Monday, 31 December 2018

Searching for Jesus

1 Samuel 2: 18-20, 26
Colossians 3: 12-17
Luke 2: 41-52
How one reads this gospel story depends on whose eyes you choose to look     though.
Seen from the perspective of Jesus, it is a quaint tale from his childhood, the only story from his childhood in the whole New Testament.
It shows that his greatness was evident from about the age of 12 certainly.
His wisdom and insight was amazing the priests and scribes in the Temple even at this early age and his unbroken perfect relationship with God is also evident when as way of explanation for him not being with Mary and Joseph on their return to Nazareth says,
“Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” referring to God as his Father even then.

Have you ever been in a crowded store with your children and you look around and they are gone – you are separated – and the feeling of blind panic that comes over you!
Every worst case scenario goes through your mind from them being kidnapped by a paedophile to them feeling so lost and alone they panic and run out the shop into the road to be crushed by traffic.
The sense of relief when you find them is probably the only thing that stops you giving them a damn good hiding for wandering off in the first place.
They’d been looking for Jesus in great anxiety.
And they didn’t understand his explanation either.
Our version of the story says that Mary treasured all these things in her heart but that is not apparently an accurate translation of what Luke actually wrote.
Actually she “keeps” these things, as you do when you have experiences like that. They stay with you and you keep re-playing them over and over again.
Our own spiritual journey can feel just like Mary and Joseph looking for signs of Jesus or God in our lives.
Even when we think we have all our ducks in a row, something can happen and suddenly we cannot find God in our life and we have to look for Him again in great anxiety.
Trying to find Him in our crowded lives is our private spiritual quest – looking for Jesus.
The comfort we can gain from this story is that He was(!) found eventually. But you have to be looking. You won’t find God unless you are actively looking.
Even when you find Him, you might not completely understand what He tries to tells you but relief at finding Him at all far outweighs that sense of incomprehension – like finding a lost child.
My strong advice is that if and when you do sometimes lose sight of Him, don’t give up the search.
He is there waiting for you to find Him.. From His perspective He is exactly where He is meant to be – in His Father’s house.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Preparing the way for Jesus

Zephaniah 3: 14-20. The themes of future promise and restoration course through this segment of Zephaniah
Philippians 4: 4-7. The classic New Testament passage about Joy and peace. This peace carries the force of the Hebrew "shalom", the total well being of which God is the only true source. 
Luke 3: 7-18. John's baptism of repentance is forming a people based on the response of lives lived in a manner appropriate to God's call rather than on the basis of inherited descent. This repentance looks to the future inbreaking of God but manifests itself in the details of everyday life. People are told to be responsible and unself-interested.

In many ways the role of the church is just like the role of John the Baptist; We are continually pointing to Jesus as he did – “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and we are also preparing the ground for His rule in people’s lives – “making His path straight.”

Our mission is to make sure that Jesus becomes the Lord of as many people’s lives as we can reach but how on earth do we prepare people so that they can make that firm commitment and turn to Christ?

The record of the church of England over the past century shows that we haven’t been very good at preparing that ground as our national decline bears stark witness.

There appears to be now in our secular culture a gulf of understanding between the “church” however one wants to define it and the great mass of the population.

If an unchurched person were to walk in to almost any Anglican church, they would have little idea what was going on and why and no clearly identifiable way of finding out either.

The questions would just flood out like a river bursting its banks; why robes? Why do we sing? What is prayer anyway? Why do we eat bread and drink wine? Why do we confess our sins – I’m a good person? What is a blessing? What and why is a creed? What is an altar? Why do you read from an old book? – that has all been disproved by science hasn’t it? What is that book anyway – who wrote it and why? Why do we shake hands in the middle of the service? And so on and so on.

If we want to re-assert the Christian view of humanity, our place in the world, our role, our purpose, where we come from and where we are going to, we have massive work to do.

The gulf is so great so we have to be fairly confident ourselves of our own understanding of the answers to those questions.

The biggest barrier is simply our most basic belief – that there is a God  - this is no longer universally commonly accepted premise and not only that  - that God actually entered human history as a human being.

That is before we start to say that He had to die obviously but that death won our freedom – how on earth does that work?

So I think our task is actually much harder than John the Baptist’s was. In the first century belief in God was a universally accepted fact which it is not now.

