The Second Sunday of Year B

There is a common misconception that when the Church talks about vocation, being called, it is referring to the call to ordained ministry, to be a deacon or a priest. Nothing could be further from the truth. While this call is an important one, there remains a fundamental call which comes to us all in our baptism: the call to follow Christ. Each and every one of us is called to be a disciple of Jesus, to listen to what He says, and to let this call affect our lives. It is both a daunting prospect, and the most normal and natural thing in the world. 

Our first reading this morning tells the story of the call of Samuel, a young boy serving at the sanctuary in Shiloh with the high priest Eli. After his mother, Hannah, had prayed to God for a child whom she would dedicate to God as a Nazirite, she became pregnant and Samuel was born. Nazirites were not allowed to cut their hair, drink wine, or touch a dead body. Eli’s predecessor, Samson, the last of the Judges in the Book of Judges, was also a  Nazirite. Samuel is called three times. Each time he goes to Eli, whom he assumes is calling him. Eventually Eli tells Samuel to reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant hears.’ (1Sam 3:9). So Samuel responds to God’s invitation, and it totally changes his life. Are we willing to take that risk, and answer God’s call?

Ancient Corinth was something like a cross between London and Las Vegas. It was a rich trading centre with a reputation for sexual immorality. This morning’s second reading from St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, is an attempt to argue that our embodied existence, that is how we live our lives , matters. Often, we become what we do. It is therefore important to do the right thing, and not the wrong. Paul’s argument leads to his conclusion:

You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:19-20) 

We are not our own, we belong to God, who bought us with the price of His Son, Jesus Christ. The world likes to tell us that we are autonomous, that we can do whatever we want to, but at a fundamental level we are God’s people, and belong to the God who made us, and who redeemed us out of love for us. God sets us free to love Him and serve Him, so how we live our lives is our response to that love and an act of loving service. We can choose to glorify God, not that God needs our glory, but because it is how we should live our lives, in love and service. Our faith affects our lived existence.

In today’s Gospel we move beyond the Baptism of Christ to the events of the following day. John has testified that Jesus is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, and that He is the Son of God. When John sees Jesus walking by he again exclaims ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ (Jn 1:36). The phrase looks back to the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 who is led like a lamb to the slaughter. The beginning of Jesus public ministry points to its end on the Cross. Jesus is the Messiah and He will die to take away our sins. Two of John’s disciples hear him saying these words and follow Jesus. When Jesus asks them what they are looking for, the disciples answer ‘Rabbi’. They acknowledge Jesus as a teacher, and ask Him where He is staying. Jesus replies, “Come and you will see.” (Jn 1:39). Jesus invites them to follow Him, to see where He is staying and to spend time with Him. These two disciples of John become followers of Jesus, literally and metaphorically. The Church continues to make the same invitation to the world, to come and see, to follow Jesus. These two disciples stay with Jesus, they listen to Him, they eat with Him, and begin to have a relationship with Him. We then discover that one of the men is Andrew, and that he has a brother, called Simon. Andrew is convinced that he has found the Messiah and brings his brother to Jesus. When Jesus meets Simon he says,

“So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter) (Jn 1:42)

Jesus gives Simon a new name. He calls him Cephas, which means ‘rock’ in Aramaic, Petros in Greek, from which our name Peter comes. Peter will be the rock upon which Christ will build His Church (Mt 16:18). The name Jesus gives points to Peter’s future role as the leader of the Apostles. Jesus takes the initiative and begins to sketch out a future for the disciples who are following Him. It is quick, and matter of fact, and yet momentous. Jesus is gathering people to help Him with this ministry.

The Church therefore begins with a few Galilean fishermen following a rabbi whom they recognise as the Messiah. Thanks to them, and their faith in Jesus, we are in the Church today. Faith, where we put our trust, is an important thing. It affects both who we are, and how we live our lives. Faith turned Peter from a fisherman into a leader of the early Christians, and it has continued to transform lives for the past two thousand years. 

In our baptism, God in Christ invites each and every one of us to follow Him, to ‘come and see’, as the first disciples did, and to invite others, as Andrew invited Simon Peter. To come and see who Jesus is, to get to know Him, and start a relationship with Him. This begins with our sharing in His Death and Resurrection, and ends in the glory of Heaven. Where we, and all the Church, give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Baptism of Christ

The Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan at the start of His public ministry is one of the events found in all four Gospels (the others are the Feeding of the Five Thousand, and the account of the Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, from Palm Sunday to Easter Day). Each gospel contains accounts of the beginning and end of Jesus’ public ministry, as well as a miraculous feeding. If we take a moment to consider both what baptism is, and what it is for, we may come to understand why all four  gospel writers included it in their account of the life and teachings of Jesus. 

Baptism is symbolic washing with water for the forgiveness of sins. If Jesus was baptized does that mean that He sinned? The answer is, No. So, given the fact that Jesus committed no sins, did He need to be baptised by John? Again, the answer is. No. You may begin to wonder what is going on here? Why would Jesus begins His Public ministry in Galilee with a redundant action? If Jesus does not need to be baptised, what is the point of it? What is Jesus doing and why is it important for us?

