Thursday, 24 December 2009

The icon of the nativity: an explanation


I’d like this morning to look at an icon: it is the icon of the nativity. And I’d like to look at it because it seems to capture so much of the Christmas story.

Just a very brief words about icons. They are not meant to be a photograph of the event or person. They are images which are meant to bring out the inner meaning of the event – they show us the event from the perspective of heaven. And they are very stylised, and for those who have not seen this sort of thing before, at first they look very odd to us.

So here it is: the icon of the Nativity – It is 600 years old, and was painted in north Russia, in Novgorod.

1. It tells the story

Far removed from our sentimentalised versions. It is a background wilderness.

Mary is the dominant figure, but she is not the central figure. She has just given birth and is reclining on the cloth.
The central figure is the baby, surrounded by the cattle, and I note that Mary takes her shape from the shape of the child.
The baby is born in a cave. The bible doesn’t tell us exactly where he was born, but simply that he was laid in a manger. Many people kept cattle in caves. Also, in the bible, the cave is often the place where God meets with people.

And so here we have the manger, the animals and the angels, the star, the shepherd, the wise men, the midwives and Joseph.

2. We see layers in this story. And the lower layer tells the story from the human perspective.

The midwives bathe the baby. This really was a human birth. It involved all the human paraphernalia of human birth. People are getting on with everyday living and serving.

Joseph is sat some way out of the centre of the picture. He is hunched up, doubting everything that is happened. Joseph was the first person to doubt the virgin birth. And most commentators say that the figure talking to him is the devil in the disguise of a shepherd. Joseph is thinking through all that has happened, and Mary is looking at him with immense sympathy.

For many of us, this lower tier is where we are at.

Some of us get incredibly busy at Christmas, and if we focus on anything it is the human baby we remember has been born
Or some of us do sit there on the sidelines. We take time to think it through. We wonder what it is all about We wrestle with the issues without ever committing ourselves.

But there is one thing to help us here. Next to the devil, counterbalancing the devil, is the tree. It is put there to remind us of the verse in Isaiah 11:1-2 ‘There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit’. The way to answer the doubt of Satan is to go to the word of God.

3. This upper tier of the icon shows us the story from the divine perspective

The baby is the Son of God. The divine world is often represented by a sphere. The three rays represent the three persons of the Trinity.

And here we have the star, which here is not shown as a natural star, but as a divine light – similar to the light with which Jesus shone when he was transfigured.

The angels on the left know what is happening and they praise God. The angel on the right, who is above the shepherds, holds a towel. It is a symbol of service, but it also is the symbol of the proclaiming of the good news of what God has done. This is the angel in Luke declaring to the shepherds: ‘Fear not, I bring you good news of great joy for all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord’.

4. The middle tier. This is where heaven and earth meet.

They meet in the baby laid in a manger.
And if we look in more detail at the baby, we realise that the cave could be a tomb, the manger could also be a coffin, and the swaddling cloths could also be the grave cloths. He is the one who came to save us by dieing.

Luke picks up on this:
Luke 2:7 ‘She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger’
Luke 23:53 Joseph of Aramathea took the body down from the cross and ‘wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone’.

The ox and the donkey recognise this Jesus. Isaiah 1:3 tell us that ‘The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib’ (in Russia they didn’t have donkeys, and so the donkey has become a horse).

It is a picture of how the coming of the Messiah will transform all of creation

And the shepherds hear the good news and they rejoice. He is blowing his trumpet or flute. The tree beside him is full of fruit. The animals are well fed.

And the wise men – here wearing rather esoteric crowns that look more like traffic lights – come with their gifts: an act of surrender. Kings bowing before the King.
The thing that got to the men and women of the past, and the thing that really we need to rediscover, is the utter utter astonishment that the eternal God, who created all things, who is beyond time and space, chose to become a created being within space and time.

St Romanos, writing about 1500 years ago says:
‘Today the Virgin gives birth
to him who is above all being,
and the earth offers a cave
to him whom on one can approach.
Angels with shepherds give glory,
and magi journey with a star,
for to us there has been born a little child, God before the ages.”

And Augustine writes about 1700 years ago:
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.
He is both great in the nature of God,
and small in the form of a servant.

And so finally to return to this icon, everything rotates around this baby laid in the manger. And there are a number of diagonals here, which take their cue from the position of the baby.

There is a line from the women serving to the wise men giving their gifts, and from the shepherd blowing his trumpet to the angels praising. And there is a counter movement: between Satan speaking to Joseph and the angel proclaiming the Good news.

And so I finish by leaving us again with Joseph, bowed down by doubts. All he needs to do is to choose to turn from Satan, to look up, to look to Mary – who in iconography a symbol for the church, the people of God – to look to the Christ and to hear again what the angel has already told him: that the child laid in the manger 2000 years ago was and is the Son of God.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Unlikely Hero: a baby


Today we look at an unlikely hero: a baby

Now I realise that babies are astonishingly special

I did get in big trouble one Christmas time, many years ago, when I described a new born baby as looking like a shrunken Buddha.

And one of the ways our society deals with Christmas is to strip the story of any reference to God, and simply focus on children. Christmas is for children:

Take nativity plays. Don’t get me wrong. I love nativity plays. One of the problems of the three tier school system is that they don’t do nativity plays in Middle schools. So age 8 is the last time our children will do a nativity play

But, you have to be honest and admit that the plot line for most nativity plays is pretty thin. ‘Yes’, says the producer, “Let’s go through the story. Mum is pregnant and riding on a donkey. Dad – well we’re not sure he is dad, but the less said about that, the better – leading the donkey. They get to the place where they’re going and can’t find anywhere for the girl to have her baby; and then an innkeeper says that she can have the baby in a barn at the back. Then some shepherds and some men dressed in funny clothes come and visit her. Yes? And what else? There is a special star, good. And angels, good. But is that all? And there is something about a special star. Is that it?’ Good for a few headlines, ‘Baby born in a barn’, good for a bit of dressing up. But is that all?”

And nativity plays often end up with some little moral tale about children being little angels and stars and that they are our future.

So are we really saying that Christmas is all about children – about the joy and the hope that they can bring. Listen to this. It will either make you weak at the knees or else seriously sick.

‘When a child is born’. Is that Christian?

A ray of hope flickers in the sky
A tiny star lights up way up high
All across the land, dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born

A silent wish sails the seven seas
The winds of change whisper in the trees
And the walls of doubt crumble, tossed and torn
This comes to pass when a child is born

A rosy hue settles all around
You've got the feel you're on solid ground
For a spell or two, no-one seems forlorn
This comes to pass when a child is born

And all of this happens because the world is waiting
Waiting for one child
Black, white, yellow, no-one knows
But a child that will grow up and turn tears to laughter
Hate to love, war to peace and everyone to everyone's neighbour
And misery and suffering will be words to be forgotten, forever

It's all a dream, an illusion now
It must come true, sometime soon somehow
All across the land, dawns a brand new morn
This comes to pass when a child is born

The unlikely hero is not just any baby. The unlikely hero is a very specific baby.

The real story is far more gritty and far more awesome. It involves high personal risk for Mary and for Joseph and for the baby; it involves paranoid political rulers; and this part of the story ends with the family fleeing from infant genocide. And at its centre is a specific child.

