Sunday, 17 September 2017

Learning to forgive. On the occasion of a wedding blessing for Lev and Vasilisa Buinov

This is a great passage for building a relationship.

It was important for Alison and myself, though probably for the wrong reason!
I was single, and had started work as a curate, an assistant pastor, in Ipswich. I visited, on my rounds, one of the local schools where I saw this rather attractive teacher. Her class were due to take an assembly and she asked me if I would help – she must have been desperate. The assembly was about this story and so we worked together on it. And the rest, as they say, was very good news for Peter, John and Andrew!

And for you Lev and Vasilisa, I hope that this story that Jesus tells will be special for you. Both because it is the set reading for our communion service today, but also because it is about grace and forgiveness – and that is what a marriage, or for that matter, any relationship, is built on.

I’d like to suggest three key words for marriage and relationships

1.      Communication:
It is absolutely key. There will always be issues and problems, things we expect and things we don’t expect. But if we are talking together, if we are being real with each other, we can usually overcome most problems.
But for that to happen we need to learn to share: the everyday stuff, the daily gossip, our thoughts and feelings, and deeper still. That is why it is good to have one or two people with whom we can learn to share our soul.
So we do need to speak, especially when we are hurting. That is the time we can go into ourselves and cut out the other person. Many of us – and this can be particularly a man thing - are like vacuum cleaners which are never emptied. We take the rubbish in, but because we do not speak, or at least we do not speak about real stuff, we fill up and we clog up. And we stop working.
And it is not just about speaking. We also need to learn to listen to each other. To listen to what is said and to listen to what is not said. There are some people who are so good at speaking that they find it very difficult to listen.

2.      Compromise:
This is important for every relationship.
Forgive me for saying this, but it is not all about you.
Former head of our childrens school in BSE. His PA, Deborah, would constantly remind him, “Geoff it is not all about you”. He said, at his leaving do, “Today Deborah it gives me great pleasure to say that today this is all about me!”
But life is not all about me. And we need to be willing to yield, to do what the other person wants. That is as true for work, for a church council, for a bible study group or for a marriage.
Several years ago, in the UK they interviewed on TV a couple who had reached their 80th wedding anniversary. It was a record. They asked the husband what the secret of their marriage was. He replied: “The secret of our marriage can be summed up in two words, ‘Yes Dear’.” But he is right. Not just him to her, but also her to him.

3.      Forgiveness:
That is what our passage is about.

It is a story about a huge debt. A servant owes 1000 times the annual revenue of Galilee, Judea, Samaria and Idumea put together. We don’t know how he came to be so seriously in debt (maybe he had been gambling on the money markets or stock exchange and it had gone disastrously wrong) but it was there and it was unpayable.
It is a story about an astonishing act of compassion.
The servant cries out for mercy and the king cancels the debt. It may have meant that he had to sell off some of his personal assets or that he almost bankrupted himself. But in forgiving the servant, the king himself took the hit.
It is a story about the difference between the king and the unforgiving servant
The king saw the servant before he saw the debt. He saw the servant’s distress. He realised what it would mean for him, for his wife and children. And he had compassion.
But that servant, when he had been forgiven, did not see his fellow servant, but only the debt.
Perhaps he had dwelt on what was owed to him. He had allowed resentment to grow. It had got to him. It had eaten him up. Money can do that.

I remember many years ago when I lent a colleague £50. He said he would repay, but he never did. I think he genuinely forgot, and I resolved to just let it go. But I found it so hard. It kept coming back. And in our story the unforgiving servant, even though he has been forgiven so much, cannot get beyond the debt. He cannot see the person.