Unlike all human beings, who commit sin, and become estranged from their relationship with God, Jesus is God become man. He is perfect, sinless, and united with God the Father, and the Holy Spirit, a Trinity of love. There is no need to restore the relationship, because it is one of perfect love. Mark’s account of the Baptism is prefaced by the words of John the Baptist:

After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8)

John the Baptist is linking Christ’s baptism with the redemption of humanity in His death. The very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry points to the Cross, where salvation and freedom will be offered to all who turn to Christ. John baptises with water, but he looks forward to Jesus, who will baptise with the Holy Spirit. This is the baptism of the Church, to save and redeem humanity, by sharing in Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Once Jesus has been baptised by John, extraordinary things happen:

And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:10-11)

At the moment of Jesus’ baptism we hear God the Father, and see God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. The fulness of God is manifest to humanity in the Trinity. We can see and hear God’s saving work. Jesus does not need to be baptised, but does so for three reasons. Firstly to demonstrate His humility, and obedience to the will of the Father; secondly to sanctify the waters of baptism, and finally to act as an example for us to follow. Thus, God sends the Holy Spirit to demonstrate the bond of love between the Father and the Son. The Father speaks to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God. He is beloved of the Father, and His obedience and humility is pleasing in the sight of God. Jesus shows us the way back to the Father. By our own obedience and humility, by our repentance, and turning away from the ways of sin and the world, we return to the God who loves us. This is the message of the church: that God’s grace is available to us, to everybody, even though we haven’t worked for or earned it, even though we have done nothing to deserve it, God’s love and mercy is there for us. In Baptism we receive adoption, and become part of the family of God. Through Baptism we are born again, of water and the Spirit, we are ‘in Christ’, clothed with Him.

The unnecessary nature of the act of Jesus’ Baptism discloses something profound about the nature of God and His love for us. God gives us more than we ask for, because it is in God’s nature to be generous in a way which astounds us. There is something reckless, extravagant, utterly over the top, about the love of God, which should prompt us to love and care for others in a similar way.

John’s baptism of water prepares the way for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in Christ, through which we enter the Church. It shows us a new way of living. Life in the Spirit, life with God, has a profound effect on us, who we are and what we do. It opens up the possibility of living in a new way, a way of love, which mirrors the generosity shown to us by God. This way of life shows us in the Church what it is to be truly alive and how to live in a new way. It points to another act of God’s extravagant love: when Christ dies on the Cross, to take away our sin, to carry our burden, which separates us from God and each other. Our wounds are healed, the relationship is restored so that we can live the life of the Kingdom of God here and now: living out that self-giving, reckless, extravagant love and forgiveness in our own lives, and in the world around us.

Back in our first reading this morning the prophet Isaiah looks forward to the coming of the Messiah with a proclamation of extravagant generosity:

Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isa 55:1)

This invitation is also the invitation of the Church, for people to enter it by baptism and share in the unsearchable riches of Christ. Today we remember that salvation is offered to the world through baptism. We give thanks for the rebirth of our own baptism, and hope to share it with others. Baptism reminds us of the hope which we have in Jesus Christ, hope of new life, and eternal life with Him. Whatever is happening in the world, or in our own lives we can trust in who God is, and what He has done for us. In this trust we can live out our faith so that the world may be transformed and believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever. Amen. 

Advent II

Our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah is joyful and optimistic. It speaks of a future for Israel after exile in Babylon, and a return home. Through the prophet, God speaks words of comfort to His people. These are words we always need to hear, but especially during this time of lockdowns when many of us are exiled from our families and friends. We can be assured that God is working wonders and even though it might not feel currently like it. We can trust that all will be well in the end. The words of Isaiah are quoted in Mark’s Gospel because they look forward to the coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the fulfilment of all prophecy in the Bible: in Him the glory of the Lord is revealed.

Mark’s Gospel begins with the words:

The beginning of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, Son of God (Mk 1:1)

Followed by quotations from Malachi and Isaiah:

“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:1)

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3)

Mark includes these texts this to show us that, from the beginning, prophecy is being fulfilled in Jesus. John is the messenger, preparing the community for the coming of the Messiah: Jesus, who is God.

First appearing in the wilderness, John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He then chooses a point where the busy road from Jerusalem crosses the River Jordan and challenges all those he meets to change their ways. The Baptist calls people to repentance, to turn away from sin and to turn back to God. It is good to be reminded that God’s love and mercy are available to all of us, when we fall short of what God wants us to be. This is why the story of Jesus’ public ministry begins with His Baptism in the Jordan, and points to Golgotha, where Christ will die taking our sins, and those of all humanity upon Himself. Christ’s Death demonstrates God’s love for us and His mercy towards us. It is hard to comprehend how God could love us that much. And yet Christ gives us Himself in the Eucharist, so that His Body and Blood can transform us, so that we can share in His life on Earth and in Heaven.

