Thursday, 23 May 2013

Jesus wept: a talk for a town memorial service

Jesus raises Lazarus. Ravenna
John 11:17-37

listen to ‘Jesus wept: town memorial service’ on Audioboo

It is good, although it is also painful, to come to remember, to give thanks, but also to be here with many other people who are grieving

Grief can be a lonely experience.

Our society does not do death well. People are good for a few weeks, but then they forget and for them life goes on as usual. But we cannot forget, we will not forget and life, if you can call it that, will never be the same again.

So it is good to know that we are not on our own.

The verses above tell of the death of a dear friend of Jesus. His name was Lazarus. And the passage tells us that when he turns up and sees the grief of Martha and Mary (the dead man's sisters), 'Jesus wept'.

Those two words combine to make the shortest verse in the bible; they have also become swear words - but they also tell us something about the heart of God for people who grieve.

Jesus does not weep for Lazarus

When we grieve we weep for the person who has died. Yes, they may now be out of their suffering, but we weep that they had to suffer, or that so much was stripped away from them. Maybe we weep because we saw how hard it was for them to say goodbye, or we saw how they tried to hold on to life - in vain. We weep because of lost opportunities, of what they could have been or done, or because of what they once were and what they became; or we weep simply because this world would be a far far better place if they were still here.

Jesus does not weep for Lazarus - because he knows that in a few minutes Lazarus will be living again.

And Jesus does not weep for himself

Again, when we grieve, we weep for ourselves: for what we have lost, because we feel abandoned; for our loneliness and powerlessness. The rock that we depended on, the purpose for whom we lived, the very ground of our identity, the light that brightened our day, 'our sun and our moon' in the words of Auden's poem, has been ripped away from us. And we weep because our life now seems so empty and meaningless. We weep because of that ache which is in us and which is so physical. Or we weep because we see in them our own destiny.

Please do not think that it is wrong to weep for yourself. The more that you have loved someone, the more that they were part of you, the more you will weep for yourself when they have died.

But Jesus does not weep for himself in his loss of Lazarus, because he knows that even though Lazarus has been dead for 4 days, in a few minutes Lazarus will be living again.

He is going to stand outside that tomb, tell them to move away the stone, and command Lazarus to come out - and Lazarus will come out.

No, Jesus weeps for Martha and for Mary, and he weeps for you. He wept because he sees the utter devastation that death causes.

He knows that in a few minutes Lazarus will be alive. But he also knows that Lazarus will die again, that Martha and Mary will die; that your beloved will die.
And Jesus sees the pain of Martha and Mary. And because this is the eternal Son of God who we are talking about, in their pain he sees your pain. He weeps with compassion for them - and he weeps with compassion for you.

Jesus wept because in this world - despite the poetry - death is bigger than love. It tears apart those who love each other. And he weeps for broken love.

But Jesus does not only weep for us. Jesus also gives us hope.

At the back of this church there is a window on which are depicted four scenes from the life of Jesus. They tell the story of how Jesus raised three people from the dead: the only son of a widow; a 12 year old girl and Lazarus.

There were, of course, many people who died in Israel when Jesus was alive.
If he had the power to do that, why did he not then restore more sons to their widowed mothers, more children to their parents? Why did he not raise more people from the dead?

But Jesus brought those three people back from the dead in order to give us hope.
He showed people that although in this world death is bigger than love, for God love is bigger than death.
He demonstrated that he, Jesus Christ, is the destroyer of death and the giver of life.

Martha accuses Jesus. When she says to him, 'Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died', her tone, the expression on her face, her body language would have screamed out: 'Jesus, if you had bothered to get here earlier - and we told you Lazarus was sick - you could have healed him'.
And perhaps you too are thinking, 'I'm with Martha here. I prayed - I really prayed - and God, you didn't turn up.'

But Jesus had turned up - not as Martha expected, not when Martha expected - and he says to her, ' I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though they will die, yet shall they live'.

In other words he is saying, 'Martha, I am not in the business of bringing people back from the dead so that they will die again. I'm into something much bigger. I am the source of Life. If you put your trust in me, if you come to me and receive me as the one who is the source of Life and Love, and if you receive my free gift of forgiveness and eternal life, then even though you will physically die, and Lazarus will physically die, you will never really die'.

I spoke of how the window at the back shows four scenes from the life of Jesus.
The fourth scene is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

A few weeks after the raising of Lazarus, they arrested Jesus, crucified him and buried him. But he is bigger than death, and 3 days later God raised him from the dead - never to die again. And Jesus appeared to many of his followers on several different occasions - and their lives were changed. Although they were mocked and ridiculed, misrepresented, arrested, tortured and executed; although they were fed to the wild beasts or set on fire as human torches - they were prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth: they had a hope.

