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The baptism of Jesus

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There are a number of interesting facts about New Year’s Resolutions. Around 45% of us will make them. The most popular ones tend to concern self-improvement or education. The number one resolution is yes- you have guessed it- losing weight. The second is becoming more organised and the third is spending – Spending less and saving more. Quitting Smoking is number 8. I love the 9th most popular resolution, which is “To help others”. Sadly, the reality is that only 8% of people are successful in achieving their resolution and making a lasting change 92% fail. I have to confess my resolution this year lasted for 4 days.

Starting some thing new is something we all can recognise. In the church baptism is a recognition of a new life in Christ. In our reading from Mark’s gospel Jesus comes to the Jordan and he has the humility to receive baptism from John. It is only after Jesus comes up out of the water from John’s baptism that the Spirit descends on Jesus. The scripture says the heavens were ripped apart and the spirit descended like a dove descends and there was a voice from heaven saying. “here is my beloved son”. Picture it.

John the Baptist said, “Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit”. We often speak of baptism as a “means of grace,” that is, one of the ways that God’s grace comes to us. Physically it’s only a small splash of water, but it marks the beginning of a whole new life of forgiveness, of the presence of God’s Spirit, of our union with Jesus, and our becoming part of the world-wide Christian church.

Baptism is God’s doing not ours. Baptism is a rich and powerful symbol. Today we read about two men, John and Jesus, both of whom show a radical humility. In their time slaves untied the thongs of sandals – so John is saying he is not worthy to be considered as a slave of Jesus.

In the Mark’s gospel John’s baptism had two parts- repentance and forgiveness (Mark 1:4). John explains that Jesus baptism is not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit. That is still true of baptism today. The baptismal liturgy marks the end of the old life (“Do you renounce … ”) and it announces the beginning of a life lived in God’s grace and forgiveness. Then John adds a new twist with the gift of the Holy Spirit, also part of our baptism service.

To be baptised in Jesus is to follow him. Just like our New Years resolutions we cannot follow Christ in our own strength, through our own abilities. We need the Holy Spirit. He gives us the strength, confidence and ability to stand in the face of evil, to face challenges in our own lives, to feel, pray and act for others. God gives us his grace.The process started immediately at Pentecost, when God gives the disciples the gift of the Spirit to carry on this new life in Christ. After his sermon on Pentecost, the listeners ask the apostle Peter how they should respond, he answers with similar words we use in the baptism service “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins will be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

The reality is the grace of Baptism doesn’t stop at the service it continues to unfold. It follows faith — the faith of the person being baptised (Acts 8:13,36), or the faith of the parents of those in the church as it requires that faith is nurtured and developed.

Baptism is more than an individual act. In it we become part of a people: the church The Apostle Paul emphasises how “we were all baptised into one body. For every one that gets baptised in St. Matthew’s we promise to support them in their faith.

What does it mean for us today! we are embraced into a relationship that is new life. A fundamental change takes place, no matter what.age, where we find ourselves in life. An adult or child who is baptised into the faith they are changed through grace. It may not be an obvious ground breaking experience in the physical but in the heavens- it is.

We also become part of Christ’s body. Paul writes that “for by one Spirit we were all baptised into one body. In his last conversation with his disciples, Jesus spoke again about baptism. He told them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” in terms of resolutions the first one becomes to love god with all our hearts and what that entails and the second one love others as ourselves. It no longer is relegated to something we do after we have taken care of ourselves- first. Is is an integral part of loving God.

My invitation to you is to let Mark spark your baptismal imagination. Because then you will give witness to God’s determination to tear heaven apart to reach out to you. For Mark, God’s entry into our humanity started at Jesus’ baptism and was then confirmed at Jesus’ crucifixion.

