Saturday, 23 December 2006

Christmas 2006

Christmas is a time of journeys. Many people travel quite long distances in order to be with relatives.

An elderly man in Manchester calls his son in London and says, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing—45 years of misery is enough."
"Dad, what are you talking about?" the son asks.
"We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the old man says. "We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Aberdeen and tell her."
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. "Like heck they're getting divorced," she shouts. "I'll take care of this."
She calls Manchester immediately and screams at her father, "You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing till I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing."
The old man hangs up the phone and turns to his wife. "Okay," he says, "They're both coming for Christmas and paying their own fares. Now what do we do for New Year?"
There are quite a few journeys associated with the first Christmas

1. Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem.
Circumstances bring them to Bethlehem. I am sure that Mary would have much preferred to give birth to her first born in Nazareth, with her own mum being there. But the emperor had spoken. Everyone had to go to their home town to be counted. And Mary and Joseph had to go to Bethlehem.

2. The shepherds travel to Bethlehem from their fields.
Curiosity took them to Bethlehem. The angels have told them that a child has been born who is Messiah.

The Messiah was the person who the people of Israel had waited for. He was going to save them. Most of them thought of him as a political saviour, someone who would give them back their political freedom; but the prophets had said that the Messiah was about something much bigger. He would save them from nothing less than sin and death, from the things that separated them from God.

And the angels say: The messiah has been born. And you will know it is him because he will be in baby clothes and lying in an animal feeding trough.

And so they say, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened".

3. The magi, the wise men, travel to Bethlehem.
It was wise men. That was why they didn't ask for directions until they got to Jerusalem; it was why they didn't arrive on time; and it was why they brought such useless gifts. If they had been wise women they would have brought a casserole for Mary, or clothes for the baby.

But the wise men came to Bethlehem through choice. They had seen the star, and they had come to worship.

So circumstances bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; Curiosity brings the shepherds to Bethlehem; Choice brings the wise men to Bethlehem.

But there is another person who journeys to Bethlehem on that first Christmas: God.

Love brings him to Bethlehem.

Augustine said:
"He so loved us that, for our sake,
He was made man in time,
although through him all times were made.
He was made man, who made man.
He was created of a mother whom he created.
He was carried by hands that he formed.
He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word,
without whom all human eloquence is mute."

In other words:
the one who made people became a person;
the one who began time was born into time;
the one who created Mary was born and nurtured of Mary;
the one who gave us reason and words, cried as one without reason and words.
And he did it because he loved us.

And God travels to Bethlehem for a meeting. Up to now, God has spoken to his people through prophets, through priests, through the law - his written word.

In Jesus, God comes for a face to face with the human race: he identifies himself totally with us. He lives our life. He dies our death.

Jesus shows us a God who loves us, who:
- despite our pride and selfishness and lack of love - persists in loving us
- despite what we have done to this planet, to others and to ourselves - goes on loving us

Jesus shows us a God who is like a shepherd who has 100 sheep. One of them goes astray and gets lost. So shepherd goes walkabout, until he finds his lost sheep. And he is so happy, he puts it over his shoulder, goes down to the pub in the village and says, 'Let's celebrate. I had a 100 sheep. I lost one, so I left the other 99 and went and found the lost sheep'. And Jesus says, 'I am the good shepherd. I have come walkabout on earth to search for the lost sheep - to search for you - because that is how much you mean to me. And I will lay down my life for my sheep'.

For most of us, God is a rather shadowy figure. We might believe in him, occasionally pray, usually when we or someone we love is in trouble. But he seems remote and distant. We do not hear him or see him. He is certainly not obvious, and the way that he works is not obvious. It is as if a great barrier separates us from him.

God does not want it to be that way. He wishes to be found. He wishes to be known. He loves us and he wants us to respond to his love by loving him.

And so, Jesus lived and died and rose again to break down the barrier that separates us from him. That is the point of Christmas. It is God becoming one of us. It is God smashing down the barrier that separates us from him.

And if we are prepared to meet him, to receive him, to recognise him as the Son of God, we can begin to live as friends of God.

For some, when we receive Jesus, God suddenly becomes so very obvious. It makes sense. For others he still is not obvious.

But when we receive him, he comes into our lives.

"O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today"

and we are enabled to begin to live by faith in Him.

Living by faith means living as if he exists, as if his word is true, as if we are forgiven and accepted and loved, as if his Holy Spirit is living in us, as if we are Sons and Daughters of God, as if we have direct access to God, as if death is not the end. It is about taking God at his word. And as we live by faith in that reality, we can begin to experience the presence of God.

So God travels to Bethlehem for a meeting. A meeting with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds: a meeting with you and me.

Maybe circumstances brought you here this evening;
maybe curiosity (you have heard rumours of angels, you think that there is something in this story, even if you are not sure it is true);
maybe you have chosen to come like the wise men to worship.

But as we come into this building I do hope that we realise that because of who Jesus is and what he has done, God is here today: and he has come because he loves you and because he would meet with you.

And if, as I've been speaking, you know that today is the time that you have to respond to him, that you have to receive him and recognise him as God, then I would urge you not to leave this building without taking that opportunity. I'm not going to ask you to do anything like standing up in public - this is Suffolk after all - but I am going to invite you to do three things.
Firstly I'm going to invite you to pray a prayer - asking Jesus into your life.
Secondly I'm going to invite you to take one of these booklets (Journey into life) as you leave.
Thirdly, I'm going to ask you to tell one person - it could be me after this service - in the next 24 hours what you have done.

The bible says that it is when we believe in our hearts and confess with our lips that we are saved.

And I am going to pray a simple prayer, which you are welcome to pray with me.

"O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today"

Saturday, 16 December 2006

The God who intervenes

LUKE 1:26-38

We have to allow God the right to break into our lives

That is what happens here. God breaks into history.

As someone (Peter Larson) has pointed out: "Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin's womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked "No Entrance" and left through a door marked "No Exit."

And God breaks into history by breaking into the life of a young girl, probably not much older than 14.

Mary, no doubt, had her life planned. She was going to marry Joseph. She would - if God gave - have children. She would live in her home town, Nazareth, and be a carpenter's wife. She would never be rich; she would never be famous; she would never be powerful. The best she could look forward to was that her children would look after her when she grew old.

But God breaks into her world. An angel appears to Mary. And her life is set on a radically different course.

I would like us to look at these verses for a few moments because I believe they teach us what can happen when God breaks into our lives.

1. He assures us of his love: (v28)

I remember hearing someone say that in every appearance of an angel to people in the bible the first thing they say is: "Don't be afraid".
[I don't know whether that is true - you can let me know.]
But I guess that an appearance of an angel - when we know that it is an angel (and the bible does teach that angels come to us when we are not aware) - must be quite scary.

Gabriel is no different. "The angel went to her and said, "Greetings you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you". And in v30, the angel says, "Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God"

But angels say "Don't be afraid", for a reason. They do not wish us to be afraid. They have not come to blast us.
They have been sent by the God who loves us.

He loves us because he created us. And even though we reject his love, he continues to love us. And God chose a non-people, a nomadic tribe, a slave people, to be his people - so that through them he could show his love to all people. But they rejected him. So God sent his prophets to call people to come to the God who loves them. But they were rejected. So God sent his son Jesus: 'For God so loved the world'. And God continues to come to us - continues to speak to us - because he loves us and longs for us to respond to his love.

God's first word to us is 'Yes'. The bible teaches us that.
It is not a yes to what we do.
It is not a yes to how we live.
It is not a yes to the false gods we put in his place
But he says yes to us.

And when God comes to us, breaks into our lives, he comes because he loves us. He will not break into your life simply to destroy. And even if what he is saying to us is hard, even if it is a message of judgement: it will be a message that is spoken because he loves us and he loves other people.

[And baptism is a very visible seal of his love: it is God's way of declaring that we have been washed clean; that we are united to Jesus; that we are welcome members in the family of God.]