John the Baptist is the last of the prophets and the voice crying in the wilderness of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He has a challenging and uncompromising message: repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. It may not be what many people want to hear nowadays, but it is, however, what people need to hear. Those who flock to him are aware of their sin, and aware of their need of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. John the Baptist’s message may not be an easy one, but it is actually Good News. Our prayers are answered: that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs can be ours. Through our baptism, we share in Christ’s Death and Resurrection, and we are washed from sin and given the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to make a similar proclamation to John to today’s society, where the Church is increasingly marginalised. Yet our message must still be ‘Repent!’ because the world needs to repent, to turn away from sin and selfishness, and back to a God of love, who longs for us to have life in all its fullness. 

Words can only go so far, they need to be lived out in action, and made concrete in people’s lives and communities. When we live out the love and reconciliation we have received from Jesus Christ, we are helping to make the Kingdom of God a reality. We are showing the world that there is an alternative to the path of greed and selfishness, anger and bitterness, which blights so many lives. The world can be freed from these shackles by Christ by who He is, and what He has done. 

Advent is a penitential season, so we use the colour purple, which is dark and sombre. We do not say the Gloria (Glory be to God on high) because it is a song of celebration. We fast from it now so that we may celebrate with greater joy at Christmas. Advent is a season of repentance when we turn away from our sins, and turn back to the God who comes among us as a baby in Bethlehem and who will come as our Judge and Saviour. 

This what repentance means: turning to God so that He can transform our life and the lives of those around us. It is both an event and a process, something  we need to keep on doing, together. This is the life of faith which Christ calls us to live.So let us in this Advent season live together:

in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, (2Peter 3: 11-12)

Let us prepare to meet Christ filled with His love, so that we may join in the song of praise to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.

The Baptism of Christ

Baptism is something with which we are familiar in the Church. But for the vast majority of Christians baptised as infants, it isn’t something we necessarily remember. We are too young to recall the event. But whether we can remember it or not, we know that it happened, and that it marked our entry into the Church, where we were clothed with Christ and  we were born again, by water and the Holy Spirit. And as Christians we are baptised for many reasons, the first of which is that Jesus was baptised, something which the Church celebrates today. 

At one level it looks a little strange. Baptism washes us from our sins, and Jesus is not a sinner, so He does not need to baptized. Hence John the Baptist’s response, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Mt 3:14 ESV). Our Lord replies by saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15 ESV). Jesus’ baptism is one of obedience to the will of God the Father. That is why our first reading is the first of the Servant Songs in the prophecy of Isaiah. The prophecy is fulfilled when the Father speaks the first verse, at the moment of Jesus’ baptism. He gives Him as a covenant to the nations, a covenant that will be made on the Cross, to save humanity. Christ is a light for the nations, as Simeon states at the Presentation in the Temple, Christ will open the eyes of the blind, and set prisoners free. This is the reality of the Kingdom of God, something of we, through our baptism, are a part.

Today God does a new thing, which lies at the heart of the proclamation of the Good News of the Kingdom by St Peter in this morning’s second reading from the Acts of the Apostles. It is the same proclamation that we find in Isaiah. There is a consistency in proclamation down through the centuries, a guarantee of its truth. God the Father expresses His love for His Son, whose obedience to His Father’s will shows humanity that by saying ‘Yes’ to God, the ‘No’ of Adam and Eve can be undone. Christ fulfils all righteousness, and in so doing points His public ministry towards the Cross.  This is where righteousness and obedience lead: to death and suffering, to display God’s love and finally, once and for all to restore humanity. What is foolish in the eyes of the world, is in fact the greatest possible demonstration of love. We will see that love made visible here this morning, where Christ offers Himself to the Father, and offers the Church His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, so that we may feed on Him, so that He may transform us, so that we may come to share in the very life and nature of God. Through our Baptism and the Eucharist the Kingdom becomes a living reality in us. We are transformed to live its life, and transform the world.

Last Sunday we celebrated Our Lord’s manifestation to the Gentiles. Now this Sunday, at the start of Christ’s public ministry, He is again made manifest. God the Father acknowledges the Son in the flesh, and sends the Holy Spirit, the bond of their love. The fulness of the Divine Trinity is united and manifest on earth to proclaim that Christ is Lord, and the Kingdom has become a reality. Christ does not need to be baptised, as we do, but does so to fulfil all righteousness and to sanctify the waters of baptism for those whom He would redeem, to show us the way to new life in Him. At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus shows humanity the way to the Father, through himself. The world sees the generous love of God, which heals and restores us, from the darkness of the dungeon of sin and evil, to the light and life of the Kingdom of God. As our baptism is a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus, so His baptism points to the Cross, where streams of blood and water flow to cleanse and heal the world. We see the love of the Father, the power of the Spirit, and the obedience of Son, and all for us, who are so weak and foolish, and who need God’s love and healing, and forgiveness.

