Old High St. Stephen's, Inverness

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Where your heart is? Sermon for Sunday 11 August 2019 Proper 14

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

Luke 12:32-34

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

I once knew an elderly lady who told me she had been worshipping in the same local country church all her life. She told me that, when she was a wee girl, her family had to go to church each Sunday. Her father was a gamekeeper, and if he wasn’t there the laird would have noticed and he’d have lost not just his job, but his tied house as well. Homeless and jobless if they didn’t go to church.

Thank goodness, we live in a different age nowadays. There is no great cultural expectation that we have to go to church. We come because we want to. It’s our own choice. And that old lady in continued to come to church, not because she was forced to, but because she wanted to.

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The Tyranny of Things: sermon for 4 August 2019 Proper 13 Year C RCL

Scripture Readings:

Ecclesiastes 1.12-14; 2-18-23

Colossians 3: 1-11

Luke 12: 13-21

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

If I was to set you homework, it would be to ask you to read the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes this coming week. For it is a remarkable book. As one commentator says,

…many readers find this book to be one of the most intriguing books in the Hebrew Scriptures, a fascinating mixture of darkness and light, confidence and doubt, piety and irreverence.[1]

I first read it as a teenager, struggling to make sense of the world, and the Christian faith I had been brought up in. It was amazing to discover a book, in the canon of Scripture, which seemed so honest about the world and the mystery of life. We tend to think of the Bible as a book of answers. Ecclesiastes is not afraid to say that sometimes we do not know all the answers. Ecclesiastes may be a rather gloomy book, but it reminds us that life, and faith, is ultimately a mystery.

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Pray for the city: sermon for 28 July 2019: Proper 12 Year C RCL

Scripture Readings: Genesis 18:20-32 GNB

Psalm 85 NRSV (said responsively)

Luke 11:1-13 GNB

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

This week, I have been thinking about a minister friend of mine, now retired after long and varied career. He had served in a number of very ordinary west of Scotland parishes, and had also served as a university chaplain and with a major Christian charity. Not long after his retirement he started to work as a locum in a church in Fife, and found himself preaching to a congregation which, on most Sundays, included the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown. But my friend took it in his stride, because he realised that the Prime Minister needed to hear the Word of God as much as an old lady in a housing scheme in Paisley.

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How can we be thankful? A sermon on Psalm 40: 30 June 2019

Scripture Readings: Psalm 40.1-10

Luke 17:11–19


How can we not be thankful?

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

We have been hearing a lot recently about antisemitism- the irrational hatred of the Jews, which seems to be popping up again in this country and around the world. When I hear about antisemitism, by thoughts often turn to one of the first times I attended a Church of Scotland General Assembly, back in 1991 when I was a Divinity student.

The Moderator was one of my teachers, Robert Davidson, Professor of Old Testament at Glasgow University. On that particular day, there was a special guest: the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom. After we had sung a metrical Psalm- unaccompanied, in the old Scottish style- Bob Davidson greeted the Chief Rabbi in Hebrew, and invited him to address the Assembly. It was, for me, a moving reminder of the Jewish origins of our Christian faith, and of how our Presbyterian worship continues to be suffused with those old Hebrew prayers and hymns, the Psalms.

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Woven in the Spirit: Pentecost sermon for the Kirking of the Tartans 9 June 2019


This sermon was preached at a service of the Kirking of the Tartans at the Old High Church, with the Association of Highland Clans and Societies

Scripture Readings: Exodus 35: 30-35 not Lectionary

Acts 2.1-21

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

One of the biggest events in our church calendar at Old High St Stephen’s is a Kirking- the Kirking of the Council, which we have grown in recent years into a very happy community festival. So it’s lovely for us today to be hosting, for the first time, another kind of Kirking, the Kirking of the Tartans. There is no more potent symbol of Scotland than tartan, but, of course, like many of the symbols of Scotland, tartan has its roots in the Highlands and in Gaelic culture.

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More than we can imagine: Sermon for Ascension Sunday 2019

Scripture Readings:

First New Testament reading: Acts 1: 1-11

Epistle Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

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

Leonard Cohen
By Gorupdebesanez – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31038363

The late Canadian musician Leonard Cohen is famous for what is, in many ways, a very strange song. It uses a famous religious word which we would generally associate with praising God. But Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is a subdued song, written in a minor key:

There’s a blaze of light in every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken


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Hope, joy and resurrection! Sermon for Easter Sunday 2019

Scripture Readings: John 20:1-18

Isaiah 65:17-25

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

You couldn’t miss the story of the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, during this Holy Week. Thankfully, no-one was hurt in Paris, but much worse has happend this morning in Sri Lanka, where many people seem to have been killed and injured in terrorist attacks on hotels, and on churches where people were gathering for Easter Sunday. The people of Sri Lanka really need our prayers today.

