‘What then should we do?’ – 12th December 2021 – The 3rd Sunday of Advent

Order of service

This morning's order of service is available here:

21 12 12 Advent 3 Eucahrist

21 12 12 Advent 3 Eucahrist

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The Readings

Zephaniah 3.14-end

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgements against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.


Luke 3.7-18 

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’

And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Sermon
The Revd Canon Dr Alan Billings.

‘What then should we do?’

This is what the people ask John the Baptist when they go out into the wilderness to
be baptised by him. What should we do?

I can see why they might ask that after John has given them such a roasting.

They had come out of their villages and walked several miles across scrubland and
stony ground to hear John speak and to be baptised by him in the Jordan river
because they wanted to renew their faith and hear a message of hope.

Life for them was hard. They were poor. They had to work hard to scratch a living –
from the soil or their animals or from fishing. They were at the mercy of the
elements. A drought could wipe out the crops and threaten the sheep and goats. Bad
weather could make it impossible to fish. They couldn’t afford to get ill.

Their one consolation was their religion, their faith.

They were Jews. And God, they believed, was the God of the Jews.

They knew that in the distant past he had guided their remote ancestor Abraham.
They knew too that God had brought them out of worse conditions than this. He had
brought them from being slaves in Egypt to this land where at first they were free

Now they were not so free. The country was part of the Roman empire and Roman
soldiers and Roman tax collectors were a fact of life. It was depressing. Like a great
cloud of misery hanging over them all the time. Hard working but oppressed.

So they went out into the wilderness to hear this charismatic preacher, John the
Baptist, tell them something that would lift their spirits. Perhaps he would baptise
them as a sign that they were indeed children of Abraham whom God had protected
and guided.

A bit of cheer, a bit of hope, in a dark and uncertain world. That’s all they wanted.

Imagine the shock then when he speaks to them: ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned
you to flee from the wrath to come? …. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have
Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able form these stones to raise up
children to Abraham.’

They can’t plead their religion, their faith. They can’t rely on that to see them
through. So what should they do? What should they do?

John’s answer is in one sense quite simple: repent and bear fruit. Because if you
don’t, even now, every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into
the fire.

But when he goes on to spell out what it means to bear fruit, it gets quite hard.

Bearing fruit means this:

If you have two coats, share with anyone who has none. Do the same with food. If
you are a tax collector, don’t cheat people but only collect what is prescribed. If you
are a soldier don’t use your power to extort – and live according to your means, your

We could sum it up like this. John is saying to the people of his day: the way you lift
the cloud of misery that hangs over you is not by falling back on your religious
credentials – we are children of Abraham – but by conforming your life to these
principles, the principles that Abraham and all the prophets lived by: be kind, be
generous, share, think of others, don’t cheat or lie or threaten. Live like this and you
will be able stand before the Messiah when he comes.

Today, the third Sunday of Advent, the Church puts this gospel before us as we too
look for the coming of the Messiah. Like those Jews at the time of John the Baptist,
we too are finding life a bit hard. We have had two years of the pandemic and we
cannot yet see any end in sight. A dark cloud of misery hangs over us.

But for us too, religion can’t become a crutch, a prop. The Lord asks for repentance, a
change of heart and mind, a determination to live differently, to live better.

So, be kind, be generous, share, think of others, don’t cheat or lie or threaten. Live
like this and you will be able stand before the Messiah when at Christmas he comes.

The Prayers

In joyful expectation of his coming to our aid
we pray to Jesus.

Come to your Church as Lord and judge.
We pray for wisdom as we arrange services for the Christmas season under
ever changing and uncertain circumstances.
Help us to live in the light of your coming
and give us a longing for your kingdom.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to your world as King of the nations.
We pray for all the troubled places of our world - Myanmar, Afghanistan,
Yemen and others. For refugees worldwide, especially those on the
Belarus/Polish border, or risking their lives at sea. We pray that leaders of
nations act with compassion and wisdom.
Before you rulers will stand in silence.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to the suffering as Saviour and comforter.
We pray for all who are waiting for hospital treatment or diagnosis. For all
who are suffering due to the effects of the pandemic. For all who are anxious
about what the future might bring.
Break into our lives,
where we struggle with sickness and distress,
and set us free to serve you for ever.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come to us as shepherd and guardian of our souls.
We remember all who have died – this day, this week, this year or less
recently, thinking especially of those known personally to us.

