Monday, 24 December 2007

A Christmas message 2007


Three dimensional Christmas

At the centre of Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a baby. Not any baby, but the birth of a child who was the Son of God.

There is a crib scene, on the Angel Hill, just by Abbey gate. It’s been there now for a number of years, and I’ve walked passed it, but I’ve never really looked at it. This year I had to because I was invited to take a service by the crib earlier this month.

It is a fascinating scene. It includes Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men and the baby Jesus.

The shepherds are shown wondering (they’ve just had an experience that is – to put it mildly – unusual. It is not every day that you get a visitation from angels); the wise men are kneeling down offering gifts, Mary is also kneeling – but she is praying and Joseph is presenting. He is standing there like a preacher.

But in the centre of the scene, and it is the only figure that is in three dimensions is the baby Jesus.

He is the one who gives the others their meaning and purpose.


Without him, the shepherds would simply represent us in our confusion - What is it all about? Why do unusual things happen? Is there life after death or is this all that there is? What is going on?

Without him, the wise men would simply represent us in our gift giving, or in our subservience one to another.

Without him, Mary kneeling down would simply represent people trying to find God: ‘I want to say thank you, but I don’t know to whom; I need help – if there is anybody out there’.

Without him, Joseph simply represents one more person who is proclaiming one more theory, one more idea.

And if you take the baby Jesus out of the crib scene, the whole thing is two dimensional. The other figures still look attractive, but they are flat.

And it is not only true for the crib scene; it is also holds true for Christmas.

If we take Jesus out of Christmas, it is still very attractive: the lights, tinsel, music, presents, feasting, but it is flat. It is winter-val. It has lost its reason. It is two dimensional.

It is just another opportunity to make money or to spend money, to eat and to drink, to spend time with families, in a society that has forgotten why we make or spend money, why we eat and drink, why we are even in families.

“And there were in the country children keeping watch over their stockings by the fireplace. And lo! Santa Claus came upon them; and they were so afraid. And Santa said unto them: ‘Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people who can afford them. For unto you will be given great feasts of turkey, stuffing and pudding and many presents; and this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the presents, wrapped in bright paper, lying beneath a tree adorned with tinsel, coloured balls and lights. And suddenly there will be with you a multitude of relatives and friends, praising you and saying, ‘Thank you so much, it was just what I wanted.’ And it shall come to pass as the friends and relatives have gone away into their own homes, the parents shall say to one another, ‘What a mess to clear up! I’m tired, let’s go to bed and pick it up tomorrow. Thank goodness, Christmas only comes once a year!’.”

It is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who gives Christmas it's third dimension. He is the X-factor in X-mas. He makes it real. He gives it its meaning; He gives it its power; He gives it its real magic. He is the reason for our celebration.

There was a Christmas card doing the rounds a few years ago that had these words on the front:

“Some people think that Christmas timeIs gifts and grub and booze;But the best bit is
That Jesus came –
God’s Son in human shoes.’

But that is what it is about. God, sending his Son – who had eternally been with him, who was there before time began, at the beginning of the creation of this universe – into this world as a human being.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”

Ø The birth of Jesus Christ, on that first Christmas, tells us that God still loves us. He has not abandoned us: he came to live as one of us.
Ø It tells us that God still has a purpose for us and this world;
Ø It tells us that God wishes to be in relationship with us. We can become not just friends of God, but family of God, children of God.

There is a verse that we have just read, in which John, one of the first followers of Jesus, said: "To all who received him, who believed in his name, Jesus gave the right to become children of God".

That verse is double edged. It implies that we are not children of God unless we have received Jesus. We are still part of God’s creation; We are still part of the world that he loves; God still lavishes good on us. But we are living in two dimensions when we could be living in three.

You see, whoever we are, young or old, man or woman; wherever we have been and whatever we have done,
we can become children of God: sons and daughters of God.

And when that happens Jesus comes into the centre of the picture of our lives.

Ø We still wonder: but this time we begin to wonder at the God who loves us
Ø We still offer gifts: but this time the first gift that we offer is the gift of ourselves to him
Ø We still kneel down and pray: but this time we know that we are praying to the God and Father who loves us
Ø We still preach: but the one whom we proclaim is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The story is told of two women, friends, who were doing lunch in a smart hotel. A former school friend came over to their table. "How are you?" she asked. "I haven't seen you for ages. Is this a special occasion?" "Yes", answered one of the women, "We're celebrating the birth of my son". "Congratulations", said the former school friend, "Where is he?" "Oh", replied the other, "You didn't think we'd bring him?".

It is possible to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ without him. But it is two dimensional.

It is also possible to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ with him. That happens not just when we come to church – although it is a start – but when we allow him to become part of our lives, to teach us, to lead us, to change us and to be with us.

When that happens we begin to live real lives, and Christmas becomes three dimensional.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

When salvation comes

LUKE 19:1-10

The story of Zacchaeus: one of the most famous vertically challenged people in the bible!

In verse 9, Jesus says, “Salvation has come to this house, because this man too is a son of Abraham”.

How does Jesus know?

1. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus

It might have been curiosity. It might have been because of the things people said about Jesus; it might have been the fact that Jesus had been nicking some of his employees. Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector – and he was the man who would have been left with the headache when someone like Matthew left everything to follow Jesus. We don’t know.

But he had a desire to see Jesus. And it was not a simple, “I wonder what Jesus is like?”

It was a real desire.

We know that, because he was not put off by other people. He is a small man, there is a big crowd, and they’re not going to let him through. So Zacchaeus swallows his pride, gathers up his robes and climbs the tree.


So the first question that we need to ask of ourselves or of those for whom we pray is this:
Do we or do they have a desire to see Jesus?

Do I really want to know who Jesus is?

It doesn’t matter if it is out of curiosity: Who is this man who a quarter of the world professes to call Lord? Who is this man that they have built cathedrals and churches like St Mary’s after? Who is this man who has been more influential than any other person or movement in providing a foundation for the laws and customs in this land for the last 1000 years? Who is this man they changed the calendar for? Who is this man that people say is alive, who answers prayers, who heals, who transforms lives?

Of course it needs to be more than simple curiosity. Simple curiosity gives up at the first hurdle. We were in Barcelona last week (just thought I would drop that in), and visited the Gaudi ‘Sagrada Familia’ cathedral: it gave me some ideas for St Mary’s (joke). You could go up 120 metres in the lift and look out over Barcelona. We thought, “That would be interesting”. And then we saw the queue! So we said ‘no thank you’. We had a desire to go up to the tower and look out, but it wasn’t that big a desire.

Is our desire to find out about Jesus, to discover more about him, to see him, big enough to make us climb trees! Is it big enough to overcome the opposition of others? Is it big enough, for instance, to give up 4 Wednesday evenings and come along to the Introducing Jesus course?

It is very interesting that on this and two other occasions in Luke, it is the crowd that has to be overcome before people can get to Jesus. The friends bringing the paralysed man to Jesus (Lk 5) cannot get to him because of the crowd: so they dig through the roof. The blind man who calls out to Jesus as he is passing is told to be quiet by the crowd: but he persists until Jesus hears him (Lk 18); and the crowd here are the obstacle preventing Zacchaeus from seeing Jesus, so he climbs a tree.

Actually the crowd are an obstacle to Zacchaeus in two ways. First they are a physical barrier, and secondly they mutter when Zacchaeus goes with Jesus. The judgement of the crowd is that Zacchaeus, because of his work, is not a fit man for Jesus to be seen with. And there may well be times when you are told that you are not fit people to seek Jesus: too young (people like you don’t get interested in religion), you’re not respectable enough, you’ve messed up too much, abortion, living with someone and you are not married, practicing homosexual relationship, wrong profession.

If you want to see Jesus, don’t be put off by those who say that Jesus is not for you. Don’t be put off by the demands of family or work or special interests. If you have a desire to see Jesus, feed it. Come along to Introducing Jesus, go on to the web – there are some links on our parish website to some very helpful sites, read a book, talk to a friend.

How much do we really wish to see Jesus?

It is when people begin to seek him that things happen.

I remember a friend in a church in London many years ago. His name was R. He believed in Jesus, but he wanted to see Jesus. He wanted the sort of intimate relationship with Jesus that his wife had. He desired the power and the presence of Jesus.

And Ross became a real pain to us. He read, he prayed. He complained because nothing was happening. He hungered and he thirsted for Jesus

He was not really the sort of person who I would have expected to do so. He was 30 years old. He worked in the city. He earned £70k per annum, before bonuses (and that was 24 years ago).

And he would not be put off by my reassurances: “It is OK. We are called to live by faith and not feeling. Trust the promises of God. Not everyone’s experience is the same”. He would not settle for it. He wanted more of Jesus.

How does Jesus know that salvation has come to this house: because Zacchaeus because really wanted to see Jesus.

