Blessings and woes

This is the sermon I delivered today at Barnes Methodist Church. The set text today was Luke 6:17-26 but I added Matthew’s account of the same passage (the Sermon on the Mount) to it, Matthew 5:1-12.

brooklyn_museum_-_jesus_teaches_the_people_by_the_sea_jc3a9sus_enseigne_le_peuple_prc3a8s_de_la_mer_-_james_tissot_-_overallIntroduction

This year, our lectionary gospel readings are generally taken from Luke. For many Christians, his is the favourite gospel. It is full of wonderful stories, like the Prodigal Son, and many Christians have found a radical inclusivity in his re-telling of Christ’s ministry and life. It is a gospel that makes clear the inclusivity of the Kingdom of God, with women, children, the poor and the foreigner all given central roles.

The reading set for today, though, is far more familiar to us from Matthew’s gospel, where it is known as the Beatitudes. This in turn comes from the first Latin translation of this passage in the Vulgate, where each phrase begins with the word beati, which can be understood as meaning “happy” or “blessed”. In Matthew’s gospel, the author reports nine such blessings pronounced by Jesus – and it is this version which has become beloved to Christians everywhere, ever since (as seen in the Chinese version below). In Luke’s gospel, we find a very similar sermon, given on another occasion, but not only does it have fewer blessings (just four), but we also find four corresponding woes. It is this latter passage that will be the focus of our reflections today

Relationship SynopticsBefore we start, we should note that the differences between the two passages should give us no cause for alarm at all. We know that both Matthew and Luke relied on the gospel of Mark, which had been written earlier, for a large proportion of their material. However, we also know that they had independent sources for what they wrote – eyewitnesses from the life of Jesus, oral traditions and even written material, Like all good preachers, Jesus would almost certainly have repeated himself, and edited the material for his audiences, so Matthew and Luke are probably reporting what he said on different occasions. What we can be absolutely sure of is that these are the words of our Lord, reliably passed on to us by generations of faithful Christians, and we are called upon to grapple with them now.

Let us hear the two readings consecutively, and as we do so, I would invite you to note the similarities and differences in the texts.

The readings

Reflection

So, what similarities and differences did you spot this morning? Let us work through the easier ones to begin with:

A mountain or a plain?

tissotbeatitudesThe most obvious difference between these two sermons is obviously the location in which they were delivered. In Matthew (5:1), Jesus is “up the mountain”; in Luke (6:17) , he is “on a level plain”. As I said earlier, this is really no cause for concern and the two writers are almost certainly reporting two separate addresses. In Matthew, the passage forms part of a block of teaching that follows on from Jesus choosing the first disciples and (as in Luke) ministering to the sick. It is followed by a number of important lessons and parables from Jesus, including the Lord’s Prayer. Arguably, Matthew is choosing to emphasise Jesus’ resemblance to Moses here (Exodus 19-24), as he does elsewhere in his gospel.

Interestingly, Luke may be doing the same. In his account, Jesus has just gone up the mountain to pray and choose the 12 apostles. In our passage, he descends, like Moses after conferring with God, to bring guidance and teaching to a people in need. It’s important to note that this is not secret teaching of the kind we occasionally encounter in the gospels, meant solely for the disciples and a select few. Rather, as one commentator put it, it is: “plain speech in plain view on the plain” (Garland, 275).

Kingdom of Heaven or of God?

This is another straightforward difference that should not delay us long. In his gospel, Matthew consistently uses the phrase ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ because of a traditional Jewish reluctance to speak the name of the Almighty. This is one of the important clues that has led many to see Matthew’s as a gospel produced by, and for, the Jewish Christian community (perhaps in Antioch). Luke, on the other hand, who often seems much more at home in the Graeco-Roman world of the 1st Century AD, is happy to use the phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ to describe exactly the same thing.