They had seen Jesus weep.
They knew that he cared.

But they had seen Jesus rise from the dead.
They knew that here is someone who is bigger than death
- that when we die it does not need to be the end
- that love is bigger than death

May God bless you
May you know the compassion of Jesus

And in your grief, may you know the life and the hope that he gives.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

What happens when the Spirit comes?

Acts 2:1-21

There is something very special about Christ followers meeting together, especially when we meet together to worship God.

That is what happened on this first Pentecost: ‘They were all together in one place’ (v1).

And the Spirit comes.

This was the Spirit who Jesus promised his disciples that he would send. He is the Spirit of God the Father and he is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It was a unique event: it is THE fulfilling of the promise that Jesus would give his Spirit. It is THE day when a group of people who had seen the risen Jesus and who worshipped him were transformed from being individuals who were fans of Jesus into being the body of Christ. And all subsequent men and women, when we become Christians, are added into this body. This is when it began. This really is the birth-day of the Church.

It was a unique, one off, event. The Spirit has come, the body of Christ has been formed.

But the Spirit of God still comes. He comes on individuals to make us part of the ‘cake’ of the Church. The Holy Spirit is the great joiner. He comes to join people together, to join them to Jesus and to join them to each other in Jesus. So the Holy Spirit is like glue; he is like egg in a cake; he is the conductor of the choir; he is – and probably this is more appropriate – like the welder’s blowtorch. We are like pieces of metal: we are hard and we clash against each other. But the Spirit takes us and he points his fire at us, he burns away all the rubbish and he melts us so that we can be united with others in love.

But although this is a one-off event, I think that there are several things that we can say – from this passage – that do happen because the Spirit has come

1. Wonders happen:

On this occasion there is a wind (reminding us of the breath of God at the very beginning when God created the world. What is happening here is a new creation).
And tongues of fire appear, and the disciples start speaking in tongues.

Now these are not the tongues spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12 – because here the disciples, although they didn’t know these foreign languages, speak in foreign languages that others, who do know those languages, are able to understand. And those people were astonished.

Wonders, as a rule, are not ‘evidences’ for God.

If a person refuses to believe, they can always explain away even the most astonishing of miracles.
Here the mockers say that the disciples are drunk.

But wonders are a ‘sign’ of what the Holy Spirit is doing or is about to do.

It is like Jesus turning water into wine.
You can try it at home, but – sadly - it probably won’t work.
Why? Because Jesus did it when he did it, at the beginning of his ministry, for a purpose, as a sign: to show that he had come to take the ordinary and turn it into the extraordinary.

So, for instance, someone coming back from the dead is astonishing, but they will die again. But often, when people are raised from the dead – and there are current stories of this happening in North India in Orissa (my own cousin knows someone who was dead but is now alive) - it is a sign of a greater miracle that God is doing in a particular place: taking people who have been spiritually dead and giving them new birth and making them eternally alive.

And there are signs of wonderful healings – when God is bringing deeper healing: signs of people seeing (older lady who hosted our small group in Cambridge; Derek in Holloway) Signs of hearing (Steve Cox and All Souls, Hackney).

So, coming back to our passage, the fact here that the disciples began to speak other languages is significant. They were a sign, not that Christians would always be able to speak in other tongues which other people would understand, but that now that the Spirit had come, and now that the church had been born, the good news of the gospel would be taken to every nation.

The very nature of wonders is that we can’t control them.
They are bigger than us. They belong to the Spirit.

BUT because we cannot control them we must not limit God, or say that they do not happen.

And we need to be willing to pray, because if we don’t pray, we won’t see any answers to prayer! It is not rocket science!

There was Dave in Ipswich who had never prayed out loud. And one day in his small group he did pray out loud, for the first time – a really felt prayer for the orphanages in Romania. He asked God to do something. Dave was a plumber, and that next week his boss came to him and said, ‘Dave we’ve had an appeal from an orphanage in Romania. They need some plumbing work done. Would you go?’

And when you pray – look for answers; and remember the answers.
I was talking about this with Alison and I couldn’t think of any really specific or dramatic answers to prayer recently. I mean a few years ago there was the case of £500,000 which just turned up when we needed it! But I have a simple prayer diary in which I jot down answers to prayer – and I looked through that and, for starters, I had completely forgotten two very specific healings that happened in 2012.

