Sunday, 21 December 2008

Christmas Carol service 2008

At the heart of Christmas is a story.
It is a story that has an astonishing power.

It is the story of how the Son of God, the one who is bigger than the universe, beyond the universe, became a tiny speck within his universe; the one who created time, came into time. The Son of God, because he loved us – because he loved you - became a human baby born in a cowshed in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.


 

It is the story of how God in his love, reaches down to us.

We often think that we are closest to God when we are most god-like; when we are in control, confident, victorious. There is a great scene in one of the James Bond films (from the days when James Bond films were James Bond films). The villain's computer whizz kid assistant has just managed, amidst total chaos, to override Bond's override – and global destruction is imminent: and he stands up and raises his arms into the air and declares, 'I am invincible'. We think we are most god-like when we have those 'invincible' moments.

But of course, as our villain discovers, we are not invincible. As he declares himself 'invincible', gallons of quick freeze liquid pour onto him, and he is turned into a statue.

There are times when we are almost god-like: we create remarkable things: compose and perform beautiful music; design and build magnificent buildings; discover more and more of the remarkable truths of this universe. And at times we do wonderful things: we marvel at people who do acts that require the most amazing courage and self-sacrifice.

But if we are trying to become god-like, we have a very long way to go.

Although we live in an amazing world, and do amazing things, most of the time, we are blinded by our self-centredness:

My favourite story of 2008 is …

It is a picture of our world: the woman who wants to stay comfortable; the man who can't be bothered to help and the drunk who only wants to be pushed on a swing.

Our problems come because we have removed God and put self in his place. We are told, 'You are the centre of the universe. You deserve the best because – and I give thanks for this advert because it is the preacher's dream - you are worth it'. And so we have made ourselves god, our desires god, what other people think of us god, or our career god. And we end up destroying ourselves, other people and ultimately this planet.

The story of Christmas is that God in his love does not give up on us; because he loves us he reaches out to us in Jesus. If you love someone you want to be with them. God knows that we have been blinded by our self-centredness and are never going to get to him, so he comes to us.

"For God so loved the world that he sent his only son into the world .."


 

It is the story of how God in his love, rescues us.

The Son of God comes into human history in order to rescue us.

Yesterday we were given a guided tour of the air control tower at Norwich airport. There was very little going on: two light planes (puddle hoppers) landed, and the rescue helicopter took off.

Imagine. The ship has sunk. The man has been in the water for several hours. His strength is failing. But then the rescue helicopter arrives. A rope is dropped down. Someone with a megaphone calls out, 'Take hold of the rope. Climb up it. It is the way to life'. The man tries, but he falls. He tries again, but the waves knock him back. He gives up. All hope is gone. He is sinking. But then, one of the helicopter crew starts to lower himself down the rope. He plunges into the cold dark water; he grabs hold of the drowning man. As he pulls him up, he yells, 'Trust me; don't struggle'. And then he starts to climb up the rope, not on his own, but holding the man, hauling him to safety and to life.

At Christmas, Jesus Christ the Son of God, plunged into what can be a cold and dark world not just because he loved us and wanted to be with us, but in order to lift us up, to rescue us.

Maybe we do not feel we are metaphorically drowning
Maybe we do not feel we need to be rescued

But for those of us who know that we need God, who know that we are out of our depth, who know that we are blinded by our self-centredness, who know that we need forgiveness and that we need to see things in a new way, who know that we need a new power to live - the good news is that God came into this world in order to rescue us.

He comes to the broken hearted, to the poor and powerless, to those trapped by the past, to those who are in darkness. He comes for the parent who is at their wits end about their child, or for the child at their wits end about their parent. He comes for the one who has been made redundant and who does not know how they are going to pay the rent or the mortgage. He comes for the person who has lost the one who was dearest to them, without whom life seems empty and pointless. He comes for the one confused about their sexuality, or who longs to be desired but hates to be used. He comes for the one who has good intentions which are rarely fulfilled, for the lonely, the crushed, the exhausted, the fearful, the tired and confused.

He does not simply drop us a rope and tell us to climb up to safety. Most people treat religion as if it is the rope that they need to climb. He comes down to us to lift us up. All we have to do is to allow him to take hold of us and trust him, even when it seems that he has let us go.

I'm not saying that when we turn to him all our problems will be solved. I'm not saying that we will live lives purely motivated by love and not self-interest. There is a long way to go. But when we turn to him and allow him to rescue us, we will find there is hope. If we allow him to hold on to us, we will begin to discover a different focus for living, a different journey to go on, and a different motivating force. Putting it in more traditional language we will discover forgiveness, a growing friendship with God, peace in the difficult situations of life and hope for the future.


 

It is the story of how God in his love, reigns

The Christmas story is soaked in politics.

Who really reigns?

Is it Caesar?
Is it Herod?
Or is it the baby born in the stable?

It is a bit of joke to say that it is the baby born in the stable.

After all, it is Caesar who orders the people to be counted. It is Herod who orders the execution of the baby boys in Bethlehem. They have the power to decide who will live and who will die.

But the wise men recognise a far greater power in Jesus. They recognise, and it is an act of faith – because all they see in front of them is a powerless baby, that Jesus has power over life and death itself

And so they kneel before him.

The Christmas story is the story of the God who reigns: but he does not reign with a sword, but from a cradle and then a cross. He reigns in love. He claims that his way is the good way, the gentle way, the right way, the way that gives life and brings real freedom.

Yes, Jesus claims that there are consequences for rejecting his way, but he never compels us to obey his laws. He does not rule in that way. He always treats us as adults. He demonstrates his love for us and he invites people to choose to kneel before him; he invites people to choose to allow him to reign over them.


 

So I invite each of us to join with the wise men in kneeling before him. It doesn't matter whether we actually kneel, although the act of just kneeling – even beside our bed in the privacy of our home – can be helpful. What is important is what we say to him and to ourselves:

"Yes: I believe you are the Son of God, who loves me, who has reached out to me

Yes: I believe you came to rescue me. I need your forgiveness, I need your strength to live and I need your life.

Yes: I kneel before you, the one who really reigns. I choose to recognise your authority over my life and over this world, and with your help I will follow your way today, tomorrow, and for the rest of my life."

