But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb…


Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

This year I preached for the first time on Easter day. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever thumped the pulpit!

Here is the text of my sermon on Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb (John 20:1-18). May you know the presence of the Risen Christ with you always!


I wonder if you’re any good in a crisis? Isn’t it horrible when you get an unexpected phone call that brings bad news? Even worse when it’s a phone call that requires you to act, and act immediately. When that happens it feels like all the breath has gone out of you. First you freeze and then you think, who can I call? Who will know what to do?

Well, very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene finds herself in just such a crisis. She has gone to the tomb and found it empty. Her only conclusion is that they have taken Jesus’ body somewhere else. They probably being the Roman guards on duty. So she thinks, ‘I must get Peter, he’ll know what to do’ and runs to find him. Peter comes along with John and they come with urgency running to the tomb. They look in and see that the body of Jesus has gone. And then, there is quite a devastating sentence in the gospel, devastating at least for Mary. Then the disciples returned to their homes. Mary is left by the empty tomb, all alone in her grief. She’s not content to leave like Peter and John, she’s not happy with their response to this crisis, she stays, weeping for all that has happened, perhaps weeping because Peter and John didn’t seem to have an answer. So she sits in her grief, but maybe, just maybe, in deciding to stay by the tomb, the first seed of hope is growing in her.

Did you notice in the reading that the angels that appear to Mary in the tomb do not have any effect on her. They don’t frighten her, they don’t stun her into silence. They ask Mary why she is weeping and she can only repeat the refrain ‘they have taken away my Lord’. Her grief is so overwhelming that she doesn’t even notice that they’re angels. Perhaps you have known grief or trouble as desperate as that? Such deep sorrow that you can’t connect with the things of God at all, you are just numb.

Jesus is already there with Mary in her grief, even before she knows it. Who knows how long he’s been standing there behind her. He knows what she’s going through. He’s experienced a similar deep sorrow in a different garden only three days before. Jesus is with Mary in her grief even when she doesn’t know it.

Then Mary turns around and sees someone, and like the angels, he asks the same question ‘why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?’ Mary repeats the same refrain, ‘they have taken away my Lord, they have taken away my Lord’. Mary doesn’t notice that it is Jesus, just as she didn’t notice the angels speaking to her. But Jesus recognises her. He doesn’t just recognise her, he knows her intimately, knows her troubled history more than anyone because he had freed her of seven demons. In saying her name, Jesus is reminding her how well he knows and loves her, one word, ‘Mary’ and she is jolted out of grief and into joy as she sees that it is Him.

Mary’s cry of ‘they’ve taken away my Lord’ is transformed into the joyful message ‘I have seen the Lord’! Mary becomes the first apostle, the apostle to the apostles, the one sent to the others to proclaim that Jesus is alive!

Mary’s story is also our story. When we are going through hard times, Jesus is with us, even when we don’t notice, even when we can’t feel it, Jesus is standing behind us, with us, patiently waiting for us to tell him what’s happened. Jesus knows pain, Isaiah describes God’s servant as a man of grief, acquainted with suffering. Because Jesus not only suffered and died but rose again, defeating death, he is always and especially present with us in times of sorrow, in the dark times of our lives.

When we baptise people we give them a special candle that has been lit from our beautiful Easter Candle – this light which is to us the light of the Risen Jesus. I always say to the families as I give them the candle that this means that Jesus will always be a light shining in that child’s life and most especially during those times that are the darkest. A candle shines most brightly, of course, in the dark. The Risen Christ is with us always.

Have you ever noticed that we always use the present tense when we talk about the resurrection? We say Jesus is risen, not Jesus has risen, because Jesus is alive, he is in the present, he is alive and with us now.

Not only is Mary’s story, our story, but Jesus’ story becomes our story. Our lives now reflect the pattern of Christ, we travel through the abandonment of Good Friday, the silence of Holy Saturday but our destination is always Easter Sunday and resurrection, new life, transformation. Because God raised Jesus from the dead, so too will we be raised! Paul writes to the Romans that the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead is alive in each of you! So we, like Mary can say ‘I have seen the Lord!’ Alleluia!

