In the beginning….. Trouble in Egypt

We have a guest writer this week, taking us further in our explorations with Abraham and Sarah (at this point in the story known as Abram and Sarai). Many thanks to Stephen Baldock.

Genesis 12: (1-9) 10-19; Romans 8:28-32,35-39

Until the end of April, our Sunday morning series will focus on the life of Abraham. Last week it was based on the first half of chapter 12. If you miss a talk in the series, you can read here.  Those opening verses form an important background to today’s passage; so let me summarise them.

After Adam and Eve, the writer of Genesis tells us about Noah and the flood and then about Noah’s descendants of which Abram was one but one whom God picked out to be the father of a great nation.  Why Abram and not another member of the family we do not know but this is what God said to him:

Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

Genesis 12: 1-3

and Abram obeyed and off he went with Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot and all the property they had to the land of Canaan.  At this point, we can only admire him for his obedience and faith.  This is what the writer to the Hebrews says:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised).”

Hebrewws 11:8-9a

So here we have Abram, a man of faith, chosen to be the father of a great nation and to possess a land given to him by God, apparently all set to see God fulfil His promises; but then a big blip which one commentator describes as “the saddest event in the entire life of Abraham”. There is a famine and he decides to leave the Promised Land and go down to Egypt where he has heard there is plenty of food.  We can understand that and can we blame him?  It seemed a sensible thing to do but it turns out that it runs him and his wife into trouble. Did you listen as it was read?  He becomes afraid that because his wife is attractive, they will want her for themselves – perhaps even the Pharaoh will covet her – so they are likely to kill Abram and appropriate Sarai.  So what does he do? He comes up with a cunning plan: tell the Egyptians that you are my sister – this will enable them to take Sarai into the palace and feel well-disposed to Abram. And this is what happens: she is given hospitality by Pharaoh and Abram is showered with expensive gifts. The plan had worked! But at what cost? Abram had told lies, he had lost his wife to Pharaoh, he had forgotten God’s call and promise.  It is interesting that we are told he built altars to the Lord while he was travelling in Canaan and again after the escape from Egypt we find him building another altar in the same place where he had first built an altar; but there are no altars in Egypt or even mention of his praying to the Lord.

So what lessons can be reasonably take from this passage for ourselves?  The fact is that Abram’s faith was severely tested. On the one hand, God had promised him both a land to live in and not just a family, but a great nation which will bring blessing to all the world. On the other hand, instead of trusting God to protect him and fulfil those promises, he took it upon himself to leave that land and to devise a way of saving his own skin.  I wonder whether if we look at ourselves either at times in the past or even in the present, we have set aside our faith in God and looked for our own solutions?  This is most likely to happen when we are faced with a crisis, which might involve our health or our finances or a relationship.  There are other people in the Bible who went astray at key moments – think of Peter walking on the water and sinking or Jonah running away from God or the Prodigal Son.

Now the extraordinary thing about this passage is that God baled Abram out.  Somehow Pharaoh found out that Sarai was Abram’s wife after all and came to realise that the plagues which had hit him and his household were caused by his appropriation of Sarai.  So he sends Abram packing with all his ill-gotten gains!  God is indeed going to be faithful to His promises, despite Abram’s bad judgment and disobedience.  What does that mean for us?

Let’s think about those other Biblical passages when there was disobedience. Jonah tried to run away from God’s call; he was in a storm, the result (we are told) of his disobedience and had himself thrown overboard the ship. He was swallowed by a whale and the rest is history:  it led to his repentance and arrival in Nineveh with God’s message.  David orchestrated the death of Uriah and appropriated Bathsheba as his wife; he too was brought to repentance (Psalm 51).  The Prodigal Son having spent all his inheritance found himself in poverty and hunger and came to his senses. The extraordinary thing about our Abram account is that God doesn’t afflict Abram himself as a result of his sin, but he afflicts Pharaoh and has His servant Abram returned to the Promised Land better off than he had been before!  God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform!  This is an interesting commentary on the relationship between disease and sin; there are those who talk of disease being the direct result of sin and who believe that once sin is confessed and forgiven, healing follows automatically; but there’s plenty of evidence in the Bible that it’s not as simple as that. The Pharisees put forward this simple diagnosis for the boy who had been blind from birth but Jesus said they were quite wrong: the blindness was the result neither of his parents’ sin nor of his own.  What emerges here is that there are various ways in which God brings His people to their senses and to repentance when they have erred and strayed like lost sheep.

