Author: Michael Hopkins

The perfect pattern

Mark 2:9-15

A number of years ago the young Englishman Justin Rose nearly won the open golf championship just a day or two before his nineteenth birthday. Not only was he the youngest player ever to have reached such a position, but he was still an amateur. Despite his amateur status he became a multi-millionaire overnight, for firms were falling over themselves to sign him up for their advertising campaigns and to sponsor him on the golf circuits. And Justin Rose turned professional just a week or two later. It was clearly an amazing and overwhelming time for him. Justin set out on his chosen career as a golf professional full of excitement and potential, and carrying the hopes of the whole of the British Isles.

But after that, things went badly pear-shaped. Having done so well in the Open, Justin then failed to reach the cut (the final two rounds), of any other competition for the whole year. At the end of the year he had to go back to golf school to learn his profession all over again, and to compete against all the other young hopefuls in order to get another crack at the professional circuit.

Such an experience would perhaps have destroyed some youngsters, but not Justin Rose. He did so well at golf school that by the beginning of the next year he was back on the professional circuits, and this time beginning to make the cut so that he achieved the final rounds of most competitions. And now we know that he did rather well, and did fulfil that early promising potential.

It’s quite a pattern. First the excitement and the thrill of a very special time, then instantly followed by the depths of pain and difficulty. But all of that, especially the pain and difficulty, is a learning process. And those who are able to learn from it generally are able to go on and make something of their life, for after the pain the work begins.

Jesus had a very special and exciting time when he was baptised by John in the river Jordan. The heavens opened and a dove descended on him and he heard a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved son. I’m well pleased with you.” But immediately that same Spirit of God which had descended upon him at his baptism, drove him out into the wilderness. He was alone, with no support, no back up. And worse, he found himself surrounded by not only the danger and the risk and the privation of the wilderness, but also by both good and evil forces.

When Matthew and Luke give their accounts of the time in the wilderness, they mention three particular temptations. Perhaps that tempts us to believe that there were only three temptations. Reading about them in our own time and from our own perspective, those temptations can sound quite alien to 21st century people.

We perhaps have our equivalent of the wilderness, both in difficult times when it’s thrust upon us, but also in times when we might choose to retreat and take some time out for God by going to a quiet place, alone. But we have no actual experience of what it was like to live alone two thousand years ago without any means of communication, in such a barren and threatening place.

Few people survived the wilderness, for if they managed to find water, they were likely to be devoured by the wild animals which roamed the wilderness and inhabited it. It’s difficult to imagine the terror that must have engendered, and it’s difficult to identify with those three specific temptations mentioned by Matthew and Luke – the turning of stones into bread, the throwing oneself from the pinnacle of the temple in order to be supported by angels, and the gift of all the kingdoms in the world in response to worshipping Satan. Although I can imagine plenty of things that would tempt me today, I really can’t imagine ever being tempted by any of those three. So I’m grateful to Mark, for in his account, Mark gives us much more room to paint our own pictures. He merely says, “Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” So Mark leaves us free to use our own imagination and put ourselves there in the wilderness with Jesus.

One thing we do know is that it must have been a terrible time. Perhaps with no proper food for six weeks, Jesus may have been drifting in and out of consciousness some of the time, Mark hints that he saw both angels and demons. In any event it was a drastic learning experience where Jesus was thrust back on his own inner and outer resources, and despite his lack of food, Jesus emerged from the wilderness strengthened in mind and spirit. And immediately after this experience he began his own ministry, his own life’s work.

The wilderness can bring a real clarity of thought. Things which were confused and muddled before tend to suddenly drop into place, for in the wilderness priorities change. Things are seen for what they really are, and their degree of importance shifts accordingly. And this tends to happen whether we’re thrust into the wilderness by horrifying events in life, or whether we deliberately seek out the wilderness for ourselves. When he emerged from the wilderness, Jesus knew what his life’s work was to be. He knew that he would spend his life in ministry, working in a very specific way for his Father.

Clouds so very often follow sunshine, and when this happens in real life it seems such a harsh experience. Something wonderful happens and we might feel excited and thrilled and happy, but this is so very often followed by a plunge into the depths of despair for some reason or another. And suddenly life is difficult and painful and confusing, like being attacked by demons and wild beasts.

This sudden change is hard to handle for many, and some people go through life unable to properly enjoy life’s thrills and delights because of the huge dread of the depths which they’re sure will soon follow. Their happiness is always qualified by the fear of it being broken. It’s as though sometimes we cannot allow ourselves to fully accept happiness because they’re so sure the happiness will be wrenched away from them by something awful in due course.

But perhaps the experience of Jesus shows that walking in his way, everything, all of life both good and bad, is in God’s hands. Perhaps the pattern should be that the thrills, followed by the depths, are a prelude to the real work we’re invited to undertake for God.

And of course, that pattern doesn’t just happen once, but is repeated again and again throughout life. We need to take hold of the good parts of life and enjoy them to the full. Then we need to survive the wilderness experience knowing God is in there with us, and using them to learn and to grow strong. And then, with our priorities in the right order, we’ll be more ready for whatever God wants of us.