‘Yours’ or ‘theirs’?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Chinese version of Matthew’s Beatitudes

We come onto a matter of more substance when we begin to consider what at first sight may seem to be a mere grammatical point. To be precise, Matthew consistently uses the third person plural genitive in his beatitudes: “theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). Luke, on the other hand, (somewhat) interestingly uses a mixture of the vocative case (“you poor”) and the second person singular form: “yours in the kingdom of God” (6:20). Now, this is the sort of thing that may excite grammarians but apart from possibly provoking nightmares from our primary school English classes, what use is such analysis?

Well, for me, there is a danger of reading Matthew as something close to poetry, with its beautiful language and wonderful cadence. Jesus here could be talking about people in a very general and abstract form: “Motherhood and apple pie are good things.” And we could nod in vague agreement. In Luke, though, it is clear that Jesus is addressing the people immediately before him in a very direct and clear way – both in his blessings and his woes. He is not giving a learned lecture or presenting an academic paper. He is addressing the folks who are sitting immediately in front of him. He knows that his audience consists of poor and rich alike, those who are full and those who are empty, and he speaks to them directly and unashamedly.

Jesus is not worried in the slightest about making his audience squirm in their seat. Through them, he speaks to the generations of Christians who came after those first disciples, including us here this morning. This is not an abstruse point of grammar, therefore, but a potent reminder to all preachers and all Christians that when we speak in the name of Christ, our job – as someone very aptly put it – is indisputably to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”. One of our challenges this morning, is to decide into which category we fall!

‘Poor’ or ‘poor in spirit?

Perhaps the difference in these texts that strike us most keenly, and which has arguably attracted most comment, is Luke’s omission of those two key words “in spirit” when talking about the poor. Matthew is clear that Jesus speaks about those who are “poor in spirit” (5:3). Those two crucial words are open to a wide range of interpretations but we could easily think of this in a much more ‘religious’ sense (and Matthew here is clearly drawing on the psalms and Isaiah 61, in particular), referring to the meek and the righteous, who have humbly turned their hearts to God. Luke, on the other hand, is unequivocal that Jesus is talking directly to the poor (6:20) in the simplest sense of the word: those who have no money! Similarly, Matthew speaks of those who “hunger … for righteousness” (5:6), while Luke speaks simply of those who are who are hungry, full stop (6:21).

Woes or no woes?

Jesus teachingIn addition, we of course have the most obvious difference between the two texts: Luke’s addition of four woes to Jesus’ four blessings. They give a nice symmetry to the passage but they present a deeply discordant note, especially when we have got so used to Luke generally being the ‘nice’ gospel writer, with stories like the Good Samaritan. No wonder that so many people over the centuries have preferred Matthew’s friendlier version: all blessings and no woes!

Yet the challenge they present to us cannot be ignored. Luke’s rendering of Jesus’ sermon seems to undermine everything that both his ancient contemporaries and our modern world regard as success: wealth, absence of want or need, happiness, and popularity or public admiration (Luke 6:24-26). Such direct language can leave us with a bitter aftertaste, and prompt a number of responses.

The easiest is just to ignore it – and that is how most of the world copes! Another, popular among those who wish to honour the sanctity of the scriptures but struggle with its message, is to spiritualise the passage. That is, to prefer Matthew’s rendition and argue that Jesus was not really talking about the actual poor but those who have not yet seen the light of Christ, or been born again, or any number of other definitions. Such interpretations, though, ignore the long Biblical tradition in which these words of Jesus stood. To quote but a few examples:

For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
   to save them from those who would condemn them to death.
(Psalm 109:31)

I know that the Lord maintains the cause of the needy,
   and executes justice for the poor. (Psalm 140:12)

When the poor and needy seek water,
   and there is none,
   and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
   I the God of Israel will not forsake them. (Isaiah 41:17)

We must also not forget those revolutionary words of Mary, which starts Luke’s gospel (Luke 1:52-3):

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.

Nor the troubling story of Dives and Lazarus, again unique to Luke (Luke 16:19-31). It is very hard, in fact, to argue that these words of Luke mean anything other than good news for the poor, and worrying times for the wealthy and comfortable.

