Sunday, 26 December 2010

Crib service 2010


It is a delight to welcome you.
Turn to neighbour and say: 'It's lovely to see you. Thank you for coming. It would not have been the same without you'.

Light Christmas candle

Opening prayer:

O little town of Bethlehem

Narrator: I would like to introduce you to Sat and Urn. They come from Mercury. Sat only speaks Merc-ish, but Urn is clever. He speaks Merc-ish and Earth-ish. They have come to visit us, and they would like to ask us a question,

Urn: who is the most important person who has been born on the Earth?

Narrator: that's very easy. The most important person who has been born on Earth was Jesus. He was born as a baby 2000 years ago, and he came to be God’s ruler not only of Earth, but of the whole universe. And he was God’s ruler then; he is God’s ruler now; and he will be God’s ruler for all time. He defeated sin and he defeated death.

Sat: gobbledygook (long)
Urn: Wow!!
Sat: gobbledygook (short)
Urn: So where was he born? He must have had an amazing palace

Narrator: Um, actually he was born in a .. cowshed

Sat: gobbledygook
Urn: But what did he wear? If he is such an important ruler, he must have worn fantastic clothes.

Narrator: He had nothing. He was wrapped in a bit of linen.

Sat: gobbledygook
Urn: You humans are strange. In our world, really important people live in amazing palaces, and they wear fantastic clothes.

Narrator: This is complicated. We’ll tell you the story.

There was a King. He was called Herod (Herod goes to throne half way down aisle). Herod was a VIP. He was also a Vicious Individual Person. He was a "nasty man". What was he? "A nasty man?! In fact, he should have been called Horrid, not Herod.

Herod thought he was important. Very important. He did live in an amazing palace, and he wore fantastic clothes. In fact he thought he was the most important person in the world.

Herod: I am the most important person in the world.

But Herod was very scared that other people would want to become the most important person in the world. And so Herod had some henchmen and their job was to make sure that nobody else became more important than Herod. (Bring out henchmen who surround Herod).

(sign up saying: Nazareth)
But I would like to introduce you to another person. Her name was Mary. Can we have Mary. (Mary on stage) She was not important. In fact she was very ordinary.

But an angel, called Gabriel (Gabriel on stage) appeared to Mary, and told her "Mary you are going to become the mother of the most important person ever. He will be God's Son. You will call his name Jesus, because he will save people from their sins; he will defeat death and he will reign for ever."

Song: I have come with special news

Mary believed God even though what he said was impossible for her and, just as the angel said, Mary became pregnant.
Now because Mary was nobody special she had to do what other people told her to do. There was an order that everyone had to go to the town where they came from, to be counted. Now Mary was married to Joseph and Joseph came from Bethlehem - so Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And since, in those days, they did not have cars or buses or trains or aeroplanes or spaceships, they had to go by donkey.
Song: Little donkey (during which Mary and Joseph and donkey walk to back of church and back to stage)

(sign up saying: Bethlehem)

When Mary and Joseph reach Bethlehem, the town was so full of people that there was no room for them.

Eventually an innkeeper saw that Mary was very pregnant, took pity on them and said, "You can stay in my cowshed". And because baby Jesus was born that night, he was born in the cowshed; and because Joseph and Mary had nothing, they had to wrap baby Jesus in strips of cloth.
Song: Mary, had a little baby  or The virgin Mary had a baby boy (during carol ask angels, shepherds, sheep, wisemen, kings, stars etc to go to the back of the church)
Now there were shepherds in the fields watching over their sheep. The angels came to them, and told them (someone needs to hand an angel (possibly Gabriel) the radio mic), "The most important person who will ever live has been born. He has come to be God’s ruler on Earth. He will defeat sin and death, and he will rule for ever. You will find this baby in a stable and wrapped in strips of cloth"

And the shepherds believe the angels. So they say, (radio mic) "Let's go to Bethlehem to see this special baby". (Shepherds, sheep etc to front of church)

It was on a starry night (during singing of carol shepherds, sheep etc to front of church)
A long way away, some wise man saw a star. They knew the star meant that the most important person had been born. So they followed the star, and the star led them to Israel. Now they thought that the most important person in the world must be born in a palace and must wear rich clothes. So they go to the person who has the palace and who has the fine clothes: King Herod.
 (wise men and star go to Herod)
See him lying

Now Herod was a nasty man (boo!), and when he heard that the most important person had been born he got very upset. No, very upset. He said, "I am the most important person in the world. I don’t want anyone to be more important than me. If I kill this baby, I will still be the most important person in the world". So he said to the wise men, “You go and find where this baby is. Tell me, so that I can come and worship him".