Image attribution: Girolamo Savoldo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. On the Sunday morning after the Crucifixion, Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus, but found it empty. The story is recounted in the New Testament (John 20), and Mary Magdalene is here identified by the pot of ointment with which she anointed Christ’s body, and by the glimpse of her traditional red dress beneath a silver-grey cloak. She was the first person to see Christ after the Resurrection. Several other versions of this composition by Savoldo are known. The landscape background appears to represent Venice and its lagoon.

A meditation on St Veronica


This week in our evening service talks we have been looking at some of the less well-known people who were there during Jesus’ passion. I chose to preach about St Veronica.

I can hear the evangelicals among you gasping that I chose to preach on a person who is not even found in scripture! The only point at which most of us meet Veronica is through the Stations of the Cross – she is the sixth. However, the more I explored this character, the more moved I became. I found the wikipedia page very helpful and also this beautiful poem by Malcolm Guite. The Isaiah 50:4-9a reading set for Wednesday night (when I preached) also fit beautifully into the theme.


Veronica is kind of like an every-woman figure. There are so many unnamed women in the bible and the passion scenes are crowded with women – the men noticeably absent. So Veronica represents so much to do with the ministry of Jesus. As I was preparing my sermon I was struck by what an intimate act wiping another’s face is – the only person really that has ever done that for me is my mother. I was also struck by the fact that the last gentle intimate touch Jesus received before his arrest was the kiss of betrayal from Judas – the next gentle hands Jesus feels are from Veronica, stepping forward to courageously touch the bloody victim – just as Jesus had radically touched the unclean throughout his ministry.

Here is the text of my sermon:

There is a huge crowd, everyone pressing around Jesus, wanting to get near. A woman is on the edge of the crowd, slowly working her way to the centre, using her practised elbows to move forwards in the crush of bodies. If only I could just touch the hem of his garment, that would be enough, she thinks, she surges forward and grasps the tassels on the edge of Jesus’ outer garment. A few more steps and then he stops. The woman turns away, she got what she wanted, just a touch, that was all she needed.

Another day, this time in Jerusalem, there is a huge crowd, everyone pressing around Jesus, following his stumbling path through the streets, trying to steer clear of the brutal soldiers and their whips. Men jostle and see who can spit so that it lands on Jesus’ face. His face is ugly with pain and covered in filth, blood, sweat and phlegm. A sight people are turning away from, averting their gaze. A woman is on the edge of the crowd, slowly working her way closer. If only I could just touch him. If only I could just wipe away that filth from his face, as a mother would from their child’s face. If only I could just touch. That would be enough, she thinks.

Jesus had once removed this woman’s shame, he had healed her of her bleeding disease, restoring her body and soul back into her community. It was shameful for a woman to remove her headscarf in public but this time she is compelled, she removes it so that she can wipe away all that filth, all that anger thrown at Jesus’ face, wipe away that kiss of betrayal, wipe away the spit of contempt. An intimate act of compassion to wipe away the intimate kiss of betrayal in Jesus’ last hours.

We just heard from the book of Isaiah a description of the face of the suffering servant: I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. Later in Isaiah, the prophet says ‘as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised’. The face of Jesus on the day of his crucifixion was a face one would turn away from. Blood would be pouring from the marks the thorns had made in his brow down his face, mingling with his tears of pain and with sweat. And then there was the spitting of the crowd, men jostling to get a hit. And if you have ever been spat at, you know that the first instinct is to wipe it away. But what can Jesus do? His hands are strapped to the heavy cross bar. Truly a face to turn away from, covered in filth, ugly with pain. And legend has it that a woman comes, named Berenice in Greek but Veronica in Latin, and she takes off her veil and wipes Jesus’ face with it, the face everyone else is turning away from. An astonishingly intimate act, maybe even more intimate than Mary of Bethany wiping Jesus feet with her hair as this act is out in the open, surrounded by a baying crowd. The legend says that this woman, Veronica, came away with an image of Christ on her veil. The name Veronica in Latin means ‘true image’. She bears the image of Christ. This woman with two names, Berenice, meaning bearer of victory, and Veronica meaning ‘true image’ – she carries with her the true image of Christ victorious, the image of the crucified Christ by whom we are made whole, by whose wounds we are healed. A small, but beautiful and memorable act of mercy – not recorded in the gospels, but that has captured the hearts of Christians down the centuries.

