Sunday, 18 December 2005

Carol service 2005

Carol service 2005

Tonight we join with countless others in churches throughout our land, as we hear again and celebrate again the birth of Jesus.

Tonight we glimpse another world. It is as if we have travelled through space and time, and we come to rest in orbit around this other world. You've seen those pictures of how earth looks from space. Well, imagine that: tonight we are looking down at the world of Mary, Joseph and Jesus

It is a very dark world: a world of occupying forces, in which people are treated as statistics (that is why Joseph and Mary had to go to Bethlehem to be counted), of immense gaps between rich and poor, where there is great poverty, homelessness and exclusion. It is a world that has its good rulers, but also paranoid ruthless rulers. It is a world where physical power reigns and there is much brutality: in the Christmas story itself, when Herod realises that the wise men are not coming back to tell him which child is the Christ, he orders the massacre of all baby boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 - just to make sure that he gets him. It is a world that knew refugees and asylum seekers.

And the people of Israel were a crushed, occupied people. They had been for the last 300 years. And people were praying: "How long O God before you act"

And suddenly in this dark world, after years and years of watching and waiting, a light is ignited: John tells us, "The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world".

And God speaks. He speaks a word. He speaks through an angel to a young woman called Mary. He speaks through a dream to a carpenter called Joseph. He speaks through a heavenly choir to terrified shepherds. He speaks through a star to wise men. He tells people that he is going to act; that he will bring deliverance to his people and to all people. He tells us that he is going to set us free - not from others, but from the dark within ourselves.

Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author, was a committed Marxist. Yancey writes, "He truly believed that his revolutionary government was serving the welfare of the 'the people' by punishing enemies of the state. Solzhenitsyn later reflected back on his change in perspective: 'It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually, it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains .. an unuprooted small corner of evil.'" (Philip Yancey, More Than Words, Edited James Calvin Schaap, Chrysostom Society 2002 p9ff)

But God not only speaks. He acts: a baby is born. This is a very ordinary baby.

You'll remember that classic line in Only Fools and Horses when Del Boy comes out after Raquel has given birth to their child. And Granddad and Rodney are waiting outside the delivery room in intense expectation. And Del comes out, and they say, "Well what is it?" And Del says, "It's a baby". Well Jesus was 'a baby', a very ordinary baby: who needed to be fed and winded and changed.

But if this baby was ordinary, he was also extraordinary. John tells us that this baby is the Word that God has spoken; he is the unique Son of God: "The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us". He is the one who has always been 'at the Father's side'. He was there in the beginning with God when the world was created. And the Son of God does not need light - he is light. He came to bring us light. And he is the one who is full of grace and truth.

And as we look down at this dark world, we notice that as people come to this child, the Son of God, that as they submit to him, as they receive him as their Lord, as the ruler of their life, a tiny light is ignited inside them, and begins to burn. And look: there is a light there and light there and light there. And lost people begin to discover direction; and confused people discover meaning; and broken people discover healing; and crushed people discover acceptance and forgiveness; and frustrated people discover purpose and significance; and dying people discover a life that is of such a quality that not even physical death can extinguish it.

At Christmas we remember how the extraordinary, the one who is beyond all boundaries and limits, the one who created space and time and being, the one who is bigger than - beyond - space and time and being, became a very ordinary human being, so that very ordinary human beings might begin to become extraordinary. As someone over 1700 years ago said, "The Son of God became the Son of man, so that the sons and daughters of men, might become sons and daughters of God"

And as we look down at this tiny baby, we see the glory of God.

And this is the one who continues to bring light to our world and light to each one of us.

We live in a dark world, and the darkness is not out there in others - it is in here, in us. We fight because my pride will not let me back down or say sorry, or because I wish to call something 'mine', or because I don't think that I am getting sufficient respect, or because I am frightened of that which I do not know.

And I will use other people to serve me and my desires. I may not have slaves, but in my self-centredness I will simply assume that other people exist to serve me (whether they are people who are closest to me, or people who I cannot see who live a long long way away, and who do not therefore really matter). I can justify it; I can use all sorts of excuses. I can say that they are not as important or strong, or as moral or as clever as me.

And, of course, I can look very respectable and law abiding, but it is only skin deep. Underneath the surface lies the 'dark side', the fear, pride, hypocrisy, self-centredness, lusts, prejudice and judgementalism.

It is often said that people who come to church are hypocrites. They talk good and do bad. I challenge that: most people who go to church are going because they have begun to recognise the dark that is within them - and they are seeking God to sort it out.

I am not denying that in our world and in us there is so much that is good and beautiful. I am not denying that we are capable of doing acts of astonishing goodness, bravery, self sacrifice and service. But in a sense, that only accentuates the darkness of the rest of the time. We see a glimpse of something and then we lose it.

Jesus was born in order to bring light into our world: He says, "I am the light of the world". And the invitation is the invitation to come to him.

Light shows up the darkness: if we lift up a stone or an old brick in the garden, all the bugs scurry for the darkness. To come to Jesus is to do the opposite. It is to allow him to turn his spotlight onto us. It is to ask him to bring to light those areas of darkness in our own lives. Maybe we have spent a great deal of our time pointing the finger at others. Now we allow him to point the finger at us.

And it is as we look at Jesus that we begin to see what is dark in us.

To come to Jesus, to live the Christian life is about discovering, each day, new areas of darkness within ourselves; new rooms in the house of our life, where we haven't yet opened the curtain and let the light in: rooms of nursed hatreds, of fondled resentments, ravenous jealousies, of resentful inadequacies.

To come to Jesus is to go on a journey of self discovery

Light does not only identify darkness. Light destroys darkness.
As we come to Jesus, and as we allow his light - through prayer, reading the bible, receiving communion, meeting with his people - his light not only identifies those areas of darkness, but sets about destroying them.
When a person comes to Jesus, when they receive Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes into their lives. And we begin to receive the strength to change: from the inside out. The light comes to live in us.

