Monday, January 21, 2008

Monday 21 January - Prayers for Christian Unity

This was preached at the first of Five services this week held by our 'Churches Together' to celebrate the Week of Christian Unity. The texts are: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18 and Luke 18:1-8



This week we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of Prayer for Christian Unity. This is an observance that’s dear to my heart so I’m very happy to be here praying with you as an ecumenical Christian community this afternoon. I think that those of us participating in this week of prayer are demonstrating unity in a simple and practical way, and I think that this is important to acknowledge.

Of course, for some people, the concept of 100 years of praying for Christian unity more than just a little ironic. An acquaintance remarked that 100 years of praying for something that’s never happened rather indicates to him that the whole exercise has been a failure. A writer for The New York Times was slightly more charitable, wondering in print whether the movement was actually a victim of its own success.

Practising Unity

‘Unity’ was one of the challenges that the Apostle Paul was addressing in his letter to the Thessalonians. And today’s Epistle reading ends with Paul’s advice to those seeking unity to: ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks in all circumstances.’

What does it mean to pray without ceasing? As Christian people, prayer is not just confined to our ‘spiritual life’ but our whole lives are to be a seeking of the Lord. We are called to be persistent in prayer like the widow, convinced that in seeking we shall find.

Paul gives other instructions to the Christian community in Thessalonica that is in need of a spirit of unity: respect those who labour among you; esteem others in love; be at peace among yourselves; admonish the idlers; encourage the faint-hearted; help the weak. These are his instructions for unity – instructions that might seem a bit bizarre until we recognise that, it is often in working together toward a common cause that people learn to respect those who are different.

St Francis of Assisi said: ‘Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words’. In paying tribute to Rob Frost, a Methodist minister and evangelist who died recently, someone said: ‘He didn’t just preach the Gospel, he was a free sample of the Gospel’.

Prayer Changes Us

To me, these are examples of Christian lives lived out as prayer. Today’s gospel reading suggests that prayer can change God, but I suspect that the real benefit of prayer it that it changes us.

The heart of prayer is not being in a room on our own asking for God to change the world. The heart of prayer is, I think, our own changed lives so that there is something about us and the way that we live that turns us into a ‘free sample’ of the Gospel.

The author Margaret Silf, who writes mainly on the subject of prayer, talks about intercessory prayer (prayer for the world and for others) as being an exercise in drawing others into God’s love. She describes the image of a circle with God in the centre.

We can think of our closest loved ones and our dearest intentions as being very close to us on the circle, immediately to our right or to our left. Directly opposite us we can think of those people and intentions that we find most difficult to pray for – perhaps impossible to pray for.

Praying for others is, she says, like drawing those people and intentions into the love of God in the centre of the circle along with ourselves. I find this image helpful because I can use this picture to pray for loved ones when I have run out of words. And I can even use this image to pray for people or for intentions who I find difficult or impossible to pray for otherwise.

For instance, instead of praying that God will harm the National Socialist Party, I can simply draw the members of the party into the love of God so that instead of praying that violence will overcome violence, my prayer becomes a request that hatred be replaced by the love of God.

Persistence Pays Off

I have to disagree with my acquaintance who said that praying for Christian unity for 100 years suggests that the exercise has been futile. I agree more with the writer of The New York Times that, if anything, the movement has been a victim of its own success.

If we think about the centre of the circle, if we use ‘God’s love’ as a plumb line to measure what has happened 100 years, I think we can see that prayers have been answered and that they continue to be answered. Prayer for Christian unity has certainly changed the way that Christians behave toward one another over the last 100 years and I believe that it is only the Holy Spirit who could have brought that change about.

Of course, we still have a long way to go and the way that God answers our prayer for unity will inevitably not conform to someone’s preconceived ideas.

However, our Gospel reading encourages us to be persistent in our prayer. If even a corrupt human judge eventually honours persistent petitions, why should we doubt that our loving Father hears and answers our prayers?


So my prayer this afternoon is that as Christians we continue to pray for the unity of the Christian church. And I pray that our prayers will change us as much as they change God and that all our actions may witness to the love of God. I pray that, through prayer and discipleship, we may all become free samples of the Gospel. Amen

Sunday 20 January 2008 - Persistent Prayer

This is a non-lectionary sermon that was inspired by the readings from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity whose theme this year is 'pray without ceasing'. It's loosely based on Luke 18:1-14


Prayer in Luke

This evening’s Gospel reading is from the Gospel of Luke. And one of the recurring themes in Luke is the theme of prayer.