He is the baby who was born in Bethlehem when Quirinius was governor of Syria, who was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. (Luke 2:1-7)

And the reason that this particular baby is THE hero is because this particular baby was the Son of God. He was the unique, eternal child of God. He has always been there with God. He was there in the beginning of time with God. It was his word that created the universe. It is his word that sustains the universe. It will be his word that brings the universe as we know it to an end.

Augustine said,
Maker of the sun,
He is made under the sun.
In the Father he remains,
From his mother he goes forth.
Creator of heaven and earth,
He was born on earth under heaven.
Unspeakably wise,
He is wisely speechless.
Filling the world,
He lies in a manger.
Ruler of the stars,
He nurses at his mother's bosom.

What is astonishing is that the Son of God becomes a human being, and not just a human being, but a human baby: totally helpless, totally defenceless, totally dependent

God could have come as an adult, and still died for us. It happened on several occasions in the Old Testament.
Melchizedek: ‘He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever’
The angel who wrestles with Jacob
The person who appears to Joshua
Suddenly, God appears. Superman comes – with no origins, no family history. He is who he is. Indeed the Christian hope is that one day something like that will happen.

But the awesome thing is not just that ‘the word was made flesh’, but that God was born as a baby. He became fully human.
God’s messengers in the OT often come as awesome figures
God himself comes as a human baby

So what is going on here?

1. The Son of God was born as a human baby in order to fulfil prophecy and show that God is faithful.

In Isaiah 7:14, Ahaz is given a sign. It is a sign he has not asked for. It is a sign he has not deserved. But the sign will be that ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’.

Micah confirms that prophecy: ‘But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who in labour has given birth; then the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel’ (Micah 5:2-3)

And the one who is to come is described not only as the Son of God, but also as the Son of David. That is why we have all those long genealogies in the bible. It matters. God gave a promise to David that one of his descendants would be THE ruler of Israel, the Messiah, the one who would establish God’s Kingdom here in a new heaven and a new earth.

2. The Son of God was born as a baby in order to identify himself with us

He became as one of us. And because of that:

a) We know he knows. He grew up as one of us. He was dependent on his parents. He had brothers and sisters. He experienced body changes and all the hormonal stuff that teenagers go through. He shared our human desires. He knew tiredness, hunger, thirst. He experienced joy, grief, satisfaction, disappointment, the love of others, the hatred of others. He faced death. He was, as the writer to the Hebrews says, ‘tempted like us’.

And yet, through it all, he displayed absolute dependence on, obedience to, trust in and love for God his Father in heaven. That is way he was sinless.

b) He identified himself fully with us in our humanity, so that we might become like him in his divinity, become like him in his nature and in his love.

Galatians 4:4-7

He redeemed us so that we might become like him: so that we might be adopted as sons and daughters of God, so that the Spirit of God can live in us, so that we become heirs of God.

Irenaeus first said: ‘The Son of God became a human being, so that human beings could become Sons of God’

3. The Son of God was born as a baby in order to show us the way of God

God saves the world by sending a baby.

A baby, by human standard, may be a promise of something future, but at the time it is powerless, weak and has no wisdom.

The key thing here, as with all these unlikely heroes, is that God saves us not through that which is, by human standards, strong and wise, but through that which is, humanly speaking, weak and foolish.

[Jacob; Joseph in prison; slave people; Moses; Rahab; Gideon; Ruth; Saul (he only started to go wrong when he began to think he was someone); David]

The way of God is not the way of human power and wisdom. It is the way of love, of stripping oneself of power, of giving up rights, of identifying with others in their weakness and vulnerability, in order to enable them to have LIFE in God. The Christian life never consists in standing over another person. It consists of kneeling down before them and washing their feet.

It is Philippians 2:5-7

4. The Son of God was born as a baby to show us the wisdom of God.

We need to recognise that God, as a baby, is more powerful and worthy of worship than the greatest human ruler. The ‘foolishness’ of God is greater than the most profound depths of any human wisdom.

And that is so important because it tells us that our salvation depends upon God, totally and completely. I have no resources in myself.

This is so alien to our world. I’ve been struck by how many times I have heard people say, ‘You’ve got to look to the strength that is in you – for achieving your dream, improving yourself, getting what you want out of life, finding peace. Well, I guess at one level it is true. But when we look deeper it is profoundly untrue.

Before God, I have no resources in me. I cannot save myself. Salvation (and by that I don’t simply mean getting into heaven, but ‘salvation’ as the bible uses the word in its fullest richest sense, becoming fully like Jesus Christ the Son of God) depends not on my gifts, or strengths or ability, but completely on him.

This does involve a swallowing of pride, but it is also incredibly liberating, and extraordinarily democratic. You do not need to somehow make yourself acceptable to God. It is not about how gifted or good or clever you are. You do not even need to understand it. This is open to everyone – to the Einstein or to the person with severe learning special needs.

All we need to do is, with the wise men, kneel before a human baby who is also the Son of God.

So the unlikely hero is not just any baby. The unlikely hero is the Son of God who became a human baby, and who was wrapped in cloth and laid in a manger.
We fast forward 33 years, and we find that baby again being wrapped in cloth and laid in a tomb. The words that Luke uses in 23:53 are almost identical to the words used in 2:7 – and the point is the same

Jesus died on the cross to fulfil scripture
Jesus died in order to identify himself with us. He took onto himself our curse so that we might take onto ourselves his righteousness
Jesus died in order to show us the way of God – the way of love and self-sacrifice
Jesus died in order to show us the wisdom of God – that our salvation does not depend on us, but on him.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

When Christians face persecution

Revelation 1:4-20

Today, before we begin the period of preparation for Christmas known as Advent, we remind ourselves that Jesus Christ is the King. The Church calls today ‘Christ the King’ Sunday.

Our passage in Revelation describes Jesus as King. He is described as ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1:4); it talks about his kingdom (1:9); it talks of him as being Lord of time and as the Lord of life. It talks of how one day he will return, not as a baby – in some sense hidden – but openly, so that all people will see that it really is he.

This is something that we need to remind ourselves

This month our mission focus has been on Christian Solidarity Worldwide which argues and prays for the protection of Christians, and for that matter – of people from other faith groups – and that they be allowed to practice their religion in freedom.

In Colombia, for instance, since 2004 200 churches have been forcibly closed, 35 pastors have been assassinated and a further 50 received death threats, mainly because they have been standing up against the drug cartels.

In Iran, CSW tell of two young women in their late 20s/early 30 (Maryam Rostampour and Marzieh Amirizadeh), who choose to become Christians. The security officials come to their apartment, and their Bibles are found and confiscated. They are arrested, taken to a detention centre, interrogated, deprived of sleep and put in solitary confinement. Two weeks later (this was March of this year) they appear in court and are taken to prison without being charged, which is where they are today.

In India, in 2008, “the state of Orissa witnessed the worst spate of ‘communal violence’ ever faced by the Christian community in post-independence India, including brutal murders and rapes, widespread destruction of churches and property, and forcible conversions to Hinduism. It was centred in Kandhamal district, but spread to fourteen districts of the state. The attacks were catalysed by the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, local figurehead of the radical Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) on 23 August, by assailants believed to have been Maoists. By 24 August, mobs were rampaging around the district, setting up roadblocks, shouting Hindu nationalist and violent anti-Christian slogans, openly blaming Christians for the murder and calling for revenge as they attacked Christian targets. The violence continued for over eight weeks. At least 50,000 were displaced, 70 killed; among the victims were Hindus opposing the rioters”.