Light shows us the way: I cycle through the butts. It is great during the day, but at nights - at the moment - it is a bit scary. All I can see is the part of the path lit up by the bikes headlights. If I can see that it is path, I'm OK. If I can't see the path, I'm in trouble!

As we come to Jesus, he does show us the way to live; he points us in the right direction. Sometimes Jesus tells us what to do - very specifically; but more often than not, he teaches us how to become the sort of people he would have us be: how to become sons and daughters of God.

Light gives life: "In him was life and that life was the light of men"

We've all seen flowers so tightly closed up. But as the light comes up, the buds begin to open, and they become radiant.

The person who has been with Jesus is radiant. I think of one person I knew. She was closed tight like a bud. She was so fearful and her fear came out in a criticism of others and in sheer negativity. And the one thing she could not cope with was change. But she met with Jesus - and although she could still at times be critical and negative - she really did begin to open up like a flower. She stopped cringing in the corners. When people invited her round to their home she said yes. She began to do things that she felt she could never have done before. And - and this for me was the greatest miracle - she began to say thank you, and when she said thank you she smiled, and when she smiled her face would light up and she really was radiant.

I don't know what darkness is in you. I am not really sure of the darkness that is within me. But I do know this. 2000 years ago, a baby who was sheer light came into the world. 30 years later, they crucified him, but you cannot extinguish sheer light or life. 3 days later he rose from the dead. And the light continues to shine.

May I urge you, at this festival of light, to come to the true light: to come to Jesus. Ask him to shine his light on you. Ask him to shine his light for you - so that you know the way to go. Ask him to implant his light and life into your very being, so that you begin to be light.

May I urge you to do that for your own sake. You were not made for the dark side. You were made to be light. And although people today look for the light in many places, there is only one place that you will find light.

And the great thing about Jesus using this imagery of light is that he says to us, 'However dark your darkness, it makes no difference to me'. It makes no difference to the light if what was there before was no light or semi-light. And it makes no difference whether we think we are totally dark - or only semi dark. The light lights up both the same.

Do it for your sake - because you were made to be light, to be radiant

Come to Jesus the light for the world's sake. We need men and women who have been set on fire by Jesus for Jesus.

Our world does not need people who go round cursing their enemies. We need people to be like Jesus and to bless their enemies. Our world does not need people who are controlled by money or revenge or fear or pride, but who are controlled by love. Our world does not need people who think, "I'm better than them". We need people who are willing to consider the other person better than themselves. Our world does not need people who are saying, 'How can I get more', but 'How can I give more'.

Come to Jesus and allow him to change you: for the sake of your wife or husband or children or friend; for the sake of our town and locality; for the sake of our nation and world.

Come to Jesus for God's sake. God loves you. And he does not want to irrevocably lose you. That is why he did not give up on us, but came in his Son to come and live among us. He longs for you to become his child, to know him as your Father in heaven, to have a relationship with him.

Father God
Thank you that you sent your son to live among us and to be light.
Give us the courage to come to the light and to receive the light.
And so Lord Jesus, we come to you now. We receive you.
We ask you to come into our lives by the power of your Holy Spirit,
to light up all that is dark within us,
to destroy that which is evil in us,
to show us the right way to live
and to give us true life.
For our sake, for our world

Sunday, 4 December 2005

Advent 2 Peter 3:8-15

Advent: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

It is very easy to dismiss the season of Advent as a flight from reality. In the season of Advent we have two foci: one is Bethlehem, 2000 years ago; and the other is the end of space and time as we know it. And both seem to be unreal.

We talk - at one end - about angels singing in the sky, of a virgin feeding her baby in a cattle trough, and - at the other - of a cataclysmic global barbeque at the end of time, and Jesus returning.

It all seems so very far from everyday life. It all seems so irrelevant.  

But 2 Peter 3 is a passage of utter realism

It is the reason why Christians have been on tiptoe for the last 2000 years, waiting for something to happen, waiting for God to intervene, waiting for the God who we know to be so real and to be so significant for our lives to break into this world: to make himself known, to wipe out that which is evil, and to establish his rule of peace and righteousness: where what is right conquers what is evil.

I remember one man in my previous church. He was a police officer and worked for CID. He became a Christian and met with Jesus in a most astonishingly powerful way. And because God was so real to him, so obvious, he really did expect that the event that 2 Peter talks about was going to happen possibly this week, maybe next week, but certainly in the next year or so.

It is these sort of people to whom Peter is writing. They had seen Jesus Christ rise from the dead. If they hadn't seen it themselves, they knew people like Peter who had seen it. And they knew Jesus; they had met with the risen Jesus: they knew his peace and his power. They had the presence of the Holy Spirit in them: they experienced what it was to call and to know God as Father God; they knew what it was like to be forgiven, children of God; they were experiencing that power which God gives us to overcome fear, the things that trap us, the evil that we do; that power which enables us to rejoice in suffering and to persevere.

Of course they expected something dramatic and immediate to happen. Jesus had said, "I will return". Everything else he had said had been true - so this is also going to be true. And so they waited. And they waited.

And by the time that Peter wrote this letter, they had probably been waiting for about 30 - 40 years. And Peter was getting on: he writes in 2 Peter 1:13-14, "I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me".  

And Peter wants them to know

1. That Jesus will return:
He writes [2 Peter 3:3], "First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, "Where is this `coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." He is saying, "Of course people are going to scoff". "But" he continues, "The day of the Lord will come" (3:10)

2. That Jesus will return when it is right with God the Father, and not when we wish: "with the Lord a day is like a thousand years".

I like the story of the man who was praying: "God," he said, "is it true for you that a million pounds is as one penny". "Yes", said God. "God", said the man, "Give me one penny". "Yes", said God, "in a second".

