Sunday, November 29, 2015

To make an end is to make a beginning

With darker evenings, gale force winds, heavy rain and the first frosts it’s feeling very much like the end of the year.  And I suppose as we reach the last Sunday in November we really are heading into the last weeks of the year.  Or are we?

Today is also Advent Sunday.  And the traditional Christian Year begins with Advent.  Maybe what feels like the tail end of the year is at one and the same time the start of a new year!  I rather like that thought.  It’s the thought we are going to explore a little on the Sundays of Advent, beginning today.  As we prepare for Christmas through Advent we’ll be reading from the Old Testament only to find that as the Old Testament comes to an end there is a new beginning in the story of Jesus.  This year we are also going to make connections between the beginning of the Gospel story of Jesus and the end as he goes to the cross and beyond to resurrection.  We’ll find that for Jesus the end of the story is but the beginning of an even greater story.  That in many ways is the wonder of the Gospel we share – endings filled with despair turn out to be new beginnings filled with hope.

We’ve been at it again – clearing out things from our past.  On one of those recent forays into the loft I came across a set of 45’s and EP’s – I well remember getting our first gramophone.  With it came a special holder with sleeves for a collection of 45’s – bit sad really!  There’s a Beatles single – she loves you – and a Baron Knights pastiche of all the latest hits - Johnny Morris telling the story of Delilah the Sensitive Cow … and one my Dad got of TS Elliott reading his poetry.  I could never quite understand my father’s enthusiasm for T. S Eliot.  He read his poetry in the dullest of voices … and it was hard to make sense of.

I grew to like it … and I treasured my father’s copy of his collected poems.  The poems are full of all sorts of references and allusions – but TS Eliot was insistent his poems should be published with no references no footnotes.  And the publishing house he helped to found that still publishes his poetry has followed his request.  Until now.  Browsing in Waterstones a couple of weeks ago I spotted it the new two volume edition of the poetry of TS Eliot complete with masses and masses of endnotes and references.


I think I’ll stick with the bare text as TS Eliot wanted it.

I love Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – I well remember a teacher reading it to us – though I like Cats the musical now!  And then at Christmas the coming of the Magi – caught my imagination long time ago and still does.

And then the Four Quartets. Or at least the last section.  Or at least some lines from the last section.

You never can quite understand but somehow as with the best of poetry they say something profound.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning
The end is where we start from.

That’s something that has always fascinated me.  Nowhere is that more so than when it comes to our faith – for somehow it’s what faith is all about.  And at Christmas that theme comes very much to the fore.

With darker evenings, gale force winds, heavy rain and the first frosts it’s feeling very much like the end of the year.  And I suppose as we reach the last Sunday in November we really are heading into the last weeks of the year.  Or are we?

Today is also Advent Sunday.  And the traditional Christian Year begins with Advent.  Maybe what feels like the tail end of the year is at one and the same time the start of a new year!  I rather like that thought.  It’s the thought we are going to explore a little on the Sundays of Advent, beginning today.

That passage we read from Isaiah 11 is such a wonderful passage about new beginnings.  There’s the picture of a tree cut down to its stump – but from the stump comes new growth – and with the new growth new hope.

A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
   and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
   the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
   the spirit of counsel and might,
   the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. 

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
   or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
   and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
   and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
   and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
   and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
   their young shall lie down together;
   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
   on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
   as the waters cover the sea. 

You can see it coming to pass in the day of Isaiah, in the days that followed Isaiah.  But there’s a movement forward an impetus, a momentum – as the Old Testament stories themselves come to an end there is always the seed of a new beginning.

And as the Old Testament comes to a close there is within it the seeds of a new beginning.

And in Christ that new beginning happens.

But as the story of Jesus is told as it comes to an end with the cruel death of Christ, that end becomes a new beginning – as in resurrection a new story begins to unfold.

As the Gospel story of Jesus was told it caught the imagination of those who heard it … and they set off on that exploration of faith that would lead them forward to the end of their lives only to find that in the end was a new beginning of resurrection in the presence of God.

As the Gospel story was committed to writing those who put the story together could sense the power of the story – and the way they told it has a tremendous power.