In Paris, the damage to Notre Dame wasn’t quite as extensive as the images of the roof ablaze on Monday night first suggested. Those pictures of that great roof on fire were heart rending, but I’m sure many of you, like me, were struck by the images we saw of the inside of the building after the fire; above all, those pictures which showed the great gold cross above the altar, apparently unharmed, amid the rubble, soot and ashes of destruction.

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The Strange Power of the Cross: Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday 14 April 2019

Scripture Readings: Luke 19:28-40

Luke 23.1-5, 13-48

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

View of the Scottish Parliament. The ruined Holy Rood Abbey can be seen just behind the royal palace of Holyrood

This week, an American asked my why our Scottish Parliament building in Edinburgh is known as ‘Holyrood’. He said he could see that it was something holy, but what was a ‘rood’? I explained that the Parliament stood near the ruins of the Abbey of the Holy Rood- the word ‘rood’ is an old word, from German or Scandinavian, for a gallows or a cross. In modern English, the area would be called ‘Holy Cross’. Our Parliament’s name reminds us of the central sign and symbol of the Christian faith. A place of political power has a name which reminds us of a powerful religious symbol: the cross upon which Jesus of Nazareth died.

The cross stands at the heart of the Christian story. For the content of our faith is not a list of abstract doctrines, or list of do’s and don’ts: it’s a story- the story Bible tells of God’s dealings with human beings. It is a story on an epic scale, which jumps around different locations- mostly what we call ‘the Holy Land’, but beginning somewhere in modern Iraq, and taking us to Egypt, Sinai, Arabia, Cyprus, modern Turkey, Greece, Malta and Rome. There is war, famine, disaster, as well as joy. All human life is here- friendship, betrayal, love and adultery, politics, deaths and births. All kinds of people are in it- there are acts of barbarity, cunning and evil, as well as acts of kindness and of love. There is faith, and there is faithlessness.

And the climax of this story is one week in Jerusalem. That’s why the Church traditionally makes much of Holy Week, when our thoughts turn to those events in Jerusalem. It’s been called ‘the longest week in history’. A week that begins with crowds welcoming their saviour, and ends with the same crowds turning against him. All played out in a seething cauldron of national and religious passions. For this is an occupied city, ruled by a superpower, but whose people have a staunch sense of their own identity, bolstered by their unique religion- although there are different sects to contend with. Perhaps it wasn’t so different from Jerusalem today.

And into this cauldron Jesus rides on a donkey. And since people in complicated situations very often like simple solutions, they greet him. Surely he’s the Messiah, promised by the prophets. Surely this is God intervening decisively in favour of his chosen people, getting ready to free Israel from Roman rule?

Yes, God is involved- but not in the way they thought. God’s story is not the story the crowds would like to have. By Friday, the sense of disappointment is palpable. He’s not the Messiah they waited for. He’s not done what they expected of him. And behind the scenes, powerful men- their religious elite- have swung the will of the crowd in another direction. Those who on Sunday shouted ‘Hosanna’ will by Friday cry ‘Crucify him!’

It’s one of the great turnarounds in history- how the Jerusalem crowd changed its mind. And it’s frightening story- for we know that this story is true. Not simply historically true- that it happened back then. But true of any crowd of people, in any age. We love to build up heroes, and knock them down. And whereas a few priests and scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees could manipulate the first-century Jerusalem crowd, today our modern media takes these things into a new dimension. Now millions can be swayed to love or hate a public figure by journalists and publicists, or by even by otherwise ordinary people getting caught up in a social media frenzy.

When Jesus stood before Pilate, on trial for his life, he would have known that his public who once loved him had now turned against him. But he was not motivated by some need to be loved by the crowd, like a modern showbiz star. Much more important for Jesus was that he did God’s will. That wasn’t easy- before his arrest, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed that God would take away the fate awaiting him. But in the end, he stuck to his principles. God came before the crowd. The passion of Jesus is, above all, the story of man who did what was right, regardless of what the public thought of him, regardless of the cost to him.

