What makes a life complete? Simeon at the Temple (Luke 2:22-35)

The Temple in Jerusalem was one of the most impressive buildings in the Roman Empire. It was a huge complex in magnificent stone and decorated with gold. It was the centre of Jewish life and a site of pilgrimage from all over the known world. To this amazing place came the Holy Family. Imagine them, if you can. A couple of modest means from an obscure village in the north. The mother is very young, her husband a little older. They carry their humble sacrifices as they come to perform the rituals required by Law. She carries her baby as the walk, perhaps a little hesitantly, into the imposing courtyards of the Temple. The priests, with their robes and headdresses, stand out and direct them towards the right place.

Meanwhile someone else has also come. Simeon, an old man notable for his piety and righteousness, has been brought in the Holy Spirit to the Temple that day. His life is marked by the intensity of his yearning for “the consolation of Israel”. He is devout and has a special relationship with God. “The Holy Spirit was upon him” we are told. This special relationship even extends to God speaking to him, telling him he is going to see the Lord’s anointed one, the Messiah or Christ, before he dies and today is the day of that seeing.

And so this meeting comes about: Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus walk into the Temple precincts and there they encounter Simeon, this righteous and devout man looking for the consolation of Israel. This is a moment of very high drama. In this most important and holy location this devout and holy man takes the infant from his mother and holds him in his arms. God’s promise to him is fulfilled. He has seen the Lord’s Christ. An old man’s dream has come to realisation, the consolation for which he has looked has arrived and he has seen it.

Hear again the words with which he praises God, known in the tradition as the Nunc Dimittis:

“Master, now let your slave go in peace

according to your spoken word

for my eyes have seen your salvation

which you prepared before the face of all the peoples

a light of revelation for the Gentiles

and glory of your people, Israel”

“Let your slave go in peace”, says Simeon, “for my eyes have seen your salvation”.

From a man who has been promised a sight of the Messiah before he dies this can only mean one thing. His life has been completed and he is ready to give it up.

I wonder what, if anything, means that much to us. Is there anything that could happen that would make us think that our lives are fulfilled so that we can depart in peace? Is there anything we look for as intensely as Simeon looked for the consolation of Israel?

This being a sermon there is, I suppose, no surprise in my saying that Christ can and should be for us what he was for this devout and righteous man. Our best chance for the kind of contentment and completion that Simeon found is in the same encounter that he had. If we were blessed by the Holy Spirit in being put where Jesus was, if we were filled with that same Spirit as he was filled, if we yearned for the consolation and redemption of the world as he did, then we could find the same release that he found.

It is important to realise that Simeon doesn’t wish for death in our passage. When he says that he’s ready that doesn’t mean that he’s eager. It is just that now the one thing he needed has come and all is right for him. His life has been a looking for God’s salvation and now he is holding it in his arms, holding the baby who is the Christ, whom God has been preparing and has now put into Simeon’s grasp.

Hear the words he uses about what he has now seen: “consolation”, “salvation”, “revelation” and “glory”. Jesus is all these things: he brings comfort to the distressed, he saves those in trouble, he reveals God to all peoples in in doing so he glorifies those from whom he came. Simeon can see this because he has been prepared. This baby looks like just another child to most of those passing through the courtyards that day but the one who is looking for him knows what has happened.

For each of us the case is the same whenever we are brought by the Spirit to the place of meeting. We have been brought here this morning, to this room in this building in this village. This is the Temple precinct for you. God’s salvation is here and if you’re ready you will meet him. This isn’t your only opportunity but you are being offered the chance, as Simeon was. Jesus is here and your life can reach its highest fulfilment right now, if the Spirit enables you to recognise him.

In a few minutes we are going to share the Lord’s Supper and as we do so we are all invited into the very presence of the salvation God has prepared, the revelation he has made. The Christ, the one sent by God to redeem us all, will be coming among us. Whatever else matters in life, and many other things do really matter, Simeon is right when he says that nothing else matters as much.

I pray on behalf of us all that his prayer or song is one that we are all able to affirm:

“Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word;

for mine eyes have seen your salvation

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel”

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Waiting … (Advent 3 2014, Lamentations 3:22-27, James 5:7-11, Matthew 24:42-44)

There are different kinds of waiting.