On the first three Sundays of Advent I want to look at the three Gospels that have the great Christmas stories at the beginning.  Luke, Matthew and John.  And what I want to do is to look at the way in each of the Gopel stories there is a wonderful way that the story ends where it began only to find that end place the start of something wonderfully new.

In our Advent services I want to look at the way three of the Gospels tell the story

 As we prepare for Christmas through Advent we’ll be reading from the Old Testament only to find that as the Old Testament comes to an end there is a new beginning in the story of Jesus.

  This year we are also going to make connections between the beginning of the Gospel story of Jesus and the end as he goes to the cross and beyond to resurrection.  We’ll find that for Jesus the end of the story is but the beginning of an even greater story.  That in many ways is the wonder of the Gospel we share – endings filled with despair turn out to be new beginnings filled with hope.

To make an end is to make a beginning
And the end is where we start from.

And so we turn to the end of the Gospel according to St Luke.

 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

The story of Jesus has been told.  That powerful teaching of love for God, love for neighbour, love for enemy.  The wonderful parables.  The great journey to Jerusalem.  The devastating end to his life that seemed such a crushing defeat to all his followers.  And then the mystery, the awe, the excitement of all that happened subsequently.  In some way they met with the one who was risen and knew in his presence in some way they were in the very presence of God.  The Gospel closes with the very friends of Jesus who had been devastated in their loss, singing his praises in the Temple – that place where God’s presence was so very real.

And that’s where the story had begun.

In the temple.

With someone sensing the presence of God with him in the most mysterious and disturbing of ways.

Luke 1:5-25

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside.

Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.’ The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.’

 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.’
Between that beginning and that ending a massive story unfolds that brings the presence of God in all his love into the lives of many, many people.   It’s the story of the coming of John the Baptist with his prophetic word that would give light to those sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, and would guide our feet into the way of peace and of Jesus the Christ who would bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, who would fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich empty away.

And it really is a story for everyone.  In Luke’s telling of the story at the beginning of the Gospel it is the women who play such a part – Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary the mother of Jesus have such a powerful part to play.  And Anna, the prophet, who becomes the first to speak about the Christ child to all who were looking for the redemption and liberation of Jerusalem.  And at the end it is the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee who followed him, saw the tomb where he was laid … and returned on the first day of the week at early.  And again the women are named: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women with them – they were the first to tell the good news of the risen Christ to the apostles.

At the beginning and at the end people in the presence of God give glory to God.

At the beginning and the end, women have a voice to speak and all are drawn to that voice.

Out of apparent endings come new beginnings.  And something to celebrate.

If you’ve read your Highbury News you know I am celebrating today.  It’s been a year joining with our family in Patagonia as they celebrate 150 years of the Welsh Community there.  And doing that family history in the famly grave yard near Brynsiincyn on Anglesey we came across more of the family story.

My Great Great Grand-father’s brother and his wife emigrated to Patagonia.  His wife’s parents and two of his sisters were buried in the same graveyard.  And the husband of another in a much finer grave.

It was that other sister who in the late 1860’s had emigrated to the USA as a young girl just turned 20.  She went at the invitation of the United Welsh Societies because she had a wonderful way with words – a poet and a preacher she could preach with a real inspiration.  And she did.  Throughout the States in Welsh Communities – she married and in the late 1880’s was ordained in the Welsh Congregational Church in Waterstown, Wisconsin – the first woman minister to be ordained in that state.

And it was 100 years ago today that she died.

Her son by then had become a significant figure in government circles and went on to  be part of Woodrow Wilson’s team at Versailles after the first world war, campaigned for Roosevelt’s election as President and then served as Ambassador to Moscow just before the Second world war, becoming Harry S Truman’s special envoy to Winston Churchill after the second world war.

Wonderful family stories – but most of all the passion for preaching – sharing the wonderful good news of Jesus Christ and the difference he makes in the lives of us all.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Isn’t that the case.  It’s as we arrive at the end of the Jesus story that we really understand the beginning.  And it is only as we remember the ending that is a new beginning that we grasp all that the beginning actually meant.
Almost the last word is given by T.S.Eliot to another woman preacher.  A remarkable woman who lived in Norwich 600 years and more ago.  Julian of Norwich.

