Advent 2 (Isaiah 11.1-10 & Matt 3.1-12)

Today’s readings treat us to some wonderfully resonant words about what, or rather who, is to come.

It is likely that Isaiah spoke, or wrote his words over seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, while John the Baptist spoke his in the months immediate lead-up to Jesus’ own ministry; Isaiah speaks of hope, reconciliation and renewal, John’s words emphasize  repentance and judgement, but these are just two sides of the same coin. The ‘Day of the Lord’ that many of the prophets promise inspires both hope and fear; the promise of judgement brings both hope of justice and restoration, and fear of condemnation.  As a friend of mine once put it, The Wrath of God is what the Love of God looks like from Sin’s point of view.  Thus, John stands as the last in the long and honourable (though rarely honoured) line of prophets who, each in their own way, ‘prepared the way of the Lord and made his paths straight’.

As Christians, we hear their words and we think of the person of Jesus as the promised Messiah, the shoot from the stock of Jesse (as we can read in the gospel genealogies), the one whose sandals John was unworthy to carry.  We see in Jesus’ life and ministry, his death and resurrection, and his promised second coming, the fulfillment of the prophets’ dreams, the culmination of everything they hoped for and promised.  During Advemt we re-live that ancient hope, fulfilled for us in the Christ-child, and we re-kindle our present and future hope, for the renewal of the earth the the purging away of all that is broken and polluted and destructive in God’s world.

But for me it always comes down to this: what is our own place in the hope that we cherish, what is our own role in creating the future that we long for?  I have preached many times about the need not only to long for the kingdom of God, but also to work for the kingdom of God. And it appears that John the Baptist agrees: ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’, he tells the Pharisees. In other words, when you place your hope for renewal in God, do not forget your own part in making that hope come alive; for repentance to have any integrity, and indeed any lasting effect, it must be lived out in a life that is transformed and renewed, and John doubts whether the Pharisees are ready for this level of engagement with what he is offering.

It would have been easy, too, for the first hearers of Isaiah’s words to sit back and say, ‘One day God will send such a person, a Messiah, who will be all these things – full of wisdom and understanding and full of the Spirit of God – and our job is simply sit here and wait for that day’.  But Isaiah, and all the prophets with him, were at pains to point out that the justice that the Messiah would bring, and the peace, are also the work of every single one of God people. The prophets are constantly pointing out the inequalities that pervade even the chosen people, urging both the leaders and the people themselves to act with justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. Undoubtedly, the living out of the covenant in the Old Testament and the building of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament, are two sides of the same coin as well.

Working hard to establish the values of God’s Kingdom on earth, as well as praying for that end, does not in any way undermine the centrality of God’s free grace; rather it is about allowing that grace to work through us to bring about God’s purposes in this broken world.

This week we have been celebrating the life of a man whose who life’s meaning could be expressed in the words of Isaiah.  Nelson Mandela has been acknowledged as a man upon whom the Spirit of God rested, a man full of wisdom and understanding, a man who did not judge by appearance, but who strove his entire life for justice, for equity, and who, ultimately witnessed the reality of the miracle that he had prayed and worked for: a South Africa in which equality was possible, and in which the lion could lie down with the lamb. A man who, like John the Baptist, preached repentance, but who, even more remarkably, preached forgiveness.

He was also a man who embodied the wideness of God’s mercy for humanity. John talks of bringing forth children of Abraham from the very stones underfoot, and Isaiah speaks of a radical peace between diverse and conflicting creatures.  The sheer scope and generosity of God’s desire for the earth’s renewal is astounding, and we have heard again this week of the many ways in which Mandela’s legacy has had a profound impact not only on South Africa but on the whole world.

