God’s Revelation in Christ

 John 1:29-42

Christ Church Highbury, 15.1.17

 Those of you who were with us last Sunday may recall that the theme of the service was Jesus’ baptism, as is customary in the church calendar the week after Epiphany. Today’s Gospel reading features the same event, but from the perspective of John the Baptist. It is the pivotal moment in John’s understanding of who Jesus is, setting the stage for the calling of the first disciples.

Earlier in this chapter, John has testified about the coming Messiah – but does not identify who this is. Even under examination by the Jewish authorities, all he is able to say is: “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

In fact, John’s message was not a unique one. Over the years – four hundred or so since the last texts we have from the prophets of the Old Testament – plenty of different voices had proclaimed the coming of the Messiah. This had resulted in Jewish society having a whole host of different expectations about who this Messiah would be. Some of these expectations arose from the prophecies we’re familiar with – like the passage we’ve heard from Isaiah & the readings at our annual carol service – but others evolved out of human expectations and ideas.

The Pharisees who came to examine John as he baptised in Bethany knew these prophecies inside out, but when John declared them as being fulfilled by the one who was to come after him, they ignored him. John is described by one commentary as “a lamp, both shining on Christ and exposing the ignorance of the opponents”.

It’s his role as a lamp shining on Christ that I want to explore this morning…

John’s declarations:

Our comparatively short Gospel reading contains four major statements concerning the revelation of God in Jesus. Two of these are made by John the Baptist.

The first of these appears both in verse 29 and 36: “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” I’m sure if I was to ask you for descriptions of who Christ is, it wouldn’t take long before someone mentioned “Lamb of God”, but this is actually the first instance of its usage in Scripture. It’s not part of the Old Testament prophecy regarding the Messiah, but is a reference to the theme of redemption and harks back to the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover.

John repeats this statement the very next day, when in the company of his own disciples. He sees Jesus and again declares: “Look, the Lamb of God!”

Presumably, there were people with John the first time he made this statement – he wasn’t talking to himself – but in this second instance, his declaration has a hugely significant impact upon his own disciples. They leave John and follow Jesus, immediately convinced that the Messiah has been revealed to them.

In fact, it’s likely that they were with John the day before and the revelation they have received is also the result of the other things he had declared about Jesus. Most importantly, in John’s re-telling of Jesus’ baptism, he told of the Holy Spirit’s anointing of Jesus which had led him to tell all that Jesus was indeed ‘God’s chosen one’.

John’s description of Jesus’ baptism is the first instance of an ongoing theme in the Gospel of John – that of the Holy Spirit coming from God the Father to point towards his Son, Jesus Christ. The Spirit had revealed to John just who Jesus was, and in turn John was sharing this revelation with all who would listen. (And those who would not!)

We know that, at the very least, two of John’s disciples have heard and believed. When they start to follow Jesus, the disciples address him as “Rabbi”. They knew that he was a teacher, and someone who they needed to follow even more than the prophet with whom they had already been learning from. But by now they had learnt the most important lesson that John the Baptist could teach them: that this was Christ the Messiah and that they needed to follow him.

Not even a day goes by before Jesus’ first disciples are so sure of who he is that they declare him to be the Messiah to others. In verse 41 we hear how Andrew declares to his brother that “We have found the Messiah.” We don’t know if they’ve seen anything in Jesus’ behaviour during the few hours they’ve been with him that proved this to them, but they knew enough that this was big news that they needed to share.

The significance of revelation, not action:

An interesting aspect of the account in John’s Gospel is how little of Jesus’ ministry has taken place at the point at which he calls his first disciples. In the synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark & Luke – by the time we read of the calling of the first disciples, Jesus has already demonstrated his identity in a number of ways.

For example, in Luke chapter 4, the disciples receive their calling immediately following one of Jesus’ teaching sessions at Galilee. In the preceding chapter, had already declared himself to be a fulfilment of prophecy in his home-town; driven out Spirits; healed multiple people; and declared the coming of the Kingdom of God.

