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Sermon for Evensong on the 22nd Sunday after Trinity, 12th November 2017 at St Mary’s, Stoke D’Abernon

Judges 7:2-22; John 15:9-17 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=377554049

This morning we held our Remembrance Day Services. Godfrey, in his sermon, said that, when he had first been ordained, in the 1970s, people had not expected remembrance services to carry on being held after the year 2000. There would be no-one still alive who had served in either of the World Wars. So the memory, the ‘remembrance’, would just be an impersonal one, a collective celebration of something we had learned about from history. It would be like our celebration of the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther and the beginning of the Reformation, or Guy Fawkes Night, perhaps.

But as Godfrey pointed out, since the end of WW2, there has been only one year during which members of the British armed forces have not been engaged in conflict, somewhere in the world. So there is still a reason to be thankful for their bravery, to remember them, and to pray that, through our bringing to mind their sacrifice, we will gradually and finally turn away from war and strife.

Now in this evening service, as we turn towards the ending of this day of remembrance, I want to reflect on some of the many things that challenge us – or which, I suggest, ought to challenge us, as we enter the 100th year after the promise was made that the First World War was the ‘war to end all wars’. Because, 99 years later, very sadly, that still isn’t true. Wars haven’t ended.

So I want to reflect, to look carefully at some of the things we have said and done in relation to war, and see if perhaps we can discern any factors which might help towards bringing peace in future. You may not agree that I am asking the right questions: but I hope that what I say may start you thinking critically and, I hope, constructively. I very much doubt whether there are any automatically right answers here, at least so far as mortal men and women are concerned, but I think we ought to try.

Love one another. On Remembrance Sunday. Lest we forget. And, to pick up both our lessons tonight, you don’t need a big army to win a battle against overwhelming odds, if God is on your side.

How to make sense of all this. This morning we stood in silence by the war memorial and tried to commemorate all those who, in one sense, had not loved one another. They had killed each other. We honoured those who fell. We do honour, usually, those who fell fighting, fighting for our side. We don’t usually pray for the people who were the enemy, although there have been good exceptions, like the prayers at the service in Westminster Abbey after the Falklands War, for example, when the then Archbishop of Canterbury insisted that there should be prayers for the Argentines too.

After all, Jesus said, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,’ (Matt. 5:44). But we – and mankind generally – never have. Indeed, we love to rake up, in a rather triumphal way, the history of the First and Second World Wars. We thank our ancestors for being brave and standing up against the enemy – Germany in both cases – and keeping us independent.


The enemy’ wasn’t just Germany, in fact: it also included Turkey, Japan, Austria, and Italy as well, at various times. Most of those countries have been friends and allies for far longer than they were enemies in one or other of the World Wars. The same countries, at different times, have been both allies and enemies.

It’s difficult to generalise about countries, whether they are always going to be friends or foes. But what we can say about most wars is, that in most cases, it wasn’t personal. Even in the terrible trench warfare of WW1, people weren’t fighting people whom they knew, and whom they’d fallen out with.

That should perhaps be something we could think about, when we’re tempted to think of the Germans as baddies, or someone makes a joke about them not having a sense of humour or wanting to extend their territory round a swimming pool on holiday. People were not fighting people they hated personally, but fighting for ideas, or for their country’s sovereignty. Our soldiers fought because our leaders thought that otherwise, we would be overrun by Germany – sovereignty; and, in WW2, to avoid being turned into Nazis, a question of ideas. Remember the Christmas Day truce in 1914, when the soldiers got out of their trenches and played football, exchanged cigarettes and gifts. They had nothing personal against each other.

Again, I think that, as we reflect on the sad fact that no amount of ‘Remembrance’ has stopped wars from breaking out, we might try to identify some of the ideas which seem to have led to war. Sovereignty, for instance: not wanting someone else, foreigners, to dictate our laws. But think about this. A pooling, a watering down, of sovereignty, to some extent, in the European Union, has brought about the longest ever unbroken period of peace in Europe. And every treaty between countries, for any purpose, involves the parties giving up a little of their individual autonomy in order to agree together.

