Searched and known, loved and called

IMG_6432There’s a fun book originally for children, where they have to find a character among crowded scenes. The ‘Where’s Wally?’ books require you to look out for Wally in his distinctive red striped shirt, blue trousers, glasses and bobble hat. It’s produced a number of spin-offs. This one is ‘Where’s Will’, based on Shakespeare’s plays, and you have to find him. There is even one where you have to find Jesus.

Searching, looking, finding, then what? Nathanael in our gospel reading (John 1:43-end) is on the lookout. He knows his Hebrew Scriptures and the Messiah is not supposed to come from Nazareth. His response about Jesus coming from Nazareth sounds like a bit of inter-town rivalry, can anything good come from Nazareth? And it can be read that way. But more likely is that he is really saying, this man can’t be whom we are looking for because he doesn’t tick this crucial box.  So Nathanael is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit, he is faithful and devout. You can’t pull the wool over Nathanael’s eyes.

Jesus’ response that he has seen him under the fig tree seems to be a deal clincher. It’s an odd statement and puzzles most New Testament scholars. We have a fig tree in our garden and it is lush when in full bloom. Every now and then I have to trim it and it brings out a cold sweat in Susan when I emerge with clippers and saw – I get a very stern warning not to get carried away.

Figs make their first appearance in the Bible in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve sow fig leaves together to cover their modesty after they have eaten the mysterious fruit of the tree of knowledge (Genesis 3). Fig leaves are big so cover a larger area, but they are a bit rough so I’m not sure they’d be that comfortable. What Genesis doesn’t say is that the fruit was an apple; that’s a western folk-story adding a layer that is not there.

A friend suggested the other day that the tree in the garden could be taken to be a fig tree and that would explain why it’s named next but the apples are not. So, my friend wondered, is Jesus making a call-back to the Garden of Eden? John’s Gospel makes call-backs to creation, not least in the prologue with opening words mirroring how Genesis begins, ‘in the beginning’. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (John 1); ‘In the beginning when God created’ (Genesis 1).

So Jesus is taking Nathanael back to creation and the implication is he has seen him in his first, original state, known him before he was formed, like in our Psalm. Nathanael has been searched out and known, his thoughts discerned from afar (Psalm 139:1). It’s an interesting thought.

Nathanael with his tick list sees what he expects to see and needs to have his eyes opened wider. He needs to see new possibilities that surprise him and as he does he becomes a follower of Jesus. Our last hymn this morning, ‘Will you come and follow me’, includes that wonderful line about ‘going where you don’t know and never being the same’. Being open to new possibilities and the surprise of God’s grace appearing where we don’t expect it does take us into places we don’t know and changes us.

It is easy to stay in our comfort zone, but the Holy Spirit disturbs us, calls us on and today’s Gospel is about being called to follow God in Jesus Christ, which is the primary calling that we all have. For many it also leads to exploring other callings, in ways to live this out in specific ministries – lay ones and ordained ones. All of these are living expressions of Jesus’ call to follow him, to come and see.

Nathanael is taken back to the story of Jacob, where he sat down and was given a vision of heaven opening with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:10-end). He too will see a vision of heaven opened and visions bring an encounter with the holy. That leads in so many surprising directions.

Today we are being encouraged to keep as ‘Well-being Sunday’. I wrote in the newsletter this week about the Samaritans’ campaign calling tomorrow ‘Brew Monday’ as a twist on ‘Blue Monday’; an encouragement to be kind to one another and ourselves. One of the ways we help our mental health is through seeing that there is a purpose and a deeper meaning to life, not least our life. We are searched and known, loved and held.

Even in a crowd, which is something we are to avoid at the moment and there have been some ‘Where’s Wally’ jokes on that, even then with 6 billion people on the planet, we are not just faceless, one among so many others, but a unique child of God. Just like Wally stands out, so do we. We are all called by name, known, searched and given an encounter that changes us.