So there is a big picture and a big message and we are invited to lift our eyes in faith to see that big picture. God goes on loving and forgiving us, despite our failures. We can say with confidence “surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”; but how much we  need His Holy Spirit living in us, to keep us on that straight and narrow path, especially when life is tough and there seem to be more fears and questions than hopes and answers. Listen again to what St Paul says in Romans 8 (28,39).

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose….. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8: 28,39

2020 Vision: Demonstrating the love of Jesus.

It has taken a good couple of years for my rural parish church to bring together their understanding of God’s vision of the village. It has taken time, because listening to and discerning God can’t be rushed. It has taken time because the vision drafts have been shared with fellowship groups and PCC members and redrafted accordingly. It has taken time because the vicar’s sabbatical (Study Leave) fell in the middle of the process, but now it is here and ready to be shared, and to be lived.

We seek to demonstrate the love of Jesus by the way we live.

There are three strands to the vision: the first strand could be described as looking inwards: We seek to deepen our faith.

They spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number.

Acts 2: 46,47

The joy of being a rural parish is that the single church building attracts a worshipping community from various different denominations. Yes, the church is Anglican and works according to the articles of faith as proscribed by the Church of England, but the way in which we worship aims to be inclusive of all people of Christian faith and to focus on our shared belief in Jesus rather than church tradition.

We care for those who are unable to come to church to worship as life becomes more frail and seek to find ways of enabling them to worship in their homes; and we are looking to find new ways of worshipping that can include families as our culture and patterns of living keeps changing.

We recognise that for many in the village, the church is still the place where people ‘do business’ with God even if they don’t regularly worship here, and we want to be able to support them in doing so.

Our first steps in deepening our faith will be to take a review of how we worship and how this is (or isn’t) enabling us to come closer to God, to really engage with Jesus, and to be inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

We will be furthering our engagement with our local nursing home.

We will be encouraging everyone to join a fellowship group, a place where we can love and support each other in a closer way than is possible over post sermon coffee, and we can explore faith and prayer on a more personal level.

The second strand looks up : To be a prayerful community.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.

Philippians 4:5,6

Without prayer everything we do stays rooted to the ground, rather than reflecting the heavenlies. Opportunities for prayer already exist within the church in connection with our sister church and together with other Christians from the village who worship elsewhere.

We seek to extend what is on offer in a variety of ways, naturally through our fellowship groups, but also in a more formal setting. We are planning to offer the opportunity to be prayed for alongside our mid morning communion service. Whatever ails or troubles you can be shared confidentially with two others, trained and commissioned, to pray for and with you.

Alongside this we will be encouraging others in our community to pray, by offering an open book in our prayer chapel which people can write their prayer requests in, and also online in our social media. These will be prayed through quietly by those offering prayer alongside the Holy Communion.

The third strand looks out: To engage whole-heartedly with our village.

On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart…

Acts 16:13-14

Who are we demonstrating Jesus’ love to? And how do we do so? By going outside of the church walls and finding where others are gathering.

The Village Shop is one of the main gathering places. It provides for those who are most vulnerable, not just in the essentials it sells, but in the company it provides; however, the shop is struggling to keep afloat. Items may cost more locally than at a larger out of town supermarket, but they are more personal, and by purchasing items from there, when we are able, we continue to support our wider community. As individuals we can choose to become share holders (and there is a link on the church website), or commit to purchasing, maybe just a proportion of our weekly shop, locally, thereby also giving purpose to those from our community who are employed there. As a worshipping family we can demonstrate the love of Jesus in a practical way by ensuring that wherever possible we use the Village shop for purchasing items we need: tea and sugar for the coffee rota, polish and dusters for the cleaning rota…. There are other local businesses in our community we can choose to use over those slightly further away which ‘may’ be cheaper, but have no direct connection with us. Local garages, vets, interior designers, osteopaths, electricians, florists…. The Parish Magazine has a wealth of local businesses to support.

