The Call to Faith
The call to faith is one for us all, and at this service of Christian Baptism we are all reminded of Christ’s call down the ages. It is to follow Him, who rose from the dead having died on the cross as a sacrifice for our forgiveness.
What I find interesting about our story today – of a Roman centurion’s encounter with Jesus – is how he was a man who was ‘not of the faith’, although very much supportive of it. He didn’t even feel worthy of the honour of having Jesus come to his house (to heal his slave). But he recognizes Jesus’s authority over life and death. And what is it Jesus then says?: “I tell you, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” 
Now there’s a challenge to those who say they believe, as much as to those who don’t! Jesus is truly amazing as He says what really matters to Him! As St Paul later put it, ‘We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are!’ 
So we come today, whoever we are. Don’t just look at others, or compare yourself to them – but ask yourself,
“Just who is this man, Jesus Christ?
And what is He asking of me?”
 Luke 7.9  Romans 3.22
Counter Cultural Love
Dr Lasana Harris says  our minds are “trained to disconnect” when we see a homeless person. “We readily help kids and cute animals, in part because we know that whatever trouble they’re in, they can’t really be held accountable.”
He says, “We’re less likely to be so understanding and forgiving when it comes to homeless adults or drug addicts.” “This tendency to judge rather than help is partly the result of a spot in the prefrontal which appears to modulate the degree of empathy by regulating the release of dopamine. No dopamine means no reward from engaging with the other person, which makes it less likely that we’ll reach out empathically.” This sense of disconnect could be at the heart of everything that divides society today.
“Of course these kinds of responses occur, ultimately, in our brains; where else would they occur? But social processes have enormous power to change neural processes.”
So is our humanity something we can turn on and off – if only we found the right buttons to push?
“We’re trying to figure out what brain mechanisms allow us to switch these responses on and off,” Harris says. “We want to make empathy the default response because now, the default response is to switch off entirely. If we’re going to get that to change we need a complete cultural shift.
As Christians we believe that living God’s way will turn our response around – we will love others as God loves us. That is Counter Cultural Love
 Associate Professor of experimental psychology at University College London, studies neurological responses, specifically the way our brains engage with other people and the world
How then do we really love?
Today we have the famous letter from St Paul about love, you know the one, ‘Love is patient, love is kind…..and not envious or boastful…’1 and so on. We love to hear it, even if we feel a bit inadequate by the end!! The truth is of course, it is about God’s love, for God indeed is love, as St John tells us .
Some bits of the letter are a bit strange – surely if we gave everything we had to the poor that would be loving? Or if we sacrificed our bodies? Well, as I hope we can explore today, working out what is truly loving is quite difficult! What it means for real, discerning it, and even more than that, actually doing it! Jesus even asked us to love our enemies, saying “If you love only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even sinners do that!”  Gosh!
But let’s not despair, the Holy Spirit  is here to help all who call on and believe in the name of Jesus. We can pray and hear what the Father wants us to do in his love, and the Holy Spirit is then ready to help us do it! Let’s tread gently with this today and see what we hear. A Roman non-believer in the 2nd century famously said, ”See how these Christians love one another” ; I read somewhere that one of their Emperors was rather cross, “They don’t just love their own, but our people needy as well – we need to do put a stop to this!” The presence of God among us has been deeply known through Jesus himself coming as a human being, and (to some degree at least!) by His people since by the power of the Holy Spirit. May we know God’s presence among us as we seek to love in His name.
 1 Corinthians 13  1 John 4.16  Luke 6.27 & 33  Symbolized today by the dove
 Apologeticus – Tertullian c160-c230
My moments in history
Can you recall a moment in your life when you suddenly ‘heard’ the Word of God speaking to you from the words of the Bible? You may not know he Bible well, but that doesn’t mean that one day something very important suddenly cannot become clear to you from what you hear in the Bible (and then you’ll become thirsty for more!). Many people haven’t a clue what I’m on about, but countless thousands have suddenly had their eyes opened! It can be quite a shock, although always a very joyful shock! “Well, I never, I wasn’t expecting that!” The famous Gideons society are with us today, and will doubtless have stories of people being impacted in just this way; and right throughout the world as they’ve
opened the Bibles left for free in hotel rooms and other places. But what about you, here in Oldfield Park? Pray that the Holy Spirit will open the power of the Word of God to you soon, again, whenever….. And strangely it’s not just about your personal history. We’ll hear 2 stories from the Bible today of moments when the Scriptures have affected the course of
a nation’s life as well as the individuals there at the time of the stories. Some countries have for this reason banned the Bible, even in our day!
