Brenda Holden

10 posts

Dorcas and the gift of resurrection

Preached by Brenda Holden on 12 May 2019: 4th Sunday of Easter
Acts 9:36-end, John 10:22-30

Getting to know people is one of the delights of being human. People’s lives are never ordinary – everyone has a unique contribution to make in the great scheme of the God’s Kingdom.

What we heard this morning was the story of Tabitha, whose name in Greek was Dorcas. Dorcas had died and the mystery is why this miraculous healing was recorded by Luke in such detail.

Dorcas, when she was alive, had been a special disciple in the church in Joppa. She had developed a charitable ministry among women of the town especially widows. In those days widows were prey to severe financial problems with no social security benefits being available. There was the suggestion by one writer that she organised the prototype of a clothing club that was later found in other early churches. There appears to be no doubt that she was well thought of by the women who had gathered as mourners around her death bed.

It was known that Peter was in Lydda, not far from Joppa and he was sent for in the hope that he could do something as he was a well-known leader of the Early Church. Peter appears to have dropped everything and returned with Dorcas’ friends. Part of the mystery for us is that Dorcas wasn’t the only member of the early church to die, so why did Peter respond immediately?

The account of what happened when Peter arrived at Dorcas’ home has an uncanny resemblance to Jesus’ healing of Jairus’ daughter. Dorcas’ body was in an upper room of the house and Peter excluded the mourners from the scene. He then knelt and prayed before taking her hand and telling her to get up once she had opened her eyes. What we hear is a story of a resurrection as Dorcas is brought back to life.

This miracle is a demonstration of the power of God working through Peter. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost had empowered him and the other disciples. This is possibly the resolution to the mystery of why this story is included in the Acts of the Apostles. If you remember, last week in our Gospel reading we heard the risen Jesus conferring this authority on Peter following the breakfast on the beach. After three times when Peter said that he loved Jesus, Jesus told Peter to feed his sheep, in other words, to care for his flock and this is what Peter was doing in the story this morning.

Dorcas was an unsung heroine in her community. She could be described as the beating heart of God’s Kingdom. We can imagine that her risen self just got on with God’s work to the glory of God.

Today is the start of Christian Aid Week 2019 and this year they are focussing on the work in Sierra Leone in Africa. Christian Aid is well known for its support when disasters happen. What is less well known is the work they do with long term community development programmes in many of the poorer regions of the world. For decades Christian Aid has been on the ground developing sustainable income-generating projects and health education programmes with many of those being led by women- women like Dorcas working within their own communities. Christian Aid have released a video about a lady in Sierra Leone called Tenneh who uses her midwifery skills to encourage health education and support for pregnant women to increase the safety of both mothers and their babies at the time of childbirth. The work of Christian Aid can bring resurrection to parts of the world where there is little hope.

Dorcas in many shapes and forms abound within church families around the world – their ministry attracts us to the small-scale deeds at the heart of the Kingdom. God pays attention to and values ministry in all its forms – apparently ordinary people are not ordinary to God!

It is fitting that the lectionary gave me the resurrection of Dorcas for my final sermon. I had expected to finish my 20 years of preaching with my homily at the foot of the Cross on Good Friday. God, working through Linda, however, had other ideas. He didn’t want to leave me there, just as he didn’t want to leave his first disciples in a dark place. God wants us all to experience resurrection – the hope and love that it brings into our lives. My resurrection will be similar to Dorcas’ as she returned to her prayerful worship, her creativity and her friendships – that is very similar to the journey I hope to take in the coming years.

We none of us know what the future holds as we listen to the call of the Risen Lord. However, we can be sure that Resurrection will happen – it is a wonderful and mysterious gift for all of us who profess and live our Christian faith.

At the foot of the Cross

Preached by Brenda Holden on 19 April 2019: Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13 – 53: end;  Passion reading from John

Today, Good Friday, we have reached the climax of the Passion narrative. We have arrived at Golgotha and we stand once again with those gathered at the foot of the cross bearing Jesus. We stand in the crowd alongside the Roman soldiers, representatives of the Jewish religious leaders and a selection of Jesus’ followers and family.

Jesus has been lifted up. Isaiah’s prophecy saw this as Jesus being exalted. This is the enthronement of the King of the Jews which was acknowledged by the inscription above Jesus’ head. Pilate had insisted that the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek for all to see and understand. Pilate may have been coerced by the mob against his better judgement into allowing a sentence of crucifixion to be passed, but Pilate had the last word. He wanted all the nations represented at the crucifixion to understand that what was happening was a sacrificial death of their King. Pilate felt that this death was an injustice – Jesus was stricken down for the transgressions of his people.