Our local pubs also need our support to remain viable, and the events that they, and other venues host, are wonderful ways of getting to know our neighbours, and on territory in which they feel most at home: Sunday church for many is an alien experience. Jesus connected best with people in the ordinary space, the places where people felt most comfortable, which was not always the Temple or the Synagogue. Likewise we need to be loving wherever we are, and wherever God’s people are.

And finally, welcoming neighbours. It’s perhaps an old fashioned thing to do, popping round with a homemade cake (the Village shop will bake them for you!) and pot of tea on moving day, and hard to connect with neighbours who work long hours. It should however, be a natural desire to live side by side in friendship. Invitations for a coffee, a meal, are things we can do as individuals. As a church over this next year we aim to create welcome packs which can be accessed from church, so that we have something to take with us when visiting new neighbours, or leaving with them with a note to say we called if we don’t find anyone in.

So this is the vision. How does it become more than just another document? By living it. By being the people who take our own faith seriously, who worship together regularly and welcome others into our worship spaces and help them to build their’s; by stepping out of our comfort zones and carrying the love of Jesus wherever we go, to whoever we meet.

In the beginning…… explorations in faith.

In the beginning was the word, so says St John in that famous passage read at the culmination of ‘Carols by Candlelight’ each Christmas. But just what, or who, was that word, and what does it mean to us now, or even then.

‘The Word’, logos in Greek, is the same word which spoke creation into being. The Word takes us back to the opening pages of the Bible, to some of the oldest stories in faith, it takes us to Genesis which in itself means ‘beginnings’.

And so we start this new year, this new decade, by launching ourselves back in time to the beginnings of our faith. We will discover the origins of humanity, of community, of religion, and most importantly of all, our relationship with Creator, Redeemer, Soul Friend, with God.

You might expect us then, to begin with chapter 1, and those obvious opening words ‘In the beginning…’ Instead we are leaping forward to the beginning of religion, of faith, of being willing to step out of our comfort zones in order to adventure with God into new territories.

We begin our studies with Abram, later to be renamed Abraham, and his wife Sarai (Sarah).

Abram and Sarai have a comfortable lifestyle, and over the years of marriage have gathered posessions and ‘persons’ – workers, servants, slaves – but they have no family of their own, they have not been blessed with children. Throughout their lives they have been listening out for the voice of God, seeking God’s will for them both. Finally at the age of 75 life is about to begin, finally in what could have been their dotage, they hear God calling them into an adventure that will change their lives forever, and will change the course of history, or perhaps, by playing their part in God’s story, fulfill history?

God calls them away from their stable father’s home, and into a nomadic lifestyle following the Father. They gather their belonging, their people, and as they have no children of their own, bring Abram’s nephew, Lot, and his family with them.

Abram and Sarai, and Lot and his family too, for that matter, have no precedence of God calling people in the same way that we do. They have the myths and legends of God the stories of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden, and of Noah and his family and how they saved the planet from extinction, and were given the task of repopulation following the flood; but there are similar stories in other faiths and cultures. Abram and Sarai begin to give us a firm foothold in time, in history, in our stories of faith. Abram and Sarai only had shifting footprints in the sand.

Abram and Sarai go. They give up everything for the sake of an adventure with God, and they will indeed have adventures. The first stage of the adventure brings them to Shechem, a crossroads with Palestine, a crossroads for trading and for travel, and a crossroads for Abram and Sarai, for Lot and his wife. Here they decide to build an altar to God

Abram and Sarai are ‘accounted as righteous’ according to St Paul, not because of the travel, the daring, or the adventure. Not because they were super holy people who never made mistakes, but because they trusted God. When God called them, out of the blue, to travel to an unknown land, they did. They didn’t find reasons and excuses, they simply said yes, trusting God for a new thing in their lives.

