We now have a collection of sermons given at Stotfold.
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|Worship||Click to download PDF|
|Principalities and Powers||Click to download PDF|
|Blessed are the Meek||Click to download PDF|
|Coin in the Fish's Mouth||Click to download PDF|
|Miracles||Click to download PDF|
|A Questioning God||Click to download PDF|
|Brexit!||Click to download PDF|
|What is a Christian? - A three-part investigation||Click to download PDF|
|Trinity Sunday||Click to download PDF|
|Passion Sunday – Why did Jesus Die?||Click to download PDF|
|The Shepherds Returned||Click to download PDF|
|A Voice in the Wilderness||Click to download PDF|
|Remembrance Sunday 2015||Click to download PDF|
|A Question of Authority||Click to download PDF|
|Finding God||Click to download PDF|
|Jigsaw Puzzle or Satnav?||Click to download PDF|
|The Cross Placarded||Click to download PDF|
|Trinity Sunday||Click to download PDF|
|Pentecost: God our Contemporary||Click to download PDF|
|The Struggle for Faith||Click to download PDF|
|The Good Shepherd||Click to download PDF|
|Believing is Seeing||Click to download PDF|
|I, if I be lifted up…||Click to download PDF|
|Cleansing of the Temple||Click to download PDF|
|Temptations of Jesus - Lent 1||Click to download PDF|
|Sow the Wind||Click to download PDF|
|Cradle and Cross||Click to download PDF|
|Bush Clearing — John the Baptist||Click to download PDF|
|Judgement||Click to download PDF|
|A Miscarriage of Justice||Click to download PDF|
|Remembrance Sunday||Click to download PDF|
|The Communion of Saints||Click to download PDF|
|Whitewashing of the Faith||Click to download PDF|
|The Sacrifice of Isaac||Click to download PDF|
|Justification by Faith||Click to download PDF|
|A Christian Attitude||Click to download PDF|
|The Lessons of War||Click to download PDF|
|The Wheat and the Weeds: Judge Not||Click to download PDF|
|The Sower - An Unimaginable Harvest||Click to download PDF|
|Pentecost: A New Beginning||Click to download PDF|
|Ascension: A Man in Heaven||Click to download PDF|
|A Fishy Story||Click to download PDF|
|Two Cheers for Secularism||Click to download PDF|
|Zerubbabel||Click to download PDF|
|Passion Sunday: The Necessity of the Cross||Click to download PDF|
|The Challenge of Change||Click to download PDF|
|What is Man||Click to download PDF|
|The Wise Men||Click to download PDF|
|Christmas||Click to download PDF|
|Advent||Click to download PDF|
|Remembrance||Click to download PDF|
Readings: Readings: Isaiah chapter 6, verses 1-8; Revelation 4
In common with all the Churches throughout the Circuit today we are considering Worship as the theme — and not just worship but Passionate Worship! Whatever that means. I say that because the first thing that springs to mind is of the congregation throwing their hands in the air and giving each other a huge hug and getting enthusiastically emotional. And that immediately produces a negative reaction from some people; — me included.
It doesn’t have to mean that. All worship should be passionate but what is worship? I begin with the definition of worship given by Archbishop William Temple:
“Worship is the submission of all our nature to God.
It is the quickening of our conscience by His holiness,
the nourishment of our minds with His truth,
the purifying of our imagination by His beauty,
the opening of our heart to His love,
the surrender of our will to His purpose.
In this context we consider the nature of passionate worship.
Passionate worship is participatory worship. It is not a case of the congregation just sitting there and either being bored or entertained as the case may be. It is a case of the congregation being involved.
A good illustration is to liken the preacher and congregation to an orchestra. The audience is God – not the congregation. The minister/preacher is merely the conductor and every member of the congregation has a part to play. Even if you are not playing the organ or reading the lessons.
The best example of this came when I was a student in college. We were sent out every Sunday to preach and on this occasion I was planned at a village in Wiltshire. There were 15 in the congregation and all went well until half-way through the sermon when a ruddy-faced farmer sitting in the back row suddenly stood up and shouted “Hallelujah”. It threw me completely. Two minutes later he did it again. I reflected on it afterwards and realised that he really was participating. He was involved. He was not just agreeing with what I said but aligning himself with it and letting everybody else know it! The sermon was as much his as mine. The only reason why I don’t encourage that is because if you are free to shout “Hallelujah” then you must also be free to shout “Rubbish” and my services would be reduced to chaos!
Passionate worship is expectant worship. Expectancy is an attitude we bring to our worship and it is vital. All too often we come to worship expecting nothing to happen – and the inevitable consequence is that our expectation is fulfilled. But if we come expecting to hear a word from the Lord, whether it be from Bible readings or hymns or the sermon then we will surely hear it. An air of expectancy is something you can feel, it is palpable and it is essential. And nothing is more deflating than when expectancy is replaced by bored resignation. As a preacher I can see everything that goes on and I long since accepted that when it comes to sermon time people surreptiously look at their watches. The only time it worries me now is when, 10 minutes into the sermon, they hold the watch up to their ears!
Passionate worship is consequential worship. It is not confined to the hour we spend in Church for, if we have really worshipped, it is reflected in what we do during the rest of the week. Which is why we sang the hymn before the sermon:
“Behold us Lord, a little space from daily tasks set free”.
It ends with the verse:
“Work shall be prayer if all be wrought
As thou wouldst have it done,
And prayer by thee inspired and taught
Itself with work be one”
If, in our worship, we sense the presence of God, it cannot end there. And the best example of all is Brother Lawrence who wrote a small book entitled “The practice of the Presence of God”. Brother Lawrence was a monk who worked in the monastery kitchen. One of his jobs was peeling the potatoes (the chip-monk if you like!) and he said that it was possible to practice the presence of God amongst the pots and pans and potato peelers of the kitchen.
So it is that the daily round and common task is the context in which passionate worship works itself out. Yet all too often we separate worship from work and prayer from politics and Communion from commerce. Many Christians, faced with the choice of going to a prayer meeting or a Trade Union meeting would opt for the Prayer meeting. It's no wonder that the world is in such a mess for we have confined God to the sacred and left Him out of the secular altogether.
Passion is not just an emotional thing as we suppose it to be. Passion is also a commitment thing and, if we have truly worshipped this morning we shall go from here resolved serve God in every part of life that in us and through us and by us His will might be done and His Kingdom come.
Principalities and Powers
Readings: Readings: Colossians chapter 2 verses 8-15; Luke chapter 10, verses 1-3; 17-20
Today is St Georges Day – the patron Saint of England. And not just of England; but of Catalonia, Lithuania, Palestine, Portugal, Germany, Greece plus five other countries. And he wasn’t even English!! Born in Turkey he joined the Roman army, protested against Roman persecution of Christians and was tortured and imprisoned for his beliefs.
Just about everything we know of him is the stuff of myth and legend. Including slaying the dragon. Yet myth and legend are powerful means of story-telling and one way of expressing Truth. The early Chapters of Genesis which describe creation and the Garden of Eden are mythological. Yet who is to say they are not true? They are theologically true in a way that prosaic prose can never adequately express. Nor are we surprised to find the New Testament full of mythology. Which is why we read Paul’s Letter to Christians at Colossae. Paul spoke of “...the elemental spirits of the universe” and said that Christ on His Cross “...disarmed the principalities and powers” triumphing over them.
The fact is that, until the scientific revolution of the 16th Century, people believed that the universe was populated by a host of unseen powers including astrological powers which had a controlling influence over people’s lives. These powers were personified and they were real. So we sang John Bunyans hymn, written in 17th Century where he wrote of “..hobgoblins and foul fiends” being unable to daunt the Christian. And the idea of supernatural forces is still around.. Many newspapers till carry a page entitled “What the stars foretell”. The High Priest of modern astrology Russel Grant still has a following and even his inept performance of Strictly Come Dancing hasn’t dented his popularity!
Before we write all this off as superstitious baloney lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For there are forces at large in the world which influence and control our behaviour. We don’t personify them as people did in the past but they are for real. There are Principalities and Powers let loose in our world and we ought not to pretend otherwise. All I want to do is identify a couple of them.
Racism is one. The idea that some races are inherently superior to others. You even find it in the Bible! The whole structure of Apartheid in South Africa was built around a theology based on what happened to Noah after the Flood where Noah was found naked in a drunken stupor and his son Canaan was blamed. As a result Noah cursed Canaan and said that he and his descendants would forever be enslaved as hewers of wood and drawers of water. Black people were identified as Canaan’s sons. Centuries later Hitler envisaged a blond-haired Ayrian ‘master race’ and plunged the world into war to achieve it. Nor is racism a dead issue. It is alive and well in todays world.
Classism is another. It affects huge numbers of people. In India the Untouchables are a class of people still subject to discrimination even though it has been outlawed! And Britain is, even today, riven by ‘class’. distinctions. The Labour Party still promotes itself as the Party of the “working class” and the Conservatives are still labelled as “toffs”.
Market Forces is yet another Unseen Power. It was Margaret Thatcher who famously pronounced “You can’t buck the market” .when the Government was concerned at pegging back the high price of the Pound. The price of everything is determined by Supply and Demand pressures and the ordinary man in the street is at the mercy of economic forces which he can’t control.
You can probably name a few more Unseen Powers operative in our world today. We don’t personify them but that doesn’t make them less real. And it is against this background that we hear the words of Paul. Christ has disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them. Paul uses the current imagery of the day when a Roman general, returning from a war victorious, paraded into Rome on a white warhorse, preceded by the manacled and shackled prisoners taken in the conflict and now to be sold as slaves.
And the relevance today? It is the Church, defined as the Body of Christ, which should be seen as triumphing over the ‘dragons’, the ‘principalities and powers’ which plague our world.
And I have seen this happen. I was a Minister in Rhodesia at the time when racism and classism were rife in society. And it was in the Church that these ‘dragons’ were confronted. The most moving moments came when we celebrated Holy Commuion. In defiance of the Government we insisted that all were welcome no matter what colour or class and there was something special about giving out the Bread and the Wine to a black woman who worked as a domestic servant and, next to her, knelt a white man who was a high executive in the Anglo-American corporation. In that moment the words of Paul became a reality. “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” and that nailed the power of nationalism and racism. “In Christ there is neither slave nor free” and that nailed the power of classism. And ‘market forces’ were challenged in the payment of a living wage and decent working conditions for those who were powerless to influence them.
But these dragons are still alive and kicking today. A change of Government and Africans coming to power in Zimbabwe has not made things better. In fact they are a lot worse. And not just in Zimbabwe. They are alive and well in Britain today and in fact, world-wide. Our job as Christians is to slay the dragons and fight until the Kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.
Blessed are the Meek
Readings: Isaiah chapter 2, verses 1-4; Matthew chapter 5, verses 1-11
You might think that I am off my rocker choosing this text for Remembrance Sunday. And especially after the American Presidential election this week. The last thing you would call Donald Trump is a meek man! But he has inherited leadership of the strongest nation on earth.
Part of the difficulty is that words change their meaning. We associate meekness with weakness but Jesus never said, “Blessed are the weak”. When we speak of meekness the immediate picture that comes to mind is of a pasty-faced individual, someone who is pretty spineless and lets everyone walk all over him without having the guts to stand up and fight. But that’s weakness, not meekness.
Moses was a strong character. He had the moral and physical courage to confront the Egyptian Pharaoh and led a group of slaves out of Egypt. He dealt with their rebelliousness for 40 years in the Wilderness — yet the Bible designates Moses as a meek man!
Nor could anyone say that Jesus was a weak man. I blame the hymn writer for implanting in the minds of impressionable children the picture of a “gentle Jesus meek and mild” Jesus confronted the powers that be with courage and conviction and their response was to have him crucified. Meekness does not equate with weakness.
So we have got to find another word. And I suggest humble. At one stroke the word humble does away with the selfish pride, the assertiveness, the arrogance, the will to power, the pomposity and the grandiose opinions of themselves that so many leaders have — and ordinary people too.
We could go on for a long time with definitions but instead I offer you the example of the humblest man I have ever known. His name was Ken Mew. He was born in poverty in Liverpool. During the last war he was one of the glider pilots who landed behind German lines on D-Day. After the war he emigrated to Rhodesia, became a “high-up” in the Anglo-American Corporation then gave it all up to found a multi-racial Adult Education college that in itself was a courageous act. The Rhodesian Government at the time was opposed to all multi-racial activities. Then came the UDI of Ian Smith and Rhodesia became a pariah. I was seconded for 2 years as Vice-Principal of the college and saw at first hand the inner strength of the man. The College became the meeting ground for British Government and Rhodesian Government officials in an effort to negotiate a settlement. I sat in on meetings where Ken fearlessly told both sides what he thought was wrong with them. He was pilloried by both sides as a consequence! But he stood his ground fearlessly.
Then one day Ken got a phone call from an alcoholic man living close to the college. We went together to visit him in his filthy flat and, after an hour Ken said “Let us say a prayer together”. We knelt beside his bed. Ken took his hand and we said a prayer. The same man who three hours earlier had spoken in forthright terms to a British Government Minister! Now kneeling and holding the hand of an alcoholic and saying a prayer. — That’s meekness for you.
Now to the difficult bit. What does it mean to say the meek will inherit the earth? All the evidence is that it is the strong and powerful that rule. On one occasion The Pope reprimanded Hitler for his abuse of power and Hitler’s reply was short and sweet. “How many battalions has the Pope got?”
I have spent hours searching the commentaries for answers and without boring you with the detailed evidence the best answer seems to be that “inherit the earth” is a parallel statement to “receiving the Kingdom”. Never forgetting that Jesus taught us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth...”. Which is to say that whoever does the Will of God receives the Kingdom.
The New Testament speaks of the Kingdom as being here, yet still to come. It is here wherever peace is established and justice done, wherever the outcasts are welcome. It is not yet here wherever pride and bigotry and hatred are found, where justice is denied, discrimination persists and conflict results.
So Martin Luther King was a meek man and, as a result of his work with the Civil Rights movement the face of America was transformed.
Mahatma Ghandi was a meek man and as a result of his efforts the nation of India became proudly independent.
Nelson Mandela was a meek man and he saw through the birth of a nation without bloodshed.
And there was once a man who grew up in a peasant home and trained as a carpenter and then became an itinerant preacher. He once said, “Come to me all who are heavy laden I will give you rest. For I am meek and lowly of heart”. His name was Jesus, and more than any other man He changed the world forever.
Today is Remembrance Sunday and we remember all those who have died in countless conflicts all over the world in the cause of justice and peace. And our responsibility is to to enlist in that on-going conflict and to give ourselves that in us and through us and by us God’s Kingdom may come. Nor can we rest content until the Kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.
Coin in the Fish's Mouth
Readings: Romans chapter 13, verses 1-7; Matthew chapter 17, verses 24-27
In my last sermon I gave an over-view of how miracles have been understood and interpreted and suggested some ‘principles’ of interpretation. We look at one of those ‘miracles’ today to see how it pans out.
I was in the Supermarket last week and stood behind a man who bought three Lottery tickets along with his pint of milk. He explained to the lady that he hoped his numbers would come up — he was skint and needed some money urgently to pay off his debts.
That got me thinking about the story of the Coin in the Fish’s Mouth. The situation is that the Temple Tax, payable by every Jew, was due and the disciples were ‘broke’. They asked Jesus if they should pay the Tax, hoping He might say ‘No’. Jesus says that they ought to pay the Temple Tax But how were they to do it? So Jesus tells them to go fishing: “Take the first fish that comes up and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel. Take that and pay the Tax”.
It sounds like a very fishy miracle story to me. The implication is that they did it and ever since the story was told as a ‘miracle story.’ The image of a coin stuck in a fish’s mouth became a favourite subject in Church paintings and mosaics.
BUT — and it’s a huge ‘but’, if it really did happen that way it contradicts everything else Jesus said. And it was totally out of character. Nowhere do I read that Jesus taught people to expect miracles to get them out of a hole. Before He began His ministry He was tempted in the desert to perform a miracle either to satisfy His own hunger or persuade people to believe in Him. Jesus rejected both out of hand.
So what is going on here? I think the answer is simple and glaringly obvious. Jesus told them to pay their taxes. And to do it from the proceeds of their normal employment. The disciples were fishermen by trade. Go fishing and sell the catch. And use the money to pay your tax.
However much of a ‘let-down’ this interpretation might seem to us the fact is that this is really a saying about social responsibility, not about miracles. In the course of telling and re-telling down the years, Christians sidelined the social responsibility dimension and fixated on the miraculous element of the story. It is so easily done.
And it challenges us today.
Firstly It strikes at an attitude which is all too common in our society. I am thinking about the ‘something for nothing’ attitude which permeates our society. It is everywhere around us.
Go into any Supermarket and you are confronted with signs urging you to “Buy one get one free” And all too often we end up buying stuff way beyond what we need – and if its perishable foodstuffs most of it ends up in the rubbish bin.
More seriously this ‘something for nothing’ attitude fuels the gambling craze which is the curse of modern society. Nor am I persuaded that buying a Lottery Ticket is in fact making a donation some “Good Cause”. Only a tiny proportion of the cost of our ticket goes to Good Causes and even then I am not persuaded as to how good the Cause is. When many people are forced to go to Food Banks to keep body and soul together and the NHS is in a financial crisis we are blithely told that Lottery Funding gave £274million to enable athletes to compete in the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games is not a life/death issue. The NHS is.
Secondly This story re-enforces the dignity and value of work. The Bible and the Christian attitude to work does not see it as a ‘necessary evil’. Rather we are taught that work is a means of co-operating with God in creative responsibility to Him and to our fellows. Or, as someone once said; “work is the rent we pay for our room on earth”.
Which means that unemployment is unacceptable. Being unemployed takes away dignity and all sense of self-worth. And deprives us of the chance to serve God and our fellows.
For many being unemployed is not their fault. Sadly, for many others it is a way of life bolstered by a benefit system which de-motivates them from seeking work. Either way it is a social tragedy that we should not allow or accept.
So, what started out as a kind of “miracle story” turns out to be a practical challenge to social responsibility for all of us. And, if you disagree with what I am saying then tell our Treasurer to withhold paying our Circuit Assessment and put today’s Collection into buying 50 tickets in the next Euro Millions draw. Then pray to God that our numbers come up and we won’t ever have to pay our Assessment again!
Readings: Psalms 65 verses 1-6; Mark chapter 4 verses 35-41
Miracles are a problem area. Many Christians rejoice in them! They evidence the power of God and they ‘prove’ the divinity of Christ. But many Christians don’t know what to make of them. They raise fundamental questions about the nature of the world we live in, and about the ‘fairness’ of God. Why a miracle for this person and not someone else? In this sermon I just want to take an ‘over-view’ of miracles. The history of interpretation has moved through 3 cycles:
For many centuries Christians accepted the miracle stories without question. The world they lived in was full of such ‘miracle’ stories, they were two a penny in every religion and anyway, an Almighty God could be expected to work miracles as a matter of course. Miracles were common-place.
Then came the ‘scientific revolution’ of the 16th Century. Science taught us that we live in an ordered and predictable universe. We are governed by laws of nature which are invariable; without them life would be impossible. So the hymn writer wrote:
“Laws which never shall be broken
For their guidance he has made.”
On this basis miracles (defined as a breaking of the laws of nature) were impossible. They did not happen. There must be some reasonable explanation. So the miracles were explained away and those which couldn’t be explained were simply dismissed as the stuff of legend or fevered imagination.
Exit miracles! In the light of scientific knowledge solid iron axe-heads do not float down rivers; the sun does not ‘stand still’ in the heavens; the atomic structure of fish and bread does not allow for endless multiplication sufficient to feed 5,000 men plus women and children! King Canute acts in the middle of a thunderstorm at sea simply don’t work!
A Compromise Position
Such outright rejection of the miraculous leaves many Christians uncomfortable. It requires us to excise a third of the Gospel story! So a compromise position emerged. Accepting that miracles were a contradiction of the laws of nature Christians came up with a qualification. They were “contrary to the known laws of nature.” That allowed room for manoeuvre. But it is a cop-out. It allowed for a “God of the Gaps” theology to emerge. And that is ultimately disastrous. If God is only used to fill in the gaps in our knowledge then it is only a matter of time before our expanding knowledge fills in the gaps and “God” is pushed to the periphery and beyond.
Breaking the Mould
A new line of thought was opened up when people realised that we were asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “ Could God / Jesus have done this?” they suggested we ask “Would God / Jesus have done this”? Asking this opens up a new dimension of understanding. Instead of debating whether something was possible in the light of scientific knowledge we are debating whether it is consistent with the character and nature of God.
On this basis the ‘healing miracles’ of Jesus can be accepted without question. God’s will is health and wholeness for everyone. And it was noted that many of these ‘miracles’ were preceded by the phrase “and Jesus had compassion”. Compassionate love was the very essence of His nature. And, on this basis, some of the ‘miracle’ stories in the Gospels don’t pass the ‘character test’. Whats the point in cursing a fig tree and withering it for not bearing fruit out of season?
This opens up another approach and it is the one John uses throughout his gospel. He even uses another word for ‘miracle’! For John the miracles are described as “signs”. Thus the turning of water into wine is described as a ‘sign’ of the newness that Jesus brings The Feeding of the 5,000 is a ‘sign’ that Jesus is the Bread of Life.
By definition a sign points beyond itself. On my way here this morning there is a sign outside Hitchin – “Stotfold”. But I would be stupid to think that I had arrived in Stotfold at that point — there is another 4 miles to go! So John sees the miracles as “significant events”. It is an event pregnant with the Presence of God. It makes us aware of God.
This understanding is helpful because it means that ordinary, everyday events could be described as “miraculous”. So the birth of a baby is a ‘miracle even though it is perfectly normal and can be explained. On this understanding miracles are all around us every day. An event doesn’t have to be extra-ordinary and inexplicable to be a miracle. It is miraculous if we sense God within it.
Which means there is always an ambiguity about a miracle. The supreme miracle was the incarnation of God in Jesus. But to many people, Jesus was just another man, no different from any other man. But others sensed that, in encountering Jesus, they encountered God. And many attributed the authority with which Jesus taught as being God’s. For them “God was in Christ” and that realisation changed their lives.
With this in mind we shall be looking at some of the ‘miracles’ in the Gospels in coming weeks — seeking their significance for us today.
A Questioning God
Readings: Job, chapter 38, verses 1 – 11; Luke chapter 12, verses 13 – 21
One of the most infuriating things about some parsons is that you never get a straight answer out of them. Ask a question and all you get is a counter-question. You would be even more infuriated if you knew that they did it on purpose.
And they are in good company. Jesus did it. In our reading today someone asks Jesus to adjudicate in a dispute. Jesus’ answer? “Who made me a judge over you?”. When a lawyer asked him to define who is my neighbour Jesus replies by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. And so it goes on.
If you read the Bible as a whole then the God who emerges out of it is a Questioning God. When Adam and Eve hide from God in the garden we read that God comes down and calls out “Adam, where are you? — as if he didn’t know! At the other end of the Old Testament we have the story of Job who cries out to God for an answer to the injustices which have plagued his life. And, when eventually God does answer, it is to ask Job a series of unanswerable questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined its measurements?” Job wants an answer. All he gets is one question after another.
A questioning God. That’s not what we want or expect. Christians have been brought up to assume that God is a problem-solving God; and we have been taught to go to the Bible for answers to all our questions. The result is that we treat the Bible like one of those manuals that come with a new dishwasher – at the back there is always a section headed Trouble-shooting and a directive as to what to do. We regard the Bible in the same way. Some Bibles have a section called “What to do if…” and what follows is a series of appropriate texts. QED.
We have got it wrong. God is not a problem-solving God. Nor is there a Bible text to solve every problem or answer every question. The fact is that God is a Questioning God who demands answers from us. And for good reasons.
1. One is related to the question of Truth. And the only kind of Truth which is really compelling is the Truth that we discover and accept for ourselves. It is one thing to be told that something is true by someone in authority; it is another thing to experience that truth for ourselves. Truth, if it is to have any real meaning or power to convince must authenticate itself in our own experience; it must be personal, not propositional.
By way of illustration. On my way to Letchworth there are any number of 30 mph signs and there are speed cameras to back them up. Those signs are authoritative but they have no power of themselves to control my speed — especially if the road is empty. But if I am trapped by one of those cameras and fined £60, then all of a sudden I find that I comply with the 30mph restriction. The truth of the speed limit is no longer merely academic. It has been authenticated in my own experience and it matters.
So it is with God’s Truth. We crave for an authoritative answer to our questions and so we take refuge in the authority of an infallible Pope or an infallible Bible. But when push comes to shove no authority is meaningful until and unless we perceive it to be true in our experience and it becomes personal.
2. A second reason why God keeps on questioning us is because in answering Him we become involved in the answer. The question sets up a relationship and out of that relationship we discover the Truth for ourselves.
The classic example is the question Jesus asked of His disciples at the turning point in His ministry. Jesus began by asking them, “Who do men say that I am?”. That was easy and they piled in with their answers — some say Elijah, others John the Baptist, others say a Prophet. It was all very hearsay and academic. Then came the crunch question. “But who do you say that I am?” And the answer to that question involved them in a commitment which changed the course of their lives. “You are the Christ” said Peter. There was nothing merely academic about that answer. To say that meant following the Christ to crucifixion and beyond that to resurrection and only after that did they really know what it meant to say “You are the Christ”. Jesus’ question set up a relationship, it involved them in a new way of living and a new way of thinking. It was out of that experience of following the Christ through crucifixion and resurrection that they came to know the truth of who he was.
3. A third reason why God simply questions us is because He wants us to become responsible and mature people. Simply doing what we are told, by some external authority (be it Church or Bible) does not inculcate responsibility.
Adolf Eichmann exterminated a million Jews in the gas chambers of a concentration camp. And when brought to trial, he pleaded that he was simply following orders. Not my fault Guv, I was doing what I was told!
But God does not allow us that kind of evasion of responsibility. Which is why He asks questions of us rather than issuing commands and directives. In answering the question we have to take responsibility for the answer we give and there can be no hiding place.
That’s not what we want. Far better to have someone tell us what to believe and what to do — because if it turns out wrong we can always excuse ourselves on the ground that it wasn’t our responsibility. Ultimately that doesn’t wash. God requires of us that we become mature and responsible people and God enables that to happen — by asking us questions rather than supplying us with ready-made answers.
It is in the answering that we discover the Truth for ourselves; it is in the answering that we experience the Truth for ourselves; and it is in the answering that we become both mature and responsible. Which is what God wants us to be.
Readings: Jeremiah chapter 29, verses 1-7; Matthew chapter 5, verses 38-48
You will not forgive me if I do not preach on the issue which has dominated all our thinking this week. On Thursday Britons voted to opt out of the European Union. That vote has created immense uncertainty and our future seems fraught. Change is inevitable and this morning I want us to reflect on how we should respond and react to that change. I begin with a parable which I have told you before.
Three men were marooned on a desert island. And they were told that overnight the island would be swamped by a tidal wave. What would they do? The first man said; “I would eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. The second said; “I would retreat to a sacred grove and offer sacrifice and say prayers to my God.” The third said; “I would call my wisest men together and study how to live under water”.
Three responses to the challenge of change. And all three are evident today. There are always those who refuse to face reality, who live for the moment in complete abandonment with not a thought for the future. That’s a purely selfish response. The second response is characteristic of a certain type of religion. Retreat into a sacred world of piety and hope to God that He might do something. The third is to my mind, the Christian response. Accept that things are going to change and try to adapt to that change.
Its no good bleating about the result of the Referendum. Nor is it any good indulging in recriminations and blame. We have simply got to get on with it and try to manage that inevitable change. We have got to study how to live under water!
It's what Jeremiah recommended to those people who had been carted off into Exile in Babylon. Settle down. Make yourselves at home! Work out how to worship God and live as the people of God in a strange and hostile environment. And it’s the policy that God adopted in order to save humankind. Faced with the reality of a human race which had rebelled and turned its back on Him He became human! — in order to save humanity.
Its going to take us at least two years to negotiate our way out of the EU so we have time. It’s a question of how we shall use that time and what principles will undergird and inform our decisions.
