Monday, 25 January 2016

Please come home!

The most powerful and abiding narrative that underpins the story of Israel in the Bible is that of “exile and return”. The two most powerful ones are the exile, rescue and return from Egypt and the exile, rescue and return from  Babylon and for modern Jews you can of course apply this foundational story to the creation of the modern state of Israel.
This motif of exile and return  of God’s chosen people is a constant one. The Jewish people are called by God to be a shining light to the whole world. They fail miserably, and in their sin they are abandoned, terrible things happen to them but in the end God never stopped loving them and as if by a miracle they are brought back again from exile.
The book of Nehemiah was written at just such a time after the exile to Babylon, by a kind of miracle a remnant of the Jews have been brought home to Israel to start again.
In modern computer terms the people need a re-boot, to reset them to their factory settings. To be brought back to their senses, their origins, their purpose, their destiny, their God.
How was this done?
They gathered around the scriptures to be forcefully reminded of their role, their rights but also their responsibilities.
Nehemiah gathered all the people together who were able to understand and publicly read from what we call “the Law” in the Old Testament of our Bibles in the open air.
The result was remarkable. Hearing God’s promises made to his people and being reminded of  the demands and expectations he has for his people galvanised them again. They wept when they heard the voice of God speaking through his revealed word in the Bible.
This is the same thing that the church as a whole and every community within it needs to hear and experience. To be brought back to and to coalesce around God’s word to us.
The Christian understanding of Jesus Christ is also one of exile and return on a cosmic scale. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of humanity’s estrangement from God and our exile from Eden through sin and God’s plan to rescue us and bring us home from exile was achieved through Jesus Christ – home to communion with God. This is the story of our redemption that we here through the word of God in the Bible.
I might venture to say that one of the reasons for the dramatic decline in the church in this country is that we strayed so far from the Bible, from Christ, from the Holy Spirit and neglected prayer so consistently to the point where we have distanced ourselves from God which is why so many churches have the smell of death about them. A Spiritless church is a whitewashed tomb as Jesus said.
But there is always a way back to God
Our example is that all the churches that thrive nowadays do so because they have stood firm against the world the flesh and the devil and have Spirit filled worship. They read scripture, they meet together in groups and grow together and they all know the reason for the hope that is in them through Biblical instruction and the guiding of the Spirit.
It is tremendously exciting to see with my own eyes the Spirit moving here. There is a real hunger for knowledge, a hunger for Biblical preaching, a hunger for the Spirit, a hunger for God.
My job here is to feed God’s hungry people. My mission is to re-boot Holy Saviour Church and return to factory settings.
I do this by caring about, believing in, and reading and interpreting God’s word to you. This will galvanise our people around God’s word which itself all leads to Jesus the word made flesh– the way, the truth, and the life.
It was Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit (14) , who in Luke’s gospel, validates Scriptural prophesy and authority when he enters the Synagogue , unrolls the scroll and reads from Isaiah 61:1,2 and says
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor,
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind,
To release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of God’s favour”

We are the poor in Spirit,
We are the inwardly blind,
We are held captive by evil and estrangement,
We are  oppressed by the fear of death,
but God is going to set us free, to proclaim the year of God’s favour.

Now “the year of God’s favour” Jesus refers to is called “Jubilee” . You might remember that there was a movement called Jubilee 2000 that campaigned for third world debt relief. Well the concept was taken from the Old Testament.
In Leviticus 25 part of God’s law was that every fiftieth year there must be a kind of societal re-boot when property is returned to original owners and debts cancelled. People are released and set free.

Of course, on the cosmic scale Jesus was offering to cancel the debts of all who came to Him in faith and repentance.

In that synagogue there was a portent of the re-coalescing that will take place of a new people of Israel  - us, the church - who would gather and shed tears of joy around the word and Jesus, the word made flesh. 

And what of this people; how are we to think of ourselves?

