Saturday, December 26, 2020

The First Sunday of Christmas

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the First Sunday of Christmas.

The First Sunday of Christmas

Readings:

Old Testament: Isaiah 61.10-62.3 
New Testament: Galatians 4.4-7 
The Gospel: Luke 2.15-21

It's been a very different Christmas this year. Many of us have been unable to meet with our families in the way we normally do, and have had to be content with seeing them on a screen instead. This has been one of the major downsides of the way we have had to celebrate Christmas. There are others as well, and we should spare a thought for those whose businesses and jobs have been affected by the present pandemic and who are struggling to cope. For many, it has been a very ‘bleak mid-winter’ indeed.

But having a such a different sort of Christmas hasn't been all bad. There is a positive side to it too. The first Christmas wasn't at all like how we normally celebrate or imagine it either; it was a very different sort of Christmas as well. Not being able to have a ‘traditional Christmas’ perhaps gives us an opportunity to ask what the first Christmas was really like. Our image of it is somewhat different to the reality.

Much as I love the carol, it wasn't ‘bleak mid-winter’! There wouldn't have been shepherds in the fields if it was (Luke 2:8). And while it is perfectly okay to have scenes on our Christmas cards showing what Christmas was and is like in parts of northern Europe, there wasn’t snow on the stable roof.

The image of the stable itself is only a half truth. The ‘inn’ with no room, from which Joseph and his pregnant wife are supposed to have been turned away, is a misunderstanding based on a wrong translation. The word St Luke uses, which has traditionally been translated ‘inn’, means lodging or guest room (Luke 2:7). It is the same word St Luke uses for the room where the Last Supper takes place (Luke 22:11). Is it likely that no-one in a Jewish village would help a mother about to give birth?

Our image of the baby Jesus surrounded by animals, at least, is right, although there is nothing particularly unusual about it. Middle Eastern homes brought the animals in at night for safe-keeping. We ought to think, then, of a place in the house away from everyone else where Mary could have some privacy. St Matthew tells us that when the Wise Men came, they came to the ‘house where they were staying’ (Matthew 2:11).

And while we are talking about the Wise Men, we are not told how many of them there were, only that they brought three gifts. The baby Jesus was probably out of the manger by the time they got there. After all, King Herod killed all the babies under two years of age (Matthew 2:16).

In our Gospel reading this week, we read how Mary and Joseph seem to be functioning perfectly normally only a few days after Jesus’ birth. The baby Jesus is circumcised on the ‘eighth day’, as was the standard practice according to the Law. We will read later in St Luke’s Gospel of how about forty days after the birth, Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple, again following the practice laid down in the Law (Luke 2:22). The Holy Family obviously have a place to stay in Bethlehem on a long-term basis! It was one that, in all likelihood, they had arranged for in advance before making the trip to Bethlehem.

The way the Gospel writers describe the Nativity of Our Lord, is, then, very different to how we often imagine it today and to how we normally celebrate it.

Now I should say at once that I'm not for one moment suggesting that we join those who don't think that the birth of Jesus took place in the way the Gospel writers describe it. Sadly, there are those, both in the Church and outside of it, who treat the Christmas story as a kind of fairy story. For them, the Nativity is like the Nutcracker, the Messiah, or other works, that traditionally get performed at this time of the year. They think it is a great story and one that has a message for us, but they don’t think that most of it actually happened in the way the Gospel writers describe.

So, to avoid any misunderstanding: what I am saying is that the Christmas story, not only happened, but that it happened in precisely the way the Gospel writers say that it happened. What is more, it has to have happened in the way the Gospel writers tell us it happened or our faith is built on a shaky foundation.

It is because the Gospel writers are describing a historical event that is foundational to our faith that it is important that we stick to their account of how it happened and not embroider it to make it more fairy story like. The more we do that, the more unreal and detached from history it becomes. The Gospel writers are seeking to give an account of something that happened, and which it matters that it happened.

At Easter, we often read the words of St Paul in first Corinthians chapter 15. He tells those in the Church in Corinth who were doubting it, that if the resurrection has not happened, then we are misrepresenting God by saying that he has raised Christ from the dead. And if Christ is not raised and alive, St Paul writes, our ‘faith has been in vain’ (1 Corinthians 15:14), and we are ‘of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Corinthians 15:19). Central to our faith as believers and to who we are is the fact that Christ died and was raised, and is now alive.

But what is true of the death and resurrection of our Lord is true also of his birth and incarnation. If St Paul had been confronted with people who doubted the incarnation of our Lord and the story of his birth in the way some in the Church in Corinth doubted the story of his death and resurrection, then he would have written in a similar way. If Christ is not God Incarnate, the word made flesh, born of Mary, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

St John doesn’t quite put it in these words, but he says much the same thing, both in his Gospel and in his letters. In his letters, belief in the incarnation is a test of spiritual authenticity. St John writes:

‘By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God …’ (1 John 4:2)

The New Testament writers are all agreed on the importance of both the resurrection and the incarnation. St Peter speaks for them all when he writes:

‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (2 Peter 1:16)

Our faith is a historical faith. It is not simply general truths about life, in general, or about how we should live our own lives, in particular. It is frequently said that the world’s religions have much in common when it comes to their ethical teaching. And this is true to a point. This is often used as an argument as to why religions should lay aside what other differences they have and work more closely together based on the things they have in common.

This, however, shows a complete misunderstanding of the nature of our faith. Yes, as believers we do seek to live a certain way, we want to be good people, and in following Christ we aim to keep his commandments. But our faith is not a moral code; it is not a system of ethics. It is based completely and absolutely on a person and on certain beliefs about that person. Jesus is not a way but the way, as Jesus himself puts it in St John's Gospel (John 14:6).

St Paul writes in our second reading:

‘When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman …’ (Galatians 4:4)

The birth of Jesus was no chance happening; it was not an accident of history, something that happened at this time, but which could have happened at any other time. It had to be this time because this was the right time, God’s chosen time, ‘the fulness of time’.

The birth of Jesus was not just about God sending us a religious teacher or prophet to tell us about him and to show us how to live, this was God himself in the person of his Son entering space, time, and history. This baby ‘born of a woman’ was ‘Emmanuel, God with us’ (Matthew 1:23).

This is why we always read the beginning of St John’s Gospel on Christmas Night, even though it doesn’t mention the actual circumstances of Jesus’ birth. (If you haven’t had a chance to watch the service and listen to the sermon yet, then I would encourage you to do so. Not, I hasten to add, because I think it is an especially good sermon, but because I try to explain more fully what St John is trying to tell us in this amazing passage.)

At the heart of that passage is a truly incredible thought: ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (John 1:14). St John, in this passage, has already told us that the One whom he calls the Word, was the One through whom all things came into existence and the One for whom all things came into existence. And then … and then … the One who is beyond all existence enters our existence, and not only enters it, but enters it as one of us, as exactly like us. ‘Emanuel’, not only God with us, but God one of us.

In the Ten Commandments, the Jewish people were absolutely forbidden to make any likeness or image of God. The Israelites were always tempted to make such images in the same way that the other nations made them. These idols were attempts to give their worshippers a visual image of the god being worshipped. God himself has now given us a visual image of himself in Mary's baby. St Paul writes to the Church in Colossae:

‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.’ (Colossians 1:15-16)

It is hard for us quite to get our minds around it. This baby, whose birth we are celebrating, is the One who, even while he was still a baby, nothing and no-one could exist without because everything that exists depends on him not only to come into existence but to continue in existence. As St Paul goes on to write: ‘in him all things hold together’ (Colossians 1:17). Without him, everything would quite literally ‘fall apart’!

But here's the thing: although he perfectly and completely reveals God that's not why he came. As I said on Christmas Night, he didn't come to teach us spiritual truths, or to show us how to live, or to establish a church, although he does do all these things. He also didn't come simply to reveal God to us, although he does do that and does so definitively, so that if we want to know what God is like this is where we now look.

So why did he come? The clue lies in his name. As St Luke writes in our Gospel reading:

‘After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’ (Luke 2:21)

The name Jesus means, ‘God saves’. The angel told Joseph that the reason he was to be called Jesus was that he would ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). St Paul writes that God ‘sent his son, born of a woman, born under Law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law’. Why did we need redeeming from the Law? After all, St Paul is talking now about God’s Law? We needed redeeming from God’s Law, because God’s Law shows how bad and lost we are. How sinful we are. How far from God we are ‘having no hope and without God in the world’ (Ephesians 2:21). We are ‘in the darkness’, as St John puts it.