I would love to see more of that. And although I recognise that wonders are what God does and not what we do, I sometimes think that perhaps I am just a bit too comfortable and playing it a bit too safe: so often it is when we move to the edge that the wonders happen – well basically they have to happen if we are going to survive. And as Christians we should never be comfortable with who we are. God wants to grow us to become bigger people, more full of faith and more full of love.

And you know when you have made it – when you are prepared to be crucified because you love your enemy, because you long for your enemy to become your friend in Jesus, and because you have a total trust in God.

The work of the Spirit here is to touch the hearts and minds of men and women so that we begin to take God seriously. Think of Saul on the road to Damascus. He was a God-hater, who was touched by the Spirit; he became a new person with a new name, Paul, and he became a serious Christ-follower. He experienced immense suffering, and in the end was executed, but he also saw God do astonishing things through him.

And when we take the Holy Spirit seriously, life will get rough, and wonderful things will happen.

2. Because the Spirit has been given, God is praised

‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God’

There are so many things for which we can praise God:

Praise him for creation, for life, for friendship and love, for joy, for the abundance of the good things in life.
Praise him for wonderful things
Praise him for Jesus: for his birth, for what he did, for his death and resurrection, for forgiveness and his giving of the Spirit.
Praise him for what he has done for us: rescuing us from death and making us alive to him; for his love, his presence with us, the answered prayers, the unanswered prayers, his promises

There is a big emphasis in this passage on prophecy (Acts 2:17-18). Because the Spirit has come, people will prophesy. Perhaps when we think of prophesying we think of great prophets - but this talks about all people. But notice here how prophecy and visions and dreams are connected. Prophecy begins when we see this creation with God eyes; when we see other people with God eyes. And prophecy is when we tell it as it is.

And yes, on this occasion the praise was utterly spontaneous.
And there are times when it will be spontaneous.

But because the Spirit has come, God is praised – even if we don’t feel like doing so.

That is one of the main reasons we come to church: yes, to learn; yes to ask for God’s help; yes to be encouraged and to serve others.
But fundamentally we are not a learning community but a praising community: we have come to declare the wonders of God.

And it makes little difference to God whether we praise him with words set to music or with words that are simply spoken. It makes little difference to God if that music is classical or contemporary, choral or band led. What does matter is that we DO praise Him - today, maybe, as an act of obedience, but tomorrow as an act of joy.

And I would urge you in those 15 minutes that each of us put aside for God every day, to put aside some time to simply praise God. I know that it is hard – so use the words of a psalm or a prayer or a song or hymn. Or simply stop after the first phrase of the Lord’s prayer: ‘Our Father in heaven hallowed (honoured/praised) be your name’.

And if we learn to praise God, to speak of his amazing deeds with each other, and on our own, then it will be easier for us to take the risk when the Spirit prompts us to proclaim his praises to others.

Because the Spirit has been given, God's is praised.

3. Because the Spirit has been given, the offer of salvation is proclaimed.

Acts 2 begins with the coming of the Spirit. It concludes by speaking of salvation.

Acts 2:21: ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’
Acts 2:40: Peter, at the end of his speech, urges the people, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation’
On this occasion 3000 people responded to Peter’s sermon and were added to the number of those ‘who were being saved’. (Acts 2:47)

Because the Spirit has come, the offer of salvation is proclaimed to all people.
It is the invitation to call out to God, to put your trust in Jesus, to receive the gift of forgiveness and the Holy Spirit.

At one level, when a person calls out to Jesus, you are saved: you have become a child of God
At another level you are still, in the words of Acts 2:47, being saved: There is so much that we still need to be set free from: from the fears which paralyse us, the habits which destroy us, and from this world-fuelled body which is decaying.
We will ultimately be saved when we are raised on that day with a spirit-fuelled body, when we see Jesus face to face and we are transformed into his complete likeness.

But because the Spirit has been given, the offer of salvation will be made to all people.

That is why the fifth aim of our vision statement is ‘to introduce people to Jesus’. We want to join in with what God is doing. It is why Alpha courses and Exploring Christianity courses are so important. It is why we need to be equipped to be able to simply ‘gossip’ the gospel.

It is also why events such as we are going to be having with Fane Conant in 3 weeks time are so important. And perhaps one of the ways that we can step out of our comfort zone is to take a risk and invite someone along to the buffet supper, to the concert or to church. And who knows? We might see wonderful things.

Because the Spirit has been given we can share in that work of declaring the good news to all people so that, when they recognise their need, they can call on the name of the Lord.

So the Spirit was given at the first Pentecost.
It was a unique event: the church was born
But because the Spirit has been given -
Wonders will happen
God's name will be praised
And the offer of salvation is made to all people.

