Friday, 23 October 2020



A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church,

October 25th 2020


Image credit: By -
CC BY-SA 3.0,

2 Samuel 7.1-17

Last Sunday was our first Sunday service held in our church building, since the coronavirus restrictions forced us to close our doors back in March.

And I think it’s fair to say that, for the 17 of us who were able to be there, it was deeply moving to be back in the sanctuary, even if the service itself was some way from what we remember or desire.

I also hear that those who joined online found it a good service, which is great, because we will need to find ways of straddling the in-person / online divide for some time to come.

And although last week was a trial run, and unless we face further restrictions, we’ll be back in our building for a service again in November.

And as I’ve been reflecting on this experience during the week, what has struck me is the sense I felt of ‘coming home’ to our building.

It was similar to the feeling I get sometimes in a cathedral, that sense that God has been worshipped in this place for so many years, and that this building has been a home for God’s people for so long, that it somehow feels easier to enter God’s presence there compared to, say, the street outside.

And it’s this idea of building a ‘house’ for God, that lies at the heart of our reading this morning from the second book of Samuel.

Here we find one of the key turning points in the Hebrew Bible, the decision to build a temple in Jerusalem.

In the end, of course, it isn’t David who actually builds God’s house, it’s his son Solomon who constructs the great first temple.

But Solomon’s project is simply the fulfilment of the dream that we find articulated here by David, who says to the prophet Nathan, "See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent."

And in this one sentence, the whole history of religion shifts.

If we think back on the story so far, we can trace an evolution in the way the ancient Israelites thought about their God.

The original revelation of God to Abraham was a moment of startling insight into the nature of God.

Up until Abraham, each nation, each tribe, each household, had their own gods.

There were thousands of them, the god of the river who gave fish to eat, the god of the fields who gave grain to grow, the god of the sky who caused rain and sun, the god of my tribe, who helped me fight against your tribe, the god of my house, who I pray to every night for safety and sleep, and so on, and so on, and so on…

And to Abraham, God says that there is only one God, and that God is the Lord of the whole earth.

Abraham’s calling, for him and his descendants, is to become the people who enter into a relationship with that one true God, in order that all the earth might be blessed through their witness to this new truth.

Fast forward through Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, to God’s people in slavery in Egypt; and here we come to the next milestone, which is the story of Moses and the exodus.

Through Moses, God leads his people out of slavery, and into the wilderness, on their way to the promised land.

Forget for a minute the discussions about whether this all happened historically, because it almost certainly didn’t.

But that’s not the point.

This story of Moses and the Exodus gives us a story of how God works in human history, it reveals God as the liberator of the oppressed, and the enemy of empires.

And the image of the people of God wandering in the wilderness is a timeless example of God’s people in every age, with each generation making its pilgrimage from slavery to promised land.

And as they wander, as we wander, God travels with us - because God is the Lord of all the earth.  

But then we get to Mount Sinai, and the ten commandments, and things start to change gear, because the people start to seek certainty and stability.

The big problem with a big God is that we have very small lives, and we want to know what we should do, how we should live.

So God gives the Israelites the ten commandments, to guide them in their wandering and to help them live well as the people of God’s covenant.

Except, of course, it isn’t all that long before ten commandments become thousands, and you only have to read through the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy to see how, once you start down the path of asking God for a rulebook, things get very complicated, very quickly.

And so the process of tying God down continues, and the God of the whole earth becomes incrementally that bit smaller, that bit more parochial, that bit more controllable.

By the time we get to David, God is the God of Israel, who fights for them against the other nations, who defends their borders, and asks of them obedience and faithfulness.

And so, for David, the next logical step, is to build God a house.

There’s a bit of clever word-play here, because David says he wants to build a house of God, by which he means a temple, and God says he will build a house of David, by which he means a dynasty.

And so, through this, God gets a bit smaller again, becoming not even the God of Israel, but the God of the southern tribes of Israel, as expressed through the temple in Jerusalem, and David’s descendants as they rule in Jerusalem.