Nelson Mandela strove to be what Isaiah promised.  And if we find ourselves uncomfortable with anything that looks like a comparison between Jesus Christ and an ordinary human being, then we can remind ourselves both that Jesus came to earth as an ordinary human being at least partly to show us what true humanity looks like when it is lived out as God intended; and also that we, as the body of Christ, are called (both individually and communally) to be Christ-like, to continue the work of Jesus in the world.  If Isaiah describes our Messiah, then he also describes us, and every community that models itself on Jesus.

Thank God for those who show us that hope is not just an idea for the future, but a present possibility, something worth working for. Thank God for those whose lives mirror that of Christ: risking everything, giving everything, forgiving, bearing, enduring so much.  Thank God for the million and one small opportunities (and perhaps some big ones) that we have in our own lives to be all that Isaiah promised, and all that John asked for as fruits of our repentance. Thank God that he still uses ordinary people to do extraordinary things in his name.  And as we pray for the coming of the Kingdom – God’s kingdom of justice and joy – let us also pray that we may be the means by which that Kingdom comes and play our part in drawing heaven and earth that bit closer this Advent and Christmas and beyond.




A sermony thing for Luke 7.36-8.3

The eyes and hands of Michaelangelo...

unfinished slave 1unfinished slave 2unfinished slave 4unfinished slave 3

The great sculptor Michaelangelo, who created some of the most beautiful figures ever to be carved from marble was once asked about his method.  He replied, “I simply work on the block of marble, removing all that is not part of the sculpture until only the sculpture remains.”

We can see this most profoundly in his unfinished ‘slave’ sculptures.  Michaelangelo was commissioned to create them in 1505 by Pope Julius, for the Pope’s own tomb – there were supposed to be thirty in total, but the Pope died soon after planning his own tomb, and the project was never completed.  If you ever go to see Michaelangelo’s famous and very perfect statue of David, as you walk through the gallery leading to it you will pass some of these unfinished slaves, exhibited precisely because in their unfinished state they seem to say something profound about humanity.

They seem to emerge from the rock, some gracefully, some full of struggle, seemingly desperate to gain their freedom.   And in them we can see Michaelangelo’s process at work.  His own expressed intention of freeing the figures that already exist within the stone is reflected in his technique. Almost all sculptors who work in stone tend to block out the main shapes of the whole sculpture roughly, and then gradually fill in the details. Michaelangelo, though, chiselled away at the stone, bringing individual parts of the sculpture to a perfect finish before moving on. That’s what makes the unfinished slaves seem to be freeing themselves from the rock that keeps them captive.

Why am I telling you all this?

Well, because if we see a block of stone most of us will see simply that, a block of stone.  It takes a Michaelangelo to see a beautiful figure, waiting to be liberated.

If we see a sculpture that is part finished in the normal way, full of rough edges, we might only see its imperfections, all the ways that it fails to live up to what it should be. We might even say, that’s a bit rubbish. Every extraneous bit of stone that’s marring that perfection is condemned.  It’s not very neat, is it?  It’s not been carefully done.

It takes a Michaelangelo to see the truth: all that needs to happen is for all the stone that is not part of the true sculpture to be carefully removed.

In today’s gospel we see a woman viewed in two completely different ways.

The Pharisee looks at her and passes judgement based on how she’s kept the law – or how badly she’s broken it.  For him, her sin is what she is: “If Jesus really was a prophet he would have known what kind of woman she is: a sinner.”  If that woman were a statue, the Pharisee is judging her based on all the bits that aren’t right, all the rough edges.

Jesus looks at the same woman, and sees her capacity to be forgiven and to love. He is like Michaelangelo, seeing the true figure hidden in the block of marble, trapped by all the things that aren’t part of what that woman was called to be, created by God to be.

The Pharisee sees only the bits of the marble block that are stopping the figure from being true to who they were created to be.

Jesus sees the person as they were created to be and then helps them to strip away all the bits that are stopping them from being that person.

The two views could not be more different. To look on someone and see their sin, or to look one someone and see their capacity to be forgiven.  To look on someone and see only how they have fallen short, or to look at someone and see their potential to become who they were created to be.