Give us with all the faithful departed
a share in your victory over evil and death.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come from heaven, Lord Jesus, with power and great glory.
Lift us up to meet you,
that with Mary, Mark, John and all your saints and angels
we may live and reign with you in your new creation.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Come, Lord Jesus, do not delay;
give new courage to your people,
who trust in your love.
By your coming, raise us to share in the joy of your kingdom
on earth as in heaven,
where you live and reign with the Father and the Spirit,
one God for ever and ever.

Common Worship: Times and Seasons, material from which is included here,
is copyright © The Archbishops' Council 2006 and published by Church House Publishing.

‘Doubting Thomas’ – 19th April 2020 – Second Sunday of Easter

John 20.19-end

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The Sermon

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit – Amen.

I’m writing this on Thursday, April 16th – I expect sometime this afternoon or early evening we’ll be told that our lockdown will continue for at least another three weeks.  Let me take this opportunity to hope that you and your family and friends are managing under these exceptionally challenging conditions.

I’d like to spend some time with Thomas tonight.  He gets a bit of a mixed coverage in the Gospels; he comes over as being quite gutsy in the story of Lazarus when it’s he who suggests that the group should join Jesus in going to see Lazarus, despite the risk.  “Let us go and die with him” are his words, and the disciples are rallied to return with Jesus to Judea.  He shows courage and resolve; at this point he’s willing to die with Jesus if that’s required.  He then seems to drop out of sight for a while, and makes less of a good impression at the Last Supper, where he comes over as being a bit confused as to what’s expected of him.  In John 14, we read:

“Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Perhaps this gives Thomas a bit of a hint that the path ahead for the disciples is going to involve great sacrifice; they need to walk ‘the way’ of Jesus.  It’s not going to be easy.  And indeed, like the others he scarpered when Jesus was arrested, despite his earlier willingness to die with Christ.

And so we come to tonight’s reading:

“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’”

The disciples were in their own ‘lockdown’ – they were understandably afraid that the Jewish religious authorities might try to finish the job they thought they’d started by crucifying Christ.  Where Thomas was at this time isn’t clear; maybe taking a brief bit of exercise, maybe trying to get some time on his own in which he could think through what had happened over the last week or so.  There is a poem by Thomas Troeger about Thomas that starts with the words:


“These things did Thomas hold for real:

The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,

the grain of wood, the heft of stone,

the last frail twitch of blood and bone.”

Thomas indeed knew the reality of what had happened; his world view was very much that of a good Jew; when you died, you stayed dead.  Blood flowed and went cold and clotted; steel spikes broke flesh, a steel lance would open a body up. And then it’s over; a final twitch, you’re dead.  One can imagine Thomas trying to wonder whether ‘the way’ of Christ simply ended in death, and if so, how could he follow it, and, what would be the point.

When he returns and is told the news of what’s happened, he famously retorts that he won’t believe that Jesus has been miraculously resurrected until he can see things for himself.  No, more than that, his doubt is so strong that he won’t believe that Christ is risen unless he can stick his fingers in the wounds.  Or, as Troeger put it:

“His brittle certainties denied

That one could live when one had died,

until his fingers read like Braille

the markings of the spear and nail.”

Thomas seems to be suffering from what we’d call today an ‘existential crisis’ – something has happened – or has been reported to him – that is so ‘out there’ that it forces him to reconsider everything he holds as his firm and central beliefs as a Jew, despite everything he will have experienced as a disciple.

Sometimes, things happen that are just so big that we can’t cope.

Many years ago, when my mother was seriously ill in hospital, we got talking about times in her life she’d been really worried or scared.  I expected her to tell me of the times she’d been ill or in danger in the Second World War, or when I’d given her cause for concern, but she added “A Saturday night in October 1962” – the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when she had gone to bed, with me in the next room, not sure than she – or anyone else – would see the following morning. An existential event in her life, totally outside of her experience and beyond her control.

