Advent 4, Year B, Sunday 20th December 2020

Introduction and Call to Worship:

We gather online and in Church in communion with the Church throughout the world, with our hearts crying aloud, maranatha, Come Lord Jesus! As we prepare to make room in our lives for God made incarnate in the child of Bethlehem, let us make those preparations with confidence in God’s love poured out for us anew.

Today’s Bible Readings

First Reading 2 Samuel 7:1-11. 16

God promises to build David a house and a royal household.

Second Reading Romans 16:25-27

Paul signs off his epistle to the Romans with a call that they may be strengthened and encouraged by the good news of Jesus Christ.

Gospel Reading Luke 1:26-38

The annunciation: The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary and foretells the miraculous birth of the Son of God, the long-awaited Emmanuel. Mary answers God’s call with a bold yes, “be it unto me according to your word.”

HOMILY “Do not be afraid.” (Luke 1:30)

What are you afraid of? No, this is not a delayed Halloween sermon. The truth is that we all have fears, now at this time of world-wide pandemic perhaps more than ever before in our lives. We fear the future of our employment, the future for our young people and their prospects, the security of our own homes, the future of our nation considering Brexit and a possible no deal and most of all, we fear ill-health and Covid itself. Some fear loneliness, some fear rejection – there are so many things to be afraid of.

As I child I attended the local Baptist Church once a month. Now, I must admit it was not my cup of tea, even then. But strangely enough, perhaps not always for the right reasons, I have vivid memories of some aspects of the worship and the Sunday school classes. I recall being told never to fear, because God tells us not to 365 times in the bible, that’s one for every day! But are there exactly 365 such references in the scriptures? So far, I have identified 146 direct references to not being afraid, although I am sure there are many more when a wider definition of fear is included.

What is clear is that throughout human history, God is concerned about our reaction to times of great challenge, change and fear – for God is in relationship with us. We need only read today’s Gospel and place it in context to see how concerned God is. His great messenger Gabriel speaks words of challenge and comfort to the young woman named Mary, words that echo passages in the Old Testament. For example, in Deuteronomy 31:8 we read, “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” And in the prophecy of Isaiah: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 42:1)

The words “Do not be afraid” punctuate the Christmas narrative, as people, who would otherwise be filled with fear, hear words of comfort from God’s angel; he foretells the birth of John the Baptist to his father Zachariah (Luke 1:13), and Joseph is encouraged (in a dream) to take Mary to be his wife (Matthew 1:20) and then there is the visitation to the shepherds after Christ’s birth is hailed with a cry of “Do not be afraid” (Luke 2:10).

Today’s reading has Mary’s world turned upside down with the message that she, a young girl betrothed but not yet married, should be called by God to the most wonderful act of motherhood – to carry within her very self the incarnate word – Jesus. As in this encounter that would change our relationship with God for ever, often the words “Do not be afraid” are almost immediately followed by a challenge to embrace something new or uncomfortable, and certainly, given the attitudes at the time concerning pregnancy in unmarried women, Mary had every right to fear for her future, her life and that of her yet unborn child. She must have questioned everything, perhaps helped by the encouragement of Gabriel’s message too. “Do not be afraid.”

For with the angel’s message comes a promise from God: a promise that Mary has found favour, her son will be called “the Son of the Most High” and he will inherit the throne of King David and reign for ever over the kingdom of heaven. This is more than the realisation of a long and hoped for Messianic hope, for now God is coming into the world in a way that will make him accessible to all people, not as a mighty and powerful warrior king, not at the centre of earthly power, but weak, fragile and vulnerable as the new-born child of a poor couple, from an unremarkable town, in a far-away corner of the Roman Empire. Yes, God is about a new thing – but once again will people really perceive, comprehend and utterly understand it? Do we today? Or are we fearful of what God has planned for the world which we seem to be exploiting rather than treasuring?