He was speaking into a vibrant Jewish culture that was primed to expect something. They were waiting for the Messiah. The type of Messiah God provided was a surprise, but they were expecting something.

We are speaking into a largely post Christian culture where Christianity is at best a tried and found wanting relic from the past in a pluralist culture where increasingly Christianity finds it hard to get a platform.

Educating people about the Christian point of view can’t be achieved in a morning service, it has to take place elsewhere.

This is the basic rationale of Alpha and every other similar course that has emerged in recent years; to try and meet people where they are and speak to them as one adult to another.

What has also been found is that the gulf in understanding does not just exist between the church and the people but between the church and their own congregations.

Wherever I have been, the most grateful recipients of Alpha has been the existing congregations who have always puzzled over all these questions also but never felt they had the opportunity to ask such questions or even believed that even asking a question cast doubt on their faith.

We all have questions and we all have doubts from time to time. We all have unanswered questions or half answered questions.

But before we have spread the gospel to others we need to be sure what it is ourselves.

We’ll never have all the answers but what we do have is a framework from which to ask difficult questions. Most people don’t even have the basic information or framework from which to start.

To make straight the way of the Lord in East Budleigh, or Budleigh or Otterton is a complex task that will take time.

No amount of extra or different styles of service will help very much on their own, nor will providing a broadly Christian education in our schools when it is also at odds with the prevailing culture.

Normalisation of the church and church activities is one obvious step we can take; that shows that we don’t have two heads at least; and that is definitely happening here at this church with all the new social events that have taken place.

Speaking sensitively and thoughtfully and truthfully about our own faith is the next step. Not complicated formulas about the Holy Trinity or the nature of Christ, but what our own faith means to us.

We can only give away what we have and what inspires us and keeps us going.

The road will be long and we will have successes and failures along the way but we’ll journey together, and we will pick up lots of our community along the way.

We shouldn’t be frightened of making mistakes. When you try things, it demonstrates our intent. Some things work; some things work for a while; some never get out of first gear; some things take flight and soar;

I’ve outlined some of the problems we face, but we also have massive resources.
First of all we have the power of God on our side; a God who is interested in our success ; who is interested in reaching the same people that we are trying to reach.
We have the knowledge and Joy of the salvation and love of God for all things and all people, not least ourselves to sustain us.  
We have experience of a God who identified with us, knows our frailties, and our sufferings and our mortality.

In identifying ourselves with Him we know that as we share his death we will also share his resurrection, given as a gift, simply because he loves us.

We are never alone with Christ. As a Christian we are joined to God Himself by His Spirit, and through that Spirit also joined to every other Christian in the world.

However sophisticated we think we have become, and however far removed the culture has moved from the church, people still ask the same questions they always have; about the meaning and purpose of life and questions regarding good and evil, suffering and death. 

We need to communicate our own views on these questions and explain why we are so optimistic and look with hope to the future?

We need to be able to help people to answer those questions or at least provide a framework for discussing them.

That is the best way we can prepare the way of the Lord and do what John the Baptist did 2000 years ago.

We need to pray and ask God for guidance in our joint venture; God and us together against an unbelieving world.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Radiating the light of Christ

Malachi 3: 1-4. The word messenger and angel are the same in Hebrew. The essence of this piece is that God will come to refine and sift so while people may look forward to "the day of the Lord" it will be a mighty uncomfortable process for many, particularly the priestly caste!.
Philppians 1: 3-11. A word of hope to a church that often seems to face a bleak future. Despite all outward appearances, the work started by God will be brought to a conclusion. The church lives in between the "first day" and "the day of the Lord" with all the personal and moral ambiguities that we face because that final completion and resolution lies in the future.
Luke 3: 1-6. Here John the baptist is unmistakably  fulfilling the role of a prophet. The deeper meaning of the text is that the people who think they rule this world do not. God is ultimately in control. The three themes introduced by this passage are the word of God, repentance, and God's salvation.

This Sunday has been designated Mission Sunday so how does mission correlate with the Advent themes?

As I said last Sunday the church lives “between the times” between the first and second coming and what we do in this in-between time has an eternal importance and significance.

We are the light on the hill radiating Christ’s light to a lost and hurting world.

So “How we radiate that light to the world is mission.”

That is my working definition of mission.

This naturally covers a wide range of activities and even a sense of being as a church.