In the bible-reading scheme that we use on Sunday mornings, the two stories that we heard earlier are normally divided up. And so on one Sunday we hear the story of the widow and the unjust judge. And on the next Sunday we hear the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector. And we’re used to concentrating on the meaning of each one of these stories separately.

However, I think that Luke also put them together for a reason. Together, the two stories tell us: on the one hand, be persistent in prayer and; on the other hand, don’t be prideful in your prayer either.

I think that this balance between persistence and pride is actually a very difficult balance to strike. Speaking for myself, I know that I swing back and forth between these two extremes of praying persistently and pridefully and I expect that many of us do.

In any case, this difficult balance is one reason that preaching about trying to achieve a balance is also difficult. For what they are worth, here are some thoughts.

Dogged Persistence

First of all, I want to talk about dogged persistence. The kind of dogged persistence that the widow showed in asking for justice against her opponent.

But I don’t want to think about this story in the very literal way of ‘If you pester God long enough for want, your prayer will eventually be granted.’ I simply want to think for a bit about the value of dogged persistence when it comes to the very act of praying itself.

There is a phrase that has been used in child-rearing that I hope society is now beginning to understand the folly of. That phrase is ‘Quality time.’ The implication is that as long as we spend quality time with our children, we don’t need to worry about the quantity of time that we spend with them.

What’s wrong with this picture is that children do need quantity-time with their parents. Quantity-time is how children bond with their parents, how they learn by imitation and how they learn to relax and be themselves in their parents’ presence. An intense, short period of time spent with his mother or father is just going to make the child anxious to ‘get it right’. The child may learn the value of performing in front of his parent, but it’s not a real, long-term relationship.

And I think it’s the same thing with prayer. I think that regular time before God – regular prayer time – is a very important practice to try to cultivate. Sure, it’s wonderful when our prayers seem to flow out of us spontaneously. And, yes, it’s difficult, or boring or a struggle, to sit down to pray when we’re angry with God, when we don’t perceive his presence or when we simply don’t have anything to say to him.

And I suspect that we’ve all been in one of those situations – if not others – in the course of our Christian lives. But I actually think it’s important to have a regular time of prayer even in times – maybe especially in times – when we can’t pray.

Pray as You Can, not as you Can’t

But what is a person to do in these instances? How do you pray when you can’t pray? Well, everyone is different, and my second point this evening is ‘Pray as you Can, not as you Can’t’.

Particularly when we feel like we don’t have anything to say to God, prayer-time can be a real struggle. In this instance, I think it’s helpful to have a range things that you know you can ‘do’ even when you feel that you can’t talk to God.

And I think that this something that is often personal and sometimes it’s a matter of trial and error. Sometimes we have to try approaches and see if they work or we can ask others what they do and see if these approaches work for us.

Personally speaking, I’ve found that using written devotions is helpful; I can read through these and let my prayer be in the words. Also, simply reading the bible can be helpful when I feel I can’t talk to God.

I was hoping that perhaps we could share some prayer practices that we find helpful ourselves?

When we regularly spend time with God in prayer we are like a child who gets to spend ‘quantity time’ with his or her parents. This persistence – this quantity time – is how a real, everyday relationship with God comes to be established.

Our relationship with God is not just based on coming to him in the good times, but – if we’re persistent in prayer – we know what our relationship with him is like in the difficult times too. I think that every experience we have of praying through a difficult time gives us a better foundation for the next time of difficulty. Each experience gives us tools, and the knowledge of how we find it helpful to pray in times of crisis.

Pray without Pride

Our Gospel reading also suggests that when we pray, we should pray without pride. And that’s what makes preaching about prayer a difficult thing to do. As a preacher, I risk setting myself up as some kind of expert on prayer, which I’m not.

The irony of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector, of course, is that it’s the person who is supposedly the ‘bad pray-er’ who is actually the one who is making the authentic prayer. Perhaps part of the point of preaching on prayer is for me to lay my cards on the table and say that I don’t have all the answers. That I sometimes find prayer difficult too.

The other risk in preaching about prayer is that someone hears that there is some kind of ‘right’ style or methodology of praying. Sometimes we succumb to the temptation of thinking ‘my way of praying is better than your way of praying’.

And that’s why I think the message ‘pray as you can and not as you can’t’ is important. We are all different people, created unique by God. Some of us find practices helpful that are of no use to others. That is part of God’s rich variety in creation.