The farmer waits for the crop to be ready but this doesn’t mean just sitting around until the grain walks up to the door. The farmer will be in the fields, looking for problems and trying to deal with them, checking for ripeness, paying attention to the weather forecast. When the moment comes he or she will move fast, getting the harvest in as quickly as possible. This is a waiting that is hopeful and also anxious, that is active and which needs to seize the right moment when it comes. This is one of the images of waiting for God’s action that James offers us.

The moment of harvest stands for the moment of God’s judgement. The judge is standing at the door. We have to be ready. As the farmer makes sure that everything is prepared for the time so must we. This is waiting that works.

In Lamentations we find something else altogether. “It is good to wait quietly”, it says, “The Lord is my portion therefore I will wait for him”. While we wait for the return of one we love, one whose love means everything to us, on whom we depend. Perhaps we might think of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, or of a child waiting patiently for the return of their mother. The waiting itself is just waiting and depends more than anything else on trust in the one who is coming. They will arrive in their own time and nothing we do will make a difference to that. Our patience is important because it will affect the quality of the welcome we give. The more we trust the more open-hearted we can be.

This is a waiting that simply holds itself ready.

So what about the waiting that Jesus talks about in our Gospel reading? Waiting to catch a thief in the night. The householder knows that they are under threat, that sometime during the night somebody is going to try to break in. They sit quietly and anxiously, nervous and alert, keeping watch so that when the time comes they will be ready to react. This, Jesus says, is also what it can be like to wait for God, to wait the coming of the Son of Man.

Three vivid Biblical images for what we are doing, during Advent, during our lives as faithful Christians. We wait, wait for Christ’s return in glory, wait for the coming of the Son of Man, wait for the fulfilment of God’s promise of salvation.

This waiting is a careful and active preparation. A making ready of what is growing, a looking for the time of readiness. It is the waiting of the farmer.

It is also the quiet patient anticipation of the arrival of somebody much loved. We look forward to greeting them, long for their presence. We try not to be too eager, to be ready to be properly happy when they come.

It is also a fearful watching, full of anxiety that we might miss the moment, fail to react as we need to, might lose all we have by not being ready.

The Bible gives us all these images and what they have in common, what we are called to remember at Advent, is the sense of a an expected future event that is at once something that will happen whatever we do or don’t do and also an opportunity we might miss. The crop will ripen, the loved one will return, the thief will break in. The farmer, though, can neglect to gather it so that it rots in the field. The waiting spouse or lover can give up, become resentful of the delay, turn to others. The watcher can be distracted or fall asleep so that the thief can steal away with the contents of the house.

After all this time, these many centuries of waiting, we Christians may find it difficult to continue to believe that this moment of opportunity and danger lies ahead of us. Scripture tells us that it does. Our encounter with our Lord is in the future for each and every one of us, at a time that no-one can know or predict.

The quality of our waiting is, perhaps, the most important thing about us. We await the time of our salvation, we are waiting for salvation, for the fulfilment of God’s plan for us and for all creation. As we wait we uphold, before all the world, the hope and expectation that things will be as they are meant to be.

An image for waiting not used in our passages is that of waiting for the birth of a child, an image never far from our minds during Advent. Many of us have had that experience in our own lives. We remember the mixture of joyful anticipation, fear of some disaster, and anxiety about the arrival itself. We remember the wondering and the dreaming about the future beyond the birth.

As we wait for Jesus we might do well to remember that, too. The coming of the Son of Man of which he speaks is not a peaceful idyll like the nativity stories we tell. It is a time of trouble and of danger. But it does usher in the time when peace and justice, plenty and love will be the order of the day and war, oppression, want and hatred will be banished. We can dream of that future and we can prepare ourselves to be part of it. We can wait patiently for God.

The way, the truth and the life: 30 Nov 2014 (John 14:6)

I am the truth, says Jesus, I am the way, the truth and the life.

Last week in my sermon here I said that I believe that our salvation IS that we are enable to do God’s will, that to be saved is to be in God and to have God in us, to be saved is not only something that has happened in Christ’s death and resurrection, is not only something that will happen when we are raised into glory but is also something that is happening right here and now. To be saved is to be remade through him into the living image of God, is to equipped to do God’s work and show God’s love. To be saved, brothers and sisters, to be saved is to be made like Jesus, to live like Jesus, to be adopted as children of God and to represent God as human beings are created to do.

