The temple of the Lord

January 16, 2018

St Aubyn’s 11th January and St Michael’s 14th January 2018

Readings – Jeremiah 7:1-15; Luke 3:7-18

The word on the street is that the church in this country is dying. You don’t need to read the statistics to know that the average age of congregations is rising, or that the number of churches is decreasing. Organised Christian religion has been declining for so long, that some even predict the end of Christianity in this country. And yet remarkably, amid all the doom and gloom, the fact remains that, according to all the latest estimates, at least 43-44% of people when questioned are happy to identify as Christian.

That’s an awful lot of people. Just imagine if even 40% of the people in this area went to the local churches. We’d all have to have bigger buildings, wouldn’t we? Yet the reality on the ground is that when you look at how many people actually come to St Michael’s, the numbers attending each week only represent about 0.5% of the parish population. Out of the 9500 or so who live in the area we serve, only about 45 turn up here on a given Sunday.

So why is there such a vast gap between the number of people who call themselves Christian and those who come to church? That’s a huge question, with a whole host of different answers. But surely one important reason is that somewhere along the line an awful lot of people have come up with some very strange ideas about what it means to be a Christian. If we were to go out on the streets and ask folk why they thought they were Christians, we would get all kinds of responses. For example, “I’m a Christian because my parents were believers”; “I’m a Christian because I go to church”; in fact, you would almost always get any answer other than, “I’m a Christian because Jesus died in my place for my sins.” Read the rest of this entry »


Rebuilding the church of God

January 11, 2018

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 7th January 2018
CTiDS service

Reading – Haggai 1

Church history can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be so inspiring to hear how men and women have stepped out in faith trusting only in the power of Jesus Christ. It was thrilling to hear the story of how Devonport Community Baptist Church was planted twenty years ago, and that article from the Plymouth Times in 1843 shows how the founding of St Michael’s was meant to meet a real spiritual hunger. Speaking personally, I have always been interested in the history of revivals and who can fail to be moved when you read stories of whole communities turning to Christ and a generation transformed?

But on the other hand, church history also has a way of shining a spotlight on the present, and making you realise just how many challenges the people of God face today. A few years back, my family and I went on holiday to a village of about 2000 people in Wales. In the centre was a huge Baptist church that had obviously once been the heart of the community. It now stood empty and derelict, not used for several years. Nearby the Methodist church had recently closed and was up for sale. So we went on the Sunday morning to the only alternative, the Anglican church. The congregation was barely into double figures and half of those present were visitors.

To me, it seems that one of the greatest challenges to the church today is quite simply discouragement. When you turn up to a service and there are only a handful of people there, or when you have to keep doing some task or other, because there really isn’t anyone else to do it, it’s very easy to lose your spiritual fervour, and sometimes wonder even if it is all worth it. In my experience there are so many people in our local community who drifted away from church, not because they necessarily lost their faith, or had some big falling out, but simply because they found it too much hard work. And maybe some of us also have found ourselves asking on occasions, “Is this really worth the effort?” Read the rest of this entry »

The difference Christmas makes

January 2, 2018

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 31st December 2017

Readings – Isaiah 61:1-11; Luke 2:15-21

So what did you get for Christmas? What was your favourite or most special present?

OK, here’s a slightly harder question. What did you get for Christmas last year? What was your favourite or most special present back then?

Now tomorrow it will be the New Year. In a few days some of us will be returning to work or to school. There will be housework to catch up on, bills to pay, friends to visit. We may make a resolution that 2018 will somehow be different, but within a few weeks most of us will be back in the same old routine, trying to fit everything into each busy day, and somehow never quite succeeding.

But today, before we go back into the rush of our everyday lives, I want to ask one simple question: what difference will the Christmas story make to your daily life in 2018? Will it be like last year’s presents, treasured for a while and then all too quickly forgotten? Or will it have a lasting, permanent impact on all that you say and do?

You see, I suspect all too often we treat the story of Jesus being born in a manger as something that happens once a year. We start telling this story around the beginning of December when we go to the school nativity play or carol service. We finish it off with the visit of the wise men perhaps a month later. And then mentally we pack the story away until the following year, as if the truth of Jesus, the very Son of God, coming into our world was just one of those things we bring out as and when we need it. Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Day – Jesus the word of God

January 2, 2018

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 25th December 2017

Readings – Isaiah 52:7-10; John 1:1-14

The end of December is always a dreary time in the gardening year. The fruits of Autumn have long since gone, and now the trees stand bare against the winter sky. Though through the wet and muddy soil a few bulbs may be pushing through, on the whole there aren’t many signs of life. Piles of rotting leaves and fallen branches are waiting to be cleared and the overall scene seems one of peaceful desolation.

Yet if you look closely there are signs of life. Blackbirds and thrushes rootle through the rotting apples. On the birdfeeders coal tits and sparrows swoop down for food. A robin hops along the back wall, while in the front, if you are really fortunate, you may just catch a goldcrest flitting amongst the photinia.