At the foot of the cross we see the soldiers having done what they were trained to do. For them it was just one more crucifixion of a criminal according to Roman law. They had done their dreadful deed and they were having to stay around on duty until they received their next command. In order to pass the time they sorted through the clothes to share them out, but the seamless tunic was too good to tear up for cloth so they cast lots for the garment. They had several hours of potential boredom ahead of them waiting for the criminals to die – their job was to prevent friends coming and taking the person down in order to save their life before it was too late.

The following day was a special day of Preparation for the Jews and being sensitive to the wishes of the Jews and to prevent any unrest they were given instructions from Pilate to hasten the death of the criminals by breaking their legs so that the bodies could be removed before the solemn sabbath. When the soldiers came to Jesus they discovered that Jesus was already dead – when they pierced his side with a spear blood and water emerged.

We are not told that representatives of the Jewish religious authorities were present. However, in the circumstances, with such a high profile crucifixion that had been orchestrated by themselves when they forced the hand of Pilate,  it would have been surprising if they were not there to check that their demands had been fully carried out.

Of Jesus’ disciples only one was present at the foot of the cross, the ‘beloved disciple’, who was thought to be John. We are not told where the rest of Jesus’ close male friends were – we can imagine that they were overcome with fear and were hiding away out of sight of the authorities to avoid arrest. Alongside John were Jesus’ mother and several women followers including Mary Magdalene, the forgiven sinner. They were probably as fearful as the other disciples, but they wanted to be there to support Jesus through his ordeal – perhaps they also didn’t want the authorities taking charge of Jesus’ dead body.

John’s Gospel deliberately mentions episodes not found in the other gospels. One of these is Jesus’ words to his mother and the beloved disciple – words that would bring comfort and support to both of them in the future. To his mother, Jesus said. ‘Woman, here is your son’ and to John he said, ‘Here is your mother’. 

The arrangement between John and Mary would not be legally binding but they could be united in their deep love of Jesus and in their shock and grief. The significance of this event was that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – we who believe are bound together as one new family united by the cross.

Those present at the foot of the cross were witnesses to Jesus’ final words after having moistened his dry mouth with the soured wine delivered to him on a sponge attached to a twig of hyssop.

Jesus’ triumphal words ‘It is finished’ were not to be whispered. Jesus wanted all those present to hear clearly that the job that His Father had given him had been completed. It was not a cry of defeat or despair. Jesus’ sacrifice – his vocation was completed – he had offered to His Father on behalf of the world a life of perfect love and obedience. 

As we stand at the foot of the cross we may wonder why the day that Christ died is called Good Friday. John’s Gospel shows us that Christ’s death is a victory and the seeds of new life would come from the cross. We need to be still in the presence of the cross today to appreciate the true significance of Good Friday.

Under Pressure

Preached by Brenda Holden on 17 March 2019: Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Luke 13 31-end

Time was running out for both Abram and Jesus in our two Bible readings this morning. The clock was ticking as they were both aware of the end of their journey of life. They both felt under pressure from their commitments with God. The covenant relationships that they had both entered into with God at the start of their journeys had reached a critical phase.

Abram, yet to be re-named Abraham, had felt compelled under pressure to take matters into his own hands to produce an heir in order to fulfil God’s promise that he would be the father of the nation. Unfortunately, his fathering of a son with Hagar, a slave in his household, caused tremendous hurt within his home for his wife, who was at that time child-less, and all those involved. As observers we could have told Abram that things would go pear-shaped if he took matters into his own hands.

Under pressure Abram had not trusted enough in the covenant relationship he had with God. Abram was getting old, he felt that God was being too laid back. God was leaving things too long for Abram’s descendants to be more numerous than the stars in the sky!

Up until this point in the story Abram had listened when God spoke. It had been very much a one-sided conversation. Perhaps Abram felt over-awed by the fact that he had been chosen by God. Under pressure Abram broke his silence and an outburst of frustration exploded from him.

Abram pointed out that he had done everything that God had asked of him. He had kept his side of the covenant. He and Sarah had left their home in Ur and started on the journey that God told them to take. God was yet to fulfil his promise and this made Abram angry and disappointed. God was made fully aware of his feelings!