The Rainbow

Genesis 9:8-17
Mark 2:9-15

Many years ago, the clown Roly Bain came to this church to perform his presentation of the Christian story using clowning. When he offered prayers, he used a small pot of bubble mixture, and as he blew the bubbles he invited us to look at the bubbles and drew our attention to the rainbow within each bubble. He then reminded us of the story of Noah’s Ark – which everybody knows – and explains that when flood waters subsided, God put his sign in the sky, the sign of a rainbow. He offered some short prayers and invited us to attach our prayers to a bubble, and then said, very quietly and reverently, “when the bubble bursts, you know that your prayer is heard.” It was a powerful moment that electrified the congregation.

There’s something about rainbows. Perhaps it’s the historical link with our ancestors since the beginning of time, or perhaps it’s a feeling that as long as the rainbow is seen in our skies from time to time, God is still in charge of the world.

Yet, it does feel this week as if a bubble has burst, and the rainbow has lost some of its colour. Several people in this church have had particular associations with Oxfam since the first days of Oxfam in Farnham. Somehow many of us expect humanitarian charities to be squeaky clean, yet with thousands of staff, it’s inevitable that a few bad apples will be found from time to time. Looking beyond some of the more lurid and excitable tabloid headlines, it’s clear that some Oxfam staff did things, which are rightly condemned, but Oxfam rapidly parted company with them all and did not provide them with references. Even so, it’s clear Oxfam still has work to do on workplace behaviour, on safeguarding, and on charity reporting. Yet, the danger is that these failing will be used by those forces in our society that seek to stop overseas aid. It cannot be coincidence that these old issues at Oxfam emerged just after a tabloid newspaper petition to limit foreign aid. The Bible is very clear that all Christians have a duty to support the refugee, the stranger, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, whether nearby or far away. If this serious difficulty in Oxfam were allowed to disrupt, limit, or even halt essential support to the poorest people in the world, it would be a victory for the forces of darkness.

The rainbow is a sign of light. As we heard in Genesis, the rainbow is a symbol of the covenant that God makes with Noah. God freely and generously makes a covenant with human beings, and asks nothing in return. This covenant is unconditional, and is a sign of God’s unconditional love for human beings. This covenant is not only with Noah, but is with all Noah’s descendants, and with every living creature. Since all human beings and all living creatures apart from those on the ark have just been destroyed in the flood, this covenant is therefore with the whole of creation and is for all time. God’s promise is that he will never again destroy the earth, even if we have a jolly good go ourselves, and his rainbow is a sign of that promise. Both God and human beings will remember God’s promise whenever they see the rainbow.

In ancient times the bow was a weapon and therefore an image of war, but in God’s hands the bow has been reversed and serves as an image of peace and a sign of God’s eternal promises. And since this passage was written around 500 years before Jesus was born, when the Israelites were suffering in exile in Babylon, the sign of the rainbow would be powerful and significant. Just when it seemed as though all hope was lost and the people had been deserted by God, when God saw his bow in the sky he would remember his covenant and the people would be able to go home. So, today the rainbow is still a symbol of hope in so many different contexts.

Shortly after God gave his covenant to Noah, things went horribly wrong. Noah’s first act upon reaching dry land again, was to build a vineyard and make his own wine. As everyone knows, home-made wine can be very potent, and after drinking his own wine, much to his son Ham’s horror, Noah was discovered naked in his tent in a drunken orgy. Ham told his brothers, Shem and Japheth, who discreetly walked backwards to avoid setting eyes on their naked father and draped a garment over Noah. But poor Ham, the father of Canaan, seems to have been the victim in this story, for when Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” This might explain why the Canaanites were later dispossessed, but we’re told that despite his failings, Noah went on to live for 950 years!

The Christian story has always been based around forgiveness. No matter what we have done, we can be forgiven by God and enabled to start over again. Is not forgiveness for Oxfam, in response to their obvious repentance, the only Christian thing to do, for the benefit of the world’s poorest people? Love and forgiveness has been brought to us by Jesus, who received his own sign at his baptism. We’re told that just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The dove is common to the story of Noah and the rainbow and to the story of Jesus’ baptism. On three occasions Noah released a dove and only knew that the waters had receded sufficiently to allow disembarkation from the ark when the dove failed to return. When Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon Jesus, convincing Jesus of his vocation and effectively starting his ministry. The dove was a powerful sign for Jesus, and the rainbow remains a powerful sign for us today. Whenever we see a rainbow we can not only remark upon its beauty, but we can also know that God is alive and at work in the world, offering forgiveness to Oxfam, to our enemies, to you and to me.

Transfiguration

Mark 9:2-13

Transformation and transfiguration are not experiences to be taken lightly or dismissed as religious nonsense. There are events in all our lives which do not have simple explanations; things that happen to us that we don’t entirely comprehend. Sometimes they are good things, unforgettable, life-enhancing moments. Sometimes they are terrifying. Sometimes we take them for granted.

