Category Archives: Other Sermons

Sermon – 19 Mar 17 – Philip

Living Water

Readings: Exodus 17: 1 – 7 and John 4: 5 – 11

“Where can you get this living water?”  Well that’s a question a woman from Sychar in Samaria asks Jesus in a strange and very unusual encounter at a place known as ‘Jacob’s Well.’  And it takes place as Jesus is on his way back from Judea, in the south of the country, to Galilee in the north. And Jesus has purposely decided to take a rest at this particular place which is located in the very heart of Samaritan territory.  Now a Jew would not normally take this route back through Samaria, but it’s the hottest part of the day and Jesus is tired and he’s thirsty.  But he has a reason for being here and it’s not long before this woman comes to draw water from the well.  Now this would not normally happen in the circumstances of the time – but Jesus takes the opportunity to engage her in conversation and he asks her for a drink.

And they start talking- talking about water.  And very skilfully Jesus uses this image or metaphor of water to explain how the water he can give is not like the water in the well – but living water which is like an eternal spring that can well up within us.  And it conjures up a picture of newness of spiritual life constantly bubbling up and spilling over.  But at this stage the woman has not quite grasped what he’s getting at – but it sounds good and so she asks if Jesus if he will give her some of this water.

And we can see what Jesus is doing.  He’s trying to draw the woman gently on from the material to the spiritual.  And it seems, to me, that for us too, Jesus through the presence of the Holy Spirit is constantly prompting us to move on from the material to the life of the Spirit.  But how far we are prepared to go depends on just how thirsty we are.
And so as we’ve seen, Jesus is obviously not talking about natural water (the material if you like) but the newness of spiritual life and vitality which we can experience and enjoy when we come into close relationship with him.

And this isn’t just about drinking – it’s about overflowing.  And we see this as Jesus develops this metaphor a few pages later on in John chapter 7 when he speaks of the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Let me read to you what it says.

It says this: ‘on the last and greatest day of the Feast Jesus stood and said in a loud voice: “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”  And the text then goes on to say: ‘By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.’
And so are we amongst those who are thirsty for this living water?  And I think it prompts us to ask ourselves where we stand in relation to Jesus.  Do we know Him?  Do we really know Him?  Do we know anything about that living water welling up within that he promises to give to those who believe in him?

And the more I read and study the Scriptures it’s my personal conviction that I believe that Jesus is calling each one of us into a deeper relationship with him – deeper than we we’ve ever known before – deeper in the place of encounter – deeper in the place of intimacy.
And you know we can be involved in a lot of religious activity and other stuff and in the midst of it all still miss him and remain at a distance from him.   But his desire is – that we draw near and to know him and to be known by him.

Well Jesus engages the woman who has come to the well in conversation and you can imagine what might have going through her mind.  “Who is this speaking to me?  He’s a Jew and I’m a Samaritan and Jews and Samaritans don’t have anything to do with one another.”  And there’s a long history as to why this should be the case that goes right back into the Old Testament.  Well we haven’t time to explore that this morning.  But suffice it to say a self-respecting Jew wouldn’t even breathe the same air as a Samaritan.  As far as they were concerned they were unclean and heretics as they were not proper Jews.

But what’s more, it wasn’t just that she, a Samaritan was conversing with a Jew, but for a man to talk to women in public like that just wasn’t the done thing at that time.  At least that’s what the rabbis told you.

But not only that – but we learn later that this is a woman with a string of broken relationships.  She’s been married five times already and the man she’s now living with is not her husband – and for the time it’s all rather scandalous.  Maybe that’s why she comes to the well in the heat of the day when no one else does.  She’s fed up with the whispering behind her back and people looking down on her because of her lifestyle.

