Brookmans Park 29 Dec 2013: Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23

Christmas is a very peculiar event in many ways.

 

It is odd that this is a Christian festival but we have no evidence for its celebration until 350 years after Jesus’ death, something that led to the Puritans in England and in Scotland banning its observation as unBiblical after the civil wars of the seventeenth century and now it is as much a secular as a religious thing, with the emphasis on presents and feasting.

 

It is also odd that during Advent we look forward, we say, to the birth of Jesus, although we all know that his birth happened a long time ago and is not going to happen again. It is paradoxical to look forward to remembering something, since we must already have remembered it in order to look forward to remembering it.

 

Perhaps the strangest and most important aspect of Christmas, though, from our point of view, is that it is a time when we are instructed, commanded, to be joyful. This happens outside the Church, of course, with the secular festival of families, gifts and turkey where all are expected to be full of goodwill and happiness, something that leads to an annual avalanche of advice to families under stress on how to survive this trial by in-law and ex-spouse. This time is also a trial to those coping with grief or sickness. How does one deal with one’s feelings of loss or sadness when feeling good is compulsory? I’ll return to this but first I’d like to look at the way this problem appears within the more properly Christian Christmas experience.

 

We say, and we believe, that with the birth of Jesus something changed fundamentally in the relationship between God, the creation, and humanity God’s image, God’s representatives in creation. In becoming human God changed everything, as our reading from the letter to the Hebrews puts it: “the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Jesus is our brother and he makes us holy, sanctifies us. To do this, to go back to our reading, “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” He shares our birth and our nature and this allows him to work our salvation and our redemption. It is this we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. God is with us, our God, Emmanuel, hallelujah, hallelujah, all is made right.

 

The great difficulty arises when we look around at our world or look deep into our own hearts, when we pay attention to those around us or are really honest with them. Is all well, all as it should be in our world, in our consciences or in our relationships? Is everything perfect? Is everything perfect for you? Were there no shadows over your Christmas? Was there no-one whose presence you missed around the table? Was there nobody who you wished you could have spoken with more warmly or embraced more whole-heartedly? If your Christmas was complete perfection then I’m glad and I admire your faith and your goodness, but I’m afraid mine was not. It was very good, Pam made a wonderful dinner, all three of our children were there and in good health and good spirits. My mother joined us for the day and everybody got on, but still, I was aware of the absences of those we have lost, of the continuing misery of so many in our world, of my own weaknesses and failures. I had a good day, but not a perfect day.

 

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that abuse of power, fear, death, loss, were part of the story of Jesus’ family right from the beginning. We’re still in the Christmas story when Herod unleashes terror on Bethlehem and the holy family become refugees in Egypt. The coming of God into the world doesn’t lead straight to the kingdom of justice and peace, it provokes the powers of this world to brutality and mass murder. The Christmas story is not simply one of unmixed happiness and joy. In it there is the evil of the slaughter of the innocents and the shadow of Christ’s death on the cross, symbolised in the gift of myrrh.

 

How, then, can we say that Christmas is joyful? Why do we celebrate? Jesus’ family flee their country under threat of persecution, many other families are plunged into mourning and Jesus, like all of us, begins to live with the future holding suffering and death for him? What is there about all of this that should lift our hearts and fill us with happiness?

 

The letter to the Hebrews gives one of the very best statements of the reason why: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

 

“Free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” Jesus frees us by freeing us from the fear of death, says the writer of this letter. In doing so he destroys the one who has the power of death. We are freed by Jesus from fear and this breaks the power of evil over our lives, that’s what this passage tells us. We are liberated by Christ, by God, who comes to share our condition and to show us that it is not something to be afraid of, not something to flee from or to regret. Being us, being the creatures made by God to represent God, is good. Our lives are made holy, sanctified, by Jesus, by what God did at Christmas.

