Sunday Before Advent: Christ the King

Christ the King

Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24
Matthew 25:31-46

God the Father,
help us to hear the call of Christ the King
and to follow in his service,
whose kingdom has no end;
for he reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, one glory.

Today is the final Sunday of the church year; this is New Year’s Eve! Happy New Year!

This Sunday is a hinge that helps us to look in both directions: firstly pointing to the end of time when the kingdom of Jesus will be established in all its fullness to the ends of the earth. Secondly, it points us to the immediate season of Advent, the beautiful time of expectation and preparation as we look ahead to celebrating the birth of Jesus. In both directions we are reminded that Jesus is King.

Christ the King is a recent addition (1925 so very new) to the church calendar and a Roman Catholic one at that! Pope Pius XI instituted this Sunday in response to issues he was facing in the Catholic church and in the civic life of Rome as secularism was growing in wider society after World War 1.

There was an enormous crisis of faith and many people left the Church (both Catholic & Protestant) in Europe in the wake of the First World War. The men had left for war and they did not come back; and the women left the church and God. This context led the Pope to establish Christ the King Sunday as a reminder of Jesus’ power and authority above all else.

The Bible is full of reference to kingship. In the Old Testament, God warned the Israelites about the dangers of a human king but they insisted. God yielded and Saul was anointed as the first king of Israel. In the New Testament, the earliest followers of Jesus were looking for him to be a king who would smite their enemies and bring Israel back to prosperity. Again a need for a very human king.

However, both the Old & New Testaments offer a vision of a king like a shepherd. The sheep are a metaphor to represent the people of Israel. They are God’s flock and they are a mix of strong and weak sheep.

Sheep are not the brightest animals in creation, they are not able to take care of themselves the way other animals can, you cannot teach them tricks, they need a lot of care and attention and they need to be guided. Hence the need for shepherds.

God acts as the shepherd for his people; he will search and seek out the lost, the lonely and the oppressed. He brings back the strays, strengthens the weak, binds up the injured. He feeds them, he will make them lie down – 23rd Psalm anyone? This is a picture of a King who gets deeply involved with his mixed flock of strong and weak out of deep love and concern.

Both readings present a King who judges as there is inequality in the flock. There are both strong and weak sheep living together. The strong are not looking after the weak the way that they should. The fat sheep are the ones who butted the weaker animals, took their food, and tread down the pastures for their own gain. The fat took advantage of the lean by mistreating them and will be punished for this.

Regarding judgement, we need to hold on to some important truths: God does not judge the same way we do. I am very glad of that. God judges out of love; not hate or pride or envy. For this King love and judgement go together. We need to remember that we will be judged by the same standards that we judge others.
We all make judgements every day. I also know that the standards that I hold myself to are far less than the standards I hold other people to.

We do need a God of judgement; otherwise He quickly becomes ineffectual and untrustworthy. If God did not judge between the two what is He saying?

To the fat sheep: you can do whatever you like to serve yourself without consequence. I do not love you so I will ignore what you do.

To the lean sheep: you are not worthy of help. I do not love you enough to want to help you. You are on your own.

This is similar to the picture of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel. The separation of sheep and goats seems to emphasise that ultimately every person on earth will be called to account for the use of the opportunities to serve others. It also suggests that there will be some surprises. People who did kind things for ‘insignificant people’ will find that what they did was done to God himself. Other people will be punished for failing to make use of opportunities to serve the lowly and thereby failing to serve God.

The world does not operate as it should. It does not take much imagination to work this out. We do not treat people as we should; whether that is the people next door or the people on the other side of the world. The injustice in the world is rampant: socially, politically, and economically. We have active global examples at present.

It is not all bad news though.

It might be helpful to hold that this is not the full picture of judgement. This passage only deals with works not grace, faith or the atoning work of Christ.
Works are the evidence on which people will be judged here, not the cause of salvation or damnation. It is common to all of scripture that we are saved by grace and judged by works. The works we do are the evidence of either the grace of God at work in us or of our rejection of that grace.

Out of love God wants the fat sheep to care for the lean sheep; to share food, protect them as he does. Love your neighbour as yourself! We will be judged on this. We have a King of love and of judgement. Whatever season of life we are in, we have a King who loves us and will defend us. This will come to pass at the end of time.

As we look ahead to the imminent Advent season, we celebrate the first coming of Jesus, the Son of God. Who was born into the world as both God and man, died so that our sins may be forgiven and rose again so that we may live with him forever. We also look forward to his glorious return at the end of time. Advent helps us to remember that God is present in the world today.

The Advent season falls at the darkest time of the year, and the natural symbols of darkness and light are powerfully at work throughout Advent and Christmas. We may live in dark times but the light of Christ will show us the way.

But we do have to wait. Wait with expectation and anticipation. We wait in the light of new hope. The King is Coming.

