. That is not in any way to excuse the evil of what they did, but it might explain it.

What is our way of dealing with people we fundamentally disagree with? In so many cases, unfortunately, as a matter of history, it has involved warfare. If as a country we can’t agree with someone, or we feel that their view needs to be overturned, there is, always not very far from the surface, a resort to warfare.

We disagree with the Syrians. We are at war with them. But I do feel that we are not likely to change their minds by bombing them. I feel that instead, the solution to all this trouble must lie in the development of mutual understanding.

But, as St Paul has pointed out here, there is a limit to what we can do; there is a limit to how we can bring about the Kingdom. Everything depends on our believing and trusting in God, and in God responding with His bountiful grace. Are we prepared to risk that, or are we going to carry on as though we had never heard the Gospel message, of peace and forgiveness? Peace and forgiveness leads to repentance and reconciliation.

I pray that, as we defend our way of life, our gifts of free speech and democracy, we will remember how our prophet, the prophet Isaiah, foretold the coming of God’s kingdom, and how gentle our Messiah is to be.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. [Is. 42:1-4].