Thank God we have a God who is like Michaelangelo, who can see inside all the stuff that clings to us and clogs us up and grinds us down – the weight of past sins, the regrets of things done or not done, said or not said, the resentments and wrongdoing, and then helps us gradually to free ourselves of all the stuff that isn’t part of who we truly are.

Will that be a gentle process?  Not always!  Sculpture does, after all, involves chisels and hammers.  Will it be quick?  No, I suspect it’s a life’s work, and is completed only at the point of our entry into heaven.  But God can make us beautiful – as beautiful as we always were to him, precisely because he can see through all the rubbish to what lies at the heart of us, and his forgiveness chips away at everything about us that isn’t what we should be.

May God give us eyes like Michaelangelo’s, able to see the beauty in one another, even if it’s hidden, able to forgive one another for all the stuff that gets in the way, and in so doing, help us to free one another from all the stuff that keeps us from being who God created us to be.




Ash Wednesday – a Love-Life-Live-Lent-flavoured sermon

It’s not mess…

There was an advert a few years ago for Persil automatic.  It was on TV and on billboards everywhere, so most of you will probably have seen it.  It features a film of children happily painting a wall in splashes of multicoloured paint.  Inevitably, more of the paint gets on their clothes, their hands and faces, and on each other, than on the wall.  The captions read “It’s not mess, it’s creativity, it’s not mess it’s learning,” and so on.

An Ash Wednesday service is a messy one: it involves marking our foreheads with the sign of the cross in a very messy mixture of ash and oil.  This service is messy because we are: sin is a messy business, and the ash reminds us of all the mess that we make of our own lives, of other people’s lives and of this world.  If a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, then the ash cross is the reverse: an outwards and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace. We sign ourselves with this messy mix of ash and oil because all of us are in a mess.  It helps us be honest about the disparity between what we appear to be and what we feel we are.  Many of us may sometimes feel uncomfortable with the respect that people give us – that we don’t quite match up to the person people think we are – the person we want to be.  When people praise us we may feel, ‘if only they knew…’   So the cross of ash helps us reconcile the person we feel we are with the person that others see.  It helps us remember that God sees us as we are – the good stuff and the not so good stuff – and he still loves us, even having seen the truth. Lent is a time for us to learn to see ourselves just as God does: as beloved sinners.

But the washing powder  advert puts an altogether more positive slant on mess, which is worth exploring.

One of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s creativity’.

When we receive the ash cross on our forehead, we hear the words, ‘remember that you are dust’.  And so with the ash perhaps we can recall that wonderful picture of God’s creativity in Genesis 2, lovingly molding the earth into human beings, and breathing life into what was dry and lifeless.  And so as we receive the ash on our foreheads we can give thanks that God can still breathe new life into us even in the dirt and dust and deathliness of our sin.

One of the key themes of Love Life Live Lent is being creative and imaginative – whether that’s making cakes and sharing them or trying something you’ve never done before: when we do so, we reflect something of our creator God, and we give a little bit of life to the world as well as becoming a little more alive ourselves.

Another of the captions reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s pride’. Pride is perhaps not quite the right word.  But the sign of the cross that we carry is certainly not something that we are ashamed of.  At our baptism, Christ claimed us as his own, and so we are glad to be marked with his sign of the cross.  Because Jesus took the shame of death on a cross and transformed it into hope and victory, he can also transform the shame of our sinfulness into the triumph over it.

Many of the Love Live Live Lent actions are also about our own identity as human beings and as beloved children of God; learning to be ourselves, making the most of who we are, and giving thanks for the way that we have been blessed – even if it’s just for the food we eat.

The TV advert ends with one of the children accidentally on purpose painting another’s nose – at first she looks cross, but then starts to smile.  The caption reads, ‘it’s not mess, it’s forgiveness’.  When we have the sign of the cross on our foreheads, we are a walking testimony to the fact that everyone can be forgiven.