Sermon for Epiphany 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 17th January 2021

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Baptism of Christ – renewing our commitment

IMG_6370We’ve been thinking about John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus quite a bit over the past few weeks. During Advent John’s baptism of Jesus often gets two Sundays. It is such a significant event in Jesus’ ministry, often taken as the beginning of his public ministry, when he is made known to the world; it is an epiphany.

Epiphany means ‘making known’ and during these weeks in January we look at the ways Jesus is first made known in the gospels. In Mark it is his baptism. In Matthew it is the magi who come with their strange gifts and we marked that last week. Luke, well he has quite an introduction but the shepherds are the first to come. Luke is a gospel for the outsiders. John’s Gospel sets this first with John the Baptist pointing Jesus out as he walks through the town square and then at the wedding in Cana and we will look at that in a couple of weeks’ time.

What does it mean to you to be baptised? It may have taken place such a long time ago when you were very small and so have no memory of it at all. It may something that you have turned away from and only relatively recently come back to. It may be that life has taken you through a journey that means the faith you had is now very different – either deeper, or less certain, or shaky, or all of those in different measures on different days. Baptism may be more recent, a commitment of faith consciously made.

I suggested in our newsletter this week that you might want to send a donation to the church you were baptised in as a thanksgiving for it and your nurturing in faith. Some may not want to do that because they have changed churches and no longer feel that the church they started in reflects a gospel they can share today. For some it may have been closed and turned into a pizza restaurant, as one friend told me yesterday.

If finding the right church is  difficult, find one that has nurtured you or nurtures you today. We give thanks for God’s grace which holds us through all the seasons of life. I am conscious that many churches are feeling the pinch at the moment and there have been reports of some facing closure as a result of this pandemic. It could certainly be a moment of great change. So a cheque may be a very welcome gift. I know one person has responded to this already because the vicar of that church mentioned it to me – though not, of course, who that was.

At the end of this service we will use the Commission which is an option for the Baptism and Confirmation services. I tend to use this at Confirmation Services and when we acknowledge those from our congregation who have been Confirmed in the Cathedral, giving them a candle lit from the Easter Candle here. They are powerful words about teaching and fellowship, repenting and resisting evil, proclaiming in what we say and do, serving Christ in neighbours in need, seeking peace and justice to bring forth the fruit of the Spirit – that Spirit mentioned in our first reading and in the gospel, descending like a dove.

Around this time of year our Methodist friends often have a Covenant Service, when they reaffirm their commitment as part of the church. It is a time of new beginnings and therefore renewed resolve. I am going to use it this evening at the beginning our Churches Together prayers for our city. It prays submission to God, and if you want to expand the connections, our Muslim friends follow ‘Islam’, a word that means submission. We may not see all of this the same, but we each seek to submit to God. A good place to start and build on common ground.

There are some very powerful phrases in the Methodist Covenant prayer – “let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you, exalted for you, or brought low for you, let me be full, let me be empty.” Some of that is harder to say than other bits. But in all things – sickness or in health – we belong first and foremost to God.

Baptism is our union with that. The going into the waters is a kind of death to self and the coming out is life to God in Jesus Christ. “I am no longer mine but yours. So be it.”

I end with the Methodist Covenant prayer. If you feel able, you might want to say ‘Amen’ at the end.

I am no longer my own but yours.

Put me to what you will,

rank me with whom you will;

put me to doing,

put me to suffering;

let me be employed for you,

or laid aside for you,

exalted for you,

or brought low for you;

let me be full,

let me be empty,

let me have all things,

let me have nothing:

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things

to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

you are mine and I am yours. So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.



Sermon for Baptism of Christ, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 10th January 2021.

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Epiphany – Becket and the Magi

IMG_6348Tuesday saw the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket on 29th December 1170 in Canterbury Cathedral. His story is well known, or at least we think it is. King Henry II’s ill-judged comment ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ leading to four Knights out to make an impression travelling to Canterbury and murdering the archbishop as he prayed in the north transept of the cathedral.