2. He gives us a purpose: (v31f)

Mary's purpose is very specific. She is told, "You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his Kingdom will never end"

It is frightening: there is a high level of risk for her. This could potentially destroy her relationship with Joseph, wreck her reputation and destroy all her hopes and plans. And in a society that considered sex outside marriage as a crime potentially punishable by death, it was a scary thing to be called to do.

But it must also have been very exciting.
What parent has not dreamed that their child will become great or famous; that their child will make a difference to the world?
And Mary is told that her son will be the one who God promised would come, and that he would reign for ever.
And she must really have wondered: "Why me?"

The angel is in effect saying: "Mary, your child is going to be big news. You are going to be the mother of God (not eternally - in the same way that Jesus is eternally the Son of God - that is the mistake that many people make), but in time".

And the purpose that God gave to Mary was that through her, blessing and salvation would come to all people.

God never blesses one person instead of another
He blesses one person for the sake of the other

And when God breaks into our lives, he gives us a purpose.
It may not be quite as dramatic as the purpose he had for Mary.
But he blesses us so that we can bless others

And the blessing lies in the fact that Jesus will be at our very centre

I do not know where God will lead you, or what God will call you to do. But I do know that, as we follow Christ
there will be risk: God grows us by moving us out of our comfort zones
there will be personal cost
there will be excitement (God uses the desires that he has given us, so long as they are submitted to him)
there will be blessing for others

3. God invites us to come into relationship with him

Mary is not purely passive. She does not say 'yes' straight away. She asks a question: "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (v34)

In this case, the angel does not answer Mary's question directly. The angel simply says, "The Holy Spirit will come on you".

There is no explanation, no super-natural biology lesson. What the angel does say is, "It will happen because God has said it, 'for no word from God will ever fail' (TNIV translation of v37). The angel is inviting Mary to trust the word of God.

And when God breaks into our lives he does not want us to simply be passive. Prayer is about a real encounter with a living God. Sometimes he will answer us; sometimes it will seem that he is silent; sometimes he will open our eyes and show us new things. And we will be invited to trust the word of God.

4. God invites us to trust Him

Mary submits to God. She says, "I am the Lord's servant; may it be to me according to your word".
She trusts that it will happen
And she trusts that God will look after her and look after his child

She could have said, "No". Sarah in the Old Testament laughed when she was told she was going to have a baby. Zechariah told God he was off his rocker when the angel informed him that Elizabeth his wife would have a baby.

But Mary said "yes"

And when God breaks into our lives, we have a choice. We can say No or we can say Yes.

I do not know how God will break into your life, and I do not know what God is calling you to do. To each one of us it will be unique: it might be about forgiveness or saying sorry. It might be about putting a relationship right.

It might be that he wishes to take you through fire and testing, to lay us aside for a time so that we can focus afresh on him.

Or it might be that he is calling you to commit your life to him, to make a new years resolution about your personal bible reading or a daily time for prayer; it might be the call to spend time with him (retreat), to make a declaration for him (confirmation or reaffirmation of baptism vows).

Or perhaps he is calling you to do something new, to step outside your comfort zone

Whatever, we can trust him. Glyn Evans wrote: "God must reserve for Himself the right of the initiative, the right to break into my life without question or explanation. That shattering phone call, that disturbing letter ... may indeed be the first stage of God's interruption in my life. ... Since God does the initiating, He must be responsible for the consequences".

I do not know what it is that God is calling you to do. But I do know this:
God loves you
God has a purpose for you
God desires a relationship with us
God would bless you, so that you can bless others.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

Waiting for God

MARK 13:24-37

We have been this evening on a journey through the four last things: Death, judgement, hell and heaven.

And now we come to our final passage which reminds us that that which we think is so solid and certain - the things of this universe: the sun, moon and stars - are actually provisional. They will come to an end. And there will be a day of reckoning. Jesus will return, and he will gather his people to him.

And these verses are a call to us to keep watch, not to give up.

Jesus tells a story. It is a short story: An owner of a house goes away. He leaves his servants in charge. He gives them specific tasks. One of the tasks is the task of being the doorman (v34: ‘and he tells the one at the door to keep watch’).

It is part of a private conversation that Jesus has with Peter, John, James and Andrew. And he seems to be saying: “This is the job that I am giving you: I want you to be the doorkeepers”

I want you to protect the house from those who wish to steal or destroy
I want you to remind the others that one day the owner will return
I want you to call to the others when he returns
I want you to be the first to welcome the owner when he returns.

And Jesus is not suggesting that they should never literally go to sleep. Psalm 27 says, “God grants sleep to those he loves”.
But he is warning them about going to sleep spiritually. If the door keeper jumps on his camel and goes off for half the year in Eilat, then the other servants are not going to take the idea that the master will return with much seriousness. He is saying to them, ‘You have to keep watch – even when it gets very dark and the night seems so long’.

And it is also a warning to us: “v37: “What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”.

We must not forget that this is his world, and that we are accountable to him
We must not forget that we are his servants, and we live and work here for him
We must not forget that one day he will return.

And I say ‘one day’ he will return. He will.

But in the meantime, Jesus comes to us in so many ways: he comes to comfort, strengthen, to give wisdom, to walk with us as we go through darkness, he challenges and directs us.

People who have been bereaved often say that grief comes so unexpectedly. They might be dreading the anniversary or birthday or Christmas, and they sail through it. And then – and it is completely unexpected - they hear something or see something, and they are crushed.

Actually that is quite a good illustration for how Jesus comes to us. There are times when we expect to meet with him (put aside time to pray, read the bible, come to communion) – but nothing happens. It is as if he is not there. And we have to live by faith. But then suddenly, unexpectedly, he breaks into our world and our life.

And none of us know when he will break into our world and take us out of it: whether through death or on that last day when he returns. Only the Father in heaven knows.

For the believer, for the person who has welcomed Jesus by faith, this should not be something that is frightening.

Some people have in their houses a slogan: “Christ is the head of this house; the unseen guest at every meal; the silent listener to every conversation”. It is slightly threatening. It is also nonsense. How can he be a guest in the house of which he is head? We in fact are the guests. He has given us everything. He loves us. He laughs when we rejoice. He weeps when we weep. He longs for us to share our burdens and desires and joys with him.

This is our hope. This is our reason for existence.
To live in this world for God
To love other people for God
To declare the praises of the God who loves us and who gave his Son for us

And we wait for him with longing.
We wait for him to come to us in our experience now. Psalm 42:2, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?”
But we also wait for that final day, when we will be gathered to him.

And the bible doesn’t really tell us what heaven will be like. How can we describe something that will be beyond space and time as we know it? But it does give us pictures of heaven: it will be like a wedding, a banquet, a glorious city. And at the heart of the wedding/banquet/city is a person: The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ – and a promise: ‘I will be their God and they will be my people’.

Monday, 20 November 2006

False gods

1 Kings 11:1-13

Solomon had everything going for him.

He had the promise: the promise that God had made to his father David.

2 Samuel 7:12 “When your days are over .. I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father and he shall be my son.. My love will never be taken away from him .. your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever”

He knew the word of God, the law of God. And he knew what God’s law was; he knew the consequences of following God’s law and the consequences of rejecting God’s law.

He had the experience: He had met God. In fact God appeared to him on two occasions, both times through dreams. And he had also been there at the dedication of the temple, when suddenly the glory of God appeared

He knew that God answered prayer: because he had asked for wisdom and he had been given wisdom

He was wise: The books Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were either written or commissioned by him

He knew love: the Song of Songs is a love poem, written to his beloved

He had wealth and power, and was respected. 1 Kings 10:23 states ‘King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth’.

And he loved God, and was obedient: “Solomon showed his love for the Lord by walking according to the statutes of his father David”

And Solomon was not only a ruler of his people. He was also a teacher and a preacher. He urges his people: “Your hearts must be fully committed to the Lord our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commands, as at this time” (1Kings 8:61)

He had everything. But it all goes wrong. He does not do what he preaches

In 1 Kings 11, Solomon turns away from God. He was not fully committed to God. As he grew old he allowed his love for his wives to turn him to other gods. He followed them, and even built places of worship for them.

