All heaven declares

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘All heaven declares the glory of the risen Lord’ by Noel and Tricia Richards. It’s a simple devotional song in two verses that hails Jesus as the sacrificial lamb of God, as well as the glorious risen King (the reason why I chose this for Christ the King week).

The second half of the two verses looks identical at first but there’s a subtle difference: in the first, ‘Forever he will be … I worship him alone’, and in the second, ‘Forever you will be … I worship you alone’.  In worship we sometimes start by affirming our faith together and then move on to more devotional songs where it is the individual praising the Lord for what he has done.

The seed of faith

Text of my sermon for Bramley St Peter, 21 November 2021

Jesus said,
‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
Mark 4:30-32 (New Revised Standard Version)

Pilate … summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’John 18:33-37 (New Revised Standard Version)

We started this morning’s service with one of the shortest of the stories that Jesus told. No people feature in it, just – a mustard seed, something very small indeed.   I don’t have mustard seeds here, but I do have apple seeds…  Each one of these seeds, if you plant it and look after it properly, can become a tree itself.  An apple tree can live for fifty years and produce over a hundred apples each year, each with about eight seeds in it. Just imagine how many trees you would end up with if they all got planted and grew into trees themselves!

Today, as you might have realised, is Christ the King Sunday, and so we have the gospel reading in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, asks Jesus if he is a king. Jesus responds ‘you say that I am’ and explains that his kingdom is not from this world. What he meant was, that what people can expect from him is not what people expect from a king. But what do you expect a King to do?  [ideas…?]

We expect a king to be in charge of his country, don’t we?  But there are different ways of doing that, different ways of leading.  The idea of Christ the King Sunday originated with the Pope in the 1930s.  He wanted the Church to show a deliberate reaction against the Italian government of the time.  Where the earthly power was concentrated in the hands of a dictator who could command a top-down approach to society and impose restrictions on groups out of favour with the regime, he wanted Christians to understand Christ as the sort of king who uses his power to enable others to flourish, not to control them. 

Before he met Pilate, Jesus had already explained to his followers the sort of King that he was, or rather what sort of kingdom he wanted to be in charge of.  He often used short stories like the short one about the mustard seed, or the longer one about the farmer sowing seeds in different places.  In just a few words, these stories gave a memorable picture of tiny seeds growing into a tree or a useful crop. 

Through these parables, we understand that the task of the Church is to plant seeds of hope in people’s lives, which God can then grow into fruitful activity.  It’s a bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ approach to transforming society, totally at odds with the controlling tendency of many worldly governments.  In the words of a hymn that we will sing during communion, The world belongs to Jesus, but he turns the word upside-down.  Not a top-down ruler, but a bottom-up enabler.

Example 1 – A place to sit

What might that look like in practice?  Here are two local stories.  The first is very local.  You will all know about the benches in Bramley shopping centre.  Everyone who used them was angry when the management used their control to take them away.  What did they do?  It started with a few people bringing their own seats to sit on.  The idea spread, a Facebook page was set up. and now dozens of people gather every Saturday. Local councillors are involved, and St Peter’s school.  Over a thousand of us signed a petition, and our own Jo Herbert spoke to the Council.  The Council have now told the managers of the centre that they shouldn’t have taken the benches away, and it’s even been on BBC news.   The seed of an idea of a sit-in has grown into a tree-sized, peaceful protest.  Let’s carry on praying that the benches will be put back. But in addition, it has grown links in the community that will strengthen us to do other things.

Example 12– The Eden Team

Here’s another story that appeared on the diocesan website this week, from a parish in Bradford, only six miles from Bramley.  West Bowling is one of the most deprived estates in England, with 25% of children living in poverty. St Stephen’s Church have had an Eden Team working alongside them since 2019.  The Eden Team is a few people living among those people in poverty, seeking to bring hope, through youth work, community projects, evangelism and discipleship. 

Their leader Luke Owen said, “There is a lot of need in the area and we want to come alongside people and meet those needs but most of all we want to see people know the love of Jesus and have a personal relationship with God.  There are areas of real darkness that we want shine a light on; drugs trafficking and gangs, low educational engagement, people of all ages feeling isolated and not part of a community. We know God can bring transformation in these areas”. 

Again, a few people with an idea of what to do in the name of Jesus have drawn many others to work with them to bring real change.  Might this be the sort of thing we could see happening when the church plant comes to Bramley? 

As well as being Christ the King Sunday, today has another name in the church’s calendar.   Does anyone know what that is?  … [Spoiler alert – there’s a clue on page 12 of the service booklet!]   Stir-up Sunday!  It was traditionally when mums would stir up the Christmas pudding to give it time to mature.  But the name really comes from this prayer where we ask God to ‘Stir up our wills’.