I told you this was a significant moment in the history of world religions.

Here, in the deal David does with God to build a house in exchange for a house, the great God of all the earth glimpsed by Abraham, becomes a localised deity, focussed on one city, and one family.

The Abrahamic assertion that there is only one God, which revealed the presence of God in all peoples and all places, becomes a diminished statement of territorial dominance, denying the validity of other paths to the divine.

And so God gets put in a box.

The ark of the covenant containing the ten commandments, becomes the holy of holies at the heart of a massive temple complex.

Only the high priest can go there to see God, and then only once per year, everyone else is kept at a distance.

The God who travelled with the faithful through wilderness, the God who was with them in slavery, the God who calls them to new life has become a God-in-a-box, in a bigger box called the temple, in a bigger box called the city of Jerusalem, in a bigger box called the nation of Israel.

And the family that put him there, David’s dynasty, get to control God because the story they tell of the deal David did, is one where God promises David an eternal kingdom, and a throne for all time.

And so it might have continued, except, of course, earthly dreams of perpetual power rarely run smoothly.

After all, God has already shown in Egypt that God is against all empires and it turns out that this includes those empires that have been established in God’s own divine name.

God will not stay in a box forever.

Eventually, the temple is destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Davidic monarchy, the line of David, loses its grip on power.

At which point, the promises of God to David in this story go through a process of reinterpretation and they become the hope of a future messiah, one who will re-establish the kingdom of David, and restore the power to Israel that other nations have taken away.

Which is why, when Luke tells the story of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, he quotes from this text to help his readers understand something profound about Jesus as the revelation of God’s action in human history.

Luke 1.28, 30-33

 28 And [Gabriel] came to [Mary] and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." 30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

All the messianic hopes of David’s kingdom are put onto Jesus at his incarnation.

And then Jesus spends the rest of his life subverting them.

Jesus may be, within the Christian tradition, the fulfilment of messianic hope, but it’s a different form of Jesus consistently refuses to raise an army, he turns away from those who would enact a revolution in his name, he resists the title ‘son of David’, always calling himself simply ‘the son of man’.

Jesus refuses to seek a palace, instead claiming that ‘the son of man has nowhere to lay his head’ (Lk 9.58).

He never marries, he has no children.

The God revealed in Jesus doesn’t want a ‘house’ either in terms of a building, or a dynasty.

Instead, Jesus constantly takes people back to Abraham’s original vision of God, as the universal Lord of all creation confounding those who would use him to rebuild David’s lost lineage of power.

Jesus will not be put in a box.

So, my question for us this morning is this: what boxes do we put God in?

Do we try to build temples for our God? Why is our worship space, with its pews and stained glass windows, called the ‘sanctuary’? Why was I moved to tears last Sunday when we worshipped there again?

Do we seek to constrain God to certain worship styles, or favoured theologies?

Is God the God of us, and our people, but not the God of them, and their people?

Do we seek to constrain God’s action in our own lives, seeking settled status within ourselves instead of embracing a life of wilderness pilgrimage?

If so, then we need to beware, because God will not be constrained, and neither will God live in a box.

God is the God of the whole earth, and through Jesus and by the Spirit of Christ we are called to a vision of God that is bigger and more universal and more loving than we can ever conceive.

The eternal kingdom, that enfolds and embraces us all, is the kingdom of God.

And we build other empires at our peril.

Friday, 16 October 2020

Women Speaking Justice

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation, 

the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 

October 18th 2020

1 Samuel 1.9-11, 19-20; 2.1-10

Sometimes, when calling for social justice,

            the most effective voice is the most vulnerable voice.


Martin Luther King may have been the great orator,

            but it took Rosa Parks to strategically sit in the wrong seat

            before she, and the Alabama bus boycott she triggered,

            became national symbols for change in the civil rights movement.


Similarly, we might ask why it is,

            that the most effective international voice in recent years

            in the fight against fossil fuels is Greta Thunburg,

                        a young schoolgirl Sweden,

                        who is incredibly still just 17 years old.