Jesus tells that story because he wants us to know that

1.      You are known
God knows us. He knows our deepest desires, our loves, the frustrated ambitions, the greatest regrets, the missed opportunities, the achievements of which we are so proud. He knows our fears; he knows the times when we have been badly hurt; he knows our longings and our joys.
It is a bit scary because he also knows our dark desires, our ungratitude, our selfishness and self-centredness. He sees the people who we have hurt – unintentionally or intentionally. He knows our greed, our lies, our lack of mercy, generousity and graciousness, our  resentment and unforgiveness. He looks and he sees our cold hard hearts.
And he sees the debt that we owe. The debt that we owe to him, and the debt that we owe to each other. And it is overwhelming.
And he looks at our rather sad attempts to deny the debt, and at our pathetic attempts to pay it off: “I’ll give money to the church; I’ll mortify myself; I’ll follow the strictest teachings of the church; I’ll be really good”.
Do you think you can pay off the debt by doing that? What a joke!
We might be able to deceive ourselves. We might be able to deceive other people – even those most close to us. But we cannot deceive God. He knows us.

2.      You are beloved
God knows us and yet – and this is amazing – he still loves us. He sees through the muck, through the debt, through our attempts to justify ourselves and he sees us. He sees the person desperate for love, for significance, for fulfilment and meaning. He sees the lost soul inside us.
And when we cry out to him, when we ask him to have mercy on us, he forgives.
And his love is overwhelming, and it is costly. He took our debt onto, into himself. That is why we have the symbol of Christ on the cross here. It is THE symbol of the love of God.
This is how much he loves you

3.      You are forgiven
Of course, we need to acknowledge our need for forgiveness and we need to be prepared to receive this forgiveness.
That is hard. It is often harder to receive forgiveness than to give forgiveness.
If we give forgiveness we are in control.
If we receive forgiveness we have recognised that we need forgiveness, we lose power and we put ourselves in the other persons debt.

That is why the good news of the Christian faith is both so humbling and so liberating.
It is humbling because Jesus gave everything for me, and there is nothing that I can do to repay him. I am completely in his debt.
But it is liberating because I have been forgiven. I have been forgiven an astonishing overwhelming debt. It has gone. It has been paid.

The gates of heaven, that were so firmly closed, have been blown open

And because we are forgiven we can forgive.

Someone hurts us.
Often, we are most hurt by the people who we are most close to.
I guess we could hold onto the offence, and allow the resentment to grow.
One person said, “In our relationship we don’t have rows. Instead we collect niggles and grudges. We stockpile them, like nuclear warheads, in preparation for the domestic Armageddon”.
Or there was Dennis who told me about his father. His father never spoke to his brother. They had fallen out many years earlier. Dennis asked his father why they had fallen out. His father replied that it was so long ago that he could not remember what the issue was, but he was still not going to speak to his brother.

Yes, we will be hurt. Sometimes very badly hurt.
But as believers we do not need to hold onto resentment. We can be different.

I can look at the other person and see somebody who is just like me. They may have hurt me, but I also have hurt many people.
And I have been forgiven so much, so who am I not to forgive someone else.

So can I suggest, if you are struggling with forgiveness, that we ask God to help us to really see the person who has sinned against us, to see them as someone created and beloved by God, to see them as people who are mucked up by sin, and to see them as someone who is just like me. Because when we do see them as God sees them, as the king saw his servant, then we will have compassion on them.

Lev and Vasilisa, forgive me for speaking about forgiveness today. I guess I have been married long enough to know that there are times when we need to forgive each other. It is how we grow together and how we grow to become more like Jesus Christ.

But we do congratulate you on your wedding, and Lev, we forgive you for stealing our administrator!
But we pray that your love for each other will grow and deepen.
We pray that you will take time to be with each other, to speak with each other, to listen to each other.
We pray that you will learn to say ‘Yes dear’ – especially when you would prefer to say ‘No’.

And as people who are known by God, who are beloved of God and forgiven by God, we pray that you, and each one of us will grow in the knowledge of how much we have been forgiven, and as forgiven sinners, learn to forgive.  

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Listening to each other

We need unity.

We need unity so that we know what to pray for, things will happen and Jesus will be present.

Matthew 18 is about how as Christians, as people who are citizens of the Kingdom of God, we live together. It is remarkably helpful and practical

It tells us (vv1-5) that we need to come into the kingdom as little children - not standing on our status, but receiving it as a gift
It tells us (vv6-14) that because God has welcomed us we need to welcome each other - whoever we are, even the person who we consider the most insignificant. We are not to put obstacles in their way; we are not to despise each other
And it tells us (vv 21-35) that because we are forgiven, we are to forgive each other - not once, not twice, not seven times, but seventy times seven.

