A thief in the daytime

Sermon preached at School of Ministry, Almondsbury Conference Centre, 9 November 1985

When talking of virgins, I have a recollection that they numbered four and twenty and came down from Inverness. In the passage before us [Matthew 24:45-25:13 – SJC] they numbered ten, of whom five were wise and the others foolish; perhaps half the number suffered the fate of their Scottish counterparts?

Young maidens (from the Greek parthenoi) is perhaps a less emotive way to consider their role in the narrative. This parable is so full of strange and quirky details that it is better to treat it gently and, like young ladies themselves, not to squeeze too tightly.

One of the first questions I want to ask is: what were they all doing out at night? Seems a strange time to have a wedding. Not too much is known about marriage customs in Palestine at that time, so it is difficult to be certain; even so, ten bridesmaids does seem somewhat excessive. If it was midnight then it would be even odder for any shops to be open for oil. Those making long journeys seldom travelled at night, unless with some nefarious purpose… you can see the dangers of lifting a story out of its context.

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The Last Enemy

Lecture delivered to Class VI(2) at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, Bristol, 21 September 1989


My subject today is usually to be avoided in polite company, spoken of only in euphemisms as something not quite nice. Everybody does it, of course, yet it carries with it guilt, embarrassment, misinformation, sentiment and above all fear. It is endlessly fascinating. It commands attention and occupies the mind. It is not sex, but death which has become the great unmentionable in our society. It is perhaps a truism to say that it is the only certain fact of life; everything else is chancy. It is perhaps mawkish to say that from the moment we are born we are infected with a terminal disease called life!

How preoccupied we are with death. It dominates our newsreels, features in TV shows and cartoons, and murder is the most popular subject of fiction. We can’t get enough of its terror, yet we hate its profligacy.

It is important to face up to death squarely, for in so doing I believe much of its power to terrify or rob life of purpose or meaning will be diminished.

Death is inseparable from life. A seed dies, buried in the earth and, after a time, new life is born. Death itself is dynamic, never simply static or isolated from momentum. Its pause, its evident lack of rhythm, is deceptive; for forces of life are gathered and gathering. At death a body is indeed still and decaying, yet a personality is a great force of incredible diversity and many dimensions. It is this truth that the great world religions address in their teaching, and if we look at religions properly and take to heart their understanding of this mystery, then much of the sickly sentiment and the uneasy reassurances which people offer to the bereaved can be avoided.

The attempts to avoid the inevitability of death have led in literature from the comic, as in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, where the protagonists swear to “kill this traitor, Death”, to the sombre as in John Shirley’s:

There is no armour against fate

Death lays his icy hand on kings

Sceptre and crown

Must tumble down.

I think that John Donne’s expression defuses much of the tension and gives an opportunity really to see the last enemy in a proper perspective:

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so

and the celebrated final lines:

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

It is this belief, expressed through religious understanding, which I believe does make a real and fundamental difference, and I hope to show that it is more than mere wishful thinking.

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Choose the booze

Sermon preached at Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital, 21 January 1990

It’s only ten o’clock and there’s a panic. The host and hostess are whispering furtively in the corner.

“They’re still coming and we’re running out of booze. What are we going to do? The off-licence is shut.”

It is just this situation that St John records as being the first occasion upon which Jesus worked a miracle, and a miracle is the way that God’s glory is revealed. You may think it is an odd choice for a miracle. Why didn’t Jesus begin by healing a leper or forgiving sins or feeding the hungry? Yet it is a good choice.

At a wedding, everyone’s in their ‘Sunday Best’ and in a good mood. Something right and proper is taking place, it’s a happy and joyous occasion. So it’s the very best situation for the Kingdom of God to be revealed.

Well, let’s look at this particular wedding. Jesus, his mother and the disciples had all been invited, and probably having a rare old time. Then comes the calamitous news: the wine’s all gone. Mary brings the news to Jesus. He takes care of things. The servants drag out the big jars of water, the ones they keep for washing feet! The six jars are turned into 120 gallons of wine – not just a tiny sip, you notice. And it’s good stuff, too, as the host discovers – “you’ve kept the best wine to the end!”

Now, you might think that Jesus is being irresponsible, encouraging drinking. Drinking, yes. Drunkenness, no. Jesus produced what was necessary for the occasion. That is the nature of all his miracles. The right action at the right time.

The more important part of the story is that the Kingdom of God is equated with the merriment of a wedding. Where God is, there is life, and light and laughter. Where God is, the most astonishing things happen. Things and people are changed. He is, in the most literal sense, the life and soul of the party.

“How odd of God to choose the booze.”

How right, for as the Psalmist says, “wine that makes glad the heart of man.” It’s real wine too, not Ribena. There is nothing false which is offered, no pale substitutes. It is the very reality of God which Jesus’ ministry was continually revealing. The power to change, the power to enliven, the power to bring people together and to help them to be truly and eternally loving is his way of saying:

“Where two or three are happy together in my Name, there am I in the midst of them.”