I suspect I would be able to keep New Year’s resolution longer than four days if I had people around me supporting and telling me how I might be able to keep them. In many ways the gift of the holy spirit works through us, his word -the bible and his inspiration. he encourages us and reminds us that we are loved and close to God’s heart. Today let us hear God saying to us, “You are my beloved son, my beloved daughter: with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:4-11

Matthew’s 9:1-9

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Today is the day in the Christian calendar dedicated to one of the disciples our church is named after- Matthew. In chapter 9 of the gospel after which he is named we read the story of Jesus healing the man who was paralysed. It comes immediately before he calls Matthew to follow him. What’s so intriguing about the story of the healing of the paralytic is that Jesus says to the man something which is regarded as quite scandalous by the religious officials of the time. He says, ‘your sins are forgiven you’. The word sin is not one that we often use nowadays or even feel comfortable with. In a nutshell it means wrong doing against God. It’s quite apparent from the passage that the Pharisees did not like the presumption that Jesus could do something about sin. He implied he had the power to forgive. So what did this mean? From the passage as we might get the impression that this man was sick because he had sinned.

I don’t believe that’s simply the case- instead I think Jesus was saying something wider about the sinful nature of the world we live in and alluding to the fact that we have a sinful nature in a corrupted world and that, by ourselves, we cannot be redeemed from it. We live in a broken world far from the ideal perfect creation that God had intended. We only have to look around us at nations and wars. We have all sorts of things to contend with: broken relationships with each other and creation, as well as broken minds, spirits and bodies that don’t function the way they were intended to. I believe Jesus words were a declaration that he had come to redeem the world and this act of healing- in all it’s forms- was a fulfilment of that promise. What was so astounding to the Pharisees was that Jesus dared to presume that he could forgive sins. Their anger displayed their own selfishness, egos and their lack of understanding. How dare he- Jesus presume he had the power to forgive sins like God.

You see, if you look at the word sin it has an ‘I’ in the middle and the focus is on me, myself and I. The ego or self-centred will of the individual is- in the majority of cases – the reason why we go against God, or fail to do what we should or have the wrong attitude the three ways we sin: firstly by commission, the things we wilfully do; secondly, omission the good we fail to do and thirdly by disposition, the wrong attitudes we hold. The Pharisees had the last. There is a difference between the way God describes and explains sin, on the one hand, and the way, on the other hand, that men describe and explain sin. Every person can be charged with the sin of the Pharisees – having a bad attitude, or charged with leaving undone the things they ought to have done or of being wilfully self-centred

But more importantly, what does this passage tell us about God. Firstly, his mercy and compassion far outweigh what we deserve and also more importantly, that he has forgiven our sins through Christ. Christ as saviour, healer, restorer confounds the accepted thinking about who is worthy, therefore we can’t put God in a box. Why, because God cannot exercise his holiness apart from his love. He cannot exercise His grace apart from his power- something we don’t fully appreciate or understand. Only God can manage to hold these together in the way that is both righteous, full of justice and mercy. Why does this matter? Because we live in a broken world where often we get the balance wrong. Individuals may start out with good intentions but quickly they can turn into dictators. But we have a Redeemer that is able to help us see the possibilities. Christ is the redeemer of people, healer of broken dreams and lives. He goes out of the way to confront what might seem to be the impossible both in situations and with people.. Christ says he desires mercy not sacrifice- a repentant not a proud heart. Those are the conditions for his forgiveness. As we seek repentance and come to God he is able and willing to forgive us our sins and to restore us into a right relationship with him and one another.

What is Your Community?

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When I was younger I “belonged” to a group of houses in Yorkshire. They were very traditional back-to-back terraced houses where people lived in each others pockets. What amazes me now, is that most of our doors were open, and so the children would run through each others houses. There was Mr Brown who always had a sweet for each of us and Mrs Thompson who gave us cake. There was the corner shop at the end of the street where we would spend our pocket money on blackjacks, fruit salads and sherbet fizzes. Across the road was Potternewton park where I would spend many happy hours with my brothers jumping over the wall and climbing trees. Mr and Mrs Wolinski introduced me to my first taste of Polish sausage and sauerkraut with dumplings. As children that was the most exotic food we had ever tasted. My parents in turn, introduced them to rice, peas and chicken. We had a type of fellowship. Not that we shared everything, but if you needed a cup of sugar or some potatoes and something to eat you knew who to go to. Today, the word community means many things to many people. We have commuter communities and virtual communities we are in many ways fragmented in that we belong to several communities all at once: those at work, school at college within our geographical localities on the Internet.