And as you watch the birds of the air (which is something, incidentally, Jesus encourages us to do), it’s only natural to ask: why do we have so many different birds? Where did they come from? To which one popular answer is that they are all a product of evolution. The birds just happened over millions of years, each adapting to their own particular conditions, and dividing into the different species we see today. But when I see the birds, I see a beauty and a variety which is more than a simple work of chance. And indeed when I talk with my daughter who is a biologist she tells me that the way that birds or any other living creatures have been so finely and precisely defined, from the cellular level upwards, that they point not to random variations, but to the work of a Creator. However all the different birds came into being, each of them in their own way point to the reality of God who made the world. Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Eve 2 – Remembering

January 2, 2018

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 24th December

Readings – Isaiah 55:1-13; Luke 1:39-56

Sometimes it can be hard to remember all the details, can’t it? Whether it’s the objects on a tray, or the things we need for Christmas, it can be very easy to forget something important. We are only human, after all. And we all know what it is like to accidentally leave someone off your present list, or fail to take the turkey out the freezer, or not to record your favourite film. Every one of us has tales of things we have forgotten, indeed it’s almost part of our Christmas story.

Yet one of the great comforts of the Christian faith is that we have a God who does not forget. He knows us, He loves us, He cares for us, whether or not we can necessarily see that love or that care for ourselves. So if there is nothing else you take away from this morning, I want you to hold onto this: God will never forget you or overlook you. You may be feeling particularly on your own today; you may be dreading getting through Christmas; you may be especially missing a loved one at this time of year. Nothing alters the fact that thanks to Jesus you are and always will be a child of God, and by His grace you are and always will be held in the arms of His love.

So if all this is true – as indeed it is – and if our God isn’t a God who forgets, why then does the Bible so often talk about God remembering? Let’s take a closer look at our reading this morning … Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Eve 1 – Not fake news

January 2, 2018

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 24th December 2017

Readings – Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14

Around the end of each year the providers of English language dictionaries sit down and decide what is the word or phrase that has made the most impact over the past 12 months. It might be a new word; it might be a word that has suddenly come back into fashion; it might be a word that has recently hit the headlines. So, for example, Oxford Dictionaries decided their word of the year 2017 was “youthquake” which has got most people puzzled as it’s something they’ve never heard of before. Websters Dictionaries chose the word “feminism” on the basis it has apparently had a huge upsurge in popularity. But it was the choice of Collins Dictionaries that attracted the most attention, and rightly so. Their word of the year 2017 was – well, it might seem like two words to us, but let’s not get technical – their word of the year was, and I’ve researched this very carefully, “fake news.”

Apparently the first use of the term “fake news” was some time back in the 1890s but as we all know one particular individual has made this word almost ubiquitous. Time after time we have seen the President of the United States stand at a podium, making that hand gesture, and dismissing some news story or other as “fake news.” And of course, where the president leads, others follow.

Now we’ve been very aware over the past few years that not every item that appears on the Internet can be trusted. We know that certain stories are planted deliberately in our media, and we know that some sources are more reliable than others. But by calling something “fake news” we’re doing more than simply saying something isn’t true. We are saying that whatever the story is about, we can dismiss it and ridicule those who believe in it. Fake news is something we don’t have to investigate or even read properly. We can simply ignore it and whatever facts it claims to present, and send it straight into the spam folder or the recycle bin.

And for quite a few people the whole Christmas story falls under the category of “fake news.” At best, it is a sweet winter’s tale that entertains and amuses the children every year. At worst, it is the invention of the early church designed to force others in accepting their beliefs. That at least is the contention of Dan Brown, and judging from the millions who somehow believe his books are worth reading, there are plenty who share his point of view.

But for Luke the whole point of the Christmas story is that it is “good news.” The angel tells the shepherds on the hillside at Bethlehem: Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. And of course, as you might expect, I will in a moment be looking at what this good news is. But before I can even begin to look at the angel’s words, we have to ask ourselves – how can we be sure that what we hear year by year is not fake news? Why is this a story that we can trust as something reliable and accurate? Read the rest of this entry »

Honouring Joseph

December 18, 2017

St Aubyn’s 15th December/ St Michael’s 18th December

Readings: Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 1:18-25

The image of the Virgin with child is one of the most famous in the world. From Old Masters to modern carvings, from stained glass windows to exquisite icons, the simple depiction of Mary holding the infant Jesus has inspired artists, painters, sculptors throughout the ages and enriched the faith of many. Indeed at St Michael’s we have our own memorial window in the traditional style and less obviously this striking sculpture of the Holy Spirit enfolding Mary and Jesus in His wings. Now whatever you may think of such images, they are part of our Christian heritage and one of the most recognisable symbols of our faith.

But when, may I ask, did you last see a picture of Joseph with the infant Jesus? Recently in Prague I saw a very striking and very simple image of Jesus’ earthly father holding the child in his hands. I haven’t been able to track the picture down on the Internet, but it got me thinking. Because it seems to me that Joseph is very much the forgotten figure in the whole story of Jesus’ birth. In the four Sundays of Advent we traditionally focus on the patriarchs, on the prophets, on John the Baptist and on Mary, but what about Joseph? Read the rest of this entry »