Transforming the ordinary
We prayed on Epiphany Sunday that in the mess and muck of our ordinary lives, when things go wrong, when all is not as it should be, we may lift our eyes and see the light of Jesus’ star, and follow him. Our culture thinks this is most unlikely, but then did anyone think Jesus would turn water into wine either? For some reason the first disciples logged this as Jesus’ first miracle,
or sign of Jesus’ real glory. Jesus’ mother said, “Do whatever he tells you.” Really that is not a bad motto for any of us. So let’s pray for open eyes, to be listening and following, that his transforming power may be seen in our own lives and reach those around us too.
A New Year, a New Start
At the start of this New Year, it would be good to take some time out and think about our own walk with Jesus, and to remember the promises that we made to serve him. Remembering to ask for his guidance and help as we step out in faith, knowing his promise, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” * In the certainty that when we stray from the path, he is always there waiting for us to return to him, we don’t have to wait for the start of another year.
‘Follow the Star’
Think about the stars……how small they are, how piercingly bright they can be. And there was one star – that some of them spotted, but not many…..a sign in the heavens they say. The Junior School children told us in their Nativity play, celebrating how children around the world celebrate Christmas, how Polish children look out on Christmas Eve as it grows dark. Christmas only begins when the 1st child spots the 1st star -they call it the ‘gwiazdka’ (pronounced something like ‘ooiadstka’! Sorry to any polish speakers!). And yet as the wise men followed the star they came to the one true Lord of all, and bowed in worship, and offered their gifts. In our world of much darkness, there is still only one true Light, the Light of the World. And still many do not spot it, let alone follow it to where it leads. My prayer for us all at Ascension and around us this coming year is that this light may grow stronger among us, and draw more people to the light that is Jesus Christ. May his light rise over us, that many may see the glory of the Lord of all, who loves us more than we know, right here among us. So here comes our verse for 2019…. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, The glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Isaiah 60.1
‘By their fruits shall you know them’ 
A very familiar saying of Jesus, still sometimes used today! The trouble is, He wasn’t talking about crystallized fruits with a soft centre in a nice Christmas box! You see, God isn’t a tame God, and the holy God wants us to bear the true fruit of his Holy Spirit. You know them – ‘love, joy, peace, peace, patience, kindness……
Wouldn’t they be lovely to hang on your Christmas tree!? Ah yes, but they aren’t so easy to come into our lives, if you really stop to think about them! They can mean forgiving others who have hurt you, coming with a peaceful heart when others are full of anger. They can also mean the costly business of giving to those who need, sharing with those who are hungry, acting with honesty and ntegrity when others don’t…… Today we hear more from John the Baptist, spelling this out in practical terms and it’s uncomfortable listening! Well I don’t know about you, but I want to have my heart transformed, so I can live in this Kingdom of God way, to shine in God’s world. Fortunately John said there was One coming who would ‘baptize us in the Holy Spirit’ 
(and with fire!). One who can change us from the inside out so we might still sing, in these ‘dark streets shineth The everlasting light.’
 Matthew 7.16;  for the full list see Galatians 5.22-23;  Luke 3.16
A message for our time
At Christmas we say we proclaim a message of joy, of peace, of gladness, of celebration – a true feast. Glory be to God on High! But do we believe it? Have we truly received it? As well as the tree and presents, our hearts may need a bit of getting ready (probably quite a lot actually!). We recall John the Baptist today, who perhaps wasn’t the easiest person to be around! But who as a prophet paved the way for this amazing message, this amazing person – Jesus! An Old Testament scholar in our day wrote, ‘A prophet is someone who knows what time it is’1. I love that. What time is it here, in 21st Century Britain, in Oldfield Park? Perhaps more than ever we need to hear and receive the message of Jesus Christ for ourselves, and for our world. And not just the message – but the person himself, who is alive and comes to us by His Holy Spirit. The Scriptures tell us that through his birth, life, cross and resurrection He opened heaven up to us – and heaven come among us to touch us here on earth. It is transformational, changes our lives and hearts, if we will truly and deeply receive it. This is not just one philosophy or world view among others – this is the message of truth and love from the Most High God himself, who loves us indeed. And, those who have experienced it, will begin to know how, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”2
1 John Goldingay 21 Corinthians 2.9
Baptized into One Kingdom
What is the Kingdom of Christ?