And then we have our verses, verses 15-20.

They seem a bit out of place because they speak of church discipline.

But I guess that for a body of people to live together in unity there does need to be some church discipline.

But we need to get it right.

Most of the time we run away from it. We don't like conflict, so we are not prepared to challenge. But that is not great because we end up with churches which stand for nothing, in which anything goes, and which have no prophetic voice.
Or we are big on church discipline. But that has its own dangers. People can be crushed. And so often when churches try to discipline individuals, unless the issue is absolutely clear, you end up with serious division: If I throw the book at you, there is a strong likelihood that you will pick up the book and throw it back at me!

Rather ironically in the CoE, I am told that the clergy discipline measure, which was introduced to give bishops some control over wayward clergy, is used more often by clergy against their bishops: and at one point there were more active cases of clergy using the measure against bishops than of bishops using the measure against clergy.

The only time in my 25 years of ministry that I have had to tell two people that they were not welcome to the Lords table, was when a married woman in the congregation told her husband that she was leaving him, because she was moving in with a single man who was a member of the congregation. They said it was OK because they had prayed about it, and they had peace. I said, and the church said, it was not OK.

But if we look more closely at these verses, the thing that strikes me is that the key word here is the word 'listen'

V15: if the member listens to you
V16: but if you are not listened to
V17: if the member refuses to listen to them
V17: if the offender refuses to listen even to the church

If someone sins against you, then Jesus tells us that we are to go and see them privately, and we are to pray that they will listen to us.

In other words, we are not to talk about them, but to them.
And if we want them to listen to us then can I suggest we do not shout at them, and we do not go to condemn. After all, it is possible that we have got it all wrong. That is particularly the case when we come from different cultures and backgrounds: what you think is normal, might be perceived to be very rude in a different culture.

The purpose of this is not to condemn the other; it is to listen to the other.
The goal of this is restoration. It is to win them; it is to restore our relationship.

And the additional steps only come into play when the other person refuses to listen: refuses to listen to you, to the two or three others, to the church.
And at that point they have really broken fellowship with you - because you cannot be in communion if you refuse to listen to those you claim you are in communion with.
And I have to add that if you are not prepared to listen to your Christian brother or sister, there will come a time when you are not prepared to listen to God.

So I hope and pray that we will be a people who listen to each other - especially when we hurt each other.
It means when we are hurt we don't crawl into a corner and sulk (that's me!) or we don't throw the toys out of the pram.
But we learn to be honest with each other and to listen to each other.

And unity is so important because

1.      When we are united, we know what to pray for

V19: If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask ...

We think that we want something, but it is not really what we either want or need. We may even claim that the Holy Spirit has led us to pray for something. But we are experts, we have level 5s, in deceiving ourselves.

And there is a danger that we are so full of ourselves, of our own ideas, of what we think needs to happen that when we pray it is just an exercise in self obsession.
Jesus told the story of the tax collector and the Pharisee. They both went into the temple to pray. The tax collector cries out to God for mercy, but the Pharisee prattles on telling God how great a person he is, how spiritual, how righteous. And Jesus says that God hears the tax collector, but God cannot hear the Pharisee because, in Jesus words, 'he prays to himself'.

And the answer to our self-obsession? It is to listen.
It is when we listen to others, when we listen to what hurts them, when we listen to how we have hurt them, that our prayers can come alive. We can pray for them, and we can pray for ourselves. We can ask God to fill us with us love.

So we need others, and we need each other.
Notice here how many times in our reading that one needs to become two (or more). You go to your brother or sister, so that the two of you are alone (v15), you take one or two others along with you (v16), if two of you agree on anything (v19), where two or three are gathered (v20)

And as we meet together, as we listen to each other and to God, so we will gradually learn what it is that we are to pray for.

2.      When we are united, things will happen

I guess that is sort of what Jesus means when he speaks about what they loose on earth being loosed in heaven, and what they bind on earth being bound in heaven (v18)

A Jew at the time would know what Jesus meant.

