THE PARISH OF

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Sermons Blog

Welcome to our "Sermon" blog

 

You need never miss another sermon again, as every week they will be uploaded on to this Blog page.

 

And even if you do not regularly attend either of our Churches; in St Peter's Rhoose, or St Curig's Porthkerry, on this page you will find out what we learn each week: About the meaning of our bible readings, how we can better understand them, and how we can live our lives closer to God.

By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 11 2019 09:13AM


Everyone seems to love a bit of singing at Christmas time. Whether that's the traditional carols, the classic Christmas rock anthems or the latest Christmas number 1. Christmas music is everywhere, in every shop and in every public place. I was asked last week 'What is your favourite Christmas song?' and I really had to think about it. What about you, what's your favourite Christmas song?

We sing at Christmas because it is a happy time, a time for celebration, and our Old Testament reading starts in this same vein v14 "Sing, daughter Zion; shout aloud, Israel!" But what sort of a song? Is it to be a jolly but not very deep 'So here it is, Merry Christmas' or is something a little more theologically challenging called for?


To understand what the prophet is saying, we need to get to grips with the whole little book, otherwise it's like we're reading the last page of a novel, when the hero and heroine get to walk away into the sunset together, but we've no idea what they've been through to get there. If we just read the last verses of Zephaniah it's like celebrating Christmas without knowing why Jesus came. Now I'm guessing that not many of us know much about Zephaniah. It's not a book we suggest to new Christians to read, nor is it the place we turn to when we're deciding what to do next in our quiet times. I suspect that if we didn't give the page number out, many of us would have struggled to even find it in the Bibles. Yet it contains in its 3 chapters a wonderful summary of the gospel message. We discover: why we need Jesus; what Jesus has done and what Jesus will do, all written over 600 years before he was born.


Zephaniah was a prophet in the southern kingdom of Judah during the reign of the great reforming king, Josiah. Judah needed a reforming king, because the two previous kings, Manasseh and Amon, had turned the entire nation away from God and to the worship of Baal and Asherah. By the time the boy king Josiah took the throne, the temple worship had become so corrupt that nobody even knew where the Book of the Law (the Bible) was. (You can read about all of this in 2 Kings 21-23). Despite the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel 100 years previously, and the loss of 10 of the 12 tribes of Israel for exactly the same sorts of behaviour, the people carried on regardless. 'It won't happen to us. God wouldn't do that to us. Jerusalem and the temple are here, we'll be fine'. But they weren't going to be fine. Zephaniah's job was to warn the people that God was coming to judge. Rather than being a book of joy and singing, his prophecy contains some of the clearest expressions of God's anger against his people. Turn back to chapter 1, if you would. Look at v4-6

" ‘I will stretch out my hand against Judah

and against all who live in Jerusalem.

I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place,

the very names of the idolatrous priests –

5 those who bow down on the roofs

to worship the starry host,

those who bow down and swear by the Lord

and who also swear by Molek,[b]

6 those who turn back from following the Lord

and neither seek the Lord nor enquire of him.’

Can you see what was happening? The people were outwardly saying they were people of God, but they never sought him, they never prayed to him or asked for direction. They never listened to him. Oh, they might go to the Temple and go through the motions of worship, but when they weren't there, they were kneeling to the stars or swearing by Molek. And they probably didn't even know that what they were doing was wrong, because the priests were doing it too. There was the form of religion, but its heart had been ripped out. God's word had been lost and his name had become a mere formality. You think that's an ancient problem? Take a trip around our nation today. You will find churches with no Bibles, priests who cannot speak to God unless they are reading words off a page, and people who spend an hour a week reciting the words of the prayer book and the remaining hours worshipping the gods of secularism. 'We're God's people, he doesn't mind', the folk of Zephaniah's day said. 'God is love, he won't judge', the people of today say. God was saying something completely different. "I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all who live in Jerusalem." He was coming to judge. And that judgement came in 586 when the Babylonian army swept in and destroyed everything, including the temple.