But he didn’t want to worship him; he wanted to kill him (boo!)

So the wise men continue on their journey, they followed the star, and it led them to Bethlehem and to baby Jesus. And although other people thought that the wise men were important, they knew that this baby was far more important than them. And so they kneel down, and gave him precious gifts.

(wise men follow the star to stable. When all assembled, sing)

Song: Away in a manger

That is not quite the end of the story. God told the wise men in a dream not to go back to Herod, and they didn’t go back to Herod. So Herod didn’t know which baby was God’s baby. That made him even more angry. I am very very angry. He sent his henchmen to kill the baby, but Mary and Joseph were warned by God and they took baby Jesus and they managed to escape.

(sign up saying: Bury St Edmunds)

Sat: gobbledygook
Urn: But Herod is the one with the fine palace, the fine clothes and the henchmen. Isn’t he more important than Jesus?

Narrator: That’s the point. Herod has everything. The baby Jesus has nothing. But God has spoken and God has said that this baby who has nothing is, in fact, the one who is his Son and who will be ruler of the world. And Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men believe what God has said.

Sat: gobbledygook
Urn: Does everyone on Earth accept Jesus as the most important person who ever lived? Do you all accept him as your ruler?

Narrator: No, we don’t. Most of the time we are like Herod. We want to be like Herod with a fantastic house, fine clothes and we want to think, ‘I am the most important person in the world’. To accept Jesus as our ruler, we have to be prepared to be like Mary, the shepherds and wisemen. We need to realise that we are not the most important person in the world, we need to listen to God and believe what he says about Jesus. And then we need to be prepared to kneel before him and worship him.

So let’s pray:

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas day 2010

(before start, have one person lying on floor, and two people standing on chairs)

I would like to introduce you to two people: who is the greatest?

He was a very powerful man. In fact he appeared to be the most powerful person alive on the planet at the time.

(place robe and crown on Caesar)

He was fabulously wealthy
He lived in the most amazing palaces
Behind him, he had the Roman army

Caesar Augustus had the ability to count and record every single person who lived in his empire. Did you notice in our reading: ‘a census should be taken of the entire Roman world’? That is some power.

When he spoke, people jumped: It was because he issued an edict in Rome, that Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem

If you did what he said, then he could give you wealth, entertainment and security
If you did not do what he said ..

His parents were Jewish peasants, and there were rumours of scandal about his birth
He was born in a cowshed, wrapped in strips of linen, and laid in a manger
Before he was 2, he was a political refugee. His parents had had to flee to Egypt
He was brought up as a carpenter, and for three years worked as a religious teacher
At the age of 33 he was executed as a common criminal

He was not wealthy
He did not live in a palace
He had no Roman army behind him

You did what he said not because he could reward you here if you did, or because he could punish you if you didn’t. You listened to what he said and if you did it, you did it because you chose to do so.

It’s a no brainer.

The angels say to the shepherds: ‘For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger’. They are echoing what the angel has said earlier to Mary, ‘He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High .. and he will reign .. of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Luke 1:32f)

If you listen to what God says about this man; if you believe what God says about Jesus, then you realise that there is simply no comparison.

Jesus has more power in the clippings of his little fingernail than Caesar Augustus, or all the rulers of this world put together, ever had.

Jesus is the one who was from eternity. He existed before time began. Everything that existed and exists and will exist comes from him, belongs to him and will return to him.

Caesar can count every person in his empire. They are his subjects. But Jesus Christ knows every person, and would be to them their friend and brother.

At Jesus’ call are millions and millions of angels. One of their bands turn up on the night that he was born

The sort of wealth and joy and security that he gives are things that nobody, not even death, can take away.

He is not just the creator of life, like some amazing boffin in a laboratory playing around with DNA. He is life itself, and he can give us eternal life.

Jesus is the one to whom Caesar Augustus or Napoleon or Mao or any ruler will one day have to acknowledge is the true ruler. They will need to say, ‘I was there because of you – and I did not recognise you’.

(take robe and crown from Caesar and place on Jesus)

Jesus said that he will judge each person. In fact, he said that we will judge ourselves by how we react to him.

Because we have here – in Caesar or Jesus - two models of how we can live.