 

That doesn’t mean that everything suddenly became perfect, we know it didn’t. It doesn’t mean that we no longer suffer, we know we do. It doesn’t mean that evil was completely banished, we see it all around us. It does mean that we have God’s promise and God’s sign that perfection is not only possible but our destination and goal. It does mean that suffering will be put behind us and a new life of peace and joy will come. It does mean that evil has been defeated and God will finish the job by disposing of it completely.

 

That’s why when we look at the imperfections of our Christmas, of our lives, of this world, we should neither ignore them nor should we let them obscure what is good. True faith, in this world, is not the denial that we and those we love get sick and die, that injustice is real and ourselves sinners, that our relationships fail and our bodies falter.

 

True faith is to hold on to God’s promise that his love is stronger than all of that, that his love mends what is broken, restores what is lost and heals what is sick. True faith is to be joyful even while suffering, to celebrate when mourning, to be happy even when sad. True faith is to receive what we are given as gifts from God, to accept them as made lovely by God’s love, made perfect by God’s perfection, made holy by God’s holiness. True faith is to see God in everything we have, to see God in those we love, to see God in ourselves.

 

The Christmas message, of God being born, of God becoming a mortal human being, is that what passes, what dies, what sickens and what fails, can be, is, divine when viewed with the eyes of faith. Our imperfect celebrations, our faltering love, all of it is holy and perfect if we transform it through faith.

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Potters Bar 15 Sept 2013: Lamentation (Psalm 22 and Hebrews 5:7-10)

I am a worm and not a man

scorned by everyone, despised by the people

all who see me mock me

they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

“He trusts in the Lord”, they say

“let the Lord deliver him”

 

This cry of anguish is part of our Scripture just as are all the words of joy and hope and love. The cry of despair, of feeling abandoned by God is there in the Bible. Many of you will have recognised the dramatic opening of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” as a question asked by Jesus as he hung on the cross. Through the whole history of the Jewish people and of the Church there have been many places and times when this must have been echoed by people whose fate was to be lost and alone.

 

We proclaim a God of love and power and we affirm our faith, our trust in him. We say that we believe in a God that has our best interests at heart and who holds the whole world in his hand. So what are we to make of our suffering, our loneliness, our pain, our mourning, our deaths? What are we to make of the abuse of the weak by the strong? Of natural disasters? Of disease?

 

It is tempting to excuse God from responsibility for any of this. We might say that it is the fault of human sin, that of those who suffer or that of those who cause them to suffer. God is not to blame for these actions; he has told us what is right and if some ignore it that isn’t God’s fault.

 

Or we might say that God’s power to prevent all this pain is limited by something else. Perhaps the created order has a logic and a direction that God cannot completely control so that the processes of making all things well is difficult and takes time.

 

Both of these responses have something to recommend them and I don’t say that they’re wrong. But there is in our tradition and in the writings that we say reveal God to us another possible way of dealing with these problems. The way of lament, which Psalm 22 exemplifies. It assumes that God could lift the burden from us and doesn’t and it asks God why. It proclaims its faith in God’s power and it challenges God to keep faith with us. It says: God, I trust you; now justify that trust.

 

To quote from later in this Psalm it says:

 

Lord, do not be far from me.

You are my strength; come quickly to help me.

Deliver me from the sword,

my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;

save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

I will declare your name to my people;

in the assembly I will praise you.

You who fear the Lord, praise him!

All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!

Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

For he has not despised or scorned

the suffering of the afflicted one;

he has not hidden his face from him

but has listened to his cry for help.

 

These are bold words. They both state clearly the belief that God can rescue and they demand that he does. They are the words of someone who thinks that they know God’s capabilities and that they have the right to address God directly and demand rescue. That is a powerful faith, in God and in one’s own worth.

 

Lament like this is not a weak and self-pitying last attempt to get help from a hypothetical God when all else has fails. It cries out from heart of one who is certain that they stand in a close and intimate relationship with God. It looks at what is wrong in life and says: this should not be.

 

To speak like this to God we need confidence. We need faith. Part of that confidence will come from what we believe about God and God’s nature but part of it must come from what we believe about ourselves. The person who can say: “Do not be far from me. You are my strength; come quickly to help me.” is a person who thinks they are deserving of notice and of help and who expects God to listen when they speak.