As we saw on Christmas Night, this baby in the Manger is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). But, and this is where it gets more amazing still, not only does Jesus save us from our sin, making it possible for us to find forgiveness and peace with God, he makes it possible, as St Paul writes, for us to be adopted as God’s children. And because we are God’s children, St Paul tells us:

‘God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’’ (Galatians 4:6)

This is not just St Paul letting his pen runaway with him, St John also writes:

‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God …’ (John 1:12)

We perhaps don't appreciate how amazing this is because we simply assume that we are already God’s children. We believe we are pretty special as it is. It is, of course, nice to be told that God loves us, but, then, we think, why wouldn't he? If that is how you think, then the message of Christmas is not for you. Christmas has nothing to offer you except for a change from the normal routine.

Christmas is for those who are sad, lonely, broken, and desperate. It is for those who know that they are not a success and are conscious of their failure. It is for those who know their sin. If this is you, then the message of Christmas most definitely is for you: ‘you shall call him Jesus for he shall save his people from their sin’ (Matthew 1:21); ‘behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29).

And not only will Jesus save you, he will also enable you to become a child of God and make you a part of his family. One saint said, ‘He became what we are so that we might become what He is’. Yes, Christmas really happened and because it happened, we can have hope, no matter how hopeless things around us may seem. One of the most popular Christmas carols has these words:

‘O holy Child of Bethlehem,
descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in:
be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
the great glad tidings tell:
O come to us, abide with us,
our Lord Emmanuel.’

The holy Child of Bethlehem whose birth we celebrate at Christmas was Emmanuel, God with us and because he was born, because it happened, he can be born in us today: ‘we can become what he is’ and, by God’s Spirit given to us, we can call God, Father.

Christmas is passing all too quickly. It will soon be time to deal with the pressing concerns and the realities of life. 2021 beckons, none of us knowing for certain what it will bring. Make sure you enter it as a child of God the Father, with God’s Son to accompany you, and his Spirit to guide you.

‘He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’ (John 1:11-13)

Don’t let this Christmas pass without the holy Child of Bethlehem being born in you today.

Amen.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The Nativity of Our Lord

This is the transcript of my sermon for the Nativity of our Lord on Christmas Night.

The Nativity of our Lord 

Reading: John 1:1-18

Our Gospel reading tonight, as it is every Christmas night, is the beginning of St John’s Gospel. It is a well-known and much-loved reading: ‘In the beginning was the Word ...’. This opening immediately sets St John’s Gospel apart from the other three Gospels. St Mark, as we saw on the Second Sunday of Advent, begins his Gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist. St Matthew and St Luke go back to the birth of Jesus, and give an account of the events surrounding it. Then, like St Mark, they describe the baptism by John as the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

St John, however, while also giving prominence to John the Baptist at the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry, goes back not to the birth of Jesus, nor even to the birth and beginning of all things, but to before the beginning. Before anything began, he writes, there was God and there was the Word.

Imagine that you are one of the first readers of the Gospel, reading it yourself for the first time. You might think you are about to begin a work of philosophy about the nature of existence and being. At one level you would be right. St John writes of the Word:

‘All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.’ (John 1:3)

In Greek, the language St John is writing in, the Greek for ‘word’ is ‘logos’. St John’s first readers would have been both Jews and Greeks. And both Jews and Greeks would have been familiar with the concept of the ‘logos’.

Any Jew hearing the phrase, ‘In the beginning …’ would immediately think of the book of Genesis. In Genesis, it is God’s word that brings everything into existence. God said, ‘Let there be light and there was light.’ God speaks everything into being. His word is sufficient.

The Greeks also knew about the ‘logos’. The ‘logos’ was the rational principle that governed and permeated everything in the universe, and which gave it meaning. The logos to the Greeks was a sort of first century equivalent of the ‘force’ in the Star Wars movies: not personal, but central and essential, nevertheless.

But then, St John writes something that would have utterly shocked both Jew and Greek:

‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory …’ (John 1:14)

Everything that St John writes initially about the Word, both Jew and Greek would understand, and would not have a problem with. They would see St John as using a literary device to write in personal terms about an abstract concept. The Jews were used to this technique. The concept of divine wisdom was often personified as a woman and spoken of in personal terms. Both Jew and Greek at first, then, would think that this is what St John is doing with the Word, but St John suddenly shocks his readers by telling us that the Word has become flesh; that is, become one of us.

But who is it? It is not until verse 17 that we are given a name for the Word made flesh:

‘The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.’ (John 1:17)

Jesus, so John is telling his readers, is not only the key to understanding the meaning of ‘life, the universe, and everything’, but it is also both through him and for him that everything came into existence in the first place. Everything that exists, has ever existed, or will ever exist finds the reason and purpose for its existence completely and solely in Christ.

Why does St John begin his Gospel like this? Well, he is about to give an account of the life and teaching of Jesus, and he wants to get something absolutely clear from the start. St John knows that his readers will have heard of Jesus. Some will also be believers. He wants them to know from the beginning that the One he is writing about is himself the beginning of all things.

Jesus is not simply another rabbi, philosopher, religious teacher, or prophet. When St John’s readers read what Jesus said and did, St John wants them to know just who it is who is saying and doing the things he describes. ‘We have seen his glory,’ St John writes, and in his Gospel, he writes about the glory he and his fellow disciples have seen in the signs that Jesus performed. St John wants us his readers to know that the person they are reading about is no ordinary person, He is the One whom, even as they read about him, they depend on for their existence. He is the ‘Word made flesh’.

Let us make no mistake then about what St John is telling us. He is saying that Jesus, whose birth we are celebrating tonight, is the One we too depend on for our existence, whether we realise it or not or whether we acknowledge it or not. In one sense, whether we believe in him or not doesn’t change anything; he remains the eternal Word of God. In another sense, however, whether we believe in him or not changes everything. St John tells us at the end of his Gospel the reason he has for writing his Gospel. It is:

‘ … so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.’ (John 20:31)

What St John is writing about is not the word of a religious teacher nor is it even the word of an inspired prophet, this is the Word made flesh. St John wants us to know just who Jesus is. St John wants us to sit up and take notice as if our lives depend on it because as St John will tell us, they really do.

Having caught his readers’ attention, St John begins his story of Jesus. What, then, is the first thing that he tells us about Jesus, the Word made flesh? The very first thing that is said in the Gospel about Jesus, when at last in verse 29 he makes his human appearance, is said by John the Baptist. This has to be important given the build up to it. So, what does John the Baptist say?

‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ (John 1:29)

Not, here is someone who can explain the mysteries of the universe. Not, here is someone who can show you how to live your life to the full. Not even, here is someone who can tell you what is right and wrong. St John, of course, believes that Jesus can do all these things, and much more besides, but first and foremost, he is the ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.

The phrase, ‘Lamb of God’ is not one that means a lot to us today, but to devout Jews it would resonate with meaning. Lambs were sacrificed every day in the Temple. And they were sacrificed especially at Passover as Jews remembered the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.

St John begins his Gospel, not at the beginning but before the beginning; and he begins the earthly story of Jesus not by recounting its beginning, but by pointing us to its end. Jesus himself will refer throughout his ministry to this as ‘his hour’. This is what he, as the ‘Word made flesh’, came to do. As he enters Jerusalem at the end of his life, Jesus asks:

‘And what should I say – ‘Father save me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.’ (John 12: 27)

This is not what we want to hear. We are taking part in this service, in this unusual way, because we want, in the midst of all the chaos and negative headlines of the moment, at least to start Christmas on a positive note. We like the reassurance of the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby in the Manger; of the shepherds and the wise men; the message of peace on earth and of hope for the future. St John, however, brutally shatters our cozy image.

Just as we are gazing in wonder at the baby in the Manger, St John tells us that this baby we are gazing on is going to be sacrificed for our sin. Nailed to a cross, he who gives life to all men will by men be killed: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’

When John the Baptist says this, two of John’s own disciples immediately start to follow Jesus. Jesus turns to them and, in the first words that St John records Jesus as saying, asks them: ‘What are you seeking? (John 1:38)’. In the Gospel, people will come to Jesus seeking many things from answers to their questions to healing for their lives. The two disciples, however, reply simply, ‘Where are you staying?’ In other words, it is sufficient for them to be with him. If this is truly the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, they cannot afford to let him out of their sight; they have to be with him. Jesus replies equally simply: ‘Come and you will see.’ (John 1:39).

And this is the invitation that is being extended to us as we read about the Word made flesh. St John is inviting us to ‘come and see’. St John has already told us that the One he invites us to come and see is the One who is the light of the world. And the light, he tells us shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. This is something we can all relate to for the world can seem very dark at times.

