Saturday, 17 November 2018

Meeting with God

Hebrews 10.19-25


I would like to speak today about meeting with God.

'Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus .. let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith’ (v19,22)

We come to church, we pray, we have chill moments, but few of us really know God.

The amazing thing is that we are invited to come into the presence of God. That is what prayer really is.

In the Old Testament, people realised something that we have forgotten, particularly in our Western traditions: you cannot simply rock up into the presence of God.

They understood with a clarity that we have lost, that God is utterly holy and totally other. He is awesome

On one occasion Moses dares to ask God for a vision. He says to God, ‘would you show yourself to me’. And God replies and says, ‘Moses, I am so holy, so other, so utterly beyond anything that you can conceive or imagine, that if you saw me, it would blow your mind. Nobody can look me and live. But’ – he says – ‘I will show you something. I’ll show you my back, my shadow’.

Or think of Uzzah. He was one of the people who had to transfer the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The ark was being drawn by oxen, but it shook. So Uzzah put out his hand to steady the ark, and he touched it. And we are told that God struck him and he died on the spot. At which point the people very wisely decided that they would leave the ark where it was.

Or Isaiah. He is a prophet in the Old Testament. He has a vision of angels and archangels and the throne of God; he glimpses a little of the glory of God. And he says, ‘Woe is me for I am sinful person and I live among sinful people and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts’.

Or when the people of Israel are in the wilderness – they’ve come out of Egypt but haven’t yet entered the promised land – they come to the Mountain of Sinai. And God appears to them – the glory of God appears. There is thick cloud and fire and thunder. And the people are terrified. So they say to Moses, ‘you go up the mountain, because we cannot. If we go up we will die’.

God is like lightening. And he created each of us in his image to be little channels of lightening. But because of my sin, my disobedience to God, my rebellion against God, I have ceased to be lightening. And so, if God – who is lightening - touches me, or if I touch God, then I am dead.

You can’t simply rock up into the presence of God.

But God in his love, wants to have a relationship with us – despite our sin. He wants us to be intimate with him. He wants us to come to him, to reach out to him, to touch him - without us being burnt up.

And so he gives to the people of the Old Testament a way of coming safely into his presence.

He gives them the temple in Jerusalem, a place where they can meet him safely.

It was a large building divided into sections. On the outside was the court of the Gentiles, non-Jews. That was as far as Gentiles could go. Then you had the court of the women, the court of men, and the court of priests. And beyond the court of priests was the holy place. Only those priests who were on the service rota could go there. And right at the very heart of the holy place, separated from it by a huge curtain, was the holy of holies – the place where God dwelt. And only the high priest could go into the holy of holies, once a year.

And God also gave them the gift of sacrifice.

The High Priest couldn’t just waltz into the Holy of Holies.
He couldn’t put on his Sunday best and walk in.
He could only come into the presence of God if he was covered by a sacrifice. He identified himself with an animal. That animal was then killed – in his place – the blood was smeared on him, and he was able to go into the presence of God.

And what about the rest of the people of the Old Testament who couldn’t go there?

Well, they could turn to the priests, who could turn to the High Priest. And God said that if they came to the temple and made a sacrifice then he would hear their prayers. They would be allowed to touch the lightening and to live.

But, says the writer to the Hebrews, with the coming of Jesus, something remarkable happened. There was a change

Jesus, he says, is the great high priest, who – when he died on the cross 2000 years ago – made one final all-sufficient sacrifice for all people – for Gentiles, for women, for men - for all time.

So we no longer need the temple and we no longer need priests – in the Old Testament sense – because we have a great high priest. We no longer need to be smeared with the blood of animal sacrifices, because the blood of Jesus covers us.

And the amazing thing, and it is amazing, is that because of Jesus we can touch lightening. Because of Jesus we can come into the presence of God and not be struck dead. It says here, ‘He has made a new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)’.