We need this, the whole world needs it, but is too proud to turn to a God of love, for fear of judgement, knowing that they deserve to be cut off forever, and yet it is exactly such people, such lost sheep that Our Lord comes to seek, whom He enfolds in His loving arms on the Cross, whom He washes in the waters of baptism, so that all may be a part of Him, regardless of whom they are, and what they have done. Salvation is the free gift of God and open to all who turn to him.

Ours is a faith which can transform the world, so that all humanity can share in God’s life and love, each and every one of us can become part of something radical and revolutionary, which can and will transform the world one soul at a time, it may sound strange, crazy even, but that is the point. Rather than human violence, cruelty, and murder, the only way to transform the world is through the love of God. This is what the church is for, what it’s all about; it is why we are gathered here, to be strengthened and nourished, through prayer, the Word of God, and the Sacraments of the Church, strengthened and nourished to live out our faith in our lives to transform the world. Nothing more, nothing less, just a revolution of love, of forgiveness, and healing, which the world both wants and needs, so let us live it so that the world may be transformed and believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Advent II (Baruch 5:1-9, Phil 1:3-11; Lk 3:1-6)

Prophets have a job to do which is both simple and difficult: they proclaim the word of the Lord God, calling His people to repentance, to turn away from their sins, and to turn back to the Way of the Lord. It sounds simple in theory, but in practice it is difficult. People don’t want to listen, or be challenged. It is easier to stay as you are, and not to worry, but that simply won’t do in the long run.

John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah, goes out into the wilderness, a desert place, where people have an encounter with God. He preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Jews were used to the idea of ritual washing and cleanliness, but this was something more, something which would turn your life around. Changing your ways is both an event and a process: you have to will to do it, and to persevere in doing it. At its heart it involves wanting to live the way God wants us to love: being loving, and forgiving others as we have been forgiven. It sounds easy enough, but doing it day after day, week after week, year after year is hard. We fail, and keep failing, but GOD STILL LOVES US. He doesn’t turn away from us, even when we turn away from Him, because that is what love, mercy, and forgiveness are all about. God wants to change the world profoundly. That’s what Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in Luke Gospel is all about. The promise of salvation offers the world a radical change, as we see in the prophet Habakkuk, ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Habakkuk 2:14 ESV) All the prophecy in the Old Testament points to, and finds its fulfilment in, Christ: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,’ (Col 1:19). We will see God’s glory both in the baby born in Bethlehem, and when Christ shall come at the end of time as our Saviour and our Judge. We are prepared for this by the message of the prophets, and especially by John the Baptist, who quite literally prepares the way of Lord. 

So we need to be prepared, by saying sorry to God, by asking for His forgiveness, and by turning our lives around, so that ‘that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 1:6) We’re a work in progress, and for the past two thousand years this is what the church has been, and will continue to be, until Christ comes again. We will fail, on a daily basis, that’s not the point! The point is that we keep trying, and keep asking for forgiveness, and keep trying to live the Christian life. It’s a big, daunting task, which, if it were just up to us individually, we would have no chance of achieving. But it is something which we can do together, as the body of Christ, and relying upon God alone: it is His Gospel, His Church, and His strength in which we will accomplish this. Too often we trust in ourselves and fail. We need to trust in God and ask him to bring about the proclamation of the Gospel through us. We need to be like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge.

The church, then, must be a voice crying in the wilderness. What we proclaim may be at odds with what the world thinks we should say and do, but we are not called to be worldly, to conform ourselves to the ways of the world. We live in a fallen world, which is not utterly depraved, but which falls short of the glory of God. The church exists to conform the world to the will of God. To say to the world: come and have life in all its fullness, in Jesus Christ and turn away from selfishness and sin.

Now, the world may not listen to us when we proclaim this. It may well choose to ignore us, to mock us, even to persecute us. We must, however, be prepared to do this regardless of the cost to ourselves. We must bear witness to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and their saving work in the world, even if it means losing our lives, because it says to the world: we trust in something greater than you, we know the truth and it has set us free. We are free to love God and to serve him, and to invite others to do the same, to be baptised, to turn away from the world, and be fed by word and sacrament, built up into a community of love, offering the world a radical alternative. ‘And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.’ (Phil 1:9-11 ESV)

God offers the world a radical alternative, built on LOVE, which is shown most clearly in the Cross, when Jesus died for love of us. For love of us, whose sins nailed him to it. God loves us so that we might become lovely, and gave His life for us, so that we may come to share His life . This is our hope, this is the hope of Advent, the hope proclaimed by the prophets which we need to live out in our lives. Only then can the world come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Fifteenth Sunday of Year B [Amos 7:7-15, Eph 1:3-14, Mk 6:14-29]

When the Church talks about calling, it often refers to the call of Isaiah, and Isaiah’s response, ‘Here am I! Send me.’ (Isa 6:8) and while it is good to respond to God’s call in our lives, I suspect that far more people, myself included, feel a lot more like the prophet Amos in this morning’s first reading: ‘I was no prophet, nor a prophet’s son, but I was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore figs. But the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” Now therefore hear the word of the Lord.’ (Amos 7:14-16 ESV). Ours then is a not a God who calls the qualified, but who qualifies those called. We may well feel unworthy, or unable to carry out what God wants, and that is fine. God works through us, not because we are capable, but because we rely on Him. Amos tells the uncomfortable truth to the priest and to the king of Israel, and reminds them that their actions have consequences. The plumb line is true, it is a mark of the uprightness that God expects of Israel, the standard of the Law, the Torah. They have fallen short, and will be judged. This is what prophets do, they call people back to God, to walk in His ways. 