There is a prayer that is embedded within the Orthodox liturgy: "Holy God, holy and strong, holy and eternal, have mercy on us". When I pray it, I remember that I am praying to the God who is strong enough to do far more than I could ever ask him. But I also remember that I am praying to the God who has a very different schedule to my programme.  

And God's schedule is motivated by love. He is not lazy. He has not got more important things to do: v9b, "He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance". God knows who he wishes to spend eternity with him: that is why he waited for you to be conceived; that is why he waited for you to turn to him - or maybe that is why he is still waiting - waiting for you to put aside your stubborn pride, intellectual arrogance or willful selfishness and admit that he is God, surrender to him and receive his free gift of forgiveness, acceptance and life.

3. That Jesus will return suddenly, unexpectedly: "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief" (v10).

Actually Peter here is just reminding himself what Jesus said: "But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Luke 12:39f)

A burglar does not drop a visiting card through your letter box and say, "I'll be round to do your house at 2 am tomorrow morning". And Jesus is saying, "I've said that I'm going to come. But I am not going to drop you a card saying when I am coming: you need to be ready"

I watched "What not to wear" on Wednesday. Trinni and Suzanna, or whatever their names are, had redesigned two menopausal women: they had gone into their homes, they had thrown out the old from their wardrobe and brought in the new. They had transformed the external image of these women. It was amazing to see the contrast. And a year later they suddenly, unexpectedly, revisit these women. They turn up at their homes and look at their wardrobes: to see whether the old has crept back in, or to see whether the women were continuing to live their new lives.

You get what I am saying. Jesus has come into our lives. He has thrown out the old. He has given us new lives. We're forgiven, accepted by God, in him we have the power to change, to even overcome destructive life habits, we can have a relationship with God.

But Jesus is going to come back - he will come back when we are not expecting him - and he will open the metaphorical wardrobes of our lives and see whether the old has crept back in. Are we living as new people or as old people?

4. That Jesus will return cataclysmically, and there will be great destruction: "The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare." (2 Peter 3:10)

The emphasis of the prophets; the emphasis of Peter here is less on the destruction, and more on the fact that there will be nothing that we can hide ourselves behind. When Jesus returns, whether you have already died, or are still living on earth, God will see us as we are. On that day there will be no more hiding or pretending. Everything and everyone in which we have put our trust will be stripped away from us: we will stand alone and naked before our God.

The story is told of the two undertakers traveling past some very smart houses in a very wealthy part of town. The younger said to the older, "Look at those houses - the people who live there must be very rich". The older replied: "Aye. But when they come to us, they're all the same".

We spend so much of our time and money on building up our comfort zones, our walls, our defence systems, our image: whether it is homes or cars or beautiful things or technology or work or children or clothes or books or insurance schemes. One day, either when we die, or when Jesus returns, it will all be stripped away from us. On that day, it will be a face to face encounter: a one to one with Son of God.

It is worth preparing for. If something has got too strong a hold on you, be willing to let it go. It is going to be stripped away from you anyway. We need to begin to face up to who I am, who I really am, now.

5. That Jesus will return and bring with him a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (v15)

The goal of Jesus return is not destruction. In fact we are told that the creation waits for his coming, so that it might be set free from its bondage to decay. The goal of Jesus' return is a new heaven and a new earth: life as God planned it to be.

I don't know what it will be like: 'eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man or woman conceived what God has prepared for those who love him'. But I do know that it will be a place of righteousness: that because God is there, we will do the right thing for the right reason at the right time for the right motive in the right way - and that it will be right and feel right.

We are not suspended between Bethlehem and the end, like the squirrel in 'Ice Age' in ice: who is waiting for the next big defrost.

We live, in relationship with Jesus now, looking to the future (v14): "So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him".

Because your heart will matter then, your heart matters now: make every effort to be found spotless and blameless
Because your relationship with him will matter then, your relationship with him matters now: and note we are not told to be at peace with ourselves, or with our environment, but to be at peace with God. And that involves confession, repentance, receiving the gift of forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life.

This is not a flight from reality. This is a passage of utter realism. It is about the future, and our hope for the future. But because it is about the future - the future as it will be - it is also about the present. It is about how you and I live here and now: trusting the promises of God; living spotless and blameless lives, and being at peace with him.  

Monday, 21 November 2005

Isaiah 6: The Glory of God


You cannot meet with God and not be changed.

That was the experience of men and women in the bible, of people like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Gideon, Mary, Peter, and Saul

And today - as we begin to prepare for Advent and for Christmas - we are looking at an encounter, a meeting with God that changes Isaiah's life.

Although this is in chapter 6 of Isaiah, it is in fact the beginning of his ministry. It is how God called him to become a prophet

Three words that sum up our reading: Vision, Confession, Commission


God opens the eyes of Isaiah, and he sees a vision of the glory of God.

It is a vision of God who is seated on the throne and who is 'high and exalted'. Above the throne are the 6 winged Seraphim. They have covered their faces with their wings. And they declare, "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory".

This is a vision of the God who is totally other to us. He is the Lord, the "I am who I am", the one whose reference point is Himself: there is nothing outside Himself that He can identify Himself by.  And He is Almighty: there is no power outside of God that is beyond God. He is beyond all our concepts and thoughts; He is beyond our human logic; He is beyond being; He is beyond personality
Paul writes to Timothy: "God, the blessed and only ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no-one has seen or can see."

And yet this is also a vision of a God who is astonishingly close. This is a vision of a God who is totally other to us and to creation, but who also chooses to touch the earth. "The train of his robe fills the temple". The angels declare, "The whole earth is full of his glory".  And as God touches the earth, the earth shakes.