That said, this Gospel reading does tell us that there is a wrong attitude toward prayer – an attitude of pride. As one wag once said, if your God hates all the same people you hate, you had better start suspecting that you’ve created God in your own image rather than the other way around. It’s somewhat amusing as a saying, but there is a lot of truth in it, as illustrated by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.


Where is the Good News in all of this? Well, I hope that there is something like ‘good news’ in knowing that prayer is something that most Christians struggle with at one time or another. And I hope that there is Good News in the fact that scripture encourages us to be persistent in our prayers to God. And I think that there is Good News in Scripture’s promise that God hears our prayers, even if we feel that they are not be answered in the way we might like.

As we approach the Lord’s Table this evening, let us remember that God’s hospitality is open to everyone who will accept it and let us come into his presence.

The celebration of the Lord’s Table is also a prayer. It’s a prayer that we make together as a community. It’s a prayer that we make with real, physical things taken from our every day lives. And it’s a prayer where we have Jesus’ promise in scripture that he will be with us when we do it.

So when we come in a few minutes, I invite each of us to draw near to the Lord’s Table as a physical act of prayer. As your feet bring you to the Lord ’s Table and as you eat and drink, may these actions be acceptable to God as a prayer of intention to be in communion with him and with his church. Amen

Sunday 13 January 2008 - The Baptism of Jesus

This is a sermon on The Baptism of Jesus based on Matthew 3:13-17 and Isaiah 42:1-9.


Matthew 3:13-17

I remember the day well, even though it was many years ago. I was a disciple of John then – John the Baptist as you call him.

John was a unique and charismatic figure in the life of the people of God. He’s been viewed by many as the last in the line of the Prophets. At the time I began following John – before Jesus came along – there were a number of us who were beginning to wonder whether John was the Messiah.

You see, John ticked all the boxes of what many of us thought the Messiah would look and sound like. John lived in the desert, wore rough clothes, ate locusts and wild honey and constantly called the Jewish people to repentance.

There were many of us who believed that if one Jewish man could keep all of the Law for just one day, then the Kingdom of God would come to earth. Some thought that John would be the man to keep all of the Law and that, in his keeping of it, he would be given divine success in calling the whole nation to repentance. Anyway, I followed John because it was clear to me that the power of God’s Spirit was with him, whether he was the Messiah or simply a great Prophet.

So it was a thrill to go down to the River Jordan and listen to John. He preached ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ and hundreds, if not thousand, of people would respond to his call to repent and be baptised.

One day, though, I was surprised when a man came to John to be baptised and John started insisting that he didn’t need to be baptised. Since everyone needs repentance, I wondered about the identity of this man who John seemed to think had no need for repentance.

Of course these many years later, I now know that the man was Jesus, the Messiah, who we as Christians now profess to be both Son of God and Son of Man. Clearly on the day that Jesus presented himself for his baptism, John was confused, possibly feeling humble and inadequate and trying to work out why it was that the Messiah would need to be baptised. Jesus simply stated that his baptism was needed to ‘fulfil all righteousness’ – a statement that I’ve had thirty years to think about!

Jesus’ baptism was, of course, the beginning of his ministry. And obedience to the Father was a mark of Jesus’ mission here on earth, so perhaps it was appropriate that Jesus begin his ministry by behaving in obedience to the Father’s will. To tell you the truth we’re still trying to figure this one out. By ‘we’, I mean me and the rest of my brothers and sisters in Christ. We’re trying to come to grips with what it means that Jesus is the Son of God. If Jesus was divine, as we believe him to have been, perhaps his baptism was simply following a script that he and the Father had established before the foundation of the world.

But I’m not sure that his baptism was just about inaugurating his ministry. The appearance of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the presence of the Father’s voice were certainly confirmations of Jesus’ divine mandate but I think that there was something more to his baptism than that.

Maybe the question isn’t ‘What did it mean for the man Jesus to be divine?’ Maybe the question is ‘What did it mean for God to become a human being?’

When we – ordinary people – are baptised, we say that as we go under the water that we are dying to ourselves and rising to Christ. We also say that the water washes away our sins; it’s as if our sins drop to the bottom of the river and are washed away in the current. But, of course, Jesus didn’t need his sins washed away.

This is what I wonder, though: What if all those human sins – the ones I’ve pictured washing away in the current of the Jordan river – what if, instead of being washed away, they attached themselves to Jesus during his baptism? What if, for our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might be made righteous?

I hope you understand that I’m not saying that this ‘literally’ happened. I’m thinking of this as a sort of picture or metaphor. But I’m trying to say that there was something important about Jesus’ ministry that was not just about understanding human sin-and-suffering - but actually experiencing human sin-and-suffering even though Jesus was divine.