2. Zacchaeus welcomed Jesus when Jesus invites himself into his home

It is one thing to wish to find out more about Jesus
It is quite another thing to have Jesus come into our home and our lives.

It is about who is in control.
When we’re desiring to see Jesus, we’re in control. We can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. We can choose to climb the tree or we can remain on terra firma.
But when Jesus comes into our lives we give up that control to him.

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus.
He gets quite a shock: Jesus wanted to see him.

Jesus stops at the tree, he calls Zacchaeus by name, and he tells Zacchaeus, “I’m coming to stay with you”. It is a statement of fact. He doesn’t ask Zacchaeus, ‘May I come and stay with you?’

Have you noticed how, in the gospels, when it is a question of people becoming followers of Jesus, it is nearly always Jesus who takes the initiative? They come to Jesus with their needs, or because they wish to listen to him or ask him a question, but it is Jesus who calls them. He calls the disciples. He says to them, ‘Come and follow me’. And he calls Zacchaeus.

It is outrageous.

I mean Zacchaeus of all people. Rich, wealthy, immoral Zacchaeus. Shouldn’t Jesus be going to the poor and downtrodden and maybe vaguely moral or religious? No wonder the crowd mutter.

Of course it is outrageous. It is also astonishingly wonderful

In God’s love even Zacchaeus is called by Jesus. Indeed Jesus has come specifically to seek him out. That is what he says at the end, “The son of man has come to seek and to save the lost”.

And we know that salvation has come when we hear the self-invitation of Jesus into our lives and when we welcome him into our lives and into our homes.

And Jesus does invite himself into our lives. And he is always inviting himself into new and different areas of our life: the things we watch on TV or the websites we visit, where we go on holiday, our sex lives, how we spend our money, our political attitudes, how we treat our boides, how we relate to the mother-in-law or the person we disagree with, or to that very crabby but also quite lonely old chap who lives two doors away, what we do with our evenings, our work or business, our relationship with husband, wife, children, parents, brother or sister, how we look at ourselves.

And while we’re inside and he’s outside, we pretend we are in control.

But when we hear his self-invitation and welcome him, we actually let him take control.

Jesus knows that salvation has come to Zacchaeus house because Zacchaeus has welcomed him in.
3. Jesus knows that salvation has come to Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus’ life changes

Zacchaeus not only gives; on top of that he also makes restitution.

Notice, Jesus doesn’t ask him to do so. He chooses freely to do it.

One of the marks that salvation has come to us is that our life changes, and it changes not because we have been told to change it, but because it happens.

When a person becomes a Christian, their life begins to change. One of the most obvious ways that people change is how they use the name of Jesus. Nobody tells them they should stop using the name of Jesus or God as a swear word – they just stop using it. Or we see it when a person owns up to something, or begins to struggle against a destructive habit whereas before they would give in, or when a couple living together stop sleeping together, or choose to get married; or when a person chooses to forgive, or starts to spend time in prayer and bible reading. Nobody tells them that they should: as they listen to Jesus, it simply happens.

And, for Zacchaeus, the change in life was very marked. A man who had been always out getting started giving. He gave away half of what he had. And on top of the act of giving, he made an act of restitution – again choosing to offer more than the law required him to offer.

I spoke earlier of R who I knew 24 years ago. He did get his meeting with Jesus. It changed his life. One of the results was that he gave up his £70k pa job in favour of one that paid £16k I saw him again about 15 years after he made that decision. He has never regretted it.

I need to speak a word of caution here: as a person allows Jesus to come closer to them, so at times it feels as if our life is getting worse rather than better. Something we thought we had overcome comes back with a vengeance. And we wonder, “Has salvation come to my house. Why is my life not changing?” That is a question we need to ask. We may need to listen again to the self-invitation of Jesus, to submit again to Him, to confess and we may need prayer. But one of the ways that our life changes is that as we come closer to Jesus, as we allow him to come closer to us, so we become much more aware of just how sinful and mucky we are. And so rather than despairing when we see our sin, we can actually rejoice, and with God’s help deal with it. A spiritually dead person will not be aware of sin or their need for forgiveness: the fact that we see our sin means that God is at work in us.

Jesus knows that salvation has come to Zacchaeus house because Zacchaeus seeks him, because Zacchaeus welcomes him and because Zacchaeus life changes.

So I ask of you and me
Are we seeking him?
Have we welcomed him?
Is our life changing?

Because the bible teaches that as we look at Jesus, at his glory and his love, so we begin to look like him.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Cursing the fig tree

MARK 11:12-25

In our passage today, we meet gentle Jesus meek and mild! As if!

Ø He curses a fig tree
Ø He overturns the tables in the temple

So what is going on here? Is Jesus having a bad hair day? He’s hungry. He sees the fig tree. He goes over to get a fig, but there is no fruit. So he zaps the tree.

The setting is significant. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in triumph. He deliberately sets out to fulfil the prophecy of Zechariah. We saw that last week. He is God's king coming to God's city. He is coming to his throne.

And in these verses what we see is that God’s king comes to God’s city and he finds it wanting.

The fig tree is cursed because it is not bearing fruit. We are told the reason it is not bearing fruit: it is too early on in the season. But it doesn’t change the issue. Jesus is looking for fruit. And if the fruit is not there, then there will come a time when God will act in judgement.

Maybe we think the fig tree gets a raw deal. It is worth remembering this is a fig tree (and it did not have a tree preservation order)! What Jesus is doing here is no different to what any gardener does when they remove a shrub because it is no longer needed.

But Jesus is here acting out a parable.

He has come to God's people. He is looking for fruit. But he does not find fruit.

And as a result, God's judgement is coming on them. Jesus’ cursing the fig tree is his very dramatic way of saying to the people, ‘It is almost too late. The patience of God has finally worn thin. God is going to act in judgement.’

And in case people do not get the message here, Jesus makes it explicitly clear in the parable of the tenants in Mark 12.


The story of the cursed fig tree wraps around the story of the cleansing of the temple. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus turns over the tables of the money changers and challenges the traders.

The place where people were meant to worship God, where they were meant to enable others to meet with God, has become a place where people worship money, and where people rip each other off. If there was one going to be only one place where Jesus would find good fruit, it would have been in the temple. And what does he find? Exploitation and idolatry.


What are we to make of these verses?

1. Don't think that Jesus is tame.

Philip Yancey writes: “As I studied the life of Christ, one impression about Jesus struck me more forcefully than any other. We have tamed him. The Jesus I learned about as a child was sweet and inoffensive, the kind of person whose lap you'd want to climb on. Someone cuddly with a beard. Indeed, Jesus did have qualities of gentleness and compassion that attracted little children. But Jesus is not tame. They would not have needed to crucify a tame Jesus”

Jesus is the one who loves us, who gave his life for us, who offers us forgiveness and new life. But he is also the incomprehensible Son of God. He is the one who was there before the beginning of time. He is bigger than, beyond, all our concepts and ideas and imagination. He is even beyond the very categories that we use to think: concepts of space and time.

We cannot put him in a box. We approach him with confidence, because he has given us some very precious promises, and because he has backed up his promises by dying and rising again for us. But we also approach him with awe and reverence. He is God; He is the one who made us. He is the one who has every right to destroy us. He is the one who curses a fig tree and it withers from the root. He is the one who announces the judgement of God on the temple. He does not answer to us; we answer to him. He is going to be our judge.


2. Jesus is looking for fruit

What sort of fruit?

Looking back over the previous verses
Ø The fruit of praise: men and women recognising that Jesus is the Lord
Ø The fruit that comes when men and women choose to follow him rather than follow their own desires or the desires of the world
Ø The fruit of service
Ø The fruit of love and compassion and humility before God

Isaiah, in chapter 5, describes Israel as a vineyard. God ‘dug it up, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines and built a watchtower’. He then waits and looks for this vineyard to bear fruit: for justice and righteousness. But instead he sees violence and distress. So he says, “I’m going to remove the watchtower and the wall. My vineyard will be trampled and become a wasteland”

But God has still not given up completely on us. And throughout the Old Testament there is the promise of a root, a stump of Jesse, who will be established. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is that root. And Jesus describes himself as the true vine. And he says to his people, ‘If you remain in me, fixed to me, you will bear fruit: the fruit of obedience and love’. But he warns that if we do not remain in him, we will be cut off and burned


3. Jesus is looking for authenticity at the place of meeting with God.

There was no authenticity at the temple. The temple was the place where God had said that people could come to meet with him. But they had turned it into a place where they could rip off the people who came to meet God

Compare Amos 5:21-24

God hates it when we try to use prayer to further our own little gods.

Self-centred prayer: make my business prosper and make the enemies business fail
To boost our own ego’s (‘the long prayers’)

I am not saying that we should not pray about the things that are on our minds. I am not saying that we should not pray for the bigger house, or the promotion, or business success. What I am saying is that in our prayer there has to be a place for saying, but "Father God, your will be done, your kingdom come", and if your kingdom coming means that I do not succeed or am not healthy - it doesn't matter.

