Saturday, 24 December 2011

Jesus' birthday party: a talk for a crib service

Jesus' birthday party

You are a King. You’ve had a baby. He or She is going to be the next ruler. You want to celebrate their birth. You are going to have a party. 
Because you’re a big King and you want people to know how big you are, you throw a big party: big parade; a big palace, amazing fireworks, glamorous VIP’s, lavish gifts. 

You’re a bigger King. You’ve had a baby. He or she is going to be the next ruler. You want to celebrate their birth. You are going to have a party.
Because you’re a bigger King and you want people to know that you are bigger, you throw a bigger party: a bigger parade, a grander palace, more amazing fireworks, A-list glamorous VIP’s, astonishingly expensive gifts

You see, in our world, the bigger the king, the bigger the party: you need to show people how big you are. 

So what if the one born is the Greatest of kings .. the King of kings and the Ruler of rulers. 
What a party!!
And yet Jesus, the Son of God, the King of kings, was born in a cowshed, to a couple of peasants, and the visitors were some shepherds and some odd people from the East.
The answer is simple: God did not need to show anyone how big he was. He does that every day when we look at this creation. He chose instead to show how great his love for us is. Jesus came into the mess of a stable, into the mess of our world, to save us from the mess of our lives. 

And because of that, today millions and millions of people celebrate his birthday. Today his birthday party is far bigger than that of any other ruler. It is a party that has a parade of millions singing his praises; his palace is the universe; the fireworks can be seen every night when we look up in the sky; everyone is invited; and we don’t just give him gifts, those who receive his love him give him their lives. 

Welcome to Jesus’ birthday party. Happy Christmas. 

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A Christmas message 2011

The light shines in the darkness

When Jesus was born that first Christmas, it was dark

He was born to a people under foreign occupation
The law of God, all that was right and true, had been trampled underfoot.
Evil and fear and death ruled.
It seemed as if God, if he existed, had abandoned them.

But then, John writes, ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world’. (John 1:9)

For many people, particularly this year, things can feel quite dark
Anxiety overwhelms you: exams, someone you love is sick; maybe you are facing serious illness
Financial worries – not sure whether you will get a job when you leave school; you’ve been made redundant; not sure about your job; the pension is not going quite as far as it used to; and people talk about economic melt down and a repeat of the great depression. 
Facing Christmas alone – someone has walked out on you; you’ve been bereaved; the children have moved far away
Deep disappointment – with a god who we professed to believe in, with others, or maybe with ourselves.  We know that we’ve deluded ourselves. We’ve let others down: there have been too many compromises. We think back to the dreams, to the pledges and vows and we look at the reality. And we consider our lives and we realise that we don’t know where we are going. We are lost. 

When Jesus was born a star appeared.

The nearest star (apart from our sun) is 4.2 light years away: that is only 25000 billion miles away. The furthest known star is a mere 78000 billion billion miles away.

Stars are phenomenally bright. We think our sun is fairly bright. But this year they have discovered a star, estimated to have a mass 225 times larger than our sun. They’ve called it by the very special name R136a1! It is 8,700,000 times brighter than our sun. But we can’t see it – unless we have an amazingly powerful telescope. Why? Because it is 165000 light years away - a billion billion miles away!  

So even though these stars are phenomenally bright, if you are in the middle of London, you won’t even see them.
If you are in one of the villages near Bury St Edmunds, you might see them shine quite clearly
But it was when we were out in a remote part of Tanzania, and looked up, that we saw the most astonishing night sky.

You can really only see a star when you are prepared to turn off all the lesser lights, to go out into the darkness, to accept the darkness, and to look for the star.

When Jesus was born, a star appeared. 

The thing was, nobody saw it. Oh they saw it up there, but they didn’t actually see it. Nobody except some wise men. But they were looking for it. 
They had read the ancient Jewish scriptures, and they had come across prophecies that a star would arise which would announce the birth of a king, who would be born to rule the earth. 

And so they set out on a journey to ‘follow’ this star – to see where it would lead them. And eventually, after turning again to those same ancient Jewish scriptures, the star led them to Bethlehem, and to the place where Joseph and Mary were staying, and it led them to Jesus. 

And when they came to Jesus, those wise men did something astonishing. They stopped looking up at the stars, and they looked down at a different star. They stopped following the stars, and they began to follow a different star. Not a star up there, but a star lying in a cattle feeding trough. And they offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. And they kneel down and they offer him themselves. 

Very few people saw the star in the sky. 
Very few people saw that the baby in the manger was the ‘true light’ come into the world. 

The problem is not that the evidence is not there. 
The problem is that we are not prepared to go out into the darkness to look. 

There are several ways of dealing with the darkness. 

The first is to celebrate darkness: to honour all that is shameful and evil, all that strips people of dignity and value and respect and life. It is to say that there is no god, no ultimate value, no final judgement – and basically whatever you want to do, whatever drive is in you - do it – providing you are not caught out. It is the ‘eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you die’ philosophy.
It is also the ultimate form of escapism. 

The second is to pretend that the darkness does not exist. It is to pretend that I will never die, to sentimentalise death to death with wishful thinking: ‘Oh they are going to be with granny’. And this denial of the darkness is to pretend that I never sin (well not in the ways that matter). It is to clothe myself in a righteous morality that can be so shocked when others fall (but of course loves to talk about it), without seeing the filth that is in me. Jesus spoke to people like this. He called them ‘white-washed tombs’. They looked great on the outside, but inside they were dead. 