Again, within Love Life Live Lent there are actions that bring real peace and reconciliation – between us and other people, and between humanity and the earth.  Ash Wednesday’s action is to say sorry for something we have done wrong: it may be enough simply to say sorry to God, or it may be that there are others who need to hear it too, and we may also need to acknowledge and repent of the harm we’ve done to ourselves, for sin has a habit of harming the sinner, too.

We are messy people.  The messes we make in our lives are real messes.  They are dark and dirty, and if left unchecked they will be the death of us.  And God does not condone our mess.  It is not that God does not mind about sin – on the contrary, it grieves him that we hurt and abuse ourselves and others, that we deface and corrupt the very air, water and land of this world he has given us. We take heart, and take courage, because we believe in a God who already knows the secrets of our hearts.

Guilt is a prison with sin as the bars, trapping us inside our past mistakes, but true repentance allows us to receive the forgiveness that God always offers, and it may even start to rebuild relationships that we had given up on.  Forgiveness is just as real as sin – and indeed is stronger. Life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness, and love is stronger than hate.

The actions in LLLL are all about the triumph of life over death, of light over darkness, of love over hatred.  Just as sin harms the sinner, so random acts of kindness, creativity and love can help repair the wounds on the soul.  This Lent, let us ask God to breathe life into our dust, that we may live lives of love, for our own sake, for each other’s sake, and for the sake of God’s world.

What God can and can’t use

Trinity 17 B (2012) Mark 9.38-50

‘Whoever is not against us is for us,’ says Jesus when his friends worry that there are people doing miracles in Jesus’ name who aren’t part of their posse.  The disciples’ worry is a very human one, it’s about control.  It’s a very similar one to the story in Acts when it turns out that a whole load of Gentiles are showing all the fruits of the Spirit, despite not having been baptised.  In both cases, the proof of the pudding seems to be in the eating, or perhaps, by their fruits they are shown to be of God.

‘Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of water because they are a believer, then they will not lose their reward,’ Jesus goes on to say. There’s at least a basic lesson here for the disciples: they, the twelve, the inner circle, are by no means the only followers of Jesus, and there is a role in the building of the kingdom not only for apostles, prophets, missionaries and teachers, but for the quieter, less spectacular ministries of hospitality and care.

But this whole passage is about more than that. It’s not completely straightforward reading at first, but there is a hugely important nugget of truth in this reading which needs teasing out. It’s in three parts.

The first part is that God is very good at taking what we do offer and using it to do something amazing. Look at the feeding of the five thousand, when he turned one person’s packed lunch into a hearty meal for a whole crowd. Look at the wedding at Cana when he turned hard work and plain water into finest wine. Look at the parable of the sheep and the goats when he takes the basic human kindness of people who don’t even consider that they’ve been serving God and counts it to their salvation.  God is brilliant at finding in us something good, something worth using, worth encouraging, worth celebrating, seeing even in our hesitant offerings the potential to build his kingdom.

The second part concerns the very real truth that there are things that get in the way of all that. There are things we do and think and say that pollute our kindness, that subvert our good intentions, that poison the good fruit that we might otherwise offer to God.  These things will be different for each of us, but there are certainly some popular besetting sins: anger and resentment, being quick to take offense or slow to forgive, assuming the worst of each other, rather than the best – it is for each of us to discern within ourselves what stumbling blocks we lay down both for others and for ourselves, for these are the things that risk stopping us being able to offer the simple things we have to God.

The third part is that God is also simply amazing at spotting what he can use, and purging away what he can’t use. He sees our sins far more clearly than we do. He knows the difference between real current sins that are actively acting against him, and the memories of past sins that are long forgiven by God and yet still haunt us and cripple us. He is adept at sifting through the complexity of our lives and finding in us things that are worthwhile, precious, priceless… and of identifying those things that need to be excised.  God is the great divider: but the division between the sheep and the goats, and between the wheat and the tares, is not between one person and another, but within each of us, separating out what can be used in the building of the kingdom and what cannot.