When the church was born the entire community took part in representing the word of God, I like the translation in “The Message” that talks about “their life together”. The writer, Henri Nouwen suggests that, “Christian community is the place where we keep hope alive among us … . That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love when we see death and destruction and agony all around us.” We say “Our Father” together. We affirm that we are loved and we say that for each other.

That first Christian community was a model for the Church. There was something real, authentic, genuine in their shared life, revolving around prayer, breaking of bread, fellowship and study of the word. These disciplines were not a choice. These activities were the things that gave health to the life of the Church. And so today we are led to ask ourselves these questions: is my community in peace and harmony or is it divided? Does my community give testimony of Jesus Christ or that Christ is Risen, does it know it intellectually while it does nothing, or does it proclaim it? Does my community care for the poor?

In the next few months we are going to start looking at ourselves as a the church and ask questions about our talents and gifts. More importantly, how we can sustain the good stuff that’s going on here and how we going to reach out to a community and how are we going to grow with God. This process is called Mission Action Planning, but basically it’s about what vision we have for ourselves as a church community. Like those early Christians we are going to DEVOTE OURSELVES to those that are around where we are situated. Part of this process is concerns producing a map of the parish to identify how we can sustain the good stuff that’s going on here, how we going to reach out to a community, and how are you going to grow with God. We are about what vision we have for ourselves as a church community. So we will ask ourselves the question about the shape of our communities….what is the character of the St Matthew’s community and how do I play my part in making it one that is Christ-centred. We are going to follow that great commission given by Christ in Matthew. The book of Mathew only goes up to 28 and effectively we are going to write chapter 29 about the next stage of our community story of faith. We need to listen to be aware of what is going on round us and to be available. We need to give one another the gift of time. That time doesn’t need to be filled with fascinating conversation, but the time must be there. It says in Acts that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the community, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Those believers gave one another time. God was working in their devotion to each other. It takes a community to know an individual.

C.S Lewis relates how we, as the community of believers, come to know God. “We do so, not just through our own relationship with God, but also through how we observe others relating to God. This comes from hearing others speak of God, seeing them wrestle with God in faith, watching them worship and do the work of ministry, listening to the stories of their faith journey. All of these interactions get us closer to who God is and who he wants us to be as his church.

It takes a community to help us make the journey of faith – it takes human relationships to translate the truths of our faith into our lives. Faith is ‘too theoretical’ for modern society unless there are people willing to demonstrate it to the world.

It takes a community to hold on to the faith that God is working to bring grace, peace, mercy and love and life to every life in the middle of all the suffering, cruelty and hypocrisy that can be so evident.

Our experience of life in this world is such that we always have to keep learning what it means to have faith. That doesn’t happen when we try to go it alone. Faith is something that thrives and grows in the sharing. And that happens in the context of a community of faith. It’s our support system, encouraging, guiding and strengthening us as we take our journey of faith together. May God be at the heart of everything we do together and everything we do be from His heart.