His glory does already fill the earth. Psalm 8 tells us, "The heavens declare the glory of God". The reason that we cannot see that glory is because we are blind. His glory is there: there in the wonders of a dew drop, of frost, music, tiny creatures; His glory can be seen in the faces of people who have turned to Him; His glory can be seen in acts of love and self sacrifice and courage and perseverance.

We need to pray that God will open our eyes that we might see His glory.

In Isaiah's vision, he sees heaven touch earth. For us, as Advent draws closer, we remember - as the angel comes to Mary, and as that tiny seed is implanted deep into her body - heaven again touches earth.


Calvin wrote that you cannot separate knowledge of God from knowledge of self.

Isaiah sees the glory of God. He also sees himself as he really is.
V5: "Woe to me! .. I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty".

It is very easy to point the finger at other people. We can show how we are so much better than they; or we can claim that they are at fault for my mistakes and my failures.

In chapter 5, Isaiah has declared woes on people (v8, v11, v18, v20, v22: it is a series that continues in 10:1,5). But here, right at the heart of these woes on others, God turns the spotlight on Isaiah. And he declares, "Woe to me".

When we begin to see God as he is, we begin to see ourselves as we are: with all our pride, fear, guilt, resentment, lusts, self-centredness.

And it is significant that Isaiah picks on the sin of 'his lips'. Isaiah probably was either a senior court official or someone who was senior in the temple. Words came easily to him. They were part of his life. And Isaiah realises that that which should have been his glory, is in fact his shame.

When people see God, they see themselves. One man writes,
"What's the natural response when you've seen God? You're convicted of sin. "Woe is me, for I am undone." The closer I walk with God, the more quickly I feel my sin and realize how much I need God.
It's like a huge mirror with a great big light over it. When we stand away from the mirror, things look pretty good: suit looks in order; tie looks straight; the hair, what's left of it, is combed.
But as you begin to move towards the mirror, things begin to show up. The suit has a spot on it. The tie is a little bit wrinkled. The hair is out of place. The closer we get to the bright light, the more we realize our defects. It's the same way when we get close to God. When we get close to him, we realize how much we need him and how far we are from him. We're convicted of our sin."
We can tell people that they are sinners: we get exhausted, and they get cheesed off with us. I guess it what people expect the church to  tell them.

We can tell ourselves that we are sinners. We do that most Sundays. It doesn't seem to make much difference

In the end we need God to convict us of sin: For David it came through the prophet Nathan; for Isaiah it came in his vision; for Peter it came through a miraculous catch of fish; and for the tax collector in the story that Jesus told, we don't know how it came: he simply hid his face from God, and prayed, "God have mercy on me a sinner".

And it is the Holy Spirit who convicts us of sin: who shows us just how awful what it is that we do or have done. It is the Holy Spirit who enables us to glimpse God, and who begins to help us to see ourselves as we are. It is the Holy Spirit who helps us to glimpse the chasm of hell that is between us. God is there - we are here, and in between is an unbridgeable canyon.

But I do not wish to leave us there, separated from God, because God does not leave Isaiah there.

There is a canyon between God and us. It is a canyon that we experience every moment of every day. Because God is eternal and holy and because we are mortal and sinful, we cannot see God, we cannot hear God, we cannot know God. Isaiah declares later, "Your sins have separated you from God".

But, the angel comes to Isaiah. Heaven comes down to earth. The canyon of hell is crossed. The angel brings a burning coal from the altar, the place of sacrifice. It is a symbol of the sacrifice that has been accepted. And the angel touches Isaiah's lips with the burning coal, and declares, "Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for".

And for us, heaven has come to earth - not by means of a vision - but in a concrete historical event: the first Christmas. And the barrier that stood between us and God has been broken, not by a coal from an altar on which an animal has been sacrificed - but by the death of Jesus. And we have been forgiven: "If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness".


Isaiah sees God. Isaiah sees himself. Isaiah repents and hears that his sins are forgiven. But there is more.

V8:"Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?"
And Isaiah says, "Here am I. Send me!"

He doesn't actually know what it is that God wishes him to do. It is simply that he has seen God, he has heard God and he knows that he has to say 'yes' to God.

God is not looking for people to do great things for him. John Piper writes,

The difference between uncle Sam and Jesus Christ is that the uncle Sam won't enlist you unless you are healthy and Jesus won't enlist you unless you are sick. What is God looking for in the world? Assistants? No. The gospel is not a help wanted ad. It is a help available ad. God is not looking for people to work for him but people who let him work mightily in and through them.

God is not looking for superheroes. God is looking for people who are profoundly aware of their own sinfulness and weakness, and who are also aware of his love and mercy.

And God is looking for people who will say 'yes', even before we know what it is that he is calling us to do.

Isaiah was not given an easy job. His call was a call to speak, to preach. But he is called to preach so that people will not understand (v9) (I think that many of us clergy have that gift in abundance). He is called to speak, knowing that his message will be rejected and that he will be rejected.

We know what God is calling each one of us to be: he would have you as his child, holy, growing daily inwardly more beautiful, and outwardly more fruitful; he would have you grow in self-sacrificial love; he would have you be like Jesus.

But we do not know what God is calling each one of us to do. For each person that call is different, for each one of us is unique. God may well use your strengths and interests and desires. But he may also lead you in a completely new direction.

For some, it might be the call to devote yourself to the care of a sick or disabled child or parent; or to be a mum or dad; or to work for him where you already are; or to take on a new work; or to commit yourself to some work that the church is involved in, or some voluntary work, or to set up a new Christian ministry; or to preach and teach.

We sometimes need to be prepared to say 'yes' to God, even before we have heard what the actual calling is. Alison and myself were taught this lesson when we began to think what we should do when I finished my curacy in Ipswich. We started to look at the possibility of working in Russia. We wrote around and received little encouragement (at the time, nobody was sending people to Russia for more than 2 or 3 weeks at a time). But we wrote to one man, Michael Bourdeaux, who wrote back: he knew of nothing at the moment, but he added, "Make your commitment and say your prayers". So we did. We said 'yes' without knowing where we would be going or what we would be doing; and God opened the door.  