One principle is that we are responsible for each other. You remember the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. Cain murdered is brother and when God asked him where his brother was Cain replied; “How should I know? Am I my brother’s keeper?”. The answer is Yes. It would be quite wrong if we used our exit from Europe to erect a barrier against European nationals and others, We must not behave like little Englanders and regard England as a sceptered isle; a fortress built by nature for herself. We have a responsibility for the 1000’s of Europeans already amongst us and for those refugees fleeing persecution and violence in their homeland. We live on an island but we must not become insular.
Another principle is the recognition that nothing is ever final. I am an adherent of Process Theology which is built on the principle that everything is in process of change. Nothing in life is fixed and static. Rather life itself is dynamic and fluid. The decision taken on Thursday is not the end of the story but merely another chapter. To me life is akin to a game of dominos with an infinite number of pieces in play. And each piece you put on the board opens up the possibility of another piece being played. The final pattern which emerges is not fixed in advance; everything depends on who plays what piece when.
St Paul expressed this principle when he said that “God works in all things for good” and our task is to work and pray for the Kingdom of God to become a reality, not only in Heaven but here on earth. The Kingdom of God is justice and joy, mercy and grace. It is a community in which the needs of the poor and dispossessed are met, the hungry fed, the stranger welcomed, a community in which racial, economic and social barriers are broken down and we live as the family of God.
How that finds expression in political structures following on Thursday’s vote is another matter. But Christians cannot rest or be content until the values of the Kingdom are embedded in our life together, nationally and internationally. We work and pray to the end that “The kingdoms of this world become the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ.”
What is a Christian?
I have looked at the question “What is a Christian?” It involves a three-fold commitment: To Christ; to the Church; to the World. The three parts follow, below.
What is a Christian? – Part 1, A Commitment to Christ
Readings: Romans chapter 10, verses 5-10; Mark chapter 1, verses14-20
What is a Christian? You would think that there ought to be an easy answer to that question. There isn’t. Even the first Christians were divided in the definition of a Christian. You see the dispute within the New Testament itself. Paul said it was sufficient that a person put their faith in Christ and acknowledged Jesus as Lord. But Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, including James the brother of Jesus, had other ideas. They argued that to be a Christian you not only had to put your faith in Christ but you also had to subscribe to the Law of Moses. For them it was a matter of faith plus circumcision plus Sabbath observance plus obedience to the Jewish ritual.
2000 years later the situation is even more confused. The three major streams of Church life; Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox have each developed their own traditions in terms of which they define a Christian. I want to try and go behind these traditions and define a Christian in terms of three basic commitments; a commitment to Christ, a commitment to the Church and a commitment to the world.
A Christian is first and foremost a person who is committed to Christ. That is basic and fundamental. This is how it was for the first disciples. Jesus said to them “Follow me”. It was as simple as that.
“Follow me” said Jesus.
1. The first thing to be said is that Jesus did not insist on any doctrinal pre-conditions. A Christian is committed to a Person, not to a series of propositions. When Jesus called Peter and Andrew and James and John on the shores of Lake Galilee, He didn’t shove a photo-stat copy of the Apostles’ Creed in front of them and say “Believe that, then follow me”. Their primary commitment was to Him as a person; the propositions came afterwards. I am aware that those first disciples were all Jews and Jesus was able to take their belief in God for granted. But the fact remains that their initial calling was not to believe but to follow.
Too often we put the cart before the horse and insist that people subscribe to a statement of belief in order to become a Christian. I recently received an evangelistic pamphlet through the post from a Christian group and it was made abundantly clear that, to be a Christian, one had to subscribe to the following beliefs:
• Belief in the Virgin Birth
• Belief in the death of Christ as a substitutionary sacrifice for our sin and guilt
• Belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus
• Belief in His imminent, physical return to earth
• Belief in the Bible as the inspired, infallible Word of God.
Now, if those statements constitute the essential pre-requisites of being a Christian you must count me out. At best I can only subscribe to half of two of them and even that takes a great deal of effort!
But Jesus did not insist on any doctrinal pre-conditions. He only asked His disciples who they thought He was towards the end of His ministry. For starters it was enough that they follow Him.
Which doesn’t mean that I belittle the value and importance of doctrine – Far from it. But doctrine is something you grow into, not something you start off with. And I ask you to consider those first disciples. Knowing nothing about a miraculous birth they first followed Jesus as a Man; an inspired Teacher and an inspiring Leader. Living with Him made them realise that He was much more than this and they called Him the Messiah. “Messiah”, however, carries no implication of divinity and it was only after the resurrection that Thomas went all the way; “My Lord and my God” he said. It took Thomas three years to get to that point and then only in the aftermath of the resurrection.
So it might well be for many people today. If anyone asked me what he must do to become a Christian the last thing I would do would be to launch into an explanation of the Trinity. I would start off where Jesus began – by asking him to commit his life to Christ. The process and experience of following would very soon raise questions and the answers would bring us into the area of doctrine and belief. But the initial step lies in a commitment to a Person and not to a whole series of propositional statements however true they might be.
2. Secondly this: Jesus did not insist on any moral pre-conditions. He never suggested that in order to qualify as a Christian you have to have five A-levels in moral goodness. Just look at the initial qualifications of those first followers: Matthew was a fraudulent tax collector who lined his own pockets by over-charging his fellow countrymen. One of the Mary’s was a notorious woman of the streets. Simon the Zealot was a blood and thunder nationalist, wholly committed to the cause of violent revolution. Zaccheus was an Income Tax official who defrauded people left, right and centre. Yet Jesus called them to follow Him. Of course their characters underwent a radical transformation in the process but the point is that the change took place after they committed themselves to follow Him, not before. Jesus never suggested nor required them to become perfect before they followed Him.
So too with us. In order to become a Christian we don’t have to reach a prior standard of goodness. Jesus calls us as we are with all our faults and failings, doubts and fears. In the words of the hymn:
“Just as I am; thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve”.
That’s it! Just as I am. Its not a question of being good enough. Nor is it a question of believing certain things in advance. It is a question of our willingness to follow, to commit our lives to Him and to accept the consequences.
There will be consequences! There will be consequences in terms of belief and behaviour. There will be sacrifices that must be made. Nobody is suggesting that following will be easy. Jesus Himself disabused His disciples that following Him would be a bed of roses. And so it has been for every follower. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged in a German concentration camp for his opposition to Hitler once said; “When Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die” and following can’t get any more serious than that.
But those are consequences. The starting point is further back. A Christian is a person who is committed to Christ; a person who has accepted Christ’s call to follow Him and pledged his life to do just that. It is important to remember that this is the starting point and not the end point of being a Christian. But the starting point is crucial.
What is a Christian? – Part 2, A Commitment to the Church
Readings: Acts chapter 2, verses 37-47; Matthew chapter 16, verses 13-20
I am trying to define a Christian in terms of a three-fold commitment. The first, and prior, commitment is to Christ. The second commitment is to the Church.
Commitment to the Church
I am conscious that I am batting on a very sticky wicket here. For many people (including some Christians) the Church is no more than an optional extra. It’s a luxury they can very well do without. For 40 years now I have been regaled with the mantra “You can be a good Christian without going to Church”. It is often said that nature is the best temple in which to worship. So people repeat the phrase:
“You are nearer God’s heart in a garden
than anywhere else on earth”
Obviously they prefer God’s fresh air to the parson’s hot air. I have a sneaking sympathy sometimes but sympathy does not mean I agree with them. Far from it.
The Church is neither a luxury nor an optional extra. It is part and parcel of being a Christian. Obviously I am not thinking of the Church as a building or an organisation. Nor am I defining it in terms of any one denomination. I am arguing for the Church as a community, and arguing against the kind of individualism which so bedevils Western (and especially Protestant) Christianity. I am arguing that our faith must be personal (a commitment to Christ) but it can never be individualistic. To be a Christian is to belong to Christ and to the Church.
1. I offer two images/models of the Church to make the point.
Jesus, in a conversation with Nicodemus said that becoming a Christian was like being “born again”. There is a clue there. Nobody is born an orphan! Like it or not we are born into a family. We have a father and a mother (even if these days one of them is not around for very long). It is also likely that we have a couple of brothers and sisters. In other words we are born into a family. We have no choice in the matter. And whether we like our parents or our brothers/sisters is irrelevant. Even if we walk away and disown them nothing can alter the biological fact that these are our parents; these are our brothers/sisters.
The Church is the family of God. We are born into that family. We have God as our Father; the Church as our Mother and every other Christian, a brother or sister. We ought to take that family relationship seriously. And if that family relationship is broken up; if we walk away from it then we ourselves and the family are diminished. What sort of a family is it who all live in the same locality yet never get together except perhaps at Christmas? The word “dysfunctional” springs to mind. And that is what the Church, the family of God has become; dysfunctional.
Or consider another model. The Church has been described as the “army of the living God”. And it is not a bad model given that the world today is a battle ground in which the forces of good and evil are locked in a life or death struggle. But what an army! We are much more a disorganised and totally undisciplined rabble. Can you imagine what would have happened had Churchill ordered a general mobilisation to ward off the threat of a Nazi invasion in 1940 and only 20% of those called up bothered to report for duty? And the rest simply offered apologies or excuses? Yet that is the reality of the Church today. And we seriously expect to ward off the enemy and win the war!
Born into a family. Conscripted into the army of God. Whichever model you choose the implication is the same. We belong together.
2. But there is another way of looking at it. That is by using experience instead of models. If the truth be told virtually all our experience and knowledge of God comes via the people of God.
We value the Bible as the foundation document of our Faith. Without the Bible we would have no knowledge of Jesus at all. And without the Church we would have no Bible. For over a 1000 years every copy of the Bible was hand written; often by monks in monastic communities who worked in secret and sometimes with the threat of death hanging over them. The fact that we have a Bible today is thanks to the Christian community; the Church.
Without the Church, I would not be a Christian or here today. I first heard the Gospel in a Methodist Church in Rhodesia as it then was. And there was a Methodist Church in Rhodesia simply because Methodists in Britain sent and supported missionaries at considerable financial cost. The same applies to every other denomination. I could take you today to any number of Christian congregations throughout Zimbabwe; in out of the way places like Syansundu and Shurugwi, Gwaai and Gweru. Their existence is due to the fact that the Methodist Missionary Society sponsors them to the tune of over £1m a year. And that £1m is given by congregations all over Britain. If Christians had adopted the policy of opting out of the Church in favour of privately worshipping God in a garden there would be no Church in Zimbabwe and I would not be here.
Or consider this:– without the Church none of us would grow significantly in our Christian Faith and experience. I am not one for hearing Celestial Voices or seeing Heavenly Visions. Virtually everything that I know of God has come via the people of God. And if I have taught you anything about God in the last few years it is because for the last 45 years the Church has taught and supported and sustained me.
There is a story told of an old man sitting with his grandson around a coal fire. The youngster was arguing that the Church was unnecessary: you could be just as good a Christian without belonging to it. The old man said nothing. He took a pair of tongs and lifted a glowing coal out of the fire and placed it on the hearth. They both watched in silence as the glow faded and the coal cooled to any ugly black lump of nothing. Then the old man picked it up again, put it back into the fire, and again it glowed red with light and warmth.
There you have it. Outside of the worship and fellowship of the Church the flame of our own personal faith flickers and fades and eventually dies. The Church is not an optional extra. It is an indispensable necessity.
Of course it has its shortcomings. It is made up of imperfect people. Over 50 years the Church has not only inspired and sustained me, it has also frustrated and infuriated me. It has been incompetent and complacent and weak and sinful. But that’s partly because I am in it! There are a thousand good reasons for getting out. But it’s the only Church we have. And, anyway, it is God’s Church, not ours. In the end we cannot do without it.
What is a Christian? A person who is committed to Christ? — Yes. And also a person who is committed to the Church.
What is a Christian? – Part 3, A Commitment to the World
Readings: 2 Corinthians chapter 5, Verses 16–21; Matthew chapter 13, verses 31-33
Many would disagree with a commitment to the world. So much Christian teaching suggests that the world is evil and therefore needs to be negated, not affirmed. There is quite a lot in the New Testament to back this up. The world, the flesh and the devil are the prime enemies of Christ and the Christian, to be resisted at all costs. It was one of the reasons why Christians fled to monastic communities in the desert and some went to extraordinary lengths to avoid infection by the world.
Simon Stylites built himself a platform 20 ft above ground level and lived up there to get away from the world, the flesh and the Devil!
But they got it wrong. The world is not to be denied and written off as an evil and God-forsaken place. Two of the greatest texts in the New Testament tell us why:
God so loved the world that he gave His only Son (John chapter 3, verse 16)
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself (Corinthians chapter 5, verse 19)
The reason why we should try and opt out of the world is because the world is God’s creation and it is the object of His redemptive love. If God should love the world so much that he came Himself, in Christ into the world, then who are we to reverse the process and scorn the world for which Christ died ? So then we ought to be committed to the world in a positive and an affirmative way. Which is not to say that we should turn a blind eye to the evils inherent in our world. It is no use pretending that everything in the garden is lovely. It isn’t. The reason why God came in Christ was not because the world was perfect but because it needed to be redeemed and reconciled. And exactly the same goes for the world in which we live today. Except that God’s redeeming and reconciling work is carried on through His people in the world.
Consider first the world of nature. That needs to be redeemed. Humankind has effectively plundered the natural world. In search of profit and prosperity we have poisoned the seas and polluted the atmosphere and pillaged the earth. And Christians are so often content to let it be so – all the while rejoicing in their own personal salvation. To be a Christian and to be committed to the world means that the Christian thing to do is to pursue a “green agenda”. It is to align ourselves with those who are fighting to preserve the environment and to support every effort aimed at sustainable development. (We don’t have to be signed-up members of Green Peace to do this!). And, at a very personal and local level, being committed to the world of nature means that we take our bottles and papers to the recycling bank rather than dump them on a land-fill site. It is such simple things which constitute being a Christian in the world.
Or consider the world of international relationships. That needs to be redeemed. We are faced these days with increasingly disturbing pictures of the carnage in Syria and Iraq and throughout that region.. And what lies behind that carnage? Yes it is the evil of fanaticism, the lust for power, the hatred which lurks in everyone. But it was also the poverty and the injustices which so many people suffer that fuels those hatreds. That poverty persists. Those injustices are still with us. The seed-beds in which ‘ISIL’ flourishes are to be found all over our world; not only in Iraq and Syria and Palestine but in Asia, Europe and Africa. And yet Christians are content simply to wring their hands in horror and claim that these are merely signs of an approaching End-Time in which God’s judgement will sort out the mess – meanwhile we rejoice in our own personal salvation.
Being committed to the world means aligning ourselves with those who fight for justice. It means supporting every agency working to eradicate hunger and poverty when and where we can. It is not just a question of fighting against terrorism but fighting for right relationships and peace and a decent quality of life for all humankind. That is what it means to be a Christian in the world today.
And what about the life we live on this small island?
Parsons are forever criticised for waffling on in general terms and always avoiding the specifics. So I shall be specific. And take some random instances. Being a Christian in Britain today means for instance:
• that when it comes to a General Election we cast our vote as an act of Christian responsibility. Obvious you say? But I remind you how a Christian Bank employee at told me she wasn’t going to vote in the General Election.. Her actual words were; “I am not going to vote, the result is in God’s hands. There is a Referendum coming up at the end of June. The result is not in God’s hands but ours.
• that we should get involved with local community affairs. And, if it comes to a choice between going to a prayer meeting or going to a Parent-Teachers meeting at the local school our Christian duty is to go to the PT Meeting, not the prayer meeting.
• that we should see our work as a “vocation” and not just as a necessary evil or a means of earning a living. It is a tragedy that we see some jobs as “vocations” (teachers; nurses, doctors) whilst others are just “jobs”. The truth is that we are not called to do a particular job. Our vocation is to “be” in whatever job we are doing. Our vocation is to be a Christian in our work; which means to work with integrity and to have a sense that we are “fellow workers with God”.
You could go on and argue this kind of affirmative action across the whole range of our lives. Rather than opt out of the world our Christian duty is to get involved. And if you are looking for a model of Christian action in the world you need go no further than the illustration which Jesus used. He spoke of a small bit of leaven within a lump of dough. It works from within and its influence and impact are out of all proportion to its size. Inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God Christians are called to be the leaven in the lump of our society. We ought to live out within our society the values of the Kingdom of God and there can be no rest for us until, in the wonderful words of St John, “The kingdom of this world becomes the Kingdom of our God and of His Christ”.
Readings: Isaiah chapter 6, verses 1-8; Matthew chapter 28, verses 16-20
Today is Trinity Sunday. It is also Christian Aid Sunday and I think many preachers will be glad of any excuse for avoiding the difficult doctrine of the Trinity. I am not one of them. So here is a sermon on the Trinity.
I do not expect you to understand it. To say that God is Three Persons in One and One in Three is a mystery. I have great sympathy with the college student who retired to his room to try and work it out. He emerged two days later wearing a black leather jacket and scrawled on the back were the letters BAIK. Someone asked what they stood for and he replied; “Boy Am I Konfused”. Back came the response; “You don’t spell confused with a k”. And the student replied; “You don’t know how confused I am”.
I am quite happy to let the confusion stand. There is a mystery here beyond my comprehension but there is a reality too. It is an attempt to capture the reality of God in one sentence and that reality speaks to two of our greatest fears and greatest needs.
One of those fears is the fear of being alone. We are social beings; we live in community and our whole life is determined by a network of relationships which define us. Years ago I read a book entitled “Real Life is Meeting” and it insisted that life only has meaning in the context of our relationships with others. When that network is non-existent or it is withdrawn then life is reduced to mere existence. I heard on the news recently of an old man who lived and died alone in a basement flat in London. His body was only discovered five months later. Can you imagine the living hell he must have gone through before he died? And imagine what your life would be like without family or friends and if you never had any inter-action with another person, day in and day out.
Is that also the final reality for us? To be alone?
The Christian answer is a resounding No. To be a Christian is to share in the life of God and the doctrine of the Trinity asserts that the life of God is a life lived in relationship. That’s what we mean when we assert that God is three in one. We say that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and believe that community is to be found within the Godhead. To share in the life of God is to be caught up within a network of relationship and I have a strong suspicion that the one anthem sung in the life after death is the anthem sung on earth by Liverpool football fans. – You’ll never walk alone! Now to the other fear that we have – the fear of losing our identity and of being swallowed up in an amorphous mass of anonymity. The fear of being a total nonentity.
That is the way life is going these days. We are rapidly becoming numbers rather than persons. I heard once of a census enumerator who checked up on a family and asked, “How many in the family?” The mother replied; “Well, there is John and Joe and Mary and…” The census man cut her short. “I just want the numbers, not the names” and mother replied “we are not numbers.” And these days it seems to me that all the Government is interested in is my National Insurance number, not my name. They are not interested in Bob Forrest as a person.
And in the life after death? Some religions use the analogy of a Great Ocean into which are absorbed – one droplet of water absorbed into an anonymous ocean of water and indistinguishable from every other droplet. There is even a Christian hymn which says:
“Till in the ocean of thy love
we lose ourselves in heaven above”
Is that it? Ultimate reality is just an amorphous mass in which all identity is lost?
Not for the Christian. Nor even for the Jew. For at the heart of Hebrew faith is the confession “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”. And the fact that God is One distinguished the Hebrew Faith from all others. Our Christian confession goes further. It is that God is not just Three in One but also One in Three. Which is to say that, within the Godhead, there is unity and identity as well as community.
If all this sounds a bit complicated to you then take heart – it is meant to be. And if you can’t understand it then good for you. You are not meant to understand it but to experience it. Which is how the first disciples arrived at a Trinitarian belief. Those first disciples were all Jews, believing fervently that God is One and there is only one God. Then came Jesus, and their experience of living with Him posed a huge question – was He just a another man? Only after the resurrection did that question resolve itself and Thomas voiced their new conviction; “My Lord and my God”. Nor was that the end. After Jesus’ physical presence was withdrawn came the Holy Spirit and they had another question to answer. Who is the Holy Spirit? The only answer they could come up with was to say the Holy Spirit too, was God. Three Gods? Perish the thought. So experience forced them to conclude “We believe in One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
The doctrine of the Trinity is a transcript of Christian experience. It is how we experience God. You might not be able to get your mind round it but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you experience God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and when you do that you can sing:
“Where reason fails with all its powers
there faith prevails and love adores”.
Passion Sunday — Why did Jesus Die?
Today is Passion Sunday and our thoughts are directed towards the Cross of Christ. Why did Jesus die?
For many Christians the answer is simple and straightforward. The Cross was the Will of God. Jesus died because that was God’s Plan and Purpose from the beginning. There are different facets to this argument. Some say that God is Just and justice demands that sin be punished So the Cross is interpreted as Jesus as our substitute, accepting God’s punishment for the sins of the world that we might be forgiven.
I cannot subscribe to that. If the Cross was predestined by God then you cannot attribute any blame or responsibility to the Pharisees or Herod or the Romans or anyone else implicated in His death. They were just acting out a script written in advance.
And if the Cross was in any way substitutionary then the argument fails at a crucial point. The point being that the guilt for doing something sinful cannot be transferred.
Someone else might accept the consequences of our wrong-doing. They cannot accept the guilt.
A simple illustration makes the point. Suppose I have committed a crime and am hauled up before the courts. The Judge finds me guilty and orders a hefty fine. It is perfectly possible for someone to pay the fine for me. But what they cannot do is pretend that they are the guilty party! The guilt is mine and mine alone. It cannot be transferred. It can only be forgiven.
When I was a youngster a favourite hymn on Good Friday went like this:
“My soul looks back to see
The burden Thou didst bear
When hanging on the accursed tree
And knows its guilt was there”
It took a long time before I realised this was nonsense. Yet, for many people, it is a crucial understanding of the Cross.
So why did Jesus die?
My first answer is that Jesus died because of the sins of ordinary men and women.
He died because the religious authorities saw Him as a threat to the faith by which they lived. In particular the Pharisees who saw themselves as guardians of that Law given by God to Moses and on which the whole life of the nation was based. Time and again Jesus challenged the Law of Moses. Time and time again Jesus said; “You have heard it said (by Moses) BUT I say to you…” And what Jesus said went way beyond anything that Moses said — and sometimes contradicted it. Moreover, Jesus made claims for Himself which properly belonged to God. The claim to forgive sins being the major one! I am not surprised that the Religious Authoriites felt that the whole basis of National Religion was being threatened and undermined. Better that this man was eliminated rather than allowed to propagate this heretical teaching.
Jesus died because those in power could not face the Truth and its consequences.
I am thinking of Pontius Pilate the Roman Governor who was responsible for maintaining Law and Order in Palestine. When Jesus was accused and brought to Trial, Pilate could find no fault in him. He knew that Jesus was innocent. Yet he also knew the possible consequences of acquitting him. Pilate was ambitious to succeed and the last thing he could afford was an adverse report to Rome. So Pilate washes his hands of the matter and hands Jesus over to be crucified. And how often today is the Truth sacrificed on the altar of expediency and personal ambition?
And Jesus died because the vast majority of ordinary people are fickle. Many of those who stood silent must have been amongst the crowds who had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and perhaps they had even joined in the chorus “Hosanna to the Son of David”. Now they were silent. Peer pressure is a powerful thing and often enough it is enough to silence previous conviction.
So I conclude that Jesus died because of the sins of ordinary people. Fear and jealousy and thwarted ambition and misplaced expectation. Those same sins are alive and well in our world today. They are our sins too.
And yet! My second point is this. It was the Will of God!
Not in the sense that God planned and purposed this from the beginning. I have rejected that understanding. But it was the Will of God in the sense that Jesus was not prepared to compromise the Truth by which he lived. Right at the beginning of His ministry he went out into the desert for six weeks to determine how he would use His power in the exercise of His ministry. He rejected the way of bribery and coercion. He rejected the way doing miracles to compel belief. He rejected the way of compromise and of being all things to all men. He resolved to rely on one method and only one. The way of Truth and Love. Jesus refused to be deflected from this way and His single-minded pursuit of Truth and Love brought Him into inevitable conflict with the rest of human nature. The rest is history. Crucifixion was the inevitable result.
I have told you before of an incident off the coast of Newfoundland when two ships were on a collision course with each other in thick fog. Radar was in its infancy and one ship’s captain read his radar wrong. “Hold fast your course” he ordered. A collision was inevitable and many died.
Jesus was set on a course determined by Truth and Love and would not be deflected. Equally human nature is set on an opposite course and the Cross is the collision point: crucifixion the inevitable outcome when human nature collides with the Divine and refuses to change course.
Not only did it happen 2000 years ago. It happens today and every day. Crucifixion is an on-going reality whenever and wherever Truth is denied and Love is rejected.
The Shepherds Returned
Readings: Luke chapter 2, verses 8 - 15
Christmas is over. All that’s left is to deal with the leftovers: — piles of wrapping paper; what’s left of the turkey - and for some people a question of how to get rid of the hangover. For most people its back to work tomorrow. Which brings me to our text. “The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen.”
For those shepherds the first Christmas must have been an amazing experience. There was nothing special about the way it began: They had spent the day, like any other day, out on the hills above Bethlehem looking after their sheep. In the evening they penned them up and settled down to keep watch over them. Then suddenly and without warning, the sky lit up. An angel appeared and gave them the good news that a baby had been born in Bethlehem. This was followed by a heavenly choir singing an anthem. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace”. They ran to Bethlehem, found a new-born child lying in a manger and knelt to worship.
Of course its poetry. .But that doesn’t make it any less true. It is the curse of modern society that it is a fact-based culture. We are terrified by anything mysterious and inexplicable and we write it off as impossible or the wanderings of a deranged mind. Yet what can be scientifically analysed and proved is not the whole truth. And poetry and myth and story-telling contain just as much truth – perhaps even more.
So let us not denigrate the fairytale elements of the Christmas story. Scoff at the story of an angelic choir and a moving star if you will. But it will be your loss. For the story was not meant to be understood with a wooden literalism. It is there to engage our imagination. It is there to convey Truth beyond anything that a naïve literalism could do. And so the stories of Christ’s birth, told very differently by Matthew and Luke, are pitched at a level far beyond the factual and the literal.
Back to the shepherds. They had an overwhelming experience and the validity of that experience is to be judged on the difference it makes. So the story of the shepherds ends with the statement that they returned to their homes and their work “Glorifying and praising God”. Things were different. Life was different. And they could not keep quiet about it.
So what can we learn from this story?
1. Religion and real life cannot be separated. And real life is the sphere in which our religious belief and experience must be expressed. All too often we compartmentalise religion and work. We effectively separate the sacred from the secular. Our experience of God is one thing but it has precious little impact or influence upon the rest of our life. Least of all do we want to talk about it in the context of daily life.
If the Christmas story says anything at all it is that the distinction between sacred and secular is abolished. The beginning of the story finds the shepherds out in the fields going about their secular work when God broke through to them. And the conclusion of the story finds them going back to their secular occupation but with a different outlook and attitude. St John’s gospel makes the same point when he says; “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Because people in those days equated the “flesh” as the seat and source of all that was evil. They were shocked to the core by the suggestion that God should assume “flesh” and use it as the vehicle of His presence amongst us.
So what we do in our worship on Sunday is not something radically different to what we do at work on Monday. Worship and Work are not two different activities which must be separated and kept apart. Christmas says to us that Prayer and Politics; Communion and Commerce, Worship and Work are not separate activities but parts of a single whole.
2. The other thing we learn from this story is that our experience of God is not a solitary, private matter but one to be shared with others. The shepherds returned to their daily work but they did not keep quiet about what they had experienced. They spread the news of their experience far and wide.
Which leaves us with the question: — What will we be saying to others about our experience of Christmas? No doubt we shall share what presents we got; and how the turkey turned out to be a burnt offering — I can even tell you of how my Grandmother used methylated spirits instead of brandy on the Christmas pudding once! But dare we say that we went to Church and were moved to commit ourselves to the Christ Child and to His Way; His Life; His truth?
Or would that be too embarrassing?
A Voice from the Wilderness - (Advent 3)
Readings: Isaiah chapter 40, verses 1-11; Mark chapter 1 verses 1-8
It is fortunate for preachers that Hebrew and Greek have no punctuation marks. And sometimes where you put a comma makes the world of difference. Our readings today illustrate that – Did you spot the difference?
Isaiah said: A voice cries, “In the wilderness; prepare the way of the Lord”
Mark said: A voice cries in the wilderness “Prepare the way of the Lord”
A subtle difference. But both readings offer complimentary truths.