Not all of those facts are accurate – Henry does not utter those words. The accounts actually have Henry railing against Becket’s ingratitude for how he had been raised from middle-class merchant’s son to the highest office of the realm, beside the king himself. At heart here was, look what I’ve done for you and yet you don’t do what I want! That offended Henry’s pride – Becket should have been more grateful and fallen in line. Their friendship was clearly to be on Henry’s terms or not at all.

On the other side, Becket has been described as being like a hedgehog – as prickly as he was smooth, also prone to being impulsive. He managed to make too many enemies, including fellow bishops, barons and of course the king. Quite a few people wanted to bash his head in with a sword.

The other side of his complex character, is that he seems to have undergone a conversion on becoming archbishop – taking devotion seriously, even to the point of wearing a hair shirt under his fine robes. He carried a personal primer, a prayer book, which may have been identified recently as having once belonged to his martyred predecessor, Archbishop Alphege, who was beaten to death by drunken Danes nearly two centuries before him. Becket commended himself to God and Alphege, among others, when he knew he was about to die.

One of the witnesses to his murder has a local connection for Peterborough. Benedict was a monk of Canterbury and went on to become Abbot of Peterborough. He was behind the construction of the Becket Chapel at the entrance to the precincts and some of the stones from there were used to build this church. Benedict hid when the knights attacked, either under an altar or nearby in the crypt of the cathedral.

The point of principle which led to Becket’s death is rather tricky to understand today. It goes back to the idea of there being two swords for a realm, one of the church and one of the state. This was held to mean that the pope governed in partnership with the secular rulers: one tending to the needs of the spirit and the other to the needs of the body.

For Becket, the pope, as the Vicar of St Peter, was the controlling authority over church and state. Henry had other ideas. He saw himself as the senior partner – in fact the job of the church was to do what he wanted, so a clash was inevitable. There are plenty of politicians who see it that way today too.

It’s not a long journey from there to clergy being seen as a separate order of society and so subject to the discipline of the church and not the state. Remember they are separate arms of the realm. Becket wanted to defend and protect the independence of the church at a time of tyrannical rulers. That only works in reality with consent. Ultimately the one who can wave the sword around has the power – though for Becket, he had the power to excommunicate and therefore the ultimate sanction of blocking someone from salvation. When he used that power, and he did, he didn’t exactly win friends or influence people.

All power relationships work best when there are checks and balances and when something is acknowledged to stand over it. Today, as we remember the magi, sometimes called kings, bowing before the infant Jesus, we have three gifts which stand for power and what should guide it. So a few thoughts springing from Becket and the magi.

The first gift they produce is gold. Gold shows status and so the reredos behind me is decorated with gold paint or leaf to show the status of those commemorated there – principally Christ enthroned in majesty. All power and authority owes allegiance to God in Jesus Christ and the magi bow down.

Today we squirm at Becket’s drive for independence from state accountability. We have seen just how bad that can be when vice goes unpunished and we have seen with IICSA and abuse scandals that the church should not be allowed to cover up or escape justice when it abuses others. At the same time tyrannical rulers need to be called to account – and that can be and often is costly.

The second gift is frankincense. Incense is burnt to show worth, worship and where prayers are due. We worship God alone and our lives are subject to him because that is the only treasure worth having. There are values that stand above party political allegiance and just because a ruler can do something does not make it right.

Those values of justice and honour stem from honouring the image of the one we worship being seen in each person and all people. When we worship God, we are also to worship his image seen in those around us – friend and stranger, powerful and powerless.

The third gift is myrrh. This is the sanitising, healing ointment to relieve ailments and afflictions of the body. In a pandemic where we long for vaccines, use more santiser than we have ever seen before, and have learnt to value those who heal and ensure society functions, myrrh may well feel like it should have pride of place.

We remember that power should serve wellbeing, and so we have to make decisions to protect at times and closing the church to public worship is part of that. Our government is rolling out a vaccine programme on a scale never seen before. They are accountable for that, and all of us have a part to play in how we help constrain this virus.