Sometimes I ask people to write a list of the things that they pray for – and then we compare our requests with the Lord’s prayer.

In verses 22 to 25 Jesus teaches about prayer with faith. On the surface it does seem that Jesus is giving us a blank cheque: if you believe something enough then it will happen. It does seem that Jesus is extolling the virtue of positive thinking, of what some people have called ‘name it and claim it’. Look at verse 24.

But we cannot take verse 24 out of context.

The faith that Jesus is talking about here is

1. Faith in God. It is not faith in prayer, but faith in the God who answers prayer. I sometimes say that I do not believe in the power of prayer. I believe in the power of the God who answers prayer. And there is a significant difference.

In verse 22 Jesus says, "Have faith in God". God can do all things but God will not necessarily do all things. In the end prayer is not about me and my desire, but about God and his desire.

2. Faith to move mountains. And in this context, the mountain that Jesus is looking at is almost certainly the temple mount. In other words, Jesus is saying, “If you have faith then you can change the whole order of things. You can pray in the kingdom of God”.

"What then is the nature of petitionary prayer? It is, in essence, rebellion—rebellion against the world in its falleness, the absolute and undying refusal to accept as normal what is pervasively abnormal. It is, in this its negative aspect, the refusal of every agenda, every scheme, every interpretation that is at odds with the norm as originally established by God." (David Wells).

Prayer is not primarily praying for the things that our on our mind, but for the things that are on God’s mind.

Remember Mark 8. Just before Jesus tells his disciples that they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow him, he has turned to Peter and said, “you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns”. Following Jesus, taking up our cross, means asking God to put into our mind his concerns.

And remember Jesus, in Mark 14:35, praying in the garden of Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will”. It is the prayer that has everything: intimacy, confession, request and submission.

And I think that this is why verse 25 is there [v25]. Prayer is not to be used as a weapon for our own personal battles. If they hurt me, then it is not for me to pray that the ground will shift under their feet or that the mountain will fall on them. If they hurt me it is my task, as someone who has been forgiven, to forgive. A man once said to John Wesley, “I never forgive”. To which Wesley replied, “Then sir, I hope that you never sin”. And maybe asking God to give us the will to forgive someone who has hurt us may be the mountain for which we are praying to be moved.

Jesus is here encouraging his disciples and us to pray big prayers. He is encouraging us to pray for the impossible. But the things for which we pray are to be the things that are on God’s agenda and not our own. We are to pray for God’s kingdom to come. We are to pray that we will be people who bear good fruit.


So the fig tree: it really is Jesus’ last warning to the people of Jerusalem. It is the only time he does anything like this. It is the only time that he uses his power to destroy. But he is desperate for the people to realise what is happening. He is desperate to see the fruit that God requires. He is desperate for people to realise that judgement is round the corner. And so he acts out, in the most dramatic way possible, the judgement of God.

He passes judgement on a fruitless fig tree in order that he might not need to pass judgement on a fruitless people.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Battle of Britain service 2007

BATTLE OF BRITAIN

It is a real privilege to be able to celebrate this service with you today.

We come to give thanks to God for those who fought in the Battle of Britain, for the outcome of that battle, and also to give thanks for those - who, in that same spirit - have continued to serve in the Royal Air Force.

And we have here men and women who have served with the RAF regiment and with the USAF in Iraq and Afghanistan. We give thanks to God for you and for your families. And we also remember before God those who have given their lives, and their families. And on behalf of this town and church I wish to say that we are immensely proud to be associated with you.

I am not sure that the role of this particular service is to honour victory. Please do not get me wrong. Of course we give real thanks to God for the victory in 1940. It was the first major defeat of the war for Hitler, and it meant the invasion of this island was put off indefinitely. Certainly, the consequences for this nation and for the nations of Europe, if the Battle of Britain had been lost, are quite unthinkable.

However it is not for the church to honour the victorious. If the church is to be faithful to scripture and to her teaching then it is not what we are about. The church is not the place to honour those who are wealthy or powerful or famous or victorious. Their honour can be found elsewhere.

No. As we gather here in God’s name, we do honour people: not for victory, but for dependence on, humility before, trust in and obedience to God, for Christ-likeness, for faithfulness, self-sacrificial service and love – many of the things that were evident in the spirit with which people fought the Battle of Britain. And we honour those things whether they seem to lead to apparent human victory, or apparent human failure and defeat.

At the very heart of the Christian story is an apparent failure: a man hanging on a cross.

People had such dreams for Jesus. With his charisma, he could have been the one who united the people of Israel and drove out the Roman occupying force. It might not have even stopped there. With the power that he seemed to have at his hands: the power to calm storms or heal people or even raise people from the dead, he could have established an empire that would have taken on and defeated the Roman empire. Rome would have bowed to Jerusalem. And the law of God could have become the law of the empire. The Kingdom of God could have been established. He could have had power and wealth and fame beyond imagination. What greater success could there have been?

But it all seemed to go so wrong. He seemed to have a death wish. He avoided the crowds who wanted to make him king. When he was given the opportunity to save himself by doing a miracle in front of King Herod, he refused. When he could have summoned 5000 angels as he was about to be crucified, he allowed them to take his hands and drive nails through them. And he ended up a corpse, executed as a criminal, hanging in between two criminals.

And yet, if by the world's standards this was failure, by God's standards this was victory beyond all victory. Here was a man who gave himself totally for others. And because he chose to die, because he chose to love others so much, death has been defeated, we are offered forgiveness, friendship with God, membership in his family and the power to begin to change so that we can live as God means us to live, to love as God means us to love. Because he died, death is defeated. It is not the final enemy; it is not the end.

I am so grateful that at the heart of the heritage of our nation there has been not a story of a God who - like the Greek gods - defeated their enemies by strength, by wealth, by deception or by wisdom. Of course there are many times when we have tried to turn God into that kind of God. But the God who is revealed fully in the New Testament is the God who conquers by self sacrificial love. And we need to do all that we can to ensure that the story of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ remains at the centre of our nation's life, communities life and our own personal lives.

As far as God is concerned, it is not the size of an empire that makes a nation great; it is not the size of an army that makes a nation great: it is that nation or people's willingness to sacrificially serve others, to engage with others – even at its own cost - that makes it great.

There is much talk about whether there will be or won’t be victory for the coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am not really sure what that means. With the next man or woman I am praying that stable governments can be established in these nations, which will allow peace and freedom and justice for all to flourish. And in my cynical moments, I suspect that those who want it to fail will find failure, and those who want it to succeed will find success.

And whatever the outcome on the ground, I guess that the story of the real victories in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be told this side of heaven. It certainly will not be the story of people like me who pontificate on the sidelines. Instead it will be the story of men and women who got involved, who went to serve in a far off place –in a military or civil capacity, who offered their lives and sometimes paid the full price, not for family and friends and country, but for unknown others who long to live life in peace and freedom. It will be the story of countless acts of mercy done on behalf of others. It will be the story of families who gave up a husband or wife, son or daughter, father or mother so that families in another land, who they have not met and never will meet, can begin to live. It will be the story of politicians who have the courage to go against the opinion polls and choose to engage rather than disengage, whether that involves military or other kinds of intervention: love does not close its eyes to the suffering of others. It will be the story of men and women who gave themselves for others - in small and big ways; who humbled themselves before each other; who had the courage to say sorry to God and to others when they messed up; who allowed God to forgive them and who forgave; who stood up for what is right and true even though it cost them; who crossed the barriers to break down the barriers; who laid down their life for their friends and even their enemies.

Sometimes we get it right. Sometimes in our civic and national events and services we manage to honour service and love and not just success. Often we do not get it right.

But, in Revelation 5, we read of a lamb who was slain, who is worthy to receive and to open a scroll. It is a picture of Jesus who was crucified, who rose from the dead and who now reigns in heaven. And the scroll: it is the historian’s dream document: hidden history – the history that God sees, even if no-one else has seen it. It is the story of the deeds and thoughts of nations, families and individuals. And the scroll will read: ‘This one humbled himself/herself before God. This one received the love and the forgiveness and the power to live that God offers. And having received love, they chose to obey and to love. This one was a true great one’

And in Revelation 5, heaven sings and earth responds in praise to Jesus. It is the praise of the one who, because he chose to give up all power and wealth and wisdom to hang on a cross out of love for us, has been given for all time and eternity all power, wealth, wisdom and praise. To Him be honour and glory. Amen.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Mark 9:2-13

THE TRANSFIGURATION
Mark 9:2-13

There are moments, often extremely rare, when the scales fall away and we see reality as it is.

It is a bit like looking through a microscope or telescope. What we thought was a blob suddenly appears transformed into something wonderful.

Well, in a sort of way, that is what happens here.