What I want to talk about this week is what that actually looks like as we go about our daily lives. How does a Christian look, what does a Christian do, in South Hertfordshire in 2014? When people meet Jesus in the gospels many of them know straight away that they’re come across someone special, someone they want to know and to follow. How can we shine with God’s presence like that? What does Jesus want from us?

Let’s begin by thinking again about the kind of thing Jesus gets up to, what he does. I think, really, that Jesus’ ministry comes down to a few simple elements: first of all he announces God’s kingdom, God’s rule, the living presence of God in this world; second he teaches about what this living God wants from us and for us; third he heals those in need of healing. There’s more than that, of course, but I want you to think for a little while about these three: the proclaiming of God’s power and God’s coming; the teaching about human responsibility; healing.

The first of these, the news about God, is Jesus the truth. He is himself the coming of God, this is news about himself. God’s kingdom comes in Christ. The second, the teaching about human life, is Jesus the way. To live as God intends is to live in his way. The third, the healing, is Jesus the life. In him there is abundant life, he conquers death in his ministry, as he heals, cures and restores and he completes that conquest in his resurrection.

We who follow him are called to enact all these, not in our own power and authority, as he did, but in his. In and through Christ we can proclaim, teach and heal as he did. We can say that God has come in Jesus, that he dwells among us and that in him God’s rule is known and is available. That all can submit themselves to him and become part of that wonderful kingdom in which peace and justice are the principles and guides of power. We proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in Christ.

We can teach the simple commandments that Jesus gave. Love God and love your neighbour. Act on that love by putting the needs of others before your own desires. Be unselfish; serve those around you without looking for reward. Be humble and trust in God. Turn away from violence and anger, be peaceful and generous, even to the point where you put yourself in danger. Be gentle and merciful. These Christian virtues, of service and sacrifice, of peacefulness and love, are consistently and uncompromisingly taught by Jesus as the way pleasing to God. He taught them in words and he also exemplified them in his actions.

To follow him, to show him to the world, we must do likewise. We have to remember and repeat these lessons and we also have to live by them. To be Christians in the true sense we have to be generous, we have to be forgiving, we have to be charitable. We have to refuse to judge those in need, we have to ignore calculations of who deserves what, who has a right to what. We have to look for need and respond to it. In this way we can present to the world around us an image of God’s love, of which we are the blessed beneficiaries. Thank God that he does not deal with us according to what we have a right to be according to what his merciful concern grants us. Thank him for that and try to do likewise.

As we engage others in this Christlike way we will become instruments of God’s healing. We aren’t Jesus and we can’t expect that the sick will leap from their beds at our word or touch but we can be agents of well being. There are many who suffer from a feeling of abandonment, of worthlessness, of isolation and despair. There are many who are lonely and who feel cut off from other human beings. Each and every one of us here has the power to bring healing to this sickness, which is at root a symptom of being separated from God’s love. The simplest gesture or word of genuine concern can be more valuable than anything and a miracle of healing.

I am the way, the truth and the life, says Jesus. To be his Church, his people, his body today is to follow his way, proclaim his truth, spread his life-giving love. This can be dramatic and extraordinary, can involve great sacrifices and complete changes in lives and those able to live completely for Christ should be admired and celebrated by us all. I heard a pastor from Brixton on the radio this week describe how she brought a group of young men back from life in street gangs by inviting them into her home to cook and eat with her. Along the way she had shootings and other violence to contend with around her house but eventually her willingness to see the good in these boys and to take the risk of allowing them to be with her transformed, healed, them, so that they are now themselves working to save others.

For most of us this Christian attitude of affirmation and hope will be less extreme. We will, perhaps, just be a friendly face in an uncaring world, someone who strangely refuses to respond to provocation but is consistently forgiving and welcoming. We will always think the best of people, act as if they can be trusted and respected. We will extend hospitality and be willing to help. As we do these simple things we will be Jesus for somebody.

As we proclaim his truth we will share good news in a world full of bad news. This doesn’t mean that we will hide from the horrors or pretend things are other than they are. It does mean that we will be hopeful and trusting in God’s power and God’s love. When we say that God’s kingdom has come in Jesus and that he has saved us we say that this age is passing away and that the age to come is one where the rule of sin and death is past. We say that love and life will conquer and the hate and death will be defeated. Our news is good and it is joyful.