Science and engineering regularly transform and transfigure our existence. Many of you will remember your parents or grandparents having a wireless set the size of a milk crate powered by a large battery which had to be filled up with acid at regular intervals. They had dials the size of a television screen, with places like Hilversum and Droitwich on them, and with a bit of luck, you could get the BBC Home Service and hear the brown gravy voice of John Snagge. Now you can get any station you want from an instrument no bigger than Grandad’s cigarette case, and at the same time use it to make phone calls to China. In those distant days, if you has a bad hip that was it, but now you can have a new one, which is a transformation most welcome. Our lives have been transformed; but have they been transfigured?

We’d better not deny the vision which the three disciples experienced – a moment which transformed and transfigured their lives. It wasn’t a ghost story, and it isn’t made up – if it were, why would Jesus tell his disciples to keep it secret? Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story. What did it mean for the disciples, the witnesses who saw Jesus shining brightly with Moses and Elijah?

They saw glory – a brief glimpse of what faith is about, the past, present, and future revealed in a dazzling light. Glory has a bad name these days. “Glorifying” something is taken as a sign of unhealthy obsession. Celebrating justice and freedom, caring for the stranger within your gates, and welcoming the traveller and the homeless take a low priority compared with security and constant vigilance.

What happened to Jesus and his disciples on the mountain was a vision of the world as God sees it. Our day to day perspective is limited and clouded by so many pre-occupations and assumptions; God has his own perspective of a world transformed and transfigured by sacrificial love, nurtured through the ages, which made plain on the cross. The three shining figures on the mountain knew a thing or two about justice and freedom. They had all fed the hungry, healed the sick, set their people free, and stood up to corrupt politics: three men who knew how the world could be transformed and transfigured, and never tired of telling the story of how it could happen.

So, after this amazing encounter, the disciples do exactly what the rest of us of us do: rush off and tell the neighbours, and show off to the others disciples who hadn’t been there. There’s nothing like having an exclusive when you are a really keen reporter. But I don’t think they’d understood what had happened. A few days after their experience of the transfiguration on the mountain top the disciples are back home arguing about precedence. Which of them is going to be the most important in the kingdom? Jesus has to begin to tell them that if they are talking about orders of precedence then they are talking about who takes their place, with their cross, on the road to Calvary and crucifixion. In the end it was a queue of one: Jesus alone.

It was painful. And it was not what they expected. If we don’t understand the nature of God’s real glory in our lives we will not be able to make the terrorist or the fanatic understand the desperate folly of what they are doing. We will not be able to convince the world to serve the poor and the outcast.

What the disciples had to learn is what we have to learn: that when God comes, God comes for everyone. When God acts, God acts for the whole world, but above all when we see God we see a human form and that human form is also our neighbour.

Our lives are full of change. What is that, if it is not the possibility of transformation? Sometimes the changes are difficult to take: sometimes the wrinkles seem to be taking over the world as well as our faces. Sometimes the changes we feel within ourselves upset and distress us because we are no longer like we used to be – no longer young, no longer quick, no longer as fit as we want.

But there are almost always compensations if we want to find them: our memories, our loves and friendships which are there for the hard times. Sometimes life is giving us the time to move more slowly and enjoy the world at a pace which gives us more pleasure. But the transfiguration which Jesus brought is different. He offers us the chance to be his people; to share his power, to exercise healing in our own lives and relationships, to put aside bitterness and blame, to offer love and comfort, to bring forgiveness and patience when everyone else wants to point the finger or turn their back. Jesus offers to us the power of human ingenuity to change the world when we see it distorted. If we can blow up the world at the touch of a button, then we can, if we want, rescue people from floods, and disasters, bring peace out of hatred and plenty out of starvation.

If we can change the damaged DNA of mitochondria, then we can also change the endemic hostility, rivalry, bigotry, and suspicion which bedevils so much of the world. We believe it because we have seen the potential to change our human natures by witnessing the bright shining promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ – the story of Jesus, which could even take a humiliating death on a rough cross and turn it into a glorious resurrection. There’s glory for yo11u.

The presentation of Christ in the Temple

Luke 2:22-40
Galatians 4:4-7

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the town where there was a flood. As the flood waters rose a boat came along and offered to rescue an old lady. The lady refused, assuring the skipper that God would save her. The waters rose higher and the lady went upstairs. A canoeist came along and tried to rescue the lady, but she refused, assuring the chap that God would save her. The water rose even higher, and the lady climbed onto her roof. A helicopter came along and tried to rescue her, but she refused and told the pilot that God would save her. Of course the waters rose further and she drowned. When she arrived in heaven she asked God why he hadn’t saved her, and he said, “I sent you a boat, a canoe, and a helicopter, what more did you want me to do?”

I wonder how you might think of being saved? Perhaps political salvation, the political leader who rides to the rescue of a nation. Military salvation. Or, perhaps close to theological home, salvation from sin, or salvation as opposed to damnation. But as we heard in Luke’s gospel, Simeon looked at a child and said that what he was seeing there was salvation.