In 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31, Paul continues his theme of spiritual gifts but now talks about the people who practice them instead of the gifts themselves.
In this passage he calls the church "the body of Christ". So ubiquitous is this phrase nowadays that we have certainly lost the force of these words. They were written at a time, about twenty years after the resurrection, when there would have been some people alive who had actually known Jesus Christ in the flesh, and indeed were expecting his imminent return, yet here Paul says;
 "You are the body of Christ". The community has become the resurrection body of Christ. This is a profound statement regarding the true nature of the church and our relationship with the risen Christ; we are "in Christ". All the roles from prophesy and healing to administration and other support are equally necessary and to be valued equally in this body constituted by the Holy Spirit.
We are one body, brothers and sisters in Christ.
God is inviting us, urging us as a whole church to come home. Imploring us with all the force of a loving Father to his errant children to come home to the Lord our God and choose life not death.


Tuesday, 19 January 2016

On the third day...

Isaiah 62: 1-5, 1 Corinthians 12: 1-11, John 2: 1-11.
The poetry of Isaiah is vivid and really quite extraordinary. The prophesy for God’s  beleaguered and apparently abandoned people and land of Israel is this; God and his people will one day be married! God will marry his land and people which in the Old Testament are forever linked. The will become one instead of two even while they remain distinct from each other for let’s not forget that in Genesis 2:24 the definition of marriage is that a man and a woman will become “one flesh”. All the barriers will be broken down on some glorious future happy day when the people and God will come together at the instigation of God himself.
Let us fast forward 550 years to John’s gospel to one of the most beautifully crafted stories in the whole of the New Testament to a certain wedding at Cana in Galilee.
The story you heard this morning started “There was a wedding in Cana of Galilee”.
But the people who put together the lectionary have missed out the four most important words in the whole reading.
If you had a Bible in front of you right now, which as God is my witness you will have very soon and I asked you to turn to John chapter two you would have found that the first words of John 2 are actually “On the third day”.
“On the third day”.
Now what happened on the third day?
Yes, the resurrection of Jesus happened on the third day.
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee
The story of the turning of water into wine is nothing less than the gospel in miniature. It is about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the difference that makes to believers.  Removed from its context we are left with a cheap party trick.
 In John’s gospel there are no miracles, only signs, and signs always point to something else, something much deeper.
On the third day all the barriers were torn down between God and his people and the base water of our lives was transformed into rich wine.
The world looks different after the resurrection. For those who believe, We have seen the future in historical time. Our lives are enriched by the knowledge that God made us, sustains us and will raise us from the dead to eternal life. That is our future. God saved the good wine until last.
Seeing the world through the lens of the resurrection  is the difference between watching an event in Black and white and then seeing the same thing in glorious Technicolor. Our horizons are enlarged, our insight deepened, our actions gain an eternal dimension.
On the third day everything changed. The marriage that Isaiah prophesied about took place. All that separated God from humanity was torn down just as Matthew (27:51) described the curtain in the temple that divided the Holy Presence of God off from his people being torn apart from top to bottom in the Jerusalem Temple.
On the third day God married his people using the vivid poetry of Isaiah.
As Christians we are all born again into that relationship with God and today we are going to immerse a child into that same loving relationship bond – a bond that is unshakeable and eternal.
In our sign of baptism today a baby is going to be immersed in God’s love and we pray that she will grow into that relationship offered freely to her today.
The seal and guarantee of that relationship is God’s Holy Spirit who will work in her life guaranteeing that love and bestowing gifts of grace on here as he does on us.
Paul makes the point that it is the same Spirit but we are given diverse gifts in order that we become a balanced whole body.
His gifts are many and various and we pray that many gifts will be bestowed on her in her life.
All of here have been given gifts of Grace, and one of our jobs as a community is to discern and nurture those gifts lest we make God out to be a liar.
How many great and glorious gifts are laying dormant in such a large community as ours I wonder which just need to be discerned and encouraged?
She joins a church where all are one in the Spirit of God, because “on the third day” the marriage that Isaiah prophesied happened, and was described by John as a wedding that took place in Cana in Galilee.

