The Trouble with Lent…

Sermon preached at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton

On Sunday 5 March 2017 / Lent 1 (Purple)



Heavenly Father,
your Son battled with the powers of darkness,
and grew closer to you in the desert:
help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer
that we may witness to your saving love
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction: the Trouble with Lent!

I’ll tell you what the problem with Lent is:

It’s not that it’s not biblical. Although there’s nothing in the bible that says that if you give up chocolate for 6 weeks you’ll enjoy your Easter eggs more. And it’s not because people think that Lent comes from Jesus fasting in the desert for 40 days… (It was originally to do with being baptised on Easter Day. Those who were to be baptised spent the days and weeks beforehand preparing. And those who had been excommunicated, being penitent, were to be readmitted to church fellowship – they would prepare with self-examination. Over the years, other Christians began to join in, and that’s where Lent comes from. It hasn’t always been 40 days.)

No, the problem with Lent is that it is dangerously close to the heretical cult of self-improvement. To be honest: for many, it’s a spiritual form of new year’s resolution. It’s March now and your new year’s resolutions have been binned, so you take this opportunity to have another crack at it.

As someone has said:

“Fasting without prayer is just a diet.”

Fasting – for health and weight-loss has become fashionable. It seems that abstinence is the new indulgence.

Pope Francis has said, what is the point of giving up something that is of no benefit to someone else? (He says we should give up our indifference to others.)

So, the danger is that our Lenten discipline can be narcissistic: self-interested, self-absorbed, self-obsessed. And that’s pretty much a definition of sin!

I’m not against self-improvement. There are a couple of things about me that could do with some improving…

The problem is the cult of self-improvement. Visit any bookshop: the shelves are full of self-improvement and lifestyle books. Spirituality is seen as a branch of self-improvement, an addition to our lifestyle.

The only British Heresy!

Britain has only produced one world-class, Olympic standard heretic – a few saints, but only one heretic: Pelagius. Pelagius was a British lay theologian who was influential at the end of the C4th and the beginning of the C5th. Pelagianism has come to mean the belief that human beings can earn salvation by their own works. (It’s possible that Pelagius himself didn’t believe or teach that.)

Pelagius is said to have reacted with horror to a prayer of St Augustine:

“Give what you command and command what you will.”

In other words, if you want me to be good, God, you’ll have to do it. I can’t! Pelagius taught that we can all be good, if we choose to be good. Augustine said that even our ability to choose is flawed. We need to be saved by God’s grace. And the church sided with Augustine. Luther rediscovered Augustine and the Church of England followed Luther in its 39 Articles of Religion:


WE are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.

Or, if you like your Book of Common Prayer, the prayer of consecration at Holy Communion says:

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

In other words, Jesus has done it all. His death on the cross has dealt with the sins of the world, including mine. What can you add to that by giving up chocolate or alcohol? The bible says that we are saved, not because we are good but because God is good. There is nothing that you can add to what God has done in Christ. The good news is that you don’t need to.


What’s good about Lent? Lent gives us a great opportunity to consider our lives. To be serious about who we are and who we would like to be. Why does Christ die on the Cross on Good Friday? What does it mean that He is raised on Easter Sunday? What does that mean to me?

I hope that you will join us for Compline on Wednesday evenings as part of your Lent discipline. Not because it will help you get into heaven. But if might just help you live your life here on earth in the light of heaven.

A Franciscan Priest, Fr Richard Rohr, asks (in an article entitled, “Lent Is About Transformation“), Have you ever noticed that Jesus doesn’t give motivational speeches? “Try harder. Do better.” What he says is that we need to die and be raised to new life. That’s what our baptism service says.

What we need is not self-improvement by our own effort. What we need is to be transformed by God’s grace, by the example of Jesus and by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

Have a good Lent!

Have a Good Lent!

The Antiquities of the County of Suffolk (1846) by Alfred Suckling, record that in the registers of Darsham Church, there are “several curious entries”. Including:

‘A license granted to Mr. Thomas Southwell to eat meat in Lent, aged 82, and sickly, by John Eachard [Vicar], for which he paid 6s. 8d. for the use of the poor in Darsham, according to the statute, March 4, 1638.’