For me it sums up this year a message of certainty in a world of uncertainty.  A certainty that we need to hold on to as we discover the full meaning of the Christmas story by paying attention to the ending of the story only to find that’s the beginning of something new.

And the words TS Eliot wrote into the troubled world of the 1930’s?

And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well.

That’s what I want to hold on to this Christmas.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Apocalypse Now!

In 2015 I have been preaching on Luke's Gospel on Sunday evenings.  You can read those sermons on another blog - Questioning Jesus - a 21st Century reading of Luke's Gospel

This morning we had a Parade Service exploring the God who is love and our response to the troubles of the world today.

In our evening service I had arrived at the Apocalyptic teaching of Jesus in Luke 21.  As ever in preaching there were connections to be made with the world of today.

We read from Daniel 7 and from Revelation 5 and then turned to Luke 21.  Some see this apocalyptic writing as a prediction of the end times.  I believe something very different is going on in this writing ... and that what Jesus does in his teaching in Luke 21 should be the inspiration for the response we make to what's going on in today's world, not least with the threat of terrorism at the hands of ISIS.

Reading Luke's Gospel as a Book

Books are in again!  There was a moment three or four years ago when the Kindle seemed to have won the day and sales of books plummeted.  And then the novelty wore off and this last year sales of books have soared.  There’s something about reading a book, having it in your hand, you know how much you’ve read, how much there is to go – it has a feel to it, even a smell.  It’s not quite the same to read at the bottom of your electronic screen that you’re up to 60% of the book.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Edna Price at the moment – not at all well in hospital, and member of Highbury’s book clubs for fifty years and more!  It was great seeing Heather’s little pile in the office of the minutes of the book club stretching back to the 1960’s.

Jesus the Prophet

You need to get the feel of Luke’s gospel as a book.  We’re nearly at the end!  Chapter 21 and there are three chapters to go … and we all know what’s in store.  Of the twenty chapters we have read so far, ten of them – that’s nearly half the whole book have been devoted to Jesus’s fateful journey to Jerusalem.

And it was fateful.

There was a moment half way through the journey when a group of sympathetic Pharisees – yes, sympathetic Pharisees: they weren’t all hostile! – came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

But Jesus was resolute.  He was not going to be put off.  He knew he had to go to Jerusalem, and thre was nowhere else for him to go.

“Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow and the next day I must be on my way because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”

Pretty powerful stuff.  He is pretty scathing about Herod.  Dangerous thing to say when you think what Herod had done to John the Baptist – he had beheaded him.

One thing Jesus said there is really significant.  You have to really understand it in order to appreciate what Jesus does when he gets to Jerusalem.

Jesus describes himself as ‘a prophet’.

But what is a prophet?

The Prophet's Task - a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

One fascinating thing to do in the Old Testament is to weave the story of the Prophets whose books make up the last third of the Old Testament with the books that tell the story of the kingdom of Israel and after their division, the kingdoms of the North and the South.  The books of Samuel and Kings.

The prophets are the ones who challenge the powers that be, who challenge the king – that’s why their task is so important in Jerusalem – for that’s where power lay.

Prophets speak about the past, the present and the future.  But the future they speak of is not just based on random or even on God inspired predictions.  They sense God’s inspiration in their hearts as they offer a critique of what’s happened in the past, an analysis of what’s happening in the present, putting their finger on what is going wrong under the rule of the the current king, and a forecast of what’s in store:  if things carry on as they are then is is what’s going to happen.  Change your ways and then things will work out differently in this way.

Modern Prophets are the Think tanks who offer a critiqe of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

The equivalent of the Kings, the powers that be today are the politicians, the government.  The equivalent of the prophets are the campaigning think tanks.  They are the ones who offer a critique of the past, an analysis of the present.  They point out the consequences of following current policies and suggest ways to change that will lead to a better future.   Keep on doing things this way and this will happen.  Change your ways and that will happen.

Jesus the Prophet offers a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

 What happens when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem is exactly what you might expect remembering what he wanted those Pharisees to go and tell that fox, Herod!

Rounding the corner and seeing the city he wept over it, saying “If you even you had only recognised on this day the things that make for peace!  But now they are hidden from your eyes.”