We Christians have thought a lot about Christ’s death over the centuries. The Bible itself, and preachers and theologians since, have seen all sorts of meaning in this death of Jesus. Hymn writers have been inspired by it- Isaac Watts wrote about surveying ‘the wondrous cross’, Thomas Kelly called it, ‘the balm of life, the cure of woe’. Graham Kendrick says that Jesus gave his life ‘that we might live’[1]. The cross, an instrument of his execution- has become the symbol of Christianity. We call the day he died ‘Good Friday’. What can be good about the cross? How can we say anything positive about the spectacle of an innocent man put to death for preaching about the love of God? For surely it’s disturbing to spend so much time reflecting on death, as Christians do? Surely we could find a cheerier story than this to live by?

But I think the story of Jesus’ death cross is a realistic story. For when you think about the story of Christ’s journey to the cross, it brings you face to face with how the world really is if you look at the cross, you’re forced to look at the world as it really is. The political machinations which put Jesus on the cross are revealed for what they really are. For the Roman Empire was built, not on noble ideas, but on slavery, oppression and terror. The religious leaders who put Jesus on the cross are revealed for what they are- not noble guardians of God’s word, but small-minded bigots who would rather an innocent man died than they lost their power over the people.

The cross tells us the truth about power, and corruption, and the depths to which people will sink. The cross tells us the truth about humanity, and so it tells us the truth about ourselves. People who know the story of Christ, and how he came to die on the cross, should not be surprised that people are persecuted for their beliefs. For the story of Christ is the story of a good man who spoke the truth, and was killed for doing so. We who know the story of Holy Week should not be surprised to hear politicians use religion as an excuse to discriminate against others because they are of a different faith, race, or nationality, for the Holy Week story a story about powerful people using religion to whip up hatred. And we who know the story of Holy Week know, in our heart of hearts, that it’s not just other people who are sinners. We know that we, too could so easily have been in the crowd that shouts ‘Hosanna’ on Sunday and ‘Crucify him’ on Friday.

Holy Week is a dark tale of religion being used for terrible ends. And we are all too aware that that still happens today- almost every day we hear on the news of atrocities carried out or prejudices justified by an appeal to one religion or another. In many parts of the world, there are people who rise to power claiming to defend their particular religions community from “non-believers”. This has happened in Islam, it happened in India with Hinduism. The Rohingya people of Burma have been pushed out of their homes in Burma because their Muslim religion is seen as a threat to the Buddhist culture of Burma. Extreme nationalism and bigotry are too often made respectable by claims to be defending religion.

It has also happened many times in Christian history. Leaders love to claim that they have God in their side. Right wing politicians in America have long claimed that their Christian culture is under attack. They use religious language, and stir up people by playing to their religious feelings. We are also starting to see that happen across Europe, too. We hear people talking about how ‘Christian Europe’ is being undermined by various dark forces. Sometimes they blame secularism. Sometimes they blame immigrants, especially Muslims. And sometimes these people who talk about defending ‘Christian culture’ give the game away, when they blame the Jews. For the Nazis, too, used to like to try to use religion to justify what they were getting up to.

Whenever we hear people saying they are trying defend a Christian culture, we should be very, very suspicious. For the chanced are that, like the leaders of Jesus day, they are trying to sway the crowd for their own ends. Holy Week is a story of religious and political leaders manipulating public opinion to make it possible for Jesus to be put to death. And we who know the story of Holy Week should shudder, for we know that it is still possible, and that even in our own age, people can use religion to manipulate the crowd for evil ends.

And so repentance is necessary- and forgiveness is possible. In Luke’s account of the death of Jesus, there is one person- an unlikely person- who understands the need for turning to God:

One of the criminals hanging there hurled insults at [Jesus]: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

The other one, however, rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you fear God? You received the same sentence he did. Ours, however, is only right, because we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong.”

And he said to Jesus, “Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!”

Jesus said to him, “I promise you that today you will be in Paradise with me.”

That second criminal understood that the death of Jesus had meaning for him. And if we can admit that the story of the cross tells us the truth about ourselves- that we are all broken, that none of us is perfect, that we are all make mistakes- terrible mistakes- then we begin to see that the cross tells us the truth about God as well.

We like power, we are attracted by power, but the power of the cross is a strange power. The power of the cross is in its powerlessness. For the cross of Christ shows us a God who does not side with powerful people who think they’ve no need to repent. The God we meet on the cross is a God who stands alongside the weak and powerless and humble. The kingship of Christ is represented by him riding on the humblest of animals, a donkey. The God we find in the story of Jesus is a God who aligns himself with others who suffer. And so even as he dies, he can promise a criminal, another condemned man, ‘Today you will be in Paradise with me’. That’s his promise to anyone who turns to him, in faith and in humility.