The report continues, “The violence should not be construed as the product of natural animosity between Hindus and Christians or between different ethnic groups, but as the systematic targeting of Christians by proponents of an extremist, nationalist interpretation of Hinduism, known as ‘Hindutva’, which is based on the proposition that to be an Indian citizen is to be Hindu.”

There are many reasons for persecution of Christians.

To become a Christian in many societies can be seen as a betrayal of that person’s family, home, traditional values and national identity. Think, for instance of the attitudes that some people would have if a woman from your family became a Muslim and chose to wear the niqab or burqa. The Jews were able to cope with Paul, one of their own, while he was talking about Jesus as being the Messiah for the Jews. They may have disagreed with him, but he was OK because he was still part of the family. But when he began preaching that the good news was for Gentiles .. that was when the balloon went up.

Or to be a Christian, or for that matter a member of any faith group, in a totalitarian society is to challenge the authority of the State. When Caesar, the Roman emperor said that he was Lord, and that people had to worship him, Christians who said that Jesus was Lord, and who refused to worship the emperor, were guilty of treason. That is what happened to my favourite martyr, Polycarp. Such people were political subversives. They recognized a higher authority than Caesar. That is why Christians were so bitterly persecuted in the former Soviet Union, and why that persecution still continues in countries like North Korea, Laos and still even in China.

And in many places to become a Christian is to identify yourself with a minority group. And there is nothing easier than for leaders of the majority to identify a distinctive minority group, particularly if they are not fully understood, and pin the blame on them for all the social problems. Nero blamed the Christians for the great fire of Rome; the Nazi’s blamed the Jews for the troubles of post first world war Germany; and in Orissa Christians are blamed for the troubles of India.

But there is, I believe, something distinctive about the sort of persecution that Christians can suffer. When a person becomes a Christian they enter a spiritual battle. Jesus said, ‘If they hate me, they will hate you’. He said that our ‘struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm’. And as a result there can be a particularly irrational and vicious dimension to the sort of hostility that people who choose to submit to Jesus Christ and who walk the way of the cross can face.

People have always had the potential to be immensely cruel, and that cruelty becomes particularly vicious when it is directed against the weak and the vulnerable. We kick a person when they are down. We plunge the knife in, and then to justify ourselves, say that they deserved it – and then we plunge it in again. It is that kind of irrational and demonic cruelty that can be directed against Christians, who choose to walk the way of the cross, by others who have power, and sometimes even by others who would call themselves Christians and who are in positions of power.

So there are many different causes and kinds of persecution. Paul writes in Timothy: ‘Anyone who chooses to live a godly life will be persecuted’.

Why am I saying all this in the context of our passage in Revelation?

Well, Revelation is written to believers who are suffering severely because they are Christians. They are ostracized, in fear of the local magistrates – who could have them up on charges of treason to the state; they are vulnerable and easily identifiable. They have no power, and they are suffering.

They are suffering simply because they have chosen to believe the message that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he is the Messiah (the one God has chosen to be ruler of this earth) and Lord, and that he rose from the dead. They are suffering because they are staying faithful to the simple message that Jesus Christ was who he said he was, and because they lived by the hope that one day he would return.

John is suffering for what he has seen and heard and proclaimed. He is in exile ‘on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus’. He writes to his fellow believers as ‘I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus’.

The vision that he has of Jesus in verses 12-16 is very similar to the vision that Daniel has of a man in Daniel chapters 10-12. That man talks of how God’s people are going to be completely crushed before the end. It also points to a person called ‘the Son of Man’ in Daniel 7, who will be utterly broken before he is finally vindicated.

And the point of the book of Revelation, and the point of the vision that John is given, is to encourage Christians who are struggling – people who are struggling because they have remained faithful to God. The Psalmist describes the fact that the people of God are suffering in Ps 44. He writes, “All this happened to us, though we had not forgotten you or been false to your covenant .. for your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:17,22).

And in Revelation God is saying to John and to us, ‘Look up. Look forward. See the bigger picture. Jesus Christ is who he said he was. He has conquered death. He died and rose from the dead. John knows. John was there. He is coming again. Every person will see him. And those who have mocked him, or who have used him, and who have mocked or used his people will weep. They will weep when they see what they have done.’

As a rule we do not, at the moment, face the sort of persecution that the Christians of John’s time, or the Christians of Orissa, or Iran or Colombia or North Korea face. We are in an unusual period for God’s people and we should not take it for granted. And for that we give great thanks.

And yet there are many people here who do or will face irrational opposition: sometimes from a partner, from a colleague, from a friend or employer. I remember Alan Redpath saying how, when he was in national service, his neighbour used to kneel beside his bed and pray each night. The other lads mocked him mercilessly. So did Alan. Until he too was so taken by his neighbours’ example that he surrendered his life to King Jesus. I remember reading about Adams, who said that when he went out drinking and smashed up a bar, they laughed with him and said he was being a lad. When he gave up drinking, and used to go into a church to sit and be quiet for a few minutes, they said he was mad. I think of the older teenager mocked, and even being caused to doubt themselves, because they have chosen to remain a virgin, or go to a bible study, or work as an unpaid volunteer, because they call Jesus Lord.

And there are also times when we seem to receive an unequal share of the general human lot of suffering: not specifically because we are Christians, but just because it seems that life has done the dirty on us. And that can also lead us to doubt and to anxiety – and sometimes to giving up.

But God is saying to us through John: Jesus is the ruler of human rulers. They may seem as if they are in charge. But they are not. That is why we pray. Don’t be afraid and don’t give up. Jesus was dead, but he is alive. He was the victim of irrational, demonic hatred. He has been there, and he has come through. It is worth it.

And God is saying to us ‘Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth’. They may seem scarily omnipotent. But they are not. There will be justice – justice for the oppressed and justice for those who oppress: for the drug barons, for the political leaders, for the religious leaders who incite hatred and murder. It will be His justice, not ours.

He may meet with us now in a very intimate way (John has this vision), but one day he will come again, and we will see him.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

What Jesus can do for you?

Jesus has met the Samaritan woman. He has spoken with her. And the conversation has led her to change her mind about Jesus
In verse 9, he is a Jew
In verse 19, he is a prophet
In verse 29, she is saying to the people in her home town, ‘Could this be the Messiah?’

Now the disciples return. They’ve been in town to get the supplies. And John writes,
“Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” (John 4:27)

Those two unasked questions are answered in our passage.

1. What do you want? (or, ‘What do you seek?’)

What do we seek today?
Security, health, entertainment, respect, dignity, pleasure, wealth

[story of A: ‘I want some money’]

John sums it up in one word: ‘Food’.

The disciples assume – fairly reasonably – that the thing that Jesus is thinking about is his stomach, how to satisfy his physical desire. They assume that Jesus wants food. (John 4:31)

But Jesus turns it on its head
He says, ‘Yes, I do want food. But I am not seeking the physical stuff that we eat. I am seeking real food. And the real food is to do God’s work. “My food, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (v34)

Physical food grows us, sustains us and satisfies us physically.
The real food grows us, sustains us and satisfies us at the level that really matters.

This is where Jesus in John’s gospel is so radical. He turns everything upside down.

