The sermon preached at Midnight Mass. Here’s what I said.
It is something of a tradition for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other leading religious figures, in their Christmas sermons to make some reference to the state of the nation or the world, or to comment on political leaders – and to remind us of why we need the light of Christmas to shine into the darkness of the reality of the world we live in.
Not wishing to be outdone by the Archbishop of Canterbury, I thought this year I would follow his example. So I want to say something tonight about Members of Parliament – and in particular about one of the worst decisions that has ever been made in the House of Commons.
Don’t worry – it’s not what you think! The worst decision is not a recent one. But it must surely be the most unpopular decision ever made the House of Commons in its history and it has its 375th anniversary this year. The year was 1644. It was during the Civil War, and the mostly Puritan House of Commons disapproved of people enjoying themselves, especially at Christmas. So Members of Parliament decided to pass a law banning Christmas. Yes! Really!Continue reading
This week’s gospel reading was the story from John’s Gospel of how Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well.
You might think that when it comes to leading a blameless life Jesus was streets ahead of anyone else. You might think that when it comes to preaching the gospel we have a lot to learn from Jesus.
Let me just introduce you to someone who has the edge on Jesus. Billy Graham, the famous Southern Baptist evangelist from the United States, has led a remarkable life. It is estimated that he has preached the gospel to more people than anyone else in the history of Christianity – if you include his crusades, as well as his television and radio audiences, about 2.2 billion people – far more than Jesus ever managed. It’s a truly amazing achievement and he has changed so many people’s lives.
He has also, apparently, led a far more blameless life than Jesus did when it comes to women. What makes me say that? Well, I remember reading once that Billy Graham has said that in all his adult life he has never been alone with a woman who wasn’t his mother or his wife. He has said that a Christian should be above reproach and his reasoning is, presumably, that you have to be careful not to give people ammunition for gossip. Just think about that for a moment. How on earth do you manage to avoid ever being alone with a woman other than your mother or your wife? Continue reading
This week, the last Sunday of October, the Church of England gives us three options. We can keep the Last Sunday after Trinity in which case we use the Revised Common Lectionary readings. Or we can keep the feast of the Dedication of the Church if we don’t know the correct date – that’s usually only true of very old churches, and since we know ours that wasn’t a choice. Or we can keep Bible Sunday. Since I’m a great believer in encouraging regular reading of the Scriptures, on the grounds that God’s Word is supremely important since it’s one of the key ways in which he speaks to us and instructs us, I chose to keep Bible Sunday. Here’s what I said.
When was the last time you read your Bible?
I have a reason for asking, and it’s not what you think! Of course, I hope you’re reading it regularly and frequently, but let me explain my real reason for asking!
This week it was reported in the press that Bonhams the auctioneers would be selling a very old edition of the King James Bible at auction on the 11th of November. Printed in 1631 it is expected to sell for at least £15,000. Part of a print run of about 1,000, only about 9 are known still to exist. So what’s so special about this particular Bible? Well, it’s a copy of what came to be known as The Sinner’s Bible because of a printing error. The King’s printers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, who were responsible for the printing of the Bible failed to notice that they had left out a very important word – the word not. Unfortunately they left it out of Continue reading
This Sunday we heard more of Jesus describing himself as the Bread of Life in John 6. Here’s what I said.
Why is bread like a bus?
Well, just like the proverbial bus that doesn’t come along for ages and then three come at once, so in our readings we go for months on end without any reference to bread, and here we are for the third week in a row with a gospel reading about bread. Having had the feeding of the five thousand on five loaves and two fish two weeks ago, last week and this we get Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life.”
This makes life difficult for people like me who take services. There are only so many hymns about bread in our hymn book. And only so many sermons you can preach in a row on the same theme! And count yourselves lucky! Next week, if it wasn’t for the fact that we are keeping the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary – which is really next Saturday but we do it a day late – you’d be getting Jesus saying, “I am the bread of life” for the third week in a row!
So why is bread – living bread – so important?