Veronica is every person who has ever been on the edge, on the outside, made to feel ashamed – these are the people who bear the image of Christ, who have received from Christ and carry his grace and mercy with them wherever they go. Veronica demonstrates in a small but significant act of mercy what Christ came to do – the wiping away of sin and betrayal, the restoring and making whole of the broken, and how we each carry with us the true image of Christ. May we be able to find the true image of Christ in the face of suffering, in the faces of those around us, in the faces of those from whom we would avert our gaze. We stop on our journey to Golgotha to gaze at the face of Jesus.

On the Feast of Stephen


This year I asked my training incumbent if we could keep the feast of St Stephen on Sunday 27th December (the actual feast is Boxing Day). It’s a feast nearly always subsumed by Christmas and I thought it would be good to meditate on the feast of the first martyr of the faith, the Deacon St Stephen.

Vincenzo Foppa [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Here is an extract from the sermon I preached:

‘The love that brought Christ from heaven to earth raised Stephen from earth to heaven’ [1] and the same is true for us. Following Jesus costs everything. We will not all die a violent martyr’s death like Stephen, but our lives follow Jesus’ pattern – through suffering, death and resurrection, we are raised with him.

We are reminded by the martyrdom of Stephen that the crib is never very far away from the cross, but we are also pointed to our ultimate destination.

In coming to earth, Jesus broke the power of death – Mary swaddles the infant Jesus in bands of cloth and in the tomb,[2] Jesus breaks those bands of cloth, the death that binds us and is risen in glory, the bands of cloth are cast aside, the grave clothes are left folded in the tomb, destroying the power of death. Stephen, the first martyr, is the first to follow this pattern set for us in Christ: humbled and raised to new life in him. Let us follow Stephen as he followed the pattern of Christ that we too might be raised to eternal life. Amen.



[1] a quotation from a sermon of Bishop Fulgentius from the 6th century.

[2] An analogy drawn by Malcolm Guite in his wonderful Advent and Christmas book ‘Waiting on the Word‘ p89.

What I learned about preaching from watching Masterchef


I gorged on Masterchef in my week off after Easter as I’d missed that a new series was on and so watched 13 episodes back to back in bed on my iPad! I’ve already managed to get that into a sermon (I preached on the gospel where Jesus asks for a piece of fish all about the centrality of food to the resurrection accounts!)

Watching Masterchef on my iPad

Watching Masterchef on my iPad

Watching so many episodes in a row enabled me to see the progress of the contestants ‘up close’ so to speak. This made me reflect a bit on my last year as a deacon and particularly on how I’ve developed as a preacher.

At the beginning of Masterchef, the contestants like to show off any special techniques they know. There’ll be something sous vide; there’ll be a smear of some kind of puree on the plate; there’ll be a quenelle somewhere; perhaps some crisped chicken skin and, this year, lots of the desserts included some kind of ‘soil’ (not very appetising sounding is it?) Usually, they either mess up the technique or get them right but just have too many ingredients on the plate.

I know my sermons were like this right at the beginning. Fresh out of theological college with a load of unthumbed bible commentaries I was all ready to show my credentials, to show off stuff that I’d found out. What would happen when I appeared before the ‘judges’ was that they said things like ‘this purée here was delicious but was totally overpowered by your sauce, that was the only thing we could taste’.

As the Masterchef series goes on you start to see contestants learn to keep things simple, put fewer ingredients on the plate, not give themselves so many processes to follow under the tight time constraints available.