Peter, James and John are given a glimpse of reality, of ultimate reality.

Most commentators agree that Jesus, in Mark's gospel, is trying to get over two key points about himself:

1. He is the messiah, the Son of God.
2. He is not a wonder working messiah, but a messiah who has come to save people, and that he will save people through his death on the cross

Mark 8:31, and this may have been pointed out last week, is a turning point in Mark's gospel. Peter has suddenly realised it: his eyes have been opened. He is able to confess that Jesus is the Messiah (v29). But Jesus commands the disciples not to tell people because they've still only got half of the message. And so in verse 31, we are told, "Jesus then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things .."

The transfiguration, which happens 6 days after, is God writing those two messages large. The disciples have been slowly beginning to understand who Jesus is. It has been a bit like driving through thick fog: they've been able to see enough to edge their way forward. Now God strips the veil away from their eyes and they see clearly.

THE TRANSFIGURATION POINTS US TO JESUS THE SON OF GOD, THE BELOVED ONE.

It shows us who Jesus is.

The Son of God: the voice from heaven says, "This is my Son"

The one who is bigger than space and time:

I mean here are Elijah and Moses talking with Jesus. Moses lived 2000 years before Jesus and Elijah about 700 years before Jesus.

It is significant that both Moses and Elijah had significant encounters with God on the same mountain. Moses on Mt Sinai (Exodus 33), when he asked to see God's glory; Elijah on Mt Horeb (which is another name for Mt Sinai) when he met with God in the absolute silence. Now they meet with the glory of God again - but this time together and on a different mountain.

For Peter and the others it was terrifying. "He did not know what to say; they were so frightened".

When a person begins to encounter the glory of God, of the God who created this universe, of the God who is bigger than space and time, of the God who is absolute holiness and love, then of course there will be an element of what people have called 'holy fear'. For the disciples there were many times when we are told that they were frightened: when Jesus walked on water; when he calmed the storm; when he appeared to them after the resurrection. And that is inevitable. We are encountering the one who is beyond everything we know and understand. Paul tells us to 'work out our salvation with fear and trembling'. Of course, we try to domesticate God - to logically explain him; to restrict him to speaking to us in certain ways; and meeting with us at certain times and places. But we are only kidding ourselves. We cannot tame him; and we cannot have a real relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, without having moments when we at the same time are really really scared and yet also still long for more of him.

The transfiguration tells us of Jesus Christ, the one who transcends space and time.


The pre-eminent one:
Moses was the law giver. Elijah was the great prophet. Both of them appear not to have died, but to have been quite literally taken. They were the great ones of the Old Testament.

But it is not Moses and Elijah who are transfigured. It is not Moses or Elijah who are dazzling white. It is Jesus who shines. In the icon of the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah do shine, but the source of their light is Jesus.

And the voice from heaven tells Peter, James and John not to listen to Elijah or Moses. It tells them that they are to listen to Jesus. That doesn't mean that they are to reject Moses or Elijah; rather they are to listen first to Jesus, and that we are to listen to Moses and Elijah through Jesus.


The transfiguration points us to Jesus the Son of God, and it tells us that it really is all about Jesus.

I'm sure you know the story of the Sunday school teacher who was asking her class: "What climbs trees, eats nuts, is furry, has a long snout, sticky up ears and a very bushy tail?" And a little boy said to his neighbour. "It sounds like a squirrel, but I bet the answer is Jesus".

It is not about the church, the community of the people of God; it is not about my inner voice or feelings; and it is not about the bible. Quite simply the reason that we listen to the church and that we listen to the bible is because we first of all choose to obey this voice and listen to Jesus: to the Jesus who lived 2000 years ago, to the Jesus who lives in his church and to the Jesus who is reigning in transfigured glory today.


THE TRANSFIGURATION POINTS US TO THE CROSS

If these verses point us to the glory of Jesus, they also point us to the cross.

Jesus (v9) tells Peter, James and John not to tell anyone of the transfiguration until after the resurrection. It is a familiar instruction, especially after Jesus has just done something wonderful. The problem is that if they told everyone of Jesus encounter on the mountain with Elijah and Moses, people would become even more convinced that Jesus was the wonder working messiah who they were hoping for.

And so, instead, as they come down off the mountain, Jesus again tells them that he will suffer and die and then be raised.

These are quite complicated verses and I'm not sure that I really understand them.

The background is this. The religious teachers of the time put together some Old Testament prophesies and said that before the messiah comes, Elijah will return and 'restore all things'.

Jesus makes it pretty clear that he sees John the Baptist as that person. John the Baptist wore the same kind of clothes (or non-clothes) that Elijah wore and came to prepare the way for Jesus, by bringing people to repentance. "But", Jesus says, (v13), "Look what they did to him. They rejected him; they arrested him and they executed him. And in the same way so must I suffer and be rejected".

Jesus did not come to be the wonder working Messiah. He could have been. The glory that Peter, James and John see at the transfiguration is the glory that Jesus possesses by right. But this was the glory that Jesus chose to put aside when he came to earth and was conceived in Mary's womb. He came in order to give his life as a ransom for many. And Jesus gave up his glory and he gave up his life, and he died on the cross, so that, with Elijah and Moses
· we can stand in his presence,
· we can talk with Him (we call it prayer)
· whatever we experience now - even if it seems to be total desolation - we can and we will share his glory.


THE TRANSFIGURATION POINTS US TO THE REALITY BEHIND PRAYER

There are times when prayer is easy. God feels close, and our prayers are answered. But I have to say those times are the exception. Much of the time, prayer can seem extremely hard work and God can feel very distant. We long for him and yet he is absent.

It might be because we are being disobedient, but that is not the only reason.

It could be circumstances. Life has done the dirty on us. I was speaking to someone who lost one of her children, had a severe stroke and has now lost her husband of 50 or so years. She was struggling: "Why are these things happening to me. I don't know how I am going to hold on to my faith. God seems absent"

It could simply be that God is moving us on, growing our faith. Taking us deeper; taking us into what St John of the Cross called, "The dark night of the soul". I understand that some of Mr Theresa's letters have been published, and it seems that much of the time she wrestled with God about his seeming absence. That, I have to say, is part of the experience of many men and women of God.

And it is no different to the experience of men and women of God in the past. The psalmist wrote (Psalm 42): "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"

And yet I think that the transfiguration can give us some reassurance, because it gives us a glimpse of the reality that is behind prayer.

When we pray, when we bring to Jesus all our questions, struggles, doubts, convictions, hopes, fears and longings, we are doing nothing more and nothing less than Moses and Elijah were, when they stood and talked with the glorified, transfigured Jesus. And like them, even if we are not aware of it, as we stand in his presence so we too begin to reflect his glory.

Paul writes, "And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:17)

So even if it feels pointless, it is worth persisting in prayer. Something is happening. And there are moments here and now when we see the glory of God - but it is, as Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 13:12), 'a poor reflection as in a mirror'. But there and then, he says, like Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration, "we shall see face to face".





Saturday, 25 August 2007

Remembering God

2 KINGS 23:1-23

Last week we were looking at bad King Manasseh

This week we are looking at good King Josiah

Josiah was Manasseh’s grandchild.

As an aside, that is very reassuring. Evil is not hereditary. It does not run in families. If a grandparent or parent mess up, it does not mean that you are condemned to mess up.

But our reading today tells us of Josiah’s reforms.

REDISCOVERY

It all begins with the discovery of the book of the covenant in the temple. It is the rediscovery of what, for us, forms most of the Old Testament of our bible.

So many works of God in our lives begin with a discovery – or rediscovery - of the bible.

There was Sally. She had had a child. She suddenly became very conscious of both the privilege that had been given her, and the responsibility. She became aware of her need to do things right. But she didn’t know what was right. So she started to read the bible – and God got hold of her

Or there is the young man who began to come to church because his girlfriend wanted him to. He started to read the bible, and was grabbed – not by the book, but by the God who speaks through the book

Or there was Frank. Frank was in his 80’s. He’d been coming to church for many years. He’d heard the bible read. But one day something happened. Instead of hearing words, he heard the message. And he met, probably for the first time in his life, with the Jesus who loved him. Three days he died.

Or there was the 17 year old who went to church, was involved in the youth group, who had made a commitment to Christ. But he started to read the bible: and that was when things changed. That was when he started to meet with Christ.

Of course for the people of Israel in the time of Josiah, the bible had always been there. It had just been hidden away in a corner, forgotten, neglected.

But then – you know how it is – a new boss, a cleanout and someone finds it. They start reading. They think, “Hey, this is big”. So they take it to the boss, the king. He says, ‘Find someone who can tell us what this is all about. So they go to Huldah, the prophetess (who, by the way, is Isaiah’s aunty). And it begins to make sense.

And it is significant that it is called the book of the covenant, or testament.