When God calls, it is exciting and also daunting. We need to be careful not to become over daunted, but to trust God, one step at a time, as we are led on this great adventure called faith.

Read Abram and Sarai’s call here. Read St Paul’s teaching on Abraham here.

Following in the footsteps…

In her Christmas Speech the Queen spoke about footsteps. The first steps taken on the moon, the heroic steps taken during the D Day rescue, and the steps of reconciliation taken by many over the years since. She also spoke about how she, and many others, try to follow the footsteps of the baby born at Christmas,the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.

Epiphany in many ways is all about footsteps. It is the path trodden by the Magi, Wise Men, ‘kings’, who saw a strange and unusual star and decided to follow it.

The journey was not an easy one. They had no clear guidance, their ‘satellite’ navigation system was basic to say the least. Transport was bumpy, and accommodation along the way would not have been 5 star. There were red herrings to be overcome, veiled threats, and awkward political situations.

The journey was long, and there was no answer to the question ‘are we nearly there yet?’ Not until they finally got ‘there’.

How often do we not really know where we are going until we arrive? We can look back and see how different circumstances have brought us to where we are now; we can look back upon experiences and people we have encountered and see how we ourselves have been shaped by them. Rarely do we know, in the moment, just what that impact is, as it is happening.

Perhaps those ancient stargazers did know, or at least have an inkling, which is why they set out in the first place, and why they packed such precious, and prophetic, gifts. Maybe they didn’t fully know until they reached the true ‘palace’ of the king, and fell to their knees in awe.

When we look back over the past decade can we see the glimmer of a star that has guided us to where we are now? Can we see how God has been at work in our lives, guiding us on? Do we recognise Jesus in the middle of our somewhat complicated and confusing lives, urging us on to more and better?

The Magi, found their encounter with the Christchild transformational. Their lives were never the same again. As we pack away the Christmas decorations, will we pack away the moments of awe and wonder we experienced this Christmas, or will we travel with them over the weeks and months to come, allowing Jesus to reshape our lives?

Christmas dreams

I held my firstborn in my arms, cradling her close and whispering to her heart, ‘you can be anything you want to be’.

I could have made all sorts of holy predictions and prophecies about the life that was to come; this after all was the child I carried in my womb as I knelt to be ordained priest, who kicked an Amen as we read the passage from Jeremiah

before I formed you in the womb I knew you,

and before you were born I consecrated you;

Jeremiah 1:4

but what I wanted most for this child was the freedom to follow dreams and be true to herself.

As Zechariah holds his son he speaks such different words. Yes Zechariah wants his child to be true, but true to the very specific calling upon his life. This child, before he can even speak is announcing the arrival of the Messiah, announcing the good news that Jesus is coming. Zechariah prophesies not only his own son’s future as a prophet but his nephew’s as saviour.

Zechariah, once silenced by an angel is now filled with joy at the role his son will have to play in repairing the relationship between God and humanity. Little does he know what that cost will be.

John’s life will be hard, living in the wilderness, speaking out prophecies that those in authority will not want to hear, preparing the hearts of a nation, and eventually losing his life due to the lusts of a king.

Is this what Zechariah had in mind for his son, when he sang this song of praise?

Zechariah’s nephew too, will live a complicated, and short life. He will be despised by some and worshipped by others, he will know the love of family and friends, and hatred that seeks to inflict harm. His life, too, will be taken from him.

The hopes and dreams that we have for our little ones may be ambitious, or even homely. We generally hope, above all, that they will know love, and be kept safe.

The baby born this night, was born out of love. Not the love from which our own children were conceived, but the raging love of God desperately reaching out to his creation that has strayed so far….

As we gaze upon the infant in the manger, as we sing the songs and carols, as we kiss under the mistletoe, open precious gifts, and declare that Christmas is ‘all about the children’, let us remember these two sons; not just their births, but their deaths too, and the eternal life that they have given each of us.