That’s a strange thing to do, a very strange thing to do, and yet, what Simeon says reflects well one of the utterly fundamental aspects of our Christian belief. That Christ is salvation, whatever that means. Prepared, Simeon says, in the sight of all peoples. Perhaps the last few hundred years of the life of the church have trained many of us to talk about ‘my’ salvation, or ‘your’ salvation. Those ‘in’, and those ‘out’, but that is not what Simeon is doing here. He looks at this baby and speaks of seeing salvation. What on earth, or indeed in heaven, might this mean?

For many of us Christmas feels a very long time ago, we heard the stories that we think we know so well. And now 42 days after Christmas, we’re presented with this story from the Temple, which feels almost like a flashback in a film, showing us this remarkable image of Simeon with the child in his arms. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’. Perhaps the significance of Christmas is seen a little more clearly from this side of Christmas? We’re no longer worried by the incomplete to-do list, the unwritten cards, and so on. But also, perhaps we’re no longer distracted by the story of Christmas itself. Perhaps we can turn our attention to that which is embedded within that story – the significance of the incarnation itself. Of God becoming human, being born in our midst.

This is what lies at the heart of the Christian faith. Not that we would always know it from the way that the church carries on. We’re quite good at turning the Christian faith into a list of things we are supposed to believe, or ways in which we are supposed to live. Sometimes the church is guilty of placing the bible absolutely at the centre of the faith. Sometimes the church is guilty of placing the church absolutely at the centre of the faith. Sometimes we’re guilty of placing the command to love others as we love ourselves at the centre of our faith. But all of that is secondary, all of that follows on. None of it is the starting place. The starting place is that God became human. Word became flesh.

I don’t know about you, but I find this a remarkable claim. It’s a unique claim amongst the major world religions, with whom we might ethically or socially have so much in common. But even in terms of the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Christianity is alone in having at its heart this claim that God become human. This claim is utterly remarkable, what shapes our identity, what gives us the one whom we follow, what turns us into the people that we are as Christians. And the logic of this claim turns upside down a huge amount of what we might actually find as popular Christian belief. So much of the way in which Christians talk is almost about escaping this life. We often use heaven as a way of speaking of what will happen to us when we die. We speak of our immortal soul, as though it would escape the tyranny of life in this world and float free somewhere. But this is absolutely not the logic of Christianity, this is not the logic of God becoming flesh. God becomes human. God enters into the materiality of creation. Our faith is not one in which we attempt to escape this mortal coil, but one in which God enters into this mortal coil. It is not a faith in which we are called to take the initiative. To be good enough. To be religious enough. To get things right enough. No, we do not take the initiative. God has taken the initiative, God takes the initiative by coming into the world as a child, in flesh and blood. Flesh and blood that Simeon takes into his arms, and as he looks at him, says: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’.

Too often, too many of us have a tendency to think of God as far off and beyond, remote, magisterial. In the sky, even, in much religious art. Of course it’s not so much that God is far away, as that God is utterly different. That difference, we tend to talk of in the Christian tradition, is about God being a creator, and us being created. Human creativity is a wonderful thing, we can work with material, with sound or colour or texture, with the aid of machines, and with deep thought and ideas. What we never, ever, do is bring something into being literally out of nothing. We take something that is, and with it we become creative. God, on the other hand, is creative in a radically different kind of way. God doesn’t create with what he finds, God brings into being all that is, the stuff of life, material reality itself, the stuff with which we then might be creative. As one theologian put it, I have more in common with a cauliflower than I do with God, meaning that the cauliflower and me are both created, but God stands on the opposite side of the divide between creator and created. God brings both me and that cauliflower into being, or at least the possibility of us into being.

And all of this leads inevitably to the conclusion that for the Christian faith, that material reality of creation is vital and central. The world matters, because God brings it into being. Humans matter because God brings us into being. Christian life isn’t about trying to escape this reality in which we find ourselves, but to celebrate it, and to do so by celebrating God as the originator of all things. And God becoming human is centrally and integrally about all of this too. God didn’t simply bring all of this into being and sit back, and admire it, and watch it from afar. God did not sit there, as creator, simply gazing at creation. God did not allow the divide between creator and created to go unhealed, unreconciled. God becomes human. God becomes worldly. God becomes part of material reality itself. In a small child, which Simeon takes in his arms. ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’.

But there is a bit more to it than this. God becoming human is not confined simply to the Christ-child as the very son of God. Rather as Christ shares our humanity, born of a mother just as we are all born of a mother, Christ too shares his sonship with us. As the creator and the created are united, we become children of God, and so it is that we can be as intimate with God as the child is who cries ‘Daddy’ or ‘Mummy’ with their parent.

So, as we remember Christ presented in the Temple, we remember that infant demonstrated an utterly transformed reality. Eternity has broken into time. The divine and the human have been united. The divide between creator and creature has been healed. We are no longer simply creatures, but children of God, sharing in Christ’s sonship, able to address God as with the intimacy of ‘Mummy’, or ‘Daddy’.

Simeon took the little child in his arms, and said, ‘My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples’.