So I imagine it a little like this:

We are about to pray. We are about to approach lightening. We stand nervously at the entrance of the temple. We think, ‘can I go in, will I be welcome?’ But Jesus is also there. And he takes us by the hand and he walks us through the court of the Gentiles and the court of the women and the court of the men and the court of the priests. And if people stop and stare and say, ‘why are you here?’, when they see we are with Jesus they step back and allow us to go through. And Jesus brings us into the Holy Place. In front of us we see the curtain .. But the curtain is torn. It was torn in two from top to bottom when Jesus died on the cross. And we look through the torn curtain, and we see .. nothing. We turn to Jesus and we say, ‘But I thought I came here to meet with God’. And Jesus says, ‘The curtain tore from top to bottom not to allow you in – but to show that God is no longer there. He has come out’. And you say to him, ‘So where is he?’ And Jesus smiles, and says, ‘I am here, beside you, with you and in you’.

So we are invited not just to pray for things – that is like treating God as the genii in the bottle - but we are invited to actually come into the presence of God. We are invited to approach and to touch lightening. And we can come with assurance.

We come with a true heart – we come as we are, not pretending to be anything else, with all our worries and fears and anxieties and desires and shame and mixed up emotions. We come as open as we can be about our failures and our doubts and our weaknesses. And we come to him because we want to know God.

And we come with a heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and a body washed with pure water.

It is obviously a reference to baptism: to repentance and faith. Because however foul our conscience, however much we cringe and want to crawl into a corner when we remember what we have done to other people; and however stained our body by sin (just think of Lady Macbeth looking at her hands and seeing the invisible blood: ‘Out, damn'd spot! out, I say!’) – if we have turned to Jesus in repentance, then we come as forgiven men and women, washed inside and outside by God’s holy Spirit.

We can talk about God, read Christian books, say prayers, come to communion – but not meet with the presence of God. That happens when we hold onto ourselves – our agenda, our status, our lives. It is only when we are prepared to let go of those things, and surrender everything to him, seek him with our whole heart and put our full assurance in Jesus, that we will meet with him.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

We really do need to hold together the holiness and the intimacy.

Some traditions within the Christian church emphasise the utter holiness and otherness of God.

When a person first goes into an Orthodox Church they go into another world. Often above us is an image of Christ the judge. There is a different language that needs to be learned. There are many more rules than here, and some of them are very strict. The liturgy is given and long. You realise very quickly that God is other, that God is not to be messed with, that God asks for everything from you. And yet as you grow in that tradition, you also begin to understand the central place of intimacy with God and love for God. You only need to read the writings of the saints, and fathers and mothers, ancient and modern, to realise that. This is a tradition in which you begin on your knees and the Lord Jesus lifts you up.

We, in our Western tradition, tend to begin with the intimacy and love of God, and emphasise the truth that Jesus is our friend. We try to strip away rules to make it open and accessible to everyone. But as we grow in our Christian faith, we will begin to realise that the one who is our friend is also the eternal Son of God, is holy, is lightening. We begin by standing up, and the Lord Jesus helps us to kneel.

Whatever tradition we are part of, we need to remember that we are invited, and encouraged, to come into the presence of God.

‘Let us approach ..’
And we are invited and encouraged to come ‘in full assurance’.
Not in ourselves, for we cannot simply rock up into the presence of God. But in Jesus.

And so this invitation is for everyone. Or at least it is for everyone who is prepared to put their trust in Jesus and not in their own righteousness or unworthiness.

You can come into God’s presence anywhere and at any time: on the metro, at 3am in the morning when you can’t sleep, or during the day. In our heart and in our mind we can turn to him.

But it is also helpful to put aside time when you consciously choose to approach God. And that might involve going to a place which is special for you, or kneeling, or turning off the phone. Jesus says, ‘When you pray .. go into your room and shut the door’. But at that moment you are consciously and deliberately giving yourself to God.

And of course, it is important to come to church in order to meet together, encourage one another in this and receive him. The passage speaks about the need to keep on meeting together, and not get in the habit of not coming to church. It is significant that it speaks of the habit of not coming to church.

