Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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An unwelcome child: sermon for Epiphany, 6 January 2019

The Magi Journeying James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Scripture Readings: Ephesians 3:1-6

Matthew 2:1-18

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

They have haunted our Christmas imagination for centuries. They still haunt our Christmas cards, our carols (of course), our crib scenes. As if first century Bethlehem were not exotic enough for us, they turn up in their rich robes, their fancy camels, with the fragrance of another sort of East about them:

We three kings of Orient are

Bearing gifts we traverse afar

Field and fountain, moor and mountain

Following yonder star.[1]

Not the dusty east of poor Palestinian peasants under Roman occupation, but the spice-laden Persian east, the Aladdin east of our Western imagination- turbans, colourful robes, vast palaces, sultans, minarets and genies, astrology and magic and smoke and mirrors. We do not even know, really, if there were three of them, or even if they were all male, or whether or not they travelled on camels. They are unlikely to be kings, though they were probably advisors to kings. The Bible calls them wise men- magi (we get the English word magic from that word). Much of what we think we know about them comes is, simply, the accumulated imagination of two millennia.

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A visitor to our Good Earth: sermon for Christmas Eve 2018

Scripture Readings:

Genesis 1.1-9 (Authorized Version)
recording from Apollo 8 TV broadcast, December 24th, 1968[i]


Luke 2.1-7

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

Our Old Testament reading is from Genesis chapter 1- part of the creation story. We are going hear it in a recording taken from a television broadcast made 50 years ago tonight. We hear the voices of Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman:

That was the astronauts of Apollo 8 speaking in a live television broadcast in Christmas Eve 1968: exactly fifty years ago. They were the first human beings ever to travel to the moon. They did not land on the moon- that happened just a few months later. Their mission was to prepare the way for the subsequent moon landing. They were a practice run- the first to leave the orbit of the earth, the first people ever to see the far side of the moon with their own eyes, the first to go into orbit around the moon.

They were tasked with photographing the moon for possible landing sites. At one point, however, astronaut Bill Anders spotted something else out of one of the windows: ‘Oh my God, look at that picture over there!’ he exclaimed. ‘There’s the earth comin’ up. Wow, is that pretty!’ He had spotted earth rising over the horizon of the moon: a semicircle of colour, its blues and greens contrasting with the uniform greyness of the moon, and the inky blackness of the sky. He took the photograph you are looking at now.

The Apollo 8 astronauts had gone to explore the moon, but Bill Anders’ ‘Earthrise’ picture was the most famous image they brought back. There was nothing in the flight plan about taking such a photograph- if it had been an unmanned mission, a computer would never have thought of taking the picture. It took a human eye to see the beauty of the earth hanging in the sky. They had gone to explore the moon, but came back with a new way of looking at the earth.

The Apollo photographs of the earth gave the emerging environmental movement boost. They show our planet as we had never really seen it before- a small speck of colour in a vast darkness, an oasis of life in a lifeless void. It is all we have. For all our divisions, we all of us share this ‘blue marble’, our island home in space. If we damage or destroy it, then we literally have no future.

For their earlier TV broadcast, the astronauts had been given very little guidance on what they should do or say. So they chose to read from Genesis: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’. The ancient poet of Genesis could never have imagined his words might be read by people orbiting the moon to an audience of millions back on earth. Yet this ancient, majestic words seemed like the right choice for that Christmas Eve, of that turbulent year of 1968. It was the genius of the Hebrews to understand that there could only really be the one God, and that God was the creator of heaven and earth.

In their different ways, the Earthrise picture and the account of creation in Genesis speak to us of the wonder and mystery of creation. For some people, these pictures of the earth in space make us seem quite insignificant in the vast cosmos. Not so the Biblical poets. In Psalm 8, a poet observing the night sky pondered humanity’s place in it all:

When I look at the sky, which you have made,

at the moon and the stars, which you set in their places —

what are human beings, that you think of them;

mere mortals, that you care for them?

Yet you made them inferior only to yourself;

you crowned them with glory and honour.