I have started to learn the same things. I’ve learnt that I don’t necessarily have to preach on every verse of that week’s gospel reading – focusing on just one verse can work (and let’s face it, with at least 30 years in ministry ahead of me, God-willing, I will preach through the lectionary quite a few times!) I’ve also learnt that it’s a good idea to source your ingredients locally – this will then resonate with the congregation better.

I’m definitely not Masterchef final standard yet, but I’m learning and the metaphor of the Masterchef signature dish is one I will keep in mind each time I sit down to prepare a sermon. Think: ‘what would Gregg and John say if this sermon was a dish?’

Sermon: ‘Too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use? The 7 heavenly virtues’ – Hatfield College, Durham

Elisabetta Sirani [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

This term I am undertaking a placement at Hatfield College, Durham. For the choral evensong services of the Epiphany term, the college are following a series on the 7 heavenly virtues (the 7 deadly sins were the theme of last term’s services). Dr Bash, the Chaplain and Senior Tutor invited me to speak at the first service of term and provide an introduction to the series.

This was a challenging but fun sermon to write – I haven’t preached without a set bible passage before and the congregation is mostly academics and students – so a bit of a different setting from what I am used to.

Here is the sermon:

“Too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use? The seven heavenly virtues.”

I heard that last term you had a series looking at the 7 deadly sins. So when I met with Dr Bash to discuss my placement here he suggested I do the first sermon of the Epiphany term. “Oh good”, I thought, “I wonder what topic that will be on – sounds like they do racy topics at Hatfield”. Then he told me – ‘now we’ve done the 7 deadly sins, we’re going to move onto the 7 heavenly virtues’. I’m a bit embarrassed at my initial lack of enthusiasm for the subject. Why does it sound so uncool? Isn’t it curious that the word virtuous is nearly always used in a pejorative way? Maybe you’ve said it a few times this month already ‘oh he’s being really virtuous, he’s not drinking for the whole of January’. Always used in a negative way – it implies ‘that person thinks they’re better than me’. We rarely commend another person on their virtue. It sounds, well, old fashioned. Even the title of the sermon given to me phrases things negatively: ‘too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good’.

I shared an article the other day on Facebook about awful ‘pink princess’ marketing towards little girls. There was one objection that a friend had to the article. The journalist wrote:

‘The Harrods Disney experience, complete with sparkly makeover and deluxe princess dress, is aimed at girls aged three to 12 and culminates in an oath where princesses’ vow, among other things, to be “kind and gentle”. Perhaps not the best advice for future boardroom battles or climbing the steely managerial ladder, but of course, those aren’t the sort of roles one would expect a princess to aspire to.’

My friend asked ‘what’s wrong with promising to be kind?’

It got me thinking: particularly when I discovered that kindness is one of the 7 heavenly virtues.

So, we’d better start at the beginning. What are the 7 heavenly virtues and where do they come from?

Initially it was the ancient Greeks that came up with a list of virtues – these are temperance, justice, courage and wisdom. The early Christians, the educated of which would have been taught these, added 3 further theological virtues taken from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians – faith, hope and charity. This list of 7 became known as the ‘cardinal’ virtues – from the Latin word ‘hinge’ – giving the idea that these virtues are what everything else hinges on. The 7 heavenly virtues, however, came a little later with the publication of a poem in the 4th century by the poet Prudentius called the Psychomachia – translated into English by HJ Thomson (in the only version I managed to download for free from the internet) as ‘The fight for mansoul’ – mansoul being one word which I found rather quirky! This text became incredibly popular in the Middle Ages and it is from this that we get the lists of the 7 deadly sins and the 7 heavenly virtues which are their counterparts. The 7 heavenly virtues are chastity, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility and temperance – I’ll let you work out which are their opposing vices!

