Category Archives: Year B

Free Gifts – ?

Revelation 1:4-8 (the New Testament reading for Kingdom 4, or the Sunday before Advent) starts off with the offer of free gifts. Not a bad strategy, but are they worth having – you judge:

Grace and peace to you

Revelation 1:4

this is not just God being nice to us who don’t deserve it (good!) 0 the experience of God’s grace, but also we are given grace. I wonder if we take that seriously enough? Peace – again, not only are we no longer in rebellion against God, but we are given peace, not to worry about everything ?! This is not at all bad, and not finished:

who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood

Revelation 1:5

To be loved, and to be set free – that’s 4 free gifts in 8 verses – its enough to get you in the habit of Bible-Reading! But there’s more. There is a good deal here about Jesus. We tend to think of Jesus the preacher and teacher, but this is later:

  • “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness “ v5 – Jesus as the witness to God’s ways and nature, helping us to understand in Down to Earth ways.
  • “the firstborn from the dead”, first, not the only one to be raised
  • “the ruler of the kings of the earth” now in power, in the world we know
  • “I am the Alpha and the Omega” the A-Z or first and last. The last Word, on us and all our problems and perplexities.

This is a different picture, and an important one – the Lord of power, who won the highest place by obedience in accepting the lowest. Free Gifts, from a Lord with power and honour, and then there’s us:

“He loves us “ v5 you can’t truly say that of many in power, but Jesus has demonstrated the point, and still does! “made us to be a kingdom and priests” ? we are all to bring people to God, and God to people; here we are told it is what we are for. Why? “to serve his God and Father” can you think of anyone better to serve? even yourself? (do you live up to his standard?)

So here we are, in Revelation, blessed with Free Gifts, given by a Risen and Powerful Lord, so that we may not live selfishly and idly, but be equipped and ready to serve God in a ministry to all the world.

What to take?

If you are invited out, you take something with you – a bottle of wine if you go for a meal, some flowers or chocolates if you stay, the same or a card if someone does something for you. Some families do this more than others, but we try to be thoughtful. So, what do you take to God? He is our host, we his guests. (And No, it isn’t your collection. – that’s a thank offering, enabling the worship event and wider Christian work.)

Hebrews 10:11-25 has some answers. The Jewish priests kept offering sacrifices day after day. But the author has told us that Jesus was a priest, who offered his own life just once (last week’s reading Hebrews 9:24-28) – and then sat down. Why does that matter? Because it is done, past. No addition, no alteration.

When we come to worship, we cannot bring a fee, or a fine (the price is too high), we come because Jesus has made the sacrifice for us to be forgiven.

With one sacrifice, then, he has made perfect forever those who are purified from sin.

Hebrews 10:14

Not perfect as people, but able to come to a perfect God.

So, welcome to worship. We are not present as those who qualify (“We do not presume to come, . . trusting in our own righteousness, but in God’s mercy”, as the Book of Common Prayer says) – mercy shown by the provision of a sacrifice made once, once for all.

19 We have, then, my friends, complete freedom to go into the Most Holy Place by means of the death of Jesus

Hebrews 10:19

Unlike those who worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, and were kept out of the central space of the temple by barriers and a curtain, we can meet with God. So

22 So let us come near to God with a sincere heart and a sure faith, with hearts that have been purified from a guilty conscience and with bodies washed with clean water.

Hebrews 10:22

There is a reference here to baptism, but also the reality of forgiveness following repentance and faith. That’s how we find ourselves with others in God’s presence at worship. And there are consequences:

23 Let us hold on firmly to the hope we profess, because we can trust God to keep his promise. 24 Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. 25 Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the Day of the Lord is coming nearer.

Hebrews 10:23-25

It is easy to be distracted, confused or diverted by things that happen, so we need to focus. As we do that there is a responsibility to work together, and not to forget to meet together for worship. There is a reminder of the Day of the Lord – we look to Christmas, and to Jesus eventual return. We need to be ready – me, you, and everybody around. Jesus has done something quite amazing. We can’t add to it, but we need to let people know, so that they can take advantage.