Life seemed so much simpler when I was a child. Continue reading
Last Sunday the gospel reading was the feeding of the five thousand, followed by Jesus walking on the water. The feeding of the five thousand is one of the few miracles to appear in all four gospels. We had the version from John.
To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect, said Oscar Wilde.
Which might explain why the disciples, living as they did two thousand years ago, spectacularly failed to expect the unexpected even though the unexpected is what kept happening.
On the website Yahoo! Answers, a site where you can ask questions on any subject in the hope that someone else has the answer, someone posed the question “Do you always expect the unexpected?” To which someone else replied:
“Technically it’s impossible….I mean you can’t expect the unexpected… as the word unexpected means you didn’t expect it… so if you expect the unexpected, it’s no longer unexpected is it? Because it becomes expected… so anybody that says they do expect the unexpected are lying as it’s impossible…”
Which clears that up! As far as that person is concerned you can’t expect the unexpected. They’d have got on well with the disciples. Because you might have thought that the disciples, having seen what Jesus has been doing, would have learned to expect not just the unexpected, but the downright impossible! Already by this point in Jesus’ ministry, according to the writer of John’s Gospel, they have seen him turn water into wine, they have seen him heal an official’s dying son from a distance, they have seen him heal an invalid at the pool of Bethesda. By now they should have been ready to expect just about anything.
And yet it seems that although they had seen what Jesus could do they still couldn’t get their minds around the reality that the impossible was possible when Jesus was involved! That the unexpected kept happening. Constantly they found their faith in Jesus being out to the test – deliberately put to the test – by Jesus.
And in our gospel reading this morning we see two impossible situations where the disciples – and in a very real sense, we too – have their faith put to the test. We see Jesus’ disciples face two impossible situations; will they respond in faith? Will they trust that Jesus has everything under control, even though it may not seem so?
Jesus is followed by a massive crowd to a remote place, and we are told that Jesus tests Philip by asking him where they can buy bread for all these people. He knows what he is going to do, but he wants to find out how Philip will respond to the situation. Note that there is no indication that these people are actually hungry – but Jesus has decided to feed them anyway. Philip responds to the test in a very human way: he considers the finances and concludes that it is totally impossible as they would need a huge amount of money to feed everyone, more than half a year’s salary. Quite where he thought they could by food from is a mystery – they were in a remote place! Then Andrew chips in, mentioning that he has found a boy with five barley loaves (the cheapest, least palatable bread) and two fishes (probably pickled fish of some kind,) but states this small amount of food would be little help in feeding the crowd.
Both disciples look only at their own resources to deal with the problem and, as such, believe it to be irresolvable. Jesus shows them that what is impossible for them is possible for God and proceeds to feed the entire crowd so amply that there are twelve baskets of food left over: more than there was to start with!
Afterwards, Jesus goes off by himself to get away from the crowd. Being well acquainted with the temperamental nature of the Sea of Galilee, the disciples realise that they can wait no longer if they are to cross before a brewing storm breaks. And they set off across the sea leaving Jesus behind! Why? We don’t know. What were they thinking? Anyway, three or four miles in, after hours of hard rowing, exhausted, with conditions deteriorating and still only halfway across the lake, they are clearly in trouble.
Again, they are in a truly hopeless situation: all alone and believing Jesus to be too far away to help. Indeed, when Jesus does approach them upon the water they fail to recognise him and are petrified. They may have recently witnessed him miraculously feed more than five thousand people, but they still seem to struggle to believe that he could be there to help in their desperate situation. Once Jesus has reassured them it is him, however, and he is on board, another miracle occurs: the boat immediately finds itself ashore!
Well, what are we to make of these two miracles – feeding thousands with five loaves and two fish, walking on water in the middle of a storm and then bringing the boat and its occupants immediately to their destination?
Well, both these miracles are really about the same thing. Have the disciples learned to expect the unexpected where Jesis is concerned? Have they come to realise who Jesus is and what he can do? Have they come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God and that he can do anything? And – more to the point – the writer of the gospel is really asking the same questions of those for whom he wrote, and of us here today.
