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  • What happens when the miracles no longer occur?
  • Or our prayers go unanswered?
  • Or the ideas for the forthcoming sermon dry up?
  • When the screen is blank and the finger doesn’t quite know which keys to press?

We have all been there surely.

There is a temptation to download something from the internet and pretend it was a spark of creative genius – somewhat different to our normal offering. We get caught out of course, we get caught out when the illustrations speak of ‘visiting the mall’, and worse still ‘after the ball game!’ Even the least attentive of congregations will sit up at that. Well, I’d hope so! But nothing is guaranteed in this life, except death and taxes as they say.

The reading from Joshua  refers to the time when the people had concluded the journey through the wilderness. They now camp at Gilgal surveying the city of Jericho down below. A flat fertile area surrounds it – which is why it is the longest inhabited city to this day, even if it has moved a mile or two south over the centuries. No longer can the people rely on the miraculous manna of the wilderness years. Now the people must forage for their food, before they can capture the land and transition from a nomadic tribe to an agrarian nation.

There are three points we can draw from this passage:

  1. We are not where we once were
  2. There is a real necessity for ritual
  3. If the miracles don’t happen – keep at it

 1 We are not where we once were.

The passage begins by reminding the people that they have left Egypt. The shame of those days are over. You were once slaves, says the writer, but you are now free. Your destiny is about to unfold.

The passage doesn’t direct the people to forget those days. Far from it. The passage begins with this reminder of that from which they have come.

One of the wisest things my college principal Graham Slater shared with us, and he shared many wise things, was at our ordinands’ testimony service. ‘Never forget,’ he said, ‘what it was like to be a lay person’. For those of us with potentially 40 years of ministry ahead, it was not bad advice.

I cannot forget how hard it was to get up at 6, drive 36 miles to work, put in 9 hours on a building site, drive home again and attend Church Council, or do a pastoral visit, or prepare for Sunday. Nor can I forget, and nor would I wish to, that I grew up on a National Coal Board Estate. And without repeating a Monty Python sketch where each tries to do outdo the other with tales of their poverty- I can say that it was not always easy – especially during the 3 day week. Enough said.

We know from where we have come. And we must not forget. But today we are not where we were – physically, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically. We have brought with us to this place and time the experience of our years:

  • The stories we have had the privilege of hearing as ministers of Christ.
  • The post Church Council sleepless nights.
  • The awkward so and so who moans about the fact we didn’t have Christians Awake salute the happy morn on Christmas morning.

All of these things have helped make us what we are. Today, we are no longer where we were. And because of it we have much to share with others on their journey.

2 There is a real necessity for ritual.

When our creative thoughts seem to desert us, and the page for Sunday’s sermon looks blank, it’s the routine of our daily devotions, our spiritual rhythm and our belonging to a sacramental community that come to our rescue.

The first thing the Israelites did on their passage from wilderness to a settled state was to celebrate Passover. A reminder of their past, yes as we have mentioned, but also the sustaining expression of present belonging. Circumcision for the male members of the community had not been possible, but it was the ritual of Passover that had provided a sense of full participation in the community of Israel during those wilderness years.

The Warsaw Ghetto was liquidated at Passover in 1943. Despite the fact that rumours had been circulating for some days many households still prepared the Pesach table. On the 19th of April 1943, Passover eve, the Germans entered the ghetto. One survivor, Tuvia Borzykowski, a member of the Jewish Fighting Organization, described the Seder in Rabbi Eliezer Meisel’s apartment:

Amidst this destruction, the table in the center of the room looked incongruous with glasses filled with wine, with the family seated around, the rabbi reading the Haggadah. His reading was punctuated by explosions and the rattling of machine-guns; the faces of the family around the table were lit by the red light from the burning buildings nearby.

In his book Vision of a World Hungry, Thomas Pettepiece gives an account of his first Easter Sunday as a political prisoner. There wasn’t a scrap of bread available, nor water, let alone wine. But the non-Christian prisoners walked quietly so as to enable the Christians to gather and to celebrate the Eucharist without elements. The lack of bread reminded them of the hunger of millions. The absence of wine reminded them of the blood that had already been poured out on the streets. So, in silence, each communicant passed an imaginary bread hand to hand, with the words ‘Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ Each raised their hands to their mouths, receiving Christ in silence. And the same with an imaginary cup; taking it to their lips the covenant with Christ was sealed. Later non-Christian prisoners spoke of the impact this silent communion, with neither bread nor wine, had upon them. Some became strengthened even to face their trials because of this witness.

Such is the power of ritual, and its significance in both belonging to and sustaining ministry here and now in the hard times.

This second point is closely related to our third and final point:

3 If miracles don’t happen – keep at it.

Whenever I hear the song Eleanor Rigby I always pause to pay homage to our faithful colleague Fr McKenzie, writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, for no one comes near; darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there, and what does he care? But who is it? Who is it that conducts the final ritual for Eleanor Rigby? Who is there for her as she is lowered into the ground?