God accepted Abrams bold outburst – this showed God that Abram was worthy of the role that he had been given. The time had come for the covenant to be re-enforced by a ritual. To us the ritual seems a bit horrific.

Imagine for a moment the scene – Abram brings a 3 year old heifer, a 3 year old female goat, a ram of 3 years old plus a turtle dove and a young pigeon. He then proceeds under instruction to cut the heifer, the goat and the ram in half – a bloody scene reminiscent of a slaughter house – not a place for the squeamish! He didn’t bother cutting the birds in half.
Splitting the animals in two in that way suggested that Abram and God were equal members taking part in the covenant. An exhausted Abram must have had a full-time job keeping the birds of prey away from the carcasses until God arrived when it was dark with the smoking pot and flaming torch which were passed between each of the bodies to seal the covenantal relationship.  

Abram was left in no doubt that God was fully committed to their covenantal relationship.

God’s commitment extended from that time onwards. The relationship with the nation from Abram’s offspring was still in existence through the test of time until it was necessary for God to send His Son to once again display His commitment to His people.

In our Gospel reading Jesus was seriously under pressure. We are surprised to hear that some friendly Pharisees came to warn him that Herod was out to get him.  It makes us realise that not all the Pharisees were the bad guys that they have been painted with the pens of the gospel writers.

Jesus knew exactly what the situation was – his reference to Herod as a fox speaks volumes. Under pressure Jesus reflects on the innocent blood that has been shed within Jerusalem’s city walls. He laments for the city of Jerusalem in the knowledge that it will be the place of his own sacrificial death in the not too distant future. However, Jesus keeps calm under pressure and continues calmly along his journey until the time is right for the showdown in Jerusalem in Holy Week.

He gives us the memorable image of himself as the mother hen protecting his followers, the chicks under his wings. Hens will endure all manner of hurt in order to protect their chicks. This image encourages us to place our trust and hope in him in the same way that Abram under pressure would put his trust in God the Father.

What we have seen in our readings today is the importance of our relationship with God in giving us a firm foundation and protection in our lives when we pass through periods of difficulties, doubt and pressure.  

We have to remember that God is always there for us!  Amen

Annual Servicing

Preached by Brenda Holden on 6 March 2019: Ash Wednesday  
Isaiah 58:1-12,  Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

We are all familiar with the need for an annual service for our cars and our central heating boilers if we have them. The annual service ensures that these items run smoothly, efficiently and safely. Lent is an opportunity for us to perform and annual service on our bodies and spirits and today, Ash Wednesday is the start of Lent it can be the start of our programme to get our lives back into a good running order.

The word Lent is from an Old English word for spring and this year with Easter on 21 April we are already in springtime. The next 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, not including the Sundays, we remember the time that Jesus fasted in the wilderness and how he learnt to resist the temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil.

In former times, before the industrial revolution, spring was a time when fresh food was in short supply. The cupboards that had been stocked by the previous year’s harvest were becoming bare. It made sense for the Church to use these weeks to encourage fasting and to link the bodily fast with a time of spiritual self-discipline in preparation for the celebrations of Easter. In those days the annual servicing of the members of the congregations through fasting and prayer fitted very neatly with the availability of resources.

Fasting and spiritual self-discipline do not  fit as neatly into our present situation.  Some people choose to abstain from luxuries like chocolate for Lent. My father’s mother had a good take on that one. She indulged herself with chocolate on Sunday afternoons having been to church in the morning because, as she said, Sundays are not part of Lent. She probably ate more chocolate on that one afternoon than she would normally have had in a whole week!

We now live in a part of the world where we have food in abundance. We are overwhelmed with choice and we expect all varieties of foods to be available matter what the season. What we have enjoyed may change if there are problems in trading with foreign countries and hold-ups at ports in the future.

The over-abundance of food has seriously impacted on the health and well-being of our population and those in other prosperous countries of the world. Our nation was probably its fittest in a bodily sense when there was rationing during and after the last war. When we observe the weekly rations allowed to families it was a form of fasting for every week of the year.

Today, we need more than ever an ‘annual service’ of our bodies and our spirits. In many ways it is less about restraining from luxurious indulgences and more about looking for ways to re-kindle our relationship with God and developing good habits over the coming weeks of Lent that can be sustained throughout the rest of the year.