We think that the physical food is what really matters. We think that Jesus is using it as a sort of illustration of spiritual food. But Jesus goes further than that. He is saying that the real food is the will of God, the word of God, himself. This stuff, the physical stuff, is just a shadow of the real stuff.

This is why the debates of former years about the nature of communion were so fruitless. The debate was whether the bread turned into the body of Jesus, because Jesus says, ‘For my flesh is real food and my drink is real drink’ (John 6:55)? The point is that Jesus is saying that he is the real food, and that when we eat bread and drink wine we are eating and drinking something that is a physical shadow of the real Jesus. So every time we find that we are physically hungry, it is a reminder that our real hunger is to do the will of God. And every time we eat and are physically satisfied, it is a reminder that our real satisfaction will come from doing the will of God, from receiving Jesus.

I hope that those of us who have received Jesus have found this to be true.
A feast can be satisfying and bring great joy
But doing the will of God; doing the right thing in the right place at the right time for the right reason is the most deeply satisfying, fulfilling and joy giving thing that we can ever do.

I hasten to add that does not mean it will be easy at the time. Jesus hanging on the cross was doing the work of God. He was doing the right thing in the right place at the right time for the right reason.

But Isaiah writes many years before the event of the event. And he writes (Isaiah 53:11) ‘Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied, by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.’

And the author to the Hebrews, writing after the event, says, ‘Jesus, who for the joy set before him endured the cross’ (Hebrews 12:2)

Doing the work of God may, at times, be very hard. But it is our real food, and it is worth it. It is what will ultimately satisfy.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that Jesus is saying that physical food is not necessary. Simply he is saying that if we seek true, real food (the work of God), the physical food – for as long as it is necessary – will follow.

We see God’s provision time after time in the Bible:
Manna in the wilderness
Elijah fed by the raven
The feeding of the 5000

Communion: we seek God, we seek Jesus and we receive physical bread.

2. And that leads us on to the second question that the disciples don’t ask Jesus: Why are you talking with her?

It was a question they could have asked because a Jewish man should not talk with a Samaritan woman. Nor vice versa. So the unspoken assumption is that Jesus was speaking with the woman because he wanted something from her: a drink of water

But Jesus was speaking to the woman not simply because he wanted some water (which is where the chapter begins), but because he had something to give her. He wanted to offer her LIFE. John 4:10, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’.

He had come to do the work of God, and the work of God was to raise up a people who would reap a harvest: not any harvest, but the real harvest: the harvest of men and women who have been born again, who have received Jesus Christ the Son of God, who have received the Holy Spirit, who have become children of God.

And for us, to do the work of God involves sharing in this harvest: whether as sowers or as reapers.

This woman starts to share in this work of God: I love this. No one told her to. She had been on no evangelism course.

She runs home, she leaves the water jar behind, and she speaks a very simple message: ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’

She doesn’t tell everybody they’re wrong. She simply asks a question.

And although God will use each of our individual personalities, our message does not need to be that different:

a) Come and meet someone

b) Who died and rose from the dead, and is alive
who knows all about me (even the very very messy bits) and yet still loves me
who helped me to face up to the reality of myself and what I have done
who has changed my life
who offers forgiveness, the Holy Spirit and eternal life

c) Can this be the person we have been waiting for; the one who holds it all together; the missing central piece in the jigsaw; the one who gives meaning and purpose to life, the universe and everything?

So the two questions that they wanted to ask Jesus, but didn’t – and as John thought back he realised that Jesus had answered those questions.

What did he want? Jesus’ deepest desire was to do God’s will.

Why was he talking to a Samaritan woman? It was not just because he wanted something from her (water). He was talking to her because he loved her, because in three years time he was going to die for her, because he had the most precious gift to offer her and because she was part of that great gathering of harvesters who he had come to establish.

Not much has changed. What does he want? He still desires to do the will of God

Why is he speaking to you? Because he loves you, because he died for you, because he offers real life, real food, real water, and because he invites us to share in the joy of gathering in the real harvest.

"Nearly 200 years ago there were two Scottish brothers named John and David Livingstone. John had set his mind on making money and becoming wealthy, and he did. But under his name in an old edition of the "Encyclopaedia Britannica". John Livingstone is listed simply as "the brother of David Livingstone."

And who was David Livingstone? While John had dedicated himself to making money, David had knelt and prayed. Surrendering himself to Christ, he resolved, "I will place no value on anything I have or possess unless it is in relationship to the Kingdom of God." The inscription over his burial place in Westminster Abbey reads, "For thirty years his life was spent in an unwearied effort to evangelize."

On his 59th birthday David Livingstone wrote, "My Jesus, my King, my Life, my All; I again dedicate my whole self to Thee." [Illustration from]

Monday, 2 November 2009

A funeral address for Richard Spaul, 9 October

Richard Spaul
20 December 1940 - 29 September 2009

Today is immensely sad. We say goodbye (literally ‘God be with you’) to a man who was so special to all of us here, but particularly to you. And Sheila, Rachel, Jonathan and Philip; Michael and Joan, and the family – we do pray for you.

How does one speak of Richard?

Here was a man: a fully human person who lived life to the full. He was able, gifted and passionate. When he spoke, he conducted. He spoke with his whole body. There was no side to him. He was straight forward and direct, sometimes a bit too direct. He was a man of great integrity, someone who lived according to his convictions. I am not even sure if the word ‘compromise’ was in his dictionary.

Here was a man who loved this world: he was fascinated by it. He taught. He was the first to introduce computers into his school. He was a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society. He loved gardening. He loved cricket. He loved singing (more recently, St Peter’s music group and the St Edmundsbury Male Voice choir were so special to him – take this opportunity to say thank you to those of you who made it possible for him to go to Estonia with you). He loved trains: he was a member of the Trix Twin railway club. On one of his better last days, he was sitting up planning a railway journey. He loved drama: whether harvest supper musicals in the past, skits at parish weekends, Open the Book (Remember him starring in the role of Cinderella, with one line that he repeated over and over again, ‘Alright’). He was also practical, helping with the first reordering here at St Peter’s, cutting the grass here and doing DIY – mainly on his children’s houses (I understand): I think you owe mum something! He was a gifted administrator: secretary of St Peter’s for over 30 years, working as treasurer with Just Traid for 9 years, and as administrator of the Hyndman Centre for 6 years. He was also remarkably strong willed.

The Psalm we had read says, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the Son of Man that you care for him? You have made him a little lower than the heavenly realms, and crowned him with glory and honour’

And we celebrate Richard because he was a man who – with all his failings and because he was honest enough to recognise his failings – lived with his face turned to God. He, and I suspect that this gets to the heart of Richard, recognised that this world was God’s world, and that all that we have been given comes from God. He knew he was dependent on God for life, for forgiveness, for mercy and for strength. He held to the word of God. He set up, I believe, what was for a long time the only bible study group in the parish. He prayed: and by that I do not mean the self-centred stuff that most of us call prayer: ‘The God bless me and mine’ prayer; but the God-centred prayer: the ‘Your name be glorified; Your Kingdom come; Your will be done’ prayers. And he trusted God, and he went on trusting God – even when life got very very difficult. At the prayer meeting, when the church met to pray for Richard after we had heard that Richard’s cancer had returned and it was only a matter of time before he died, he was sitting at the back. He suddenly spoke up and he said, ‘I’m trusting in Jesus’.