That is what changes lives: and that is the meaning and the power of the Christmas story.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Hell, Heaven


This passage from 2 Peter talks of hell, punishment, judgement and destruction. Interestingly it talks about them in that order.
  1. Hell. In this case, hell is the 'waiting room' for judgement.
    It ties in with the pit of Revelation, in which the beast, the devil, is chained – released at the end of time – and then destroyed with its followers. (Ties in with Revelation 20)
  2. The verses talk of the punishment and judgement of the ungodly, the lawless, the unrighteous: v9: "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment"
    And the verses tell us what happened to people at the time of Noah's flood and of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They are an example of what will happen to the ungodly, the unrighteous. 
  3. And the verses talk of final destruction:

2 Peter 2:12 (NRSV) talks of those who follow the corrupt desire of the sinful nature and who despise authority: "These people, however, are like irrational animals, mere creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed. They slander what they do not understand, and when those creatures are destroyed, they also will be destroyed, suffering the penalty for doing wrong".
I wonder what you thought when you heard these verses read earlier? What are we to make of it all?
I suspect that for many, even within our churches, this teaching about hell, judgement and destruction is considered a bit of a joke: we think of the sandwich board man, or the street corner hell-fire preacher. And I am aware that this teaching has been abused in the past, and has been used to justify some of the most ghastly things – even the burning of those who held different ideas. 
But that does not mean that we can simply swap passages like 2 Peter 2 for something different. 
And we have done that. 
There are four modern versions that I will mention:
  1. We die and we all go to heaven (apart from the very worst)
    And heaven? Well I quote from a best seller by Maria Shriver, wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but quoted by Tom Wright.
Heaven 'is somewhere you believe in .. it's a beautiful place where you can sit on soft clouds and talk to other people who are there. At night you can sit next to the stars, which are the brightest of anywhere in the universe .. If you're good throughout your life, then you get to go to heaven .. when your life is finished here one earth, God sends angels down to take you up to Heaven to be with him … [And Grandma is] alive in me .. Most important, she taught me to believe in myself … She's in a safe place, with the stars, with God and the angels .. she is watching over us from up there …
'I want you to know' [says the heroine to her great-grandma] 'that even though you are no longer here, your spirit will always be alive in me'.
It is actually a very good description of what most people think we are talking about when we mention heaven. And it is astonishingly self-centred and self-serving. It is about me, being happy with the people who make me happy.
2. We die and become part of the universe
There is a well-known poem that was used at Princess Diana's funeral, and which is often asked for at funerals.
"Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain ..
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die."
Or there is Nick Hornby who wrote, 'It would be nice to think that I could hang around inside the stadium in some form, and watch the first team one Saturday, the reserves the next; I would like to feel that my children and grandchildren will be Arsenal fans and that I could watch with them. It doesn't seem a bad way to spend eternity … I want to float around Highbury as a ghost watching reserve games for the rest of time'. 
I appreciate that for some, watching Arsenal for eternity could be a version of hell. 
3. We die and we come back again in some form. What is known as reincarnation
4. We die and that is it. The John Lennon version, 'Imagine there is no heaven, no hell'
The problem is that there is a mile deep canyon between these theories and what Jesus taught. 
Jesus in fact is the person who spoke most often about hell, judgement and destruction.
Why? Because Jesus was passionate that men and women should find God and find life. He gave everything for it. He left heaven for it. He gave his 33 years of life on earth for it. He died for it. 
And Jesus knows how desperate our situation is. There is not reincarnation; when we die we will not be merged into the universe; when we die we will not automatically go up to heaven – even if we have been good all our lives (whatever that means). 
We have rebelled against God – against 'the authority' (Pullman in his Dark Materials), and we are lost. We are the lost sheep of the story that Jesus tells. We are the son who has rejected his father, gone off to live in the distant land, and who is eating pig feed. We are Zaccheaus who has grown fat by milking others for himself, and yet who is up a tree. We are the self righteous, self satisfied Pharisee, who prays, but he prays to himself about himself for himself. 
We are the ones for whom Jesus came to die.
Why, if our situation was not that bad, did Jesus need to die for us – and die in such an awful, literally God-forsaken way? 
Jesus spoke of hell and judgement and destruction because there really are serious consequences for those who reject him and who reject God.
You see, when we reject him, we reject light and prefer darkness; we reject truth and prefer lies; we reject God's love in favour of our own stunted definition of love.
In rejecting Jesus, we choose to reject the one who can set us free from our slavery to our self-centred physical desires. They lead to destruction: it might be a dramatic destruction as it was for the people in Sodom and Gomorrah or the flood. But it could equally be destruction not by explosion but by implosion. By implosion I mean we gradually become nothing: we live enclosed self-centred worlds of self-pity, self-service, self-justification, that shrink in until they become zero. Like the talking beasts in Narnia who rebel against Aslan and become silent and dumb beasts; like granny in Roald Dahl's, 'George's Marvellous Medicine'; like the vision of what Voldemort becomes in Harry Potter – shrivelled up, beyond mercy and beyond pity.
One of the great men of God of the past said, 'Set your mind on hell and do not despair'. Hell is the eternal fire of God's consuming love that will burn up all that is not of him. Hell burns up all that is not love and life. It burns up all that denies what God is: all that stands against friendship, intimacy, warmth, trust, laughter, vision, healing, beauty, music, feasting, light and truth. The bible teaches that hell is eternal because God's love lasts forever. It does not teach, or at least I need to be persuaded that it teaches, that it is the individual soul that suffers for eternity. No, the final mercy of God is that after judgement there is destruction. 
But Jesus came so that we might have life. 
John 3:16 (NRSV): "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."
He offers life to those who know they are dead; hope to those who are aware that we are slaves to the corrupt desires of our sinful nature – that we do not do what we know God would want us to do; who are aware of the pride which makes us reject authority, and especially God's authority. 
And he offers us a way out.
And so the last of the four readings speaks of heaven. 
And notice that it is a very different vision to the vision of Maria Shriver. The bible talks of heaven as being up there, until the day when Jesus returns. And then we will not go up there, but he will come down here (along with those who have died) – to a radically transformed, transfigured creation: a new heaven and a new earth – not separated, but joined together. It is the vision of a new world, the Kingdom of God, space and time as we have never known them. 
As the hymn we've just sung, Hark the Glad Sound, puts it, 
"He comes, the broken heart to bind,
the bleeding soul to cure,
and with the treasures of his grace
to enrich the humble poor"
And our reading is the vision of a city [the bible starts in a garden and ends in a city]. And this city will be a place of light and life and fruitfulness. And at the centre of this city will not be us, not those we have loved, but God: "The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him".

