‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

make straight the way of the Lord

A sermon for Christ church Lofthouse for the birth of John the Baptist.

“It’s a boy” – said my sister on the phone – “we’re calling him Stanley”…then “hello – are you still there?” I’d been struck dumb at the unexpected name…at least I’d controlled the urge to respond “Stanley?”…As my daughter said, “That’s not a baby name.” The only Stanleys we knew at the time were definitely of mature years.

Of course, 11 years on, we can’t imagine Stan being called anything else…

It’s similar with John the Baptist…great Christian figure…we know his story, we can’t imagine him called anything else. But as we heard in our gospel, the response to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s choice of name was something like “John?

Today we celebrate his birth. And it seemed to me, as I pondered the readings this week, that birth of John the Baptist is a story of God who always takes us by surprise, who brings hope in unexpected ways, and the story of a call to action.

Hope can seem a difficult thing today. We look at the world – and see violence, hunger, environmental disaster, migrants, refugees…It’s hard to see God’s message of hope as part of those stories.

We look at our communities and see loneliness, debt, young people drawn into violence, indifference. It’s hard to see how God’s message of hope can become part of those stories.

We look at our church and often see declining numbers, aging congregations, expensive buildings. It’s hard to see how we can be the bridge between God and the world around.

But our readings remind us there’s never an easy time to bring hope into the world.

The prophet Isaiah speaks to people in exile, after Jerusalem has fallen to the Babylonians. But still he talks of hope…”See the Lord God comes with might, and he will feed his flock like a shepherd”

Zechariah and Elizabeth have suffered the anguish and shame of being childless for years. But they remain faithful to God – and today we hear Zechariah praising God for the wonderful hope their son brings to their lives.

But neither of these are stories of the hope that if we can hang on long enough, God will come…they are also a call to action.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”, the prophet urges.

And for Zechariah and Elizabeth – John is not just a son to enjoy in their old age; he’s a son who belongs to God, who’s already been given a task to do; they don’t even get to choose his name.

At his birth people wondered, “what will this child become?” We know John became one who made a highway between Christ and the people he came to save; one who made it possible for people to approach God and hear his word.

A birth worth celebrating – but what might this story say to us?

That being faithful to God is a good starting point. The prophet listened for, and spoke, the word of the Lord; Zechariah and Elizabeth remained faithful and were ready to do God’s will.

That the prophet’s call is also aimed at us – unlikely as it might seem. I’m sure some who heard of my vocation responded… “Alison?” I certainly did. But God always takes us by surprise.

So I reckon we are called to prepare the way of the Lord…to make straight a highway for our God…even in the wilderness and the desert of a world where problems seem overwhelming and people have forgotten their need of God.

I see from your website that even whilst Mandy’s on sabbatical you have different services every day – from being quiet before God to Messy church. I see you’re supporting a food bank and learning about St George’s crypt. This church clearly is a sign of hope in the wilderness…I’m not sure you could do much more each week without collapsing! Yet, as in every place, many don’t come, many don’t know Christ.

It seems today that we need to build a highway between the world and the church, as Isaiah said, people need the uneven ground between them and God made level.

So for a moment let’s imagine Lofthouse, or Whitkirk church surrounded by uneven, hazardous ground that makes it hard to reach. Let’s imagine God surrounded by obstacles we’ve built up that make him hard to reach.

Let’s think of the people we come across in our daily lives, what are the humps, the obstacles that need making level for them? What’s keeping them from God?

Is it a difficult experience of church, or with a Christian? Have they been left with a picture of God that drives them away? Have they been left with a picture of themselves that makes them feel unfit to come to God?

Is it simply the fact that how ever welcoming we try to be – we’re a group of people in the know about worship? Do we know someone who doesn’t come because they’re afraid to try something new, afraid to look silly because they don’t know the rules?

Is it just that life gets in the way. Do we know people who are so busy juggling home, work, family, that they see church as just one more thing in an overloaded timetable – rather than the one thing that might make sense of the rest?

Is it that they feel fine, they can’t imagine Christ’s story as part of their story, that Christ could make a difference to their lives?

Let’s think about the people we know; let’s think about how we might help to level the ground between them and God.

Lord God, as we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, help us remember that as Christians we are always called to hope, and that each one of us is called to ‘make straight the way of the Lord.’ Amen.

What does the story do with you?