There is a third way. It is much harder, but far more honest. It is to go out into the darkness and to look: to look at death and to realise what death is. One of the things that I admire about the new atheists is that they are prepared to look death and non-existence in the face. My challenge to them is that they then do not live the logic of that reality. But if we are to go out into the darkness we also need to be prepared to look at the darkness that is within us – the fears and anxieties that drive us or paralyse us, the lusts that make us treat other people or objects as things that exist to satisfy our desires, the self-centred pride that means that we think that we are the most important thing in the universe, the sentimentalism which weeps at films but hasn't got time to visit our elderly shut-in neighbour, the judgementalism and unforgiveness, the cold heart. To go out into the darkness, is to realise that the darkness is there, and that it has a dreadful hold on us.  

And if, this Christmas time, we are prepared to look beyond the fairy lights on the Christmas trees, beyond the glitter and the tinsel, and all the things that this world offers – and if we are prepared to go out into the darkness, and look, we might just, like the wise men, glimpse the glory of a star. 

Because the message of the Christmas is that the darkness does not have the final word. 
There is a star. Not a star up there in the sky; but a star which is described by Peter as the word of God, a star which ‘rises in our hearts’ (2 Peter 1:19)

It is hard to see, but not impossible. 

Some people suddenly see it. It is like a star exploding into existence. Those are the people who are dramatically converted. For many others this star just gets gradually brighter. They know they couldn’t see it, but now they do. 

But however it happens, we become aware that there is something more powerful than the darkness; that God exists and he has not abandoned us; In his love, he has stepped into our dark world; Another name that Jesus was given was Immanuel, and Immanuel means ‘God with us’. We hear the message that because of Jesus we are forgiven. And we hear the message that death is not the end – not because we wish it to be so – but because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And we hear the message that this Jesus is alive and that we can know him, as those wise men knew him.  

At first this light seems very faint, but as we focus on it we realise that it is brighter than all those stars put together. It is, in fact, the source of all light, of all creation, (even of the Higs bosun!). And when the sun has ceased shining and when all the stars up there have been extinguished, this light will continue to shine. This is the light that is the life-source for all things. 

At first this light seems so far away – thousands of light years away - but as we focus on it we realise that it, that he, is closer to us than our very breathing.

And I urge you to be like the wise men; to have the courage to go out into the darkness and to look for the star; seek Jesus, the true light that came into the world; and when you see him, I beg you, for the sake of your eternal soul, welcome him, kneel down and offer him yourself. 

In our fear, he offers peace
In our guilt and shame, he offers us forgiveness and a new start. 
In our emptiness, he offers fullness
In our confusion, he offers focus and identity
In our meaninglessness he can bring purpose
In a world that offers us no hope, no future, he can offer us an eternal destiny
In a world of death, he alone can offer us life.
In our darkness, he really does offer light and joy.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

How to read the book of Revelation

Guidelines for reading the book of Revelation

·      Revelation is revelation! However it is not just about a revealing of the future. It does do that. But it does much more. It is about a revealing of the reality behind the present. It draws back the curtain so that we can see what is really going on. It is a bit like watching a Punch and Judy show. A child, who is completely wrapped up in what she is seeing, will think that that is all that there is. But we know that if someone pulls away the curtain below the stage, we would see what is really going on.
Now I am not saying that we are simply puppets being manipulated by some celestial puppeteer. But I am saying that behind this current reality there is a greater reality.

So, for instance, the Christians of John’s time were a tiny minority people in a very hostile world. They lived in a state that demanded your ultimate allegiance, and an emperor who claimed to be divine. They were part of a community that was being crushed by her oppressors, and they themselves were being imprisoned, tortured, fed to the lions and used as human torches – to entertain others.
But through John, God pulls the curtain away and shows them a bigger picture: of a world that is beyond time and space, where God and the Lamb reign, where thousands upon thousands worship, where a battle has been fought and won – ‘by the lamb who was slain’, but that – for a short time – the earth has become the scene of this celestial battle. And he shows how their prayers matter; and he shows that there is a meaning to the sufferings, and there will be an end to the sufferings, and that God’s justice and mercy and kingdom will triumph.

·      Revelation tells us one story from many different perspectives. We get several series of sevens through the book of Revelation: seven churches, seven seals, trumpets, thunders, bowls and angels with seven plagues - the seven bowls of God’s wrath. And people ask, 'are we meant to read the events of those different sevens as subsequent to each other? Are there first the disasters of the seven seals, and then the seven trumpets and so on?'

But John does not say, ‘after this, came that’, but ‘and then I looked’. In other words, ‘I looked at it from this angle, and then I looked at it from that angle’. And so I am persuaded by those who argue that we are not talking about subsequent events, but rather about the same events from a different perspective.

And so I would currently argue that chapters 2-3 of Revelation are speaking of the same experience within time that chapters 4-16 are speaking. But they present it in very different ways. And each of the three series of sevens looks at the same reality from a different perspective. So the seven seals present that reality from the perspective of the saints; the seven trumpets from the perspective of the proclamation of the gospel; the seven bowls from the perspective of the final judgement on the beast and his followers.