And just as, in baptism, we die to ourselves in order to live for Christ, so I think maybe at his own baptism Jesus died to himself in order to fulfil the will of the Father, or what he called ‘all righteousness’.

Well, it’s been good chatting with you. I’ve not thought about these things for a long time and I’m an old man now. I think I’ve made my brain hurt and I wonder if yours hurts too. If I could, I’d invite you into my house for a meal and fellowship, but as that’s not possible, I thought that perhaps we could take a brake and have a song.

Isaiah 42:1-9

Of course, we in the early church only had the Hebrew Scriptures. In my time we didn’t have any scrolls of what you now call the books of the New Testament. We had to try to understand Jesus and his mission in the light of Old Testament. And the image of the Servant in Isaiah was a picture that was familiar to us.

Remember that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet just hours before he died. And Jesus constantly said that the last would be first and the first would be last. And so it’s not surprising that we in the early church turned to images of the servant and the suffering servant in order to try to understand Jesus’ mission.

Isaiah 42:1 reads: Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

Now, back in the old days, before Jesus came along, we Jewish people understood this image of the Servant to have a double meaning: The Servant was, some thought, a promise of a future Messiah. But it was also an image of the role that Israel would play in bringing about God’s kingdom.

So it’s hardly surprising, then, that when we came to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, that we understood these texts to be talking about Messiah Jesus and about his followers as the people who would bring about God’s kingdom.

Did you notice, that at Jesus’ baptism, the Father uses similar words as Isaiah? This is my son in whom I am well pleased; This is my servant in whom my soul delights. As a friend of mine joked: ‘God has a good working knowledge of Hebrew scripture.’1

Through my eyes, friends, this is a wonderful passage, especially as I read it in the light of Jesus’ baptism. This is a glorious promise of salvation and justice for a people in exile. And it’s not the kind of justice that will sweep the earth burning everything and everyone in its path, but rather a justice with kindness that acts on behalf of those who have already been broken by the sins of the world.

This is a picture, not of a conquering hero, but of a saviour who takes on my sin and who knows exactly what it means to struggle on earth as a finite human being with limited knowledge. To me, this is a picture of a God in the mess with me. It’s not a God who observes the pain of being human, but it’s a God who experiences the pain of being human. In Jesus, God knows by experience what it means to be rejected and hunted down and what it means to be God-forsaken. 2

But, of course, there is the other side of the coin: our calling to be like Jesus. Just as Israel was called to be like the Messiah, so in Jesus is the Christian church called to be like Christ. Christ was baptised into our sin and we were baptised into Christ’s holiness so that we too could take part in his resurrection.

And so it’s my prayer this morning that the story of the Baptism of Christ will inspire us all to remember our own Baptism. May we give God thanks for loving us so much that he became human and took our sin on himself in order to destroy it on the cross.

And I pray that we will dedicate ourselves anew to being the instruments of God’s justice on earth and that we will be kind and gentle in our dealings with others so as not to further hurt those who have already been broken by sin. Amen

1 From the article ‘Descent into the depths’ by John Pridmore in The Church Times 11 January 2008, p. 18.
2 From a letter to the editor written by Jeremy Craddock in The Church Times 11 January 2008, p. 15.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Sunday 6 January - Epiphany Story

The following sermon is a sermon for Epiphany and it's based on a poem by Ian M Fraser entitled: The Strange Coming. This poem appears in Hay and Stardust and is copyrighted and so I cannot publish it here.

The poem was read before the sermon and each section of the sermon is based on a verse of the poem. I've tried to make up for the fact that I can't publish the poem on the web by giving a precis of each verse after each section of the sermon.

The Gospel for Epiphany Sunday is:
Matthew 2:1-12



The Gospel of Matthew says that we were ‘Magi’ or, ‘Magoi’ in the original language. That’s a difficult word to translate into the language that you use today, but I confess that I rather like the term ‘wise men.’

I’ve heard some of your people calling us ‘astrologers’ but from what I understand of your culture, that’s not really a word I’d like to use myself. Yes, we looked up into the heavens for signs and portents.

And yes, we believed that we could understand more about God’s creation by observing the stars, but that’s what all our best knowledge told us. In our country and in our time and in our place, we weren’t engaging in pointless superstitious pastimes, we were genuinely trying to understand the heavens and the earth as best we could through observation: rather like your scientists.

