In Lent 2020 we started up weekly prayer sessions led by Dr. Margaret Clark on Wednesday evenings. When these were curtailed by the closure of churches during lockdown, Margaret kindly agreed to provide short written meditations for circulation by e-mail to those in the group. By popular request they continued after Easter, and are still going. We are publishing them on this page - the four most recent will be found below - but if anyone would like to be included on the e-mail circulation list for future weeks, please let Liz Woodall know via the 'Get in Touch' page.
Wednesday, 2nd December 2020
Corinthians 1 3-9 : Waiting and expecting
4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
When I was first preparing this, I had not realised it would fall due just as lockdown was due to end. It seems so appropriate for considering Advent: it’s a date we have looked forward to, often impatiently, it’s almost here, things are going to change. We are not entirely there but we are on our way. Isn’t that exactly what Advent is about? How often do we get a reminder out of ordinary life?
That’s the focus of what Paul is talking about here: ‘you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed’. Waiting, looking forward, longing, are what Advent is about: O come, O come, Emmanuel! If we wonder what exactly we await, it’s in the Gospel reading: 'At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory’. (Mark 13.26) Thank God for those immersed in scripture who taught us to ‘let scripture explain scripture’, and for those who drew up the lectionary, who juxtaposed these readings for our instruction. We are waiting for him to come back, as they were told at the Ascension, coming in the clouds as they saw him go, but this time in great power and glory. As someone said, ‘When the author walks on the stage, the play is over’. This really will be The End: or rather the beginning of something we can only glimpse at, but like children, we could and should look forward to it.
Already, Paul says, we have been blessed out of our boots, to paraphrase. He emphasises three aspects: how often scripture passages fall in threes, but then so does the Hebrew language and for that matter so does the blessed Trinity. He says we ‘have been enriched in every way’, that we ‘do not lack any spiritual gift’, and that Christ will keep us strong to the end, or sustain us, uphold us, to the end. It is when the end is in sight that the effort, whatever it is, seems the hardest work. It is good to know we don’t run the race alone, but our running mate will encourage us along.
We can be quite sure of this, from a phrase which the lectionary translation breaks up: God is Faithful, He is trustworthy, he is utterly reliable, if he has said something he will do it. Do what? Having called us into the fellowship of our Lord Jesus Christ, into belonging with Him, being one with Him, we will be standing firm before Him on the Day: Jesus’ day, His glory day, His return. We will be fixed like that (the image is rather like a fencepost or garden stake made firm in the ground) so that we can greet him with joy and be utterly united with Him for always. How lucky we are! Several times Paul talks of our present troubles as being not worth comparing with the joy to come. It is good to know that whatever 2020 has brought (and there has been nothing out of which He could not bring some good), its worst moments fade into insignificance beside the glory that is to be revealed.
We all get some glimpses of that glory in the preparations for Christmas; the joy, the anticipation, the words and music, even the joining together on dark nights to worship. He came once, and that was wonderful; how much more wonderful, when He comes back. Let us enjoy our Advent.
Wednesday, 25th November 2020
Ephesians 1 15-23 - Christ the King: not the leader we chose but the one who chose us
15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father,may give you the Spirit[a] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
In the old days the Sunday just past was known, from the opening words of the Collect for the day, as Stir-up Sunday, and reminded everyone to make their Christmas puddings. Now we finish the church year instead with Christ the King, which leads us neatly into Advent, when we look forward both to remembering how the King first came, and thinking of when he comes back.
In western democracies we are not very hot on kings. Monarchs, like our Queen, are constitutional: effectively, the power is actually exercised by the elected ministers of the government. And we the electorate watch them critically, and if after four years we don’t like our government, we have elections when we hope to change it. We see ourselves as the ones in control, sitting in judgement on the powers that be.
As Lynn reminded us last Sunday, and as was clear from the Gospel reading of the judgment of the sheep and goats, God does not work like that. He is not democratic. He is not going to abdicate if we say so. He is not obliged to fall in with our desires. We do not have any choice about His being God. ’You did not choose me, but I chose you’, Jesus reminds us in John 15.16. His kingship, he told Pilate, is not of this world. It exists though. In Revelation he is entitled King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The Hallelujah Chorus should fill the musical among us with some sort of picture of His kingdom, power and glory, for ever and ever, amen. A mental picture of a mediaeval king robed in majesty and surrounded by a court of splendour is more like it. As they say of Aslan in Narnia, ‘He’s not a tame lion’.
The Ephesians passage gives us more of his greatness and also of his great love for us. Paul describes Jesus as sitting at God’s right hand, the place of highest honour, way above all power and authority. It’s the same kind of picture as he gives in the Philippians passage we have twice looked at this year: ‘at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow’. Paul strives in picture language to give, in verses 21 and 22, some inkling of how great God is.
What’s more, Paul has prayed for the Ephesians to be enlightened by the Spirit, and receive, as in verses 18 and 19, some insight into the great gifts of God. First, that they should know the hope, the surefire expectation, to which we have been called; second, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and thirdly, the immeasurable greatness of His power in us who believe. Not only is Jesus great, but, as He is the head and we, His people, are the body (v.22), we are bound up in this greatness and kingship. Quite mindblowing.
Later in his letter, and perhaps we shall return to this another time, Paul, speaking again of the riches of God’s glory, prays for them, that as Christ dwells in their hearts through faith, they may be rooted and grounded in love. This love too is way above all mortal kingship; the length and breadth and depth and height of that love surpass human knowledge, and yet we may know it, and be full of Him.(3. 17-19).