We can live – what today I will call – the palace model.

We follow Caesar. We strive for the things of this world: wealth, power, influence, entertainment, security for the here and now.

But if we choose to follow Caesar, we have shown that we are deaf to what God says about Jesus, and we are blind to the sign of God. We have judged ourselves and we have shown that we are dead.

Or we can believe what God says about this child – through the prophets, through the angels, through the people who were there at the time, through the people who have trusted him - and live the manger model.

Because what makes Jesus so astonishing is that:
even though he does have all power, he let it go.
even though all things belong to him, he let it go.
even though he is life itself, he let it go.

(Jesus gets down from chair and goes to the person lying on the floor)

He humbled himself to become a human baby laid in a manger – in order to identify himself with us in our brokenness. He stripped off his celestial robes in order to be wrapped in strips of linen

We exalted ourselves, we tried to become God and fell. And yet for our sake, out of love, He humbled himself in order to save the proud. He lowered himself and knelt down in order to lift us up.

(Jesus lifts up the person lying on the floor, takes off his robe and crown and places it on the person)

He came to be our Saviour: so that – for all who receive him - we might become what he is.

The passage dates the birth of Jesus by reference to Caesar Augustus and his census.
Today, we date Caesar Augustus by reference to the birth of Jesus Christ.

And today millions of people bow to Jesus, and call him Lord.
They do so because they listen to what God has said about him;
They do so, because they have seen the sign – not a sword, not a pound note, not a stage – but a manger.

And they have chosen to follow a God who, out of love, humbles himself and gives up everything in order to save us; and they have chosen – with God’s help – to live like God.

To him be the glory and the honour and the dominion and the power, for ever and ever, Amen.

Much of the above is inspired by a quote from St Augustine:
Born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary.”  He, so great God, equal with the Father, born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary. Born lowly, that thereby He might heal the proud. Man exalted himself and fell. God humbled Himself and raised him up. Christ’s lowliness, what is it? God hath stretched out a hand to man laid low. We fell. He descended: we lay low. He stooped. Let us lay hold and rise, that we fall not into punishment. So then His stooping to us is this. “Born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary.” His very Nativity too as man, it is lowly, and it is lofty. Whence lowly? That as man He was born of men. Whence lofty? That He was born of a virgin." 

Friday, 17 December 2010

The world's greatest gift

Christmas carol service 2010

I wonder what your worst ever Christmas present was? One woman writes that the worst gift she ever received was from a disapproving mother-in-law: “it was a musical loo roll holder. The trick is letting someone know that their gift is most ungratefully received, without appearing to do so. I settled on – "A musical loo roll holder? I'm so glad you took me at my word and didn't go to too much trouble!"

There are three things that we want to know about any gift.

1.  How much did it cost the giver?

And I'm not necessarily talking about its financial value. Sometimes an expensive gift is a sign that it did not cost the giver much: for instance the proverbial boss who sends out the secretary to buy an iPad for her husband, because she can afford it, and is too busy to try and think of something else.

2. Is it personal?

The best gifts are the most personal. It could be a very simple necklace which is just right for the person. Because it tells them, "I think about you; I know you and you matter to me."

3. Is it any use? A musical loo roll holder ... I’m not sure. And if it's a new outfit, will it look good? If it’s a Kinect, will it work? If it's a screwdriver has it got the right head? If it's a perfume, will I smell nice!

The story is told of a three year old girl who gave her dad a gift. She wrapped it up in expensive paper, which she had taken from mum’s special drawer. He opened it and found a very small box. He opened the box, and inside – it was empty.

He was about to get angry with her; he was about to tell her that she should not use this sort of paper on empty gifts, but he stopped himself. And then she said to him, when she saw his face, "But Daddy, it is not empty. I blew kisses into it for you. It is full of kisses."

Some of you may love that story; others may find it a bit hard to stomach. But it would take a very hardhearted father not to be moved by that.

1. It did cost her. It cost her the things that matter: time and thought.

2. It was personal, incredibly personal.

3. It even had some use. When he went away, he used to take it as a reminder of his three-year-old daughter.

At Christmas, we recall the gift that God gave us 2000 years ago. It was not wrapped up in expensive paper; in fact it was wrapped in a linen cloth and was found lying in a barn in a cattle trough.

It was the gift of a baby

Now I know that every baby that is born is a unique and precious gift – but this baby was astonishingly special

He was the son of God, come to live on as one of us, among us.