So here’s a church fundraising idea: rather than giving things up for Lent, you can buy a license to allow you to do whatever you like. Chocolate? That’s £10.00, please!

It’s been done before. In 1517, when the Pope wanted to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he sent a Dominican Friar called Johann Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences. Tetzel said that you could pay to have someone’s soul set free from purgatory – a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card for a loved one. Tetzel was a good salesman, with his slogan:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.

That might not have been official church teaching – indulgences were really to do with punishments that the church could impose on the living, not the dead. But the way in which they were being marketed caught the attention of an Augustinian Friar by the name of Martin Luther. Luther put together a series of propositions and sent them to his bishop. (He may or may not have nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. If he did, it was not the dramatic gesture it may have seemed – more like pinning something on a notice board.) These 95 theses included one which asked why the Pope, who was one of the wealthiest men ever to have lived, didn’t pay for the repairs himself rather than expecting poor ordinary folk to give their money.

These 95 theses, sent to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517, marked the start of the protestant reformation. I don’t think that Luther knew what he had started, nor was he able to control where it led, but part of what he did was to get back to what the bible says, rather than what the church said the bible says, and what had accumulated over the centuries. Luther’s reformation shared with Renaissance humanism a desire to get back to the original sources – ad fontes: the Renaissance went back to Greek and Latin classical texts, rather than relying on mediaeval interpretations of those texts. The Protestant Reformation decided to go back to the bible, rather than on how the church interpreted the bible.

It began with this rejection of the sale of indulgences. Imagine being able to pay to have your sins forgiven and go straight to heaven!

But it turns out that the gospel is even more outrageous than that. What Luther discovered, when he went back to the bible, is that God saves us, not because of our merit, but by grace alone. We receive that grace by faith alone. Salvation cannot be bought because it is offered free of charge. It cannot be earned because it is God’s gracious gift.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesians 2:8-10

The problem with Lent is that it can make us feel worthy, even self-righteous. But the gospel gives us no reason to boast because none of it is our own doing. It is God’s doing: we are what God created us to be. And part of that is a life of good works – not in order to earn our salvation but simply because that is who God made us to be.

The Boy Jesus in the Temple

Long before the Home Alone movies. And long before David Cameron left his child in the pub – we’ve all done it! – there was the story of The Boy Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:41-end). All parents know how difficult it can be to keep tabs on a child. One possible explanation for the apparent negligence of Mary & Joseph may be to do with the fact that, as a 12-year-old boy, on the threshold of adult life, there may been a mix-up over whether he was traveling with the women and children, or with the men. They would have travelled in groups of relatives, so it’s not difficult to imagine the potential confusion.

This is the only biblical story of Jesus’s childhood, after the nativity stories and Luke’s account of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:21-40) and it contains the first words of Jesus to be recorded. Jesus’s parents were, of course, devout Jews, and went to Jerusalem for the annual Passover festival. (Jewish men were required to attend three festivals a year: Pentecost, Tabernacles and Passover. In practice, “only Passover was strictly observed” (I Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke) and here, there were clearly women attending too.) Pilgrims were required to stay in Jerusalem for two days during the week of the festival. The boy Jesus apparently thinks that two days is just not enough, so he stays behind. They’ve travelled homeward for a whole day before they realise he’s missing.

Of course, when they eventually find him (‘after three days’), he’s perfectly happy sitting with the religious teachers, listening and asking questions.

And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. (2:47)

His parents, on the other hand, are not so happy. They’ve been wracked with anxiety and they let him know that this is no way to treat your parents. Mind you, Mary had previously been warned that it was not going to be easy being this child’s mother…

Jesus’s first recorded words are:

‘Why were you searching for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ (2:49)

The King James bible translates this as, “about my Father’s business”. The point is that we see the contrast between Jesus as part of his earthly family and Jesus the Son of his divine Father. Jesus’s relationship with his earthly family was often in tension with his divine personhood and his demands on his disciples to put their divine relationship first was a tough one.