And for Jesus, a holy rabbi, to be seen talking to a woman like this would have been shocking to his Jewish contemporaries.  But Jesus is not going to allow what others might think – detract from what he came to do.  He goes out of his way to seek out those who are needy – to reach out to those who feel they are worthless and let them know they have value in his sight.
And it seems to me that what we have here is a woman who is desperately seeking to be loved.  But the tragedy is that the men in her life have let her down in one way or another – she’s already been through five of them!

It maybe some of those relationships have been abusive – we don’t know.  In addition to that, the fact, that she comes to the well on her own, at the time she does, also seems to suggest she’s been ostracised by her neighbours because of what they perceive to be her promiscuous lifestyle.  And maybe all this has left her with little or no self-worth.

And so we see Jesus going out of his way to reach a person in need.  And in looking at the personal application how do we connect with people in a thirsty world I wonder.  One thing we see in the story is that Jesus – the one who could call on legions of angels and through whom the universe was made – making himself needy and vulnerable.  Jesus is tired from his journey and needs to rest by the well.  Not only is he tired but it’s hot, being in the heat of the day, and he’s thirsty.  And he asks the woman to give him a drink.  And it’s through that he reaches out to her.

And reaching out to others is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus. And this is a theme picked up by the Archbishop of York in his call for us to be out and about in our communities talking to people about Jesus.  And commenting on a recent Church of England report he says this: “Our job is to be out there, on the streets, wherever it is, sharing this amazing message of Jesus: that he actually forgives us our sins, gives us new life in the present and hope for the future.”

And then a quote from the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.   He says this about it:
“We share the good news, not because it’s a duty….but because we are consumed with knowing how wonderful Jesus is – we want to talk to others about him.”

And if we are excited about Jesus this can be all done very naturally without being forced.  I came across an article in Christianity magazine recently by Mike Pivalachi, a well-known Christian leader who’s involved in a ministry amongst young people called ‘Soul Survivor.’ And in the article he shares a story involving one of his friends called, Sam.

And he says this: ‘Now there was nothing special about Sam.  He’s just an ordinary guy who loves Jesus and has faithfully done his best to serve Him in the area of inner city Birmingham over the last 20 years.  And over that time he’s experienced both joys and sorrows, good days and bad days as he’s sought to introduce unchurched young people to Jesus.

And in June 2015, Sam was walking through a park when he noticed a man sitting alone on a bench.  And as he was passing, he sensed the Lord saying to him: “His name is Daniel and he feels as though he is in prison from which he can’t escape.  I want you to tell him that I love him and want to rescue him from his prison.”

Well in fear and trembling, as one can imagine, Sam went over to the man, introduced himself and asked if his name was Daniel.  Well the man responded rather aggressively with a “No.”  And at this Sam understandably felt rather deflated but nevertheless decided he may as well go and tell the man the second part of what he thought the Lord had told him.  And at this the man started to cry and told Sam that his name was indeed Daniel.   And it soon became clear that he’d lied because he’d been freaked out by Sam knowing his name and it also became clear the reason he’d been sitting on the bench in the park is because he was preparing to commit suicide.

And so Sam sat with the man for the next two hours during which he introduced him to Jesus and prayed with him and the following Sunday took him to church.  And now Daniel now knows there is a God who loves him and loves being part of his new church family.
Now Sam could easily have shrugged off that prompting from the Spirit as he was walking through the park that day.  “It’s just my imagination,” he could have told himself and just walked on but he didn’t.

Well it’s when the living water begins to overflow that we have that desire to reach out to others.  We see that with the Samaritan woman after her encounter with Jesus.  She goes off and tells people in her village about her meeting with Jesus.  And it seems she’s so excited she leaves her water pot behind.   It’s as though she’s splashing the water about all over the place.  And that’s what living water does when it begins to bubble up and overflow.