Consider Mark’s insight. “A voice crying in the wilderness”. We often use the expression “A voice crying in the wilderness”. We use it of people who are lone voices, advocating unpopular policies, asking awkward questions and generally making us feel uncomfortable. John the Baptist was one such.
He was not the first loner in Israel’s history. In fact John modelled himself on the great Old Testament prophet, Elijah. Elijah lived at a time when Israel’s religion had been taken over by the worship of the pagan god Baal. He called upon the nation to repent and staged a dramatic contest on Mt Carmel between himself and 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah won that contest. John the Baptist issued a similar call to the people of his day. He too, challenged the ruling powers, not least the religious leaders’ and warned of the dire consequences if they did not return to the Lord.
I wonder if the situation has changed much in our day. What has changed is the nature of the opposition. Instead of the pagan god Baal we are challenged to worship Market Forces or the Almighty Dollar. Instead of pressure to worship foreign gods we are influenced by a secularist philosophy in which God has no part to play at all. Only this week a report came out which stated that “Britain is no longer a Christian country”. It never was and I have the evidence to prove it! (But this is not the time nor the place to follow that red herring).
Fact is we have need of the likes of John the Baptist today. We need people to question the popular prejudices and clichés; to challenge accepted wisdom and confront the cultural accretions which have gathered like barnacles around the hull of our Christian Faith. The silent indifference of most people to the threat and the challenge will undoubtedly catch up with us and the Christian Faith will be exiled at the very least. In fact we are already in an exile in our own country.
Now consider the insight of Isaiah. “A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”.
Throughout the Bible the wilderness was regarded as the place of encounter with God. Moses encountered God in the wilderness and was commanded to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. When they came out of Egypt Moses led them into the wilderness and it was there that they were given the 10 Commandments which were the Magna Carta of their national life. After Jesus was baptised He was driven out into the wilderness and there He wrestled with the nature of His ministry. He came back from the wilderness his mind made up and the course of His ministry determined. The 40 days in the wilderness were absolutely crucial for the future course of His ministry.
The wilderness is a crucial place. It is not only a place but an experience as well. And God is to be found in the wilderness.
There is the wilderness of despair. It’s a place where many people find themselves. They have been let down by others and feel betrayed. They have had their hopes dashed and their dreams shattered by circumstances beyond their control. They have been caught up in the in the loss of bereavement. They have tried to do and to become and been repulsed at every turn. And they have been driven to despair of themselves and of others. And in that wilderness God is to be found.
And there is the wilderness in which we find ourselves alone. Its what most people fear these days and so we crowd our lives with activity — anything to avoid being alone. The tragedy is that in the process, we preclude the possibility of encountering God. Our obsession with activity and busyness is often an escape mechanism, an avoidance of having to face up to ourselves and to God for that matter. We fear the wilderness of being alone.
Yet that is where God is to be found. Moses found God when he was alone tending his sheep and saw a burning bush which did not burn. Elijah was alone when he found God. He was on the run and came to a cave. Outside a whirlwind struck and an earthquake shook the ground, but God was not in the whirlwind or the earthquake. Then followed a voice of gentle stillness. which was the voice of God.
And God comes to us in our aloneness. We need not fear of being alone. Nor should we avoid the wilderness experiences which come to all of us. For the wilderness is often the place of our encounter with God and we return from the wilderness to the everyday world to tell of that moment and to the task to which every Christian is called.
“Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Remembrance Sunday 2015
Readings: Isaiah Chapter 2, Verses 1-4; Matthew Chapter 5, Verses 1-12
Remembrance Sunday is not just a time when we think of those who died in two World Wars but also those who died in the many conflicts since then. It is right that we should remember. But, for Christians, Remembrance Sunday also raises the question of whether war can ever be justified.
Way back in the 4th century it was St Augustine who gave an answer which for 100s of years was accepted by Christians. He formulated the doctrine of the Just War and argued that, under certain circumstances taking up arms was a legitimate response to aggression But the nature of modern warfare has rendered Augustine’s doctrine irrelevant. So we are back to square one again.
On the one hand the teaching of Jesus suggests that a non-violent response is the only option for Christians. Jesus advocated non-violence and He put his money where his mouth was. When they arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane and Peter drew his sword Jesus rebuked him. It seems that the issue is clear-cut. Violent retaliation is ruled out.
Yet it has often been argued that Jesus’ teaching related to personal relationships and is not automatically applicable to national and international relationships. Its one thing to turn the other cheek when confronted one-to-one in a conflict situation. But would it have been the Christian thing to do nothing when Britain stood confronted by the evil of Nazi-ism? And should we simply stand aside when the Islamic League decapitates prisoners and throws ‘gays’ off the top of three-storey buildings and wage a Holy War today? That’s the dilemma.
My conscience has been sorely troubled by this and I can only share with you the conclusions I have come to. My starting point is the realisation that the kind of world we live in does not give us the luxury of a straight choice between Good and Evil — if it did I would not have a problem. More often than not the choices open to me are between two evils. It’s a case of being caught up in a situation where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.
And so I am forced to choose what I regard as the lesser of two evils. War comes into this category. There is no way in which taking up arms and engaging in war can ever be regarded as a Good. War is always an evil. But, not to fight, may result in an even greater evil triumphing.
So I find myself having to make a distinction. On the one hand Good and Evil. On the other hand Right and Wrong. And it may well be that the Right thing to do may not be the Good thing to do. Declaring war against the evil of Nazi-ism may have been the Right thing to do. I would never pretend that, in an ultimately moral sense, it was the Good thing to do.
If we are faced with having to choose the lesser of two evils then one thing is for sure. Whatever the outcome the proper response is not engage in triumphalism. Rather it is to get down on our knees and ask God for mercy.
I can never forget a passage in Nicholas Monsaratt’s book “The Cruel Sea”. It recounts an incident during the 2nd World War. A navy destroyer was escorting a convoy of ships carrying supplies to Russia when the convoy was attacked by a pack of German submarines. A number of merchant ships were sunk and the icy waters were filled with drowning sailors. The destroyer headed to rescue the stranded men but, as it did so, its sonar picked up the echo of a submarine in the same area. The captain faced an appalling dilemma. Stop and pick up the drowning men or drop depth charges and blow the sub out of the water. The captain agonised over his decision and then gave the order: “Drop depth charges”. The resultant explosion not only blew the sub out of the water; it did the same for many of his own countrymen. The captain response was simply to say; “Lord, have mercy”.
That is the Christian response. It is not easy or popular. Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister was enraged when she called for a service of Thanksgiving after the Falklands conflict and the Archbishop insisted on a prayer of Confession and a prayer for the Argentinian soldiers killed as well. The Archbishop was right. We had participated in an evil and to ask forgiveness was the proper thing to do.
There is one other dimension which we ought to take on board. It is that true peace is the outcome of worship.
Isaiah envisaged the nations streaming to the House of God in order to learn His ways and walk in His paths. The result? “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks and study war no more.” On the night when Christ was born the shepherds heard a heavenly choir sing the anthem:
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace”
To worship rightly is to love each other and we do not love each other by dropping cluster bombs and firing off guided missiles with nuclear warheads. So let us go from our worship and live and work and pray for the day when:
Men will beat their swords into ploughshares;
Their spears into pruning hooks;
Their ballistic missiles into appropriate technology;
And study war no more
A Question of Authority
Readings: Job chapter 42, verses 1 - 6; John chapter 9, verses 18 – 25
Two weeks ago the lectionary reading from Job left us with his agonising cry; “O that I knew where I might find him”. Todays reading gives us the answer. “I had heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear but now my eye sees Thee”.
What happened in between the two readings? The answer is that God had spoken to Job out of a whirlwind, (Chapter 38) and had confronted him with a whole series of unanswerable questions and forced him to realise human intellect and reasoning was an inadequate tool to solve the ultimate mysteries of life. It is no substitute for a personal relationship and personal experience. “I had heard of Thee ... but now my eye sees Thee”.
What is at stake here is the question of authority. On what basis do we believe? Where does the final authority lie?
Protestants have usually answered “The Bible”. After all is not the Bible the word of God? And so they have ransacked the Bible for texts to answer every conceivable question. They have a mantra: “The Bible says” and whatever the Bible says goes.
The only problem with that is that, if you choose your texts carefully, the Bible can be made to mean anything you want it to mean. You can support polygamy or slavery or burning heretics on the basis of Biblical quotation. I am persuaded that there will be no women in heaven and I can provide Biblical proof. Does not the Book of Revelation say “There was silence in heaven for half an hour”! Simply throwing Bible texts around proves nothing and its not enough to keep on parroting “The Bible says”
Roman Catholics, on the other hand, locate their final authority in the Church. They have a mantra; “The Church says”. – and what the Church says goes. When pressed they narrow it down to what the Pope says when he speaks ex-cathedra. Any such pronouncement is infallible and to be accepted without question. But there is a problem with accepting what the Church says as our final authority. The Church is forever changing its mind and that is not surprising. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth and so we must expect new light and new insights in every age.
Which brings us to the third locus of authority for many Christians. The direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Quakers speak of the ‘inner light’ and, for many Christians, it is what the Spirit says to them which is the final word. The difficulty is that is a very subjective authority. Too subjective. I remember a Synod in Zimbabwe when we debated a highly contentious issue late on the first day and the Chairman said we should go home and sleep on it and pray about it and decide the next day. It was Item 1 on the Agenda next day and eventually we came to a decision. As the vote was announced one minister rushed in; apologised profusely for being late and said that during his prayer time the Holy Spirit had clearly spoken. Problem was what the Holy Spirit had said to him was a flat contradiction of the vote which had just been taken. The Synod was utterly confused.
So where does that leave us? I offer another yardstick. I believe that our final authority is the Mind of Christ. What would Jesus do in any given circumstance; what would Jesus say to any given issue? And to reach an understanding of the Mind of Christ we need to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of the Bible; we need to take on board what the Church says, especially since over 2000 years the Church has accumulated a vast reservoir of knowledge and experience. We need to be attentive to what the Holy Spirit says as we open ourselves to the guidance of the Spirit in our devotions and in our fellowship together.
If I may take an example. In Zimbabwe a vital place in the life of any village is the communal well dug deep into the ground and water is pulled up by a bucket. A strong rope is essential. And invariably the ropes used did not consist of a single strand; their strength came because three separate strands were woven together. It was that which gave them their strength. And, when it comes to living our Christian life, the Mind of Christ informs our thinking and our acting. But the Mind of Christ is three-stranded. Bible, Church and Holy Spirit together enable us understand and respond as Christians to the challenges thrown at us by the world.
One final point. In the last analysis we are responsible for what we decide and do. We live by faith and that faith must be our own. One sentence has remained with me for over 50 years now. It is this: Faith is personal, not propositional. It is to be found, not in words or statements however true, but in a relationship. Christianity consists of a personal relationship with God in Christ.
So it was for Job. He had heard of God via his friends but what finally convinced him was an encounter with God in a whirlwind. “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear but now my eye sees thee”.
So it was for Paul. At the end of a tumultuous life he wrote to his young protégé Timothy and said I know whom I have believed — (not what I have believed but who I have believed). His was a personal conviction based on a personal relationship.
So it is for us. And that is what God offers us in Christ.
Readings: Job chapter 23, verses 1 – 9; Matthew chapter 25, verses 31 – 39
I will preach from that agonising cry of Job; “O that I knew where I might find him”. It’s the cry of Everyone at some point in life. As with Job ‘stuff happens’; which overwhelms us; we find impossible it to explain or understand. If we believe in God Job’s cry is wrung out of us; “O that I knew…” Elsewhere Job had cried out’ “Truly you are a God who hides himself” and it was that thought which prompted his cry.
And, for many people, that is the problem. God is hiding Himself from us and so we cry out; “O that I knew where I might find him.”
But hang on a moment. Is God really hiding from us or is it we who are in hiding from Him? The story of Adam in the Garden of Eden (which is Everyman’s story) says that the truth is we are the ones in hiding.
You remember the story. Adam had broken the one commandment and when he realised what he had done, his reaction was to hide away in the bushes. When God came down in the cool of the evening for their usual sundowner together Adam was nowhere to be seen. It is God who asks the question; “Adam, where are you?” The fact of the matter is that Adam’s sin had effectively alienated and separated him from God and he was the one who was hiding. As Isaiah put it in one memorable sentence; “Your sins have caused a separation between you and your God.” In other words it is very often the case that God seems hidden from us because we are the ones in hiding.
But it is not always the case. Often enough we are not at fault. Imagine a Christian in Syria who is caught up between President Assad’s murderous regime and the brutality of ISIL and the bombing of Allied aeroplanes and has lost everything. God where are you? Or the parents of a young child stricken with leukaemia. Or the wife of a young policeman run down trying to stop a stolen car. Where are you God?
I once stood amongst the giant granite boulders of the Matopo Hills in Zimbabwe and cried out “Help”. And the only answer I got was the sound of my own voice echoing back at me. “Help; help; help” That is how it feels for many people.
So where may we expect to find God.? The short answer is – Everywhere. For God is everywhere to be found. Earlier in the service we said together the wonderful words of Psalm 139.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
But what I want to do is narrow that universal Presence down to a specific instance. When God wanted to reveal Himself fully and perfectly He did it by becoming human. At the heart of our Christian Faith is the assertion that God became Man in Christ. Divinity is focussed in humanity. And I cannot forget the Parable that Jesus told which expresses the challenge of this truth.
It is the familiar parable of the Sheep and the Goats. (Matthew 25) Jesus spoke about how we shall judged at the Final Judgement and said:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
”And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me”
God confronts us in the needs of others and through others. I confess that I have never seen any Visions or heard any Voices, and everything I know and experienced of God has come via other people. Which is not to say that this is the only way in which we meet God. But it is a way less recognised.
There is a corollary to this. It was voiced by Martin Luther who said that we should be a Christ to our neighbour.
Now there’s a challenge for you.
Jigsaw Puzzle or Satnav?
Readings: Genesis chapter 45, verses 1-8; Ephesians chapter 1, verses 1-10
A horrible thing happened on the way to Mecca this week. Over 400 pilgrims were crushed during the annual pilgrimage with an appalling loss of life. And a Saudi Arabian Govt. Minister is reported to have said; “It was the Will of Allah”. Which raises the question: Does God have a Plan and Purpose for our lives and can we do anything about it?
Three answers are possible.
1) Yes, God does have a fixed Plan and Purpose and there is nothing we can do to alter it.
All is predestined and predetermined.
2) Yes God does have a Plan and Purpose but it depends on our co-operation.
3) No, there is no Plan and Purpose and all happens by way of Accident or Chance.
I rule out the third option. To believe that life is a huge Accident waiting to happen requires more faith and incredulity than thinking there is some Plan and Purpose to it. Which leaves us with the first two options.
I like to think of it in terms of a Board Game which we have all played or a bit of technology we all use these days. A Jigsaw Puzzle and a Satnav.
Consider the Jigsaw Puzzle approach which illustrates Option 1. You start off with a thousand small pieces and the task is to fit them all together to make a complete picture. It takes time and immense patience. Each separate piece has its specific place in the whole picture. If you try and force it into the wrong space the picture won’t work out. Of course it is possible to cheat a bit and have the full picture propped up in front of you but it still takes time and effort to fit the pieces into their predestined space.
The Old Testament writers worked with this approach. And the story of Joseph illustrates it perfectly. His jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, thinking that would be the last they ever saw of him. Years later, when famine hit Palestine, they fled as economic migrants to Egypt and to their amazement and horror discovered that the Egyptian Minister of Agriculture was the brother they had sold into slavery. Our Old Testament reading told of their reunion. The brothers were petrified that Joseph would take the opportunity for revenge and to their utter amazement he didn’t. Instead we have his incredible response; “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves; it was not you who sent me here but God. God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Nothing could be clearer than that. Everything had been predestined to happen in this way. Joseph and his brothers were simply pieces in a gigantic Jigsaw Puzzle and now the pieces had fitted together. Even the New Testament works with the same idea. St John’s gospel says that Judas was predestined to betray Jesus and that the Cross of Christ was pre-ordained by God.
So many people think that whatever happens is predestined by God. That Saudi Arabian minister was simply voicing what thousands believe, including many Christians.
Which leaves us with Option 2. Yes God has a Plan and a Purpose but it is flexible and how it works out depends upon the responses we make. In other words the Satnav approach to life.
I well remember using a 'Satnav' when they first came out. I tried it out on a route that I knew well and hit the appropriate buttons. Trouble is that I knew a short-cut and when I turned off the Satnav route a blonde voice shouted at me “Turn back!” and the picture on the Satnav went ballistic. I ignored the Voice and then an amazing thing happened. The Satnav readjusted the route to accommodate the short-cut. The blonde Voice called out another set of instructions and eventually I arrived at my destination safe and sound.
That’s how God works. Yes, God does have a final Plan and Purpose but it is not fixed and static and predictable. God takes account of our responses and, to that extent, it is fluid and flexible.
God’s Plan was described by Jesus as ‘The Kingdom of God’. The Kingdom is a community characterised by love, joy, justice and peace. A community in which the Rule of God is operative at every level of life. That is God’s Grand Design and, within it, we all have our part to play.
Often enough we foul it up. Our selfishness obstructs ‘justice’ and our ‘will to power’ obstructs peace. We limit our love to those whom we like and agree with. The result is that human relationships are disrupted and, worse still, hostility and violence break out. The result is that the world is in a right mess, so are personal relationships.
In response God uses the Satnav approach. He works with and within the responses we make to achieve His final purpose. Which is what Paul said in his Letter to Christians in Rome. “God works in ALL things for good with those who love Him and co-operate with Him.”
That is both a comfort and a challenge. The comfort is that no situation is irredeemable and no person is beyond redemption. The challenge is to align ourselves with what we know to be God’s Purpose so that in us, and through us, and by us, His Kingdom will come and His Will be done.
The Cross Placarded
Readings: Readings: Isaiah chapter 52 verse 13- chapter 53 verse 3;
John chapter12 verses 27 – 36
When I was in theological college our Greek tutor said that the two essential sources for a sermon were the Bible and the Newspaper. Nine times out of 10 I use the newspaper to illustrate the Bible. I am reversing that in this sermon. I begin with the newspaper.
This last week one image has had an incredible impact. It was the picture of a little Syrian boy whose family fled as refugees to Europe. They were herded aboard a small boat which capsized at sea and the little boy drowned. His tiny body was washed up on the beach and the picture showed a man carrying him away. He looked like a little rag doll, completely lifeless. That image went viral and had an incredible impact. It even caused David Cameron to alter his immigration policy and it altered the perceptions of the whole nation.
The powerful impact of one image. And my mind immediately leapt to another image which has had an even greater impact. The Cross of Christ. Paul used it in his letter to Christians in Colossae. He spoke of Christ being placarded on the Cross and Jesus Himself used the same image. Faced with the imminent possibility of crucifixion Jesus said: “I, if I be lifted up on from the earth will draw all men to me.” So it was that Jesus was crucified and that image has changed the world.
The story and the image a little boy drowned encapsulates for me my understanding of the Cross of Christ. In two ways. One is what caused it. The other is its impact.
What caused it? The answer is the heartlessness and sinfulness of human nature. That little boy was taken by his parents who fled the carnage of what is happening in Syria. A country enveloped in violence fuelled by a corrupt dictatorship, a barbaric Islamic League and a futile attempt by the outside world to bomb the people into submission. Caught up in this maelstrom his parents determined to flee the carnage. They had relatives in Canada but the Canadians refused to grant asylum. So, in desperation they paid people smugglers to get to Europe and paid the price of human greed. They were herded onto a small boat which capsized and sank. A hundred people drowned.
Human sinfulness caused their death. And human sinfulness caused the death of Christ. Jesus didn’t die because it was all part of the plan and purpose of God. Never in a 1000 years will you get me singing the hymn line which says; “And on the Cross where Jesus died the wrath of God was satisfied.” That it an abominable understanding and unfortunately it is all too common amongst Christians. Jesus died because the religious leaders saw Him as a threat and determined to be rid of Him. He died because Pilate put his ambition before truth and sentenced an innocent man to death to save his career. Jesus died because human nature is fickle, shouting Hosanna one day and Crucify the next. He died because the false expectations of sincere people resulted in angry disillusionment. It was the sinfulness of human nature, embodied in the Pharisees and Pilate and the Mob, which nailed Him to the Cross. – The will of man and not the Will of God!
Now to its impact. The image of a little boy dead had the power to transform the way people think. The image of Christ upon His Cross has the power to transform human lives. For the Cross is a demonstration of just how much God loves us. It is sign and symbol of what it costs God to offer us a free forgiveness. It is not a mere demonstration because it has the power to generate within us an answering love which transforms life.
There is a story told of three young men who went on a night out in Paris. On the way home they passed the Cathedral of Notre Dame and one suggested they go inside and take the mickey out of the priest by making a bogus confession. The priest heard them out and said: “For every confession there is a penance. Your penance is to walk up the aisle and kneel before the crucifix above the altar. And look into the eyes of the crucified Christ and say three times: “You have done all this for me and I don’t give a damn.”
One lad did it. He swaggered up the aisle, knelt below the crucifix and said “You have done all this for me …” He said it a second time. And then a third. “You have done all this for me and I — and I — and I” And broke down in tears. Years later that young lad became the Bishop of Notre Dame.
That is the regenerative power of the Cross. It impacts upon our lives with a transforming power and nobody expressed this better than Isaac Watts. He wrote a hymn which begins by urging us to look at the Christ upon His Cross.
When I survey the wondrous Cross
on which the prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss
and pour contempt on all my pride.
See from His head, his hands, his feet
sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
And, when we see that, when we feel that only one response is possible;
Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small,
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Readings: Isaiah chapter 6, Verses 1-8; Matthew chapter 28, verses 16 – 20
Today is Trinity Sunday. It marks the climax of the Christian Year. For preachers it poses a huge difficulty. It is easy enough to state the formula. We believe in God who is One in Three and Three in One. But when it comes to trying to explain it the problems begin. For any explanation runs the risk of being heretical. If you want to see a tortuous attempt at explaining it just take a look at the Athanasian Creed which I have never dared to use in a Church service.. It speaks of believing in the Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible and the Holy Spirit – incomprehensible!
So perhaps we should leave it at that. I like the story of the college student who locked himself away in his room to ponder the state of the world. He emerged three days later wearing a black leather jacket with the letters BAIK scrawled on the back. Someone asked what they stood for. Boy Am I Konfused was his answer. “You don’t spell confused with a K” exclaimed his friend.” “You don’t know how confused I am” was the reply.
The fact is that we are dealing with an ultimate mystery here. The doctrine is an attempt to encapsulate the whole nature of God in a sentence and that it is impossibility. We, with our puny understanding, can never hope to grasp the full nature of God with our finite mind. If we could then it would mean that God is no bigger than our mind’s grasp — and none of us could worship a God who is that small. So, rather than complain that we can’t understand the doctrine it would be better for us if we rejoiced in its incomprehensibility.
The doctrine has a very practical consequence. It enables us to worship. All true and authentic worship has a sense of wonder and awe at its core. And it is mystery which alone provokes a sense of awe and wonder. What is missing from so much of what passes for worship these days is any sense of wonder and there is a complete absence of awe. We speak of God as though He were our best mate and there is very little sense of reverence or respect in the language we use or the attitude we bring to worship. Everything must be reduced to the level of understanding and the understanding required is at the level of a 6 year old. It’s the kind of adulation given to celebrities and it debases worship. Trinity Sunday gives us an opportunity to declare and to rejoice in a mystery and if the hymns and sermon are beyond our understanding so much the better. Which is why I love singing:
“Where reason fails with all her powers
there faith prevails and love adores.”
There is another practical consequence of this doctrine. Its very incomprehensibility enables growth in understanding. I did Maths when I was in Primary School but they never attempted to teach me algebra and trigonometry. These were a mystery. They were an aspect of maths that I had to grow into. The point being that they represented an ‘unknown’ which left room for growth. It is no different with the Christian Faith. It is all about growing in the knowledge and love of God and you can’t grow if, at any stage, you think you know it all. The doctrine of the Trinity represents an ‘unknown’ into which we can grow.
I have, so far, resisted the temptation to try and explain. But, at the risk of being accused of heresy, here goes.
The doctrine of the Trinity speaks of three ‘persons’ in one and one in three. Three ‘Persons’ doesn’t mean three distinct people. And, if you look at how the doctrine arose you get a bit of help toward understanding. The first disciples, all Jews, were committed to believing that God is One. That was the core confession of Jewish Faith. Then came Jesus and those first disciples experienced Him as a human being. But they gradually realised that ‘human’ was an inadequate understanding. No mere human taught and acted and lived as Jesus did. There was an extra dimension to His being and, after the resurrection it was Thomas who gave voice to this. He met the resurrected Jesus and exclaimed “ My Lord and my God”. That, for a Jew, was an incredible thing to say. Nor was that the end. For after His ascension they experienced the coming of the Holy Spirit and that experience forced them to conclude that the Holy Spirit, too, was God. Three Gods? Perish the thought! So the doctrine arose. It arose out of their experience which forced them to conclude that God is One but He is Three in One.
Personality is a very complex thing. I am obviously one person. But I am a very complex person. I don’t even understand myself sometimes. If you asked my wife who I am you would get one answer — and it might not be very flattering. Ask my children and you would get a different answer. Ask my congregations and I dread to think of the answers you would get. And if you asked the members of the cricket team with whom I played every Saturday for 10 years they would tell you of someone who dropped sitters in the slips because his mind was on Sunday’s sermon. Four different people? - No. - It was the same me but people experienced me in very different ways.
Why should the personhood of God be any less complex? And I am prepared to leave it at that. I can already hear the charge of ‘Modalism’ being levelled against me but any explanation is tinged with heresy and I have to live with it. Meanwhile I continue to believe in One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit and I do so on the basis of my Christian experience, not theory.
But enough. We are here to celebrate the mystery of God this morning; the God who is forever beyond our full understanding but the God who revealed Himself fully in Jesus and the God who is with us in every situation of our life. I may not understand but I am prepared to give full voice and sing:
“Almighty God, to Thee
be endless honours done,
The undivided Three
and the mysterious One;
Where reason fails with all her powers
There faith prevails and love adores"
Pentecost:- God our Contemporary
Readings: Joel chapter 2, verses 28-29; Acts chapter 2, verses 1-13
Today is the birthday of the Christian Church. So before we do anything else lets sing ‘Happy Birthday to all of us’.
The first birthday bash was a very noisy affair. Rushing wind and tongues of flame and much shouting. The Holy Spirit came upon a group of very frightened people and transformed them. Lets reflect on what happened.
Luke says that they were huddled together behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. They were not only fearful but somewhat demoralised. The past six weeks had been a roller-coaster ride for them. Their whole world had fallen apart when Jesus was crucified. Then came resurrection and amazing joy. Jesus had made numerous appearances after His resurrection and their hopes were lifted. Then, suddenly, He was taken away and they felt utterly bereft. They were left to face a hostile world on their own.
Now this. What on earth could experience of a rushing wind and tongues of flame mean?
Above all that God was with them. Remember they were all Jews and throughout the Jewish scriptures fire and wind symbolised the presence of God. So Moses encountered God at a burning bush and was commissioned to lead his people out of slavery. Out there in the desert they were led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. When the prophet Elijah had a critical contest with the prophets of the Canaanite god Baal they agreed to build an altar and offer a bull and each would cry to their god. The test was this. ‘The God who answers by fire he is God’. Elijah won that contest. Fire! The accepted sign and symbol of God’s presence.
So too the symbolism of wind. In Hebrew there was a single word for “spirit” and “breath” and “wind”. The word ‘Ruach’. And, in that wind which swept through the house where those frightened disciples were huddled together they realised that God was with them in the power of His Spirit.
On the Day of Pentecost the message for those frightened disciples was that God had not abandoned them. And that is the message for us today. So often we effectively lock God up in the past. We confine His activity to times long gone. So we celebrate the exploits of the early Christians empowered by the Spirit. But that was the 1st Century. Protestants acclaim the reformation sparked by Martin Luther in Europe, but that was in 16th Century. Methodists rejoice in the Spirit-filled ministry of John Wesley and celebrate the working of God through this man which changed the face of England. But that was in the 18 Century. (I’m not sure who the Anglicans acclaim - unless it be Henry 8th!) We haven’t seen many signs of reformation or renewal since then. And today the Christian Church faces a battle for survival in England and Europe. Where is God today?