The promise of the nativity story is revealed here: Jesus is the Son of God. This is a moment of epiphany, a revelation. Jesus’s true identity is laid bare. And then he goes back to being a jolly well-behaved boy, obedient to his parents. The next time we meet him, it will be at baptism at the hands of John, where Jesus will be affirmed as God’s Son, the beloved, pleasing to God his Father.

Jesus’s role is unique, but in a way, this is our story too. Our first loyalty is to our Father in heaven. That’s who we are, children of God. Jesus’s relationship is unique but he invites us to become God’s children too. Mostly we live that out as parents and children, brothers and sisters, as friends and so on – our earthly relationships where we are called to love one another. But we too have a heavenly Father and we are called, not just to be in his house, but about his business.

Two Kings

Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn, and St Matthew’s Church, Stretton

On Sunday 15 January 2017 / Epiphany 2


Eternal Lord,
our beginning and our end:
bring us with the whole creation
to your glory, hidden through past ages
and made known
in Jesus Christ our Lord.


We start the season of Epiphany with the story of the wise men (‘Magi’) who visit Jesus.

Quiz question:

In the story, how many kings are there?

Answer: two.

If you said ‘three’, and this were QI, the klaxons would sound and lights flash signifying an obvious but wrong answer. You thought there were three kings in the story? You’ve been misled by the carol, ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ and by every nativity play ever performed. In Matthew’s account of the visit of the magi, there’s no reference to them being kings – something you might have thought to mention if it were the case. Luke tells of the shepherds but makes no reference to magi. Mark and John have no nativity story, so that leaves us with Matthew, and Matthew does not say that any kings came to visit the infant Jesus. The visitors are ‘magi’, possibly followers of the eastern religion Zoroastrianism. They are scholars, in the sense that they study the stars. But they are not kings.

Nor does Matthew say that there were three of them. There were three gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – so maybe they brought one each. In some traditions, there were 12 of them, so maybe they clubbed together to buy those expensive gifts.

And, just to clear things up, they come to the house to find Jesus and his mother, not a stable, and they don’t bump into any shepherds. In fact, given that Herod gave the order to have children up to two years old killed, their visit might have been a couple of years after that of the shepherds.

So, how many kings are there in the story?

If you are wise to my trickery, you might have answered ‘none’ but that’s not right either.

There are two. The first is King Herod – Herod the Great, a puppet of the Roman empire but given the title ‘King of the Jews’. And the second, of course, is Jesus. The Magi come asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” They have seen a star that augurs the birth of a new king. This is why Herod is afraid: as far as he is concerned, he, Herod, is king. The last thing he needs is the news that another king has been born. It’s a threat to his job security and he does what dictators and despots have done throughout the ages: he orders the slaughter of his potential rivals.

So, you can read this story as the account of two kings. One has political power and will do anything to hold on to it. The other has no earthly power and will spend his life giving away what he does have. One will stop at nothing to preserve his own interests. The other will stop at nothing out of love for others. The first will kill in order to protect his livelihood. The second lays down his life out of love for others.


And so, a good question for Epiphany, at the start of a new year, is: which is your king? The king of self-preservation, self-interest? Or the king of love, who gives away all that he has and all that he is? The king who gives orders to others? Or the king who becomes the servant to all?

One kills in order to save his own skin; the other lays down his life in order to save those he loves.

Which is your king? And what does it mean to follow such a king?

John the Baptiser


Before I’m A Celebrity’s Bush Tucker Trials there was John the Baptist, eating locusts. (Did you watch David Attenborough, Planet Earth II’s plague of locusts and think, They look tasty!?)

Before TV fashion makeovers, before Gok Wan, or even Trinny & Susannah, there was John the Baptist, wearing camel hair clothes and a leather belt.

Before Escape to the Country, Location, Location, Location, and a million other property shows, John the Baptist, appeared in the desert.