 

This morning we have heard these words from the letter to the Hebrews: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”.

 

Obeying Jesus isn’t easy, no more than the obedience that took him to death on the cross was easy. He makes demands on us that we find hard to meet. The kind of radical selfless love he lived and that he calls us to is hard. We know, when we look into our hearts and we examine our lives that we fall short. We know that we are not what Jesus was and that we are not what we called us to be. We know that, if we’re honest with ourselves.

 

We also know that our faith, our trust in God, is weak itself. How many of us really believe, fully believe in the promise of resurrection life, in the promise of peace, of absolute justice? How many of us trust God, all the way, to make right what is wrong, to mend what is broken? How many of us really believe in the idea that God’s loving mercy reaches the things we are most ashamed of, the things that wake us up in the middle of the night wishing we hadn’t done, hadn’t said, hadn’t thought or felt whatever it is that burdens our consciences?

 

However that might be we have the Jesus. We have the brother who took on our burden of suffering and lifted our burden of guilt. No matter what your doubts, no matter what your pain, no matter what your guilt I tell you that his love and his sacrifice are enough to make you right with God. God does care about you, you personally, and you have the right to lift your voice to him. To say: “Do not be far from me, because trouble is near, and there is no one to help.”

 

Lament when you are troubled, challenge God to make good his promise. Say to him: “do not be far from me. You are my strength, come quickly to help me.”

 

When it feels as though God has forsaken you, let him know, in prayer lift up your voice. You have the right to demand satisfaction from God.

Brookmans Park 25 August: Hebrews 12:18-29

Telling stories is very important to human beings. We tell ourselves stories about our lives and we share them with one another. We try to understand how out stories fit into other stories, those of our families, reconstructed through family history and genealogy, those of our communities, of our nations, of the world. Different people put more or less value on different parts of it and some people like histories and some prefer what we might call “myths” that dramatise the stories in ways that make a point about something: like the stories of the Dunkirk evacuation and the Battle of Britain that told people important things about what it was to be British in the middle of the last century; or the legends of the Wild West and the pioneers that continue to shape what the USA thinks of itself; or the tales of the French Revolution that are so central to how the French view themselves.

Many of us as individuals have stories like that. Stories that are essential to our idea of who and what we are. These might be about childhood, about dramatic events that we’ve been caught up in, about when our children were small, about important turning points in our personal or professional life. We all also have, although we might not tell it as easily or as often, a story about the overall shape of our life, whether this story has a happy or a tragic character. I know that this changes for me as I pass through different stages in life and as a minister of word and sacraments the story about my vocation comes to play a shaping role alongside the story about my family. At any rate I’m convinced that everybody has a tale about themselves, even if the never tell it and aren’t very conscious of what it is.

I’m also sure that our individual stories need to be placed in the setting of a bigger story, or a set of bigger and bigger stories nested like a set of Russian dolls. Our stories don’t start with us, after all, they start with our parents, or with their parents, or their parents’ parents and so on back to the beginning of the species and beyond. And our species’ story can only be told in relationship to the whole story of life, which current science thinks first appeared on Earth a little over 3 and a half billion years ago. And that story has to be fitted into the story of the Earth itself, 4 and a half billion years old. And the Earth’s story is part of that of the solar system perhaps a hundred million years older again, and so on through our galaxy (around 12 billion years old) to the universe itself (say 14 billion years). Each of these nested into one another so that our stories, decades old, are inside a big story 14 billion years long.

The passage we’ve heard from the Letter to the Hebrews this morning claims that our individual stories are larger and more important than even that very biggest story, the story of the universe. It claims that each and every one of us matters more than and will be around after the whole created universe, more than everything that came from the Big Bang. It says all of that will be shaken by God, will be removed, and only the eternal unshakeable kingdom of God will remain. It says that we have already come to that kingdom, we have entered the heavenly and everlasting city. It says that our story is unending and of absolute value.