Well let me finish with something very practical which we can all do.
We’ve seen Jesus reaching out to the Samaritan woman and then we’ve seen the woman reaching out to others with the good news of Jesus.  Well what about making a start in our own neighbourhoods, the places where we live.  If someone new moves in near us – why not go and knock on the door, introduce yourself and welcome them to the parish by offering them one of our St Laurence’s Welcome Packs and just see where it goes from there.  It’s a very neighbourly and friendly thing to do and a way of getting to know new people.  It’s not difficult at all and it’s something, as a church, we’ve been doing on the new High Mill Estate for some time now.  These packs are very attractive and can be picked up from Freda in the Church Office and there’s some at the back of church as well.  However, if you do pick one of these up please make personal contact with the person you intend giving it to – don’t just push it through the letter box – it makes all the difference – it’s that personal encounter that makes a lasting impression.

And so can we all be encouraged to do that!  And wouldn’t it be great to see lots of that living water being splashed about all around our parish.

Philip Newell (Reader)
Sermon preached at St Laurence’s, Scalby on Sunday 19th March 2017 at a service of Holy Communion.

Sermon – 20 January 2017 – Nick

Recently a Christian who just moved into a new area posted on Facebook that they had unexpectedly walked into a job that hadn’t yet been advertised. Obviously many people were pleased for her. Some even talked of ‘God’s amazing timing’ and ‘God’s plan being worked out’. A week later she left the job after finding out it wasn’t all it had cracked up to be. So what do we do with these initial comments about God’s involvement in this job? Was the job part of God’s plan for this lady or not? And if it was did she muck it up by not sticking it out? Indeed can we muck up God’s plan or is that sheer vanity? Or do our ideas about God’s plan not do him any justice? Is there a difference between God’s will in any situation and God’s overarching plan? Let’s look into the story from the Old Testament we heard earlier to help us with this.

Saul was to be Israel’s first human king. Up until now they have had God as they King. But obviously that’s not good enough and the Israelites start to look around at the other tribes and nations around them and they notice something – they all have Kings, or human rulers. Israel is the odd one out. Momentarily blinded by the lure of comparison and the need to fit in Israel demand to be like everyone else, completely forgetting that God chose them to be different, to show the world a different way of living, to show the world God. That was God’s plan and he’s gone through a bit to help them with that plan, yet the plan is never enforced on them. They never have to go along with it. And when they ask to change the plan and do something else – like get a human King, God let’s them!

Plus he chooses someone who could have been a great King. Saul could have been one of the greats, physically imposing, a fighter, and with some wits about him. Saul could have been the first in a line of Kings who did make Israel stand out for good reasons. God was fully willing to change part of the plan to achieve his ends, he was fully willing to let humans have a say in his plans. Saul however had different ideas. The clues are there right from the beginning when at his coronation service he is no where to be seen, quite a feat for a man head and shoulders above everyone else!  He is found hiding among the baggage, and this baggage this insecurity that he has will continue to blight his rule. Image how different it could have been! The people could have stuck more closely to God’s plan, Saul could have. But what was God’s plan? I actually don’t think that is too hard to figure out. I think God was quite honest about it right from the beginning. He told Abraham he would be blessed to be a blessing. That is the grand scope of God’s plan and the beauty of it is that he involves us. The point of Israel was to share God’s blessing with the world that would be done better with God as King but could be done with a human king! So going back to the opening story I don’t believe the job was part of God’s plan or not. The point is that God’s plan could be carried out in that job or not.

Why is all this important? Because what we say shows what we think about God. Our platitudes may be well meaning, but to people who don’t know or understand God they seem like a plaster over a gunshot wound. What about suffering? What do our platitudes say to suffering? When we announce it is God’s plan for someone to get a job while in other parts of the world injustice is rife? How do we feel when people blame suffering on God and don’t attribute the good to him? Of course this isn’t to say that God doesn’t directly intervene in our lives at times, but perhaps we’d be better at noticing it without the assumption that he is. Ultimately though well meaning we can reduce God to our diary planner rather than the wonderfully powerful being who is big enough to give us freedom and cope with whatever that means.