But, just as Rhiannon reminded us last week, Biblical prophecy often works on several levels. There are different horizons, different fulfilments at different times. Zephaniah's message wasn't just for the Jewish people of the late 7th century.

Look at v 2-3

" ‘I will sweep away everything

from the face of the earth,’

declares the LORD.

3 ‘I will sweep away both man and beast;

I will sweep away the birds in the sky

and the fish in the sea –

and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.’[a]

‘When I destroy all mankind

on the face of the earth,’

declares the LORD,"

Here is a universal judgement, and it's a judgement even more devastating than the flood in Noah's day. Then at least some of the birds and animals survived, here even the fish will be swept away. It is the Day of the Lord (v14). Why is it coming? The answer is in v17 "I will bring such distress on all people . . . because they have sinned against the Lord." There's the heart of the problem. People in Zephaniah's day, people today, temple goers, church goers, people of no religion and those who dabble in many. All have sinned against God and he will judge. You might ask 'how can a loving God do that?' When you hear about babies being raped and killed, how do you respond? When you see footage of frail elderly people beaten in their own beds in the middle of the night, or disabled people taunted and exploited, what is your gut reaction? Is it not for justice? How much more does God feel that way, whose motives and responses are not tainted by sin? Anything that damages another person is a sin against God because they are bearers of his image. We can't excuse ourselves because we're not as bad as all that, because we know we haven't lived a perfect life of loving God and others. Like Nineveh we've all put ourselves at the centre of the world 2:15 "I am the one! And there is none besides me." God's judgement is coming, and we desperately need a rescuer.


Zephaniah's prophecy would be very gloomy indeed if all we had were the first 2 and a half chapters. But we don't. God showed Zephaniah the things he was going to do further into the future. 3v9 is a turning point "Then I will purify the lips of the peoples that all of them may call on the name of the Lord and serve him shoulder to shoulder." One day people from all over the world would come back to God, including a remnant of Israel. How would this even be possible? The answer is in v15 "The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy." Though God was bringing judgement, he himself would take their punishment. The verses are written in what is known as the 'prophetic perfect' where the prophet speaks about things that will happen using the past tense, because they are so certain to take place it's like they've already happened. God would take away their punishment, turning back the greatest enemy, death, as Jesus hung on the cross. God himself, judge and judged. That's Jesus. That's why he came. It wasn't to give us a happy occasion to celebrate as the days get short, it was to take away the punishment we have brought on ourselves. That's the reason for the singing we started with. Our rescuer has come! We are saved! And there's even more than that. Look at v17

" The Lord your God is with you,

the Mighty Warrior who saves.

He will take great delight in you;

in his love he will no longer rebuke you,

but will rejoice over you with singing.’

God doesn't look at us and just tolerate us. I made them, I suppose I'd better save them. He delights in us! He rejoices over us with singing! When we come back to God, through Jesus, the whole of heaven erupts with joy. God saves us. And to truly know the wonder of that, we need to know about the judgement.


But salvation isn't the end of the story either. Jesus' work wasn't finished when he died on the cross, or even when he rose or ascended. There is a further horizon to Zephaniah's prophecy. v19

" At that time I will deal

with all who oppressed you.

I will rescue the lame;

I will gather the exiles.

I will give them praise and honour

in every land where they have suffered shame.

20 At that time I will gather you;

at that time I will bring you home.

I will give you honour and praise

among all the peoples of the earth

when I restore your fortunes[e]

before your very eyes,’

says the Lord

It's a future picture of restoration. It was partly fulfilled when the Jews came out of exile in Babylon, but its true fulfilment is yet to come, when God creates the new heaven and the new earth. His judgement will fall, everything will be swept away as in the flood, but those who are in the ark which is Jesus will be held safe, their punishment paid, and they will be kept safe until Eden is restored and perfected. So the big question is: have you been, will you be, saved by Jesus? Is your faith one where your trust is in him, or is it something you do for an hour or so in the week? God knows the difference, and the consequences are strikingly different.


So, a whistle stop tour of Zephaniah this morning, but one where we've seen why we need Jesus: because God is going to come in judgement; we've seen what Jesus has done: by taking the punishment we should have had - God the judge and the judged; and we've seen what Jesus will do: hold us safe in him until the world is remade in God's wonderful perfection. How we need Jesus! What a wonderful reminder of why he came.