That’s an amazing claim, isn’t it? That you and I are more solid, less temporary than everything that exists in the created universe. But it is in many ways the central claim of Christianity. The claim that we are promised eternal resurrection life with God. For centuries the idea that the whole Universe was a temporary and passing thing, that it came into being and would pass out of being, was one science rejected. But in contemporary physics almost everybody accepts it. The point of view of Hebrews, of the New Testament, that the Universe as it currently exists will cease to exist at some point in the future, is now pretty much common sense.

What the New Testament says, though, is to say that even that story, the story of all creation, is contained within another, the very biggest story of all, the story of God’s dealings with creation. This story says that that very largest story takes place in a setting, a setting that is eternal and which has meaning and purpose built into it. God is the setting and God is also the main character, and God is also the author of the whole set, the whole nest of stories. And God isn’t driven by a desire to entertain, nor a desire to glorify himself, nor by the wish to manipulate and dominate. God is motivated above all by love. The whole thing is about love, it expresses love, it is an act of love. God loves us, God loves creation, God loves. That’s what’s going on in the story.

So when Genesis says that our part in creation is to be the image of God, to represent God in creation, what it means is that we are the part of what is created that enters into a special and close relationship with God. God loves us and we love God back on behalf of all things while passing God’s love on to all things. That’s why our story doesn’t end where the rest of the story does. We are already living in the eternal now of God. We are already in the kingdom while we are also passing through time to towards the end of our stories and of all stories. In knowing and feeling God’s love and in knowing and feeling our own love we take part in God’s reality, the reality that never ends and in which we have a resurrection life in which all that is damaged, all that is wrong, all that fails and hurts, in which all of that has no place.

To quote from our reading:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire

in Christ’s name

amen

Potters Bar 18 August 2013: Strangers in a strange land (Hebrews 11:8-16 and Luke 12:32-34)

From the letter to the Hebrews: By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents.

 

From Luke’s gospel: where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

Home: there’s an evocative word, “home”. A good home provides shelter, safety and comfort. It is the place where one can rest and feel secure. At home one finds everything one needs ready at hand and one has a right to be there. At home one is recognised and accepted. A home is precious and irreplaceable.

 

A home for most of us means a building, a fixed place, solid and immovable, with walls and doors that can be locked. It means somewhere we go which doesn’t move, which waits for us to return and where we can be sure to find those with whom we live.

 

For nomads home is something quite different. Home travels with them across the land. Their home is at once no particular place and the whole range of their travelling. It would be wrong to think that nomadic peoples have no ties to land or territory. They move around a particular country and will often have both an intimate knowledge of it and deep attachment to it, as in the original inhabitants of Australia and their songlines

 

For such people “home” is both the whole landscape that forms the background to their lives and no one place. As they move they recreate home at every place they stop. Their security is in their belonging to their family, clan, tribe and in their ability to live in and with the country. They are at home everywhere and nowhere. They are at home because they are supported by a culture and a network of love and belonging, a society, a community.

 

All of this makes particular sense to me as I return from a camping holiday. Our temporary home was contained in our car. We arrived at our site and made it home. For two weeks that place was where we belonged. The whole culture of French camping holidays, which has changed since I first took part in it in the 1970s but which is also recognisably the same, surrounded us and made us secure and comfortable. For those two weeks our home was at once our tent, our car and the whole European playground that is South Brittany.

 

Reading the words from Hebrews: “he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents” in a tent near the beautiful beach called Tahiti near the tourist town of Nevez made me smile. Here I was, a stranger in a foreign country, getting by on my rudimentary French and the English and goodwill of those whose many people whose job was to help me enjoy my stay, living in a tent and having faith in the complex social organisation that allows people from all over France and Northern Europe (as well as a few from Spain and Italy) to holiday happily in that wonderful part of the world.

 

And then we came home to Hertfordshire. We moved back into the comfort of the manse. We took baths, ran the washing machine, slept in our beds, watched the television, used the telephone and the broadband, opened our mail. We were home.