Finally we will be life, as our master is life. To be a Christian here and now is above all to be someone who lives life fully, glorying in every God-given moment. We can only represent him if we are full of happy faith in his love for us and for others and if that radiates from us.

To be a Christian here and now is, as it has always been, to be gloriously and resplendently filled with celebration of God’s gifts. The mark of the true Christian is carefree joy. So as we go into this Advent season let’s be happy, let’s smile and laugh, let’s give generously, care deeply, exultantly praise our Saviour and selflessly love his creatures. Praise be to God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

23 Nov 2014 – Loving the Law (Psalm 119)

Sometimes when we think about our relationship with God we get very interested in what He does for us, and rightly so. We look to God for salvation and for eternal life and it’s very proper for us to give thanks and praise for these things. In Christ God has come and saved us and we’re grateful for that. We have been promised resurrection into life eternal and we thank the Lord for that promise and for that life.

What we shouldn’t do, though, is think that salvation and the life to come are the same thing. They’re not. We aren’t going to be saved at some later time when God raises us to new and perfect life. If God saves us he saves us right here and right now. He saves us in this life and on this day. We have been saved and we’re being saved and we will be saved. God’s salvation comes to us today.

What that means is that we’re rescued from sin and from its consequences and we’re made whole and good as God intends us to be. God’s work of healing and restoration, through Jesus, makes us the people that we’re supposed to be, makes us properly ourselves and able to play our part in the wonder and beauty of creation.

And that’s where all this stuff about the Law and about obedience comes in. Christians have often been dismissive of the Jewish Law, have thought that we can put all that behind us. We can’t. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law and we have to take that seriously. To understand who Jesus is and what Jesus does for us we need to think about what the Law is that he fulfils, and that’s where the 119th Psalm can help us.

In it the “Torah”, the Law, is made the subject of a series of prayers and songs. We’ve heard two of them today and in them we hear a series of words that all name the same thing. “Word”, “path”, “judgements”, “statutes”, “precepts”, “commands”, “love”, “decrees”. “Torah” can also be translated teaching or instruction and the psalmist makes clear that this “way” or “path” or teaching is the way to true happiness and that we are created to follow it.

Our salvation is precisely that we are enabled to live according to God’s law, because that’s what we were made to do and is the only way for us to find peace and rest, the joy that living in close relationship with God brings. We are saved to live in this world as the creatures God intends, as His image, representing him in what he made, his self-portrait.

.

The variety of words for that way, that teaching, that Torah, shows that it isn’t a simple set of instructions that can easily be learned and followed. Life is complicated and we make a lot of decisions and do a lot of things every day. The perfect human being would know and do God’s will in every single one, from the moment of waking until they go back to sleep. That’s what a full obedience to the law would take, complete alignment to God’s will, doing at every turn exactly what God would most want us to do because we want what He wants.

For us Christians that means following the commands and the words of Jesus, it means walking his way, following him. In Christ we have the example of what a human being whose self is completely attuned to God. In him we see the one who knows and lives the word, the commands and the precepts of God from his innermost heart. He is what we are meant to be, he is God’s pristine image.

He shows us by example and he teaches us by word but he does more than this. In the Holy Spirit he actually dwells in us and we dwell in him. As he says in today’s passage from John’s Gospel: Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” If we allow him to, by obeying him, he will inhabit us in the Spirit, he will live in us so that we can be like him and represent God. That’s the destiny for which God has chosen us as members of his family, that’s our salvation, to be joined to Christ, to be shaped into his likeness.

I will be talking more next week about what that means for us in our lives. What Jesus shows and teaches and how it relates to the love of the Law of the Psalmist. In the meantime I’ll just repeat that being like Jesus is obeying God’s will, as Christ reveals it, and that this is the salvation that Jesus brings and I’ll add that the Lord’s Supper, that we’re about to share, reminds us of our Saviour and also is a chance really to be with him in the Spirit. As we eat and drink we are brought into the presence of Christ and are fed by him as he works in us to make us holy, as he is holy.

As we prepare ourselves for that meal let us pray the prayer he taught, the Lord’s Prayer.

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2014

Jesus tells us to love our enemies. He also says which should not resist the evil person but rather to allow them to strike us again on our other cheek. If someone asks us for a loan we should give them a gift. If we are sued we are not to contest the matter. Such is Christ’s teaching.