‘What is Man’: when we look at Richard we can glimpse the glory of human beings, and through them the glory of God. It was Irenaeus who said: “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive with their face turned to God”

In Richard, we can see what a very ordinary flawed human being can become when they choose to turn to Jesus: someone who prays, who trusts and seeks to obey, who loves creation, who fights for what is right and fair, who sings, who plays, who works, who serves, who laughs, who dreams.

‘What is Man?’ When Pontius Pilate brings out Jesus just before Jesus is crucified, he says – ironically – ‘Here is THE man’. But for the first followers of Jesus Christ there was no irony there. They realised that Jesus Christ really was THE man.

In the Bible, we have a record of a letter written by one of the first Christians. We are not exactly sure who he was or where the people he was writing to were. But the writer of what is called ‘The Letter to the Hebrews’ looks at human beings, at the mess that we make of creation and of our lives and the lives of other people; and he looks at how we are subject to sin and death.

And he recognises that – even those who live the fullest of human lives - are pale shadows of ‘THE man’ spoken of in Psalm 8: ‘You have put all things under his feet’.

But he does not despair. Because he recognises that Jesus Christ is THAT man, sent by God, the one who lived THE fully authentic human life, even though it meant that at the age of 33 he was nailed naked and helpless to a cross.

But because he was the one who died in obedience to God his Father, and for all of us, that was not the end. Not even death could keep him down. He was THE man. Three days later he rose from the dead. And God has put all things under his feet. And he promises that all who put their trust him will one day become fully like him.

Although Richard died at a relatively young age, 68, and the last 2 years of his life were at times pretty grim, he really was incredibly blessed.

He was blessed because he was surrounded by a family who loved him. He saw his children and a child of each of his children.
He was blessed because he had turned to THE man, put his trust in THE man, and had begun to live an authentic human life
And – up to now I’ve been using the past tense for Richard, but now I am going to use the present – he is blessed because he is now with THE man.

And one day THE man will return. Yes it is picture language because it will be the end of history as we know it, and because it is beyond our imagination: ‘Eye has not seen; ear has not heard, nor the human mind conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.’ But when he returns, there will be a new creation: a new heaven and a new earth. His Kingdom will be established. And he will come with those who are with him, who love him, who are being made like him.

“Beloved we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2)

And that, for Richard and for ourselves, is our certain and unshakeable hope.

Glory, suffering, Greatness, service

Mark 10:35-45

In our Bible reading today,

James and John seek glory: "Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory"
Jesus instead offers them suffering

And the disciples seek greatness
Jesus offers them service

James and John were two of three disciples closest to Jesus. Peter was the third.
• Jesus took Peter, James and John with him when he raised Jairus' daughter.
• He took Peter, James and John with him when he went up the mountain and was transfigured.
• And, after this, it was Peter, James and John who Jesus took with him when he prayed in the garden of Getsemane just before he was betrayed.

So if any of the disciples could assume that in the coming Kingdom they would be in the top places, it must have been James, John and Peter.

They were the ones closest to Jesus.
They were, it seemed, the inevitable - not successors of Jesus, because Jesus was always going to be around - but they were the inevitable right hand and left hand men.

What is it that makes us seek status and glory?

I suspect that it is the desire to be recognised as someone different, someone unique, someone special.
I wish to be different from the crowd because I am superior to the crowd.
The fact that everybody in the crowd is thinking that - causes some problems.

I like the story of the young woman who wanted to go to college, but her heart sank when she read the question on the application form that asked, "Are you a leader?" Being both honest and conscientious, she wrote, "No," and returned the application, expecting the worst. To her surprise, she received this letter from the college: "Dear Miss K: A study of the application forms reveals that this year our college will have 1,452 new leaders. We are accepting you because we feel it is imperative that they have at least one follower."

The point is that each of us is - to God - different, special, unique. I know that when we say everyone is special, it can mean nobody is special. But with God - because we are who we are, and where we are - it really is true. You are unique and special.
And it really does not depend upon where we are in relationship to other people. It does not depend upon our status in society. Just because we were not born into a royal family, or a fabulously wealthy family or just because we do not have the ability to be an Einstein or a Usain Bolt or an Obama it does not make us any the less a significant person.

I am getting to that seriously worrying age when someone who is younger than me could become prime minister next year.

But Jesus is saying to James and John and to us, 'It does not matter'. It does not make you any less a person. In the Kingdom of God the people who will be at the right hand and left hand of Jesus are not there because they are more spiritual or more godly or more intelligent or more able or more humble. They are not there because they have won the competition, because they have been awarded the trophy.

They are there because they are the people who God the Father has chosen will be there. (Mark 10:40)
And actually that makes them no different from you or me who are also where God our Father has chosen for us to be.

It is not where you are in society that matters, where you are in the pecking rank.
It is whether we are prepared to identify ourselves with Jesus.

And there are two ways that we are called to identify ourselves with Jesus

1. By going the way of suffering.

Jesus offers James and John not status, but suffering: 'Can you drink the cup that I drink?'

They don't realise it: but the cup that Jesus has to drink is not the bottle of champagne that will be given to him when the Kingdom comes. The cup that he has to drink is the cup of the wrath of God, the anger of God against human sin and rebellion against God.

The Old Testament talks many times of God pouring out his cup of anger on the people who reject him, who turn from him. The prophet Jeremiah says, "This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: "Take from my hand this cup filled with the wine of my wrath and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it." (Jeremiah 25:15)

It is a terrifying cup, and it was a cup that Jesus did not have to drink. But he chose to drink it, down to the last dreg - out of love for us. And because Jesus has drunk it, none of us need drink it.

And the baptism that Jesus has to suffer was the baptism of his death.

So Jesus says to James and John: You have asked me for something: status in the Kingdom of Heaven. The answer to your question is that it is not mine to give. I am now asking you something: “Are you prepared to suffer for others in the same way that I will suffer for others?”
And the second way that we are called to identify ourselves with Jesus is by
2. walking the way of service.

When the other disciples hear that James and John are asking for the top places in the Kingdom, they get very indignant: 'Who do they think they are? Why do they think that they are better than us? Why are they asking for the promotion? What right have they to push themselves forward?'

They too are playing the game of status, of one-upmanship, of 'I'm the King of the Castle'.

And Jesus says to them, "It is not a question of superiority. It is a question of service. It is not about where you are. It is about whether you are prepared to identify yourself with me.

"You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many".

The invitation is the invitation to serve as Jesus’ served.

And Jesus' service sets people free from sin: from the power of sin and from the consequences of sin. He gave his life as a ransom, because we were slaves to sin. We needed to be rescued, literally redeemed: that is bought for a price. And the price was his life.

So when we talk about Christian service, we are not talking about the sort of service which tries to make life simply more comfortable or convenient for someone else: in the way that we might serve a wealthy customer.

This is the sort of service that seeks to set people free from sin.

Obviously Jesus has done that, and Jesus alone has done that. There is nothing that we can add to his work. But we can share in the work that he has already done.

And we do that by our words and by our actions.

We speak: We tell others the good news that we do not need to be held captive by sin; that there is forgiveness and new life because of Jesus; that we can begin to change; that we who were enemies of God can become friends of God, can know God. And, yes, it is costly.