Before political correctness, there was John the Baptist:

…  when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Matthew 3:7-10

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of John the Baptiser! Like the prophets before him, he shows no fear or favour. You think your impeccable pedigree will save you? Think again! Even rulers show some respect. And Herod himself can’t escape John’s censure: Herod, you may think you’re the boss around here, but that doesn’t give you licence to do as you please. Even you, Herod Antipas, will have to answer to God for the choices you have made, not least that dodgy marriage to your half-brother’s wife!

Such words are not designed to give the prophet an easy life. But then, John never asked for an easy life. Into prison he goes and pays the price for his plain speaking, victim of Herod’s arrogance and pride. What price your life, John?

But then, you never wanted to be popular, did you? You never wanted to be in the spotlight. That place belonged to another – that cousin of yours, the one whose sandals you couldn’t bring yourself to untie.


Jesus is coming. John the Baptiser calls on God’s people to repent, to get ready, to make way for the King, the true King.

In Advent, we consider our lives: are we pointing in the right direction? Have we made the right choices? Are our lives bearing good fruit? Are we prepared to welcome the King when he comes?

Taking the Wanting Out of Waiting

Advent Sunday Evening

6:30PM 27th November 2016

You can read the text below and / or listen to the sermon here

I was going to call this evening’s service an Advent Carol Service. That’s what it is. The trouble is, when people see the word ‘carol’, they assume we’ll be singing Christmas carols. Even though there are Easter carols and Advent carols, and, probably, Michaelmas carols, people are more familiar with Christmas carols.

There’s a bigger problem. You see, I say ‘Advent’ and you hear ‘Christmas’. It’s a strange psychological phenomenon…

In a previous parish, I was talking to a primary school teacher about songs for assembly. I said it was the start of Advent, she said, “Let’s sing something festive: ‘Away In A Manger’.”

Let me illustrate: imagine it’s late February next year. You say to me, “Alan, what are you planning for Lent this year?” (Ash Wednesday is on 1st March in 2017.) I say, “For Lent this year, I have decided to eat chocolate eggs. One a day, every day in Lent. I’ll have a little Lent calendar with chocolate eggs behind every window…” That’s 40 chocolate eggs. You say, “But chocolate eggs are for Easter, not Lent. In Lent, people normally give up eating chocolate rather than take it up.” I say, “But I don’t like Lent. I like Easter, so it’s chocolate eggs every day.”

It’s not quite fair: the mood of Lent is penitential – we cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes and feel miserable. The emphasis of Advent is not quite that. Advent is about expectation, looking forward to the fulfilment of promise. The trouble is, we’re not good at waiting. Previous generations saved up for furniture. We buy on credit cards. One of them used to have the slogan:

Take the waiting out of wanting.

The modern world is best pictured as someone tapping their fingers on the top of the microwave shouting, “Come on!”. Amazon Prime: order almost anything and they deliver it next day. Amazon Prime Now will deliver in 2 hours. And it’s available in my postcode area. I’ve checked.

You may know the marshmallow experiment.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.)

In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.[1]

We’re not good at waiting but Advent is about waiting hopefully. We look back to the way in which God’s people waited for their messiah. We look forward to celebrating the birth of Jesus. We look forward to God fulfilling his promises. As someone has said, in Advent we celebrate God coming to us in:

  • History – the incarnation, the birth of Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem
  • Mystery – by God’s Holy Spirit, the promise of Jesus to be with us always
  • Majesty – the second coming, the promise of Jesus to return.


Stairway to Heaven

You’ve probably heard of the actor who was so modest that, when he wrote his autobiography, he didn’t even get a mention in it.

Today (24th August) is St Bartholomew’s day and if you read the gospel set for today (Luke 22:24-30), you will find no mention of Bartholomew. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we see Bartholomew’s name listed as one of the twelve apostles, but that’s it. Nothing else. John’s gospel doesn’t mention Bartholomew at all. Instead, John speaks of a Nathaniel (John 1:43-end) and it is suggested that this Nathaniel is the same person. Matthew, Mark, and Luke name Bartholomew as one of the twelve apostles. John doesn’t, but does name Nathaniel. ‘Bartholomew’ is not a personal name but means ‘son of Tolmar/Talmai’, a bit like someone whose surname is Robertson or MacDonald. Or possibly it means that he was a ploughman, ‘son of the furrows’… Matthew, Mark and Luke list Bartholomew’s name next to Philip and in the John passage (John 1:45), it is Philip who finds Nathaniel and brings him to Jesus.