Some few try to live like this, unprotected and vulnerable to all, but they are few indeed. For most of us it seems impossible and we are tempted to interpret the words to mean something easier, more reasonable, something we would find it possible actually to live by. We should resist that temptation. If we look to Jesus’ own example I don’t believe we can conclude anything other than that he meant exactly what he said. He really thought and taught that we should manage without possessions, without family, without protecting ourselves from the evil others would do us. That’s how he lived.

To do so would mean giving up all responsibility as parents or as citizens. To live like Jesus, to do as Jesus commands makes playing a normal social role impossible and his own closest followers accepted that. They had no homes and nothing to call their own. They depended on others and placed their trust solely in God. None of us live like that.

Today, of all days, we are reminded of that. Remembrance Day is a national day that recalls and accepts war, that most un-Christ-like of human activities. In war violence is made systematic and calculated, people become mere instruments, tools to be used to achieve objectives demanded by the attempt to make one’s will prevail by force.

When we come up against a situation where there seems to be no better option then to go to war, and I believe that such situations exist, then we are confronted in a very stark way with the impossibility of living in this world without sin. Most of you will have heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian and church leader.

He was a pacifist, someone who insisted on taking Christ’s teaching on violence seriously. He was also a leader of the Confessing Church, the body of Christians in Germany who refused the Nazi demand that the Church conform to their ideology. Bonhoeffer was drawn into the circle of those trying, during the War, to kill Hitler and make peace with the allies and was executed for his part in the plot.

What seems clear is that even as he accepted the necessity of resorting to violence to bring the horrors of war and genocide to an end he remained convinced that this was sinful. He thought himself compelled to do what he still thought was wrong. He didn’t re-interpret Jesus to give himself a clear conscience. He repented of his intended actions even before he tried to carry them out.

This seems to me the proper attitude for Christians to take. We make the best decisions we can while accepting that they involve us in the sins of a sinful world. We do not try to absolve ourselves of the guilt we take on in doing so but we do have faith that God’s mercy will prevail and that we are not lost to evil even when we are compelled to do what is wrong. We pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and sanctify us and hope that we will be shown the way towards a closer conformity with God’s will.

That is one reason why I’m not sure any Christian can ever, in the end, be a real nationalist. Nations and the states that embody them, are always actually or potentially in conflict. States are, among other things, instruments of war. As human beings in the world as it is we need to belong to them and they need to be ready to use violence. This makes them and us sinful. Among the things we need to repent of and to pray for release from is our nationhood and our patriotism, inescapable as these are. The Christian never ultimately belongs to a nation because we recognise only one Lord, Jesus, only one Sovereign, God his Father.

And yet, and yet, God’s Kingdom has come near but we are still waiting for its full realisation. We live between the times, when the old age is passing away but the birth pangs of the new, of which Paul writes in Romans, continue. In this time between the times we cannot escape the old, we cannot throw off our belonging to the nations. We have to stand ready to answer the nation’s call because we have responsibilities to others we just can’t ignore.

One aspect of Remembrance day is to call to mind those who did answer that call and whose lives were lost in doing so. Those who discharged their responsibilities and who paid the price. In honouring them, as we should, we have also to remember that it was sinful that they had to die and that as members of the nation for which they died we are called to repent. We are called to repent of the sinfulness of the world we live in and that we make, the sinfulness that lay behind the deaths of so many.

Another aspect, alongside and as part of that, is that we have to hold onto the truth that when people become our enemies due to our belonging to a nation and their conflict with it we are not released from our obligation to love them. Even as we fight we have to love those we, or those acting on our behalf, are bound to hurt and to kill. Today that means even loving those who call themselves Islamic State. They want to harm us, they strain every nerve and muscle to injure us and we have no choice but to protect ourselves and those who depend on us. But as we do so Jesus’ words, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, should be sounding in our ears.

Finally, even as we strive to be true both to the realities of our world and the evils that come with it, we have also to remain true to our faith in our risen Lord, who died for us and was returned to life. In this faith our response to the death of those we cherish is a twofold one. On the one hand, we mourn, we weep, we rage against that death which is the great enemy of life and love. We are right to do so, death is an outrage and a scandal, is the end of all that is good and right. On the other hand we know ourselves conquerors and more than conquerors as we participate in Jesus’ resurrection.

