For such a time as this: a sermon on Esther for Advent 2

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 7 December 2014: Narrative Lectionary, Advent 2
SERMON
Texts: Esther 4.1-17
Matthew 5.13-16
For such a time as this

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I mentioned last week that we were embarking on a bit of an adventure as far as our Sunday Bible readings are concerned. We are using a new system of readings for each Sunday. Such a table of readings is called a lectionary, and for the first time in many years I’ve decided to change the lectionary I use from week to week.

The Narrative Lectionary seeks to take us through the broad sweep of the biblical story, but as we get into Advent you may feel you are missing some of the familiar characters we tend to come across at this time of the year. Don’t worry- Mary and Joseph and the angels and shepherds are coming soon. But as we prepare for Christmas this year, we’re mostly in the world of the Old Testament. Last week, the prophet Habakkuk encouraged us to look around and have faith that God will come and save his people. This Sunday, we are in a different time, and again we hear a story of salvation.

This week, I was reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (not for the first time). It’s set in eighteen century Scotland, following the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. There various settings which are colourfully described- Edinburgh, Queensferry, Mull, Appin and other parts of the Highlands. And at its heart is an actual event, the ‘Appin Murder’, of 1752. Many of the characters are real people, but although it is, essentially, a fictitious adventure story- an historical novel, a story weaved around historical events.

The Book of Esther tells a story which is set in the Persian Empire, at the time when the people of Israel, defeated in war, are mostly living in exile. It begins by mentioning that it all takes place in the reign of King Xerxes (486BC- 465 BC). Yet although it has an historical setting, the tale hangs on a number of improbable coincidences which have led many scholars to think of it as almost like an historical novel (eg DJA Clines, Harper’s Bible Commentary, p387; SAW Crawford, Women’s Bible Commentary p132).

Historical or not, is certainly a good tale. Continue reading

Time for vision- a sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

SERMON
Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; 3:17-19
Matthew 26:36-38
Time for vision
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This first Sunday of Advent is a bit different for me from usual. Many of you will know that I tend to choose the Sunday readings from what is called a lectionary. The word lectionary comes from the Latin lectio, to read; and it is a table of readings for each Sunday of the year. So my scripture readings are not random- they are taken from a weekly list of readings which have been carefully chosen. The advantage of a lectionary is that it takes us through a lot of the Bible, and ensures you don’t just always just hear my favourite passages!

The Christian year traditionally begins on the First Sunday of Advent- today. But this year is different from me because I have decided- in the spirit of trying to keep fresh- to use a new lectionary. It’s called the Narrative Lectionary, and it came to my attention through a publication called Spill the Beans. Spill the Beans is a periodical, published on the internet, with ideas for prayer, preaching and education in churches. It is produced by a group of people largely from the Church of Scotland. We have already been using it with our Sunday School, and they seem to be enjoying it very much. Continue reading

Where were you? A sermon for Christ the King Sunday, 23 November 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 23 November 2014: Year A, Christ the King

SERMON
Texts: James 2.14-16 and 26
Matthew 25.31-46

Where were you?

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Sheep and goats are animals biologically related to each other, and both were common in Palestine in the time of Christ. Today we are more used to seeing sheep on our Scottish hills; for us, goats are relatively exotic. But goats are hardy beasts, well suited to the arid Middle Eastern climate and landscape, where they have been herded since prehistoric times for their meat and milk ( see Harper’s Bible Dictionary (1985), p350). During the day, sheep and goats can graze together, but come nightfall they must be separated, for whilst the sheep like the fresh air, the goats have to be kept together to keep them warm (Schweizer The Good News According to Matthew, p476; Fenton, Saint Matthew, p4012).

Perhaps one evening, as the sun set over the hills around the Sea of Galilee, a shepherd separated his sheep and goats, and as he did so, he was being watched by a lad from the nearby town of Galilee. Continue reading

Sermon for 16 November 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 9 November 2014:

SERMON
Texts: 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11
Matthew 25.1-13

Lit up and ready for action?

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

One evening all the lights went off in our house. The first thing you do in that situation is, of course, to check to see if something has made the fuses trip. And we were prepared- we keep a torch on top of the fuse box. So I groped my way along to the cupboard where the fuses are, and felt around for the torch until I found it. I pushed the switch on top of the torch- and nothing happened. The torch hadn’t been used for a long time, and the batteries were flat. When I unexpectedly needed the light of the torch, it was not ready.