Isaiah had a vision - not of something, but of someone, of God. It was a vision that sent him to his knees. He confessed his sins and heard that he was forgiven. And when God said, "Who shall I send", he said, "Send me". He met with God and he was changed.

Monday, 3 October 2005




"Jesus stepped into a boat, crossed over and came to his own town. 2 Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven."
3 At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, "This fellow is blaspheming!"
4 Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? 5 Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, `Get up and walk'? 6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins. . . ." Then he said to the paralytic, "Get up, take your mat and go home." 7 And the man got up and went home. 8 When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to men."

I would like to look at two issues that this passage raises.

1. Why does Jesus forgive the man's sin?
2. How can Jesus forgive sin?


Some people bring a friend to Jesus. The friend is paralysed. We assume that they have brought him for healing. But Jesus looks at the man and says "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven".

Some of the commentaries suggest that the forgiveness of the man's sins was part of the physical healing: Jesus looked at this paralysed man and realised that the problem was psychosomatic. So Jesus says to him, 'Your sins are forgiven. Your guilt is taken away' - and in saying that he releases the man.

Now of course much sickness is psychosomatic. I remember when my granny came down to breakfast one morning and her left arm was waving uncontrollably. We thought she had had a stroke. But when the doctor cane it turned out that the problem was not her arm. My mother had been complaining of an aching left arm. In the end the remedy for my grannies arm was an injection into my mother's arm.

But I do not think that that is going on here.

The friends bring the man for healing. Jesus could have exercised his authority to heal the man immediately
Instead, he sees the faith of the friends and the man, and Jesus gratuitously exercises his authority to forgive sin.

From our perspective, physical or emotional healing is the most important thing that we could possibly need.
We certainly do not think that we need forgiveness.

Jesus spoke to a culture that had and knew the Old Testament law. They had an idea of what sin was. But we live in a culture which says that 'anything goes', so long as it does not hurt another person. And the only sin we recognise is the sin that might put a person in prison.

From our perspective we do not need forgiveness
From God's perspective, the most important thing that we need is forgiveness

Jesus came to deal with sin. That was his purpose. Jesus was the sin-buster. That was his life. That was his message. That is why he died.

Let me explain: Sin is the barrier that cuts me off from God and from true life.

I sin, because I reject God, because I will not listen to God, because I choose to do what is convenient or easy and not what God would have me do, because I live for my desires, because I am arrogant and proud and judgmental and cynical and critical and cold, because I live by law and not by faith.

And because I sin, I am paralysed, spiritually paralysed.
I live but I do not know God and I do not know life.

It is possible to be physically paralysed and still to know life. Some of you will have read of Joni Earikson. She was an 18 year old who dived into a swimming pool, hit the bottom, and has been paralysed ever since. She despaired of life. But then she met God. She started to learn to paint with her mouth, she writes and she lives. She lives life to the full. One person wrote: "That Joni in her motorised wheel chair lives life far more fully than many fully able people".

It is possible to be physically paralysed and to know life.
It is not possible to ignore sin and to know real life.

Sin is very real and needs to be dealt with. And Jesus here deals with it. He says, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven"

And notice the word 'son'. It is very striking. Jesus does not use it of an individual anywhere else in Matthew's gospel. He talks of people being 'sons of the kingdom; sons of God; even sons of hell'. But on this occasion Jesus speaks to this man either as a parent, or more accurately, he speaks with the authority of Father God. And Father God, through Jesus, declares the man's sins forgiven, and declares him to be his child.

That is what forgiveness does. It wipes out the barrier of sin that separates us from God and enables us to become children of God. It enables us in our prayers to cry out to God, "Father". It is the beginning of real life.


Only God can forgive sin. If N slaps P on the cheek, I cannot turn to N and say, "You are forgiven". Only the person who has been wronged has the power to say, "I forgive you". Unless of course I made both of you, and it was I who said, "A must not slap B". Unless of course I am God, or I am speaking with the authority of God.

Jesus, in declaring the forgiveness of sins, is claiming to speak with the authority of God.

That of course gave rise to fierce criticism: "This fellow is blaspheming".

But Jesus demonstrates his authority to speak for God in two things
1. He knows what the teachers of the law were saying: v4 "knowing their thoughts"
2. He changes the life of the paralysed man. He sets the paralysed man free.

Chapters 7, 8 and 9 are all about the authority of Jesus.

We have seen that he has authority in teaching (7.29), over leprosy and sickness, wind and waves, demons.
And in this passage, Jesus claims authority to forgive sin.

It is quite a claim to make.

The situation is this:

But in this passage Jesus does not only just claim to be able to forgive sin. He also justifies that claim.

Jesus asks a question.
Which is easier? To say to someone 'yours sins are forgiven', or to say, 'get up and walk'.

At one level the harder thing to say is 'Your sins are forgiven', because only God can forgive sins. However anyone can say, 'Your sins are forgiven'. It cannot really be verified.

So at another level, it is harder to say, 'get up and walk', because that can be verified immediately.

So Jesus says: v6: "But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins .. Get up, take your mat and go home". And the man gets up and goes home.

It was enough for some people to believe.

Certainly the paralysed man believed Jesus
And we are told that the crowd, "were filled with awe; and they praised God who had given such authority to men"

So what about us?

1. When we come to Jesus we have to recognise that we come to someone who has authority.

We need to let him do what he would do. For instance, we might be praying for someone's physical healing, when what Jesus wishes to do is to restore them to a relationship with God, and to give them eternal life. He does do far more than we can ask for or imagine.