The ones with the power to loose and bind, were the ones who had the power to interpret the law, to say what was acceptable and what was not, and they had the power to admit or exclude from the community.
And now Jesus is saying to his followers that they have that power - not to be used by yourself, for yourself - but to be used with others on behalf of the one who we serve.

And there is a power when we are united, when we listen to each other and when we pray: 'It will be done for you by my father in heaven'.

Things happen: God opens doors, real deep heart work takes place, there are new opportunities for service, amazing 'coincidences' happen, people are healed, relationships restored, the Kingdom of God grows.

When we are united, when we listen to each other, things happen. It was when we prayed and talked together with other churches in our town, that the really remarkable work was able to be done: town pastors, debt relief work, food bank - and we were able to put on some of the most effective evangelistic work.

You've seen that. It is as we work with, for instance, MPC, that we can do so much more.

Things happen when God's people are united and we take God seriously.

3.      And finally, and most importantly, when we are united, Jesus is present.
"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them"

That is what all of this – church, services, robes, communion - is really all about: It is about meeting with Jesus, the Son of God. It is about knowing Jesus.

Now we know him by faith. We trust that he is with us. We believe his words.
There are moments when we feel his presence with us, and there long periods when we do not feel his presence. But Jesus reassures us that he is with.
And he promises that he is particularly with us when we meet together, when we listen to each other, especially when we have hurt each other - united in his name. He will walk with us, he will guide us and teach us, he will help us in our prayer, he will feed us - not just with physical bread, but with the real true bread, and he will make us more like himself.
So we can call to him, we can trust him even when we do not understand, and as his people who love him, we can know that - whatever it seems, whatever life throws at us - all things work for good.
And one day we will know him not by faith, but by sight. We will see him. He will fill us just as we will be fully part of him.

So I do thank God for you, and for the privilege of coming to work with you, and I pray that God will give us the grace to listen to him and to listen to each other. Because when we listen there can be unity. And when there is unity, we will know what to pray for, stuff will happen, and Jesus will be present.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

On St Mary's. The vicar's final sermon at St Mary's

Thank you: for the immense privilege of working here among you – amazing place, remarkable people from whom I have learnt so much, from the town and from the parish.
Sorry: There are so many of you who I would have loved to have spent time with before we go, especially those with whom I have had the privilege of going through times of immense pain or of great joy - but it has not been possible

I’d like to look today at Hebrews 10.19-25.

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess
Let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds

I call it the Rabbit passage. Lots of lettuce in it!
(That is not even worthy of David Crofts or Ricky Wilkinson)

And on this occasion, I haven’t brought a visual aid with me because today – and I ask people from St Peters to forgive me – St Mary's building is my visual aid. 

This building speaks of the glory of God and of Jesus, the Son of God, and like our passage, it invites us to go on a journey – not to Addis Ababa or Moscow - but a journey of faith as we ‘draw near to God’.

1.      This building speaks of the glory of God.

It is big. For 10 years I was telling people it was the 3rd or 4th largest parish church in the country, and then I was gutted to discover that there are at least 12 other churches that are larger! That was the point I seriously started to think of an extension on the North side! But 3rd or 13th – it is still big!

It speaks of majesty, a royal procession of angels in the roof. And at the East end we have the glory window. Four archangels, Gabriel, Michael (they’re mentioned in the bible), Ariel and Raphael (they’re mentioned in the apocrypha). And below are the words, ‘With Angels and Archangels we laud (praise) and magnify Thy glorious name’ – words that come from the 1662 order from the Book of Common Prayer.

We live in a country that has been shaped by Christian teaching. For 1000 years people have spoken of the possibility that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, can be our friend, that we can have a relationship with God, that we can know God. And the great triumph of the Christian faith is that most people today assume that God is personal and can be known personally. And so, if they believe in God, they will say – for instance – I don’t need to come to church to get to know God because I can meet God in my garden. God and me, they say, are mates.

There is the story of the little girl who knelt down during the prayers in church and began to giggle. Her mother told her to shush. She looked up at her mum and said, ‘It’s OK mum, I told God a joke and we’re both laughing’.