Mission encompasses everything from sponsoring Heather and David Sharman in East Africa via C.M.S. and there will be a retiring collection for C.M.S.  to sending a Christmas card to the people in our area. Both are mission because it is a part of how we radiate the light of Christ.

How we see ourselves, our church, is vital to our understanding of mission. The very best way, the Biblical way is that we see ourselves as the body of Christ.

This involves a perception change. We no longer go to church – we are church.

It’s an important perception change because it means church is no longer something outside of yourself to which you can be a part of or not, it is an intrinsic part of your very self

We are the very presence of Jesus in the world. Who we are, how we act and behave, what we do, reflects directly on Jesus and is a projection of Christ’s will and purposes in this world.  

Mission then I have already said is how we radiate the light of Christ to the world.

It is an overflow of Love and gratitude for what God has done for us in our lives.

So supporting missionaries is an act of love. Sending a Christmas card is an act of love.
Performing Bible passages in the schools as they do in “Open the book” is an act of love.
Rendezvous and solos lunches are an act of love.

All acts of love are costly in some way, either in time money or energy which is why everything must be undergirded by prayer certainly but also supported by tangible signs like encouragement and support.

Mission then is not an added extra to the life of the church it is a by-product of who we are – the body of Christ.

Mission is a sign of the grace of God working in and through our lives.

I have already mentioned various of these signs; open the book; rendezvous, solos, loaves and fishes, the new church café in East Budleigh;

What else could we or should we be doing? To build a healthy church here in the R.M.C we need to ask for God’s guidance.

It is not important at the end of the day what I think we ought to be doing. We need to ask for God’s guidance on what He wants us to do.

A healthy church is built on embodying and proclaiming God’s will for us and our corporate life together.
In the new year, I want to organise an away day, or even a series of days away where we pray, talk, discuss, and through our interaction discern what God’s will is for the R.M.C.

Because at the end of the day this is not MY church. This is GOD’S church.     

How we build our church, how we witness to the people is not my endeavour it is OUR endeavour working with the will of God for our community but first we need to find out what God wants us to do.
Only as a community discerning His will together can we discover that.

Because God works through his people. He wants to work through us. If we allow Him to, He will.

Once we have reached a consensus on what God wants we can move forwards together with confidence.

God’s love already overflows in countless ways through this church to our community and it is time for us to seek afresh his will for us, without putting any pre-conditions in place.

The RMC, me, you, Karen, I guarantee will be surprised by what emerges as we build on what we already do, adapt some other things and strike in some directions perhaps that we may not even have in our sights at the moment, but God does – and He wants to reveal these things to us.

We don’t need to wait for that occasion to pray of course.

We can pray at any time, either in our private prayers or whenever we meet together in any groups, pray for God to reveal His will for the life of the RMC and I encourage you to do so.

You prayed for the right ministry team to be placed in situ here. Karen and I believe that we are in the right place at the right time and I believe that it is my role to lead us deeper into God by seeking Him as a community.

Mission is part of who we are. Let us rejoice in who we are and let our love and gratitude overflow to the community in which we are set.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Against an infinite horizon

Jeremiah 33: 14-16. A prophesy regarding the inbreaking of God into the world to fulfil the promises of God. A re-writing of 23:5-6 but here the emphasis is not only on a new and righteous king but on a renewed community which introduces a corporate aspect to the Advent hope.
1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13. A letter of delight and gratitude for the new Christian community. They have some concerns and problems but everything is generally going the right way. The “Advent” flavour comes from the fact that everything is done in the light of the “Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints”. This is not posed as a threat to keep the troops in line but is anticipated as the conclusion to the whole human story. Paul uses two words that should characterise the Thessalonians – Love and holiness. Love for each other and love for all. The love of God is inclusive. Holiness, is the other watchword which denotes the “set apart” nature of the Christian community. Holiness of course often implies a rigid code of life lived according to a strict code of ethics, but in the two prayers, one here and the other in 5;25 we learn that holiness is conferred by God alone, not attained by living according to a specific code. It is God’s gift and God’s initiative, like Jesus who came at Christmas and will come again.
Luke 21: 25-36. These discourses where Luke describes Jesus talking about “the son of man coming on a cloud” give no timetable for these events. “This generation” is used by Luke to describe anyone who turns their backs on God or His prophets. God comes as judge, but Christians can look up in hope rather than down in fear, because He comes to deliver us and Luke is more concerned with preparing us to live in a constant state of readiness for Jesus’ return.  