But in John’s Gospel, it is revelation through encountering Christ that is the pivotal moment.

John the Baptist receives the revelation of who Jesus is when he baptises him.

Andrew – and the disciple whose name we don’t learn at this point – have Jesus revealed to them through John’s declared revelation, and their own encounter with him.

Simon Peter hears the good news from his brother and then has an encounter with Christ that reveals the role he will have alongside him.

It’s important for us to understand and appreciate the significance of the revelation of Christ through encountering him, because God’s revelation in Christ takes place in the same way today.

Those of us who have been Christians for much of our lives, who know Scripture – particularly the Gospels – well. We have the enormous benefit of hindsight. We know the Old Testament prophecies and how Jesus came to fulfil them. We know the accounts of the ways in which Jesus demonstrated who he was – the miracles; the casting out of demons; the healings; his teaching – but even with all that knowledge, we are lacking a full revelation of Christ in our lives.

Full revelation only takes place when we encounter Christ ourselves.

That might begin with receiving an account of Christ’s revelation from someone else. Just as John shared his revelation with his disciples, so there have been people on our spiritual journeys who have shared their own encounters with Jesus with others.

CS Lewis

CS Lewis is just one example of this. Although he grew up in what he later described as a ‘bland’ Christian childhood, by the time he was a student, he was an idealist atheist.

In his autobiographical book “Surprised by Joy”, Lewis describes a number of ‘dangerous encounters’ he had with Christians at a time when he was determined to protect his atheism. Two of the people involved in these encounters were the writers GK Chesterton and JR Tolkein – but it’s the latter who Lewis would cite as ‘delivering the fatal blow’.

A conversation with Tolkein that went on until 3am was what resulted in Lewis’ ‘capitulation’ to a relationship with Christ. He wrote in his autobiography:

“You must picture me alone in that room at Magdalen [Maudlyn], night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England” 

Through his Christian friends, and their sharing of their own encounters with Christ, Lewis was finally brought to a place in which he could encounter Jesus himself. In turn, as you’re all probably aware, Lewis then became one of the greatest apologists of the Christian faith in the mid-20th century.

God only knows – literally only God knows – just how many people came to have their own encounters with Christ through Lewis’ sharing of the revelation he had come to know.

What next?

I imagine that amongst the congregation this morning, people are at a range of places on the journey to encountering Christ.

Quite a few of you, I suspect, are some time beyond your first encounter with Christ. And for you, I have two challenges: firstly, ask God for further revelation. God continues to speak to his people and reveals more of his triune self – through our prayer lives, our reading, our worship and our relationships with others. Secondly: ask God to show you who you could share your experiences of encountering Christ with. Who could you have conversations with that might impact their own journey towards encountering Jesus?

Perhaps some people here are wrestling, just as CS Lewis did. My prayer for you is that God would bring people alongside you who can share their own encounters with you – just as Tolkein and Chesterton did. May God open your heart to recognise who Jesus is, and where he is at work in your life and the world.

There may be some people here who are weary. Who encountered Christ at some point along the way, but it seems a long time ago and the excitement feels like it’s worn off. For you, I pray that you would be inspired by John the Baptist’s excitement at realising that the Messiah was in front of him. Perhaps ask God for more – more of his Holy Spirit to point to the actions of Christ in your own life; more enthusiasm in sharing who Christ is; and an understanding of all that Christ has in store for your life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telling the Story – Christmas Day 2016

Luke 2:1-14 Christmas Day, Christ Church Highbury 2016

The story of Christ’s birth has been re-told over and over again in the two millennia since he came to earth. The message of good news of great joy that the angels brought to the shepherds has been brought to countless people all over the world in many, many different ways.

Most of us at some point have been in a nativity play. I achieved the great heights of playing Mary in my childhood – although I was always a little jealous that my sister played the Angel Gabriel and as a result had a much prettier costume.