Similarly, the strongest voice calling for gender equality in education in Pakistan,

            is Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban as a teenager

            and recovered to win the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17.


Similarly, the right for everyone to vote in elections in the UK

            was won by the steadfast witness and courage of the suffragettes,

            including Emmeline Pankhurst and Emily Wilding Davison.


Similarly, the modern feminist movement found its origins

            in the writings of Simone de Beauvoir.


And I could go on, for the entirety of this sermon,

            naming people like Claudia Jones,

                        the Trinidad and Tobago-born journalist and activist

                                    deported from the USA for becoming a Black feminist leader

                                    in the American Communist Party.


And then of course there is Mary the mother of Jesus,

            whose song of justice in Luke’s gospel, often known as the Magnificat,

            heralded the birth of Jesus.


And all these women, the named and the unnamed,

            who have opened their mouths

            and sung or spoken the songs and poems of justice,

are the spiritual descendants of Hannah,

            who we meet in our Bible reading for this morning.


And Hannah is truly a remarkable woman,

            not least because we actually know her name.


Most of the women in the Old Testament are unnamed,

            known only as the ‘wife of’ or ‘daughter of’ a named man.


Additionally, it is equally rare in the Old Testament

            for a woman to be heard speaking.


Whereas Hannah is both named, and speaks,

            which already makes her rare within the biblical narrative.


But even more unusual is that fact that this woman,

            whose name we know and whose words we hear,

            is, in social terms, a nobody.


She’s not married to someone significant,

            and she’s not done anything to establish her reputation.


She’s just an ordinary married woman with no children,

            which in the world of the Old Testament

            was about as insignificant as you could get.


These days, we are used to women having control over reproduction,

            from effective contraception to IVF treatment.

But there are still plenty of women who long for children but can’t have them,

            and who hear the desires of their own hearts in Hannah’s prayer for a child.


And although the focus of our sermon this morning is not on issues of childlessness,

            we do well to recognise that a story where a woman prays for a child

                        and then immediately gets one

            is a difficult story for some women to hear.


And we need to remember together

            that when we bring children to church for dedication,

            there will be those present who find such services profoundly painful.


So let’s return for a moment to the social world the Old Testament,

            where barrenness was often regarded as a curse from God;

and parents who got to old age without children,

            were not just at risk economically, with no-one to look after them,

            but they were also outcast socially,

                        stigmatised as having not been blessed by God.


Culturally therefore, in the Ancient Near East,

            the pressure to have children was overwhelming,

and Hannah’s request for a male child

            would have echoed the desire of most women.


Female children, at that time, were a liability that cost you money;

            whereas male children could work and bring money into the family.

If you could only have one child,

            you wanted a boy, so that was what you prayed for first.


Even down to our world today,

            there are still some cultures that prefer sons to daughters,

            and female infanticide is one of the tragedies of human history.


So this makes what Hannah says next to the Lord so remarkable:

            She says that if she is granted a male child,

            she will dedicate that child to God.

He won’t be the answer to her security in old age,

            because he will have been dedicated as a Nazirite,

            offered in lifelong service to God alone.


And here we get our first glimpse

            that the significance of Hannah’s story

            is bigger than her personal desires or concerns.


She starts with her personal experience of childlessness,

            but then moves beyond this

                        to a recognition that how God responds to her,

                                    in her time of powerlessness,

                        is in fact a profound revelation of who God is;

            and that this in turn places a call on her

                        to respond to that revelation of God’s nature.


In other words, if God is the kind of God

            who looks with favour on a powerless, childless woman,

then God is also a God who looks with favour on all those

            who live with poverty, injustice, and oppression.


But Hannah also realises

            that God’s response to those afflicted

                        is not through a simplistic answering of prayer,

                        or the granting of heartfelt desires.


The blessings that God gives to the world

            are not to be taken individually

            and horded personally;

they are for the common good,

            because God is working for the good of all people.