And more recently Sean Bean’s Fr Michael in the TV series Broken serving in an inner city parish, reassuringly flawed, but a confidant, counsellor and confessor to a community struggling to reconcile its beliefs with the challenges of daily life.

The experience of the Israelites as they travelled through the wilderness and arriving at the gates of Jericho was one of persistence and resilience. The miracles had ceased but they pressed on. It wasn’t that the Chosen People of God were perfect, far from it. They were chosen for many reasons and it certainly wasn’t perfection. One reason could have been the recognition that they were flawed, that they were an argumentative bunch, that they challenged even God.

I want to close with a report from 1985. A Times journalist reflecting back on the events of that year. I paraphrase it as I can’t recall the exact words. But it went something like this:

A famine had swept across the great plains of Africa. It was of biblical proportions. People were dying in their tens and hundreds of thousands. And from heaven God looked down upon his world and wept. He resolved that something needed to be done. So, as the journalist reported, like the gods of old this one too came down to earth. He sought to find a great leader who could turn the people’s hearts to the suffering of the Ethiopian nation and respond with great acts of charity. So God knocked on a door. The only trouble was this God was not infallible – he had knocked on the wrong door. It was opened by someone looking much the worse for wear.

‘Who the hell are you?’ asked God.

The reply came ‘Bob Geldof.’

‘Bob Geldof?’ responded God. ‘Oh well, never mind, you’ll have to do.’

The rest, they say, …..

Each and every one of us, whatever our length of travel as Methodist ministers, presbyters and deacons, have come a long way. We are not where we once were. We have brought with us stories of our experience. We are bound together in ritual and the rhythms of the spiritual life and liturgical calendar. And even when it gets as tough as it possibly can we will press on come what may toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Because one day, one day, some time ago, God knocked on our door and said, ‘Oh well, never mind, you’ll have to do.’

Friends, or, as I would prefer, brothers, for it is my belief that we are all brothers in faith.

Our world should stand still today.

Our world should stand still and reflect on what is happening to us.

The appalling terrorist attack on mosques in New Zealand is another indication of the breakdown of social cohesion. This hatred that is taking root across our world has to be challenged and overcome by those who stand for righteousness, justice and truth. Wherever we are and to whichever faith community we belong it is incumbent upon us to love one another and to build communities of respect and trust.

My prayers are with our Muslim neighbours in both New Zealand, across the world and here in Lincoln today. An attack on a person of faith because of their faith is an attack on us all – we are all children of God and stand in solidarity with one another.

The Christian Knights Templar, of which at least one of the terrorists claims to belong, is a vile and abhorrent organization that has no place in a just world. Those who take a life are not acting in God’s name but out of their own evil intentions to divide and disfigure our world. They seek to bring hell to the lives of others but in the end they only bring hell upon themselves.

Our world should stand still today.

Our world should stand still today and with one voice declare that prejudice and hatred of our neighbour irrespective of colour, culture or creed is unacceptable to us all.

As sisters and brothers of faith please permit me to share a prayer which is from the Islamic tradition but should be the prayer of us all:

I invoke the perfect words of Allah
from which neither a good person
nor a bad one can escape

for protection against any evil
that may come down from the sky or rise up to it

and any evil that may be planted in the earth
or spring forth from it

against the evil of the tests of the night
and the tests of the day

and the evil of the happenings of night and day
save only the happening that brings good

O Most Beneficent One!

 

It is impossible for me to imagine the grief of those who mourn today or the fear some of you feel, for if worshippers are not safe in New Zealand then nowhere in this world is safe.

When I heard the news this morning my heart broke and tears fell from my eyes. All that I have to offer is a hand, an open hand extended in friendship, please take it and let us together work as sisters and brothers of faith.

Joel 2.1-2, 12-17

 

The English translation speaks of a trumpet being blown in Zion. It was actually a ram’s horn, the shofar. In this instance the shofar acts as a warning to the people: catastrophe is about to fall upon the land – a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness no less! Although not named as such, the powerful army of which the prophet speaks that will cause such destruction is actually a plague of locusts.

Today’s recommended passage omits verses 3-11. Those verses describe this enemy’s approach as being like that of horsemen and chariots; they will consume the straw so fiercely that it will sound like fire and like warriors they will scale the walls of the city and terrify the inhabitants.

For a few decades we, in this small corner of God’s world, have tended to be pretty immune to the sort of disaster that Joel describes. I say a few decades because in reality it was not so long ago that even those who lived on these islands were dependent upon the harvest and weather in much the same way as billions are still dependent to this day. But many of us here have become so wealthy that strawberries can be provided all year round, the shelves in our supermarkets are stacked high with food, and no one need fear the supply; providing of course we have money in the bank and Brexit doesn’t go badly wrong. Thankfully some of us are growing more aware of how fragile planet Earth is; how vulnerable we and all God’s creatures are to global warming and changing weather patterns. A fear of impending disaster is beginning to rise amongst us.

