Tuesday, 24 February 2015

You are my beloved child

For the first thirty years of his life no-one has a clue what Jesus was doing. One can assume certain things. As Joseph is never mentioned outside of the birth stories we can assume that he has died by now and Jesus as the eldest son would presumably have taken over the running of the family business.
We can assume a conventional Jewish religious upbringing as Jesus knew the scriptures well. But because he had travelled out to where John the Baptist was operating we also know that he had a radical edge to his religious faith.
You didn’t just arrive at John the Baptist by chance. Jesus lived in Nazareth and John was baptising in the river Jordan somewhere near the Dead Sea. That was an awfully long way from Nazareth. It was a long intentional journey not a chance encounter.
 John was a rough and ready character, reckoned a prophet by many but a thorn in the flesh of the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem with a particular emphasis on repentence – a turning away from wickedness and a return to the path of righteousness.
That Jesus travelled to John to be baptised I think is a significant thing in itself.
But it was what happened when he was baptised that is the truly significant thing. Something happened. A religious experience. An experience of the living God.
In this experience Father, Son and Holy Spirit are revealed. The Father, the creator, the sourceless source of all things, the Holy Spirit of God who came down from heaven, and the pronouncement  “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased”.
As children of God ourselves that is our status in God’s eyes too – beloved.
You might want to ask why Jesus went to the wilderness for forty days. Well he was sent, He was compelled by the Holy Spirit. Verse 12 says “And the Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness”.
He needed time to assimilate and discern the meaning of those words and after a long time of prayer, contemplation and fasting. Mark’s version is the earliest and the most terse. It is Matthew and Luke who flesh out the temptations by the devil.
What this time in the wilderness tell us is that sometimes you need to retreat first in order to go forward. Just as an athlete has to prepare physically so Jesus had to prepare spiritually and so do we. And this time Jesus spent in prolonged prayer and fasting was the preparation he needed to propel himself into his ministry.
After his time of testing and discernment  He returned to Galilee with a renewed and bold sense of purpose and destiny, proclaiming the good news of God and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news”
That is the same proclamation, the same challenge that Jesus confronts every generation with. It is the same challenge we are faced with today and every day. Rather than a once for all event repentance is a daily challenge.
Repent and believe the good news. After the example of Jesus we too have set aside a time to discern and contemplate those same words that God says to each and every one of us. What will you do with these words. How will you respond. How will you let them work in your life?

“You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased”   

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Good news veiled

Paul talks about the gospel – the good news of God acting in and through the life of Jesus Christ – as light shining in a dark world but that somehow for many people they are unable to see that light so cannot respond to it.
And Paul is one that should know of course. He is proof that you can have quite enough knowledge about Jesus to actively persecute his followers as he did.
After presiding at the stoning to death of the first Christian Martyr Stephen he was on the road to Damascus to go and bring a group of Christians back in chains. It was a personal, supernatural experience of Jesus, a experience that told him that he was alive and vindicated by God.
So you can know all about Jesus. You can know lots and lots about him. You could be a Biblical scholar and write books about him and still not believe in him or even actively reject him and persecute his followers.
Having knowledge about someone is very different from knowing someone. The first is second hand knowledge, the second is first hand and personal.
It is sometimes said that God doesn’t have grandchildren, only children.
So it follows that what we should be praying for each other is that we will have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Our prayer is that our knowledge about is changed to knowledge of.
My prayer before all services is that people are touched by a religious experience in a service. That could be as seemingly trivial like having a good warm feeling that touches your heart – that makes you feel good.
You might be beguiled by a particular set of words in a reading, a prayer, or even a sermon. You might feel moved to pray yourself, to reach out in faith to someone you only half believe in or perhaps don’t believe in.
You might be attracted by the feeling of being part of a community whose very core values is to become better people – kinder – more accommodating – more settled in your mind– more peaceful in body and soul. You might be drawn to the feeling that you do have a purpose in life after all.
I am quite aware that I spend a lot of my time imparting head knowledge. My prayer is that too is converted into heart knowledge. Today I want to major on heart knowledge.
I am going to ask everyone here to pray silently – I don’t want anyone to say anything. I want you to pray for the person on your left and on your right. If you are sitting on your own I’d like you to pray for the person in front of you and behind you.
Let us pray this prayer: I pray for you. I pray that your life will be fulfilling. I pray that you will know love and support in your life.  I pray that you will know the love and support of God in your life. I pray that you will be touched at some point in the service or later this week by the Holy Spirit of God. And we pray that will respond. Amen. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