A great reward in heaven

An obvious way to conclude my remarks today, and to square the circle that Matthew and Luke have seemingly left us, is to concentrate on one of the most important things that unites our two readings. That, of course, is Jesus’ promise to his audience that those who suffer now, on his behalf, will be rewarded greatly in heaven (Matt. 5:12 / Luke 6:23). These words have rightly brought enormous comfort to Christian martyrs and saints throughout the millennia, as they have witnessed to the gospel of Christ in the most difficult of circumstances. That promise is indeed the greatest hope that God offers to all his people everywhere, and one that should give us all the courage and confidence to face each day. If I am honest, though, they also give preachers like me a nice straightforward way to conclude my comments on a difficult passage that leaves everyone with a warm glow as we go out to coffee.

thepowerofbiblereadingThese words in Luke cannot let preachers off by simply offering “pie in the sky when you die”. Or as Moses, the Raven in Animal Farm, put it, Sugarcandy Mountain – the paradise he promised the poor, deluded animals, who were destined for a lifetime of hard labour. Such simplistic solutions let us all off far too easily. It provides no real answer to the millions in our world today who, no matter how hard they work, how long they toil each day, how often they read their Bibles will almost certainly face grinding poverty for the rest of their lives. The same could be said of the millions of innocent Syrian migrants in refugee camps across the Middle East, and countless others in our own country and abroad. It is little wonder that passages like this one in Luke have long led priests and ministers working in contexts like the one I described to challenge the simplistic interpretations that leaves all the hard work to God I am, of course, speaking about Liberation Theology, which emerged among Catholic theologians working in the slums of South America, who refused to be silenced when they saw innocent people suffering unrelenting poverty because those with money and power simply did not care. It led Christians like Oscar Romero to lay down their lives, as the Beatitudes predicted, because they spoke up for Christ.

These words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel are not meant to leave us feeling comfortable and complacent. If we think that the Bible has any importance whatsoever in our lives and in the life of our world today, then we have to take their challenge seriously. They are not simply meant to make us feel guilty for living in an affluent western country, with plenty of food and fresh water. They are meant to shock and provoke us, to re-examine our lives, our attitudes, our prejudices. To be a voice for those who suffer unjustly and to be a representative of Christ himself in our world today. These are disturbing words, for disturbing times, and if we are not disturbed by them, then we are not reading them correctly. Amen.

Singing from the same hymn sheet

3499120-web_800xThis is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. Today, we were thinking especially about the music we sing and exploring some of the newer hymns in our latest hymn book, Singing the Faith. The Bible texts was Luke 5:1-11, the call of the first disciples.

Christians have been singing about their faith since the earliest days of the Church. The first disciples continued the tradition of psalm singing and it quickly became part of all Christian worship. We know that the earliest churches also sang other hymns, several of which seemed to have been preserved in Biblical texts like Philippians 2 (2:1-11), although sadly without the music. The writer of Ephesians, hopes that his readers will:

be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts (Eph. 5:19)

In the subsequent 2,000 years of Christian history, church music has gradually changed and developed in an incredible variety of ways, as Christianity itself has spread across the globe. Chant, plainsong, polyphony and countless other ways of praising God were found.

In our corner of the world, the biggest change perhaps came at the Reformation, where hymns began to look much more like those we would recognise today, with a musical note being allocated to each word or syllable. In turn, that tradition came to be developed by the great hymn writers of the 17th and 18th Century. People like Isaac Watts (the author of ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘O God our help in ages past’, and many others greta hymns). Allegedly, he complained about the dullness of some psalm singing and was told to write something better, if he was so unhappy – and he promptly did! Along with people like John Newton, charles_wesleyCharles Wesley (of course) and many others, he wrote hymns that explored every aspect of faith and human life. They often used vernacular language and made direct appeals to the singers’ emotions and senses. Their hymns bore witness to the incredible power of music to inspire and encourage people. Many were very controversial in their time, and even considered rather vulgar and sentimental. My favourite example is perhaps Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Jesu, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly‘, which his brother, Jesus, thought far too risqué (because of the offending word ‘bosom’) and refused to publish!