And yes, we may be amazed by what it turns out God can use. For even some of our memories of past hurts and wrong-doing can become the cup of water that we offer to a fellow pilgrim.

Trust in God, that he can use far more of each of us than we can possibly imagine. And in that trust, find also the courage to ask God, once and for all, to free us from those few things that really do stand in the way.

For whatever is not against God, can be  used in his service and to his glory.

Good Friday – thoughts (I’m not usually ready this much ahead of schedule…!)

Scholars of biblical history like to ask each other why Jesus died.  Was it because the Romans saw him as a potential trouble maker, likely to rouse a rebellion amongst the oppressed Jewish people, especially at the time of the Passover when Jerusalem was flooded with visitors and pilgrims and emotions were already running high?  Or was it through a plot by the religious authorities who considered that Jesus had made blasphemous claims to be the Messiah?


Or was it an act of desperation by those same authorities who genuinely feared that Jesus’ actions leading up to his death would indeed inspire some kind of rebellion against Roman rule?  A small-scale and unsuccessful rebellion would have been disastrous – the Romans were not known for being merciful and considerate to the nations they occupied, and the last thing the Jewish leaders needed was someone who would stir up trouble and bring down the wrath of the Romans on everyone.  Can it be that silencing Jesus suddenly looked like the only way of preventing bloodshed on a massive scale?


But if we really want to know why Jesus died, then we can join the two thousand year old tradition of the Church’s interpretation of the events of Good Friday. 


Today we recount the tale of our betrayal, complicity, duplicity, and collusion in the death of Jesus. It’s all there, the worst parts of our collective psychic anatomy:


We see the betrayal of a leader by a trusted disciple, and we never even know what drove him to it – the money? Impatience with the pace of Jesus’ ministry, or misunderstanding of its nature?  Simple disaffection?  Do we, in Judas, recognise our own secret thoughts and doubts about those to whom we have pledged our allegiance or our friendship, even if we have not acted on them?


We see the cowardice of Jesus’ very best friends, who all deserted him at the last, and supremely we see the threefold denial of Jesus by Peter, who only hours before had sworn that he would follow his Lord to the death.  Do we recognize our own potential to be surprised into denial by sudden questions from strangers?  Perhaps we could withstand the very worst persecution for the sake of our faith, but fail, like Peter, at the thought of being ridiculed, judged as ‘one of them’?


We see the anxious conniving of the authorities, the way priests Annas and Caiaphas play right into the hands of the Romans.  We see the potential for law to come before justice, and uncomfortable truths swept under the carpet of perceived necessity. ‘It is better for one man to die for the people’.  Do we recognise the reasonableness of our own leaders, or perhaps even of ourselves, in neglecting the plight of the minority?


We see a weak and nervous Pilate, checking the latest public opinion polls, intent on ensuring his own survival, no matter what the cost, and unable to exercise any real authority.  Jesus even tells Pilate that he only has power over him insofar as it has been granted to him from above, yet even that he is unsure of how to use.  Do we recognize in ourselves an element of self-preservation preventing us really from loving neighbour as ourselves?  Do we recognize in the structures that govern our society a misunderstanding of what power and responsibility are about?


We see the mob, democracy in action, just a few days ago shouting “Hosannah!” now screaming for blood and crucifixion.  Do we recognise ourselves, swayed into glibly accepting received opinions about who deserves condemnation, and not daring to think differently?


We see soldiers, who after all are only doing their job, desperate to establish their superiority by mocking the easy target, and numbing themselves from the reality of what it is they are doing by taking refuge in games and casting lots for a dying man’s clothes.  Do we understand the real cost of our everyday choices and habits for those around us, for the world, and for our own souls?  Are we complicit, however remotely, in systems that deny the dignity of fellow human beings?