Sermon – 1 January – Nick

St Laurence`s – 1st January 2017 – Nick Welford

New Year Old Hope

As we have closed out 2016 the general consensus is that it’s not been the best year. On the local and global scale people have felt the weight of last year. Celebrity deaths, unrest in the world, ongoing financial strain, the refugee crisis, brexit, Trump and as 2016 closed the shootings in Turkey. It has certainly been an eventful year. The question is do we let our feelings about 2016 colour our hope for the future? In an attempt to comment on the events of last year many have personified 2016 heaping the blame for these events on a period of time. It is strange that I have not seen the blame placed at God’s door but rather on a defined measurement of the passing of time. 2016 can answer to these charges. It can’t comfort us or attempt to explain what’s going on. It is nonchalant at best about the events that occurred in it’s timespan.

In our reading today we see that it’s been a rough few years for Jesus and family. Joseph and Mary have relocated, had a baby in less than ideal circumstances and now flee the threat of infant genocide as refugees. This takes place in a back drop of political unrest as uneasy alliances are made between the foreign force of the Roman Empire and the native powers of the land. In fact all of Jesus life will take place on this stage. Many expected Jesus to aim his rhetoric directly at the Romans, when in actuality he focused on something else. Jesus focused on changing the narrative of the world. Those who listened to him found hope in a new story that was unlike any of the others being told.

Jesus retold the story – You have heard it said, but I tell you. He used parables and metaphor rich with the images of his culture to poke and probe the values of the day, show them for the frauds they were and point people to a better story. Ultimately the story of love.

Our hope for this year and every year that has passed and is to come is to change the narrative, to retell the story in the light of love. Now I’m not saying we should lie, but we should combat the lies and lean of the media with the light and truth of love. We bring hope, we bring Jesus into every moment of the day when we choose to partake in his story rather than the dominant and popular stories of the day.

What do I mean? Let me ask you this – why is it that we only hear of George Michael’s extremely generous kindness after his death? Why is it that we are more interested in his scandals while he was alive? Why are the media so focused on the ‘bad news’? When did kindness become so mundane? We can start to change these stories, it won’t even take that much effort. We have already had some success through shedding some light on the plight of refugees. But we can also do this on a smaller scale – the next time you hear gossip could you refocus the conversation on something good about that person? The next time you find someone down about the state of the world can you share a story of love? Jesus consistently challenged the narrative assumptions of the day, we can do that too.

Hope
More addictive than dope
Not that I’d know
I’m a clean cut kind of bloke
My hidden past is more cutting grass than smoking it
Jumping over pavement cracks rather than taking hits
And you can’t toke on hope
But I can’t cope without hope
though I’ve tried.

Hope
Is a big word

Hope
The antidote
To a darkening world
Or a darkening world view
The lesser known sibling to Love & Faith who
Gives something for us to cling too
This is not like leaning on a spiders web
It’s the flow and ebb of the tide
Problems seem a mile wide
Until hope has a place to reside.

Hope
Is a big word

Hope
The kind of hope,
That clung to Job like an old coat
His wife the last straw on the camel’s back
Fact
We can be just like that
Instead of whispering hope
The words she spoke
Hung like a rope
Around Job’s neck
His whole world’s broke
He’s starts to choke.
Throwing words more like knives.
When all someone needs is the hope of knowing someone’s there.