And allied to that, perhaps we should reflect on what it is that makes us British, or French, or Chinese, or whatever nationality we are. In the majority of cases, it is an accident of birth. There is no special distinction, it confers no special entitlement by itself, just to be born. You certainly might say that the miracle of life itself, of being brought to birth, is itself hugely valuable. But whether you’re born in poverty in a Calcutta slum or in a mansion on St George’s Hill, that fact of itself doesn’t entitle you to do better or worse than another human being.

We are all children of God, equally. So aggressively putting up barriers to keep people out of ‘our’ country – and I’ve put the word ‘our’ in inverted commas, because although people use that expression, ‘our’ country, I’m not sure what it really should mean – aggressively keeping others out may not be a good, or a right, thing to do. But millions of people have died, effectively to uphold that principle.

We sense that there must be some reasonable limit, some reasonable extent of nationalism. In WW2, we would not have wanted our government to be in Berlin, or to have had to speak German instead of being able to speak English, (loudly if necessary, if people don’t understand us), to everyone we meet, wherever we happen to be. So where is the right balance?

The bravery and sacrifices made in the World Wars kept us free, and we are thankful. But if today the same instincts for independence result in our driving out from our midst people who have come to live and work here, and who provide such valuable contributions to our health service, to our farmers, in our hotels and restaurants and so on, if those people feel we no longer welcome them and accept them, this is not the ‘love’ that Jesus was talking about. It was αγάπη [agape], brotherly love, charity and kindness that he meant.

‘Greater love hath no man .. Jesus’ next sentence in St John’s Gospel, after the great command that we should love one another, is ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ As Canon Giles Fraser pointed out on the radio on Friday, some war memorials don’t say ‘lay down his life for his friends’, but ‘for his country’ instead. But really, the context in the Bible is, of course, that Jesus is looking forward to his own death, to the crucifixion. ‘As I have loved you, so you must love each other.’

That is a sacrificial kind of love. Making sacrifices, even the ultimate sacrifice, for someone you love. There are all those stories of heroism and sacrifice in war.

Jack Cornwell, the under-age naval hero who stayed at his post during the Battle of Jutland, severely wounded himself, even though everyone around him had been killed or wounded, quietly waiting for orders.

My own relative, Dr John Fisher, who won the MC at Arnhem as a medic, by going into a minefield to treat wounded soldiers, laying a tape behind him so that the stretcher bearers could safely get through the minefield to the casualties and bring them to safety. Every step could have been his last, if he had trodden on a mine. But he was willing to risk death, in order to save others. He survived, fortunately.

Or other heroes, who weren’t soldiers. ‘Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died as prisoner 16770 in Auschwitz, on August 14, 1941. When a prisoner escaped from the camp, the Nazis selected 10 others to be killed by starvation in reprisal for the escape. One of the 10 selected to die, Franciszek Gajowniczek, began to cry: My wife! My children! I will never see them again! At this Maximilian Kolbe stepped forward and asked to die in his place. His request was granted’. [ http://auschwitz.dk/kolbe.htm]

We should try always to remember them, and to be grateful for their sacrifice. And as well, we should realise that Jesus wasn’t just talking about supreme, life and death, sacrifices. Love means giving things up for your friends, small sacrifices as well as big ones.

And what about Gideon, and his battle against the Midianites? Why did he go through this bizarre process of whittling his army down to 300 champions only, instead of the thousands he had at his disposal? God didn’t want the Israelites to be so powerful that they could boast that their own strength had brought them victory. To show the power of God, they had to be seen to win against impossible odds.

But the puzzling thing is the thought that, as so often in war, it is said that both sides are praying to God, to the same God, that their side will prevail. Will God support one side against the other? And if so, why? It is a version of the theological conundrum called ‘theodicy’ (θεοδικη), the question why a good God would allow bad things to happen. The answer in this story from the Old Testament is that God favours his chosen people, the people who worship him rather than any other, false gods.

