First Sunday of Advent – Sunday, 29th November 2020

The week beginning Sunday, 29th November is the first week in Advent.  This marks the beginning of the season of the year when many families start opening Advent calendars.  Inside will be pictures of Christmas trees, holly, Christmas stockings, a robin red breast and an intimidating snowman.  Does this cover the meaning of Advent? The word ‘advent’ comes from two Latin words: coming and towards.  The Advent message is a ‘coming towards’ and can be split into three parts.  Firstly, Jesus came as a baby; secondly, Jesus is still coming to us today through the Holy Spirit and, finally, Jesus will come again in the future.  For most people in Guildford and, indeed, around the world, their understanding of Advent is the story of Jesus coming as a baby to a manger in a stable in Bethlehem.  However, the first Sunday in Advent focuses not on this, but rather on His second coming.  The Bible passage assigned to this week is the ‘signs at the end of the age’.  This is recorded in Mark’s Gospel chapter 13 and verses 24 to 37 and it focuses on a very different aspect of Advent to the common perception of Advent as a crib scene.    This Bible passage highlights that Jesus’ second coming to the earth will be very unlike the first.  It will not be as a tiny vulnerable baby born to a scared teenager in poverty but, rather, in glory and judgement on the whole earth.  Nobody likes judgement.  To be judged by an awesomely powerful and perfect God is even more terrifying.  With regard to the pictures in the advent calendar, it is probably best not to frighten children with stars falling from the sky and the solar system shaking.  However, and thankfully, Jesus has already given us one of his watertight promises: “whoever comes to me I will never drive away”.  Thank God for this.  Perhaps this is the real joy of Christmas.  God is with us, Emmanuel, and if God is with us nothing can come against us – not even an intimidating snowman!

Old Testament reading for this week: Isaiah 64:1-9

Gospel reading for this week: Mark 13:24-37

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Psalm for this week: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Twenty fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 15th November 2020

The Gospel passage this week is Jesus’ parable of the talents.  Throughout history this has been a challenging parable to explain.  What does it mean for us today?  Let us start by reading Jesus’ words again and trying to hear them in our mind.

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Who does the useless servant represent?  Scholars agree that the useless servant stands for the Scribes and the Pharisees and for the way that they treat the Law that they have received.  The whole aim of the Pharisees was to keep the Law exactly as it was.  They wanted to “build a fence around the Law”.  They did not want any development, any growth or anything new.  Jesus is saying that faith is about taking risks; faith is about adventure; faith is about giving out to others and not keeping everything safe and hidden.  But, once again, there are other, more universal messages to this story.  Firstly, it may suggest that God gives people different gifts.  It does not matter how much of a gift you have but rather how you use it.  Secondly, the reward for work well done is not rest but more work.  Sometimes we do not see work as a reward but as a punishment.  For God, work is good and a gift.  Thirdly the story tells us that the worst you can do is not try.  The servant who is punished is the one who did not try.  The real sin is not falling but refusing to get back up again and keep going.  Finally, to develop our service in the Kingdom of God, we need to exercise the God-given talents we have received.  If you never use your talents, you will find one day that they have gone.  “Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”  The more we exercise our gifts the more we will improve and be of greater service in God’s Kingdom.

Old Testament reading for this week: Judges 4:1-7

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 25:14-30

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Psalm for this week: Psalm 123

Twenty third Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 8th November 2020

Why should we continually be watchful or vigilant?  In the Gospel reading for this week, Jesus tells the story of the ten virgins.  We have this recorded for us in Matthew’s Gospel and chapter 25.

25 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’“‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.11 “Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’12 “But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Why did Jesus tell this story in this way?  What is its significance for today?  To us, in our society, we might think this is a ‘made-up’ story but, in fact, weddings in Palestine were not unlike this.  The bridegroom would appear unexpectedly, and the bridal party needed to be ready.  In the villages of Palestine this was (and is) a slice of life.  What is the significance?  Three things.  Firstly, it was another warning for the Jews.  They were the chosen people; they should have been ready for the bridegroom (Jesus) when he appeared.  However, they were not ready, and therefore they were shut out from the joyous wedding celebration that the bridegroom (Jesus) would make possible.  What about us?  Just because we are from a country with a Christian heritage does not mean we cannot be excluded. Secondly, this parable reminds us that there are some things which cannot be obtained at the last minute.  In developing our spiritual disciplines in church, many of these disciplines take time to develop.  Yes, by God’s grace, salvation is instant but continued growth in holiness takes time.  Finally, the parable reminds us that some things cannot be borrowed.  We cannot borrow faith; we cannot borrow experiences.  Rather, it must be our faith and our experience.  In our Christian lives, while there are many to help us, we need to make the decision to follow Jesus and we need to keep following Jesus by being in constant communion with him – rather than relying on others.  For all these reasons we need to be continually watchful and continually vigilant.

