Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Ponder these things

Speaking about Mary was very difficult for me in the early days. I started in a low  evangelical church which simply ignored Mary.
I trained at an Anglo catholic Monastery that lauded Mary to the high heavens and virtually worshipped her which frankly made me physically sick.
I reasoned there must be an authentically Christian way of seeing Mary that trod a path somewhere between those two extremes and eventually I did find it, in the iconography and theology of the Eastern Orthodox church and Rowan Williams.
Amongst other things I used to be Archbishop Rowan Williams personal representative to the Patriarchs of the Orthodox churches of Romania and Bulgaria, called rather grandly his Apokrisarios and Rowan too had an intense interest in Orthodoxy and wrote a wonderful little book called “Ponder these things” where he wrote about praying with icons – well worth having if you could ever get your hands on one.
First of all, it is rarely if ever that Mary is depicted on her own in Orthodoxy. She is to be understood solely in relation to her Son Jesus. She is thus guarded from the sin of becoming an object of worship in her own right.
Icons are not “painted” they are “written”. They are words in paint and they are written for us to read and speak to us. They are termed “Windows into heaven”.
Now if you would turn to the reverse of your pew sheet you will find one particular style called Eleousia (meaning the virgin of heavenly kindness). The other two main styles are “The one who points the way” – Hodegetria and “The virgin of the sign – Orans. And I will incorporate insights from those two other styles along the way.
Look at the icon. See how intimate it is. The Christ child embraces Mary cheek to cheek. His arm encircles her neck and fondles her face, one foot is thrust towards us, and his other hand grabs Mary’s veil.  Many versions have the text from the Song of songs (2:6) behind it which reads “His left hand is under my head and his right hand embraces me”
Christ’s eyes are fixed on Mary and Mary imploringly looks out at us. and Mary’s hand is beckoning and pointing us to Jesus as if to say “Not me, but Him”.
Here we are being told about the intensity and immediacy of their love.
Despite what we know about God through Christ most of us still have as our starting point a notion that God stands at quite a distance from us, waiting for us to make a move towards Him so this image can be quite shocking when you consider that the child is God and Mary represents humanity.
His love is like an eager and boisterous child scambling up his mother’s lap, seizing handfuls of her clothing and nuzzling his face against hers, hungry for sheer physical closeness.
Instead of a distance between humanity and God we have depicted a movement so direct and intimate it can be quite embarrassing. Mary’s expression does seem half embarrassed by the attention.   
We see here that God is not ashamed to be our God. Not only does not mind our company, he is hungry for it, passionate for it. We have here a picture of God’s hungry love for us. Think now of Jesus’ parable of the Father in the prodigal son running down the road to meet his lost son
He loves the reflection of his love in creation, cannot bear to be separate from it and goes eagerly in search of it. Think now of all the parables about things lost – the lost coin, lost sheep, prodigal son again, eager to be reunited which his own which rebelled against him.
How we respond to such intense love I think is shown in Mary’s gaze which is looking directly at you. I ventured earlier, an embarrassment, but she almost looks a bit tragic, burdened. How do I, how do we possibly respond to such love and devotion? How do we begin to receive it?
Mary looks at us with eyes full of love, grief and care as she is the first one to feel the weight of receiving of this almost desperate love.
Look at this icon and what does it tell you about yourself – your own self perception. You are the object of divine love just as Mary is.
But accepting this love turns things upside down just as any child turns the life of a parent upside down. So it is risky and things will change.
As in any icon of Jesus and Mary, Mary is the sign of our humanity engaged by God. In fact, Mary is creation itself embraced by God, and left in disarray and shock and disorientation when we realise the true nature of God.
God is here not a distant parent, or a perhaps threatening adult love but as a hungry child.
God cannot bear to be separated from us because he cannot bear to be separated from his own divine action. The creator has a burning desire to be reunited with his creation.   


Monday, 12 December 2016

John the Baptist

Isaiah 35: 1-10 (page 595 in our pew Bibles) The dominant theme of the entire Bible is "exile and return" which can be applied to both Israel and the human race as a whole. Here Isaiah talks about the return of the redeemed and the signs that will accompany the event and fulfilled by Jesus.
James 5: 7-10 (page 1013 in our pew Bibles) A call to patience when waiting for the day of the Lord from Jesus' brother James. He implores us not to grumble against each other while we wait.
Matthew 11: 2-11 (page 816 in our pew Bibles) John the Baptist wonders if Jesus really is the Messiah and Jesus replies that he should look at Jesus' works in fulfilling the prophesies of Isaiah.

If it is true that as it says in Proverbs 29:18 that “without a vision the people perish or are discouraged” then it is essential that the prophets make God and his certain action the centre of their message.
And here we have a wonderful vision of the salvation of humanity and the everlasting joy that is promised to God’s people.

The imagery is that of a return from exile. The two greatest influences on the Jewish psyche was the captivity in Egypt and the return with God’s help under the guidance of Moses, imprinted into the Jewish mind by the celebration of the Passover every year and the exile in Babylon and the return engineered by God through King Cyrus.

These two exiles mirror the primal exile of the entire human race from the Garden of Eden and our return engineered through The Son of God himself, Jesus Christ.
We are exiled from God in a wilderness of suffering, death and futility, by our own volition until we were rescued by the action of God through Jesus on the cross. What he asks for in return, to access this salvation, this eternal joy, is our faith. The way we exercise our faith is through the amendment of our life – by turning against evil and consciously returning to God’s fold. This involves the surrendering of our will to God’s will.