In fact, the problem had started many years earlier. There were two things:

1. God had said that the people of Israel were not to inter marry, because they would be led astray – but Solomon, probably in his desire to build alliances – had ignored that command and married women from other nations

2. Solomon had, from the beginning, continued to worship at places dedicated to other gods.

And so now, as he grows older, as the get up and go gets up and goes, as it becomes slightly harder to make personal sacrifices or to put up with unnecessary hardship, as he slips back into old patterns of thinking, as he begins to look for a quiet life surrounded by the people he loves, so he drifts further and further away from God.

In one sense it is very easy to apply this passage to ourselves.

Maybe we have glimpsed a little of what Solomon glimpsed. We know the promises; We have met with Jesus; We have begun to get to know the word of God; We have experienced answer to prayer; We have begun to discover gifts that God has given us, and to use them in his service.

But it is still very easy, whether we are older or younger, to lose the devotion, the whole heartedness and the love for God that we once had. It is very easy for us to worship at the altars of false gods.

When we read this passage we might think that it is an injunction to our nation to tear down the places of worship that belong to other gods (gods of Hindus or Moslems or whoever), and that it is a command to keep yourself racially pure.

It is not.

Our Queen and government are not in the position of Solomon. England is not Israel. It is not and it never will be the Kingdom of God (that has been the big mistake of the Christendom model: to try and impose Christianity on people by law); And the cathedral or parish church will never be in the place of the temple.

Jesus Christ is in the place of the King; The church, the people of God, are the new Israel, and we are an international community. The Kingdom of God is in this world but not of this world. And our place of worship is before the throne of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, the New Testament does encourage and teach that believers should marry believers – because then you share a common God, goal and vision, and there can be so much pain when one partner is a believer and the other is not. But the bible also teaches that believers should stick with and pray for their non believing partners.

But when this passage talks about the dangers of following others and worshipping at the altars of false gods, it is really talking to us about our own false gods. Our own false gods as a church and as individuals.

As a church: what are the things that we put in the place of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? A particular liturgy? A particular experience? A building? A denomination? A particular understanding of communion? A particular way of interpreting the bible? A particular doctrine? Sometimes the communion service or the bible itself becomes our God: (there are times when those of us who would claim to be bible believing Christians can look as if we worship a Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Scripture). I am not saying that any of those things are wrong. What is wrong is where our worship is focused, and when we do focus on the wrong things, we end up with the ludicrous situation of say the (mythical) 36th Philadelphian Baptist church who have a list of the churches that they are not in fellowship with: starting, of course, with the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians, and ending with the first Philadelphian Baptist church, the second Philadelphian Baptist church and so on..

And as individuals: What is it that we put in the place of God? What is sacred to us? What drives us and motivates us? What has our heart: women, men, children, career, things, desire to prove ourselves, money, avoidance of conflict, hunger for revenge or credibility or respectability?

It is actually quite easy to identify our own false gods if we are prepared to do so: What do we spend our time doing? What are our ambitions? What do we watch on TV? If someone came into your house and into the living room, what is the focus? If someone went through our internet cookies, what internet sites would they discover that we go to? What do you spend your money on? What would you like people to say of you in your obituary?

Someone said that on judgement day when the books are opened, there will be two books that we will be judged by: our diary and our cheque book.

And the warning to us is not to become complacent. Solomon shows us that knowledge, giftedness or experience of God or of great worship or of answered prayers is no guard against our falling away. And if we know that there are currently things in our lives, or attitudes that we have, or people who we are allowing to lead us astray, and we do nothing about it, then we are laying up serious trouble for ourselves in the future.

Just one final note. The passage does talk about judgement. But even in the judgement there is mercy: God says to Solomon, “I won’t do it in your lifetime”, and “one tribe will remain”. He says that there will be mercy – for the sake of David and for the sake of Jerusalem

However hard we try, we will all mess up. For each of us there will be those hidden and those not so hidden high places that we still worship at. That is not a council of despair. It is a council of reality. And when I stand before God, I know that I will need mercy. What I do know is that there is mercy – not for the sake of David and for the sake of Jerusalem – but for the sake of David’s descendant, Jesus Christ, who died for us and rose again.

Monday, 13 November 2006

Remembrance Sunday 2006

1 Corinthians 15:1-8

We are here today to remember with pride and gratitude, and I suspect for some of us here - with real pain - those men and women who fought in two world wars, whether in the war at home or overseas, in order to defend our freedom and to bring freedom to the peoples of occupied Europe: 'they gave their tomorrow for our today'. And we honour them.

Remembrance Sunday has taken on a new significance in the last few years. There has even been talk of making it our new 'national' day, although we in Bury St Edmunds know that needs to be November 20. But it has taken on a new significance because even though the vast majority of our population did not experience the second world war - I was born almost 20 years after it ended - the stories are still told; the ghastliness of war has not changed, and even though Nazism was defeated and the swastikas ripped down in 1945, there are still many today who try to hold and manipulate nations and peoples through the use of terror and force.

I suspect that it might have been possible for Churchill to say: "Europe has fallen. Let's sue for peace, and keep our independence. Why should our children die for Europe and beyond?" It would have been much easier for Roosevelt to have said: "Europe has fallen. We have a war to fight in the far East. Why should our children die for what is on the other side of the Atlantic?" But they didn't. They realised that what happens to one affects the other; what happens to you affects me. They realised that if you see evil, even in a far off place that affects far off people, and if you have the power to do something about it, but do nothing, then that evil has reached out and begun to grip you. When I turn a blind eye to evil elsewhere, I turn a blind eye to evil in myself. And they did not know what the final outcome would be of their decisions. They did not know how many hundreds of thousands or millions might die. But they knew that they had to stand up to evil, even though it was in far off places.

And just as our men and women, as some of you, were willing to answer the call and to serve and give of themselves (in many different ways) in the world wars to defend others, so today it also happens. We consider the more recent conflicts in Northern Ireland, in the Falklands, in the former Yugoslavia, in Sierra Leone, and of course in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it is right that as we honour those who fought in the world wars, we also honour the men and women who are prepared to answer the call, to obey orders, to leave their families, to risk their lives and even to give their lives for the sake of others, especially others in far off places. And as we honour them, we also honour their families.

At the heart of the Christian faith is a story. I'm told that a former Archbishop, Michael Ramsey was chairing a meeting at which people were discussing the question, 'What is the gospel?' And there were a number of speakers. One of them was talking about the need for social action; another was talking about the need for moral teaching and behaviour; another was talking about the need for evangelistic campaigns. Michael Ramsey got increasingly agitated, and finally interrupted: "The gospel is this: 'that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter and then to the Twelve'. That is the gospel. All the rest is interpretation."

At the heart of the Christian faith is a story - it happens to be a true story: it was predicted in the Old Testament, and witnessed by the first Christians - of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the story of a man who chose to give his life, not for honour, wealth, family or friends, not even for a principle that he believed in. He gave his life for others - for those who were close to him and for those who were far off, for those who loved him and even for those who hated him and who crucified him. He gave his life so that others, and that includes you and me, could begin to live: could begin to find true forgiveness, acceptance, identity, peace, purpose and hope. Jesus Christ gave his life to smash down the fortresses that we build around our ego's, the steel shell that we cocoon around ourselves. He is the invading army; he is the industrial tin opener. To those who allow him in, to those who receive him, he opens us up, so that we can be open to God and open to others, even others who are far away.

But the story does not end there. It is a story about a person who gives his life for others, but it is also a story about resurrection and hope. And because Jesus rose from the dead - and he was seen by Peter, by the twelve and then by many others (it is significant that Paul writes, 'most of whom are still living'. Why? Because he is saying to his readers, 'you can go and ask them'.) - we know that death has not won. Evil has not won. Love has won - and will win. Life has won - and will win. And a life that is given for the sake of another person is never ever pointless.