Happy Christmas!

Read Zechariah’s song to his son here.

Angel calling!

What is your calling?

We often think about ‘calling’ as being something very specific to clergy, to being called to the ministry of the church, and yet we are all called into something, somewhere.

Our Gospel reading for this last Sunday of Advent when we remember Mary as we light the Advent Wreath, speaks of the specific and very holy calling to be the mother of God; but let us not forget Joseph’s calling alongside her.

Mary had not sought out her calling, it was visited upon her as she was preparing for her wedding to Joseph. An angel visited her with the ‘good news’ which she then had to try and explain to her parents and her fiance. Joseph, unsurprisingly, did not find it an easy explanation to receive: that his undefiled virgin bride-to-be was expectant, not by him, but neither by any other man.

Joseph was asked to receive this news before he had received his ‘calling’, but here it comes, and he too receives a visit from an angel. It is believable that Joseph was a man looking forward to parenthood, that he was ready to settle down with a wife and family, indeed the plans were already in place with the betrothal.

It is less conceivable that in such a patriarchal society in which the continuance of the family name was enshrined in Levitical law (should a man die before his wife was able to provide a son and heir, his brother would fill his shoes and his bed, until a son was provided for him), that Joseph was looking forward to becoming a stepfather to an unknown man’s child. Indeed Joseph is already making plans to break away from his cuckolding wife-to-be and the child she is carrying.

Joseph’s call changes all that. He too has a visit from an angel, although his angelic message arrives in a dream. This angel reassures Joseph of Mary’s faithfulness to him, and that it is right for the marriage to go ahead, but more than that, the angel assures Joseph of his holy calling to be a part of this heavenly plan.

Not only is Joseph to keep Mary as his wife, to love and protect, to cherish and honour her and whatever else was included in middle eastern marriage vows, but he was to be part of God’s plan, and it is he who should give Jesus his name. In some ways this will give extra credence to Mary’s story, that her son is God’s son, for the name that Joseph will be seen to choose means ‘God is with us’. In other ways of course, it will affirm people’s suspicions that Joseph himself did not sire the child, after all, it was normal for a child to be given a family name, not such a holy one.

Mary and Joseph receive their callings through the visit of angels. Saint Paul received his through a vision in which the resurrected Jesus spoke to him, calling him first to repent and then to become an apostle to the Gentiles, to those not of the Hebrew faith. Paul’s calling was to call others to the truth which Joseph had to learn through the angelic visions, that Jesus is indeed God’s son, and in the letter he wrote to the church at Rome he reminds them of their calling to belong to Jesus, to be loved by Jesus, and to be his saints here on earth.

The call on Mary and Joseph’s lives was finite, as all parents are called to a specific task, to care for this child until he was old enough to take on his own calling. Of course parenting isn’t that simple, we don’t stop loving or caring for our children even when they leave home. It is only death that can terminate such a calling, and then perhaps, only in this life. For each of us who receive the call to be saints, it is an eternal calling. We are called to respond with faith and trust, as Joseph and Mary were called to respond. We are called to be outspoken at times, declaring truths it seems that no-one else will ever believe, and truths that may well be costly to us.

St Paul knew that the Roman Christians would struggle, for he too had struggled with persecution, false accusations, illegal imprisonment, and physical beatings. Paul knew that at times the story we are all called to carry will be hard to believe, and so he prays for that church, for all who are called to be saints, the very message that the angels bring, a blessing of grace, and peace.

The oldest story

Carols by Candlelight is one of the great traditions of Christmas. Regardless of the state of our faith, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without singing the age old carols, listening to the choir sing the occasional new song, and hearing the traditional stories.

The wax candles, the wooden pews, the ancient architecture take us back in time, and deep into our cultural consciousness. This is the only time of year when we hear phrases such as ‘the cockatrice den’ and ‘the root of Jesse’; and sing such glorious words as ‘Lo he abhors not the virgin’s womb’.