 

And that made me think again. After all this is not, in some real sense, our home. We don’t own the manse, the Church does. We are here as long as I am your minister and someday will move on. My very good friend and former minister, John Smith, who preached at my ordination here, has just retired. He has moved out of the Morningside manse into a house he has bought in Peebles. Ministers, we are reminded, pass through the churches in which they serve. I think of myself as your guest, not as someone at home here. When Jesus sent out the apostles he told them not to take anything with them but to accept the hospitality of those who offered it to them. It seems to me that we stipendiary ministers continue that work. We accept the churches’ hospitality.

 

At the same time the manse really does feel like where we live, the churches feel like our Christian abode, you seem to us like extensions of our family. Your hospitality is good enough that we have very quickly come to feel that this is a place where we belong, where we are accepted and affirmed, where we are at home.

 

In doing so we are expressing something fundamental about the nature of Christian life.

 

If home is somewhere one is truly safe then nobody on earth is really ever at home.Our condition, in this world, is one of an insecurity so great that we prefer, most of the time, not to think about it. We are all in a position of dependency. The societies that shelter and sustain us are too complicated for any of us to comprehend. Our everyday lives would be impossible without the labour and mutual trust of immense numbers of people scattered around the world. Think about the systems and processes that enable you to switch on your central heating, run your tap or buy your food.

 

This social dependency is only the beginning though, because we all know that we’re all going to die. The safety we seek in our homes can’t protect us, ultimately, from the reality of our mortality. We want to look after those we love but we can’t, because we won’t always be there and we are anyway powerless in face of the ultimate enemy.

 

The promise of Christianity is that this powerlessness of ours doesn’t, in the end, matter, because Christ has defeated death for us and loves us so that his victory is extended to us. We will rise again from death to eternal life with him, a life in which the insecurities and anxieties of this life will be a thing of the past. We will be raised to new and full life, at home forever with God.

 

As Christians then we have faith, like Abraham’s faith, that this is the promised land, a land in which we will be at home everywhere and nowhere. In which we will enjoy the freedom and security of being at one with everything and supported by an unfailing and reliable love. Like him we see, though, that the land is not yet the land we are promised. The land has yet to be remade to fulfil what is meant to be.

 

We are at home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country. We can make our homes here, as our family did in Brittany, because we trust that we will be cared for and that there is a home for us to go to. This life, this age, this world, they are not what we are destined for but we are to live in them as if they were home. We are nomads on our way and we need one another. We are nomads who need the deep knowledge of the sustaining landscape that can only come from studying the ways of God, from prayer, from contemplation, from worship, from the reading of scripture.

 

We can be at home in this strange land, but it remains foreign. This land is strange but it can be our home. In the name of Christ, amen.

 

Potters Bar 16 June 2013 – The absence of God (Hebrews 11:1-16)

We all know what it’s like to miss someone. When somebody dear to us is gone and is not coming back it hurts. We are constantly reminded by all kinds of things that their presence in our lives has ended and that we are now more alone, less cared for, less known than we were before. The more they mattered to us the more we feel their absence.

What, then, about God? We looked last week at God’s presence with us but how many of us, I wonder share Mother Teresa’s terrible sense of God’s absence, as she wrote about it the book Come be my light. In one of these she says “Heaven means nothing – to me it looks like an empty place – the thought of it means nothing to me and yet this torturing longing for God”.

This woman who worked so tirelessly and selflessly for the poor on the basis of her faith in God lost her sense of the closeness of God shortly after she arrived in Calcutta and for the 50 years of her ministry there continued to mourn that it never returned to her. As a young woman her prayer life had been illuminated by a feeling that she was accompanied and embraced. This was lost to her and she suffered from its going.