It is this story which is at the centre of our Christian faith. It is also the story that has been at the centre of our nation's life for so many centuries, probably since the time of St Edmund. It is, I believe, this story which gave to so many in this nation such resilience and courage in the very darkest days of the world wars. It is this story which tells us that when we have our backs to the wall, when we are crushed and overwhelmed, when it seems that there is total failure, when we are broken and in darkness - there is still hope. It is this story which can break down into the pit of the despair of a grieving partner or child or parent or comrade and bring to them a glimpse of light. It is this story which has brought hope, and brings hope, to so many people at a time when they feel crushed and broken and forsaken. It is this story which gives meaning and peace to confused lives lived in a confused world.

And it is this story, of the death and resurrection of Jesus, which has also inspired men and women to live for others, to give their lives - not for a religion or ideology, not for revenge, or family or personal honour, not for self-interest, not even for the idea of a country or nation - but out of love for others, even others who are far away.

People say that in these days when religious fanatics commit acts of terrorism we need less religion. That really is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We may need less of some of what has gone on in the name of Christianity, but we need Jesus Christ, the crucified but risen one. It is both tragic and desperate that the one person who can give us hope and life, who can inspire us to love and open us to others, who can give us peace and assurance - has become the most cursed person on earth. There is probably no other name on earth that is more abused than the name of Jesus.

And as we let go of the story that has been at the heart of our nation's life, in our schools, in our homes and in our national and local institutions, we let go of the story that can lead us to the one who can unite us, who can hold our families together, who can give us vision, who can give us peace, who can give us hope and who can open us up to love.

It is good and right to remember with great gratitude and pride those men and women who served in two world wars and more recent conflicts. It is good and right to remember their story. But it is also necessary to remember the story of a man who, 2000 years ago, gave his life for others, was crucified but rose from the dead. Because it is the person who that story points to who alone can give ultimate significance to our own sacrifices, and who can give meaning and peace and hope to our world and to our lives.

Tuesday, 31 October 2006

A vision for St Peter's

Matthew 5:13-16

What is our vision for St Peter's?

A few weeks ago, St Peter's committee went away for a day to think through the direction for St Peter's: what are we about? What would we like to see happen? How would we like to grow?

Afterwards I spent some time working through what was said, and came up with the following summary statement:

A community of Jesus Christ, submitted to His word and serving His world.

I'd like to look at that, in the light of those verses that we had read from Matthew 5

1. A community of Jesus Christ

There was a common consensus that we wish to be one community. We do not wish to have one service that is more traditional, and another that is more modern. Our aim is that, when we meet together, we will be a single community that seeks to embrace people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds.

But we can only be that if we are centred on the one who can break down all barriers. We can only be that if we are centred on Jesus Christ and if we are a community of Jesus Christ.

In our passage, Jesus tells his followers that we are the salt of the earth.

Today, in these days of paranoia about health, salt is very definitely out, but in Jesus' day when there were no fridges or freezers, salt preserved food and added some seriously needed flavour. We hear many talks on this passage saying that as Christians we are called to be flavour in the world and that we are to be those who 'preserve' that which is good. I'm sure that is right. But it not what Jesus is emphasising here.

Here he emphasises the danger of losing our saltiness, and the uselessness of salt that has lost its saltiness. Technically of course salt cannot lose its saltiness: but it can become diluted and useless. And the warning here is that we must not lose our heart, our centre.

Jesus Christ is in the centre. We do not follow Jesus because he was a great moral teacher, or because he was a noble example, or because he did great and wonderful things. We follow Jesus because of who he is: he is the Son of God.

And we cannot let go of the cross of Jesus. Without the cross there can be no true community. We do not have the freedom to be honest with ourselves or others; we do not have the assurance of sins forgiven, or of God's love. Without the cross we have no comfort in suffering. Without the cross we do not have a model of how we can die to self in order to come alive to others.
And we cannot let go of the resurrection of Jesus. Without the resurrection we have no shared final destiny. There is no hope, no life after death. Without the resurrection, death triumphs over life; evil is victorious over love.

And we cannot let go of the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit

It is the Holy Spirit who creates this community of Jesus Christ. He unites us by showing that we have a shared need, a shared identity, a shared purpose, and a shared destiny.

It is the Holy Spirit who speaks to my inner person, who convicts me of sin, who shows me my need for God.
It is the Holy Spirit who speaks to my inner person and assures me of forgiveness, of God's acceptance, of my identity as a child of God within the family of God, and who reassures me of my destiny in heaven
It is the Holy Spirit who gives us different gifts, for the building up of the body of Christ

The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to draw this individual, that individual into the family of the Father and the Son. It is to make us one family, one body.

We are a community of Jesus Christ

2. We are a community of Jesus Christ, submitted to His word

You will notice that I have strengthened the statement that I wrote in the letter. There I wrote, that we would be 'open to His word and open to His world'. The slight danger of saying that is that it could imply that both are equal - that our authority is what the bible is saying and what the world is saying. But that is not the case: As the community of Jesus Christ, we submit ourselves to His word.

I'm not going to say much on this. When we were on the day away, we took this for granted. The bible, as understood by the whole people of God, past and present, is our final authority. This is what points us to Jesus, what shows us him; this is our guide and our light. It is the ground for our preaching and teaching and learning and living.

3. We are a community of Jesus Christ, submitted to His word and serving His world

Verses 14-16 use a different illustration: light

It is very different.
If the first is a warning, this is more about the nature of being a Christian

If the heart is right, then we will be light.
You can't hide a city
You can't hide a light

And when Jesus Christ is in the centre of a community, then we will be light - unless we choose to extinguish the light. The command that Jesus gives is, "Let your light shine". In other words, 'It is already there. Don't try and hide it. Don't be scared'.

And we are called to be light not by blowing our own trumpet, not by saying that we are better than other people but by simply doing the things that Jesus did: doing the things that come naturally to the man or woman of God: living as Jesus, being a minister of God in his world, serving His world.

That is why a community that is centred on Jesus Christ will be

1. A welcoming community: open to new people. Of course every church says that it is a welcoming community. You are not going to get a church that says, "We're a very unwelcoming church". But the key is not the welcoming on a Sunday morning, even if that is important. The key is how the welcome of our words on a Sunday morning is backed up by the welcome of our lives during the week. If we are centred on Jesus Christ then we will be learning not simply to open our church, but to open our homes and open our lives to others.

2. Hospitable community: the central service of the Christian church is the communion service. God invites us to eat with him at his table. Again, a church that is centred on Jesus will live that during the week. We will show hospitality as a community (we're looking to reinvigorate the sort of social events that we put on - as a bridge to bring people into contact with the church); and we will show hospitality as individuals. And Jesus challenges us in our hospitality. 'Don't simply invite those people who you would normally invite. Reach out, beyond them'

3. A community that demonstrates practical service: Christians will see that the work that they are doing in the world can in fact be, should in fact be, service of Christ. If you cannot see what you are doing in the world as service of Christ, then you should talk with one of the staff, and if you still cannot see it as service of Christ then you should probably be thinking of moving. And as a community we can serve our community: whether through the Hyndman Centre facilities, through running a toddler group or 'lunch and chat', or youth and children's activities. Again this should naturally flow out of our life in Christ. That is why one of our 5 aims as a parish is to 'equip' people to serve. We do not need to motivate people to serve. It is Jesus who does that.

4. A witnessing community: Again, witness that comes out of our life in Christ will be so natural and unforced. The problem is we really do need to hear Jesus' command to 'let our light shine' in this area, because we can be so fearful, especially in today's climate. That is why we are hoping to set up Introducing Jesus courses and next April, A Christianity Explored course

But notice how here, in verse 16, witness flows from our action. And it is echoed in 1 Peter 2:12: "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they may accuse you you of doing wrong (of being intolerant), they may see your good works and glorify God on the day he visits us"

Someone once wrote: "Do all the good you can, to all the people you can, whenever you can, in the name of Jesus".