Sacrifice is difficult in a selfish and materialistic age, yet it still happens – and we may be thankful. Some Parents learn to sacrifice, and benefit themselves by it, so also some carers, and some in public service. All can get it wrong, parents trying to live through their children, carers also trying to control, volunteers wanting to do their own thing . . Sacrifice is not easy!

Sacrifice means to give away something of value in hope of gaining. Literally “to make holy,” for many religions have had some idea of sacrifice. Christians would see it in the Old Testament sacrifices, especially Passover, but above all in Jesus. So letter to Hebrews has much to say about Jesus. (reading Hebrews 9:24-28).

What is so special about Jesus and his death?

  • it is an undeserved death – he was not guilty of any crime, yet he suffers voluntarily. He does not escape arrest, for he has come from heaven to die. This is strange, yet significant.
  • his death is the culmination of his life – not consequence of foolishness or risk taking, but living for others (and accepting the sacrificial consequences). He has gone without family, career, comfort, to do this.
  • he dies for people who have little idea what is happening, and offer no support. Yet his love is sufficient – and effective, for his death sets us free, and brings (not just to a local circle of friends, but to humanity) the possibility of forgiveness through repentance and faith.

So sacrifice is valued, not just when there is an accident with unpleasant consequences, but as an embodiment of Christlikeness – of Christian virtue. Remembering the sacrifice of others may not be comfortable – we prefer to see ourselves as the Saviour, rather than the Saved. Yet this is part of the “offence of the gospel”, the difficulty that we cannot do what is needed, and must rely on God to act, sacrificially, for us.

That Jesus died is history; that those who watched the execution understood little and had little hope is pretty clear; that they were wrong – and Jesus was right in his teaching, and his choices – depends on the Resurrection for support. He died, as a sacrifice, offered by himself. But for me? That is something that needs decision.

Absolute Ruler

Every child knows that Jesus is the first name (we used to say Christian name) of the story character whose surname is Christ. Except that it isn’t. Christ translates Messiah, or King – and the oddity is that such an absolute monarch should be a name so commonly referred to.

For those fortunate enough to live in western democracies, equality and the answerability of political leaders are assumed. If we have affection for royal families, it is as constitutional monarchs, performing representative roles in charitable and community-affirming events. The thought of absolute monarchs exercising unquestionable and unchallenged authority is alien and repugnant.

So we need Hebrews (and this week Hebrews 9:11-14) to explain how and why Christians should even contemplate such a culturally inappropriate idea. The passage begins “when Christ came. .”. The use of the title is significant. The King came. This Sunday some of us begin to mark “Kingdom Season” – partly beginning the run up to Christmas with a pre-advent look at the reign of God. That doesn’t explain our giving this title, but Hebrews does.

This King rules, not because he has taken power by force, (although there is a story about his victory), nor even because he has replaced a worse administration, (interestingly, equally true).

This King is recognised and celebrated because, as High Priest, he made a unique and perfect offering of himself. This is no bribe to secure support. He gives what we cannot access in any other way. He rules because his subjects willingly offer their allegiance and obedience, not to a leader among equals, but as King by right. He rules because of what he gives, not what he can take, demand or threaten.

It is a strange thing, and a reminder just how counter-cultural Christian faith is. Yet it is a source of freedom, celebration and peace. No difficult negotiations here, no pressure groups, campaigning and lobbying. Christ is King, reliable, celebrated, our Lord, not our equal.

Perfect Friend

I don’t know if children long for a perfect friend. It should be the theme of a story – an understanding and sympathetic friend, who was never absent at the wrong moment, and always loyal and able to be really helpful whatever the situation. Perhaps it is not only something for children. We are told of increasing loneliness among adults, as fewer live with others by choice rather than necessity, and much work has become less social (even before Covid working at home).

So when we read Hebrews 7:23-28, there should be points of contact. The writer begins with the way the temple priesthood of the Old Testament was interrupted by the death of successive generations of High Priest. That’s one of the problems with friends; some move away, and some die before we do.

Then there is the point about being perfect. Our friends aren’t, however much we like them and deal with their oddities and failures. The perfect sinlessness of Jesus is awesome, but not alien, because we know he lived and faced all the temptations and difficulties we share (and others besides!).