Amazing as it seems, though, the history of hymnody did not end with Charles Wesley! The following 200 years have seen an enormous flourishing of hymn writing, covering every conceivable subject and area of human life. There is far too much to talk about here but two of the most encouraging trends have been the growth in the number of published female writers, and the greater appreciation of hymns from around the world and from different Christian traditions. (One of our most popular hymns ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’ in fact comes from an American, Catholic writer, Dan Schutte.)

Sadly, although perhaps inevitably, none of these changes and developments in the life of our church music have been without controversy. Thomas Hardy’s beautiful novel Under the Greenwood Tree, reminds us that change is always hard and usually unpopular: the new vicar earns the ire of many in his congregation by the introduction of a new-fangled pipe organ!

However, although I have no evidence whatsoever to support this claim, the last 50 years or so of Christian music have arguably been some of the most controversial.

worship_leaders_5_things_your_worship_band_isne28099t_telling_youGrowing up in church, the music we sing together has probably given rise to more arguments than any other subject of which I can think. (With the possible exception of pews!) Nearly every congregation in the last few decades has seen real tension between different traditions: choruses versus hymns; old versus new; worship bands versus organs. The conflict has led to stereotyping and caricature on both sides, with some claiming that, “All choruses are boring and repetitive.”, while others opine that, “All hymns are boring and fuddy-duddy”. I know of churches with delicately worked-out compromises and, sadly, congregations where all-out war has broken out, and members have felt that they have no option but to leave.

The reasons behind this are numerous and multifarious. Inevitably, musical taste and preference play a part, as do the quality and style of what is being offered. In part, though, the differences bring us back to our gospel reading this morning and the challenge of embracing the new, and leaving behind what is comforting. We have all heard many sermons on this passage, emphasising the enormity of what Peter and the first disciples did that day: “they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). Today, though, it is also worth noting two other aspects of the story.

Calling the first disciples - DuccioFirst, Jesus managed to keep all twelve apostles in the same boat! They clearly were very disparate personalties, from a range of backgrounds. It included not only people like Peter and Andrew, but also Matthew, a hated tax collector, and Simon the Zealot, who may well have been associated with a quasi-terrorist organisation. Somehow, they recognised that what united them in Jesus was worth setting aside their many  differences and divisions.

Second, while they embraced a new life in Christ, they took the very best of their old tradition with them: their belief in the one true God; their knowledge of his great works in creation and throughout history; and, not least, their wonderful tradition of psalm-singing.

singing-the-faith-sidebarWonderfully, I believe that our newest hymn book Singing the Faith (from which nearly all our hymns come today) attempts to do the same. Finally published in 2011, the book’s compilers and editors had an horrendous job, trying to preserve the best of the old, while also introducing some wonderful new material to Methodist congregations. Crucially, they tried to keep us all in the same boat, singing from the same book. While many will bemoan the loss of old favourites, there is undoubtedly something here for everyone, if we are willing to engage with it.

As we look at the state of our nation, and the world around, I feel there is so much we could learn from the attitude of those disciples, and the example of this hymn book. We are all only too well aware that we are increasingly only singing from our own hymn book these days. With Brexit, attitudes to immigration, and many other issues, there seems to be no mood for compromise or a common meeting place. Instead, we are occupied by hurling insults at each other about our choices and, perhaps even more worryingly, arguing that different styles and choices cannot even co-exist anymore. It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our nation and planet at this time: how do we live with difference? How do we keep everyone in same boat, singing from the same book?