In his dystopian novel The Road Cormac McCarthy tells us of a journey undertaken by a father and his young son. The landscape through which they travel has been ravaged. They are making their way to the coast avoiding lawless bands who scavenge what is left of this ash-ridden world. They have no idea what they will find at their intended destination. The book is both relentless and gripping. The reader is not told of what has caused this ecological calamity, whether it is nuclear conflagration or environmental meltdown. In a sense it matters not – it is as it is. Yet in this imaginary bleak world, seemingly devoid of any hope, the relationship between parent and child is all that matters. Each sustains the other for each is to the other the world entire. Eventually the destination is reached, the father hands the son on –– the boy has to live his life without the father, but the lessons have been taught and learned, it’s now up to the rising generation, for their time has come.

I can’t help feeling that like the child in the novel, we too have been brought to our destination – the charge has been handed on to us, we have been given the responsibility of caring for this planet and for those who live on it.

In our passage today we read of God’s gracious and unrelenting faithfulness in the face of disaster; but action has not yet taken place to deal with that disaster. So the horn is blown a second time, not in warning as before, nor in celebration of what has been achieved, for nothing yet has been done to save the world, but as a call to action on the part of the people. Young and old are called out, the bride and bridegroom from their wedding and the priests to weep and plead with God.

Today we are somewhere between the first horn signalling a danger and the second calling us to action. Many of us have heard the first horn but not the second. We are still messing about with the stuff that won’t save us or our planet. We are in a sort of denial or sense of impotence. We know that the earth is groaning not toward perfection but destruction. Yet we haven’t quite yet recognised in sufficient numbers what we must do or indeed developed a satisfactory urgency to respond appropriately.

However I just get the feeling that the trumpeter may well be picking up the shofar for a second time right now.

Luke 9.32

Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.

  1. They were weighed down with sleep
  2. But they stayed awake
  3. The consequences of such vigilance, not only for the three disciples but for the Church today.

Now, it would not be the last time the disciples would be weighed down with sleep.

In a garden after their last meal together the disciples would struggle to stay awake – the consequences of course were catastrophic.

But feeling sleepy or even falling asleep is natural. We need rest to be active, just as we need night to face the day, darkness to appreciate the light, doubt even to rejoice in faith.

Statistics show that in Sweden depression increases not in the long, long nights of winter but in the long, long drawn out days of summer – the darkness, taking a rest from frenetic activity is clearly important.

Which is one of the reasons why it is sometimes claimed that it is not so much that Jews have kept the Sabbath but that the Sabbath has kept the Jews. This weekend has been Shabbat UK – the Chief Rabbi’s initiative to encourage people to take Sabbath rest more seriously. Last year, inspired by the Chief Rabbi’s initiative, the Lincolnshire Methodist District launched Sabbath Lincolnshire for the 1st Sunday in Lent, no better day perhaps to consider refraining from the temptations of this world, for example by limiting our use of social media for just 24 hours. Both Shabbat UK and Sabbath Lincolnshire were amongst others featured in yesterday’s edition of the Times no less.

So rest is acknowledged as important.

Jesus himself of course would be sound asleep in the stern of the boat as the storm tossed it from side to side. Only when the disciples sensed they were about to drown did they wake him.

There is nothing wrong in being weighed with sleep or even undertaking necessary rest to face the challenges that lie ahead. But when that challenge is imminent, and maybe even existential, it is important to be alert.

Leaving Jesus asleep in the stern of the boat could have resulted in disaster for the disciples.

Falling asleep in the garden, despite the repeated warnings of Jesus, meant the guards could arrest Jesus before anyone was able to take preventative action.

But when Jesus took Peter, John and James up the mountain to pray the disciples, though were weighed down with sleep, they stayed awake.

Second point: They stayed awake

In so doing they were able to catch a glimpse of the significance of Jesus: standing between Moses and Elijah Jesus was the fulfilment of both Law and Prophecy. This had become quite clear to the disciples only because they had stayed awake. They had remained alert to possibility. They did not miss what may have been a very brief but hugely significant moment in time.

Years later the second generation of Christians would draw on this analogy to urge action on the part of believers.

Ephesians 5:

“Sleeper, awake!
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

15 Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.

The days are evil. Do not be foolish and sleep through them. Be alert and understand what the will of the Lord is.

It is often claimed that the early Methodists helped save Britain from the same fate as revolutionary France. Take note populists and extremists, revolutions never end well. It is also claimed that the Methodist movement saved the Church of England by reawakening the established Church to the dire circumstances of the rural parishes and the injustices created by the urbanisation of the Industrial Age. Just as the Reformation led to the Counter Reformation and the reawakening of the Catholic Church, so the Methodist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries alerted the wider Church to both the dangers and the possibilities of socio-economic and cultural change. Even if such claims are sometimes exaggerated it is evident that those who remain alert to what is going on about them are more likely to respond much quicker to the dangers and even warn others.