And so Hannah prays for a son,

            but as she does so she promises to offer that son back to God.


Her own decisions about Samuel

            reflect her understanding of how God works in human affairs.

God is not some localised, family-centric deity;

            God is not some household-god to whom you bring your personal desires;

God’s blessings are not for the fortunate favoured few;

            God blesses the world,

                        and does so by remembering the vulnerable and the oppressed.


So then Hannah prays this remarkable prayer,

            and in doing so, she herself becomes a prophet of God,

            proclaiming God’s nature into being in the world.


Extrapolating from her own experience,

            Hannah realises that God is not on the side of the strong and the powerful,

                        but is rather on the side of the weak and the powerless.

            She realises that God’s blessings are not found in fine food or abundant living,

                        but in the feeding of the hungry and the care of the dispossessed.

            She realises that many children are not, in fact a sign of God’s favour,

                        and that life is a gift given for the blessing of many.

            She realises that God is not a local, tribal, or regional deity,

                        who pours goodness upon those who worship faithfully;

            but is rather the God of all people near and far,

                        and longs to raise up the poor and lift up the needy.


As Hannah puts it,

            ‘For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's,

            and on them God has set the world.’


Her son, of course, will be the great prophet Samuel,

            who anoints the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.


But her greatest legacy was not her son,

            it was the vision of God that she articulated.


And Hannah’s song was echoed, a thousand or more years later, in the song of Mary,

            who similarly proclaimed the overthrow of the dominant social order

            when she sang with joy at the imminent birth of her son Jesus.


Within the Christian tradition, the vision of Hannah’s song

            finds its fulfilment in the revelation of God

                        that comes into being through Mary;

            another insignificant woman

                        who dared to respond with faith.


And it continues to find its fulfilment in our world

            as women speak out from the truth of their experience

            to challenge oppression and highlight injustice.


From the courage of those

            who have told their stories as part of the #metoo movement,

to the women who have blessed our Baptist family

            through their gifts of ministry, leadership, and preaching,

            despite those voices that have tried to deny their right to do this.


The insights of those who have been disempowered

            by society, patriarchy, and misogyny,

can still speak truth to power

            just as Hannah’s voice three millennia ago

            revealed the bias of God towards the poor and the vulnerable.


This is not, however, to fetishize the voices of the abused,

            or to excuse their treatment,

as if we somehow need those who have been oppressed

            in order to hear God speak.


Rather, it is a recognition that when human failings

            create structural oppression,

whether on the grounds of gender,

            ethnicity, sexuality, or social status;

God is always at work with and within

            those who live with disempowerment,

and God’s nature is always

            to bring justice to those facing injustice.


So can we hear the gospel of Hannah?

            Can we rejoice that God raises up the poor,

                        and empowers the weak?

            And can we, with her, learn to dedicate to God

                        the deepest desires of our own hearts,

            as we catch a glimpse of God

                        as one who is above all, in all, and through all.


‘For the pillars of the earth are the LORD's,

            and on them God has set the world.’


Friday, 9 October 2020

The Golden Calf

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation, 
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
October 11th 2020