[A quick poll of the congregation revealed a host of nativity play roles. From Marys, Josephs and angels, to a mouse and a ‘host’. Upon further investigation, this wasn’t a sophisticated angel, this was a child who was somehow in a production of the nativity that included a Strictly Come Dancing component!!]

This year, I know quite a few grown-ups who are in nativities. My friend’s mum – in her 60s – has played a King in the ‘living nativity’ in Ely. She even got to ride a real-life camel!

Up in Doncaster, friends who had their second baby earlier this year are responsible for providing Jesus at their church’s nativity (although as baby Leonie was born in April, Jesus will have been sitting up in the manger and not looking anything like a newborn)!

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine was visiting her God-daughter, this baby’s 4-year-old sister Amelia. They’d got the family’s nativity set out and Amelia was going through the figures, telling her Godmother who each one was:

“This is Mary and Joseph, and Baby Jesus. These are the wise men and these are the shepherds and this is the angry cow…”

Her godmother questioned the last one. “The angry cow??”

“Yes” Amelia replied, “the angry cow”.

“Ok” said her godmother. “I thought that’s what you said. But why is he angry?”

Amelia explained: “Well, he woke up expecting to have breakfast and there was a baby in his hay!”

Quite logical really!! Upon further questioning, it turned out that this was an extra flourish Amelia’s Junior Church leader had given her re-telling of the nativity the week before, as part of their preparations for their church’s nativity play.

The ‘angry cow’ is up there with the two lobsters, octopus and spiderman at the nativity in the film Love Actually. In fact, odd characters are quite a thing – like the child who played the door-knob on the Inn Keepers’ door! Or a nativity play where aliens land and watch a nativity play performed by school children – very meta.

But, these unusual characters actually serve a really important purpose: they help to tell the story in a way that helps different people to connect with it.

*****

Each of the gospel depictions of the Nativity tell the same story, but they emphasise different parts of the narrative. This passage from Luke demonstrates who he wanted to particularly connect the story of Jesus’ birth with…

It begins grounded in historical fact. The census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, at the decree of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus. Luke is often described as the historian of the New Testament. He regularly cites individuals and events that help date the events of Jesus and the apostles’ lives. The census that causes Joseph to have to return to his home-town of Bethlehem is an something that historians know to be one of the first duties that Quirinius performed upon becoming governor.

Jesus’ birth is a historical event on a par with the actions of politicians.

Luke continues his account by demonstrating how Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of prophecies long spoken. Born in Bethlehem, in the line of King David, the prophecies of Micah and Isaiah are fulfilled. The angels’ words to the shepherds confirm this too: “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”

The birth of this baby is the embodiment of promises God had made his people for centuries.

 The shepherds too, are part of Luke’s focus. They are the people to whom Jesus’ birth is announced in this gospel, rather than the magi. So the first to hear the news of the Messiah’s birth are not rich rulers, but some of the poorest of society, making their living on the hills surrounding Bethlehem.

Jesus is not a Messiah for the rich and powerful. He has come in poverty – born in a stable – and the first to visit him are shepherds with few worldly possessions. Because they lived and worked outside, in the middle of nowhere, shepherds were usually not able to be particularly observant in terms of their religion – so Luke is also showing that the Messiah had come not just for those who had followed every last letter of the Jewish law.

More than this, the angels declare to the shepherds that they bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL the people.’ Luke emphasises that Jesus has come to bring salvation for everyone throughout his gospel. He highlights the outcasts of society – women, tax-collectors, Samaritans – and demonstrates how Jesus showed his love to them.

The coming of the Messiah is good news for the whole world. Regardless of gender, race or wealth.

*****

Luke’s version of the story of Jesus’ birth therefore has several purposes:

  • To ground it in historical fact.
  • To demonstrate its fulfilment of prophecy.
  • And to highlight that he came to save EVERYONE.