But perhaps in stressing the fact that God can be our friend, we have forgotten that God is totally other to us; we have forgotten the majesty and holiness of God. We have forgotten what Eastern Christians are very aware of, that God is eternal and that we are mortal. We have forgotten that God is the creator and we are the creation, that God is holy and that we are sinful. We have forgotten that if you put the combined knowledge and wisdom of a million Platos, Einsteins, Hawkins and Wittgensteins together, and compared it to the wisdom and knowledge of God, it would be like comparing a paper clip to the Eiffel Tower. And there is a danger that we conjure up a figment of our imagination, call it God, and then claim to have a personal relationship with it.

The ancients were very aware of the otherness and glory of God.
They were aware that they could not simply waltz into the presence of God.

And so instead they devised various different approaches in order to get God to notice them, to get God on their side.

They tried sacrifice, even sacrificing their own children.
They tried starving themselves, standing without sleep for hours, sitting on pillars for years, even castrating themselves – they made Japanese endurance games look like vicarage tea parties (not that we had any of those!)
They even tried being good - very, very good.
But none of it seemed to work.

But our reading from Hebrews tells them and us that although God is big – although he is holy and majestic and glorious, and although we are sinful and mortal, we are invited to ‘draw near to God’, to come into the presence of God.

2.      It speaks of Jesus, the eternal Son of God.

It is Jesus who has opened the door for us into the presence of God. He did that when he died on the cross – Hebrews speaks of the ‘blood of Jesus’ (v19). He is ‘the new and living way’ (v20) into the presence of God.

At the heart of the old temple in Jerusalem was a room called the Holy of Holies. It was separated from the temple by a curtain. Only the high priest could go into the Holy of Holies, and only once a year. But now, says the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus has opened the way for each of us into the Holy of Holies, through the curtain.
God made that very clear. When Jesus died there was an earthquake, and the actual physical curtain in the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
And because of his death, we are forgiven – our hearts are sprinkled clean and our bodies washed with pure water (almost certainly a reference to baptism) – so that hearts, weighed down by an evil conscience, are changed and become true hearts.
And because of his death, we who are sinful can draw near to the God of glory.

Maybe this was intended when they created that magnificent window at the West end, but when you walk into this building, whether you like it or not, whether you are aware of it or not, you walk in under the image of Jesus on the cross.

That is how we can “draw near to God, with a sincere heart and in full assurance of faith”.
Not because we’ve redefined sin so that what is sin becomes not sin.
Not because we have managed to justify and explain away our sin.
Not because we have somehow come good – so that our good outweighs our bad.

But because Father God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. And Jesus loved us so much that he chose to die for us. And we rest on that. Not on what we have done; not even on the strength of our faith; but on the fact that because Jesus died for us, we are washed clean, we are forgiven, and God is at work in us to change us so that we become more like Jesus.  

3.      It speaks of a journey of faith and mercy

This building reminds us of the journey that each one of us is invited to come on.
It is not a physical journey, like the journey that we are going on

Rather it is a journey of faith.
It begins not when we are born, and not when we buy an air ticket.
It begins when we kneel before Jesus and receive his love and acceptance and forgiveness. It begins when we commit ourselves to follow him; and when we allow him to come and live in us. It begins when we are born again.

And we go on this journey, listening to him, and putting our trust in him.

On my right and on your left is what Clive tells me, was known in the past, as the Jesus’ aisle.

And in the window, there is the scene of the transfiguration – that occasion when Jesus’ appearance was transformed, he shone with the glory of God, and he was seen talking with Moses and Elijah. And as the three disciples look on in a stunned stupor, they hear a voice: ‘This is my Son, my beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him’.
Don’t listen to Moses even though he was the one who gave you the law. Don’t listen to Elijah, even though he was the greatest of the prophets. Listen to Jesus, because he is the Son of God.

So, we are led on this journey by the voice of Jesus, by the word of God. That is why the lectern – from the where the Word of God is read, and the pulpit – from where the Word of God is taught stand like sentinels on our way into the choir and sanctuary. And it is why the bible is ‘the lamp for our feet’.
And I would plead with you to try and spend time each day with him. Find some time in the day when you can sit down for a few minutes, pick up the bible, read some verses, think through what they mean and what God is saying to you through them, and then come into his presence. And if you don’t know what to pray, simply pray the Lord’s prayer – slowly and thoughtfully thinking through each phrase.