These all make sense as we head towards Christmas, but only if we don’t think too much about what they might mean.

The story starts right at the very beginning. In the beginning created the world and all that is in it, and saw that it was good. God saw the oceans and the hills, the plants and the trees, the fish and the birds and the tigers and even the spiders, and saw that they were good. Humans too were good. And God loved them all.

It wasn’t long though until humanity, misinterpreting our duty to rule over the word, began to abuse it and each other. Time and again God spoke through the prophets, encouraging us all to return to the loving behaviour which had been intended for the human race, and to come back to God. Time and again we went our own way.

Until the damage was too deep, too broken, and the only healing that could really work, was the healing that God would bring about through Jesus, and through the relationships he developed with all of humanity.

This is the part of the story that brings us joy. The part where the angels make proclamations about a virgin birth, and young Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem to deliver the miracle baby, giving him the humblest of beginnings. We sing with angels about shepherds and their socks, we shine with the star, and we look for the wise old magi and their rather bizarre gifts.

This is the part that brings hope, as any new birth will. We skip over the brutal murder of hundreds of baby boys as Herod deals with any threat to his throne, and we conveniently forget about the times when we have had thoughts that may or may not verge on the murderous. We do not like to think forward to the cross, and all the sins, including our own, which need to be forgiven.

Instead we place our hopes in a helpless child, God’s greatest gift. We forget about the wars that rage, the politics that devour, just for an hour or so, as we wrap ourselves in the eternal Christmas hope that God so loved the world that he had created that he sent his only son into the midst of it.

Who do you think you are?

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

Matthew 1:1-11

Until a rise in genealogy and programs like Who do you think you are? passages like, this one, full of names of obscure sounding people, have seemed rather dry and uninteresting compared with the drama of an unplanned pregnancy and a roadside delivery. Despite names that are difficult to pronounce, this ‘family tree’ is rather dull compared with the visit of the wise men, and Herod’s dastardly exploits.

Now however, we know that if we look deep enough into the most unsuspecting of family trees we may find the link that turns a Cockney actor like Danny Dyer into a member of the Royal Family.

So here we have Jesus’ own family tree. The names are predominantly male, as we would expect from such a patriarchal society, and with the odd King thrown in as is only fitting for the Son of God, and his roots can be traced right back to the greatest of patriarchs, Abraham himself.

As we embark on a year of re-discovering Genesis it is good to be reminded of the place that key characters played in Jesus’ story:

We begin with Abraham, a direct descendent of Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. Abraham was called by God to to uproot his whole family to follow God’s blessings, and despite making many mistakes along the way, was promised that his descendants would be as many as the stars in the sky. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, eventually gave birth to Isaac who in turn fathered Jacob and became grandfather to Judah and his brothers including Joseph of the technicolour dreamcoat fame! Judah was the eldest son, and so the family tree follows him, although Joseph is the more godly of the brothers, and certainly the most well known.

Judah is noted for fathering two sons, Perez and Zerah, and for the first time a woman is mentioned, their mother Tamar. Tamar is not the type of woman you would expect to find flaunted in a family tree. She was the unhappy wife of Judah’s firstborn son, Er, who died young without any children. As was the custom, Tamar was then given to Er’s brother, Shua, who also died without producing children. Judah promised that when his third son, Onan, was old enough he would marry Tamar, until then she was to return to her father, where she was forgotten. Hearing that her father in law was in the area, Tamar tricked Judah into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute, and this is how the twins Perez and Zerah were born. It is these two, conceived in sin, who continue the family tree, with Perez the twin who fought to be born first, continuing the story. Tamar could not be more different from Mary, she lacks the purity, good fortune or favour that blessed Jesus’ own mother. Yet here she is, given the credit as his grandmother.

Perez fathers Hezron who pops up from time to time in genealogies, and an area is named after him. Then comes Aram who fathers Aminadab who fathers Elisheva who marries Aaron, Moses’ brother. His son, Nahshon, is appointed prince and military commander of the tribe of Judah during their time in the wilderness, although, like may, he didn’t make it out of the desert alive. His son, Salmon (yes, really), marries Rahab and they conceive Boaz.