We know this only two well both here in Hong Kong and in the world, in general, at the moment. There seems to be so much that is wrong with the world and with society around us. For us locally, in Hong Kong, there is the ongoing crisis caused by the pandemic and the aftermath of the protests. Globally, apart from the pandemic, our world is facing many problems, not least with climate change and the uncertainties caused by global politics. As one British newspaper put it last weekend: ‘When will this nightmare end?’ We could all do with some light.

But while we may be only too aware of the problems that the world faces locally and globally, St John won’t let us off individually and personally. For the darkness is not something out there, the darkness is something in here: in the heart of each one of us. If all we needed was someone to guide us and show us the way, the Word would not have needed to become flesh. After all, as St John reminds us, we already have God's Law given to us by God through Moses. No, what we needed, and what we need, is someone to take away our sin. The sin that not only keeps us in the darkness, but the sin that also makes us a part of that darkness.

For our need tonight, is not for someone who can explain the mysteries of the universe to us; not for someone to show us how to live a happy and fulfilled life; not for someone to show us what is right and wrong. We even need more than someone who can give us forgiveness for our sins; we need someone who can save us from our sin. We are prisoners who need freeing, addicts who need delivering, the spiritually blind who need healing. But there can be no light, no hope, and no future for us while we remain trapped by our sin, lost, and in the darkness.

As, tonight, we look on the Word made flesh, St John says to each of us: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ The Blessed Virgin Mary was told she was to call the baby, who she would miraculously conceive and give birth to, Jesus. As if to make sure there is no doubt as to the baby’s name an angel also appears to tell Joseph the same. The angel explains that the reason why they are to call the baby’s name Jesus is that ‘he shall save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)’. The name Jesus means, ‘God saves’. And in Jesus, the Word made flesh, God has entered our world as the Lamb of God who does just that.

We read at the beginning of our service that amazing verse from later in St John's Gospel:

‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.’ (John 3:16)

Christmas is about giving. The thing about gifts is that they need opening. Tonight, God is offering each one of us the greatest gift of all, the gift of his Son, the Word made flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The question is: will we open it? In our Gospel reading, St John tells us that ‘he came to his own and his own did not receive him’ (John 1:11). They refused the gift.

St John continues, however:

‘But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God …’ (John 1:12)


Tonight, will we receive or refuse the gift?

Many of you tonight as you watch this are experiencing darkness and facing your own personal nightmare. You are coping with sickness, bereavement, tragedy, financial uncertainty, and, not least, worries about your children and their future. The gift God is offering to us is not only forgiveness, but the possibility of a new life and a new beginning. A new life lived with God and in God rather than in darkness. But for that to happen, tonight must be about more than a nice way to start Christmas. It must be about deciding between light and darkness, life and death.

Tonight, we are offered the chance to receive the life of God. Life that can be ours because Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and who will take away our sin if we let him. Take away the sin that keeps us in darkness and that prevents us from experiencing the light and life of God.

Those first two disciples responded to Jesus’ invitation. They came and saw where he was staying, and, we are told, they stayed with him (John 1:39). Jesus doesn’t want spectators, he wants followers. To be a follower of Jesus is about more than believing certain things about him, more than keeping his teaching, more than joining his Church. It is about staying with him and entering a relationship with him that is intimate and real, so real that Jesus describes it as feeding on him, that is, becoming completely dependent on him. Jesus is the Word made flesh, and Jesus will tell his disciples later in John’s Gospel:

‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.’ (John 6:53-56)

It is eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Lamb of God, the Word made flesh, that makes it possible for us to stay with him, to abide in him, and to live for him.

And so, we begin Christmas now, not by gathering at the Manger to celebrate and to wonder at his birth, but at the altar both to remember and to participate in his death. For it is in his death that we discover our life and by feeding on him that we continue in his life.

As you watch this service, you have responded to Jesus’ invitation to come and see. But now you have to make a decision as to whether you will also stay.

When Jesus told his disciples what it meant to follow him many turned back and ‘no longer went about with him’ (John 6:66). They refused to stay him with any longer. Jesus, then, asks his closest disciples including the original two disciples who he invited to come and see, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (John 6:67).

St Peter answers for them all. May his answer also be our answer this Christmas:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

‘The Word became flesh and lived among us.’

‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

‘Come and see.’

Come and stay.

Amen.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reading: Luke 1:26-38 

We have reached the Fourth Sunday of Advent. This week, as we prepare for the coming of our Lord, we think of the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

For some in the Church, Mary’s role is limited to giving birth to Jesus. In fact, the only time they give her any thought at all is at Christmas, and then it is solely to acknowledge the part she played in bringing Jesus into the world. To many of us, however, apart from any other consideration, this simply doesn’t feel right. Surely there is more to her role than that? But if her role is more than that, what is it?

It is very hard for us to think clearly about our Lady’s role because of all the arguments there are in the Church about her and all the different images that people have of her. Indeed, the images we have of her rather than helping us to understand her role only get in the way of it. But if our images of her are wrong, what image should we have?

In thinking, then, about Mary’s role, we need to begin by asking what our images of her are and in what way they are wrong.

There are, of course, many images of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These images are expressed in various ways: in music, in art, and in literature. They lie behind what gets said in Church about her and in devotion to her. I would suggest that four are the most common.

1. The Porcelain Image

The first image that people have of Mary is what I call the ‘Porcelain Image’. You see examples of this image everywhere not least in many of the statues of Mary in church buildings and on sale in places that supply ecclesiastical ornaments and furniture. But it is one that also appears in many paintings of her. In these statues and paintings, Mary is normally western, immaculately presented, and her clothes all perfect. She is completely free from any blemish, her skin smooth, clear, and white. This is not a woman who needs lotions and creams to achieve a flawless complexion!

Models in fashion magazines are often airbrushed or photoshopped to achieve whatever it is that is the editor’s idea of beauty and perfection. This is what this image tries to do with Mary. It projects on to Mary a cultural and essentially male view of feminine beauty. This image is femininity idealized according to a particular understanding of female attractiveness.

2. The Passive Image

Secondly, there is the ‘Passive Image’. This image, which does not exclude the first, and in some ways builds on it, focuses on what is seen as Mary’s submissiveness. In this image, Mary is portrayed as meek, humble, and dutiful. In pictures of her, her eyes are turned down to emphasize her subservience. This is a good girl, not one to argue, someone eager and willing to please. She is modest and demure.

It is the Passive Image of Mary that so upsets feminists today. It leads them to reject Mary as a ‘feminine icon’, and to turn instead to another Mary, Mary Magdalene. In contrast to Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Magdala is seen as sensual, spirited, and independent. She is someone far more in tune with the spirit of our age and more acceptable to it: not only a feminine, but a feminist icon. Regardless, however, of whether they are attracted or repulsed by it, this second image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, expresses the passivity that many believe to be central to her character and role.

3. The Prayerful Image

The third image of Mary, which again does not exclude the other two, focuses on Mary’s spiritual devotion. In this image, depictions of her present her in positions of prayer and of worship. She has her hands clasped together in prayer and she either has her head bowed down reverently or else she is gazing upwards with her eyes turned appealingly to heaven. It is the image of a devout Mary, someone in touch with the divine.

This Prayerful Image is of a Mary who is other-worldly. A Mary who would be at home in the sort of religious community that shuts women off from the world and makes it possible for them to avoid all material worries and distractions. Not for her the worries and concerns of daily life, her mind is set on higher things.

4. The Powerful Image

Fourthly, a somewhat different image of Mary to other three is the ‘Powerful Image’. Taking its inspiration from St John’s vision of the woman clothed with the sun, in chapter 12 of the book of Revelation, this image portrays Mary in dazzling splendour with a crown on her head. She is riding on the clouds or ascending to heaven where she is enthroned as its Queen. In some paintings, all heaven seems to centre on her and on her beauty and power. This is Mary transcendent.

Like the Prayerful Mary, this is a Mary removed from the world, distanced from its sin and temptations. This is the Mary who invites the adoration that protestants are so suspicious of, but who, like a goddess, draws others to her who are seeking comfort and help.

These, then, are four of the most common images of Mary. The ‘Porcelain Mary’, who looks like she might break; the ‘Passive Mary’ who looks like she would always do whatever is asked of her; the ‘Prayerful Mary’ who looks like she should always be in a church; and the ‘Powerful Mary’ who looks like she has now left this world behind her and achieved heavenly glory.