2. Do you believe that your sins are forgiven?

Of course I am talking now to people who are aware that they have sins that need to be forgiven. If you don't think that you are a sinner, you can turn off, because this bit is only for sinners.
But maybe you do look into your heart and you see the rubbish - you see the things that you have thought or think or do or have done - and you wince inside. You see how you have hurt other people. You see how you are messed up. You begin to see the destructive patterns that have built up in your mind. And you begin to understand how you have rebelled against God, how you have hurt God.

Maybe you have tried to improve.
Maybe you have tried education: if I can only understand myself.
But as D. L. Moody, the great American evangelist, once memorably said, "If a man is stealing nuts and bolts from a railway track, and, in order to change him, you send him to college, at the end of his education, he will steal the whole railway track."
Maybe you have tried positive thinking:
Or perhaps we feel a bit like the villagers who had been sold a special powder by an alchemist, that he claimed would turn water into gold provided that when they mixed it, they never thought of red monkeys. Well, of course, no one ever got the gold, because when they told themselves to stop thinking about red monkeys they could only think of red monkeys. It doesn't work to say, "Well, I'm just not going to think about those things. I'm going to put all of that out of my mind."

We know the power of sin, and maybe we feel that we cannot be forgiven.

I remember a man walking into church and saying, "God could never forgive me after what I have done".

Listen. What is bigger: your sin or Jesus? Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. We declare that authority here in church. The minister says, "Your/our sins are forgiven .. in the name of Jesus". And if you come to him, with even the biggest amount of sin and the tiniest amount of faith, and you ask for forgiveness, you will walk away a forgiven sinner. And God really has wiped the slate clean: the disk is not only erased, but smashed into pieces and melted down.

So when you go back and say, "God, I am sorry, but I have done it again", God will answer, "Done what again?"

The story is told of a child who broke one of mum's best vases. She said, "Mummy I am sorry I've broken your vase." Mum had a bit of a strop, but then said, "It's OK. It's done with now. I still love you. You're forgiven". The following day you go to mum: "Mum I'm ever so sorry. I've broken the vase". "What! Another one!". "No. I broke the vase yesterday". But, mum says, "I have forgiven you"

We can be like that with God. Going back and back and back to him, going over the same old sin.

When you go to Jesus with the tiniest faith, and say sorry, you are forgiven.

So two questions:
Why does Jesus forgive the man's sin?
It is at the heart of what he came to do.

How could he?
Because Jesus speaks with the authority of God. And God can forgive sin: And when Jesus tells you that your sins are forgiven and that you are a child of God, your sins are forgiven and you are a child of God.

Friday, 30 September 2005


LUKE 12:13-21

This is story is very appropriate. It is about a good harvest; and it is about an inheritance dispute. The Archer's script writers have obviously been reading Luke. And no, I don't listen to it. Alison does!

A man comes to Jesus and says, "Teacher tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me".

And Jesus answers by telling a story. It is the story of a man who had a bumper harvest. It could be the story of anyone who had a major windfall. The business he worked for did well and the end of year of bonus was good. The company that he had shares in was sold. He won the lottery. He inherited a packet. The business/house sold much higher than expected. It doesn't matter how

Suddenly he had an awful lot of money. So he thought, "This is great. I will be wise and invest the money. I'll put it in investment funds, in pensions and in property. I will take early retirement. I will buy a nice house, get a nice car. I will go on holidays. And I will live well".

And God says to that man: 'You fool'. Tonight you will have a heart attack. And what will the money be to you then. Who will get it? It will become another opportunity for people to argue about inheritance."

So where does this man go wrong?

Jesus concludes, "So it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God"

It was too late for this man. It is not, at the moment, too late for us.

We need to learn to be rich towards God

1. To learn gratitude: to recognise that all things belong to God and what we have is gift

It is significant that the story that Jesus tells seems to imply that the windfall was outside the man's control: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop".

What we have is gift. It is to be received with gratitude

I had a friend who was brought up in the communist days in East Germany. He told me that on one occasion they were at school and sat down for dinner in front of empty plates. The teacher said, "Today we are going to pray to God for food". She said a prayer, and then said, "Look at your plates. They are still empty. God does not give us food. But the people from the farm have worked hard to grow the crops; and the dinner ladies have worked hard to turn the crops into food for us, and they will give us the food."

Yes, we do need to say thank you to the dinner ladies and to the farmers. But we also need to say thank you to God. Who gave us life? Who gave us the ability to reason things out in the first place? Who gave us the ability to make decisions or take risks? Who gave us the time and the ability to work hard? Who gave us, what society would call 'the lucky breaks'.

The danger is that as soon as we start to think that somehow we have earned what we have; that we deserve it; it is very easy to slip into a frightening kind of arrogance: as a 'have' I am better than a 'have not'.

It is very easy to start to think that because we live in the west, because we live in a wealthy society, we are somehow better or more worthy or more valuable than people who live in the Sudan and Tanzania.  We forget that it is as painful for a mother in Ethiopia to lose her baby through an inadequate water supply, as it is for a mother in Bury St Edmunds to lose her baby in a car accident.

2. To learn humility before God and each other: what we have is not down to us

Richard Bauckham writes, "The writing of the stories of our lives is done only a little by ourselves, mostly by other people, by what happens to us, but ultimately by God. It is the the affluent who most easily forget this. .. The seduction of wealth is the illusion it gives us of control over our lives"

The problem with our man in the story that Jesus tells is that he thought he could write his own story. He thought he was in control. Just as God had given him a good crop, so God could take his life from him like that.

And we buy into the lie.  And it leads to 'hubris', pride, the setting of oneself up as God.

We need to recognise that, however wealthy we are, we are not in control of our destiny. A little humility before God does not go amiss.

3. We need to learn generosity

The man in our story doesn't even think about giving. Instead, he gets the windfall, and he thinks: "How can I best keep it".

There is, I guess, a duty of giving. Tithing, giving a tenth of everything that you get, is a principle that has its roots deep back in the Old Testament. Remember the story of Abraham and Melchizedek.

