Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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“I am the Lord’s servant”: A sermon on Mary for Advent: 15 December 2019

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-55

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

If you have taken a walk past Crown Church recently, you will see that they have a wonderful bit of public witness happening in their wee church garden just now: a crib scene. Mary and Joseph are standing at a stable, awaiting the arrival of the baby Jesus. Meanwhile, out on the lawn, the wise men are approaching (I think they get nearer every day). No doubt there are shepherds and angels still to come. You should go and see it if you haven’t yet.

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Time to wake up! Sermon for The First Sunday of Advent, 1 December 2019

Scripture Readings: Romans 13.8-14.4

Matthew 24.36-44

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s Bible readings mention, among other things, drunkenness and debauchery, flooding, burglary, and people who disappear unexpectedly. For it is Advent, and strange things happen in the Biblical texts we hear at this time of year.

As the Christmas party scene gets into its swing, I wonder how many people will heed the words of St Paul which we read this morning:

Let us conduct ourselves properly, as people who live in the light of the day- no orgies or drunkenness!

Yes, it’s hard work being a Christian on a night out! The run-up to Christmas is really now part of Christmas itself, for all the preparing for ‘the big day’ is part of the process- indeed, it is part of the fun, if you like shopping or baking Christmas cakes. Christmas may be commercialised, but Advent hardly registers on the consciousness of the general population. We have Advent calendars for the kids, which are hardly more than countdowns until Santa comes. But we preachers will witter on about Advent for the next four weeks, and I wonder if anyone is taking much notice? When Christmas starts in mid-November, what can Advent possibly mean?

The Church season of Advent season of Advent is a strange sort of time. It’s supposed to be about looking forward to Christmas, to the day when we will remember the birth of the baby of Bethlehem. But how can you look forward to something which has already happened?- how can we be expectant about a birth which happened 2,000 years ago?

Yet all this confusing of past, present and future shouldn’t be disconcerting for Christians. For we Christians know what we are living in an in-between time in history. In Jesus Christ, God has come among us, in the child of Bethlehem. But the risen and ascended Christ is, in a mysterious way, still to come. And that should make a difference to the way we live.

We see this in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans. In the first part of the reading, Paul is trying to encourage the Christians of Rome to lead good lives. He reminds them of Christ’s command to love, so that they fulfil the Law of God:

The commandments… are summed up in the one command, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself”. If you love someone, you will never do them wrong; to love, then, is to obey the whole Law.

And then towards the end of the passage, Paul speaks of a practical application of the command to love: how to deal with disagreements.

But between these two sections, in the midst of all this discussion about ethics (about how we are to live), we have some verses which tell us something about why we should love one another. It is because, he says, we are living in in-between times. At this point, Paul sounds like someone who feels that time is passing quicker than other people realise. He tells the Christians of Rome,

You must do this, because you know that the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep. For the moment when we will be saved is closer now than it was when we first believed. The night is nearly over, day is almost here.

There is an urgency here, and urgency which we also find in the preaching of Jesus. Consider this strange wee parable, which Jesus tells in our Gospel reading today:

If the owner of a house knew the time when the thief would come, you can be sure that he would stay awake and not let the thief break into his house. So then, you also must always be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you are not expecting him.

I’m sure you can think of many things the Bible says about Jesus- Prince of Peace, Son of God, Redeemer, the Word made flesh. But Jesus as a burglar- had that ever occurred to you before? But there it is, that’s what he apparently said. Not the most obvious thing to say about Jesus, but here he is, saying it about himself: I’m like a thief in the night!

Even odder is this strange passage- words which, again, are said to be the words of Jesus:

At that time two men will be working in a field: one will be taken away, the other will be left behind. Two women will be at a mill grinding meal: one will be taken away, the other will be left behind. Watch out, then, because you do not know what day your Lord will come.

Now, this is really strange stuff. Jesus seems to be saying that, at some point in the future, we’re suddenly going to find our neighbours and friends disappearing round about us, as if they’d suddenly been dematerialised and teleported on the starship Enterprise? What are we supposed to make of stuff like this?

It’s all about urgency, the sense that anything can happen at any time. And throughout, Jesus is urging us to watch out, keep alert, look for the signs that the unexpected it going to happen. Otherwise, we will be like the folks in Noah’s day, whom Jesus said didn’t know what has happening until they were swept away by the flood.

So St Paul tells the Christians of Rome that they’ve to wake up:

…the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep.