Chapters 17-19 are different. I suspect that they are speaking of the very end, and of the coming of the beast (the anti-Christ), 'who once was, now is not and will come' (Revelation 16:8), and his acolyte (we've been introduced to the beast and his acolyte in Revelation 13). He will reign for a short while. But then, in chapter 19, the beast and his armies are defeated by the one who is Faithful and True. Chapter 20 (in my understanding) speaks of the same events, but looks at them from a different perspective: once again, at the end of time, just before Christ returns, there will be a dreadful battle before he triumphs.

·     Revelation uses apocalyptic language. That is a particular style of language which transcends any specific time or culture.  

The danger is that it makes Revelation both hard to understand, and also a fertile playground for those who would come up with loopy and sometimes even dangerous interpretations. 
One man who used to come on and off to my previous parish was totally obsessed with the meaning of all the numbers in Revelation (gematria), and used to argue for some of the oddest things. We are specifically warned about interpreting the obscure by the even more obscure, and about 'speculations' which do not produce faith or love (1 Timothy 1:3f). 

      But there are many controls.
First, we need to test our interpretation of Revelation over against what we are told elsewhere in the bible. So, for instance, Jesus speaks of the end of time and space as we know it, and he says that nobody knows when it will be, and that it will be sudden and unexpected. And Paul, Peter and John speak of ‘the last days’, of how the spirit of anti-christ is present in the world, and that we will see many speak and in the act in the spirit of the anti-christ, but that towards the end there will be the great Anti-Christ, and a time of suffering for the people of God. And they speak of how Christ will then return and establish his Kingdom. 

Second, John himself tells us the meaning of particular symbols (in Revelation 1, he explains the 7 stars and the 7 lamp stands).  But, for instance, we need to know that 7 is the number of completeness, the divine number, and that 6 is therefore the human number (Revelation 13:18). So the significance of the number of the beast, 666 – as, one of my tutors said – is that it is God’s way of blowing a raspberry at the devil. It is the purely human number. It is not 777!

Or if we take the number 12: it is the number of the church (12 tribes, 12 apostles). 144000 is 12000 x 12000, the numerical number of the church (Revelation 21:12-21)

Third, t
he Old Testament really helps. What of 3 1/2  - whether days, months, years? 3 ½ is half of 7. It is a way of saying ‘a significant time, but a short time’.  3 ½ lunar years is 42 months or 1260 days. But the imagery of 3½ has already been used. It is another way of saying, ‘a time, times and half a time’, which Daniel tells us is the length of time that the saints, the people of God will suffer at the hands of their persecutors (Daniel 7:25; 12:7).

Or to take another example. In our reading, we learn of a ‘red dragon’ who tries to devour the child: that is no more China than it is Montreal. ‘Red’, we have seen earlier, (Rev 6:4) is the colour of the one who would strip peace from this world. And the dragon? It is the same word that the Greek version of the Old Testament, which John would have used, used for ‘serpent’ (Genesis 3:1) or ‘Leviathan’ (Isaiah 27:1). The dragon is satan (cf Revelation 20:2). And in chapter 13 we read how the dragon summons the beast and his assistant, and the beast exercises the authority of the dragon. But notice in Revelation 13:11 how one of the beasts is described: ‘It had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon’. In other words, the dragon and his beasts try to imitate God and the Lamb. But when the beast speaks, then you will know him.

      Christians throughout the ages have tried to identify the beast. He has been identified with Nero, certain popes, Oliver Cromwell, Mao, Stalin or the spirit which says that it is all about money. Well, maybe, but the fact that the end has not come suggests to me that they were not the beast, even if some of them spoke or acted in the spirit of the beast (which is the spirit of the anti-Christ). And we do need to be aware. I heard that spirit speak last week: when I was at a meeting and ethical investment was mentioned. Someone said, and knowing them I’m sure they didn’t fully mean it, ‘investment is too important today for us to worry about ethics’. But the spirit of the beast is the same as the spirit of the anti-Christ – it speaks against God and against Jesus Christ, and it denies that Jesus Christ is the son of God or that he came as a human being (1 John 2:18-23; 2 John 7). And maybe we will see many mini-beasts in our world, before the last mega-beast appears.

Or another example. In chapter 12, we are introduced to a woman: ‘clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet’. We are, of course, not to take that language literally. Instead we think of other places in the bible where that sort of language is used. And so we remember Joseph saying how, in one of his dreams, ‘Behold the sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me’, meaning his father, mother and eleven brothers (Genesis 37:9). It is the first time that the people of God, for that is what the family of Jacob was, are described as sun, moon and stars. Or we think of the lover saying to the beloved, ‘Who is this who looks down like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun’ (Song of Solomon 6:10). The early Christians quickly connected the lover with Christ, and the beloved with the beloved of Christ, the bride of Christ, the church – the people of God.  So the woman is the church, the people of God. There are, of course, fascinating connections between the woman and Mary, and you may wish to do your own study by looking at how John uses the word ‘mother’ of Mary in John’s gospel (cf. John 2:1-5; John 19:26-27).

But that brings me specifically to chapter 12. The focus here is on the woman, the church, the people of God. She begins the chapter (vv1-6), and she ends the chapter (vv13-17).