The new teacher

Mark 1:21-28

Former US President Jimmy Carter was on a speaking tour of Japan. He told a little joke and, after the interpreter had finished translating, the room erupted in laughter. Carter was both surprised and pleased. After the speech an old friend of Carter’s who spoke Japanese told him why everyone had laughed so loudly. The interpreter had said, “President Carter has told a very funny story. Everyone should laugh now.”

Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus “taught as one having authority, not as the scribes.” In this case, the scribes were like President Carter’s interpreter, telling people how they should feel and respond rather than making clear what God had said. Many of us, perhaps without realising it, have grown accustomed to be told what the truth is from people and media who interpret it for us, telling us how we should feel, and how we should respond.

From parents to pastors to politicians; from teachers to TV talking heads; our ears are bombarded by the voices of interpreters telling us how we should feel, how we should respond, to everything from eating our five portions of fruit and veg to the latest trends in the stock market. And most of us, most of the time, have learned to listen to our interpreters with a pinch of salt, sort of half-listening to what is said.

And this is what makes an authentic and true voice so startling. A voice like the voice of Jesus, who “taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (the interpreters)”. When Jesus preached at Capernaum, the Bible says that the people were astounded and amazed. They didn’t know what to do, nobody was telling them how to feel or what to do, whether to laugh or not.

Genuine freedom is a very frightening thing. And emotional freedom is the most frightening freedom of all, as the casting out of the unclean spirit shows. Without getting into spirits and demons and mental illness and emotional compulsion and all that tonight, what I’d like to suggest tonight is that the unclean spirit is that which is in all of us that resists genuine freedom and responsibility in our lives.

Upon hearing the voice of authority, a voice declaring our freedom, our unclean spirits immediately resist because our unclean spirits recognise in that voice of freedom the call to change. Indeed, the unclean spirit is correct when it accuses Jesus of having come on a mission of destruction, “have you come to destroy us?”

Jesus does indeed come into the world and into our lives with an agenda of anarchy. Jesus came to tear down any and all walls of separation that keep God’s people apart from one another. Jesus came to erase the structures of slavery to sin which keep us in bondage to our own badness. Jesus came to wipe out the diseases of the soul that keep us from knowing God’s love and hold us back from loving one another. Yes, Jesus came to destroy.

But, he came to destroy in order to rebuild, to reconstruct, to recreate. Jesus came to remake us in the image of God. To make of us new creatures in Christ. It is no wonder that unclean spirits, past and present, are afraid. They know that the coming of Christ spells the end of their reign of fear in the human heart.

In The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the children are somewhat afraid when they learn that the saviour of the Narnians is Aslan, a lion. “Is he safe?’ they ask.
“Safe!” the beaver responds, “of course not. He’s a lion. But he’s good.”

Just so, Jesus is not safe; he did indeed come to destroy. But he is good, because he also came to remake us into the wonderful and loving human beings God made us to be in the first place. And it is no wonder that the people were both astounded and amazed. In the clear, un-interpreted, un-translated, rural accented voice of Jesus they heard a call to freedom, a call to shake off all the interpreters that they’d been hearing all their lives.

In that voice, they heard a call to respond to the love of the one who loved them. In that voice, they heard a call to leave fear behind and to step out in freedom to do God’s work in God’s way in the world. In that voice, they heard a call to love the unlovely, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to house the homeless, to cry out against unclean spirits of war and oppression, injustice and indignity wherever they have a stranglehold on human lives. In that voice they heard the voice of God say, “I love you, come follow me.”

Calling

The story of Jonah and the big fish
1 Samuel 3.1-10
Mark 1.14-20

It was December 1996, slightly more than half my lifetime ago, when I attended what the United Reformed Church calls a National Assessment Conference, a major part of the process of discerning a candidate’s call to the ministry. This was long before the refurbishment of Westminster College was even thought of, and in those days it was a cold, dark, and austere building, which is perhaps understandable for a college named after the Westminster Confession.

In the outside world, Kofi Annan had recently been elected Secretary General of the United Nations, John Major’s government had lost its majority and was relying on Ulster Unionist votes, and there was a reasonable amount of snow on the ground in Cambridge.

It was just after the end of term, and I travelled down to Cambridge from Durham, where I was an undergraduate, with a great deal of luggage to take home with me to Nottingham. In those days, dress codes were more expected than they are now, and I spent a great of time thinking through what to wear. The assessors had already arrived, and it turned out that they already has a file of paperwork on each of the candidates that was well over half an inch thick.

The assessors were all older people, who seemed to have a great deal of experience of church life in various ways. One was the husband of someone who had been Moderator of the General Assembly. Another was the wife of a well-respected minister, who had herself had a number of particularly relevant experiences. There was a chaplain, a retired Minister who had been a Synod Clerk and a Synod Moderator, who led worship and then seemed to spend the rest of the weekend hanging around in the Common Room waiting for people to talk to him. He was probably a saint to give up his weekend for that.