Bartholomew (or Nathaniel) was a fisherman from Cana in Galilee (John 21:1, 2). He is one of the seven disciples to whom the Risen Christ appears while they are fishing without success. Jesus invites them to have breakfast on the beach.

And, finally, Nathaniel is with the other disciples after the Ascension (Acts 1:13). And that’s it. No other references to Bartholomew or Nathaniel. Tradition has it that he travelled to India (possibly Arabia or Ethiopia) and to Armenia. He is said to have been flayed alive and is depicted in art holding his own skin and the instruments of torture (including by Damien Hurst, in his ‘Exquisite Pain’, currently at Chatsworth House). He is, therefore, patron saint of tanners, leather-workers and bookbinders.

In the John passage (1:43-end), Jesus is in Galilee and finds Philip and says to him, ‘Follow me’. Philip finds Nathaniel and says, ‘We’ve found him! The one promised in the law and the prophets.’ Nathaniel is not convinced that anything good can come out of Nazareth. Philip says, ‘Come and see’. Jesus is about to impress him: he describes Nathaniel as someone without guile or deceit. ‘How do you know?’, asks Nathaniel. Jesus says, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’. This supernatural insight is enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Jesus says, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ and gives this slightly strange picture in which heaven is open and the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. Behind this is the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob dreams of a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down. When Jacob wakes he says:

“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
(Genesis 28:17)

Jesus is God’s ‘ladder’, the one who connects us to God. The place where God is made known, the place where earth connects with heaven; Jesus is the mediator who makes God known, the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity connect.

We know very little about Bartholomew – almost nothing if we don’t accept the identification with Nathaniel. But like us, he finds in Jesus the one mediator between God and humanity, the stairway to heaven.

The Rich Fool

Sermon preached at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton
On Sunday 31 July 2016 / Trinity 10 (Green) / Proper 13


Hosea 11:1-11 (OTp769) God the parent’s compassion for his wayward child: how can I let you go? #Hosea11_1 #TweetingTheBible
Colossians 3:1-11 (NTp187) Since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. #Colossians3_1 #TweetingTheBible
Luke 12:13-21 (NTp69) The Rich Fool stores up treasure for himself without being rich towards God. #Luke12_13 #TweetingTheBible


So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above…


Donald Trump has had a tough life. He has worked hard to become the billionaire that he is today.

“It has not been easy for me… I started off in Brooklyn, my father gave me a small loan of $1 million. I came into Manhattan and I had to pay him back, and I had to pay him back with interest.”[1]

So, his father, Fred, who was an actual self-made multi-millionaire, with a dodgy reputation, lent him the small sum of $1M, from which Donald has made his fortune. Along with the 100s of millions he inherited from his father.

But it’s easy to use the parable of the Rich Fool to have a go at someone like Donald Trump. It’s fun, too. But, of course, the parable is not about someone else. It’s about us.

The Dangers of Wealth

Luke’s gospel, in particular, shows how Jesus warns of the dangers of wealth, of possessions. The danger is that we don’t possess our possessions: they possess us! They distort who we are and rival God in our lives.

To be clear: the Bible is not anti-wealth. Many figures in the bible are wealthy and see their wealth as God’s blessing. Contrary to what people often say, money is not the root of all evil. It is our attitude to money that matters:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

1 Timothy 6:10

Of course, in church, the only time we ever talk about money is when we are trying to part you from yours! So, in order to stop loving money, you should definitely put more in the collection plate! Jesus talks about money, wealth, possessions a lot of the time, precisely because they are dangerous to our spiritual health. Unlike some who claim to be religious, Jesus never tells you to take money out of your pockets and put it into his! But Jesus wants us to be free. And the pursuit of wealth, for its own sake, is a form of spiritual bondage.

