Saturday, 22 April 2017

Growing in our knowledge of God. A talk for the parish AGM

Paul begins his letter to the Colossian Christians by thanking God for them, by thanking God for the gospel, and by praying that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will.

And that seems to me to be a good model to follow on an occasion like this.

1.      I do thank God for you – for your faith in Jesus and your love for all the saints.

It is encouraging to see the faith that so many have.

It has been great to see people taking new steps of faith: taking risks and doing things like Café church and Sunday@4; or taking on new jobs or becoming Readers in the Church of England, as Tom and Andrew did.
And it has been a particular privilege for me this last year to be beside several of our brothers and sisters as they have faced death with the Lord.  And some of them have been quite inspirational.      

And it is encouraging to see the love that people have for all the saints.

Paul does not thank God for the love that the Colossian Christians have for one another.
I’m sure that is not because they hated each other!
But what he does thank God for is their love for all the saints.
That is the real test of whether our Christian love is authentic. It is not about whether we love the people who we worship with and who are generally quite like us. It is about whether we love and practically serve those who are brothers and sisters in Christ, but who are very different to us.

So one of the things that has been special for me in the last year is how mission has been playing a much bigger part in the life of both our churches. I’m not talking about our evangelism here, but about our support for Christian believers throughout the world. And Dorothy you have played a big part in that, so thank you.

Tom and Jemma have gone to Addis Ababa
We’ve supported the work in Zimbabwe at the Montgomery Heights Christian Centre and Orphanage
And more recently, Nick and Julia have been out to Albania, to see the work of A2B and the work of the ‘Jesus brings us together’ Church.

But it is not just love for believers overseas. It has also been encouraging to see how people have been working together with Christians from different churches across the town: in Bury Drop in, Town Pastors, the fair-trade shop, Sporting 87 and CAP to name a few. Having said that, it would be great to see some people willing to be involved in the more formal structure of Churches Together. It is important as an expression of our unity in Christ and our love for our brothers and sisters in this town.

We are called to love all people equally, and in heaven that will be possible. But here we are limited by space and time. So God gives us neighbours in order that we learn to love. St Mary’s and St Peter’s are not only sister churches; we are also neighbours. Yes, there will be a slight parting of the ways in the lives of our two churches, and that is right if we are going to see growth, but it is also important that we guard our unity. And we do that by praying together. The staff team pray together weekly, and the parish prayer meeting is vital. And we express that love when we look not only to our own interests but to the interests of each other: I’d love our two DCCs to be in competition with each other about how much good they can do for the other.

I thank God for you; for your faith and love

2.      I thank God for the gospel

When I first read this passage, I thought Paul was giving thanks to God for the faith, love and hope of the Colossian Christians. But he isn’t. He gives thanks to God for their faith and their love, but if you look carefully, you see that he is not speaking of their subjective hope, but of the objective hope that they have been given.

This is a bit of a dodgy illustration. Imagine you are long term ill. On some days you have a hope that you are going to get better. On other days, you don’t. Paul is like the person who is not saying thank for the fact that on some days you hope you are going to get better. He is like the person saying thank you because you are going to get better; and the power of that recovery is already at work in you.

Paul is saying that the reason that the Colossian Christians have faith and love is not because they are good people, not because they are hopeful people, but because the future Kingdom – God’s reign of light and life and justice and mercy and forgiveness and beauty and truth – is already breaking in to their lives.

That is the gospel, or at least one way of expressing it.
Later on Paul describes it in different terms. But here, he says, Jesus died to rescue us from darkness and to transfer us into his kingdom of light.

He died to rescue us from the darkness of sin, from the stuff that we do or think – which we keep in the dark because if others knew about it, we would die of shame. Well; Jesus does know, and yet he still loves us. And he freely went to the cross for us, and he died for us – and because of his death we are forgiven (v14). And because we are forgiven and accepted, we can begin to face up to the darkness and allow the light of Jesus to shine on it.

He died to rescue us from the prison of hopelessness that we found ourselves locked in. Imagine dungeon. Imagine dark. Imagine people chained to the wall. Your worst nightmare. We make the best of this cell that we are locked in. It is, after all, our home and all we are used to. We may even have parties in our cell and pretend we are having a great time. We know that this is not how we were made to live, but there is no hope. We are never going to get out. And then suddenly the wall is smashed down and our rescuer appears: and he takes us out into a new world.
We were slaves. Slaves to the forces of this world. Slaves to our own twisted desires and compulsions and fears. And we have been redeemed (v14). When Jesus died on the cross. We have been set free.