We need to listen to him.

And as we go on this journey, we are not on our own.

Hebrews tells us that we are surrounded by the heavenly host (our angels). They are cheering us on.

And it tells us that we are surrounded and encouraged by the heroes of faith from the Old Testament (the windows on the South side): men and women who did great things and who endured dreadful suffering, even when it seemed that God had gone AWOL, because they put their trust in the promise of God, and they held fast to that promise.  

And as we go on this journey, we are surrounded and encouraged by each other.
We need each other. That is why this passage urges us to consider how we may ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds’ (v24). And it warns us of falling into the habit of not meeting together (v25).

We tend to think of church-going as a habit. Our reading turns that on its head. The habit is non-church-going. Coming and regularly meeting with God’s people to worship God is the radical action that breaks the habit.

Vicars come, vicars go. Some you will like, some you won’t. In Moscow, there may be one or two who come to love us but there will also be some who really struggle.

There is the story of the vicar who was going round after he had announced he was leaving. One lady said to him, “We’ll be so sorry to see you go”. He replied, “Oh I’m sure the new person will be far better”. “I don’t know”, she answered, “I don’t know. That is what the previous man said”.

Please don’t stop going to church because you can’t get on with the vicar or clergy. If you really struggle, don’t cause grief, but go somewhere else. But don’t stop going.
Don’t get into the habit of not-coming-to-church, because it is very hard to get out of that.
You may think the CoE is bonkers and has got so much wrong. This may surprise you, but you won’t be alone! But it is not about the CoE or the vicar. It is about meeting with your brothers and sisters in Christ, encouraging them, spurring them on to love and good deeds.

And as we go on this journey, we ask God to fill us with his love and compassion so that we show his love and compassion. I’ve spoken before about the window at the West end, the mercy window: where Jesus says to the Pharisees, ‘Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy and not sacrifice’ and where we see scenes of people putting mercy into action: caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, visiting those in prison, giving water to the thirsty and clothing the naked.

And each time I go into the sanctuary, this building reminds me that our journey has a destination. 
It finishes when we have ‘drawn near to God’, when we are in final communion with the God of glory – when we know him as he knows us, when we are filled with his fullness, when we have been transfigured like Jesus, and shine with his glory, when just as we are ‘in’ the sanctuary, we are in him, and just as we receive the bread and wine deep into us, he is in us.

There are many people who come into this building who look up and who see wonderful carvings. They look at the windows and see the product of skilled craftsmanship, glorious colours and stained glass images. They walk into the sanctuary and they see the tomb of the Queen. But that is all they see.

My prayer is that our eyes are opened. When you come into this building you will look up and you will see the God of Glory. It is that you will look at the windows and be reminded of the Lord Jesus who died for you, who speaks and calls us to listen, and who would walk with you through life; that you will be reminded that we are called to live by faith in him; and that you will be spurred on to show acts of mercy. And my prayer is that as you enter the sanctuary, and kneel before the Lord’s table, you will see the King, the King who loved us and died for us, so that we might draw near, so that we might come into the very presence of God. 

O God of Truth, Love and Power,
Open our eyes that we might see the glory of Jesus
and our ears that we might listen to Him.
Give us a glimpse of the joy of the worship of heaven
so that we delight to worship you on earth.
Inspire us through each other to daily grow in faith;
And by your Spirit fill us with such mercy
that we are compelled to speak of your love and serve those in need.
We ask this in the name of the Lord Jesus,
who loved us and gave himself for us on the cross,
and for the glory of our heavenly Father. Amen

Saturday, 1 July 2017

With Jesus in your boat ..

Matthew 8.23-27 (an all age talk)

The sea can be terrifying

Some of you will have heard me tell of the time when we went on a day trip to the isle of Aran, off the coast of Ireland, in the Atlantic Ocean. It was terrifying. I clung on to the post and Alison clung on to me.  

It wasn’t quite as bad as this (Clark Little)

but it was almost as bad as this!

We thought we were going to die.

And for the disciples in the boat, the waves were very scary.