We also heard from James, Jesus’ brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

He has advice for us. As we are waiting for this glorious future, be patient. And in our patient waiting, confirm our faith. Don’t grumble against each other, and show complete honesty and integrity. We don’t need to swear oaths as Christians because our word is our bond. Our words and actions should be as one. Our yes is yes and our no is no, because we don’t deceive each other.
And it is always a comfort to know that others have gone through what you have gone through so James reminds us that the prophets needed great patience and endurance to achieve their goals.

One of these, the last of the prophets was John the Baptist and in Matthew’s gospel today we see John in prison at a moment of weakness, who is wondering if Jesus really is the long awaited Messiah. Jesus doesn’t answer with a direct yes or know but says, “Look at the prophesies written about the Messiah.” The deaf are given their hearing, the blind their sight, the lepers walk, the dead raised”. What more do you want?
This day we are celebrating John the Baptist’s role in our salvation history and great pains are taken to present him as a traditional Old Testament prophet, wild and woolly, living a frugal existence in the wilderness (which itself is a part of prophesies).
He acts as a kind of Bridge between the Old and New. Jesus is a new thing in their lives but John the Baptist is that link between themselves and the Old Testament Prophets, and is a kind of guarantor that while Jesus is new and challenging, he is the one foretold by the Prophets.

But we end with one startling statement made by Jesus. No-one is greater than John, yet even the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than John. Now whatever can Jesus be saying here? Any of us that confesses Jesus as our Lord and saviour is much greater than John the Baptist.

Well John was certainly a great prophet who pointed people to Jesus and he knew a lot about God’s Justice and preached as such BUT he had not and could not see the cross. He would not be able to appreciate the depth of God’s Love, his forgiveness and Grace. He had not seen the full revelation of God’s love. We have and we are blessed indeed. That is why we are, through no merit of our own greater than John the Baptist.

We are witnesses to the full revelation of God’s love for each one of us. Christianity is a corporate faith but it is also intensely personal.

Essentially it is personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We have seen God’s glory and experienced his limitless love and forgiveness. That is our greatest possession, and one we should be proud the share and give away as a precious gift this Christmas.

Monday, 5 December 2016

I have seen the light!

Isaiah 11: 1-10 (page 575 in our pew Bibles) Tempting to just luxuriate in some well known and beautiful words of Isaiah. The Spirit endowed Messiah has God like qualities so natural to him that they are worn as "Clothing" (v. 5). He is also endowed with the power to enforce his justice leading to universal peace not just in the realm of human affairs but also in nature as well
Romans 15: 4-13 (page 949 in our pew Bibles) Paul affirms the words of scripture affirming the psalms, the law, the historical books and the prophets as all being written for our instruction (v. 4). On this 2nd Sunday in Advent we celebrate the role of the prophets. 
Matthew 3: 1-12 (page 808 in our pew Bibles) Luke also quotes Isaiah when referring to John the Baptist. John baptised with water but Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit and will judge the nations with God's justice. 

On this day we celebrate the role of the prophets in our salvation history. But what is a prophet? There are two closely related aspects to being a prophet.
One is taken from the Greek profetes which means “foretelling”, but the original Hebrew word Nabi’ means “one who proclaims” powerfully into the political and social circumstances of his time.
The greatest prophet is generally judged to be Isaiah and in today’s offering we have a beautifully written foretelling of the coming of a future Messiah.
This future Messiah will be from “the root of Jesse”  Jesse was the Father of King David so the future king would come from the Davidic line. But this future King would be endowed with the “Spirit of God” and not like all the disappointing kings of Israel they would endure.
Just as true Prophets were endowed with the Spirit of God to deliver the words of God the ideal future king will Govern as God would govern.
Actually his God-like qualities would be so natural that they would be worn like clothing. And he will judge the world as God would judge it and bring in the peace that passes all human understanding.
And not only to the human world but to all creation, symbolised by the calf and the Lion laying down together. The whole cosmos will recognise the sovereignty of God.
And as if to underline the authority of scripture as a binding agent for warring parties to unite behind Paul quotes from various parts of the Bible, including Isaiah, and says that these words were written for our instruction and will if followed bring different parties of Christians together under the authority of Christ as vested in the scriptures.
This is a powerful appeal to the authority of the Bible to unite behind.
And just in case we needed more encouragement our last reading is from Matthew’s gospel where he too quotes from the prophet Isaiah, referring to his prophesy about John the Baptist. And of course, but not included today is the episode when Jesus, sitting in the Synagogue unrolls the scroll of Isaiah and reads from it and declares, “Today this prophesy has been fulfilled in your presence”
But in this text today from Matthew there Is a hint of the extent that Jesus surpasses John. John baptises with water but Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit.
Remember that baptise means “to immerse” so at baptism the person is immersed not just in water but in God’s Spirit. Immersed in God; drenched with God. 
That is God’s promise, that when the little child is baptised here today she will be drenched in the reality and truth of God. A light will be lit in her heart that God willing, when she is old enough to understand will respond to in her life.
The prophesies in the Bible are true. They were fulfilled in Jesus and their prophesies about the far future will also be proved true. Our role is to co-operate with the truth and work in tandem with God to bring his light to bear where we find ourselves.
Not in an overbearing way. We need to be canny. We introduce people with gentleness and respect. After all, Jesus told us that we had to as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

Nothing impresses people more than a positive change in ourselves and today we bestow the means to enact that positive change on another child. Whether she uses the God given gift given to her this day will be up to her but all baptised people are given the means, God’s Spirit at their baptism. 

Monday, 21 November 2016

Christ the King

Who do you look to for leadership, moral guidance, direction or inspiration. A political figure (less and less common), a celebrity (very common nowadays), some spiritual guru perhaps? It is a fact that most people are more likely to find inspiration in David Beckham than anyone else nowadays.