Answer is that God is very much alive and still operative. You will not see evidence of this in extraordinary events of nature, certainly you will not see flames of fire nor experience a hurricane in any of our churches. Nor should we expect that. The place to look is for extraordinary events in human nature. For, as Paul said in his letter to Christians in Galatia, the evidence of God’s Spirit at work is in less flamboyant ways. Paul echoed Jesus who said “by their fruit you will know them”, and expanded that to detail the fruit of God’s Spirit working within us. He said “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness”. For those who have eyes to see these are the signs that God is with us and active in His world.
The Spirit is not only active in the lives of individual men and women. The Spirit is active in our world as well. You see evidence of the Spirit at work in every attempt to build a just society. And in every movement aimed at feeding the hungry and housing the homeless. And in every peace-making venture which seeks to remove the curse of war and violence from our midst. For God’s Spirit is not confined to working through Christians and the Church.
So the coming of God’s Spirit on the Day of Pentecost celebrates the truth that
God is our contemporary.
Yet we cannot dismiss wind and fire altogether. We need to reinterpret them and not insist on a literal understanding. For wind and fire speak of passion and energy and enthusiasm. And in today’s world the activity of God’s Spirit finds expression in the passion and enthusiasm of Christians. Or so it should. But it is not always so.
I like the story of the village chapel which caught fire one night. The whole village turned out to see this wondrous sight and the Church steward found himself standing next to the village atheist watching the blaze. The Church steward couldn’t resist himself and said to the atheist “First time I’ve ever seen you this close to the Church”. To which the atheist replied, “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen this Church on fire”.
This week the Circuit sent me a short book which will be the subject of our Leadership Teams deliberations this year. It highlights what it calls the Five Practices of Fruitful congregations. They are the practices of Passionate Worship, Risk-taking mission and service, Extravagant generosity, Excellance and fruitfulness, Intentional development in faith. It all sounds a bit ‘over the top’. My first inclination was to water-down the hyperbole but today I am having second thoughts. What happened on the Day of Pentecost was hyperbolic. But it was real.
And it changed the disciples who went out and changed the world.
The Struggle for Faith
Readings: Genesis chapter 32, verses 22-31; Luke chapter 22, verses 39-46
A month ago I was in Zimbabwe and we spent a week on Lake Kariba. The Kariba dam was built to provide hydro-electric power to Zambia and Zimbabwe and it was built at the point where the Zambezi river flows through a narrow gorge, the perfect place to build a dam wall. Back in the 1950s when the dam was proposed the local tribesmen said it would never happen. The gorge was guarded by the local river god whose name was Nyami-nyami, and he would never allow himself to be tamed. But construction went ahead and, at a crucial stage the Zambesi came down in the worst flood in living memory. Millions of pounds worth of equipment was washed away, many lives were lost as men battled with the elements and the tribesmen gloated; They said “We told you so” and ascribed the raging flood to the rage of Nyami-nyami.
Exactly the same kind of belief lies behind the story of Jacob at Penuel. The river Jabbok narrows at the point where Jacob tried to cross and local folk-lore had it that the ford across the river was guarded by the river-god who had turned back many an invader. So we have the story of Jacob wrestling with an unknown adversary and eventually Jacob prevails. What the Biblical writer has done is to take this legend, lifting it out of the sphere of primitive, superstitious belief and placing it within the sphere of Israel’s faith This is how Jacob experienced God; this is how Israel experienced God, and this is how we may experience God.
So we have the words; “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.”
In fact Jacob was wrestling with his conscience and with the God who informed his conscience. Years before he had cheated his brother out of his birthright which was a serious thing in that society. As a result he had fled for his life from his brother’s anger. And now he was preparing to confront his brother again. How would his brother react? Would he take revenge? Jacob was taking no chances. He divided his flock and settled down for the night. “And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day”.
1. Transposed out of legend into the sphere of faith this story illuminates an important truth. Faith, and a relationship with God sometimes only comes after a period of prolonged and painful struggle. Jacob wrestled all night.
It is a truth we are reluctant to accept. We think that faith should come easily and much of our preaching suggests that it does come easily. “All you have to do is to have faith” — it’s as simple as that! And for those who do not find it that simple their struggle is simply intensified by well meaning assurances. The fact is that, for many Christians, the element of struggle is an essential component of faith.
Martin Luther battled for years to find faith. He even entered a monastery and took monastic vows — which was perhaps the worst thing he could have done! Even in the monastery he was tempted to unbelief. Once the temptation was so real that he threw down his pen and threw a bottle of ink at the imagined devil who tormented him.
And Jesus too, struggled. At the outset of His ministry he wrestled 40 days and 40 nights in the desert and each temptation was prefaced; “…if you are the Son of God”. At the end of His ministry he spent the night agonising in the Garden of Gethsemane to know the Will of God until the sweat dropped like tears of blood. They were not crocodile tears nor was Jesus pretending. His agony was real.
And we need to assure people that there is nothing to be ashamed of in having to struggle for faith. One thing is for sure. If you hang in there the day will surely break, the light will dawn and God’s presence will become real.
2. There is another dimension to this story. We are told that Jacob was wounded in his struggle and from that day onward, he walked with a very noticeable limp. When asked why he was disabled in this way Jacob had to tell of his encounter with an unknown adversary. He was a marked man from that day onward. By this all men knew that he had wrestled with God.
And, if we have encountered God, then we too are marked men and women. I am not for a moment suggesting that Christians should walk with a limp to mark them out as having encountered God. But there ought to be a noticeable difference which marks them out from others. The difference is not physical but spiritual and moral. It is best described in the words of St Paul when he wrote to Christians in Galatia and urged them to evidence the gift of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, kindness, faithfulness. By this shall all men know that we have found faith and are disciples of the risen Christ.
Trouble is that any difference is not always apparent. I read recently of two men going to work on a London bus. They were reading the newspaper which ran the obituary of a friend who had recently died. And one line of the obituary ran: “Mr G… was a lifelong Methodist”. At which point one man interjected “Fancy that. A lifelong Methodist. I would never have known it”.
There was no doubting Jacob’s encounter with God. Nor should there be any doubt about ours.
The Good Shepherd
Readings: Psalm 23; John chapter 10, verses 11 – 18
Our Gospel reading for today has Jesus saying; “I am the good shepherd”. I want to explore that claim with reference to Psalm 23 which is the best known Psalm of all. The Lord is my shepherd.
But first a bit of bush-clearing. We have trouble in identifying with the idea of shepherds simply because they are not part of our everyday experience. Many people have never seen a shepherd in real life unless it be on TV. And there is a greater difficulty. We are not sheep. We are more than mere sheep. We have minds and wills of our own, we have a freedom of choice and action which sheep do not have. Not many people would regard it as a compliment to be labelled a sheep — and so the idea that Jesus is the Good Shepherd does not ring many bells in our experience. Yet, allowing for this, there are important truths in the Shepherd analogy!
I go back to Psalm 23. It pictures God as the good Shepherd and describes two functions of a good shepherd. One is that he provides for his flock. The other is that he protects his flock.
The good shepherd provides for his flock.
Psalm 23 says: “He makes me lie down in green pastures, He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies”. In a countryside which was rugged and wild the shepherd knows the places where the grass is green and edible and spreads out like a table before them. He can identify those places where poisonous weeds grow amongst the grass and he can avoid those places where deadly snakes lie hidden amongst the rocky outcrops. The good Shepherd uses his knowledge and experience to ensure that the flock feeds safely.
The Psalm goes on to say: “He leads me in the right path”. In the hill country of Israel many paths lead to a dead end. Other paths led to the edge of a precipice and that spelt disaster for a flock of sheep who would likely panic and be crushed at the edge of the cliff. The shepherd uses his knowledge of the terrain to avoid this.
So with Jesus. He was truly human. As human He experienced the dangers and difficulties, the trials and temptations entailed in being human. To follow Him is to be provided with the knowledge and awareness of what is good for us.
The good shepherd also protects his flock.
Psalm 23 says: “He leads me beside still waters”. One of the dangers facing any flock was to be caught up in places where the river became a raging torrent. To be caught up in that torrent meant being swept away by the current; the woollen coat of the sheep becomes sodden, its weight dragging it down and drowning becomes inevitable. So the good shepherd ensures his flock drink from still waters.
And then we have those wonderful words; “…even though I walk through a valley of deep, dark shadows, I fear no evil” Palestine is criss-crossed by deep, dark ravines, the perfect hide-out for wild animals and wilder men. The shepherd walked armed with his rod and staff. The staff was used to yank out any animal caught in a thicket; the rod a wooden club used to fend off attack by men or animals.
“Thou anointest my head with oil”. At the end of a long day the shepherd would lead his sheep back to the fold and carefully examine each animal as it entered. If there were any signs of cuts which might turn septic the shepherd would pour oil on the wound. And, having ensured that all were safe the shepherd would lie down at the entrance to the sheepfold, literally becoming the door of the sheep.
Jesus described Himself as the door to the sheepfold. It was the point of entry just as He is the point of entry into the Kingdom of God. It is not fanciful to assume that when Jesus spoke of Himself as the Good Shepherd He had Psalm 23 at the back of his mind.
Which brings us to that wonderful closing verse. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me…” The pity is that the English translation waters down the force of the original text. It ought to read: “Surely goodness and mercy shall hunt me all the days of my life”. The image is of a hunter pursuing an animal relentlessly and so it is with God.
Jesus said the same thing in His parable of the Lost Sheep. He said that the good shepherd would go out seeking the wayward sheep “until he find”. Never would he give up the search.
Francis Thompson wrote a poem about God’s never-ceasing search for us although we flee from Him.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind and in the midst of tears
Still with unhurrying chase, and unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
Came on the following Feet, and a Voice above their beat:
‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’
God, the good shepherd, never gives up on us.
Believing is Seeing
Readings: Job chapter 19, verses 21 – 27; John chapter 20, verses 19 – 30
By his own admission John omitted a whole lot of material which he could have included in his gospel. He confines himself to 20 Chapters and deliberately selects those incidents and sayings which would have a relevance for those living 60 years after Jesus died.
So why did he include this incident about Thomas? The answer is easy. Those who heard John preach reacted as many do today. “Its easy for you to believe John. You lived with Jesus for three years. You heard Him preach. You saw Him in action. Even after the resurrection you were able to be with Him. Its not that easy for us. We have only faith to go by. Thomas speaks for us. If only we could reach out our hand and touch Him we too would believe”.
So John records this story. Thomas found it impossible to believe that Jesus was alive without some hard, compelling proof. “Unless I see the nailprints in His hands…” Jesus gives him what he asks for; but then goes on to say; “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Thomas speaks for many of us. We are brought up on the slogan ‘Seeing is believing’. Everything must be verifiable; capable of being scientifically proved before we believe. To many in 21st century 'faith' is a cop-out. We want proof. Seeing is believing.
Actually the opposite is true. The Christian Faith insists that if you want to ‘see’ you must first believe. Believing is seeing!
There are reasons for this. One is that so much of our Faith is incapable of scientific proof. The bedrock of our Faith is belief in God. But there is no way we can prove that God exists. The sooner we acknowledge this the better. The claims that we make are essentially ‘faith claims’ Too much of our evangelism proceeds on the basis that we are making incontrovertible statements and if people don’t believe us we dismiss them as being perverse and blinded by their sinfulness! This gets us nowhere. When people argue that seeing is believing we have got to be open and honest and reverse the slogan. We say “You must believe in order to see”.
By way of illustration. It was my first Easter in England and on Easter Monday we visited the village of Lavenham in Suffolk. There is a magnificent Church which stands just outside the village and as we walked up the path toward it only the size of the Church was remarkable. Along the length of the Church were rows of leaded windows which looked grey and bleak and forbidding. But then we went inside the Church and those grey/black windows were transformed. They were revealed as stained glass windows in glorious technicolour. The sun shining through them lit up the colours. But you had to go inside the Church to see that beauty.
The same is true of our Christian Faith. Only when you come inside the Faith do you appreciate its truth. From the outside it might appear irrational and unappealing. But come inside and it lights up. Which is what Charles Wesley sang about:
“Faith lends its realising light
the clouds disperse, the shadows fly
the invisible appears in sight
And God is seen by mortal eye.”
Can I come at this from another angle? For 5 years my Circuit in Zimbabwe included the Victoria Falls. Its an amazing sight, particularly when the Zambezi river is in full flood. The water plunges over a mile-wide cataract and falls 400ft into a narrow gorge. Its known as the Boiling Pot. So turbulent is the water, so powerful the swirling surge that it is impossible to measure just how deep the Boiling Pot is. They once tried to measure it by dropping lengths of railway line into the water. The railway line came up a mass of twisted metal, all buckled and bent. The fact is the tools they used to plumb the depths of the Boiling Pot were hopelessly inadequate.
There are such depths to the Christian Faith. It seeks to explore and gauge and understand the mystery of God. All too often we try but the tools we use are inadequate. We try reason and logic but these buckle beneath the Truth. Sooner or later we realise that the Truth can only be stated in the form of paradox and always the mystery still eludes us.
I do not decry either reason or logic. You should have realised that by now. But what I am saying is that these are inadequate tools when it comes to understanding God. Beyond the limits of reason and logic and scientific proof there is an Ultimate Truth accessible only through ‘faith’. It is only when we are prepared to believe, to commit ourselves and to obey that the mystery of God opens up to us. And the truth of what we believe is then verified in our subsequent experience.
So it is through believing that we come to know the Truth. And belief is more than mere intellectual assent. It includes acting on what we believe. Jesus said the same thing. He said: “Those who do the will of God shall know the truth of God”. It is when we actually get round to doing God’s Will and putting belief in practice that we become convinced of the Truth in a way which requires no further proof.
So Wesley sang:
“The things unknown to feeble sense,
unseen by reason’s glimmering ray,
with strong, commanding evidence
their heavenly origin display.”
“Happy are those who have not seen, and yet believe”.
Palm Sunday: Triumph and Tragedy
Readings: Zechariah, chapter 9, verses 9 – 11; Mark, chapter 11, verses 1 – 11
Many Bibles headline Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as “The Triumphal Entry”. I do not doubt that it was a Triumph. But it was also a Tragedy — And I want to reflect on both aspects today.
The entry into Jerusalem on a donkey was a Triumph in that it allowed Jesus to demonstrate the true nature of His kingship. For the kingship of Jesus is utterly unlike any other. The people of His day had plenty of experience of kings. Every self-respecting nation had a king. Without exception they ruled with absolute authority and dictatorial power. They were surrounded by pomp and circumstance and their authority was not to be questioned.
Jesus understood things differently. His idea of kingship contradicted the popular expectation at every point. The question was How could He bring people to understand it? Time and time again He had tried to define it in words but His words fell on deaf ears. So Jesus tries one last time. On the principle that actions speak louder than words He resolves to demonstrate the nature of His kingship by dramatising it.
There is an Old Testament text that provides the perfect vehicle for dramatising the nature of His kingship. In the Book of Zechariah the Prophet speaks of Israel’s King coming to Jerusalem;
“Behold your king comes to you... meek and lowly is he... And riding on a donkey”
That’s it! A lowly King! A monarch who comes in meekness and humility! Zechariah’s words fitted perfectly with what Jesus wanted to convey and Jesus who knew His Old Testament like the back of His hand, deliberately sets out to fulfill those words. He arranges with a friend in Jerusalem to hire a donkey for the day. And rides into Jerusalem in enactment of Zechariah’s words.
That was His triumph. He demonstrated what kind of a king He was. The entry in Jerusalem was an acted parable and the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry was all of a piece with this acted parable. This King overturns every popular expectation.
People expected their king to rule with absolute authority and power. Jesus says that real authority is the authority of service and that real power is the power of love. Jesus defines majesty in terms of meekness; and might is defined in terms of vulnerability. So He rides into Jerusalem, not on a warhorse but on a donkey. At supper He takes a towel and washes His disciples’ feet. When He is crowned it is with a crown of thorns. Behold, your King!
The tragedy of Palm Sunday is that the people didn’t get the message. They got the words right and sang; “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”. But they got the implication wrong. Horribly wrong.
They expected their king to come as a Warrior King who would drive out the hated Romans – a Political Messiah who would restore the Kingdom to its former glory. They expected a Nationalistic Deliverer. In the words of the poet:
“They were all looking for a king
to slay their foes and lift them high;
He came, a tiny baby thing
that made a woman cry”.
They did not conceive of a donkey-riding King! And that misplaced expectation resulted in disillusionment. Disillusionment led to bitter rejection and rejection led to crucifixion. Those who shouted “Hosanna” on Sunday shouted “Crucify” on Friday.
There is a lesson there for us. Misplaced expectation can be a very dangerous thing. It is true across the whole range of life. We all have our expectations — be they of our job, our lifestyle and even our minister! And when those expectations are not met then disillusionment sets in and the consequences can be terrible. For Jesus the misplaced expectation of the people resulted in crucifixion.
Things haven’t changed much in 2000 years. We who are created in the image of God have created God in our own image. And when God doesn’t conform or doesn’t deliver according to our expectations then rejection is the inevitable outcome.
Palm Sunday is not a one-off event. Today as then, Jesus comes riding into our lives as King — but He comes riding on a donkey! He comes as one who is vulnerable to the response we make. He comes, not with coercive authority but with the appeal of love. He rides into our lives but will not over-ride our freedom to choose and act.
It is up to us how we will respond to Him For each one of us, Palm Sunday could represent either a triumph or a tragedy. It would be a triumph if we welcomed Him as King into our lives; pledging our obedience to His love and service.
On the other hand it could be a tragedy.
I, if I be lifted up…
Readings: Numbers chapter 21, verses 4-9; John chapter 12, verses 27-36
How do we understand what Jesus did for us on the Cross?
There have been many different ways of understanding. One is the idea that Jesus, on the Cross, was being punished by God for the sins which men and women have committed. The argument behind that view is that God is Just and his justice demands that sin be punished before it can be forgiven. So he took it out on His own son. It is what is known as the penal substitutionary theory of the Cross. It is a theory much in vogue in evangelical circles these days but one which I cannot subscribe to.
But enough of the negative stuff. Our text this morning offers a positive understanding of what was happening on the Cross. “I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men to me”. Here we have an understanding of the Cross which does justice to God’s nature. God is love and what we see on the Cross is the love of God in Jesus accepting, absorbing and transforming the evil that men do.
But to understand our text we need to go back to an Old Testament incident which is its background and context. It’s a story about what happened to the people of Israel whilst they were wandering in the wilderness. They complained bitterly about the privations they were suffering and the story says that the Lord sent venomous snakes amongst them. The snake bite sets up inflammation. The people cried to Moses for help and he is told to make a serpent of brass and fasten it to a pole. Everyone who looked at it was cured. It’s a story full of superstition yet there is a truth embedded in it. “Like cures like”, the uplifted serpent is a cure for the harm other serpents have done. Jesus seized on this truth emptying it of all superstition. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so must the son of man be lifted up from the earth”. Healing can come at a glance and to see this man, lifted up on a Cross, is a cure for the ills that humanity has wrought.
In what sense is it a cure?
The answer is to see Jesus hanging on his Cross and to understand his suffering, not as a punishment by God for human sinfulness, but as a demonstration of the love of God for sinful humanity.
Our starting point is to recognise that “God was in Christ”. That is a fundamental Christian assertion.
Everything that Jesus did represents the action of God in and through a human life. And, if Jesus goes out of his way to welcome and accept and forgive sinners then that is God’s way. If Jesus appeals to men and women to follow him rather than compelling them into belief that is God’s way.
Everything that Jesus said represents the word of God to men and women and if Jesus tells us to forgive our enemies that is God’s word to us. And, if Jesus suffers on the Cross because the sinfulness of man insists on crucifying the Truth, then his suffering is the suffering of God.
So Jesus dies. No doubt he could have retaliated against his enemies but he didn’t. Rather Jesus persists in showing the love which “bears all things and endures all things”. And this is true even at the extremity of crucifixion. St John says that “having loved his own who were in the world he loved them to the end”, even if that end meant death by crucifixion. And God was in Christ!! Which means to say that Jesus dying on the Cross is a demonstration of the extent to which God loves us.
The story is told of a famous Scottish preacher who, on Good Friday, mounted his pulpit and held up a crucifix and cried out to the congregation “He loves you as much as all that”. When you remember that a crucifix is the Cross with the figure of Christ outstretched upon it and that it is a common image amongst Roman Catholics then you can imagine the impact it had on his severely Protestant Scottish congregation. They were outraged. Catholic symbols have no place in a Protestant church!!. But the point was made. This tortured figure on the Cross was a sign and symbol of how much God loves us.
Now this. When that truth hits home at us, when we really see it and understand it, when we get to the point of actually feeling it, then that truth has a transforming effect. It shames our indifference. It highlights our unworthiness. It leads us to “count our richest gain but loss, and pour contempt on all our pride”. More than that such love evokes within us an answering response, and in response we are motivated to give our all.
The Cross has a magnetic appeal. And its appeal is all-powerful. To see Jesus lifted up is not just a demonstration of God’s love; it is at the same time a transforming influence. It is not just the love of God demonstrated to us; it is also the love of God generated within us.
There is a story told of a negro women who stood amongst those who lined the funeral route of Abraham Lincoln’s last journey. He was the man who had fought a civil war at outrageous cost to liberate the negro slaves. And, as the cortege passed the place where she was standing, the women bent down and said to her son; “Take a good look son, that man died for you”.
Jesus said, “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men to me”. And what we need to do is take a good look at the crucified figure of the Christ. That man died for you.
Which is what Isaac Watts did in his great hymn:
When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
Cleansing of the Temple
Readings: Malachi chapter 3, verses 1-4; John chapter 2, verses 13-22
The story of Jesus cleansing the Temple is one that disturbs many people. There is anger and violence in this story. Jesus lays about him with a whip and creates havoc as He overturns the tables of the money changers. It all seems to be so out of character with Jesus. But that’s because we have been indoctrinated to think of Jesus as meek and mild and we are very selective in our understanding. Nor do we allow for the possibility of a righteous anger which is entirely unselfish. Yes Jesus was angry. But not because of anything done to Him. He was angry on behalf of God. I shall come back to that, but first let us uncover some of the other layers of meaning in this story.
One is that cleansing the Temple was an implicit claim by Jesus to be the Messiah
300 years before the prophet Malachi had said that, when the Messiah came, he would cleanse and purify the Temple. 300 years later the Temple had become a virtual den of thieves. Its outer courts were a glorified market place where people were conned into buying the animals which they would offer in sacrifice. If you had walked all the way from Galilee to offer a sheep, chances are the poor animal was knackered by the time you arrived in Jerusalem. And blemished sacrifices were not acceptable to God. So buy an unblemished one in the Temple – at a price. If the only money you had was a Roman dollar that was not acceptable. It had to be exchanged for a Temple shekel – at a rake-off exchange rate. Fact is the place needed cleansing. Which was precisely what Malachi said the Messiah would do. And Jesus, who never openly claimed to be Messiah was, by this action making an implicit claim. The same is true of His entry into Jerusalem on a donkey. That too, was an implicit claim to be Messiah.
Secondly Jesus is asserting that the Temple must be a House of Prayer for all nations
The very way in which it was constructed militated against this. It was divided into four distinct areas. The outer court was reserved for Gentiles; i.e. non-Jews. Then there was a court for women. Then a court for men. And then a court for priests. Finally there was the Holy of Holies’, a place where only the High Priest could enter and then only once a year. Guess where the trading in animals was conducted alongside the currency exchange deals — you got it! In the court of Gentiles! How could any Gentile could be expected to worship in that atmosphere? The fact is that racial and sexual discrimination was built-in to the very structure of the Temple and its worship and Jesus challenges all that would hinder true worship which is in spirit and in truth.
You might think that we have gone beyond that kind of discrimination today. Which is true. But, when I began my ministry 50 odd years ago it was still the accepted thing that non-members should be excluded from Holy Communion and this was done by tacking on the communion at the end of the normal service. And discrimination is more subtle today. It is expressed in attitude and atmosphere. And Jesus’ challenge is still relevant. We should not put any barrier in the way of enabling people to access God.
Which brings me back to the anger problem. It might disturb us to think of an angry Jesus and to contemplate the violence of His action. But the clue to a proper understanding is to be found in the story itself. When the disciples tried to come to terms with what Jesus did they recalled a word from the Psalms; “Zeal for thy house will consume me”. ( Psalms 69:9) That’s what provoked Jesus’ anger. Not that he was retaliating to personal attack. But because God was being dishonoured and the purposes of God were being thwarted. The Temple was supposed to be the House of God in which God was accessible to all – it had become the very opposite.
And this has a frightening relevance to today. My first reaction when I read of the Muslim reaction to the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed being published was to be horrified. But then I thought – these people have a point. Their anger was at the denigration of someone they revere. They went over the top in their response. Their anger became a murderous hatred. There is no justification for murder which is what they resorted to.
But compare that to the way Christians react when Jesus Christ is used as a swear word or when Jesus is pilloried in comedy sketches on TV or on the stage. We shrug our shoulders and say nothing. It is perfectly acceptable in today’s non-judgemental society. I sometimes wonder which is the worse reaction – the Muslim or the Christian.
The fact is that there is a place for anger. We should be angry that people go hungry when there is no shortage of food. We should be angry at injustice. We should be angry when Truth is traded for expediency.
So what relevance has this story got for us today? It comes down to the nature of our Church life and whether it helps or hinders people in their search for God. And it poses the question of how much we care when the purposes of God are frustrated.
I give you one example. I once chaired a Church Council when an item on the agenda was a request from the Local Authority that we make a room available for the counselling of drug addicts in our community. That’s all – counselling. The Church Council said No. People argued that we couldn’t have drug addicts on the premises when there might be children around. The fact that proper safeguarding procedures would be put in place didn’t dissuade them. The answer was No.
And I thought of the incident of Jesus cleansing the Temple so that God might be accessible to all and could have wept were it not for the fact that I was very angry.
The Temptations of Jesus – Lent 1
Reading: Luke chapter 4, verses 1-13
The temptations of Jesus in the wilderness are often understood as being a test of his Mission or his Person. It’s the second understanding that I want to explore here.
The essential background is the baptism experience of Jesus and behind that, the experience of Israel in the wilderness at the time of the Exodus.
At his baptism Jesus heard a Voice; “You are my beloved son” The words implied a unique relationship with God. Son of God! I believe the words came as a bombshell to Jesus. It might be said that he was always Son of God. But was he always conscious of it? The temptations’ experience makes much more sense if we realise that the declaration “Son of God” came as a complete revelation to him. And now he had to wrestle with the implications. Was it true? Or was he hearing things? And Jesus is tempted to prove what must always rest on the conviction of faith – our relationship to God.
1. “If you are the Son of God, turn the stones into bread”.
Note the ‘if’ - For this is a temptation to prove once and for all the truthfulness of that baptismal voice. If he used his power as Son of God to turn stones into bread not only would his own hunger be alleviated but it would satisfy his need for certainty. If he performed a miracle then all doubt would be removed.
The same temptation had been faced by Israel in the wilderness. They too were hungry. Unwilling and unprepared to trust God they demanded Moses give them bread. Moses yielded to their faithlessness. Faced with the same temptation Jesus, the One True Israelite, rejected it. “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
2. “If you are the Son of God, jump off the pinnacle of the temple”. (I am following the Matthean order of the temptations here.)
This is a variation of the first temptation. But with this difference. Since Jesus refused to use his power to produce miracle he is now tempted to force God to work a miracle. Jump off the top of the temple! And if he survived it would only be because God had miraculously intervened to save him.
Jesus rejected this devilish suggestion. “You shall not tempt the Lord your God”. His words are lifted straight out of the Exodus story where the people of Israel demanded a miracle to slake their thirst. Moses gave way to them but insisted they were testing God. Jesus will have none of it. This One True Israelite refuses to test God, preferring to live by faith.
3. The Mountain Top.
This temptation harks back to the incident in the old testament wilderness story when the people of Israel made and worshipped a golden calf. This was in defiance of Moses’ command that: to inherit the Promised Land there must be no compromise with local gods or their worship. Here in the wilderness they compromised. And the story of their settlement in Palestine was the story of continual compromise with Canaanite religion.