This Easter, we’ve all experienced an event which has overturned our expectations and made many of us wonder ‘Will things ever be normal again’.

Like Thomas, we currently find our certainties challenged.  We’re confined to our homes, we learn the news of the same changes applying to country after country in the world as Covid-19 brings about a ‘new normal’.  Some people feel they need proof that it’s as bad as we’re told; some believe that it’s ‘just the ‘flu’ and that all the precautions are not needed. Like Thomas, most of us are a bit distanced from the reality of death and suffering – we’re told what’s happening, but fortunately for most of us we’re not there when proof in the form of death is given.

When Jesus appears the second time, he brings the proof Thomas demands – in the form of his wounds.  Thomas acknowledges Jesus as ‘My Lord and my God’ – a statement that would be resonant with the citizens of the Roman Empire as this was how you were supposed to speak of the then Emperor.  To use it as Thomas did is an act of love for Jesus, and act of treason against the Empire.  His courage is returning.

In being exposed to the wounds of Christ, Thomas regains his faith; he’s admonished by Jesus because he needed to see to believe.  Thomas had to come back to faith, by experiencing something at his level of understanding.  He couldn’t argue with the fact that death was not the end of things, and he himself would eventually become a martyr, speared to death, probably in India.

Thomas’s rationality, his logic, his form beliefs in the Jewish understanding of life and death failed him at the time of crisis.  I think all of our beliefs are currently being challenged in a similar way; but Thomas’s experiences are guidance for us.  He went from brave, to confused, fled, returned, demanded proof, regained faith and courage and also eventually understood that the ‘way’ described by Christ would involve suffering and his eventual death as a martyr.

Troeger’s poem finishes:

“May we, O God, by grace believe

And, in believing, still receive

the Christ who held His raw palms out

and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.”

In this time of uncertainty, fear, confusion, and doubt, when many of the certainties of our daily lives have been washed away, may we receive the certainties of Christ into our lives.


The Prayers

The following prayers are based on today’s gospel reading - John 20.19-31


“...the doors of the house were locked for fear….” (v.19)

We pray for our locked-down nation and world
for those feeling isolated, lonely or depressed
for those feeling scared for themselves or for those they love
for those for whom lock-down is not a place of safety, but one of danger.

Holy Spirit
Breathe on us, breath of God


“...Jesus came and stood among them and said ‘Peace be with you’...” (v.19)

We give thanks that in our times of trouble and in our times of joy, Jesus is among us.
We give thanks for all the little signs seen this week that God is indeed here:
for birds singing and nesting,
for worms in the compost heap,
for flowers and the smell of blossom,
for children’s pictures and rainbows displayed on windows
for the help of neighbours.
We pray that we might always know God’s peace.

Holy Spirit
Breathe on us, breath of God


“...He showed them his hands and his side...” (v.20)

We pray for those who are wounded and bear the scars of life:
for all struggling to make ends meet,
for those struggling with family relationships,
for all who are ill, especially those suffering from Covid-19.
We pray for those who are avoiding seeking medical attention through fear
and for all doctors, nurses and care workers, working under immense strain and anguish.
We pray for all who have died and all who mourn.

Holy Spirit
Breathe on us, breath of God


“...unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands...I will not believe...” (v.25)

We pray for those struggling with faith
for those asking deep questions,
maybe for the first time,
that have no easy answers.
We pray that like Thomas, they may feel able to voice their doubts
and be heard, without judgement.
We pray that for all who find their faith turned upside down at this time,
it may come eventually to be a time of new growth and new understanding.

Holy Spirit
Breathe on us, breath of God


“...As the Father has sent me, so I send you...” (v.21)

We pray for ourselves and all God’s people.
For the church worldwide and the churches locally.
We give thanks for this unexpected and unplanned opportunity to be church differently
And ask for God’s creative Spirit to be upon us.
We ask that as we reach out from our homes
in however small a way
towards the wider world -
our neighbours,
those we speak to over the phone,
those we smile at from a 2 metre distance on our daily exercise,
those we contact online –
that we too may share God’s peace with everyone.