Luke 2: 42-49

Joseph’s Role in the Christmas Story

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He was a young man who worked hard at a trade he learnt from childhood. Like his father and his grandfather before him, he was a carpenter: a worker with a humble trade, one that supported his family and more importantly, he had a good name – a solid reputation in the community. He was happiest around wood; there was something honorable about wood. Though he was young, barely 19 he had the strong shoulders and callused hands of an older man. His family were not on the highest rungs of the social ladder, but he was respectable. Now all that was in jeopardy. He remembered when he first learned that Mary was pregnant. It was the most terrible shock. They had been engaged since children, it was expected that they would go through the Jewish ceremony of marriage when she was 14 and now this. She had betrayed him, his family and brought shame upon her household. Joseph knew the penalty for such behaviour was death and he didn’t want to bring that on her family, nor see such a terrible fate befall her. He would quietly divorce her. Maybe someone would take her in, at least her and the baby she was carrying would be alive. He fervently tried to plan. He would leave her somewhere, she would have her baby and he then would move on to somewhere else alone. It would be done quietly to avoid embarrassment. Yes, that is what he would do. Then Joseph has a dream; a divine encounter with an angel that goes against all that he has ever known – all his expectations. Yet, he cannot deny that this must be Yahweh: the God of Israel has a plan that involves him, Mary and countless others. Can he really be a part of the great plan of God?

We know that Joseph was entrusted to be Jesus’ father. He was neither a rabbi nor a scribe nor one of the leaders. He had two qualifications in the Christmas drama – he was a descendent of David and, for some reason, he was God’s choice. In many ways, Joseph is someone with whom we can all identify – a common man who was obedient to God’s will for his life against all the expectations and laws of the time.

However, his role is significant. You see, the culture at the time would have called for Joseph to publicly divorce Mary as soon as he found out she was pregnant. In fact, it is likely that some members of his community would have demanded the highest penalty… her death. A normal punishment for suspected adultery was stoning. But Joseph was faithful to God going against the cultural laws and expectations. He had the courage to stand up against the social conventions.

What does this tell us? Well, it tells us about Joseph’s integrity, that he was willing to let go, to let go of his reputation, let go of the expectations of his culture and his traditional, of ideas of what should be. He was prepared to stand up for the vulnerable and allow the righteousness of God to be his standard. We learn from his example that we too need to be prepared to do that: to let go of our own expectations and allow God’s justice to be evident. That presents a challenge because it means coming to an understanding that Gods ways may not, and indeed do not always fall in line in what we think for it says in Isaiah, “my ways are not your ways, nor my thoughts your thoughts”. To the culture at that time, the actions of Joseph may have seemed foolish, but to those who are willing to follow his example and surrender their wills to the will of God. The faithfulness of Joseph in this story is not simply doing what is right: it’s a way of fulfilling God’s plan for humanity.

God’s grace was working through Joseph – a young man. You see, Grace sets aside the ideas of how things should be and instead offers an insight into righteous, truth, love and other possibilities of the kingdom of God.

God puts the emphasis on righteous relationships instead of ritual. On sacrifice instead of what is seen to be the norm. That is why a humble carpenter became part of one of the most significant events in history. Joseph shows us that obeying God is always the right thing to do.

It does bring about the question of How do we react when our expectations are turned upside down? Dare we consider the possibility that somehow God may be in it? Or that God can work through the circumstances to fulfil His purposes? Even if when they are challenging and make no sense? Joseph does exactly what the angel of the Lord commands.  We learn from him the importance of trusting in God’s will and the risk of carrying it out.

Joseph was not concerned about the ‘public disgrace’. Sometimes accepting God to dwell among us may result in others not understanding. He is the God who steps outside of our expectations and our thinking. To follow Him means realising that we do so to embrace what the German theologian Bonhoeffer calls costly grace.

As Bonhoeffer writes, “Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man/women to follow Christ and bear all that it may entail.”

Joseph embraces Gods grace by naming the baby Jesus. By naming him, he does two things: he publicly admits he is the father and secondly, brings the child into the lineage of a David. By being obedient we open the door to God’s greater blessing.

May the grace of The Lord Jesus be with us all this season.