But for a Christian that question should be absolutely simple.
We look to our king, Jesus. Or if you are a republican, our president, though actually that doesn’t really work as a President is mainly symbolic, as actually is our own monarchy nowadays.
But in the time the Bible was written the kingship of Jesus is to be thought of more as an absolute ruler, though a supremely just and merciful and forgiving absolute ruler so  ”King” fits the Bill more than any other description. The kind of king that the Bible yearned for and often described was more like a shepherd who looked after his sheep.
Jeremiah rails against the imperfect shepherds that had beset Israel and looked forward to a future perfect king of Israel and his name will be “The Lord is our righteousness”.
The Christian church is the new Israel and Jesus is that perfect shepherd, our righteous king. Unlike the failed shepherds, Jesus is also divine and so is perfectly just, perfectly loving and also sees through all our pretence. He can’t be fooled and will also rebuke us when we go astray.
His power though at his crucifixion is mocked and misunderstood. In Luke he is tempted to misuse his power for his own ends, to save himself from the cross, but he refuses. He has bigger fish to fry. His mission is to serve and die for the whole world. He proves his steadfastness and trustworthiness in looking past his own needs and fulfilling God’s will. We have a sacrificial king, who was willing to die for us.
In a strange irony, the reason Jesus was killed was nailed to his cross and the charge against him read “The King of the Jews”. But the scope of Jesus’ kingdom had been misjudged. They thought his kingdom was a worldly one and his aim was to simply remove the Romans from power.
In fact his kingdom was universal and everlasting and the kingdoms he challenged were all the temporal powers of this world, past, present and future.  
And although it is only Christians in this world that recognise his divine rule, actually Christ is king over all creation. We are the lucky ones because we have seen and recognised his rule. One day everyone will have to bow the knee regardless. Paul says that one day, everything in all creation will be reconciled to this fact – so every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and King.
So we have privileged knowledge. We already have been transferred to the kingdom of God. We are already children of God because we are privy to the truth. We are presented holy and blameless and above reproach to the Father through Jesus.
We need a new boldness and a new confidence in this fact. We need to let that fact empower us.
Our kingdom is forever. Our king is forever.
We have God himself on our side so we have nothing to fear. In God’s grace we have the ultimate safety net. We have a freedom to be bold and try new things. Even is we fail we still have God’s blessing. If we sometimes trip and fall God will still pick us up again.
Our shepherd king will always hold us in his grasp and never let us go. He went so far as to die for us – why do we think he’d let us down now?
Christ is our leader, our moral guide, our inspiration, our servant, brother, shepherd and KING.


Monday, 14 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday

The first thing to say is that Remembrance of the war dead and those affected by war is always intensely personal. We all have our own stories. My paternal granddad, known as “Little Granddad”, (because he was little!), fought all the way through the first world war. Because he was a country boy and used to looking after horses that was his job on the front lines in France.
My maternal granddad was captured at Dunkirk and spent five years in a POW camp, an experience that broke him and he died well before his time.
And one of the most poignant trips in the last couple of years was making a pilgrimage to visit the grave of Louise’s Great uncle, Thomas Brooke, killed on the Somme and buried in a Graveyard near Thiepval called “Blighty Valley”, made more moving by the fact that as far as we know we are the first people from his family to visit his grave ever.
These and a million other personal stories are the content of Remembrance
It is also important to understand that Remembrance Sunday is a secular national commemoration and not a Christian festival. But it is a secular commemoration which the Church of England as the National Church lends its fulsome support and frames every commemoration up and down the nation from the cenotaph downwards.
That being the case, I suppose the question for us to reflect upon is what does the Christian faith have to contribute in offering the spiritual framework to the day which recollects the sacrifice of so many people during war?
And just at that point we have our first offering – the notion of sacrifice. The Christian faith is built on the notion of sacrifice.
That a sacrifice, is not an empty gesture, or a simple waste, but has innate power is written in to the Christian faith. In the case of Christ, we have a blood sacrifice and the sacrifice of that one man resulted in the defeat of evil, and the gift of hope to millions.
Using this motif, no sacrifice could ever be futile or meaningless but imbued with import, and should be received with gratitude. Sacrifice has meaning and can achieve things.
Pacifism is a noble position but the Church of England is not a pacifist church. It recognises that we are part and parcel of this fallen sinful world, and while we certainly hope and work for a future world of peace, we acknowledge that while we are part of this fallen creation with a heavy heart sometimes the unthinkable becomes necessary.
Remembrance is itself a word that Christians use all the time. “do this in remembrance of me” said Jesus Christ. Remembrance in Greek (anamnesis) in the Bible is much stronger than just “remembering”. It means to “make present”. We “make present”, in order to enter into the pain and misery, and ultimately death of Jesus. Applying this to the remembrance of the fallen soldiers - When you really enter in to the pain, really feel it, so that it becomes a moment of transformation. We hope it may become a powerful way of stopping us rushing quite so fast into yet another war if we can avoid it.
Also on the question of an example and an inspiration to others Christ offers an insight. In the manner of Christ’s life, his morality, courage, selflessness and sense of justice, we have a life worth emulating. There is something to inspire us. So too in the countless stories of courage and heroism do we find stories, lives, to inspire us.
So both as a sacrifice and an inspiriation, the Christian faith can speak into the commemoration of the fallen.
Thirdly we inevitably then should ask the question no one else asks. “Where are they now?” In a culture that routinely poo-poos the notion of a post death existence, Christianity is clear that one is not only possible but can in fact be positively assured by faith in Christ.
And lastly perhaps the greatest asset that the Christian faith brings to Remembrance Sunday is hope for a future world of joy, love and peace; a hope that is never extinguished no matter how much it is shaken.
We possess a hope that there is a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be no more tears, pain, suffering or death. And this must naturally also mean, no more war. This is our hope. Because of the sinfulness of mankind this must remain a distant hope. Mosul, Aleppo, Libya, Sierra Leone, extermination camps, medical experiments on humans, rape and  every kind of vile practice against civilians seems to have proliferated of late; yet we as Christians never lose our hope.