2nd Before Advent: What Are We Supposed to Do?

The parable of the Talents,
Stained glass executed by Clayton & Bell, London,
For St Edith’s Church, Bishop Wilton,

2nd Before Advent

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Matthew 25:14-30

We seem to be in in-between time on the calendar; both the church and in life. The days are shorter and darker. The weather is grey and miserable. Remembrance Sunday has passed.

Have you put up the Christmas decorations yet?
When should you do that without judgement?
Has the Christmas pudding started?

We seem to be waiting around for the next thing. There is a vagueness to everything. You come to church and we are faced with these seemingly dire readings all about the end times and gnashing teeth. Is that what we are waiting for?!

Both Paul writing to the Thessalonians and Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable speak to the return of the Lord. The second coming of Jesus. This is what we are preparing for during Advent; God’s return. Yes we spend time preparing and celebrating the birth of Jesus. The bigger picture is God’s return for the second time. Not many people spend much time considering or imagining this event.

After the resurrection everyone (the gospel writers, Paul and the disciples, members of the new church) thought Jesus was coming back imminently. Yet here we are two thousand years later, still watching and waiting. Like the Thessalonians, we do not know the day or the time. Paul and Matthew are concerned with what people do in the meantime. Paul encourages the Thessalonians to put on the breastplate of faith and love, a helmet for the hope of salvation. Paul wants them to encourage and build each other up.

Jesus is coming back, and it matters what was done in his absence. This is true for us too, how are we doing in the meantime? Are we being foolish or wise, investing, hiding or squandering?

Matthew 25, like many of Jesus’ parables, can be read on several different levels and it needs careful attention. As a reminder, Matthew has this parable set in the last days of Jesus’ life. Generally people say some really important things as the end of life nears. This is not an easy parable nor is it made any more comforting by the times we find ourselves living in.

We could read this parable as a call to do more with what God has given us. It does not matter how much (think time, money, gifts, resources) we have been given, just do more with it and be smart about it. Again, if we do not use it, we will be punished.

The tension here is that, given the current situation with post-Covid, cost of living among many factors, many people cannot volunteer or contribute their gifts for the service of others as they may previously have. Should they be made to feel guilty? Punished for what is beyond their control? There is a difference here between inability to help and serve and being unwilling to help and serve.

In Jesus’ parable, the man (master) is going away for an unknown amount of time. He calls his servants and gives them each a talent of silver; but he does not give them any instructions about what to do with the talents. Why not? The man knew his servants, he had worked out what each would do with the talents given.

Through the actions of the first two servants who invested their talents, we can see that they knew their master. Even without explicit instructions, they knew what was expected of them and what would please their master. It is doubtful that these two slaves understood the motivation of their master but possibly suspected that this was some kind of test.

The third slave and the master know each other too. There is dislike and mistrust between them. The master does not trust this slave as much as the others. The slaves’ response is to focus on the negative, what he did not have, did not get and blamed the master for that.

The master replies by pointing out that the slave did not try, did not seek out what he (the master) wanted. Instead of trying to please or get to know his master, the slave gives up and buries the talent. When the master returns to his home, the third slave knows that trouble is coming so tells his master what he thinks of him. This slave had decided a long time ago that nothing would please his master so gave up trying.

Many people can relate to the third slave, that nothing they do is ever good enough, so why try? This is applied to God too. I’ve heard things like, ‘God has never bothered with me, so why should I bother with him?’ or ‘if God is so good, then why did x, y, or z happen?’

Questions like these often come from a place of deep hurt and carry some honesty. However, many people who tend to blame God for their misfortunes, do not seek after him in the first place. Assumptions about who God is and what He is like are often wrong and based on circumstance and feelings rather than knowledge and relationship.

When it comes to talents, by this I mean our gifts and skills; they have come from God. They are given to be used, we are stewards of them, not the owners. The owner is God, and he expects us to use his gifts wisely. Gifts, like the silver talents of the slaves, increase with use. To use them wisely and to the glory of God, we need to know the giver, the true owner of these gifts. God has a genuine and vested interest in what we do in his name.

If we seek to know God and his will for our lives, we do not need to worry about the outer darkness. We are all going to have to account for what we have done with what has been given to us. It does not matter how much; this is not a competition.

If you feel that God was stingy or somehow passed you by when handing out your gifts, seek him, ask him! God knows you, knows your capacity, He also loves and understands you. Proverbs 3:5-6 tells us to: ‘trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’

The problem is not that Jesus did not know the slave or does not know us. The problem is that the slave, and us, do not fully know who Jesus is. We need to work to correct this imbalance. This is my prayer and hope for this upcoming Advent season; that we will find time and effort to deepen our relationships with God.