Which is pretty much also the plot line of the parable we heard from Jesus today. Jesus’s story is a bit complicated, because it refers to ancient Jewish wedding customs which are very different from our own. But the main points are clear- there are ten young women (the word can also mean bridesmaids) waiting for a wedding celebration, but they all fall asleep because the bridegroom is late in arriving. When, in the middle of the night, the shout is heard that he’s finally arrived, five of the bridesmaids are not ready. In an age before street lamps- and battery torches!- it’s their oil lamps that aren’t ready. Their lights don’t work when they needed them.

This is a parable about making sure you are ready. Sometimes we think we are ready. I thought I was prepared for an emergency by putting my torch on top of the fuse box. But I hadn’t checked it recently, so when I needed it, it was no use to me. The foolish bridesmaids hadn’t made sure they had enough oil. So when they needed their lamps, they were of no use to them.

Jesus often spoke about the Kingdom of God being like a banquet or a wedding feast (we heard a parable like that a few weeks ago). And at his last meeting with his disciples before his execution, he share bread and wine with them and says, ‘I will never again drink this wine until the day I drink the new wine with you in my Father’s Kingdom’ (Matthew 26.27).

For Jesus liked a party- some of his most memorable teaching and some memorable incidents we happened at dinner parties- a woman unexpectedly anointed his feet on one occasion; he criticised the seating arrangements at one dinner to teach about humility; he chided Martha for fussing too much over the cooking instead of enjoying the company. When he spotted the Zacchaeus, a corrupt tax collector, up a tree, Jesus invited himself back to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner.

In fact, people criticised Jesus for his sociability. Even although they’d thought John the Baptist a bit weird for not drinking wine, they condemned Jesus, saying ‘He is a glutton and wine drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other outcasts!’ (Matthew 11.18). And so Jesus said they were like children playing in the marketplace: ‘One group shouts to the other, “We played wedding music for you, but you wouldn’t dance! We sang funeral songs, but you wouldn’t cry!”‘ Jesus’ evident enjoyment of good company, food and wine is almost an enacted parable, showing us one aspect of what the Kingdom will be like.

So it seems that today’s parable is also bout the Kingdom, and being ready for it. Scholars are fairly unanimous in saying that for the first few decades after Easter, many in the young church expected Jesus to return very soon. Using ideas from the Old Testament as well, they had the idea that the Last Judgement was very close at hand. The community for which Matthew’s gospel was first written would have had many within it who had such an expectation. So this parable would be a powerful reminder to be ready for what was referred to as ‘the day of the Lord’, when the Kingdom would finally become fully present on earth.

Questions about the day of the Lord form the background to both of St Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. In the passage we read earlier, Paul teaches that there is no predicting when the day will come. Borrowing an striking image that Jesus himself uses in the Gospels, Paul says that the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night- utterly unexpectedly. I find it strange that some way out sects and movements have tried to predict the date of the Day of the Lord, when the New Testament clearly states, here and elsewhere, that it cannot be predicted. Anyone who tries to tell you that they have a timetable for the end of the world- even if they tell you they got it from the Bible- has clearly not read the Bible properly!

It’s a pity that it tends to be those on the lunatic fringe who give so much attention to these ‘last things’- the return of Christ, the last judgement, the day of the Lord, the final and complete coming of God’s kingdom on earth- whatever you want to call it. Those of not so keen on these things are tempted to skip round it. And perhaps it’s that element of surprise that makes us a bit scared.

We all of us are tempted to want life to be not too surprising, if you don’t mind. The idea that Christ might suddenly arrive when we are least expecting him reminds us that surprise is at the heart of the Gospel. Nobody expected the Messiah to be born in a stable to a poor young woman. A rabbi who sought out and ate with and visited tax collectors and other outcasts was not really what you expected. A saviour executed on a cross is not what you expect.

And the Bible is full of stories of God acting in unexpected ways. Moses, a wanted murderer, meets God in the desert, as a burning bush tell him to go and set God’s people free. David, the youngest son, defeats the giant, Goliath. The prophet Jonah gets so terrified at being called to preach in the city of Nineveh has to be swallowed by a whale before he goes there, and then is surprised to find that the evil people of the city actually repent. And you would not expect a Pharisee, who persecuted followers of Jesus, to become not only become a follower of Jesus himself, but one of the greatest leaders of the early Christian Church- but, to everyone’s surprise, God called Paul to be an apostle.

God is not predictable and boring. God is surprising, and disruptive. Often we forget that- even in the life of the church. We are suspicious of new things, when they might be a way for God to develop our faith. We are suspicious of disruption, which might be a way for God to call us to new ways of understanding the Gospel. Many people today think that church is boring- and often they are right. But God is not boring- God is surprising.