Holy Spirit
Breathe on us, breath of God


St Mark's Broomhill

All the resources will be on the St Mark’s website for you to read and listen to if you are unable to join in online:


‘The Ten Commandments’ – 4th March, 3rd Sunday of Lent

Based around Exodus 20: 1-17, John 2.13-22.

I don’t think I have ever preached on the Ten Commandments before. I must admit my first thought was somewhat dismissive – “we all know the Ten Commandments so nothing much there of interest”. But then I looked into it a bit more and found there were more points of interest that I’d thought. For one thing I learned that the way the verses in this passage have been divided up into Ten Commandments have in fact not always been the same. Some are obvious – e.g. You shall not steal, but some of the other verses are less clear.

Today I would like to look at just two of the Commandments. First, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy”. The people were told to have a rest day every seventh day – and it was a rest day for everyone, including children, slaves, foreigners and even animals. This is quite a radical idea – and we could regard it as some of the earliest animal rights law in the world! Even today there are places where campaigners are trying to get proper rest and refreshment for working animals.

The Sabbath commandment is not just for those who want a day of religious observance – it is about rest and compassion for all members of the community and for animals. The interpretation of rest on the Sabbath has varied down the years throughout history and some Orthodox Jews still keep very strict rules on what can and cannot be done on the Sabbath.  Jesus did not take this strict approach to the Sabbath but rather a more pragmatic approach. He did not condemn his disciples when they rubbed grains of corn to eat on the Sabbath even though some people thought he should. And Jesus even healed on the Sabbath, arguing that people would rescue a trapped animal or take a beast to water on the Sabbath and so it would be just as appropriate to set someone free from sickness. Jesus’ attitude to the Sabbath is summed up in Mark’s Gospel where he says, “The Sabbath is made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  In other words it is not about forcing yourself into conforming to a set of rules but about observing a rest day for the welfare of all people – and even their animals.

The second commandment I want to look at is the last one, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or male or female slave, or ox or donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”  An interesting point about this commandment is that it relates to a thought, an attitude of heart rather than an action. That is quite a sophisticated idea in social and legal terms. To covet is, in the dictionary,to “desire eagerly” – but with the rider that it is usually to desire eagerly something that belongs to someone else.  And therein is the problem, because desiring eagerly what belongs to someone else can lead to envy, jealousy and even to theft or adultery or even murder.

A good example from the Old Testament is King David who saw Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, and coveted her. He committed adultery with her and when she became pregnant he tried to cover it up by summoning Uriah back from the army. But Uriah refused to spend time at home while his colleagues were away at war, so David commanded that Uriah be sent to the thickest of the fighting to ensure that he would be killed – in effect murdered by David. David’s  coveting of Bathsheba led to adultery and then murder. Nathan the prophet took David to task for his behaviour and expressed God’s displeasure at his actions. David repented – but the damage had been done.

The story of David has a contemporary feel in that our newspapers are full every day of stories of people behaving in terrible ways because they covet things or people. Victims are robbed, defrauded, attacked and even murdered because someone covets their belongings, their money, their lifestyle, their looks … and the pain and heartache of broken relationships caused by people coveting other people’s spouses or partners and acting on their desires, is incalculable.

Youngsters are mugged for high end phones or trainers or other items, because the thieves covet these goods. Elderly people have their savings stolen by people who covet  money and the good life they feel it will bring. Fraudsters target people with pension funds because they covet wealth they have not earned. The other year a man died when thieves stealing his car from his drive ran him over – and all because they coveted his vehicle. People covet the lifestyle, the looks, the clothes of celebrities and see them everyday on social media. And even if they do not get into crime because of their coveting, they may get into debt trying to satisfy their desires.  Apparently in China, people will spend thousands of pounds on plastic surgery so that their selfies will be “perfect” – they covet a perfect self portrait. And there is the acronym FOMO – fear of missing out, as people are desperate not to miss out on experiences or events or belongings that they believe everyone else is enjoying.