And because we have been forgiven, and we have been set free, and we are now citizens of heaven, the Spirit of God is at work in us. And we will grow in our faith in Jesus and in our love for all God’s people.

And so I thank God for this gospel, this good news, because it is bearing fruit and growing. We see that when people begin to have a hunger to find out more. We see it when someone gives their life to Jesus and becomes a Christian. We see it when someone who is gripped by the Holy Spirit and by the Lord Jesus steps out beyond their comfort zone in service of others.

3.      I pray that God will fill us with the knowledge of his will

Both churches have been thinking about vision. Well, perhaps I should say that Nick and St Peter’s have thought about vision, and I’ve got envious and felt that St Mary’s should also be thinking about vision! What is it that we believe that God is calling us to do as churches?

I am not convinced that this is the sort of knowledge that Paul is speaking about here. I think what Paul is speaking of here is God’s general will for us – his will which is revealed in scripture, but which we can only understand when the Spirit takes the words of scripture and applies them to our hearts and minds.

So, for instance, I don’t think this is speaking of where you should live, but how you should live where you find yourself; it is not speaking of what job you should do, but how you do the job you do; It is not telling you if you should marry or who you should marry, but how you should live as a single person or as a married person.
It is not fundamentally about the decisions we need to make, but about our heart and attitude.

It is about getting to know the heart of God, the love of God, the will of God. It is about allowing that will to come in and fill us. I guess Paul could equally have said here that he prays that God would fill us with his Spirit, or his wisdom, or that his Word would live in us.

As we grow to know God’s will, as we allow that will to fill us, it shapes our will – and we will want to do what God wants us to do. When we have decisions to make, we will almost instinctively make the right decision.

I was talking with an older Christian who is going on with the Lord, and he says that there is so much that he used to watch on television that he now does not enjoy watching. He doesn’t want to watch stuff that is about violence or revenge or lust. He doesn’t want to watch people ripping other people to pieces. He wants to watch stuff that is ‘true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise’ (Philippians 4.8)

And Paul tells us that if we are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, then we will know how to live lives worthy of the Lord, pleasing him in every way and bearing fruit in every good work. It is how we will delight our God – because he will see someone who has a heart like his heart. Remember how, when Jesus humbles himself to receive baptism, the Father says, ‘This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased’.
And if we are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, then we will have strength to be patient and endure. We’ve been warned that hard times will come, and there will be times when we all we can do is cry out to the Lord and wait. Later, in Colossians, Paul writes of the suffering that he endures for the sake of Christ.
And if we are filled with the knowledge of God’s will, then worship will become something quite different. We will overflow with joy in our praise of God for what he has done for us and for who he is.

There is one phrase here that I have not mentioned, but I think that it could be the most important!
Paul writes that he asks God to fill us with the knowledge of his will … so that we grow in the knowledge of God (v10).

That seems to me to be the really big vision statement.
It is the vision statement that trumps all other vision statements.
It is more important than our buildings; it is more important than our activities; it is more important than our plans.
Jesus came so that we might come to know God.
He died so that we might come to know God.
He rescued us from the dominion of darkness so that we might come to know God.
He fills us with the knowledge of his will so that we might come to know God

My prayer is that we will be a people who are growing in our faith in Jesus Christ and in our love for all our brothers and sisters, who are growing in our understanding of the gospel, and – who above all else – are growing in our knowledge of God. 

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Is Jesus just an imaginary invisible friend?

I’d like to introduce you to Alice and her friend, Humphrey.

Here is Alice

and here is a picture of her friend, Humphrey

Humphrey is 8 ft tall, he is blue and is a very furry rabbit. He is also invisible.

Humphrey is Alice’s great friend
He is always with her
She talks to him and tells him her secrets.
He knows everything about her
And he comforts her when she is sad or scared.

What then of Jesus?
Is he just a grown-ups’ version of Humphrey?
Someone who knows me, is with me and comforts me when I am scared or lonely?

Today's reading tells us that Jesus is not an imaginary friend.
It is the story of what happened on that first Easter morning.
And it tells us that:

1.      There really was a person called Jesus

He was as real as .. Ben, here.
You could shake his hand. You could have a conversation with him. You could know him.
And this Jesus really lived and he really died. He was crucified. We have quite a lot of evidence for that, both in the bible and in other literature of the time.