And this woman gives birth to a child ‘who will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre’. That is language which comes from Ps 2:9, and it is language that is echoed again in Revelation 19:15, when John speaks of the one who is faithful and true, whose eyes are blazing fire, and who has on his head many crowns. It reminds us of the one we met in Revelation 1. It is language that is used of one 'like a son of man', the Lamb on the throne, who carries this name, ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ (19:16)

In 12:17, it speaks of her other children (v17): ‘Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to make war against the rest of her offspring – those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus’.

This woman is the church, the true and faithful Israel, the people of God. She is the community who gives birth to Jesus, the Christ. He was promised to the people of God in the Old Testament; he was born a descendant of the great king of Israel (the star of David); he was born of the people who were faithful to the promises of God. But since then, the woman has had more children, as people have become part of that community (Revelation 12:17). And this woman is later described as the new Jerusalem, the holy city, the bride of Christ (Revelation 21:2).

One of the big themes that we find in Revelation is that it challenges the idolatrous claims of this world.

The ancient world claimed that Roma, the city of the emperors, was the new queen of gods and mother of the world’s saviour. She is the new 'Egypt', 'Babylon', the seat of human power which has set itself up against God. And Roma is the city of the emperors, the city of power, the place where it all happens. She is described as ‘the woman clothed in purple and scarlet’ (Revelation 17:4; 18:16). But how does a woman clothed in purple and scarlet compete with a woman ‘clothed with the sun and with the moon under her feet and a crown of 12 stars on her head’

And what of the claims we make for our great civilisations today? What about these words?

“One hand in the air for the big city,
Street lights, big dreams all looking pretty,
no place in the World that can compare,
New York!!!!
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of,
There's nothing you can’t do, Now you're in New York!!!
These streets will make you feel brand new,
the lights will inspire you,
Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York

The challenge is simple. Where do you look to for the fulfilment of all your hopes and dreams: New York, London, Brussels or the new Jerusalem, the city of God?

The woman in chapter 12 is the church. Over against her stands the dragon, satan, who wishes to devour her child when he is born. There are echoes of King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents here. But the child is snatched up to God and to his throne. That is all this particular chapter tells us of the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus! 
The woman then flees to the wilderness. She will be there for 1260 days. It means, as we have seen, ‘a short while’. She will be kept safe, but her children will suffer.

And the reason that the children of the woman will suffer? It is because the dragon, the serpent, satan has been thrown down to earth. He has no one to welcome him in heaven, but while there are people willing to receive him on earth, he leads the earth astray (v9); he is the accuser of the brethren (v10); he is filled with fury (v12); he wants to sweep the woman away (v15); he is enraged at the woman and makes war against her offspring (v17).

In many parts of the world believers suffer for their faith. That is usual. Jesus said that if they hated him, they will hate his followers (John 15:20); Paul wrote that all who wish to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12). Our situation is unusual, and we should not be surprised if the situation here rapidly degenerates and faithful Christians find themselves in prison because they seek to obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.

But while her children might suffer, the church as a whole will be kept safe. From one perspective she 'flees' to the wilderness (v6); from another perspective, the eagle lifts her and carries her to the place prepared for her. The Old Testament speaks of how God rescues his people from the ‘dragon’ of Egypt by bringing them out on eagle’s wings (Exodus 19:4; Deut 32:11). The wilderness was the place of God's guidance, provision, testing, purification and protection. And when the flood threatened to sweep them away, the earth itself intervened to rescue them. Perhaps there is some reference here to the crossing of the red sea; or to the fact that God’s creation groans and struggles against satan, and longs to be set free (Romans 8:20-21).

What we have in Revelation 12 is picture language for how God will preserve and protect his people. Not from evil. It seems, from my reading of Revelation, that at the physical, visible level, the situation will get worse and worse for believers. There will come a point when it seems that humanly speaking the church has been defeated. But even then God will have kept for himself two witnesses, and when it seems that even they have been crushed, God himself will intervene (Revelation 11:1-13).
But that is not the whole picture. If we remove the curtain, the we see God at work. God is protecting his church. Protecting her from faithlessness, from denying him, from giving way to evil. He will even use the time of suffering to purify his people. And when God does intervene, and time and space as we know it will come to an end, then the church – the people of God – who have been preserved both here on earth and in heaven, will be presented to Christ as a spotless bride.  

So what is Revelation saying to us?

1. Remember that we worship and serve God and the lamb. The book begins with a vision of Jesus Christ; chapters 4-5 give us a vision of the one on the throne and of the lamb, and chapter 20 give us a vision of the one who is 'King of kings and Lord of lords'.
2. Don’t be surprised when suffering because of your faith comes. We are told that it will, and it may get worse
3. This is a call to hold firm to the end, and to defeat the lies of Satan and of all who would speak for him by holding firm to the truth of Jesus and to the victory of the cross. As John writes, and these echo the words spoken to the faithful church in Smyrna, “They have conquered him by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Revelation 12:11)
4. This is a call to look to the future: to the glorious vision of the day when heaven and earth are       joined together, when God will be present with his people, when he will wipe away every tear. Why tears? Because his people have been to hell and back. But they will be his people and he will be their God (Revelation 20-21).