I’m pretty sure none of us here are shepherds. (I could be wrong – but I’ve never seen any sheep grazing on Highbury Fields!) But Luke’s words do include us. As foreigners, and probably non-Jews, we are among those who would not have been thought – at the time of Jesus’ birth – to be beneficiaries of God’s promises. But we are!

The story of the Nativity: the angels; the virgin and the man promised to her in marriage; the birth in Bethlehem; the shepherds and the magi – they are so much more than just characters. They are the people through whom God’s work of salvation plays out.

Luke’s account of the birth of Christ emphasises those who needed to be part of the narrative, so that those like them could see that Jesus came for them too. Our modern-day nativities may include some slightly odd characters, but in doing so, they open up the story in new ways to new people.

There probably wasn’t an angry cow in the stable alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. But imagining that there was, and thinking through the implications of Jesus’ birth has at least helped one 4 year old to meditate upon the story in a new way, that she could understand.

We may laugh at the lobsters, the octopus, and even aliens that get added to nativity plays – but we remember them and with that memory is the story.

We are all invited to be part of the story of Christ’s birth. The angels have brought good news of great joy to each and every one of us, and we all have a role to play!

Some of the characters at the Love, Actually nativity. [‘Eight is a lot of legs David!’]

We have far more in common than that which divides us

I’ve never been one for posting the text of sermons on my blog (although I’ve been considering it for a while – if only to generate content!), but a sermon I preached yesterday has been requested by a few people, so I felt this would be a good thing to share more widely…

Luke 9:51-62 – We have far more in common than that which divides us

Christ Church Highbury, June 26th 2016

I read this passage on Monday, as I began to prepare for this morning, trying to work out what angle I might preach upon. It took me a while, in fact, it wasn’t until Wednesday when I felt God speak very clearly. It was my turn to lead assembly at St John’s, our primary school, and the topic for this week was ‘the Bible and refugees’. I’d spent some time wondering how to cover it in under 10 minutes, for children aged 4-11 – it was a tough call, but ultimately I focused upon the really clear message from God and Jesus that all strangers should be welcomed and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.

I left school after assembly and went straight to Trafalgar Square for the memorial to MP Jo Cox on what would have been her 42nd birthday. It was a beautiful outpouring of love and unity in the face of such a terrible tragedy. I, along with most of the others present, let tears run down our cheeks as her husband spoke movingly about his loss; listened to her son’s classmates singing about justice and heard Malala speak of the importance of unity.

The juxtaposition of these two events brought home to me the relevance this week of the first half of this passage, where Jesus and his disciples faced opposition from Samaria. As the week has worn on, particularly with the results of the referendum, they have increased in importance!

***

Verses 52-55 reads:

“And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” 

To put this into context, as the story of the Good Samaritan so clearly shows us, the Samaritans and the Jews were deeply opposed. This opposition dates back to the division of Israel into two kingdoms – Israel in the north, whose capital was Samaria; and Judah in the south. Both nations were invaded and their inhabitants enslaved. When the former inhabitants of the south were permitted to return and to rebuild Jerusalem, the northern kingdom opposed this repatriation and tried to undermine the nation’s rebuilding. This was approximately 500 years before Christ’s birth, so by the time of the encounter we’ve just heard, the divisions were long entrenched and deeply bitter.

The Samaritans weren’t too different from the Jews – they came from the same ancestral roots and shared scriptures. One commentary writer has suggested that the reason why the Gospels & Acts feature so many encounters with Samaritans is because it’s: “not the person from the radically different culture on the other side of the world that is hardest to love, but the nearby neighbour whose skin colour, language, rituals, values, ancestry, history, and customs are different from one’s own.”

The very first verse of today’s passage states that Jesus has resolutely set out towards Jerusalem. On the one hand, this is an indication that a new phase of his ministry has begun as he heads towards the city at the heart of the authority that will oppose him and ultimately sentence him to death. But it is also another red flag for the Samaritans, owing to their belief that the temple should be in Samaria, not Jerusalem.