I have absolutely no intention to mock. I accept the sincerity and devotion behind each of these images. And they appeal to churchgoers precisely because there is truth in each one of them.

The porcelain image seeks to capture our Lady’s purity. When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary she will conceive and bear a son, Mary asks the Angel Gabriel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin (Luke 1:34)?’ In an age which has so highly sexualized any depiction of women, any talk of virginity beyond puberty is seen by many as de-humanizing. A person’s identity today is believed to lie in asserting a sexual identity not denying it.

This makes our Lady’s virginity both controversial and challenging. Our Lady’s virginity, however, is not simply about sexual purity, but also about her spiritual purity. The Angel Gabriel’s first words to Mary were:

‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ (Luke 1:28)

Mary begins the Magnificat with the words:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour …’ (Luke 1:46-47)


Mary’s purity is rooted first and foremost in the purity of her relationship with the Lord who is with her in a special way and in whom she rejoices.

The passive image seeks to capture our Lady’s obedience. Mary famously responds to the Angel Gabriel’s words to her:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:38)

Then, when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who has herself conceived miraculously, Elizabeth says to her:

‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:45)

Doubtless, as Elizabeth is saying these words praising Mary, Elizabeth is also thinking of her husband, who didn’t believe what was spoken to him by the Lord, and who now can’t speak as a consequence. Mary, however, willingly both believed and accepted the role that God chose her for, and she carried it out faithfully.

The prayerful image seeks to express our Lady’s spirituality. Immediately after the birth of our Lord and the visit of the shepherds, St Luke tells us that Mary ‘treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19)’. Twelve years later Mary and Joseph take Jesus with them to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. On their way back, however, Jesus goes missing, and his parents eventually find him in the Temple with the elders. Jesus returns with them to Nazareth but, St Luke tells us again, that Mary ‘treasured all these things in her heart (Luke 2:51)’.

The last historical mention of Mary in the Bible is in Acts chapter 1 after the ascension. St Luke describes how the disciples return to Jerusalem as Jesus has told them to. St Luke writes:

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14)

The last thing Mary is recorded doing in the Bible is praying!

The powerful image seeks to assert our Lady’s ongoing role for the Church and that her significance for us as believers did not end with her death. Instead, this image wants to affirm that she has a continuing ministry in heaven praying for us. This is the most controversial image of her amongst Christians.

For protestants, any role that they are willing to allow Mary came to an end with her death. The idea that Mary has any ongoing role is not only rejected but is seen as of a form of idolatry. Indeed, many would argue that we shouldn’t have any image of Mary, although some who argue like this don’t seem to have the same scruples when it comes to other significant figures in the Church.

Those, for their part, who see Mary as having an ongoing role reject the idea that they worship Mary, although, it has to be said, some do come very near to doing so. However, for the majority of those for whom Mary still has a part to play in their lives and in the life of the Church, her role now is not as the recipient of people’s worship, but as an intercessor and the mother of the Church and of believers.

I believe in the purity, the prayerfulness, the obedience, and the ongoing intercession of our Lady. So, I mean absolutely no disrespect to her or to those who value the images of her that I have described. I would, however, suggest that each of these images, while seeking to express a valuable truth about Mary, is a failed image because of the way they express it. These images not only fail to convey fully the truth they are trying to depict; they instead distort it.

We need an image or images of Mary that express the truth that lies concealed in the common images of Mary, but which avoid giving another misleading and false image of her.

It is, of course, hard to suggest any single image that accurately and completely expresses all these truths about her. My problem, however, is not just that the various pictures and depictions of Mary fail in what they are trying to express, it is that they miss an essential part of the character of Mary, and it is because they miss it that I believe they end up presenting a distorted image of her.

So, what exactly is it that I think they are missing? Quite simply, it is her strength. Too many of the portrayals of Mary make her seem as fragile as some of the statues of her. She comes across as delicate, vulnerable, and weak.

And yet here is a woman who accepts a role that, in the community in which she lived at the time, would mean her being labelled and treated with contempt. She would inevitably bring disgrace on her family. We are not told what the reaction of her family and neighbours was in the small village in which she lived, but judging by what St Matthew tells us was Joseph’s reaction, we can guess. Joseph, on hearing the news that the woman he is engaged to is pregnant, wants to get rid of her (Matthew 1:19). It takes a direct intervention by God to prevent him from doing so.

Forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph take the baby Jesus to the Temple, as the Law prescribed. A man there called Simeon, whom St Luke describes as ‘righteous and devout’, tells Mary that a ‘sword will pierce her own soul too’ (Luke 2:35). In other words, Simeon is predicting great pain for Mary. The Porcelain Mary, however, would crack at the first sign of trouble. She certainly would not have the strength to flee for her life as a refugee to Egypt. Nor would the Prayerful Mary have what it takes to cope with the day-to-day realities of raising the Son of God, and the five other children we know of, who were in her care – whoever their actual birth mother was!


This is why I like the picture so much that is on the front of the Christ Church Christmas card this year. (See above!) It shows a young woman, holding a baby, in a world where the men around her are dominant. But this is no fragile figure. Her eyes don’t look down submissively, but forward confidently, even defiantly. She has something to do that only she can do, and she is determined to do it.

When we start to see Mary as a strong woman of faith, everything else about her begins to come into focus. Her purity lies, not in the first place in her virginity, but in the purity of her character and in her sense of purpose. Her obedience is not a passive submission, but a willing acceptance of the will of God that she actively embraces. Her prayerfulness expresses itself, not in an unworldly detachment from the realities of life, but in her commitment and trust in God. And her power resides not in herself, but in the ‘Mighty One who has done great things’ for her, whom ‘her soul magnifies’, and in whom her ‘spirit rejoices’.

Surely this strong woman of faith provides a role model for us that is ‘for life and not just for Christmas’? Mary teaches us how we too should respond to God. For Mary’s strength lay not in herself but in the One whom she was blessed for believing. It was her faith that gave Mary her strength. The strength, not to follow her own dreams and desires, but willingly to abandon them to do what God asked of her.

Make no mistake: what God was asking of her was tough and demanding, and yet God’s will for her was not something she accepted reluctantly but welcomed with joy.

Repeatedly today we are told that we will only find peace and fulfilment by putting ourselves first and pursuing our own goals. Mary shows that precisely the reverse is true. We find peace and fulfilment, not by following our hearts, but by following her Son, and serving God through him: ‘in his will is our peace’. But how are we to know his will? St Paul writes:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.’ (Romans 12:1-2)

Discovering the will of God for our lives begins with a commitment to God that involves presenting our bodies, that is, our whole selves, to him as a ‘living sacrifice’. It means, as St Paul tells us, not being ‘conformed to this world’, but being ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’. It is when our minds are renewed in this way, and only then, that we are able to ‘discern the will of God’.

To put it another way: Mary presented her body to the Lord, not only by conceiving and carrying our Lord, but in a life of service. We are to do the same. We are to stop seeing things as society and the world around us see them, and to start seeing them as God sees them. Seeing, as Mary saw, that God is the One who scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry with good things, but sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

God asks of us what he asked of this young woman in Nazareth: to believe his word to us and to embrace his will for us as we follow his Son. Jesus said:

‘If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’ (Luke 9:23-24)

Faith, in the sense of believing in the truths of the faith, isn’t enough. Jesus commands us actively to take up our Cross; to commit ourselves fully to what it is he is asking of us. The call of God is something that like Mary we have to obey, trusting God to give us the strength we need as we do so.

It isn’t easy. We are weaker than we like to admit. We fall and we fail. Mary provides us with the encouragement we need to see that it is God’s grace that enables us to be strong. For some, seeing Mary as a role model in this way is as much as they can accept. And that’s fine. All the Blessed Virgin Mary wants is for you to follow her Son. And in the Blessed Virgin Mary, the strong woman of faith, we have one who gives us an image and example to look up to as we seek to follow him.

But, as we think of her especially this week, who better to ask to pray for us that we may find the strength we need than she whom God favoured with his grace and by whose grace she lived her life.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death. 

Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Third Sunday of Advent

Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Third Sunday of Advent.

The Third Sunday of Advent

Reading: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Our Gospel reading this week is a selection of verses from the first chapter of St John’s Gospel. We will also be reading the first part of the chapter for our service on Christmas Night. The verses for this week are those in the chapter about John the Baptist whom we also read about last week in the first chapter of St Mark’s Gospel. On Christmas Night, our focus will be on the ‘Word made flesh’, so it is appropriate that we take time this week to see what St John also says about John the Baptist as we think in Advent about those who prepared the way for the coming of our Lord. 