The Parable of the Rich Fool

Jesus is asked to intervene in a family dispute over an inheritance. (How many families have been broken by such disputes?) Jesus refuses to get involved, presumably because he knows that the motivation of the appellant is greed. ‘Don’t involve me in your money squabbles’, Jesus says.

‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ V15

Then he told them this parable of a rich man whose land produced abundantly. He has the problems of wealth: where am I going to keep all this stuff I have accumulated? I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones. He doesn’t know how lucky he is! “My grain, my goods”. It’s all me, me, me!

And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” V19

The problem is not with him enjoying his wealth, nor with planning to take it easy. The problem is that he can see no further than the end of his nose. He lives in a universe with himself at the centre. A universe which is empty of all but himself. There is no God in his universe; no neighbour in his world. Like the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), he cannot see anything outside of himself. He speaks to himself: “I will say to my soul, soul…”

It really is all about ‘me’. Not a thought for the other – no mention even of family, let alone neighbour or God. His problem is not wealth but greed.

Who is the Rich Man?

The Rich Man is you. And me. We are among the wealthiest people who have ever set foot on the earth. And we don’t believe it! That’s because we have advertisers who tell us that we would be happier if we were only a bit richer. If only we had more stuff to store in our barns! You and I know that’s not true. So why do we buy lottery tickets? (I don’t! I’ve never bought a lottery ticket in my life. But I do pray for my dad to win!) Why do we fall for scams? Why are we taken in by advertising?


Our materialistic society wants us to focus on what we don’t have, not on what we do. Without everyone wanting more, capitalism fails. Jesus warns that greed is a powerful way to lose your life. What a terrible way to live! Storing up treasure but not being rich in any way that actually matters (‘towards God’)!

And, it turns out the man with the biggest brain in the universe – Stephen Hawking – agrees. We need to rethink wealth, he says. Because money doesn’t do it.

“The best things in life aren’t things.”

Art Buchwald


Hosea: Skeletons in the Closet

Sermon preached by Linda Buckley at St Matthew’s Church, Stretton, on Sunday 24th July 2016

Any skeletons in your closet? Anything that you’d rather nobody ever found out about you? These are some of the things that were found in the top 25 of a recent survey


1. Having an affair
2. An embarrassing incident
4. Debt
6. Family history
7. Phobia
8. Purchases
9. You smoke/used to smoke
10. Real-life crushes
11. Addiction
13. Bank/credit card statements
14. Age
15. A criminal past
16. Illness or condition
17. Previous marriage(s)
18. Pretending to like something/someone you loath
20. Tattoo
23. Sexting/Snapchat
24. Education/exam grades
25. Pretending to be good at something ..I include pretending you’ve read a book or watched a film

Apparently bumping the car is also there along with taking small items home from work previous lifestyle

We are going to explore a very public skeleton on full view in this story from a minor prophet, Hosea. Minor because shorter book in the Bible, not less important
Imagine, you get an invitation to the wedding someone you have been out of contact with. You look around. On the groom’s side are well-dressed​ families and some local church members talking quietly.
The bride’s side is packed and noisy. Lots of people are dressed as if for a night out, mostly single people and no families… Then the traditional music of Britney Spears “hit me baby one more time” starts and the bride enters wearing bright red … Well, almost wearing because, there isn’t much left to the imagination….and , although you don’t like to judge and know the groom has always been a person of faith and sound advice, you begin to wonder if he’s lost it.
Then the service begins… I take you for better, for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, in adultery and prostitution……you want to stand up and shout “Is it too late to object? Run for it!”

So why did Hosea marry someone who he knew would sleep with other men and become a prostitute ….because God told him to.