It is what John the Baptist has done to Herod Antipas in this morning’s Gospel: he has married his brother’s wife, Herodias, while his brother is still alive. Leviticus 18:16 prohibits this, so Herod has broken God’s moral law, he has sinned. John has preached a message of repentance, to turn away from sinful behaviour, and to turn back to God. It doesn’t make for easy listening, especially when we know that we have all fallen short of what God expects from us. While Herod wants to listen to John, he is WEAK, he doesn’t want to lose face and acquiesces to Salome’s demand. 

Rather like John the Baptist, each of us, through our baptism, is called to bear witness to our faith in our lives. This is what martyrdom is, bearing witness, regardless of the cost. We are called by God to be an example and to live out our faith in our lives. In our baptism we put on Christ, we are conformed to him, as priest, when we pray, as king, when we serve, and prophet, when we proclaim His Kingdom. Our prayer, service, and proclamation are the ways in which we live out our faith as something real in our lives, something which Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians reminds us that we do for the glory of God, whatever the cost. Few of us nowadays here in the UK are likely to bear witness to our faith at the cost of our life. Around the world plenty of Christians are, because they value Christ more than anything in this world, even life itself. Nothing is more important or valuable than Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who comes to us in His Word, the bible, and under the outward forms of bread and wine in the Eucharist, to feed us, and to transform us more and more into His likeness. 

When Jesus’ preaching comes to the ear of Herod he thinks that John has been raised from the dead. This anticipates and points forward to the Resurrection when Jesus will rise from the dead. Jesus and John are proclaiming the same message: Repent of your sins, and turn back to and believe in God. They both do marvellous things because they are both filled with the Holy Spirit. What they are, and what they do, is exactly what the church, you and me are called to, the same message, the same proclamation, the same miracles. If we trust in the God who loves us, then God can and will do wonderful things with and through us.

Herod doesn’t want to kill John, his conscience is pricked, he knows that he has done wrong. He is in a position where he does not want to risk losing face, in a culture where honour and shame are still motivating factors this is understandable, even if it doesn’t make it right. So Herod gives in to Salome’s wishes, and John pays the price of telling truth to power. Are we willing to do the same?

We do so as heralds of the Kingdom of God which is still becoming a reality in the world around us, it is a work in progress until Christ comes again and renews all things in Himself. In the meantime we can rest secure that we are a part of God’s plan for the world, a plan of LOVE, which sees Jesus die upon the Cross for our sins, and rise again to give us the hope of heaven. The redemption of the world in and through Jesus Christ is a reality, one which will become visible and present upon the altar this morning, where we obey His command to ‘Do this in memory of Him’ Christs’s sacrifice upon the cross is made present to us, so that we can share in His Risen Life, and the glory of Heaven here and now. We have a foretaste of heavenly glory to strengthen us on our journey of faith. We have hope for the future because of what God has done for us, and we have a pledge of it here this morning, in Christ’s Body and Blood. 

So how are we going to respond to the amazing generosity of God? Are we content to say, ‘Thank you very much!’ and carry on regardless as though none of this matters? Are we content for religion to be a matter of private devotion, rather than the core of our being, who we really are, the centre of our lives? Are we so conformed to the world that we act as though God is not important? If God can do such amazing things for us, can we not do more for God? It’s hard, we can all do better, and try harder; our lives are pressured, but that is why we are a Christian community. We do things together: we support each other, both in prayer and action, we cannot do it on our own, we can only do it TOGETHER, by the grace of God, working in and through us. It is His church, of which we are members, called to love and serve Him. God provides all that we could ever want or need with regard to faith, hope, and love. If we trust Him and rely upon Him alone then we can bear witness so that the world will come to believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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The Nativity of St John the Baptist

Prophets have a difficult job to do: they tell people uncomfortable truths. People don’t like hearing such things: it makes them feel uncomfortable. Being told that you need to repent from your sinful ways and return to the Lord your God isn’t exactly going to make you popular. People prefer to feel comfortable, nice and warm and fuzzy, God loves you, everything is fine, no need to worry! It isn’t surprising that prophets are often ignored, mistreated and killed. They tell people not what they want to hear, but what they NEED to hear. 