But coveting can be, and often is, based on a lie – that somehow everyone else’s life is better, more exciting. If only I can have these goods, that look, a big enough bank balance, my life will be what I think other people’s lives are. I will find the satisfaction I lack.  But always thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence is a way of avoiding tending the lawn on this side. Coveting what others have can be a way of avoiding discovering your own talents, strengths and uniqueness or cultivating the garden of your heart.

So much of our society is driven by encouraging us to want things. The advertising industry is based on encouraging us to want things. The credit card industry invented the slogan, “Take the waiting out of wanting”. And as people are encouraged to want and to expect instant gratification, the pleasures of anticipation and saving up for something are lost. Craving instant gratification makes coveting so dangerous – how can I get what I covet now? The desire, the thought, can drive the action that can lead to crime, or destructive behaviour, and people can lose sight of their true selves.

In Lent we reflect on what can bring us closer to God. We can look again at some of these texts, like the Ten Commandments, that we think we know so well and see what they can say anew to us in this day and age.

In a world where people seem to be constantly driven we can model and promote the ideal of regular rest. Perhaps we need to heed that ourselves as we can find our rest time taken up with work for the church. We all need to rest to live well and have time to know God and so we need to find a good balance between activity and rest.

In a world where social media and advertising seem to be driving more and more wanting, more and more coveting, we can perhaps show that things and looks and appearances are not what life is about. Life is about who we are as people on the inside and especially as people who know we are loved by God just as we are – imperfections and all. Who we are in ourselves is more important than what we have and tending the garden of our hearts gives us the base to reach out to others.

This week’s bad weather has brought much difficulty to many but it has also brought out many good things in people and communities. Villagers have provided food and drink and safe space to people who have been stranded. Strangers have reached out to others in need. We have seen much good as people have pulled together in difficult circumstances. May we nurture this concern for our neighbours and seek to  find ways to carry it on as we return to ordinary times.


Reader Anne Grant

‘Remembrance Sunday’ – 12th November, 3rd Sunday before Advent

Poppy crossesBased around 1 Thessalonians 4:13-end, Matthew 25:1-13.

Note this sermon was preached at both the 10:30am and 6:30pm

I have had a blessed life.

I have not personally known war; for me death is an exceptional, relatively rare part of my daily life.  Death has come to me, my family, and my friends in the ‘normal’ way – old age, the sudden, unexpected death of an accident or short illness, or the planned for, awaited death at the end of a long illness.

On the contrary, the men whose names we see on the boards in this Church, whose names we heard read out this morning in this Church, had what author John Harris, in his novel based on the Sheffield Pals, called ‘a covenant with death’.

That phrase, taken from history, has a second part; ‘an agreement with Hell’.

Across Flanders and Picardy these men experienced the closest to Hell that most human beings had ever witnessed.  Indeed, as author Eric Maria Remarque wrote in ‘All quiet on the Western Front’ :

“Bombardment, barrage, curtain-fire, mines, gas, tanks, machine-guns, hand-grenades – words, words, but they hold the horror of the world.”

Away from combat, their days and nights spent in trench systems that were frequently full of water, bringing unsanitary conditions complete with dysentery, gangrene, trench foot and other illnesses.

In World War 2 – fighting and dying in deserts and jungles, in cities and villages, in blistering heat and numbing cold, in the skies over Europe and Asia, on and under the oceans of the world. And the civilians; bombed and buried in their homes and shelters, like the victims of the Sheffield blitz, or suffocated and burnt to death firestorms, or slaughtered in cold, clinical barbarity in the concentration camps of Europe.

And just as World War 1 wasn’t the start of our bloodletting, WW2 didn’t end it.  Humanity hasn’t stopped fighting; Korea, Malaysia, Viet Nam, Norther Ireland, Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen . We still have people fighting and dying the world over – combatants and bystanders, men, women and children, young and old.

Death never takes a holiday, and never gives us a day off.  It is desperately easy, in a world where millions can be obliterated in a split second, to feel hopeless and to look in to the pit of despair.

In this world – OUR world – it’s too easy to forget about hope.

Today’s reading is an excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian Church.  It is a valuable reminder for us, that those of us who live in Christ, have hope. Even when we confront death, when we mourn, we have hope.