As we remember Thomas Becket and also the visit of the magi to the infant Jesus, all power is accountable to God and with the magi bows before the infant king. All leadership should serve moral values of justice and all that honours the image of God in the other. Faith leaders have a role in keeping these moral values in front of us all, and so politics naturally mixes with faith because both guide the direction of travel.

Without values and higher service, power is just the exercise of muscle and whim. Without the political organisation, values remain theoretical. The magi bring these before the throne of grace, as this takes up residence in the child in the manger. Becket and Henry, and all who stand in their place today, are to kneel with the magi to adore, worship and serve his kingdom above all else.

Sermon for Epiphany Sunday, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 3rd January 2021.

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Shepherds show us God’s unconditional love in Jesus Christ

IMG_2003I’ve got a bit of last-minute wrapping to do…. 

Click to watch the Red Box Black Box Magic Trick.

A brain teaser – a Christmas conundrum to puzzle over. How can both boxes fit inside each other?

There will be lots of presents being opened later on today – may be you have already torn into the wrappings and know exactly what you have. You may have chosen it or given strong hints of what you would like. You may be waiting till after lunch or later today. This year is a bit different so we’re going to meet up with our elder son and daughter-in-law online and then all 5 of us can do some opening together.

Gifts come with different price tags but the most important cost is the love behind them. It says on my shopping bag – ‘give a little love’ – a marketing strapline for this year. This almost says it, but I think there is something fuller on offer to us.

Today it’s not the gift of a little love, but the gift of total love; love without price, or you might say which costs everything, love without restriction and without reserve. Unconditional love is what is on offer to us as the gift of Christmas, in the child in the manger. This comes from the deepest point in the heart of God, who gives his very life and self to us so that we can know and share in his life and love and hope.

This is what was announced to the shepherds on the hillside in the gospel reading (Luke 2:1-20). They were a group on the margins of society, who were poor and, in the pecking order of the society of their day, not really counted as being very important at all. And yet it is to them that the angels announce the birth. It is those who don’t feel at the centre of everything, who may well be feeling isolated, forgotten, ignored, taken for granted, put upon, that this message of love and hope comes first.

The shepherds show us the full extent of the dazzling glory revealed to them, because no one is counted out or ignored by this love and embrace from God. That is a radical message of inclusion and equality, of grace let loose, one that challenges so many assumptions even today. It raises up those who feel cast down and abandoned. The message of the shepherds is that no one is outside of this radical love, no one is beyond the love of God. There may be all sorts of people we struggle to see this applying to, and one of them may be yourself. Many of us struggle with that thought, with accepting that we are counted in and loved.

This year has been tough for so many people, pushed to the limits of their resilience and further lockdowns and restrictions may well push us to the edge of coping. We may feel forgotten, abandoned, unloved, even punished for – well we must be bad if this is happening. It’s quite a deep thought. Rationally we can say that’s nonsense, but, you know, there is an angry parent image that so many struggle with when thinking of God. Today, Christmas Day, shows us that the heart of God is not angry, but loving, unconditionally loving.

That God should be present in this child, in this man who grew up to show just how much God loves us in his death and resurrection, this may be as puzzling as those two boxes I toyed with at the beginning. How can they both fit inside each other? A shift of angle to look at them differently reveals their secret and I won’t spoil it for you. So Christmas seems unlikely, implausible. Yet through the eyes of Easter, when we see the full cost, it becomes the mystery of life revealed in love. And then we begin to see the depths beneath the struggle, what this bible story is trying to say to us through its pictures and imagery of shepherds on a hill side and angels making God known to them. Glory comes to the most unsuspecting and in the most surprising and unpromising places.

May this Christmas be a time when the gift of unconditional love that doesn’t let go, even when we think it might, raise you up and place a song a praise once more in your heart. No one is beyond the gift of this unconditional love – not even us. Today calls us to expand our compassion, expand our charity and expand our embrace. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and his name will be Emmanuel, God is with us.

Sermon for Christmas Day, Peterborough Parish Church, Friday 25th December 2020.