I have great hope for St Peter's

Yes, I know that our services are not always absolutely right. I know that the data projector goes wonky occasionally, that the music may not be what you want, that the services can be chaotic, that the 'show' is not as professional as it should be, that our preaching at times is uninspiring or irrelevant or dull. But it is not actually what it is all about. What it is about is our meeting together as a community of Christ, coming to worship the Father, to receive from Him, to learn from Him, to grow in faith, to encourage one another and challenge one another, and to then live that community during the week in our neighbourhood.

We have tremendous resources.

We have tremendous people: such experience and maturity and gifting and openness. Yes, we are aware that we need to grow younger leadership, that we need to focus particularly on younger families and single people - simply because we are missing them at the moment - and we need to be aware that that means that there will be noisy and misbehaved children in church. But I think that the reordering (when it happens) will help enormously.

But more than the resources, more than you: we have a great God who has called us to be members of the community of his Son, who will equip us, who will guard us and grow us, and who will keep us as salt and shine through us with his light.

So would you pray with me that we would be "A community of Jesus Christ, submitted to his word and serving His world".

Friday, 13 October 2006

Using our gifts

MATTHEW 25:14-30

We're looking at the three parables in Matthew 25

Last week: parable of the 10 bridesmaids: 5 were wise and 5 were foolish. We need to be vigilant: as the people of God we are called to watch.

Today, we are looking at the parable of the talents. It is quite well known, but it is worth revisiting.

Three headlines

1. We need to use what we have been given

The talents that we have been given are from God and to be used in God's service

A 'talent' today has become something special. In education speak we talk about 'gifted and talented'.

But it is not how Jesus understands it here. Our talents are all the things that God has given us that can be used for service to others and to him. JC Ryle writes, "Anything whereby we may glorify God is a 'talent'. Our gifts, our influence, our money, our knowledge, our health, our strength, our time, our senses, our reason, our intellect, our memory, our affections, our privileges as members of Christ's Church, our advantages as possessors of the Bible - all, all are talents". (Commentary on Matthew 25:14-30)

And yes, the master gives different talents according to ability. He knows what we can take and bear. But notice there is nobody here with no talents, and there is no limit on how much any talent can be developed and grown.

And the master gave the different talents to the servants to be used. "He entrusted his property to them" (v14). And clearly he expected them to be grown and developed.

A few years ago, there was a lot of talk about stewardship campaigns in churches. At its best, stewardship was about this parable. It was about recognising that everything that I have is gift - gift from God. And it is about recognising that I hold it on trust, and that one day I will be asked to give account of how I have used it. If the world asks, "What does a person have?", Christ asks, "How does a person use what they have?" We will be accountable for what we have, not for what we do not have.

2. One day our excuses will be stripped away.

The servant who has been given one talent and who has not done anything with it, excuses himself by saying that he was afraid of the master (v24-25). He seems to be saying: "The master has so much. Whatever he does flourishes. So whatever I do will be so pitiful in contrast. I'll be shamed. Therefore I will do nothing."

It is an argument that, I suspect, many of use with God. We say: "Look at my pitiful talent. I can do so little". And we look at the great needs, and we look at others who we think seem so talented, and we say, "I'll leave it to them. They're much better at it. And God is big enough to look after his world, and he doesn't need me. He doesn't need my prayer, my giving, my service."

But notice the answer of the master. He says, in verses 26 and 27: "You know whatever I put my hand to, whatever I give, I desire to see it grow and flourish. And that is true of the talent that I gave you. And yet you did nothing."

"You think that your excuse is fear, is inadequacy. But that is not the reason you did nothing. The reason you did nothing was laziness and wickedness.

Laziness: you just couldn't be bothered. You stayed in your comfort zone. You weren't prepared to take any risks. (Notice that we are talking here about a significant period of time: the master was gone for 'a long time')
Wickedness: you had the gift I gave you, and you chose to do nothing with them. You chose to live for yourself and not to live for me. You could not care less about my things, and it really was a question of 'out of sight, out of mind'.

So many of us are like that servant with the one talent. We use the excuse of inadequacy. 'I couldn't possibly play an instrument in church, join the choir, set up a women and girls choir, lead the prayers, go on the tea/coffee rota, join the church cleaners, flower arrangers or pew shifters. I couldn't possibly think of church commitment or leadership.' But it is not just about using our gifts within the church community. We might say, 'I don't read the bible because I don't understand it. I don't talk with others about God because I don't know the answers. I'm not going to offer for service because others can do it so much better. I'm not going to think this issue through, because I am no good at thinking. I'm not going to bother about how I invest my money because it is too big for me.
Remember Moses. God calls him to use his many talents to do a terrifying job. Moses comes up with all sorts of excuses: 'How do I know it is you speaking? How will I know that you will go with me? The people will never listen to me". And God answers him very graciously and patiently. It is only when Moses says, "God, I'm no good. Send someone else", that God gets very angry. We're told, "His anger burned against Moses".
Basically when we claim inadequacy we are saying to God: "Let me live my life my way. Don't bother me. The last thing I'm going to do is to take a risk, to step out of line for you".

I don't know what your talents are. But I do know this. Whatever God has given us, he has given us to be used - and to be used in his service. And yes we can choose to pretend that all that matters on this planet is me and my life here and now - but in the end, we are going to come face to face with reality. And the question will be: "What did you do with all that gift that I gave you? Did you use it just for yourself? Did you bury it? Why have you retreated into your castle and shut your doors? You could have done so much? Why have you horded up so much money? - to give to your children when you die. But they are not going to need it then. But there are people now who do need it, and it can be used for my glory"

And on that day, for all of us, the excuses will be stripped away.

3. There is a great reward

The master says to both the one who has made five and the one who has made two talents: "Well done, good and faithful servant: you have been faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness"

There is a universal truth. Those who are faithful with small things will be entrusted with greater things. And the reward for faithful service is not rest, but further and greater responsibility. Heaven is a place of great peace; it is not a place of inactivity.

And notice that whereas the third servant couldn't care less about his master, or the things of his master, the first two really did care about him. They did want him to think well of them. They did wish to receive his praise - his "well done, good and faithful servant". And for many Christians, I know that really is the motivation that drives them. We may not have been particularly significant or effective or talented, but we have tried to be faithful to God with what he has given us.

And one last thing: The master says to them, "Come and Share your master's happiness".

Our God delights when we use our gifts and talents in his service. And he does not just say 'Well done'. He shares his joy with us. In the film chariots of fire, Eric Liddell is talking about his running. He says - with great joy - "God made me to run, and he made me to run fast"
And so the master praises his servants; he rewards them and he shares his very heart with them: so that they delight when he delights.

So what about it? You may be a 5 talented person; a 2 talented person or a 1 talented person. It really doesn't matter. What matters is how you are going to use what God has given you.

Monday, 24 July 2006

A wedding sermon

Saturday 15th July 2006



This service is such a joy

And thank you for the readings that you have chosen

A new family, a new 'house' is being established today.

People try to build marriages, 'houses' on many foundations

  • Shared feelings

  • Shared interests

  • Shared dreams

And all of that is so important

But Psalm 127.1 says, "Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labour in vain"

Psalms 127 and 128 are Psalms of Ascent. As people journeyed up to Jerusalem, to the temple, to meet with God, they would sing these songs.
And both these songs are declaring that if we wish to see the house established, the city protected, the work completed - then we must put God in the centre.

  • Feelings change and hopefully mature: for instance, we cannot constantly remain in a state of 'being in love'. You would never eat and nothing would ever get done.

  • Interests can unite us. They can also pull us apart

  • Dreams can be fulfilled and we need to move on to something else, or they don't turn out as we expect, or they remain unfulfilled and we struggle with frustration.

No. The one who will establish your home, who will make your 'house' the place that it should be is the God who loves you and has called you together.

That is why we are here in church. We are here to ask God to be the foundation of your marriage.

It is why we need to learn the fear of the Lord and learn to walk in his way (Ps 128:1)

We need to learn to receive his love.