There is also the story of the Roman emperor Constantine at the battle of the Milvian Bridge in the fourth century, who had a dream about Jesus Christ and decided to paint his soldiers’ shields with a symbol of the cross. They won the battle, and Constantine, in gratitude, adopted Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire – which was a major factor in making Christianity spread throughout the world.

But – but there’s something uneasy about this rather crude, almost superstitious approach to God. Having God as a kind of nuclear weapon, the ultimate ‘game changer’, seems wrong. Granted that we believe that God cares for us, knows all of our names, and so on: but why would He almost justify a war, by determining its outcome? Or to put it another way, why would the good God become involved in the evil that is warfare? The hymn says, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side?’ Not, ‘Whose side is the Lord on?’

Enough for one Sunday evening, I think. Lest we forget. Let us love one another, as Jesus has loved us.

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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 Mattins on the Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity, 16th November 2015, at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon
Daniel 10:19-21, Revelation 4

At the end of St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to His disciples, ‘Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.’

People are always telling us that we’re doing rather a bad job of making disciples of all the world. Because in the UK at least, the churches are declining in numbers. According to statistics that I was reading, the Church of England is losing 1% of its members each year at present.

But Canon Giles Fraser in an article yesterday [‘Loose Canon’, The Guardian, 15th November 2014, http://gu.com/p/43bvq%5D pointed out that about a million people go to a Church of England church every week. That compares pretty well with quite a lot of other important organisations.

Compared with the total membership of the Conservative Party, which is 134,000, with the Labour Party, 190,000, and the LibDems at 44,000, as Giles Fraser says, if you add all the political parties together and even throw in UKIP, you still don’t have half the number of people who go to church. He adds, ‘More people go to church on a Sunday than go to Premier League stadiums on a Saturday.’

I bore that all in mind as I went to the St Andrew’s PCC ‘away-day’ yesterday. This was set to consider a Church of England statistical study called ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, [The Church Commissioners for England, 2014, http://www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk ] which had identified all the various things which made for growing churches rather than declining ones.

Incidentally, you’ll be very pleased to know that as far as I can see, St Mary’s does have ingredients identified in the study for being a successful church. There’s a emphasis on having young people and children (we’ve just had a great family service with nearly half those attending being kids or young parents); on having a clear mission and purpose; and on having strong leadership. I think that St Mary’s does meet the criteria identified.

I was intrigued because this week, now at Mattins and tonight at Evensong, there are lessons from the Book of Revelation which offer a counterpoint to the Church statistical study.

This morning there’s the vision of heaven – ‘a voice which said to me, Come up hither, and I will show thee things which must be hereafter.’ This was a vision of a throne in heaven, and a figure on the throne surrounded by 24 elders – a vision of God.

And this evening, going backwards, the lesson is from the beginning of the Book of Revelation, introducing John’s vision, John’s ‘apocalypse’, as it’s called. Αποκάλυψις, ‘Apocalyse’, is the Greek word for ‘revelation’ – lifting the veil, revealing what is hidden underneath.

I don’t think that the Book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally, but it does contain a lot of powerful metaphorical images, covering a world which is way beyond our comprehension. We can’t know what, in Revelation, is in any sense ‘true’, but I think we can agree that there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be as good a description as any other, more prosaic, description of a heavenly world there might be.

Revelation Chapters 2 and 3 – your homework before lunch today – contain the passage which I think is directly relevant to the question what makes a good, effective church. John reports that Christ appeared to him and instructed him to write letters to seven early churches. In each letter Christ, though John, identifies particular characteristics which marks out that church, and which distinguishes it in good and bad ways. It is a sort of early Ofsted report.

So the church at Ephesus is noted for its love; the church at Smyrna for being long-suffering; at Pergamum for not denying their faith; at Thyatira, there is love, faithfulness, good service and fortitude; at Philadelphia, he writes, ‘Your strength, I know, is small, yet you have observed my commands and have not disowned my name.’