What incensed him more than anything else was what Herod and his successors had done with the temple – the once simple yet imposing house of prayer had been demolished and re-built as an opulent, extravagant building Herod the Great had hoped would become one of the wonders of the world – in that monstrous project they had succeeded only in turning what should have been a house of prayer into a den of thieves.

And a lot of the problem had to do with money.  The waste of money in building the temple project could only be acquired by massive imposition on ordinary people – that’s why Jesus dealt so harshly with the money changers in the temple.

As day by day he returns to the Temple the authorities tried to catch him out with their hostile questioning.  They watched him and sent spies who pretended to be honest in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

Jesus' Critique of the Past and Analysis of the Present

It was the ruling class – the people in charge in Jerusalem, those in power, that Jesus was most scathing of.  But it’s easy to miss how scathing Jesus was.  His anger was in his tone of voice.  And you don’t always spot that on the page of a book.

It was wonderful celebrating Jocelyn’s 100th birthday- I was recalling that occasion when Jocelyn and Christabel first came to church and my embarrassment.  I had only just plagiarised a book Christabel had written.  I had written for permission, the reply came back not known at this address, and so I copied some exercises from her book on public speaking into some notes I was putting together to train preachers in the use of their voice.

The exercise I remember invited you to say a single sentence in ten different ways – using your voice to indicate how you might say it.

Christabel graciously gave me a newer edition of her book, ‘Sounding out your voice and speech.”  One exercise I seem to remember involved saying the same sentence in 10 different ways – in a kindly way, in an angry way, in a sarcastic way, in a helpful way, in a sceptical way.

The words remain the same – the meaning changes because of the way the words are spoken.

Take the first four verses of Luke 21.  It’s the loveliest of stories because we are so used to it being read in the loveliest of ways.

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, in the loveliest tone of voice that shows just how much he comens the wonderful generosity of that poor widow.  ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee.

Elsie Chamberlain, first woman chaplain to the forces, broadcaster who pioneered live worship broadcasts on the radio and one-time President of the Congregational Federation, used to loathe the hymn – because congregations would sing it lustily and not mean it …

Take my silver and my gold,
Not a mite would I withhold!  Don’t you believe it, Elsie would say!

I still like the hymn – but Elsie has made me really think about that verse.  And about that widow.

Go back three verses and start the passage there. Use the same words but speak them in a very different tone of voice

In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, in an angry tone of voice outraged at the burden imposed on this woman that while the wealthy can give apparently generous gifts without it impacting on their the way they lived their lives, she is expected to give everything she’s got even though it means she ends up destitute.:  ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’  How disgraceful!

There is a growing tension as Luke 20 ends and Luke 21 begins.  Jesus is offering a critique of what’s gone wrong in the past, an analysis of what’s going wrong in the present, and he forecasts that if the powers that be carry on  in that way it will lead inexorably to devastating destruction.

Jesus' forecast for the future for his generation

Jesus looks at what’s going on.  He sees that it is arousing the kind of discontent that will lead people to take up arms against the Romans.  Some of those hotheads, the zealots, are among his closest disciples.  They really are sons of thunder.  But he can see that when that happens the Roman power will obliterate the temple, in spite of how splendid it seems and destroy the city in spite of how impregnable it appears.

It’s as if the seeds of its downfall are contained within what is happening now.

 They key to understanding what Jesus goes on to say is in verse 32 Truly I tell you this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place.”

To get his point across he couches his language in the vivid end-of-the world language that was characteristic of apocalyptic writing.  But it is essentially an analysis of what’s going wrong now and a forecast of what the consequences will be for that generation if they carry on that way.

Jesus' call to us to have a prophetic voice today that offers a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a forecast for the future

I believe these verses speak very powerfully to us today – in the horrors that are going on in the world, in things like climate change.  But I do not believe that’s because we as Christians should be looking to the end of the world at the moment.  But rather we should be having a prophetic voice, as Jesus had a prophetic voice, we should provide a critique of what has happened, an analysis of what is happening and then propose ways forward that will be in accordance with God’s way of doing things and lead.  On the sharing or the world’s resources, on climate change, on society.  And on the response to make to ISIS.  There are different points of view – feed into that thinking.  Where do you stand and tell our MP Alex Chalk where you stand.