Jesus knew that travelling to Jerusalem would bring him into conflict before he even reached the city – that he would not be received well by some of the towns and villages through which he and his disciples passed through. But he did it anyway, echoing the words of Isaiah 50:7 “Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.”

***

Jesus behaved with grace and humility in the face of opposition. He did the right thing – sending messengers ahead to the Samaritan village instead of going directly there. Jesus wasn’t looking to deliberately offend the Samaritans – to rub his faith and ethnicity in their faces – he was simply heading towards the most convenient point on his journey to spend the night. But his civility was not returned.

His disciples are angered by the reception they received. They understood who Jesus was and held him in high honour and were therefore understandably upset that others did not see this. They also clearly understood the power Christ had as God’s son – asking Jesus whether he wanted them to call down fire from heaven to destroy them!

But Jesus? Jesus stood firm and said no, rebuking the disciples for their careless words. Jesus’ actions embodied his message: that the Son of God had come to save all, not to destroy. And that therefore he went peacefully to another village.

***

I expect that, had Jesus been one of the MPs present in the House of Commons when Jo Cox gave her maiden speech he would have cheered loudly, as her message so embodies what he might have said to the disciples regarding the Samaritans.

These words, which were not given the attention they deserved a year ago, are now something which – particularly after Friday – we should all be holding onto: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Jews and Samaritans were divided by 500 years of history and a disagreement regarding the geographical centre of their faith. Our society has faced divisions again and again: immigrant versus ‘British’; rich versus poor; north versus south; London versus everywhere else; England versus Northern Ireland, Scotland & Wales; Remain versus In. And now we have percentages too: 48 versus 52.

As I look out at you all this morning, I have a fair idea that most of you will be hurting, grieving and confused at what has happened in our nation over the last few days. After all, this borough had one of the highest remain votes in the country. But that doesn’t mean that all of us in this room share the same views either.

***

To use a very clichéd response that I’ve seen tweeted by various Christians on Twitter – there is one thing that does remain: love.

It may be a cliché, but it’s true. And it was love that turned Jesus’ towards Jerusalem, and onto another village when the Samaritans rejected him. It was love that made him rebuke the disciples for suggesting destruction.

Jesus’ love was and is sacrificial. He set his sights upon Jerusalem, knowing the fate that awaited him there – just earlier in this same chapter of Luke he had predicted his own death. Sacrifice is also what he asked of his followers – as the second half of this morning’s passage lays out. We shouldn’t be surprised by that, we all have experience of making sacrifices out of our love for others. It might be the sleepless nights after a child is born; moving house for the sake of a job; taking a less well paid role because of your passion for it…the list is endless.

It was love that I felt most of all as I attended Wednesday’s memorial. I didn’t know Jo Cox personally, although I’d heard a little about her through friends involved in politics and humanitarian work. As I stood amongst the 10,000  strong crowd, I was struck by the way in which love motivated them. I’ve found myself saying to a few people that I felt desperately sad about her murder not just because of the waste of life and the impact it will have upon her children, but because she was ‘one of my people’. By which I mean that her life and work were motivated by love and a passion for justice. It’s no coincidence that in that crowd on Wednesday I kept bumping into friends – friends from my days working in Christian mission and development charities; friends from the world of NGOs; politically active friends and fellow clergy. People do not work or get involved in those worlds without having a deep love for others and a passion to bring about justice, no matter what sacrifices are involved.

It’s also no coincidence that the vicar of a church in Jo Cox’s constituency said at a vigil immediately after her murder that she was a ‘modern day good Samaritan’. Jo, like so many others working in politics, relief work and war zones saw divisions but didn’t let it get in the way of showing love where it was so desperately needed.

The Jews and the Samaritans were not radically different and nor are our differences. The differences of language, nation of birth, voting preference are small things compared to what we have in common. We are all children of God, made in his image, loved by him and blessed with a love to share with all. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, in Christ there is no slave or free, Greek or Jew, man or woman – we are all one.