And Jesus is tempted to compromise too. Tempted to compromise with the “powers” that rule the lives of men and women for the sake of establishing the Kingdom of God. Tempted to use the Devil’s weapons to defeat the Devil! Tempted to serve both God and mammon. Tempted to act on the principle that ‘the end justifies the means’.
And he rejects the temptation. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve”. He will not be unfaithful to the God who calls for trust and obedience.
I am arguing that Jesus’ temptations were not only a test for him personally. They were more than that. As Son of God he was having to re-live and re-experience the temptations faced by the sons of God (as Israel was known). His temptations were in a personal and representative capacity.
That is their relevance for us today. We, who are the People of God, are called to live by faith. Our relationship with God must always be a matter of faith — and faith by its very nature precludes absolute certainty. Either we trust God or we don’t. The demand for proof and certainty is a sign that we don’t trust sufficiently.
Jesus was tempted to prove his relation to God by either working a miracle himself or forcing God into a miracle. And we are similarly tempted. If only I could speak in tongues I would know I am a pukka Christian! And we are forever putting God to the test. Christians often call it ‘putting a fleece before the Lord.’ To succumb to this temptation is a sign that we are not prepared to live by faith and faith alone.
And Jesus was tempted to compromise. So too are we — and so is the Church. Align ourselves with the ‘powers that be’ and the success of our mission is guaranteed! — It isn’t.
Man shall not live by bread alone.
You shall not test the Lord your God.
You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
Jesus’ answers to temptation are the principles by which we, as the People of God must live. And,
living by those principles means that we must have to live by faith, trusting where we cannot prove.
As the old hymn put it:
“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way”
They who Sow the Wind
Readings: Hosea Chapter 8, verses 1-7a; Chapter Luke 3, verses 1-9
The words of Hosea, spoken over 2500 years ago, have a startling relevance for us today. “Those who sow the wind …” Hosea is outlining a law of inevitable retribution. He lived at a time when Israel was in a state of national decline, economically, politically and morally. Hosea attributed this decline to a loss of faith. The people had cast aside belief in God and deliberately flouted God’s law. Hosea warned that God would surely punish them, but not be personally intervening to bring them low. God’s punishment would be by way of allowing the consequences of their actions to play out. God will punish them by not intervening. This is a far cry from what many Christians believe. But it’s a consistent theme that runs through the Bible. Paul argued the same thing when he wrote to the Romans. He said that God exercised judgement by giving them over to the consequences of their own actions. And elsewhere he made the point that whatever a man sows that will he also reap.
This truth was vividly brought home to me when we went to Zimbabwe a couple of weeks ago. In 1980, after 15 years of guerrilla warfare Ian Smith’s white Government was toppled — undone by the patronising and paternalistic racialism which denied equal rights to blacks. Mugabe took over and in the 35 years since he practised a reverse racialism and has meant appalling suffering for blacks as well as whites. I don’t know whether to cry or to be angry with what has happened. The whole infrastructure of the country has been destroyed. The roads are full of potholes. Power cuts happen every day and sometimes last for a week. The road to Kariba once ran through a rich farmland which came to be known as the breadbasket of Central Africa. Travelling that same road two weeks ago and the land is returning to bush. Huge grain silos at Karoi and Lions Den stand empty. Alongside the road the telegraph poles stand at crazy angles or else lie flat on the ground. Power cuts are an everyday fact of life, and water supplies are erratic. If you don’t have your own borehole your house is worth nothing on the market. And the currency has collapsed. So much so that the worthless Zimbabwean dollar has been replaced by the American dollar. The breadbasket of Central Africa has become a basket case. Ian Smith sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind in the form of Mugabe’s government. Mugabe has sowed the wind and the whirlwind is terrible to behold. I simply could not believe the destructive impact of this second whirlwind.
Yet this same law of retribution applies to all of us and to all of life. We are not punished for our sins; we are punished BY our sins. You see it most vividly in those who are addicted either to alcohol or drugs but that’s at the extreme end of things. Far more insidious is the selfishness to which we are all prone; best illustrated in the story Jesus told about the Prodigal Son. The younger son came to his father and demanded, “Father, give me”. And that “give me” attitude was the essential reason for him ending up as a farm labourer and eating pigs food. For a Jew that was the ultimate humiliation and that same attitude of a greedy, grasping selfishness leads to the wreckage of so many lives. Translate that into our social life and then into the politics that govern our national life and the end result is always the same. We sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.
It would be easy enough to leave it there — a statement of the inevitable. And were I merely a politician I could perhaps leave it there. But it is different for a Christian preacher. The gospel is about Good News and Hope. And I confess that my experience of Zimbabwe leaves me struggling to find a Christian Hope.
The Christian Hope is not that God will unilaterally intervene in spite of us. It is that God will work in us and through us to create a new humanity. Paul offered the clue when he wrote “If any man is in Christ he is a new creature” and the Greek can also be translated “If any man is in Christ there is a new creation”. That alternative translation widens the scope of our Hope from the purely personal to include a social and community dimension. Yes; and even a political dimension.
It would be easy simply to say that Zimbabwe needs a new Government if it is to survive. But it would also be facile to say that. It was Studdert Kennedy who remarked that when you change your Government you put one lot of sinners out and another lot of sinners in. He was not being cynical, — just realistic. That applies not only to Zimbabwe and perhaps we might bear it in mind come May and the General Election!
What settles it in my mind is the thought that, when God wanted to save the world, He did so by becoming man. What chance did one man have?
Yet the coming of Christ had an impact far beyond imagining and changed the world. I am not sure that God’s strategy has changed. And the Church, which is the Body of Christ in the world today, is charged with continuing His mission. That mission is not just about saving souls; it is about establishing the Kingdom of God which, by definition is a Community in which Justice and Peace prevail.
Two stories from the days of the Early Church inspire me.
One is of what happened when plague broke out and decimated whole villages. Everyone ran for their lives — except the Christians who stayed behind to care for the sick and bury the dead. And word got around saying; “See how these Christians love”.
The other instance is recorded in the Bible. Paul and his companions arrived in the area of Thessalonika and the locals threw up their hands in horror. “The people who have turned the world upside down have come here also!” I don't hear people saying that today. In fact the reverse. We have been around for years and everybody simply ignores us!
I began with Hosea’s words of Divine retribution. Those who sow the wind shall reap the whirlwind. I end with those same words but in another context. The same word for “wind” in Hebrew is the same word used for “spirit”. What if we sow love, joy, peace, kindness, justice which are the fruit of God’s Spirit. Imagine the whirlwind which would follow.
Cradle and Cross
Readings: Isaiah chapter 60, verses 1-7; Matthew chapter 2, verses 1-12
I don’t want to put a damper on your Christmas but in all the celebrations centering on the birth of a child there is another dimension. And we ignore it at our peril. Having Communion just a day or so before Christmas, makes the point. The point being that hanging over the Cradle is the shadow of the Cross. We celebrate the birth of Christ by remembering His death, the two cannot be separated. In a very real sense this Child was born to die.
This truth is there in the Christmas story if you care to look for it. We are told that Wise men came from the East, bringing with them gifts; gold and frankincense – and myrrh! Each gift is symbolic of who Jesus is but the strange one is myrrh. For myrrh is an embalming agent, used to wrap up the body of someone who has died. It speaks of death, not birth. It was a strange and early insight into the meaning of His birth.
A week after Jesus’ birth Mary and Joseph took the Child to the Temple for the rite of circumcision and went again for the rite of purification. On this occasion an old man, well known for his piety, and gave thanks to God and took the Child in his arms and uttered a dark prophesy. “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel”. And he said to Mary: “A sword will pierce through your own soul also.” Little could Mary have imagined that 30 years later she would see a Roman soldier thrust his sword into the body of the crucified Christ.
And there is an apocryphal story about Jesus as a young lad working in his father’s carpenter’s shop. He takes a piece of wood, mis-shapen and ready to be made into a yoke for somebody’s oxen. The boy takes the plank of wood, holds it high, his arms outstretched. And the flickering light throws a shadow against the wall. The shadow is of someone whose arms are outstretched forming the outline of the Cross.
The rest of the world will not give a moment’s thought to that dimension of Christmas. And, I suspect, very few Christians will either. At least having Holy Communion now focuses our mind beyond the Cradle to the Cross; and beyond that to an Empty Tomb.
Which is not to say that the Cross was the purpose of His coming. God came in Christ in order to reveal Himself to the world and through Jesus, to reconcile the world to Himself. What made the Cross inevitable was the human response to His coming. In the memorable words of St John’s gospel: “He came to his own people and his own people would not accept him”. Instead they rejected him out of hand and demanded his crucifixion.
So it was that Herod heard about the birth of one born to be King and immediately determined to get rid of him. His words to the Wise Men were entirely cynical. “When you have found him bring me word that I too may come and worship him.”
The pattern of Christ’s life was one of rejection. The religious leaders and political powers combined to kill Him off. And not just because of what he said and did. They killed Him off because of Who he was. His words and actions were simply the expression of Who he was. As long as Jesus remained true to Himself His death was inevitable.
By way of illustration. Many years ago, when radar was still in is infancy, two ships sailed in opposite directions off the coast of Newfoundland. They were on a collision course. Thick fog blanketed the area and both ships relied on their radar. One captain misread his radar and ordered his helmsman to hold fast to the course he was on. The outcome was a collision and many lives were lost.
So with Jesus. Right at the beginning of His ministry, out in the desert, He had set course and would not be deflected from it. It was the course determined by God’s Truth and God’s Love. And that commitment set Him on a collision course with human nature. No way was Jesus going to change course. And equally human nature refused to change. The outcome was inevitable and crucifixion the result.
So let us not go gooey-eyed and get all sentimental this Christmas. On Christmas Day we shall rightly celebrate the birth of a baby. There is joy and wonder, the more so since we celebrate the birth of not just another baby. The Child of Bethlehem is none other than:
“Our God, contracted to a span / incomprehensibly made man”
But while we celebrate His birth let us never forget its inevitable outcome. The shadow of a Cross looms over the Cradle, and the star shining above the Cradle gives off a light which is cruciform in shape.
Bush Clearing — John the Baptist
Readings: Isaiah chapter 40, verses 1-5; Luke chapter 3, verses 1-14
On the third Sun in Advent, the Church traditionally focuses its thinking on John the Baptist. And I think that his message and his role is crucially important for the Church today. John was not the Christ — and he went to great lengths to point that out. His job was preliminary. John was called to be a Forerunner; to go ahead and “prepare the way of the Lord”. That’s our job too.
By way of setting the scene I offer you two instances.
Way back in the 40s and 50s William Sangster was minister at the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. He regularly had a congregation of 3000 on a Sunday evening and was famed as an evangelist. The Methodist Church decided that his evangelistic ministry should not be confined to Westminster and he was appointed to a roving commission — evangelise Great Britain! At the end of his first year Sangster reported back and said that Britain wasn’t ready to be evangelised. To everybody’s shock he argued that a prior ministry was required. What was needed was for someone to prepare the way; in technical language Britain needed an Apologist, not an Evangelist. And he devoted the rest of his ministry to this preliminary task.
My other instance comes from Zimbabwe. Back in the 1950s it was decided to dam the Zambezi River at Kariba. The proposed dam would stretch back 100 miles and create a great inland sea. That meant moving thousands of people from the Zambezi Valley. It meant a Noah’s Ark operation to save the animals. And it involved clearing vast tracts of bush from the valley floor. What they did was get a number of huge bulldozers; link them in pairs with massive balls and chains and drag them through the bush flattening everything in their path. Bush clearing on a mammouth scale.
That’s what’s needed in Britain today. We are supposed to have a Christian heritage behind us but the truth is that Christianity has been obfuscated and distorted to such an extent that a clearing-out exercise is needed. The Christian Faith has become inextricably entangled with so much other stuff and in the minds of people out there, there is so much confusion and misunderstanding and misapprehension that the Gospel doesn’t have a chance. Before we start evangelising there is need to cut through and cut away the tangled undergrowth of ignorance and distortion and misunderstanding associated with Christianity.
I give you one example. When I was minister in Harare a lady came to ask if I would baptise their daughter. They had had no contact with the Church. I made an appointment to talk to her and her husband and during the course of the conversation he volunteered why I wouldn’t see him in church. “You cant expect me to believe the rubbish Christians believe”. I asked “What rubbish?”. He said “Stuff like believing a whale swallowed Jonah; and that the sun was supposed to have stood still for 24 hours so that the Hebrews could complete the massacre of their enemies”. I told him I didn’t believe such rubbish either. That was the beginning of some fairly long sessions. He started coming to Church. He got involved. He made a commitment. Five years later he became our senior Church steward and used his lawyer’s expertise to draw up a constitution for a joint Methodist / Anglican congregation.
For him the starting point was getting a basic misunderstanding about the Christian Faith cleared up.
And so it is for very many people out there. For many of them their only point of contact with the Church was years ago in Sunday School. They remember stories about the Garden of Eden; the Flood and Noah’s Ark, David and Goliath; Daniel in the lions den — all these make great kid’s stories but they are not the kernel of Christian Faith.
These days most people don’t even have that Sunday School background. And the misconceptions are all the greater. They assume that science and religion are impossible to reconcile and that you either believe the science of evolution or the Biblical account of creation in 6 days. They assume that Christianity is all about morals — and a Victorian morality at that. Assumption is piled on assumption and all of them faulty. The result is that Christianity doesn’t even get a hearing and is rejected before we even start the discussion.
That’s where John the Baptist comes in. His job was to prepare the way of the Lord. To make a highway in the desert for the coming of God. And that’s our job too. In fact its harder for us. John didn’t have to deal with atheists and agnostics and new-age religionists. We do.
But there is this final parallel with John Baptist. He cleared the way and he did so by challenging the life-style of the people. His own life-style was austere but it was authentic. He hit out against the hypocrisy of the religious folks; he advocated a sharing of possessions; he castigated exploitation by people with power. All this was preparatory to what Jesus said and he went so much further.
So, too, for us. In the horrible jargonese of today we must “walk the talk”. It is no use proclaiming the Truth if we do not speak the Truth in love. Respect for others precludes us from ridiculing what they say. To be accepting of them means that we do not judge or exclude them.
So I come back to John the Baptist. His was a preliminary ministry: that of preparing the way of the Lord. Yet it is a ministry that is still needed today even though we must go beyond it. For the Christ has come. And still comes into the hearts and lives of people today. May it be that this Christmas-time Christ will be born again into lives prepared for His coming.
Readings: Romans chapter 1, verses 1-25; John chapter 3, verses 16-21
Judgement is one of the themes which the Church focuses on during Advent. The Old Testament is full of Judgement stories and most of them are pretty scary. Plenty of hellfire and brimstone stuff. Its not surprising that a lot of it is carried over into the New Testament. In all these Judgement stories, God is the Judge and on Judgement Day God sorts out the sheep and the goats, consigning one lot to Heaven and the other lot to Hell. Its not surprising that Christian preachers have seized on this idea and used it as a carrot/stick in fiery sermons. Repent now — or else face an eternity of torment in Hell.
But in John’s gospel and some of Paul’s letters we get a very different picture. And the words of Jesus in John’s gospel revolutionise our idea of Judgement. “This the judgement: that light has come into the world and men preferred darkness rather than light.” The implications of that change our whole way of thinking.
It means that, far from God judging us, we judge ourselves. We are judged by our response to Christ who is the Light of the World. It is our response to Christ which judges us. There is a story about a man who visited an art gallery where paintings by acknowledged Masters were displayed. He stood in front of one and commented; “I don’t think much of this one”. And the curator of the gallery who was standing beside him said; “Sir, the paintings are not on trial”. The man had condemned himself out of his own mouth. He had judged himself. So it is with us. Confronted with Jesus we see in Him all that we are meant to be and all that we can be. And by our response to Him we are judged. It is a judgement that we pass upon ourselves.
The corollary of that is that, at the Final Judgement, God will simply ratify the judgement we have already passed upon ourselves. All too often we picture the Final Judgement in Bookkeeping terms. We stand before God and He adds up the good we have done; the bad we have done and if we have a credit balance we are in. If we have a debit balance there is hell to pay. Nothing could be further from the truth. For the fact is that if God judged us on our accumulated balance then Heaven would be empty and Hell would be over-populated. We are judged on the basis of our response to Christ and, on that basis, we judge ourselves.
This ties in perfectly with what Paul said to the Romans. He spoke about the judgement of God and said that God handed them over to the consequences of their own wrong-doing. Its not that God inflicts a punishment upon us. We are not punished FOR our sins but BY our sins. Built into the very fabric of our life are laws both natural and spiritual. If we choose to defy them and break them then certain consequences follow and these represent a judgement. So, for instance, if we think to defy the law of gravity and jump from the top floor of a 10 storey building the consequence is that we will die. And that is a judgement. The same applies to the moral laws which govern our universe. Defy them; break them and there inevitable consequences. They constitute a judgement but its one which we pass upon ourselves; invoked by the decisions we make.
The other point to be made is that judgement is an on-going activity. Traditionally we have thought of Judgement Day as located in the future (whether at the moment of death or when Christ comes again). This can result in a dangerous complacency and the words of Jesus nail that idea. We are judged by our response to His coming and the fact is that Christ comes in the here and now - not just at some future date, If there is a future judgement it will be a Final Judgement and it will be a matter of God endorsing and rubber-stamping those decisions we make now.
Christ comes to us today and every day. He comes in our worship and challenges through His word. He comes in the sacrament and the Bread and Wine are the body of Christ broken for us. He comes in every moral choice we have to make and He is present as we respond to the needs of people. “Insofar as you fed the hungry and clothed the naked and gave water to the thirsty you did it to me.” (Matthew 25).
All of which is a huge challenge to us. We are forging our eternal destiny by the choices we make in the here and now. Judgement is built into those choices and when the Day of Reckoning finally comes it will be a matter of God rubber-stamping those decisions and actions. That’s judgement!
I end with part of a poem by Studdert Kennedy which says it all. He begins by outlining the traditional expectation of Judgement Day.
Our Padre were a solemn bloke,
We called him Dismal Jim.
It fairly gave the ' blooming creeps
To sit and hark at him,
When he were on with Judgment Day,
About that great white Throne,
And 'how each chap would have to stand,
And answer on his own.
And if he tried to chance his arm,
And hide a single sin,
There'd be the angel Gabriel,
With books to do him in.
The poem ends with a different picture;
There ain't no throne, and there ain't no books,
It's Him you've got to see,
It's Him, just Him, that is the Judge
Of blokes like you and me.
And boys I'd sooner frizzle up,
In the flames of a burning Hell,
Than stand and look into His face,
And hear His voice say – ‘Well?’
Miscarriage of Justice
Readings: Isaiah chapter1 verses 1-4 & 12-20; Luke chapter18 verses 9–14
We Brits pride ourselves on the fact that in our country the Rule of Law operates and Justice is done. That’s why whenever there is a miscarriage of justice it hits the headlines. I hate to think what the Daily Mail would make of the Trial scene in our Old Testament reading today. The People of Israel are on trial for violating God’s law. They are accused of idolatrous worship and of practising social and economic injustice .and the evidence against them is damming. Yet, when it comes time for the verdict to be announced, God, who is Judge, pronounces a judgement which goes against all reason and all justice. “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow”. In other words the verdict is ‘guilty’ but the sentence handed down is ‘acquitted’. Where is the justice in that?
I have been preaching for 60 years now (so long that I have almost got to the point of actually believing what I say) and when I look back this Trial scene in Isaiah sums up what I have come to believe. Two aspects are important for me as summing up my Christian Faith.
One is that the context of a Trial means that things are conducted on a rational basis. Which is to say that our Christian Faith is a rational faith. Not all religion functions on that basis. For the first 25 years of my ministry I worked amongst the African people in Zimbabwe. They had their own traditional faith and the God in whom they believed was capricious and irrational. So African religion was all about getting on-sides with God and they evolved a complex ritual of prayer and sacrifice so as not to offend Him. I don’t blame them. They had a ‘pre-scientific mindset’ and attributed drought and famine and disease to the fact that they had somehow displeased Him.
I did not expect to find a similar pattern of belief amongst Christians when I came to England in 1985. Only it was a lot more ‘sophisticated’. The anti-intellectualism I found here confused me and I didn’t expect to find that many Christians subscribed to a ‘theology of the absurd’. Six days a week Christians lived in an ordered universe governed by rational principle. On the 7th day they came to Church and entered a topsy-turvey world where iron axe-heads floated down the river; where the sun stood still in the heavens to enable Gods people to complete the massacre of their enemies; where donkeys talk in fluent Hebrew and a reluctant prophet has the whale of a time in the belly of a great fish; where moving stars pinpoint the exact location of a house on earth – and all other manner of wonderful things. Its all there in the Bible! And, no matter how irrational, it is to be believed because, as the Bible says, “God’s thoughts are other than our thoughts, and His ways higher than our ways.”
If the Trial scene in Isaiah says anything it says that religion is rational and God is not capricious. The people were allowed to argue their case before God and the evidence was allowed to stand for what it was.
BUT: the evidence against God’s people was conclusive. Guilty x 1000. Yet the sentence goes against the evidence. “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow”. Incredible!. What are we to make of this apparent miscarriage of justice? Does God treat sin so lightly that He can just ignore it? Because that’s what it seems like.
The answer is that God does not treat sin lightly nor does He turn a blind eye to it. There is a penalty to be paid and the astounding truth of the Gospel is that God Himself pays the penalty. And because God has paid the penalty of sin He is justified in offering us a free forgiveness. This is how I understand the Cross of Christ. Christ on his cross was not being punished instead of us which is how so many Christians understand it, and how some of our hymns express it. I object to that hymn which is so popular with Christians today “ In Christ alone.” It contains the line:
“and on the Cross where Jesus died
the wrath of God was satisfied”.
No way. Nothing could be further from the truth. For the truth is that the suffering of Christ upon the Cross was none other than the suffering of God. It is fundamental to our Faith the “God was in Christ” and what we see on the Cross was not the Son of God being penalised instead of us. The fact is that the suffering of Christ upon the Cross was none other than the suffering of God Himself. And He who bears within Himself the penalty and consequence of sin has the right to offer us pardon and a free forgiveness. Yes forgiveness is free to us. But it was not free to God. And the cost to God of being able to offer us a free forgiveness was the agony of crucifixion.
To see this and to know it in our experience is to be caught up in an answering response of love and gratitude for what God has done. What we see on the Cross is a love which will not let us go; a love which in itself bears the penalty and consequence of sin and therefore gives God the right to offer us a free forgiveness.
So there is no miscarriage of justice for justice has been served. God in Christ has endured the consequence of sin’ suffered its penalty and therefore has the right to say to us “though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow”.
I have criticised one hymn for its understanding of the Cross. I offer you another hymn which gets to the heart of the truth. It is Isaac Watts’ great hymn “When I survey the wondrous Cross”.
It begins by pointing us to the Cross.
“When I survey the wondrous Cross,
on which the prince of glory died”.
It depicts the suffering of Christ and, if you believe that God was in Christ, it depicts the suffering of God.
“See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down;
did ere such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown."
When we see and understand and experience that then only one response is possible.
“Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small; love so amazing, so divine.”
Readings: Isaiah chapter 2, verses 1-4: Matthew chapter 5, verses 1-11 & 43-48
On Tuesday 11th November we shall rightly celebrate Remembrance Day and in silence remember those who have lost their lives in time of war. We shall anticipate that silence in our service today. There is no way that this Remembrance should be interpreted as glorifying war; but it still leaves many people uncomfortable. And it raises the question of whether engaging in war is compatible with being a Christian.
There is no easy answer. Christians are right to feel uncomfortable because, when you look at the teaching and example of Jesus it seems that being a pacifist is the only stance to take. Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and bombing them to bits is hardly compatible with that. So where do we stand today?
For hundreds of years Christians have used the doctrine of a Just War to justify their participation. That doctrine lays down a series of criteria which must be met if we are to take up arms. The trouble is that the nature of modern warfare has overtaken those criteria and we have to start again from scratch.
Undoubtedly Jesus commanded a pacifist stance. But the question remains — was Jesus talking in the context of personal relationships or international relationships? It’s one thing to turn the other cheek when we are personally attacked; but does it apply when one nation declares war on another ? Do we simply stand by and do nothing when Hitler unleashes war in Europe or when the Islamic State creates murderous mayhem as in Syria today? I offer some thoughts for your consideration.
How do we understand the command to love our enemies? In the context of personal relationships this may require us not to retaliate in like manner. But, as one eminent theologian has said, in the context of international relationships "justice is love distributed”. And the fact is that most conflicts originate in a sense of injustice which boils over into warfare. So it was that the humiliating reparations demanded of Germany at the end of the 1st World War fuelled the rise of Hitler. And the injustices which followed upon the Iraq war 10 years ago have fuelled the rise of the Islamic State. As Christians we have a responsibility to cut the causes of war off at their source and that means ensuring that justice is done. As the Old Testament prophet, Amos put it in memorable words: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an everlasting stream”. To love your enemy means to do justice and ensure that justice is done.
Secondly this: - We live in a world where evil has infected every part and there is no escaping it. Evil, in the form of selfishness and a ‘will to power’ has infected our innermost being. It has infected our personal relationships. It has infected our relationships in society, and it has spilled over into our international relationships. There is no escaping the reality and the all pervasiveness of evil. Which is to say that very often the only choice we have is not between doing good or evil. It is having to choose between two evils. And the Christian responsibility is to choose the lesser evil.
War can never be a Good. It is always an Evil. If we engage in it then it is because we judge it to be the lesser of two evils. Let us not pretend otherwise.
Nicholas Monssarat in his book “The Cruel Sea” has an illustration of this dilemma. Set in the context of the 2nd World War it tells of a British destroyer on one the Arctic convoys bringing supplies to Russia. One ship in the convoy was torpedoed by a German submarine and many of the sailors jumped overboard into the freezing sea. The destroyer moved in to pick up the survivors. Just then its ASDIC picked up the underwater signals of the submarine still in the vicinity and the captain was faced with an appalling decision. Rescue his fellow countrymen from the water and risk being torpedoed himself.? Or depth-charge the submarine and in the process blow his fellow countrymen out of the water at the same time.? Nor did he have time to debate the question. So he gave the order “Drop depth-charges” – and in the next breath said “Lord have mercy”.
That is the proper Christian response to war. “Lord have mercy”. It is even more appropriate if we are the victors in warfare. There can be no place for extravagant rejoicing; even less for triumphalism. For to have engaged in conflict is to have chosen an evil and the only justification we can possibly offer is that we chose a lesser evil.
Remembrance Sunday is not only a matter of remembering. That is one aspect. And it is an important one. We should never forget the sacrifices made,and that sea of poppies cascading down the walls of the Tower of London today and filling the surrounding moat are a powerful reminder of those who died. Were you to include a poppy for every German soldier killed and every civilian killed then the Thames itself would flow blood-red. And that’s just the 1st World War. We must remember else we are doomed to repeat history itself.
But remembrance must lead to action in the here and now. And the proper course of action is to fight against the injustices rampant in our society and in our world. Ignore them; or perpetuate them and we are doomed to have a repetition.
And remembrance must lead to penitence. “Lord have mercy upon us" is the appropriate Christian response to Remembrance Day. And real penitence leads to action.
“Make me a channel of your peace"
Communion of Saints
Hebrews chapter 11, verse 33 – chapter 12, verse 2; John chapter 14, verses 1 - 3
This weekend the Church celebrates two festivals. All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Both are concerned with the commeration of those who have died, and it is a pity that the Protestant wing of the Church tends to play down both festivals. Yet our Christian Creed has an article which includes both and more. We say “I believe in the Communion of Saints”. And that belief has a very practical consequence.
I begin with a personal experience. 60 years ago I arrived in England to start my theological training at Richmond College. I shall never forget that first day. The college is at the top of Richmond hill and it has a long, winding driveway. Suddenly you turn a corner and are confronted by a massive greystone building. Two huge wooden doors formed the entrance and they opened up into a great entrance hall. At the far end there was a life-sized statue of John Wesley, father of Methodism. And just to make sure that we didn’t get too carried away the 2nd year students had draped his shoulders with rolls of toilet paper and hung a large sign around his neck. “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. The flanking walls were covered in honours boards with the names of Richmond men who had gone as missionaries overseas after their training. Alongside their names were the dates when they left Richmond and the dates they died. I looked at the West Africa board. The first 17 names were telling a sobering and inspiring story. Not one of them had lasted more than a year in West Arica. All had died of blackwater fever. Yet still others went knowing full well the likely consequences. And, to this day, whenever I sing; “For all the saints who from their labours rest” I get a mental picture of those boards and I see those names and I am inspired and challenged and humbled. The Communion of Saints.