In his preaching, John is anxious to make clear that he is not the Christ, and that the One whose coming he is preparing people for is so much greater than he. John is not worthy even to help the Coming One take off his sandals. Despite this, John’s role in getting people ready was an important one; one that was itself promised in the Scriptures. All four Gospels go out of their way to stress how central John’s role was. St Mark, as we saw last week, described it as the ‘beginning of the Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1:1). All four Gospels see the ministry of John, and Jesus’ baptism by him, as the beginning of Jesus’ own public ministry to his people, ‘to his own’, as St John, the writer of this chapter, puts it. 

In preparing people for the coming of Jesus, John is best known for his baptism, hence his nickname, John the Baptist! John, we are told, preached a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (Mark 1:4). By repenting and confessing their sins, people showed they wanted to be ready for when the Messiah himself appeared. Quite why John chose baptism as the way to do this, we simply do not know.

St John, in chapters two and three of his Gospel, describes Jesus’ first public visit to Jerusalem after his baptism by John. When it is over, St John tells us:

‘After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized — John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.’ (John 3:22-24)

In chapter 4, St John explains, in a note, that it was Jesus’ disciples who did the actual baptizing under the supervision of Jesus (John 4:2). He also tells us that Jesus’ baptism was so popular that when the Pharisees heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John, Jesus felt he had to return to Galilee, presumably because there was a threat to him and his followers as a result of his growing popularity. The point, however, is that, for a while, Jesus and John were both ministering at the same time and both were baptizing people. Jesus, however, soon started to become the more significant person as John himself said he must (John 3:30). John the Baptist’s ministry itself comes to an end when King Herod has him arrested. It is at this point that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) take up the story.

John’s baptism was to be the precursor to the Church’s baptism. After our Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension, the Church carried on the practice of baptizing people, and it has been an essential part of the life of the Church since. Many of us were baptized in Church, and although the exact procedure may have been different to how John and Jesus conducted it, there is still a clear connection between our present day practice and theirs.

So, here’s a question: if you could choose, would you prefer to be baptized by me here in Christ Church or by, say, St Peter in the presence of Jesus back there in the Judean countryside?

The right answer, of course, is by me here in Christ Church. Not because it is by me, but because the baptism that John and Jesus were conducting wasn’t Christian baptism. Christian - or better, believers’ baptism - gets its meaning from the death and resurrection of our Lord. That couldn’t happen before our Lord died and rose again. John’s baptism was a looking forward to the One who would come; the baptism of the Church is about faith in Jesus who has come, and who died and rose again and is now alive and reigning at the Father’s right side.

If you were somehow to be magically transported back to the Judean countryside and to be baptized by St Peter, you would be baptized with ‘John’s baptism’ – a baptism of repentance to get you ready and which looked forward to the One who was to come. Now Jesus has come and completed the work the Father gave him to do, John’s baptism is no longer relevant.

This took some people at the time some time to grasp. Despite the fact that the One to come had now come, nevertheless, even after the resurrection, people continued to be baptized in John’s baptism, and even some who believed in Jesus.

So, for example, St Luke in Acts chapter 18, describes how a man called Apollos came to Ephesus when St Paul was back in Jerusalem. St Luke writes:

‘He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.’ (Acts 18:25)

Apollos got it right about Jesus and spoke with ‘burning enthusiasm’ about him. But as he knew only the baptism of John, Priscilla and Aquila, two of St Paul’s closest co-workers, had to instruct him ‘more accurately’. Apollos was also to become one of St Paul’s associates, but that is a story for another day.

For now, we have to ask what it was that Apollos was missing that meant he only knew the baptism of John, despite all the other things he got right.

Here we need to go back and ask what it was that John the Baptist himself had to say about what he was doing and about the One whom he was getting people ready for. In St Mark’s Gospel last week, we read that John said:

‘I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ (Mark 1:8)

All four Gospels agree that John taught that what defined the person he was preparing the way for was that he would baptize them in the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist doesn’t, in fact, tell us a lot about what the One to come will be like and what he will do, so this makes what he does tell us all the more important. Jesus, he emphasizes, is the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit.

So, given that the Church’s baptism is about the One who has now come, is baptism in the Spirit what makes the baptism the Church now practices different from John’s baptism? Well, yes and no. For while there is a close relationship between baptism in water and baptism in the Spirit, they are not the same.

We need to look at another occasion in Acts when people were baptized. In Acts chapter 8, we read of how as a result of the severe persecution that the Church in Jerusalem is experiencing, some of the leaders have to flee from Jerusalem to escape. One of them, Philip, goes to Samaria where he preaches to the Samaritans. St Luke writes:

‘But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.’ (Acts 8:12)

However, St Luke continues to tell us that St Peter and St John have to come from Jerusalem to pray for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:15). What is particularly strange about this story is what St Luke says next:

‘… for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.’ (Acts 8:16)

As a result of St Peter and St John’s prayer, the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit, so all is well. But what on earth does St Luke mean by writing, ‘they had only been baptized in the name of Jesus’. Not only is John’s baptism not enough, it seems the Church’s baptism isn’t either.

There is much that could and should be said about this, but the bottom line is this: Jesus is the One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit, and until he has baptized someone in the Holy Spirit, something is missing, even if a person says all the right things about Jesus as Apollos did, or believes and does all the right things as the Samaritans did.

The obvious question, then, is what does it mean to be baptized in the Holy Spirit?

The word ‘baptism’ is the clue. It is a clue we miss because we are so used to thinking of baptism as the very nice, but somewhat formal and controlled ritual that takes place in Church. Think for a moment of the context of John’s words about Jesus as being the One who will baptize in the Holy Spirit. Imagine John, standing there, soaking wet, having been out in the river Jordan immersing people in it. He turns and says, ‘I baptize you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit’. I soak you with water. I drench you with water. I take you into the river and plunge you into the water. Jesus will do that to you with the Holy Spirit. That gives a somewhat different feel to it.

It is impossible to be soaked with water and not know about it. This explains a question that St Paul asks a group of believers he comes across at Ephesus. He asks them:

‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ (Acts 19:2)

They answer that they haven’t heard about the Holy Spirit, and it turns out that they too have only been baptized into John’s baptism. St Paul explains the Gospel to them and then baptizes them ‘in the name of Jesus’. But, as with the Samaritans, this is still not enough; it is only when St Paul prays and lays hands on them that they receive the Holy Spirit. They knew they hadn’t received the Spirit and they knew when they did. And, interestingly, St Paul also knew that they hadn’t and knew when they did.

Again, there is much more that could and should be said about this. The bottom line, again, is that while clearly in the New Testament, as a rule, people are baptized in the Spirit at the same time as they are baptized in water, there is a distinction to be made. Being soaked with the Spirit is something that, whenever it happened, the person knew it had happened. It was a definite and concrete experience.

But what was the purpose of it and what about us today?

First of all, in the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is not an optional extra. As we saw when we read through St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome, it is the presence of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life that defines whether or not someone is a follower of Christ. St Paul writes:

‘You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)

This has caused all sorts of confusion in more recent years as some believers have talked about receiving the Spirit as a kind of ‘second blessing’ after the ‘first blessing’ of becoming a believer; in other words, as a separate experience distinct to becoming a follower of Christ. There are many experiences that believers can and should have subsequent to coming to Christ; receiving the Spirit, however, isn’t one of them.

Secondly, the Holy Spirit isn’t about an isolated and purely individual experience. Baptism in the Spirit is baptism into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). It’s about becoming part of the community of Christ, his body on earth, where we find both a place to belong and a place to serve, and where we are given by the Spirit the gifts to do so.

Thirdly, seeing the Holy Spirit as essential and integral to belonging to Christ helps us to see what being baptized in the Spirit is all about. Many of you will have heard me say this before. But being a follower of Christ is not like anything else. It is not a philosophy of life; it’s not about an ideology to believe in, a code to live by, or a group to belong to. Or, to put it another way: it is not about what you believe, how you live, or where you go. It will involve you in believing certain things, living a certain way, and going to a certain place on Sundays (when we are allowed to do so!). But this is a consequence, not a definition.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is to have a relationship with God through Jesus and because of what God has done for us in Jesus. The way this happens is by what the Holy Spirit does in us. The baptism in the Holy Spirit isn’t about having an experience as a sort of spiritual extra; some kind of reward for believing in Jesus. It is about God taking all that Jesus has done for us and making it real to us, establishing a relationship with us, and empowering us to be a follower of Jesus, here and now, as part of the body of Christ as we wait for all that he promises us in the future.

