Sunday, 21 December 2008

Christmas Carol service 2008

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

My favourite story of 2008 is …

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Christmas story is soaked in politics.

Who really reigns?

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

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

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

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

And so they kneel before him.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

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

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

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