And this is not some strange teaching from a particular branch of the Christian church. This is a practice which is followed by almost all the world religions.

It is obviously a Jewish practice.
And although different strands of Islam teach different things about giving, most practising Moslems will give away a tenth of their income.
And Jesus teaches that tithing is a principle that we should follow: although he says, what is really important is not the percentage but the attitude of the heart.

And I think that it is right to say that, as Christians, tithing is the beginning of our giving.

I'm delighted that St Mary's Committee has committed itself to the principal of tithing our church giving. We have said that, as a church family, we will give 10% of what is given by church members - through the envelopes or through general giving - away. And I have to say that I hope that that will be a beginning. That we will recognise how wealthy we are as a church and parish, and that we will be not only giving individuals but a giving community.

Of course, our giving does not need to be just to the church, although in the Old Testament the tenth that people gave was to the temple and the work of the temple, the work of prayer and the work of declaring the good news about Jesus

So could I ask you, on this harvest - when we give thanks to God for what he has given us - to go home and to actually work out what you receive and then work out what you give? Of course it is hard. As someone once said, "If you give 10% of what you have away, I can assure you of this. You will be 10% poorer".

But if at one level it is hard, it can also be incredibly liberating. We were made to give.

Of course, being rich towards God is not just about our money. It is about using what we have unselfishly. It is about using our homes for God - inviting people around. Last week we had a 12 hour power cut from about 10 in the morning to 10 at night. And one of our neighbours said, "If you have an electric cooker, please come round and use our cooker"; using our cars for God - giving people lifts; using our possessions for God - not letting them control you, but having that willingness to share.

4. We need to learn what it means to lay up treasures in heaven.

There was a horizon to the thinking of the rich man. It was the horizon of this life. He could not think beyond it or above it. That is why God calls him a fool.

As Christians we are called to think outside the box. Perhaps as Christians we need to think 'into' the box! There is life beyond death: and we do need to prepare for it. We need to lay up treasures in heaven.

One last thing

We don't know what the background is to the man's complaint about his brother.

It could be that the father had died and, according to Jewish practise at the time, had left the farm as a single unit to both the brothers. One of the brothers wants the farm divided, and he comes to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me".

It could be that the father had died and, one of the brothers had defrauded the other out of his inheritance. The brother who has been defrauded comes to Jesus and says, "Tell my brother to do what is right". In which case, Jesus' answer is very surprising.

Jesus does not say, "Your wicked brother". Instead Jesus challenges the motives of the person who has been defrauded. Why? Because what Jesus is teaching here is good news. He does not want the man standing before him to be a fool. He does not want the man to be controlled by greed. He does not want the man to possessed by possessions.

Don't you see? It is too late for the rich fool. It is probably too late for the brother who has taken control of the inheritance

Today, around the world, millions of people may be coming to Jesus like this brother came to Jesus. "Lord, tell my brother (you and me in Western society) to share the inheritance that you have given to us"

Jesus does hear the cry of the oppressed. He will not be an arbiter between them and us, because probably we are not willing to hear him. At least he will not be an arbiter between us this side of death and judgement.  But he will help them.

But Jesus says to them, and for that matter to anyone who comes to him, "Don't become like the rich fool. Don't be like the one who would defraud his brother. Don't be someone who becomes possessed by possessions. Don't become like your god: cold and hard.

Learn gratitude, learn humility, learn generosity, and learn to lay up treasures in heaven.

Saturday, 17 September 2005

True Power 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written:

  "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate." n

20 Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things--and the things that are not--to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

Where does true power lie?
Does true power rest in armies and weapons, in might,
or in symbols and customs,
or in conviction and strength of mind and character?

And who is the really powerful person?
The one who can stand over another and compel them to do what they want them to do: whether through threats or promises?
Or maybe real power lies with the one who can inspire or persuade people to believe what they believe

And who has true power?
Prime Ministers, Presidents, generals, multi-national business leaders, academics, visionaries or even terrorists, with their deadly mix of fanaticism and high explosive?

Our reading from 1 Corinthians talks about true power. And it makes the most shattering claim.

It claims that the ultimate power in the universe is seen in an event: a man dying naked and helpless, jeered by his compatriots, abandoned by his friends, nailed to a plank of wood like a piece of meat.

V23: "We preach Christ crucified - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God"

To the Jews of the time, it was sheer madness to make such a claim.

They looked for power in the astonishing: the miraculous, the triumphant. Power belongs to the one who can zap others, whether through physical strength or intelligence or money or personality

And they certainly did not consider a man hanging on a cross a sign of power. It is a sign of weakness. Indeed the Old Testament tells us that a person who is hung on a tree is a person is cursed by God.

And to the Greeks, it was sheer madness to make such a claim. They looked for a wisdom that would unlock the secret of the universe. For them, true power would lie with the philosopher who was able to understand ultimate reality.

So an event in history (a man dying on a cross) for them could never be the key to understanding reality. You had to go beyond, above history to understand reality, and the only way to do that was through separating yourself from the world and through contemplation.

And we are no different to the Jews or the Greeks

If I am going to follow a God, then I'm going to choose a God who offers me wealth and power and success and status
I am not going to choose a God who ends up being crucified.

  • No wonder the disciples ran away

  • No wonder there is some Roman graffiti of the early 2nd century. It shows a person kneeling down before a crucified figure. The crucified figure has the head of a donkey. Underneath someone has written, "Alexandros worships his God"

  • No wonder men and women have ridiculed Christianity

  • No wonder Nietzsche described Christianity as the religion of slaves: that values the quality of 'pity', the quality that cherishes all that is weak and insignificant and, in Nietzsche's system, is worthy of death.