1. How much did it cost God?

Everything! This was his unique Son, who had been with him from eternity. He gave him to us, even though he knew that we would reject him, and kill him.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son"

2. This gift is incredibly personal.

Even though Jesus came for everyone (those who have lived, those who are living and those who will live), it is still immensely personal.

Jesus is God’s invitation to you – to you personally - to come into an intimate relationship with God. In giving us Jesus, He offers us himself.

Without Jesus we are enemies of God
With Jesus we become friends of God

The gift of Jesus is God saying to us: "I haven't given up on you. Despite the fact that I have given you everything, and you have still rejected me; despite the fact that you have lived life and go on living life without me, that you have sought your own glory and not mine; despite the fact that you love the things I have given you more than me the one who, in love, gave them to you; despite the fact that you have cut yourself off from me, the source of life and love, and so you are effectively dead. Despite all this, I still love you.

And he invites you to receive this gift of Jesus; to become his friend, to begin to get to know him.

Story of Christmas eve: ‘Do you know Jesus?’

But do you know him? We know about him in our head, at least I hope we do. We may even know some of his promises and try to live putting our trust in them. But do you know him at a level that is other than the head? If you know him, then prayer will not be simply hopeful thinking, nor just a reminding God of his promises, nor just "saying our prayers", nor even just a cry of desperation. Prayer will be a real intimate conversation with our heavenly Father.

"To all who received Jesus, who believed in his name, God gave them the right to become children of God"

3. Is this gift any use?

This is the most life changing gift. It is far more life changing than winning the X factor, or being given a £1 million cheque.

Because God gave us Jesus, and because Jesus lived, died and rose from the dead, he changes our lives and goes on changing our lives in the most dramatic way.

He gives us the conviction that we are beloved.
He offers us forgiveness for the past, which means we can face up to the past, particularly those bits in the past when we have hurt others.
He gives us a new identity as a son or daughter of God.
He gives us a new power for living; the Bible tells us that God will put his Spirit in us –so that the Spirit that is in us, longs for him, desires him and calls out to him.
He gives us a new direction for living, a new purpose, seeking his glory and not mine; seeking his kingdom and not mine.
He gives us a new hope: a personal hope, that death is not the end, and that because of Jesus when we die we will meet with him, and be fully transformed, and become citizens of the new heaven and earth. And a cosmic hope, that one day this whole cosmos will be transformed into what it was meant to become.

No wonder Paul describes this as "God's inexpressible gift"

The father could have so easily rejected his daughters’ gift.
From one perspective it was worthless, foolish and empty.
But when he listened to her, he discovered something very different: he discovered a gift that was full of love.

And we can so easily reject the gift of our Father God to us at Christmas. After all, it's very easy to miss one more baby, especially one born in the middle of nowhere to one who was a nobody.

But if, in the middle of the frantic rush of Christmas, we're prepared to stop and listen then we might see something very different.

- if we are prepared to listen to the men and women of old, who foretold that God would send into this world one who was to be for us a Saviour and Ruler.
- if we are prepared to listen to the ones who were there and saw him, who lived with him, went where he went, heard him teach, saw the miracles, and watched him as he gave up his life; and who were there when he came back from the dead.
- if we prepared to listen to the people in the last 2000 years who have trusted him: who have given him their everything because he has given them everything.
- if we are prepared to listen to that voice within us, which tells you that Jesus is special; which draws you to him; which prompts you to cry out to him, to desire him and to ask him to be your Friend, your Saviour and your Lord.

And if we listen (and the fact you are here tonight suggests that you are prepared to take time out to listen), we discover that this gift – given 2000 years ago, which might seem so foolish and empty is, in fact, full of God's wisdom to save us; full of God's power to change us; and full of God's love as he offers himself to walk with us, to embrace us and to fill us. 

Sunday, 28 November 2010


There was no compromise about John the Baptist. John did black or white. He did not do gray.

For John you were either a Kingdom of Heaven person, or a kingdom of earth person.
You were either a god-person or a not-god person.
You either did God, fully completely and totally, or you did not do God.

He appears, and he preaches. And he says three things

1. The Kingdom of heaven, the rule of God, has come near.

For over 2000 years the people of Israel – or at least those of them who believed the promises of God – had waited for God’s rule to come to earth.