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Parable of the talents

Matthew 25:14-30

This is a story told by Jesus known to many as the parable of the talents: and so we tend to think of it as speaking about gifts and abilities. It is, but it is about more than that.

Here is a person who is going on a long journey and who entrusts his wealth to his servants.

Jesus is the person going on the long journey. And he is the one who has entrusted his wealth to his servants. He is the Son of God. All things belong to him (cf John 16:15): This creation, material things: every mountain, every valley, every river, every ocean, every star; the possessions and things that we have belong to him; time belongs to him; creativity, music and art; people: family, friends, children; and of course our gifts and abilities. They belong to him and he has entrusted them to us.

It is a bit like parents going off for a week's holiday. They entrust their house into the hands of their older teenage son or daughter. 'Look after it; so that when we come back it is in good shape'.


 

1. JESUS GIVES AS HE CHOOSES

We read this and think, 'This is unfair. Why should some get 5 and some 2 and some only 1?'

To which the only answer is that this is the way the world works. There are some people who do seem to have far more of the world's resources than others - us, for example, by very virtue of where we live.

The hymn 'All things bright and beautiful' has a verse that we do not sing:


 

The rich man in his castle,

The poor man at his gate,

God made them, high or lowly,

And order'd their estate.


 

But it is true. What did we do to merit being born in our particular family, at this particular time, in this particular place? What did we do to merit your inheritance?

The danger comes when we start to think that what we have is ours by right, that we deserve it. Interestingly that is where the doctrine of reincarnation and Karma leads: My position in this world depends upon my virtue in the previous world. It might make sense, but think about it. It says that we deserve our privileged position in the world; it says that the poor deserve to be poor.

The bible never says that. When we start to think that we deserve what we have, or that because we have more than another we are better than them, or when we treat what we have (possessions or abilities) as if they belong to us – we are turning a blind eye to the fact that it is God who gives.

The person with one talent could have become a person with two and then four and then eight - and when there is no end to that process, it really does not matter whether you started with one or two or five.

This story does not tell us why there are haves and have nots. We look elsewhere in the bible for the answer to that question. But this story tells us that everything we have is gift: and that there is no reason for either pride or a sense of inadequacy because of our abilities or possessions; and that what is important is not what we have been given, but how we use what we have been given.

And although in this story it is the man with one bag of gold who is found wanting, I also know that it is true that 'to those whom much has been given, much will be demanded' (Luke 14:48), and so the fact that we today, in the West, are the haves – even in a time of recession - should make us tremble.


 

2. GOD IS LOOKING FOR FRUIT

Jesus is not looking for people who return what he gave to us untouched. He is looking for fruit.

It is a spiritual principle. God is looking for fruit. In the story of creation, when God created the world, he created trees and plants that bore fruit. He created animals that bore fruit. He created men and women and he commanded them, 'be fruitful and multiply'. And Jesus commanded his people to bear fruit; and he gives us his Spirit that produces in us fruits of love, joy, peace, patience and so on.

Jesus tells the story of a sower who sowed seed that fell on good soil, and it multiplied thirty, sixty, a hundred fold. And we are told how the Word of God grows and bears fruit.

God is into multiplication.

He says, 'Look what I have entrusted to you. How has it born fruit? How has it increased?'

People often think that we will be judged on the basis of the harm that we have done others.

But the judgment in this story is based on the good that we have not done: we have been entrusted with so much – what have we done with it?

Of course, if we think that the possession, or gift or ability, is ours by right, that it belongs to us, then we can choose to use it or not to use it. We can choose to work it, or invest it or bury it.

That was the issue here with the man who had one bag of gold. He claimed that the problem was that he was scared of the master: 'I was afraid', he said. The reality, Jesus said, was that he was not sufficiently scared of the master. If he had been, he would have tried to do something with the money – even put it in the hands of the bankers. It is a bit like a teacher giving homework. The child says, 'I was scared of you so I didn't do it.' That is not being scared of the teacher - that is taking the teacher for granted. If she had been scared of the teacher, she really would at least have tried to do her homework.

No, says Jesus, the real problem when we do not use the possessions and the gifts that God has given us for him is that we are wicked and lazy.

Wicked, because we think that it is our possession to do with as we wish. We reject the idea that it comes from God and belongs to God. We reject the idea that there is someone to whom we are in debt to, and accountable to.

And lazy: because we could not be bothered to do anything with what we have been given.

You have a natural gift and you do not try to use it; you have wealth and you do not use it - making more wealth, giving it away, whatever; you have ability and you do not use it; you have responsibilities and you run away from them; you have a message and you do not share it. Why?

Is it because you are scared - or is it because you are blind to the fact that it is God who has given you those things, and that you are accountable to him. Is it because you are lazy, and just don't want the hassle.

We've recently been round both County Upper and King Edward VI'th Upper School. Both of them had the same slogan on the wall: 'we do not expect you to be the best; we expect you to do your best'.


 

3. THERE IS REWARD AND PUNISHMENT

Humanly speaking this makes sense: if you have a gift or ability and you use it, it will improve and grow. If you do not use it, you will lose it.

And there is punishment: those who do not make use of the wealth entrusted to them for the master, will shrivel up to nothingness: beyond mercy and beyond pity.

But there is also a reward - for those who do use the wealth entrusted to them for the master.

There is the reward of his words: 'Well done good and faithful servant'

And there is also the reward of further growth. The one who has ten is given one more. In Luke's gospel the injustice is pointed out: 'But Lord', they said, 'he already has ten'. But Jesus is making the point that those who are faithful with what they have been given – whether large or small – will be entrusted with more. V29:"For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance".


 

I'd like to say one more thing. It might just have escaped your attention that we have a mission this coming week.

I have spoken in terms of possessions and abilities.

But there is another thing that this passage could be talking about: we have also been entrusted with a message – a message about the love of God; about the fact that in the person of Jesus, God has come and lived among us; that as a result of his death on the cross there is forgiveness and we can become friends of God; it is the message that Jesus rose from the dead, that Christ Lives and that as a result of his resurrection, sin and death has been defeated and there is a future hope. And it is the message that God promises to give to all who receive him the gift of his Holy Spirit, his presence.