I was wondering why on earth a poem written in the 4th century by a Roman Christian became so popular in the Middle Ages. Then I read it. It’s brilliant! The poem is a graphic account of the battle that takes place in our soul as we try and live well. Prudentius personifies the 7 vices and virtues as warrior women engaged in a vicious fight. It reminded me quite a lot of Game of Thrones (both the books and the TV series) – it’s very racy, let me read you an extract:

Next to step forth ready to engage on the grassy field is the maiden Chastity, shining in beauteous armour. On her falls Lust the Sodomite, girt with the firebrands of her country, and thrusts into her face a torch of pinewood blazing murkily with pitch and burning sulphur, attacking her modest eyes with the flames and seeking to cover them with the foul smoke. But the maiden undismayed smites with a stone the inflamed fiend’s hand and the cursed whore’s burning weapon, striking the brand away from her holy face. Then with a sword thrust she pierces the disarmed harlot’s throat, and she spews out hot fumes with clots of foul blood, and the unclean breath defiles the air nearby. “A hit!” cries the triumphant princess. “This shall be thy last end; forever shalt thou dare to cast thy deadly flames against God’s man-servants or his maid-servants.”

Sirani virtues

Is that what is going on in your soul? Does it ever feel like life is a battle that ferocious?

This doesn’t sound like ‘heavenly minded’ stuff. This sounds like very earthly stuff to me. And that is the challenge of Christianity. We have just celebrated the great feast of the Incarnation – Christmas. What that feast tells us about the Christian God is that He is not ‘up in the clouds’ aloof from the world but right down in the dirt, violence and pain of our world. Living life to the full – as Jesus challenges us to do in John 10:10 is a messy business – and a lot of that messiness goes on for us internally – within our very souls.

I would suggest that there are two main reasons it’s going to be worth us spending some time this term looking at the virtues. Firstly, a worldly reason. Our society is struggling for lack of focusing on the right things, on the common good – what we would call the virtues. The biggest issue facing us in the UK at the moment is the recession. What caused that? It was the greed of the banks and the belief that it is possible to undertake banking without thinking ethically. You might remember back in 2011 all the problems at St Paul’s Cathedral with the Occupy movement? Following that, the Bishop of London commissioned Ken Costa, an investment banker to help the banking sector rediscover its moral compass. Since then we have had a new Archbishop of Canterbury who has put the focus back onto ethics in banking in challenging Wonga and payday loans and we’ve had the Pope directly challenging trickle down capitalism in his first papal encyclical. This was so shocking to business leaders in America that they absurdly threatened to stop giving money to the church because of the Pope’s “outrageous” views. I don’t know what courses you are all studying, but I know many of you will go on to be business leaders, lawyers, politicians and government workers. Perhaps your generation can heal the mistakes made by the current generation of leaders that have lost their ‘moral compass’? You will influence society for good or ill when you leave this place – so it’s probably a good idea for us to look together at the virtues – it will help provide you with a framework for the way you live your life.

The second reason I think it’s worth us spending time looking at the virtues is for our own selves and personal growth in Christ. Plato and Aristotle – and later on Thomas Aquinas –  believed that the virtues could only be learnt through practice. There is something to be said for repetition, we are very forgetful people. This seems appropriate for a new year – think of these next few weeks of choral evensong at Hatfield as a training academy for your soul. When John Wesley set up his Methodist societies – groups for people to attend to encourage each other in the faith – he charged each person to have someone ask them each week

‘how is it with your soul?’

It is a piercing question is it not?

Perhaps you feel like your soul is in a raging battle – like the one described by Prudentius in the Psychomachia. Or perhaps you feel a bit like me, to be honest, I haven’t given much attention to my soul recently – it’s been a bit dormant. So let’s try and wake up, let’s wake up to what is going on in our soul. I want to get spiritually fit this year as well as physically fit. Let’s ask ourselves each week this term, ‘how is it with my soul?’ and let us learn together how we can truly live life in all its fullness with the help of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon – Holy Family – Sunday 29th December, 2013 – a leap into darkness

Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I was delighted (and a bit nervous) to be invited to preach at my home church of All Saints on the day of my parents’ 40th Wedding Anniversary.

Me preaching at All Saints Church, Southend on Sea on 29th Dec 2013

Me preaching at All Saints Church, Southend on Sea on 29th Dec 2013

Here is the text of my sermon:

Matthew 2:13-23

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

(Isaiah 9:2)

Only a few days ago we heard these words read in our Christmas services – the words of Isaiah written about 600 years before Christ pointing to the light that was to come into the world. In today’s gospel reading, Joseph and Mary are the people who are walking in darkness.