For the other slaves and for us, knowing Jesus is a positive, life-giving, life-affirming experience. It is an ongoing and ultimately loving relationship with the Father who loves us more than we can ask or imagine, who gives good gifts for the benefit of all. Let us not waste what God has given each of us, we can work together to build each other up. We can seek the Lord while he may be found, we need to build each other up for the day of the Lord in coming.

Remembrance Sunday 2023: Love & Service

1 Thessalonians 4:13-end
John 15:9-17

The British Legion’s theme for Remembrance this year is focussed on remembering and honouring Service. There are significant anniversaries united with the theme of service: the 70th anniversary of the armistice that ended the fighting of the Korean War. It has been 60 years since National Service ended with the last serviceman being demobbed. It is also the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush Empire’s arrival which brought settlers from the Caribbean to help with the post-war rebuilding efforts. There are also efforts to remember the contribution from Commonwealth personnel.

The Legion also endeavours to mark South Asian Heritage Month and Black History Month. Each of these events highlight the service of people who are often overlooked and whose stories are not told. However, their service is commendable and needs to be recognised. None of us have a monopoly on service.

The Legion writes, ‘Service, the act of defending and protecting the nation’s democratic freedoms and way of life, is rarely without cost for those who serve. Physical, mental or emotional injury or trauma; the absence of time with family; or the pressures and dangers that come from serving, highlight why the Remembrance of service is so important.’

I wonder what your first experience of community or public service was beyond your family?

Mine came through the Guiding movement; and as a good Canadian Brownie and Girl Guide, I spent many a November 11th shivering in my uniform at the local Cenotaph. November can be a rather frigid month in Alberta! It had to be a full-on blizzard with sub-arctic temperatures (hell would have to freeze over first) before any consideration would be given to moving indoors. Those old Canadian Legion members were a tough bunch!

I remember thinking about what was happening on Remembrance Day in other countries and feeling that somehow the world was joined on that day. And it is.

It is important to consider the cost of service, the cost to those who serve and the cost to those who support those who serve. Although the cost is often high, it is undervalued. Some pay the ultimate price and that is what we, of course, remember today.

There has been a change in societal attitudes to service, both civilian and military. Government spending cuts, the rise of social media, the pursuit of one’s personal comfort and convenience over the collective good have all contributed. In recent times we have seen the British Forces undertaking more civil work; driving ambulances and running testing centres during Covid, carrying out relief work in areas of the country experiencing flooding.

Some members of the public do not think that the armed services should be doing this sort of work. I spoke to a serving British Army officer about this at a wedding last summer. He pointed out that 20-30 years ago, almost everyone would know someone in the armed services but this is no longer the case. Currently the majority of people do not know anyone in the forces given the reduction in the number of serving personnel.

His view is that the public seeing the army serving the nation is actually a good thing. There is also a very low public appetite for sending personnel into active combat. His pride in these jobs was evident.

During Covid there was a huge swell in public service with many people wanting to get involved and help neighbours and communities in need. Whats App groups sprang up all over the country as neighbours reached out. People who lived next to each other for years finally learned each other’s names! There was and hopefully still is a real desire to serve our communities.

Why do people serve? Think of a few words or phrases about the why.

Loyalty, commitment, purpose, meaning, desire to help or care for others, sense of justice, the greater good. Love.

How do we respond to those who serve? Admiration, inspiration, respect, awe, but above all I would hope with love.

Love is the answer. Love is what should underpin our service. Not sappy or soppy love. Agape love. 1 Corinthians 13 love. Love that is patient, kind, never gives up, looks forward and not backwards. This love is more than emotional; it is a response to wanting what is best for the other despite the cost to ourselves. It is not easy, it often does not feel good.

Think of soldiers on a battlefield, fighting for a cause that is bigger than themselves, doing it for the people they love back at home. For King and country. For the man beside them. Honour and duty will take one so far but only love reaches the end.

Jesus is telling his disciples to stay in his love. Abide has a lasting, long-term quality to it. The timing of this passage is crucial; Jesus and the disciples are at the Last Supper and these are some of the final words of Jesus. Love. We are to love one another. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. This is not an easy way to love a friend. This is the highest calling of love that there is. This is love shown to us by Jesus dying on the cross.

What the world needs now, in the words of Jackie Deshannon, is love sweet love.

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some, but for everyone

Not just love for people that we love naturally or who are easy to love. Loving our neighbours as ourselves, loving our enemies. It is not convenient or easy to love the people we find difficult. This is where God’s love, agape love, comes into play. It is not about our feelings or desires, it is tapping into God’s view of the world.

The end of St John’s life was hard. All of his friends (including Jesus) had been killed or crucified in horrendous ways; he was probably present at their deaths. John had been exiled to the Greek island of Patmos under extreme conditions.

He was extraordinarily dedicated to his cause (as many people can be), his passion is evident in his writings. John had dedicated his life to the service of others by telling the Good News of Jesus. Despite the hardships, pain and grief, at the end of his life John knows that it is love that got him through. Everything he did was all done for love.