Rahab becomes the second woman mentioned in Jesus’ family tree, and again like Tamar, she is slurred as a prostitute. Rahab kept an ‘inn’ (possibly a brothel), and sheltered Hebrew spies who had been sent to Jericho by Joshua. When the invasion came, she and her family were spared . Rahab, is not only a woman of dubious reputation, but also an outsider, one not of Israeli descent, and yet Matthew includes her here as another of Jesus’ grandmothers. Her marriage to Salmon, produces Boaz.

Boaz is a good man. He works hard, is well respected, wealthy, and stands by his kin. So when a relative, Naomi, returns from a foreign land, widowed and mourning her sons, he seeks to find a suitor for her daughter-in-law, another foreigner. When none are willing to take on, he marries Ruth, the final of the grandmothers named. Ruth and Boaz produce Obed, who sires Jesse, the father of David who slays Goliath, becomes king, and writes psalms.

David also has many sons (and daughters), his most famous being Solomon known for his wisdom, his wealth, and his wives. His birth, like many of his forefathers is not without question. David falls for the wife of his friend and commander in chief, and so has him murdered when he realises that his adultery has impregnated Bathseba, although this son doesn’t live.

Rehoboam was the son of Solomon, by a foreign wife, who succeeded Solomon as king, however, under him the united Kingdom of Israel became divided into the north and south, with Rehoboam remaining king of the north, of Judah. His son Abijah reigned for 6 years following and fought to reunite the two kingdoms. His son Asaph (Asa) reigned for much longer, and was known to be a good king, seeking to return Judah to faithfulness. Asaph’s son, Jehoshaphat, brought peace and prosperity to the throne, ruling for 25 years, and fortifying the kingdom against Israel.

Next come Joram who killed his own brothers in order to secure his shortlived and unsuccessful reign. Hi son Uzziah, started out well, heeding to the prophet Zechriah, but began to take holy matters into his own hands and was struck down when entering the inner sanctum of the Temple, from which he was then banned. Jesus’ lineage now contains, prostitutes and foreigners, kings and princes, murderers and adulterers; untimely deaths and banishment from the temple. It is an unlikely family into which God will place his Son.

And yet the line continues with Jotham who fought and won many battles, but began to allow pagan worship, and Ahaz who made alliances with other countries despite Isaiah’s warnings not to, and corrupted Temple worship with other gods. And then comes Hezekiah who restores the Temple, and re-instigates Passover as a pilgrimage festival, a great and good king at last. Hezekiah’s son, Manasseh, however, not only undoes the good work of his father, but puts to death the prophets that speak out against him, something which Jesus picks up on in his own teaching. Not that his own ancestors did this, but that sons of Abraham did, aligning himself with the slaughtered prophets. Amon, follows in his father’s footsteps, until his servants put an end to him and replace him with his 8 year old son Josiah.

Matthew then seems to skip a generation moving swiftly on to Jechoniah whose rule was swiftly brought to an end after a mere three months and ten days, after which the country is taken into exile by Babylon. It is in exile that Salathiel becomes king, despite a lack of land to rule over. It was Zerubbabel who began to bring his people back out of exile and rebuild the temple, after King Darius had appointed him Governor. Things are beginning to look up. Abiud follows with little comment, and little is known about Eliakim. The trail continues for a further six generations, during which the regal line is broken, until we get to Joseph, a lowly carpenter.

Through the family tree we have gained and lost power and faith; with great power the temptation to lose faith has also been great. Until a man of great faithfulness but lowly profession becomes the father, provider and security for the Christchild.

In our Carol services we will hear about the Tree of Jesse, and this is it. Jesse, the father of King David, and ancestor of Jesus, from whom a new shoot will come to bring freedom and release.

So, who do you think you are? Son of God, but son also of deceivers, prostitutes, adulterers and murderers; of foreigners and outsiders; of heaven and of earth.