We have the opportunity next weekend to share this message, in ways that I hope will be very easy. We have some great events, and some very gifted speakers who are able to present the message in a gracious but challenging way. Please could I urge you to make use of this opportunity.

It may be that you are not convinced yourself of the message and still need to think it through: please come along and listen and think and decide.

But if you are convinced of the truth of the message, may I urge you not to be like the servant with the one bag of gold who did nothing – because he said he was scared. Please come to the prayer meeting on Wednesday; and please pray and invite at least one person to one event, or to next Sunday's service. If they say 'no', that is OK – you've still done something, you've still made use of one small coin that our master has given us.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY 2008


2 Timothy 2:8-13

Today, probably in greater numbers than we have seen for many years, men and women, girls and boys are gathering to remember.

Most of them gather to remember history, and those who made history: for the majority of people, the stories of the two world wars are stories about other people who lived in other times. But for many of you here, it is far more personal. They are not stories about other people who lived in other times. They are stories about those you dearly loved, who were to you husbands and wives, fiancées and sweethearts, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, comrades and colleagues. And we give thanks to God for them and we honour them - as we give thanks to God for you and honour you.

But people are also gathering to remember those who fight today, and especially those who serve in military and civilian capacities, who have been wounded – physically or emotionally - or who have even given their lives, in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo and other parts of the world. This is above politics. Irrespective of whether we think a particular war is justified, these men and women, represented here by those of you from RAF Honington and USAF Lakenheath and Mildenhall, have answered the call of their country in being willing to lay down their lives for others. And we honour you and them.

So in villages, towns and cities, people have gathered round memorials to remember and honour such people. And many of those memorials, particularly those erected after the First World War, are in the shape of simple stone crosses.

And that is so very appropriate.

It is the cross that is the symbol, that tells the story of the supreme act of courage and self-sacrificial love; and it is the cross that is the symbol, that tells the story of our ultimate hope.

The cross tells the story of a man, Jesus Christ, who lived 2000 years ago, who chose to go through the most awful suffering in obedience to his Father God, and to give his life so that men and women could find forgiveness, reconciliation with God - peace with God, and new life.

It is the story of Jesus and the cross that has shaped the life of individuals and of our nation. It is the story of Jesus and the cross which has given us a framework for reflecting on events, which helps us to see them in true perspective. It is the story of Jesus and the cross which is our living example of all that is good and true, of virtue.

We get nervous of the person who triumphs by trampling over others.
We value those who lay down their life for their friends.
Why? Because virtue for us comes in the shape of a cross.

We are uneasy about the person who fights simply because they hate the enemy, or because they want revenge.
We value those who are prepared to give their lives for love of comrades or families or country.
Why? Because virtue for us comes in the shape of a cross.

The heroes of the Greeks and the Romans and Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were supermen trampling down their enemies. When Alison and myself visited Volgograd, known to us as Stalingrad, we saw the colossal monument to the Soviet fighters. It is of the motherland portrayed as a female warrior, brandishing a sword, calling her children to the fight, and crushing all who stand in her way.

Our heroes are far less spectacular, but far more extraordinary. They are not men trampling over others, but men like Lance Corporal Matthew Croucher who threw himself on a grenade in order to save the lives of his comrades. They are men and women who are willing to sacrifice themselves in order that others may live.
Why? Because virtue for us comes in the shape of a cross.

And the story of the cross is also a story that gives hope when all hope is gone. On the first Good Friday, when they crucified Jesus Christ, it seemed that lies, evil and death had won. It seemed that self sacrifice and love had been crushed.

But they hadn't: three days later God brought Jesus Christ back from the dead. And his followers touched him and ate with him - and history was changed.
And whatever happens, however bad it gets, however deep we sink, the cross tells us of a God who brings hope out of despair and life out of death.

We love stories when people snatch victory out of the jaws of defeat: when people win world championships on the last bend of the last lap of the last race. Well God is the one who snatched ultimate victory out of what seemed ultimate defeat. He gives us hope when all hope is gone. Desmond Tutu said of the bible: 'Don't give up! Don't despair. I've read the end. It's OK. We win!'


 

War memorials have come in many shapes: statues, stones, flames, walls, obelisks, even a doughnut(s)! I do understand in these days of aggressive secularism why modern memorials avoid the shape of the cross. I understand but I fear. The stone cross in the centre of the community was a symbol that the story of Jesus and the cross was somewhere, even if only nominally, at the centre of our nation.

But today there is no story at the centre of our national life. We honour courage and virtue, but we are in danger of losing the understanding of what courage and virtue really is.

So I finish with a plea and a challenge.

A plea that we do not allow the story of the cross - whether we personally believe it or not - to become more and more sidelined by the stories that glorify celebrity, or money, or possessions (the advertisements tell their own story), or power. For the sake of our children, and of our children's children, do not exchange - literally or metaphorically - the cross for something beautiful but meaningless or for a statue to superman.

And a challenge: to each one of us personally: to make this story of the cross, the Easter story, the central story in our own lives. This is what it means to, 'Remember Jesus Christ'. It is Jesus Christ, crucified but risen, who sets us free to love others so that we are prepared to suffer for their sake, and who gives us the hope of eternal glory.

And it is his story, the story of the cross and resurrection, that gives focus and meaning to our remembering of those who have laid down their lives - whether long ago or more recently - for the sake of others.


 

Friday, 24 October 2008

Bible Sunday 2008


Psalm 119:9-16

Today is known as Bible Sunday, and we are looking at some verses from Psalm 119, the longest Psalm.

Psalm 119 is written by a person who is passionately devoted to the bible as the Word of God. It is interesting that as you look through these 8 verses, the word 'your' is used 10 times: 'Your word, your commands, your word, your decrees, laws that come from your mouth, your statutes, your precepts, your ways, your decrees, your word'

I say that he is passionately devoted to the bible as the Word of God, but that is not strictly true. For the Psalmist, the word of God was what we know now as the first 5 books of the bible. These are the laws and commands and decrees and statutes and precepts about which he writes. 

For Jews who lived later, the word of God came to include all of what we call the Old Testament; and for Christians, the word of God comes to include what we know as the New Testament, the writings of the apostles and those who were with them. 

