Thursday, February 01, 2024

Come and See

This is a lightly edited version of the sermon for the Second Sunday of Epiphany. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

Come and See

The Second Sunday of Epiphany

John 1:43-51

Our readings in church on a Sunday follow a lectionary. As you will know, a lectionary is basically a list of all the Bible readings for our services throughout the year. The lectionary we follow at Christ Church is a three-year cycle with different readings for each year of the cycle. After three years, the cycle repeats. In each one of the three years, we read one of the first three Gospels: Matthew, Mark, or Luke. This year is the second year in the cycle, known as Year B, and we are reading through St Mark's Gospel.

Why, then, I hear you ask, is our Gospel reading today from St John’s Gospel and not from St Mark’s? This is because on certain Sundays in the year, the readings from one of the first three Gospels are supplemented by a reading from St John's Gospel, the fourth Gospel. Next Sunday, we will have another reading from St John's Gospel. It is one of my favourite readings, as it happens!

The first three Gospels have a lot in common. They look at the ministry of Jesus in a similar way. Any reader of the Gospels, however, can see almost immediately that St John's Gospel is different to the first three. I would love to take more time to explain the differences, but for now please just take my word for it!

St John himself seems to have been aware of the other Gospels and the stories in them, and what he is doing with his Gospel is similar to what we are doing through the lectionary. That is, St John is supplementing, expanding, and clarifying what people will have known from the first three Gospels. So, for example, St John doesn't describe the actual baptism of Jesus; he doesn't have to as many of his readers would already have known what happened when Jesus was baptized. Instead, St John explains how John the Baptist understood the baptism of Jesus.

One of the biggest differences, however, between the first three Gospels and St. John's Gospel is that in the first three Gospels most of the action before the last week of Jesus' life takes place in Galilee. In St. John's Gospel, however, while some of the action takes place in Galilee, a lot of it takes place south, in Judea and around Jerusalem.

So, in the first three gospels, the call of the first disciples takes place by the Sea of Galilee. And it comes out of the blue. Jesus is walking by the Sea of Galilee. He sees some fishermen mending their nets. He calls them, and they immediately leave their nets. They get up and follow him. At first sight that’s a bit strange, why would anyone just pack everything in simply because some itinerant preacher called them to leave everything and follow him? What St John tells us, though, makes sense of that call. St John tells us that the first disciples were previously disciples of John the Baptist. And it is John the Baptist himself who draws the attention of his own disciples to Jesus. The first words spoken in St John's Gospel about Jesus are spoken by John the Baptist who says, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). The ‘next day’, John the Baptist repeats the words, St John tells us, for emphasis (John 1:36).

When two of John the Baptist's disciples hear them, they immediately follow Jesus. They had joined John the Baptist because they were looking for the Messiah, the King of Israel, the Son of God, the one who would lead them to freedom, the one whom Moses and the prophets had spoken about.

St John continues to describe how those who were John the Baptist’s disciples become disciples of Jesus instead (John 1:35-42). One of the two disciples who hear John the Baptist point Jesus out is Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. The other disciple is unnamed. The first thing Jesus himself says in St John's Gospel is a question to these two disciples. Jesus asks them what they are you looking for. They reply by asking Jesus where he is staying. Jesus replies, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39). They go to stay with Jesus that day. The first thing Andrew does is to find his brother, Simon, to tell him that they have found the one they were looking for.

In our reading from St John's Gospel today, Jesus decides to go to Galilee. We will see why next week. But before he goes, Jesus finds Philip and says to him, ‘Follow me’. The first thing Philip does is to find another friend, Nathanael. He tells him that they have found him who Moses and the prophets wrote about. Philip’s friend, Nathanael, is at first sceptical. Jesus doesn’t come from the right background. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’ he asks, but he is quickly convinced for himself when he meets Jesus. Jesus tells Nathaniel that he has seen Nathaniel under the fig tree before Philip called him. Nathaniel realizes that Jesus is the one they have been hoping for and confesses Jesus as the one he’s been looking for: the Son of God, the King of Israel. Jesus tells Nathaniel that he will see greater things than these.