God had told them – through promises given to people like Abraham, through the prophets - that one day the Messiah (God’s special ruler) would be born, he would establish his reign of well-being, abundance, joy, justice and peace. And this reign would never end. Even death would be destroyed.

And now John appears and proclaims: ‘The Kingdom of Heaven has come near’.

John announces a new era, a new government. ‘God is not dead. The promises that we have believed for two thousand years are not empty promises. The rule of God is very close’

2. He calls on people to repent.

John the Baptist was God’s alarm clock. The people – and remember these were the Jewish people - they did God, or at least they said they did God.

But they had fallen asleep. They rather assumed that because they were descendants of Abraham they were OK. And suddenly the alarm goes off. John calls them to wake up.

The repentance that John is speaking of is not just about saying sorry for the things that we do or think that we know are wrong.
The repentance he is talking about is not just about brushing up our act.

That is the way we often think of the second coming. We say Jesus is coming, it might be tomorrow, so brush up, improve yourself

One of our children was told that he had a music exam sometime in November. I have to say that not much practicing got down. However, when he was told, ‘Your exam is in 2 weeks time’. Things changed. The serious practicing began.

Author Doug Mendenhall shares a brief parable (slightly adapted):
“Jesus called the other day to say he was passing through and [wondered if] he could spend a day or two with us.
I said, "Of course. Love to see you. When will you arrive?"
I mean, it's Jesus, you know, and it's not every day you get the chance to visit with him. It's not like it's your in-laws and you have to stop and decide whether the advantages outweigh your having to move to the sleeper sofa.
That's when Jesus told me he had actually just stopped off to fill up at Tesco’s
I must have got that rabbit-in-headlights look, because my wife hissed, "What is it? What's wrong? Who is that?"
So I covered the receiver and told her Jesus was going to arrive in eight minutes, and she ran out of the room and started giving guidance to the children—in that effective way that drill instructors give guidance to recruits. …
My mind was already racing with what needed to be done in the next eight—no seven—minutes so Jesus wouldn't think we were reprobate loser slobs.
I turned off the TV in the lounge, which was blaring some weird scary movie I'd been half watching. Plus, I turned off the computer, because I didn't want to have to explain why we were letting the children play Call of Duty to Jesus, either, six minutes from now.
My wife had already thinned out the magazines that had been accumulating on the coffee table. She put The Church Times on top for a good first impression. Five minutes to go.
I looked out the front window, but the garden actually looked great thanks to my long, hard work, so I let it go. What could I improve in four minutes anyway?
I did notice the post had come, so I ran out to grab it. There was a lovefilm envelope, and a bunch of catalogues tied into recent purchases, so I stuffed it back in the box. Jesus doesn't need to get the wrong idea—three minutes from now—about how much on-line shopping we do.
I ran back in and picked up a bundle of shoes left by the door. Tried to stuff them in the front closet, but it was overflowing with heavy coats and work coats and pretty coats and raincoats and extra coats. Why had we bought so many coats? I squeezed the shoes in with two minutes to go.
I plumped up sofa pillows, my wife tossed dishes into the sink, I scolded the kids, and she shooed the dog. With one minute left I realized something important: Getting ready for a visit from Jesus is not an eight-minute job.
Then the doorbell rang.”

But actually, I am not sure that is what John is getting at.

When he calls people to repent, he is not calling us to a ‘must do better’ attitude.
Instead real repentance is about a complete ‘change of mind’:

John is calling us to be desperately honest with ourselves.

To the religious people, the Pharisees, he is saying: ‘You’ve been playing as God people, but the evidence of your lives is that you are not God-people. Change. Seek God. Seek his strength; seek his guidance; seek his glory’.

And to non-religious people, he is saying: ‘Stop living for all the things that you have been living for: the children, the job, for love, for what other people think of you, for money, for possessions. Stop living for self. Change the direction of your life. From today’, says John, ‘Seek to live for God and for his kingdom’.

We are spiritually paralysed by the idea that if we live a ‘good’ life we should be OK, and all we have to do to be right with God is to live ‘better’ lives.

But God does not want goodness (at least, he does not want our kind of goodness), but God-ness.

I’m sure that 99% of us live relatively ‘good’ lives. But we allow our society to define what ‘goodness’ is and not God. And we live ‘good’ lives for the wrong reasons: we’ve been taught that it is the way to gain security, to get on, to satisfy our desires and to gain approval from the people we think matter.
We may live ‘good’ lives, but we are blind to God.