And when we share in Holy Communion, part of the great Thanksgiving Prayer has us all saying; “Therefore with angels and all the choirs of heaven we join in the triumphant hymn; Holy, holy, holy Lord…” I can identify with that.
The Communion of Saints has a double reference. It refers to that fellowship we have with other Christians in the here and now. And it refers to that fellowship we have with those who have gone before.
The first is easy to understand. Our fellowship with other Christians in the here and now. You cannot over-exaggerate this. Virtually all I know of God and the Christian Faith has come through others. It began with a young peoples’ club in my home Church. Three years in theological college had a lasting influence. Five years working amongst the Batonga people in the Zambezi Valley provided insights I can never forget. And every congregation I have ever had has nurtured and deepened my faith. The Communion of Saints is not merely a phrase in the Creed to be believed – it is something to be experienced.
The second dimension is more difficult to understand. It is our fellowship with those who have gone before. It is our Christian Faith that death is not the end of our journey but rather a milestone along the road of our journey into God. We do not cease to be but live on in another dimension of being. And I am not prepared to speculate beyond that affirmation. As the hymn says:
“My knowledge of that life is small; the eye of faith is dim;
but ‘tis enough that Christ knows all, and I shall be with him.
Least of all do I know how those who live on impact upon this life of ours. But I, for one, find comfort and encouragement in the words that we read from the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament. The writer uses an analogy drawn from the Roman Games – the forerunner of our Olympics. He imagines a vast stadium crammed to the rafters with spectators. And, on the athletics track the runners engaged in a long distance race. They are urged on to greater effort by the shout of thousands of spectators yelling encouragement. With that image in mind the author of Hebrews writes;
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”.
And that cloud of witnesses is very real to me. The honours boards on the wall of Richmond College are not just names of Christians long since dead. They are amongst the cloud of witnesses that urge me on. So too are St Augustine and Martin Luther and John Wesley. So too are others completely unknown and unsung. Enoch Chidemo was an African evangelist who was posted to an isolated village in the Zambezi Valley and began to work amongst the Batonga people. He built his own mud house; bullied the Batonga men to construct a makeshift classroom, travelled around on a battered bicycle and held a service in the classroom every Sunday. Often he was the only member of the congregation. He stuck it out and there is a Church and congregation there today. Enoch is amongst the cloud of witnesses too.
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us run with endurance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus, the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith.”
Whitewashing the Faith
Readings: Ezekiel chapter 13, verses 8 -16; Matthew chapter 23, verses 23 – 28
Way back in 597 BC a Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem. They entered the city; rounded up the leaders and the intelligentsia and carried them off to Exile in Babylon. Ezekiel was one of the exiles. He kept in contact with those who had been left behind in Jerusalem and they were in denial. They refused to accept that Jerusalem would ever be completely destroyed. And they were backed up by any number of prophets who assured them that this was the City of God and God would never allow its destruction.
Ezekiel despised these false prophets who spoke only what the people wanted to hear. He said that they were like men building a wall knowing full well that the materials they were working with were sub-standard. And that their own workmanship was shoddy. We have a name for such people today. We call them ‘jerry builders’. To cover up their shoddy workmanship they daubed huge amounts of whitewash so as to give the appearance of strength and stability. Things haven’t changed much since then. The whitewashing process goes on today.
Politicians all over the world are past-masters at whitewashing. They cover-up dubious policies and failed practices with fine words; but its all an exercise in whitewashing. Preachers sometimes do the same. We say what we think people want us to say and cover up with carefully selected texts so that people are bamboozled into thinking it is the word of God. But its simply whitewashing.
Ezekiel was right — 11 years later he was proved right. The Babylonians attacked a second time; they destroyed Jerusalem and razed the Temple to the ground. The city was left a ruin.
What concerns me today is the way in which we whitewash our Faith and I isolate two ways of doing it.
1. One is that we give it a cultural whitewash.
You only have to live in a 3rd World country to see this. When the Methodist Church was established in Zimbabwe they formed the equivalent of the Womens Fellowship. It had its rules and regulations and one rule was “Don’t let your children run around naked”. In the minds of African women this soon translated as a sign of being a Christian and from there to it being a condition of Church membership. But that “rule” was simply a Western cultural accretion and it had precious little to do with what being a Christian really means.
I can think of an example nearer home. We are coming up to Christmas and if ever there was a Christian festival overlaid by cultural accretion it is Christmas. It has become an orgy of over-spending; over-eating and over-drinking. Christmas is not Christmas unless we have a tree (even if it’s a plastic one) festooned with coloured lights and an angel perched precariously on the top. Not to forget the mistletoe which has its uses! Meanwhile the radio and TV regale us with Christmas “music” which is often a recording of 'Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer'. But all this is mere whitewash. It covers up the real meaning of Christmas which is the staggering Truth that, in Christ, God has become one with us and one of us.
I am not suggesting that we should, or even could, get rid of the cultural expression of our Faith. But I am arguing that we should beware of using culture as a kind of whitewash to cover-up an inadequate and faulty understanding of our Faith.
2. Another way of whitewashing the Faith is to be found in shallow and superficial thinking.
I can never forget one lady who was a pillar of the Church in my first circuit. She played the organ, attended every Bible study and prayer meetings, and could quote “texts” at the drop of a hat. Superficially she knew it all. But then her husband died of cancer. Overnight her faith collapsed. She became bitter and cynical and refused to darken the doors of the Church. Why? Because her faith was both simplistic and superficial. She had never thought through the texts she so constantly quoted. And the first time that real life posed a question mark against her simplistic belief it collapsed like a lead balloon.
There is a real sense in which the Christian Faith is simple. But it is not simplistic. There is a difference. And simply to be able to quote texts at random is often no more than a mere whitewashing of our Faith. And, when the enemy is at our gates (as Ezekiel discovered) the whitewashed walls are easily breached and offer no defence.
Ezekiel was right. And I would argue that character is like a fence. It cannot be strengthened by whitewash. So I ask you to look again at the structure of your faith. And to enquire whether what you see is the external appearance of stability daubed with whitewash. Or is it something more substantial? The solid bedrock of our Faith is a commitment to God through Christ. And that commitment reaches down into the depths of our being. It involves heart and mind and soul and strength and will.
Anything less is mere whitewash.
The Sacrifice of Isaac
Readings: Genesis chapter 22, verses 1-13; Luke chapter 5 verses 1-11
Times change! I can remember this story being taught when I was in Sunday School and I have heard many a sermon preached about it.
But I can never remember any suggestion that there was anything dubious about God requiring Abraham to sacrifice his own son. Instead the point was made that this is what God Himself did.
But hang on a moment. Imagine this scenario. Social workers have uncovered a case of the ritual abuse of children, including an instance of one child being sacrificially killed. The case now comes to the High Court.
Judge: “How do you plead?” / Defendant “Not guilty my Lord”
Judge: “On what grounds?” / Defendant “God told me to do it”
No one today would accept that as a defence. Murder is murder, even if God commands it. We would not tolerate that kind of special pleading today so why accept it in the Abraham story?
And, if you go on to argue that Abraham didn’t sacrifice his son and the boy got a last minute reprieve the objections still remain.
What kind of a God is he who would engage in that kind of brinkmanship? Abraham was in an appalling position and it becomes worse if we say that God was only pretending. If this was an elaborate bluff to test Abraham’s faith then it is in very bad taste.
Moreover, what about the effect on Isaac? He would have ben traumatised forever. Imagine yourself in his position. Imagine being bound and strapped to a makeshift altar and facing an uplifted knife. “What are you doing Dad?” And getting the answer; “Don’t worry son; its what God wants”. Is there any way of justifying that kind of psychological and emotional trauma on a boy? Could Isaac ever trust his father again?
If you take this story at face value then both God and Abraham come out of it very badly. It is immoral. So why is it in Holy Scripture?
And what does it mean for us today?
One reason is because that’s the way it happened. It shows how people thought about God 1700 years before Christ. In those days child sacrifice was common-place.. Imagine Abraham coming to live amongst a people who practised child sacrifice. He claimed to believe in a different God and they wanted to know just how much he believed.
They were prepared to sacrifice their most valued possession; their eldest son. Such was their devotion to their God. Was Abraham prepared to match their devotion? Abraham was a man of his times and it is not surprising that he felt compelled to make a similar sacrifice. Nor is it surprising that he believed God would require any less.
Times have moved on. Our understanding of what God requires is governed by what God has revealed in Christ for it is our belief that God was in Christ. In the light of Jesus we cannot believe that God would have required or ordered such a sacrifice. If we say that Abraham was wrong it is because his understanding of what God required was wrong. In the light of Jesus we have no excuse for that faulty understanding.
There is another reason for this story being in the Bible. Years afterwards the Hebrews were asked why they did not practise child sacrifice. Their answer was to recall the story of Abraham. God had revealed in this story that He did not require child sacrifice.
More importantly we ask what we can learn from this story today.
The answer is that we can learn a lot about what it means to have faith. For Jesus called on people to have faith in God and this story of Abraham is an illustration of what constitutes faith.
Faith consists of Trust and Obedience. The story of Abraham exemplifies this. The difference is that we are called to Trust and Obey the God who revealed Himself in Jesus. In Jesus God has revealed His will and purpose and shown us what He requires. Abraham exemplified the quality of faith which God requires even if we have to admit that his understanding of what God requires is wrong. To have faith is to trust and obey, and so we look at this double component.
Trusting is a lot more than mere believing. To trust is to put your life on the line for something you believe. There is always an element of uncertainty attached to trusting.
I like the story of the tightrope walker who strung a wire across Niagara Falls and pushed a wheelbarrow across. People were amazed. He did it again to prove it was no fluke. And then he asked for volunteers to be pushed across in the wheelbarrow. There were no takers! Nobody doubted that he could do it. But nobody was prepared to trust him enough to be pushed across. Believing is one thing. Trusting is another.
And faith does not only mean believing in God. It means trusting God and that’s a very different thing.
The other component of Faith is obedience. The failure to obey indicates a lack of trust. That’s why we read the story of the disciples having fished all night and caught nothing. In the morning Jesus meets them on the beach and tells them to “put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch”. They protested. “We know these waters. We have fished all night. There are no fish there!” Reluctantly and against their better judgement they pushed out into deep water and let down their nets. They were utterly amazed at the haul which resulted. That’s faith. Such was the faith of Abraham. He was wrong only in believing what God required of him. And we, who have known Jesus know what God requires of us. The quality of our faith must be nothing less than that of Abraham who trusted God sufficiently to sacrifice his all.
Justification by Faith
Readings: Galatians chapter 3; verses 23-29; Luke chapter 15, verses 11-24
I was doing a Bible Study this week and got involved in an attempt to explain Paul’s doctrine of Justification by Faith. It was an abject failure. What was perfectly clear in my mind was obviously as clear as mud to everyone else. So here goes on another attempt.
I begin with a word about the significance of clothing. In the Old Testament we read about Joseph’s amazing technicolour dreamcoat. That was a symbol of his status as favourite son. In the parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus tells of a father’s reaction when his wayward son returned home. “Bring forth the best robe and put it on him; for this my son was dead…” The robe was a symbol of continuing son-ship.
In both stories clothing is indicative of status and relationship. And that is the heart of what Justification by Faith is all about. Jesus puts it in the context of a family relationship. Paul puts it in the context of a law court. But it boils down to the same thing at the end. At issue is the question of our relationship / status to God.
I want to begin with Paul this morning simply because his is the more difficult concept to grasp. But his view lies at the heart of our Protestant Faith so we need to understand it.
Paul imagines that we are the defendants in a Court of Law. God is the Judge and we are charged with having sinned against him. There is only really one plea that we can enter. “Guilty my Lord!” The fact is that we have all sinned whether we like to admit it or not. Only one verdict is possible. Then comes time for the sentence, now the most incredible conclusion. The Judge pronounces “Defendant is acquitted”.
Our first reaction is to cry out “What a total miscarriage of justice” Imagine your reaction today if someone was had up on a murder charge; pleaded guilty and the Judge pronounced “I acquit you; you are free to go”. There would be hell to pay!
So how come Paul is able to say that this miscarriage of justice is at the heart of our Christian Faith?
Paul’s answer would have been that our faith in Christ unites us with Him in such a way that God pronounces on us the sentence He would have passed had Christ been in the dock. Our faith unites us to Christ and identifies us with Him in the closest possible way. So God sees us as we are in Christ and judges us accordingly. That is the critical difference. By faith we are united with Christ; become one with Him and what God sees is Christ in us.
Which is why that great communion hymn has the line; “Look Father, look on his anointed face; and only look on us as found in him”. Its as though God sees us bi-focally. He sees us as we are. But He also sees us as we are in Christ and it is this second sight which enables Him to pronounce Acquittal.
So Paul urges us to “put on Christ” almost like clothing ourselves in a garment. Wesley picked it up and sang “Alive in him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine”.
This idea fits in nicely with the story Jesus told about the Prodigal Son.
In that story the youngster goes wild in the far country, disowning his father in the process. Then he comes to his senses, realises what a mess he has made of things, and resolves to go home. The best he could hope for was to be treated as one of the hired servants. His father saw things differently. And when the prodigal came home his father didn’t even give him a chance to blurt out his apology. “Bring forth the best robe and put it on him, for this my son was dead and is alive”. The point being that in all the years of his wasted youth the boy had never ceased to be a son. His father had never disowned him. When he came home his father didn’t read the Riot Act to him. Nor did he give the lad five years probation as a hired servant. He welcomed him as a long-lost son. He had always been a son and always would be. It was enough for the prodigal to realise he had made a mess of things; to repent and to return home. The best robe was sign and symbol of this relationship.
Paul is describing the same thing as Jesus. A free forgiveness and a restored status in relation to God. And what needs to be said is that the offer of a free forgiveness is not without cost. As far as Paul was concerned the cost of offering a free forgiveness was borne by God in Christ. The Cross of Christ is what it cost God to be able to offer us a free forgiveness. For God was in Christ and on the Cross we see Jesus enduring the penalty and the consequence of our sinfulness. He so identified Himself with us that he endured that sense of separation which is the penalty of sin. Jesus cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?”. That’s what it cost God to offer us a free forgiveness.
And you will say “There is no Cross, no suffering in the story of the Prodigal Son.
It was an Indian preacher who saw differently. He told his congregation the story and said that when the Prodigal returned home he was appalled to see that his father’s hair had turned white in the intervening years. White with worry and anxiety and inward suffering for his wayward son. White with the suffering of love offered and rejected by a headstrong son.
And all because God is Love. In terms of the Prodigal Son story “Love only waits to forgive and forget”. In terms of Paul’s legal explanation God Himself bears the penalty that sin incurs and therefore can offer a forgiveness which is free to us. Nowhere is this better said than in Isaac Watts’ great hymn When I survey the wondrous Cross. It speaks of the suffering of God in Christ:
“See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
And our response? – There can only be one response:
“Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my life, my soul, my all”
Relevant Hymns in Hymns & Psalms:
281 Come down O Love divine: verse 3
593 And now O Father: verse 2
216 And can it be: verse 5
A Christian Attitude
Readings: Genesis chapter 45, verses: 1-8; Romans chapter 8, verses 28-38
I don’t know what you thought about that reading from Genesis. I recoiled in horror! You remember the story. Joseph was his father’s favourite son; the blue-eyed boy of the family. The sign of which was a coat of many colours which Joseph insisted on parading. Its not surprising that they took the first opportunity to get rid of him. They sold him as slave to a passing caravan on its way to Egypt and told his father that wild animals had got him. Years later a famine hit Palestine and Joseph’s father sent his sons to Egypt to buy food. They got the shock of their lives when they discovered that Joseph had not only survived but had become Minister of Agriculture in the Egyptian Government. Our reading this morning picks up the story at the point when Joseph confronts the brothers who had sold him into slavery. They were terrified out of their minds, fearful that Joseph would take his revenge on them. And then comes Joseph’s reaction. “Don’t panic! No need to be afraid. It was not you that sent me here but God. God sent me before you to preserve life”.
That’s the bit that causes me to do a double-take. As far as Joseph was concerned all that had happened was part of a Divine Plan. God who determines all things from the beginning had organised events to turn out this way. Nothing was fortuitous. It had all been planned. And purposed.
There are people today who think as Joseph did. Whatever happens to them is all part of the Plan and Purpose of God. A college friend of mine went to Turkey on his summer vacation and came back ashen faced. He had taken a taxi in Teheran and the driver put his hand hard down on the hooter, his foot hard down on the accelerator and drove like a bat out of Hell. When my friend protested the driver simply said, “It is as Allah wills”. And I find that view of life impossible to stomach. Or I am reminded of the Sunday School teacher who told the story of David killing the giant Goliath with a stone slung from his catapult. One little girl put her hand up – “Please Miss. What if the giant had ducked?” And the teacher answered: “Then that little stone sure would have ducked as well”.
“It is as God wills”. Many people think of their lives in this way. Everything happens for a purpose and that purpose is dictated by God.
That might be a comforting thing to believe but you know and I know that life is not like that. The reason is simple. Each one of us has the freedom to choose and to act as we will and those choices and actions alter whatever destiny we might have. Nothing is predestined and pre-determined.
That’s why I balanced the Old Testament story of Joseph with what Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Rome. “We know that in everything, God works for good with those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” That is a very different way of looking at things. Paul does not say that God is the cause of everything that happens in our lives, least of all does he say that everything that happens to us is God’s Will. But what he does say is that God is at work in all things, the good and the bad, and that if we co-operate with Him then God can turn all things into a final good.
The best example of this is the Cross of Christ. I cannot for a moment believe that God sent Jesus into our world for the express purpose of dying on a Cross. The crucifixion of Christ was an evil act perpetrated by sinful men. The Pharisees demanded his death because he threatened to undermine the very basis of their faith. Pilate consented to his death because he was an ambitious man and would not let Truth stand in the way of his ambition. The mob cried out for his crucifixion because they were whipped up into an unthinking frenzy. The Cross of Christ was the result of a conspiracy of evil. Lets not try and pretend otherwise. But God used this evil in such a way that the Cross has become the means and symbol of our salvation.
So it is for us. Bad things happen to us. Sometimes through our own fault, and very often through the fault of others. But it is not the end of the world for us and the words of Paul contain an essential truth. God works in all things for good.
But let us not be complacent. For Paul qualified that statement. “God works in all things for good with those who love Him”. In other words there is nothing inevitable about how things will turn out. It all depends on whether we are prepared to co-operate with Him or not. If we insist on doing our own thing and going our own way regardless then the likelihood is that things will turn out badly for us. But if we really do try to co-operate with Him then God can turn the eventual outcome to good.
Every time I read these words of Paul I think of my cousin and how they worked out in her life. She was just 18 when she got her A-Level results and that evening her Dad took her out to celebrate. On the way a drunken driver collided with their car. Her Dad was killed. Frances was paralysed from the neck down. She was flown to from Rhodesia to Stoke Mandeville for treatment but they could do nothing. For the next 40 years Frances lived in a wheelchair in a Cheshire Home. But she had a Christian Faith which did not allow her to think that this was God’s Will. So even from a wheelchair she co-operated with God to bring an ultimate good from this evil. She taught in the Sunday School at her local Church. She learned to paint with her mouth and produced Christmas cards for charity. She was unfailingly cheerful and she had an amazing impact for good on all who knew her. In one word her life was an inspiration.
God works in all things for good with those who love Him. In all things! Not just the good things. And the challenge to us is not to sit back and bemoan our fate but so to co-operate with God that whatever happens is turned to an ultimate good.
Learning the Lessons of War
Readings: Isaiah chapter 2, verses: 2-5; Matthew chapter 5, verses 1-11
Its 100 years ago this week (10 August 2014) that the first World War began. All this week we have been reminded of the terrible impact the 1st World-War had on, both the men who fought in it, the families, and in fact, the impact it has had on our world even today. It was supposed to be the war to end all wars and the carnage was terrible. Yet 21 years later the world was plunged into another global conflict with the same nations involved plus many others. Ever since there has not been a single year without a war going on somewhere. And today the Middle East is in turmoil threatening yet another global conflict. Yet it is that 1st World-War which has scarred the memory and filled the news and provides a reason for us to reflect.
So what can we learn from that horrific conflict? Why should we remember?
1. We learn that it is possible to win the war but lose the peace.
After the first World War the defeat of the Germans was marked by the Treaty of Versailles. That treaty was designed to humiliate an already beaten enemy. It was also designed to exact retribution. The Germans were forced to pay enormous sums by way of reparation and there was no way in which they could pay. The result was a smouldering resentment. Hitler came to power on the back of that resentment and the economic penalties that came with peace. He tapped into the sense of grievance and injustice created by the Peace Treaty and used it as a power base. Another conflict became inevitable. We lost the peace.
Fortunately after the second World war the allies acted differently. Instead of grinding a beaten foe into the ground they instituted the Marshall Plan by which the crippled economy might be rebuilt. By so doing they ensured that the enemy would become an ally. The eliminated any sense of grievance and injustice which could fester in the future. They had learned their lesson. So today we remember in order to learn from the past and avoid repeating the mistakes which might give rise to future conflict.
2. We learn that we should forgive but not forget.
So many people say that we must 'forgive and forget', but it is a very glib saying and it isn’t true. It is quite impossible to forget. There is no way in which you can simply erase something from the memory as if you were hitting the delete button on the computer. And, even if you could, it would be wrong to do so. Forgetting is one thing. Forgiving is another thing altogether. And, whilst we can’t forget, we must learn to forgive.
All too often we think of forgiveness in emotional terms. The result is a lot of sentimental nonsense is produced. Real forgiveness is much harder than that. To forgive is to draw a line under the past. It is a conscious decision. And drawing a line under the past means that you refuse to allow the past to dictate your actions in the future. The memory remains, but that memory is not allowed to poison the new situation or the new relationship.
This is not easy to achieve. But it can be done. In South Africa a genuine attempt has been made inspired by one man. I don’t believe that Nelson Mandela ever forgot the years he spent on Robben Island, or the indignities he suffered. But he realised that there was no future for him or his country if memory issues in endless recrimination or retribution. So he drew a line under the past and put all his energies into rebuilding a society free of the injustices he suffered.
On the other hand in the Middle East and in Europe the memory of the past is simply carried over into the present and the future with no attempt at forgiveness. The hostility between Jew and Arab goes back over thousands of years. The hostility between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland goes back hundreds of years. The ancient grievances and injustices fuel present attitudes and conflict persists. ‘Apprentice boys’ (most of them over 60 years old!) still insist on marching in memory of ancient conflicts, and such marches are simply provocative. They succeed in making the old conflict contemporary. Nobody is prepared to say, “Enough is enough”. Nobody is prepared to draw a line under what has happened and to start working for a new order in society.
So we learn that we must forgive even when we cannot and must not forget
3. We learn that true peace is not an end in itself but a by-product.
It is the by-product of a relationship with God expressed in true worship.
Studdert Kennedy once said that when you change your Government you put one lot of sinners out and another lot of sinners in. He wasn’t just being cynical. He was being utterly realistic. We got rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and now ISIS threatens an even worse dictatorship. We got rid of Gadaffi in Libya and today that country is in total chaos. It isn’t just new Treaty Agreements that we need. Nor is it new weapons systems. There is an added Christian dimension to all talk of peace. And that added dimension is clear from Scripture.
Remember the words of Isaiah. He gave us a picture of Jerusalem, the City of God, established high above the surrounding countryside. And, in his mind’s eye, he sees the nations streaming towards the city;
“Come let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob”
“That he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths”
The truth behind that view is this: that when men and women worship God aright then peace is the result. For to worship rightly is to have our minds nourished by His truth, our imaginations purified by His beauty, our wills orientated around His Will. To worship rightly is to love God, and no one who loves God can hate his brother at one and the same time.
Exactly the same truth was expressed in the song of the angels at the birth of Jesus;
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace among men”.
Peace the consequence of worship! Or so it should be. And this is the added Christian component we have to proclaim and live out in our lives. If we fail to sound this note we fail in our responsibility to our fellows.
So we remember Scripture and we remember to worship. It is as we “go to the house of the Lord” that we hear His word, are taught His ways, and brought into relationship with Him.
As a result, men will beat their swords into plough-shares, their spears into pruning-hooks, their ballistic missiles into appropriate technology and study war no more.
The Wheat and the Weeds
Reading: Matthew chapter 13, verses 24-30
It seems that Jesus had constantly to warn against over enthusiasm of one kind or another. In this parable Jesus warns against the over-enthusiastic efforts of those who wanted to weed out the ‘baddies’ from amongst his followers.
It was directed mainly at his opponents among the Pharisees. They were never slow to point out that many of Jesus’ closest associates were people of doubtful morals and dubious character. Did not the Law (given by God himself) expressly state that such people were beyond the pale and that “good” people should keep their distance? There was no place in the Kingdom for notorious sinners. They should be weeded out rather than welcomed.
Even Jesus’ disciples were a bit confused and wondered whether he ought to be a bit more discriminating about the kind of people he welcomed into his fellowship.
So Jesus tells a story. A man sowed good seed in his land but, when it sprouted, a poisonous weed called a “darnel” was seeing to be growing alongside the wheat. His farm labourers were all for uprooting the weed but the farmer curbed their enthusiasm. In the earliest stages of growth the weed was virtually indistinguishable from the weed. Uprooting the darnel might mean uprooting half the wheat at the same time. So we come to the punch-line of the parable. “Let both grow together until the harvest”. Only then will the difference become apparent and separation possible.
It is a warning against premature and hasty judgement. And it is just as relevant today. Some would like membership of the Church to be confined to the “good guys” and for the Church to become a closed community. Jesus is saying that the Kingdom of God ought to reflect a mixed community. We ought not to be over-eager to judge and condemn and ex-communicate. That might be a bit unsettling but there are good reasons for it.
The first is that nobody is all good or all bad. We are, all of us, an admixture of good and bad. Our lives, like the farmer’s field, contain both wheat and weeds. Years ago the Moral Rearmament movement was in vogue and it had its own catchphrases and ditties. One song went;
“when you point a finger at your neighbour
there are three more pointing back at you”.
Which is true. And we ought also to remember the word of Jesus spoken to those who brought before him a woman caught in the act of adultery. The Law required that she should be stoned to death. Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. The fact is that, since we are already compromised, we are in no position to make ultimate judgements or engage in a wholesale weeding out process.
Secondly, we do not have enough information to make these kind of judgements. We might cry ‘hypocrite’ when a Church member comes short, but we might also ask what sort of a person he would be if he didn’t come to Church! And who knows what were the pressures and influences and temptations which brought him up short?
Robbie Burns, the Scots poet, once said;
“what’s done we partly may compute,
we know not what’s resisted”.
It is very easy to make sweeping judgements based purely on what we see and to engage in clean-out operations based on external evidence only. It is easy to condemn without knowing the full facts, and, given the complexity of human nature, the full facts are hard to come by.
Thirdly (and this does not emerge out of the parable!) we should “let both grow together” because what we are now is not necessarily what we will be in future. Human nature, unlike weeds, can change. To write people off and cast them out on the basis of what they are now precludes any possibility that they might change for the better tomorrow. And the Gospel (Good News) is all about changing human nature. As Christians and as a Church we should be more concerned about facilitating moral and spiritual growth than weeding out those who at present fall short.
Weeds do not have the potential to become wheat. But sinners do have the potential to become saints and we ought not to weed them out prematurely.
All of which does not mean we should tolerate intentional and deliberate and persistent wrongdoing. And, if people are blatant in their bad behaviour, then we ought to make it clear that such behaviour is unacceptable. Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in adultery, but he did say to her “Go and sin no more”.
“Let both grow together” said Jesus. Then added, “until the harvest”. Jesus never pretended that there would be no final judgement. He spoke of it often enough. But that judgement will be made by God who alone knows the full facts. The nature of that judgement is a matter of debate and some would say that it is not God who judges us but we who judge ourselves. We find ourselves confronted by an ultimate Truth and Goodness (personalised in ‘God’) and are forced to recognise and accept that we have fallen far short. That too, is a judgement. It is no less final and no less condemnatory and no less real.