I suspect that most of us have both a less vivid sense of God’s presence than the young nun did before she went to India and correspondingly a less agonising grief over God’s absence than she did. What you have never known you don’t miss, as they say. Most of us don’t know that we’re missing God most of the time because we don’t know what it is to be with God in this fuller, richer way.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we aren’t missing him at all, just that we interpret the pain we feel in a different way. I want to suggest that, in the same way that one can see the presence of God in all that is life-affirming and joy-giving, one can detect the his absence in all that is life-denying and pain-giving. All our anxieties and all our doubts, all our fear and our loneliness, all of it amounts to missing God, to wishing God were with us, to mourning God’s absence. All of this is a form of the desire for God.

It can be hard to relate this feeling, with its pain and lack, to faith. Faith, after all, is steadfast and loyal while this unfulfilled desire, this missing and longing, sounds as if it might bring with it anger, doubt, weakness and distance. What brings desire and faith together is hope.

Faith, our reading from Hebrews this morning reminds us, is “confidence in what we hope for”. Our faith looks forward to something as yet unseen. After reminding us of the great exemplars of faith to be found in the Old Testament it concludes: “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one”.

In the country of exile the generations of exile have on the one hand a memory of the lost country they never knew and on the other a hope of return. This lost and anticipated country is defined by relationship with God.

Our estrangement is long-standing and deep in our natures. Each of us grows up in a society in which radical openness and obedience to God, expressed as loving with all our hearts and minds and souls, is a way of such danger and such difficulty that it is impossible for us to walk it. We cannot be as Jesus was and as he told us to be, it is beyond us. But that is what we need and want to be. We are made to be God’s image and to be in connection with him. We need to love and to be loved unconditionally. The only way this need can be met is through re-union, reconciliation with the God who made us.

This problem, that we are made to be in a relationship with God that we can’t have, is the deepest source of all that troubles us. All our fear, all our anxiety, all our loneliness and despair, all of this is, at root, our mourning of the absent God, who is not absent from us but rather is invisible to us. We can’t see him because we can’t love him in the way that would make him apparent to us.

We have all seen examples of people who love one another but because of pride or of misunderstanding can’t express their love. Families broken apart by rivalries between those who need one another too much to allow themselves to feel it. Lovers whose mutual mistrust destroys a real and shared love. We all know that sometimes people can’t take the risk of love.

What we don’t see, most of the time, is that we are all in that position with God. Our need for God’s love is so great that we can’t let ourselves feel it. We miss God so much that we can’t admit that we’re missing him in case we find, like Mother Teresa, that his presence eludes us.

God’s absence is the pain at the heart of faith but only by admitting that can we begin to repair the damage. We have to allow ourselves to imagine what it would be like to be one with God, even though that imagination, by reminding us of what we’re missing might make our pain worse for a time. We have to because the alternative is to settle in this land of exile and to give up on return to the land of promise.

Faith is hope in things unseen. Let’s hope, let’s hope for love, for peace, for unbroken joy and for life everlasting with the one who loves us more than anyone else can love.

Potters Bar 18 Nov 2012 (Hebrews 10:11-25)

One of my favourite television characters is young Mr. Grace from the 1970s comedy Are You Being Served, which is set in a department store. Young Mr Grace is very old and plays no real role in the running of the business he owns but every now and again comes down in a lift from the upper floors surrounded by attractive young women to tell the staff “you’ve all done very well”.

When I managed people in a large organisation I often thought about young Mr Grace, especially when I was involved in the planning of departmental communication sessions where scores of people would be gathered together and a carefully crafted set of presentations would say something very like “you’ve all done very well” over the course of half a day or in the worst case scenario a whole day.

My attitude to these activities and my approach to them was, to some significant extent shaped by situation comedies about working life, Are You Being Served, The Office, even On the Buses, and sometimes I’d use young Mr Grace’s catchphrase to warn the rest of the team that we’d strayed into empty banality and needed to think again about what we were saying.