And the people who do not live ‘good’ lives – the people who we think society should punish, and who God should punish even more, (the benefit frauds, the child abusers, the drug pushers): many of them are driven by the same motives as us. The reason they live ‘bad’ lives is because they think that by living ‘bad’ lives, they can gain security, get on, satisfy their desires, and gain approval from the people who they think matter. And they live ‘bad’ lives blind to God.

God wants us to first live God-lives, because then we will live good lives: but they will be good lives by God’s standards and not ours. And they will be good lives for God’s sake and not ours.

3. John points people to Jesus.

He points them to the one who is coming as God’s ruler of God’s kingdom. And that person is Jesus.

It is Jesus who is the one who offers to baptise us with the Holy Spirit: who will not simply pour water on us on the outside, but will change our hearts on the inside.

God people are not just people who have chosen to live for God, for the Kingdom of heaven.
They are not just people who put their trust in the invisible God, believing the promises that God has given us.

God people are people who have been baptised with the Holy Spirit.

There is something of God in them, around them, about them. It is tangible.
They know God; they can talk with God; they have an intimacy with him.  
They’re not strong, or clever, but they believe the promise of God that his Spirit will help them to begin to change and live as God people.
Things don’t necessarily go well for them. Indeed sometimes in seems that things go worse for them. But they have a sense of peace and of joy and of intimacy with God in the suffering.
They’re not perfect, but they know that because of Jesus they are forgiven. And because of that they can say sorry.
They are not necessarily the most successful people in life, but they bear good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control;
They’re not immortal, but they have an amazing hope because they believe the promise of God that those who put their trust in Jesus will physically die, but will not really die.

And God people long for the Kingdom of God. They long to meet with Jesus.

If a God-person was told that Jesus was at Tesco’s garage, they wouldn’t spend their time trying to sort things out. They would put out the welcome banner. They’d be at the doorstep waiting for him to arrive. They know that they are not perfect; and they know Jesus knows they are not perfect. But they know that he loves them, and they love him. And they long to be with him. 

A story is told about the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Basil Hume (I do not know if this is true). When he told a friend, the then Abbot of Ampleforth, that he only had a few weeks left to live, the Abbot is reported to have said, ‘Oh Basil. I am delighted for you’.

John told people that the Kingdom of Heaven was close at hand. We know that that was true, is true and will be true.
It was true, because Jesus came. He was born as a baby. He lived, he preached the Kingdom; he lived the Kingdom.
It is true, because Jesus is here, and his reign can begin in our hearts and minds.
It will be true because one day, at the end of history as we know it, Jesus will return and then his reign will be visible.

And so the call of John to repent, to turn to God, to turn to his Son Jesus Christ, and to allow Jesus to baptise us with his Holy Spirit, is as relevant now as it was then.

The Kingdom of Heaven is very close at hand. You’re either on his side; or you are not. 

Friday, 19 November 2010

On God's anger

Last week I spoke about the love of God

This week is much harder. If I am trying to be faithful to Joshua 7, I need to speak about the anger of God.

The background is this:
God has given a decree – very plainly and very clearly – in Joshua 6:18-19.

The war against Jericho, against Ai and against the other cities in Canaan, was not to be a war for stuff, plunder or for land. They don’t need land. They already have land on the other side of the Jordan.

The war against the Canaanite cities is not their war. It is God’s war. That is why they did nothing at Jericho apart from walk round the walls and shout! They are acting as God’s instrument of punishment on the Amorites, a people who have persistently and consistently rebelled against God, and against his word, and who have become increasingly sinful. Nations and peoples can become increasingly rebellious.

God has been very patient with the Amorites. They were already a big problem back in Genesis 15:16. Sodom and Gomorrah were just two of the cities. And God says to Abraham, ‘One day your descendants will be the people who live in Canaan’ (the Amorites lived in Canaan). ‘But’, he says, ‘not yet. I will wait. I know what will happen, and how the sin of the Amorites will increase’. ‘In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure’.

The Bible tells us that the reason that God waits is to give people a chance – a chance to hear and a chance to repent.

And even now, with the Israelite army in the land, it is still not too late for the Amorites. They can still turn to God. Rahab does, and she and her family is saved. Some of the other peoples recognise the way that things are going, and at least publicly acknowledge the God of Israel, and are not destroyed.