Hope is a big word.
Don’t abandon it
Give it away
Matt 2:13-end

Sermon – 20 November 16 – David Butterfield

Generosity

Bible Readings: Isaiah 6.1-8; Luke 15.11-24

It was two years ago last June that I stepped down from being Archdeacon of the East Riding, and became Archdeacon for Generous Giving and Stewardship. It was Archbishop Sentamu’s idea, and it’s just for three years. So I now travel around the whole of the Diocese of York advising PCCs about how to strengthen their income from Planned Giving. I am looking forward to meeting with the members of your PCC on Thursday January 19.
The vision for our Diocese is that we will be a family of Generous Churches Making and Nurturing Disciples. So, as the word “generous” is in our Vision Statement and in my job title, I thought I would focus on the word “generous” this morning.
On the theme of generosity, there was once a church where the church members were not at all generous. One day two spiders who lived in the church happened to meet as they were walking down the main aisle. One spider says to the other, “I hear you’re moving house?” “I certainly am,” replied the other spider. “I’ve been living in the pulpit all my life, but this new vicar preaches so long and loud that I’ve not had a moment’s peace for weeks”. The other spider says, “Then you must come and live with us. We live in the collection box and we have not been disturbed for years!” I’m sure that would not be true of you here at St Laurence’s.
On the theme of being generous, let me begin by saying “Thank You” to you here at St Laurence’s. I imagine you are aware that every Church in the Diocese of York, makes a monthly financial contribution to what is called The Common Fund. It is from the Common Fund that all the clergy are paid and other Support Services from the Diocese are funded. I would like to say “thank you” to you for the way that you have made your contributions faithfully, month by month, and year by year. Having been Archdeacon of the East Riding, I am aware that your record of generous and faithful goes back many years.
I recall the occasion when you received a legacy and, I think it was two years running that you decided to pay the total amount of (what was then the Parish Share) in January. I remember when I thanked Alastair for this he, in his self-deprecating way, pointed out that with very low interest rates there was no point in putting it in the bank. However, not every PCC would have decided to this and I think what you did indicated a real spirit of generosity.
What’s more, I am aware that you have increased your 2017 Freewill Offer to the Common Fund by a substantial amount. So thank you again for your faithfulness and generosity, and the Archbishop, who is my Line Manager has also asked me to pass on his thanks when I visit Churches.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we should be generous people. But why should disciples of Jesus Christ give generously?
There are a number of answers to that question, but I think the first, and the most important reason why those of us who call ourselves Christians should give generously is this: We give in response to the generosity of God: the generosity that has shown to each one of us.
In the Gospel Reading we heard the well-known parable of Jesus which illustrates the amazing generosity of God. In the parable, the Father threw a party for his wayward son, even though his son didn’t deserve it. That is meant to be a picture of how God lavishes his generosity on us! I’ll refer to the parable again a little later. But first let me reflect on God’s generosity to us, by drawing your attention to a prayer.
As a small boy, I recall that my Grandfather once told me how he had come across a prayer in the 1662 Prayer Book. The Prayer is called “A General Thanksgiving”. It’s not a prayer that we use very much today, and yet it is a brilliant prayer. This is how it begins…..
Almighty God, Father of all mercies,
we thine unworthy servants
do give thee most humble and hearty thanks
for all thy goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all men.
My Grandfather told me of the time when, having read the prayer, it stopped him in his tracks. This was because, he suddenly thought to himself: “Albert, when have you given humble and hearty thanks to God for his goodness and loving kindness to you?”. He then went on to tell me about how, from then on, he had endeavoured to be a more thankful person.
This Prayer of Thanksgiving was written by a man called Edward Reynolds who was the Bishop of Norwich between 1661 and 1676. So, in his prayer, what examples of God’s goodness and loving-kindness does Edward Reynolds encourage us to thank God for? He lists them.
He begins with, “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life”. If you were to write down a list of “all the blessings of this life” that God has poured upon you, what would you include?
* that we live in the UK – a developed country, a safe country to live in?
* Life would be very different for us if we had been born in such a place as Iraq, Yemen, or Syria.
* that we have homes to live in, clothes to wear, an abundance of food to eat?
* that we have medical services available free at the point of need?
* that on a world scale, we are so rich!
There are a number of websites where you can enter the level of your income and it tells you how rich you are on a world scale. They vary a bit, but the general overall picture is the same. One website reveals the following……
* If we have a net annual income of £15,000 per year, we are in the top 4% of the richest people in the world.
* If our net income is £20,000, we’re in the top 2%.
* £25,000, the top 1%
* £30,000, the top 0.6%
While those figures will not be precisely accurate, I think we get the general message, and in response, we say to God, “Yes, we bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life”.
But then, secondly, we Christians are on the receiving end of a wealth and riches that money cannot buy, and which relate to another life that God has promised us. So Edward Reynolds prayer continues…..
We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ:
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