During Lent we will see the ‘penitential purple’ displayed on the altar frontals and in the vestments worn by the priests. Additional penitence in our Eucharistic worship is acknowledged by omitting the Gloria and Alleluias. Also our hymns and psalms during Lent lean towards the more solemn.

This evening at the start of Lent we are invited to receive the mark of a cross on our foreheads. The ash having been made by Doug from last year’s Palm Crosses that have been burned and mixed with a little olive oil.

These outward symbols and actions are part of the annual service for our church community, but we also need to make a personal commitment through prayer and study in order to be reminded that true happiness comes from knowing that God loves us. Our true vocation as practising Christians is to love God and our neighbour.

We heard in our Gospel reading that Jesus condemned those who forced their penitential humility down the throats of others by being boastful. He told his disciples to continue to go about their daily lives ‘so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’.

As part of our annual servicing it may be that we prayerfully reflect on what is ‘treasure’ to us -what do we value most in our lives?  Hopefully our annual servicing will result in our bodies, minds and spirits working smoothly, efficiently and safely! Amen

God’s Eden Project

Preached by Brenda Holden on 24 February 2019: Second Sunday before Lent
Genesis 2: 4b-9, 15- end; Luke 8: 22-25

The Eden Project in Cornwall was opened in the year 2000 after taking 5 years in its construction from an abandoned clay quarry. The project consists of domes containing the range of biomes found on the earth’s surface. It is an incredible experience to walk through the different ecosystems – a blessing as an educational tool!

In our Old Testament reading from Genesis we heard about God’s Eden Project. It was the second version of the creation narrative. The first Creation story in Genesis Chapter 1 described humanity as the culmination of God’s labours with man appearing on the 6th day before God rested on the 7th day. Man’s appearance was closely followed by that of woman and they were given the privileged role of being stewards over all the earth, that is, the plants and animals that had already been created.

In the Creation story we have just heard man was created first from the dust of the ground and then the Garden of Eden with all the other living things are created to keep him company including  a woman to be a partner for the man.
Having these two different versions of Creation in Genesis makes a problem for Creationists who take the Genesis stories as factual accounts of what happened.  

The date that Genesis is thought to have been written was about 6th century BC probably following the period of exile of the Jewish nation in Babylon. While in Babylon they would have heard the colourful and dramatic stories of the Babylonian gods creating the world. Many of the early civilisations have their own creation narratives – a fund of stories about the origin of the world and the earliest ‘history’ of the human race.

On returning from exile the Jews wanted their own unique version. They wanted a record of how the God worshipped by the Jewish nation the one, true, powerful but loving God wanted a living and breathing relationship with humanity and brought the world into existence. The word Eden means delight –  the relationship between Man and God was to be delightful! That was not the picture of the relationships between humanity and the gods of other ancient civilisations.

The act of God putting humans in a Garden of Eden to be good stewards has been a significant aspect in the relationship between God and mankind. God is in control, but humanity has a vital and responsible part to play – divine love and human love working together to bring about heaven on earth! Love is the important ingredient in God’s Eden Project!
It was interesting to see in the Guardian newspaper on 21 January 2019 that research carried out in 2015 found that physical work in a garden or allotment yielded significant improvements in mood and self-esteem – God knew what he /she was doing when humanity was put in a garden!

The story in our Gospel reading is referred to as a one of the ‘nature miracles’. It demonstrates the biblical view of creation as not just something that happened in the past, but a continuing involvement of God in his world.

Jesus, as Lord of the Universe, shows his calm authority as he sleeps peacefully in sharp contrast to the fearful panic of the disciples when they are caught in a boat in a storm and they feel that they are in danger of sinking. We are surprised that the disciples as fishermen are afraid for their lives in this situation.

Jesus is showing them and us by calming the storm that he is the Son of the Creator. He has inherited the power as well as the love of His Father. Perhaps this incident will come into Peter’s thoughts when soon after this episode on the road to Caesarea Philippi Jesus will ask his disciples ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter will be able to say with confidence that Jesus is the Messiah.

God took a risk when humanity was created…

We daily hear about chaos in news reports from around the world from man-made situations. We see many examples of power without love exerted by those in positions of authority which leads to corruption and betrayal of man’s relationship with God. God’s Eden Project is going through difficult and challenging times. Our blue planet is at risk. The Church itself has often been described as a boat tossed about by turbulent and dangerous waters.

However, God does not want our boat to sink. Our panic in our present chaos increases the awareness of our limitations and makes us open our eyes and our hearts to turn once again to the Creator who is still present in his Creation! God wants us to continue to share in his Eden Project.