I wonder whether for many of us young Mr. Grace is the real model for our idea of God. We might think that God exists in some distant and unimaginably wonderful upper floor, in a palatial office, surrounded by beautiful people and things, with every luxury and comfort available and only pleasant and interesting things to do. On this mistaken view our lives, with all their boredom, difficulties and inconveniences, as well as their pleasures and joys, are impossible for God really to understand. The most we can hope for from him is an occasional “you’ve all done very well” and in the meantime we have to make the best of things amongst ourselves.

Alternatively, and even more extremely, perhaps he’s like Hyacinth Bucket’s son Sheridan in that other comedy classic Keeping Up Appearances. He is never seen but often rings Hyacinth to ask for money, He is a never seen character who makes unreasonable demands which she is too short sighted to see for what they are.

These thoughts about what kind of character God is in the story we tell ourselves about our lives are prompted by the conjunction of our telly-icious Darkes Fayer and this week’s reading from the letter to the Hebrews. In it the writer takes one of the three main ways the Old Testament suggests that God is present to us and shows how it is remade by Jesus. The three ways are that of the prophet, who gets a special and direct communication from God, that of the sage or wise person, who finds God in the regular course of events, and that of the Priest, who follows set rituals to enable God’s presence in ways governed by rules established by God.

These three ways of trying to makes sense of Israel’s relationship to the creator God are all parts of the story the people told itself about its relationship with God as recorded in the Bible and became in turn parts of the story the Church tells itself, that we tell ourselves about what and who we are. These inherited stories help us understand our present and shape our future. In the letter to the Hebrews we hear the Church re-telling and re-making the remembered story to help point the way forward and to understand the present. It is a common way of grasping at understanding in a way a little like my use of young Mr. Grace’s catchphrase in management team meetings.

Shared stories are a vital way of forming and developing a shared identity and of communicating that identity and this is what the writer is doing when he relates Jesus and his life and work to the Temple and its activities. He takes an old story, about God’s appearances to Moses, the creation of the Tabernacle and then the Temple as special places for God’s presence, about the way the Priests safeguard and manage the danger and the promise of that presence, which would destroy the unwary. He remembers the promise of a future in which meeting God will be safe again, as it was in the Garden of Eden and he says that that time has come, that now we can all encounter God directly, through Jesus, that sacrifices and rituals are no longer necessary, that Jesus has done all this for us.

The writer takes a story that would have been familiar to his readers, if not necessarily to us, to help them understand who and what they, as the Church, are and do. He tells them that they have inherited the role of the Temple as the place where God dwells. Through Christ they can encounter God, they can enter the sanctuary where God lives. No new sacrifice is ever to be required, no complicated and bloody ritual. We can enter the sanctuary with confidence with our hearts sprinkled clean. The time has come when the law is written on our minds.

One of the great stories at the heart of Israelite self-understanding has been recast as a story about Jesus, a story about the Church. God’s careful management of his encounter with human beings through the Temple rituals has been radically transformed into an open embrace of all who come to him through Jesus. The danger the Holy of Holies existed to contain has been ended by the one great sacrifice of Jesus and now all may enter. This is what the letter says, it continues the story but gives it a radical new direction. Young Mr. Grace, we might say, has moved his desk into the middle of the shop floor.

It seems to me that this letter still challenges us, the Church to which it was addressed, to get beyond the image of God as a distant figure who drops in from time to time with empty words of encouragement and consolation, Instead, we are urged, we should see ourselves as called to enter into the presence of Christ, here and now, and believe in both the promises and the commands he utters. We are promised forgiveness for all that troubles us when we compare the law written on our heart with the shape of our lives, we are promised an eternal judgement that is merciful and just, we are commanded to love one another, to love God, to love our neighbour, wholeheartedly and without reservation.

In all of this we have the help and support of a God that neither withholds himself nor fails to understand us. As the Church we are the successor to the Temple, we are the place where God encounters a creation that needs God’s guiding and restoring work.