And one day, the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night, or a bridegroom arriving unexpectedly. And yet God’s kingdom is not just in the future. I said that Jesus’ fondness for a dinner party was perhaps a hint to us of what the kingdom will be like. Jesus brought God’s kingdom to life for people, in the here and now, reminding us that it would be like a celebration, a feast, a wedding.

But Jesus also had a sharp tongue- often his were words of judgement. He was harshly critical of religious leaders whom he regarded as hypocrites. He was unafraid to cause ructions at a dinner party by criticising those who took the best places for themselves. In Jesus, many people found themselves face to face with God’s judgement. For some, it was too much- like the rich man who was told to give all his wealth to the poor, who went sadly away. But for Zacchaeus, the little tax collector up the tree, meeting with Jesus changed his life for the better, as he promised to pay back those he’d stolen from.

Jesus brings us face-to-face with the Kingdom. He shows us that it will be joyous, like a party, and he confronts us with the demands of God’s justice. And he reminds us to be on our guard, as we cannot tell the day and the hour, to be prepared for God doing new, unexpected things- even bringing history to an end.

But how can we be prepared? Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids gives us some clues. When the midnight shout goes up that the bridegroom has arrived, the ten women wake up and start to trim their lamps. The foolish ones ask if they can borrow some oil, but they’re refused. If that sounds a bit mean, well, perhaps this part of the story reminds us that a borrowed oil won’t do. It’s up to each of us personally to be prepared for the wedding, to be prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom. Faith is a personal commitment, something we ourselves need to take responsibility for. No-one else can do it for us- we cannot borrow someone else’s faith, there is no such thing as a second-hand commitment to Christ. We ourselves need to be prepared.

So the foolish bridesmaids go off to market to buy more oil. But they miss the ceremony of the arrival of the bridegroom, and when they get back the celebrations are in progress and they can’t get in to the party. The foolish bridesmaids had not prepared properly to celebrate.

Most men have watched as a daughter or a wife gets ready for a night out. It seems to take forever- there’s all that careful preparation, getting the right clothes on, mysterious things involving hair and make-up. We men can only watch wryly as time to go gets ever closer and our daughter or wife seems fixed to the dressing table chair. But gentlemen, do not disturb all these preparations. The women are getting ready to party.

As we get ready for the kingdom, we should be filled with anticipation, for we are getting ready to party. The Day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, but for us the day of judgement will be a day of joy. We are, as Paul says, children of the light. So the Day of the Lord, the day of God’s judgement, is a day we can anticipate with enthusiasm, for we know that for us it will be celebration, a time of great joy.

So often, Christians seem like grim traditionalists, fearful of change. We think our faith is about things being unchanging, no surprises, and little joy. But Christians should be getting ready to party. We should look to the future, not with foreboding and fear, but with joy. Because we know that the future is God’s hands, let us celebrate today in anticipation!

Ascription of Praise
Glory to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning, is now,
and shall be forever, Amen.
BCO 1994, p586
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo

Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2014: Not Forgetting

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 9 November 2014: Year A, Remembrance Sunday

SERMON
Texts: Romans 8.31-39
John 15.9-17

Not forgetting

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The most natural thing in the world when you lose a loved one or a friend is to grieve. Remembrance Day developed out of a national need to grieve following the tragedy of the first World War, and today many will grieve both old friends and loved ones. Yet in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul wrote ‘…you should not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope’ (1 Thessalonians 4.13 REB). And in the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul says: ‘If it is for this life only that Christ has given us hope, we of all people are most to be pitied’ (1 Corinthians 15.19 REB). Note that both these sayings include the word ‘hope’. And that both of them invite Christians to think differently from everyone else.

For Paul to say that someone should not to grieve seems almost heartless. Continue reading

So much love! A sermon for All Saints Day 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 2 November 2014: Year A, All Saints Sunday

SERMON
Texts: 1 John 3:1-3 NRSV
Matthew 5:1-12 NRSV

So much love!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I did a primary school assembly on Hallowe’en, and since they’d just had a Hallowe’en disco during the week and I knew it would be on their minds, I thought I may as well talk about it. When I asked them if they would be going out on Hallowe’en, it turned out that the vast majority were planning to- even if nowadays they refer it is as ‘trick or treating’, instead of guising and they lamps of pumpkins rather than turnips. Hallowe’en has changed since I was a lad- too commercialised for me now. But for most children, it’s still a lot of fun, probably because dressing up is such fun.

The custom of dressing up in scary costumes for Hallowe’en- ‘guising’, to use the good old Scots word- goes back to the old pagan beliefs about keeping evil spirits out of our way. Indeed, experts tell us that many of the traditions of Hallowe’en predate Christian influence on our culture. Some boring Christians are killjoys who want to abolish Hallowe’en, but for most children it brings harmless enjoyment. What child doesn’t enjoy dressing up, and being given sweets just for telling a few bad jokes?