Chance Encounter

Preached by Brenda Holden on 3 February 2019: Presentation of Christ  
Luke 2:22-40  

Preached by Brenda Holden on 3 February 2019: Presentation of Christ  Luke 2:22-40  

Chance encounters have the potential to alter lives. As we look back on our personal life experiences we have all had nudges to be in a particular place at a particular time and that has resulted in a significant change in the direction of our lives. At the time we might not have been aware of God’s hand at work, but later reflection removes the ‘chance’ element in the encounter and we are thankful!

Our Gospel reading this morning related a chance encounter like that. It was a chance encounter of three different generations of God-fearing folk in the Temple. There is no doubt that God put them there!

Simeon and Anna were representatives of the oldest generation in the encounter. They were part of the faithful remnant who, all through the long centuries, had kept faith and hope alive; Mary and Joseph as the parents were the middle generation and the infant Jesus, God’s Son, was the youngest.

Simeon and Anna were regularly seen around the Temple in Jerusalem. From Luke’s description it was obvious that Simeon fulfilled the vocation of a prophet although according to the Jewish teachers of that time, the spirit of prophecy had departed from Israel after the prophet Malachi and its return would be a sign that the longed-for Messiah was on the way.

Simeon clearly illustrated three aspects of the Spirit of prophecy- firstly, we read that he receives divine revelation that he shall see the Lord’s Messiah before his death. Secondly, he is led by the Spirit to the Temple that day to be in the right place at the right moment and thirdly, he utters a prayer, the Nunc Dimittis, which is regarded as a prophecy.

Anna, was described as a prophet by Luke – our hearts go out to Anna – she was 84 and had lived a prayerful life within the Temple since she was widowed after 7 years of marriage. She is the sort of person who had become part of the the Temple environment going about her day to day prayerful life. She was there for strangers. A friendly, wise and approachable old lady. The significance of her part in the encounter that day earned her being named and as a woman in the Gospel stories that is quite unusual.

Mary and Joseph’s presence in the Temple that day with their baby must have been planned in advance. They could have performed the rites of obligation after the birth at their local synagogue, but they chose to travel to Jerusalem as they were aware of the responsibilities they had as the earthly parents of God’s Son. Perhaps their concerns that day showed through their body language and attracted the attention of Simeon. They were poor country folk who had come to do the right thing according to Jewish traditions, but they could only afford the poorest offering for sacrifice for the birth of their first-born son.

There were three parts to the obligation laid down to be completed and Simeon could help them through the procedures that were new to them. The first part involved the purification of the mother so that she could return to the worshipping community after childbirth. The second part was a redemption of the first born male through a gift to the priest, and the third part was to dedicate the child to the service of God.

It was when Simeon took the baby in his arms that he must have felt overwhelmed by the presence of God. The light of God’s love shone out of this baby. The words of the Nunc Dimittis immediately overflowed from his lips – this song which is now included in Evensong and the late night service of Compline.

The song is a prayer to God. It is joyful, it is hopeful, it declares the Messianic role of Jesus to  be a light to all nations. Israel’s glory is to be shown as a revelation and redemption to the whole world. Simeon had fulfilled his role and he was now free to die in peace.

The second part of what Simeon said was a prophecy to Mary. The joy and praise turns to a warning that the Messiah will cause division and He will be rejected by many. The idea of a Suffering Messiah is introduced. Jesus will transform ideas and will challenge existing religious authorities. Mary is warned that there is anguish and suffering ahead for her, but Jesus will be good for all people.

The message of Simeon was reinforced through the words of Anna who was so overcome with this encounter that she became the first evangelist. We can imagine her spreading the good news of the arrival of the Messiah to everyone she encountered from that day onwards.

Mary and Joseph left this chance encounter with much to think and pray about – they were being prepared for the unexpected way that God’s Son would fulfil His mission.

Follow the Star

Preached by Brenda Holden on 6 January 2019: Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Ever since the dawn of mankind there has been a fascination, wonder and awe associated with a star filled sky. Stars make us feel part of something so much bigger than our small planet – the immensity of our universe amazes us and challenges the minds of all! It is almost beyond our comprehension that many of the stars that we can see are ‘light-years’ away from us and by the time that the light from them reaches us then they no longer exist in the universe.