For the point of the feeding of the five thousand is not that five thousand people are fed. It is that Jesus is testing his disciples to see whether they have now realised that the unexpected, the impossible, can happen. “What are we going to do to feed these people?” he asks.
And the point of Jesus rescuing the disciples in the storm is that the disciples have not learnt to trust in Jesus in time of need. And when he comes walking across the sea to them in the middle of a storm, they fail to recognise him. And he has to say to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”
Jesus tests the disciples. Have they learned that with Jesus they can expect not just the unexpected, but they can expect what those without faith would think impossible? In today’s gospel reading they are not yet there and they didn’t get there until after the resurrection. The writer of the gospel, though, is putting the same test to those for whom he is writing his gospel. Those who will read his words – or more likely hear them read – and who live in the light of the resurrection. Do you have the faith to believe that Jesus can work miracles, that Jesus can use his power to overcome the natural order of things, that Jesus can do the unexpected in your life?
We face the same test. In our gospel reading Jesus dealt with a crowd needing food and a boat of disciples at sea in a storm by – in both cases – doing that which seemed impossible. Do we, as his followers today, pass the test? Do we believe that Jesus can deal with the seemingly impossible problems that beset us – in our world, in our nation, in our own daily lives?
Jesus didn’t respond in ways that the disciples expected – and that can often present a problem for us. Of course, it is far from easy to keep exercising faith in situations such as when we lose our job, or are diagnosed with a terminal illness, or our marriage breaks up, or a loved one dies, and so on. For Jesus doesn’t always respond in the way that we might, at one level, want. He doesn’t wave a magic wand and make everything go back to how it was. He often responds in unexpected ways.
As with the disciples, he is there, ready to support in the ways that he thinks best, and help us find a way through. And faith is about understanding that Jesus, even when things seem impossible, can do the unexpected and help us through, and it’s about trusting him to do it. Faith – as I said a couple of weeks ago – Forsaking All I Trust Him.
It was in difficult and seemingly unsolvable situations times that Jesus took the opportunity to try and inspire faith from his disciples, because those times should have forced them to look outside themselves and seek God’s help through Jesus. It was clearly important to Jesus that his disciples had a growing faith and if the disciples needed to develop their faith, so must we.
So may we encourage our faith to grow, putting it into practice each day by choosing to believe that Jesus can and will help us, no matter how difficult our situations. Br trusting in him, trusting that Jesus can use his power among us: for what is impossible for us, is possible for Jesus!
I’m going to finish with the words of Saint Paul which end our extract from his letter to the Ephesians, a prayer that reminds us that God can do so much more than we often think he can! It’s a prayer that we used it regularly during worship at the Church Army College when I was there, and it has become one of those prayers that I know by heart and use at opportune moments. This is the version from the Common Worship prayer book.
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or conceive, by the power which is at work among us, to him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all ages. Amen. (Eph.3.20-21)
Which is Paul’s way of saying: Always except the unexpected! Continue reading
We had a really full church for Midnight Mass this year. As always, the gospel reading was the wonderful prologue of Saint John’s gospel.
On Christmas Day in 1977 over half the population of the United Kingdom did exactly the same thing at the same time. 28 million 835 thousand of us in this country sat down to watch the same television programme at the same time on Christmas Day. And it wasn’t the Queen’s speech! It was …….any guesses I wonder? It was the Continue reading
The 27th December is the feast day of Saint John, patron of our church, so we keep the Sunday after as our patronal festival. Here’s what I said, though my apologies for being a little late. My script was somewhat annotated from the computer copy and after the service a member of the congregation asked to borrow it to read. Now it’s been returned I am able to post what I actually said.
The Church is often accused of being out of touch with society. Well, it certainly seems to be out of touch with society on the few days after Christmas Day as those who attend mass on the three days after Christmas Day can testify. For they are faced with a Church that is a far cry from the eating, drinking and partying that is going on in the world outside. Get to Boxing Day and it’s clear that the Church isn’t celebrating the way everyone else is at all. Continue reading