And so, some former disciples of John the Baptist become the first disciples of Jesus, convinced that he is the One they have been expecting, and their journey with Jesus begins, a journey that will take them to the Cross. We will be following them on that journey.

All of which is very interesting as an account of the calling of the first disciples, but St John is writing his gospel for a purpose. And that purpose is not just to give us some interesting historical information. St John tells us, at the end of his gospel, that his purpose is that we, the reader, may believe for ourselves that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing, we may have life in his name (John 20:31).

At the beginning of St John's Gospel, we see the first disciples come to believe Jesus is the Messiah and as we follow them on their journey through St John's Gospel, we see how they discover that he, Jesus, has the words of eternal life (John 6:68). St John, by the way he tells the story of the call of the first disciples, is inviting us to find eternal life in the way they did. What Jesus says to them, he is saying to us. What he asks of them, he asks of us. What he promises them, he promises those who believe in him: we too will have life in his name if we have faith in him. Life in the sense of eternal life, that is. As we read through St John’s Gospel in the weeks ahead, we will see that eternal life is a major theme of the Gospel. As St John writes in John 3:16, the verse we read at every service:

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

So today, Jesus asks us the same question he asked the first disciples, ‘What are you looking for?’ They were looking for the Messiah, the King of Israel, the one whom Moses and the prophets had written about. It’s unlikely that we’re looking for that. But we are looking for life. We are here on this planet for a very short period of time. Many of us don’t give it much thought. We just get on with life as best we can. But others of us, however, sense that there must be more to life than simply the 70, 80, or 90 years or so that we’re allotted.

Yes, there are many things that we experience during these years, things that we enjoy and get satisfaction from - family, career, money, possessions - but we can’t help feeling that there must be something else. Surely there’s more to life than this.

Well, the first thing I want to say about this today is that while we may be looking for something, Jesus was looking for us first. ‘Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree’, says Jesus to Nathanel. Nathaniel is overwhelmed by Jesus’ knowledge of him. It can be frightening to be truly known and to be truly seen. We are contradictory creatures. On the one hand, we want someone to notice us and to like us, and not just on Facebook and social media! We want someone to understand us and to appreciate us. And yet on the other hand, we spend time hiding, trying to keep ourselves private and hidden, pretending to be someone or something we’re not. But Jesus is the One who sees us and sees everything there is to see about us. And the incredible thing is that seeing us, he still loves us and calls us. Nathaniel responds to Philip’s words about Jesus, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Many today respond similarly. Can anything good come out of the church?

Can anything good come out of this group of people who worship an itinerant preacher who lived 2,000 years ago? What can Jesus contribute to my life and my existence now? So secondly, what I would say this morning is what Jesus said to Andrew and the unnamed disciple, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:39). Come and see! Philip says the same to Nathanael when Nathanael questions whether Jesus can be the One they were looking for, ‘Come and see’ (John 1:46).

Jesus sees us, knows everything about us, and he now invites us to come and see him. See who he is and see what he has to offer us. Many reject Christ without knowing the first thing about him. Today he asks us, asks anyone who is looking for something more in life, to come and see.

But thirdly and finally, what will we see if we do come and see?

We will see what Jesus told Nathanael he would see. We will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man, that is, on him. You will all know the song:

‘Imagine there's no heaven.
It’s easy if you try.
No hell below us,
above us only sky.’

It's easy if you try. It turned out to be all too easy and so today people don’t have to imagine there’s no heaven. We simply assume there isn’t one. Heaven is to most people itself just a religious figment of the imagination. All we have now is the sky, that is, what we can see in the physical world around us. No hell below us, nothing else but this world. We have a very limited worldview. Jesus offers to open our eyes, to make it possible for us to see heaven opened, and to come into the presence of God himself. To enable us to see he is the One through whom we can enter heaven and come into God's presence because he is the One on whom the angels of God are ascending and descending. He is the very centre of heaven, and he is the One we are invited to come and see.