What insights Christians can offer to Remembrance Sunday are; sacrifice, inspiration to follow their collective character where they led, life after death, hope for the future.

Monday, 31 October 2016

For all the saints

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 (page 744 in our Bibles) Complicated! The vision starts with four beasts, representing empires emerging from the sea, representing chaos. We then switch to a judgment scene which is presided over by the ancient of days(v. 9) and the climax has one "like a son of man coming on the clouds of heaven" who is given dominion, and glory and a kingdom(v14). But the extraordinary thing is that this dominion shall then be given to the "people of the saints of the most high" (v 27). We share in the dominion of the new heaven and the new earth!
Ephesians 1: 11-23 (page 966 in our Bibles). A glorious piece of writing that talks of our "inheritance", and the seal of the Holy Spirit which guarantees it, and speaks of the church as the body of Christ which fills all in all.  
Luke 6:20-31 (page 862 in our Bibles) These blessings and woes are both directed to the disciples and are a challenging portrait of what the community of believers is supposed to look like. The fourth blessing is especially challenging. The gospel will not necessarily make you popular! We are called to be prophets and our fate may well be similar to the prophets of old.

One of the most inspiring speeches ever given started “I have a dream” when Martin Luther King articulated a vision of a better present and a future for America. Here is Daniel we have a vision, whose scope is much larger than America’s future. This vision is of the future of all creation with a special place within it for us, God’s children.
We start with the glorious prophetic imagery of the book of Daniel, which begins in the chaos of the world represented by the sea and the dysfunctional Kingdoms of this world vying for worldly power which are the beasts that emerge out of the sea.
So all the world seems chaotic, hopeless and random – unjust and unkind. But what books like Daniel are at pains to tell is that no matter how bleak or oppressive or hopeless the situation in the world seems – take heart and strength that God is in control and He has marvellous plans for us and the whole creation and because God is the guarantor of this vision we can be sure that it will come to pass.
God here is called the “ancient of days” and is envisioned as a marvellous spectacle as He takes his seat, he is ancient, denoting wisdom, his clothing is white as snow denoting purity and holiness, and the fire denotes judgement on everything that is going on.
Then comes the prophesy that all these earthly kingdoms vying for power on earth are as nothing because a superior unshakeable kingdom of God will be revealed. And then the coming of Jesus Christ and his kingdom is foretold.
And we know this vision is true and will unfold because the first part of it has already taken place. And behold with the clouds of heaven one “like a son of man” will be presented with a new eternal kingdom, and he will have an everlasting kingship.  And you will know of course that Jesus’ favourite way of referring to himself was “the son of man” and this is exactly this passage in Daniel that Jesus is referring to when he uses that term.
All kingdoms, all empires eventually fall; the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Assyrians, the British, all which once seemed impregnable and unthinkable that they might decay and die. But they did.
But this kingdom, the kingdom of God will never die. Remember that this kingdom formed the content of Jesus’ first ever pronouncement. “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand”.
But then something even more extraordinary is announced. Whilst Christ is King in this new order, dominion is to be shared. Christ is not a dictator.
Who is this kingdom going to be shared with? “The saints of the most high will share this kingdom.
And just in case we didn’t get it the first time this is underlined in verse 27
“And the kingdom and the dominion shall be given to the people of the saints of the most high”
Who are the saints? That is us. We share in the Royal Dominon.  A saint, before the term was highjacked to denote a few super Christians officially declared “saint” was the term Paul used when he was addressing the whole community of Christians.
We are the saints of the most high whose inheritance is to share in the kingship of Christ in the Kingdom of God.
And Paul talks of our inheritance in his letter to the Ephesians. Saint means holy which means “set apart”. We are a people set apart for a great inheritance and our guarantee of that inheritance is the seal of the Holy Spirit. That is why we call ourselves “the body of Christ” and led Peter to refer to the church as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9)
When we sing “For all the Saints” we are singing about ourselves and all Christians past, present and future who will share in this glorious vision.
Don’t forget we are holy, set apart, different. And Jesus pronounces some blessings and woes. He points out that it is not going to be plain sailing and in fact, it is not going to guarantee you popularity. In fact he says rejoice in that day when people hate you, and exclude you and spurn your name as evil on account of the son of man, for behold, your reward will be great in heaven”.
Jesus talks about our reward, our inheritance as co-heirs of the Kingdom of heaven. If you need encouragement in your faith, keep that vision of the new creation uppermost in your mind.
A glorious inheritance kept for us, the saints of the most high. We have a vision of that glorious future in the book of Revelation.