The role of Watchman in ancient cities was a serious one, just take a look at the Hebrew Scriptures if you need convincing. The Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams identified three roles for the priest or minister: weaver, witness and watchman. It’s a serious business staying alert. It’s a serious undertaking both in church and community to be the one who looks out for danger.

So, the third and final point:

The consequences of such vigilance, not only for the three disciples on the mountain but for the Church today are compelling.

There is surely no doubt about it – these are unprecedented times for our nation. We have not been as divided for a very long time. We may also end up more isolated in the family of nations than we have been for a very long time. We are indeed living in difficult days. Similarly to many other parts of the world, populism is fuelling extremism. Meanwhile the planet itself is not groaning towards perfection but destruction. And we feel impotent in the face of such crises. It is as if we are weighed down with sleep. The challenges of our world seem far too big for us to do anything about them. We may even be tempted to find a corner, curl up and wait for it all to pass.

But this is not the way. It was not the way in which the disciples were able to still the storm and save themselves. Nor was it the way in which they could have saved the Christ in the garden.

Today.

Today they still come.

They still come for him.

They still seek to silence him.

They do so by coming for us.

They come seeking to silence our protestations against persecution and poverty in a world of riches.

They still seek to undermine the teaching of Jesus and the actions of his disciples. They do so because we, and the breadth of God’s love, are such a big threat to their narrow minds and manifestos.

In other words those of us who work for a better world – welcoming the stranger in our midst, feeding the hungry at the foodbank, sheltering the homeless from the storm, telling those who spew out their divisive and racist filth on social media: that this will not do, are a massive threat to those who seek power over others.

Sleepwalking at such a time as this, is not the way in which we will see the glory of God. Everything our forebears and predecessors have worked for can be snuffed out whilst we sleep. Every fibre of our being has to stay alert, see what Jesus offers in our context and catch a glimpse of his glory in our world today. Then, and maybe only then, can we climb down from the mountain top and, with renewed and resolute confidence, work amongst the stuff of life: the political world, the world of education, of commerce, of leisure and sport, and dare I say it, even in the world of religion. For there are many who prefer to focus their attention on what is happening insider the four walls of the Church than on what needs to be addressed outside them in the market place, on the streets and in the homes and corridors of influence and power.

I close not with the lyrics of a Charles Wesley hymn but those of a Christian folk duo (Leslie Jordan and David Leonard, All Sons and Daughters); partly because, though Wesley’s hymns remain sublime to this day, I think he too would want us to be alert to contemporary culture, so that we may speak and sing and act with effective relevance:

We have seen the pain
That shaped our hearts.
And in our shame
We’re still breathing, for
We have seen the hope
Of Your healing.

Rising from our souls
Is the feeling
We are drawing close
Your light is shining through.

 

So wake up,
Wake up all you sleepers
Stand up,
Stand up all you dreamers
Hands up,
Hands up all believers
Take up your cross and carry it on.

I can’t resign from a political party; I never joined one. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt I could preach the Gospel more effectively without people thinking I was being party political. Nevertheless, over the years, plenty have discerned in my sermons views that resonated more with the Labour Party than any other. That was only to be expected. I happen to believe that social justice, a fair distribution of wealth and equal opportunities are central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I also grew up on a National Coal Board Estate and in a household where it would be heresy to cast a vote in an election for a candidate from any party other than Labour.

In 1971, at the age of 10, my school teacher set his new form a questionnaire. Only much later did I realise it was a clever means by which he could get to know each character in the class. One of the questions was inevitably ‘what would you like to do when you grow up?’ I had no hesitation, because I meant it: ‘to be a Labour MP.’ Years later Mr Pilsbury told me it was the most ambitious response he had received in decades of teaching.

It was only when I sensed a call to ordained ministry in the Methodist Church at the age of 21 that I finally gave up any hope of ever fulfilling my childhood dream; I was to give my life to Christ and his Church. Formal allegiance to a political party would, in my mind, only have been a burden, an obstacle to speaking from the pulpit of good news to the poor, liberation from social oppression and welcoming the marginalised into the centre. Other ministers saw things differently, and still do, and I would never criticise a minister for joining a party, whichever party, unless it was communist or fascist, but this was my reasoned view.

For almost 40 years since I took that decision my pencil in the voting booth has seemingly always gravitated towards the Labour candidate. Only on a few rare occasions, when the only realistic winner could have been either Lib Dem or Conservative, was my cross placed strategically, so to speak.