This section of the prayer lists four significant spiritual blessings…..
God’s love
If we are in Christ, we have tasted God’s inestimable, which means “immeasurable”, love. As Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Redemption
We have experienced being bought back by God from our slavery to sin at the cost of Christ’s death – all for us. Rather than being excluded from God’s presence because of our sin, we are able to approach the throne of God because Jesus died to save us from our sin.
Grace
One definition of the word “grace” is, “Something for nothing, for those who don’t deserve anything.” As Christians we have been on the receiving end of God’s generosity – God’s Grace.
Hope
To top it all, we have, what the prayer calls: the hope of glory – the promise of life beyond the grave. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
I don’t think we fully appreciate these spiritual blessings, these riches of God’s grace! I believe we gain a better appreciation of them in those moments when we catch a fuller glimpse of God’s glory.
We think of Isaiah, who, as we heard in our Old Testament reading, had a vision of God in all his glory. His response was to cry out, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips…..yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
When Isaiah had a vision of the purity and the holiness of God, he was suddenly aware of how much he was in need of God’s cleansing and forgiveness, his mercy and his grace. At that point in his vision, a seraph touched his lips with a live coal and said, “Your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
I believe that it’s when God reveals himself to us in a special way and we glimpse God’s glory in a way we haven’t done before, that we suddenly see how far we fall short of his glory, and so realise the amazing generosity of God in sending Jesus to die for us, so that we can be blessed with every spiritual blessing and be given a taste of the riches of heaven. So how do we respond to this amazing generosity of God?
A first way, is to thank God for his goodness to us, and we can use this ancient prayer to do this as we say to God, “”We give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us”.
A second way that we can respond to God’s generosity is by being generous people ourselves.
So what does it mean to be generous?
Last year I focused on this question at an assembly I was taking at a secondary school in York. I offered the students a couple of working definitions of what the word “generous” might mean. The first is, “To be generous is to give in a way that is above and beyond what I would normally have expected myself  to give?”
Or looking at it from the point of view of the receiver, “To be generous is to give in a way that is above and beyond what the person on the receiving end of my gift would have expected to receive from me?”
If I were to develop this question further in a Christian context I would point out how the words “generous” and “generosity” do not occur very often in the Bible. The reason for this is because the authors of the Scriptures use another word instead. That is the word Grace. The word “grace” includes “generosity” and a whole lot more besides.
As I said earlier, one definition of grace is, “Something for nothing, for those who don’t deserve anything.” If you had been the father of the Prodigal Son, how would you have responded when your son turned up on the doorstep. Would you have been rather cool towards him? I suspect that few of us would have responded by killing the fatted calf and throwing a party! But that’s a picture of the generosity that God extends to us!
So, if we are going to respond to the generosity of God by being generous people ourselves we need to pray that the generous Spirit of God will motivate and inspire us to be generous, as he is generous. Of course there are a myriad of ways in which we can be generous.
* By having a generous attitude.
* By giving people the benefit of the doubt.
* By always being ready to forgive.
* By giving gifts, and it’s especially meaningful if we are able to give gifts that we have made with our own hands.
* Also, a significant way of being generous is through the giving of our money.
As Christians, I believe it is important that we see the giving of our money is part of our worship. In the last chapter of 1 Chronicles, we are told of how King David made preparations for the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. He invited God’s people to bring their gifts to pay for it. There was an incredibly generous response.
Although they all brought their gifts to the King – King David, the writer of 1 Chronicles doesn’t say that the people “offered all this to King David”. The author writes, “Then the people rejoiced because…..they had offered freely…..to the Lord.” They regarded their giving of money as worship! I believe that we should see the offering of our money as part of our worship too.
In the order of service for Holy Communion, at the point at which the offering is presented, there are a number of different prayers that can be said. One of them is this prayer of King David…..
Yours Lord, is the greatness, 
the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty;
for everything in heaven and on earth is yours.
All things come from you,
and of your own do we give you.
So when we place our gifts into the offertory plate or give by Standing Order, we are caught up in worship as we give back to God what is really his.
So we rejoice that we have a generous God, and we pray that he will inspire us by his Spirit to be generous people.
Finally, when I took up my post of Archdeacon for Generous Giving and Stewardship nearly 21/2 years ago, the very job title, “Archdeacon for Generous Giving” challenged me! Having the word “generous” in my job title caused me to ask myself the question, “Am I a generous person?” I thought, if there were to be a eulogy at my funeral, would someone make the remark, “Well I’ll say one thing, he was generous chap”? I’m not sure they would, but I have been working on it and I am continuing to do so.
So may I end by asking you the question, “Are you a generous person? Will they say of you at your funeral: She was a generous woman. He was a generous man?”.