‘Follow the Star’- the logo on the banner displayed in our church yard over the Christmas period was also a booklet produced by the Church of England with daily readings, thoughts and prayers leading up to the feast of Epiphany that we are celebrating today. Today is the day when we are told in Matthew’s Gospel that the Star was followed by the wise men in their quest to find the newly born King of the Jews.

What about the star that the wise men saw? Apparently there was in 7BC what is known as a multiple planetary conjunction – a very rare event in which the paths of the three planets Jupiter, Saturn and Venus as seen from the earth all crossed. It has been suggested as possibility that this is what was seen by the night sky-watchers. Another suggestion has been the appearance of Halley’s comet in 11 BC, a comet which reappears every 75 years.

Alternatively, the birth of a new star or a new galaxy would be an explosive cosmic event, which if it appeared in or near our Milky Way, could produce more light than all the other stars in the sky put together. We know that such random events do occur, but are rarely recognisable with the naked eye.

There is in fact an independent Chinese record that such a bright star was seen about 4BC and this was about the time of Jesus’ birth. Whatever may be our view of the improbability, if not impossibility, that astronomical events are associated with human destiny, we might, with our faith hats on, believe that God might signal the incarnation of His Son by an observable astronomical event.

Whether we believe this or not does not matter – what does matter is that we heard in our Gospel reading that the wise men did see a star. To the wise men there was sufficient significance for them to seek out and worship the Holy Baby. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel was keen to show how the visitation of the wise men was foretold by the prophet Isaiah in our first Old Testament reading this morning. However, this was the only gospel writer to make this link.

So let us consider the role of these wise men who followed the star….

The coming of the Messiah, God’s Son, was expected to be primarily a Jewish national story, but what we have is a festival called The Epiphany – the showing forth – God’s Son was being shown to representatives from the whole world it was to be an international story for the benefit of all mankind.

The wise men, incorrectly represented as kings with crowns at children’s Nativity events, were described as Magi – a term which was used by early writers to mean priests of other religions and later included all who practised magic arts and rites.

The wise men were watchers of the night sky and whether we would classify them as astronomers or astrologers they were the scientists of their day. The fact that there are three of them was because they brought three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but the number of wise men is not specified in Matthew’s story.

Many artistic representations of the Epiphany show the three wise men from different races and from their clothes they were from different countries of origin – ‘from the East’ was a vague term indicating that they originated from a non-Jewish background, that is, they like us were Gentiles!

Why did they feel drawn to follow the star?

The enigmatic poet W H Auden puts these words into the mouths of the wise men:

‘At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow the star.’

When they came to the Holy Family they found joy – they rejoiced and worshipped – they discovered that the capacity to worship is essential to the joy of being human. The object of our worship, God our Creator, restores our damaged selves. God helps us to discover how to be truly human!

By following the star with the wise men this Epiphany we can also find the source of light which overcomes the darkness of the world! Amen


Preached by Brenda Holden on 23 December 2018: Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2-5a;  Luke 1:39-45

For us the waiting is nearly over. We have lit the fourth of the Advent candles this morning and for us, our Christmas celebrations are just a day or so away. The longed for event that has been advertised in our shops and on the TV for the past few months is almost here, but not for Mary in our story. Early in her pregnancy Mary felt the need to get away. She needed time to think and pray – to prepare for the birth.

Perhaps she needed to avoid questions from her neighbours. Perhaps she felt her parents needed time and space to come to terms with the situation. Mary was in a potentially shameful position as an unmarried and pregnant teenage daughter. A situation which became more complicated when the father of the expected child was not Mary’s betrothed.

The reality of the acceptance of her vocation to bear God’s Son was impacting on both Mary and her family. Mary chose to visit her cousin Elizabeth in order to let the dust settle – to give her parents time to hear God speak to them. The loving support of her parents would be necessary if the pregnancy was to come to a successful fruition.

What we have heard in our Gospel reading is two women, Elizabeth and Mary, who were both caught up in God’s drama. For both of them their lives were turned upside down- they were both gripped within God’s mysterious presence they were both part of a miracle. They were both discovering, first hand, God’s love and discovering a sense of direction in their lives to which they had no choice but to be obedient.

The conceptions of both John and Jesus were impossible in human terms. They were both miraculous. Elizabeth was beyond the age of bearing children – throughout her long married life she had been childless – she had inwardly yearned for parenthood but she was cruelly labelled as being old and barren.