And what God is doing in Canaan is effectively what he did in the flood. In the flood the sin of the world had become so great that God decided he would start again with Noah and his descendants. And now, at this particular land at this particular time (you can NEVER use the Old Testament to justify genocide at any other place or any other time), God is using the descendants of Abraham, as he used the waters, to cleanse the land and refill it with a people who would be faithful to Him, to his promise and to his word. This is not ethnic cleansing, but a cleansing of the land from sin.

However, if you are chosen by God to be an instrument of God – to bring about God’s reign of peace and love and obedience and trust in him on earth – even if it meant here, in this case at this time, resorting to war – you need to make pretty certain that you are living in a right relationship with him. You need to make sure that you are obedient to him.

And that is not happening.

And these verses are about the anger of God – not against the sin of the people of the land, of the Amorites, but against the sin of the people who are meant to be living in a relationship of trust and obedience to God, the people of Israel.

That is why this chapter begins with a reference to the anger of God: ‘But the Israelites were unfaithful in regard to the devoted things. So the Lord’s anger burned against Israel’. (Joshua 7:1); and it ends with a second specific reference to the anger of God. After Achan and all that belonged to him has been destroyed, ‘the Lord turned from his fierce anger’ (Joshua 7:26).

I wonder what you make of the anger of God.

We get uncomfortable when we talk about the anger of God.

So often when people talk of an angry God, we think of human anger and rage. That is often uncontrolled, irrational and unjustified. It is also unfocussed and completely out of perspective. We’re hungry, we’ve had a bad day at work, it’s the time of the month or we’ve got manflu - and some poor innocent who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time gets it.  And the bible warns us that ‘our anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires’ (James 1:20). Of course we will get angry, but we are warned ‘not to let the sun go down on our anger’.

God’s anger is not like that. It is right and just and focussed.

I get angry when people do not show me respect; when they treat me, or I think that they are treating me, just as a cog in the system, an irrelevancy, or as someone who can be walked over. Actually that is a bit of joke. If I’m really honest, who am I that people should respect me?

But God is right to get angry when we do not show respect to him, when we treat him either as irrelevant – because the creator and giver of all things, the one who loves us, really is worthy of respect. If we cannot respect that which is worthy of most respect, who or what will we respect, apart from ourselves?

It is actually a good thing that God gets angry – and that it is a right anger.

It means that when we desire fairness, we desire something that is real. In a world without God, or in a world in which there is God, but no boundaries, there can be no ultimate fairness.
But if God gets angry with sin, then we know that there is ultimate fairness.

It also means that we can hand over our anger to him – when we pray.
We get it wrong. A few weeks ago I received an email. I got all steamed up about it, and fired off a stroppy reply. Then, when I reread the email, I began to realise that it wasn’t saying what I thought it was saying.

So when we get angry, we can pray: ‘God, I’m really really angry about this. I want to do this or that. I want to smash them. But God, I may well be very out of order here. I may be angry with the wrong people for the wrong reasons. So I hand this one to you. You’ll be angry with me if I’m wrong, and I ask for mercy; and you will be angry in the right way if I’m right’

That is why I would not run away from some of the very difficult psalms, where we talk about smashing our enemies babies heads on rocks. Please remember that the people who prayed those prayers, were people who had seen their pregnant women ripped open and their own children slaughtered by the enemy. It was far better to express our real anger in our prayers, to give it to God, rather than to try and take that anger into our hands.

And I prefer talking about God’s anger rather than some notion of absolute justice – to which, I assume, even God is meant to be subject. First of all, that implies that there is something bigger than God. But secondly, justice is impersonal. If the problem for us is that we are answerable to some absolute justice - you do this and then that inevitably follows - then there is no hope for us. But if the problem for us is that we are answerable and subject to God’s anger, then there is really is hope for us: God’s mercy.

And this passage makes absolutely clear that God’s anger is a reality.

God hates sin. In this case, we are talking about direct disobedience. God had said, ‘Do not take’. And now God says, ‘Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen; they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions’. (Joshua 7:10-11)

What happens here – and it is a warning we need to listen to - is that Achan puts love of stuff before love of God. And God hates it.  He hates sin, because sin is a denial of everything that he is; he hates sin because it is a rejection of his love and of his goodness. God hates sin because he sees what sin does. Covetousness leads to theft leads to lies. It destroys other people and it destroys us.  