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O Emmanuel – An Advent Reflection for 23rd December

IMG_6227We have come to the end of our Advent journey through the great Antiphons used in these days running up to Christmas. And we end with the greatest of them all, with Emmanuel, God is with us. This is the one we pray to come: ‘O Emmanuel’.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Saviour; Come and save us, O Lord our God. Cf Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:22-23)

It is Matthew’s gospel which spells this out for us. “He will be called Emmanuel, God is with us”.

Our decoration is a bauble, depicting the nativity scene – with Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

This has been a difficult year for so many people and it may well still be hard. Emmanuel says that God is with us, we are not alone, we are not abandoned. God holds this, holds us, holds creation. Even a pandemic, with all its disruption, cannot break that hold.

The child in the manger, whom we celebrate at Christmas, is Emmanuel, God with us. Wherever you are, have a truly happy and blessed Christmas. May your tree remind you of the saving work of God in Jesus Christ and shine for you as a symbol of light and hope and peace.


O Emmanuel,

long expected and looked for,

be present among us.

In the darkness let your light shine,

bringing hope to the despairing,

encouragement to those in danger of losing heart,

and life to all who walk through the shadow of death.

Come to our salvation

Come, Lord Jesus.

As we prepare to celebrate

the glory of your coming among us in the child of Bethlehem,

so may we be found ready to meet him

when he comes in glory. Amen.

Advent Antiphons from ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2005.

 Prayers taken from Ian Black ‘Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days’ (2005, SPCK)

Text of an Advent Reflection, streamed online for Peterborough Parish Church, 23rd December 2020.

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O King of the Nations – An Advent Reflection for 22nd December

IMG_6232Over seven days, in these final days leading up to Christmas, we are thinking about how we understand who Jesus is and his saving work for us. Today we have glitter everywhere. Our visual aid leaves a trail. It is a crown and a crown needs a king.

This king is the ultimate monarch, Christ. He is depicted behind the altar in this church – dressed in royal robes, carrying the orb, the symbol of his sovereignty over the world. Christ the King shows who holds the ultimate authority. The antiphon for today is ‘O King of the Nations’.

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay. Cf Isaiah 28:16, Ephesians 2:14)

We pray to the God of Justice for all who hold high office – Prime Ministers, the Queen and Presidents of other nations, those who sit in parliament and our local councils – all whose decisions affect the lives of others. St Paul tells us that we should pray for them that we may be well governed and we pray for them regularly here.

All human power is limited and transitory, however important and powerful someone may be or seem. One day their kingdom will be no more. Royal tombs, for all their grandeur, are all lifeless mausoleums with rotting corpses inside. The King of the Nations calls on us to raise our sights and build on the values of a kingdom that really does endure, that lasts for ever. As we pray in the Lord’s Prayer ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’, we are reminded of the values of justice and peace, honouring and flourishing for all people.

Today, on 22nd December, we hang a crown on our tree as a reminder that all authority owes allegiance to Christ above all else, and certainly not itself. We pray that we may live as signs and agents of Christ’s Kingdom.


O King of the Nations,

the one to whom all authority owes true allegiance,

be with all in high office.

Let your justice flow,

your peace reign,

your liberating Word unbind the chains of deceit and oppression.

Come to our salvation

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent Antiphons from ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2005.

 Prayers taken from Ian Black ‘Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days’ (2005, SPCK)

Text of an Advent Reflection, streamed online for Peterborough Parish Church, 22nd December 2020.

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O Morning Star – An Advent Reflection for 21st December

IMG_6229We are here again, decorating our tree, putting the finishing touches to it. For the last few days we have been using a symbol of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ as way of reflecting on some ancient texts, antiphons used before the Magnificat at Evening Prayer around this time of year. Today we have to put the star on the top and I need the ladder. Today’s antiphon is ‘O Morning Star’, or ‘O Dayspring’ as it is sometimes called.

O Morning Star, splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Cf Malachi 4:2)

Stars shine at night, but around this time of year there is a bright star in the morning, called the Morning Star. This star lights up not the night, but tells of the promise of the new day. And with Jesus a new day dawns, a new day in God’s love for us.