At times, our modern life can seem very dark and frightening. The challenge of climate changes is evident, not least with natural disasters and a growing awareness that change is required. And this ongoing crisis of health with locally-rising cases of Covid-19 has left many fearful – some simply won’t go out and have decided to stay at home until they are able to receive a vaccine and, we pray, have some immunity. And we can understand their caution, even as Christmas approaches. The hard reality is that many don’t have that opportunity or privilege and so our prayers and support must be with those who must be out and about, caring for the needy in our hospitals, stocking our supermarket shelves and making deliveries, teaching our children, and caring for the elderly and infirm. They have great and many fears too that can’t and must not be ignored. That is why we are open, why we have adorned our church with lights and an outside nativity, why carols sing out every evening. That is why we are a foodbank collection point and working to meet the pastoral needs of Thorpe and beyond as a place for funerals. And that is why the worship of our church, the glory of God continues unabated daily. We are not people of darkness and fear, for we have the light of life, shining at the heart of who we are, the people of God – the very and real presence of Christ among us in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, which sustains us, however tired, challenged, or fearful we are.

Even at this festive time, people have all kinds of concerns, from the economy and our health to war or terrorism and so much more. So now, more than ever, the message of the angel is enormously relevant. Do not be afraid; believe, even in the face of supposedly insurmountable challenges, evolving viruses and so much more; have faith that we are not alone, for God himself will be born among us, not above us, mighty and powerful, but down on earth beside us, among us, with us. Trust in God as Mary did; believe that the light is coming and, for as long as we need it, it will never go out – for we are people of hope. Friends in faith, please do not be afraid.

Father Damian Stewart Harrison-Miles, December 2020

Epiphany of our Lord 2021

Introduction and Call to Worship

As we come to worship God on this Epiphany Sunday, let us turn our hearts and minds to our guiding star, who is Jesus Christ.

Today’s Readings

First Reading Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah speaks of God’s glory arising among his people and the peoples of the earth coming to praise him.

Second Reading Ephesians 3:1-12

Paul speaks about the mystery of Christ which was formerly hidden but now has been made known, which allows the Gentiles to come close to God.

Gospel Matthew 2:1-12

The wise men follow a star which leads them to Jesus where they present their gifts before the manger throne.

HOMILY “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2)

Today’s reading tells of wise men coming to Jesus from afar, while local man, Herod, only takes an interest in their quest for the worst possible reasons – and, in my last maranatha reflection earlier today, I talked about Journeys – often our destination is not quite where we had anticipated ending up. The story of the wise men starts with them in Jerusalem, having already followed the star from the east. What was it that made them follow this star? What could it mean to “follow” a star? And how did they know it indicated the birth of a new king? These questions are worth holding in our minds, but we will not find conclusive answers to them. Perhaps the best we can do is say that this story is rich in mystery. In Jerusalem, the Gentile wise men make inquiries about the whereabouts of the new-born king. This throws the Jewish King Herod into a bit of a panic, but he makes himself out to be interested and gets his priests to say where such a child might come from: Bethlehem in Judea. He then encourages the Magi to find the child and report back, so he too can pay him homage.

The tragedy of Herod is that, in spite of his many advantages, understanding Jewish scripture and scholars on hand, his only concern is with the threat this child might pose to his own position. The depth of his feeling is made clear by his terrible “slaughter of the innocents” after the wise men depart. We could add that the priests, who point the wise men to Bethlehem, seem no more interested than Herod was. Yet the prophets of old spoke with conviction of the coming messiah. Isaiah 61 is a classic text that anticipates Israel’s return from exile. With the hindsight of history we can see that this return is only fully fulfilled in the coming of Jesus who brings good news for the oppressed, freedom for captives, comfort for all who mourn, and a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Surely those returning exiles had anxieties just like we do today as we enter yet another lockdown. I know that some have questioned the form(s) of worship we should use at this time. Should we be online only, is it safe to meet in-person, and what about those without the internet, the isolated and the lonely? The birth of Jesus marks a time of great change in our relationship with God, for now God dwells among mortals. So, the Magi make their way to Bethlehem and are thrilled when the star stops over that town, the one foretold by the prophets. They find the house in which Jesus and Mary and Joseph are staying, enter and kneel down in homage before the manger throne. Then they present their gifts, fit for a king. Their journey home avoids King Herod, after being warned in a dream.