We are talking today about Passion 4 Life. That will cost. It will cost in terms of effort; in terms of putting our reputation on the line, in terms of giving

We live: Please do not underestimate the power of lives lived by people who are not seeking status but service. When everyone is trying to get to the top, the example of a life lived by someone who might get to the top but chooses to go to the bottom in order to set others free is incredibly powerful.

• I think of Henri Nouwen, a Harvard Professor, who - for Christ - gave up his chair in order to run a home to allow severely disabled people to live in the community.
• I think of the mum or dad who gives up the career they love in order to spend time at home nurturing and growing their children.
• I think of the man who gave up a major city job with a major city salary to work as a minister in Salford.

We are called to be people who serve others by setting them free from the desires of selfish ambition, of status seeking; of the desires to prove ourselves or make ourselves worthy - whether that is by what we do or where we are in society. "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost."

It is costly, but it is also liberating. When you or I can make being crucified for someone else our ambition in life, when we can make what we give rather than what we can get our ambition, the rest of it - status, glory, superiority - becomes a joke.

To put it simply, what matters is not where we are in this world or the next. That is completely beyond our control.

What matters is what we do with what we do have. It is about how close we come to living Jesus' life, how close we come to identifying ourselves with him. Because if we are prepared to identify ourselves with him in his death, we will become like him in his resurrection power.

James and John were asked by Jesus if they could drink the cup that he would drink - and were told that it would not guarantee them the status that they desired. They said 'Yes'.
This James was one of the first Christians to be executed for his faith. This John, if tradition is right, died a natural death, but the last years of his life were lived in exile

You and I are asked by Jesus if we are willing to die to ourselves, to our selfish ambition and our desire for status and glory, and to take up our cross.
We are asked if we are prepared to serve others by setting them free from sin and the consequences of sin.
We are asked if we are ready to drink the cup that Jesus drank.

Please do not think that I am there. I am not. But I pray that we might be there. I pray that we might have the courage to say with James and John, ‘Yes, we are’

True power and true wisdom


1 Corinthians 1:18-25

What would you like to build your life on?

Money: have the wealth of a Bill Gates
Fame: have the celebrity of a Danny Minogue
Brain power: be as clever as a Stephen Hawkins
Political power: have the authority of a Barack Obama
Physical ability: run like a Usain Bolt

Or would you prefer to build your life on Jesus Christ, who got himself crucified.

It is obvious. You choose anyone but him.

They are successes in life
He is a failure

Perhaps you might say that he has not done that badly. We are here 2000 years later and someone is talking about him.
But in life he was poor, homeless, shamed, tortured and executed. He was the victim.

And not only that. He said that if anyone wished to follow him, they had to deny themselves, and to be prepared to be crucified for him.

The choice for us is whether we live our lives for power and wealth. Watched the X factor a couple of Saturdays ago, when the contestants went to the judges houses. There was a castle in Tuscany, luxury house in Hollywood and the hotel in Dubai. Do you want that or this?

And parents would be outraged if a school started to say to its pupils, we do not wish you to aspire to become like him (Obama), but to become like him.

And yet, our bible reading says that this is the ultimate demonstration of the wisdom of God and of the power of God.

The bible says that if we wish to build our lives on the most solid foundation, we need to build our lives by putting our trust in one who was crucified.

Paul writes, ‘We preach Christ crucified, .. Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:22)

So why – on earth – should we build our lives on one who was crucified?


This is the way that God chooses to rescue human beings.

There is a difference between knowledge and wisdom, and the problem is that we focus on knowledge and we forget wisdom.

It was the mantra of certain religious groups: if you knew the secret knowledge you can be saved or save yourself.
It is the creed of society: The answer is ‘education, education, education’. You can save yourself through knowledge.

And of course education is vital. It really can transform lives; it can open doors; it can bring about social mobility; it can enable people to imagine new worlds.

But we cannot turn education or knowledge into god.

There are two kinds of learning:
There is a learning that leads to arrogance: which says, ‘We are masters of the universe. We can work it out’.

There is a learning that leads to wonder and humility: this world is bigger and far more amazing than I can possibly imagine.
And it leads us to the recognition that we are not masters of the universe: that if we can control 0.1% of natural forces, 99.9% of them are far far beyond us. It leads us to the recognition that we need God.

And it is that recognition which is the beginning of true wisdom.

And the wisdom of God invites us to put our ultimate trust – not in particular knowledge and not in a system of education – but in a person who hung on a cross.

And we trust the one who died on the cross:
Because his death on the cross shows that he loves us.

We die for what we believe is precious. People give their lives for what they think is important: a reputation, a career, a sport, a nation. A mother or father will give their life for their child.

Jesus Christ, the Son of God, chose to give his life for us, to die for you and for me

Because this is the way God has chosen to defeat sin and death.
This is the way that God has chosen to rescue us from the self-centred pride that divides us from other people, the jealousy that eats us up, the unforgiveness that twists us up, the fears and monsters who paralyse us, the sense of meaninglessness that stupefies us, the sin and rebellion that separates us from God, and from death which makes everything ultimately futile.

God chose to do it, not simply by sending his son into this world to be superman.

That is what we ask for: we say, ‘If God exists, why doesn’t he intervene and sort the world out’. But God chooses to do it by sending his Son to live among us and to die for us.

We cannot fully understand it. We do not need to understand it. We simply need to put our trust in the one who died for us.

It means that you are not going to be saved, you are not going to sort your life out, by right answers, by being clever or physically strong or rich or famous. You are not going to be saved by winning cups or trophies.

You are saved when you put your trust in someone who loved you enough to die for you.

This is good news. It is good news for people who win the prizes, because it says to them: ‘You don’t have to go on winning the prizes’. And it is good news for those of us who never win the prizes or become prefects or whatever: because it says, ‘It’s OK. You are beloved’.

God’s wisdom is this: however big you are, however little; however important or unimportant we think we are; however right or however wrong; however good, however bad; however much other people tell you that you are a success or tell you that you are a failure (I took the funeral of an elderly lady, called Miss Bishop. She had carried a memory with her for 90 years. Her mother had died, and father couldn’t cope with the children. So as a 6 year old girl on an August bank holiday she walked down the road to her grandmothers, with a baby in a trolley. She was lame in one leg. The grandmother said, ‘Oh I’ll have the baby. I won’t have her. She’s disabled. She won’t be any use’). It doesn’t matter what they say about you. Jesus died for you.

And God’s wisdom is that however much we mess up our lives; however deep the pit we find ourselves in; however dark it all is – we can put our trust in the one who did not mess up, but who went deeper and darker than anything we can face, because he loved us.

And he didn’t save us by zapping our enemies, and making life comfortable for us. He didn’t save us by teaching us a body of knowledge and then examining us in it. He saved us by identifying himself with us, by meeting with us, by coming alongside us and walking with us.


Jesus hanging on the Cross destroys sin and defeats death.

There are two kinds of cross that you can see.

One has Jesus on the Cross (crucifix): it tells me of the power of God because there was nothing that could stop Jesus going to the cross. He went there in obedience to God his Father and in love for human beings. Evil, Satan, Temptation, Circumstances tried to stop him, tried to make him turn back and disobey his Father God. They couldn’t.

The other is an empty Cross: that tells me of the victory that Jesus won on the Cross. If there was no power on earth that could stop Jesus going to the cross, this tells me that there was no power on earth that could keep Jesus on the Cross.

He rose from the dead.