But then something remarkable happened.
On the first Easter Sunday, the women went to the tomb, and there they met someone. They said that he looked like lightening. And he was dressed in pure white. White is, of course, absolute visible light, the merging of all the colours in the spectrum.

And this angel has a message for the women: ‘Jesus is not here; he has been raised. Tell his followers to go to Galilee. There they will see him’

Jesus did appear to his followers. They saw him. They touched him. In our story, the women clasp the feet of Jesus. They even ate fish with him. Their lives were changed. From being terrified secretive followers of a crucified leader meeting in locked rooms, they became men and women who travelled throughout the world telling people everywhere that Jesus rose from the dead.

This is not fake news. Last week Lionel helped us think through the evidence for the resurrection. There is ample evidence: the tomb that was empty, the grave clothes, the many different people who met Jesus, the changed lives of the disciples.

Jesus Christ was as real as Ben here.
Jesus Christ rose from the dead and is as real as Ben here.

2.      Jesus spoke and Jesus really speaks

It is easy to deceive ourselves and turn Jesus into a Humphrey who only says nice things, like: God loves you so that means God wants you to have an easy life and be happy, healthy and rich; everybody is going to heaven – so it doesn’t matter what you believe or what you do, provided you are sincere.

But because Jesus really lived, we know what he did say.
It is recorded here

Over the past few weeks we’ve been looking at some of those things:
‘Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand’
‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’
‘If you forgive others .. your heavenly Father will also forgive you; if you don’t forgive others, your heavenly Father will not forgive you’
‘If you want to be my disciple, you must deny yourself, die to what you want and follow me’

That is quite challenging. If Humphrey said that to me I wouldn’t be very happy. I’d tell him he was demanding too much.

But it is not Humphrey. It is Jesus, who rose from the dead.
He tells us that the Holy Spirit will take the words that he spoke then so that when we read them, or someone speaks about them, those words will come into our heart and mind; and they will change us.

Because Jesus is alive, there are times when he speaks specially to us, to guide us or reassure us. And he will speak to us through people, circumstances and personal conviction. But because Jesus is not a Humphrey, but really lived and spoke, we can check that what we think he is saying to us is really him. And the way to check it is to test what we believe he is saying to us now against what he said then.

Jesus spoke and Jesus speaks

3.      We will really see him

Alice, sadly, will never see Harvey.
But we will see Jesus.

The angel tells the women to go and tell the disciples to go to Galilee.
Because there they will see him.

And it is while the women are going to tell the disciples, it is while they are being obedient to the command, Jesus comes to them and they see him.

They meet Jesus and it overwhelms them; it is too big for words. They fall down at his feet. They worship him.

Those sorts of meetings with Jesus are unusual, but they still happen. I have met a few people who say that they have seen Jesus.
Last year Jenny Ashman was in hospital in the last few weeks of her life. She had terminal cancer. Those of you who knew Jenny will know that you can hardly have got a more no-nonsense person. She was not prone to fancy imagination. She told me that Jesus came and stood in her side room. She could only look at his feet, but he lifted up her head so that she could look him in the face.
And Barbara at St Peter’s tells of how, about 12 years ago, she was kneeling at the communion rail, and suddenly Jesus was there. She could reach out and touch his robe. Even now she cannot speak of it without being moved.

And maybe some of you here have had similar experiences. I’d love to hear about that if you have.

But the promise of the resurrection is that if we are obedient, if we listen to him and trust him, if we go to our Galilee – wherever or whatever that is for us -  then Jesus will come and meet us and we will see him.

I suspect that for most of us that will not be this side of the grave. But it will happen on the other side. John writes, “What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” (1 John 3.2)
And when we see him, like the women we will truly worship.

One final thing.

Humphrey does not have to be an 8 foot invisible blue furry rabbit; he can be a security blanket or a cuddly toy or prayer book or beads or whatever.
Yesterday I heard an amazingly gifted violinist speak of her beloved Stradivarius violin that was stolen from her. She spoke of her desolation, and she spoke of her instrument as she would speak of a lover: of one who knew her and had become part of her and from whom she was inseparable. I’m sure musicians here will know something of that.

But I just wonder whether that deep longing for a Humphrey or for someone or something who – even if we can’t see him – knows us intimately and deeply and who is always with us and for us, is in fact an expression of a God given longing and desire for the real thing: the risen Jesus.  