Joseph is the star of the nativity in Matthew’s gospel. He is a model for us all. Much is made, and rightly so, of Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message brought to her by the Angel Gabriel. Here in Matthew’s gospel we discover that Joseph’s ‘yes’ to the angel is also hugely significant.

Joseph and Mary have been happily settled with relatives in Bethlehem, raising their toddler Jesus when Joseph, seemingly out of the blue, has a dream that shakes him to the core. His small, fragile family is in danger from Herod. An angel tells Joseph, rather abruptly to get up and take Mary and his baby to Egypt.

I don’t know what images are conjured up for you when you think of Egypt? Sunning yourself in Sharm El Sheik? Visiting the Great Pyramids? A Nile cruise? Or perhaps rioting and political unrest? None of these images come close to the fear bound up for a first century Jew in the phrase ‘go to Egypt’. Egypt is a place of darkness, a place of slavery, a prison, the place from which the Lord God dramatically delivered his people. This is all upside down and back to front. Egypt is a place of death, a tomb.

The imagery of darkness is there in the gospel reading: Joseph got up and took the mother and his child by night… There is almost the implication that Joseph woke up from his dream in the middle of the night, hastily packed their belongings and set off in the darkness to the foreign country of Egypt.

Domenico Fetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s command is astonishing. The threat to his family was even greater than what they might find in Egypt. So he went. He said ‘yes’ to God with no idea of what would happen and not with only himself to think about but his wife and small child, a two year old who would struggle with a change in his routine. This sounds a little bit like Abraham and his call to leave his home for the vague notion of a Promised Land. And that is deliberate, I think. Matthew’s original audience were Jewish Christians, they knew the call of Abraham and the promise of descendants more numerous than the stars – even though he and his wife Sarah were old. They also knew that Egypt is the place from which God rescues.

Joseph takes the step of faith that has been taken throughout the centuries by those who sought to follow God. A step that’s taken by us all when we say ‘yes’ to God: a leap into darkness.

And so Joseph models for us the great pattern of salvation that we experience in our lives over and over again – death and resurrection, death and resurrection. He goes to the place of darkness, the place of slavery and returns with the Christ child who will bring light to those who walk in darkness.

Earlier this year, Lord Howell was speaking in the House of Lords about fracking. He described the North East as a ‘desolate’ place. This understandably upset a lot of people – and I’m sure Fr Neil wasn’t too impressed!

The north of Israel in ancient times was viewed in much the same way. Just at the beginning of the Isaiah passage I started with it says:

“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations”

(Isaiah 9:1)

In the place where no one expected blessing, the land beyond the Jordan – far from God’s own city of Jerusalem, there was salvation to come.

Picture a different donkey ride. Mary and Joseph, struggling with their belongings on a donkey, travelling for days to reach the “desolate” north of Israel. Jesus, a young boy sits on his father’s shoulders and points out what he can see: ‘look, Abba, another sheep!’ Mary and Joseph reminisce about that other journey they took to Bethlehem, some years before, they smile as they tell Jesus he’s been on this road before. This time they arrive looking like foreigners, they have been living as refugees in a strange land but now they come and find a place to settle by the sea in a small town called Nazareth. They are carrying the Christ child. They are carrying with them the hope of the nations. They are bringing the light that shines in the darkness.

This journey is made possible all because Mary said ‘yes’. All because Joseph said ‘yes’. The Holy Family are a family who say ‘yes’ to God, not knowing what the future will hold. We join with them in the journey – into the unknown. We don’t know what 2014 will hold for us. Mary and Joseph carried the Christ child with them. The message of Christmas that we celebrate in this season is that God is with us, Immanuel. Like Joseph, we carry Christ with us ourselves as we leave this place, as we start a new year, as we move to a place of the unexpected, possibly a place of darkness, into that we carry the light of Christ. God with us. Immanuel.