And the death and resurrection of Jesus is the greatest power moment in the history of the creation.

If scientists are right, the old creation (this world and this universe) began in a moment of unbelievable power: a single blinding moment, which we call the big bang. But it became a creation that was ruled by sin and death.

But the new creation, God’s new world, also began in a moment of equally unbelievable power: when the Son of God gave his life for us and died for us on the cross.

And when a man, woman, girl, boy chooses to listen to Jesus, to live in the way he wants for us – even if it is to live in a way that we would not choose to do – ‘to die’ to ourselves and to live for him - we are born into this new creation, this new world. We become new people. And even though we continue to live in this world and we will die in this world – the person who is a new creation will have a life that not even death can destroy.

And when that happens we are building our lives on the most solid foundation that there is – that will stand firm in the face of success or failure; fame or shame; acceptance or rejection, tragedy or joy; life or death.

So yes, please do aspire to use your gifts and maybe you could become a future Hawkins, Bolt, Obama (Thatcher, Brown, Cameron). It would be great if future generations say of you: ‘She was at Wymondham college’. But do not let that desire ever control you. Do not let it control who you think you are, your values or what you think is your ultimate purpose.

Instead, may I urge each one of us to build our life by putting our trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God who loves us, and who gave his life for us.

Friday, 25 September 2009

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year

We gather today to honour those who fought in the Battle of Britain, and to give thanks for what was achieved. We do not honour victory in itself: victory writes the history books and is quite capable of blowing its own trumpet; but we do honour the love, courage, service and the self-sacrifice of those who made victory possible, and we celebrate the freedom and peace that victory won for us.

At times the world and life can seem very dark. 70 years ago, almost to the day, it must have seemed incredibly dark.

It was Christmas 1939 that King George VI echoed words of Minnie Louise Haskins, which many of us will know:

“I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’ So I went forth and finding the Hand of God, trod gladly into the night.”

It was a call to trust God. The way ahead was incredibly dark. No one knew where it would lead. But those words speak of one who walks with us, of one who leads us through the night.

And today, when things are less dark, but when we still live under the shadow of Afghanistan, recession and some of us are facing particularly dark periods – I would like to focus for a few minutes on our Psalm we had read today.

Like ‘The man at the gate of the year’, Psalm 115 is a call to put our trust in God.
O Israel, trust in the Lord
O house of Aaron (the priests), trust in the Lord
You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!

It is a call to trust in God because

1. God is ultimately in control of history.

Those great opening words: ‘Not to us O Lord, Not to us but to your name be glory’ are words which shatter our self delusions of grandeur and put everything into perspective.

They were words that were spoken after the battle of Agincourt, when Henry V (quote from Holinshed) “commanded every man to kneel down on the ground at this verse: ’Non nobis, Domine, non nobis, sed nomini tuo da gloriam’”, an incident which Shakespeare also picks up.

God is in control of history. ‘He does whatever pleases him’.

Yes, strategists may have wondered whether they could provoke Hitler from turning from bombing the airfields to bombing the cities, but in the end it was out of their control. They had no say over weather conditions. And they were as subject to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ as anybody was.

We give God the glory because he is in control of history.

But that is only half the story.

2. We trust God, even when things go badly wrong, because he is a God of love and faithfulness.

The people of Israel saw that love and faithfulness in their national history. God had taken them to be his special people. He warned them that if they rebelled they would suffer. He promised that if they turned to him, he would have mercy and he would bless them. We see that conviction in the last few verses of this Psalm. And he also promised that one day, through one of their children, his love would be extended to all peoples on earth.

Christians believe that person was Jesus Christ. He is the mark of God’s love and faithfulness. Everything God promised reached its fulfilment in Jesus. He is the ‘Yes’ to all God’s promises. And as he dies on the cross, he defeats sin and death, and he invites all people to come to him. He says, ‘I love you. I am not just your God. I would be your friend and your father’.

So Psalm 115 is a call to put our trust in God.

It is also a warning: it is a warning not to dethrone God. Not to worship false gods: not to put our trust in specifically idols of ‘silver and gold formed by human hands’.
We don’t have the physical idols. But we still bow down to silver and gold

I recall one of those awful moments of parenthood, when we had been to see a magic show, and at the end of the performance, the magician had invited children to go on to the stage where he was selling some stuff. And one of our children, who will remain nameless, and was about 3 at the time, ran up on to the stage. But we called up and said, ‘No. You’ve spent your money. You can’t have any more.’ And so he stood there on the stage in front of about 60 people, turned red with rage, stamped his feet, and bellowed at the top of his voice, ‘I WANT SOME MONEY’.

As 33 year olds or 63 year olds we are not much different: just a bit more sophisticated. We don’t scream, I WANT MONEY, but we are prepared to sell our communities, our families, our friendships, our bodies and our souls for money.

And the warning in this psalm is that if we become like the thing that we put our trust in.

And the warning is that if we make money our god, if the pursuit of financial wealth becomes our overriding aim, if profit really is the bottom line, we will become like our god: hard, cold, calculating and dead.

So Psalm 115 is a call to put our trust in the living God – because he is ultimately in control of history, and because he is loving and faithful.

I’m not saying that if we put our trust in him life will go well for us. At times the road we are walking will be very very dark. Some of us went to Tanzania to visit the new bishop of the diocese we support. We had an amazing time with them. They serve God with great joy and tremendous sacrifice. On Thursday we received this email from the bishop: the last two weeks have been very busy weeks. This week is the saddest week. I lost my uncle yesterday, Pastor Michael Samuel lost his daughter today and one of our catechist who had come for retreat for ordination this coming Sunday his son died last night. We are sad and our eyes are flooding tears.

To trust God means recognising that there will be times when it is dark and we walk in the night and we do not understand. But it also means that there is someone beside us as we go on our journey

I recognise that some people wrestle with the idea of faith or trust all their lives. We find it hard to put our trust in one who is visible, let alone one who is invisible.

I was reading an article about Gillespie Magee, the WW2 pilot who was killed on active service in 1940 and who wrote the poem, ‘Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth’, and which ends with the line, ‘Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.’ He wrote elsewhere: “My soul is a soul at war with itself and certainly not at peace with God”.

I think the main problem for most of us is that faith, trust in God involves a willingness to let go of our other gods – of money or whatever. It involves surrender and submission to the one who is beyond our understanding, who ‘does all that he pleases’ and yet who has said that he loves us and longs to know us.

It begins when proud men and women are willing to get down on their knees and say sorry, and seek his guidance and strength. It is about saying to God that we will live life his way and not our way, in obedience to him and to his word, and in friendship with him. It is about going on trusting God, obeying God, listening to God, serving God even in the darkness.

I like the story of the man who falls off the cliff. He catches a small branch hanging out of the rocks and clings on for dear life. Below, far below, the waves smash against rocks. He looks up and calls out, ‘Is there anyone up there who can help me?’ A voice replies, ‘Yes. Let go and trust me’. The man is quiet for a minute. He looks down at the waves and the rocks, and then he looks up again. ‘Is there anyone else up there?’

The poem quoted by King George hints at that difficulty. It talks about being led into the unknown in order that we may begin to discover the one loves us, who never leaves us, who is faithful - even in the dark places.

King George VI spoke those words in Christmas 1939. The nation was to go through incredibly dark days. The first glimmers of light began to be seen after the completely unexpected and almost miraculous victory of the Battle of Britain.