Other notes (with significant guidance from John Sweet’s commentary on Revelation)

1. The wilderness: where God’s people were guided by cloud and fire, nourished for 42 years with manna, after escaping from dragon Egypt. The place of Israel’s first love for Yahweh (Jer 2:2 cf Rev 2:4). A place prepared: cf John 14:2

2. The war in heaven is not military but moral and legal.
It is a war in heaven over the fate of man. (cf Jude 9; Satan and Michael disputing over body of Moses).  Satan is the accuser. Satan has his place in heaven as a kind of ‘public prosecutor’ (Zech 3:1ff); in rabbinic thought he is the ‘attribute of justice’ in God over against the ‘attribute of mercy’. But he is also agent provocateur (1 Chron 21:1; Job 1,2). He ends up as personification of enmity to God and his people, leader of all powers of evil: deceiver, accuser and destroyer of men – instigator and punisher of sin.
But because he represents justice he cannot be removed by military force – there is conflict in heaven. While there are sinners to be accused, and while there are sinners who will welcome him, he has his place. [Is this why human beings may not blaspheme even the devil – Jude 9?]

3. Michael: Christ defeats Satan at the cross. Michael and the angels claim that victory. The saints have conquered ‘by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony’.
Michael was the most important figure in contemporary Judaism after God (Dan 10:13,21;12:1). For Christians, Christ replaced Michael

4. V10: ‘Now’ – pointing to the cross as the turning point of history. Christ is appointed to God’s right hand, but on earth the susurping authorities must still be fought.

5. Why does the victory in heaven bring woe on earth?  (v12 cf 11:14):
Because sin has consequences: its own inbuilt consequences and the wrath of God. For John it is also Satan’s wrath (v12). This wrath must run its course, and the brunt is borne by Christ’s brethren, by those who maintain his testimony (might this be what Colossians 1:24 is referring to?)
The earth-dwellers delight in the sufferings of the church (11:10), but it is – in reality – their deadliest plague. What will happen to this planet when you erase the name of God, the people of God, and the things of God?

Malcolm Rogers
St Mary’s and St Peter’s churches
14 December 2011

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The light shines in the darkness

A talk at the Hospice light up a life service.

It is when things are at their darkest that the light shines brightest.

When Jesus was born, that first Christmas, it was dark

He was born to a people under foreign occupation
The law of God, all that was right and true, had been trampled underfoot
Evil and fear ruled.
It seemed as if God, if he existed, had abandoned them.

But then, John writes, ‘The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world’. (John 1:9)

It is when things are at their darkest that the light shines brightest.

When Jesus was born, a star appeared

A star is phenomenal light, billions of miles away. The nearest star is 4.2 light years away, a mere 25000 billion miles away.

You can only see a star when you are prepared to go out into the darkness, when you are prepared to turn off all the lesser lights
·        If you are in London, you can hardly see the stars
·        If you are in one of the villages near Bury St Edmunds, you can often see the stars quite clearly
·        But it was when we were out in a remote part of Tanzania, and looked up, that we saw the most astonishing night sky.

Why? Because when things are at their darkest that the light shines the brightest.

Many of us here will have had our lives plunged into darkness:
The one who meant everything to us, who literally ‘lit up our day’ has been taken from us.
In the words of WH Auden,

“The stars are not wanted now, put out everyone; 

  Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun .."

But it is when things are at their darkest that the light shines brightest.

And I pray that you, in the darkness, have begun to see some stars:
The stars of family, of friends, maybe even of strangers who have gathered round us, and shown us compassion and given us support.
And today we celebrate another star: the star of the hospice, of the love and care of staff and volunteers

But there is a different star that is shining.
It seems very faint, but as we focus on it we realise that it is brighter than all the other stars put together. It is, in fact, the source of their light.
It seems billions of light years away, but as we focus on it we realise that it is both further away than we can imagine, and yet closer to us than we can possibly conceive.  

And I urge you to look at Jesus, the light of the world.

In a world of fear, he offers peace
In a world of emptiness, he can bring fullness
In a world of confusion, he gives us focus and identity
In a world of meaninglessness he can bring purpose
In a world that offers us no hope, no future, he can offer us an eternal destiny
In a world of death, he alone can offer us life.

It is when things are at their darkest that the light shines brightest.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

on the End of the World

Listen to this talk

We are looking at 2 Peter 3

It is an appropriate reading for today, Advent Sunday. We prepare to celebrate Jesus' first coming, and we look forward to Jesus' second coming.

And in chapter 3 Peter focuses on one particular promise: the promise that one day this current heaven and earth will face judgement, come to an end, and be replaced with a new heaven and earth, the home of righteousness (3:13)

We may believe that the world is going to end. Scientists tell us that in about 4 billion years this planet will be burnt up by an expanding sun. But the idea that Jesus will return, and that there will be a new heaven and earth (in which stars do not turn into red giants on us) belongs to the realm of Bermuda triangles, UFO's and little green men. It's there for odd people walking about with billboards, which say, 'the end is nigh'.

And anyway, Jesus said that he would return, and the first Christians expected that he would return. But after 40 years, or after the apostles had died, or after 2000 years, how can we possibly believe such a promise.

It is one of the hardest Christian teachings to believe. If we did a poll here, I suspect that over half of us would say that we are unsure about the teaching of the second coming of Jesus, of a final judgement, and of a new heaven and earth. It is one of the teachings that we put in brackets.

It is of course incredibly hard to imagine.

There are pictures of Jesus descending from the heavens to the earth, of him coming back to Jerusalem, of all people seeing it happen. Perhaps it will be televised or we’ll see it as a webcam. And it doesn’t work for me.