 21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place[a] of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,[b] and God himself will be with them as their God.[c] He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”

Monday, 24 October 2016

In the beginning was the word

There is no other book in the world like the Bible. Or rather I should say books (plural). The Bible is a compendium of 66 separate books written at different times and by different people in different cultures over about 2 thousand years.
They include lots of different genres; Law, history, prophesy, apocalyptic, wisdom, poetry, gospels, letters, and they need to be understood both individually and with reference to each other.
What are they? They are a record of God’s dealings with creation, especially humanity, from the very begginning in the Garden of Eden, a relationship which goes wrong, is eventually restored through Jesus Christ and then looks forward to the re-creation of a renewed humanity in a new heaven and a new earth in the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible. It is the story of our past, our present and our future
Christians have always regarded the scriptures as inspired by God. Or “God breathed” as the scriptures themselves say.
That doesn’t make them dictated by the hand of God but they are “inspired”. Because even the most arcane piece of scripture from the dullest of history books is inspired, any piece of scripture innately carries within it the capacity to inspire, to comfort, challenge or to give voice to our suffering and lament. God is woven into and through the text, so giving us the possibility to connect with God
Here is how Paul describes that facet of the scriptures in 2 Timothy 3:15-17
“and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,17 that the man of God[a] may be competent, equipped for every good work.”
Christians use it habitually as a record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as God’s plan  to fulfil his promise to humanity not to leave us dangling without hope, without a future but as our rescuer – usually called our saviour or our redeemer. He promises us eternal life in a glorious future.
Jesus is God’s rescue plan for creation. A rescue which was prophesied in many places and our first reading today is one such prophesy in Isaiah. Our gospel reading records that Jesus himself recognised another prophesy was referring to himself when he read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and declared that “This prophesy is fulfilled in your hearing”. The story of how that life and death and resurrection came about and the consequences resulting from that event are recorded in the gospels and letters and our third reading records one such outworking.
The Bible is our authority because Jesus regarded it as his authority and over time it has proved its worth and usefulness.
The Bible is unique and even in these godless times you may be surprised to know that it is the world’s bestselling book every year.
We all have our favourite bits of scripture from the 23rd psalm to John 1 at Christmas perhaps to Romans 8:38-39 to Revelation. The Psalms are an extraordinary resource expressing every human emotion.
John 3:16 is one of the best known summaries of the Christian faith
“God so loved the world that He gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not die but have eternal life”
These, and many like it are words containing life which can inspire us to great things; As a Christian teacher I could do no better thing than lead anyone to the Bible.
We take the Bible seriously because the Bible takes us seriously. It takes our need of a permanent loving relationship seriously, our need for love, mercy and forgiveness seriously.
So as this is Bible Sunday I’ll end with these immortal words from Romans 8:38-39

38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Monday, 3 October 2016

"1 hour delay 2 miles ahead"

Faith and trust are words that can be almost interchangeable. We place our trust in so many things unconsciously. Getting up in the morning is an act of trust. That the world keeps spinning, the sun will rise and set, that our pay packet or pension is always there, that clean water is always in our taps...etc.

On Thursday and Friday I placed my trust in my satnav to get me to a village in Wales I’d never been to before for my Father –in-law’s funeral. If it had failed I would have been literally completely lost! All my trust, pretty small trust really was placed in that device – a trust that was sorely stretched when it took me down some pretty narrow streets in a Welsh village – but a trust that was rewarded when it did in fact lead me to the exact spot I needed to get to.

Faith in God can be sorely tested as well. Brian, whose funeral I was attending, was my first wife - Alex’s dad. Brian outlived his daughter, my wife, by six years. Consumed by my own grief at that time, I didn’t really stop to consider how bereft Brian must have felt. We both would have agreed with Habbakuk I’m sure when he cries out to God in despair that God appears either unwilling or unable to help.

The second chapter, which gives his own answer is to continue to live by faith or trust in God’s promises. What else can we do? There is a sticky point in Jesus’ ministry when people lose faith in him and start to leave and he turns to his inner core, the disciples and says. “Do you want to go as well?” and Peter answers
“Lord where would we go?. You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68)

Trust or true faith is one that has been tested by fire through thick and thin, through good times and bad times.
Jesus tells us that we only need a tiny amount of faith to make a huge amount of difference, but also, when our faith leads us to do or achieve great things, don’t expect a reward or any special treatment, because you are only doing what is your duty.

Is there anything practical you can do to maintain or increase your trust in God?

Yes there is, but it takes a bit of effort. The simplest thing you can do is memorise some verses of the Bible that you find inspiring and helpful. The Bible is inspired by God and if you memorise some parts of it, when you say them to yourself you have the word of God on your lips, in your mind, and on your heart.
Some of the most helpful come from two books we have been studying in our home groups, Romans and Philippians;

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (4:13)

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (4:6)

If God is for us, who can be against us;

John 3:16, the 23rd psalm, the list is endless and intensely personal.

Reading or praying scripture like that connects us with God. So does prayer whether using set words, impromptu words or sitting in silence with God on your heart. Communication with God through prayer and scripture is great for building your faith and maintaining it.

So when a crisis comes, and a crisis will come, our faith has strong foundations and while you will be jolted, perhaps for some time, you will stand firm.

I will end with a memorised piece of scripture that has always helped me and strengthened me.

 Jesus said “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.
(John 16:33)

Monday, 19 September 2016

To tell you the truth....