And what we are doing today is a particularly powerful picture of what this is all about.

In a few minutes time we will be invited to come forward for communion.
Don’t come forward thinking that this is our right. This is one of the moments when we are coming forward to touch holiness.
But equally don’t hold back – because you do not think you are sufficiently worthy.
You are not! But we come with the assurance that Jesus is our high priest, who loves us, who died for you, who is our high priest, and has opened a new and living way for us to come into the presence of God.

Tony Campolo writes, ‘Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?"
She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind.

Jesus is the one who brought you to church today. He is the one who is beside you now as I speak, telling you – ‘that Malcolm – he speaks far too many words. Don’t listen to that. Ah. But do listen to this, because this is what I want you to hear’. And he is the one, when you get up to come forward, who will come with you. And as you stand here, he is standing beside you. And as you eat the bread and drink the wine, he is the one who, by faith, will come into you and change you.

You will meet with the holy one and he will begin to make you holy.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Remembrance Sunday in Moscow 2018


On this day, 100 years ago, at 5 o’clock in the morning, the armistice was signed. It stated that at 11am all hostilities would cease. But fighting continued to the bitter end. On the last day there were 10944 casualties and 2738 deaths, before what we know as the first world war came to an end.

On the front, news of the Armistice was met with disbelief that the end really had come, with simple relief, grief for those who had not made it, and with utter weariness. One British colonel reported that at exactly 11am, as the guns fell silent, German soldiers climbed out of their trenches, bowed and walked away.

And whilst, certainly among the Allied powers, there was jubilation back at home, Robert Graves, the war poet who had served at the front, writes, ‘the news sent me out walking alone above the marshes of Rhuddlen cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead’. And when Sassoon wrote his poem, ‘Everyone sang’, which we will hear in a few minutes, Graves retorted that ‘everyone’ did not include him.

But the reality was that a war that had lasted 52 months, that had drawn in 70 million military participants from the entire globe, that had left at least 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians dead as a direct result had finally ended.

It is impossible to overestimate its significance. It was the war that began and shaped the 20th Century. It led directly to the revolution here and subsequent genocides and famine; it was the main reason why the flu epidemic of 1918 was so globally devastating: that left between 50 and 100 million people dead; and the unresolved rivalries, added to the humiliation and sense of betrayal felt by the peoples of the central powers, led directly to the events of 1933 and following.

If nothing else, it should remind us of something that those of you who serve as diplomats are probably more aware than most: that war will never end war. The war that was to end all war led to revolution, genocide and further war. War leads to war, unless there is significantly more effort and more money put into making the peace than there is that is put into fighting the war.

And today, as we mark the centenary of the armistice and the end of the First World War, is the day when we can come out of the trenches, bow to each other and stand side by side, as our political leaders are doing today – despite their differences - as we recognise our common humanity, and together remember and grieve and honour those who were and are willing to serve their country, even to the point of sacrificing their lives – each man or woman doing their duty.

Today can be one of those days when we realise that what unites us is far greater than what divides us; when we can seek the things that really do bring peace.

We recognise that each human person, each one of the 16 million and countless others who have died in war or terror, the ones who we personally remember; each one has an intrinsic identity and value and dignity. We are not just a number. We are, if we choose to receive it, created by God, unique and beloved of God.
God says, through the prophet Isaiah, to the people of Israel – who have suffered dreadful defeat and who, for the second time in their history, have become a slave nation – ‘I have not forgotten you .. See I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands’.
And we hold it to be true that this God, who has now made himself known to all people, speaks those words to us today. They, you, are incredibly precious to God.

And secondly we are, if we choose to receive it, created by God to live in community.
Isaiah speaks of the promised new world where people who are scattered and isolated are brought together. We do not need to define ourselves in opposition to the other, we do not need to have enemies in order to know who we are. Rather we discover who we are in relationship with the other.
And the language of our reading is astonishingly intimate: ‘Lift up your eyes all around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, says the Lord, you shall put all of them on like an ornament, and like a bride you shall bind them on’.
And surely we here, who have the privilege of living as international citizens, must glimpse that there is some truth in that. You do not take away from my ‘me-ness’. You – like exquisite jewellery - enrich, no adorn, who I am, and I pray that I may enrich and adorn who you are.