If we are to succeed, then we will need to learn some lessons from Jesus and those first disciples. We will need to acknowledge that we do not possess all truth, and reject arrogance and pride. Think of Peter, believing that he knew far more about fishing than Jesus ever could (“we have worked all night long but have caught nothing”! – Luke 5:5). Only by recognising that he did not have a monopoly on the truth, could he begin to grasp the infinite horizons Jesus was opening up for him. In the same way, generations of Christians have had to learn that the Spirit never stops inspiring new outbursts of creativity in our music. And in the same way, we must recognise that God has new truths to reveal to us each day about God and our world.

Like the disciples, we must also move beyond the kind of prejudice that closed so many minds to Jesus.  Think of Nathaniel’s shocked response to the idea that Jesus could be the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). How much church music has been similarly condemned out of hand because it came from the wrong tradition, the wrong singer or the wrong instrument? Actually, we have some wonderful old hymns in our hymn books, and some great new music being written every single day of the year. And we similarly have so much to learn from voices to whom we may not immediately wish to listen.

Finally, like those first disciples we too need to be brave, stepping out of the familiar to take up the way of Christ. It was not easy for them and it is not easy for us. Fear of the unknown and the different has led to such terrible violence and hatred in our world, and continues to do great harm today. We need to witness, through our hymnody and every aspect of our lives, that the words of Jesus are as true for us as they were for Simon so long ago: “Do not be afraid”.

As we sing these new songs this morning, let us bear witness to the faith of those disciples and be an example to our world. Let us show that we can come from every corner of the globe yet be united by our love for God and one another. As one of our older, and my favourite, hymns so beautifully puts it: “singing songs of expectation,
marching to the promised land.” Amen.

45634111d8a4d59b8c44aeb1a778de6d

Thanks, Jim

Last Friday, we said goodbye to a wonderful man and a great friend to the churches in Putney and Roehampton, Rev’d Jim McKinney. Jim served for over twenty years as the vicar of Holy Trinity Roehampton, part of the ecumenical parish of Roehampton. We worked very closely together and his sudden death a few weeks ago was an enormous shock to everyone who knew him. This is the tribute I delivered at his funeral on Friday. We continue to hold Jim’s wife and family in our prayers at this incredibly difficult time.

Scan 2019-2-5 10.11.53Friends, I should like to give thanks very briefly for the life of our brother Jim in three overlapping capacities.

First, as minister of Roehampton Methodist Church – the other half of Jim’s ecumenical parish – I want to give thanks for a wonderful colleague and an excellent pastor. This ecumenical parish is a strange, and possibly unique, creation. We have two churches, here and at Minstead Gardens; two traditions, Anglican and Methodist; and, until very recently, two ministers. But we work so closely together that it is often hard to tell where one begins and the other ends. Making it work relies on willing individuals, and there was none more willing than Jim. He welcomed me and a succession of Methodists, including Kathy, Ali, Megan, Keith, and many more, and was utterly committed to our joint vision of sharing the love of Christ in this place.

Second, as a minister in the Richmond and Hounslow Methodist Circuit, I want to give thanks for Jim’s work across our local churches. It is not only our congregations here that were shocked at Jim’s sudden death. The good folks of Putney, Richmond and especially Barnes will greatly miss his preaching and leading of worship. I know that Jim hoped to continue his work with the Methodist Church into retirement.

Third, and finally, as the current chair of Churches Together in Putney and Roehampton, I want to express our deep gratitude for all that Jim did to contribute to the excellent ecumenical relations that we enjoy here. He was a tireless advocate for working across all divisions, and served for several years as our chair. He was always willing to contribute and encourage.

In all of these contexts, and many more, Jim brought the warmth, generosity of spirit and wisdom of which so many here have already spoken. He was a wonderful colleague, a good friend and a man who was able to see far beyond the narrow confines of any single denomination to the glorious all-encompassing kingdom of God. I pray that we may retain his vision and insight. He will be deeply missed.

Scan 2019-2-5 10.12.55

A sign of the times

This is the sermon I delivered today at Barnes Methodist Church. The readings were Jeremiah 1:4-19 and Luke 4:16-30.