Honesty is one of the most important virtues there is – if not the most important virtue. I’ll bet that every single person in this church has been lied to at some time or other, and some of us will have been lied to consistently and often. Recall what that felt like – how did it make you feel about the person and about yourself.
Honesty is essential because it builds trust and trust is essential in all relationships. Trust is essential in our human relationships and in our relationship with God.
Once trust has been broken and is gone it is terribly difficult to build up again because from that point on, you never are really sure what is true or false. The biggest cause of marriage break ups is the breakdown of trust because of betrayal and all the attendant lies that surround it.
The biggest cause of breakdown in people’s trust in God is the perception that they have been misled. They thought that God was a kind of big fluffy security blanket and no harm or struggle would ever come to them if they believed and prayed and then life throws them a curve ball and their mum gets cancer, or their sister dies young, or they lose their job and security, or a million other things, and they feel betrayed.....lied to.
Of course that understanding of God is a false one, but it is a very common one.
So honesty is vital and Jesus was always honest. He never promised that being a Christian would ever be easy, but he did say that we should be shrewd or wise in our dealings with people, especially with non Christians
You can take this lesson from today’s parable in Luke’s gospel and apply it to many different areas of church and personal life. We sometimes need to be much more canny, to use a N.E. phrase, in the way we approach people and situations, as Christians.
We need to be cleverer in using mass media, more creative in the way we present ourselves, creative in the way we present the gospel without watering down the essential truth of it.
We need to be realistic, down to earth, honest, but also gentle and persuasive. We can start by treating people’s current beliefs and perspectives with respect and using them as a starting point to introduce gospel values.
Sometimes that is the way but in some situations we need to be much more direct, and our dilemma is how to tell when which approach is the right one.
You can tell from our first reading today that Amos was no diplomat. He was harsh and direct but perhaps even there, that very boldness can be very attractive in a world where people are jaded, used to spin and lies. So there will be times when it is wise and prudent to use such a harsh approach.
In certain circumstances, bald, unadorned truth can be revolutionary and fresh in a world of warm empty words, compromise and political correctness.
But I still say that in most situations, we need to be cleverer than that. Even a person consumed by vanity and overwhelming self interest is not beyond reaching and being touched by God.
In my experience, appealing to someone’s sense of entitlement to the best of everything can often open a door to a materially wealthy man to the riches of heaven.
In short, we need to be honest and trustworthy, but we also need to be wise. Jesus as ever summed it up perfectly.

He said. “ I am sending you our as sheep amongst wolves so be as wise as serpents but as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16) 

Monday, 5 September 2016

Choose Life!

Choices, choices.  Life or death?
Mind you, even if you choose Life – Jesus says it isn’t an easy ride.
There are no riches or social status on offer. In fact Jesus says, it is probably a good idea to sit down and count the cost of following the one who proclaimed himself to be “The way, the truth and the Life”.
After some careful thought you might decide that you don’t have the stomach for it!
Jesus says that He has to be your number one priority, outranking everyone, even your mother and father, wife or children, brothers or sisters. I even outrank what I know is your number one priority – yourself.
With typical Semitic hyperbole Jesus says you have to “hate” those members of your family if you decide to choose Life and follow me as a disciple. In another place Jesus describes it as “taking up your own cross and following Him”
Discipleship calls for a particular kind of blinkered single minded belief that there is nothing greater or more important in the whole world than following Him.
If a sweetener were needed though, Jesus does say that if you are that single minded and really do seek first the kingdom of God then everything else will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33).
Many would see slavery and freedom as  natural opposites as Life or death, but of course the slave doesn’t have the freedom to make that choice for himself.
Paul’s friend Philemon has a slave called Onesimus whom Paul clearly wants to be set free, but Oaul doesn’t want to strongarm Philemon or issue a decree: Philemon is his friend and he dearly want him to come to the same conclusion for himself – from within.
If he can convince Philemon that Onesimus is a brother in Christ, just as Paul is, could he not convince him to see the truth that a brother in Christ can never also be your slave.
Paul treads a tightrope, wanting Philemon to see the light but without ordering him to set Onesimus free. We don’t know what happened but we can hope that Philemon did just that and within this short letter we have an example of how to persuade and cajole and get people to see sense and make the decision themselves.
There is a saying that goes “One willing volunteer is worth ten pressed men”.
Ordering people to change their ways because you say so doesn’t pay dividends, but if you persuade someone that it is the right thing to do and it was, after all, their own decision to do or believe something you have made a powerful convert convinced of the rightness of what they are doing.

Persuasion, with respect and gentleness is always more long lasting and effective than issuing orders no matter how self evidently right we may feel they are.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The promises of God

Today is all about Promises.
The Grand theme running through today’s readings and indeed through the entire Bible – the golden thread that joins everything together - are Promises made and Promises kept.
The Golden thread that binds the whole of the Old Testament together is that God has made promises to the whole of humanity, in fact the whole of creation, that in the end, Justice will prevail, Good will overcome evil, Death itself will be defeated and a glorious future of Life love and peace awaits those who keep the faith and the whole of the New Testament is a record of those promises of God having been kept.
Today in Hebrews we are given the start of a long list of characters from the Old Testament who believed the promises but never saw them fulfilled. For faith as the author writes (v 1) is this “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”.
Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua and then a whole host of minor characters, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the prophets.
They all believed the promises given by God and they all acted in faith but never saw the promises being kept. They trusted God despite not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
That same Golden thread that weaves its way through the Old Testament emerges in the New Testament which is the record of all the people who saw that light shining in the darkness, recognised the light and realised that God had acted decisively to fulfil his promises made.
In short, Christian faith is trust that the promises of God have been fulfilled in the man Jesus Christ.
Let us remind ourselves of those promises. The promises of God are that in the end, evil would be defeated, Justice would prevail, the righteous would be saved, there would be a new heaven and a new earth, God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, and we would be brought close to God and live with Him together in paradise. God would be all in all.
On the cross Christ defeated evil and opened a door to give us direct access God. Jesus described himself as the “gate” to the sheepfold as well as the shepherd. No one comes to the Father except through Him.(John 10:9)
Jesus asked the Father to pour out his Holy Spirit on all flesh on those who respond in faith and Pentecost is the festival on which we celebrate that fact. (Joel 2:28, Isaiah 44:3, Acts 2:17)
Jesus rising from the dead is the supreme sign given to us that the new Heaven and the new earth have been inaugurated. Jesus is called the firstborn from the dead. “Firstborn”(Colossians 1:18), meaning that many are going to follow and live forever in the new heaven and the new earth.
In the cross and resurrection we have seen the promises of God inaugurated but without being totally consummated.
We the church, the standard bearers and witnesses to the resurrection live in the time between the promises being announced but before the final end when the whole of time and history will be brought to an end only in order that the new beginning is known and seen by all and God will be all in all and every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
So there is a gap and the church is living in the gap between the Kingdom being started and finally being fulfilled, so just like all those characters in the Old Testament, Jesus tells us to have faith. 
Jesus tells us in Luke’s gospel not to get complacent or lose faith for our reward is coming. He tells us “stay dressed for action, and keep your lamps burning and be like men who are waiting for their master to return home from the wedding feast so they may open the door to Him when he comes and knocks.”(12:35)
This will happen when we least expect it.
None of us knows when our life will be taken from us and Jesus implores us to be ready. Any one of us could die today. We can die safe and certain of our own salvation and be at peace in the knowledge that Jesus is with us always and forever, or we could die as a stranger to God and be conflicted, frightened and alone.
So faith is still important even though we, as believers are witnesses to the resurrection.
We occasionally sing a hymn in church which is apt for today which goes