He lists their faults as well. He writes to the church at Sardis, ‘though you have a name for being alive, you are dead. Wake up, and put some strength into what is left,..’; and to the church at Laodicea he writes, ‘I know all your ways; you are neither hot nor cold. How I wish that you were either hot or cold!’

Those early churches, which had been started by St Paul or by others of the Apostles, were being assessed by Jesus Christ, through the mystic seer John, for various aspects of their faith. Were they keeping fast to the true faith, or were they in error?

There’s not much about falling numbers – except perhaps the call to wake up at Sardis. There’s not much organisation theory: what the proportion of young people in the congregation is, whether they are open to new ideas and new types of worship, whether they give new people responsibility for church activities. None of those techniques seem to have worried the earliest churches.

In the church research document ‘From Anecdote to Evidence’, the work is prefaced by St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:6, ‘I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow’. God made it grow. I can’t help feeling that, certainly in the early history of the church, whether the church prospered or not had nothing much to do with the management skills of the early ministers.

The biggest break that the early church had, of course, was in the fourth century, when on the eve of the battle of the Milvian Bridge, the Roman emperor Constantine had a vision of Christ telling him to paint the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields, and he would win the battle: and they did, and they won the victory. It doesn’t sound a very Christian story; but there it is.

As a result, Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. All of a sudden, Christianity stopped being more or less a secret sect of small cell churches subject to persecution, and became the Catholic Church, the church throughout the world.

Huge growth; but nothing to do with management skills or growth strategies. If we look at where the church is growing in the world today – and Christianity is the fastest-growing religion of them all, today – in Africa, in South America, in China, in Russia – there is still huge growth: and I wonder what it is that is bringing that growth, at the same time as the Church of England is gently and gradually declining.

I think that a clue may be in today’s lessons. You may say that the pictures of heaven and the pictures of the Almighty which are in the Book of Revelation are too far-fetched to be anything other than picturesque stories. ‘Immediately I was in the spirit, and behold a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald.’

And in the first chapter of Revelation, ‘I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lamp-stands, and in the midst of the lamp-stands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; ..’

‘Look, he is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him … “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’.

Now we may well not believe that God is a man with a big white beard in heaven, (which is above the clouds). We may well decide that that is just a picturesque metaphor: but I think we do still find great significance in ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending’.

The point about an ‘apocalypse’, a revelation, an unveiling of ultimate truth, is that we are confronted by God. Perhaps the reason that our church here at home is not growing as fast as in the other places in the world is precisely because people’s eyes are closed to God: they are not seeing the revelation; they don’t see what its immediate importance could be.

Many people, I think, would agree that there is a God, in the sense that there is somebody or something which made the world, a creator. But a lot of people, I think, today, don’t give it much more thought than that. Perhaps people no longer really worry about the story of Jesus Christ. They rule out the possibility of His resurrection from the dead.

People in England are conveniently blind to the way in which, in many other places in the world, the Good News of Jesus, the story of His life, death and resurrection, still has legs, still has huge power, because it is an indication that the God which Revelation portrays, the God, the Lamb on the throne of heaven, (however picturesque these images are) still has power, has significance, today.

These revelations are revelations that God does care for us. The fact of Jesus, the fact of His time with us, is in itself a revelation, it is an uncovering of the deepest truth.

Perhaps these days you need to be ‘strangely warmed’, like John Wesley, or to be ‘born again’ at a Billy Graham meeting. Perhaps not: but once you have ‘got it’, once you have realised what the revelation of Jesus Christ is, then your life will be changed, and there will be no danger that you will drift away from the church.

Let us pray that we will all be given that revelation: that in the church, those of us who are tasked with preaching and evangelism – as John in Revelation puts it, those of us who are ‘in the Spirit’ – surrounded by the Holy Spirit – let us pray that we will be able to bring a vision of heaven, a vision of the Son of Man, the Son of Man who was at the same time the Son of God, into our lives, so that we can no longer just take Him or leave Him.