The baptism in the Holy Spirit is a ‘soaking’ in the love of God as we experience the forgiveness of God that makes it possible for us, we who are God’s enemies, to find peace with God and enter a living relationship with him. St Paul writes:

‘… but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

But it does not stop there. Again, as St Paul writes:

‘… because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.’ (Romans 5:5)

God’s love for us which he has objectively demonstrated to us in the coming of Christ, he subjectively makes real to us through the Holy Spirit. Notice that St Paul says God has poured his love into our hearts. As the water poured over people as they were baptized by John in the river Jordan, so now God pours his love over us through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Now there are a number of possible responses to all this. Sadly, the most common one is for people simply to ignore it, and for it to have no effect whatever on them. This is perhaps understandable with those who are outside the Church, but, tragically, it is the response also of many within it. This is particularly sad because it means they are missing out on what being a follower of Christ is all about.

Others in the Church, however, find talking about the Holy Spirit in this concrete way deeply troubling. Their response often is that this is not their own experience. ‘If this is not my experience,’ they ask, ‘does it mean that I do not belong to Christ, or that I have not been baptized in the Spirit in the way I should be?’

Now it can mean that. And it is not being cruel to tell people, even people who are regular church members that belonging to Christ is about a relationship with God made possible by Jesus baptizing them in the Spirit. Too many in the Church are missing out on what being a follower of Christ is all about because they have been encouraged to see following Christ and going to Church as the religious equivalent of belonging to a club.

But many who ask this question are truly followers of Christ. They just sense that there is something missing. The language of the New Testament about the Holy Spirit does not describe their own experience of him.

The first thing to be said to anyone who feels like this is a word of reassurance. St Paul, as we have seen, writes:

‘Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.’ (Romans 8:9)


Negatively, this means that anyone who does not have the Spirit does not belong to Christ. But it can also be taken positively as a word of assurance. The New Testament is clear that any who put their trust in Christ and seek to follow him in their life belong to him. And, therefore, any who belong to Christ have the Spirit. So why, then, doesn’t it feel like it?

There could be various reasons but one of the most common is one that St Paul talks about in our second reading this morning. He talks there about ‘quenching the Spirit’ and instructs the Thessalonian believers not to do so (1 Thessalonians 5:19). We ‘quench the Spirit’, that is, we prevent the Spirit from working in the way he wants to, both communally as a Church and personally as individuals.

John the Baptist talks about the Spirit as being like a river. Our Lord himself describes the Holy Spirit as a ‘flowing river of living water’ (John 7:38-39). We build defences against rivers to stop them flooding or to divert them to prevent them going where we do not want them. In the Church, we build similar flood defences with church structures and how we organize our church life. We do church in such a way that allows us, and us clergy especially, to control what happens and goes on. We ‘quench the Spirit’.

But what is true of our corporate church life is true of us in our own personal lives too. Sometimes we do this without realizing it or simply because we are following the lead of our churches and clergy. We don’t know any better. Like the believers in Ephesus, it is as if we haven’t even heard there is a Holy Spirit – and certainly not heard him described in the way John and Jesus describe him.

When John the Baptist baptized people, he took them into the river and immersed them. For very good reasons, we don’t do it like that when we baptize people today. You may have seen how I baptize people: I sprinkle them with water. A small bowl of water is all I need to baptize a lot of people.

This can be seen as a metaphor for our experience of the Spirit. We have been sprinkled, but Jesus, who baptizes in the Spirit, wants to immerse us into the flowing river of the Spirit.

On this, the Third Sunday of Advent, we think, then, of John the Baptist standing dripping wet on the bank of the river that he has just immersed people in, telling those he has immersed that, one day, Jesus will immerse them in the Holy Spirit.

Maybe our experience so far has been only to be sprinkled with the Holy Spirit. It is never too late to let down the defences; to allow ourselves to be soaked by the rushing flow of the Spirit, not because we seek a spiritual experience for its own sake, but so we may experience all that God has for us and be empowered to do all that God asks of us.

‘Veni sancte Spiritus!’
‘Come Holy Spirit!’

Amen.

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Here is the transcript of my podcast for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:26-38

Something that I really like to do on holiday, if I get the chance, is to visit museums and art galleries. Today, I want to show you one of my favourite paintings. This one is a bit unusual. Some of you may remember me showing it to you before. Let me show it to you first, and then we can talk about it.

(Please see the picture in the previous post!)

This painting is now in a museum in Warsaw of all places, but it didn’t originally come from there. It was originally on the wall of a Cathedral in Faras. Now, when I first heard this, I found myself asking, ‘Where? Where on earth is Faras?’

Faras, I discovered, is in Nubia, modern day Sudan, just below Egypt on the map. The story of how it came to end up in a museum in Warsaw is a fascinating one. (I have posted a link to a brilliant website that gives the full story with pictures.) Briefly, Christianity first came to Nubia in the 6th century. The first Faras Cathedral was built in the 7th century. This painting is from the wall of the second cathedral built in the 8th century. Faras was a centre of Christian worship until the 14th century, when the region was invaded by Islamic forces and became Muslim. At this point, the Cathedral disappeared from history.

Then in 1959, the United Nations appealed to the archaeological community for help. President Nasser of Egypt was building the Aswan High Dam, which would result in the creation of Lake Nasser and the whole area being flooded. The United Nations, knowing that there were many unexcavated archaeological remains, appealed to the international archaeological community to do what excavations they could in the time available before the area was flooded and whatever archaeological remains were there were lost forever. 

Somewhat unusually, Egypt and Sudan agreed that the international teams could take half of any discoveries they made back to their own countries. This was an incentive to archaeologists to get involved. A team from Poland under the leadership of Professor Kazimierz MichaƂowski excavated in the area of Faras. No-one knew about the Cathedral, and it was discovered by accident, buried in a mound of sand. Upon inspection, it was found to have all these amazing wall paintings. They were carefully removed with some going to Warsaw and some to Khartoum.

This painting is the most famous. It is a painting of St Anna (or, St Anne, as she is also known). Who was St Anna? And why am I talking about her today? Well, Anna or Anne is the name given in a 2nd century apocryphal book to the Mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Anna, in the story, was married to a priest called Joachim. We are told that she was unable to have children, but that, as a result of prayer, she miraculously conceived and gave birth to the Blessed Virgin Mary. This makes Anna and Joachim the grandparents of Jesus.

Now scholars are very sceptical about all this and dismiss the historicity of this story. Nevertheless, our Lord would certainly have had grandparents, so Anne and Joachim are as good names as any for two of them. Regardless of whether or not they were their names, they stuck, and they inspired many paintings, including this one from Faras. It was a painting that was hidden for centuries, but which can now be seen in Warsaw and in various websites.

Which, again, is all very nice, but why am I telling you this today? Well, today is the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as it is known in the Roman Catholic Church. And so, it seems right that we acknowledge her conception – and hence her mother – today, the day which celebrates it.

Secondly, we are thinking during Advent of those who prepared the way for Jesus. I will be speaking about the Blessed Virgin Mary herself on December 20, and John the Baptist will pop-up again in our readings next week and early next year, so I thought we might spare a thought today for the grandparents!

After all, the Blessed Virgin Mary would have been living with her parents, whatever their names were, when she conceived Jesus. We are not told what their reaction was to their daughter getting pregnant. We are told that Joseph initially wanted to get rid of her, albeit quietly, so it must have come as something of a shock to her parents, to put it mildly. Naming Jesus’ grandparents reminds us that our Lord’s coming was a real event, involving real people, with dramatic and far-reaching consequences for all involved.

If we want Jesus to come into our life today, we can expect similar consequences. One thing is for sure: life will never be the same again.

So what, I wonder, would St Anne say to us today as we prepare in Advent for her daughter to give birth? Here we can let the painting speak for her. And this is where it gets particularly interesting, for in the painting St Anne is holding her finger to her lips. What does this gesture mean? There are three possible explanations.

1. The first is the more obvious one. As we only have a part of the original painting, experts have speculated that, in the full painting, St Anne was holding the baby Mary. The first and simplest explanation, therefore, is that St Anne is simply saying, ‘Shush!’ ‘Be quiet, or else you will wake her.’

2. The second explanation is that St Anne is urging us to be silent and wonder at the great mystery that is taking place of which her baby is an essential and integral part.

3. The third is that it is a gesture of prayer. Egyptian monks were known sometimes to pray with their finger to their lips. St Anne would thus be praying and so, by implication, is encouraging us to do the same.