ISIS - a critique of the past, an analysis of the present and a proposal for the future

The critique of the past I would share is that the bombing wars in response to the terrorism of 9/11 have not made the world more secure but have created the current situation.  My analysis of the present is that to engage in bombing wars again will make things even worse and lead to more atrocities.  My proposal as an alternative is to spend the money you would spend on bombing on increased domestic security in policing and intelligence, on strengthening the cohesion of society and with determination working together as a community without succumbing to fear.

Those are my views.  We each of us here will have our own views.  To be true to the spirit of Jesus in Luke 21 I believe we should exercise our prophetic voice and make our views known to the powers that be – contact Alex Chalk or whoever your MP is.

How will it all end?  All will be well, all  manner of things will be well

But there’s more.  With the critique of the past, the analysis of the present and the forecast for the future Jesus gives comes also some very significant input into the way people should think in the middle of troubled times.  We must take heart, take courage, keep watch, and the bottom line of his thoughts is that we can be assured that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus for in answer to that sometimes frightening question, - how’s it all going to end? -  we can have that assurance that ultimately in God’s time, in God’s way all will be well, all manner of things will be well.

The critique of the past and the analysis of the present has already started – there’s a little bit more of that and then we come to the forecast for the future.

Luke 21 - Jesus' Apocalypse for his generation and his call for our generation

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’

The awful thing was that the powers that be did not listen.  The armed wing of Jewish resistance actually won the argument and thirty five years later succeeded in ousting the Romans from Jerusalem.  Only to find the Roman legions coming down with untold power to destroy the temple and the city in AD 70.

But that’s to anticipate!  In the early 30’s Jesus’s listeners could scarcely believe what he said,

 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 

And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.

And now as verse 32 shows he uses end-of-the world language to speak about what’s going to happen in that generation – in the next 40 years.

 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’

Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Can you see the encouragement Jesus gives.  Take heart, be not afraid, in the words of Julian of Norwich all will be well, all manner of things will be well.

But continue in the way you are going  and what is going to happen will happen.

 ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

The grounds for the confidence that all will be well lie with Jesus himself.  There is a sense that he looks to the ultimate glory that will be his.  But when he draws on some farily recent apocalyptic writing in the Book of Daniel he speaks of himself as the Son of Man who comes to God – and speaks of the death and the resurr4ection and then the ascension to be at the right hand of God that is to come very shortly and will give assurance of the ultimate victory and the glory that is to be.

 There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’

These words are the grounds for the courage they are to find within days in the death and resurrection of Christ, within weeks in his final parting from them as he goes to be with God in heaven.  What’s a good way of getting his point home – in a story.

 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

It’s in this generation, says Jesus.

But these words give hope to us in our gneration.  The grounds of our hope are in Jesus Christ himself.  His words are assured.  His promises firm. They will not pass away.  So what are we to do?

Keep watch.  Keep on living in the way Jesus maps out.  Keep firm in the faith.  Stand firm.

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

Those words his followers were to take to heart – though they could only do that as they drew on the strength of the Holy  Spirit poured on them on the day of Pentecost.

This is the encouragement we need to take.  Keep firm.  Hold fast.  Follow in the footsteps of Jesus.  The real lesson of this powerful speech is that we need to be prepared to offer an analysis – the church should be in the business of being a think tank to challenge the powers that be.  That’s what Middle Esat Concern is doing, it’s what Open Doors does, it’s what Embrace the Middle East does, it’s what Christian Aid does, it’s what Ekklesia.

Keep the faith, stand firm.  Be critical, be analytical – let’s make sure that prophetic voice Jesus had is heard in today’s world with today’s issues.  For people do listen.

 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple

So in the middle of the troubles of this time let’s seek out the presence of God in Christ, listen to his Word and live our lives by it.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Peace Memorials, Peace Babies - reflections for Remembrance Sunday

Welcome to our services for Remembrance Sunday.