Jesus had said, ‘Let’s go to the other side of the lake’. He got into the boat and they followed him. The passage is very clear about that. Just a few verses earlier Jesus has told them that following him is not going to be easy, but these men had decided to follow Jesus. So they are doing what is right. And they think that they are going to die.

 I wonder whether you have been very scared, overwhelmed, out of your depth. You may even have thought you were going to die.

Maybe you were on a plane and it hit an air pocket and simply drops out of the air. Someone defined air travel as ‘hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of stark terror’.

Or maybe it is sickness or a conflict or a situation that you were or are facing. It is overwhelming and you are very frightened.

This story is very relevant to us. We’re feeling particularly overwhelmed …

Image of wave and pencil and invite people to write/draw/talk about a time when they were seriously scared.

The followers of Jesus are terrified. Some of them are fishermen. They know the sea. But they are in a little boat, and there are big waves. And they are in danger of sinking, and they are terrified.

So it is not surprising that they wake Jesus up and say to him, ‘Lord, save us. We are perishing’.

Who else do you go to, when you are completely out of your depth?
Dallas Willard was asked by someone who knew he was a Christian, ‘Why do you follow Jesus?’ To which he is said to have replied, ‘But who else is there to follow?’

But having turned to Jesus, it does not seem very fair of Jesus to tell them off for being scared. He says, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’

But they have already seen Jesus do remarkable things.
·         Healed someone with a dreaded skin disease with a touch
·         Healed someone who was paralyzed and in great distress from a distance with a word
·         Healed Peter’s mother in law, and cured many people who had been brought to him.

They may not yet realize that Jesus is God’s ruler; they may not yet realize that he is the Son of God, but they did know that he was quite remarkable.
And they did not need to worry because Jesus, although he was asleep, was with them.

When we arrived at the isle of Aran we realised that if we didn’t wish to spend the rest of our lives on Aran (although I have to admit at the time it was one the options I seriously considered) we had to take the journey back. The wind was just as strong. But this time I decided not to look at the waves. I looked instead at the crew of the boat. They were completely unconcerned. And because they weren’t worried, I began to relax. I thought, ‘They’re OK, so the boats OK, so I’m OK. I’m not going to drown’. And I even began to sort of slightly enjoy the journey.

The hope for me as I face what seems a huge wave, an overwhelming task, is that I do not need to worry, because Jesus is with us.
The hope for the person who believes in Jesus, who has decided to follow him and to do what he says, is that it will be hard. We will face huge waves, very frightening waves; we will even face the wave of death. But we do not need to worry. Jesus is with us.

And although there are times when life is very scary, the secret is this. Do not look at the wave – even if it is very big and scary. Look instead at Jesus. It may seem that he is asleep. But he is with us. He is beside us. He is even within us. And we can trust him because he is the one who brings God’s healing with a touch or a word. He is the one who can stand up in front of a boat and rebuke wind and the waves, and there is complete calm. And he is the one who rose from the dead.  

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Will God give us whatever we ask for?

Harry Potter discovers a mirror in the room of enchantment! It is not a normal mirror. When he looks into it, he sees himself with his parents. He was orphaned as a baby. He spends hours gazing at the image in the mirror. And it is only when Dumbledore explains that he realises what is going on. The mirror shows you what your deepest desire, your deepest wish is. It is the mirror or Erised, which is desire backwards.

Jesus speaks here of desire, when he says (v7), 'Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you'.

He doesn't just say it here.
In Matthew 7.7 he says, 'Ask, and it will be given you' (Luke 11.9)
In Matthew 21.22 he says, 'Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive' (Mark 11.24)
In John 14.13 he says, 'I will do whatever you ask in my name'.
In v14 he says, 'If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it'.
In 16.24, he says, 'Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete'

I wonder what is your desire, your deep desire.
If you looked in the mirror of Erised, what is it you would see?