Old Testament reading for this week: Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 25:1-13

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Psalm for this week: Psalm 78:1-7

Twenty first Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 25th October 2020

What is the greatest commandment and how do we make sense of it?  The Gospel passage for this week is from Matthew’s Gospel and verses 34 to 40 of chapter 22 where we have these words:

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This passage in Matthew’s Gospel suggests that the expert in the law (a Scribe or Pharisee and not a Sadducee) uses this question to test Jesus but in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 12:28-34) the tone is different and the Scribe or Pharisee seems to be on Jesus’ side in opposition to the Sadducees.  Be that as it may, this passage outlines the basis of all faith.  The Christian is called, above all else, to love God.  Everything flows from this.  Proof of our love of God will also be made manifest in how we treat God’s creation and particularly our fellow humans – who are created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26,27).  If we really love God, we would love who God loves – humanity.  Also, if we really love God, we would love those entities who reflect what God is like – namely humans.  Note, we are called to love God first.  It is in only loving God first that we can fully love humans.  Without God, humans may be seen as selfish and beyond improvement.  That is, without God humans become un-lovable.  With God, love of humanity is not only possible but it is also the second of the two greatest commandments.

Old Testament reading for this week: Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 22:34-46

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Psalm for this week: Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 18th October 2020

Is it ever right to go against the law of the land?  The established church has traditionally sided with the State throughout its history.  Is this always right?  The Gospel reading this week is the account of the trick question put to Jesus by the religious leaders about paying taxes to Caesar.

Up to this point Jesus has been attacking the Jewish leaders (the parable of the two sons, the parable of the tenants and the parable of the wedding banquet) so it was natural to expect retaliation from the religious authorities.  This counterattack comes in the form of a carefully framed question designed to discredit Jesus.  Let us be clear, that is all it was – there was no theological interest.  Interestingly the religious leaders were so determined to destroy Jesus that they sided with the Herodians (supporters of the Roman puppet king, king Herod).  Normally these two groups would fight against each other (religious versus secular) but they were united when it came to trying to get rid of Jesus.  There was a whole raft of legalistic and political meaning in this question with which we may be unaware.  For example, if Matthew’s Gospel was written after the destruction of the Temple in AD70, then the Temple tax would no longer go towards the Temple in Jerusalem but, by decree of Caesar, to the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.  You can imagine therefore how much Roman taxes were despised.  However, Jesus is wise.  Jesus seldom laid down rules and regulations which would have only been relevant to a specific context but, rather, he lays down principles.  That is why Jesus’ teaching is not out of date.  What does Jesus tell us?  Basically, every Christian person has a double citizenship.  Firstly, she or he is a citizen of the country where live.  A Christian should pay taxes, uphold the law, and contribute to the prosperity of the State.  She or he must be a good citizen who is fully immersed in the administration of that country – rather than leave it all to irreligious people.  The Christian must ‘give to Caesar’ in return for the privileges of communal education, health, transport, social security, defence etc.  However, secondly, the Christian is also a citizen of heaven.  There will be matters of conscience and principle where the Christian is accountable to God.

Is it right to go against the law of the land?  For many of us, the two citizenships above may never clash.  What the State decrees is in line with the Gospel.  Where there is a clash, the Christian should, as always, put God first.  Where does the boundary lie?  Jesus does not say but, rather, leaves it to the personal conscience of the individual Christian.

Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 33:12-23

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 22:15-22

Epistle reading for this week: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Psalm for this week: Psalm 99

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost – Sunday, 27th September 2020

What does true faith look like?  In the Gospel passage assigned to this week, Jesus tells the parable of the two sons.  Here we have some beautifully clear teaching of Jesus with these words:  28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. 30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.  Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

What do we make of this?  Let us be clear, neither son is perfect.  Both are imperfect but the son who actually does something for the father is infinitely better.  In our lives we often come across ‘religious’ and pious people who are keen to show their religiosity but, in truth, do nothing to help the poor, the oppressed and the marginalised. We also come across those who seem to have no interest in church or religion whatsoever, they may even been discourteous and yet, when it comes to helping others in need they step up to the mark and make a difference.  Jesus says that although the second position is not perfect, it is still infinitely better than the first position.  For us, the challenge is to show courtesy and respect to the father, like the first son, but above all else, to actually do something about it in terms of fulfilling God’s work, like the second son did.

Old Testament reading for this week: Exodus 17:1-7

Gospel reading for this week: Matthew 21:23-32

Epistle reading for this week: Philippians 2:1-13

Psalm for this week: Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16