Because this is the book that tells us how God has made a covenant, an agreement, a promise to the people of Israel. God has said to them that he has chosen them to be his people. They have done nothing to deserve it. It was simply that in his love God has chosen them.

The great phrase, and it is repeated 15 times in the Old Testament, is that God says to the people of Israel: “I will be your people and you will be my God”. This really was the ultimate special relationship

Revival, renewal, new life begins when people discover the message of grace that is found here.

The Old Testament tells us of the covenant, the promise that God gave to the people of Israel.
The New Testament tells us of the new covenant, the new promise that God gives to all people.

Because just as God said he had chosen Israel, so because of Jesus, that choice is now extended to all people, whether Jew or non-Jew. And the message of grace is the message of God’s love: that God forgives and accepts and invites us to become his people and to walk in relationship with him. It is the message that God offers intimacy; that he speaks to us; that he offers us new life and a new identity and a new purpose. He offers us freedom and uniqueness. It is the message of hope.

And virtually the last chapter of the last book of the bible has these words, “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”.


DEDICATION

God offers people a covenant: he offers a relationship: “I will be your God and you will be my people”

It is God’s initiative. It is God’s offer.

But we have to respond. We can say ‘yes’ or we can say ‘no’.

Bad king Manasseh didn’t consciously say ‘no’. He simply forgot the covenant; he ignored it. He acted as if it did not exist. He did not want God to be his God.

Josiah however says ‘yes’
In verse 3, Josiah pledges himself to follow the Lord, and to keep his commands with all his heart and soul

And for us, God offers us a covenant, a relationship. God makes an offer: “I will be your God and you will be my people”.

And for that covenant to become active, to become real, we have to receive it – we have to say ‘yes’. God is not going to force anyone to come into a relationship with him. He loves us too much for that. We have to choose to opt into it. At some point, (and I don’t think it matters whether it is a conscious or an unconscious decision), we have to stand beside Josiah and the people and we have to pledge ourselves to the God who offers us a covenant: “to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all our heart and mind”. Or as we repeat in our communion service, “To love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength”.


RENUNCIATION

If God is to be our god, then there is no place for other gods.

For Josiah, it meant there was a lot of clearing out to do.

Out went the shrines, private altars and the high places.
That was because many of them were dedicated to false gods; and even those that were dedicated to God were still not right because God had said that the temple in Jerusalem was the only place where he was to be worshiped.

Out went all the stuff that was dedicated to other gods – even stuff in the temple: the Asherah pole, the male shrine prostitutes, the horses and chariot dedicated to the sun.

And for us if God is to be our God then there is no place for other gods.

Some stuff, some behaviour has to go.

When people became Christians in Ephesus, many of them had been involved in occultist practices. So they had a bonfire, and they destroyed their books about the occult and witchcraft.

And Jesus tells his listeners that if their eye causes them to sin, cut it out.
He is not, I trust, wishing to be taken literally. But what he is saying is that if what you are looking at is causing you to sin, cut it out. If a magazine or TV programme, or website, or book, or particular association or place is causing you to sin, cut it out.

And sometimes even things that have been helpful for us can get in the way. A particular set of bible notes. A routine for praying. Something that we use to pray with. I’m not saying that routines, or candles or prayer chains or crosses or bible notes are wrong. They can be incredibly helpful. The problem is when they take the place of intimacy with God. And if that happens, we need to get rid of them.

The desert fathers were very strong on this dimension of renunciation. They used to say to new monks, “Flee women, world and bishops” – which was a dramatic way of saying, have nothing to do with sexual immorality, with the ambition to have or get more, or with status and power. There was something that Tony Blair said in the speech when he announced his resignation that I thought was very profound: he said, “Sometimes the only way you conquer the pull of power is to set it down”.

And Paul writes to the Colossians (ch5, v3ff)

“Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.
.. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

And elsewhere we are told, you cannot serve both god and money. If money gets in the way of our relationship with God, get rid of it! That is why tithing is such a good spiritual practice. If we don’t think we could do it, money has too much of a hold over us.


CELEBRATION

Many people think that Christianity is simply about negatives. It is not. God offers his people life. He offers us freedom – freedom from sin, freedom from stuff. He offers us uniqueness – an identity that will survive even death.

We see that from here.

There is the honouring of the memory of the prophet of Judah (vv16ff): Josiah honours a man who has been faithful to the word of God, to the message of the covenant.
There is the celebration of the Passover. “Neither in the days of the judges or of the kings of Israel or the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed”. It was a real celebration.

And that is significant. The discovery of the message of the covenant; the dedication of lives to God; the renunciation of things that destroy life, lead not to "silly devotions and sour faced saints", as Theresa of Avilla used to call them. I was watching Midsummer Murders on Friday, and again getting so frustrated about how religious people are portrayed by the media.

We are talking here about life. The Passover was a party: they had good wine, they had good food. And they celebrated.

They celebrated:
Ø the work of God in the past: how he rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt;
Ø the presence of God in the present
Ø covenant that God offered them.

We are aware that the Christian life is about dedication and renunciation. We are probably not as good at remembering that the Christian life is about celebration.

We have a God who loves us, who desires us. He offers to be our God and invites us to become his people. He offers us life. The Christian life is about walking the cross now; it is also about anticipating the resurrection now.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Trusting Jesus

This is one of those very hard passages in the bible
In verse 27, Jesus answers the woman with what seems an incredibly offensive statement: "First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs."
He calls her a dog.
It was the term that Jews used for Gentiles (the Gentiles could be just as abusive when talking about the Jews). Some commentators say that the word that Jesus uses here is the word that means 'little pet dog', but even if that is the case, it doesn't really change things.
Jesus calls her a dog and says that the good things - God's salvation, healing and life - are for the children: for the Jews.
It is not politically correct.
The woman however,
  • does not seem to be offended

    Maybe she had not expected an answer at all. After all she knew that she was not only a Gentile, but a woman, coming to a Jewish rabbi. Most Jewish rabbis would not have even bothered to speak to her. At least Jesus speaks to her.
  • accepts the premise: she does not challenge the validity of Jesus' statement. Instead she answers, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
  • perseveres in her request: she is after all desperate

Most of us here are, I guess, of Gentile descent. We are not Jews. And this passage is particularly for us

It is, as Tom Wright points out in his commentary, a highly political incident. It is not simply the story of how a Gentile woman throws herself on Jesus' mercy, gives a witty reply and receives the answer to her prayer. There is something much more radical happening.

In Mark 7:1-23, Jesus has effectively broken down the divide between things that are clean and unclean. It was a very physical divide, and being ritually clean was one of the very visible ways that Jews separated themselves from Gentiles. The Jew refrained from doing things that would make them ritually unclean, and they observed rituals that made them clean. But Jesus, in Mark 7, states that ritual cleanness or uncleaness is irrelevant. He says the real difference is not between those who are ritually clean and those who are ritually unclean, but between those who are clean on the inside and those who are unclean on the inside. In other words he has gone quite some way to breaking down the divide between Jew and Gentile

Now he has left Bethsaida and gone to Tyre, a Gentile region, because he needs to be on his own for a while. But this Gentile woman comes to him, and she tells him about her daughter who is possessed by, and the word that Mark uses is, an 'unclean' spirit.

So what will Jesus do. Will he remove that which makes her daughter unclean on the inside? In other words, has Jesus come to totally abolish all distinction between Jew and Gentile.

And the disciples would be waiting to see how Jesus answered the woman. How far would he go?

Would he send her away -
Or would he heal her daughter - abolishing all difference between Jew and Gentile?

He does neither. Instead by his answer

1. Jesus affirms the priority of the Jewish people

When he says to her: ""First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs.", he is saying very clearly that there is a difference and that he has come first for the Jewish people.

It was Abraham, a descendant of Shem (hence the word Semite), who was chosen by God to be the father of a people who would be God's representatives in the world and bring God's blessing to the world. (As an aside, it is interesting that God chose a family through which to bless the world, rather than a people who lived in a particular place.) And it was to the Jews that the word of God was given - the word of God's presence and guidance and protection and blessing. It was to the Jews that the laws were given - good laws, laws that enable people to live. It was to the Jews that the warnings were given - warnings that if they strayed from God, if they were unfaithful, then disaster would happen. It was to the Jews that the sacrifices and priesthood were given, so that they could know that they were forgiven and that God would hear them when they prayed. And it was to the Jews that the promise of a messiah, a deliverer, a saviour was given - who would come and usher in the Kingdom of God and its reign of healing and peace and love.

And in her answer, "Yes Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs", she is recognising that - as Jesus put it - salvation comes from the Jews. She realises (and many of the Jews did not realise this) that she is kneeling before the Jewish messiah.