So I invite each one of us today to come to Jesus who really lived and died and rose again. He speaks and you will one day see him. He was and he is and he is to come again.

The cry of desolation that brings hope (Good Friday 2017)

At 3pm before he dies, Jesus cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

It was a declaration that was misunderstood then.
They thought that Jesus was calling on Elijah. There was a belief at the time that Elijah would come and rescue those who were righteous.

And it is a declaration that is misunderstood today.
Some say that Jesus is saying it because he is wanting to quote from Psalm 22, which speaks of both suffering and the eventual vindication of the one who suffers. But Jesus only quotes the first verse and I very much doubt that even he, hanging on the cross, would have been able to think as clearly as that.

Others say that Jesus is saying it because he felt that he was abandoned by God, but in fact he wasn’t. God was there all the time.

My own take is that this is a cry of utter desolation.

Jesus is crying out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ because God has forsaken his Son. The Father has turned his back on God the Son.
The Father who is there from before eternity with his Son and who has delighted in his presence, and the Son who is there from before eternity with his Father and who delighted in his presence are separated. A chasm, an abyss opens in the heart of the Trinity.  

That is what makes the cross of Jesus so particularly awful.
There were many others who suffered death by crucifixion.
There will be some who have died an even more dreadful physical death.

But Jesus experiences a depth of abandonment, emptiness, hopelessness and despair that goes beyond pain. He suffers in a way that no other human being will ever experience.
He really does go to hell.
And it is from the depths of that abandonment that he cries out, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’.

But this is also a cry of love

Jesus could have avoided the cross.

Only a few hours earlier, he asks his Father to take away the cup that he has to drink (26.39). He knows that this is the cup of the wrath of God. It is a cup that has to be drunk - either by us, or by him. And since there is no way that we can bear its weight, in his love he prays, ‘My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done’

Jesus, in his love for us, gave himself up to be crucified for us.
He drank the cup of the wrath of God so that for us there is now no condemnation

He went into the darkness of divine judgement, so that for us – however dark things are – there will always be light.
The prophet Amos speaks of the coming judgement of God. He said, ‘On that day I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight’ (Amos 8.9).
The darkness that hangs over the land from noon till 3pm is not the sign of God’s punishment directed against the people who crucified his Son. It is the sign of the punishment that Jesus himself bore, out of love, on the cross for us.
It is not judgement on the people, but judgement on the one who has become sin for us.

That is very precious to the believer.

For those of us who are beginning to become aware of our sin, and who know that we deserve condemnation, this is a wonderful truth.
The price for our sin has been paid, and it was paid by Jesus in full on the cross.
There is nothing more for us to do. We cannot undo the hurt that we have caused – not by being good, or by suffering, or by self-discipline or even by coming to 3 hour services!
All we can do is receive this astonishing gift of love;
All we can do is - in wonder - receive this unmerited gift of forgiveness when God took upon himself the punishment that we deserved.

That is why Paul writes those great words in Romans 8:1, ‘There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’.

And because Jesus was prepared to walk into the desolation of God forsakenness, three things happen immediately on his death.
The curtain in the temple, which separated the people from the most holy place where God was said to dwell, is torn in two from top to bottom. There is now no barrier. We can know God personally
There is an earthquake and the tombs are opened. Death has been defeated
The Roman centurion standing guard, seeing the darkness and the earthquake declares, ‘Truly this man was God’s son’. Because of Jesus death, the eyes of people are opened so that they can see the truth.

As Wesley wrote,
 ‘Amazing love! How can it be?
That thou my God should die for me.’

This is, for the believer, a cry of hope.
Of course, we will find ourselves in the pit.
Of course, there will be times when we are abandoned, in pain, empty, hopeless and in despair.
Of course, there will be times when it seems that God has led us down a cul-de-sac or an alley into a very dark place; and there will be times when it seems that God has walked out on us and walked out on his church.

But because Jesus spoke those words, the believer will never be God forsaken.

As soon as we turn to God and say, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’, we realise that we cannot be God forsaken.
We say those words and then we realise that we are speaking the same words that Jesus spoke.
We are speaking the words of the one who was God with us, who loved us and died for us, who is God with us. So how can we be forsaken?

The real reassurance for the Christian believer is that the truly God forsaken person would never pray this prayer. They would be so closed to eternal realities that it would not even cross their minds that they were God forsaken.
The very fact that we pray this prayer, that we take on our lips the words of Jesus, who became one of us, who identified himself with us, even to the extent of taking on our sin, means that we are not God forsaken.