Those who imagine there is no heaven are the ones without imagination. They are the ones whose imagination has become limited and who in the process have become blind to the reality of the world we live in. How ironic that we can see billions of light years into the universe. We can see physical realities we never dreamt of in the past, but we cannot see a thing spiritually. We are blind! Jesus today says to us, Come and see!’ Come and see heaven opened. And in seeing heaven opened, we will see him who offers us life, who offers us what we’re looking for.


Tuesday, January 09, 2024

To Have An Epiphany

This is a lightly edited version of the sermon for Epiphany. The sermon itself is available as a podcast. To hear it, click the link below.

Epiphany Sunday

Reading: Ephesians 3:1-12

Epiphany was actually yesterday, but it has become the custom in the church worldwide to celebrate it on the Sunday nearest to it. Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. The decorations are all down, or at least they should be! At Epiphany, we think of the visit of the Wise Men, though their visit would, of course, have been later than 12 days after the birth of Jesus. (You can listen to my Christmas podcast if you want to know more!)

The coming of the Wise Men symbolizes the coming of Gentiles to faith in Christ. St Paul writes about this in the second reading this morning. We all know the story of the Wise Men. We are, however, less familiar with its meaning. We take it for granted nowadays that the Gospel is for everyone; not just for the Jewish people, but for all people.

St Paul in our reading, however, describes the inclusion of the Gentiles as a ‘mystery’. Now St Paul uses the word ‘mystery’, not in the sense of an Agatha Christie novel, a mystery that can be solved by a clever detective and human ingenuity, but a mystery in the sense of something that is hidden, which can’t be understood, but which has to be revealed, revealed that is by God himself. It needs an ‘epiphany’, something which opens our eyes so that we can see.

St Paul writes that the mystery has been made known to him by revelation, as, he writes, it also was to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery, St Paul explains, was not made known to former generation. So, what is the big deal?

Well, in the Old Testament, it is God’s chosen people, the Jews, to whom all God’s promises are made. There is talk in the prophets of Gentiles believing and worshipping the true God, but they do so as Gentiles, as outsiders. God’s chosen people remain the Jews.

The mystery made known by revelation, however, is that the Gentiles can become ‘fellow heirs’, ‘members of the same body’, ‘sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus’. That is, they can become in every way equals to the Jewish people in their relationship with God. How do they become equals? In the same way the Jews themselves now come to God: through the Gospel. Of this Gospel, St Paul writes, he has become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace. This gift was given to him, St Paul writes, to bring to the Gentiles ‘the news of the boundless riches of Christ’. This single idea is the key to understanding St Paul’s life, mission, and teaching. Indeed, it’s the key to understanding the history and development of the early church. (For anyone who will be taking my course at Ming Hua this coming semester, we’ll be talking a lot about this!)

St Paul was charged with the task and responsibility of telling the Gentiles what God had planned for them. St Paul was entrusted with this role by God. He describes it as being ‘commissioned by God’. God’s grace, he says, was given to him for the Gentiles.

Well, as we read this passage from the third chapter of Ephesians, we should notice St Paul’s emphasis on ‘grace’. He was given a commission of grace. He became a servant according to the gift of God’s grace. This grace was given to him. It is by grace that St Paul preaches a gospel of grace. So the obvious question is, what is grace? Well, grace quite simply is a gift, a gift given to us freely; it is something that we neither merit or earn.

St Paul and all the New Testament writers assume that we do not deserve anything from God except judgment. The Gospel, the good news concerning Jesus, is that we can be saved from the judgment we deserve by God’s grace, for no other reason than God grants it out of love through faith in Jesus. There could be no better message at the start of a new year than this. God offers us here today the chance to become heirs with all God’s people, to become members of Christ’s body, and sharers in all that God has promised. St Paul says he was given the role of taking the news of the ‘boundless riches’ of Christ to the Gentiles. And this is the news we are being given today at the start of a new year. The boundless riches of Christ!

Imagine for a moment being told that you had just inherited a fortune. How would you feel? How would any of us feel? We’d feel elated and excited, and yet this is precisely what St Paul writes has happened to us. We sort of take it for granted if we take it at all. And this is the problem. We do not take it! Firstly, because we do not believe it or are not interested in it, or, secondly, because we don’t think we have to do anything: we assume it’s ours anyway. What’s all the fuss about?