How then do we apply this to our own lives at a time when so much around us changes ever so suddenly? In a sense we are, as Christians, all like the wise men. We are on a journey of faith, a journey which, like theirs, is full of mystery. We too look forward like Isaiah and the Old Testament prophets towards better times ahead. These bible readings chosen for today present us with different responses to God, and the challenge of life’s journey. On the one hand, we have the scheming and corrupt Herod, who was prepared to manipulate anyone and even seek to kill the Messiah to protect his own power and privilege. Like those forced into exile the Magi are on a journey and the star gives them hope. The wise men, with little firm information to go on, embraced the mystery of the star and trusted the revelation God had given them. They journey to find life and light.

I realize that for some inside the Church of England right now, Covid presents an opportunity for reform and change – and for scheming. Now more than ever, voices are suggesting that Eucharistic worship, liturgy and structure, and our historic buildings are all irrelevant – even burdensome. I couldn’t disagree with them more. Communal structured worship, in a naturally ventilated historic building which is kept immaculately clean, is the safest way to pray at this time in church. Indeed our timeless worship translates over the internet into our homes because it is inspired by God, the structure taking people on a journey – it is deeply compelling. Our worship, branded traditional by some, is about journeying towards heaven and placing our challenges, struggles and sufferings before the manger throne, along with our gifts. By our church staying open, even in a limited form, our worship open, as are our hearts in faith, and by our work to support Runnymede Foodbank and many in this community of Thorpe, including our schools, we remain outward looking and deeply relevant to the world around us. So, if anyone mistakenly thinks Covid will knock the stuffing out of us or diminish our desire to rebuild the catholic tradition within the Church of England, think again!

Friends, at the same time, as we journey forward, the challenges we face, the loss we experience and the fears we overcome shape us anew. We will not be the same church family at the end of all of this as we were at the beginning. But I do believe that God is about something wonderful among us and renewal is happening. We simply need to have faith that God has a plan for us, for his church Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Reformed – united in our inclusive diversity which is a strength. The great prophet Isaiah knew all about the challenges of change, of exile, of loss. But our forebears came through the exile and their hopes and dreams were fulfilled in the coming of Christ born in Bethlehem, who strangers from the east travelled to honour and present gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. So, do not let Covid, or the cries of well-intended but misguided reformers, knock your faith sideways. Trust in the Lord who comes among us in love. Trust that God has a plan. Be faithful in attending worship online, and here in Church – whichever is best for you and your well-being. Know that you are loved and prayed for. Let the sacraments feed you spiritually, if not physically, at this time in your life’s journey.

These coming few months will be quite a time and it will shape us in new ways. May the joy of our liturgy, the inspiration of the scriptures, the experience of our forebears and the intercession of Blessed Mary, the Mother of our Lord, inspire us as we move forward together – even if physically apart on this stage of our life’s journey.

Remember, faith and trust go together, as we journey through life. May the Lord of Life inspire you now and always. Amen. Fr Damian Harrison-Miles, Epiphany 2021.

The Baptism of Christ – 10 January 2021

Introduction and Call to Worship

John meets the promised Messiah, Jesus our Lord at the river Jordan as the Spirit descends upon the ‘Emmanuel’ like a dove. Today we pray that the same spirit of God will come down upon us in our homes as we worship – that we may be filled with grace, the gift of the Spirit.

Today’s Readings

First Reading Genesis 1:1-5

In the opening words of the Bible we hear of God creating the heavens and the earth.

Second Reading Acts 19:1-7

Paul meets some disciples in Ephesus who had been baptised by John the Baptist. Paul baptises them into the name of Jesus Christ and they speak in tongues and prophesy.