The church year starts on Advent Sunday, not January 1st.
It hasn’t always been this way. Originally it started on Easter Sunday as it still does in the East. Then in the fourth century after the date of Christmas had been established preparation for Epiphany baptisms started on St. Martin’s day which is November 11th and that season was called Advent.
Later it was shortened to the four-week period we have today starting on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s day and I find it interesting to try and understand why we in the west think it is so significant.
I guess is that holds together both the beginning and the end of the Christian story and therefore our own beginning and our own end.
The season builds up not only to the first coming of God at Christmas in a stable in Bethlehem, but also looks forward to the what we have become accustomed to calling the  “second coming” when Jesus returns to judge the world and marks the reconfiguring of all things, even the creation of the “new heaven and the new earth” prophesied in Revelation.
The breaking in of God into the world was prophesied by Jeremiah today in our first reading set for Advent Sunday. This prophesy is actually carried twice in Jeremiah. The one we heard today is a re-writing of the same prophesy that appears earlier in chapter 23 but with important changes.
The most important change is that in the updated version the name “The Lord is our righteousness” is given not to the new king, as it was in the original version but to Jerusalem, which introduces a strong corporate element to our Advent hope and emphasises the graciousness of God to His people.
Righteousness is not so much a passive quality but an activity in which God put things right and upholds those who are loyal to Him.
Both the first and second coming are examples of God’s righteousness where God is putting things right and is speaking through His church to a hurting and waiting world.
We all know I hope what happened at Christmas, the first coming and in our gospel reading from Luke today we have Jesus Himself talking about his second coming. Second coming is actually not a Biblical phrase at all – it is an English translation of the Greek word “Parousia” which means “presence”, the presence of God. So in talking like this Jesus is predicting his death certainly but also his certain return – as certain as the fig trees which when they sprout leaves you know that summer is near.
“The son of man coming on a cloud” is an allusion to the Biblical prophesy in the book of Daniel, from where Jesus takes His favourite way of referring to himself – the son of man, coming with great power and glory.
But there is no timetable given for when these cataclysmic events are to take place. Even the phrase “this generation” can’t be used to imply any temporal application. “This generation” is a phrase used by Luke to describe any people at any time that turn their backs on God.
The most important point from this gospel passage is that God will come as Judge but Christians can look up in hope and not down in fear, because He is coming to deliver us and this passage is most interested in preparing us to live in a constant state of readiness for Jesus’ return.  
And that provides the perfect introduction to 1 Thessalonians – the earliest of Paul’s letters, which thus pre-date everything else in the new testament including the gospels. When we hear these words of Paul we are hearing the very first Christian words we have recorded.
The letter was a response to a report on the Thessalonians given to Paul by his helper Timothy. It was basically encouraging though there were some problems – including some who were agitated that Jesus hadn’t already returned while some of their friends had died in the meantime – revealing a feeling as old as Christendom – but is basically a letter of delight and gratitude in this community.
The “Advent” flavour comes from the fact that everything is done in the light of the “Coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints”. This is not posed as a threat to keep the troops in line but is a fact anticipated as the conclusion to the whole human story.
Paul uses two words that should characterise the Thessalonians – Love and holiness. Love for each other and love for all. So the love of God is inclusive and so looks beyond the walls of the church whether physical or spiritual. Our concern is rightly for each other – and how we conduct ourselves will influence how we are seen – but we are also to be concerned about the physical and spiritual well-being of those outside the  church amongst whom we are set.
Holiness, is the other watchword which denotes the “set apart” nature of the Christian community. Holiness of course often implies a rigid code of life lived according to a strict code of ethics, but in the two prayers in Thessalonians, one here and the other in 5;25 we learn that holiness is conferred by God alone, not attained by living according to a specific code. It is God’s gift and God’s initiative, like Jesus who came at Christmas and will come again.
Advent looks forward to the end of the story and is meant to inspire us. The completion of God’s will and purpose for the entire universe.
Jesus will come in his glorious majesty at the end. So all our lives, as fraught and ambiguous at every level will be swallowed up in victory – the life immortal.
Do you see your life as a unity?
You are now the same person who was born with your name many years ago and you are at the same time the person who will liveforever in the kingdom of God. Your life has inexhaustible meaning and purpose which is why in this mortal life we are asked to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armour of light.