I hope that dwelling on these wonderful words about the deep deep love of Jesus, his greatness and beauty, may indeed have the effect we prayed for in the collect for the Sunday next before Advent: ‘Stir up we beseech Thee O Lord the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’
Wednesday, 18th November 2020
I Thessalonians 5 1-11: Sons of Light
1 Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, 2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 4 But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. 5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. 9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. 10 He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
This week’s Epistle in the lectionary follows on from our last passage, and as I read it, several things really jumped off the page at me. I had never realised it was so interesting!
The first was the recurring theme of light and darkness. It’s not a theme we associate with Paul but it is all over St. John. ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of men; and the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never understood it or put it out’. (John 1 4-5) ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.’ (I John 1 .5). Here Paul says ‘You are all sons of the light and sons of day’. (v.5) He goes on to develop a picture of what sort of people we should be as sons of light. It matters, because, as he showed last week, Jesus is coming back, date unspecified, and we need to be alert, daylight people, to be ready to welcome Him.
Then Paul sketches the thought he develops fully in Ephesians 6 about the Christian having on the full armour of God. I always thought he hadn’t yet thought it out, so this was a sketch only of that picture: he talks of the helmet of salvation and the breastplate of faith and love. It hit me with a thump as I was preparing this, that here Paul is talking of soldiers on guard duty, keeping watch (v.8). We are to be alert at night, watchmen on the ramparts perhaps of a city, or as we might imagine, Hadrian’s Wall. Now a soldier off duty doesn’t sit down in front of the fire in the barrack room wearing his helmet and breastplate. He would cook! No, the man in helmet and breastplate is kitted up for duty. He is keeping watch. His armour is only defensive: he isn’t going out to attack enemy troops; he is just protected against a sudden terrorist grenade, or some such, being thrown by a lone attacker. We are to be on guard against sudden, relatively minor, attacks like this, usually in the night and darkness. And what protects us? Faith and love are the main things, the body armour. The helmet is the hope, the sure-fire expectation, of salvation.
Why is all this so? It's in verse 9: God has not appointed us for wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (The Greek word is just ‘put’: we are not put in the sin bin, but in the salvation box.) God has called and chosen us to enjoy the safety (it’s the same word as salvation) of being in the light, with Him. He died for us so we can live with Him. The whole thing is about eternal life, in the light of Christ, beginning now and here. All Christians can have it. Anyone who comes to Christ can have it. No wonder Paul concludes the paragraph, ‘Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.’ In these dark November days, God is still light, light still shines in darkness, and we soldiers of light should be on guard duty, sure of our salvation, our safety in Christ, and the eternal protection of faith and love in Him. It is indeed Good News.
Wednesday, 11th November 2020
I Thessalonians 4 13-18: The Lord is coming back
New International Version
13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.
November is a month of memorials to the departed. We start with All Saints, and progress through All Souls, my mother, Armistice Day (or St Martins in the old agricultural year), St Margaret of Scotland, Cecilia the musician, St Catherine the herald of winter, for whom Ludlow Christmas Fair was held, and end with St Andrew. One could easily get gloomy, especially as the days darken. One thinks of one's own loved: parent, spouse, sibling, child; and misses them. A fellow student once said, ‘It’s not that they’ve gone: it’s that you’ve lost them’.
Yet Paul asks us to act differently. We should not grieve, like those who have no hope. We hope, in the sense of expect-like-Christmas, that Christ will come again, that resurrection began but does not end with Him, and that we are all to share in eternal joy, just as we already have eternal life. The text promises that those who have died will rise and be with Him at His coming. To the early Christians who thought Jesus return was imminent, it had been a bit of a shock that some might die before He came back. The coming is still imminent: we just don’t know, any more than they did, the date.
Paul goes on to share something very significant, and the important point about what he says is that it is ‘by the Word of the Lord’, or ’according to the Lord’s own word’, depending on your translation. Now in I Corinthians 7, when he is talking about marriage, he makes several different points and clearly distinguishes between the points that are definitely of the Lord, and the ones that are just from Paul, dependent on human wisdom. This is one of the Lord’s ones: something God has revealed to Paul and is absolutely reliable and trustworthy. This absolutely reliable thing is the Second Coming.
There has been a lot of discussion and speculation about how this is going to happen; we can assume that, just as all predictions of the First Coming were fulfilled, but not necessarily in the way people were expecting, so will the second be. What it clearly says here is that we are not going to take precedence over our departed. The Lord is going to descend with the kind of official announcement you would expect to herald the arrival of the King. The dead in Christ will rise first, and then we who are still alive will be taken up to meet them in the clouds. We shall all be with God, and should comfort and strengthen each other with these words. Jesus’ return ‘with the clouds’ is promised elsewhere; we saw this at the Ascension. The exact mechanics of it I don’t expect we shall understand until it happens. The Lord’s return is sure: it is a word of the Lord, not an invention of Paul’s. In these weeks before Advent, when we focus on both the First and Second Coming, it is good to be reminded to look forward to it.
Yes, it is 2000 years since the promise, and we are still waiting. Our Lectionary gave us as the Gospel reading for Remembrance Sunday the parable of the virgins and their oil lamps. They were waiting for the Bridegroom; he was delayed. Indeed he was so long coming that they had dozed off. But the Bridegroom did come; just not until midnight. If it’s 11.55 now, He is coming. He promised in John 14 that He would come back for us and take us to be with Himself, as a bridegroom would go and fetch his bride. The church should still be waiting, with spare oilcans, for His coming.
And as we think of those whom Christ will call to be with Him, let us remember Rabbi Jonathan Sacks whose death was announced on Remembrance Sunday. May he too meet his Messiah with joy when ‘He comes again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead’.