The Kingdom of the One who the Bible says is sovereign over all?
As we baptize another child today, we bear witness to that Kingdom. We hope and pray many more will be baptized into that Kingdom in the coming year – children, young people and adults alike! We will hear a beautiful description of that Kingdom today, in a reading from Colossians about the ‘clothes’ we are to wear as we live for the King – tender-hearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness, and above all love. And we are promised that we will find it a Kingdom of true peace and thankfulness. Now in the face of what happens to us, and around us in our world, that may seem rose-tinted wishful thinking!. But no! During Advent we are reminded how Jesus also spoke clearly about really tough things too (see our other reading from Luke about roaring seas and strange tides!).
We are preparing for Christmas, when we proclaim He has come among us with great love, but also to establish a Kingdom of truth and justice that will never end. These are great, as well as beautiful truths to which we as Christians are called to hold and bear witness to in the face of a world that often thinks very differently, and where all kinds of events press in on us.
Stir up Sunday
I hope you feel stirred up! Stirred up by all the sharing of the tougher stuff over the last 4 weeks, from All Saints through Remembrance to today’s theme: ‘Christ the King’. We serve the King of a Kingdom which is everlasting and shall never fail, which is founded on Christ – through his blood shed for us on the Cross for our freedom and forgiveness, and through his resurrection opening to us ‘a new and life-giving way’ . He is the Son of the ‘Ancient of Days’, and ‘His Kingdom will never be destroyed’ . But he is also the holder of truth . Truth is a vital thing. Truth has the power to shine into the darkest of corners, to bring freedom, and
release us into walking the way of Christ whatever is happening around us. Let us encourage each other in his truth, under the hand and care of the King. Oh, and yes, if you have vague memories of the phrase ‘Stir up Sunday’ it comes from the traditional Anglican prayer for the Sunday before Advent starts. It’s when people turned their thoughts to stirring up their Christmas puddings (do come this Friday and do just that!). May we be reminded today to stir each other up to love and serve the King of kings!
 Hebrews 10.20  Daniel 7.9 & 14  John 18.37
There is only one Messiah
and He promises us, tells us He has opened for us, ‘a new and life-giving way’ into ‘the Most Holy Place’ .
Is this pie in the sky, or is He really the Messiah, the One we can trust with everything?
Today’s readings continue to face some of the tough realities of our world. There is a very modern feel to Jesus’ words about wars, famines and earthquakes. And the impact on his disciples of his words foretelling the complete destruction of their most holy place, the Temple in Jerusalem, must have been utterly shocking – thank heaven Jesus himself was with them when he said it! Some Christians in our world today likewise face the loss of all that is dear to them in ways we can barely imagine. Or do they? We sing, ‘We have a hope that is steadfast and certain’  , and as I said, this Messiah has opened for us ‘a new and life-giving way’ .
Prophecies of old say, ‘those who lead many to righteousness will shine like the stars forever’ . The writer to the Hebrews in the New Testament encourages those he was writing to, who were suffering much, saying, ‘we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place because of the blood of Jesus.’  And called them to ‘hold tightly without wavering to the hope we affirm’  . This is far from doom and gloom, it is life-giving, powerful, freeing. We will too confess and put our faith in this Messiah? Christians in so many times and places have discovered He is the one true Rock on whom we can depend. His is an often undiscovered grace that will come to us as we call on Him even, especially, in the darkest of times – Jesus Christ the bringer of the
greatest love and hope the world has ever seen. Again we sing, ‘Yes Lord we believe.’ 
 Hebrews 10.20
 from the Hymn: Jesus is King by Wendy Churchill
 Daniel 12.3
 Heb. 10.19
 Heb. 10.23
 from the Hymn: Jesus hope of the nations by Brian Doerksen 2002