This morning’s reading from the prophet Isaiah looks forward to a Messianic future — it points to Jesus, who He is and what He does, and that is exactly what John the Baptist, His cousin will do. He will be the Voice crying in the wilderness, who will prepare the way of the Lord who by his preaching of the Kingdom, and calling people to repent and be baptised ushers in the public ministry of Jesus, who will tend his flock like a shepherd, because He is the Good Shepherd. 

John is not interested in glory, or riches, or drawing attention to himself. All he wants to do is to point to Jesus, the Messiah. He speaks to a Jewish world which has a corrupt religious establishment, which is so bound up with following the Letter of the Law of Moses, that it has forgotten about the Spirit, that needs to come back to God, and repent of its sinful and foolish ways, which has made following the teaching of rabbis an idol in itself. He will bear witness to the truth, even at the risk of his own life: he will be killed to satisfy the whim of corrupt and sinful rulers. He has a vocation, to call people back to God, to point out where people are going wrong, and show them the right path.  Not only is he a prophet, but also the fulfilment of prophecy: In Malachi 4:4:5-6 we find the following, ‘“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

John comes from a priestly family, his father Zechariah is a temple priest, his mother Elizabeth, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s cousin, also comes from a priestly family. They’ve tried to have children for years, and finally their prayers have been answered. When Elizabeth meets Mary, the child in her womb leaps for joy. Even before John is born he announces  that God is with us, he is a prophet from his conception. His father cannot believe that they’re going to have a baby, and when the Archangel Gabriel tells him, he fails to trust God, and is struck dumb as a result. But in this morning’s Gospel Elizabeth announces that her son’s name is John, meaning ‘God is gracious’ not Zechariah, after his father. “‘What then will this child be?’ For the hand of the Lord was with him” (Lk 1:66 ESV). He will be the last of the prophets, the forerunner, the one who points to Christ, who baptises Him, and who through his proclamation of Baptism and Repentance helps to bring about the movement which Jesus started, which we now call the Church. He recognises that Jesus is the Lamb of God, pointing to His Death, for our sins. 

He is the only saint — with the exception of the Virgin Mary — whose birth the liturgy celebrates and it does so because it is closely connected with the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. In fact, from the time when he was in his mother’s womb John was the precursor of Jesus: the Angel announced to Mary his miraculous conception as a sign that “nothing is impossible to God” (Lk 1:37), six months before the great miracle that brings us salvation, God’s union with man brought about by the Holy Spirit.

(Pope Benedict XVI Angelus 24.vi.12 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2012/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20120624.html)

John recognises Jesus, that in Him, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has become human, like us. It is this wonderful mystery which lies at the heart of our faith as Christians. 

John the Baptist was the forerunner, the ‘voice’ sent to proclaim the Incarnate Word. Thus, commemorating his birth actually means celebrating Christ, the fulfilment of the promises of all the prophets, among whom the greatest was the Baptist, called to ‘prepare the way’ for the Messiah (cf. Mt 11: 9-10)

(Pope Benedict XVI  Angelus 24.vi.07 http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/angelus/2007/documents/hf_ben-xvi_ang_20070624.html)

We honour John because he points to Jesus, because he proclaims Him, Jesus the Messiah, the fulfilment of all prophecy, the Word made flesh, and the Lamb of God, who dies that we might live. He points the way for us to follow as Christians, so that we can be close to Jesus in Word and Sacrament, and so that we might proclaim Him in our lives. We need to have the same level of commitment as John, and the same depth of love for God. 

That is how we live out our faith in our lives, and that is how we can become saints:

Perhaps the chief mark of sanctity is an utter simplicity in the face of the divine will, and of divine promises. Such was the attitude of Christ himself.

We think of seriousness as something which needs to be forced, or put on. Whereas to genuine faith, seriousness is just naked simplicity; it is non-hypocrisy, non-evasiveness, non-sophistication, in the face of the normal environment of the believing soul, which is the ever-present will of God. To be serious, you have only to open your eyes; a man driving on a mountain road does not relax attention to the hairpin bends, and a Christian finding his way in the will of God does not lose sight of the way-marks.

Sanctity is never out of date; and sanctity is nothing but entire simplicity towards God.  

 Austin Farrer, The Brink of Mystery, London 1976: 153-4

So let us be inspired by the example of St John the Baptist, and love and follow God with simplicity, and encourage others so to do, so that all the world may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Advent III Year B

As Christians our vocation is a simple one: joy. This is not, however, worldly joy, the fruit of consumerist excess, a joy of stuff: what we have, what we can buy, or own, or sell, but something far deeper and far richer, which comes from God. We are to be people of JOY, filled with it, and sharing it with others.

We rejoice that our yearly memorial of Our Lord’s nativity is drawing near – a birth which changes everything, which brings about the salvation of humanity. This is the most wonderful news that the world could ever hear, and hear it they must.