Let me say that again. Despite everything, even in the face of death – we have hope.

Today I want to focus on that one four letter word, in respect to death for us Christians.

Listen to what Paul has to say:

“Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.”

Unlike the rest of mankind, says Paul, we have hope, and in a world like ours, hope is an amazing thing to have.  These days, hope can come over as a ‘wishy washy’ sentiment.  But for a Christian, hope is a much stronger word.

The biblical definition of hope is “confident expectation.” In Romans and Hebrews we’re told that Hope is a firm assurance about things  that are unclear and unknown (Romans 8:24-25Hebrews 11:17). Indeed, in the funeral service we hear the words “ in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ”. This hope is not some wishful thinking.

Along with faith and love, hope is mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians as an enduring virtue of the Christian life, and in his letter to the Colossian Church, Paul asserts that love springs from hope.  And Paul’s letter to the Romans states that Hope produces joy and peace in believers through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Paul is big on hope.

Today’s reading goes to on say :

“For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him”

Paul reminds us that Jesus died and rose again, and in doing so destroyed death.  And that in the end of days, at the final coming of the Kingdom of God, those who have died as faithful Christians – will also be resurrected.

Although Paul says “so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind “, we’re not being told to not mourn, or not grieve when we lose someone close to us.  Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend. When a family member or friend dies, we will inevitably feel sadness and loss.  We miss them being in our life; we miss their presence, their words, their touch. Earlier this year I lost my father in law; although we lived 200 miles apart, I miss his voice, I miss his enthusiasm, his love for his family and his presence in my life.

Looking at the names on the wall, they were all mourned and missed by their families, their community.  We can think about how their lives might have unfolded, how they would have lived had they returned from the wars in which they fought. It’s right that we  should grieve and mourn for those lives unlived.

No, Paul is NOT telling us not to mourn.  He is telling us that we shouldn’t be like non-Christians in our grief; for us, we have that hope that death for faithful Christians is but a sleep until the return of Christ, at which point they will awake and be re-united with all those who they have loved. Yes – we will grieve, we will be sad, we will miss those who’re gone ahead of us – but we have that hope.

General Omar Bradley, who commanded US troops throughout the allied invasion of Europe in the Second World War, said:

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount.”

Today, two particular statements from Jesus’s sermon stand out, as we consider Paul’s thoughts on hope:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Those who mourn in Christ will indeed be comforted through the hope that Paul speaks of at the start of today’s reading.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Paul reminds us in Romans that hope produces joy and peace in Christians through the power of the Holy spirit.

Today, let us mourn and remember all those who’ve lost their lives in conflict. But let us also become peacemakers, and may we all be comforted in the hope – that confident expectation, that firm assurance – that we shall one day be re-united with those who have gone on before us, proclaiming the victory of the crucified Christ over death itself.


Reader Joe Pritchard

‘A man has to know his limitations’ – 27th August, 11th Sunday after Trinity

Based around Romans 12:1-8.

Tonight I’d like to preach on our reading from Romans.  When I started preparing the sermon, two things immediately came to mind. You will have almost certainly heard the words from verse 1, entreating us to offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices’, at the end of our Eucharist services.

And the second thing that came to mind was a quotation “A man has to know his limitations.” To save anyone looking it up, it isn’t something from one of the normal theological thinkers or philosophers.  It’s a line from one of the ‘Dirty Harry’ films, starring Clint Eastwood, that were quite popular in the 1970s and 1980s.

“A man has to know his limitations.” I’ll come back to this…

In tonight’s reading, Paul, looking back over his previous words in Romans, and is looking at how we might practical use of his words.  If you get the opportunity, take a look at the whole of Chapter 12 – it’s not a big read – probably no more than 5 minutes tops. Chapter 12 is where Paul starts to pull the earlier parts of Romans together , showing how Jesus Christ needs to be Lord of all aspects of our lives for us to be true Christians.

Tonight I’m just focussing on the first section of Chapter 12, what we might call Paul’s introduction to practical theology.  And in these first 8 verses he focuses on not what we need to do, but what we need to be like.