Not everything is as it seems!

For years I have pitied John the Baptist. His lousy diet and itchy camel hair garments, his nomadic lifestyle, his aged parents who we can expect would have died when he was still fairly young.

But perhaps not everything is as it seems. Take the camelhair coat:

The material’s exceptional characteristics are apparent at first touch: The camel hair is soft, dense, and very hardwearing despite its elegant appearance. The price is amazingly reasonable, too. By renouncing major designer labels and expensive marketing, we can offer this coat for less than £400 instead of the well over £1,000 you would pay elsewhere.

This sounds more like the luxury of princes and kings rather than the basic coverall of an itinerant preacher. According to Wikipedia there are two types of camel hair: the rough outer hair that can be used to make the hair coats of those who seek a monastic lifestyle, and the undercoat, which is softer and more insulating. Perhaps John’s clothing was cosier than I had originally imagined?

And then there’s the locusts, eurgh!

In many countries locusts are a delicacy, a good source of protein, and deep fried and candy coated a special treat! However, there is also a bean known as a honey locust bean, which was a staple for ‘grazing’ monks. Eaten with wild honey this sounds quite delicious and very ‘super foody’.

Sometimes not everything is as it seems. And this is the message that John is trying to make on this occasion at the River Jordan.

For a while John had been preaching from the dessert, gathering his own disciples who had been looking for a ‘fresh expression’ of their faith. They are tired and despondent at the way that traditional teachings are being trotted out by those in religious positions of authority; and here, coming not from the stone buildings of the established faith, but from the wilderness, sounds a fresh voice. This voice doesn’t nitpick around tythes of mint and dill and other herbs, or worries about being seen to do the correct ritual thing. This voice speaks straight to the heart of what is troubling them.

John’s message is one of repentance. John’s message acknowledges that the world is messed up, and calls for people to take responsibility for their actions, and they do, ordinary people coming in crowds to not just repent, but to be washed clean in the river so that they can put the past behind them and start all over again.

What angers John though, is the ‘brood of vipers’ who come on false pretences. The Pharisees and Sadducees, join the crowds as if seeking forgiveness themselves, but they have no such intention. They are intrigued and want to hear more of John’s preaching, but they have no intention of repenting because they believe they have done nothing wrong. They, after all have kept all the religious laws to the very last apostrophe. They are the ones who were chosen to go on to rabbi school, they are the holy leaders. They are the ones who have it all right.

Except of course, they haven’t. None of us have. The Pharisees and Sadducees, or at least some of them, certainly most of the ones we encounter in the gospels, have no intention of losing any of their status. Their utmost belief is in their own good standing within the Jewish culture. They have the background, education and heritage to prove it. However, they don’t have the heart, and John not just a baptist but a prophet too, can see this.

Jesus will come and stand in their midst and they won’t even notice the presence of the Son of God, the Messiah they claim to be looking for.

And what of us? Are we like the Ronseal advert,

It does exactly what it says on the tin.

or do our words and actions not always match?

Advent and Lent are both times of preparation, of fasting and acting upon those elements of our lives we are unhappy about. Just as we clean and decorate our homes for Christmas, preparing to welcome expected and unexpected guests, it is time also to clean our hearts.

Are we truly motivated by Jesus? Do we really want to lay aside anything which comes between us and God, that comes between our friends and family and the truth of Jesus’ love that we want them to experience? If so, we need to heed the call of the prophets to make clear the paths, to prepare ourselves for giving Jesus the starring role in our lives, and not hiding him behind the other image we choose to project of ourselves. The successful image, the business entrepreneur, the domestic goddess, the sporting hero, the last one standing at the bar, even.

John calls us to repent. To lay aside anything which is not of Jesus, so that we can be true to him. John calls us to prepare our hearts and our homes, so that when we sing Hark the Herald or Away in a Manger, it will be an act of worship that will be seen by others as having truth and depth and real meaning in our lives and lead them to want to know more.

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