For the last two years I have really struggled to know what to do at a polling station. At the last General Election I very reluctantly voted for the Labour candidate, not because I had anything against her personally, I didn’t know her, but because I feared a Corbyn-led Government. Had I have known then how close he would come to becoming Prime Minister I may have struggled even more with placing my cross where I did. Since then I have seen my worst fears come true: the far left that was expelled in the late 80’s from the Party, or at the very least side-lined, has now taken control of many constituencies, the National Executive and much of the Front Bench. The entryists and activists, and even some leading politicians, have brought with them views that are repugnant to me.

It has often been said that the Labour Party owes as much to Methodism as it does to Marx. Well according to Methodist Standing orders racism is a denial of the Gospel. Racists, claiming to be anti-Zionists, are spewing their filth without proper condemnation. Words of condemnation alone are insufficient, it is action that is required. The problem is that the hatred is so deep, and the ignorance so great, that I cannot see a way forward for the Labour Party other than a complete collapse or schism. There are simply too many activists who hold views I find to be abhorrent for me to have any confidence in this issue being resolved any time soon, if ever.

When the leader of the party fails to speak with a racially abused parliamentary colleague for almost two years, despite several of her assailants being convicted of hate crimes against her, three of whom receiving custodial sentences, then we know something of the magnitude of the problem. Last September my Labour MP, who refused to meet me, a constituent, face to face, but instead chose to telephone me unexpectedly, told me that the party had moved on since the summer of revelations regarding antisemitism; she claimed that the party was dealing with it. I asked her to check with Luciana Berger to see if she felt the same, to which the MP responded that that was Luciana’s problem not hers. Such indifference to the most virulent hatred directed at a colleague caused me to despair. The MPs refusal to meet with me, a constituent, added to my frustration.

I have no idea how the newly-formed Independent Group will fare in the weeks and months ahead, much will depend on whether Corbyn and his loyal supporters in Parliament allow for a vote on a Second Referendum. Many point to the short-lived fortunes of the SDP and the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in more recent years as evidence that the country is not likely to support a centrist party. In any case, first past the post means that the odds are stacked against any new party being successful at the polls. But the new movement will win if it causes the two main parties to draw back from their respective rush to populism and extremism. At the moment that seems unlikely, but I have hope, without it I would lose much of my reason for being. In any case, these are very different times to the 1980’s when the SDP was formed, who knows what will happen. Deal or no deal, Second Referendum or not, leave or remain, whatever the outcome the result will be the same: a deeply divided Britain, perhaps more so than at any other time in our history since the Civil War according to Simon Schama; I agree with him. Which is why I take heart at the smiles, joy and relief on the faces of those 11 members of the Independent Group after a press conference a few days ago – it just shows that those who once sat on opposing sides of the Commons Chamber can now sit together, putting past party allegiance behind them to work for the common good. Which is why, almost 40 years after I chose to not join a political party, I now pledge my support to the Independent Group.

20180119_122106

 

As if long expected, tears did not fall.

Instead, on distant dreams eyes so focused,

and memories conjured up an angel’s song.

 

Like you would a wayward child,

so stubborn, yet full of care,

a tender hand caressed some splintered wood.

And what was, what might have been,

and what may yet become,

in art and story, rhyme and verse,

a narrative of grief, like none before.

Yet forever, your sorrow is our own;

it speaks of life’s dark shadows

and deepest of deepest joys:

the unknown, the unseen,

all that become plain for all to be.

Thanks then be to you, O Madonna,

oh yes, oh yes, hail

O Mother of God, sorrow’s great sister.

 

The Eastern churches have a tradition that Mary’s conception was a great surprise for Anna and Joachim. They were elderly and childless until Mary came along. Joachim was a priest in the temple and, as a thanksgiving for his and Anna’s unexpected gift, Mary was dedicated at the Temple and served there as a Temple virgin. Legend has it that she could have worked with the other young women on embroidery, the priests’ vestments or even the Temple curtain. This would have been in exchange for lessons in the Torah.

St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem is said to have been built over the childhood home of Mary. It is situated in an area of the Temple precincts, next to the Pool of Bethesda. This, of course, is where later Jesus is said to have cured a man of a long illness. Whether all this is historically accurate or not it has stood the test of time for the Christian Orthodox communities.

It is recorded that the Temple curtain tore in two at the death of Jesus as a sign of the barrier between us and God being finally broken so that we can all enter God’s presence. Previously it had only been the High Priest could enter. It is fascinating to think that the curtain Mary worked on years before being destroyed may also indicate her torn heart at the death of her son. The child she had nurtured and the man she had worried over was to be brought down from a cross and placed in a hastily arranged stranger’s tomb.

The woman in the icon, the Solemn Madonna, is an Ethiopian woman I encountered at the end of the Via Dolorosa. Just next to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional sites of Golgotha and the resurrection tomb, the woman rested and caressed the cross that had been carried along the ancient paths. Her eyes were cast down for much of the time; but then she lifted them up and her gaze seemed far off, it was as if she had been transported to a different time. Whether she was at a different place, or the same, I could not tell. Was she contemplating the final walk of Jesus to Calvary? Or was it some experience in her life at home that she was seeking to drink in the last strength of Christ in all his weakness? Either way, how she held and lent on the cross indicated a woman of an immensely resilient faith.