Exodus 32.1-14

'The people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain…'
            so our reading for this morning begins,
and this raises a question for us, as it did for the Israelites in the wilderness,
            of how we will respond
            when the way we are used to encountering God is no longer available to us.
For the Israelites,
            Moses was their spiritual rock, their leader, their saviour.
It was Moses who had brought them up from the land of Egypt,
            Moses who had defeated Pharaoh,
            Moses who had led them through the wilderness,
            Moses who struck water from the rock at Horeb so the people didn’t die of thirst;
and now he was gone from them.
He’d gone up the mountain to meet with God,
            not come back down again,
and the people down in the valley
            didn’t know what to do next.
The one who had been their priest and their prophet,
            the one who had represented God to them and them to God,
            was no longer with them.
So what are they to do?
When I learned this story in Sunday School,
            I was told that the people manufactured a idol at this point,
                        and that the golden calf was possibly an image of Baal,
                        the Ancient Near Eastern fertility God.
However, re-reading it now, I’m not so sure.
They definitely make a golden calf,
            and worship it, offering sacrifices to it;
but when Aaron presents the calf to the Israelites,
            he introduces it not as Baal, or some other god,
            but as the one who brought them up out of the land of Egypt (v.4);
                        interestingly, something they had previously ascribed to Moses (v.1).
The problem here, I think,
            isn’t so much that they go worshipping the false gods of other nations,
            but that they make a false image of their own God.
The sin of Israel here isn’t a departure from the worship of Yahweh,
            it’s the manufacturing of a false representation of the Lord.
And this is a far more insidious sin,
            and one that easily creeps upon us all.
That’s not to say that we’re immune from the sin of idolatry:
            humans have a remarkable capacity to construct new gods after our own image
                        and then devote sacrifice and worship to them.
            From the sacrifices of money we make to the gods of free market consumerism,
                        to the worship we give to those images of our identity
                        that exist in our social media streams;
            from the sacrifices of time we offer to the gods of entertainment
                        to the worshipful pursuit of sex and pleasure;
            in so many ways we can construct other gods
                        and worship them with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.
However, alluring though such idolatrous distractions may be,
            they are also fairly easy to identify.
Far harder to pin down
            are those places where we don’t so much make other gods for ourselves,
            as we do construct false images of the God we know and love.
And we are particularly prone to such acts
            when we, like the people of Israel in the wilderness,
            find ourselves cut adrift from our certainties.
So the question here for us, perhaps,
            is how we can identify those times when our equivalent of Moses
            has gone up the mountain and not come back down again…
What are the things, the people, that have consistently in our experience
            made the invisible God seem real for us.
It might a friend, a mentor, maybe a minister,
            who has now left our lives.
It might be a style of worship that barely exists any more,
            perhaps a packed congregation singing the songs hymns of our childhood.
It might be a form of prayer that used to seem so meaningful,
            but which has run dry in recent years.
What are you missing? What do you long for?
            What is your Moses that has gone from you?
And, here’s the difficult question,
            what have you replaced it with?
Well, I’ll leave that one for us each to ponder,
            and we’ll head back to the Bible for a minute.
This story of the Israelites in the wilderness
            is still part of the Jewish pre-history mythology.
It’s one of those stories that evolved and was passed down
            from generation to generation
until it got written down in the sixth century
            by the Jews in exile in Babylon.
And this means that in order to read it well,
            we need to have an eye on those who wrote it.
When we know why they shaped it the way they did,
            and if we can who its intended first readers were,
we will ourselves understand it better.
So, this text about Moses going up the mountain and not coming back,
            needs to be heard in the context of the Babylonian exile.
And for the exiles, their answer to the question
            of what it was that had gone from them,
            would have been the Temple in Jerusalem.
In 587 BC the Babylonians despoiled the temple,
            desecrated the Holy of Holies,
and, despite what Indiana Jones may believe,
            destroyed the ark of the covenant containing the tablets of stone
            with the ten commandments inscribed on them.
Everything that had given them stability in their religious life
            had gone from them,
and in its place they were in Babylon,
            surrounded by images of the Babylonian gods,
            which they knew to be false,
but wondering what their God looked like for them
            when everything they thought they knew about God had gone…
And here we can find the answer
            to one of the more puzzling aspects of our reading this morning.
Did you notice that although there is only one golden calf,
            the people refer to it in the plural?
Listen to verse 4 again:
[Aaron] took the gold from them, formed it in a mould,
            and cast an image of a calf;