And finally we see the crucifixion itself, surely the most cruel and degrading form of execution that ingenious humanity has ever devised to inflict on itself.  It is not just about physical anguish, but also about mental and emotional torture: even the wild animals crawl away to die – but even this privacy was denied to our Lord. Do we see and understand this as simply the supreme emblem of the sort of cruelty and desire for power and dominance that can be found in all human societies – societies of which we are a part. 


At every stage, the passion is possible because of the human capacity to sin. Is it not, in fact, in the nature of human sin that if ever someone perfect were to come into the world we would surely kill him?  God could count on human sin to crucify his Son.  Of course that’s what we’d do. 


Yet in the midst of all this, it is true – and we must hang on to this truth – it is true that we are – each of us, and all of us – made in the image of God.  He created us to be good people, to be people at one with each other and at one with him, and it is to this that he continues to call us.   Our capacity for sin is the sign of how distorted this divine image has become in us.  


It is popular to suggest nowadays that humankind is making moral progress, that we are basically OK in ourselves, and getting better all the time.  Sometimes we can kid ourselves that we are – collectively and individually – doing OK.  And perhaps we could go on thinking that, were it not for today. It might be possible to get by on our own, to delude ourselves in thinking our capacity to hate and deny and delude are not that great, if were it not for this day, this Friday we call ‘Good’.  If we are to believe in our own self-sufficient goodness, we shall have to dispose of this story, of this day in the church’s year.  


Our capacity for denial and deceit about the truth of the worst in us is incredibly great, but this story that knows the truth of us so well and depicts it so graphically, challenges even our powers of evasion.


We really are in a mess. If Golgatha or Calvary were only one place, one moment in time, we have at last grown beyond it. But no, there is Auschwitz, Rwanda, Belfast, Kosovo, and Baghdad, and the list of Calvarys keeps getting longer.  We really are fallen. We really have corrupted the image of God in which we were created.  We really do need someone, somehow, to save us. Sin means that we needed – we need – a redeemer, to restore in us the image of God, so that we can overcome the power that sin has over us, and become the people we were created to be.


On this day, Good Friday, we are revealed, exposed, reproached. But if that were all there was to the story, then Calvary might be remembered like a good novel for its realistic depiction of human evil, and those who recognized their own sin in the passion story would despair. 


But looking back on this day, Jesus’ people realized that there was more. There, on the cross, with Jesus’ arms outstretched, God was embracing us, entering into our evil, our sin. Later, we came to speak of something so horrible as the cross, as the source of our redemption.


Yes, it was our sin that sent Jesus to the cross, but we do very wrong if we ignore the complicity of Jesus in his own passion and death.  Just before the Passover Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.  Presumably he knew that this would incite the crowds into claiming him as the Messiah promised by the prophets.  And he knew that the political situation at the time made this an action almost guaranteed to get him into trouble.  He predicted his own death (and resurrection) several times, explaining what it meant and why it was necessary.  And he refused to defend himself at his trial.  These are not the actions of an unfortunate victim of circumstance.  No, these are the considered decisions of someone who knows that they have a task to perform, a vocation to fulfil, no matter what the personal cost.


It is human sin that brought Jesus to the cross, but it was and is the choice of God to submit to that sin and become its victim.   From the moment that Judas betrayed Jesus, the tragedy of human sin unfolds and gathers strength, and through it, God nevertheless achieves his saving purposes. 


For we have no hope, except for a God who is willing to meet us where we are, fallen as we are. God met our fallen-ness and brokenness at each and every point of the unfolding passion.  He met each one of our sins: our betrayals, our denials, our willingness to sacrifice justice for expediency, our cowardice, our cruelty; and took them onto himself.  On the cross, Jesus met head-on the very worst that humanity could do, and by the resurrection proved that the love of God is stronger.  On the cross, we meet God, and above all else that we see, we see that God is willing to go to any extreme to have us, just as we are, so that he might transform us into who we were made to be.