And the reason that we accept the Old Testament as the word of God is because Jesus accepted the Old Testament as the word of God; and the reason we receive the New Testament as the word of God is because we receive the teaching of the apostles as authoritative, and the New Testament is the teaching of the apostles. 

In other words, what the Psalmist says of the first five books of the bible, we can say of the rest of the bible - including these verses. 

So what does the Psalmist say of the bible

1. He says that the Word of God brings great joy. 

He delights in God's decrees (v16); he rejoices in following God's statutes as one rejoices in great riches (v14). 

So often the attitude we have toward the bible is anything but that of joy. 

For some, it is a book that is incomprehensible. They think, here is something we just don't understand: like when people read complicated poetry - it floats over our head.
To be honest, that is just not true. Maybe when all we had was the old version, which used 17th century English, glorious though it might be, it was difficult to understand. But today there are so many good modern translations, and also some excellent bible handbooks. If we wish to know what it means, we can find out. 

For others, it is a book that is irrelevant: an outdated code of morality, a set of laws, telling us what to do and what not to do, written by people who lived in a far off place, in a far off time. 

The problem is that unless we are someone who loves the history of religious ideas, philosophy or sources of trivia questions, the bible may be a best-seller, but it is a turn off. And if we do open the pages and start to read, then it may well seem hard to understand and irrelevant. It's a bit like when I've tried to read the Koran: I've got so far and given up (I have to say that I think the bible is objectively far more interesting than the Koran, because the bible tells a story)

But if we come to the bible, by faith, assuming that this is the Word of God, that it does - in its entirety - make sense, that this is God's wisdom, that it contains God's promises, that it points us to the one who can give us eternal life, and if we come seeking God and asking him to give us his Holy Spirit to help us to understand it and live it, then this book is not like any other book: this book is power, the Gk word is dunamis, dynamite.

Do you notice how the Psalmist says, 'How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word'. But then he says, 'I seek you with all my heart'. In other words, the bible on its own will do nothing. It is the bible with God that changes lives. 
And when we get the bible and the Holy Spirit together, then this book is a light to our path; it is food for the heart and mind and soul. It is more precious than gold. It does bring joy and delight.

2. The Psalmist says that the word of God makes us pure. 

'How can those who are young keep their way pure? By living according to your word'
For the Psalmist it was a matter of believing the promises of God and living the commands of God, of living the old Testament laws. 

For the Christian, we have so much more. We still have the promises of God which we believe and we hold on to, but we do not need to keep the letter of the Old Testament laws, as the Psalmist did. Instead we are called to obey the Spirit who gave those laws and promises in the first place. They were good laws, they made sense for the Israelite nation, they embodied everything that is good and right and true, and they pointed forward to Jesus. 

But for us, Jesus is the fulfilment, the embodiment of those laws: we interpret them through him. 

So how do we keep our way pure; how do we get rid of the sin and rubbish in our lives, how do we become totally authentic human beings; how do we become transparently sincere; how do we become full of love? 

The answer is the same as the Psalmist gave: by living according to God's word: by believing his promises, by looking to Jesus, by coming to him, by allowing his teachings to shape our inner being, by allowing his Spirit to live in us, by listening to what he says. 


3. The Psalmist says that the word of God reveals God's ways

'I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways' (v15)

The bible is the story of God's love towards human beings. It begins with creation; it ends with the new creation. It is about the fall, the great disobedience, and God's rescue plan. It is about paradise lost and paradise gained. It is about the choosing of an individual and a nation to be the ones who bring God to the world. It is about human sin and rebellion against God, and how even the chosen nation rebelled against God. It is about how, out of that nation, a child was born, who was the Son of God. He died and rose again. He offered to people who put their faith in him relationship with him: new life in a new community with a new hope and a new destiny. 

This is the story of the love of God, the justice and mercy of God, the purposes of God, the ways of God, the promises of God, the victory of God. 

So this is the book that brings joy; that enables us to live pure lives; that shows to us the ways of God. 


It is no wonder, the Psalmist finishes this section with a vow: 'I will not neglect your word'. 

To reject or neglect this book is to plug our ears to the Holy Spirit; it is to silence God; it is to close off our life from ultimate joy and delight. It is like taking the gift of a £1million cheque, and either tearing it up, or putting it on a top shelf to gather dust. 

I trust we do not wish to be like that. And there are three ways that the Psalmist shows that he has not neglected God's word. 

- 'I have hidden your word in my heart'
The easiest way to do that is to learn verses from the bible, by heart. It is a spiritual discipline, and it is very precious. I was on retreat this week, and decided to put this into practice: I learnt these verses. So I was able to think them through as I went for a walk; and one night when I couldn't sleep I was able to meditate on them. And if we have learnt scripture, when the enemy comes, when we are tempted, we can say to God: 'I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you'. 

It doesn't need to be a long passage. It only needs to be one verse: 'I am the way, the truth and the life'. But to hide God's word in our heart is to know it, to live with it, to allow it to sink into our very being. And to those of us who preach the bible: we need to let it live in us. Read the passage on Monday. Learn it if possible. Let it sink in. Study it. Meditate on it. Live it. And then preach it. 

- 'with my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth':
A great way not to neglect God's word is to speak it. 
To speak it to ourselves: read it out loud. Listen to it being read on MP3 or CD.
To speak it in church: we speak the word of God; we sing the word of God. We're just sung, 'Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and light unto my path'. That is Psalm 119:105
To speak it in the world: that is the hardest. How do we speak and apply the teaching of the bible to our everyday life, to our colleagues and neighbours? It is a life-long learning exercise.

- 'I meditate on your precepts'.
We are called to meditate on the word of God: to think deeply about it. That is why we take time to read the bible. Many many people find it helpful to put aside time every day to read and to pray. That is where bible reading notes come in helpful. Personally, I've never found bible reading notes to work; I find that they are restrictive, and I much prefer following a pattern of reading that, for example, we have on our notice sheet: includes Old Testament, New Testament and Psalms. 