Mary, on the other hand, was too young, unmarried and a virgin. She was not expecting to have her first child until after marriage. Mary’s pregnancy would make her a social outcast as Elizabeth’s would make her a laughing stock.

At the point of our Gospel reading it has been a while since Mary first agreed to the angel’s request with her words ‘let it be according to your word…’ . The reality the situation was becoming apparent. In the time that has passed she has quickly grown wise beyond her years. She has left behind her former innocent teenage self who was sheltered in the bosom of her family as she prepared for her wedding day.

The meeting of the cousins was a bridge of mutual recognition between two deeply religious women. It was an opportunity for them to find strength in the presence of the other away from hurtful comments. The two cousins could be at ease with each other as they prayerfully reflect on the miracles inside their bodies as they accept the challenges ahead.

When they met, their greeting was full of joy – hope and expectation bubble up inside them. Elizabeth tells Mary that her child is the Lord giving Mary assurance and confirmation of her role. Elizabeth’s delight and joy resulted in the baby leaping in her womb and Mary burst into a song of praise ‘The Magnificat’.

The choir has just sung the Magnificat for us instead of a psalm this morning. It is a familiar canticle in the Church which is said or sung daily as part of Evening Prayer or Evensong and the words have been set to many beautiful musical settings down the years.

The words have echoes of Hebrew Scripture. Hannah, another childless woman in the Old Testament, sang a song with very similar words following the birth of her son Samuel. Like Elizabeth and Mary she knew that she had been blessed to be part of God’s plan – Samuel would be a significant and well known character in God’s story.

The Magnificat is a song full of joy and praise and the words fit both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s situation.

The song speaks of the reversal of man-made situations for those who fear God. The proud are scattered; the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. These ideas resonate with Hebrew tradition associated with God saving his people and the expectation that he will do so once more.

In these last days of Advent it is so easy for us to be caught up in the frenzied busyness of our man-made preparations for Christmas. It has been good for us to be here this morning to pray and worship alongside Mary and Elizabeth.
This Christmas, may God come into our hearts, homes and communities to make a way in the wilderness of our neighbourhood and our nation. Amen.

Signs of hope and expectation

Preached by Brenda Holden on 2 December 2018: Advent Sunday
Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-36

The sycamore tree in our garden is a mixed blessing. As with so many trees in West End it has a preservation order on it and we are only permitted to remove dead branches that would be casualties of stormy weather.

My study window looks out directly on to the tree that I can observe through the different seasons of the year. We are now in winter and superficially it looks dead, but the spring buds are already formed. These are a sign of hope, a sign of future life and abundance! In fact the delight in the bare branches at this time is that any sunshine during the short days will not be restricted by the leaf cover absorbing the light. I am also able to enjoy the antics of the different birds on the tree that are hidden from view during the summer months.

This tree is a sign of hope and expectation as it prepares itself for the next growing season. In a similar way the season Advent in the church calendar, which begins today, is a sign that we are living in hope and expectation for the coming of Christ and for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

It is no surprise then that Jesus’ observation of the fig tree in our gospel reading was directing his disciples to look for signs in the world around them for the coming of redemption. The fig tree in Jewish scripture was associated with God’s promise of prosperity, and its productiveness was a token of peace and divine favour, but the irony is that Jesus is talking to his disciples just before his arrest and death. They were all aware of the building up of tension between Jesus and those in authority.

So, here we are at the start of Advent for Year C and the lectionary reading has launched us into Luke’s Gospel at a time of great uncertainty and anxiety amongst Jesus’ followers. What would the future hold for them?

The early Christian communities were expecting the ‘second coming’ of Christ. When Luke’s Gospel was written some time between AD75 and 130 a generation or so after Christ’s death they were still waiting and preparing for the expected second coming.They were looking for signs that would predict that second coming.

Down the ages since then some Christian folk have also, mistakenly, interpreted the signs of distress among the nations as a fanfare for the second coming of Christ – they have used the words recorded in Luke’s Gospel to support their theories. But none of us know when, or if, Christ will return to our world. If it does happen, the one thing we can be sure of is that it will be in the most unexpected way and at a time when we are least expecting it!

Jane Williams, the wife of the former Archbishop of Canterbury and a respected theologian in her own right, calls us to ‘intelligent waiting’ during Advent.