And we – my travelling companions and I – we were also particularly interested in the will and purposes of God. We set our sights on the heavens not just literally but metaphorically. We were not only looking at the stars from a ‘scientific’ point of view; our band of companions was also praying for the will of God to be revealed in the history of humankind and in our lives.

Men Rode Rough

It was after one such prayer that a number of us received the message from God to being our journey. But where should we journey to?

Now some months earlier, a new star had appeared on the horizon. It had long been a belief of wise people everywhere that a bright new star in the sky was a heavenly messenger of change. Several of us looked at each other seeming to ask the same question: ‘Do you think we should follow the star?’

But how do you follow a star? Following a star might seem like a nice, literary, romantic notion but – just try it yourself – it’s not all that easy in practice!

Several of our company pointed out the folly of our plan: Travelling is dangerous. Even though there were a couple of dozen of us – by the way, where did you get this notion that there were only three Magi? Matthew never said that – look it up! … Even though there were a couple of dozen of us, travel was always dangerous at the best of times. Ordinary people would try not to travel more than a day’s journey if they could avoid it because of the dangers involved.

Of course, even in our culture, we had our frequent travellers. They were usually armies or traders of expensive goods. Armies travelling was no problem. They could usually take care of themselves – at least until they got to the battlefield! And if you were trading in expensive goods, travel was worth the risk. Sure there were bandits, but if you divided your goods amongst a long caravan and you sent along enough slaves whose lives were expendable, usually enough of the goods and money got back home to make the trip worthwhile.

That was the usual custom of our day: Ordinary people would not expose themselves to the dangers of travel if they could help it. But armies travelled. And the slaves of rich traders travelled.

The glory of a victorious battle was worth the cost. The riches of a successful business trip was worth the cost.

(First verse of poem suggesting that human beings have a love of gain but that Jesus came to this world as a vulnerable being)

Came Frail Truth

What was the journey like?

Well, the phrase ‘We walked by faith, not by sight’ comes to mind. Sure, we had the star, but it really only helped us to keep in a general Westerly direction.

It was a journey unlike any other we’d ever been on because no one in our party had ever set out on a journey to find God in man made manifest before. No one knew exactly what the location of our destination was. No one knew the specific roads we should take and no one knew the dangers along the way.

At every crossroads, we stopped to pray. Sometimes the answer to our prayer was as obvious as the message that had started us off on the journey in the first place. Sometimes the answer to our prayer was dim and we simply had to try a route and see if it worked. If it didn’t work out, we had to return to where we had diverted and start again. Other times, it seemed to us that our prayers weren’t answered at all and that that specific leg of the journey was totally a matter of trial and error.

And then, of course, some parts of the journey were simply a lot more difficult than others. We had to forge some deep waters and climb some steep hills. Several times we were threatened by bandits and once we had to fend off an actual attack.

In these more dangerous parts of the journey, we sometimes lost heart but we continued to try to encourage each other in our faith and in our prayer. There were many times when it was so difficult that we wanted to give up. But we had set our sights on the truth and on the light of God’s promise of salvation and we kept that vision before us as we journeyed on.

(Second verse of poem suggesting that lies can be powerful and truth can be frail.)

Greed and Fear Yield to Wonder

You might call us the original hippies. I’d like to think that our band of travellers was one in a long line of people who were genuine seekers after God and who were ready to follow the truth no matter how difficult or inconvenient.

Our world really wasn’t so different from yours, you know. Certain details might have changed over the last 2000 years, but like you we lived in a society where people trusted in the prevailing culture of the day.

The values of our band of travellers may have been different but we couldn’t help but be affected by the views of everyone around us.

Our quest for truth, our quest for God, didn’t make sense; or so everyone told us. ‘You’re well off. You’re respected. Stay home and enjoy the fruits of your acquired wisdom.’ They said.

You see, our society really only respected the kind of wisdom that helped people make sense of their situation so that they could attain power, influence and money. Of course, it was considered better to gain wealth and power by honest means – or, if not honest, at least by not overt dishonesty or robbery. But gaining power and influence by bending the truth beyond all recognition was still considered better than having nothing.

To give up everything and to go on a journey for the sake of God and his Truth – like we did – was considered mad. Especially when a person had no idea exactly where they were going, no map for the journey and no certainty of getting there.

(Third verse of poem suggesting that ‘the way of the world’ is greed and that God’s way is wonder.)

Broken Folk Healing

We got there eventually, of course. Or, at least we think we did. Well as I said before, how do you really know where a star is pointing?