Why parables? Why everyday images? A sermon for June 17th, St Mary’s Whitkirk

There you are, squeezed onto a hillside with hundreds of other people…clearly not the only one curious to hear this Jesus. You’ve abandoned your crops for the day, to stand here in the beating sun…because people say… “He’s different to the other teachers, it’s as though he knows God personally. You have to hear him.”

And afterwards? What did you make of him? He was charismatic, spellbinding even…but what did he tell you…you a farmer? That if you scatter your seed on the path birds will eat it…that if you plant seed, it grows…that those tiny, troublesome mustard seeds grow into huge bushes…as if you didn’t spend half your life digging them up.

Where was the new language of God? The miracles? Shouldn’t the kingdom of God involve at the very least thunder, lightening, a voice from heaven?

Well I always was the awkward one in the class…the one who had to question…but I reckon there must have been some that day who were shocked, disappointed by the very ordinariness of what Jesus said.

So I’d like to spend a few minutes considering – why did Jesus speak of God in parables? – and why such mundane examples?

Why parables? Maybe because there is no language that will do for God. The kingdom of God is more than we can ever understand. It’s not really something we can explain or have explained…it’s something we need to try to inhabit, something to work towards.

But we’re human – language is how we make sense of things…and parables give us a way in, a starting point. The whole, the Kingdom of God, is beyond our comprehension – but each parable gives us a hint, a flavour of that Kingdom.

Why though, such ordinary, unexceptional images for God’s Kingdom?

Does it perhaps say something radical about God, something we sort of know – but find hard to accept? That this is mostly how God works…not in dramatic interventions…but in the mess and ordinariness of human lives.

Incarnation tells us that God transforms the world by being in the world. Jesus lived an ordinary human life…no doubt he planted seeds and watched them grow…or die. No doubt he lit lamps as night fell. And if he didn’t make bread, he’ll have watched his mother do it.

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God?’ Jesus asks.

With the crops you grow, with the yeast in the bread you make, with the lamp you light every night…with the things that are all around you.

Of course, for us these are now the stuff of bible stories rather than everyday life. I’ve never seen a mustard tree…Perhaps we should imagine Jesus saying…the kingdom of God is under your noses…stop waiting for a sign from above – look around you.

Because I suspect we’re no different to the people there that day. We know God is transcendent, all-powerful, but we can only imagine our version of that. When we try to imagine God – we think of how we would build a kingdom – and picture God’s kingdom as just a much bigger version of that.

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God?’ with plants growing quietly whilst we sleep; with tiny seeds developing eventually into huge bushes.

Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that God chooses to transform things from the heart of the everyday human world, not by interventions from above. Perhaps Jesus is reminding us that God chooses to transform things by transforming individual human hearts…often a slow process.

As I’ve been wrestling with this sermon over the last week – I’ve wondered whether Jesus spoke in parables to make us work. These small images surprise us…they force us to think, and rethink our ideas about the Kingdom of God.

We could look in books or online and find lots of different interpretations for these parables. We could spend time wondering who’s right and who’s wrong. But I don’t think that’s the point. Parables don’t answer questions as much as they ask them. A parable plants a picture in our minds. We need to live with it – carry it round with us, see what it has to say in our life.

That surely is another reason for parables instead of statements…not that they can mean anything we want them to…but that their meaning depends partly on the lives they enter. We might hear someone else’s thoughts and think, “That’s it”; or we might disagree…and have to work out why.

And this isn’t something to do once in our lives…parables should mean something slightly different each time we hear them – because we are different people each time we hear them.

So this week, take the service sheet home and reread those two short parables. Carry them around in your head as you go to work; as you care for grandchildren, parents, friends; as you do the housework, the garden. Let them rub up against your life – especially the things particularly on your mind.

What does it mean for your life at the moment that the kingdom of God is like a tiny seed that grows into a huge tree? What does it mean for your life that the Kingdom of God is like seed that grows – even if we don’t know how?

Why did Jesus compare his Kingdom to ordinary, everyday things? Because his Kingdom is not just for Christmas…or Easter…or Sunday…but for the whole of life.

Why parables? Because they are stories not answers. And with stories, it’s not just about what we do with the story, but what the story does with us.

Lord Jesus, we offer you our lives this week…transform them with your stories. Help us to look around and find your Kingdom in our everyday. Amen.