Jesus Christ was raised from the dead and is alive and can because he is alive he can be experienced now and our lives transformed from water into rich wine.  

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Christian identity : A child and heir of God.

Whilst in the west the visit of the Magi is our main Epiphany story, for the Orthodox churches it is "The Baptism of Christ" that is the main story of Epiphany.

Both unveil different aspects of the Christ event. The visit of the Magi and the symbolic gifts offer an unveiling of the titles priest and king, the sacrificial death and also that the scope of Christ is universal, rather than confined to the Jewish people.

But the Baptism of Christ reveals something even more fundamental because its prime focus is “relationship”. I have said before that Christianity is fundamentally a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and the Baptism of Christ reveals the fundamental relationship between God and Jesus as that between a Father and Son and by extension our own relationship with God as children of God so as Jesus told us we too can be bold to pray “Our Father who art in heaven” 

The precursor to this most important and fundamental of relationships has been modelled and documented as the relationship between God and the children of Israel through the pages of the Old Testament, and in the Christ event this relationship has been universalised to the “New Israel” the church.

And in Isaiah 43: 1-7 this morning, the prophet asserts how unshakable is that bond that exists between God and his people. He says that He will be with them, come what may. They are precious, called by name, and nothing will ever be able to separate them from God. God is constant and his Love and loyalty is unbreakable. In this respect, this is echoed very strongly by Paul writing in Romans 8:38-39. 

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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.”

How is that relationship sealed and sustained? Now both Acts 8: 14-17 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22 major emphasis is on the role of the Holy Spirit in our relationship with God. After all in the gospel story of Jesus’ baptism that relationship is sealed by the Holy Spirit.

Now we cannot by reading the New Testament come up with a systematic analysis of the work of the Holy Spirit and his relationship with the act of baptism. It defies systematizing. In some places the Spirit comes on people after they are baptised, sometimes the gifts of the Spirit come before baptism and provides the justification for baptism. We have codified things in the church, because that what organisations do, but the work of the Spirit is much wider and unpredictable than that.

As Jesus said in John 3:8, "The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit".

I think it is enough to note that wherever the Holy Spirit is, God is there working.

So In Luke 3 today we have this pivotal personal revelation of God to Jesus "You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased". In Matthew this personal revelation becomes a public one (3:16,17) which others  can presumably hear "This is my son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased" but the essence of both is exactly the same. Jesus had a profound religious experience of the presence and power of God which propelled Him into ministry. The Holy Spirit of God alighted on Jesus and stayed with him, energising and guiding his ministry.

That is not to say that this is always a comfortable experience. The first thing that the Spirit led Jesus to do was to lead him into the wilderness for forty days to pray contemplate and be challenged by what this personal epiphany would mean. We are children of God and Jesus was equally convinced that we too cannot experience this primal relationship until we too have been touched by the Holy Spirit.

Going back to Jesus talking to Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus also says "I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again"

Now what can that mean in practice? At the very least I think it means this; Only by knowing in your heart of hearts that you are a child of God and can acknowledge Him as "Father" can we truly be children of the kingdom. And we can only do this by the Holy Spirit so anyone who prays "Our Father" and means it in their heart has crossed over from death to life.  Paul, as ever, puts it so well...........

Galatians 3:26-29; 4:6,7
for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

We are children and heirs of the Kingdom of God our Father. Now if you have never thought of yourself as a child and heir of God then that personal epiphany is yours to have and experience.

I invite you to close your eyes and pray with me now.

Almighty God, I pray that you will now fill me with your Holy Spirit
That I will know and experience you as my Father in heaven.
Come Holy Spirit and assure me that you know me by name
Assure me of your Presence, Love and forgiveness.
Come Holy Spirit and soften my heart
May I believe your promise that you will never leave me
And that I will live in the house of the Lord forever.