So we give thanks to Jesus for being willing out of love to walk into the desolation of forsakenness for us. And we give thanks to God that because he was God forsaken, however lost we might feel, we are never going to be God forsaken.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Cross shaped prayers for Good Friday

I invite you to take up your palm cross, and as we pray to look at it

We look at its base, and imagine the cross of Christ plunged deep into the earth

Father God, we thank you for sending your Son to come and live among us, for his being one of us, his suffering with us and his death for us.
We thank you that in the face of lies, injustice and unspeakable brutality, our Lord Jesus, out of love for us, kept silence and bore in his own body the weight of our sin
We pray today for all who suffer: for those who suffer pain and grief, who see no hope or who are lost inside their own mind. But particularly today we pray for those who suffer because of injustice or the violence of others. We pray for our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt. We pray for safety for the many acts of witness that will be held throughout the world today. And we pray for those who would commit acts of terror. We ask that you frustrate them, and that you would touch their hearts and minds so that they turn to you; so that those who have declared themselves to be our enemies would become, in you, our friends for eternity.

We look at the crossbar, on which the arms of the Son of God are opened wide

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, we thank you for your great love. We thank you for your delight in us, for your desire that we might come to know you.
Fill us with your Spirit that we might have the same love.
Give us grace to see others as you see them, and to sacrifice ourselves for those among whom we live and work.
Help us to proclaim your love with courage and clarity.
We pray for our town and villages, for our churches and projects. We thank you for the unity you have given us, and we pray that together we might be a beacon of light pointing people to you. And we ask today that as we walk through town, in respectful silence, behind the cross, people would be drawn to you.

We look at the cross

We see a symbol of utter evil and cruelty and hatred. But we also see a symbol of the most astonishing love and obedience and sacrifice

Father God, as you take the absolute worst and transform it into the bridge from heaven to earth and earth to heaven, so we ask you to transform us and our communities and our nation, so that what is death in us may become life for others and bring glory to you.

So we pray as our Saviour taught us:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name
Your Kingdom come
Your will be done, on earth as in heaven
Give us today our daily bread
And forgive us our sin, as we forgive those who sin against us
Lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil

For the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory are yours, 
Now and for ever. Amen. 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The obedience, humility and mercy of Jesus

From today the Church focuses on the last few days of Jesus’ life; and our reading tells us about two events that Matthew places immediately before the Triumphal entry. It prepares us for that event, and for the crucifixion.

It is a passage which speaks to us of:

1.      The deep obedience of Jesus

Jesus goes to Jerusalem.

He knows what it will mean (Matt 20.18-19).
He will be betrayed: someone who is speaking good to him to his face is plotting how to do bad to him.
He will be condemned to death
He will be mocked, flogged and then crucified.

The key word here is a Greek word, ‘paradidomi’. It means, literally, to be handed over. And it suggests not only the action of Judas handing Jesus over to the chief priests and scribes, nor just the action of the chief priests and scribes handing Jesus over to the Gentiles to be crucified. It hints at something more: the handing over of Jesus, the Son, by God the Father, into the hands of sinful men and women.

Or to put it another way.
Jesus knew that he had come in order to drink the cup that God was giving him.

When James and John ask for those places on his right and left, he answers them, ‘Can you drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ (Matt 20.22).
That cup is clearly understood by Matthew as being the cup of the wrath of God against sin. The Psalmist speaks of that cup of wrath. So does Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk and Zechariah.  
That is why in the garden of Gethsemane, just before he is arrested, Jesus is in such anguish that he sweats blood (according to John); and he begs God to take the cup from him.

But his prayer continues with those amazing words, ‘Yet not what I want but what you want’ (Matt 26.39)

Jesus knows what he has to go through.
He knows that he has to face dreadful physical suffering;
He knows that he has to face absolute spiritual separation from the Father.

And yet he is willing to be obedient to the will of the Father. He doesn’t protest against it. He doesn’t try to avoid it. He accepts that will. He is obedient to his Father.

2.      The deep humility of Jesus

Jesus is about to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. It is to be an unambiguous sign. He is deliberately fulfilling the OT prophecy. He is making it very clear that God’s king is coming to God’s city, and he is coming to reign.

Those first followers of Jesus are just like us. They think of kings and kingdoms in terms of power and status and significance and wealth. They think of greatness in terms of how much you have – how many followers, how many servants, how many possessions.