So which is it? Well I can’t tell you what the original artist intended by painting St Anne in this way, but I think I can tell you what St Anne herself would say to us today - and it is all three!

1. Be Quiet

The first thing that St Anne would say to us is quite simply to BE QUIET. Not in the sense primarily of stopping talking, although that would not do us any harm either, but in the sense of being still.

Our lives are always so busy. Much of what we do, we have no choice over. When I am at the School each morning, I am amazed, for example, at how much mums, in particular, have to do at the beginning of each day.

Those mums watching with sons and daughters will know what I am talking about. From the moment you wake up, before taking the kids to school, you are busy. You have to get him up, washed, cleaned, fed, his bag packed. You have to make sure he has everything he needs for the day and that nothing has been forgotten – and that’s just for your husband!

Life seems to be a whirlwind of activity in the midst of which there seems to be so little opportunity to think and concentrate on the things that really matter. To make matters worse, we add to our already busy lives so many things of so little consequence and importance. From the trivial pursuit of constantly checking our phones to pursuing the acquisition of more and more material things.

The trouble is that it becomes a habit, so that we find it hard to be still even when we have the time and the opportunity to be so. We have become scared of being still and not doing anything. We are afraid to be alone with our thoughts.

In St Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42), there is the well-known story of when Jesus and his disciples visit the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha is busy doing all that needs to be done to look after their guests. Mary, however, while her sister is rushing around doing all the work, simply sits at Jesus’ feet, hanging on to his every word. Martha reacts in the way I think most of us would react if we were in a similar situation. She says to Jesus:

‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ (Luke 10:40)

It’s a perfectly reasonable request. Jesus, however, answers her:

‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’ (Luke 10:41-42)

Things do need doing, but perhaps not so many as we insist on doing and not to the exclusion of doing the thing that really matters: listening to Jesus.

We too need to take time out like Mary did to ‘listen’ and to ask ourselves what really matters in this life and whether we have our priorities sorted out. Martha was distracted by many things. What is there that we are allowing to distract us from listening to Jesus?

St Anne would put her finger to her lips today and tell us to BE QUIET. She would encourage us to be still and listen to what Jesus is saying.

2. Wonder


Having persuaded us that we should be still for a moment and take time to consider what really should matter most to us, St Anne would encourage us to take our eyes off ourselves and gaze in silence and wonder at the miracle that is taking place before our eyes.

I love Christmas – all of it! Sadly, this year is not going to be the same as usual and much of the celebrations will be muted. We will still put up decorations and celebrate in what way we can, but it won’t be the same as in previous years. But maybe that is a good thing, for one year at least. It enables us to focus on what truly matters and ask what Christmas really means to us.

It is all too easy, even for us believers, to take for granted what it is that we should be celebrating. It is very easy to miss the miracle of Christmas in all the noise and busyness of what is going on in the world around us. Just as throughout the rest of the year, we miss out on the miracle of the presence of God in our lives, not because we do not care, but because we are just too busy doing other things.

To everyone, except the chosen few, there was nothing exceptional about the birth of Jesus. Girls got pregnant all the time. And girls gave birth in crowded settings. Doubtless, then as now, it was a cause for happiness when the baby was safely delivered. But this birth was the most amazing event since the beginning of time. God had become one of us; Immanuel, God with us.

If this is not amazing, something to wonder at, then I really don’t know what is. To appreciate the wonder of it, however, needs for us to take time, to be still, and to allow the significance of it to sink in.

Listen to St Anne! In the quiet and stillness, see the wonder of what has taken place and let it amaze you. Your life will be changed because of it.

3. Pray

As in the silence and wonder we see what God has done for us, how then are we to respond? Our first response should be to pray. How else can we respond, but in worship?

This is the point at which, in different circumstances, I would be encouraging you all to come to our services at Christ Church at Christmas. That’s not possible this year. At least, not in the same way. We will be recording services for Christmas, and I hope you will take time to watch them and to join in.

We will also be opening the Church for private prayer when there would have otherwise been a public service, and the reserved sacrament will be available for all who request it. I hope some of you will feel able to come.

Wherever we take time to pray this Christmas, however, it is important that we should. But worship is more than times of prayer, public or private, important those these are. Worship is about the offering of ourselves in service to God. We thought about this earlier this year as we read through St Paul’s letter to the Church in Rome together. St Paul writes:

‘I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.’ (Romans 12:1)

St Paul makes his appeal to the Roman believers on the basis of the ‘mercies of God’. In the light of all that God has done for us and the love he has shown to us in the gift of his Son, what other response can there be but to offer ourselves to him in lives of worship?

The Blessed Virgin Mary said: 

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.’
(Luke 1:46-48)


Believers, sadly, disagree about various aspects of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s life. One thing I think we can all agree on, however, is that hers was a life of devotion and commitment. The Blessed Virgin Mary responded to the Angel Gabriel’s words to her:

‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ (Luke 1:48)

This wasn’t about a single act of service, but an offering of the whole of her life in worship. In doing so, she provides a model of submission and obedience for all would follow her Son.

This Christmas, then, listen to St Anne:
  • Be quiet
  • Wonder
  • Pray
And today, as we thank God for the Mother of our Lord and for his favour to her, let us ask her to pray for us:

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.

Amen.

The Feast of the Immaculate Conception

 I have recorded a podcast for today the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  This is the picture that I talk about in it.  See my separate post for the transcript of the podcast.



Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Second Sunday of Advent

 Here is the transcript of my sermon for this week, the Second Sunday of Advent.  It is also available as a podcast!

The Second Sunday of Advent

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

This year, Year B in the lectionary, we are going to be reading from St Mark’s Gospel. St Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four Gospels. (Luke is the longest; then Matthew; then John.) In the history of the Church, St Matthew’s Gospel has rather overshadowed St Mark’s Gospel as most of St Mark’s Gospel is also included in Matthew. This has changed in more recent years as scholars have come to believe that Mark is the earliest of the Gospels and formed the basis for both St Matthew and St Luke’s accounts of the life and teaching of our Lord. 

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are usually known as the ‘synoptic Gospels’. (The word ‘synoptic’ here means having a common point of view.) That there is a close relationship between these three is clear on even a superficial reading of them. Quite how that relationship came about is less clear and not easy to understand, although it doesn’t stop scholars speculating and trying to work it out.

The likelihood is that the Gospel of Mark itself was written in Rome around the time that St Paul ended up in prison there, some time in the AD60s, although some scholars would argue for different dates both earlier and later. 

We should imagine, then, a group of believers in Rome who have been invited to a fellow believer’s house to hear a new book read. This group will contain believers who are both Jews and Gentiles who, perhaps, have been previously attracted to Judaism. The new book is about Jesus, who the believers worship as their Lord. The first words those listening hear are the words we have heard just now: ‘Beginning the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as it is written in the prophet Isaiah …’ 

Scholars today get quite excited about this as they claim that this is the first time that the word ‘Gospel’ has been used to describe a written account of the life of our Lord. Previously, they argue, it was used of the proclamation of the message about Jesus. In fact, unlike the scholars of today, it is unlikely that those hearing it for the first time would find anything unusual in what was read or in the use of the word Gospel to describe it. 

In fact, those present might remember the first time they heard St Paul’s letter to their Church read out to them in a similar way to how St Mark’s new book is now being read out. St Paul, in introducing himself in his letter to the Church, writes that he is: 

‘… set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.’ (Romans 1:1-4) 

There is, then, nothing particularly unusual in the way St Mark uses the word Gospel. Those listening to it being read would have been used to the preaching of the Gospel beginning this way. St Mark is making a similar statement at the beginning of his book to that which St Paul made at the beginning of his letter. He may even have got the idea for it from St Paul. 

If the Mark who wrote the book is the same as the John Mark in the book of Acts who accompanied St Barnabas and St Paul on their mission when they were sent out by the Church in Antioch, there is every likelihood that he had heard St Paul preach the same message many times (Acts 12:12; 12:24; 13:5).

St Mark writes that the Gospel message about Jesus Christ - that is, Jesus the Messiah, also known as the Son of David - was in fulfilment of the Scriptures. The message that the apostles preached and which St Mark is writing down is one that had changed the lives of those who were gathered to hear it read, and it was one they believed had the power to change the lives of everyone who heard it. It was not, however, a message which had come from nowhere. Its coming, like the person it was about, had been promised many years before. 

But how does this message which was promised in the ‘holy Scriptures’ in fact begin? St Paul doesn’t say so in his letter, but he would agree with St Mark, as do all the other Gospel writers, that it began with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus by him in the River Jordan. This is something that St John, who approaches the story of Jesus somewhat differently to the other three Gospel writers, also agrees with. 