Introduction

false-prophet-perform-miraclesWhat do these various objects and animals have in common?

  • a basket of summer fruit,
  • a pan boiling over,
  • a plumb line,
  • figs (good and bad),
  • a scroll to be eaten,
  • an almond branch,
  • sheep without a shepherd,
  • a model of a city under siege and
  • a soiled loincloth.

The answer is that they are all found in the visions of Old Testament prophets, and we shall look at them in a little more detail shortly. In some cases, God uses them to teach the prophets a lesson about the present or the future – often in a dream or vision – and in others the prophets use them in their warnings to the people.

I am sure that you could think of other examples from the Old, and New Testament. What they all have in common is that they are highly memorable images, designed to shock and provoke (and often anger) the prophet’s audience. They are meant to illustrate the problems with contemporary society, and to present a radical vision of God’s alternative.

In today’s readings, we shall hear verses from the opening chapter of Jeremiah, where two of these examples come from. They speak of Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet and the message which he is commissioned to deliver. We shall then hear from Luke’s gospel, continuing the story of Jesus’ reception in his home town of Nazareth. He has gone to the synagogue, as usual, but after reading a passage from Isaiah, he dares to suggest that the prophecy may be referring to himself. A suggestion that does not go down well with his home crowd!

The readings

Reflection

During his ministry, Jesus was regularly compared to the prophets we encounter in the Old Testament. Sometimes favourably, as when the woman at the well at the gospel acclaimed him as one (John 4:19); sometimes unfavourably, as when the soldiers mocked Christ before his crucifixion (Luke 22:64). Jesus was much more than a prophet, as we know, but there were undoubtedly many similarities in the way that they behaved and were treated, as our readings today show.

800px-almond_blossom02_aug_2007First, they often behaved and spoke in very strange and even shocking ways. Let’s look at our table of objects again and work our way through them. The two we have just heard about were visions given by God to Jeremiah to pass on to his contemporaries. The almond branch (Jer. 1:11) relies on wordplay that cannot easily be translated: almond in Hebrew is shaqed, which sounds remarkably similar to shoqed, which means watching. The branch is a symbol that God is watching and their sins will not go unpunished. The pan boiling over (Jer. 1:13) is perhaps easier to understand. From the north, i.e. Babylonia, destruction shall come upon the people.

These are just two, though, of the signs we have here today. The others are:

  • a basket of summer fruit (Amos 8:1-14) – again, a pun based on the Hebrew, indicating that the ‘end is nigh!’;
  • a plumb line (Amos 7:1-9) – “See I am setting a plumb-line in the midst of my people Israel”;
  • figs (good and bad) (Jer. 24:1-10) – an indication of how God would treat those who fled Judah before the wrath that was to come, and those who would remain at the court of the corrupt King Zedekiah;
  • a scroll to be eaten (Ezekiel 2:1-10) – a prophecy to be ‘digested’ by Ezekiel!;
  • sheep without a shepherd (1 Kings 22:13-18) – a vision given to the prophet Micaiah about the fate of the people when the king went out to battle;
  • a model of a city under siege (Ezekiel 4:1-3) – the prophet was told to sit in the market place and act out the siege of Jerusalem that would soon take place; and
  • a soiled loincloth (Jeremiah 13:1-11) – Jeremiah was ordered to bury a new loincloth in the banks of the Euphrates and then return months later, its ruined state indicated the Judah’s destiny.

I am sure that you could think of others. (I decided to refrain from trying to bake bread over human dung, as Ezekiel was ordered to do (Ezek. 4:12)!) Some are fairly easy to understand, others require interpretation and a great deal of personal endurance on the part of the prophet. In each case, the vision or action was designed to be shocking and memorable – and that is why we are still talking about them today.