At the time Israel was prosperous and successful as never before and as a result they had fallen away from God…they didn’t need him for help, they had all the security and material stuff they wanted. They became proud of what they had achieved and complacent. They forgot what God had done for them in rescuing them from Egypt, however it was his plan not theirs, and certainly not the plan of other gods
God is not pleased and through Hosea he basically says
You’ve sinned – stop it
God’s angry – repent
If you don’t he will punish
If you do he will restore you
God loves his people and wants them to love him

Back to the wedding. God tells Hosea to marry someone who will break his heart, who will commit adultery and eventually become a prostitute. Simply this will be an example to the people of Israel who keep breaking God’s heart. He marries Gomer
The bible tells us Hosea and Gomer have a son Jezreel, Jezreel was a place which was remembered by the Jews as a place of massacre because of disobedience to God. Would you call a child Belsen or Auschwitz? We are then told Gomer has a daughter mention of Hosea so we assume by someone else called Lorumaha, meaning no mercy, no compassion, and a son Loami – not my people. God will show no mercy they are not his people
How do we feel about Gomer? Do we want to punish Gomer, see her as the bad person? Gomer leaves her husband and children for other men, and prostration, eventually she gets so desperate she sells herself into slavery, we will return to the rest of this story later
While all this is going on Hosea is giving Israel God’s message

God says he’ll reject them if they don’t want, him he points out they don’t know him any more…there is no mercy in their hearts, or faithfulness, they are hard hearted, their love has gone like a vapour or early morning mist, they are following other gods or ideals as the centre of their lives (today could that be careers, investments, beauty, holidays, material goods, technology, social status or social media statuses, longevity)… All Mist and vapour

God wants mercy not sacrifice he wants love not false action

He says my “prophets will kill you with words… ” God didn’t come to set up a religion but a relationship, the Jews had kept some of the trappings of religion but rejected the relationship

So this is where Hosea is, the relationship with Gomer has been rejected, but his family still have a future…can they change things?
In chapter 2 we have hope, given through the language of relationship. Using the imagery of an unfaithful wife God talks about Israel, and the potential future the future of the relationship.

V 14 Therefore, I will now persuade her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.

God wants Israel to come back to him of their own free will

19 And I will take you for my wife for ever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord

God offers a clean slate , a fresh start leaving the past behind. The language of unconditional love.

So back to our story. Hosea wants Gomer back,chapter 3 Hosea says The Lord said to me again, ‘Go, love a woman who has a lover and is an adulteress, just as the Lord loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love raisin cakes.’ So I bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer of barley and a measure of wine.
Hosea has to look for Gomer, actively search for her; he finds her and he has to pay the debt to buy her back. He didn’t have enough cash to redeem her so he uses important food and drink, he restores her. There is a cost for her rebellion
This is not a God who is keeping account of sin, but of a loving husband who says what is neededto restore the relationship – I love you still no matter what you’ve done… I will give you back your vineyards

And what about their children?

Chapter 2 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.
On that day I will answer, says the Lord,
 I will answer the heavens
 and they shall answer the earth;
and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil,
 and they shall answer Jezreel;
and I will sow him for myself in the land. Jezreel here has another meaning sow, to bear fruit
And I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah,
 and I will say to Lo-ammi, You are my people’;
 and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’

Everyone has a place in God’s family

What a story, full of imagery full of real people with real relationships
What does it say to us?
Maybe we need to deal with our own skeletons, or those of others, When we say the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive us . Do we truly forgive ourselves? If not , admit it and ask God for help.
As we forgive those who sin against us… Do we, really? If not ask God for help to do this. Admit it.
Some skeletons can be trapped in our idea and emotions?…. Things we are ashamed of feeling, and thinking.
In The Luke reading lJesus says
9 ‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened

At no stage was Gomer forced to come back. Just as Hosea went looking for her and offered her the opportunity, so God offers us the same. Through the sacrifice of Jesus we can enter into a relationship with God. Jesus is knocking, not forcing his way in, we can open the door, we don’t have to have Spring cleaned our lives, he is a visitor who isn’t looking at the dust, the unwashed dishes, opening the cupboard doors to look for skeletons ; he is looking directly into our eyes offering a hand if we take it. We come as we are.