For very good motives, the Church in recent years has focused on the unconditional love and acceptance of God. We have taken seriously the message that God’s love is for everyone and not just the chosen few. We’ve preached that whatever people have done, whoever they are, wherever they’re from, God loves them. God’s love isn’t exclusive, it’s inclusive. It’s universal.

This idea of the unconditional, universal love and acceptance of God is now central to the Church’s message and mission. So central, in fact, that you will find it stated on every church website. If you don’t believe me, randomly pick a church in any country in the world, go onto its website, and you will find this stated in one way or another. And it is because we have been at pains to tell people that they don’t have to do anything to be loved by God that we have stressed that we don’t have to do anything ourselves to earn or receive God’s grace. And it’s here we have made a fatal mistake.

For while there is nothing we can do to deserve God’s love, we do have to receive it. Notice the phrase in verse 12: it’s through faith in him. You may remember the story of when St Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy go to Philippi (Acts 16:11-40). St Paul and Silvanus are imprisoned in the jail in Philippi. At midnight there’s an earthquake. St Paul and Silvanus have the opportunity to go free, but they remain put. The Philippian jailer says to them, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved? (Acts 16:30).’ St Paul and Silvanus don’t reply by saying, ‘Nothing, you’re saved already.’ They say, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household. (Acts 16:31).’ Believe in the Lord Jesus! In other words, have faith in Christ.

Tragically, we are being encouraged to perpetuate the lie that we are all saved regardless of whether we have faith or not. Now I used to be of the opinion that it didn’t really matter if people believed this, as long they had faith. It also didn’t matter what they believed happened to other people as long as they had faith themselves. I’m now of the opinion that this idea that we’re loved by God regardless of whether we have faith or not, that we don’t have to do anything, is at the heart of many of the problems facing us as a Church. There is an extreme version of grace in the Church that insists that if we require faith of people, we make faith itself into a work, something that we can be praised for. God’s grace really is a gift, but a gift doesn’t stop being a gift once we open it. And grace doesn’t stop being a gift once we receive it by faith.

Many cannot be bothered with God’s grace. Faith is out of fashion. It can be depressing, can’t it? Not only are people not interested in faith, but increasingly are deliberately abandoning faith altogether. That’s the number one story in churches in the West at present.

St Paul writes that he has been given God’s grace to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things. The task that was given to St Paul of taking the news of the boundless riches of Christ to people has now been given to us. And it is what God is calling us to do as a church as we enter a new year. It is what we pledged ourselves to do on Pledge Sunday back on the Second Sunday of Advent. But St Paul also adds another phrase that it is very easy to miss.

St Paul writes in verse 10 that it is God’s plan that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’. Let me ask a question. What do America, Russia, Taiwan, India, the UK, and the Solomon Isles have in common as we enter 2024? Does anyone know? The answer is that they’re all having elections this year. In fact, 49% of the world’s population will go to the polls this year. That’s a staggering statistic. But all this talk about electing rulers gives us the impression, that it is the rulers and authorities of this world who count and that it is the rulers and authorities of this world that we have to fear.

Those in power, those who rule and have authority, certainly think they are the ones who matter, which is why, like President Putin today and King Herod before him, they are so anxious to hang on to power. It’s interesting how many scientists, philosophers, and politicians all share the same basic world view, one we are all encouraged to share, that this world is all there is. So that what happens in this world is what matters, and we, of course, matter most. But St Paul would tell us that this world is not all there is, and we are certainly not the centre of it. Rather there is a spiritual dimension that we ignore at our peril. St Paul writes that the wisdom of God in its rich variety should be made known to the rulers and authorities not in this world but in the heavenly places.

We like to think we are so wise, so clever, but while we continue in unbelief, while we persist in this belief that this world is all there is, we simply demonstrate our ignorance and foolishness. We need to see that God is the creator of all things and that God is the centre of all things, and that it is only when we come to know him that we find our own place in life and in this world. In other words, before we finally leave Christmas behind we each of us need an epiphany. Like the wise men, we need to see the child with Mary, his mother, and kneel down and pay him homage (Matthew 2:11). We need to kneel down in worship.