We humans spend about a third of each day asleep. But sometimes it is as if we are asleep the rest of the time, too. We can be jolted when something apparently unexpected happens because we were not alert enough to see it coming: a health problem that leads to hospitalisation, the seemingly happy marriage which- to everyone’s surprise- ends suddenly, the discovery that we have friend who’s deeply unhappy, and we never really noticed.

It happens on a world scale, too: everyone’s asleep, until something wakes us up. In summer 1914, European culture was seemingly at its peak, but within a few months the nations were slaughtering because a royal was shot in Sarajevo. 1989: Communism in Russia and Europe seems monolithic, but a few demonstrations and it all comes tumbling down. In 2007, bankers and investors, who treated the markets like as a casino where they would always win, did not expect their game to quite suddenly unravel, as the world was pitched into economic misery. Britain was, what one might describe as a stable country, until the EU referendum in 2016 pitched our politics and economy into chaos.

Often, there are those who can see what is coming. They are more awake than the rest of us, see the danger signs that all is not as it should be. But the rest of fail to be awake enough, for we have not been alert. And we are taken by surprise when the unexpected- ‘the wake-up call’- finally happens, and we sleepwalk into disaster.

As Paul writes to the Romans about how to love, he reminds them to remain alert. In their waiting, they are not to be lulled by the false security of the darkness. Love your neighbour, he says; avoid the darkness- because the time has come for you to wake up from your sleep. Night is nearly over, dawn is breaking, and soon all will be light.

And so, says Paul, we are to live in the light which is dawning: live by Christ’s law of love. He’s reminding us that it is as if any day now God will bring to completion the work he began in Jesus. We are to love one another, and not to have orgies or get drunk or fight or be jealous- because thief in the night is about to surprise us!

Christianity is an historical faith. We look backwards to the story of God’s dealings with Israel, which come to a climax in the history of Jesus Christ. Yet our historical faith points us towards the future. Christianity isn’t nostalgia- it’s about looking forward with hope.

In the life of Jesus, God has intervened once more in the history of the Jewish people, but now this old story takes on universal significance. For with Christ’s resurrection, we are pointed to the day when death everywhere will be defeated. And no longer is this history just about one nation: now it is about us all, about the whole of creation, which God wills to bring into a loving relationship once more with him.

Looking back to the biblical story of God’s dealings with this people, we are given hope for the future: the history which is past is leading to the end of history. And we are caught up in that process, in God’s great plan for the future of creation. This is our Christian sense that we live between the times when God has done great things in the past and the day when God brings it all to completion. We live between those times, looking back, yes, but also looking forward with hope. This is what Advent reminds us about.

Christians are folk who have learned from the Bible what God did in Jesus Christ. Responding to God’s love with faith, we now have hope, because God, we know, is taking things further. Not everything is quite complete. In Jesus’ and Paul’s day, many people had a sense that the end of the age was nigh. They looked forward to a day when, all at once, God’s reign of peace and justice was established on earth.

But early on, Christians, such as Paul, saw that the end of the world was, in a way, already underway. From them we get this sense of living in an in-between time. We know that evil has ultimately been defeated already the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Darkness still lingers, but, like people waiting for the sunrise, Christians can see the light on the horizon. We know the sun will soon appear, but the end is not quite yet.

And so we wait. And as Paul acknowledges, the waiting can be hard. We might get drowsy, and even fall asleep. We might allow the darkness, rather than the light, to lull us, so that our selfish appetites and desires get in the way of loving as Christ calls us. The vices Paul lists- orgies, drunkenness, immorality, indecency, fighting, jealously- even if we manage to avoid these things ourselves, they are still around us, for many still live in the dark! And these vices can seem attractive, acceptable, desirable, so that we are tempted to leave the light and spend some time in the darkness ourselves. In the light, you love your neighbour. In the dark, you become selfish.

In Jesus Christ, the light of the world has come to us. And his light is still dawning, especially in the lives of those who choose to live in his way, his light. He taught us to love, not just by tell us, but by showing us how to do it. In Advent, we are reminded that God’s Kingdom is it hand, already appearing among us. ‘The night is nearly over, the day is almost here’, says Paul, which for me, conjures up an image of a sunrise: the dawn light beginning to banish the darkness. Dawn is coming, and so we have hope! So let’s live in the light, this Advent, and always.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

The path of peace: sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2019

Scripture Readings: Micah 4.1-5

Luke 1.67-80

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Yesterday, 9 November, is a date of great significance for Germany. As the media has been reminding us, it was the date that the Communist authorities opened up the Berlin Wall, 30 years ago, in 1989. But 9 November is also the anniversary of other historic events which led to that war, so that it has become known as ‘the Day of Fate’.