You appointed them rulers over everything you made;

you placed them over all creation:

sheep and cattle, and the wild animals too;

the birds and the fish

and the creatures in the seas.[2]

Our faith tell us that we do matter. For this planet is God’s gift to us. God calls on us to nurture the earth, to ensure the waters are clean, to ensure that preservation of the multitude of species on which our lives- and that of future generations- will depend. The Bible is not so far from the modern environmental movement as it reminds us of our responsibilities to creation.

Frank Borman, the mission commander, ended the Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon with these words:

[F]rom the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas- and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

Bormann later described seeing the earth rise above the moon as ‘the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life’[3]. His far away home planet must, indeed have seemed good.

As Genesis said: God created the heavens and the earth, and God saw that it was good. And God showed again his love for this good earth when a child was born to Mary at Bethlehem. For in the child in the manger, the maker of the earth and the moon and the stars comes to his good earth, comes to be born as one of us, comes to live and die alongside his creatures on this good earth he has made.

Yet hatred and war divide humanity the inhabitants of this good earth. In our rivalries, we forget that we have this in common- we all have to share this third planet from the sun. We have the capacity to destroy life, either instantly in a nuclear exchange or an accident; or slowly, as we continue to destroy forests and the oceans and allow species which took millions of years to evolve to go out of existence in decades. We have used the technology which sent men to the moon to investigate the land, sea and atmosphere of the earth ever more carefully. Satellites can show us shrinking ice caps, rising sea levels, and climate change which threatens us all, yet we are loathed to do anything about it.

And yet, somehow I am not entirely pessimistic, for unto us a child is born. A child who is born in very humble circumstance, to an ordinary peasant woman and her carpenter husband. A child whose message would inspire many people to a love their neighbours, and to care for the world around them. And yet a child who is also forgotten, or pushed to one side- they had no room for him at the inn.

Science and technology can teach us a lot about our planet and the universe which contains it. But faith tells us that this seemingly insignificant planet of ours once received a visit from beyond, from one whom we can be inspired to put our trust, for his life and death tells us that the Creator God loves us.

As we’ve heard, the Bible begins with the words, ‘In the beginning, God…’ The Gospel of John, attempting to explain who Jesus is, begins with the words which reflect the start of Genesis:

In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God. From the very beginning the Word was with God. Through him God made all things; not one thing in all creation was made without him.

The Word, through whom the heavens and earth was made, has come to us in the child of Bethlehem. Perhaps the Word has also visited other planets, to bring to life forms we can’t imagine the good news. For it is good news, for this good earth, and for all its people: we are not forgotten, we are not unimportant, for the Son of God the creator has walked among us. And, as John’s Gospel says, he is

‘the light [which] shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out’.

Ascription of Praise

Glory to God in highest heaven,

and on earth peace to all in whom God delights!

Amen.

Luke 2.14 (alt)

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2018 Peter W Nimmo

Notes


[1] https://youtu.be/t3LIvb1Nzak

[2] Psalm 8.3-8

[3] Barbree, Jay. Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Apollo Moon Landings (p. 221). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.

Signs of the times: sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2018

Scripture readings: 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

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

In our culture, we expect this build-up to Christmas to be a busy time of preparation, a mad rush of shopping, preparing food, putting up decorations, getting ready for family visits, enjoying the office party and the works night out. And we clergy are as bad as everyone else, and everyone else knows it, which is why we are so often greeted with ‘This will be your busy time of year’.

For many folk, the pre-Christmas season is very enjoyable- choosing presents for loved ones, baking special Advent and Christmas food, putting up a Christmas tree, enjoying a works night out. But for some it is not so easy. For some people, this is the time they get into debt. There are parents worried about how they can afford to give children the Christmas they deserve. For those who are lonely, or anxious, or bereaved, this enforced jollity can be a bit much.