That is why James and John, recognising that things are coming to a head, persuade their mother to speak on their behalf. If Jesus is now about to come as King, they want to be Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. They want those positions of power and status.

Thinking that greatness depends on how much you have, of course is the way that leads to anger, resentment, arguments and conflict. Look at how the other disciples respond to James and Johns’ request. They are livid.

But Jesus challenges them and turns our criteria of greatness on their head: ‘You know the at the rulers of the Gentiles Lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you’ (Matt 20.25-26)

He speaks of greatness not in terms of whether you are at the top, but whether you are at the bottom. He speaks of it as not how many people you have who serve you, who are ready to do your will, but in terms of how many people you serve – and the extent you are prepared to go to serve them.

I was very struck several years ago by a picture of Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury. He was on his knees speaking to a resident in a nursing home.

It is an unsettling image. It is not one that those who wish to promote the importance of the role of Archbishop would use much.

In the eyes of the world, leadership is meant to be different, above us.
In 1969 an extraordinary film called Royal Family was produced which showed a family called the Windsor’s living a very ordinary life, just like us. David Attenborough, then a controller at the BBC, wrote to the producer, “You’re killing the monarchy, you know, with this film you’re making … The whole institution depends on mystique and the tribal chief in his hut .. If any member of the tribe ever sees inside the hut, then the whole system of the tribal chiefdom is damaged and the tribe eventually disintegrates.” The film was shown once, but has never been shown again. It is kept under strict wraps.

The more I learn of our monarch the more grateful I am to God for the gift of her to us. She serves not only in her public role, but also quietly in ways that we will never see. But the point is that, however humble she is, that humility before others can never be publicly shown. In this world, the head of state cannot be shown as a servant. I cannot think of any image of the Queen kneeling down at someone’s feet.

But Jesus offers a very different picture of leadership and greatness to the one which the world presents.
He claimed to be King. But he then,
knelt down and washed his disciples feet.
chose to go to Jerusalem, in order to be condemned, mocked and flogged. He stretched out his arms and he allowed them to nail him to a cross.
He willingly and freely gave his life so that those he died for might be set free and really live.

When we look at these verses, we see the deep humility of Jesus.

3.      The deep mercy of Jesus

The two blind men cry out to him: ‘Lord have mercy on us, Son of David!’
Jesus asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
“Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

That seems to me to be the prayer that we should pray this Passiontide: “Lord, let our eyes be opened”
Help us to see who you are. Help us to see what you went through for us. Help us to see the true nature of greatness.

I was speaking on Friday with a man – he must be in his early 90’s. He is very tall, and he has a real presence and aura about him. I’d love to find out more about what he had done. He came to the cathedral midday Lent reflection, and he was telling me afterwards how this was all so new to him. He had only come to Christ two years ago, and he was learning and discovering so much. ‘And I’m no longer afraid of death’, he said.

Jesus in his mercy, had opened Brian’s eyes. He is seeing the world in a completely new light.  

Jesus hears the cry of these two blind men. He has compassion on them. Do you notice that (v21)? He touches their eyes, they regain their sight and they follow him.
Where? On the road to Jerusalem. On the road to the cross and, through the cross, the resurrection.

And perhaps the mercy of Jesus is shown in this passage in another way, although this is speculative and I claim no authority for it.
Jesus says to James and John, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ (v22). They say, ‘Yes, we are’.
And Jesus says to them, ‘You will indeed drink my cup’.

Perhaps he is speaking about the suffering that James and John will experience as they follow him. James was executed by Herod and John spent the final years of his life in exile.
But I wonder whether Jesus is instead speaking about how they, and indeed we, will drink from his cup in another way.
And we do that every time we gather for communion. He gave his life as a ransom for us; he drank the cup of the wrath of God – and now, because of that, in his mercy he offers us the cup of peace with God. The cup of death and separation that he drank has become for us a cup of life and intimacy.
So the next time that you hold the communion cup in your hands, if you remember, think of the cup that Jesus drank for you and thank him that because of that we can have life, peace and communion with God.

Whatever, I pray this Passiontide that the Lord Jesus will open our eyes. That we will see his obedience, his humility and we will know his deep mercy.

The rejoicing shepherd (all age talk)

Who would like to come and join our party? Because this story is about a party.

You can eat the cake and drink the lemonade, provided mum or dad is OK with it, so long as you listen to me at the same time!