61 years later, at the turn of the millennium, the daughter of George VI said in her Christmas address: "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 perhaps, more poignantly, in 2002 (a year in which both her mother and sister died), 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, 13 September 2009

Asking Jesus to help us to see

Mark 8:22-26

This is the story of a man who was blind who was healed. It is a unique story, because it is the only story where Jesus does not heal the person in one go. There are two stages to the healing. After the first time the man looks up, sees people, but they look like trees. After the second time, he opens his eyes and he sees everything clearly.

So what is going on here?

Obviously, we are being told that Jesus is the Messiah, the one sent by God to be King in his world. He does the things of the Messiah. He is the one who fulfils Isaiah 35:5, ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped’. In Mark 7:31-37 he has just healed a deaf person in very similar circumstances.

And we are also being told that Jesus heals. The friends bring someone who is blind to him, and Jesus heals him.

That is what we do when we pray: bring someone to Jesus. And although he does not always heal as we wish, he does heal.

[One of the very interesting things in Mark’s gospel is that in the first half of the gospel, Jesus does amazing things, but he commands people that they are not to tell anyone. He heals a leper (Mark 1:44) and says, ‘See you say nothing to anyone’. He commands the unclean spirits who are saying, ‘You are the Son of God’ (Mark 3:12) ‘not to make him known’. He raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead, and charges them ‘that no one should know this’ (Mark 5:43). He heals the deaf and mute man (Mark 7:31-35) and ‘charged them to tell no one’. And in the next few verses Peter declares that Jesus is the Christ: ‘And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him’ (Mark 8:30).

And in our passage, the man is told to go straight home, and not return into the village where he has been brought.

The secret to this secrecy is revealed in Mark 9:9. Jesus has gone up a mountain and been transfigured – he has shone like a lighthouse. And it says, ‘And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead’.

That is the last time that Jesus commands secrecy. The point is that who he is, and what he does (the casting out of evil, the healing of sick people, the raising of the dead) only makes sense after the resurrection. Before the resurrection they are simple wonderful acts – but we want to ask why didn’t he do more? There were many blind people. Why was this one alone healed? Why are some people wonderfully healed today and others not?

Without the resurrection, Jesus is an amazing wonder worker, but nothing more. But with the resurrection, these healings and raisings make sense. They are not normative but representative. They give us glimpses of a Kingdom that is present, but not fully present. They are a preview of the big film that is still to come. They show us what Jesus is going to do for all who turn to him in the resurrection, in the Kingdom of God.]

So please do pray for people – even for people when you think that they are beyond medical help. Bring them to Jesus. Jesus can heal. Jesus does heal. He loves us. He really does want the best for us in the long run, in the resurrection. And if the person is not healed, we don’t give up on God; we don’t accuse them of being at fault. We trust God that he knows best. We surrender to his good will, and we are patient, even if we don’t understand, and we continue to trust ourselves and the person for whom we are praying into his hands.

But we need to look deeper at this healing of the blind man. Something more is going on.

And the obvious thing is that Jesus is using the restoring of this man’s physical vision to show us how God restores spiritual vision.

In the last few verses Jesus has challenged the disciples: ‘Do you not yet perceive or understand? Having eyes do you not see?’ And now he goes on to restore sight to a blind man.

1. It is all of God

The man does nothing. He is blind. He is brought to Jesus.

We are spiritually blind. We have been blinded by sin, by our rebellion against God, by our desire to live independent God-denying lives. We are blinded by our self-centredness, our self-focus. Sin is spelt sIn. The I is in the middle. And we are blinded by our pride, envy, bitterness, fear, anxiety, need to impress, prejudice. We just can’t see.

That is why prayer is so hard. God seems unobvious. And it so much easier to do something, rather than to stop and pray about something. And when we pray, we don’t know what to pray for.

Isaiah 59:2 says: “It is not God who is helpless. It is not God who is deaf. The reason that he doesn’t hear you is because your rebellion against him has hidden his face from you; your sin has put up a massive barrier between God and yourself”.

And we are so blind that we do not even realise that we are blind. Most of us are walking about with our eyes closed, in a two dimensional universe, unaware that there is so much more.

In John 9, when Jesus has healed a blind man, he says to the religious leaders: ‘I came in order to help people see’. They challenge him, ‘Are you telling us that we are blind?’ Jesus says, ‘Because you say that you can see, you are in fact blind. Spiritually blind’. It is uncompromising stuff.

We are blind. We cannot open our own eyes. But it is Jesus who opens eyes.

So please pray. Pray that he will open our eyes. Love other people enough to pray for them. Pray that he will open their eyes. Be like the companions of this blind man – who brought him to Jesus. He couldn’t get to Jesus on his own. He was blind. But they cared enough for him to take a risk.

And because it is all of Jesus, if we do begin to see, there is no place for pride or a sense of superiority. If God is less unobvious than he was before, if prayer does begin to make sense, if you have a hunger to know him more, if his words in the bible start to speak to you, give great thanks – it is his work.

And equally please do not despair if nothing seems to be happening. Don’t assume that it will be a blinding light, and that if you haven’t had a blinding light, God is refusing to work with you. The very fact that you know that there is this thing called ‘faith’ and that you do not have ‘faith’, means that he is working in you. To be aware that we are spiritually blind is the beginning of Jesus’ opening of our eyes.

2. Jesus uses spit to heal the man’s eyes

This is very strange! Why, of all things, spit? Especially when in other places Jesus heals with a word, or with a word and a touch.

I don’t wish to make too much of this: but it does imply that although Jesus can heal with a word, often he chooses to work with stuff.

I have read in some places that spit was considered to have healing powers. I have read in other places, and we know that to spit on someone is a way of shaming them. What is clear is that Jesus uses spit to heal the man.

And Jesus will often use something to restore our spiritual vision. It might be something that we think has healing properties. It might be something that we despise.

He has commanded us to use water in baptism; bread and wine in communion; oil in healing.

And I guess that is also one way of understanding medicine and tablets. At the moment I am taking anti-malarial tablets. I could see them as a symbol of our human attempt to live without God – to rely on ourselves, so that we do not need God – or I can say that they are like Jesus’ spit. They are what he chooses to use to bring healing.

3. Restoration of spiritual vision is a process

There is a two stage healing here. The man begins to see, and then he fully sees.

There is a parallel with what happens to the disciples. Up to chapter 8 of Mark they are getting the first sight: they are beginning to understand who Jesus is. And then, having understood, they need the second sight, that Jesus Christ is the one who will die to save people – that the Christian way is not the way of the sword, but the way of the cross.

And actually that is how it works for us. The restoration of our spiritual vision is gradual.

Stage one: God works in us and we begin to become aware that we are blind. We come to Jesus and we begin to see – but only dimly. We look at other people and they are like trees. Now at least we notice them, but they are things.

Stage two (and three and four and five): as we continue to look at Jesus, our vision becomes clearer. We see him clearer; we see other people clearer.

Of course, this side of death, it will be like looking through frosted glass. But of the resurrection, Paul writes, ‘Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’.

So as we come to communion, we come to receive from the one who is our Messiah, our ruler. We will use bread and wine, ‘stuff’ – because he has said that this ‘stuff’ is what he chooses to work with. And we ask him to open our eyes so that we can see him and see other people.