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.