And here we see God’s anger expressed

1. in the sentence that is passed on Achan and his family

The fact that Achan’s children suffer because of Achan’s sin is an offence to our sense of justice. But we need to be aware that we live in a very different society to that of Achan and ancient Israel. There the head of the family involved the whole of the family. Because Rahab was saved, her family and all that belonged to her was saved. Because Achan was condemned, the whole of his family was condemned. It was the principal of corporate solidarity. The whole community is represented in one member.

We live in a very different society where each individual is personally accountable for their own sin. That is an emerging biblical principal. In Ezekiel 18 we are told that the child will not die for the father, nor the father for the child, because ‘the one who sins is the one who will die’ (Ezekiel 18:4)

We see that worked out in the New Testament. Ananias and Sapphira sell a field and give some of the money to the church. Where they go wrong is that they tell the church that the money is the full amount that they received for the field: in other words they are giving everything to the church. But it wasn’t true. Peter confronts Ananias and accuses him of lying to God. Ananias falls down dead. Later Peter confronts Sapphira, Ananias wife. He does not assume that she shares Ananias’ guilt simply because she is married toAnanias. He asks her, ‘Is this the full amount you received for the field’. She says ‘Yes’, and Peter simply says, ‘How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord’. She too falls down and dies. Luke writes, ‘Great fear seized the church and all who heard about these events’

The important thing to stress is that now, in the church, we are each individually responsible for sin. I am not particularly sure that that puts us in any better situation.

God is angry, very angry, rightly angry, when we sin. He is particularly angry when we sin as members of his church, his people. We need to learn again the fear of God.

2. in his threat to abandon the people of Israel

I would argue that this is an even more scary aspect of God’s anger.

God says to Joshua, ‘The reason that you were defeated at Ai was not because you were complacent; not because there was lack of prayer. It was because I did not go with you. And then he says, ‘I will not be with you anymore unless you destroy whatever among you is devoted to destruction.’ (Joshua 7:12)

God can either direct his anger at us, or  – in his anger - he can wipe his hands of us.

If God directs his anger at us, it means that we personally matter to him. The writer to the Hebrews states: “My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:5-6)

But if God, in his anger, wipes his hands of us, then it means .. we are nothing, we are not even really alive, we have not been alive, we are existing as a shadow in a world of shadows (we might pretend it is real), but we are heading for eternal destruction.

That is not what he wants. Ultimately, far far deeper than his anger, is his love. He loves us. That is why he sent his Son to die for us. And he longs for us to know him, to be in a relationship of the deepest possible intimacy with him.

That is why, in his anger, he may convict us deeply and very painfully (sometimes, when I have been convicted of sins, the words of the confession at communion in the BCP really do apply, the remembrance of them is grievous unto us; the burden of them is intolerable’); he may use our Christian brothers and sisters to discipline us, and sometimes he may use circumstances to bring us to our senses.

I’m hesitant about saying that, because you may hear me say that personal specific suffering is due to particular sin. So and so is ill because .. Apart from the obvious, that is not the case. Suffering is an aspect of God’s anger against the world, it is meant to lead us to repentance, but it is general not specific. When you are on your back, you can either close your eyes, or you can look up. And actually, more often than not, God uses kindness to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4)

God’s hates sin but loves us. He cannot separate us from our sin, because sin is our choice, but he is longing that we would repent, and turn to him, and seek his mercy which he so freely offers. That is why he is so patient.

Maybe the whole procedure of finding out by lot who had taken the stuff from Jericho was actually God’s way of giving Achan a chance to step forward and to confess of his own free will. Maybe, if he had done that, he might have saved himself and his family. But he didn’t.

God forbid it, but there is a danger that if we persist in sin and refuse to repent, then God’s patience will wear thin, and he will walk away from us.

[One final thing: A heap of stones is raised up over Achan as a permanent memorial, and the place is called ‘The valley of Achor’ (Achor means trouble). This is where trouble came to Israel.

However, many years later, through the prophet Hosea, God promises to his people – on another occasion when they have sinned against him and suffered his anger -  ‘I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the valley of Achor a door of hope’. (Hosea 2:15 cf  Isaiah 65:10)

And he goes on to say, despite Israel’s sin, "How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? … My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I turn and devastate Ephraim. For I am God, and not man - the Holy One among you. I will not come in wrath.”

So finally, how do we reconcile the love of God and the anger of God?

We look to the cross. It shows us a human being bearing the full weight of the eternal anger of God against sin; who also happens to be the eternal sinless Son of God giving himself for us in love.]