By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 11 2019 09:11AM


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One question I have been asked a lot over the last week or two is "Are you ready for Christmas?" Perhaps you've been asked it too. But have you really thought about what they actually mean? What are people expecting when they ask that question? Are your presents bought and wrapped? Is your house decorated? Have you got all your food in? Is it all 'tidy and sorted'? I guess those are the expectations on us all, especially by now, 2 days away from the big day. We want everything to be just right, so the whole family can enjoy their Christmas. But there will be people, maybe even some of you here, whose Christmases won't be tidy and sorted. They'll be messy. Think of the young mum with a new baby and a toddler, who can barely find the time and energy to get dressed, or the family whose benefits have been sanctioned as they couldn't get to their appointment because their child was sick in the hospital, or the people working over Christmas to keep us safe, well, seasonally dined and merry, or the person alone, dreaming of what might have been. There is so much pressure for Christmas to be perfect that people are going into debt or even worse, depression, because their Christmas can't match up to the picture perfect one we see all around us. It is so tragic, because while we try to make Christmas perfect we forget that it began in a mess. It began in a dirty stable, with a child conceived outside of wedlock, in a town under occupation, and a couple about to become refugees. The first Christmas was a mess. But Jesus was born into the mess to make the wrong right, as Dai said on our film.


The wrong Jesus came to make right started at the very beginning of time in our first reading. God had created a wonderful world full of colour and freedom and joy. There was only one rule: don't eat the fruit from the tree in the centre of the garden. One rule, a myriad of things to enjoy, yet humanity went after the one thing it wasn't allowed. And we haven't changed. We don't seem able to be content with enough, we want it all, and that greed damaged everything. It damaged the world, it damaged our relationship with one another and it damaged our relationship with God. Yet God chose to come and fix it. He promised the one who would crush the enemy's head.


As his plan unfolded, he chose people to help him, as markers along the way to the one he would send. What sort of people would they be? Who would you choose? Would you not pick a superhero? There's been a lot of interest in superheroes lately, Hollywood seems to love to make films for every Marvel character ever drawn, and children long for the superpowers that they possess. But God didn't choose superheroes. He chose people whose lives were a mess.


Take Abraham. He was in our second reading. He was called by God to leave his own land and go to a land God would give him, and God promised that a descendant of his would bless all the nations. Abraham did obey God, but his personal life was a mess. He lied about his wife and said she was his sister, not once but twice. He slept with his slave girl to get a child when God didn't give him and Sarah one quickly enough, causing hurt and upset at the time and down through the generations. It was a mess, but God used him anyway.


Our next reading was about David, God's king, a man after God's own heart. But he was no saint or superhero either. He committed adultery and murder. He was a bit of a mess, but God worked through him anyway, and promised that his descendant would be the one God had promised.


Then we met Ahaz. He wasn't a king after God's own heart. He was more than a mess, he actively worked against God. And yet God still made a promise in conversation with him.. A big one: the virgin[d] will conceive and give birth to a son, and[e] will call him Immanuel.


Then, 700 years later Jesus was born. He was born into a messy stable in a messy world, and he went on to die an even messier death. But God was at work. Faithful Simeon saw it as he held the infant Jesus and said " my eyes have seen your salvation,

31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:

32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,

and the glory of your people Israel.

Here was the one who would make a difference. Jesus. He would crush the head of the serpent, he would obey God when Adam couldn't. He would take all the mess of the world into his own body at the cross, breaking the power of evil, sin and death, and he promised to come back with a newly restored world for all who trust in him. Jesus, the descendant of Abraham, of the kingly line of David, born of the virgin Mary, just as God had promised.


I wonder if you're getting the idea yet? God doesn't wait until we're all sorted out. Our lives don't have to be perfect before he'll love us. Quite the opposite. He was born in the mess to make the wrong right. That's what Christmas is all about. Not a polished royal visit to a few carefully selected guests, but God coming into this messy world, to save it, and to save you and me. Don't wait to be good enough for Jesus. Just let him into your messy life and see what wonders he can do, making the wrongs right in you.