In this morning’s Gospel John the Baptist has been preaching a baptism of repentance, a turning away from sin towards the arms of a loving God. He has been stark and uncompromising in his message, as a prophet should be. The people to whom he has been preaching find themselves in an awkward situation, and yet they are drawn to the Good News. They can’t quite understand what’s going on: Is John the Messiah? If he isn’t, who then is he? He calls people to the baptism of repentance in the knowledge that Christ’s gift of His Spirit is coming. He is preparing for the Kingdom of God to be a reality in people’s hearts, and minds, and lives

The state, the church, and the world around us all seem to be in a mess. There is political instability, fears for the future, tyrants and demagogues in power. The peace which the Messiah came to bring it seems as elusive as ever, whereas the human capacity to create misery in the most dreadful ways makes us realise that we still have some considerable distance to travel. One possible answer is the need for repentance: to change our hearts and minds and to follow Christ.

Our readings this morning speak of the kingdom of God. It is a kingdom of love and freedom: good news to those who are oppressed, a healing love which binds up the broken-hearted, a kingdom of healing and of renewal, which proclaims liberty, which releases prisoners. It turns the world on its head, and offers something completely different: comfort to those who mourn, a mantle of praise, a garment of joy and salvation, which we have put on in our baptism.

In all our sadness and sin, we look forward to our yearly remembrance of our Lord’s incarnation. We prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, to go to Bethlehem, to see God come into the world naked, vulnerable, and homeless, utterly reliant on Mary and Joseph. We also prepare to meet him as he will come again, as our Saviour and our Judge. It is a daunting prospect, yet we know and trust that he saves us, that by his wounds on the cross we are healed, our sins are forgiven.

We are to rejoice, strange though it might seem, just like the people of Israel in captivity, in a God who loves us, who heals and restores us, who gives us real hope for the future. In the midst of our sorrow we are to place all our hope and trust in God who loves us, and who saves us.

We are to rejoice, as S. Paul reminds the Thessalonians, we are to be filled with a joy which leads to prayer, to a relationship with God. We give thanks to God for what Christ has achieved and will achieve. It encourages us to hold fast to what is good and abhor what is evil. In living out our faith we are drawn ever closer to the God who loves us and saves us. We draw close to Jesus in His word, and in the Sacrament of the Altar, where we are fed with His Body and Blood, so that we can be sanctified by God, and share in his divine life and joy.

We are to share this joy with others, to share the good news of Jesus Christ with all people, and not just in our words but our deeds. If we share what we have, if we are generous, if we work for justice and are clothed with humility, showing our joy in mutual love, God’s kingdom will be advanced. We, here, now, know that Jesus will come and will judge us by the standard of love which he set for us to follow. Let us trust God and share that trust in prayer, that his will may be done, and that he may fill us with his love.

The world around us is full of pain and anguish, and the only way for it to be healed is in Christ, who was bruised for our transgressions and wounded for our iniquities. He still bears those wounds as the wounds of love. As he flung out his arms on the cross, so he longs to embrace the world and fill it with his peace and love. He will not force us; he is no tyrant in the sky. It is the world which must turn to him in love and in trust, and turn away from sin. Our task is always only all things to be joyful in the Lord, and to live out our faith to help the world turn to him.

It isn’t an easy thing to do, and after 2000 years of trying we may seem as far away as when John proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom. We could just give up, or we can try, and keep trying, no matter how many times we fail, secure in the knowledge that God loves us and forgives us. The One who calls us is faithful, and He will do this. Let us trust in Him, be fed and nourished by Him, with Him, filled with His Holy Spirit, so that all the world may come to believe and trust in Him, and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.

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Advent II Year C

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Remorse is always a prisoner of the past; it does not shrug its shoulders and forget it. The past is present; the fault is ever before the eyes, but there is no way to undo it….
Repentance is also self-reproach, like the other states, but it is never sterile; it lays hold of the past by undoing it through penance. Both Judas and Peter denied Our Lord, but Judas repented unto himself, which was regret and remorse, and took his own life; Peter repented unto the the Lord, which produced a new man