When Pilate heard that Jesus was being called a king, he was worried because he thought Jesus was a revolutionary, “stirring up trouble”. In fact, Jesus was a revolutionary in the sense that he came to “stir up” people: to make them think afresh what it means to live for him.  And just as the mustard tree (or apple tree!) will bring forth fruit, so we ask God to “bring forth the fruit of good works” in us. So as a parting thought, has God stirred up in you the seed of an idea, and the faith to plant it with prayer, so that it might grow into a tree bearing good fruit?

Christ Triumphant, ever reigning

Statue of Christ the King, Brookville, Tipperary, Ireland
Image Copyright Matthew Chadwick and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

This weekend’s hymn from Sing Praise is ‘Christ Triumphant, ever reigning’ by Michael Saward. I chose it to reflect the theme of Christ the King that the Church observes on this Sunday before Advent. 

As I’m also preaching today, I read up on the origins of this festival. I knew it had originated in the Roman Catholic church, but it seems it was instituted by the then Pope in the 1930s as a deliberate reaction against the fascism of the Italian government of the time.  Where the earthly power was concentrated in the hands of a dictator who could command a top-down approach to society and impose restrictions on groups out of favour with the regime, when we think of Christ as King it is as one who uses his power to enable others to flourish, not to control them.  In the parables of Jesus, especially the ones about the sower and the mustard seed, the task of the Church is to plant seeds of hope in people’s lives, which God can then grow into fruitful activity.  It’s a bottom-up, ‘grass roots’ approach to transforming society, totally at odds with the controlling tendency of many worldly governments.

But back to the words of the hymn. Although there is mention here of Christ’s humility, his willingness to act as the ‘suffering servant, scorned, ill treated, victim crucified’, the emphasis here is not on the growth of the Church but on the Christ who after his resurrection ascended into heaven to be King of the world (or indeed universe). This ‘Lord of heaven’, this ‘Priestly king enthroned for ever’, is worthy of the praise of those he has redeemed. That is why the hymn is also threaded through with the language of worship: ‘hear us as we sing’, ‘sin and death and hell shall never stifle hymns of love’, ‘ceaselessly upon you gazing, this shall be our song’.  And the song itself? ‘Yours the glory and the crown, the high renown, the eternal name’.

Both these outlooks are needed to understand what we mean by the Kingdom of Christ: his victory over death and reign in heaven, but also his coming on earth (in flesh then and in spirit now) to enable the outworking of his kingdom in myriad small ways, as seeds of faith are sown and individuals and communities enabled to flourish.

Holy is the Lord

Image from Chong Soon Kim / Pinterest.com

Today’s song from Sing Praise is ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord’. It’s described in the book as anonymous, which is a bit surprising as it’s a modern song, not an ancient hymn.  Like the last two days, it’s one I’m already familiar with.

The words appear to be inspired by the Book of Revelation, in which Jesus is hailed by both humans and angels as the holy one (for having ascended to the right hand of God), the one worthy of praise (for his sacrifice for us) and the one to whom glory is due.  By equating Jesus with the eternal God, this text (the original Revelation as well as the modern song) challenges any notion of all religions being equal. In particular it confronts the insistence of Judaism and, perhaps especially, Islam that God is sublime and cannot be seen or take human form. The early apostles insisted that they had indeed seen, known and touched a true incarnation of God. It is this as well as its social teaching of the equality of all people that made Christianity so subversive, and in many places still does.

The other phrase that recurs in each verse is “who was, and is, and is to come”.  This refers to God being eternal, beyond time and space.  It also reflects the Christian belief that by ‘Christ’ we mean not just Jesus of Nazareth but the eternal reality of the Word of God (the way God communicates with us) and that he has promised to return again in some visible form. As Very Lynn might have put it, “don’t know where, don’t know when, but we know we’ll meet again”.   This is leading us gradually towards the Kingdom Season in November and then into Advent.

Tell all the world of Jesus

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Tell all the world of Jesus” by James Seddon. The theme is obvious from the first line – the command to spread the Gospel. The three verses cover, roughly speaking, his mission for the redemption of all creation, his gifts to the individual and his eventual triumph over sin and death. 

We have here Jesus as Redeemer of the World, Jesus as personal Saviour, and Jesus as King of the Universe.  However it passes over his suffering on the cross, which may be intended to make it a ‘nice’ hymn to sing, but of course misses the vital historical and theological point of sacrifice being necessary for redemption.  It also makes him a rather ‘cuddly’ saviour (offering forgiveness, peace, care, love and mercy), without any of the demands of discipleship.  This is salvation-lite.

The suggested tune, Thornbury by Basil Harwood, is better known to the words “Thy hand O God has guided”.  Thornbury is the adjacent parish to Eccleshill: I wonder whether Basil Harwood had any connection with that part of Bradford?