By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 11 2019 09:10AM

When you think about it, we are doing a very strange thing tonight. It's nearly midnight and here we are sitting in church. We don't do that any other night of the year, and yet here we are. Why? Perhaps it's the sense that tonight is somehow different. It feels magical, special, like we're on the cusp of a time when anything is possible. There's peace, wonder, expectation. We've heard anew the beautiful story of a baby born against all the odds, shining angels singing heavenly songs and surprised shepherds leaving their flocks to go and gaze on this wonderful child. It's a perfect picture.


But before we know it, tomorrow will come, and it's likely that it will bring broken toys, crying children, unwanted presents, family arguments. If not in your household, then certainly in others. Domestic violence rises, loneliness increases and those in the depths of poverty feel their deprivation like never before. And what relevance will tonight's story have then? None at all, if all we see is the school nativity picture perfect scene. But thankfully there's a whole lot more going on than that.


I wonder if you've seen the latest Banksy image, painted on a garage in Port Talbot? I was especially interested in it because I served the first 3 years of my ministry in Port Talbot and have fond memories of the place and its people. It's painted on two sides of the corner point of the garage. If you look at it from one side you can see a little child with a sledge, joy on his face, opening his mouth to taste the snowflakes falling all around him. A picture perfect Christmas scene. But when you turn the corner and look at the other side, you quickly realise that it's not snow falling on the child, but ash from a bin that's been set alight. It's a profound dose of reality, which has a far wider impact than the pretty Christmas scene could ever do. But you wouldn't see it unless you looked around the corner.


That's exactly what we need to do with the Christmas story, if its message is to have an impact in the harsh reality of life. We need to look around the corner, look behind the tinsel and cute children to find a message so profound it can change the way we see everything.


Let's start with the manger. Picture the brown wooden box with its bright yellow straw, and lying on top of it, wrapped in brilliant white cloths is a chubby, pink, bright eyed baby. That's the picture, isn't it? But turn the corner and you see the reason why he was there, rather than in a cot in Nazareth. The land was ruled by the occupying powers of the Romans, who governed with the heavy hands of military force. People were not free. When the command came for everyone to register at the town of their birth, they had no choice but to drop everything and go. Joseph was a carpenter, running his own business, but he had to down tools and make the 100 mile journey to Bethlehem. It was a long way, no wonder he took his wife with him. After all, the scandal surrounding her pregnancy left her vulnerable, he had to keep an eye on her. But once they got to Bethlehem, the place was in chaos. People everywhere. It was only a small town. It couldn't cope with the influx of people, and who would want these two, if they had heard the rumours? It was a frightening, confusing and very dark time. But this is where God chose to be born. He didn't go to the best hospital with the finest midwives and a block on the press. He chose to be born into the chaos of ordinary life. And that tells us something very profound, when our lives seem anything but picture book perfect. God came into the real world, and he still operates in the real world today.


What about the visitors to the manger? We heard about the shepherds in our reading, hearing the heavenly host and rushing to see the baby. The image most of us have of the shepherds is of men in stripy dresses with fluffy white sheep under their arms, smiling at the holy infant. But if we look around the corner, we discover that shepherds weren't such cuddly visitors. In first century Judea shepherds were the lowest of the low. They lived outside of the regular communities, they didn't have time to go to the temple or synagogue and they eked out a living on the hillsides, staying in the natural caves. If a shepherd came near to you, you would keep a tight hold of your purse. They are not the people you would want near your new baby. Yet God welcomed them. In fact he did more than that. He invited them in. It wasn't that they just turned up and he didn't want to send them away. He sent angels to tell them to go to Bethlehem and see the special baby. You see God isn't just for the respectable people. When as an adult Jesus was challenged about why he spent time with the tax collectors and sinners he said "It's not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick". He didn't come for those who think their lives are all sorted out, but for those who know they need him. Your complicated life and the things you might have done don't put Jesus off. He came to earth for you.