In Verse 1 we are urged to offer our bodies as ‘living sacrifices’ – this is in direct contrast to the dead animal sacrifices that would be familiar to Paul’s listeners. There is also here the suggestion that we have new life to offer in the form of that given to us by the Holy Spirit.  And this is a transformation in us; we’re to look away from the restraints and expectations of the day to day world in which we live, and engage with it in a new way.

Paul then goes on to tell us how we should look at ourselves; “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgement.”  This is exceptionally good advice for anyone – Christian or not.  I think we all ‘big ourselves up’ sometimes – whether to make ourselves feel better or to impress other people. But it really isn’t necessary, and isn’t useful – particularly for us Christians; if we can’t be honest about ourselves, what can we be honest about? And if we can’t be honest about ourselves, are we forgetting that as part of the body of Christ, by lying about ourselves are we not turning away from our God-given self?

We’re reminded in Verse 6 that we all have different gifts – in the Greek text ‘charismata’ – given to us by God’s grace.  These gifts are freely given to us by God to meet the needs of the body of Christ – we’re being equipped for the job of Kingdom building with the skills required.  And these gifts are all of great value. We’re also told that if people have these gifts, we should let them – no, encourage them – to use them.  Sometimes we may not realise what our gifts are – we occasionally have to try a few things out until we get to that place where we feel ‘at home’.  We may be graced with practical gifts of teaching or leadership, or gifts of character like generosity, mercy and compassion. All are needed. We might wonder why God doesn’t give EVERYONE ALL of these gifts so that we can all multi-task; but that would make it even easier than it is now for us to think that these gifts are something that we should be inordinately proud of, rather than something we should be thankful to God for.  And it would also make us less likely to collaborate and come together as a body.

But there is to be no FALSE modesty in acknowledging and using these gifts; If we have them, there is an expectation that we should use them, and, indeed, use these gifts with joy – see how Paul comments that in showing mercy, we’re to do it cheerfully.  We may end up with a couple of these gifts; indeed, the ‘Reader’ ministry is often referred to as the ‘Teaching and Preaching’ ministry, so I might be expected to be at least gifted by grace with abilities in these areas, having been licensed in to my ministry.  I like to think that I have SOME gifts here – but only others can be sure!

But like most people I know more about what I DON’T have.

“A man has to know his limitations.”  There, I told you that I would get back to this!  We’re given gifts by the grace of God – those gifts, when used properly, allow us to further the work of the Kingdom of Heaven. We know from our daily lives that people have different skills and gifts – even in my professional life, surrounded by software writers, we ‘in the business’ differ in the precise nature of our knowledge and skills, and in how we apply those gifts.

I often turn work away when it’s not something I’m an expert in; I know at least SOME of my limitations! Working on something without the proper skills would potentially cause the customer to spend more money with me than they would with a real expert; or they might lose confidence in me if I failed. Or I might make such a mess that nothing ever works again.

Why might I choose to work outside of my area of expertise or giftedness? Well, there’s greed. But also, and more relevant to tonight’s reading, there is pride. We might try to operate outside of our gifts because we are proud of ourselves, and thing that because we have been given one particular gift by God’s grace, we automatically have others ‘tacked on’ the side. That is flawed thinking; we think of ourselves as smarter than we actually are, and we disregard our limitations.

CS Lewis commented:

“When the subject is sacred, proud and clever men may come to think that the outsiders who don’t know it are not merely inferior to them in skill but lower in God’s eyes; as the priests said, ‘All that rabble who are not experts in the Torah are accursed.’

Elsewhere he writes:

There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. […] There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves.[…]The vice I am talking of is Pride or Self-Conceit: and the virtue opposite to it, in Christian morals, is called Humility.”

I think that this is why Paul starts with this focus on ourselves in Chapter 12; he wants to bang it in to our heads that whatever gifts of the spirit we have, we have been given them.  And that the gifts of the spirit that others possess are as valuable as those that we possess. And that we need them all to work together to allow the body of Christ – that is, us – to work properly.

“A man has to know his limitations.” And by knowing them, we will show right and proper humility before God as we use the gifts we have been given to further the Kingdom.


Reader Joe Pritchard