Monday, 4 January 2016

"Arise, shine, your light has come"

Epiphany is an unveiling, a moment of revelation, realization and insight and the scene is set by the opening words from Isaiah......
“Arise, shine, for your light has come”
The people being addressed were the still poor and bedraggled community of Zion and Isaiah prophesies the return from exile in Babylon.
They are to rise from their lethargy and despair and shine with the reflected glory of God which is rising upon them, ushering in a new age just as the rising sun brings a new day.
Zion will be transformed and so suffused with light that it will attract all the other nations of the world as well, to see what is going on for themselves.
And in recognition of what is happening in Israel these foreigners don’t come empty handed. Isaiah pictures camel trains bringing gifts of Gold and Frankincense.
They come to see what God is revealing to Zion.
The fulfilment of this prophesy is related by Matthew in story of the visit of the Magi from the East. The title “Three kings” is a bit misleading as there is no indication that they were kings or even that there were just three of them.
Magi were Zoroastrian priests from Persia and probably “wise men” is closer to the reality than Kings.
What we are told is that there were three gifts, and they themselves were symbols.
Isaiah’s prophesy told us only of Gold and Frankincense. Gold is symbolic of Jesus’ Kingship (He is our final authority) and the incense is symbolic of His role as High Priest  so Jesus is both priest and king. Ans as our High Priest lives in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit we have direct access to God.
But Matthew’s Magi brings one extra gift not mentioned by Isaiah. They bring Myrrh.
Myrrh is used (amongst other things)to embalm corpses and this gift reveals that Jesus’ death will have a special resonance and meaning for the whole world.
In an interesting aside, in Mark 15:22 Mark records that Jesus at Golgotha just before his crucifixion was offered wine mixed with Myrrh.
So in a veiled way the gifts of the Magi reveal the exact nature of the Messiah – King and Priest but also a willing sacrificial offering for the sins of the whole world.
That this was God’s plan all along is the mystery that Paul says has only now been revealed to us – the mystery revealed is not just about Christ himself but also that the deliverance from exile is for all humankind and not just the Jews.
Paul says “In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (5)
A new day has dawned. Arise, shine, your light has come!
This mystery, this plan that has been revealed to us, to redeem all creation in Christ “hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known” (9 and 10).
So we see clearly our own commission here.....”so that through the church...”
This revelation, this Epiphany, is not for us alone. In the light of the revelation of God’s Love, glory and power, we are to Arise, shine with the light of the gospel for our light has come.
We shine with God’s reflected light as we are changed and grow into the Holy people God wants us to be, to shine as lights in the world to the glory of God the Father, because we see and perceive that God’s plan has been fulfilled and we are a part of that fulfilling.
We need a shift in our perception it seems to me. We need a personal Epiphany. We do not come to church – We ARE church. We are not just receivers of worship services we are all active participants in worship in God’s eternal plan for creation.
We are “church” wherever we are. And our role as “church” is to reveal the source of the light that illuminates us to others that they too will see and understand and shine in turn.
We are in the business of transformation.  We are changed that others might too be changed and in so doing we bring in God’s kingdom. We become an epiphany for others, but we must first know and believe the source of our joy. We must be certain of the truth of the gospel in order to fulfil our commission.
Which is why courses like Alpha, fellowship groups and Bible study are not optional extras they are actually integral to who we are.
We are Christians and as Paul says we are to be bold and confident to proclaim our faith and we are not left to do this alone.
God is with us by the presence of His Holy Spirit.
Matthew’s gospel as a whole is about presence and relationship and a closeness to God that is extraordinary. Matthew’s gospel starts with the announcement of Emmanuel – God is with us – and ends with the words “And remember I am with you to the end of the age”

We cannot and must not let him down by being complacent. We need to “Arise, shine, for your light has come”.