We need a simple prayer. Please come in… It may be the first time we have opened the door, or it may be a revisit but we can come to God or come back to him as God is merciful and faithful and unconditionally loves each one of us
So our God really reigns and we can be a part of his kingdom on earth right here right now

The Lord’s Prayer

Sermon preached at St Cross Church, Appleton Thorn

On Sunday 24 July 2016 / Trinity 9 (Green) / Proper 12C

Listen to an audio recording of the sermon – click here.


The readings summarised as a tweet
Hosea 1:2-10 Want to know what it’s like being your God? Try marrying an unfaithful woman! H’s children named prophetically. #Hosea1_2 #TweetingTheBible
Colossians 2:6-15 Emptiness of deceit vs the fullness of God in Christ and fullness of life in him. From death to life. #Colossians2_6 #TweetingTheBible
Luke 11:1-13 When you pray, say ‘Father…’. Persevere. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit. #Luke11_1 #TweetingTheBible


Gracious Father,
revive your Church in our day,
and make her holy, strong and faithful,
for your glory’s sake
in Jesus Christ our Lord.


The disciples ask, ‘Lord, teach us to pray’. You’d expect a religious teacher to teach prayer, as John the Baptist had done.

Jesus gives them the Lord’s prayer, not quite in the form that we are used to. The prayer is recorded in Matthew as well but Luke’s version is shorter.

Given what Jesus has to say about prayer (e.g., in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:7) you’ll know that learning a prayer off by heart and reciting it parrot fashion is not what Jesus is suggesting. Rather, he gives a pattern for prayer, an idea of what Christian prayer is.

What is Prayer?

Prayer is Relational


It comes from our relationship with God – the relationship that God has already established and offers, that God is our Father, we are his children. Prayer is addressed to ‘Father’. (Matthew has ‘Our Father’.) Given that the word Jesus uses is ‘Abba’, a term of intimacy, we begin with a certain confidence. God has made himself known to us as Father and we are invited to address God using the word that Jesus himself used, ‘Abba’. It’s the sound that a child makes, like ‘dada’, but it’s not childish because it also would be used by an adult to address his or her father.

Prayer is Reverent

…hallowed be your name.

We address God as ‘dad’, but this is no indulgent sugar daddy. This father is one whose name is ‘hallowed’, treated with respect. Matthew has ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name’. This is our heavenly father, the who whose name is holy.

Prayer is about Ranking Priorities

Your kingdom come.

We pray first for God’s kingdom to come. Not ours. You are not the centre of the universe. The universe does not revolve around you. Matthew has:

Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

In prayer, we align ourselves with God’s will. And you thought it was about presenting God with a shopping list!

Then, Prayer is about our Bodily Resources

Give us each day our daily bread

Given that God knows what we need before we ask, why do we ask? Because we need to acknowledge our creaturely dependence on God. That’s the deal: God is Creator. We are creatures. Our daily bread is what we need to sustain us in our earthly pilgrimage. This is not caviar and champagne – though we may enjoy those on occasion – this is the staff of life, meeting our basic needs.

And Prayer is about our Spiritual Resources

And forgive us our sins…

Sin is what breaks our relationship with God our Father in heaven. In Christ, God has done all that needed to be done to restore that relationship. But we can drift away. Each time we pray using the Lord’s Prayer, we ask that the relationship be restored.

Prayer is about our Relationships with Others

…for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.

Our relationship with God is always tied in to the relationships we have with others. We can’t expect God to forgive us if we are not open to forgive others.

Prayer is about having the Resilience to cope with life

And do not bring us to the time of trial.

It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. I don’t know if you had noticed, but Christians – even vicars – do not necessarily lead charmed lives! We pray that we may have the resources to cope with what life throws at us.

Our prayer is that God will never take us to a place where we are stretched beyond our capacity to endure, to persevere.

Matthew has:

And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.


Prayer is never mere repetition or recitation of something we have learned by rote. It is

  • Relational
  • Reverent
  • To do with Ranking Priorities
  • We trust God for our Material Resources
  • and for our Spiritual Resources
  • We seek the Resilience to cope with what life throws at us.