Before I finish with a prayer, I want to share some of the words that Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, spoke on Wednesday: “My sister would want her murder to mobilise people to get on with things, to try and make a positive difference in whatever way we can, to come together and unite against hate and division and fight instead for inclusion, love and unity.”

The message on Wednesday was ‘to love like Jo’. Jo loved in the way that Jesus calls us to. Without barriers, without prejudice and without inciting hatred. And that is what our world desperately needs right now.

Prayer of reconciliation:

“Guide our nation in the coming days through the inspiration of your Spirit, that understanding may put an end to discord and all bitterness.

“Give us grace to rebuild bonds of trust that together we may work for the dignity and flourishing of all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

jo-cox-memorial

Two firsts

As if this week wasn’t big enough – what with the job leaving and house moving – Sunday saw me give my first ever proper sermon at church. I may have spoken in churches before, usually for work in a “we’d like a talk about world mission” context, but this was my first time in my church and the first time I’d had to prepare something on a specific passage.

Preparation went fairly smoothly (it certainly helps when you get told 3 months ahead of time) and I managed to get a fairly comprehensive draft done before I went to France. Well, I kind of needed to, given as I was getting home less than 24 hours before the service was due to begin. I got a bit of extra work done thanks to an unnerving habit I have of waking up early on holiday, so got half an hour to myself several mornings in a row. Sat outside in the beautiful countryside with just me for company was blissful – if only we’d had a kettle with which to make tea… (Do you know how hard group holidays are for introverts? Especially an introvert rooming with two extroverts who talked non-stop?!)

My night-before-sermon preparation was slightly hampered by post-holiday blues, the distraction of photo editing, and minorly traumatic phone calls with friends, but by the time I got to church super early, all was serene. In fact, I was so serene that even a minor technical difficulty meaning a YouTube video I’d chosen couldn’t be shown didn’t floor me. Plus, there were bacon sandwiches. How I love my church and their pre-morning service bacon sarnies…

Preaching on a passage that ends with the line: “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” was an interesting one. Anyone preached much on vomit before? Actually, I decided to go with a theme of calling, which is apt both for Jonah and my life – and hopefully relevant to the few people who actually turn up at church on a Sunday morning in mid-August.

The talk itself seemed to go ok. In fact, I was just getting into my stride when a couple walked into the church and sat down near the front. Soon after this, I could hear murmurings and mumblings. Initially, I thought it was someone from my student small group being funny, then figured that even they wouldn’t be that childish. I’m not sure if I connected the noises with the latecomers until one of the pair got up when I was around two paragraphs from the end.

He didn’t stand up and leave quietly – this was no parent going to rescue a screaming child from crèche – he stood, yelled something along the lines of “this is all bollocks” and walked out noisily. It was my first sermon and someone had just walked out swearing – I’m not sure that’s a great start to a glittering career in the priesthood! But, I carried on regardless, barely batting an eyelid and completely ignoring the disruption. The only effect it had upon me was causing me to completely forget how I’d intended to finish off the talk – as in my final sentence – but, given the circumstances, I think that’s ok.

It’s not the first time there’s been heckling at church, but it is very rare. The last time it happened was over two years ago and was so notable that I blogged about it. On that occasion, the speaker paused and interacted with the heckler because he was being so disruptive – I’m just glad mine decided to leave. But what is the right thing to do? Ignore them? Engage with them? Tough call.

I think I made the right decision and, on the plus side, it gives me an excellent story for a subsequent sermon. But honestly, what are the chances of one’s first sermon being interrupted by a heckler? What do I do to deserve such things? One friend announced on Sunday afternoon that I was clearly destined for a glittering preaching career if someone had tried so hard to disrupt my first ever talk…I kind of like that way of thinking!

Oh, and if you’re at all interested, you can listen to the talk here.