What about the other visitors? We didn't read about them tonight, but we know they came. The exotic visitors from the east with their slightly perplexing presents of gold, frankincense and myrrh. They add colour and mystery to our nativity scene. But look around the corner and you will find a far more sinister backdrop. For while these important men were willing to travel for months to see Jesus, there was another king, much closer to hand, whose motives were far less honourable. His name was Herod and in his book there was only space for one king and it was him. In an attempt to get rid of Jesus he had all the Jewish baby boys slaughtered in a hideous act of genocide. The pain he caused is unimaginable. But his presence in the story is a reminder that not everyone welcomed Jesus back then, and not everyone welcomes him now. Many prefer to be the king in their own lives and so reject Jesus' rule. His presence prompts us to ask ourselves the question, do I accept Jesus as king over me? Or would I rather he stay rosy cheeked in the manger.


The final part of the Christmas picture we're going to look at is the name given to this miracle baby. Or rather the names. We have a fascination with baby names. Go on the internet and you will find all sorts of articles about which baby names will be popular next year and which names are totally out of fashion. We know names are important. None more so than the names given to this baby. His given name 'Jesus' means God saves and that would be the work he came to do, dying on the cross for the sin of the world. Another name is Immanuel. It means 'God is with us'. As we look around the corner of the nativity picture, we discover a God who is with us, who came to earth, to our messy, chaotic lives to live among us. He didn't hide himself away in palaces and meet only the most respectable of society. He invited the lowest of the low alongside the rich and powerful into his family. He invites you. And that's the difference tonight can make tomorrow and in the middle of January and when you are struggling and life is hard. Jesus was born and lived and died for you. He can be with you by his Spirit when you place your trust in him. He isn't just a part of the mirage of Christmas, gone even before the year turns. He is real, and you can know him yourself and find in him hope that doesn't fail, strength for the hard times and lasting joy in knowing that your future is safe in him.


So don't just see the cute nativity picture of Jesus this Christmas. Look around the corner and see the God who came to this messy world for you and for me.

By porthkerryandrhoose, Jan 11 2019 09:09AM

January is a very dark month, isn't it. The lights have come down, the festivities are over but the days are still short. As we look at the news we see darkness too. More young men stabbed, people missing from their homes and war and violence around the world. Darkness. This has been written about society: "No-one calls for justice; no once pleads a case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments, they utter lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil . . . They pursue evil schemes; acts of violence mark their ways. The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths . . . We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows." It could be describing our society, couldn't it? But it was written over two and a half millennia ago, in the chapter of Isaiah directly before the one we read.


It's probably helpful to remind ourselves of the structure of the book of Isaiah. The first part, up to chapter 39, is mostly about how God wants his people and the nations around them to live, their abject failure to do it and the punishment to come: exile. Chapters 40-55 are far more positive. They speak of God's redemption, and a future of hope. But by chapter 56 it's clear that all won't be peaceful and happy and perfect once the exile is over. In fact the same problems will be there. It raises the question: how can the problem of humanity be solved? Who can turn things around? In 59:15 and 16 things have reached rock bottom: "The Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no-one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene." So what did he do? Another exile? Another flood? No. The end of v16 "So his own arm achieved salvation for him and his own righteousness sustained him." God would right the wrongs. v20 "The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those who repent of their sins, declares the Lord." It's a great Messianic promise. And by the beginning of our chapter, 60:1, we see the promise coming to life. As we follow the chapter through (and we'll need to look at the whole chapter, so it might be an idea to have it open in front of you) we'll learn 3 important things: Get up - God is here; God's answer is bigger than your imagination; and God will change the world. Let's look at it together.