One of the candidates was a lady who a head scarf for the whole weekend, telling us that the Bible said women should keep their heads covered in church. I’ve never seen her since then. Another of the candidates said he was already doing the job and had come to be rubber stamped. I’ve never seen him since then. Another of the candidates was around my own age, and is now a senior Army Chaplain. Another of the candidates looked at the most enormous bowl of prunes that the College had out on the breakfast table, and wondered aloud whether they were trying to loosen up the candidates. Not everyone realised she was joking, but we’ve been good friends ever since.

The point, of course, was that all the candidates were there because we believed that we were being called to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments in the United Reformed Church by God, and the United Reformed Churches had to see whether they agreed with that opinion; if you like, whether the internal calling was matched by the external calling, whether what we offered was what was needed by the Church. There are no quotas, there is no proportion who must be accepted or turned away, but the likelihood is that some will always come away surprised and profoundly disappointed that the Church’s opinion does not concur with theirs.

This is a very particular piece of the Church’s work, focussed solely on calling to ordained ministry. It has been conventional in the Church to talk of ‘vocation’ only in this terms, as applying to clergy and maybe monks and nuns in those churches that have them. That’s a kind of professionalisation of the idea of calling which is echoed by the description of certain other roles, such as teachers and nurses, as ‘vocational’.

There is a truth in each of these uses of the terminology of vocation, and they are nothing but the truth, but they are far from being the whole truth. Of course, some are called to ordained ministry, just as some feel motivated even in spite of themselves to roles which serve the health of society in other professions, but the call of God is not to a few hundred or a few thousand, it is to absolutely everyone. God is calling to every one of you here, and he calls ceaselessly to all the people he has created. For every one of us, that call to relationship with God is the most important thing in our lives, the starting point which makes all else possible. We are called to faith, and we will never have a higher calling.

All too often, I think that we diminish the meaning of vocation if we farm it out to a special body of professionals. To be a Christian is to live in response to God’s call, to ask yourself what it is that God asks you to do today. Before everything else, we’re all called to be people of faith, whose own lives are palpably affected by the relationship we have with the one who has given us everything.

Whoever we are, we all have that call to faith, hope, and love. These fundamental things can be expressed in the most mundane of circumstances, what John Keble called ‘the trivial round, the common task’ – in a cup of tea with a neighbour, or in George Herbert’s sweeping a room as for God’s laws. That call to integrity of life lived with and for God is the highest vocation you or I will ever have.

But there is another dimension. Part of the way God has made things is that no two people are the same; however many we are, we each have our special qualities and particular potential. And we are called to use the whole of ourselves for God, which means that we should reflect on how our special qualities can be best used in God’s service, what it is to which we particularly are fitted.

Sarah Mulally, the new Bishop of London, said that “before becoming a priest, I was a nurse and then the Government’s Chief Nursing Officer for England. People ask what it is like to have had two careers. I reply that I have always had one vocation – to follow Jesus Christ, to know him and to make him known. For me that means living in the service of others. Washing feet is a powerful image which has shaped my life. As a nurse, the way we wash feet affords dignity, respect and value. As a priest I am called to model Jesus Christ, who took off his outer garments and washed his disciples’ feet, even the one who would betray him. I keep that model of service before me, seeking to serve others and value them. To be able to do that here is a wonderful privilege.”

We heard from the Bible three very different callings. Jonah called to go to Nineveh, very much against his wishes. Samuel, called by God as a young child. Disciples called by Jesus.

What does God’s call mean for us?

How, today, are you going to answer the most important calling you have, to love God and to love your neighbours?

What are the gifts with which God has endowed you, the experiences, the skills, the insights?

And how best can these be put in his service?

Jonah

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Today we heard part of a mythical tale – the story of Jonah and the big fish. It might be a true story of an historical event, but that isn’t the point. It was included in the Bible because it imparts a strong moral message: hat good will triumph over evil, the bad guys will get their comeuppance, and God is a God of forgiveness and love.

It begins with a dream, and in this dream God commanded Jonah to leave Israel and go to the city of Nineveh because of its great wickedness. Now Nineveh had a bit of a reputation, all good upright citizens would avoid it. A city where you wouldn’t want to bring up your children, full of undesirables and criminals, violence and muggings went hand in hand. It has been described it as a den of iniquity and the source of much suffering and evil upon the face of the earth. Jonah the prophet is therefore instructed to pay a visit and warn the people that if they didn’t pull their socks up the city would be destroyed in forty days.

Maybe Jonah thought that this was a tall order and he wasn’t cut out for it, because instead of making the 500-mile journey east from Jerusalem to Nineveh, Jonah boards a merchant ship at the port of Joppa and heads towards Tarshish, a city some 2,000 miles to the West. Once he’s out at sea the boat is caught in the middle of a storm. It’s so bad that the ship begins to come apart at the seams. Understandably the sailors are terrified. Each man prays to his own god for salvation, and they run to and fro throwing cargo overboard, hoping to lighten the vessel and therefore save the ship, but it’s not working. Instead the storm gets worse and it seems that the ship is about to sink. The fear of the crew is increasing by the second and being both desperate as well as superstitious they decide that someone on board must have made a god angry, and so they cast lots to determine who is responsible for causing the storm.