What does scripture mean by crossing waters and rivers? Or travelling through fire?

After centuries of Christian interpretation such metaphors have come to only mean cleansing and purification. Just as water cleanses the body and fire prifies the meatl so they can be used to describe the cleansing, purifying act of God on the soul an of the community and nation.

But this is only part of the story. Crossing rivers and travelling through fire are also a geophysical expressions.

The people were in captivity and in order to return to the Promised Land from the east they have to cross rivers. Just as Moses and those that followed him had to cross the river to freedom from captivity and the people of the Hebrews had to cross the river into the Promised Land so those in exile at the time of Isaiah had to cross the Tigris and the Euphrates and eventually the Jordan. If they were coming from the south they would have to cross the fiery heat of the desert. So waters and fire are philosophical realities as well as metaphorical allegories.

What Isaiah also seeks to address, as did many of those writings of prophets that were recorded and passed on to future generations are the reasons why the people were in captivity in the first place and why they now not only needed to be physically redeemed or liberated but spiritually cleansed too.

When we read what we refer to as the Old Testament and especially the prophets and the chequered history of the kings and peoples we may be led to believe that the Hebrews the Israelites the Jews whatever you want to call them were a pretty bad bunch of people. The reason for this is quite simple. The fact is that much of their scriptures, or at least the scriptures that have come down to us, were often composed and compiled at a time of exile and captivity. Such was the deep heartache of the people that they needed to make sense of their predicament. As a consequence far reaching reviews were held into their most recent past. How did we get here? What could we have done wrong? And in the ancient world and indeed not far back into our own past the question would be why did God do this to us? Or why does God allow this to happen to us. So the texts that spoke of such anguish came to be recorded and recited in later times of distress.

At a time of division in society or a time of great threat from beyond the rivers, the people needed some explanation and they found it in the actions of the rulers or morality of the people. So it is that we end up thinking ill of the ancient Jews, Israelites or Hebrews. The truth is that they were no worse nor indeed probably no better than any of the other peoples in the ancient world. They were vulnerable because they were a small community of nomads and eventually small nations living in a difficult place. Often caught between two empires to the north or East and to the south and eventually from the west across the great sea. Yes they had their moral code, the Ten Commandments which eventually evolved to the Law and we might think that this probably set them apart. But again evidence is such that even these were a distillation from in Egyptian moral code which they would have experiences during captivity. No. what probably set them apart more than anything else was the fact that they came to believe that there was only one God. All the other manifestations were mere attempt to express what God is. It was this that set the people apart. And it is this that comes down through the centuries, through victory and defeat, times of success and failure, of glory and shame. It is that come to us today. There is no other God but God. Sport is not god. Politics is not God. Dictators are not god. Even religion is not god. This is the message that transfers down through the ages. Cross cultures, races and languages. This is what has helped keep the people together in whatever circumstance, through Exile and Exodus, through destruction and diaspora, through persecution and pogrom: there is only one God.

Of course Isaiah, despite the circumstances, presents us with hope. He suggests that salvation comes not from outside the earthly realm but from deeply embedded within it. It comes from Cyrus, the leader of the new super power, the new kid on the block. It doesn’t matter that freeing the exiled Jews was all part of his political strategies, his actions came to be seen as the activity of God, the salvation bestowed upon the people. Salvation, then, comes from all sorts of quarters. And in Isaiah’s mind this is how God works. It is also, how God works today.

If you are looking for a supernatural miracle to get us out of this mess, think again. We can only get out of the division and hostility that is infecting our community, nation and world, the hatred and contempt, the hostility and the fears that case them because someone is willing to stand up and say enough is enough.

Of course Christians over the centuries have seen this passage and countless other passages in what we refer to as the Old Testament as simply pointing to Jesus. The truth of the matter is there were 800 years between this passage and the arrival of Jesus on the scene. In order to get that into perspective just think: it’s the same gap of time between the Magna Carta and today. No one in their right mind would suggest that we return to the days of the Magna Carta and other laws that were set down at that time in order to bring our nation back to some kind of order. Life has moved on. Life had moved on by the time that Jesus came on the scene. But the history, the tradition, the story was kept alive generation after generation. So that when eventually the early followers of Jesus tried to make sense of the event they drew on their story, they drew on their tradition, they drew on their history and they were able to see that within the writings of Isaiah and many other prophets Jesus was the fulfilment of all their hopes and dreams.