Jesus was not required to do anything with plumb lines or loincloths but he certainly inherited that tradition of shocking behaviour from the prophets. In our reading today, he made an outrageous claim in his hometown – almost certainly to the deep embarrassment of his own family – that Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah had been fulfilled in him (Luke 4:21). We could think of many other examples, where Jesus flouted social convention or norms, and the exaggerated, often shocking, language of some of his parables and sayings. Lessons, for example, that seemed to encourage people to cut out their own eyes or throw themselves into the sea with millstones tied round their necks!

The second connection between Jesus and the prophets that I would highlight this morning (and you will be pleased to hear these are much briefer!), is the reaction they provoked in their audiences. Both Jesus and Jeremiah were given hard messages to deliver to their contemporaries. Messages about sin and the need to turn back to God. They were called to criticise their leaders and even their own family and friends. Unsurprisingly, the messages did not go down well, and both knew the pain of rejection and much worse.

d09fd180d0bed180d0bed0ba_d098d0b5d180d0b5d0bcd0b8d18f2c_d09cd0b8d0bad0b5d0bbd0b0d0bdd0b6d0b5d0bbd0be_d091d183d0bed0bdd0b0d180d0bed182d182d0b8Jeremiah’s story is a seemingly desperately sad one. Commissioned to be a prophet at the very worst moment in Israel’s history, in the years running up to the Babylonian Exile. A time of appalling government and a stubborn refusal to heed the obvious warning signs all around them. Jeremiah would live to see his prophecies burned before his very eyes, the destruction of his beloved Jerusalem and his own forced exile.

Jesus’ story is, of course, even better known to us. The reception he received in our reading today in Nazareth was just a tiny foretaste of what was to come: anger, hatred, and accusations of blasphemy and fermenting revolution. No wonder that later in his ministry, Jesus would link himself so clearly to the apostles and prophets that God had sent before to his people and, in a foretaste of the crucifixion, speak so passionately about:

the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. (Luke 11:50-51)

Third, and finally, we come back to those strange signs with which we started today. Because what they, and the prophets and Jesus, all have in common, is that they were signs pointing to a greater truth. I have mentioned before that John in his gospel never talks about miracles, instead he always uses the word ‘sign’ (John 2:11, for example). In the same way, this random collection of allusions and metaphors were not an end in themselves. They were the means by which God’s people might be given a glimpse of the much larger truth behind the universe. The truth that God ultimately holds the fate of nations and empires in his hands, and that we – bounded by limitations of time and space – can only ever understand a tiny part of God’s eternal vision.

35f25ee1965776ec68e538232e103f74Jeremiah and the prophets were all great examples of being such signs in their own lives, pointing the way back to God and his commandments. Jesus, though, was God’s ultimate prophetic sign to his world. A cross-shaped sign that pointed to the greatest truth about God, humanity and the world: the true love of God. A love that not even the death could extinguish. But a love that also called us to be the kind of people that God created us to be. A people living in harmony with our creator, with our fellow humans and with the world around us. The power and relevance of that sign has continued undiminished ever since.

The challenge for us all here today, both individually and collectively as a church, is to ask what are we are signs of? Where do our lives and our church point? Do they point people to ourselves or to God? To our own fears and prejudices, or the limitless love of Jesus? To bricks and mortar, or the great spiritual truths that our world is longing to hear? Our world, just like Jesus’ and Jeremiah’s, is in desperate need of the good news that Christ has to offer: news of hope, of purpose and a different way of living. Yet do we as Christians and our churches point the way, or do we just go along with the flow because it is easier simply to nod politely, rather than upset people by challenging their behaviour?

As a church here in Barnes, we are considering our future and what work God has for us to do in this place. At our next Church Council meeting, we shall be considering our mission plan again. Is God calling us to do something radical? Perhaps not involving loin cloths and almond branches, but are we being called to be a sign of the shocking story of God’s grace in our little community? We know from the prophets and the example of Christ that to stand out, to be different, is not an easy place to be, either individually or collectively. But we should take heed of those words of comfort he gave to Jeremiah. Words that are as relevant for us, as they were to him: “They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.” (Jer. 1:19) Amen.