And as Christians we need to remember that to seek Jesus, to kneel down at Jesus feet, to seek his mercy, is to kneel down before the word of God that came to the Jewish people; it is to receive the history and the legacy of the Jewish people as our history and legacy. It is to receive the Old Testament as the word of God

A Jewish lady was in this church last year and she looked up at the star of David window above the entrance to the chancel. And she asked, "That is a Jewish symbol. Why is it in a Christian church?" And my answer was that as Christians we believe that Jesus is the descendant of David, not just in biological terms, but in terms of the promise. He is the one who was the child who God promised to David who would reign for ever and who would bring in God's Kingdom.

So we do need to remember that the people who God first called to be his children were the physical biological descendants of Abraham through Sarah. We need to remember the very special place that they had in the plans of God, and that they still have in the heart of God. There is no place for anti-semitism, or anti-anybodyism for that matter, in this world. But there is particularly no place for anti-semitism in the church, and it is to our shame that there have been times when the Christian church has led the persecution of the Jews.

So Jesus affirms the priority of the Jewish people

2. Jesus extends the mercy of God to all people

Jesus answers her request. He removes the unclean spirit from within her daughter. In other words he is saying, 'the Jews have priority; I am the Jewish messiah; but now God's mercy extends to all people'.

But notice why Jesus grants her request.

It is not because she gives a witty reply; it is not because she somehow deserves Jesus to answer her request. It is because she throws herself on Jesus' love and mercy. She realises that what she will receive from Jesus will be complete gift.

And we need to remember that what we receive from Jesus we receive as complete gift.

We have done nothing to deserve it.

The cry of the woman, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." has become part of our communion service: "We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord, whose nature is always to have mercy .."

The woman could have said: "But I'm also a child of God and so I deserve the good things". That is how she would be told to answer today: stand up for yourself and for your rights. But she knows that before God she is not worthy to receive anything; before God she has nothing that she can demand. She is completely dependent on the mercy of Jesus.

It is a very difficult thing to be helpless. And before God we are helpless. There is nothing we can demand, and there is nothing we can offer.

I do not know what it is that we are crying out for: it might be for a sick child, or a child who we have lost. It might be for someone who is the grip of something that is destroying them - something or someone that cannot be removed by medicine, or education, or psychotherapy. It might be for a desperate longing: for a reconciliation with someone, for a partner, for a child, for a particular job, for peace. It might be that we are in a pit that is so deep we simply cannot see any way out: a financial disaster or marriage crisis. It might be that we have messed up and are in deep trouble - maybe nobody else knows about it. It might be for forgiveness, for meaning in life or intimacy with God.

I do not know. What I do know is that before God we are helpless; we have no right to receive anything, but that because of Jesus, whoever we are - Jew or Gentile - we can cry out to Jesus to have mercy.

And I also know that because of Jesus, the Jewish messiah, the saving mercy of God extends to all people. He will answer our prayers. Sometimes immediately and wonderfully, as in this case. Sometimes we may need to exercise faith. And sometimes he may answer our prayers not as we wish, and in very painful ways for us, but ways that actually are for the ultimate best.

There is one more thing that I would like to say. I spoke earlier about us as Gentiles having no rights before God. But because of Jesus death we do now have one right: the right to become children of God. In other word, although we are not worthy to even gather up the crumbs under God's table, we have been invited to come up and to sit at the table - not as servants of God, not even as friends of God, but as children of God.

Loving Jesus

John 21:15-19

We’re looking today at Jesus’ question to Peter: “Do you love me?’

It is an unusual question.
Peter has denied, let down Jesus. Three times he has told people: “I do not know the man”

Jesus could have asked him:
Are you sorry?
Will you be loyal to me?
Will you lay down your life for me?

Instead, Jesus asks Peter, “Do you truly love me?”

At the heart of the Christian life is love for God.

It is the first and great command.

To know God, to trust God is to love God. Because God is love.

We do not love God because either we do not know God, or because we do not love love.

Ø When we look at the one who is completely other to us, who is eternal (beyond all ages), who is bigger than all our concepts or categories, who created us with a word, and yet who loves us personally and knows us by name – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who made us and this world, who gives us life, beauty, music, creativity – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who welcomes us, who forgives us, who accepts us, who gives us the right to become his children, to share in the intimacy that Jesus had with him – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who gives us his promises, so that even when we go through difficult and dark times, even when everyone else deserts us, there is hope – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who gave us his only Son, and with his Son gave us everything: identity, purpose, fulfilment – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who gives us his Holy Spirit, his presence to live in us, strengthen us and guide us – how can we not love him?
Ø When we look at the one who even when we deny him, in big ways or in little, goes on loving us and who gives us second or third chances – how can we not love him?


1. Jesus asks Peter to go back to the beginning.

Peter has made a fairly clear declaration of commitment to Jesus

He has said: “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you”. (John 13:37)

But Jesus does not want Peter to make a statement of commitment.
This is not the time and place.
Peter has made great statements in the past – and he has messed up.

Jesus, in his love, simply wants to give Peter the opportunity of saying to him, “I love you”

Peter does love Jesus

He is someone who has been touched by grace – and he has responded in the only way possible: with love.

When Jesus called him, Peter was given the gift of seeing himself as he was, and seeing Jesus as he was. He didn’t like what he saw. He said, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man”. But Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid. From now on you will be a fisher of men”.

And Peter is devoted to Jesus:
He is the first to confess who Jesus is
He is horrified when Jesus tells them that he is going to be crucified
He pledges his undying loyalty to Jesus
When they come to arrest Jesus, it is Peter who takes out his sword and tries to defend him
When the others run away in the garden of Gethsemane, when they arrest Jesus, it is Peter who follows Jesus
It is Peter who is the first to get to the tomb when the women tell them that they have seen the risen Jesus
It is Peter who, when he sees Jesus on the shore, earlier in chapter 21, jumps out of the boat fully clothed to meet him.

And it is because Peter loves Jesus that he is so devastated that he has denied Jesus.

And now Jesus takes Peter back to the beginning:

He is not asking Peter to make a declaration of commitment, a statement that even Peter will not fully believe is possible
He is simply asking Peter to declare his love for him here and now

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than all of these”

There is a time and place for commitments.

Preachers will ask people to make commitments. “Will you give your life to Jesus? Will you follow him for the rest of your life?”

But I am not sure that God is particularly looking for statements of commitment. What he does look for, particularly when we mess up, is a declaration of love.
He is allowing us to declare the love that we have for him, out of which commitment flows.

The question that Jesus asks Peter is a question that he asks each one of us: “Do you truly love me?”

And the answer that we give? With Peter we say, “Lord, you know ..”, but if there is spark of love for Jesus, a spark of gratitude, a glimpse of a recognition for what God has done for us, or even just a desire to love Jesus more, then I think that we can answer: “I love you”

That is all that God and Jesus need. They can work with that.

2. Jesus asks Peter to look at himself

Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me more than these?” – no doubt looking round at the other disciples. “Do you love me, more than they love me?”
Peter’s answer is significant. He simply says, “Lord, you know that I love you?”

Peter has given up making comparisons.

He may indeed love Jesus more than the others.
But he doesn’t know.

Please, we do not judge other Christians as to where they stand with God. We may agree with them on certain issues. We may profoundly disagree with them. But it is not our place to assess whether we love God or Jesus more or less than they do. Our job is to declare our own love.

Peter’s commission is to ‘feed the sheep’, not to judge the extent of the love of the sheep. That is between them and God.

The important question is not how much they love Jesus, but how much you or I love Jesus

So Peter gives up worrying about other people. Well, almost. In the next few verse, after Jesus has told Peter what will happen to him, Peter sees John. And Peter says to Jesus, “What about him?” And Jesus reminds Peter of that great spiritual truth: “Mind your own business”.

3. Jesus recommissions Peter

Three times Peter denies Jesus
Three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”
Three times Peter says “Lord, you know I do”
And three times Jesus tells Peter, “Feed my sheep”

Jesus gives Peter a new calling. He is still to be an evangelist, “a fisher of men”
Now, he is to “feed my sheep”, to be a pastor and a teacher

I wonder what you imagine to be the qualifications for a pastor.
Based on our passage, I suspect that they are twofold:
Ø An awareness of their own sin
Someone once said to me that if I am ever shocked by someone else’s sin, then I do not know myself well enough
Ø An awareness of the love and forgiveness and redeeming power of God.

There is one more thing.

Don’t get me wrong. Declarations of commitment are important.

When we were thinking about working in Russia, we wondered whether God was calling us or not. We tried to push several doors and nothing happened. And then someone wrote us on a postcard a very simple message: “Say your prayers and make your commitment”. We did that, very consciously. Literally, three days later, out of the blue, we had a phone call from the States and a man said, “I’m hoping to set up a bible training college in Russia, and I’m having a conference in Riga in two weeks time. Can you be there”. And that was the beginning of the opening of doors.