So it is that John the Baptist came on the scene at the physical presence of the river Jordan to yes cleanse but also to re-enact the return of the people to the land which God had promised. This was a metaphorical crossing, it was the way in which we, the people, are encouraged to leave behind the past and enter into a bright new future. A future that was adhering to the laws of God, after all Jesus cam to fulfil not abolish the law. This is a future that clearly states that morality is supreme to the injustices that are imposed on people.

And what of today? Well what of today? Just as the early followers of Jesus sought to make sense of the Jesus event by delving into their history, traditions and story so we might do the same today. We might conclude that these are as desperate times as those of Isaiah. So we have much to do.

Isaiah would not be too surprised about the socio-political quagmire of today: the division and the hostility the hatred and the contempt that infects our society. He might ask why it is that there is little trust in society and ponder whether this is the root cause of the situation. Why is it that we have lost our belief in our leaders? My guess is that future historians will write books with a whole chapter dedicated to Watergate. They will have another chapter on the Iraq war and the so-called weapons of mass destruction. A footnote would be on the expenses scandal.

Isaiah would be urging leaders to be truthful, to not act out of their own interests nor their parties’ interests but out of the interests of the people and ultimately God’s will.Jesus would remind us of the need to build bridges and not walls. He would expect us to encounter and engage with the stranger in our midst. He would expect us to love our enemies not just love our neighbours but our enemies. Enemies are significantly different do bad people for they are the ones who wish to bring us down in a very real way rather than just be morally questionable.

So it is that I was disheartened recently by a theologian who said that when he meets with an American these days his question is whether they voted for Trump or not. If they did he walks away. This is not the kind of hero that I look for in modern life or indeed at any point in my life.

My heroes are the ones who listened to the differences of opinion and formulated a strong coherent message that didn’t leave any issue unaddressed but engaged and proclaimed by word and action that there is only one God and in order to give ourselves wholly to that God we give of ourselves to the known neighbour and unknown stranger, be they like us or not, be they fellow citizen or migrant from elsewhere, our whole and undivided heart in their time of need.

 

A wise person once said: there is a time to be silent and a time to speak.

Experience should teach us that on occasion it is right to give voice to something; yet on another it might be better for us to allow the situation to speak for itself.

For example: a good parent will know when to say something to chastise a child, or when to simply stare with a serious look, so that the child gets the message without the need for words. This approach can actually be received more effectively by the child than through a rant or rage.

My wife, Karen, is an Early Years teacher. She has a well-practiced stare, one that is honed to perfection – it can bring me up sharp far quicker than even carefully chosen words of rebuke.

Another Jewish proverb recognises the difficulty of knowing what to say at a time of tragedy. It is a moment, according to the saying, when a thousand words are not enough, yet one may be one too many. That is – in order to convey our feelings, we may find that thousands of words are insufficient, and yet one word out of place may do more harm than good.

Also, what may seem ok to say amongst close friends may not necessarily be acceptable in a wider audience. So, the appropriateness of what we say, when we say it and in what context is a matter for discernment.

Now, as one year ends and another begins we would do well to ask ourselves: when is it right to be silent and when is it a good time to speak out? Well, a saint was once asked: when should the silence be broken? To which the saint responded: only when you can improve upon it.

Surely we all want to improve our world. Surely we all want the coming year to be better than the last. Yet there is much anxiety about what lies ahead. Understandably so. We simply don’t know how the coming weeks are going to work out.

The time has come then for the silence of the many to be broken.

Young people are the ones whose futures are at stake here. Yet their voices are not being heard above the clamour of those whose years are drawing to a close.

A good number have chosen to keep schtum and let matters take their course. This has clearly not been a good policy of late.

If our fears about our nation and our world are to be addressed, we cannot leave it to those who like the sound of their own voices. Or indeed to those who have their own agendas.

For the sake of the common good here and now, and for the sake of the future, it is incumbent upon us to be part of the debate that is dividing our communities, pitting members of a family against one another and causing intransigent groups to form that are incapable of hearing what others are saying.

I have never known such blatant tribalism in British politics, even those of the same party seem incapable of communicating with one another in constructive, mature ways.

But it’s not just politicians who seem to be affected in this way. A few weeks ago I was horrified to hear a highly regarded British theologian state that when he meets an American these days he asks whether they voted for Trump; if they say they did, he walks away. In my honest opinion such an action serves no useful purpose whatsoever. Ending the conversation so abruptly is not only disrespectful it also eliminates the opportunity to learn from one another and ends any potential relationship.

The world becomes a sadder, more hurtful place the moment we choose to no longer communicate with respect or at all. Indeed, a failure to do so over the centuries has led to conflicts at both domestic and international levels.

  • Our voices, the voices of love and compassion, need to rise up and drown out those that are filled with anger and hate.
  • Our words, words of reason and truth, need to outnumber and overcome the lies of those who so readily dismiss the facts.
  • Our presence in this world is more significant and our contribution far greater than we sometimes realise.

As 2019 gets underway we all need to more carefully consider what we need to say and when, otherwise we may live to regret the silence or indeed how we have broken it.