"Pity thwarts the whole law of evolution, which is the law of natural selection. It preserves whatever is ripe for destruction; it fights on the side of those disinherited and condemned by life; by maintaining life in so many of the botched of all kinds, it gives life itself a gloomy and dubious aspect". Nietzsche, The AntiChrist.

So why? Why preach the cross?
Why claim that a crucified man is THE DEMONSTRATION BEYOND ALL DEMONSTRATIONS of the power of God?

1. The cross is the supreme act of love.

We often talk on these occasions about the love that is shown when a person gives their life for their country.
That happened in the Battle of Britain. And today we celebrate the heroism that saw the men and women of the RAF willing to give their lives to defend their country in the face of overwhelming odds.
And that love has been shown many times before and since: when men and women have chosen to serve their country, even to death.

And when the final history of the world is written, from the perspective of eternity, I suspect that we will discover that such acts of genuine service and self-sacrifice will be shown to be far far more significant than acts of self-gratification or of domination over others.

  • It will be the story of the family who chose to foster or adopt a child who no one else wants

  • It will be the story of the little old lady who spent her time in fasting and prayer

  • It will be the story of the person who chose to devote themselves to care for someone severely handicapped

  • It will be the story of the man who stands up for a young recruit who is being bullied

  • It will be the story of people who choose to run clubs for young people, who visit the housebound, or who open their homes to strangers

  • It will be the story of people who give and not of people who get

We preach the cross because the cross is the supreme act of love:

1. Jesus did not just give himself for his friends and his family. Jesus gave himself for his enemies. He gave himself for the people who rejected God, who rejected him, who rejected his way for living, who rejected everything he stood for, and who crucified him.

2. And the cross is the supreme act of love, because on the cross Jesus did not simply go through awful physical pain and death.
He alone took onto himself all our selfishness, guilt, bitterness, hatred, jealousy, pride, unforgiveness and cruelty.
He took onto his shoulders the condemnation for all the sick things that we think or do.

And Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who had been with God from all eternity, was separated from God.

Most of us know, to some degree, what it is like to be abandoned. I was hearing from one parent about her son who is training as a pilot in the RAF. He went on one of the exercises when they fly you to the most God forsaken part of this planet, give you 20p, drop you and tell you you've got to walk across 500 miles of tundra. He said to his mum afterwards, "I really thought they had done it this time. I thought they had killed me".

Some of you may know that kind of abandonment.
Others will know other kinds of abandonment: failure, separation, bereavement, shame.

But however much we have felt abandoned, nobody - this side of death - have ever known abandonment by God. Even if you do not believe in him. Even if you cannot see him. Nobody has known abandonment by God apart from Jesus.

Jesus, on the cross, was - uniquely among men and women - dropped into the pitch black icy cold pit of utter abandonment. He became, the bible tells us, "Sin for us".
And God did something that God has never done before. He walked away from him.

And Jesus did that for us. He took onto himself our sin, so that God does not need to walk away from us, so that we can be forgiven, so that we can be given new life.

And actually the cross does demonstrate where ultimate reality and power can be found: not in might but in love, not in dominating over others but in serving others, not in getting but in giving.

2. The cross is the supreme act of power

A man crucified.

From our perspective it is weakness.

But we need to be willing to look at the cross not through our glasses, but through God's glasses

Because as Jesus went to the cross, as he hung on that gibbet, he was defeating the most powerful force in this universe: sin and death.

We know this power of sin: this power that makes us do things that we know are wrong, and that we do not wish to do. And we know this power of sin that separates and divides human being from human being; that separates and divides human beings from the world in which we live.

Some time ago we were told that the problem in our society was that children did not know right from wrong. I disagree. I think most of us know the difference from right and wrong. The problem is that although we know what is right and good, we are unable to do it.

And we also know the awesome and fearful power of death. It shatters dreams; It annihilates identity; It destroys relationships. It takes love and rips it apart.

Jesus on the cross, not only dealt with the consequences of sin; Jesus actually defeated sin.

Satan did everything to stop Jesus going to the cross. Jesus was tempted in ways we cannot begin to imagine. He knew exactly what God wanted him to do, what it would involve, and he did it. That is why, just before he dies, Jesus cries out, 'It is finished'.

It is a cry of triumph: the job is done. It is accomplished.

And because of that, Jesus on the cross defeated death. He looked death smack in the face, walked into it and - unlike anybody else - walked through it. He conquered death.

The death of Jesus on the cross: a picture of human weakness and yet the demonstration of the ultimate power of God.

How do we react to this teaching about the cross?

1. An example of both human cruelty and also human weakness and shame.

Islam, for instance, cannot accept it was Jesus Christ who died on the cross. It appears that the Koran states that someone was substituted in his place at the last moment. How could a prophet, let alone the Son of God, die on a cross? It is a denial of anything that is godlike.

And in this matter, Islam is no different from civil society. Our society today cannot worship a man who is crucified. It looks for conquering gods: heroes on the battle field and stars on the sports pitch. It worships the powerful, the successful, and the wealthy.

2. The supreme act of love and of power?

Are we prepared to worship a man on a cross?

If we do so, then we will begin to understand what real power is and who has real power.

  • Real power is the power of love

  • Real power is the power that can transform sin enslaved men and women, men and women who would love to love but find themselves unable to love,

  • Real power is the power that can implant the seed of love in the human heart.

  • Real power is the power to make the weak, the inadequate, the fearful, the broken, people like you and me, into sons and daughters of the living God, and heirs of eternity.

Real power is the power that can turn sinners into saints

And who has this divine, earth shattering power?
Each person who turns to Jesus on the cross and who begins to receive his love.

It is said that Karl Barth, who was without doubt the greatest theologian of the 20th century, and who wrote a million word treatise called Church Dogmatics, was once asked what the most profound thought was that he had ever heard. He replied without hesitation, using the words of a children's song:

'Jesus loves me this I know, for the bible tells me so; little one's to him belong. They are weak but he is strong.'