When we walk with the Lord
  In the light of His Word,
What a glory He sheds on our way;
  While we do His good will,
  He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.

Trust and obey,
For there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus,
  But to trust and obey.

Monday, 18 July 2016

Listen carefully.

Let me start with the gospel reading this morning – a lovely little cameo that is the story of Mary and Martha.
I remember that my first wife Alex always felt sorry for Martha because she never got any credit for all her hard work she did in looking after her guest and I can see her point and perhaps women more generally can empathise with Martha, but that is not the thrust of this story.
If we treat this story as a parable, then in general a parable only has one central point and the circumstances of the story are there as window dressing to make the story and therefore the central point more memorable
So the point of this beautiful little cameo is that Mary “listened to his teaching” while Martha was anxious and troubled and distracted from listening. That Mary was “sitting at Jesus’ feet” is also instructive. That is the position of a disciple, a learner. This was the “greater part” Jesus says Mary has chosen, not that she was lazy or neglectful of her share of the household chores.
The greater part is not to be distracted by our anxieties or side issues that are ultimately unimportant. Learn to discern the difference between form and substance.
 An application to HST might be - Are some of us so engrossed by piffling side issues and non important things that we are just too distracted to actually listen to what Jesus is trying to teach us?
Do we miss out on hearing the essential saving grace of Christ. Is he drowned out because we are distracted by what books we use, what robes are worn, the form of a service, what coffee we drink? Or are we more captivated by the loving and saving message and teaching of Jesus. Are we Mary or Martha?
But why should we listen to Jesus anyway? Who is this guy? Why should we be captivated, sit at his feet and listen
Paul spells out the reason in a few lines that are unsurpassed in their magnitude and beauty.
It starts with an enigmatic phrase “He is the image of the invisible God”. Now someone that is invisible can’t have an image and yet we somehow know what Paul means, and he goes on to describe Jesus in terms that are unmistakably divine terms and carries on to describe Jesus as “the firstborn from the dead” and the climax to all the promises in the Bible that talk of a new creation or a re-creation and that where Jesus goes we will follow. 
He rose from the dead, the firstborn from the dead and because he was like us in his humanity this opens the door to our own resurrection on the last day. And just us, but as the Biblical tradition underlines, all creation will be redeemed.
In order to triple underline the fact that Jesus is an eternal part of the divine being the lectionary compilers have seen fit to add the story of the three visitors to Abraham and Sarah from the book of Genesis.
What is mysterious about this story is that “THE LORD” appeared to Abraham and then in the very next line the Lord (singular) becomes three men and the story continues switching between  the Lord and the three men meaning the same thing throughout the story.
This provided the Christian doctrine of God as three in one with rich pickings and indeed the most famous icon from the Orthodox world is the three visitors by Russian Orthodox icon painter Andrei Rublev.
This beautiful icon depicts the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit sitting around a table with what is a Eucharistic chalice full of wine and they are differentiated from each other by clever utilisation of colours which are themselves full of meaning. Jesus’ eyes are fixed on the Father, and his hand  in a gesture of blessing over the cup and the Holy Spirit’s eyes are fixed on the chalice emphasising the Spirit’s essential role in animating and making manifest the will and action of God in the world in a masterpiece.
The teaching of the Spirit of Jesus today is almost self-explanatory.
Don’t be distracted by anything from learning from and listening to the word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ.
For He is God and He holds your past, present and future in his hands.