In our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah we heard some unusually upbeat words from the prophet. Jeremiah was typically a prophet of doom. He seems to have spent the whole of his life up until that point telling the people of Israel what they didn’t want to hear. They were facing the destruction of the nation and the division of the people and his prophecy came true. The city of Jerusalem was besieged by the Babylonians, the powerful foreign enemy. Jeremiah was imprisoned and just when the world was falling apart and all appeared to be hopeless for God’s people, Jeremiah suddenly begins to talk about restoration and his prophecy, which we heard in our reading becomes hopeful.

Jeremiah has a vision of the coming of the Messiah. The Messiah who was the righteous branch springing up from the apparently dead tree stump The righteous branch that will reconnect the people with the great promises given during the reign of King David.

Advent for us is a time for hope and expectation. The last few weeks have been tumultuous in political circles and the coming months are veiled in a cloud of uncertainty. We need to be alert for signs of recovery in our troubled world. What signs of recovery? What signs of hope can we see in our world? What signs point to the coming of the Kingdom of God?

It is hopeful that in the media we are now, regularly, hearing calls for an end to poverty and oppression. We hear calls for changes in our attitude to our fragile world. We hear calls for the safeguarding of the young and vulnerable in society.

Advent calls us back to God from whom we come and to whom we will go. God never fails us. God will not abandon us. God’s Kingdom is near!   Amen

A new heaven and a new earth

Preached by Brenda Holden on 4 November 2018: All Saints
Psalm 24:1-6; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

The clocks in the UK have gone back one hour and we have to adjust to the daytimes that will become increasingly shorter and darker – time for thinking ahead to warmer sunny days- our holidays when we might possibly visit islands in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Greece. The writer of Revelation was on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea, but he wasn’t there for a holiday – he was there as an exile. He had been forced to be there either by choice to escape, or by the authorities who wanted him out of the way. He might be in the sunshine, but spiritually he was aware of the darkness around him.

While on the island he had visions – some of them seem very strange to us. The one we heard about in our first reading seems to hit the spot for where we are in our world today. It was a vision of a new heaven and a new earth looking forward to a time of order and stability in creation. In the absence of the chaos of the sea, God’s ownership and Lordship over creation is finally asserted once and for all and the damage wrought on creation by humanity is undone. This new creation is a renewal of that which has been damaged. Creation ends where it began as the perfectly restored work of the one who is both the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end.

The damaged creation is something that we cannot fail to be aware of today. The news items about global warming, the pollution of our land, our sea and our air have at long last entered the realm of our popular media – for some of us who were scientists and attended university in the early 1970’s we have been all too well aware of the damage mankind has been inflicting on God’s creation over the last 40-50 years – detailed research has been ongoing, but it has been politically silenced. We should be truly grateful for the incredible book ‘Silent Spring’ written by Rachel Carson that was published at the end of the 1960s that halted the exponential use of pesticides –without that book our springs and summers by now would indeed be silent without the sound of insects and birdsong!

What the writer of Revelation is saying is that there is hope – God is in charge. On the island, reflecting on the chaos of sporadic persecutions of Christians by the Roman authorities, he was having a vision that death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.

God is saying, ’See I am making all things new’!

What, you might be thinking has this got to do with the Christian Festival of All Saints that we are celebrating today?

Saints are those who are to come into God’s presence. In fact, in the New Testament, saints are the community of believers who share a faith in Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. Everyone has the qualifications to become a saint – we don’t have to own a halo and be pictured in a stained glass window!

Fortunately for all of us – we are all welcomed into God’s presence. Many of those who by worldly judgement were thought to be unqualified in Jesus’ time eg the tax collectors and sinners were deemed worthy, perhaps more worthy than the religious dignitaries of the day.

In fact, the Gospel reading chosen for today does not highlight someone whom we would necessarily regard as a saint in the usual sense. Lazarus, as a young man in the household of Martha and Mary, was not considered to be the head of the family as we would expect. Lazarus, who was loved by his sisters and by Jesus, had died and was bound in his grave clothes in his tomb, but he was given life as a free gift from God.

We, like Lazarus, as Christ’s disciples, are called to emerge from our former lives to enter God’s new creation and join in the worship in God’s presence.

This brings us to the Psalm we heard this morning – it also was about ‘Who is qualified to come into God’s presence – who is a saint who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

We are invited to join the singers of the Psalm. They are gathering – coming from far and near like a football crowd merging together towards St. Mary’s stadium to watch the Saints play. We are here to worship the King of Glory. We are all welcome to join the multitude of the saints in the new heaven and the new earth. Amen