During this morning’s service we shall observe the two minutes silence at 11-00.  Memories of those who have lost their lives in the wars of the last century and this are at first hand for some of us and have been passed on to others of us.  They are memories to honour.  All those I have ever spoken to about their actual memories of war have had one thing in common: the memory they share of a longing for peace for the next generation.  We honour those memories as we commit ourselves to work for that peace they longed for.  For most of the nearly twenty-five years of my time at Highbury our country has been at war.  Today is a day not only to remember but also to reflect on the extent to which those wars have brought the peace those who have lost their lives in war have longed for.  Maybe more than anything else we should remember that “God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us.”  (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Welcome and Call to Worship

Hymn 14 All people that on earth do dwell

Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer

It was not a comfortable time to live.  War and conflict and the threat of war and conflict were never out of the news for long.  The once united kingdom of Israel had split into two often warring kingdoms – and the prophets of the Northern Kingdom and the Prophets of the Southern Kingdom in the Eighth Century before Christ were all too conscious of war and the threat of war.

They had a vision for the future, a future that would ultimately be in God’s hands.  And there vision is a vision for us today as we live in a world where war and conflict and the threat of war and the threat of conflict seem never to be out of the news.

Reading Micah 4:1-5

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it, 
   and many nations shall come and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 
He shall judge between many peoples,
   and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more; 
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. 

For all the peoples walk,
   each in the name of its god,
but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God
   for ever and ever.

Bassett’s is a good Yorkshire name … and in Sheffield in Yorkshire Bassett’s was a really big sweet manufacturer.

And when the First World war was over they came up with a brilliant idea – they made some wonderful sweets out of a kind of jelly substance and nearly 100 years later you can still buy Bassett’s jelly babies.

But in 1918 they didn’t call them jelly babies.

They called them

Peace Babies.

Get one person to come up and take a jelly baby

Why a baby?

I reckon it was because they wanted something better for their children – they wanted peace and security for their children.

Then get five other people to come up … and take one of each of the other colours.

Why different colours?

If you look at a map the countries are marked in different colours – so maybe the peace babies from all the different countries should come together – coming together from all backgrounds – and working for peace.

Maybe you can rearrange the colours – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Pink, Purple
-          The colours of the rainbow – almost.

But have you ever noticed each of the coloured babies is different – they have silly names on the pack – does anyone know the names?
Red is Brilliant
Green is Boofuls
Orange is Bumper
Yellow is Bubbles
Purple is Big Heart
Pink is Baby Bonny

Maybe babies of all different shapes and sizes, all different colours are all important – and we seek peace for the sake of them

But there’s something else … I read that there are secret signs on each of the peace babies … and those signs can remind us of the love God has for all of us.  So we have an experiment to make.

Get each one to lick the coating off the front of their jelly baby.

On the Purple peace baby is a heart – that reminds me that God’s love reaches out to everyone.

You can see the Green Peace Baby is crying – that reminds me that God shares in our sadness and weeps with us when he sees the pain there is in our world

You can see the Red Peace Baby has a big B on it.  That reminds me that God sent Jesus into the world even to the point at which he was crucified and gave his blood, his life for us – in Jesus God shared our worst suffering so that in Jesus we can share in the wonderful glory of God.

 And the Pink Peace Baby is just a baby - that reminds me that in Jesus we are all children of God, and loved by God.

The Yellow Peace Baby is wearing a necklace – that reminds me of the glory of God and that all will be well in the fullness of God’s time

And the Orange Peace Baby is wearing a bag round his waist – that reminds me we all are on a journey and we need to keep going in that journey of faith and Jesus will  be with us all the way.

Aren’t they special!

Maybe we should think of babies who are caught up in the horror of war – and pray for that peace that those who have been involved in war longed for – especially let’s pray for the babies and the children who are caught up in the horror of war at this time in places of conflict in flight as refugees.

Maybe we should think of ourselves as Peace Babies that have grown up and we too are on a journey of faith – let’s keep in mind that wonderful ultimate promise that all will be well … and in the meantime let’s ourselves promise to walk in the light of the Lord!

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it. 

Come all the people of God
   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!

   Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’

Come all the people of God
   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!

For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

Come all the people of God
   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more. 
Come all the people of God

   come, let us walk
   in the light of the Lord!

A Hy-Spirit Song

An Act of Remembrance for Remembrance Sunday

In a moment or two we shall stand to remember those who have lost their lives in war, particularly the wars our country has engaged in during the last Century and this:  the First World War, the Second World War, Korea, the Suez War, the end of Empire Conflicts in Africa and elsewhere, the Falklands War, the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, the terrorist atrocities of 9/11 7/7, Libya, Syria and since.