Of course Jesus is much more than a “friend”, as his once for all sacrifice which meets our need for ever demonstrates. But if this puts him in another category, it does not mean that a longing for a perfect friend is unfulfilled, or impossible. Jesus has met our need, been available – and will always continue to do and be just that. Friend isn’t a big enough word, but it is a start.


The letter to Hebrews may be in the form of a sermon, circulated to Jewish Christians familiar with the temple, and the role of High Priest. He had a particular role in the yearly sacrifice rituals of the Day of Atonement, standing between God and his people.

The writer recognises Jesus as the ultimate High Priest (see this in Hebrews 5:1-10) . In place of the repeated Day of Atonement sacrifices, Jesus offers himself, the “one perfect and sufficient sacrifice”. Since the sacrifice is perfect, it is not repeated, though always remembered. So we understand that Jesus brings God to us, as he lives a human life and faces temptation and suffering. He also takes us to God, opening a way we could not, and offering Intercession for us.

The role of Jesus is vital, and a separate order of priesthood is created for a descendant of Judah – this is the point of Melchizedek, the early priest and king of Jerusalem who met and blessed Abraham, for Jesus was not in the priestly line of succession from Aaron.

With such a High Priest, some Christian leaders prefer the titles of minister, elder (or presbyter, from the Greek) or pastor, rather than priest. All know that, while delighted to help people meet God, they are not essential (as Jesus was) to that meeting. Indeed, some of us prefer to stand during worship to one side, or behind a table, so as not even to appear to “get in the way”.


The picture of a surgeon with a scalpel poised brings mixed feelings. The scalpel is no toy, not to be left lying around. There is a fear of pain, and perhaps of needing to undergo pain as a result of necessary surgery. At the same time it may be a relief that someone is prepared, and trained, to do something which needs to be done.

When the letter to Hebrews ( Hebrews 4:12-16 ) speaks of something sharper that a double edged sword, we might not have been expecting the image as describing the Word of God. The point is the failure of those who, though invited, do not enter the rest that God has promised. There is no escape, no way of hiding or arguing the outcome.

We are indeed laid open, even dissected, in the presence of God. God’s knowledge and understanding are far more profound than our own. We easily fool ourselves, tell stories in excuse, fail to notice what does not fit with what we want to think and do. It is one of the reasons why having children can be good for parents – their straightforward honesty can spoil many poses and tear down illusions.

Our short reading continues past a natural break, to speak of a sympathetic High Priest. It may not be for us a natural comparison, but we can understand it. Here is someone on our side, with a sympathetic understanding of all our problems and temptations. More than sympathy, here is one with the responsibility and ability to bring us to God, as he also brings God to us and to our limited understanding.

It is an important balance. Jesus has clear identification with human life and trouble, as well as with God and the authority that only God can wield. At the same time, Jesus – the word of God in human form – is no softie. He is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart, even when we cannot do so accurately. This is a Saviour in whom we can have confidence, but of whom we should remain in awe.

Where to fit?

Where do humans fit in? What is our place in the universe? Some would like to see us as just one species among many, inclined to throw its weight around. Others tell us we know little of the universe, and need spiritually superior beings to guide us – or perhaps enslave us. Today we begin reading from the letter to Hebrews (we read Hebrews 1:1-4 and 2:5-12), and chapter 2 quotes from Psalm 8. That Psalm celebrates God’s creation, and mankind given “dominion” – a word not meaning “in charge to do as you like” but given a leadership position to exercise as a responsible manager. It’s a picture which recognises the pre-eminence of humanity – clearer now than it was 2000 years ago, without allowing abuse.

Hebrews 2 uses this quote to remind us that heaven is not controlled by angels. On the other hand, neither the next world nor this seem to be under our control, so what is happening? The answer is Jesus – in one sense he is the “true man” taking his proper place. But also he is the one who is now honoured because of his death which brings us freedom

Why is it fitting that Jesus should suffer? (verse 10). Not because God enjoys that sort of thing, but because this makes his identification with us complete. Jesus is indeed our brother, though also much more. As our brother, he has experienced life as we experience it, with its ups and downs, its joy and pain. He understands temptation, weariness, loneliness, as well as the details of creation and all that involves.