Get up! God is here! That's literally what v1 means "Arise, shine, for your light has come." God is here. He was there then, in the darkness of post exilic Jerusalem and he is here now in the darkness of our world. We can shine because God is our light. That's a wonderful reminder, isn't it? When the world seems dark, when the things human beings inflict on one another are cruel and hateful, we can stand up and shine because God is here. v2 "See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over your". The darkness is no match for the light. Now we can't read those words without thinking of the words at the start of John's gospel "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it." While God's presence was with his people anyway, God was looking to a further horizon, to his redeemer, the light. It's written in that prophetic perfect again, the way God talks about things still in the future as already having happened, because it's so certain that they will. Jesus the redeemer was on his way. But there's a surprise coming. It's our second point:


God's answer is bigger than your imagination. v3 "Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn." Suddenly it's not just about God's people, Zion, it's about the whole world. As his people shine with the light of God's presence, it attracts the attention of the nations. Light is attractive isn't it? It's not just moths that gather around a flame, we are attracted to light. It's why we light up our homes and ooh and ahh over the New Year fireworks. Light is attractive, and all the more so when it's God's light, the light of the world. The first fulfilment of this promise came on the first Epiphany which we celebrate today. v6 says "All from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense" and the magi did come with their gifts. But they were only the forerunners. The different places God names shows that he's talking about people from every direction. The wealth of the seas would come from the north and the west; Midian and Ephah and Sheba were in the south and the east; the islands of v9 could mean the outer reaches of the known world, like us, and Tarshish is thought to be in Spain. God's saying people will come from everywhere, bringing with them their wealth. Why? v6 & 7 "proclaiming the praise of the Lord . . . they will be accepted as offerings on my altar and I will adorn my glorious temple." It's in worship. People will literally come and lay down their splendour before God, knowing that no earthly possessions can surpass knowing the salvation of the God of light.


When you put this promise into its Biblical context, you can see how it's always been part of God's plan. In Genesis 12 God promised to bless the whole earth through Abraham. Jesus himself said in Matthew 8:11 " I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." The Magi were the symbolic first, but they were followed by many more. As the book of Acts unfolds, we see people coming from 'Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth', until now there are millions upon millions of Christians around the globe. We can often feel gloomy in this country as we see churches struggle to maintain their numbers, competing against Sunday sport or even just pyjama days. But in other parts of the world the church is expanding rapidly. Recently, in Indonesia, pastor Billy saw his church grow from 400 to over 6000 in just 4 years. In Iran the house churches are growing and producing new house churches every week. In Africa the number of Christians has risen by 51% in the time I have been ordained. That is dramatic growth. God's promise is being fulfilled and it is a source of joy! As we think of all these brothers and sisters being added to God's kingdom daily, we get a taste of how it will be when every knee will bow. Oh how we need to ask for forgiveness for thinking God's promises are only about us and our church, God's promises are far bigger than we could ever imagine.


And they are bigger still. Point 3: God will change the world. To see how, we need to go to the end of the chapter, to v17-22. Here we are presented with a further horizon to God's promise. From the end of v17 "I will make peace your governor and well-being your ruler. No longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates Praise. The sun will no more be your light by day, nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you, for the Lord will be your everlasting light and your God will be your glory." This is the time when darkness will be truly vanquished and God's rule will be over the heavens and the earth. It's the same promise we see in the picture of the new heaven and the new earth when Jesus returns in Revelation 22:5 "There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever." This world of pain and suffering and darkness is temporary. One day we will see God's light shining over all the world.


So in this dark January, in this dark world there is much reason for hope. God is here and his light is shining in the darkness, we just need to, in the words of v4 "Lift up our eyes and look about us", look to Jesus the light of the world. And God's answer to the dark is even bigger than our imagination. It's not just about us in our small corner, but the whole world. His light is shining, and the church is growing in places we've never even heard of. Then one day God will change the world, as his light shines unfettered when Jesus returns. So often our eyes are cast down and we can only see a small circle of light around our feet, if we can see any at all. Lift up your eyes and see the wonderful light of the Lord Almighty shining brightly, as you look forward to the day when the already conquered darkness will be cast away forever.