And thirdly, in our reading from James – James was the brother of Jesus – we read of a wisdom that can bring peace. It is a gift of God and anyone can ask of it from God. It is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield – why, because the person who has this wisdom knows that they are beloved of God and they have nothing to prove. It is full of mercy and good fruits. It has no trace of partiality – it treats all people the same, as created by the glory of God for the glory of God and intended to shine with the radiance of the glory of God. And with this wisdom there is no hypocrisy, no judgementalism. The person who humbly asks for this wisdom, and who is growing in this wisdom does not claim to have arrived or to be perfect, just forgiven and beloved.

Today is a day of remembrance, of lament for the millions whose lives were cut short – in the First World War and in subsequent conflicts. But it is also a day of hope. Today exposes our pathetic attempts to live as self-contained gods. We crawl out of our trenches, and we stand side by side, and we look at what we have done to each other. And we recognise our common humanity and our need for each other. And perhaps some of us will look up, and will cry out for the gift of that wisdom from above.

Friday, 2 November 2018

A sermon for All Saints day

John 11.32-44



It is lovely to be back here in St Petersburg

In our reading, Mary – and those with her – look at the grave of Lazarus and they see and they smell death. Jesus looks at the grave of Lazarus, and he sees the glory of God.

This is not just about being an optimist or pessimist, whether you see a glass half full and half empty.

It is about seeing the world in two completely different ways: it is about seeing the world through human eyes or seeing the world through Holy Spirit eyes.

I don’t know whether you noticed how often the verb ‘see’ appears in our passage.

When Mary saw Jesus v32
When Jesus saw her v33
They say to Jesus, ‘Come and see’ v34
And when Jesus weeps, they say, ‘see how he loved him’ v36
And the great statement of Jesus in v40: ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’

And there are other references to seeing and not seeing.

When the people ask each other why Jesus had not healed Lazarus, they remember how he has healed a blind man. He enabled someone who could not see to see.
And when Lazarus comes out of the tomb, Jesus commands them not only to unbind his hands and feet, but also to unbind his face, to take away the wraps that were covering his face– so that he can see.

That is the gift of God: the miracle, the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables us to really see.

When I worked in London I used to go and visit Derek. Derek was going blind. But week on week as I met with him, I was astonished at how God was coming daily more alive for him, giving him not external physical sight, but deep inner spiritual sight.

And Paul writes about how we are blinded by the god of this world, how our faces are covered with a veil, but how the Spirit comes and takes away from us that veil, so that we can begin to truly see.

Mary and those with her looked at the grave of Lazarus and they saw death.

Last week the wife of Sergei, one of our guards, died. Natalya Alekseevna was only 53 and her death was completely unexpected. The funeral was on Friday. And he is devastated. Death has stepped in and shattered his life. It has stripped him of the person he most loved, and of the person he had built his life together with for the last 35 years.

And for the people of this world, who can only see this world, it is desperately tragic. Death for them really is the final word.

That is why we find it so difficult to deal with:

In our pain and grief we sometimes look for someone to blame. We see that here: Mary says, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. And the crowd echo her criticism: ‘he has made blind people see, so why couldn’t he heal Lazarus?’

Just as an aside, I do have sympathy for doctors. We expect them to save us – to save us from death. But they are only human. They work in human institutions, they make the sort of mistakes all humans make, and they have limited human knowledge. They cannot stop death. And yet so often they get blamed when death happens.

And we push death away; we pretend it does not happen; we do everything we can to avoid facing it (especially in Western societies) – and when it does happen, and someone who we love dies, we are - quite literally - gutted.

Mary looks at the grave of Lazarus and she sees death

But Jesus looks at the situation with very different eyes

1. He looks at those who are bereaved with the eyes of love and compassion.

He sees the grief of Mary and Martha.