The morning star is actually Venus, the brightest planet. It remains bright and beautiful in the first light of morning, as the ‘Morning Star’. Today it is in conjunction with Jupiter and Saturn, making a particularly spectacular sight. This star is one of the contenders for the  magi’s star, a star that leads in hope and promise.

Astronomers have long looked in the skies with awe and wonder. It has brought with it reflection on our own place and the more we know about the vastness of the universe and the uniqueness of this planet, the greater the awe and wonder. The star on the tree is a moment to reflect, to be struck by planets in their motion and how we are dependent on the life and love of God.

On day 5, 21st December, we put the star on top of the tree in awe and wonder at God’s creation through his Word and redemption in Jesus Christ.



O Dayspring, O Morning Star,

dawning from the dwelling of God,

reveal the promise of the new day.

Bless us with the gift you hold before us

and keep us in your saving love.


Come to our salvation

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent Antiphons from ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2005.

 Prayers taken from Ian Black ‘Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days’ (2005, SPCK)

Text of an Advent Reflection, streamed online for Peterborough Parish Church, 21st December 2020.

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O Key of David – An Advent Reflection for 20th December

IMG_6221I have a confession to make today, or perhaps I need to give credit where it is due. The idea for this series of reflections came from the Cathedral’s Keys campaign. I saw these and thought, there’s a visual aid there – ‘O Key of David’, I thought, today’s antiphon. And of course my mind quickly went on to wonder what would could be used as a symbol for the other antiphons, which I am exploring in these videos in these final days of Advent running up to Christmas.

Today, on 20th December, we are thinking about a key.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. (cf Isaiah 22:22, 42:7)

Keys unlock and they lock. They open the way and they close it off. Today we think of Jesus as the one who opens for us the gate to God and to his presence, the gate to heaven and the eternal. With this we place our desires and our motives – the agency we employ to make things happen and open doors.

Here’s a challenge, how do we help others find liberation, freedom and open for them the way that leads to faith in Christ? Are we a sign of an open door, or are we in effect barring that door preventing them from coming in? It’s a challenge. But each of us who follow the way of Jesus Christ has a place to open the way for others.

But the principle door opener is Christ himself, who out of love removes the barriers between the mystery and awesome wonder of God and ourselves. Jesus is the key of David. May he unlock our hearts that the way to his eternal life may be an open door for us.

So with a key, as we hang it on our tree, we open doors, welcome in and go out to live and serve in Christ’s name because he opens the door for us.


O Key of David,

unlock the door to our hearts.

Shine your light into the depths of our secret places.

Transform our motives and desires,

our plans and striving

for the glory of your Kingdom.

Come to our salvation

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent Antiphons from ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2005.

 Prayers taken from Ian Black ‘Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days’ (2005, SPCK)

Text of an Advent Reflection, streamed online for Peterborough Parish Church, 20th December 2020.

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Facemask Angels – remind us God is with us and of his saving love

IMG_6223Begin making angels from 2 disposable facemasks. 

The fourth Sunday of Advent often focusses on Mary, the Mother of Jesus, but I want to look this morning at the angelic messengers. This church has lots of images of angels around it and within it. There are carved and gilded ones in the reredos behind the altar, painted ones in the windows – they are full of angels. In the bible, angels are messengers, but when they speak it is as if God is present.

Angels take us to God, to the heavenly presence of God, and so when they appear in a story we know that something is coming direct from the heart and throne of God.

High up in our East Window, either side of the dove, there are four named archangels. You will need binoculars of a telephoto lens to read the names and see the detail. From left to right they are Michael, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel.

Michael is carrying a staff and scales in his hands. He is the protector, who weighs the souls and battles with the beast. The story of St George and the dragon is probably a confusion from a picture of Michael slaying the beast as in the book of Revelation. With Michael, God’s judgement is present and his ultimate victory over all that would thwart his purposes. God will endure. With our facemask angel, we can think of those who protect the vulnerable and keep us safe. While these restrictions in the pandemic are frustrating, they are designed to keep us safe.