We heard the story of the lost sheep.

But it is a silly story.

It is about a shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep 'in the field' in order to go after the 1 that has got lost.
No shepherd would do that.

It is about a shepherd who, when he finds his sheep, joyfully puts it on his shoulders and carries it home.
Well I'm not like that. I remember when we lost our children in the supermarket. You search everywhere for them. They are not in the aisle with the snacks. They are not in the aisle with the chocolates. They are not in the aisle with the toys. You are worried and it turns to panic. And then you see them. They are sitting in the middle of the aisle with the cereals playing with a car. 
At first there is an amazing sense of relief. I've found them. They're OK. 
And then, what do you do? 
Rejoice? Lift them up and put them on your shoulders? No. You tell them off for getting lost and putting you through it!

And this story is about a shepherd who finds his lost sheep and then goes home and throws a party - for a sheep! Well I would not do that! What a silly shepherd.

So why is our shepherd so different?
We need to realise that this is not really a story about a lost sheep. This is a story about a rejoicing shepherd.

Jesus is saying several things
a) God is like the shepherd in the story and he loves you
b) God is like the shepherd in the story and he will go to extraordinary lengths to find us
c) God is like the shepherd in the story and when he finds you, he has a great party.

God is like the shepherd and he loves you

You are of massive value to God. You are beloved.
How much? (stretch arms open wide)

And God longs that each one of us will be part of his flock.
He wants you to know him in the same way that he knows you.
He wants you to spend time with him, to listen to him and trust him.
He wants you to come under his protection, to grow into the person who God made you to be.
He even, and it is astonishingly intimate language, wants to live in you and for you to live in him.
People say that when you pray you should put your hands together. But God does not want to be like that with us. Close beside us. He wants to be like this (hands clasped) with us.

And God is like the shepherd. He has gone to astonishing lengths to find us.

He has left the 99 in the field in order to come and find you (he's God and he can do that for you, and for you and for you and for me).

That is what Christmas is all about:
Jesus, the Son of God, leaves heaven and becomes one of us. He gives up heaven, and is born in a cowshed. He lives as one of us, he suffers as one of us and he dies as one of us. He left heaven and he came to earth to look for us.

And that is what Good Friday is all about:
Jesus dies on the cross. He loves you so much that he gives his life for you. He dies for us so that we might be forgiven. He dies so that the door to heaven is opened.

And when the good shepherd, Jesus, finds you, you discover how much he loves you.
He doesn't tell you off for disobeying and walking off.
He doesn't make you walk home and send you to bed with no supper.
Instead he places you on his shoulder and he carries you home.

And then there is the party.
Who likes having their birthday party?
It is great having a party put on for you. It makes you feel very special.

Tony Campolo, who is a Christian minister in the US, tells of the woman who he met when he was working in a difficult part of a large city. She was in a bad way. She was very lost. He discovered that her birthday was soon. He decided to put on a surprise party for her.
He took over a local bar, put up decorations, blew up some balloons and ordered the biggest cake you have ever seen. He invited the people who knew her to come to the party. And when she came in, she broke down in tears. She said, 'Nobody has ever put on a party for me'.

But when a person is found by God then God puts on a very big party for them. He is so pleased that you have become part of his family.

What about the 99 righteous people in the story?
I don't know who they are. I'm certainly not one of them.
And looking around here I don't see many of them here!
I was lost and occasionally I still get lost - when I walk away from God.
So I'm very grateful that God sent Jesus to come and be the good shepherd who looks for lost sheep.

But I also know this. That the truly righteous people will never grumble when God puts on a party because someone who was lost has been found.
A truly righteous person will party with God. They will share his joy, because someone who he loves has become part of the family.

One of the earliest pictures that Christians drew was the picture of the good shepherd. He carries the sheep over his shoulders.

At our other services, you will see that the ministers wear robes. And with our robes, we wear a scarf.

We don't wear it because churches are cold and we need to keep warm!
Some people say that we wear it because it is like a towel, a symbol of service. And that we are here to serve.
But I like to think that the scarf is like the sheep over the shoulders of the Good Shepherd. The scarf reminds me of how much God loves his people.

So we have a party gift. We will place these scarfs on your shoulders. They are like the sheep over the shoulder of the good shepherd. They remind us of how much God loves you, of how far the good shepherd went to find you, and of how happy God is when someone becomes a member of his family.

You are so special to him that he throws a massive party for you.