Jonah confesses, “It’s me! I’m running from my God.” The crew are already terrified and the storm is getting worse and so they ask Jonah, “what should we do?” And Jonah replies, “throw me into the sea and it will become calm.” Desperate measures you might think, but it works. As they do so the storm subsides and Jonah is swallowed by a giant fish and for three days and three nights he lies in the belly of that fish. An interesting parallel of Jesus spending three days dead in the tomb. However all is not lost. Whilst confined Jonah thanks God for saving him from drowning, and he promises that he will visit Nineveh, the fish spews the prophet onto dry land, and he embarks on his mission.

Jonah goes to Nineveh, a city so big that it takes three days to see it, and he proclaims the message of God, saying, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The Ninevites, from the least who lived in slums and stole for a living, to the greatest, who lived in luxury and grew fat on injustice, give up their evil ways, put on sackcloth and ashes and fasted and prayed to God for mercy. Indeed they are so keen that they even dressed their animals in sackcloth and caused them to observe the citywide fast. And God saw the repentance of Nineveh and he had compassion, and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened.

Our moral tale has a happy ending but what does it say to us today? Well imagine it if you can. Imagine if every terrorist today who preaches hate and murder were to change their minds and lay down their weapons and pray to Allah, or God, or their Higher Power for deliverance and forgiveness; or if all corrupt individuals and environmentally brutal corporations amended their behaviour about how they lived and worked and practiced? It would be bliss, no more wars, or bombings, or corruption, nor injustice. It would be a cause of celebration all over the world, there would be dancing in the streets. But this isn’t how Jonah felt. Even though the miracle that happened in Nineveh was greater than we can ever conceive, Jonah was very displeased, and he became angry. In fact, he became so annoyed that he prayed to God saying, “didn’t I tell you what would happen!”

How can we make sense of Jonah’s reaction? I think the answer lies in Jonah’s anger, and in the prayer, he makes when he’s angry. Jonah was a man of faith, a man who deeply loved his God and his people. He had integrity, he hated what was evil. Certainly, as his story shows, he was not a man who would do evil himself, that’s why he confessed to the crew of the ship that he was running from God and suggested they throw him into the sea. He wasn’t a man who would bring suffering upon the innocent. But when all this is said, the fact remains that Jonah hated evil more than he loved good, and this is the root of his problem.

In this whale of a tale we are told that the reason Jonah fled from God, the reason that Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh with God’s warning, and the reason he got so angry at God, is because he was afraid that Nineveh would repent and that God would save the city. Does this seem incredible? Well, it is. Jonah hoped that God would punish evil, that he would destroy Nineveh, in much the same way that some individuals hope that God will reprimand their enemies, that some bad thing will fall upon those who harm us or our loved ones. Not dissimilar to the many advocates who belong to those extreme forms of religion and preach hatred wherever they are given a platform and will go out their way to destroy those who do not follow the same creed as them. Last year, this country was subjected to further acts of terrorism by individuals who believed that they were acting for some glorious good when in fact they simply wanted to spread fear and turmoil. I long for the day when we no longer need to worry about hatred and zealous bigots because they will be a thing of the past. Jonah’s problem was that he hated more than he loved. He desired that the doers of evil (in his eyes) die, instead of longing for their salvation. Sadly there are still too many people like that today.

Epiphany

Matthew 2:1-12

I wonder what they saw in the sky that first night. What was it that got them thinking? What was it that motivated them to pack and begin a journey to who knew where? Something had been revealed to them. But what was it? Was it in the sky, in their mind, in their heart?

We don’t have much historical information about these wise men and their journey. Matthew says they came from the East. Some have speculated they were from Persia. We like to think that there were three of them but Matthew doesn’t say that and the number has varied throughout the church’s history; 2, 3, 4, 8, even 12. We call them Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar but those names didn’t come about until the seventh century. And what about “the star?” It has been viewed as a supernatural phenomenon, just a regular star, a comet, or sometimes as a conjunction or grouping of planets.

This anonymity and lack of historical information is a reminder that this story, this Epiphany journey, is not just the wise men’s journey; it is everyone’s journey. The truth of scripture is never limited to or contained only in the past.

I don’t know what was in the sky, what they saw, that first night. I don’t know what was in their minds; what they thought, asked, or talked about. I don’t know what was in their hearts; what they felt, dreamed, or longed for. But I know that there have been times when we each have experienced Epiphany; times when our night sky has been lit brightly, times when our minds have been illumined, times when our hearts have been enlightened. Those times have revealed to us a life and world larger than before. They have been moments that gave us the courage to travel beyond the borders and boundaries that usually circumscribe our lives. Epiphanies are those times when something calls us, moves us, to a new place and we see the face of God in a new way; so human that it almost seems ordinary, maybe too ordinary to believe.

That’s what happened to the wise men. They began to see and hear the stories of their lives. Something stirred within them and they began to wonder, to imagine, that their lives were part of a much larger story. Could it be that the one who created life, who hung the stars in the sky, noticed them, knew them, lived within them, and was calling them? Could it be that the light they saw in the sky was a reflection of the divine light that burned within them, that burns within each one of us?