Peter has said: “Lord, I will lay down my life for you”

The first time that there might have been the possibility of that happening, he bottled out: “I don’t know him”

But Peter continued to follow Jesus, and in the end he did lay down his life for Jesus. He laid down his life for Jesus in his death; but more than that, he laid down his life for Jesus by the life that he lived. He was sold out for Jesus.

And the reason that he was prepared to do that was quite simple. He knew that Jesus loved him; and he loved Jesus.

Saturday, 30 June 2007

Following Jesus

Mark 1:14-20

I wonder who or what we follow?

Most of the time we are following things or ideas or people without realising it.

We follow the crowd. We do things in a particular way because that was how we were brought up or because ‘everybody’ lives this way. And if we start to be different, we begin to worry: ‘am I a freak’?

Sometimes we consciously follow something. It might be a team or a hobby or a career; fashion – the girl dressed up in the Goth gear is making a statement: she is saying – ‘I’m not following you - I’m following an alternative society’. Or we follow a cause: cats, the environment, anti-war. I had an eccentric uncle who waged a one man campaign against the putting of fluorine in water.
And sometimes we follow a person: a parent, an anti-parent (someone who is not like our parent), a celebrity, a boss, a friend, a religious leader or a political leader

A journalist, a man called William Allen White, wrote of his first meeting with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1897:

“He sounded in my heart the first trumpet call of the new time that was to be.… I had never known such a man as he, and never shall again. He overcame me. And in the hour or two we spent that day at lunch, he poured into my heart such vision, such ideals, such hopes, such a new attitude toward life and patriotism and the meaning of things, as I had never dreamed men had.… After that, I was his man”.


In our reading Jesus comes up to Simon and Andrew and calls them to ‘follow me’. It is an invitation that comes to them, and it is an invitation that comes to each one of us

1. IT IS AN INVITATION TO FOLLOW A PERSON

The Christian life is about a relationship with Jesus Christ.

In verse 15, Jesus declares: "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!"

That is the theology. In verse 16 we come to the practice: Jesus comes to Simon and Andrew and says: "Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men." And later, he sees James and John. “Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him”.

In other words, Jesus is the good news.
Believing the good news is the same as following Jesus.
We can know all the stuff that we need to know, but if we are not willing to follow Jesus it counts for nothing.

For Peter, Andrew, James and John it really was a call to literally follow Jesus on a journey. To be his companions. It was not an unusual call: many rabbis would have their own travelling disciples.

But it was more than the call to become an itinerant rabbi’s companions.

The call to follow Jesus was and is a call to listen to him, to do what he does, to love the way he loves, to pray the way he prays, to go where he leads

It is the call to trust him.

“The story is told that a national magazine assigned a photographer to take pictures of a forest fire. They told him a small plane would be waiting at the airport to fly him over the fire.
The photographer arrived at the airstrip just an hour before sundown. Sure enough, a small Cessna airplane stood waiting. He jumped in with his equipment and shouted, "Let's go!" The pilot, a tense-looking man, turned the plane into the wind, and soon they were in the air, though flying erratically.
"Fly over the north side of the fire," said the photographer, "and make several low-level passes."
"Why?" asked the nervous pilot.
"Because I’m going to take pictures!" yelled the photographer. "I'm a photographer, and photographers take pictures."
The pilot replied, "You mean you’re not the flight instructor?"

The call to follow Jesus is not to go with a pilot who doesn’t know what he is doing. But it is the call to come on the most astonishing journey.

Following Jesus for the first Christians was awesome and gloriously unpredictable. One day he was wrecking a funeral: bringing the person back from the dead; the next he commands a storm to be still; he then takes them to meet a violent lunatic who nobody can control; he asks them to feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes, and provides wine out of water. He sends them out to preach the kingdom, heal the sick and cast out demons. He is overwhelmed by people wanting him to heal their sick, but is constantly on the move preaching the Kingdom of God. He resolutely sets out to go to Jerusalem even though they are going to kill him there. And when they thought he was dead and that the journey was over, he explodes back to life again and tells them that his Spirit will live in them.

The call to believe the Good News is the call to follow a person
It is not primarily about subscribing to a set of beliefs
It is not about obeying a moral code
It is not even about doing certain ‘religious’ things
It is about putting our trust in Jesus Christ and letting him lead us.

2. THERE IS A COST TO THIS CALL

Jesus says, “Repent and believe the Good News”.
Repentance is about a mental U-turn. It is about realising that the Kingdom of God, heaven, the ultimate, ‘the meaning of life, the universe and everything’ is not to be found by following the crowd, by pursuing money or career, or power. It is not to be found in seeking to satisfy our very human desires. It is not to be found in finding another person. It is to be found in Jesus

That meant for James and John that they left their father and their father’s business

And yes, following Jesus is about putting our hand in his hand. It is about intimacy and comfort and reassurance and hope. But it is more than that. If we follow Jesus he will lead us out of our comfort zones, he will take us through the hedges that we grow to separate us from other people, and there will be times when we need to risk everything to follow him.

But even though there was and is a cost, it is worth it.

There was something about Jesus Christ that was so magnetic, that Simon and Andrew stopped what they were doing and followed him.
There was something about his call that made James and John leave the family business and follow him. They wanted in on this.
There is something about his call that has made countless men and women, including people here, change the whole direction of their life and follow him.

Following Jesus is about following someone who loves us. It is about following someone who desires to lead us to our true identity, purpose and destiny. It is about living the God stuff: preaching the Kingdom, healing the sick, loving people; confronting, in Jesus name, the demons that trap us in order to destroy us and others. It is about following someone who desires that we find fulfilment and freedom: a life that can be controlled not by the crowd or by what others think I should be doing or by guilt or fear, but by love and by God.

It is worth it


3. IT IS A CALL TO BECOME

Jesus says to Simon and Andrew, ‘Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men’

If we respond to the call to follow Jesus then we are responding to a call to change, to be changed.

If you are not willing to be changed, then do not come to Jesus

Jesus is in effect saying to Simon and Andrew, ‘Come follow me and I will make you such attractive people that you will draw other people to me’.

Jesus is saying to them: ‘Let me make you beautiful – not on the outside (that will happen in heaven), but on the inside. Let me make you so loving, so gracious, so gentle, so peace-making, so giving, so full of life, so different – that people will see me in you’

And the call is not just to them. Jesus’ call comes to each one of us. It comes to us whatever we do, whoever we are. It is the call to let God change you, to become the person God would make you to be.

It is important to realise that. We think that we need to be perfect to follow Jesus. No, Simon Peter wasn’t perfect before Jesus called him. He wasn’t perfect after Jesus called him. And you won’t be perfect before Jesus calls you, and you won’t be perfect after he’s called you.

But Simon Peter was on a journey (we’re going to be looking at that over the next few weeks), and you will be on a journey. I do not know where he will take you: that really is between you and him.

But I do know that the one who calls us can be trusted and that the call to follow Jesus is exciting. It is liberating. It is about getting involved in God’s purposes for his world today; it is about living life the way God made it to be lived. It is about becoming the sort of people who God made us to be.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

The icon of the Trinity

ROMANS 5:1-5

Today is Trinity Sunday

I suspect that many of us have been brought up to think of the Trinity as a problem to be solved: a mathematical conundrum. How can 3 be 1 and 1 be 3.

And so we have heard the Trinity described as a venn diagram, or as ice-water-steam, or as one person in three roles.

May I very apologetically suggest that you forget them. They are actually about as useful as Robbie Coultrane in Nuns on the Run.

The Trinity is not a problem to be solved. The Trinity is about a life to be lived.

For me, one of the most helpful ways for understanding the Trinity is Rublev's icon of the Trinity


Three figures seated around a table. They’re the three angels who appear to Abraham at Mamre – when they tell him that he is going to have a child. Christian tradition very quickly identified them with the three persons of the Trinity.

Notice how, although there are three figures, there is a unity about them.

Ø They are the same age (they have been from before time began, from the beginning of eternity, together)
Ø They have the same face (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is ‘the exact representation of the being of the Father’ – according to Hebrews: there is no vengeful brooding Father hidden behind a loving Son: what we see in Jesus (his love, his mercy, his passion for righteousness, his anger at sin and his judgement) is what we get in God the Father;

Ø They have the same naff hairstyle (I can’t read any theological significance into that!)
Ø They are all dressed in royal blue, and hold a sceptre of authority. The Father is God; the Son is God; the Holy Spirit is God. What the Son speaks, the Father speaks; what the Spirit does, the Father does; When I bow before the Son, I bow before the Father: if I turn my back on the Spirit, I turn my back on the Son and on the Father.

But although there is a unity about them, there is also a uniqueness about each of the figures.

We look at the Father.

The Father wears the gold. And the heads of the other two are inclined towards him.

The Father is the main man of the Trinity (although that is probably the wrong word because God is bigger than, beyond sexuality). Behind the Father is a house. Heaven and earth are the Father’s house. Jesus talks of ‘my Father’s house’.