What we do know is that being in the presence of this young child was like experiencing an epiphany. I suppose that a lot of new parents and grandparents feel that way only, of course, this was not our child.

Somehow, he seemed to be a child for the world, for the universe. A child for generations long since dead and a child for generations still to come.

Very quietly the Spirit of God seemed to speak silently to each of us and said: ‘My presence is in this place.’

I think Mary and Joseph and all the other visitors heard the voice too because a great sense of peace came upon all of us.

In this small child’s helplessness, we understood that God is present with all who are helpless. After our long journey, we understood that our journey had not been in vain, however purposeless the world might believe it to be. As we gathered with Jesus’ other visitors – most of them considered undesirable and on the margins of society – the first inkling of understanding passed across our spirits.

(Fourth verse of poem suggesting that the marginalised rejoice in the coming of the Messiah)

There, in the presence of this young child Jesus, we began to understand God’s purposes for his universe – for his New Creation.

That’s the story of our Epiphany. What’s your story?

Sunday 6 January - Covenant. New School

The sermon below is a sermon for 'Covenant Sunday'. The texts on which it is based are: Exodus 24:3-11, Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 12:1-2 and John 15:1-10.



Imagine with me, if you will, a luxury block of flats in the centre of your favourite holiday city or town. Imagine the view from the top floor of this block of flats: where ever your favourite place is.

Perhaps it’s a beautiful view overlooking hills or even mountains. Perhaps the view is one of lakes or the ocean shore. Where-ever it is, imagine the beauty that you find in that view and the sense of God’s good creation.

Now, I want to introduce you to two new residents in this block of flats: Harry and Emma. Harry lives in Flat number 12 which he just purchased.

When he moved in, he signed a tenancy agreement. He agreed to pay the management company a certain fee every year for the maintenance of the structure of the building and for the upkeep of the common areas. He agreed that he would not make any modifications to the structure of his flat without first consulting the owner of the leasehold. He agreed that his floors would be sound-proofed or carpeted. And he agreed that he would own no dangerous pets.
Now Emma lives in flat number 14 and she didn’t make any such agreement with the leaseholder. In fact, she’s made no agreement with anyone. Emma gets to live in flat number 14 without having signed a tenancy agreement and without having to take responsibility for anything in her flat. In fact, Emma doesn’t even have to make her own meals!

Have you guessed it yet? Emma is only a few weeks old and she lives with her parents. Oh, I forgot to say that Emma is adopted.

The Old Testament Covenant

This morning, we have heard two readings about the theme of ‘covenant’ in the bible.

In the Old Testament, there are many places where we read of an approach to Covenant that sound like the sort of tenancy agreement that Harry entered into: God sets out certain conditions which his people agree to just like a tenancy agreement. The usual format is: ‘I (God speaking) will be your God and you shall be my people’. We’ve heard this format in this morning’s reading from Exodus.

So, it can seem to us that if we break our end of the bargain, if we break our tenancy agreement, then the covenant is broken and we will be evicted.

There are a number of times in the Old Testament where either Israel or Judah are told that punishment will come upon them – or has come upon them - because they have broken their Covenant with God. This is the old form of covenant relationship: a relationship between God and his people under the Law.

The New Covenant

But even before the birth of Christ, we have a biblical witness to a new form of Covenant relationship with God and this New Covenant was expressed in our reading from Jeremiah.

In fact, these verses from Jeremiah are considered to be the key verses in explaining the concept of ‘The New Covenant’ and the key to the entire covenant is actually in the very last phrase that was read: ‘For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.’ This idea of forgiveness is actually the foundation on which the New Covenant rests.

Unlike the Old Covenant, in the New Covenant, our relationship with God is no longer based on the condition that we keep up our end of the bargain. God knows that we can’t be like Harry: we are not going to be a good tenant who keeps his tenancy agreement.

The foundation of the New Covenant is that God forgives first. Once God forgiveness has been granted to us by God, the New Covenant have a firm foundation on which to rest.

God knows that we are actually like baby Emma. Not only can’t we keep up a tenancy agreement, we aren’t even in a position to sign one. Like baby Emma, we are simply incapable of making such an agreement. Just like baby Emma, we need someone else to do it for us.

To stretch this analogy just a bit further let’s imagine that Emma’s adopted father is actually the son of landlord. The building will eventually belong to Emma’s dad, and there is no question that anyone will ever demand that baby Emma be responsible for keeping up the tenancy agreement.