Christ the Extraordinary King

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It was a day like any other day. I was due to go to Chester for a meeting and I arrived there a few minutes early. So after coming out of the train I spotted a little cafe and I thought I’d have a cup of coffee, put my notes together and then meet up with my colleague as planned. What could be simpler? After buying my coffee I headed towards the door of the coffee shop and the manager stood in my path, he told me that I couldn’t leave. It was then I noticed a small group of policeman and dignitaries starting to arrive at the station and there was lots of activity as people were tidying up and rolling out a red carpet. Chester station is quite small and the coffee shop was near the platform. I could see a number of individuals, lined up as if waiting for someone special. There were only three of us in the shop: one was the manager another was a rather bemused customer who had sat down to finish his drink and me. Before long, a very large black car drove up to the platform and stopped short of the red carpet and then a train pulled in with a crest emblazoned on its side out stepped a very smartly dressed man who I now recognised- it was Prince Charles and he had come to visit Chester. I was only a few metres away and I found myself looking in his direction. I wasn’t expecting to come face-to-face with Prince Charles only few metres away, albeit behind a glass window, with a cup of coffee in my hand. He turned looked at me, smiled and waved. I was in shock! Then he quickly disappeared out of the station into the waiting black car and I was stood there- coffee cup in hand – wondering about what had just happened.

I did not expect to come face to face with royalty- even from behind a glass window! The few moments of acknowledgement had made an impression on me because of the extraordinariness of the encounter.

In the Gospel of Luke we are reminded of Christ’s crucifixion. The moment when it seemed so many hopes and dreams had come to an end. People had anticipated a revolution that would overthrow the tyranny of their Roman rulers and restore Israel’s sovereignty. That did not happen; many were disappointed and even disillusioned by the outcome. Disappointment and derision was evident: soldiers ridiculed him, one of the criminals who was next to him railed at Him, Are You not the Christ? Rescue Yourself and us from death!

Yet despite how it appeared, the criminal on the other side of Christ was able to recognise that this was no ordinary man, not someone like him, but someone extraordinary. He recognised that Christ did not warrant the punishment, but was an extraordinary king because he became the punishment for those he rules.

The difference between Jesus’ rule and earthly authority is different. Power and authority can be coercive- people do things because they fear the consequences if they don’t. But Jesus represented another type of authority (Ephesians chapter 2) – he lived and died, and lives again by a different set of rules that are characterised by paradox.

His rule says it’s the poor that are blessed: those that have nothing to commend themselves.

His rule says it’s the meek who inherit the earth: those without any demonstrable influence.

And his rule says do to others as you would have them do unto you, not get them before they get you.

Those that saw Jesus hanging on the cross mocked his Kingship, because they thought he was powerless. But they were wrong. His was not the power of weapons, nor fear and hatred. Nor a power brought about by privileged status. It was the power of the cross. It IS the power of truth, it is love. Love doesn’t need weapons, or oppressive force; it IS in itself.

This Christ the King Sunday reminds us as worshippers that the events of Christmas are about a sovereign Christ! What’s more, one whose kingship was not typical.

What sort of God is our God? He comes among us not with an entourage or a crowd of people waiting on him, nor lots of protocols to follow and being selective about who he can talk to it. Jesus becomes Christ the anointed one and takes on the cloak of our human frailty in order that we can identify with him.

From today onwards we move from one Christian calendar year to the next. As we stand at the brink of Advent we eagerly prepare our Christmas lists and think about the forthcoming season. Today is a bit like the moment before the storm of activity starts. Yet, this is the time for us to remember the adult King who turns every expectation up-side down, the beginning of the story that reminds us to also keep the extraordinary end of salvation in sight.

So what is our reality? Our reality is that God loves each one of us so much that he came in person in Jesus the Christ. Therefore, we do not worship a King that is far off, but one that wishes to have a personal relationship with us. We are reminded of that despite the busyness of this forthcoming season. We encounter a living God who identifies with our weakness, knows our disappointments and shows His majesty in extraordinary ways that sometimes catches us unawares. Like my unexpected encounter with royalty at the rail station, we are surprised by both the humanity and the significance of it.

Christ turns our expectations upside down, but we have to be willing to open to the unexpected.

Luke 23: 33-48