John learned over his many decades, that following the commands of Jesus, leads to a full, loving abundant life. What a different world it would be if we could abide in God’s love and live out the commandment to love one another as God has loved us. Maybe we would not be here today?

Maybe I am a little idealistic. Like many people, I yearn for a world that is fair, peaceful with love and grace in abundance.

As we remember again today those who have died in the theatre of war, we can be reassured that because of the resurrection of Jesus, it was not for nothing. The cost of their service came at a high price; it cost everything. The love, the life, the sharing of burden and suffering, the service required to work together for a greater good is not lost in death. There is more to the story.

Our own service whether to King and country or friend and neighbour is needed and valuable. It needs to be done from a place of love.

All Saints: Why We Should Remember the Saints

All Saints’ Sunday

1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
Matthew 24:1-14

God of holiness, your glory is proclaimed in every age: as we rejoice in the faith of your saints, inspire us to follow their example with boldness and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

It used to feel a bit strange for me to ‘celebrate’ All Saints and All Souls. My very Protestant upbringing in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada did not help matters much either. Although we make a big deal out of Halloween! I like how Methodist theology puts it: ’All Saints Day revolves around giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints, including those who are famous or obscure.’ A Saint is a person of great holiness, likeness or closeness to God who remains this way through life and into death. The lives of the Saints are set to be examples to the rest of us on the graciousness of God and what virtuous living can look like.

Not all saints are famous. Most are everyday people who have done remarkable and yet sometimes really odd things! My attempt this morning is to talk about why it is important to mark All Saints Sunday.

Firstly, The dead sit at the dinner table long after they’re gone.

I said last week at All Souls that there is a belief in a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church triumphant) and the living (the Church militant). We don’t tend to forget people once they have died; whether we loved or liked them or not. The impact of our relationship with them, their life, the love, the moments that were shared do not cease to be important once they have bodily departed.

Does God shut his ears to prayers for them? If I am concerned about the soul of a person who has died, will God not hear that prayer? He knows far more than I do about them and their situation. Certainly we can seek his peace and reassurance.

We have biblical evidence that indicates God cares about the dead. 1 Thessalonians tell us that the dead in Christ will rise first and we will all meet together. Time and again we see Jesus cut through the cultural and religious rules to reach out to people; Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha, the Widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus to name but a few. Jesus was not afraid to touch a dead body which would have made him unclean.

In the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which we will say in a few minutes ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead.’

Secondly, we have an inheritance with the saints

Many of us here may know what it is to share an inheritance. My very wise Grandpa Lepp said ‘that you never truly know someone until you share an inheritance with them.’ My youngest sister is a Wills & Estates solicitor in Canada. She has a framed photograph of Grandpa on her desk with that quote underneath it. She spends her days and makes a considerable amount of money sorting out legal issues (mainly fraud and deception) for families who have come apart over inheritance.

Paul in his letter to the Ephesians speaks of the inheritance we have obtained in Christ. It is hope in Christ that brings salvation and the seal of the Holy Spirit. To the Thessalonians, Paul encourages them to live a life worthy of God, who calls them and us into his kingdom and glory. We are to receive the word of God and then live it out. That is largely what the saints have done.

Paul is trying hard to speak of his sense of wonder at the richness of the gospel. For Paul, true riches are found here and they are far, far better than the knick-knacks, bric-a-brac, even the property and money we may receive in an earthly inheritance.

Thirdly, we need to be reminded that Jesus overcame death and still does!

We do well to remember that the Christian faith is built on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let us not forget that death came first; Good Friday before Easter Sunday. For those who die in Christ their physical death is not the end of the story. This is Good News!

I appreciate that this can be cold comfort to those who live with grief. Christian or not. Grief can overwhelm and when allowed to rob life from the living. What is a Christian response to this?

In our world, most people think that wonderful news consists of success, wealth, long life and victory in battle. Jesus, in our Gospel reading this morning, is offering pretty much the opposite of that! He tells them that the temple, the centre of Jewish worship and ritual is going to be torn down (and it was a few decades later). The world is going to get much worse with famines, wars and earthquakes. The disciples themselves are going to be hated and tortured. Remember, Matthew is recording all of this in the last week of Jesus’ life.

Jesus ends with a glimmer of hope; anyone who endures to the end will be saved. The good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed. This is what the disciples did for the remainder of their lives as well as the saints that came after.

I would encourage you this morning and in the coming days or weeks to remember and give thanks for the Saints in your life; both the living and the dead. They are around. Have a conversation about them. See what comes up, compare memories. They still sit at the dinner table! If it’s hard or brings up any feelings of grief or love or guilt or joy, pray about them. Ask God for his peace and input. He is in this with you. He loves and cares for all his Saints. That means you too.