So where do humans fit in? Yes, in a wonderful place with responsibility for creation. Yes, with Jesus, who leads us out of confusion to true human life and status, helping us to find our real place.

Prayer with Everything

One of my memories of school dinners is custard. I quite liked custard, but at least in memory it always formed part of the pudding served – with fruit tart, sponge pudding, or anything except rice pudding. As James comes to the end of his letter on practical Christianity, he seems to do something similar with prayer. It goes with everything!

We read James 5:13-20, and his closing remarks begin by suggesting those in trouble pray, and the happy sing praise. He may refer to the “normal” letter ending of those times which would have wished health to his hearers. Instead, he urges prayer for wholeness when it is needed to restore health. Those who can’t get to the church gathering will have members come to them to pray.

Of course there can be confusion about the ministry of healing – after all, Christians still get ill and die. Here the phrase “the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well” is carefully phrased. It does not promise medical cure (which sometimes does happen) but is more holistic. There can be a “making well” in living with a condition. The important thing is to be in God’s hands.

Rather the same thing is implied by the instruction to confess to and pray for one another. Prayer is not limited to church leaders! It can be difficult to find a community where people are confident enough to admit their failures. It is easier in a small group, but wherever it can happen it is a strength, and a strengthening.

Elijah, the prophet, is quoted as an example of the power of a good man’s prayer. And finally, James ends with the challenge to rescue those who have lost their way in faith. It is not entirely clear whether the benefit is limited to the sinner who repents, or is shared by the agent of their rescue. Either way, it is a most important mission, and one we easily forget in our culture. It is an apt ending for a letter to a community which is making some mistakes and may have some in danger of going astray. James is practical to the end.

Being wise.

What does it mean to be wise? James (and we are reading James 3:13 – 4:8) uses the tradition of wise sayings from the Old Testament (often called the “Wisdom” tradition), and will quote from Proverbs (3:34) but he is ruthlessly practical. No exams and certificates, no obscure theories. As faith must show in action, so must wisdom.

Some things aren’t wise. Bitter envy and selfish ambition are destructive; by no means unknown among religious people, they are the opposite of God’s wisdom, they cause disorder and evil. But what are the alternatives? There is a link to humility.

17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

James 3:17

all this is very desirable – especially in other people! The trouble is that worldly wisdom is often about “getting on” – put bluntly, outperforming others, getting to the top of the pile. That is not what James is talking about. 4:4 reminds us that friendship with this world means being God’s enemy. It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy anything; it does mean that your outlook, priorities and ambitions must not and cannot be formed by what everybody does. We need to be careful what we celebrate – achievement yes, as somebody making good use of their gifts, persisting in training. As beating others into a lower place, making the competition look silly, NO.

Church is meant to model a form of cooperation, where everybody learns, everybody benefits, not a form of competition, where a few take prizes of precedence, superiority, title. But in our world, everybody fights everybody else. Sometimes literally, because people get on one another’s nerves. But also because of the inner conflict of disordered desire spills out. What do you want? Actually, if you can reduce it to one thing, you could probably have it. – but could you limit yourself to one thing, and pursue it systematically?

Even our personal religious life can be ruined by not being clear about our aim – what do you really want from Christian faith? Many forms of words would do –

  • to follow Jesus be his disciple and learn from him;
  • to live a life that fulfills what it was created and intended for;
  • to be a blessing to other people.

Follow through any of those, and I think it will bring you back to what James is talking about. James tells us to ask God 4:2, but also that in asking it’s no use imagining that God will help us against others. We need to ask, not for our pleasure, but for the good of all people. That would be wise.

We are easily distracted. We get another agenda from our friends, from advertisements, from “what everybody says”. God doesn’t work like “the world” – and the way of “the world” doesn’t work, because otherwise we would have lots of happy, contented, people.

God tells us to be humble, to submit to his plans and ways resisting the devil. That will bring us close to him, and we shall probably find that it brings most of the things we really wanted, leaving out some that, on reflection, would not have been so good after all.