In deep water

Here is a  moment in theology that we are asked to step out of the shallows where we have been paddling and wade out into deeper water where we run the risk of being knocked off our feet by strong waves, or  swept away by various currents or even drowned.
But it is out there in the deep water that Paul bids us to follow him. So let us walk out into the dark choppy waters. We quickly find that much of our language, our symbols and our analogies are inadequate, but we have no other way to express them.
Consider Paul’s opening verse here. “Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
Most sane people will now have backtracked and be wading back to the shallows. Give me a good old fashioned miracle to explain rather than this kind of thing. But Paul invites us to stay with him.
Christ is the image of the invisible God. Well someone or something that is invisible plainly can’t have an image so with the water up to our waist now that statement comes at us like a strong wave that nearly knocks us off our feet ...and yet we kind of understand what Paul is trying to get at here.  We understand that he is trying to convey a family likeness, that in some way Jesus exactly reflects the attributes of God.
Now that likeness is certainly not a physical resemblance so therefore Paul must be alluding to a spiritual, a moral likeness, a unity of will or purpose perhaps.
Many centuries later it was Archbishop Michael Ramsey who articulated well what Paul says here when he said “God is as Jesus is”.
We know what God is like because we know what Jesus is like. We Christians make all sorts of statements about God –
We say that God is loving, that God is forgiving, that God is compassionate, that God is just and true. But how do we know that God is like that? The answer is simple. We know God is like that because Jesus was like that and Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God. Jesus is the one who reveals  God’s nature and purpose.
Without ever saying anything so overt and bold as “Jesus is God” Paul says something that comes close yet still retains that distance between Jesus and his and our Father. Paul says about Jesus “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Sublime use of words there. “In Jesus the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”.
Paul sends another wave crashing over our heads as well making us gasp for air, “For in him all things in heaven and earth were created”
We are now getting into the kind of ideas that quite rightly make our heads spin. But logically we know that at the dawn of creation when nothing existed except the infintessimally small piece of matter that exploded to create the universe billions of years ago there wasn’t  a First century Galilean carpenter standing there.
And if he wasn’t what or who was? Because all things were made through him according to Paul.   
Something or someone spiritual, not physical was there and they worked alongside God in creation.
Now this spiritual entity though whom all things were created has a name in the Bible. It is called Wisdom.
Now in the Hebrew Bible the relationship between Wisdom and God is a bit like the relationship between Jesus and God that Paul is trying to articulate. In fact it is the same kind of relationship. Near, overlapping, doing the same work but not identical to God.
Proverbs (8:22 - 9:1) . In it "Wisdom" is speaking......    
"The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up,  at the first, before the beginning of the earth.  When there were no depths I was brought forth,
   when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped,
   before the hills, I was brought forth—
when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.
When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,  rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world
   and delighting in the human race.
‘And now, my children, listen to me:  happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,  and do not neglect it. Happy is the one who listens to me,  watching daily at my gates,  waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life  and obtains favour from the Lord; but those who miss me injure themselves;  all who hate me love death.’ Wisdom has built her house,  she has hewn her seven pillars."
Identifying Jesus Christ with Holy Wisdom is not new – far from it. For centuries the greatest Church in all Christendom was dedicated to Christ and it was called the Haghia Sofia – The Holy Wisdom of God. Jesus is the word or the wisdom of God made flesh.

So we have waded out and now we are getting out of our depth so we can now make our way back in to shallower water, but the more often we go out into deep water the more confident we become and eventually we may learn to swim and swim strongly in the deep water of our faith, but to do so we need to keep getting out there. 

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A sign that will be opposed.

Simeon was overjoyed at being able to actually meet the messiah. He had been promised by the Spirit that he wouldn’t die until he had and it was by the same Spirit that he was able to recognise Jesus.
It is when we reach  verse 34 that Simeon gives a kind of overall summary of Jesus’ work and his fate.
First of all, he will cause many people to fall. This is a hard saying but it is true. What I think this means is not so much that God judges man but that man judges himself, and his judgement is his reaction to the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
If when he is confronted with the goodness and holiness, the mercy and forgiveness, and the compassion and righteousness of God, and his response is cold indifference or actively hostile then he is condemning himself. At least until he does accept the gift of life - and that offer is always open to us – we remain wilfully outside of the Kingdom of God.
But He also causes people to rise. For people who do accept the gift and run towards God,, they are within the Kingdom. Their personal lives are transformed. They gain strength and confidence from knowing that God himself loves them and cares for them. They gain a backbone and are able to stand up for themselves. Their personal circumstances can be changed and set right again. They can be set free. Jesus is the helping hand of God that can grab hold you and pull you out of the mire and into the light.
So Simeon prophesied that Jesus would cause the falling and rising of many in Israel and when we are confronted with the gospel ourselves we are always faced with the same challenge. Do I run towards the gospel or turn and run the other way? These challenges are not “once for all” occasions, they are everyday challenges that we have to meet every day. Conversion is a daily challenge and can be a slow process. I know I fail often but at least I do know the standards that are expected, and when I confess I am forgiven and given a fresh go at it.
Simeon then says that Jesus will be a sign that will be opposed. I would say it is very difficult or even impossible to remain entirely neutral towards Jesus. We either run towards Him or away from Him and probably the biggest barrier to any of us running towards the gospel is our own pride.
Taught by our society to be competitive strong and self reliant, lots of us, men especially, can see faith as a sign of weakness  to be avoided. And because I need to be strong – I can do this alone. But it takes a different kind of strength to know your need and what is good for you. We are afraid that the piercing light of Christ will shine a light on all our faults and failings and expose us.
And it does. But that exposure is between you and God and takes place in the secret places of our heart. Once those demons, addictions, personal traits and self-interest have been dealt with, you are forgiven and free to be the person God created you to be in the first place. 
Because the reality of standing alone is quite the opposite. In remaining resolutely within our own fiercely defended cocoon we remain brittle and exposed and vulnerable - but with God in our life that makes us strong.   Two is better that one!
And then Simeon looks at Mary and says “And a sword will pierce your soul too”
Suffering is part and parcel of the Christian story. As we look forward towards the cross and beyond that to the resurrection, let’s remember that the word “passion” as in the passion of the Christ means suffering borne willingly. Mary’s suffering will be far from willing as she is destined to watch her son die in agony on the cross.
In that moment of darkness I’m sure that she never thought she would see light again. But the piercing light of God would overcome even that calamity in time.

Simeon was a prophet. And as Jesus was fond of saying “Those who have ears, let them hear”.