The story of Palm Sunday, Holy Week and Easter is full of truth about our world, and about ourselves, and about our God. It reminds us how religion can be misused for evil ends. The cross convinces us of our need for repentance. And it also shows us the means of forgiveness. For we can all pray, ‘Remember me, Jesus’, and know the promises he offers.

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] CH4 392, 405, 374

A mother’s care, a father’s welcome: sermon for 31 March 2019

Scripture Readings: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

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

Today we get the Gospel in a story. Here is a parable that speaks of sin and guilt- because the Gospel is realistic about the brokenness of humanity. Here is a parable which speaks of grace and forgiveness- because the Gospel is about hope for our broken humanity. It’s a story of hope for each of us, and for our broken world.

It’s a story that began as an answer to grumblers. We might not like grumblers, but sometimes they ask good questions. And so here is Jesus taking on the grumblers:

One day when many tax collectors and other outcasts came to listen to Jesus, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law started grumbling, “This man welcomes outcasts and even eats with them!” So Jesus told them this parable:

HM Revenue and Customs form

Nowadays someone working in the tax office might not be very popular, but it’s a respectable enough job. But the tax collectors of Jesus’ day were lumped in with outcasts because that’s what they were- the hated agents of the Roman occupation forces. But something about Jesus attracted tax collectors and others who were not seen as respectable members of society.

The Church goes wrong if we try too hard to be respectable. For if Jesus was truly at the heart of the Church, we would be attracting the tax collectors and outcasts of today. And as happened in Jesus’ day, we would then attract the scorn of the respectable, the sort of people who think religion belongs to them. If the modern equivalent of the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law are grumbling about the sort of people who go to a church, then that church is probably doing something right!

So, Jesus tells a story which is good news to the outcasts, and scandalous to the respectable. But he begins by talking about guilt and sin:

“There was once a man who had two sons. The younger one said to him, ‘Father, give me my share of the property now.’ So the man divided his property between his two sons.

After a few days the younger son sold his part of the property and left home with the money. He went to a country far away, where he wasted his money in reckless living. He spent everything he had.

Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat.

At last he came to his senses and said, ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! I will get up and go to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers.” So he got up and started back to his father.

In a way, this is an odd story for Mothering Sunday. For it is the story of a father and his sons- there is no mother in this story. Yet it is a story about parenting, and we ought not to get too hung up on matters of gender here. Fathers and mothers, sons and daughters- they can all show love for one another, or they can fall out!

And so we get this story of a poor little rich boy (but he could have been a girl!). He takes his share of his father’s wealth, and travels the world, spending his inheritance with no thought of tomorrow. Later we will hear that some of the money went on prostitutes.

It is hard to have any sympathy with this young man… until, perhaps, we hear of what happens to him. He does well in the boom years, but fails when the famine comes. Once he had never had to earn his living- now he has to find work, anything, however menial, in order to survive. Once he was a rich man’s son: now he’s merely a farmhands, who is so hungry he wishes he could eat the animal feed. And it’s pigs he’s looking after- the ultimate humiliation for a good Jewish boy.

As I say, it’s hard to have much sympathy for this young man, except that we might feel sorry to see him fall so far. For the Bible’s view of human nature is that we are all flawed, that we all make mistakes, that just as the son in the story separates himself from his father as he goes his own way, so we all are in constant danger of falling into a pig sty of our own making.

Many people nowadays would deny that they sin. They don’t believe they have any sins needing to be forgiven. Famously, Donald Trump has said on number of occasions that he has never asked God for forgiveness. He once said in an interview:

I like to be good. I don’t like to have to ask for forgiveness. And I am good. I don’t do a lot of things that are bad. I try to do nothing that is bad.[i]

That’s such a striking insight into his personality: he thinks he is good, and doesn’t ever need to seek forgiveness. But many people think that way. They would have no idea what St Paul is on about when he talk about Christ changing people from being enemies of God into his friends. ‘How can I be an enemy of God?’ they say- ‘I’m a good person, really’.

But if we are really honest, we will admit it: that there is something of the lost son in me. I’ve taken wrong turnings, done wrong things. I do have things I need forgiven for. I am far from perfect. I need forgiveness. Which, of course, explains a lot about the state of humanity!

Eventually, the young man in the story at last does something right. He sees a way out of his mess, a way out of the pig sty which his life has become. ‘I will get up and go to my Father’. But it’s not a very heroic thing to do- it’s quite a calculated move: ‘All my father’s hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve!’ He does not deserve his Father’s sympathy, and he’s not going to look for it. He just wants decent food and a comfortable bed. The last thing he wants, or deserves, is a warm welcome.