The question for us is whether we are prepared to join in with the work of the Spirit

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Bury St Edmunds Town Pastors: a talk on their 5th birthday

You are heroes.

I shadowed Jo and Chris, Luke and Hazel on their rounds a week last Friday.

It was a quiet night (I think 'peaceful' is the correct word), but it was an eye-opener. I hadn't quite realised what being a pastor involves. For those who don't know, they begin about 9:30, go on to 4:30 and work what is almost a full night shift for some, but as volunteers who have a day job. I have to confess that I gave up and went home at 2:15

I also saw just how much the pastors are appreciated
- by the door staff: who feel a lot happier about chucking someone who is drunk out because the town pastors are around!
- by the club owners: who don't want trouble, because they don’t want to lose their licence! 

- by local residents
- by people who are out for the night on the town (and some of them are very young). They love the Freddos, the water and the banter; but they also do appreciate that there are people who don’t have an axe to grind, who are keeping a watchful eye over them so that if they do get in trouble they know there is someone who they can turn to.
- by the police: we’ve heard that. I should also say how much the police and their support is very appreciated by the town pastors.

But the heroes are not just the pastors on the streets.
The heroes are also those who pray.

Those of you on the streets are the hands of town pastors. 
Those of you who pray are the heart beat of town pastors

Because this really is a work of faith.

I would love to take those who are aggressively against the Christian faith and show them the work of the town pastors. I want to say to them, 'Why are you getting so worked up about it? Since you consider it is not true, you have nothing to worry about. And look what it does for people who do believe that it is true. Look what it makes them do'

A living faith in Jesus Christ moves people away from the centre to the edge, to love and to serve those on the edge.

Jesus tells a story about how, on judgement day, God separates the sheep and the goats. He commends the sheep because they gave drink to the thirsty, cared for the sick, welcomed the stranger, they clothed the naked (or the nearly naked), gave shelter to the homeless and visited those in prison. With the exception of the last, and you may even do that, you do all of those things.

A Christian is someone who should never become comfortable with who we are. I am not speaking about those who have a restless need to move on, who think that the only way to solve a problem is to run away from it. Rather I am speaking about a peace-driven conviction that whoever we are there is something more. God wants you and me to become bigger people, more loving and more holy. And we become bigger people when we to take new steps of faith. Faith is spelt RISK.

And when we take steps of faith, then we need to rely on God.

The passage in Ephesians talks about putting on the armour of God.

- the belt of truth:
Without that awareness of the truth of the love of God, and the sacrifice of Jesus and the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are stuffed. Good intentions will take a person so far, but when it is mid February, minus 3, and you’ve just sat for the last hour with someone being sick, then you need more than toast and peanut butter and good intentions to keep you going.

- the suit of righteousness: that gift of the coat of Jesus' right-ness that is for those who put their faith in him.
When one of you puts on your big town pastors coat (it is almost worth signing up to wear one of them), you cease to be just yourself. You are now a town pastor.

And when a person becomes a believer in Jesus, we put on the jacket of Jesus' right-ness. We cease to be just ourselves. Of course, underneath we are weak, we are inadequate, we are sinful, but when by faith we put on that jacket, we become Jesus.

- the shoes of the readiness to proclaim the gospel of peace.
You are not on the streets to preach, but there are opportunities to speak of your faith. And we have to rely on God to give us the right words to speak.

- and we do need to rely on the shield of faith (that minute by minute dependence on him), the helmet of salvation (of knowing that we belong to him), and the sword of the spirit, the word of God - which is ultimately the only thing that is able to change the heart and minds of men and women.

People love the town pastors: they see you doing a good work.
I also suspect that they think you are a bit foolish.

But you are dynamite: You are dynamite because of what you do, and because you, by your prayer and your action, are demonstrating a completely alternative way of living.

If you want to really live life to the full, then the answer is not to get as hammered as you can; to try and pull as many people as you can, to treat them as notches on your bedpost; it is not to 'eat, drink and be merry and to hell with tomorrow'; it is not to live your life trying to prove that you are more gorgeous or more witty or tougher than your mates; it is certainly not to use human weakness to your benefit.

You are demonstrating a very different way to live.
In my alternative dictionary the word 'life' begins with the letter G. G for God.

It is about putting God first.

And it is not about what you can get, but what you can give.

It is not about being served, but about serving others.
It is not about screwing other people, but it is about sacrificing yourself for the sake of other people.

Next Sunday is Pentecost - it is the official birthday of the Church. The Holy Spirit came, and the disciples were sent out in power to love and to serve.

May I congratulate you on your 5th birthday, and may that same Holy Spirit continue to send you out in power to love and to serve.