Meanwhile we ought to refrain from making ultimate judgements about the character and destiny of others. And we ought not to engage in a wholesale weeding out process on the basis of those judgements.
“Let both grow together until the harvest”
Readings: Isaiah chapter 55, verses 6 - 11; Mark chapter 4, verses 1-8
An Unimaginable Harvest
This parable is a word of huge encouragement to disheartened disciples. And given the fact that we live at a time when Christians are a decreasing minority in society today, it is a word of encouragement to us. “Take heart” says Jesus. “There will be a harvest, and, when it comes, it will be greater than you ever imagined”.
The parable was spoken against a background of disappointment and despair on the part of the disciples. The ministry of Jesus had got off to a great start in Galilee. Great crowds had flocked to hear Jesus preach. In the under-stated words of the Gospel “the common people heard him gladly”. The disciples were thrilled at this response. As far as they were concerned the bandwagon was rolling and they were happy to be on board.
But this euphoria didn’t last for long. The religious hierarchy smelt a rat. Jesus’ behaviour was thought to be inappropriate for a man of God. He consorted with the wrong type of people. What’s more, Jesus’ teaching threatened the traditional faith. So they ganged up against him and got the police and intelligence agencies involved. Gradually the crowds dwindled. The bandwagon lost momentum and the disciples became increasingly disheartened. Had they backed a loser?
To counter this despair Jesus points to a Palestinian farmer sowing his seed on a nearby hillside. Farmers sowed their seed “broadcast” in those days and it inevitably fell into a variety of soil types; rocky outcrops, well trodden paths as well as good soil. There was an inevitable wastage attached to this kind of sowing and the farmer knew in advance that if he got a 10% return he was doing well. Jesus says in the punch-line to this story that there would be a harvest “growing up and increasing and yielding thirty-fold and sixty-fold and a hundred-fold”. An unbelievable return!!
So Jesus encourages the disciples not to jump ship. Not to lose their nerve in the face of increasing hostility and apparent failure. There will be a harvest and when it comes it will be greater than they ever imagined.
You might call this wishful thinking. But history has shown otherwise. Who would have thought that, two thousand years later, millions all over the world would rally to his cause? There has already been an unimaginable harvest and the Church is still in its infancy!
In the early years of European settlement in Rhodesia the London Missionary Society began a mission to the Ndebele people in Matabeleland. They established a small mission station close to the “kraal” of Mzilikazi, the Zulu King. Week in and week out they preached the gospel and, at the end of five years, could count on a few women as converts. The men would have nothing to do with them. On one occasion Mzilikazi himself came to a service and stormed out in a fury. Faced with such minimal success it is no wonder that the LMS authorities thought their efforts might be better rewarded elsewhere. They proposed withdrawing the mission.
The missionaries on the ground refused to leave. They said in effect, ‘we are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful’, and they stuck it out. Today you can go all over Matabeleland and you will come across congregations meeting under trees and in schoolrooms and in rough pole-and-dagga buildings. There has been a harvest and it is greater than anyone in London or in present day Zimbabwe could ever have imagined.
An unimaginable harvest! It is a word we need to hear again today. Christians in Britain might be forgiven for feeling as despondent as the disciples did. The Church is in decline and the pessimists say that the decline is terminal. Against this we hear again the Parable of the Sower and we ought to take heart. The harvest is not our responsibility; it is God’s. Our responsibility is to be faithful to the gospel and such faithfulness constitutes the ‘good soil’ in which the seed grows and yields an unimaginable harvest.
There is a challenge as well as a word of encouragement in this parable. It is all very well to say that the harvest is God’s responsibility and to be assured of a great yield. That doesn’t mean that we can sit back and do nothing and avoid all responsibility ourselves. The parable speaks of various qualities of soil in which the seed is planted and only that planted in good soil yields a harvest. So we are forced to ask of ourselves, “what kind of soil am I?” All too often we hear the Word of God and it is like water off a duck’s back. At other times we hear the Word but our response is shallow; our emotions are touched but the Word never reaches our minds or our wallets and the shallowness of our response means that it shrivels and dies. And sometimes we hear the Word but never give it the priority it deserves and it is simply crowded out; choked out of existence by competing loyalties and interests.
What kind of soil am I? The parable forces us to ask this question of ourselves. Our responsibility for the harvest lies in facilitating the growth of the seed, and it is our faithfulness which constitutes the good soil out of which the harvest comes. The LMS missionaries got it right when they said that God does not require us to be successful but to be faithful. Part of our problem today is that we live in a society which believes that success is everything and that the worst possible thing that can happen is that we fail. We apply this across to our Christian Faith and we become demoralised at our lack of success. At which point we cease being faithful.
So we hear the good news of this parable. “Courage” says Jesus. “Have faith and be faithful”. In spite of much wastage and great disappointment there will be a harvest. And that harvest, when it comes, will be greater than we could ever have hoped for. “Some thirty-fold; some sixty-fold, even a hundred-fold”!
Pentecost: A New Beginning
Readings: Genesis chapter 11, verses 1-11 ; Acts chapter 2, verses 1-13
Today is Pentecost Sunday; the day on which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit (at least according to Luke. St John has a different timescale in his gospel.) And, if you asked me to put the significance of this day into three words they would be a new beginning. In fact there are three beginnings.
Creation was the first. The opening words of the Bible in Genesis 1 are “in the beginning God created” and immediately following them we read that “the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters”. The first reference to the Spirit of God and it is in the context of creation. Here was the power and energy of God bringing form and order and life; the creative Spirit.
The second beginning was in Jesus. Not for nothing do Matthew and Luke speak of Jesus as being “conceived of the Holy Spirit”. They are saying that; from the very beginning Jesus was the Spirit-filled man and in him we see the beginning of a new humanity.
The third beginning was on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit not only transformed and revitalised the disciples as individuals but created a new community.
Three beginnings; and the Spirit of God intimately connected and involved and responsible for all three. That’s the context in which I want to explore the significance of Pentecost today.
1. The Holy Spirit creates a new humanity.
We saw that possibility actualised in Jesus and what was focussed in Him is now universalised so that Christlikeness is offered to all. The Spirit which energised Jesus is available to “everyman”. Outwardly we see the transformation in the behaviour of the disciples. On the Day of Pentecost they were huddled behind locked doors and barricaded windows “for fear of the Jews”. Not only were they afraid. They were dispirited and disillusioned. Men without hope. Then came the Holy Spirit; a coming which Luke describes in flambuoyant imagery and technicolour language: a driving wind and flaming darts of fire. But there can be no doubt about the consequences. A new courage; a new hope; a new confidence. These previously frightened men are out on the streets, fearlessly proclaiming a crucified and resurrected Christ to be the Way, the Truth and the Life.
That was the outward transformation. But the Holy Spirit brought about an inward transformation as well. It was a transformation of character. These men had a new focus, a new motivation and that changed them. Their lives are characterised by a selflessness and a concern for others and this leads us into the second dimension of the Holy Spirit’s activity.
2. The Holy Spirit created a new community.
We read that those who had experienced the Spirit banded and bonded together in the earliest known experiment in communism. In the words of Acts “they had all things in common; they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had any need”. That was an extraordinary experiment in communal living. And it is this sense of community which our world so desperately needs today.
The breakdown of communities lies at the heart of so much that is wrong with our society. We no longer live in communities but in associations; there are those we associate with at work; those we associate with in our leisure time; but these associations have no binding effect upon us. Meanwhile the neighbourhood in which we live is anonymous. A survey last week showed that few people know their next door neighbours and even fewer would call on them for help. We live our lives in isolation and that inevitably means our lives are self-concerned. Its all the more important therefore for the community which we call the Church to fill the void. We need to provide a place where people can feel they belong and are accepted. Our fellowship should be such where people’s needs are met out of the shared resources of our fellowship; be those needs material or emotional or spiritual. A real sense of community would transform the lives of many and if the Church does not offer it who will?
There is another dimension to this which we never think about. The Holy Spirit not only creates a new local community but a new international community as well. I am absolutely convinced that when Luke wrote up his story of the Day of Pentecost he had at the back of his mind the story in Genesis about the Tower of Babel. If you remember that story it begins with the assertion that humankind was a unity. The sign and symbol of that unity was that they all spoke and understood one language. Then came a description of how humans tried to build a tower with its top in the heavens and displace God. This act of rebellion was in effect a coup-d'etat against God. And such a sinful act had huge consequences. Humankind was fragmented; its unity destroyed and the Genesis story symbolises this disruption by saying that from then on people spoke different languages.
Now turn to the Pentecost story. When the Holy Spirit came one effect was to enable them to communicate in such a way that “everyone heard them speaking in his own language”. If you pursue the symbolism of that in terms of the Tower of Babel story Luke is affirming that in fact the Holy Spirit has recreated the unity of humankind. Disrupted, fragmented and polarised by sinfulness the unity of the human family has been restored.
Nor is this an idealistic vision which lies in a distant future. It happened straight away. A few years later Paul was able to point to people in the churches he founded and say “ in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek; male nor female; slave nor free; but all are one”. In other words the barriers which have bedevilled the world are broken down. The racial barrier is down - there is neither Jew nor Greek. The gender barrier is down – there is neither male nor female. The social barrier is down – there is neither slave nor free. In Christ all are one. I saw this transformation as a fact of life in Zimbabwe. And if Christians could be instrumental in creating a new national community there then can we not envision Christians being instrumental in facilitating a new international community? I say facilitating because it is the Holy Spirit who creates community, not us.
That then is the significance of Pentecost. The coming of the Holy Spirit creating a new humanity and a new community. What we need is another Pentecost today and we don’t have to wait for it. Through the Spirit God is present and active in our world today and the Holy Spirit is offered to us as gift. If only we will open our lives to receive this greatest of all gifts.
Ascension: A Man in Heaven
Readings: Hebrews chapter 4, verses 14-16 ; Acts chapter 1, verses 6-14
Thursday this week is Ascension Day and it will be totally ignored by everybody including most Christians. Which is a great pity. This story is full of meaning, and this morning I want to focus on one of the meanings. The story itself is not to be taken literally and Jesus is not being pictured as an astronaut being taken up into outer space. It is richly symbolic and it is has a very practical application to our Christian life. I put its meaning into six words which I hope you will memorise. There is a Man in heaven. To say that Jesus ascended is to say that His human experience has been taken up into the experience of God Himself. Now let’s explore the relevance of that to our life today.
In 1965 Ian Smith, Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared Independence from British colonial rule and for the next 15 years a state of war existed. The British Government imposed sanctions to bring this rebel country to heel which was fair enough. I too, was opposed to UDI. But the difference was that I had to live and minister within this conflict situation and it wasn’t easy. I tell you now that what used to infuriate me more than anything else was the way in which parsons and politicians would descend on us on 10-day ‘fact-finding’ missions. At the end of 10 days they returned home to Britain as “experts” and started pontificating on how simple the issue was and how simple was the answer. They came with an attitude which said; “I have made up my mind, don’t confuse me with the facts” and it infuriated me. My complaint was that they didn’t take any account of the complexities of the situation. Nor did they have to live with the outcome of what they advocated. I was exasperated because they simply didn’t understand.
Many people feel the same way about God. He lives in His heaven above and beyond Planet Earth which is itself a tiny fragment of the sun. Such a God cannot be remotely interested and concerned with the details of life on earth; still less does He understand. And I have often had to counsel people in great distress and they have cried out “Nobody understands what I am going through”. And they have included God in the ‘nobody’. God is the great Outsider, distant, remote and incapable of understanding what is involved in being human.
Its not true. And two fundamental Christian doctrines give the lie to this assertion. Christmas and the Ascension.
One is Christmas. For when you strip away the superficial trappings of Christmas you are left with the fundamental assertion that in Christ God has come into this world as one of us. Not on a fleeting 10-day fact-finding mission but on a long-term basis. 30 years in fact. In Christ God assumed our humanity and as man, Jesus experienced the full range of what it means to be human. For starters He was tempted as we are and temptation is a basic component of all human experience. Jesus knew what it was like to experience joy and pain and suffering; hunger and happiness and homelessness, disillusionment and despair. Most of all He knew what it is like to feel abandoned, even by God. Hanging there on a Cross he cried out in total despair: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Don’t say that God doesn’t understand. In the humanity of Christ God has experienced all that it means to be human. In colloquial jargon God has been there, done that and got the T-shirt! The Ascension of Jesus means that there is a man in heaven. Jesus’ experience of being human has been taken up into the life of God Himself; become part of God’s experience too.
Or else look at it this way. Imagine someone living in Bedfordshire wanting to know to know the benefits and delights of living in Zimbabwe. You could send them a glossy brochure produced by Thomas Cook or Trailfinders. You could give them Ordinance survey maps and direct them to Google search for information. And no doubt they would be informed. But far better would be to find someone who has actually lived there — in other words send me!! I could show them things and take them to places which are not in any travel brochure. I could take them to rock paintings in the Matopo Hills, or to a small hut on the banks of the Zambezi River where you have to catch your supper by fishing in the river. I could introduce you to ordinary African villagers carving out a simple and precarious living in the hot and hostile environment of the Zambezi Valley. You will not find these places and people in any travel brochure or on Google Search. I have been there, done that and got the T-shirt. And now, back in England I can share that experience with you.
So with Jesus. To say that He ascended is to say that He has gone back to be with God and taken with Him the experience of being human. He shares it with God and it has become part of God’s experience too.
It’s the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is often cheap and you can do it at a distance. Empathy is something else. Empathy means being able to feel as they do; to experience their pain, their joy, their sorrow – and therefore to understand. The Ascension says that God is able to empathise with us because the experience of being human has been taken up into the experience of God. There is a Man in heaven!
...Which is why I love that hymn by Jean Ingelow:
"O God, O kinsman loved but not enough.
O man with eyes majestic after death;
whose feet have trod alng our pathways rough,
whose lips drawn human breath.
By that one likeness which is ours and thine,
by that one nature which doth hold us kin…
I pray thee visit me."
A Fishy Story
Readings: Philippians chapter 2, verses 5-11 ; John chapter 21, verses 1-14
There are quite a few fishy stories in the Bible and this is one of them. The story itself bristles with a number of difficulties which are best dealt with in our Bible study group. But there is one thing which has always puzzled me. The story tells of a miraculous haul of fish and goes on to record the exact number of fish caught: 153 no less. Why 153? It is even more perplexing when you remember that the story is being written down at least 70 years after Jesus died. After that length of time you would expect the figure to be a round number – say 150 or 200.
No. 153 exactly. Which can only mean that the number has some significance. I have scoured the commentaries for some answers and they mostly come up with two alternatives. One is a mathematical symbolism which I can’t get my head around; its all to do with triangular numbers. The other I can understand and it is consistent with other bits of the Gospel story.
It is this. In those days it was believed that the number of different species of fish was 153. In other words the total catch included every species of fish. Given that Jesus called the disciples to be “fishers of men” then this miraculous catch was sign and symbol of the Church’s nature and the Church’s mission. It is to be an all-inclusive and universal mission.
Consider the all-inclusive aspect first. The haul of fish, totalling 153, meant that every species was included. And, when you go to the other Gospels the teaching of Jesus is absolutely clear. The Good News is for everyone. You don’t discriminate who you preach to. On one occasion Jesus told a story specifically to rebut any suggestion that the disciples should be selective in their approach. He said that the Kingdom of God is like a seine net which you throw into the sea and it traps fish of every kind in its mesh. Its not the same if you are fishing with a rod and reel. There is a different technique for catching trout or carp or salmon. Different bait. Different hook. You can be selective by that method. But if you throw a seine net into the sea you have got to take what it entraps and that means a variety of fish.
The Church, in proclaiming the Gospel, must not be selective. We must proclaim to anyone and everyone.
We have not always heeded that lesson. Years ago the Moral rearmament movement was popular and it made no bones about targeting people in power. They went for the politicians and the captains of industry on the grounds that if you can get them on board policies would change and everyone would benefit. Other churches have traditionally aimed at the working class. And others have targeted specific racial groupings. In the process all have missed a vital truth in Jesus’ message. The proclamation of the gospel must be indiscriminate.
Equally, when people respond, we must be all inclusive in accepting them. That was the point of Jesus’ story about letting the wheat and the weeds grow together until the harvest. Lots of people were very nervy about the kind of people Jesus welcomed into his fellowship; some of them had a notorious history. They were all for weeding out the baddies on the spot. And Jesus warned against premature judgements.
So that’s the first point. The 153 fish represented an all-inclusive haul. And the nature of the Church ought to be all-inclusive as well. In naval terms not just those wearing acres of gold braid but ratings as well and everyone in between.
The second point is this. That total of 153 has the ring of universalism about it. And I think this is John’s symbolic way of emphasising what the other gospels put in very prosaic terms. Apart from Mark’s gospel (whose ending has been lost anyway) both Matthew and Luke have in their last words a universal commission.
• Matthew. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all nations”
• Luke. “Repentance and forgiveness should be preached to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
John does give us a command of Jesus to preach world-wide. He gives us a story which makes exactly the same point. The 153 fish included every species known to man. Go fishing for men and make it a universal mission.
Again, it’s a truth we are missing out on. Especially today. Increasingly these days I hear the argument that we should forget about sending missionaries overseas to preach the gospel. By all means send doctors and agriculturalists and educationalists. But not missionaries. The reason being that every nation has its own belief system and every belief system is equally true and equally valid. They have got their religion and we ought not to try and convert them.
It’s a plausible argument and it sounds a very charitable and tolerant thing to do. But it completely undercuts and undermines a fundamental Christian belief. Namely, that God was in Christ; that Christ embodied what is ultimately true; that Christ is himself the Way, the Truth and the Life. If you believe that then how can you not evangelise?
All this needs spelling out and clarifying in a bit more detail and that’s another sermon. But this needs to be emphasised. We are not out to convert people to Christianity. We are out to get them to commit to Christ and the two are not necessarily the same. There is much in Christianity which is un-Christlike.
So we are left with a fishy story. But it’s a story which has huge symbolism and huge significance for the Church. 153 fish caught. Every known species hauled in.
And we who are called to be fishers of men ought never to forget that it is in the nature of the Gospel and the Church to be all-inclusive. And it is the mission of the Church to be universal. That’s the challenge of this story for us today.
“Go, tell the followers of your Lord
their Jesus is to life restored;
He lives that they his life may find,
he lives to quicken all mankind”
Two Cheers for Secularism
Readings: Isaiah chapter 45 verses 1-7; Matthew chapter 22 verses 15-22
This last week David Cameron stirred up a hornets nest by bringing God into the political debate. He was immediately rebuffed by 30 eminent celebrities who said keep God out. It raises an acute issue. For the last 200 years a new process has been at work in the world. It has speeded up recently and constitutes a greater threat to the Church than Communism ever did. Or any other “ism”. We call it secularism. And I had better begin by defining it.
By secularism I mean the freeing from Church or religious control of large segments of human life. There was a time when the Church had a controlling finger in every pie. Kings ruled at the pleasure and by permission of the Pope (which is why Henry 8th had a cadenza!!). Political and economic power were in the hands of the Church. So too were public services. The Church pioneered the way in providing hospitals and education. It was the hub of social life. Virtually the whole of life, from the cradle to the grave, was lived under the umbrella of the Church.
All that has gone now. And gone forever. Britain has become a secular arena. Politics & economics and health & education have all been taken over by the State. And God and the Church have been sidelined. As Alistair Campbell famously remarked “We don’t do God here”. The result is that the Church and Christian Faith have become marginalised and are felt to be irrelevant to daily life. The ordinary man in the street is happy so long as his salary stays two jumps ahead of inflation; his job and family are secure and the health service doesn’t go to the dogs. Religion is seen as little more than a crutch for those who are weak and emotionally unstable.
And our response? Our initial reaction might be to deplore the process and try to fight against it. But that would be like King Canute trying to hold back the waves. I think there are reasons to welcome secularism even if we can only give it Two Cheers.
We should welcome it because it forces us back to being a Servant Church.
Jesus never operated from any political or economic power-base. For Him power did not lie in the authority to lord it over others. Greatness, for Him, did not consist in privilege but in service. So it was that, on the night before He died Jesus took a towel and a basin of water and washed his disciples’ feet.
In later years the Church acquired power and prestige and wealth. It controlled every aspect of life and provided for every need. That had a downside. It enabled the Church to coerce people into believing. It opened wide the door to spiritual blackmail. “You want an education? Become a Christian!!” At a time of persistent famine in China many people became known as “rice Christians” because the Church was the only Aid Agency supplying food.
Secularism put an end to all that. And rightly so. We should not have to rely on economic or political influence to win peoples’ allegiance to Christ. And Jesus himself rejected this way of operating. Before He even began His ministry He went into the desert to formulate a mission strategy. He rejected the temptation to “turn stones into bread” and bribe people into following Him because He could satisfy their material needs. And He rejected the temptation to perform the miraculous to persuade people into faith. Instead He committed Himself to the way of patient, persevering Love and it brought him to a Cross. But Jesus was never more powerful than when His hands were nailed in impotence to that Cross.
So it must be for us. We are a servant church or we are nothing.
It forces us to see God at work in the world.
So long as the Church controlled the levers of power and met all human need people thought that God’s Spirit was operative only in and through the Church. They confined God’s activity to the Church.
Secularism has made us look for God in non-religious processes as well. The Church may no longer control the hospitals but every time a miracle drug is discovered; wherever a victory is won over smallpox or AIDS or cholera the Christian shouts for joy and sees the triumph of God’s Spirit; — even though the doctor be an atheist!
No longer does the Church control education. But every time a child’s eyes light up with a new discovery of Truth; and every time a technological break-through is achieved the Christian rejoices. Even though the teacher be an agnostic and the scientist an unbeliever. For all Truth is the gift of God’s Spirit.
No longer does the Church hold political power. But every time a social or economic injustice is righted and righteousness established the Christian rejoices. Even though the politician makes the same claim as Alistair Campbell!
For all Truth, all Goodness, all Righteousness originates from God. And is enabled by His Spirit.
But that is only Two Cheers for secularism. It is not the panacea for all our ills and it has a downside. It is no more than a process and processes by themselves do not achieve Goals and Ends. Like Capitalism and Communism and any other “ism” they are merely a means to an End. It is people who achieve Goals and Ends and secularism has produced a breed of people who classify themselves as secularists.
The failure of the secularists is that they fail to come to terms with the realities of human nature. The fact of the matter is that human nature is fundamentally flawed and biased. We are biased towards an inherent selfishness and self-centeredness which is a carry-over from our evolutionary past. There is, in all of us, a “will to power” and power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and what is happening in Zimbabwe and Kenya and all over the world is evidence of this. In the language of the Christian Faith “all have sinned”. And, as someone once said “when you change your Govt you put one lot of sinners out and another lot of sinners in”!
What is needed is a process and a power which can transform human nature. And that is where the Church is in business. We proclaim that all healing, all truth and all knowledge are the activity of God’s Spirit at work in the world. But we also proclaim that alongside healing and truth and knowledge the Spirit of God is the Spirit of Holiness. There is, let loose in all the world, a dynamic which can transform human nature; the Holy Spirit of God. And, without that transformation all the processes in the world will come to nothing.
The Church is in business, not only to proclaim this truth, but to demonstrate it and embody it. We are here to say “If anyone is in Christ he/she is a new creature and there is a new creation”. We are here to become the agents of God’s redemptive power and activity in the world.
Lets become what we are!
Readings: Zechariah 9 verses 9-10 ; Mark 11 verses 1-10
By the time a Minister has been around for 5 years he is rapidly running out for something new to say about Palm Sunday! But let me introduce you to a man who is a key player in the Palm Sunday story but whose name is never mentioned.
His name is Zerubbabel. He lived about 500 years before Christ but you have to go back another 500 years to understand his significance. The story starts when David was King of Israel. And the nearest we can get in British history to his importance is the reign of Queen Victoria. We call it the Victorian Age and it was the age of Empire. Britain not only ruled the waves but also ruled much of the world. India and large chunks of Africa and bit of Asia were all part of an Empire which brought prestige and power and prosperity to Britain. David’s reign over Israel had similar importance. For the first time 12 tribes were united into a single nation. The borders of Israel were pushed out wider and further than ever before. Peace and prosperity meant that this was a golden era. And, at this point, the prophet Nathan spoke in God’s name and promised that David’s kingdom and David’s dynasty would last forever.
It was a fateful promise and it never materialised. First the Assyrians and then the Babylonians and then the Persians and then the Greeks and then the Romans successively conquered and ruled the Jews. Never again did they know King David’s golden age. But the Jews never forgot God’s promise. They never ceased to hope and pray for a son of David to restore the power and the glory and the kingdom of David. And so on a wintry night during years of Roman rule a heavenly choir sung out a kind of Hallelujah chorus to a group of shepherds:
“To you in David’s town this day
is born of David’s line
a Saviour who is Christ the Lord”
Zerubbabel comes into the picture half way through the story. The Jews had been exiled in Babylon for 50 years. Then it seemed a miracle had happened. Babylonian power was broken by a Persian king who issued a decree allowing the Jews to go home. Many of them went, carrying with them the hope and promise of a son of David who would restore the Kingdom. They came home and found a devastated country and a ruined Temple and started the painful process of rebuilding. Then came the news they were longing for. Amongst those returning from Babylon was a man armed with the authority of Governor and whose ancestry could be traced back to King David. Zerubbabel! There was great excitement in Jerusalem and great expectation too. So much so that the prophet Zechariah urged the people to go out and welcome the returning son of David.
behold your king comes to you,
meek and lowly is he;
riding on a donkey”
The promise was being fulfilled. But not in the way that the Jews expected. Zechariah was realistic enough to know that the glory days of empire and the days of an all conquering, triumphant king were gone forever. And he re-invented the concept of kingship. This son of David who would rule Israel, not with the trappings of regal majesty but with humility and meekness.
His message was lost on the Jews who insisted on the nationalistic understanding of a Warrior King and a National Deliverer. His words lay buried in the Jewish scriptures for over 500 years until they were resurrected and brought alive by a carpenter turned preacher whose name was Jesus. He understood himself to be the Messiah; he too was a son of David, and when he prepared to enter Jerusalem he remembered the ancient words of Zechariah. They were the perfect vehicle for expressing in action the kind of Messiah he was;
“behold your king comes to you;
meek and lowly is he;
riding on a donkey”
We still don’t get it. We still think of God’s intervention in human life and history in terms of power and so we still sing:
“thy kingdom come O God;
thy rule O Christ begin,
break with thine iron rod the tyrannies of sin”
When will we learn that God’s intervention in human life and history comes via a human life stripped of all power except the power of love. When will we learn to see majesty revealed in meekness and love expressed as lowliness? When will we learn to accept that real authority is a matter of service rather than lording it over others? For that is what Jesus showed us and that is the real meaning of Palm Sunday.
“Behold your king comes to you”
What we see in Jesus is none other than the character and the way of God. And Palm Sunday reminds us of the Kingship of God but it is a kingship like no other.
• what king appeals for allegiance rather than enforces it?
• what king makes himself utterly vulnerable rather than surrounding himself with power?
• what king demonstrates his authority by taking a towel and basin of water and washes the feet of his people?
• what sort of a king accepts as crown a crown of thorns and is enthroned on a Cross?
This king. Who once again on Palm Sunday comes riding into our lives in meekness and lowliness and love. This is his appeal for our loyalty and allegiance and one way we can respond is by acclamation.
“ Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,
Hosanna in the highest”.
Passion Sunday: The Necessity of the Cross
Readings: Jeremiah 20 verses 7 onward ; Matthew 16 verses 21-28
Our gospel reading records Jesus as saying “The Son of Man must suffer”. This was his commentary on his impending suffering and death. And the word “must” is very strong and forceful. It's as though Jesus was saying that it is imperative that he should suffer. There was no alternative - no way out.
But in what sense “must” he suffer?
I suspect most Christians would answer “Because it was the Will of God”. Many would go further and say that the Cross was part of God’s Plan from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The reason why Jesus came was to die upon the Cross for us. The Cross was pre-ordained and pre-determined.
I am uncomfortable with that. It sounds as if Jesus was just acting out a part in a drama whose script had been written in advance. He was mouthing the words and going through the actions but without any responsibility or freedom himself. Almost as though Jesus was a puppet on the stage of human history. I can’t conceive of God as a Puppet Master pulling on hidden strings to control every movement and every outcome.