John the Baptist, then, is an important figure in the preaching of the Gospel. It is with him that the Gospel message can be said to begin. John the Baptist’s own appearance in the Judean desert was itself promised in the Scriptures. More than that, everything about how John the Baptist is described would have reminded those listening to St Mark’s book being read of the story of Israel in the Scriptures. 

John the Baptist is described by St Mark as looking like the prophet Elijah: both were hairy and wore leather belts, and they both seem to have been at home in the desert (see 2 Kings 1:8). The desert, of course, was where Israel wandered for 40 years after her liberation from slavery in Egypt; it was where she was tested; and it was where she received God’s Law. The River Jordan that John baptized people in was the river that Israel had had to cross at the end of those 40 years to enter the promised land; a land flowing with the honey that John liked to eat. 

It is to this new prophet Elijah and to the wilderness that the people of Israel are coming again to renew their commitment to be the people of God and to find forgiveness for their sins, and in order to prepare for the coming of the Messiah promised by the prophets. And they will again cross the Jordan in baptism. 

What they don’t know yet is the identity of the Messiah. John the Baptist is insistent that it isn’t him; that’s not his role. He isn’t even worthy to help the Messiah take off his sandals (Mark 1:7). But we do know the Messiah’s identity because it is the first thing St Mark has told us. 

The Messiah’s name is Joshua, or Jesus as we know it from the Greek. The name means, ‘God saves’. It is the name of the person who first led the people of Israel from the wilderness, across the Jordan, and into the Promised Land. The Messiah, John the Baptist tells people, will baptize them, not just with water, but with the Holy Spirit. But first, the One who will baptize with the Spirit is himself baptized. 

As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the same Holy Spirt who hovered like a dove over the waters at the beginning of creation descends like a dove on him and a voice from heaven reveals his identity: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. (Mark 1:11)’ 

The message about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, has begun in the way the prophets promised it would. What does this tell us today as we, like the crowds who were baptized by John, prepare for the coming of our Lord in this season of Advent? It is best expressed in the words of our Lord himself. As he said to the woman at the well in Samaria: 

‘… salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:22) 

In just 11 verses, St Mark has managed to locate his story about Jesus firmly within the story of Israel and her relationship with the God of Israel. This is something all the Gospel writers do in the opening of their own accounts of Jesus’ life. 

St Matthew begins his Gospel: 

‘An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.’ (Matthew 1:1) 

Jesus’ earthly descent is traced by St Matthew through key figures in Israel’s history. St Matthew goes out of his way to show how Jesus’ birth is in fulfillment of the words of the prophets. St Luke’s account stresses that Jesus is the promised Messiah, ‘the consolation of Israel’ (Luke 2:25). And St John, while differing from the others in the style of his presentation, emphasizes that the Word made flesh ‘came unto his own’ (John 1:11) and is the ‘King of Israel’ (John 1:49), even if his own don’t recognize it. 

The writer to the Hebrews writes in words that we shall read at Christmas: 

‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…’ (Hebrews 1:1-2) 

Jesus brought about something new. His coming was like no other. He was like no other. However, in seeking to show how significant and life-changing his coming was, many talk as if his coming was completely unexpected and came out of nowhere. Yes, Jesus changed everything, and changed it in an unexpected way, but his coming itself was something expected, predicted, and long awaited. It was in fulfilment of what God had promised and what the prophets had described. 

Jesus, after his resurrection, tells his disciples that they shouldn’t have been surprised. The Scriptures had all talked about him and his coming (Luke 24:25-27; 24:44-47). The coming and the meaning of his coming are so rooted in the Scriptures that to understand what his coming means, we must understand the Scriptures, and this means understanding what we today call the ‘Old Testament’. 

But the Scriptures that the story is so rooted in and which are foundational to it are the Jewish Scriptures. Yes, we understand them differently to our Jewish brothers and sisters, but by labelling them ‘old’, we also imply that they can be quietly forgotten, except for those nice bits that we like to read out of context and give a modern meaning to. 

In the second century, there was a teacher in the Church called Marcion, who argued that anything to do with Israel had to be got rid of and that the god of the Old Testament was an inferior god to the god of the Church. This Jewish god, he argued, was not the Christian god who sent Jesus, but a lesser god. The Church rejected Marcion’s teaching, but throughout its history the Church has since been more Marcionite than we care to admit. 

Nowadays, it is openly so. Whereas once we generalized the Jewish Scriptures to make them ours, now we just ignore or reject them altogether. Marcion believed that the god of the Old Testament was wrathful and vengeful, whereas the New Testament God that Jesus taught us about was kind and forgiving. Marcion’s day has come in our own. For many in the Church, what we call the ‘Old Testament’ is simply an embarrassment. 

As also is the fact that Jesus was a Jew. And not only a Jew, but sent exclusively to the Jews. Jesus was not God incarnated as everyman, nor even as a man of the first century. He was incarnated as this particular man sent by God in every way as a man of his people to his own people. Jesus’ Jewishness was not incidental to his identity and to the incarnation, it was an essential and integral part of his DNA. God didn’t just become man, he became this particular man, and this man came with a specific role to play in the history of his people, Israel. This was what his earthly ministry was about. 

Jesus couldn’t be the Saviour of the world until he had fulfilled his role as a prophet to his people, and had been rejected by them. 

The Church has made the Jews the question. The question, however, isn’t about the Jews, it is about us. It is about where and how we Gentiles fit in. And that’s not obvious. That we should be included in the plans and purposes of God in the way we are is something that was not only unexpected, but that was hidden. St Paul calls it a mystery that God has had to reveal directly (Ephesians 3:1-6). It simply wasn’t something that the Church could know otherwise.

So how are we who are not Jews to respond to this unexpected offer of grace and welcome? We should respond with gratitude, with thankfulness, and with great humility. 

Like the Wise Men this Christmas, we come to the baby at Bethlehem as Gentiles. But we also come as they did seeking him who is born ‘King of the Jews’ (Matthew 2:2). Yes, he is more than that. He is, as we have been seeing in the past couple of weeks, the Lord and Judge of all. He is now more than the King of the Jews, but he is not less than that. He is the root of Jesse, the Son of David, the glory of his people Israel. He is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. He is the One sent by God, as the Blessed Virgin Mary puts it: ‘according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever’ (Luke 1:55). 

The God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ was and is the God and of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. John the Baptist, St Luke tells us, said that those who came to him should not put their trust in having Abraham as their ancestor, God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones of the wilderness (Luke 3:8). John the Baptist meant by this that those who came should show by their actions that they were children of Abraham. 

But in a sense, and in a way that John did not envisage, God has raised up unexpected children for Abraham. And we are those children. St Paul insists that all who share the faith of Abraham in the promise of God are children of Abraham and that God’s promise finds its fulfilment in Christ. All who have faith in Christ are now children of Abraham: ‘for he is the father of us all’ who believe (Romans 4:16-17). St Paul teaches that we do not need to convert to Judaism to be adopted as children of the God of Israel. However, it is still the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, revealed now in his Son, who adopts us. 

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the same God who called Abraham to leave his country and who led his people out of slavery to freedom in the promised land. The history of the people of Israel is our history. As St Paul puts it: we have been ‘grafted’ in (Romans 11:17). But that does not mean, as St Paul makes clear, that God has now rejected his people (Romans 11:1). They are still ‘beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:28-29) 

There are, however, many who go a step further and argue that because God has not rejected his ancient people, it is now wrong to seek to evangelize and convert Jewish people to Christ. Without in anyway wanting to downplay the horrors of the Church’s treatment of the Jewish people in the past, for us not to seek to share the Gospel with the Jewish people today is to completely miss the point. Our Lord came in the first place as their Messiah: ‘Beginning the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah’. The Gospel is to ‘the Jew first’ (Romans 1:16). Why wouldn’t we want to share it with those who Jesus came to and was one of? Clearly, there is a right and wrong way to do it, but not to do so would be a grave dereliction of duty. The right people to do so are believers who are themselves Jews who have come to believe in the Messiah, and they need and deserve our support. 

As then we prepare to celebrate the coming of the Messiah, we should align our prayers with those of St Paul who wrote: 

‘I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit — I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.’ (Romans 9:1-5) 

As we read through St Mark’s Gospel and especially as we celebrate this Christmas the birth of the one who was born King of the Jews, we will understand him better and serve him more if we understand him for who he is. The One promised by the prophets, the Saviour of his people, their Lord and ours. 

Amen.