Why is it that I, who have never donned a military uniform, am proud on this day to stand alongside those that do?

Why is it that I, who have never been taught to stand to attention, want to raise my right arm and salute?

Why is that I, who have experienced little conflict in my life, should feel a sense of solidarity with those who engaged in combat beyond my worst nightmares?

Is it because of my great interest in history?

Or is it because of my love for people?

Or my desire to preserve our freedom and those justices that have been hard won over generations?

I believe it to be a combination of all three:

History, people and a commitment to do the right thing whatever the cost.

We should never forget the events, we should never forget those who stood up to great evil and we should never forget the price they paid.

 

In his magnum opus Life and Fate, in my opinion one of the finest novels of the 20th century, an epic account of the war on the Eastern Front, Vasily Grossman told the stories of the seemingly insignificant individuals who made up the great swell of resistance to the Nazi threat. He was well qualified to do so.   As the finest journalist with the Soviet forces he was at the siege of Stalingrad, he was at the great tank battle at Kursk and he was a witness to the liberation of the Treblinka death camp.

There are many memorable moments of reflection in the book. Here is just one on the importance of human kindness:

The more I saw of the darkness of Fascism, the more clearly I realized that human qualities persist on the edge of the grave, even at the door of the gas chamber….I have seen that it is not man (sic) who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man (sic). The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it….Human history is not a battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer. (Vintage Press 2006 p394)

 

As a minister I count it a rich privilege to have heard the stories of people in my congregations and the communities I have served over the years.

I have been both moved to tears and wholly inspired by accounts of their contributions to the effort to preserve freedom from tyranny. Sadly their accounts may never be made into documentaries, or fill the pages of books, worthy of being so though they are.

Ordinary people who had lived ordinary lives, called to serve their King and country, who gave their time, even their lives, in the fight for a better world.

Today we honour them.

 

Some have argued that this is a watershed moment – that after a century of remembering in the way that we have we should move on. No, sisters and brothers, no. We must never forget.

I owe it to those who told me their stories to never forget.

We owe our freedom to them so we must never forget.

But our world, in its current climate, is in danger of doing just that.

Of forgetting how close we came to being overwhelmed in the First World War and in the Second falling to fascism.

Partly because there are those forces that seek to win the battle that we thought was beaten back decades ago.

At no time other than this has the socio-political climate been so aligned to that of 1930’s Germany.

Today national populism is sweeping what was once seen as a bastion of democracy – the United States.

Trump’s utter disrespect toward women, his hatred of ethnic minorities and his appeal to some of the vilest sections of society are deeply worrying to say the least. But Trump is merely an acute expression of what is surfacing across the world – not least here in the UK.

 

If the German nation, at the time one of the most highly cultured and educated nations there had been, was swept along by the rhetoric and the simplistic policies of that lunatic Hitler and his more coldly calculating henchmen then it can easily happen again.

Today it is claimed that China is herding hundreds of thousands of Muslims into concentration camps in the desert for ‘re-education’ – I shiver to think what the eventual outcome will be in a nation where control and the economy are seen to be more important than the rights of the individual.

Today, across the UK, the policies of both the far right and the far left are becoming mainstream.

The views which once sent a shiver down the spine now fall on receptive ears.

Our knowledge of history tells us that what at first seems inconsequential can become something of great importance. Like a pebble dropped into a pool the ripples spread.

Millions were slaughtered in trenches across the fields of Europe because of an assassination on a Sarajevo street. The death of a single member of a crumbling dynasty led to unimaginable grief in every hamlet, village, town and city.

Similarly, last Friday was the 80th anniversary of Kistallnacht, the night of broken glass, when synagogues were burnt, Jewish shops destroyed and lives were lost.

The Holocaust didn’t begin with gas chambers but boycotts and broken windows.

So, if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past when seemingly insignificant acts went unchecked and led to conflagration, we have to be alert and discern that which could again lead to catastrophe.

 

However, it is not only acts of great evil that begin in small overlooked ways, so too do those movements that have made our world a more just, a more equitable, a more caring and compassionate world.

Peace in our world really does begin with me – and you.

It may sound trite but it is true.

It is my responsibility for me to not fall for the rhetoric that divides and disfigures our communities.

It is my responsibility for me to look out for the warning signs, to not scoff or discriminate against the one of a different race or religion, ability, gender or sexuality.

As a Christian I follow the teachings of one who sought to break down the barriers that divided communities, the one who welcomed the stranger, the one who taught us how to love whatever the cost to ourselves, the one who laid down his life so that we too may have life and have it in all its fullness.

 

Today then, we remember a great historical moment when the guns were silenced.

Today we remember the fallen

and all who gave of themselves that we might live in freedom.

May those events, those lives be not in vain.

Let us in response commit ourselves to resisting that which threatens the wellbeing of our world and each and every individual within our world.