It was on 9 November 1918 that Kaiser Wilhelm abdicated, making possible the Armistice a few days later, on 11 November, which ended the fighting of the Great War, and which we in this country keep as our Remembrance Day. On 9 November 1923, an attempted coup d’état in Munich the so called Beer Hall Putsch- but brought Hitler national attention. By 1938, his Nazi party was in power, and 9 November that year they carried out a pogrom which saw synagogues and Jewish shops destroyed, Jews beaten and murdered, and the start of the removal of the Jews into concentration camps.

So it is ironic that the fall of the Berlin wall should have happened on 9 November. That event finally ended the division of the country which had prevailed since the Second World War, a war caused, of course, by aggression racism, antisemitism and extremist nationalism.

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Tree climbing for Jesus! Sermon for 3 November 2019: Sunday after All Saints

Sripture reading: Luke 19:1-10

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Here comes Zacchaeus. A wee guy, but a nasty piece of work. A tax collector.

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Our reliable God: sermon for 20 October 2019 (Proper 24 Year C, RCL)

Scripture Readings: 2 Timothy 3:14-4:1-5
Luke 18.1-8

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Spirituality is a word which is much on vogue these days. And like many vogue words, it has many meanings, for it is a very vague concept. We hear about Celtic spirituality, and Buddhist spirituality. You hear of people whose spirituality doesn’t seem to have much connection with religion- for example, there are those who say they find the sacred when they climb high mountains. In fact, I think that for many people, spirituality is a word they use to talk about what are really religious things. The trouble is that ‘religion’ has become a bogey word. It has become associated with fundamentalism, with violence, with everything that’s not progressive. And so, rather than speaking about religion or faith, people use that nice vague foggy term, ‘spirituality’.

Many people think of spirituality as ‘religion-lite’- slimmed down religion, without doctrines or a commitment to a religious organisation, like the Church. In fact, of course, the spirituality industry has its doctrines and beliefs. It has commercial organisations behind if, for it has become a money-spinning business. So we should be a bit suspicious of anything or anyone who uses the word ‘spirituality’ in that loose way.

Yet spirituality is at the heart of all the great religions of the world. I would go as far as to say that if Christianity is to recover some of its lost vitality, we need to rediscover the importance of Christian spirituality. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

Sometimes people think that the Bible is just a list of doctrines or dos and don’ts. But the Bible is at the heart of Christian spirituality.

For the Bible is full of spiritual resources. There are many prayers in the Bible (not just the ‘Our Father’ which the Bible tells us Jesus taught to his disciples). The Bible has its own prayer book, the Psalms. And the greatest hymn writers and spiritual writers were soaked in the imagery and stories of the Bible. But in order to release the power of the Bible to assist our spirituality, we need to use our imagination. For the Bible is a book of stories and images and ideas, full of things to spark our imagination as we think about our spirituality. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’… bringing me through the valley of the shadow of death to cool waters and green pastures- what a beautiful image!

Today’s Bible readings give us some clues about the ingredients of a truly Christian spirituality. The passage from Second Timothy is about the Bible. The Gospel passage is about the Bible, and prayer. Those should be good places to start to think about our own, Christian, spirituality. So let’s think for a moment about them each in turn.

But today’s Epistle reading doesn’t seem to encourage much imagination. This is a letter which was written to someone who was concerned with getting the doctrine right. He writes:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living.

And so it is. But we have to watch that we don’t think that ‘teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living’ causes us to boil the Bible down, so that all it consists of is a list of doctrines and dogmas, of dos and don’ts- which is, sadly, what many people have done to the Bible. Yet the Bible is above all a book of stories, telling the grand story of how God has interacted with human beings. You wouldn’t read a story book as if it were a car maintenance manual. So why don’t we let the stories of the Bible speak to our imagination, as well as our intellect? Treat the Bible, not as an instruction manual, but as a work of art. Let it speak to you- not just to your mind, but to all your being. You are allowed to use your imagination when you read the Bible. That way, you will find that the Holy Spirit will speak to you from the pages of the Bible in a much deeper way.

But Second Timothy reminds that, for Christians, the Bible is going to be central to our spirituality. You know, sometimes other Christian denominations somehow find it easier than we Presbyterians to use the language of spirituality. And as a result, sometimes we get a bit suspicious about what they are getting up to.