Even as we mourn we give thanks for God’s great gift of life and look forward in joyful anticipation to eternal life to come, to the raising of all the dead to participate in Christ’s victory.

Oct 25: Jesus loves me, this I know … (Romans 8:35-38)

Jesus loves me, this I know, because the Bible tells me so.

Jesus loves me.

We know what God’s love for us is like by contemplating Christ’s life and above all his death. The love Jesus showed in life was a healing love, a sustaining love, a life-giving love. Those who were broken and in pain, those possessed by demons, those with disfiguring diseases and disabling illnesses came to him believing in his power and thy were restored. Those in grief, devastated by the death of those they loved came to him and renewed life was granted. This was a love that wanted nothing from those loved but which sought their well-being, their inclusion in the glorious life of God’s Kingdom.

The full depth of that love is seen on the cross, though. Jesus died on the cross for us, for love of us. It isn’t easy to understand the meaning of that dreadful death, the way in which it was necessary, the way in which it restores humanity’s relationship with God, but it was and it does. What matters here and now is that this is a way that shows us what the love of God in Christ Jesus is like. It’s a love that not only wants our good, our healing, our life, but which is prepared to go to the cross. That’s a love indeed.

What’s more this is a love, we are told, that isn’t an abstract and general love of the human race. It’s a personal and particular love of each one of us. Immediately before the passage we have heard this morning the apostle Paul wrote these words: “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” God calls those he foreknew. Each of us comes to God in response to an individual and personal calling from God. We are known and loved as the particular individuals we are. God loves you. You personally.

So God’s love for us is a love that is prepared to suffer crucifiction and a love that knows us as individuals. That’s what we’re told. But the dramatic and powerful signs that we’ve been talking about aren’t easily discernible in our everyday lives. We hear about Christ’s death but we don’t see it. We hear about Jesus’ healing but we don’t experience it. Many of us suffer from health problems and yearn for release from them. We would touch the hem of Christ’s robe if we could and feel his power course through us, but we can’t. Many of us have lost loved ones and wish for their restoration to us, but they remain dead. Given all that God’s love might seem distant and unreal.

We can try to convince ourselves that God’s love is manifest in the good gifts of life, and of course that’s true. But these gifts are neither particularly given to those in Christ nor are they unmixed with the bitter fruits of suffering. Indeed Jesus warns us that the way of discipleship is a hard road: “take up your cross and follow me”. When things go wrong for us this doesn’t mean that God has turned his back, just so when things go well this does not mean that God has noticed us or has come to love us better.

We don’t know that God loves us because he showers us with good things. We know God loves us because he tells us he does and because his word is to be trusted.

When we are sick or in pain. When we are plunged into grief by the loss of someone precious. When loneliness eats at us. When sadness or a sense of futility robs us of the will to live. When those around us seem not to notice our needs. At all those moments God loves us.

When money is short and a constant worry. When we feel oppressed by the world. God loves us still.

How do we know? Because God tells us so, in the Bible and through the Church.

I sometimes wonder and worry about what I was called into ministry to do, what will justify all the trouble and expense the Church has gone to in order to put me here. And then I remember. I have been ordained as a minister of Word and Sacraments and what the Word and the Sacraments do is, most of all I think, transmit God’s wonderful assurance of his unbroken and unbreakable love. I am here to tell you, and myself, that God loves you, loves me; to open the Bible as we have today and say, “look, it’s there, God loves you, has always loved you, will always love you, it says so in this Book”.

I know that sometimes it can be hard really to know, really to feel that love, so complete, so generous, so sure. But isn’t it the case that even the love of those closest to us is mysterious sometimes? At any rate all I can do is to point at the words of the Bible, to represent the thousands of years of continuous worship and teaching as I stand here, appointed by the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church and say: hear, hear and believe what the apostle wrote:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s sovereignty and the idolatry of politics (1 Sam 10, 2 Sam 7)

God’s wish and intention for us is that our lives are lived, joyfully and fearlessly, in the light of his love. His purpose is that our days are occupied wholly with love for him and for our neighbour. This much is clear, it is spelled out in the Old as it is in the New Testament, from Genesis to Revelation. God’s will is steady and unfailing.

What is also clear, however, is that this intention has not been realised. From the very beginning things have gone wrong with creation. Our lives are filled with anxiety and doubt. Our love is partial and selfish. Our labour is often joyless and burdensome. Our relationships are strained and our neighbours distant. We feel suspicion and hostility to at least some of those we encounter and we chafe under the constraints of law and custom.

