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).