We make a special remembrance of those who lost their lives from this church, most young men in their teens and in their twenties.

Those who were in that First World War longed that it should be the war to end all wars.  Those who were in the Second World War longed that it should be the war to end all wars … as we remember, let us honour their memory in our commitment to work by all means possible for that peace which they longed to pass on to future generations, a peace we pray for in a world that in so many places is still at war.

Will you please stand.

We remember all those who have lost their lives in war … particularly do we remember those connected with this fellowship, Highbury Congregational Church who lost their lives:

W.G. Bowles
DM Brown
G Clayton
C Coles
F Cooper

F Gill
K Gurney
HG Marshall
J Phillips
J Saunders

W Stephens
F Warren
CW Winterbottom
H Woodward

And Paul Chadwick who lost his life in Iraq.

They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.  At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.

2 Minutes Silence and then Prayer

Song 19 Make me a channel of your peace


Sunday Special continues

It is interesting how names change over time.

Some of the names used a long time ago are worth re-discovering – they can make us think of things differently, not least on Remembrance Sunday.

Prestbury’s has been rebuilt after being knocked over.  The one outside All Saints has been rebuilt recently.  There are plans to refurbish the town centre one.  Most towns and villages up and down the country have one.

A War Memorial.

It’s not only jelly babies that have been known by another name.

War memorials have also been known by another name.

Between the wars Arthur Mee brought out a series of guide books to the counties of England that are much sought after in second hand book shops to this day.

I’ve got one of Gloucestershire.

The King’s England
Gloucesterhire – the Glory of the otswolds
Edited by Arthur Mee.

Skimming through the book it’s fascinating how frequently he gives those memorials a different name, a name rarely used today.

In Great Rissington and in Shipton Moyne and in St Paul’s church in Gloucester he speaks of there being Peace Memorials, the Salperton memorial bears the name of those ‘who died for peace’ and in the parish church in Sandhurst there is a peace window.

We honour the memory of those whose lives have been lost in war by committing ourselves again to that peace which they longed for.

It is to that work of making peace that Christ calls us.

That is expressed very powerfully in a passage from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  Paul goes to the heart of the Christian faith and invites us not to see things from a human perspective but from Christ’s perspective.

He invites us to think of the way we are through Christ reconciled to God … and then challenges us to a ministry of reconciliation as Ambassadors for Christ.

Reading 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says,

‘At an acceptable time I have listened to you,
   and on a day of salvation I have helped you.’

See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!

A while back we sang the original version of a hymn that had been written in 1907 by John Oxenham.

We are now going to sing a hymn inspired by that original hymn

322 In Christ there is no east or west

According to Arthur Mee, the peace memorial in Shipton Moyne church “has among its eight names a touching reminder that the grim harvest of the war in this small place was not confined to men and boys; it contains the name of Elizabeth Randall, who was in service at the rectory when she became a nurse, went to the Front, and was killed in the Serbian Retreat.”

One name has figured large for me this year.  In the year my father would have been 100 our first grand-daughter arrived and was given the name Edith. 

I grew up with the story of Edith Cavell – October 12th was the centenary of her execution at Dawn in Brussels.

Edith Cavell was a British nurse during the First World War. She is celebrated for saving the lives of soldiers from both sides without distinction and in helping over 200 Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium.

Her story is a moving one … and the story of the memorial that was put up in her memory is thought provoking too … and again points us from the time immediately after the first world war to focus our remembrance towards that longing for peace.

A Small Village in Swardeston

Edith Louisa Cavell was born in Swardeston, a small village in Norfolk where her father was the local vicar, on December 4th, 1865. She had 3 younger siblings and you can still visit the house they grew up in known as "Cavell House".

Edith moved to Belgium, where she worked as a Governess and she was soon fluent in French. She returned to Swardeston when her father became very unwell and Edith assisted with nursing him back to health. This act is what probably inspired Edith to become a nurse. She trained at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, under Eva Lückes. Edith wasn't always the best student, Eva described her as unpunctual and not a nurse that could be relied on! However, Edith's intentions were good!

"At a time like this, I am more needed than ever."
 Edith Cavell, 1915.