Sermon – 13 December – James Aston

Bearing Fruit in the Wilderness
Zephaniah 3:14-20, Luke 3:7-18

When I think of John the Baptist, there are a few aspects of his life that stand out, one of which is where he chose to call home: the wilderness. There are various things we think of when we think of ‘wastelands’ or ‘wildernesses’. Dryness – certainly true in some wildernesses: the Atacama Desert, for example, has never experienced rain, with some areas – scientists believe – having never experienced rain in around 40 million years. Emptiness is also a word that springs to mind – the Rub’ al Khali – aka. the Empty Quarter – is the largest sand desert in the world, covering 650,000km of the Arabian Peninsula, and consisting of little more than sand. Often, wildernesses are not the best place for growth, both physical and – arguably – spiritual. Robert Bogucki, an Alaskan fireman, found this out when he set off on foot into the Australian desert in an attempt to become closer to nature. He was found 43 days later, having survived by drinking muddy water and eating flowers, 20kg lighter. Moreover, the authorities concluded that he had got himself lost deliberately, and so asked him to foot the $72,000 bill that had been accumulated by the rescue effort.

Sometimes, our walk with God can feel like a walk in the wilderness – empty, lifeless, impersonal, with no perceivable growth. Some of you may indeed be Christian by name or by baptism, but feel like you’ve never experienced a relationship with God deeper than church every Sunday morning. In the passages we read today, John points to the solution – we need to bear fruit. Often, however, this seems impossible – how can we bear fruit in an environment which seems so much like a wilderness?

The concept of bearing fruit appears a lot in the Bible, from Jesus’ parables in which he talks of those who remain in Him ‘bearing much fruit’, to the fruits of the Spirit – which, thanks to an annoyingly addictive song from Messy Church, I know by heart are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility, and self-control. But why is it a problem if we are not bearing these fruits – these outward signs of inward grace – that show that God is making a difference in our lives? One reason, John points to, is that we can get complacent. Even in John’s time, people believed that because Abraham was their father – that because they were part of God’s chosen people – they had already been given the holy thumbs-up. John brings their perceptions – and ours – crashing down, reminding them that God could create more people for Himself from the rocks on the ground if He wanted to. This speaks worlds to us today as Christians – we have done nothing to come close to earning the right to become children of God; our salvation is not guaranteed by the name or identity we go by.