Fulton Sheen , On Being Human, Garden City, 1982: 73
 
The prophets are not always prophets of doom, they also proclaim the message of hope to Israel, in the midst of exile, when times look dark, they are to wrap the cloak of integrity around themselves, and put the crown of the glory of God upon their heads. It is the message of trust, trust in God alone as the source of our hope, the only rock on which to build a life of faith.
As the people of God we are to trust in and to live lives which prepare for the second coming of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, as our Saviour and our judge. To be a Christian, then, is to live a life where our love for each other, and for God, increases day by day as St Paul puts it. We are to grow in virtue by being virtuous – it’s simple, practical and fairly un-glamourous. It takes prayer, a lot of prayer, undertaken by all of us.
In this morning’s gospel we see the last of the prophets, John the Baptist, the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, as he prepares the way for the Lord. He proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins: calling the people of Israel to turn away from the ways of selfishness and sin, to turn back to God. He is a prophet who fulfils prophesy, what Isaiah looks for is fulfilled in John the Baptist In our baptism we promise to turn away from sin, the world, and the devil; we turn away from what the world thinks and does, because our baptism makes us pure and blameless, following the Commandments of God, and shown to us in the life of Jesus Christ. We turn away from the world and we turn to Christ. We are in the world, but not of it. 
The church, then, must be a voice crying in the wilderness. What we proclaim may well be at odds with what the world thinks we should say and do, but we are not called to be worldly, to conform ourselves to the ways of the world. We live in a fallen world, which is not utterly depraved but which falls short of the glory of God, but the church exists to conform the world to the will of God. To say to the world, come and have life in all its fullness, turn away from selfishness and sin, to have life in all its fullness in Jesus Christ.
Now, the world may not listen to us when we proclaim this; it may well choose to ignore us, to mock us, even to persecute us. We have to be prepared to do this regardless of the cost, to ourselves or indeed others. We must bear witness to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and their saving work even if it means shedding blood, of losing our lives, because it says to the world: we trust in something greater than you, we know the truth and it has set us free, we are free to love God and to serve him, and to invite others to do the same, to be baptised, to turn away from the world, and be fed by word and sacrament, built up into a community of love, offering the world a radical alternative, and holding fast to the truths which the church holds dear, since they are given us by God.
 
It’s a big, a daunting task, which, if it were up to us individually, we would have no chance of achieving. But it is something which we can do together, as the body of Christ, and relying upon God alone: it is his gospel, his church, and his strength in which we will accomplish this. Too often we trust in ourselves and fail, we need to trust in God and ask him to bring about the proclamation of the Gospel through us. We need to be like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge.  

 

This is what we await in Advent: the coming of Our Lord as a baby in Bethlehem and his second coming as Our Judge, bearing in his glorious body the wounds of love, borne for us and our salvation. So let us prepare to meet him and live lives which proclaim his saving love and truth to a world hungry for meaning and love and thereby honour God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the consubstantial and coeternal Trinity, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

Advent II Year B ‘Repent the Kingdom is close at hand’

As Christians we are called to live in between Our Lord’s Resurrection and his coming as our Saviour and our Judge. We know that our redemption has been brought about: by Jesus’ birth and by His Death and Resurrection. This is the greatest news of all human history, and, as Christians, we should be glad, we should live lives full of joy. And yet somehow we don’t – we are tired of waiting, or perhaps we are not convinced of the truth of the message, or perhaps too distracted by the cares and worries of daily life.
I wish that I could say that this doesn’t apply to me, but I’m afraid that it does, I’m not a better Christian, though I long so to be. Thankfully, Advent is a time of preparation, of waiting, and hopefully of putting our own spiritual house in order, to greet our Lord when he comes, as the baby born in Bethlehem and as the Judge of all mankind.
       At one level, the idea of judgement worries me deeply, as I suspect if I were all up to me and my efforts, and were I simply to be judged on my own life I would not get to heaven – I cannot earn my way there. I, like all of you, and indeed all of humanity, are simply miserable sinners in need of God’s grace, his love and his mercy. We need Christ to be born, we need Him to die for our sins, and to rise again to give us the hope of eternal life with Him.
It probably does us all some good to think like this from time to time, not so that we feel wretched and depressed, but so that we recognise our need for God, that we turn to him again, that this time of Advent is part of our ongoing spiritual journey – turning away from sin and towards Christ. The Christian faith is the work of a lifetime, and of a community: it is something we all haveto do together.
Thankfully, we as Christians know that he will come to be our judge is our redeemer, who bore our sins upon the cross, he is loving and merciful. Just as the arms of the prodigal son’s father are wide open to embrace him, so too Christ’s arms are flung wide upon the cross to embrace the world, our judge will come bearing wounds in his hands, his feet, and his side, because they are the wounds of love. We can have hope and confidence in this.
       John the Baptist, the last of the prophets is the voice crying in the wilderness of which the prophet Isaiah spoke. He has an uncomfortable and uncompromising message: Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand. It may not be what people want to hear, but it is, however, what people NEED to hear. Thus people flock to him, they are aware of their sin, aware of their need of God, of His love, mercy, and forgiveness. His message is one of repentance, of turning away from sin, from the ways of the world, a world which seeks to change our celebration of our Lord’s nativity into an orgy of consumerist excess. His is the birth, his is the way by which we can find true peace, we can turn to Christ, we can be like Him.
       John the Baptist’s message is uncomfortable and yet it is GOOD NEWS – our prayers are answered- that for which we hope, for which our soul deeply longs is ours.
 Regardless of what we might think or feel, from a divine perspective things look very different. A thousand years are like a day, just as the Psalmist says. Ours is a God of patience and mercy, who wants all to come to repentance, a God who loves Creation, and who created us in His image – He’s interested in the long game – a God of love and patience.

How then  do we respond? We respond by living lives of godliness and holiness, by striving to be found by him at peace, a peace which prepares for His coming. We are patient, we wait in expectant hope, living out our faith, and encouraging others so to do so that all the world may be saved and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and to the ages of ages.