Raphael is carrying a fish. He is not peckish, but this refers to a story in the Apocryphal book of Tobit, where Raphael heals Tobit of his blindness by smearing the gall of a fish on his eyes (Tobit 11:7-15). The story says it stung a bit (and probably whiffed a bit too, though it doesn’t say that). Raphael is the healer, and the Guild of St Raphael, named after him, encourages the healing ministry of the church. Raphael is a good angel to make out of a facemask because he stands for God’s healing and caring, curing and presence in this pandemic. Our facemask angel can, therefore, help us think of those who heal and care, and our hospital which is under such significant strain at the moment.

Next along is Gabriel and he popped up in our gospel reading (Luke 1:26-38). He is carrying a lily, the symbol of purity, commitment and rebirth. He announces to both Elizabeth and Mary that they are to bear children who will have crucial roles in God’s saving plan, John the Baptist (after which this church is named) and of course Jesus. The message to these women is that they will be bearers of God’s confidence in humanity and bring that to birth – their role is active and not passive. This messenger brings God’s comfort and hope, news of his saving love. With Gabriel, our facemask angel can help us think of those who keep hope alive and bring it to birth. We need to the turn the volume on them at the moment and down on those who sap hope and depress.

Finally, in our window, is Uriel. He carries a book and what looks like a scroll. His name means the light of God. He is often associated with aesthetics and beauty. In the midst of so much to depress us, not least with a deepening of the restrictions we face as we have gone into Tier 4 now and the prospect of further New Year lockdowns, an angel to remind us that the world is beautiful and there is so much that can lift our spirits. God is creative and brings beauty out of brokenness, into the most surprising places as his life and love flourish. With our facemask angel, we can think of all creative artists who lift our spirits and bring colour and spark to our living.

So we think of angels today, how they represent and bring God’s presence to us – defending, healing, saving and creating. May these angels remind you that God is with us and his saving love will endure through whatever storms and trials come our way.

Sermon for Advent 4, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 20th December 2020

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O Root of Jesse – An Advent Reflection for 19th December

IMG_6216In these final days of Advent, in the last few days before Christmas, we are continuing our journey through the ancient antiphons for Evening Prayer, the Great Os. Today, on 19th December, we come to ‘O Root of Jesse’.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. (Cf Isaiah 11:10, 45:14. 52:15; Romans 15:12)

In the Old Testament, Jesse is the father of King David and Matthew’s Gospel begins with verses we don’t hear very often in our services because they can sound like just a list of names, which they are. Read flatly, this can sound like the telephone directory. But it is far more than just a list of names; this is Jesus’ “Who do you think you are” moment, like on the TV show. His family tree is laid out before us. And it’s a surprise.

It starts with Abraham and works its way through the generations until we arrive at Joseph, husband of Mary. This takes us through King David, the one whom the Messiah, the promised one, had the great call back to. The Messiah was looked to as the new King David, to be in David’s line – to sit at the end of this family tree.

In art, this has been shown as a Jesse Tree. The root actually comes from Abraham, but it is referred to in the Bible as the stock of Jesse. The tree shows Jesus fulfilling the hopes of all the years, of all the history and the culmination of the journey of the ancient Hebrew people.

Day 3, the 19th December, brings us a tree, so I am going to hang this tree on our tree. A Christmas tree does not have to be the pagan symbol some say it is. It can be a sign of Jesus fulfilling the covenant between God and humanity. And so today the whole tree becomes our symbol – but with a small tree hanging on it as today’s contribution.


O Root of Jesse,

who was and is and is to come.

Graft into our hearts true love for you,

that loving you we may serve you

and follow you through joys and sorrows,

strains and celebrations,

doubts and convictions.

Come to our salvation

Come, Lord Jesus.

Advent Antiphons from ‘Common Worship: Daily Prayer’ is copyright © The Archbishops’ Council 2005.

Prayers taken from Ian Black ‘Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days’ (2005, SPCK)

Text of an Advent Reflection, streamed online for Peterborough Parish Church, 19th December 2020.

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