“He was still a long way from home when his father saw him; his heart was filled with pity, and he ran, threw his arms around his son, and kissed him.

‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’

But the father called to his servants. ‘Hurry!’ he said. ‘Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Then go and get the prize calf and kill it, and let us celebrate with a feast! For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began.

He’s still a long way from home when the father sees him- has the father always been looking out for him ever since he left. It’s the father who runs to the son, and throws his arms around him, and kisses him.

And now, at last, the boy’s attitude seems to change. He finally confesses- to himself, to his father, to God- that he is in the wrong, and that he really cannot expect any favours from the father: “‘Father,’ the son said, ‘I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son.’” In the emotion of the moment he doesn’t even get to the bit where he offers to work as a hired hand for his father. For the father is so delighted to get his son back that he immediately treats him as his son again. Father calls for the best robe, and ring for his finger, shoes for his feet- and prize calf to be killed for the celebratory feast.

It does not matter anymore to the father that his son had turned his back on him. It does not matter that he squandered his inheritance. It does not matter that the boy disgraced the family name. It does not matter that he ended up a pig keeper. It does not matter that he came back and presumed upon the father’s good will. Only one thing matters, and it is the reason for the feast: “‘For this son of mine was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’ And so the feasting began”.

If, as you hear this parable, you identify with the lost son, then this is the natural end to the story. And that happy ever after ending is how many Christians have heard the story down through the centuries. This was a story which originally must have given joy and hope to the outcasts with whom Jesus was spending so much time: they would have identified with the Prodigal Son, have seen in his story a reflection of their experience in meeting Jesus- the one who, in God’s names, welcomes back the runaways with forgiveness and grace.

But Jesus hasn’t quite finished with the story. Remember the grumblers at the start of the story, the religious people whom Jesus scandalised? Well, this story is for them, too. And for them, Jesus brings back into the story someone we have only heard mentioned in passing right at the beginning:

“In the meantime the older son was out in the field. On his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him, ‘What’s going on?’

‘Your brother has come back home,’ the servant answered, ‘and your father has killed the prize calf, because he got him back safe and sound.’

The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. But he spoke back to his father, ‘Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!’

‘My son,’ the father answered, ‘you are always here with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be happy, because your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found.’”

To the older son, the father can only give, once more, the reason he already gave for the feasting. And he says, not that his son was dead and lost, but ‘your brother was dead, but now he is alive; he was lost, but now he has been found’.

And that is the answer Jesus gives to the grumblers, to those who are scandalized by his spending time with outcasts, to those who are revolted by his message that God’s grace and forgiveness is open to anyone: these so-called outcasts and prodigals are your brothers and sisters. So don’t judge them because you think you’re better than them. Just join the party to celebrate God’s grace!

Whether we admit it to anyone, whether other can see it or not: we all of us carry a burden of shame and disgrace. None of us does not need to ask for forgiveness. But when we admit that, we will be overwhelmed by the free grace of our loving Father. Here is a message for today, for we still are grappling with guilt and shame- what Christianity calls sin.

When we speak of guilt and shame sin only, we have not yet spoken about the Gospel. Rather, as St Paul puts it, the Gospel message is that God was reconciling all humanity to himself in Christ[ii]: everyone, even those who have just come out a pig sty. That is a scandalous message, and it often causes a lot of grumbling. But it is what Jesus did, and taught, and said we should do likewise.

Ascription of Praise

To God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,

who gave himself for our sins,

to rescue us out of the present wicked age

as our God and Father willed;

to him be glory for ever and ever! Amen.

from Galatians 1.4

Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated

© 2019 Peter W Nimmo

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/06/08/trump-on-god-hopefully-i-wont-have-to-be-asking-for-much-forgiveness/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0999b16a6dd2

[ii] 2 Corinthians 2.19

Rushing to judgement? Sermon for Lent 3, 24 March 2019

Scripture Readings: Isaiah 55.1-9

Luke 13.1-9

Rushing to judgement?

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

‘What have I done to deserve this?’- words I’m sure we have all cried at some point in our lives. Yet most people when they say that today don’t really mean it. Most people don’t believe that there is a God who will punish us for doing wrong. But as people are more aware today of other religions, the idea is creeping back. You hear people say, ‘Don’t do that, that’s bad karma’, which is a word folks have picked up from Buddhism and which they probably don’t really understand. It’s a kind of half belief in a malevolent fate which brings bad things in its wake for those who do wrong. But few are really quaking in terror at the thought that there might be divine punishment for being bad.

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