Monday, 27 June 2016

Follow Jesus

The great theme this morning is “Following Jesus”
I’ve said before that never does Jesus actually say in the New Testament “worship me” which some may find surprising, but he says “Follow me” many, many, times.
Our O.T. reading seems to have been selected on the basis that it was the call of Elisha to follow in Elijah’s footsteps.
Over time Elijah came to represent the prophetic tradition as a whole and significantly when Jesus was transfigured he was seen speaking to Moses, representing the law and Elijah, representing the prophets.  and Jesus was of course the fulfilment of the law and the prophets.
Paul in Galatians speaks of the kind of character a follower of Christ is expected to exhibit.
Great play is made by Christians that we enjoy freedom in Christ, and we do, but Paul says sagely  - don’t misunderstand. Freedom in Christ doesn’t mean you can do whatever you like – that is not freedom – that is licence where you imagine you can do whatever you want despite the consequences for others and particularly yourself.
Immoral behaviour will harm yourself as well as others. Paul says ,” everything might be possible for me, but not everything is edifying”.
We have to keep in step with the Spirit and be imitators of Christ. Those who ignore this simple fact or teach others to do the same lie outside of the Kingdom of God.
Being a follower of Christ entails being an imitator of Christ. We should be working to take on his characteristics.
And in Luke’s gospel we hear Jesus say directly that following Jesus is costly and has to be our top priority. There is no time for looking back over our shoulders. In another place Jesus says, you should count the cost of following Jesus before you commit as it is not an easy option. 
In one of his most enigmatic sayings he tells one man “Let the dead bury their own dead”.
What can he possibly mean?
Well the people he is referring to are very much physically alive but are spiritually dead, unregenerate, not "born again" as Jesus says you have to be to see the Kingdom of God.
Don’t waste too much time with people who are spiritually dead. Don’t be forever casting your pearls before swine. Once you have made your decision your first loyalty is to Christ. There is a small burden to bear (Matthew 11:30)  but my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
So as followers of Jesus we need to be spiritually fit and committed. We need to develop our spiritual muscles through engagement with prayer, Bible study and engagement with the Christian community which is the body of Christ.

The more we do that the more we are pleasing to God, the more we start to follow Jesus by acting on our faith by putting our hand to the plough and not looking back, the more we grow and the more the church grows. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb

There is no-one who doesn’t want to be made well in body, mind, or spirit or to be rescued from death and annihilation.
We want it for ourselves and we want it for all that we love.
God is the author of all life, all creation and when he created he declared it “Good” and declared us especially “Very good”. And it is the whole creation that will be redeemed. We are so anthropocentric that we scarcely raise our sights to consider the cosmic scope of redemption and re-creation.
I used to believe that when we died we went to a place called heaven but that is not the content of Biblical hope. When the first Christians talked about their hope is consisted of a bodily resurrection when the old heaven and earth passed away to be replaced with a new creation where heaven and earth became one entity, an embodied existence where the Lion would lie down with the kid. Heaven is the “sphere of God” and whilst that is where our immediate destination will be, our final destination is far more exciting than that.
Here Paul talks about this in Romans 8, the highpoint of his theology.
Romans 8:18-23
Future Glory
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
Our future hope is to be set free in a completely new creation and Jesus’ resurrection body is a glimpse of our future hope in historical time. In fact, if we follow Paul’s beliefs all things will be set free.
Every healing or sign or miracle that Jesus performs in the Bible is a little sign of that future hope which was even  more fully revealed when God raised Jesus from the dead.
In a very real sense everything from the stilling of the storm, from curing a blind man to turning water into wine, to the healing of the woman with a haemorrhage to raising Jairus’ daughter is a sign that points to the greater fulfilment awaiting all of the created order when the old separate heaven and earth are abolished and they become one, an embodied existence where there will be no more tears and no more pain, where Isaiah’s vision will be fulfilled;.
Isaiah 11:6-9

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
    and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
    and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

Monday, 13 June 2016

God forgive me.

The story of David and Bathsheba is one of those stories that holds a mirror up to all human foibles, our attempts to justify our own bad behaviour. It should remind us of ourselves   and yet doesn’t because just like David we are adept at lying to ourselves.
Our sense of self, self preservation, self interest, self obsession, self image stops us from admitting the truth about ourselves and blinds us to truth of what we have done.
We are equally adept at justifying ourselves and our behaviour with ludicrous excuses which after a while we convince ourselves are the actual truth.
As human beings we’ve all done it at some time.
In our story we heard today God used Nathan the prophet to see deeply into David’s heart and to connect with him, and Nathan used a clever parable as a device to get Solomon to convict himself. All the excuses that Solomon doubtless used to justify himself in his own eyes were stripped away and exposed as the tissue of lies they were, and David came face to face with himself and his own sin. He came face to face with his own true reflection.
One day that will be us – our souls will be bared and exposed to the searing white light of God’s gaze. There will be no-where to hide, no refuge except one, faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Or would you prefer to push Jesus to one side and fight your own corner perhaps and try and self justify just as most of us do in life? 
God knows all and sees all and can see straight into your heart so there can be no pulling the wool over his eyes. You’ll be on your own, defending the indefensible with someone who already knows the full truth about you.
In the gospel reading that same perception, the same wisdom that can see through outside appearances and reputations and see straight into the heart of things is also a property of Jesus Christ of course and using a similar device as Nathan, a parable, he attempts to show Simon the Pharisee that despite his outward appearance as an upstanding man he too is a sinner, or as Jesus says in the parable, a debtor.
Perhaps not as great a debtor as this woman, but it is she who is right with God because she knows she is a sinner and was undeserving of any forgiveness. She recognises her need, is sorry for her sins and comes to Jesus in a spirit of repentance and Jesus freely forgives her.
But Simon doesn’t know his need, he deludes himself, lies to himself, and he is convinced by those lies even though he truly strives to keep the law. He never fully did keep the law of course but he cannot admit that to himself, let alone Jesus.
Those are the two pathways that are open to all of us. That is the choice we all have to make – whether to admit our own need of forgiveness and put our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus or to try and justify ourselves.
And this in a nutshell is what Paul is talking about in our reading from Galatians. No-one could fully keep the law but just as that woman experienced in that parable in Luke, through genuine repentance and faith in Christ, forgiveness is freely given.

I believe that it is pertinent that she is unnamed. She represents all of us.