Gospel Mark 1:4-11

Jesus meets John who is baptising the people in the River Jordan. As John baptises Jesus, Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, the Holy Spirit descends on him and the voice of God proclaims him beloved.

Homily “He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)

There was a lesson in a primary school led by a colleague of mine and it was all about Jonah and the Whale. The Vicar told the children the story and one of the children was particularly interested, but her teacher, who was not a person of faith, said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small. This particular little girl stated that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and she knew this to be true because she was told all about it at Sunday School. The vicar was impressed, but the teacher was somewhat irritated, and reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible. “The bible is full of stories children,” she went on to say, “they are illustrations, there to help us understand.” The little girl responded firmly, "Well, I also believe in Jesus, the Holy Spirit and Baptism, and one day when I get to heaven I will ask Jonah. Then I will be sure of the truth". The teacher asked the little girl, "But what if Jonah went to hell?" The little girl replied, "Then you can ask him, Miss!"

Today’s Gospel reading introduces us to John the Baptist, but the Gospels are not the only ancient source of information about the man. He is also mentioned in the historical work of Titus Flavius Josephus, a Roman Jew born in Jerusalem in AD 37. Titus describes John as a man popular with the Jewish people and respected for his godliness and strong call to righteousness. This contemporary text supports Marks, the Gospel writer’s view of John, as recorded in verse 5 of his first chapter, that “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins”.

John’s ministry does not stand alone, for Mark introduces him in a way that connects him both to the past and to the future; the Old and New relationship with God. The description of him as “clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist” is strikingly similar to the description of Elijah the prophet in the Old Testament (2 Kings 1:8) and therefore John is connected to the ancient Jewish prophetic tradition. At the same time the Baptist’s words point to the future and the coming of Jesus who would, he said, be “more powerful than I”, and would baptise his followers “with the Holy Spirit,” the same spirit that moved over the waters in creation (Genesis 1) and Jesus will breathe upon his disciples at Pentecost.

Mark has introduced John the Baptist, the book end to the Old Testament, he can introduce the means by which God’s new relationship would be brought about, Jesus of Nazareth who insists upon John’s baptism in the Jordan. The account Mark gives us of the baptism is seen from Jesus’ own view; thus as he comes out of the water, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him”. Mark writes with simplicity and clarity and draws upon peoples understanding of the cosmos as understood at the time; they believed the Cosmos had three tiers: the underworld of the dead, the world of the living and the heavens in which God dwelt. So, this tearing of the heavens is an obvious image of heavenly glory breaking upon a world of sin and brokenness. But given that, at least in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus alone saw this vision, it must have been for his benefit that it was revealed, confirming to him that he was the one to bring-in the new relationship with God for all people, time and eternity. The vision is then confirmed to him, as the voice of God the Father declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The people to whom John the Baptist ministered were familiar with the tradition recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) of prophets who spoke God’s word, and they saw John as faithfully continuing that tradition in their own time. But John also introduced something new: he bore witness to Jesus who, in a calling higher than that of any of the prophets, would baptise the people with the Holy Spirit.

Friends, at this time of great challenge and fear, when a deadly virus is disrupting our lives – even our ability to gather and worship together, we must not lose sight of the eternal goals. In faith, through our baptism we are promised a place in heaven and we are called into a living relationship with Christ which should inspire us at home and everywhere we have our being. For Jesus has breathed the Holy Spirit upon us and calls us to live lives that bring blessing. For we believe that Jesus brings in a new relationship of love and forgiveness to all who choose to follow him, and that he is truly alive, and through the Holy Spirit, God is at work and active in the world today. This is our faith! Covid doesn’t change one bit of that truth. The challenge as the baptized is that we must live out that very belief, following God’s law of love, that we may demonstrate Jesus has made a difference in our lives and therefore will do for others too – now more than ever. Wherever you are watching this service today, please stay at home and stay safe and know you are in my prayers – please keep us all in yours. Amen.

Father Damian Harrison-Miles, January 2021

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