and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel,
            who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!"
What’s going on here?
The answer can be found in the book of 1 Kings,
            which tells the story of the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel
            to Assyrian invaders in 722BC,
                        about 130 years before the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem.
At that time, Israel had divided into two kingdoms,
            a Northern kingdom ruled by Jeroboam
            and a Southern kingdom based in Jerusalem,
                        ruled by Rehoboam of the house of David.
Jeroboam’s problem was that Rehoboam had possession of the temple,
            and so people from the Northern Kingdom kept making a pilgrimage south
            to offer sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem.
His worry was that eventually, the Northern kingdom would reject him as king,
            and turn its allegiance to Rehoboam of Jersualem
            because he had control of the temple, the centre of religious worship.
So now listen to this from 1 Kings 12.26-30
Then Jeroboam said to himself,
            "Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David.
 27 If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices
            in the house of the LORD at Jerusalem,
the heart of this people will turn again to their master,
            King Rehoboam of Judah;
they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah."
 28 So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold.
He said to the people,
            "You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough.
            Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt."
 29 He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.
 30 And this thing became a sin,
            for the people went to worship before the one at Bethel
            and before the other as far as Dan.
Did you spot it?
            The story of Moses, Aaron and the golden calf,
                        written in exile in Babylon,
            is directly quoting from the book of 1 Kings,
                        where it describes the sin that brought down the Northern kingdom.
Jeroboam’s two golden calves
            were proclaimed as ‘the gods who brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt’
as a direct challenge to the temple in Jerusalem.
Scholars tell us that what’s probably going on here
            is that the calves were intended as earthly pedestals
                        for the heavenly Yahweh to stand on,
            functioning in a manner similar to the ark of the Covenant in the temple,
                        as a place of earthly worship of the invisible God.
They aren’t idolatrous Baal gods,
            but they certainly are false representations of the true God,
brought into being as Jeroboam tries to break
            the Jerusalem temple’s monopoly on Yahweh worship.
And a century or more later, in exile in Babylon,
            the Jerusalemites reflected on this story
            to help them understand their own experience of losing their temple,
and they used it to frame their re-telling
            of the story of Moses, Aaron, and the people in the wilderness.
The experience of Israel’s wilderness wanderings
            becomes a key metaphor for understanding the Babylonian exile,
and the story of the golden calf
            functions within that as a warning of the temptation to make false images of God,
            and as a call to faithfulness even when God seems impossibly distant.
And so how do we hear this,
            in our own times of exile.
The last six months has been a time of exile from our building,
            and for many of us it has been deeply destabilising.
I think the longest I’d ever been between church service attendance
            before 2020 was about three weeks,
and for most of my life I have been to church at least twice a week.
We have been exiled from our building, from our worship,
            from our community, from our work for social justice,
            from our singing and our pipe organ.
And I wonder how we hear the story of Moses, Aaron, and golden calf?
What temptations have we faced
            to construct false images of the true God?
What have we tried to put in place
            of that which was taken from us?
Again, I’m not offering answers here,
            just asking questions.
But I do have some ‘wonderings’ that might spark our thinking…
I wonder if sometimes we make golden calves from our memories,
            worshipping that which used to be,
            and devoting ourselves to the task of bringing it back into being.
It’s great that some of us, at least, will be in our building
            on Shaftesbury Avenue next Sunday morning.
But it won’t be a return to the temple in Jerusalem,
            because that has gone from us.
I also wonder if we might ponder the experience of the early Christians
            in the time after Jesus was taken from them.
For them, their prophet and priest had gone from their sight,
they no longer had direct access to the one 
who had represented God to them and them to God,
and they too had to work out how to relate to God
without a person or an image as an intermediary.
God may have been fully present and revealed in Jesus,
            but once Jesus was no longer there, what were they to do?
And the answer, of course, was that they had to discover
            that God was with them in a new way,
not in the worship of the rebuilt temple,
            nor in the person of Jesus,
                        nor even in the remembrance of Jesus’ words and commands,
but by the Holy Spirit.
God is known to us not in our memories,
            not in our place of worship,
                        not even in our holy texts,
but by the Holy Spirit,
            at work in our hearts,
            drawing us to new acts of faithful worship of the true God;
and challenging all our attempts and temptations
            to make false representations of the true God.