Maybe you are someone who finds it difficult to make time every day. That is OK - so long as you give yourself other significant time to reading the bible and thinking it through. 
There are so many things to help us: I've mentioned bible reading notes, commentaries - Tom Wright's series: 'Matthew for today'; study bibles; internet (but so easy to be distracted). So instead of flobbing in front of the TV, pick up the bible - read it.
And of course it does help to listen to what other people think. That is why we have bible study groups 


May I urge you not simply to read this book, not simply to study this book so that you get it all right - may I urge you to read it and to study it, but more than that, to read it seeking God with all your heart, to read it as the Word of God - and then to live it. 


If you notice, in v14, the Psalmist does not say, 'I rejoice in your statutes'. He says, 'I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches'.

 


 


 

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God

Matthew 5:8

As you will be aware, we've been going through the beatitudes. They're called the beatitudes because the latin for 'blessed' is 'beatus'. And the thing that has struck me quite forcefully this time is the fact they are about a present state, 'of being blessed', in view of what is going to happen in the future.

Imagine a baby born to a wealthy and loving family. Imagine the baby is hungry. Her hunger is taking her over. She has worked herself up into a state. She is screaming. You have a very unhappy baby. But an observer looking on, who knows the child's background, knows the child's destiny, knows that in a few minutes time mum is going to walk through the door, pick up the baby and feed her, could say, "What a blessed baby".

Blessing is not just about what we are feeling or experiencing now. The blessing that is being spoken of here is the blessing that comes when we see the complete picture.

At the moment we may be mourning – literally mourning the death of someone who we love. We may feel totally empty and abandoned. But we are blessed because there is a bigger picture. We may feel, be, the trampled ones in society – that was certainly true for the first Christians and it is true for many Christians today – but we are blessed because there is a bigger picture. We may be falsely accused by others, discriminated against, we may be the persecuted ones (I pray with all my heart that if there is ever a choice, the church will be the persecuted one and not the persecuting one) now – but we are blessed because there is a bigger picture.

In a few minutes time, the door is going to open, and mum is going to walk in. She will pick us up, bring us close to her and feed us. Isaiah 66:13: "As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem."

And at least three of the beatitudes are explicitly fulfilled in the last two chapters of the bible. The promise of 'a new heaven and a new earth' (Revelation 21:1); of a place where there will be 'no death or mourning or crying or pain" (21:4); and specifically – with our verse in mind today – Revelation 22:4 – "They will see his face".

So is it to be 'Pure in heart'

We are talking here about inward stuff

The word 'pure' in the bible is mainly used of silver or gold: pure silver, pure gold. It is authentic. Through and through gold. It is like an onion. If you peel of one layer of onion, what do you get underneath? Tomato? No! Onion!

And someone who is pure of heart is undivided. They are someone whose heart, whose inner being, total self, is totally authentic. There is no separation between heart and mind. The guts and the head work together: there are times when I act from here (the guts) and not here (the head) or vice-versa. Someone who is pure of heart, lives here and here. They are undivided. They are free from, as someone said, 'the tyranny of a divided self'. There is a call to prayer in the service for daily Anglican morning prayer that goes as follows: "The night has passed and the day lies open before us; let us pray with one heart and mind".

And someone who is pure of heart is utterly sincere. "Their very heart – including their thoughts and motives – is pure, unmixed with anything devious, ulterior or base". There is a transparency about them, an innocence; they are not one thing with one person and another thing with another person; they are not one person in the bedroom or on their knees and another person in the boardroom or behind a steering wheel.

And someone who is pure of heart has clarity of vision. We look at the world with a vision that has been made grubby with sin, self-centredness, self-interest, fear and pride.

Andrew asked us yesterday, "What's the right way up for the world?" How do you answer a 7 year old when he asks that? I said the world was like a football, and asked him where the top of the football was. He said, "It doesn't have a top". And yet, we live as if we are the top of the world.

I look at the world and at people from my perspective: do they threaten me or promise me good. I judge them by my standards. I evaluate them by their significance to me.

Jesus speaks about this quite a lot. He rebuked people for trying to take a small speck out of the eye of another person, without taking out the beam that was in ours. He challenges us to see right: to get the eye right (Matthew 6:22-23)

And that I think is why purity of heart and vision of God are put together: "Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God".

Jesus, as with all the beatitudes, is the one who shows us what it means to live the beatitudes. He was pure of heart. There was nothing dark in him. He had complete clarity of vision. And he saw God: he spoke with God, his father, face to face

It is when a person is pure in heart that they see reality as it really is. The grubby spectacles are taken off: we begin to see the universe not just as a space filled with floating balls, but as God sees it – as part of his creation, an expression of his power and love. We begin to see other people as God sees them – as men and women, girls and boys made in the image of God, uniquely precious and valuable. We begin to see situations as God sees them.

Oswald Chambers wrote, "Faith is the inborn capacity to see God behind everything, the wonder that keeps you an eternal child. Wonder is the very essence of life. Beware always of losing the wonder, and the first thing that stops wonder is religious conviction. Whenever you give a trite testimony, the wonder is gone. The evidence of salvation is that the sense of wonder is developing."


 

So how are we to become pure in heart?

  1. A recognition that we are not pure in heart: Psalm 51 was written by David after he had murdered Uriah the Hittite because he desired his wife.

    The prophet Nathan challenges David. David could have said to Nathan: "I am the ruler here. I do what I want". Many rulers have said that. But David recognised the truth that he has done wrong. And he is broken. And in Psalm 51 he confesses his sin before God.


    The first step towards purity of heart is a willingness to take a long hard look at ourselves. David does not, in Psalm 51, simply say, "I did wrong in ordering the murder of Uriah". He looked deeper. He simply says, "Surely I was sinful from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me".

    That verse has carried far more weight and far less weight than it should have done.
    It has carried far more weight, because people have built on it doctrinal towers about the sinfulness of the act of conception and about the sinfulness of babies. And they have no foundation.

    It has carried far less weight than it should have done, because this is about an experience of an individual who has been convicted of sin. He looks back over his life and he makes no excuses. He does not justify himself. He does not compare himself with others. Instead he sees that the pattern of sin, of disobedience, of self-centredness is repeated and repeated and repeated. And he is broken.

    This verse is not here so that I can point the figure at someone else and say, "You are sinful from birth because in Psalm 51:5 David says, 'Surely I was sinful from birth'. This verse is here, in the Psalter, so that I can kneel alongside David, with no excuses, no self-justification, and say with him - from the earliest of days, I have sinned against God and I have done evil. I acknowledge that I am far from pure, and I seek forgiveness and mercy and the power to change.