When I was a teenager, I got a job as a Church organist (I sometimes think that I should keep quiet about being a Church organist, in case some day I arrive to discover that the organist isn’t well and I end up getting two jobs on a Sunday!). Anyway, this organist job was in the local Episcopal church. It was quite a challenge to me, because they had this (as I thought) elaborate sung liturgy. I wondered, for a while, where all these words had come from. But slowly it dawned on me that most of what they sung- the Gloria in Excelsis or the Kyrie Eleison, all these prayers with strange names which I really didn’t know much about- it all came straight from the Bible. All those fixed prayers of which I had a Presbyterian suspicion were full of quotes from and allusions to the Bible. It was a thoroughly Biblical service.

In the Church of Scotland, instead of prayers books we make much of our hymn books. But the best hymns are just the same- full of Biblical imagery and quotations. Consider our first hymn this morning: ‘Immortal, invisible God only wise’. That first line is almost a direct quote from the first letter to Timothy in the Authorised Version, chapter 1, verse 17:

Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory forever’.

The best, classic, hymns can be taken apart, line by line, and you can trace their origins back to something in the Bible. Truly the poets and the hymn writers have been much better at bringing the Bible alive than the theologians and the scholars. We need to be creative, use our imaginations, let God speak to us from the Bible to all our personalities- not just our minds, but our spirits as well.

The Gospel reading today is a story- a parable of Jesus. As usual, he has taken a familiar situation from everyday life, and used it to say something very deep and important about God. For Jesus understood the importance of imagination. His stories are works of art. He can take a rather unpromising idea and use it to great effect.

There was once a lawyer in the High Court in Edinburgh, who, in pleading in mitigation for his client, told the court how much a week his client had to live on. ‘How much?’ said the judge, ‘I spend that amount on my lunch’. So why are judges are paid so much? Well, part of the reasoning is that that way they should be incorruptible. It’s no use trying to bribe them, because they are well off enough, thank you very much. Well-paid judges, it’s claimed, help to ensure that the law is administered fairly.

But it is not always thus. Certainly not in Palestine in Jesus’ day. Jesus tells us a story about a corrupt judge,

In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected people.

And he’s saying to his listeners- you know the sort of judge I mean- a judge susceptible to a bit of bribery. So even if you have a good case, unless you’re willing to pay, you might never get a hearing.

But here’s another character in the story:

And there was a widow in that same town who kept coming to him and pleading for her rights, saying, “Help me against my opponent!” For a long time the judge refused to act…

…for this was just a poor widow woman- she had no clout. But she was persistent: she kept on and on at him, and

at last he said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or respect people, yet because of all the trouble this widow is giving me, I will see to it that she gets her rights. If I don’t, she will keep on coming and finally wear me out!”

And Jesus says to his listeners, ‘Do you hear what this corrupt judge is saying? Even someone like this can be persuaded to listen to the plea of someone in need’. If even a bad man can be persuaded, imagine what God is like:

Now, will God not judge in favour of his own people who cry to him day and night for help? Will he be slow to help them? I tell you, he will judge in their favour and do it quickly.

This little story about from a corrupt legal system becomes, in the hands of Jesus, a masterful illustration to remind us of what God is like. God will not be slow. God is reliable. God will listen to us. These are all factors which should inform our spirituality.

The letter to Timothy warns that that at times people will ‘give their attention to legends’. And strangely, today is one of those times. For much of what gets called ‘spirituality’ is little more than superstition. There are people who think crystals can heal you. We can put a man on the moon, send probes to Mars and look with space telescopes at the most distant galaxies, but still people read the horoscopes (although there is not an ounce of scientific evidence for it). I think it is very sad that people put their future in the hands of astrologers, when at any time they could turn to God. Put away your tarot cards, throw away your crystal balls. There is a much simpler way of dealing with your worries about the future. Jesus taught that God will listen to us: ‘Take it to the Lord in prayer’, as the old hymn has it.

And so one mark of a genuine Christian spirituality is that it will be a confident spirituality. Jesus tells us that we can rely on God. We are not in the hands of fate. The stars do not determine our destiny. We don’t need to learn what the Tarot Cards mean so we can get a glimpse of the future. No- we have a God who will listen, who loves us, who will be there whatever lies ahead of us. As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans:

For I am certain that nothing can separate us from [God’s] love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below- there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.[1]

It’s so simple. Perhaps it’s too simple for many people. But a truly Christian spirituality will be a straightforward and confident sort of spirituality. For our God is one doesn’t need bribed or nagged. You don’t need to be through a great spiritual rigmarole in order to get in touch with our God. For the Bible assures us that the immortal, invisible, inaccessible God has come to us in Jesus Christ. God has come to us in a teller of tales, an artist of parables, a carpenter who healed the sick, made time for the outcast and who despised those who made religion complicated, or superstitious, or who tried to sell God’s grace. The God of Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t require an exotic or complicated faith. We just need to be confident that God is there for us, and hears our prayers. That, my friends, is a truly Christian spirituality.