For it is only when we kneel down in worship before the child and his mother that we will be ready to get up and get on with what 2024 has to offer. St Paul writes that it is in him, in this child, whose birth we have been celebrating this Christmas season, that we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him, through faith in Christ.

And so, at this, the start of a new year, may God grant us an epiphany. May God grant us to see the child with Mary his mother and through faith come to him.


Extraordinarily Ordinary

This is the transcript of a talk I gave for the Christmas season.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Reading: Matthew 2:13-18

Part of the problem with the way we celebrate Christmas in church is the way we collapse all the events into one another, so that it appears that all the significant events associated with Jesus’ birth happened at the same time. Or at least within a few hours of one another.

Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, finding a place to stay, (or as the nativity plays wrongly would have it, not finding a place to stay); the birth and the baby in the manger; the shepherds and the Wise Men; they are all presented as happening very close to one another. As, however, our reading reminds us, we are talking weeks and months, not hours and days, for all the events to have taken place.

According to our reading, King Herod kills all the boys in Bethlehem under two years of age, according to the time when the Wise Men told him the baby was born. They visit Jesus in the house where he was staying. Not only would Jesus not be lying on a bed of straw when the Wise Men arrived, he would be up and walking around!

A more likely chronology is that some time before Mary’s baby was due, Mary and Joseph travelled down to stay with relatives in the place where Joseph came from. After Mary gave birth in the privacy of that part of the house where the animals were routinely brought in at night for safe-keeping, shepherds came to offer their congratulations to the family on their new arrival. Eight days later, the baby was circumcised, as all baby boys were. Then a month or so later, Mary and Joseph took the baby to be presented in the Temple. At some point over a year later, the Wise Men came and sought out where the family was living.

Does any of this matter? Yes, because our usual way of presenting the story of Jesus’ birth, apart from being wrong factually, romanticises it and shuts it off from reality in a magical fairy-tale world of its own. But again, as our reading reminds us, there was nothing shut off from reality about our Lord’s early years.

Sometimes, in an effort to make Jesus’ birth seem more interesting, preachers will present the circumstances of Jesus’ birth as that of a poor, homeless family forced to take refuge in a stable because no-one would give them a room anywhere else. But this emphasis on Jesus’ poverty belongs less to history and more to our imagination.

Bethlehem was Joseph’s hometown. Of course, he would have had somewhere for him and his young pregnant wife to stay. And, of course, there would have been older women to help with the birth. Jesus’ birth, in other words, was unexceptional with nothing to distinguish it as such from the birth of the other boys who were born at the same time, but who were later to lose their lives because of it.

The shepherds turning up on the night may at first seem to have been a bit unusual, but given how intrinsic animals were to daily life and how important sheep were to Bethlehem, having a few shepherds around is hardly all that surprising.

Jesus’ birth was entirely normal and that’s the point. Jesus was truly one of us. To the outside world, Jesus’ arrival in the world was nothing special; it was ordinary even. His family were not rich, nor were they poor; he was not born in a palace, but he was not homeless either. He was one of us.

And as one of us, he was not immune to the events of our world and the harshness of it. King Herod was a cruel leader just like many leaders in our world today who are responsible for atrocities on an even greater scale than the murder of a few children in a relatively obscure village in the Roman Empire.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us. But not he did not do so in a way that distinguished him from us as he lived among us. He was in every way one of us; he was ordinary like most of us.

It is Jesus’ ordinariness that is so amazing.

We too are subject to forces over which we have no control and are made to do things we don’t want to do and to go to places we don’t want to go in order to satisfy the greed and egos of the rich and powerful. We too are victims of their schemes and ambitions. Jesus could have been born extremely rich or extremely poor; he could have been born in a palace, as the Wise Men expected him to have been or in a stable as we would prefer him to have been. But instead, he was born in normal circumstances to ordinary people who by trusting in God were to do something extraordinary.

Jesus’ birth is good news for ordinary people, average people, unremarkable people, people like you and me; people who in our own very ordinariness can experience the extraordinary grace of God.