But we do not need to be too literal in our imagination. What we are talking about here is the end of space and time as we know it. And we can only think and speak in terms of the space and time as we know it. That is why we talk of Jesus being 'up there' or 'in our heart'. And so the images we are given in the bible are picture language - trying to explain something that is beyond our understanding in terms that we do understand (that is also how I understand the creation stories): and when, after the end, we look back, we'll be able to look again at the pictures we were given in the bible and we will be able to say: 'yes, they make sense'.

And Peter here urges us not to give up on the promise of God that one day all that seems so solid to us will be destroyed, and that there will be a new heaven and earth, the home of righteousness.

And he asks us to remember five things.

1. The promise of God

The idea of the promise of God, and the word of God, is big for Peter.
In 1:4 he writes, 'He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires'.

And then, a little bit later, he speaks about the prophets. They did not speak on their own understanding, but they were men who spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (1:21)

And now in 2 Peter 3:2 he says: 'I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets'.

And the prophets spoke about the day of the Lord: a day of dreadful judgement on a world that had rejected God; and they spoke of the future kingdom of God - when God will reign, when all would acknowledge and know him, and there would be peace and justice on earth.

2. Peter reminds us of the power of God's word

By God's word the heavens exist and the earth was formed (v5); by God's word the heavens and earth are being kept before that final day of judgement (v7)

This echoes an argument that Jesus had with the Sadducees. They did not believe in a resurrection. Jesus tells them that they are wrong, 'because you do not believe the scriptures or the power of God'

3. Peter reminds us that God’s timing is not ours.

Peter quotes Psalm 90:4, “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night”

A man who read this passage was quite amazed and talked to God about it. "Lord, is it true that a thousand years for us is like one minute to you?"
The Lord said yes.
The man said, "Then a million pounds to us must be like one penny to you."
The Lord said, "Well, yes."
The man said, "Will you give me one of those pennies?"
The Lord said, "All right, I will. Wait here a minute."

We do not understand the timing of God. It is not our timing. It is much much bigger.

God is Lord of time. Remember how, in the Old Testament, on one occasion the sun stood still; and on another occasion a sundial went backwards. And I know of two people who have both told of experiences that they have had when time stopped and even went back.

So the bible speaks of the days between the resurrection of Jesus and his second coming as the last days. To us they may last 2000 years or 2 million years, but if to God they are the last days, then they are the last days.

And Peter warns us that, in God’s timing, that day will come ‘like a thief’.

Jesus also spoke of that day, the day when the Son of Man would be revealed, when he would come in judgement, as being like a thief coming in the night.

And Jesus and Peter are telling us to beware, and not to be complacent.

There was a report on the news about a 16yr old house burglar who, as part of his sentence, had to write to his victim. His letter was intercepted before it was sent. Instead of saying sorry, he wrote to tell the owner of the house that he was an idiot. He said, ‘You should not have left your front window open”.

And Jesus says, ‘Be prepared. There is a day when history as we know it ends. It will come in my time, and it will come suddenly and unexpectedly’

4. Peter reminds us of the patience of God.

This is mentioned twice: 2 Peter 3:9,15.

This is the reason, says Peter, why God takes his time in coming. There have been and there are times in particular places where believers have suffered dreadfully. They must have prayed that this judgement would come, that God would step in and deliver them. And nothing happened.

At the time that Peter was writing many of the Christians were suffering dreadfully. Peter himself would be executed, crucified upside down. But Peter had begun to realise that the return of Jesus could be quite some time.

That is why in 1:15 he speaks of the need to remind Christians of 'these things'.
And most people assume that that was the reason why the gospels were written. At first those who were with Jesus told stories of Jesus, and they thought that Jesus would return in their lifetime. But as they grew older, and as they realised they would die before Jesus returned, so they began to write those stories down. and we now have the gospels. And again, many people say that when Mark wrote his gospel, he was writing down the stories that Peter told him.

And here in ch3, Peter reminds the believers that the reason God is delaying is because of his patience. He knows those who are his, even those who have not yet been born, and he is giving us more time, because he wants all to come in. And he is giving you and me more time: time to repent, time to turn to him and to seek him.

5. Peter reminds us of the judgement of God

‘The earth and everything done in it will be laid bare’ (v10)

Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi, wrote in the Wall Street Journal about the London riots earlier this year.

“[The rioters] are the victims of the tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.

What has happened morally in the West is what has happened financially as well. Good and otherwise sensible people were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels and consume the world's resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when ….

There are large parts of Britain, Europe, and even the United States where religion is a thing of the past, and there is no counter-voice to the culture of buy it, spend it, wear it, flaunt it, because you're worth it. The message is that morality is passé, conscience is for wimps, and the single overriding command is "Thou shalt not be found out."

But if we live like that, we will get a shock. There will be a day when everything is stripped bare.

Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate. (3 weeks to read, 3 weeks to recover). In one episode the Jews have been ordered into the hut next to the ‘bathhouse’, the euphemistic word for gas chamber. They have all been ordered to strip.