It’s tempting as the one who stands in this place this weekend of Darkes Fayre to say “you’ve all done very well” because, clearly, you have, but instead I’m going to close with words from our reading that seem particularly appropriate as we prepare for the Lord’s Supper:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, the way of his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

Brookmans Park 4 Nov 2012 (Hebrews 9:11-14 and Mark 12:28-34)

Last week we were with Jesus, Son of David, as he prepared to enter Jerusalem, the Royal City, his home as heir to David’s throne, as King of Israel. We remembered his words to the disciples about the fate that awaited him there and we thought about his home as the place he went to die, and about where our homes are; we thought about Jesus, thought about going home.

This week we’re with Jesus again and now we’re in Jerusalem and more precisely we’re in the Temple. The interchange with a friendly scribe that we’ve heard is an extract from a section of Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus goes and teaches in the Temple. This reminds us that Jesus isn’t only the King of Israel but also its High Priest. This is what the letter of Hebrews means when it says: “he entered once for all into the Holy Place”. Only one person was allowed into the central chamber of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, and that person was the High Priest. Even he was allowed in only once a year, as part of the purification ceremony of Yom Kippur, the Day of atonement.

On that day the High Priest made a special sacrifice and used its blood, and the ashes of the heifer, to purify the Holy Place, and in so doing sought and received God’s forgiveness for all the sin of the people for the year past. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that there is a deep connection between this ceremony and what Jesus did for us, once and for all, on the cross. There he was both Priest and victim, sacrifice and sacrificer and he won forgiveness for everyone.

But there was always another part of the Priest’s role. The Priest was also the teacher of the Law, and that’s what we see Jesus doing in today’s Gospel reading. He is asked about what is the most important commandment and he answers using words from the core of the Old Testament, the five books of Moses. First he quotes from Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is the one Lord and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your might”. Then he quotes from Leviticus: “You must love your neighbour as yourself” and he concludes that this double law of love is far more important than the sacrificial cult of the Temple.

At the time of Jesus it was well established that Moses’ law fell into two parts, that the ten commandments had two tables, the first about how to honour God, the second about how to behave towards other people. Here Jesus asserts, using words from scripture, that above all this is about love. Love God, love your neighbour: that is the law.

And so we hear these words today and we have to ask ourselves: do we fulfil the Law? Do we love God with all we have? Do we love our neighbours as ourselves? I know I can’t claim this. My faith, my love for God is important to me, but I know that not all my heart, or all my mind, all my might belong to him. I’m not even sure I’m able to want them to. I love my wife, love my children, the rest of my family, my friends. Does this command, this command from God, mean I can’t keep anything back for anyone other than God? It sounds like it does, to my ear, and I can’t do that, even though I know, in some ways, that I should.

In the same way I wonder if any of us can really say we love our neighbour, whoever we think that is, as we love ourselves. Don’t we take special care of ourselves and those who are closest to us? We make sure we and our families are warm, well fed, safe and secure if we possibly can, even when we know our neighbours are struggling. We don’t put the needs of these neighbours at the same level of priority as our own needs, so how can we claim to love them as we love ourselves. This demand might even seem excessive to us, in some ways it must seem so. We are like the rich man told to sell all he had and give it to the poor, the rich man who went sadly away.

So where does that leave us? If we can’t do what Jesus, the High Priest, authoritative teacher of the Law commands us, can we call ourselves his followers? Can we claim a place among the people of God? Can we believe that God loves us, that we can come into the Kingdom, can dwell with God in eternal life?

Yes, we can. Jesus the High Priest is not only the teacher of the Law, Jesus the King is not only King of Israel. Jesus Son of David is God the Son, Jesus the Priest is also the one sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, Jesus our brother is also the Christ, the Saviour, the one who is risen and ascended to sit at God’s right hand to intercede for us. Jesus has washed us clean and made us right with God.

Jesus’ commands, his teaching of the Law matter to us, they tell us what we should do, but his sacrifice is what saves us when we fail. We try, we do our best, we don’t manage to do what we should and Christ comes to our assistance. He makes us right with God and we try again. And in the end, we’re promised God will bring us home, home to Him, home to where we began, at one with our creator and free from death and sin, raised to new life and made a new creation.