To consider these questions seriously is to begin the journey. That journey took the wise men to the house where they found the answer to their questions in the arms of his mother, Mary. We may travel a different route than the wise men did but the answer is the same. Yes, Yes, Yes. God notices us, knows us, lives within us, and calls us. God is continually revealing himself in and through humanity, in the flesh.

Maybe it was the day you bathed your child and saw the beauty of creation and the love of the Creator. Or that day you said, “I love you” and knew that it was about more than just romance or physical attraction. Perhaps it was the moment you really believed your life was sacred, holy, and acceptable to God. Maybe it was the time you kept vigil at the bedside of one who was dying and you experienced the joy that death is not the end.

These are the stories of our lives, epiphanies that forever change who we are, how we live, and the road we travel. They are moments of ordinary everyday life in which God is revealed in humanity and we see God’s glory face to face.

Waiting

I’ve met many women about 8 and a half months pregnant, desperate for their waiting to be over, for the baby to arrive. It has to be said there are plenty of fathers at that point quite happy to go on waiting a little while longer. Children, it seems to me, bring waiting into a whole new experience for most parents. Many people wait years and years and years to be able to have children in the first place, far more than we realise, and then for some that wait is never fulfilled.

There’s waiting in the delivery room, even if that’s only a few hours it can feel like waiting a lifetime, which of course it is more ways than one.

Then the waiting really begins. Waiting for them to finish feeding, waiting while their wind comes up, waiting for them to go to sleep.

Before you know it, it’s then waiting outside nursery for them to finish, then waiting outside the school gate, then waiting to collect them from cubs, or guides, or ballet, or the chess club, or the young bird watchers. From then it’s a short step to waiting for the late night phone calls for the lift home, which transform into waiting up for whenever they come in.

It’s impossible to avoid the fact that there’s a great deal of waiting involved with children, all the way from conception to adulthood. Even so, we often find ourselves teaching children to wait:
“No, not now, you can have that when you’re older.”
“Just wait a minute and I’ll get it for you.”
“Wait until your birthday.”
“Wait a bit, and just be patient.”

But somewhere along the line, those lessons about waiting are forgotten, or not passed on to the next generation, and so impatient drivers tailgate those they think are going too slow, and our blood boils after pressing buttons on the phone as requested by the computerised voice on the other end only to be told that we have put on hold and that we are number 26 in the queue and our call is important to them. We take our clothes to the same day dry cleaners, and buy food to take away. We pay our bills over the phone, and do our banking on the internet where there are no long lines of waiting people. When a lift takes a long to time to arrive, we give the button another series of rapid jabs.

Ours is a world in which we find ourselves waiting, but one in which we find waiting uncomfortable and challenging. Yet, as we wait, there are signs of hope. Today we baptise Rosa, remembering that many have been baptised before her, and that baptism is a sign and a seal of God’s love for her, as it was for those baptised by John. A sign of hope in amongst a world of waiting. Today we focus upon Rosa. Like all children, she brings joy and hope.

And in this season of Advent we’re waiting for another child, the baby Jesus, whose coming we celebrate at Christmas. During these weeks before Christmas, we wait for something unplanned, overwhelming, something that makes a colossal difference, we long for it and yet we don’t quite know what it’s going to involve.

But this waiting is a bit odd isn’t it, you might say. Surely Jesus came into the world two thousand years ago, and by now we ought to know what sort of difference he’s made? But the truth is that we don’t yet know the difference Jesus might make. We know some of the difference he’s made to our lives as individuals, to the life of the Christian community, the Church, to the whole world. And yet there’s more. We’re still waiting to see what might happen if Jesus was allowed into our lives that bit more fully; that bit more radically.

Advent’s a season completely at odds with how the world around us prepares for Christmas. Waiting on God means that we wait. We wait for that which God has promised. We wait for God to set the world to rights; a time when there will be no more tears, no more pain. We wait for healing, a time when sickness and death are replaced with life and joy. We wait for the coming of the promised child. A sign of God’s faithfulness to us. A sign that God is with us and that he will do what it is that he has promised to do.

Back when John was baptising, people were waiting. They’d been waiting so long that they asked John if he was the messiah, but he told them they had to wait a little longer.

Advent is the invitation not only to wait, but to wait with hope for the future that is to come. Today we see hope for the future especially in Rosa, and rightly so. May she also be a reminder to us of the other baby who will come to us in the manger at Christmas. God’s future promise as we prepare for Christmas. May this advent be for us a time when we are ready to trust and to hope.

I want to end with a poem by Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury:

He will come like last leaf’s fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud’s folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
Will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Special services for Christmas 2018

Sunday 10 December at 10.30 am – an outdoor service for Farnham Christmas market

Sunday 17 December at 6.30 pm – Carols by candlelight

Christmas Eve at 4.30 pm – Christingle service

Christmas Eve at 11.30 pm – first Communion of Christmas (in Farnham Methodist Church)

Christmas Day at 10.30 am – Celebration service for all ages

Further details are in the “events” section, and in the pictures at the top of the homepage.