By porthkerryandrhoose, Dec 10 2018 04:29PM

I’m going to start with an excerpt this morning from the 2001 film A Knight’s Tale, based on the poetic tale of the same name by Geoffrey Chaucer. In this clip, Chaucer himself, in the role of herald, presents this dramatic introduction of his knight at an important jousting tournament. You can view the clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpJIVfGcL6Y


If you had to perform an introduction, how would you do it? You might say ‘I’d like you to meet [name]. He/she is a [job title] or he/she likes [item].’ You might relay some important information about the person, or something that they have in common with the person you’re introducing them to. Of course, you also might be introducing someone for a specific purpose – Mary has come to audit the financial records; or Peter’s an inspector and he’d like to observe your class.


In our gospel passage this morning, Luke makes two introductions. First, he makes an historical introduction. He places John the Baptist’s ministry in a specific timeframe by naming the rulers of both the immediate and surrounding areas. This combination of political leaders dates the beginning of John’s ministry to AD 28 or 29. This historical context is helpful to our understanding of John the Baptist as a real person in history, not a mythical character. However, this isn’t the most important introduction that Luke makes. His second introduction tells us John’s purpose – why he was in that place at that particular time. Indeed, John’s purpose had been set out hundreds of years before; the words Luke uses in his introduction are not his own. They come from the prophecy of Isaiah, chapter 40. We’re going to look at what Luke says about John’s purpose and also explore Isaiah’s prophecy relating to John.


Firstly, what does Luke say about John’s purpose? In vv 2 and 3 we’re told ‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ John had been put by God in the country around the Jordan to call people to repent. The Jewish concept of repentance that John was preaching involved turning back to God with a contrite heart and there are echoes of this ‘turning’ throughout the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 8, Solomon prays that God will forgive his people ‘if they have a change of heart in the land where they are held captive, and repent and plead with you in the land of their captors and say, “We have sinned, we have done wrong, we have acted wickedly”’ And in Psalm 78, the writer laments the inconstancy in the Israelites’ relationship with God: ‘Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.’ We can see from these verses, and others like them that repentance or turning was a frequent act. God’s people frequently needed to turn back to God with a penitent heart, admitting that the things they had done had displeased him and offering their praise and thanksgiving for the mercy he showed them.


As well as preaching repentance, John offered baptism, a symbolic washing, associated with the forgiveness of sins. However, this was not a baptism like the baptism of the Christian church. Christian baptism anoints believers with the Holy Spirit, as Jesus promised. John’s baptism was to help people prepare through repentance and symbolic washing for God’s salvation through Jesus. A person baptised by John was declaring themselves to be open to God and to following his ways.


And it is because of this preparation that Luke quotes from Isaiah 40 in the remainder of our passage this morning. The Isaiah passage is known as a pattern prophecy, speaking into many periods of history at the same time. These verses launch the second section of the book of Isaiah, which talks about how God will save Israel. As a contemporary message, the text spoke of delivering the people from exile. Luke, however, demonstrates that the pattern of saving is beginning again with John the Baptist. Earlier in his gospel, Luke likens John to Elijah. In chapter 1: 16-17 he says: ‘He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ In quoting from Isaiah now, Luke is showing how John the Baptist is fulfilling this prophecy. The call of the prophet is in vv4-6: “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.” The prophet is calling for creation to level the path for God to arrive. We might say that John’s fulfilment of the prophecy is in removing moral obstacles to God’s arrival. When John is call people to repentance he is clearing the way morally for Jesus to come and bring about God’s salvation. As we have seen in our study of John’s gospel, John does not bring God’s kingdom – he isn’t the Messiah himself. Rather, John announces God’s kingdom and points the way to Jesus, the true Messiah.


As I mentioned before, pattern prophecies relate to more than one time. I wonder whether the pattern of Isaiah’s prophecy, quoted by Luke in our passage this morning, has begun again? We live in times, yet again, when many people have turned away from God, or do not know him at all. Many have not heard the good news of Jesus, or do not want to hear it. As Christians, we are all called to be like John the Baptist, to prepare the way for Jesus today. In the approach to Christmas, this may be something that is particularly on your mind as you consider asking family, friends or neighbours to a service in church this month. I’m going to leave you with a recent blog from the Good Book Company, which talks about this very thing. You can read it here: https://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/blog/interestingthoughts/2018/12/03/why-increased-churchgoing-at-christmas-is-problema/



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