“When a man has no clothes on, he draws closer to himself. ‘God, the hairs on my chest are thicker and wirier than ever – and what a lot of grey!’ ‘How ugly my fingernails look!’ There’s only one thing a naked man can say as he looks at himself: ‘Yes, here I am. This is me!’ He recognizes himself and identifies his ‘I’, an ‘I’ that remains always the same. A little boy crosses his skinny arms over his bony chest, looks at his frog-like body and says, ‘This is me’; fifty years later he looks at a plump, flabby chest, at the blue, knotted veins on his legs and says, ‘This is me”

When we are stripped, everything is laid bare. Whispered words, actions, the motives behind our actions, thoughts: the true ‘I’ will be revealed.
George Whitefield, a man who God used to bring revival both here and in America, said, “When I die the only epitaph that I desire to be engraved upon my tombstone is "Here lies George Whitefield; what sort of man he was the great day will discover."
So we are reminded of these 6 things: the promise of God, the power of God, timing of God, patience of God and the judgement of God.

And Peter asks, ‘in light of this, what kind of people ought we to be?” (v11)

He answers his own question: “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (v11); and in v14 he writes,
“So then, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with God”

One of the privileges of my job is that of being with people as they are dying. We pray that they will be at peace: at peace with themselves, having made peace with those closest to them, and their peace with God. It can be a time of great healing, a time of confession, a time of letting go of hurts and a time of hope.

The tragedy is that we do not need to wait for our death bed to sort ourselves out with God (and it is not worth assuming that you or I will get that chance). But if we lived like that, in the light of our own death, and in the light of the final judgement, if we learnt to be honest with ourselves, others and God in the light of what he has said, we would know so much more peace in this world. And the great thing is that with God we do not need to pretend to be better than we really are - we can be completely honest, about our desires, our failures, our mistakes - and yes he may rebuke us but he will do it in love.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

St Peters vision

St Peters vision at St Peters Church by

We seek to worship the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, teach the bible, grow people in faith, love and understanding, equip people to serve, and make Jesus known.

We aim to do this at St Peter’s by being a community of Jesus Christ, submitted to His Word and serving His world

Our vision is to be a united community, of all ages, meeting together on the first day of the week, focussed on Jesus Christ.

Our vision is to listen to Him, receive from Him and be equipped to live as His body in this place: an open, loving, welcoming, forgiving, growing, empowering, serving and witnessing community.

We long to be a people who are open to God’s word: gathering together expecting to meet with and hear from the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. We long for our worship to be real, relevant, exciting and life-giving. We long for our teaching (whether in age relevant groups, or preaching) to be biblical, stimulating, comforting and challenging, envisioning and equipping. We long that our communion, celebrated on Sunday, will be lived out in our relationships, service and witness during the week.

We long to be a people open to God’s world: serving our neighbourhood and beyond by prayer, witness and practical service.

We recognise that we face a number of distinct issues
1. Because St Peter’s is off the beaten track and is not in the centre of a natural residential unit, most of our new contacts do not come from passers by, but from friends bringing friends.
2. We have a current concern that we do not have many families with younger children. We recognise that it is God who gives growth, but we will make an effort to reach out to younger people.
3. Although we long for people to join our community, our deeper desire is that people will meet with God. Our first prayer when visitors come is not that they will join us, but that in their worship with us they will recognise that God is in our midst.

Practical focus

1. Worship
We will work at our Sunday service, and particularly our all age services, so that they are more accessible for people to bring friends. We will work to develop links between the service and those who go to Little Fishes. We will explore the possibility of running ‘messy church’
2. We will work on our communication: improving our noticeboard, website and communications (electronic and paper).
3. We will seek to put on more social events (as bridge events, enabling people to invite friends to come into contact with the church community), including a summer fayre in 2012. We will seek to set up a small group with responsibility for coordinating such events.
4. We would love to see St Peter's becoming a church building which is there for a local community; and for people who worship at St Peter's to increasingly serve God in their homes, workplace and community. We will explore the idea of trying to link St Peter's with a particular area of our parish, so that people see St Peter's as 'their' parish church; also of developing links with the Hyndman Centre; and we will explore what gifts people have to offer.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Our three great needs

According to Hebrews we have three great human needs

  1. our need for purification – so that we can stand in the presence of God
  2. our need to live the good life – perfection
  3. our need for eternal life
We are cut off from God because of sin.

I wonder whether you have ever been in a situation where you are seriously underdressed.

You come to the front door in your torn jeans and dirty T-shirt, and it is the Bishop.

What you need is a good scrub up.

We cannot come into the presence of God with our metaphorical torn jeans and dirty T-shirt. We need to be scrubbed up.
And with God it is not about something on the outside. We need to be purified within. We need a deep clean.

When we stand in front of God, he sees us as we are. What is inside us becomes completely transparent: the laziness, the resentments, the selfishness, the arrogant pride, the lack of love and hard-heartedness, the fears that drive us, the unforgiveness and jealousy which cripple us.
And if it stayed like that, God would take one look at us and walk away. He would say, ‘I didn’t make you like that; I didn’t create you to live like that’.
And we would want him to walk away. There is no way we can cope with something like that.

So most of us keep God at arms length. We might use the language of God; we might like religion; we might make up our own god; we might cry out to God when there is no other option, but most of the time we want to keep God at a distance.

What we need, if we are ever to approach God, if we are going to begin to get to know God, to become friends with God – is a good scrub up. A scrub up, not on the outside, but on the inside.

The book of Hebrews is good news, because it tells us that the scrub up is possible. We can be purified.