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The time is coming… Sermon for The First Sunday of Advent 2018

Scripture Readings:

Jeremiah 33:14-18

Luke 3.1-20

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

We may be governed currently by people who think that experts aren’t important, but I love to listen to an expert who knows his stuff and can explain it to the rest of us- whether it’s David Attenborough on wildlife or Brian Cox on astronomy, or Neil Oliver on history. And I do love Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 show, In Our Time, with the best people in their field (there was an excellent one on Dietrich Bonhoeffer recently).

A few weeks ago I heard an expert give a fascinating talk.

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What Kind of a King?: sermon for Christ the King, 25 November 2018

Scripture Readings: Psalm 93

John 18.28-38a

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

On this Sunday which is designated as ‘Christ the King’, perhaps the first thing we should admit is that Jesus nowhere in the Gospels referred to himself as a King. But the word ‘Christ’ in Greek literally means ‘the anointed One’[1]– and as kings are anointed, that implies that Christ is a king of some sort. According to Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus was born, the wise men from the East came to King Herod looking for a king, and were told to look for him in Bethlehem. Afterwards, King Herod tried to murder the baby king, leading to a slaughter of innocents[2]. And today’s Gospel reading, from near the end of Jesus’ life, puts him once again in front of a secular ruler in Jerusalem, with his life at stake.

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What do we do with our remembrance? Sermon for Remembrance Sunday 2018

Scripture Readings: Micah 4.1-5

Luke 1.67-80

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

Our church buildings, like many church buildings, are full of memorials. There are the obvious ones: the lists of names from both world wars inside St Stephen’s, the congregational memorial on the outside wall of the Old High Church; the Camerons memorial area inside the Old High. We have memorials to memorial to ministers, organists, town worthies, and congregation members in both our buildings. There is stained glass in the chancel of St Stephen’s gifted by a Royal Artillery officer; and at the Old High, another stained glass memorial from a mother to her child. There are number of individual memorials at the Old High, ranging to a memorial to a General Wimberley, who led the 51st Division at Alamein, to the mention on his family memorial of Ensign James Grant who died at the Battle of Waterloo, aged only 15.

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Never Forgotten: Sermon for All Saints Sunday, 4 November 2018

Scripture Readings: 1 John 3:1-3

Matthew 5:1-12

Never forgotten

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

Some years ago I did a primary school assembly on Hallowe’en, and since they’d just had a Hallowe’en disco during the week and I knew it would be on their minds, I thought I may as well talk about it. When I asked them if they would be going out on Hallowe’en, it turned out that the vast majority were planning to- even if nowadays they refer it is as ‘trick or treating’, instead of guising and they lamps of pumpkins rather than turnips. Hallowe’en has changed since I was a lad- too commercialised for me now. But for most children, it’s still a lot of fun, probably because dressing up is such fun.

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What must we do? Sermon for Sunday 14 October Proper 23

Our text from the Letter to the Hebrews today begins with a vivid image:

The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together.

A sharp sword was the deadliest weapon of ancient times- the Kalashnikov of the Roman era. So this image is like something from a very bloody battle- or a very graphic horror film. A sword that cuts through flesh, joints and marrow is an unsettling thought. And it is used to describe the word of God.

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Welcome the children: sermon for Sunday 23 September 2018: Proper 20 Year B

Scripture Readings: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Mark 9:30-37

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

This morning at the Old High Church we are celebrating the baptism of Johnny Baird. It’s always great to have a service at which the child is the centre of attention. For lots of different reasons, we are seeing fewer children in our churches nowadays, and I think that’s a great pity. Children ought to be the centre of the church’s attention more often. After all, in today’s Gospel reading, a child becomes the centre of attention, because Jesus puts him or her there.

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Wisdom’s Call: sermon for 16 September 2018 (Proper 19, Year B, RCL)

Scripture Readings: Proverbs 1:20-33

Mark 8:31-38

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

I read about a survey this week that claimed that men aged between 18 and 34 are so concerned about how they look, they spend two hours a week thinking about what they are going to wear[1]. Once, we gents used to complain that the ladies were keeping us late because they took so long to get ready. Perhaps now the roles are reversed!

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