When I spoke to the school assembly, I reminded them, as I always do when speaking to children about these things, that there is, of course, no such thing as ghosts. We might enjoy a wee scare sometimes, but there is nothing supernatural for us to be frightened of. I say this with great confidence, for one of my favourite passages of scripture- it was the sermon text at my confirmation- comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where he writes, ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.38-39). In other words, there is nothing we need to be afraid of. There are no ghosts and ghouls which can hurt us. When it comes to the supernatural, we have, as someone said in another context, nothing to fear but fear itself. Continue reading

Unexpected guests? Sermon for 12 October 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 12 October 2014: Year A, Proper 23
SERMON
Texts: Isaiah 25:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Unexpected guests?
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The churches in Scotland, in common with churches around Europe, are facing challenges like never before. We are seeing fewer people wanting to join us in our communities of faith. Our influence is decreasing, in the face of enormous cultural changes.

Faced with the challenge of the way faith is changing in our culture great change, religious people are often tempted to go back to their holy books, believing that there they can find precepts which are unchanging and comforting. The idea is that when we are faced with change and challenge, we should go back to scripture to find words of comfort and hope.

Now, there certainly is comfort and hope in the Bible. We just sung the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s my Shepherd. Who could not take comfort from those words? Even when we go through the valley of the shadow of death, God goes with us. I don’t know about you, but I cling to that idea. It helps me to be grounded in faith, even as I deal with the worst the world can throw at me.

But comfort and hope are not the only messages of the Bible. Continue reading

Paradoxical freedom: sermon for 29 September 2014 (St Stephen’s communion)

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 28 September 2014

SERMON
Texts:  Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Paradoxical freedom

A few years ago, former Pope Benedict XIV, pondering why is Christianity is so unpopular in Europe today, said that he thought many people were put off Christianity because they think that, he said, that ‘Christianity is composed of laws and bans which one has to keep’ which is ‘something toilsome and cumbersome’ I didn’t often agree with Benedict, but I think he was right that time. Many people do think that Christianity- in its Catholic or Protestant forms- is cumbersome. I happen to believe that believing in Christ sets us free. But that is not always how it is seen. Continue reading

A strange generosity: sermon for Sunday 21 September 2014

Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 21 September 2014: Year A, Proper 20

SERMON

A strange generosity
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Old Testament reading: Exodus 16:1-15

The people of Israel are now in the wilderness. Finding the water undrinkable, they have complained to Moses, and God has made it potable. He has tested their faith: will they accept him by trusting that he will feed and rule them? Now the Israelites grumble once again.

1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim, and on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had left Egypt, they came to the desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai. 2 There in the desert they all complained to Moses and Aaron 3 and said to them, “We wish that the Lord had killed us in Egypt. There we could at least sit down and eat meat and as much other food as we wanted. But you have brought us out into this desert to starve us all to death.”
The Lord said to Moses, “Now I am going to cause food to rain down from the sky for all of you. The people must go out every day and gather enough for that day. In this way I can test them to find out if they will follow my instructions. 5 On the sixth day they are to bring in twice as much as usual and prepare it.”
6 So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “This evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt. 7 In the morning you will see the dazzling light of the Lord’s presence. He has heard your complaints against him—yes, against him, because we are only carrying out his instructions.” 8 Then Moses said, “It is the Lord who will give you meat to eat in the evening and as much bread as you want in the morning, because he has heard how much you have complained against him. When you complain against us, you are really complaining against the Lord.”
9 Moses said to Aaron, “Tell the whole community to come and stand before the Lord, because he has heard their complaints.” 10 As Aaron spoke to the whole community, they turned toward the desert, and suddenly the dazzling light of the Lord appeared in a cloud. 11 The Lord said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the complaints of the Israelites. Tell them that at twilight they will have meat to eat, and in the morning they will have all the bread they want. Then they will know that I, the Lord, am their God.”
13 In the evening a large flock of quails flew in, enough to cover the camp, and in the morning there was dew all around the camp. 14 When the dew evaporated, there was something thin and flaky on the surface of the desert. It was as delicate as frost. When the Israelites saw it, they didn’t know what it was and asked each other, “What is it?”
Moses said to them, “This is the food that the Lord has given you to eat.

It has been quite a week. A week of conversations- not all about the same subject, but many of them were. A week when we suddenly realised that history was in the making.

When I went into the polling booth and looked at the form, I surprised myself by suddenly being overcome by the immensity of the question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ Continue reading