  2. Asking God for purity

    David does not leave it there. He goes on to pray, "Create in me a pure heart, O God" (Psalm 51:10). It is the recognition that he cannot change himself. It is the recognition that only God can change his heart.

    And to ask God to give me a pure heart, is the same as to ask God to give us his Holy Spirit, wisdom, grace, love, salvation. But we need to ask.

  3. Living the word of God

    Psalm 119:9 asks, "How can a young person keep their way pure?" And the answer comes, "By living according to your word."

    And this is not just a question of obeying God's commands – but also of trusting his promises.

    But a person who is serious about desiring a pure heart will, like the Psalmist, have a growing love for the word of God. They will have a desire to read it and to understand it and to encounter the God who speaks through it.

  4. Looking to Jesus

    We cannot see God this side of heaven. Some people may have part visions of God: Moses ('You cannot see me and live'), Isaiah, Ezekiel ('saw the likeness of the glory of the Lord'), Paul, John the divine.

    We cannot see God fully this side of heaven, but we can still see God. Jesus says to Philip, 'Whoever has seen me has seen the Father'. So as we look at Jesus: as we seek him, discover about him, learn from what he said, trust him, commit our lives to him, obey him, come to him in prayer, wait for him – so he will come and live in us: and he will purify us from the inside.


I would like to say one final thing. I am not suggesting that as we grow in the Christian life, as God does purify our heart, we will have a clearer and clearer vision of God. There will be times when that vision does grow very bright True for people throughout the history of the church


 

[Aquinas: "All that I have written seems to me like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me."


 

Blaise Pascal and his famous note:


 

MEMORIAL

In the year of grace, 1654,

On Monday, 23rd of November, Feast of St Clement, Pope and Martyr,

and others in the Martyrology,

Vigil of St Chrysogonus, Martyr, and others,

From about half past ten in the evening until about half past

twelve,


 

FIRE!


 

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, (Ex 3:6; Mt 22:32)

not of the philosophers and scholars.

Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.

God of Jesus Christ.

"Thy God and my God." (Jn 20:17)

Forgetfulness of the world and of everything, except God.

He is to be found only in the ways taught in the Gospel.

Greatness of the Human Soul.

"Righteous Father, the world hath not known Thee,

but I have known Thee." (Jn 17:25)

Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

I have separated myself from Him.

"They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters." (Jn 2:13)

"My God, wilt Thou leave me?" (Mt 27:46)

Let me not be separated from Him eternally.

"This is eternal life,

that they might know Thee, the only true God,

and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." (Jn 17:3)

Jesus Christ.


 

JESUS CHRIST


 

I have separated myself from Him:

I have fled from Him,

denied Him,

crucified Him.

Let me never be separated from Him.

We keep hold of Him only by the ways taught in the Gospel.


 

Renunciation, total and sweet.

Total submission to Jesus Christ and to my director.

Eternally in joy for a day's training on earth.

"I will not forget thy words." (Ps 119:16) Amen.]


 


 

But there will also be times when that vision grows very dim. That is not necessarily because of sin. Quite often it is at those times that we are called to live by faith, by faith in the promise of God that "The pure in heart will see God".

John writes in 1 John 3:2-3: "Dear friends, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears,
we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure."

Sunday, 5 October 2008

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”

Matthew 5:5

VERSION 1

"I had a lousy childhood. We had nothing. Never knew my father, and my mother had a stream of boyfriends. But I made it. Today I am at the top of my business, other people listen to me when I speak; I've just bought a fourth house - in New York.

I did it: I've worked hard; I've overcome the difficulties; I've made some cracking decisions and I've earned the respect and influence that I have. I firmly believe that you make yourself what you are. If you are quality it'll show. I don't like scroungers or layabouts: I'm not saying that bad things don't happen to good people, but you get what you deserve in life. Even this credit crunch: I'm OK. I've invested wisely; I didn't stretch myself too far.

You've got to believe in yourself, in your abilities. Nobody's going to help you. They want what you've got – they'll take it if they can. And nobody stands in my way. Three years ago someone tried to defraud me. It was the biggest mistake he made. I got the police to throw the book at him, and I made sure he went down.

I learnt quite early that people don't like conflict. That means that if you are prepared to stand up to people, you can usually get what you want.

I have my faults, I admit – but hey! What's life about? The girls love me anyway, and the wife – well, she stung me for £30 million. And last year I gave £150000 to the hospice. They named the ward after me. Without people like me, this country would be nowhere.

God? Yes, I guess I believe in God. He helps those who help themselves, doesn't he? I gave a grand to the church tower appeal in the village where I live. It's alright; you don't need to convert me. I'm one of the good guys

I'm going to retire in 2 years time. I've made enough, and I can put my feet up. It's all sorted. I've got this beautiful yacht: it cost me £20 million (less than the ex, and it doesn't nag), and I'm going to sail it round the world. I'm going to look after myself, don't you worry. I deserve it and I'm worth it".


 

VERSION 2

"I had a lousy childhood. We had nothing. Never knew my father, and my mother had a stream of boyfriends. She was not a great mum. It was rough, and I was screwed up. At one point I ran away from home, and ended up in a squat in Holloway.

I guess I could blame her, but she was really lonely, and she was desperate for love. I was difficult. I didn't help.

Anyway, I discovered I had a talent for business – I'm not going to tell you what I first did business in; I'm not proud of it - but I got a few amazing breaks. Do you know today we employ more than 30000 people? – and the thing that I am most proud of is that we have been able to set up a factory in one of those ghost towns after the pit closed 20 years ago. The staff there have done fantastic, the factory is flourishing and they've brought the place back to life.

God? I became a Christian many years ago. I was in a hotel in Manchester, and I picked up one of those Gideon bibles. To be honest, I was bored. I started to read, and as I read – and I don't know why apart from the fact that it was God – I understood it: it was about Jesus, a most amazing man – who loved people who were messed up and who died for me - and I wanted to find out more. Since then I made a commitment to him, got baptised and confirmed, and now he is my boss, my rescuer and my friend. I try to live in the way he wants me to live, which is not always easy. Someone tried to cheat us big time, one of the people I had trusted. I wanted the book thrown at him – but then was praying the Lord 's Prayer: 'Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us'. So I went round to his house and met him; we talked it through; I told him how disappointed I was: he'd let his family down, his colleagues down, himself down. I even said something about letting God down. But I said I would forgive him. We didn't press charges. I still don't know whether I should have done or not.