It’s as if, because God knew that there is no chance of any of us ever being able to keep such an agreement, that he decided to adopt us. Because of our adoption as sons and daughters, our inheritance – as it were – becomes part of who we are; it is written on our hearts.

Or, to use the image from today’s Gospel reading, through the forgiveness mediated by Christ, we are grafted on to Christ, who becomes our support and our nourishment. Our relationship with Christ is not dependant upon our clinging on to the vine. It exists because we have been grafted on to the vine. Christ supports us, not the other way around.

The Covenant Prayer

What has any of this got to do with the Covenant Prayer?

Well, I think it’s important for us to understand that we are making this prayer under the New Covenant.

We are not ‘making a decision to have a relationship with God’ in this prayer; we are not chasing God down the street and saying ‘Hello! I’ve decided that I want to have a relationship with you now.’ Doing this would be trying to have a relationship under the Old Covenant.

We’d be acting as if we were in a position to keep all these promises under our own strength – as if we were Harry, who could keep his tenancy agreement.

What we are doing when we pray the Covenant Prayer is acknowledging that our relationship with God already exists and that we are aware we had nothing to do with bringing it about. We’re acknowledging that we are like baby Emma: living in a relationship with God because he was gracious enough to adopt us and to offer us a permanent tenancy with him.

When we pray, ‘I am no longer my own but yours’ we’re not saying ‘Once I belonged to myself but now I’ve decided to turn myself over to you.’ We are acknowledging that we understand that we’ve always belonged to God in the first place.

When we pray the Covenant prayer, we don’t give God the gift of ourselves. When we pray the Covenant prayer, we say that we understand that we’ve always belonged to God, that whether we are troubled or at peace, that whether we have work to do or no work to do, that we understand that the Covenant is there and always will be.
As the introduction to the prayer tells us, we are simply accepting our place within a Covenant which already exists because God himself brought it into being.

Preparation for the Prayer

In a few minutes, I will invite those of us who wish to do so to make the covenant prayer.

I invite you now to turn to page 7 in your pink books where the text of the covenant prayer can be found. We will have a few moments of silence to give us all an opportunity to read this prayer and for each of us to consider the manner in which we might make it. As you read, I invite you to read the prayer as if the prayer were God making a promise to you – because that’s what he’s already done.

May the grace of the Triune God be with us all in our consideration. Amen

(1) Credit for the illustration: Rev Andrew Sails, Mint Methodist Church, Exeter,

Sunday 23 December 2007 - When We Cannot Save Ourselves

This sermon is for the 4th Sunday of Advent. It's based on the following texts: Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 1:18-25



Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and this season of repentance and preparation for the birth of Christ is drawing to a close. This year is another year when Christmas day follows on quite quickly from the last Sunday in Advent and so, rather than 4 or even 6 days of final preparation, we plunge headlong from the last week of Advent into Christmas day without a lot of time to think.

The American theologian Walter Brueggemann had this to say about Advent: ‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’

In today’s Old and New Testament readings, we hear stories of two people who probably felt very much under siege. One, quite literally.

King Ahaz

The first person was King Ahaz of the Kingdom of Judah. The holy city of Jerusalem was part of the kingdom of Judah and Judah was threatened by her enemies: the Kingdom of Israel was one of these enemies and Syria was another.

The King was worried that his country would be attacked at any moment and he wanted to make an alliance with the kingdom of Assyria in order to strengthen his strategic position. But the prophet Isaiah comes to the king and tells him, basically, ‘Don’t worry, God will protect Jerusalem and, just so you can be sure this is the hand of God, ask for a sign and it will be granted to you.’

Ahaz declines to ask God for a sign and Isaiah tells him, then God will give you this sign anyway: a young woman is going to have a son and she will name him Immanuel – God with Us. Before this boy is about two years old, the age when children begin to have a sense of self, all of your enemies will have ceased to be of any threat.

Basically, Isaiah says to king Ahaz, don’t try to take the matter into your own hands, simply trust in the Lord and within the next two to three years, you will see that your kingdom has remained intact.

I don’t know if they had the saying then, but I imagine king Ahaz might very well have been thinking ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves’. In fact, this may very well have been why he declined to ask for a sign: because he wanted to take matters into his own hands. King Ahaz was not known for being the most pious of Judah’s kings – it was he who introduced the worship of the Baal into the kingdom. King Ahaz probably preferred to take matters into his own hands rather than to trust in God to save his kingdom. He didn’t seem to think that there was much use in trying to find God’s will in his situation; he wanted to save himself.

‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’

Joseph of Nazareth

And then, in this morning’s Gospel reading, we have Joseph. Matthew chooses to tell the story of Jesus’ identity and ancestry by having the angel announcing the conception of Jesus to Joseph rather than to Mary. And the angel tells Joseph not to be afraid.

I imagine that Joseph must have been quite afraid actually, and the passage gives us some indication of his dilemma. We are told that Joseph is a man who keeps the Jewish law – he is a ‘righteous’ man. And the law as set out in Deuteronomy is that a betrothed woman who becomes pregnant by another man is to be stoned at the city gate.

The passage also gives us strong evidence that Mary’s stoning would not be acceptable to Joseph, but we can be certain that the requirement to keep the law would have weighed heavily upon him. It was certainly a huge dilemma: the requirement of the law on one hand and the compassion of a good man on the other hand. Which option should Joseph choose? If ever there was a situation where a person could not save themselves, this must be a prime example.

And at the point when it appears that there is no way out of this predicament, an angel of God appears to him and presents him with an utterly preposterous story: That Mary has not been unfaithful and that the baby she is carrying is going to be both Saviour and God With Us – Jesus and Immanuel.

And somehow, by the time the angel leaves, Joseph is at peace and he is ready to stand by Mary as her husband. Joseph was ready. His heart was open and, unlike Ahaz, he was alert to be able to see God working in a new way.

‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’

Are we Ready?

So the question for this morning is: Are we ready? Are we ready for the saving one? Are we alert to God’s presence all around us? Do we understand that Immanuel, God with Us, is present in our lives even when we may be having trouble perceiving him?

The thing that I find slightly frustrating about the story of the annunciation to Joseph is that he apparently goes from a fairly intense wilderness experience to complete peace in God’s purposes in just eight short verses. If you take the story at a very literal level, Joseph lays down to bed one night wracked with emotional pain and, by dawn, he is at peace with the very difficult task that God has given him to do.

Most of the time, real life is not that way at all and, coming to a place of peace with the events of our lives is often extremely difficult and takes a lot more than just a few hours between dusk and dawn. When circumstances are difficult for us or for those we love, it can be hard to see God in it and don’t we sometimes wish that an angel would appear and say ‘Fear not’ and make all our anxieties go away?

But this story isn’t meant to be a novel and it’s not meant to spin out the situation so that readers enter into Joseph’s anxiety and struggle in real time. This story is meant to be a narrative about who God is and what his purposes are for humanity and for his creation.

God himself will enter into the world and so the child is to be named Immanuel, God with Us. Secondly, the child will be the saviour of his people and so he will be named Yesuha – Joshua or Jesus. The child’s ancestry will be both human and divine.

Matthew spends the first part of Chapter 1 outlining the genealogy of Joseph and Jesus: a genealogy meant to emphasise that God’s purposes for his creation are to be displayed in his covenant relationship with Israel. God’s character and identity are intrinsically bound up with the people of Israel, with human history, and with God’s physical creation. God’s promise to all of humanity is that God is here and his Spirit is with us.

The Good News of Advent

Walter Brueggemann said: ‘Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.’ This is both a call to preparation and, it’s also a promise.

It is a very real part of the human faith experience that there are times when we find it difficult to perceive God’s presence at all, never mind perceiving him as being present all around us.

Like King Ahaz, we might be tempted to think that there is something that we can do to save ourselves, when in reality there is nothing we can do.

Like Joseph prior to the angel’s visit, we may sometimes find ourselves in a state of fear and anxiety.

The Gospel story this morning is not telling us to ‘snap out of it’ and help ourselves. The Gospel story this morning assures us that God has made a promise for Good with humanity and that God has kept his promise in the birth of his Son.

God is here with us. Immanuel, fully present in our humanity. Salvation is here in the birth of Jesus: Salvation from sin and guilt, Salvation from death and destruction, from poverty, sickness and hunger, from despair and hopelessness.

Whether or not we perceive God’s presence, whether or not we feel God’s presence, God’s promise is there and it has been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.


In a few minutes, we will come to the Lord’s Table where we remember that Jesus promised to be with us whenever we celebrate this sacrament in remembrance of him. As we remember, we use real, physical things – bread and wine – the common foods of our everyday life.

And we remember that the God of Moses brought the people of Israel out of Egypt and that, in Christ, his covenant with humanity has been fulfilled.

As we remember Jesus’ promise to be with us in the Lord’s supper, I pray that our hearts will also be ready to receive the love of God in Christ as he comes to us in the birth of the baby Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man. Amen