If that was the case then why did Jesus so often pray to God for guidance? You don’t pray for guidance if you know the answer in advance or if you believe the outcome is already pre-determined.
So do we have to say that the Cross wasn’t the Will of God? And if it was, then in what sense?
Can I suggest another way of looking at it?
I start from the assumption that Jesus was truly human. And like every other human being he was free to make choices and take decisions which would alter the course of events. If his freedom of choice and action was real then it rules out any pre-determined outcome. And if it wasn’t real then his humanity is fatally compromised.
I also start from the position that, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus sorted out once and for all the method of his ministry. The temptations in the Wilderness were all about alternative ways of winning men and women for God. Jesus rejected every abuse of power and determined to win people only via the appeal of love. He would not coerce. He would not compel. He would only love them into the Kingdom. This is God’s way for God is Love.
So Jesus launches into his ministry. The words that he speaks are God’s words. What he does is God in action through him. And those words and those actions were controversial. He spoke the Truth and the Truth hurt. He incurred the wrath of the religious hierarchy who accused him of undermining the Faith and of blasphemy. The Romans saw him as a revolutionary threat. And so the opposition mounted. Jesus was set on a collision course with Church and State and if both sides held fast to their chosen courses then the outcome was inevitable. A collision. In the case of Jesus the point at which they collided was at the Cross. The “must” which Jesus spoke about was this inevitability.
Many years ago, when radar was still in its infancy, two ships headed in opposite directions off the coast of Newfoundland. Thick fog blanketed out all visibility. The two ships were headed on a collision course and one captain misread his radar. Both held fast the course that they had chosen and inevitably they collided with each other and there was great loss of life.
I see the Cross in those terms. It is the point at which the nature of God in Christ confronts human nature with all its sinfulness. And human nature refused to change course. In spite of all Jesus’ preaching, in spite of all his healing acts, in spite of his demonstrating what a new person and a new community would be like, people rejected him and his way. And so they plotted to do away with him. This man was dangerous. He was a danger to the religious tradition which they believed had been God-given. He was a danger to that Law of Moses on which the nation was constituted. He was a danger to the self-interest which motivates everyone of us still. Better we get rid of this dangerous man! In the words of the High Priest “it is expedient that one man should die for the nation than that the whole nation should perish.”
And Jesus refused to change course. He was committed to speaking God’s truth. He was committed to doing God’s will in God’s way which is the way of Love and nothing would deflect him from that course.
Given that human nature refused to change, and given that the Divine nature in Christ would not change there was an inevitability about what happened. The Cross was the moment and the point of impact when two opposing natures collided head-on. The Son of Man must suffer. Why? Because it was inevitable. And that inevitability persists to this day. Human nature has not changed radically. And, confronted by God and God’s truth we still scorn it and reject it and crucify it all over again. Every sinful thought and action is another nail driven into the hands and feet of a Christ who is forever crucified. There has been a Cross in the heart of God from the very beginning.
But was it also the Will of God?
No, if by that you mean God planned it this way from the beginning.
But Yes if you mean that Jesus was steadfastly committed to the way of patient, persevering love which is God’s way always. No doubt God could, by an overwhelming act of power, compel us into the Kingdom. But He will not. And Jesus embodied in himself the truth that God’s power is power of love. Insofar as Jesus held fast to course of loving people into the Kingdom he was within the will of God. And insofar as he would not be deflected from it the Cross was also God’s Will.
I am amazed and humbled that God in Christ should go to such lengths and my response is to say and sing:
“Were the whole real of nature mine
That were an offering far too small;
“Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my life, my soul, my all”
The Challenge of Change
Readings: Jeremiah 29 verses 1-7 ; Matthew 5 verses 38-48
Its been a very strange winter. No ice. No snow. And the wettest winter since records began. Everybody talks about Climate Change. And without doubt the climate is changing. But so is everything else and its not all the fault of humans interfering with nature. Change is written into the very nature of things. It happens in spite of us and not just because of us. Nor is change confined to the weather. Our political climate is forever changing. So, too, our social climate. And the Church is not exempt. I was at a Circuit Treasurer’s meeting on Thurs and the question at issue was a change in the Assessment due from each Church to meet the changes due in the next 2 years. I am bound to say it was an unproductive meeting!
So I want us to think about Change this morning and what our response should be. I begin with a parable.
Three men were marooned on a desert island. And they were told that overnight the island would be swamped by a tidal wave. What would they do? The first man said; “ I would eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. The second said; “ I would retreat to a sacred grove and offer sacrifice and say prayers to my God.” The third said; “ I would call my wisest men together and study how to live under water”.
Three responses to the challenge of change. And all three are evident today. There are always those who refuse to face reality; who live for the moment in complete abandonment with not a thought for the future. That’s a purely selfish response. The 2nd response is characteristic of a certain type of religion. Retreat into a sacred world of piety and hope to God that He might do something. The third is, to my mind, the Christian response. Accept that things are going to change and try to adapt to that change.
It's what Jeremiah recommended to those people who had been carted off into Exile in Babylon. Settle down. Make yourselves at home! Work out how to worship God and live as the people of God in a strange and hostile environment.
It’s the policy Paul advocated when the Christian gospel was taken to an alien world. “To the Jews I became as a Jew in order to win Jews. To those outside the Law I became as one outside the Law; to the weak I became weak that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men that I might save some”.
And it’s the policy that God adopted in order to save humankind. Faced with the reality of a human race which had rebelled and turned its back on Him He became human! — in order to save humanity.
Let nobody pretend that this is the easy way. It is fraught with danger and difficulty. And the danger is that in the process we shall allow ourselves to become totally absorbed into what we are trying to change. We lose our identity as Christians. But what’s the alternative? To give up all hope and to live selfishly for the moment? To retreat into a holy huddle and sing hymns and say prayers and separate ourselves from the rest of humanity? Or find a way to live as Christians in an alien environment and so win people for Christ?
I think there are 2 areas in which we have to engage with our society. Belief and Behaviour.
Belief: It astounds me that so many Christians are committed to a belief system which is based on a very literal acceptance of Biblical texts and statements. The obvious example is in relation to Science. Last week it was reported that ⅓rd of American Christians are still wedded to the belief that the world was created in 6 days; that creation itself took place in 4004 BC and that the Adam & Eve story is historically true. Nor is it just American Christians. All over the UK private Faith schools are being opened up which are committed to teaching the children the same thing. Worse still our secular education system teaches children an evolutionary understanding of creation but if they come to Church on Sunday they are taught exactly the opposite. Its no wonder they are confused. And its no wonder that they opt for the scientific explanation and reject the Church altogether. But its not just in the area of science that our “belief systems” are seen as locked in a time warp. Its in the cultural area as well, and nowhere is this more evident than in the area of human sexuality.
Behaviour: So often Christian behaviour is defined in negative terms. Christians are those who do not do certain things and are regularly depicted a kill-joys. Methodists have a reputation of being against all alcoholic drinks. This kill-joy image is not only unfortunate. It is damaging in the extreme. We need to engage with our contemporaries in a more positive way. Its what we do that matters, not what we don’t do. So Jesus gave us a thumb-nail sketch of what such positive behaviour might look like. “If someone strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also! If anyone forces you to go one mile; go with him two miles! Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you”!. In other words non-retaliation and going the extra mile and seeking the best interests of others above your own ought to be characteristic of Christian behaviour.
Far from reflecting the mores of society such behaviour challenges the values and standards of society. It was this kind of behaviour which characterised the first Christians and which was a powerful factor in converting others to Christ. We sang earlier about being “ clothed in Christ’s humanity” and the most powerful evangelistic message we could convey would be in becoming a Christ to our neighbour.
What is Man ?
Readings: Psalms, chapter 8; John, chapter 3, verses 1-8
Our society is obsessed with trying to find answers to every conceivable problem. In the process we very often forget that behind every answer lies a prior question. And if you ask the wrong question you are likely to come up with the wrong answer. I believe that there are a relatively small number of fundamental questions which must be asked and, if we get them right, the answers might make the world a better place to live in.
One of those fundamental questions was posed by the Psalmist. He asked; “what is man?” and he used the word in a generic sense. Man includes woman! It’s a basic question about human nature.
All sorts of answers can be given. From a purely biological point of view it would be absolutely right to answer that man is 80% water. That is a scientific fact. And I take comfort from that. When I was a Chaplain at the Helicopter base in Yeovilton I was often called in to talk with the Commodore. He was an intimidating presence amongst the personnel on the base. The acres of gold braid on his uniform struck fear into them. But I took comfort in remembering that he too, was 80% water!! That puts human relationships into some kind of perspective and saves us from the temptation to idolise others and from the need to engage in nauseating flattery.
Other definitions have been given. Man is a tool-making animal. Man is a thinking animal. Man is simply a small cog in a vast machine. And, in these days of computer technology where programmes are written in a binary system of numbers it is held that man is no more than a number. A New York census enumerator once visited a lady and enquired as to the persons in her household. “Let’s see” said the lady, “there is Bill and Fred and Teresa and Mabel” and the man from the census interrupted. “Never mind the names; just give me the numbers”.
The Bible has another perspective. It comes from the earliest creation story in Genesis, chapter 2 where it says “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into him the breath of life”. That single sentence contains two profound insights into human nature.
1. Made from the dust of the ground. In other words man shares a nature in common with all other creatures. That Biblical insight is confirmed by science. Only the blinkered creationists today would deny that the theory of evolution (whatever the details) is a correct account of the development of the species. Like every other species we emerged over millions of years of evolutionary development. Man’s kinship with the primates is unarguable. This is where we came from. We share a common inheritance and a common nature. There is something very earthy, something very animal in our make-up.
And if you want any further proof then just look at those pictures which came out of the Belsen concentration camp at the end of WW2. They were horrific. More recently, you remember the pictures which came out of Iraq which showed American troops humiliating their prisoners and the worst one of all was the picture of a woman soldier leading a prostrate and naked Iraqi across the floor, a dog lead around his neck. Other pictures showed a variety of other humiliations and there is only one word to describe them; - bestial. Simply saying that word reminds us of beasts. But it gets worse. No animal or beast could ever devise such brutal activity. These soldiers are worse than animals! And, if you think that only Americans could stoop to these depths and being British guarantees better then you had better think again. Accusations abound as to British brutality as well.
This is human nature; but it is the nature we have in common with the animals and the beasts of the earth. Lurking just below the surface of a sophisticated and so-called civilised man lie the instinctive drives to sex and self-preservation and power and it doesn’t take much to remove the veneer and expose the beast below. Given the right circumstances man will revert to the animal nature from which he came. Belsen and Buchenwald proved that. So does a gaol in Bagdad.
2. But the Genesis text contains another truth. Man is more than an animal. He has the breath of God breathed into him. Or, in the words of the other creation story in Genesis, chapter 1, man is made in the image of God. This sets man apart. What other animal has the capacity to make moral distinctions and to separate right from wrong? What other animal has the freedom of choice and will to act on those distinctions? What other animal has the capacity for entering into fellowship and relationship with the Creator? Man alone has been endowed with a moral capacity and a spiritual potential way beyond that given to any other creature. This what makes him different.
The trouble is that man has fouled it up. We have deliberately failed to fulfil that potential and regressed. The image of God in man has been scarred and marred and distorted almost beyond recognition at times. We have used that instinctive will-to-power to play God and rejected the conditions in which our potential could be fully realised. The story of Adam (Hebrew for “man”) in the Garden of Eden says it all. This is our failure. By our disobedience, by our egoistical self-centeredness, by our self-assertive will-to-power we have failed to become. And we have chosen to live out our lives at a basic animalistic level. A soldier dressed in camouflage kit in an Iraqi gaol is the worst example. But an equally brutal assertiveness is evidenced by men dressed in pin-stripe suits in boardrooms and Government; and by so-called football supporters following England away.
3. That’s why we read the story of Nicodemus from St John’s gospel. For Jesus offers this man the possibility of being “born again”; of becoming a different type of person; of fulfilling his calling and his potential as man. That potential is realised when we allow the Spirit of God to energise our whole life. And what was on offer to Nicodemus was actualised in Jesus. He was the “Spirit-filled man”. His humanity is the proto-type for all humanity. The humanity of Jesus represents what all men are called to be and what all men can be. In Him our human nature has realised its full potential.
We ought not to be surprised at the horrific pictures of prisoners being treated like animals in Iraq. And the Iraqis did the same to their own. That’s the way we are at bottom when you have scratched off the veneer of what passes for a civilised society. But, if I am not surprised, I am not satisfied either. It doesn’t have to be this way. Another kind of humanity is possible. But it will not come via human DIY effort. It comes as gift from God. And, to take that gift, to receive the Holy Spirit, is to have the image of God in man fully restored. It is to become what we are meant to be. It is to become truly human, measured by the humanity of Christ.
“So lift us up, strong Son of God,
Restore your fallen race;
We who have lost your image shall
Regain it through your grace.”
The Wise Men
Readings: Isaiah, chapter 60, verses 1-6; Matthew, chapter 2, verses 1-12
After putting up with me for the past 4 years you will neither be surprised or shocked at what I say. Which is just as well. Because on this Sunday after Christmas I want to preach about the story of the Wise men. Traditionally they came with the shepherds to worship the new-born Child.
Problem is that, if they came, they came 2 years after the birth — why else would Herod order the massacre of every child under 2 yrs when killing every child under 6 months would have done the trick. I said "if they came" because I am not at all sure that there is any historical accuracy to this story.
Matthew, who wrote the gospel, was a Jew. And Jewish Rabbis (Teachers) commonly used what is known as "midrash" in their teaching. They took an Old Testament text and wove a story around it in order to bring out its inner meaning and its real significance. Which is what Matt is doing here. He took a text from Isaiah chapter 60 which spoke of Kings coming to the brightness of God’s rising and travelled from afar to offer the gifts of gold and frankincense. And, using this text, he wove a wondrous story in order to show its unexpected fulfilment and to reveal the true significance of this Child. Never mind that the story is made up. Jesus did it all the time in His parables. The truth of Jesus’ parables and Jewish 'midrash' goes far beyond whether or not they actually happened.
So Matthew employs 'midrash to reveal the truth about Jesus. And it's an amazing Truth.
Firstly he tells us that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, not just of the Jews. So, following Isaiah, he speaks of Kings or Magi coming to worship the Christ Child. These magi were not Jews. They were foreigners, representative of the Gentile 'nations'. And these non-Jews come to worship at the cradle of the Christ. There is a universalism built into the Jesus story from the very beginning and it comes as no surprise that the last words of Jesus to His disciples were "Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations". The problem with Christmas is that is wrapped up in too much sentimentality and we miss the challenging truth incarnate in this Child. Christ was born to be the Saviour of the world. That’s what the story of the Wise men is saying to us. Nor can we ever be content until all the world has this Good News. It is the impetus of the mission of the Church. It is the reason why we should evangelise.
Secondly, the gifts which the Wise Men brought are symbolic
of the significance of Jesus.
They brought gold. Traditionally the gift associated with Royalty and in offering gold they were saying; "You are our King". The rest of the gospel spells out the nature of Jesus’ kingship. Not a dictatorial despot as were other Eastern kings. Not a king who enforces obedience. But a king who appeals and invites our response and respects our refusal to obey.
They brought frankincense. Traditionally the gift associated with a Priest and used in worship. In offering this gift they were saying "You are our priest". And the priest functioned as a 'middleman' between God and men. A go-between person. An amazing insight. God comes to us in Jesus. We come to God through Jesus.
And they offered myrrh. Matthew added this gift to Isaiah’s text because it added a dimension Isaiah never envisaged. Myrrh was an ointment used to embalm the dead. In offering this gift they were saying "You are born to die" and it is a pre-figuring of the suffering and death of Jesus. His suffering was redemptive. It was 'for us and our salvation' as the Creed says.
Thirdly,. Matthew tells us that Herod, representative of the Jewish people was minded to do away with the Child. Here he is telling us what St John in his gospel put so memorably. "He came to his own people and his own people received him not." So it was in Jesus’ life-time. Jesus’ most implacable enemies were the religious authorities and it was the religious leaders who aped Herod and demanded his death. So it was in the earliest years of the Church’s expansion. St Paul always took the message of Jesus to the Jews in the synagogue first. Only when they rejected him did he go out into the market place to proclaim the Good News.
Whether this story of the Wise Men is historical fact or ‘midrash’ makes absolutely no difference to its truth. It proclaims the gospel. For Christ is the Saviour of the world. He is our King and our response is to pledge our obedience. He is our Priest, in Him we encounter God and through Him we come to God. He laid down His life and died in order that God could justifiably offer us a free forgiveness. That is the glory of the Christ-Child. And the tragedy is that still, today, He comes to us and we will not receive Him.
Charles Wesley understood Matthews story perfectly and penned a hymn:
"Thy undistinguishing regard
was cast on Adam’s fallen race;
For ALL Thou has in Christ prepared
Sufficient, sovereign, saving grace.
Jesus our Immanuel
Queen Victoria was one of our greatest and best loved Queens, But she had some strange ideas. One was that ordinary people should not be allowed to become too familiar with Royalty. She had a son whose name was Edward and she was very particular about the people to whom Edward talked. She especially disliked Edward speaking to the barber, yet she realised he had to have a hair-cut.
The problem was solved by having Edward talk to the barber via a valet. The barber would say to the valet “Would his Highness like a short back and sides?”. And the valet would say to the Prince and the Prince would reply to the valet who them communicated with the barber. Edward never got to speak to the barber himself! But Queen Victoria was not all that happy about the arrangement. She was haunted by the idea that, although the Prince never talked to the barber he did speak to someone who spoke to the barber.
Some people think God is a bit like that. He is too High and Mighty to be bothered to communicate with mere mortals like us. And who knows but He might be contaminated by our sinful humanity.
Christmas gives the lie to that. The High and Mighty God does not stand aloof from us. Here at Bethlehem “God comes down and bows the sky, and calls himself our friend”. He assumes our humanity with all the risk of contamination and becomes one of us and one with us. Which is what the word ‘Immanuel’ means. God with us.
That’s good news. No longer can we complain that God is unconcerned about us as individuals. For in Christ God has become man; and a very particular man at that. Jesus is his name. No longer can we say that God is too remote and therefore unable to sympathise or empathise with the problems of human existence. In Christ God has experienced all that it means to be human and He understands. Joy and suffering, laughter and tears, hunger and homelessness and specifically temptation itself were all part of Jesus’ experience. Even a violent death. When people complain at some tragedy overtaking them and exclaim “God only know what I am going through” they are dead right. God does know. In the jargon of today God has been there, done that and got the T-shirt.
I started with a story about Victoria, Queen of England. I end with a story about the King of Denmark. When the Germans invaded Denmark during the 2nd WW they compelled every Jew to wear an armband with a yellow star of David on it. When the crunch came it was easy to identify a Jew and isolate him for special treatment. The King of Denmark then issued his own decree. He, and everyone of his subjects would wear an armband with the yellow star of David emblazoned on it. And, if that meant being singled out for the gas chamber, so be it.
So, too, with the King of kings. At Bethlehem, God in Christ wears the armband of our humanity. He is Immanuel; ‘God with us’ and Christmas gives us cause to sing:
“Knees and hearts to him we bow; Of our flesh and of our bone; Jesus is our brother now; And God is all our own”
The Comings of God
Advent, the season in which we celebrate the coming of God. And I think it important that we take the opportunity to focus on what some would call the “big picture”. For that reason I want to talk about the comings of God because I think the plural is important. I want to argue that God came; God comes and God will come. That is the big picture.
Firstly, God came. He came in Christ and Advent is a time of preparation for that coming of God in Christ which Christmas celebrates. Which is not to say that Christmas represented the first time that God came. The whole of the Old Testament is the story of God coming, but there it was mainly a verbal coming. At the creation God spoke and the world came into being. Throughout the history of His people God spoke time and again; through prophets and priests, law-givers and kings, sages and songwriters. But the trouble with words is that they can so easily be misunderstood and misrepresented.
In my early years in Rhodesia I preached through an interpreter and it was very disconcerting when I thought I was making a serious point and the congregation doubled up with laughter. Clearly the interpreter had got the wrong end of the stick. And I well remember somebody in the pub bemoaning the fact that he had lost a lot of money on one particular horse. “I put my last shirt on that bleeding horse” he said. To which someone responded, “What a kind man; he put his shirt on a suffering animal”.
When God came in Christ He spoke in a definitive way. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. There could be no possible misunderstanding. God spoke in the language of a human life and there could be no ambiguity. In Christ we see what God is like and from now on we say that God is Christlike. More than that we look at Christ and we understand what we are meant to be and what we can be. That word, spoken in Christ, is definitive for our understanding of God and of what it mans to be human. God came.
Secondly, God comes. If you want to use the term 2nd Coming (a term which is not to be found anywhere in the New Testament) then the fact is that God came a second time in and through His Spirit at Pentecost. And God comes to us today through His Spirit; it is not a second coming but a continual coming. The Holy Spirit is none other than God our contemporary.
If God is our contemporary and not locked up in the distant past then we should expect to find Him living, working in our world. Not least in the needs of people who are poor and dispossessed and marginalised. In the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew chapter 25) Jesus said that some people would get the shock of their lives when they discovered that in feeding the hungry and offering a cup of cold water to the thirsty, in welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked and visiting those in prison they were in fact responding to the Christ who was present in those needs.
By way of illustration I take one example which has left a big impression on me. God confronts and challenges us in terms of that human need which is pandemic throughout Africa. All over Africa and especially in countries like Zambia and Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa AIDS is decimating the population. I was in South Africa a year ago and it was quite appalling to travel through the Transkei and every few miles see groups of people huddled around a graveside, burying yet another AIDS victim. It is not just those who have a promiscuous lifestyle who are dying. The vast majority are innocent victims of a plague which is sweeping uncontrollably throughout the continent.
Insofar as we respond to that need; insofar as we facilitate information about AIDS and enable preventative measures to be taken and help fund the medicines that might alleviate the suffering we are in fact responding to the God who comes to us in that need. The God who came to us in the humanity of Christ confronts us again in the humanity of those in real need and desperate trouble. And in all our human dealings. Not just Aids in South Africa but Foodbanks in Britain today.
In the words of the hymn:
When believers break the bread,
When a hungry child is fed;
Where a stranger’s not alone,
Where the homeless find a home,
Praise the love that Christ revealed,
Living, working, in our world.
God came. God comes. And, finally this, God will come. Not for the second time, but for the umpteenth time and instead of talking about a 2nd Coming we should be talking about a Final Coming.
For this is our Christian Faith. There will be a consummation; the God who was there at the beginning will be there at the End; and the End will be marked by the fulfilment of His purpose. History is not an accident waiting to happen; it is heading towards that
“one, far off divine event,
to which the whole creation moves”
We ought to be clear at this point. Many people today live despairing lives simply because they cannot see any meaning or purpose in life. It feels like they are on a never-ending treadmill which goes round and round and round and they cannot get off at any point. As one philosopher said, Life is just one dammed thing after another. Its going nowhere.
Not true. Our Christian Faith says that life is not cyclical but linear. It has a beginning and it moves toward an end. The end, like the beginning, is determined by the Purpose of God and God is present at every stage and at every moment.
So what happens to us is important. And how we respond to what happens is even more important. We can, if we like, simply shrug our shoulders and grin and bear it. Or we can respond in the belief that God works in all things for good with those who love Him and co-operate with Him. We can link ourselves positively and constructively with what Jesus proclaimed to be the purpose of God; the coming of His Kingdom here on earth.
There will be a Final Coming of God, an End, a Consummation. No one can say when that will be or how it will be. Our timescales are miniscule compared to God’s eternity. But what does matter is that we respond to God’s coming in the here and now; that we play our part in the build-up to the fulfilment of God’s purpose; that we give heart and mind and soul and strength to make the coming of His Kingdom a reality in our world.
God came. God comes. God will come. That is the big picture which advent celebrates. And we are part of that picture. As we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas we look beyond to a Final Coming and sing...
"Come, Lord Jesus,
Everlasting God come down.”
Readings: Isaiah Chapter 2 vv 2-5 ; Matthew Chapter 5 vv 1-11
For many people Remembrance Sunday is a time of pain. They remember the loss of someone they loved, not only in the 1st WW but in the conflicts which have followed ever since. Remembrance Sunday poses the question “ Will it ever end?” And, part of the answer to that question lies in remembering.
1. We remember in order to learn from the past.
Someone once said that if we don’t learn from the past we are doomed to repeat it. And the WW2 provides an excellent example of how to avoid this... The 1st WW ended with the Treaty of Versailles. That Treaty was designed to humiliate a beaten enemy. The Germans were forced to pay huge sums by way of reparation and that fuelled a sense of grievance on which Hitler capitalised when he came to power. Another WW became inevitable.
At the end of the 2nd WW the allies acted differently. Instead of grinding a beaten foe into the ground they instituted the Marshall Plan so that a crippled economy could be rebuilt. Doing that ensured that the enemy would become an ally. They eliminated any sense of injustice and grievance which could fester in the future. The allies had remembered – and learned from the past.
2. We remember in order to forgive but not forget.
So many people say that we must “forgive and forget”. It’s a very glib saying and it isn’t true. It is quite impossible to forget. Its not like hitting the ‘delete’ button on the computer. No way in which you simply erase from the memory the pain and suffering and trauma of war. And, even if you could forget it would be the wrong thing to do.
Forgiving is another thing altogether. We often think of forgiveness in purely emotional terms. It isn’t primarily emotional. Forgiveness is a volitional thing first and foremost. We decide to forgive! And that’s a very hard thing to do. It means that we are prepared to draw a line under the past and refuse to allow what happened in the past to dictate your actions now and in the future. The memory persists but forgiveness means it does not poison the present.
Such forgiveness is not easy but it can be done. Nelson Mandela provides a great example. Nothing will ever make him forget the years of imprisonment on Robben Island or the indignities he suffered. But he realised that there was no future for him or his country if memory results in endless recrimination or retribution. So he drew a line under the past and put all his energies into rebuilding a society which he hoped would be free from the prejudices and injustices he suffered.
On the other hand in the Middle East and Europe the memory of the past is carried over into the present and the future with no attempt at forgiveness. The hostility between Jew and Arab goes back thousands of years. In Ireland the hostility between Catholic and Protestant goes back hundreds of years. The ancient grievances and injustices fuel present attitudes and the conflict persists. It is ironic that “Apprentice Boys” (none of whom is under 60 yrs old) still insist on marching in memory of ancient conflicts and such marches are simply provocative. They keep alive the hatreds of the past. Nobody is prepared to say “Enough is enough”. Nobody is prepared to draw a line under the past. And so the ancient feud persists.
We can’t forget. But we can forgive. And we remember in order to do so. You cant forgive something you have forgotten.
3. We remember the words of Scripture.
This gives an added dimension to Remembrance Sunday. It sets it in a Christian context. We make no apology for doing that.
Remember the words of Isaiah. He pictures Jerusalem, the City of God set high above the surrounding countryside. At its heart the Temple; the dwelling place of God. And, in his minds eye he sees the nations streaming towards the city
“Come let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob”. - Why?
“That he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths”.
The end result of that pilgrimage is that men “would beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks and study war no more”. Peace is the consequence of Worship!! For to worship rightly is to have our minds nourished by His truth, our imaginations purified by His beauty, our will orientated around His will. It is to love God. And no-one who truly loves Good can hate his brother at the same time.
Exactly the same truth lies behind the Christmas story of the Shepherds coming to the manger. They heard a song whilst out in the fields keeping watch over their sheep.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Peace.”
Peace is the outcome of worship; of giving “glory to God”.
Others might decry this worship component of Peace. Christians must insist on it else we are selling the Faith short. Peace does not merely come from Conferences, compromise agreements, initiating treaties and deploying peace-keeping forces around the world. We do not belittle these efforts. They are necessary. But they do not guarantee a durable peace.
So we remember today. In order to learn from the past, in order to forgive when we cannot forget. We come to the House of the Lord to remember and here we are taught His ways and learn to walk in His paths.
As a result...
Men will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks, their ballistic missiles into appropriate technology and study war no more.
This Month's Quote
May God strengthen you in your inner being through the Spirit, so that Christ may live in your hearts through faith.
Ephesians 3: 14-21