Holy for ever and ever is God

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “Holy forever and ever is God” by John Bell. It is a setting of (or at least inspired by) verses from the book of Revelation. 

The first two verses praise God as creator and overall sovereign of his creation.  The other three are more specifically addressed to Jesus.   In the book the hymn is suggested as suitable for Ascension Day, when Jesus finally left the earth in bodily form and took up his reign in God’s eternal kingdom.  But it is still suitable for this Easter season, not least because in the fourth verse we declare “Worthy the Lamb who was sentenced and slain! Worthy the Lamb in his rising again!”, the Lamb being Jesus as sacrifice. 

In the last verse the Lamb is sitting on the throne (as king, or judge) having proved himself worthy for the position by living a blameless life on earth and being a willing sacrifice for the rest of sinful humanity. I couldn’t find an appropriate image to depict this, as it is such a contradiction (at the same time suffering lamb and all-powerful king) that all the illustrations I found were contrived or twee. Stained glass artists have usually depicted the sacrificial lamb below the enthroned Christ, and left it to the viewer to try and superimpose these images in some way, for neither image makes sense without the other. That is just one pair of images from Revelation, and not the strangest by a long way. No wonder it’s a notoriously difficult book to understand!

The other reason this is a suitable hymn for the Easter season is that each verse ends with an Alleluia! (very much the Easter acclamation). Tomorrow’s hymn also has alleluias, but in a different setting…

When you prayed beneath the trees

Jesus in Gethsemane. Source unknown.

Today’s hymn from Sing Praise is “When you prayed beneath the trees” by Christopher Idle.  This 20th century hymn comes with its own tune, but John played it to an older hymn tune by Orlando Gibbons that better fits the sombre mood. 

The feel of the words is much like the better known American spiritual “Where you there when they crucified by Lord?”. They expand on the idea that Jesus suffered, not only in his own body, but for our sake and in our place. The repeated refrain of “it was for me, O Lord” emphasises this.  The four verses refer to the agony in the garden of Gethsemane; his trial; the ascent of the hill under the cross (‘via dolorosa’); and finally the crucifixion itself. 

This last, though, sees Jesus not as victim but as victor, another common understanding of what happened of Good Friday: “When you spoke with kingly power it was for me, O Lord, in that dread and destined hour you made me free, O Lord; earth and heaven heard you shout, death and hell were put to rout, for the grave could not hold out; you are for me, O Lord”.

The Bible in a Year – 24 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

24 November. Luke chapters 23-24

And so we come to the end of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus, with the trial, crucifixion and resurrection. He also starts here, with the appearance of Jesus p the Emmaus Road, his account of the beginnings of the Christian church. It ends with Jesus instructing the disciples to “proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations” (24:27), a task which Luke’s second volume (Acts of the Apostles) records.

From all this, the heart of the Christian Gospel, I will take the references to Christ as King, for that is the focus of Catholic and Anglican worship  this Sunday (the 5th Sunday before Christmas) .

First, the Jewish “assembly” takes Jesus before Pontius Pilate and lays charges against him, including that of claiming to be a king. Pilate asks for Jesus to respond to this charge, and Jesus says “you say so”, perhaps meaning, “if you are prepared to believe that I am a king as these people say, then I am”.  But Pilate does not consider any of the charges against Jesus to merit a death sentence, only a flogging.

Then, on the cross, the Roman soldiers also mock him “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:27). Maybe they were the same people who had mocked him in the same way with a purple robe at his trial.  And finally, there was an inscription over him, attributed in John’s gospel to Pilate, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’”

It seems that this was the most controversial title for Jesus in his day.  The Jewish people had not had a king of their own since before the Exile over 500 years earlier, and the Roman Emperor represented by the governor was the head of state in his day.  It does not seem from the Gospel stories that Jesus went about calling himself King: it was a title possibly given to him by his followers out of admiration, but mainly as a controversial political claim by his enemies in order to try and provoke Pilate or Herod to try him for treason.  The fact that neither of them did so shows that they did not consider him a political threat.

In Luke’s account of the Emmaus road and the subsequent appearance to all the apostles, Jesus still does not use this title about himself, preferring “Messiah” (although as that means ‘the anointed one’ it carries much the same meaning). Christians do call Jesus the King, though – but not “King of the Jews” for we believe his reign is over not just the Jewish people or the state of Israel, but all of creation.  Jesus’s kingship really only started with the Resurrection.    When we celebrate Christ the King and then move into Advent, we remember not only the fact that he reigns invisibly on earth now, but also the centuries of waiting that preceded his coming, and the faith that he will come again in visible form to take up his rightful place among us.