That is what all this stuff about priests and sacrifice is about (vv26-27).

In the Old Testament, the people would take an animal, bring it with them into the temple, into the presence of God, would lay their hands on it and then kill it. It was a way of saying to God that they recognised that in his presence they deserve to die. And in that way, and only in that way, could they stay in the presence of God.

But, says Hebrews, there was a problem with the sacrificial system. It was only temporary. The sacrifices needed to be repeated, day after day (v27).

They were a bit like a patch up job on a suit that is falling to pieces. There is a hole - you stick a patch on it. Another hole – you stick a patch on it. The problem is that the holes are appearing faster than we can put patches on.

People sometimes think: Do I need to say sorry and make some sort of payment to God after every sin. Well in the Old Testament the answer was ‘Yes’. Theoretically you needed to make a sacrifice after every sin. That might just be OK for sins that are actions; but how does that work for sins that are about us having a wrong state of mind?

So although the Old Testament sacrifices point us to a God who longs for us to be in his presence and who provided us with a way of being in his presence (after all, it was God who gave the sacrificial system), – it was only provisional.

And that, says Hebrews, is where Jesus comes in. God sent him as a new high priest, not like the priests of the Old Testament.
They were appointed because the law said that the children of Aaron should be priests. He was appointed because God said so, and God swore it with an oath.
And Jesus made a sacrifice of a completely different order to the Old Testament sacrifices. He sacrificed himself, and because he was perfect his sacrifice was ‘once and for all’ (Hebrews 7:27). It never needed to be repeated.

As an aside what we do here today in communion is not a sacrifice. That is why I prefer to call the table not an altar but the Lord’s table. We remember that sacrifice; and we receive from Jesus the benefits of his sacrifice.

And so the person who comes to Jesus, who – as it were – lays their hands on Jesus, identifies themselves with Jesus (we do that through faith and baptism), has been purified. We have been ‘justified’, declared clean, declared righteous. At one level we haven’t changed. We still do filthy stuff. But we ourselves have been changed. The real ‘us’. We are no longer filthy. We have been washed, scrubbed up, by Jesus.

We stank, but God has poured precious perfume all over us: so that we smell with the beauty of Jesus.
We are in dirty rags, but God has given us a radiant robe which covers everything.

So when he looks on us, he looks on Jesus.

And so we can stand confident in the presence of God. We do not need to keep God at a distance. We have been purified.

Our second great need is to live the good life.

Story of three ambassadors: A local radio station asked them what they would like for Christmas. They broadcast the answers. The Chinese ambassador said, ‘I would love to see peace on earth’. The American ambassador said, ‘I would love to see an end to world poverty’. The British ambassador said, ‘A small box of jellied fruit would be lovely’.

Our problem is that when we go to Jesus we do not ask big enough.

We might ask for help in a particular situation, for something, for a bigger house, for success in a project, for a holiday. Maybe we ask him to give us someone to go through life with us; for children; for healing, for wisdom. Many will ask for freedom; many will will ask for enough food to feed their family; others will ask for strength – to get through today and the next few days; for justice – to have their fair share, or to be vindicated; Maybe we ask for peace – so that we wake up in the morning and are not knotted up. Maybe some ask God to take them out of the hell that life seems to be. I think of the person who said, ‘I tried to take my life three months ago, and I wish I had succeeded’.

We ask for those things, but actually what we really want are not necessarily those things. What we really desire is an absence of pain and of conflict and of a paralysing fear. What we desire is love, fulfilment, goodness, peace, joy and significance. 
What we really desire is to live the good life. 

The priests in the Old Testament pointed to this good life. They taught the law, and the law showed how the good life was to be lived in a particular situation. But, as with the sacrifices, there was a problem. The priests may have taught the good life, but they were unable to live the good life. They were sinners just like the people. And so in v18, Hebrews says, ‘The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect’).

But says Hebrews, another came who did live the good life. ‘He has been made perfect for ever’ (v28). So if we wish to live the good life, we need to go to him. We need to go to Jesus.

There is so much more to say, but I will refrain!

Hebrews speaks a great deal about death.

It speaks in ch 2 of the devil who held the power of death, but his power was broken when Jesus suffered death on the cross. And as a result Jesus has freed ‘those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:15).

This does not mean that Christians will not fear death.
But it does mean that our fear of death does not need to control us. We do not need to be slaves to our fear.

In the Old Testament the priests offered sacrifices, but they were temporary; they taught the good life but they were unable to live it; they declared a God who was eternal, but they were weak and they died.

Jesus was different. He made a sacrifice that was eternal; he taught and he lived the good life. And he lived ‘an indestructible life’ (v16). He died, but death could not hold him. And 3 days later he rose from the dead, and he ‘lives forever’ (v24).

We need: 
Purification – so that we can stand in the presence of God
Perfection – to live the good life
Eternal life

The Old Testament priests were often very helpful, but they cannot give us that.
The ‘priests’ of today– GP’s, counsellors, teachers or tutors, agony aunts, bloggers, opinion writers – are often very helpful, but they cannot give us that.

But if you want to be made clean, so clean that you can stand in the presence of a perfect God; if you want to learn to live the really good life; if you desire to be set free from the slavery to the fear of death, and to live the perfect life for ever – turn to Jesus.

He is at the right hand of Father God and he is praying for you.
“Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him”. (v25).