The Outbreak of War

In 1907, after completing her nurse training and completing a number of roles in hospitals in the UK, Edith was invited back to Brussels to nurse a sick child. Despite Eva's comments, Edith's skills were soon recognised and she was invited to be Matron of the first Nursing School in Belgium. She excelled in this role despite the challenges presented by societal views of women and work at that time. However, it was a great accolade when the Queen of the Belgians broke her arm in an accident and requested one of Edith's nurses!By 1912, Edith was busy managing one nursing school, three hospitals, three private nursing homes, 24 communal schools for nurses, thirteen private kindergartens, private duty cases, a clinic and was giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses.

On the outbreak of the First World War, Edith was in Norwich. "At a time like this, I am more needed than ever" were the words of Edith before she set off for the Frontline in Belgium. 

Edith cared for all the wounded, regardless of nationality. She was greatly criticised by many at the time for assisting the German and Austrian soldiers, when they were fighting against the British. Edith soon began to work with others to smuggle the Allied soldiers that she was caring for, out of the hospital and into neutral Holland.

Arrest and Execution

After a lengthy investigation, the suspicions of the German Officials grew and Edith, along with others, was arrested. She knew of the implications in being involved with the underground, so Edith kept it a secret from many of her nurses.

When interrogated by the Officials, Edith provided all of the details surrounding the underground and she was sent to trial with 35 others. Most were sentenced to hard labour.
Despite international pressure for mercy, she was shot by a German firing squad. Her execution received worldwide condemnation and extensive press coverage.

An Appeal

At the time, millions of soldiers and civilians owed their lives to the dedication, self-sacrifice and hard work of nurses. In 1917 the country responded by launching an appeal for nurses "shattered mentally and physically, who have sought the health of others at the expense of their own."

The Nation's Fund for Nurses was born, which became Cavell Nurses' Trust.

In conversation only a couple of weeks ago Mary Michael happened to comment something about a connection she has had through nursing with Edith Cavell …

Mary Michael’s comments

About going to the same nursing school, about the ethos of nursing she handed on … and about the way she was an ordinary kind of person who got things wrong at times too!

But what of her memorial?

It stands in pride of place between Trafalgar Square and the Coliseum, between the National Portrait Gallery and St Martin-in-the-fields.

Initially the giant statue of Edith Cavell simply had the words King and Country engraved on it.  But in the 1920’s there were protests from the national Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland and the government under Ramsey MacDonald, agreed it should also bear what were said to be Cavell’s final words on the eve of her execution … so these words were added.

“Patriotism is not enough.
I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”

Those words captured that spirit of her nursing zeal, inspired by her Christian faith and her commitment to nurse wounded from all sides in the war.

What prompted Edith Cavell in that insight was her Christian conviction … our calling is to share that ministry of reconciliation that Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 5:11-6:2

Maybe what’s important is for us not to look at the world and its needs from a human point of view, but from the perspective Christ gives us.

To be in Christ is to be a new creation and to have a whole new way of thinking of the world and its values.

Everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Chrsit, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;

It is that ministry of reconciliation that we should commit ourselves to as we seek to work for that peace those who lost their lives in war longed for.

He has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us.

That makes us ambassadors for Christ as we are reconciled with God.

Maybe we should think of those memorials as Peace Memorials, and think of that memorial to Edith Cavell as a Peace memorial.

There is, however, a twist in the tale.

Just before dawn on that 12th October when Edith Cavell was executed it was the Anglican chaplain in Brussels who shared in prayers with her.  He made a note of her last words … but when he typed up his notes and sent them to the US legation in Brussels, they were a little different from the hand written notes he had made.

It was the type-written record that made it on to the memorial in Trafalgar Square.

As Ambassadors of Christ maybe we should take seriously Edith Cavell’s last words as recorded in the chaplain’s hand-written note:

Patriotism is not enough.  It is not enough to love one’s own people, one must love all men and hate none.”

Hymn: Beauty for Brokenness

Prayers of Concern

Hymn  For the healing of the nations                      Rhuddlan

Words of blessing

So much to pass on at Highbury

If you give a little love you can get a little love of your own

A blessing shared at Highbury

Now and the Future at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions at Highbury

Dreaming Dreams Sharing Visions

Darkness into Light