It is also from the Father that the other two come. The Son is ‘eternally begotten’ of the Father. The Spirit proceeds, ‘goes out of’ (John 15:26) the Father.

And in Romans 5, Paul talks about ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’. Ultimately the Christian life is about peace with Father God. The God who we worship is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We pray to ‘Our Father in heaven’. We live, as Jesus lived, for the glory of our Father in heaven.

And Romans 5 verse 2 hints at our destiny. It is tied up with Father God: “We rejoice in our hope of the glory of God”.

The glory of God, Irenaeus said, is a human being fully alive. And we can only be fully alive when we are in relationship with God, at peace with God.

And we are invited to come into this relationship, into the intimacy that is shared by Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you look at the icon, you can see that there are two movements within the circle. There is the movement of the head, a movement of submission before the Father from whom all things come and to whom all things will return (1 Corinthians 15:28); and a movement of the fingers, out from the Father, a movement of blessing, of life and love.

And we, you and me, are invited to join into this movement, into this circle of submission: by the Spirit, through the Son to the Father. But we are also invited, through the act of submission, to join into the movement of blessing and life, that flows from the Father, through the Son by the Holy Spirit, out to us.

This circle is open to all people. Everyone is invited to join in this company, this fellowship. Everyone is invited to sit and eat with the Father, and to share in this love.

And that is to be reflected in our communities. I believe that St John’s still uses a logo of people, centred on the cross, but in a circle reaching out to others.


We look at the Son
The Son wears the garment of the priest. Behind him is the tree. In front of him is the communion cup. And the table around which they meet is the stone on which the dead body would have been laid. But the body is not there.

Romans 5 tells us that it is through the Son that we have access to the Father. It is because he gave himself for us, because he died for us. The cross is the demonstration of the love of God. How do I know that God loves me, when later verses talk of the wrath of God against sin, and all the things that happen in my life seem to point to the contrary? Very simply: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”

Please, my brothers and sisters, this is so important. We have peace with God not because we’re good or righteous or holy. We have peace with God because, in love, he sent his Son to die for us.

And that is good news, because we are all messed up people; we all have dark places in our lives (and if they came out into the open we would die of shame); we all live lies to different degrees (whether hidden lives or the masks that we all wear); and our motives are all pretty mixed up and some of them are quite murky.

If it was down to us, there is no way that we could have peace with God. How could we have peace with God when we are so often not at peace with ourselves, let alone our neighbours.

But the good news is that it is not up to us. It is God’s gift. God in his mercy and love has reached out to us. Through Jesus, he has invited us to come to him; and through Jesus he has made it possible to come to him.

Notice that as we come to receive the cup, we begin to share the life of the Trinity. But also notice that the shape of the Father and the Spirit also make a cup, and as we come to Jesus, so we begin to share in the life of the Trinity.


We look at the Spirit
The Holy Spirit wears green. He is the life giver. But behind him is this thing that looks like a wave. It is in fact a rock, a symbol of the wilderness.

So often the place of meeting with God is the desert place. So often the place where God works with us most powerfully is in the place where humanly we feel totally abandoned and deserted.

It was true for Abraham (costly obedience), for Moses (40 years in the wilderness), for Hannah (tormented by her rival and crying out to God for a baby), for David (running for his life), for Paul (inner turmoil), for Peter (having let down Jesus and the other disciples). It was even true for Jesus.

That is why Paul in Romans 5 can talk of rejoicing in our suffering. Why? Because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us.

It is all very well having a great faith when things are going well, when prayers are being answered as we would have them answered, when God feels close. But usually all that does is make us feel that we can take on the world. The real character formation takes place when we are out of our depth, when things are going badly, when it seems that God has walked out on us. That is the point when we need to persevere, to stand firm.

Notice again the double movement in the icon. The movement of submission and the movement of blessing. They go together. It was because Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient even to death on a cross”, that “God has given him the name that is above all other names”.

But the Spirit is also the one who is on the edge of this circle, in the sense that the movement of blessing comes out from him; and that the movement of submission begins with him.

He is the one who touches our hearts and minds: who convinces us of our sin and our need for God, who persuades us that the things of this world are provisional, and who points us to the things of God (that is a very loose translation of John 16:8-11). It is the Holy Spirit who comforts us and gives us hope. It is the Holy Spirit who brings his Word alive, and speaks to our heart and mind. And it is the Holy Spirit who begins to pour into us the love of God, that enables us, that gives us the confidence to submit to the one who loves us, even when it seems that he does not.


So today, as we draw near to receive communion, try and imagine that we are not simply being invited to come to the table to receive bread and wine to remember Jesus death. You are being invited by the Spirit to join into this communion, to receive Jesus, to submit to the Father who loves you, to rest in his presence, and to join in the movement of blessing that comes out from Him.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Wedding Talk

The story is told about the bride who was walking up the aisle. She was trying to remember the order of the service, and she was heard muttering under her breath, ‘Aisle – Altar – Hymn’

It is a dodgy attitude to go into marriage with. Marriage, people say, is about give and take. There is the old quip: “She gives – I take”
But I would suggest that marriage is about give and give and give, and when you’ve given everything you can, you give again.

It is about GIVING TIME TO THE OTHER.

We live such busy lives. And in the middle of all the activity, we need to give time to the other person.

Yes, we need time to be alone (but that is often not a problem). We also need time to be together.

We need to give time to do the things the other person wants: going out; doing what they enjoy

And we to give time to talk to each other and to listen to each other. Many couples I know will try to put aside one evening a week, even when – particularly when – there are children, in order to do something together that they both enjoy so that they are able to talk.

The three key words for any marriage, for any relationship are ‘communication, communication, communication’.

And marriage is about GIVING EMOTIONAL SUPPORT to each other. It is about being there for the other person.

That means being open with each other: open about what we are doing, what we are thinking, what we are feeling. And that can be the hard part. It is very easy to freeze the other person out. We need to learn to say to the other, and to allow the other to say to us: “I’m hurting” or “I’m confused” or simply “I need you”.

Some of us, and I think that this is particularly true of men, can be a bit like unemptied vacuum cleaners. We take in all the stuff of life, we think we can deal with it ourselves, and in the end we clog up.

And marriage is about BUILDING THE OTHER PERSON UP. In marriage you cease to belong to yourself. You belong to the other person. So when we build up the other person, we build up ourselves.

We need to be like Rugby players at a lineout and not dodgy footballers at a corner. When the corner is sent over, dodgy footballers leap onto the shoulders of their opponents to push them down so that they can go up higher. But when the ball is thrown in at a lineout, the Rugby players gather round one of their team mates and lift him up so that he get the ball.

In our marriages we are in the business of lifting the other person up – to encourage them, to say thank you, to be there for them when they fall.

Someone once said, “If you wish to be married to a princess, treat her like one”.

So marriage is about giving yourself to the other person: totally. All that you have, all that you are, all that you feel.


But marriage is not only about giving. It is also about ACCEPTING EACH OTHER.

If you give yourself to another person that much, then it is very easy to be hurt.

And today you have said “YES” to each other.

A couple who had just celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary were interviewed on television. He was asked what the secret of the success of their marriage was. He replied: “It is two words”. “What are those?” asked the interviewer. He replied, “Yes, dear”

But it is true. It is about both of you saying to the other, “Yes, dear”

Marriage isn’t only about an arrangement
Marriage isn’t only about a feeling

There will certainly be times when you don’t feel in love with each other, and there may even be times when you ‘feel’ in love with someone else. But that doesn’t matter.

Marriage is ultimately about a COMMITMENT – a commitment that you have made here in Church in front of us and in front of God.

It is about a ‘Yes’ that you have said to each other.

Ø Yes, we are going to give ourselves to each other

Ø Yes, we are going to work through our difficulties

Ø Yes, we are going to accept each other – with all the faults, problems, hang ups and funny little habits

Marriage is about a big Yes that eats up all the little no ’s


WE NEED GOD to help live like this. 1 Corinthians 13 talks of the kind of love that God is asking of us. No one can love like that without God.

We need to know God’s love for us, before we can begin to love
We need to know God’s forgiveness for us, before we are set free to forgive

(as an aside: it is worth bearing in mind Ogden Nash’s advice.

To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in your marriage cup -
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up!)

We need to know God’s acceptance of us, before we can truly accept another.
We need to know God’s hope, so that we can trust and go on trusting even when we’ve been hurt
We need to know God’s power, so that we can change and work through the difficulties.
We need to know God’s YES to us so that we can learn to say YES to each other.

You need God’s help. And I would encourage you to spend time getting to know him: coming along to church, picking up a bible and reading one of the books about the life of Jesus (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), going on one of the many churches offer: Alpha or Christianity Explored.

You also need our help, the help of family and friends: our love, support, at times our distance, and our prayers.

So our prayer for you today is that God will bless you both richly, and that through your marriage many others will be blessed.