At the service they made an affirmation of vows and my mother got a surprise new ruby ring which was blessed. As a thank you for using the church for a party this evening they also bought a new set of vestments for the church.

Sermon Advent 2: The Prophets 8 Dec 2013, @leedsminster


Here is a sermon I preached on placement at Leeds Minster at Choral Evensong on the second Sunday of Advent 2013.

1 Kings 18:17-39; John 1: 19-28

Advent is for many of us a lost season in the church calendar. It is set aside as a season for waiting and hoping, for meditating on the coming again of Christ. And yet we live in a society where the concept of delayed gratification is a quaint one – something we used to do, but not any more now that we can buy something with the click of a mouse one day and have it appear on our doorstep the next. Advent for the city dweller is a season of busyness and noise. Apparently, people that live in cities are exposed to over 3000 advertising images a day. Take a walk from here to the Trinity centre and your senses will be overloaded by signs in shop windows, blinking Christmas lights and even advertisements that move, screaming for your attention. Which message does your brain focus on? What is going to grab your attention?


This is the second Sunday of Advent, when we focus on the prophets. We had two wonderful readings that are all about the question ‘what is a true prophet?’ The story of the prophet Elijah versus the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel presents to us the great battle in which we are always struggling. Whose voice do we listen to? Who is the true God, the true Lord of our lives?


A true prophet is a clear signpost. A true prophet points to God, not themselves, as the source of life.


In the showdown on Mount Carmel there is a tremendous difference between the false prophets of Baal and the true prophet Elijah. The prophets of Baal are characterised by their great number – 450 of them versus Elijah – imagine this church full at the carol concert. They are characterised by their ungainly limping around, by their violent noise and shouting at their god and of course by their over dramatic cutting of themselves. The prophets of Baal all focus on themselves: ‘I’m making the most noise, I’m bleeding the most for the cause, god, look at me, look what I’m doing for you’.


Elijah in contrast focuses on the LORD. He builds an altar that is a reminder that his God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob using twelve stones for the twelve tribes of Israel. He reminds himself of who he is and who his God is. He then asks others to pour water on the altar 3 times, all the time he is directing attention away from himself and onto the LORD God. He puts beyond all doubt any sense that what is happening has anything to do with him as a prophet – he steps aside and God’s fire rains down and consumes all – through no effort of his own. No noise, no shouting at God, no cutting of himself. It’s not about him, it’s about the power of his God, Yahweh.


A true prophet is a clear signpost. A true prophet points to God, not themselves, as the source of life.





It is not a surprise then that the Pharisees wonder if John the Baptist is Elijah returned! John is always pointing to Christ, his Lord. There is a famous painting called the Isenheim altar piece by Grünewald that depicts, rather unusually, John the Baptist standing next to the cross at calvary and pointing with a long bony finger to Jesus. This is John’s constant posture as a prophet, he points to Christ.


There is a big difference between an advertisement and a sign. Our road signs in Britain are written in lower case lettering. This is because it takes the brain longer to process words written in capital letters. And of course, we all know now that if you use capital letters in an email or a social media update it is perceived as shouting. Some signs are too cluttered for you to be able to process as you drive past. As we drive around this city we have to be alert to read the signs that will help us to find our destination – we have to filter out the noisy, shouting adverts for the clear sign to take us home.


A true prophet is a clear signpost. A true prophet points to God, not themselves, as the source of life.


We need to be the clear sign post that points to Christ. How often are we more like the noisy adverts that point more to ourselves? I need to ask myself, does my sign say ‘look at me’ or does it say ‘look at Him?’


The false prophets, the prophets of Baal, are like the blinking, shouting advertisements that bombard us during this Advent season. They say ‘look at me’, ‘buy me’, ‘you need me’. The true prophets of Elijah and John the Baptist are like a clear road sign that makes our road straight, our way through the wilderness clear, that points us home, that home we long for in this season of Advent, our true home when Christ comes again and there will be no more tears, no more suffering, and God’s light will shine forever.