His love is the ultimate committed love. He will stand by you through thick and thin. He will not give up on you - even if we ignore him, reject him, walk out on him - he will continue to be there for us: calling us, pleading with us, demanding that we come back to him
And because he is committed to us, we can learn that commitment love. Because today you are committing yourself to each other: in sickness and in health, in wealth and poverty, in good and bad. And the model for that love is God's love for us.

His love is the ultimate intimate love. He longs for us to know him, to be intimate with him, to be in communion with him. And his love is constantly shown to us in so many ways.
     And it is his intimate love that is the model for our intimacy. It is important to spend time with each other. It is important to keep the romance alive. It is important to say 'I love you' in repeated and different ways.

His love is the ultimate giving love. He gave us Himself in His Son. 'For God so loved the world that he gave his son'. And God gives us Jesus in order for us to discover life, to discover him, to grow to become the people he meant us to be.
And because he gives to us, we are set free to give to each other. People say that marriage is about give and take. I don't agree. Marriage is about give and give and give and give; and when you've given everything that there is to give, you give again. And we give ourselves in order that the other - might become the person that God meant them to be.

A couple who were celebrating their 80th wedding anniversary were asked: "What is the secret of your success?" The husband answered, "Two words". "What are they?" asked the interviewer. He replied: 'Yes, dear'.
But actually that is more true than we might think. Marriages are built and grow and flourish when both partners learn to say 'Yes, dear'.

And fearing the Lord is about turning to him for strength

  • Strength to persevere when things get hard

  • Strength to forgive: because we need to be forgiven and we need to forgive.

  • Strength to say sorry. Ogden Nash said, "To keep your marriage brimming, with love in your marriage cup, whenever you're wrong, admit it; whenever you're right, shut up!"

  • Strength to submit to one another. Paul in Ephesians writes: Husbands love your wives: most of us can be so self-centred, going off into our own worlds doing our things, shutting our wives out, and at times we can be harsh - no. Submit. Love your wife. And to wives he writes, 'Submit to your husbands'. Don't give in to the temptation to try and control your husbands: Yes, I know we need managing, improving and sorting out - but we are not to manipulate them or run their lives for them. We need to submit to each other.

  • Strength to let go: of our cherished hopes and ambitions; of - when the time comes - of our children when they grow up; of the other: we've already spoken about that in our service: 'Till death us do part'.

And if we wish the Lord to build the house, then we need to fear the Lord and walk in his ways:
  • Obey his commands: love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with your God.

  • Spend time with his word and with his people - spending time with Him.

Adrian and Ruth: no one here knows what God's purpose is for you

Psalm 127 talks of quivers full of sons, and Psalm 128 of many and good children, of prosperity and fruitfulness,  effectiveness and fulfilment
V2: 'You shall eat of the fruit of the labour of your hands: you shall be happy, and it shall go well with you'.

I think that this has to be read, for us as children of the new covenant, in the light of Jesus. He of course was single, had no children and was crucified at the age of 33.
But through his life and his death on the cross, God has given him millions upon millions of children, of brothers and sisters. His death has brought life. And God raised him from the dead, and he will eat of the fruit of his labour, and we will share in that heavenly banquet.

So I do not know whether you will end up with a quiverful of children. And I do not know where God will take you or lead you. You're starting on a great adventure.

What I do know is this: if you allow God to build your house, your marriage, there will of course be times of frustration and pain and weeping - but there will also be times of great joy and fruitfulness.

Our prayer is that your house and your marriage will be a place of love, of giving, of forgiveness, of laughter, of building each other up, of service and of blessing to yourselves and to many. Our prayer is that as you build on him, as you put him in the centre, your house and your marriage will be established.

May God bless you.

Sunday, 18 June 2006

Political correctness

ACTS 10:23b-48

"I now realise how true it is that God does not show favouritism but accepts men (and women) from every nation .."

It was an astonishing statement for Peter to make. All his life he had assumed that there was an unbridgeable chasm between Jew and Gentile (non Jew). All his life he had assumed that Gentiles could be touched by God, but could never be part of the people of God. All his life he had assumed that he could be contaminated by Gentiles, that he should not really associate with Gentiles and certainly not eat with Gentiles.

And now he had had a vision, which was then vindicated by the visit of the messengers from this Gentile, a man called Cornelius.

We must not underestimate the significance of the events of Acts 10. The church of God was put on a completely new direction. Up to this point, the first Christian missionaries - who were Jews - only preached to Jews. Now they preached to everyone. The gospel goes global; the gospel goes international.

The debate sounds slightly strange to our ears - but that is because we are children of this passage. We've been brought up in a 'politically correct' world. We've been brought up knowing that "In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, male nor female" (Galatians 3:28)

But it is still taking us an awfully long time to work out the implications of Peter's statement: all human beings are of equal value to God and all human beings have an equal need for God. When it comes to the thing that really matters - our relationship with God - we are all the same.

And Western civil society today has taken on board this assumption - but it has done it in a strange way. It has accepted the Christian teaching that everyone is of equal value, but it has rejected God. And as a result society tells us to treat everyone equally, but it does not tell us why we should do so - or how we should do so.
And as a result we end up with political correctness.

It is not that the things that political correctness say are necessarily wrong, although it can confuse who a person is (that which is given) with what a person does (a chosen lifestyle). What we find difficult is the way that everything is turned into a code or a policy. Political correctness assumes that we will treat everyone equally simply because we are told to do so.

The problem is that political correctness does not take into account
1. The reason that we are equal
2. The fact that we are messed up - prejudice is deep within us
Ortberg writes, "Our fallenness makes us want to be a part of not just any group, but an exclusive group. By definition, every society includes people who connect, who belong to one another. Yet in every society there are people who are left out, who don't get chosen, whose invitations to dance get turned down, who get ignored and cold-shouldered and voted off the island. We exclude others because of pride or fear or ignorance or the desire to feel superior".
That was true for Peter. It took an awful lot for him to overcome his prejudice.

  • Divine vision – repeated three times

  • Coming of the Holy Spirit in a very tangible way

It is significant that Peter did not get begin to understand that he had to treat everyone equally because someone told him to do so. He got to that point because he met with the God who treats all people as equal.

And he had to continue to learn that lesson. Paul in Galatians writes how he has to rebuke Peter because Peter was refusing to eat with Gentiles (15 years or so after the experience in Acts 10)

Political correctness is basically morality turned into a policy. It tells us to treat everyone as equal.
The Christian faith is different. The Christian faith gives us a reason why we should treat everyone as equal, and begins to enable us to do so.

The problem with political correctness is that it does not leave room for mess ups or mistakes. It is hard and unforgiving. It assumes that everyone should be decent, and all we need to do is to be told to be kind and compassionate and inclusive, and punished if we are not.

Many Christians are political correctness people: we think that morality, goodness can be taught and legislated for. We complain that the problem with society is that they don't teach Christianity in the schools - they don't teach people to show respect.

That is what religion is all about: telling people to be good.

But Peter comes with a message that is very different
Peter does not tell Cornelius to be good.

The message he brings is a message of peace (v37)
It is this message that brings peace between people and God, peace between people and people and peace to the individual person.

It is a peace that is based on the person of Jesus

Notice how Peter focuses in on Jesus

  1. He talks of Jesus, Lord of all (v36): Lord of Jew and Gentile. Lord of African and American and Asian and European. Lord of man and Lord of woman. Lord of old and Lord of young. What is it that unites us? There is one Lord, one final authority

  2. He talks of Jesus not as the one who went around teaching morality, but as the one anointed by God to show mercy: he does good, he heals and he releases (vv37-38)

  3. He talks of Jesus who was killed but who was raised from the dead (v40). It is interesting that he points out that the risen Jesus was not seen by everyone, but by specific witnesses. In other words, we are no different from Cornelius. He had to trust that Peter was speaking the truth about the resurrection, and we have to trust that Peter is speaking the truth about the resurrection.