Ascription of Praise

To God be honour and eternal dominion! Amen.

1 Timothy 6.16 (GNB)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

[1] Romans 8.38-39

I almost forgot to say ‘Thank you’: sermon for 13 October 2019

Scripture Readings: 2 Timothy 2.8-15

Luke 17.11-19

I almost forgot to say ‘Thank you’

Every so often, I get a tune stuck in my head, something catchy which I can’t shift all day. It happened this week, as I was pondering our Gospel story for today. It’s a story is about gratitude, and I was thinking of the one man who came back to say thank you to Jesus, when a song- which I must have heard when I was a child, in Sunday school or a school assembly- sprung into my head. I didn’t have the sheet music (so you’re not getting to sing it today), but I found the words, and goes something like this:

          I nearly forgot to say: Thank you!
For flowers and thrushes and things,
For daisies that dapple the meadow,
And patterns on butterfly wings,
For stars that shine, for winds that blow,
The sun that melts the ice and snow;
I nearly forgot to say: Thank You!
For rainbows that follow the rain;
But really I want to say: Thank you!
Again and again, and again.[1]

Does anyone recognise that? It comes from a Christian musical of the 1970s: here’s a recording.

‘I nearly forgot to say thank you’ is what I imagine the one man who came back had to say to Jesus.

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Lost and Found: sermon for 15 September 2019, Proper 19

Scripture Readings: Psalm 14

Luke 15:1-10

Lost and Found

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

One of the brainiest Christians of all time was man called Anselm, a Norman who became Archbishop of Canterbury around 1,000 years ago. He’s famous for writing a treatise on the existence of God which began with the first words of our Old Testament reading, Psalm 14: ‘Fools say to themselves, there is no God’. And he went on to try to prove, through a very subtle philosophical argument, that the fools were wrong.

With atheism being so fashionable among some people nowadays, it’s tempting for us to misunderstand the beginning of Psalm 14. We all know people who say, ‘There is no God’, and they are not all fools. Perhaps in Anselm’s day, when the existence of God was taken for granted by so many, it did seem you’d have to be a fool to deny the existence of God. Today we have no such consensus. Indeed, there are plenty of people claiming we’re the fools: people like you and me who do believe in God are the fools!

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The Wisdom of Humility: sermon for the Kirking of the Council, 8 September 2019

Click here for the order of Service for the Kirking of the Council 2019

Click here for more information about the Kirking of the Council 2019

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 3.4-15

Luke 14:1, 7-14

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I have just been reading a remarkable account of a British traveller who, just a few months after September 11 2001, walked across Afghanistan. It was just after the American-led invasion of the country, which drove the Taliban out of Kabul. The author writes:

The country had been at war for twenty-five years; the new government had been in place for only two weeks; there was no electricity between Herat and Kabul, no television and no T-shirts. Villages combined medieval etiquette with new political ideologies. In many houses the only piece of foreign technology was a Kalashnikov, and the only global brand was Islam.[1]

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I have called you by your name, you are mine: sermon for 1 September 2019

Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Luke 13:10-17

I have called you by your name, you are mine

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This morning at St Stephen’s we had the joy of celebrating the Sacrament of Baptism. We baptised Caitlin Liddle, the granddaughter of Sandy and Rosemary Cumming. The baptism of a child is a time of great joy for the child’s family and friends. But it is also a celebration for the Church for family. For baptism remind us of many of the joyful truths of the Gospel. It reminds us that God calls us by name, that we all of us belong to God. And it reminds us about how new beginnings is at the heart of our faith.

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The family meal: sermon for 25 August 2019

Scripture Readings: John 6.53-59

Mark 14.22-26

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

I used to belong to a student Christian organisation at university. At the end of each term, we would meet, as we always did, for a meal together. But at the end of the meal, instead of hearing a guest speaker as we usually did, we would remain around the meal table and share the Sacrament of Holy Communion, led by a local clergyman, a chaplain, or one of the Divinity Faculty staff. That experience completely upended all my thoughts about Communion. Sitting around the same table where we had just shared our meal was a powerful spiritual experience for someone who was more used to our rather formal and traditional services in my home church. It was a reminder, also, that sometimes in the church we make things too complicated! This was a reminder of how it started- a meal with friends in an upstairs room.

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