This gap between what God wants, harmonious and joyful communion under his loving rule, and what exists, conflictual and anxious strife, is the painful truth that faith has to recognise and strive to overcome. This recognition and struggle is the story the Bible tells. It is a story because God’s effort and our response to it happens in history. The God our scriptures reveal to us is not outside the great and ongoing process of human development. He is right there in it, guiding it, responding to it, wrestling with our mistakes and also tenderly nurturing our potential and our progress.

The history of Israel, from the conquest of Canaan to the fall of the monarchy, is told in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. After Moses death, at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, the people cross the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua. They establish themselves in the land and divide it amongst the twelve tribes. There is not central authority over them but at moments of crisis Jehovah, the Lord, the God of Israel raises up a “judge” to lead them. When the judge dies the people go back to having no leader but God himself until the next crisis. Monarchy, a continuous and hereditary system, is ruled out. The other nations have kings but Israel recognises no king but God himself.

The book of 1 Samuel, with which we have been spending time, marks the failure of this political arrangement, or rather the failure of the attempt to live as a nation without politics. The pressure of the Philistines, the most powerful enemy Israel has faced, is such that the people have to submit to a king, a ruler whose permanent role is to rule, who has his own army and own treasury, who wields power over them rather than merely leading them. Jehovah resists this change but in the end has to accept its inevitability. Israel becomes a political nation, a nation under human law.

Although the king raised up, King David, is anointed, Christened, Messiahed, by God’s own prophet Samuel. Although he is chosen by God and even has a new covenant, a new testament made with him by God, this is still a step away from what God intended. His special people, his representative, Israel, were supposed to be different. They were supposed to live according to the law revealed at Sinai and to live differently from their neighbours. God raises up a king and a line of kings as a compromise, but the prophets continued to promise that in the time to come God would rule on his own behalf again.

This message, that God’s rule would do away with war, with political power, with injustice and the systems of human law that are required to restrain power and correct abuses, is one that should resonate strongly today. We can sometimes be tempted to see God as eternal and outside history, ruling a heaven that is an alternative and better world than this one.

The great prayer of Jesus should constantly remind us that this is not what he taught us to believe.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” When Christ proclaims the coming of the kingdom he announces God’s rule over this world. When we call him King we claim this world for him.

Meanwhile the powers and principalities of this age fail us, and we fail God. Who among us would recognise any government or any government in waiting as fully in accord with the will of the one we call King? In 1 Samuel there is repeated despair at the behaviour of the political authorities set up according to God’s instructions. The institution of the judges fails and the people beg for a king. Saul is anointed and he in turn fails. God turns from Saul, but just as after the flood he promised Noah that no matter how bad things got he wouldn’t wipe us all out again, he promises David that his line would be preserved despite their sin. The sins of David and of Solomon are much worse than anything Saul does but God is true to his word. He has recognised that things have gone so wrong that the bad institution of the monarchy is less bad than not having a king.

So today our choices, in our own lives and in politics, are all too often between bad and worse. Many Scots have, wisely in my view, opted to stay in the Union even though they chafe against the ways it constrains their ability to express their national identity and their political will. If we have to come to a view about membership of the European Union in the next few years we will struggle similarly with benefits, risks and preferences. When the finances of the state are so stretched uncomfortable and unpleasant choices are unavoidable. Whoever wins the next election they will do painful things that hurt and upset many, including the vulnerable and powerless. This is the reality of politics today, that those in power have limited options and can’t ever really do what they want to do.

As a result we find ourselves in a situation not unlike that of Israel at the point when a king became inevitable. Our whole system of government looks broken and we yearn for something else, for an independent Scotland, for a United Kingdom outside the EU, for a new party of government, for a return to a lost golden age, at any rate for something that isn’t what we’ve got.

What we should take from the story of Israel is that whatever that something is, if it isn’t submission to God, it’s going to be disappointing. If we imagine that any human arrangement will meet all our yearnings, soothe all our hurts, fill us forever with joy and contentment, then we are guilty of the most basic and deepest form of sin, idolatry. Only God, in Christ, can rule over us in a way that banishes despair and makes love the law.

When we pray for the coming of the Kingdom that is what we’re asking for.