  4. He talks of Jesus, the judge of all (v42): living and dead

And notice that the emphasis is not on the judgement, but on the fact that it is this Jesus who is to be the judge. Our final judge is not the government, the law, not the church or our family, not even ourselves and our conscience. The one before whom each one of us will stand is this Jesus.

That's the bit that the moralist part of us likes: we can point the finger at another person and say, "You're prejudiced - you will be judged". And then we realise that four fingers are pointing back at us.

And the key, the climax of Peter's sermon: "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name".

This Jesus offers forgiveness to all.

Forgiveness is the ultimate leveller. It is the glue that holds the people of God together. What is it that unites you and me? What is it that unites us here with a congregation worshipping in China? It is very simple. We are all messed up, and we have all turned to Jesus because we know we need to be forgiven.

It is as Peter talks of forgiveness that the Spirit comes

Maybe, as Cornelius heard the message of sins forgiven – he knew that this was the element that had been missing. He had lived a devout and good life, but deep down he knew that he did not come up to scratch
Or maybe God simply came. It was His way of showing that Cornelius had received forgiveness and was a child of God. Even before the sermon is finished the Holy Spirit is at work. They speak in tongues – which is what happened to the disciples on the first day of Pentecost. They praise God.

My deep desire is that as a church we will preach Jesus.
We will preach Jesus the one who is Lord of all, who shows mercy, who is alive, who is judge and who offers forgiveness.

I am not in the business of teaching morality. If you want a church which tells people to be good, then this is not the place for you. Yes, we preach that there is a judgement (most of us know that we are messed up), but we preach that HE is the judge and that HE offers forgiveness. All we need to do is to receive.

I'd like to finish with a story which Gordon MacDonald tells. ("The Centerpiece of the Gospel, "Preaching Today", Tape No. 137.)
"In the late 1800s, Charles Berry, an English preacher, became the pastor of the great Plymouth Church in Brooklyn. One day Berry described how earlier he had come to Jesus Christ.
There had been a time in Berry's early ministry when he preached a very thin gospel--really no gospel at all. As did the Corinthians, he looked upon Jesus as merely a noble teacher but not as a divine redeemer.
Late one night during his first pastorate, as he sat in his cozy study, there came a knock. He opened the door and found a typical Lancashire girl with a shawl over her head and clogs on her feet.
"Are you a minister?" she asked. Getting an affirmative answer, she went on breathlessly. "You must come with me quickly. I want you to get my mother in."
Thinking it was a case of some drunken mother out in the streets, Berry said, "You must go and get a policeman."
"No," said the girl, "My mother is dying, and you must come and get her into heaven."
Berry got dressed and followed her for a mile and a half through lonely streets in the night. He knelt at the woman's side, and he began telling her how good and kind Jesus was and how he'd come to show us how to live.
Then the desperate woman cut him off. "Mister," she cried, "that's no use for the likes of me. I'm a sinner. I've lived my life. Can't you tell me of someone who can have mercy upon me and save my poor soul?"
"I stood there in the presence of a dying woman," said Berry, "and I realized I had nothing to tell her. In the midst of sin and death, I had no message. In order to bring something to that dying woman, I leaped back to my mother's knee, to my cradle faith, and I told her the story of the Cross and of a Christ who is able to save to the uttermost." The tears began to run down the woman's cheeks.
"Now you're getting it," she said. "Now you're helping me."
Berry concluded the story by saying, "I got her in, and blessed be God, I got in myself."

Friday, 16 June 2006

On the occasion of the Queen's 80th birthday

Matthew 22:16-22

It is good to give thanks for our Queen

We give thanks for her role as a figurehead for our nation.
Throughout her reign of 54 years we have, as a nation, known relative stability and prosperity. And some of that sense of well-being is due to the fact that God has granted her a long reign and a long life. Throughout my life, and throughout the life of many people, we have only known one monarch. And psychologically, if nothing else, the fact that she is - is, in a very changing world, one of the constants of life.
We give thanks for her role as head of the commonwealth: it is widely recognised that the reason the commonwealth has been such an effective organisation is because of the work of the Queen
We give thanks for her as a person.
For her wisdom: perhaps we will never know the significance of her weekly meetings with successive prime ministers: but there are very few things that she hasn't seen and she hasn't done
For her sense of duty: She has shown total dedication to the work and role. She has never abandoned a responsibility. For instance, while there is so much tittle tattle about her in the media, she has kept her counsels to herself. She is the sort of person exemplified in the book of Proverbs
For her courage, especially in the face of trials.
She may be Queen, but she is also a person, a wife, a mother and a grandmother. And she has been through trials that so many people identify with: the break up of her children's marriages, the death of parents and sister and former daughter in law.  The difference is that for her, it has all been done in the public eye.
For her with-it-ness: many 80 year olds are fully with-it. But I also have to say that some are thinking of putting their feet up and saying, "Let life get on. But we'll take the slow route - we'll look back, rather than forward". She has - up to now - not chosen that option.
We particularly, as the Christian community, give thanks for her faith. She is 'supreme governor' of the Church of England, and it is a role that she takes with the greatest seriousness. She is someone who professes a living faith in Christ, and that faith is reflected in her life

It is good to be here to give thanks for our Queen

But it is also good to be reminded in our reading that there is a higher authority.

The religious leaders come to Jesus. They say, "Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are .."

Then comes the sting: "Tell us, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar?"

It was the burning topic of the day. It was taken for granted that Israel should be a theocracy: that is - ruled by God. In other words, the hopes and dreams of 1st century Jews was that Israel should have rulers who acknowledged the authority of the Old Testament, of the religious teachers and of the priests, and that there laws should be religious laws.
In their eyes, it was not right that Israel should be under occupation. It was not right that Israel should ruled by pagans. It was not right that people had to pay taxes to Caesar.
So if Jesus said, "Yes it is right to pay taxes to Caesar", they had him: they would accuse him of selling out Israel - of being a Roman sympathiser.
But if Jesus said, "No, we should not pay taxes to Caesar", they had him. They could tell the Roman authorities, and Jesus would be arrested for inciting insurrection.

It is the same as if the war had been lost, and the Nazi's had occupied Britain. And someone asked a religious leader: "Is it right to pay taxes to the Nazi's?" If they said Yes, they could be accused of being a collaborator. If they said No, they would be arrested by the authorities.

Jesus answer is astonishing. It is not just clever - a verbal get out. He maintains his integrity, he teaches the way of God, and he is not swayed by who people are and what they think. But what he says is astonishingly radical.

When he says, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and give to God the things that are God's", he is actually separating the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of God. He is saying that they are two distinct things.

There is the Kingdom of this world: ruled by monarchs, presidents, elected officials, oligarchies and business leaders. The currency is money, status, and the sword. We toe the line because in the end it is in our interest to do so.  But this kingdom is temporary (we talk about temporal powers) and very very provisional.

And there is the Kingdom of God: ruled by Jesus Christ. The currency of this kingdom is love. We are obedient to God because he loves us and forgives us, because of what he has given us, because this King died for us. And we owe him our ultimate allegiance because this Kingdom is ultimate and eternal. It is to this king that every one of us will have to give account.

And it seems that in his answer, Jesus is doing two things

1. He seems to be implying that, in the end, it does not matter who is governing you. Yes, as Christians we are called to pray for rulers so that we might live Godly and quiet lives. Yes, of course, we long to see good and fair and just government. But in the end, as far as the Kingdom of God is concerned, it does not ultimately matter who rules us politically: whether a tyrant or an occupying force or a democratically elected government. Indeed it is significant that the Kingdom of God has often been seen to grow far quicker and with more power in places where there is oppressive government.

2. Jesus is changing the place where the Kingdom of God is worked out. It is not to be worked out in the nation or state; it is not to be brought in by power politics or by laws or by the sword. It is instead to be worked out in every human heart.

Each of us has to decide what belongs to Caesar and what (if anything) belongs to God.