He sees that it is as if someone has taken a hammer and smashed their world into smithereens.

Not only had they lost someone they loved dearly, and who had loved them dearly, but they appear to be unmarried and to have lived with their brother, and so in their culture they had lost the person who would have provided and protected them.

Jesus sees their grief, their devastation. He sees the grief of others who have come to mourn Lazarus. He sees what death does. And he is moved. He weeps.

John 11.35 is one of the shortest verses in the bible: in the Greek it is only two words long – Jesus wept. But it is also one of the most precious

That was really what they needed. Not some platitude which changes nothing. When I was in the parish in the UK we had many funerals. And there were some occasions when there simply was nothing to say. And all I could do was go in and simply sit with the person.

And in her grief and confusion and despair in the face of death, Jesus comes to Mary and he listens to her and he weeps with her.

2. But Jesus looks at the tomb of Lazarus and he sees the glory of God

He asks, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They say to him, ‘come and see’.

They take him to see a grave, a tomb. They take him to see a full stop – not a full stop at the end of a sentence or the end of a paragraph, but a full stop at the end of the book. The last word has been written. The last full stop is in place. And the book of Lazarus is closed.

But Jesus does not see a grave that is a full stop. He sees beyond the grave. He says to them, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God’.

Jesus knows what his Father in heaven is going to do for Lazarus, and he knows what his Father in heaven will do for all those who put their trust in him.

The grave is only our temporary resting place. We only have short term tenancy. Our bodies may decay, they may become as nothing, but one day – to the glory of God and by the glory of God - they will be raised.

Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth, ‘For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality’.

Today we remember All Saints day.

And it really is all about how we see things.

How do we see ourselves?
I think it was Ernest Hemingway who wrote,
‘Life is just a dirty trick. A short journey from nothingness to nothingness’.

Or as Macbeth says, on hearing of the death of his wife,
‘Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow,
A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more:
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

Because both Hemingway and Shakespeare are speaking truth if death is the end.

And how do we see the church?
A human institution that is hopelessly compromised and irrelevant to what really matters?

On Thursday I went to a meeting of the Russia British Chamber of Commerce. The old Trade Centre in Moscow was packed out with men and women in suits. And I confess I was tempted to think, this is the place where it really happens, that really matters, where things get things done. Making money, doing business. And Christianity – it is just a leisure time activity for people like you or me with rather odd ways of thinking. And I felt very little and very much on the outside.

And maybe we look at ourselves here, Anglican Christians in St Petersburg with a small congregation, no full-time pastor, struggling to survive on the edge, and dependent on the kindness and generousity of our hosts. And we look at ourselves and we think we are simply irrelevant.

We need Jesus to work a miracle in us.

We need him to open our eyes as he opened the eyes of the man born blind.
We need him to order them to take away the wrappings that cover our face so that we can see.
So that we realise that the grave – while it is awful because it separates us from those who we love - is not final. It is not the full stop.

I love that phrase that Paul uses: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’
2000 years ago, Jesus Christ was crucified and he rose from the dead.

And yes we are separated from those we love by space and time; yes there is a great divide; but we are also at one with them, in communion with them, because they are in the Lord and we are in the Lord.
As one great hymn writers put it, ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’.

And we need him to work a miracle in us, so that we see the true Church:
the glorious Church of men and women forgiven and made perfect, of angels and saints, of those who have gone before us and of those who will come after us.
When we come here together, we don’t come to summon up worship of God. We come to join in with the worship of heaven.
When we pray ‘our Father’, ‘our’ is not just us gathered here – ‘our’ includes all who have been and all who are and all who will be followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, members of his Church. We are joining in with the prayer of the true Church, the prayer of the people of heaven addressed to the Father of heaven.

We need that miracle so that our eyes are opened and we see worship and the praise of God, and the work of loving people into this community of worship, not as some religious sideshow, but as the ultimate purpose and joy of the whole of creation.