God’ attitude to bearing fruit has always been direct – a lot of the descriptions about it in the Bible use agricultural imagery. Jesus describes how the withered branches of the vine are burned (John 15:6); John relates how the trees that do not produce fruit will be cut down, and how the chaff – that is, the waste from the harvest – will be burned also. Fire – in Biblical imagery – usually means judgement. Judgement is not something we like to talk about in the church. It’s a hard concept to grasp: that God, who we know as loving – who we know at this time of year as a small baby in a manger – would be the same God who promises to come and judge the world. Yet John references ‘the coming wrath’ even in this passage, and in Zephaniah 3:8, God promises to pour out His wrath on all the nations.

Yet without God’s righteous judgement, what was there for Jesus to save us from; what was the point of Him coming at all? At Christmas, we sing that ‘long lay the world in sin and error pining’, and celebrate ‘the dawn of redeeming grace’, without ever really thinking about the reality of that sin, or what God might be redeeming us from. The reality is that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory’ – us included – and that is the point that many people miss. The people who approach John believe that they are somehow exempt from God’s wrath, when in actuality, God is coming to judge the whole world, Christians included.

That’s the bad news. The Good news is that Christ did not choose to remain as a lone, fruitful vine, stood at the edge of the wilderness whilst His children struggled to bear fruit alone. Instead, He stepped into the wilderness of this world in order that it might bear fruit. John speaks of the axe being ready at the foot of the unfruitful trees, but before the axe falls, he announces the coming Messiah, whose power is greater than anyone else’s. Teachers – or Rabbis – at this time would not be paid in money by their students, but in service. Yet untying the sandals of their teacher was considered too menial – too base a task – to allow their students to do. John is placing himself below even that level, and we too are with John in this, compared to the glory of Christ.

We have never earned our right to become children of God. We cannot produce fruit on our own, in the same way that a tree cannot produce fruit – even if it tries really hard – if it is not connected to the earth. Without Jesus, the wasteland cannot bear fruit, and yet that is exactly the reason Jesus came. In Isaiah 40:3 is the familiar prophecy which points to John the Baptist, and yet there is something interesting in the way that it is phrased. Instead of saying ‘A voice of one calling in the wilderness: “Prepare a way for the Lord”‘ – which I had always thought it said – it reads ‘A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord”‘. The path that Jesus chose to walk was in the wilderness, amongst His people – as Isaiah 43:19 puts it, God proclaims His purpose thusly: ‘I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.’ Jesus came to give life, and abundantly so. He came to take away our punishment and, as Zephaniah puts it, to gather the exiles – us, who were separated from God by our sin – and showering them with praise and honour instead. God loves us so much that – despite our inherent inability to produce fruit – He cut off His own Son’s life so that we could be transplanted back onto the vine.

So what should our response be to this? If you’ve felt yourself wandering from God – or if you’ve never accepted the forgiveness that Jesus Christ bought for you on the cross – then repent by all means – turn 180 degrees back to God – but don’t stop there. In the words of John the Baptist, ‘produce fruit in keeping with repentance.’ Keep following Jesus – He wants to work wonders in your life, and produce spiritual fruit in such abundance that when people look at you, they see the hands of God at work. I want to finish with the story of a man called Robert Robinson. Robert Robinson was a clergyman from 18th century England, who was also a talented poet and hymn writer. Despite these accolades, Robinson left the ministry a few years down the line and moved to France, descending into a life of sin. One night, he was riding in a carriage with a Parisian socialite, who had recently become a Christian. She asked his opinion of a poem, and proceeded to read him the first stanza: ‘Come thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace, Streams of mercy never failing, Call for hymns of loudest praise.’ As she read the words, Robinson began to cry – when the woman asked why, he confessed that he had written the poem, and yet now felt that he had wandered so far from God since then that he could not find his way back. The woman responded that the answer was in the third line – ‘streams of mercy never failing’ – and that those streams were flowing in the streets of Paris that very moment. Those streams are flowing here at St. Laurence’s too, right now. If you’re looking for a way back to Christ, follow the streams of mercy – flowing through the wilderness which many of us find ourselves in – all the way back to the cross, where the way to God was bought by the love of Jesus Christ.

James Aston