Each one of us has to decide where our ultimate allegiance lies

So let me finish with four examples

1. In the film, Chariots of Fire. Harry Liddell is refusing to run on a Sunday. He is summoned to attend a committee of Olympic officials headed up by the King's brother. Liddell states, "Whatever the consequence, I have to put my God before my King. I will not run". Lord whoever-it-is responds with the glorious statement, "Huh, In my day, it used to be King before God".

2. The second example is Tony Blair, who got in enormous trouble a few months ago, for stating that the final judge of his actions would be God. It is a simple Christian truth.

3. St George. He was a senior officer in the army of the emperor Diocletian. In 303 Diocletian unleashed a furious persecution against Christians. George, although he was under an oath of obedience to the emperor, resigned his commission and went to the emperor and said, "What you are doing is wrong". That is why he was martyred. He put God before king.

And the final example: the final example is our Queen herself. Many of her Christmas speeches draw attention to her own personal faith. But I would like to quote from two.

In 2000 she said, "To many of us our beliefs are of fundamental importance. For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life."

And in 2002, she said: "I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God."

Sunday, 4 June 2006

The Holy Spirit

JOHN 16:5-15

Good to be together

You are a gathering of astonishing people with a remarkable range of gifts and passions.

And in many ways, this is when we are most church. It is good that we have services that are of different styles, and they can be most effective when we are reaching out to new people, but there is also a danger that we create me-centred religion: I choose the service that most suits me, that I feel most at ease in - and I am uncomfortable if things are different or if people worship in a different way.

But it is gatherings like this that remind us that the church of God is bigger than our own congregation, that we need each other, that we are actually part of one body, we are members one of another.

So it is not insignificant that it was while the first followers of Jesus "were all together in one place" (Acts 2:1), that the Holy Spirit came.

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. He comes from the Father and yet has always been with the Father and with the Son. The Holy Spirit can be described as the divine go-between: the one who brings Jesus to us, and the one who takes us to Jesus.

When the Holy Spirit comes, two things happen

1. There is external transformation: that is what we often focus on. People become believers, society is transformed, churches grow. In the Welsh revival, at the end of the 19th century, the police spent most of their time in choir rehearsal preparing for the next gathering because the crime rate dropped to virtually zero.

And when revival comes those places where people try to find themselves, or lose themselves, in drink or drugs will become places where community is discovered and built, where people can meet and be real and support and encourage and listen to and grow each other. And when revival comes, people will serve sacrificially, they will work at relationships (whether with parents or colleagues or children or husbands and wives), and they will show gentleness and mercy, and they will offer forgiveness, and they will keep their word, and they will open their homes and their lives to each other - even when it gets difficult - because they choose to do so out of love for and obedience to God.

In the past much of Christian morality was required by law. It is the Old Testament model. And so couples stayed together because they were told to, because the consequences of adultery or divorce were severe. People did not engage in homosexual activity because they could be imprisoned. People even had to go to church or else they could face fines or other penalties. I would not wish to go back to those days: where morality is required by law. I also do not think that it is the way of Jesus or of the New Testament. I would that we come to church, that we honour marriage and work through difficulties, that we live sexually chaste lives outside of marriage - because we choose to do so out of obedience to Christ.

But for that to happen, we need the second thing that happens when the Holy Spirit comes.

2.He brings internal transformation

And that is what our passage in John talks about:
The HS "will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgement" (v8).  

The HS will show us where we have not believed in Jesus (v9)
We may say 'yes' to religion, to the 'trimmings' of Christianity, even to the label of Christianity - but in reality we say 'no' to Jesus

Jesus offers us life and love.

And yet, I forget Jesus when things are going well. The Psalmist writes, "When I felt secure, I said, 'I shall never be shaken'. (Ps 30:6). I am like the young man who is one of the computer whizzkids in one of the James Bond films. He cracks the code of the nuclear missile: and he stands up and declares, "I am invincible".
And when things are going OK we think that we don't need Jesus

And perhaps we need things to go pearshaped to remind us that are human, we need Jesus.

The Holy Spirit, when he comes, will show us - day by day - the different areas in our lives where we are saying 'no' to Jesus - where we do not seek Jesus or obey Jesus or trust Jesus: and that is true for our business, our family, our attitudes to others, how we handle our sexuality and sex life, our language, our possessions, our compulsions, obsessions and temptations.

And the HS will show us what righteousness is (v10).
When Jesus was on earth, people saw what righteousness was. They saw it in the person of Jesus: the Son of God who left the glory of heaven and came to earth and who went to the cross out of love for us. The smart word for it is incarnation: God becoming a human being.

Righteousness is when someone strips off the dinner jacket and puts on the boiler suit. It is when someone rolls up their sleeves and plunges their hand down into the filthy sewer in order to clean it: no, more than that, it is when they jump into it themselves.

Today we can't see the Son of God with rolled up sleeves - but the Spirit brings righteousness to us. He writes the law of God on our hearts: so that we begin to love self-sacrificially: to so identify ourselves with others that we weep when they weep, and rejoice when they rejoice.

And the HS shows us that the prince of this world stands condemned (v11)
The prince of this world offers us this world. Chantelle, one of the participants in the last celebrity Big Brother, said that as she turned up, people started to chant her name. And she said, "I felt like I'd come home. It was what I had always dreamed of. It felt right".
Celebrity is a heady drug. It is, along with power and wealth and the satisfaction of our desires, it is one of the prizes on the conveyor belt of the prince of this world. He does offer us heaven on earth

But he only offers it to us, so that he can use it to destroy us.

When the Holy Spirit comes, he shows us that the prince of this world stands condemned.
It is the cross of Jesus - which is the opposite of what the prince of this world offers - that is ultimate.
The cross shows us the values that really matter: love, self-sacrifice, obedience, generosity, mercy, holiness, forgiveness
The cross shows us the power that really matters: Jesus overcomes everything that the prince of this world offers him or throws at him: flattery, the will to power, the will to possession, the will to save oneself from pain or death.

If I start thinking that I am successful, that I have made it, that I am someone; if I start getting puffed up, I look to the cross. The cross is the measure of success.

The Spirit shows us that the prince of this world stands condemned.

So there is no point living for him, or believing his lies.
We can hold on to a world that is so much bigger than this visible world.
That is why obedience and abstinence and giving are such essential Christian disciplines in our world - they are a radical renunciation of the things that the prince of this world offers.
That is why, 1700 years ago, at a time when the church was starting to grow sleek and fat, under Constantine and later, many made the journey into the desert - renouncing the honours and the power and the wealth that was offered to them.
And yes, obedience and abstinence and giving are costly. They might mean that we can't afford that holiday or the new kitchen or car or garden shed; it might mean that we are celibate all our lives; it might mean that we work at a difficult marriage in order to bring love into it.

But the Spirit who comes to us and shows us sin, righteousness and judgement, also brings us the words of Jesus, the comfort of Jesus, the joy of Jesus and reveals the glory of Jesus to us and in us.

And we see through the cross to the resurrection, to that new world, that other world, the world that really matters: the world that - in Jesus - we can begin to glimpse and feel and taste now - that is here but is so much more than here.

I pray for the external transformation that the Spirit will bring to our society and to our world.

But for that to happen, we need to pray for the internal transformation, as we invite the Holy Spirit to come and work in our lives.

We invite him to come like wind: to blow through our lives. We invite him to come like water: to wash us and drown us in his life and love. We invite him to come like fire: to burn up all that is not pure, all that is rubbish in us - and to leave behind the gold.

On Wednesday I was at a meeting of pastors to pray for revival here in Bury St Edmunds. Jonathan Ford was speaking. And he reminded us of that part in The Magicians Nephew (CS Lewis) where Aslan - having created the animals - calls out their names. And those that heard his call and responded, came forward with great fear, and meekly allowed him to touch their nose with his. And in so doing, they received the greater gift: the gift of being speaking animals.

The Spirit is here. If we allow Him, He would take us to Jesus the Son of God. I don't think we will rub noses! But Jesus offers us love and life; he offers us intimacy with God, his Father and our Father. It is an intimacy that will transform our lives and transform the life of our society.