Biggest regret? That's easy. Seven years ago I had an affair. It was one of those stupid, stupid things. The marriage didn't recover. I hurt my wife so much, and the girl involved as well. It's not been great on the kids either. I know I said sorry to God, and although I find it very hard to believe I am forgiven, I trust him I am forgiven. But I still have to live with the consequences of what I did, and I suspect I will remain single for the rest of my life.

Yes, I may own one of the largest private companies in the country, but I'm also just the mixed up boy from Peckham to whom God gave one or two gifts, and who he reached out to in a hotel room in Manchester. I owe everything to him. I belong to him. I work for him. I depend on him. I try to see every person I deal with, employee, supplier, competitor or customer, through his eyes. They matter, as people, far more than the stuff I produce, or the profits I can make.

The future? Haven't a clue – it is in God's hands. I love what I do, but there will be a time when it is right to step back. I hope I can continue to serve - I'd love to do something back in Peckham. I'm also trying to rebuild my relationship with the kids. There are grandchildren now.

Death? I'm scared of dying. I've seen too many people die in not very nice ways, but I know Jesus will be with me when it happens. I love my life here, but he's promised he will come back, that we will be raised, there will be a new earth, and he'll be at the centre. I guess it will be a bit like this without all the rubbish – although to be honest I can't really begin to imagine it. But that's why I don't need to go everywhere now, see it all now, do it all now, or get all the stuff now. I can afford to wait. You may think I'm mad, but he said it, I trust him; it is my hope and it is my life.


 


 

Friday, 19 September 2008

The dream designer

Fashion show

Congratulations to organisers. Bury St Edmunds answer to London's fashion week - thank you to the firms who have provided the clothes - and the models, look stunning.

One word of warning: Dave Barry said, 'The leading cause of death among fashion models is falling through street grates'. When I said that to Alison, she answered, ''Some hope!"

So what has a vicar got to say at a fashion show - especially a vicar who is so well known for his fashion-consciousness. At least his wife makes up for him.  However I am being educated: I know now about colours - Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer - and styles and I know now not to wear socks with sandals. Although - in my more rebellious moments - I still do have some sympathy for Bruce Oldfield who said, 'I'm not that interested in fashion. When someone says that lime-green is the new black for this season, you just want to tell them to get a life'. 

 

The vicar wishes to say two things:

FASHION MATTERS

Mark Twain said, in what is a remarkably astute observation, 'Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence.'

What we wear, whether we like it or not, speaks so loudly about what we think of ourselves and our place in the world, and they do affect how people react to us.

 

Several years ago I went with a small delegation with the Bishop of London to Moscow, where we were meeting with senior leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church. He asked that in Moscow we wore cassocks at all times in public. For someone who claimed that he did not care less what he wore, I was mortified. 

I do not come from that part of the church that wears cassocks in the public arena. 

I would be different. 

I would be identifying myself with other people who wore cassocks. 

But that was precisely why the Bishop was insistent. He wanted us to say to our hosts: "We identify ourselves with you. Even though for you, wearing a cassock in public may bring ridicule and rejection, and a few years ago could have meant that you were sentenced to labour camp or even to death, we are here to identify ourselves with you". 

The clothes that we wear do identify us. They make a statement about who we think we are and who we think we belong to. The jacket and tie, jacket and no tie; the dress or jeans and t-shirt; the teenage uniform – the bare midriff, big belts, short skirts and leggings for girls; the pumps, hoody and long hair for boys; the Goth black; the Ascot uniform – actually written down this year (no bare midriffs and no bare shoulders); the cassock: they all make statements about who we think we are, who we think we belong to, and how we relate to the rest. 

That is why Trinnie and Suzanne work. Changing what we wear does change how others see us, and therefore how we see ourselves.

A new outfit promises a new life: wear me and I will give you romance, sophistication, freedom, uniqueness, respect, beauty and power; wear me and I will make you desirable and lovely.  Ralph Lauren said, 'I don't design clothes; I design dreams'

 

But although fashion matters, and it does make a difference, it is only a surface difference. It is not the real answer to our dreams.

You can have the figure of a Keira Knightley, and wear the dress of a duchess; you can have the physique of a David Beckham and wear a $10000 Hugo Boss suit, but they will not protect you from being broken, confused, mixed up, lost, guilty and ashamed. 

2. WE NEED TO BE WILLING TO LOOK DEEPER.

Fashion, someone said, is our defence against nakedness. And here I do not just mean physical nakedness.

One of the very first stories ever told was the story of how men and women got their clothes!

Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden. They were naked and they were not ashamed. They lived in freedom and love. They walked in the garden with God: they were right with him, right with each other and right with the world.

God told them that they could eat from any fruit in the garden. It was all theirs. The only thing forbidden them was to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But because the fruit looked good, and because they were told that if they ate it they would become like God without God, they disobeyed God and ate the fruit.  The result: they saw that they were naked and they were ashamed. So they made themselves clothes of fig leaves and they hid from God. 

Now I am not asking anyone to believe the story as a record of what happened, but I am asking us to listen to what it tells us about the human condition.

·        We have rebelled against God

·        We have tried to hide from him: we are naked in his eyes and in our own eyes - And we try to cover it up with fig leaves.

And the reason that we are putting this on is to say that fashion is OK and does matter, and can be great fun, and can - to some extent - change lives; 

But we are also asking people to look deeper.

Later on in the year we will be having a series of events at which we will present the good news of the Christian faith.

It is good news.

A new outfit, new hairstyle, a makeover, is good news: it may make a new man or new woman of you, for a time.

But it is only God who can really make a new man or woman of you. It is only the dream designer who can fully satisfy the dreams that he has given us: dreams for love, belonging, uniqueness, beauty, peace, creativity, fulfilment, eternity.

The good news of the Christian faith is that - for those:

who have the courage to look beneath the fig leaves, who are aware of their rebellion against God, of the inner darkness and mess in their lives, and who are prepared to say sorry and throw themselves on God’s love because of Jesus, there is the amazing offer of forgiveness, an interior redesign job (illustration used in bible is that God will change our heart of stone and replace it with a living heart), a new life now, and the promise of dreams fulfilled.