When Ron, Harry's friend, looks in it, he sees himself as head of school and winning the Quidditch competition.
And maybe you would see yourself famous, a star, recognised, somebody who is significant, who matters.
Or maybe you would see yourself with your trophy husband or wife, Alpha Romeo, £10m or the house with a river at the bottom of the garden

Or maybe your desire is for something that is a little bit deeper.
Maybe it is that the pain that you have been living with goes away - or the pain that you see someone you love going through day after day would go away. TV showed a family, who were trying to find treatment for the mum who suffered from dreadful cluster headaches. You saw her when the headaches struck. She curled up in a ball on the floor and screamed.
Maybe your desire is that your sick child will get better, or that granny won’t die.
Maybe you are walking under a cloud of stress or guilt. Or you suffer from depression. You long to be set free. Or you long that your marriage is transformed, or that in your loneliness you meet someone, or that someone you have lost would be there. I remember someone who struggled with relationships, and she used to say, 'All I want is a friend'. Or maybe you long for a child.

And if we think of things like that, then how can Jesus possibly say, 'Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you'

Isn't he having a laugh? Isn't that a very cruel joke? Doesn't it raise hopes only for them to be dashed down? Isn't unanswered prayer, in the light of those promises, the single greatest piece of evidence that God does not exist?

I was talking with a couple last week. And he looked at his wife and said, 'She used to believe, but then her sister got sick and died, and now she can't believe'.

I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I do think that there is something for us in our passage today.

1.       Jesus says, 'Ask for whatever you wish ..'. So do ask.

Be real with him. He knows already what you desire. Tell him, because he delights to hear you. Ask him to take the pain away. Ask him to heal the person you love. Ask him to give you a deeper love for him. Ask him for the friend or the child.
And if you’re not really sure what you desire is right, still ask him for it. But you can qualify it. Jesus, I’d love that house. But if it is going to take me away from you, then I’ll let it go.
This is about a relationship.
I catch myself very often thinking about something that I would like to see happen, but I don't actually ask for it to happen.  

2.       Allow Jesus to change what it is that we wish for.

Jesus says, 'If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish ..'

In other words, if we live in Jesus, and if Jesus' words come and live in us, then we will be so close to him that our thinking will begin to follow his thinking, our desires will echo his desires and our wishes will reflect his wishes. We will be one with him, and he will be one with us. We will be praying with him.
It is like some twins. They know what the other is thinking, they know how the other will react, they know what the other really desires.
It is not just because they have been pre-natal room mates and have lived so much of their lives together. It is also because they share the same DNA. What is in one is in the other.

And when we spend time with Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus grows in us. He is in us and we are in him.

There is no quick fix here. We need to spend time in prayer. We need to read his word, so that his words come and live in us.
Try and learn verses of the bible, like this one. And spend time thinking about what that verse says. Meditate on it when you are in bed, the lights are turned out and it is dark. Allow the word to live in you.
And come to Communion. As you eat the bread and drink the wine, invite Jesus to live in you. As you eat the bread and drink the wine, remember that he does live in you.

And as we live with Jesus, in Jesus, for Jesus, as we spend time with him, trust him and learn to obey him, it really will change our way of thinking.

We'll pray for the Alpha Romeo and then Jesus will ask us, 'Why do you want that? What do you really want? Something that is beautiful and unique; something that will give you freedom and power; something that will make people notice you? Well, he says, I love you. I will give you something which is beautiful, which truly satisfies, which will give you freedom and that sense of being connected to unlimited power'

And what about the desire that granny won't die. What is that all about? Love, yes. A desire that there is no such thing as death, yes. But perhaps there is a fear of letting go of one on whom we have built our identity and our hope. How can I live without them? And maybe, as you spend time with the Lord Jesus, you'll discover deeper desires: the desire for a security that is deeper and stronger than death.

And what about the desire to be free from pain? I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to live with chronic constant pain. Jesus prays in the garden that God would spare him from the cross, from its shame and pain. So of course, you will pray that the pain will go. Of course, you will ask others to pray with you. Often when we are in pain we are unable to pray and we need others to pray for us.

But there are many who have loved the Lord Jesus, lived in him, have prayed and yet still suffer from constant pain. So we have to trust him that he knows our desires more than we do. Jesus prayed that the Father would spare him from the cross. But the Father knew that Jesus has a deeper desire - and for that deeper desire to be satisfied, he had to go through the pain of the cross.

Paul Miller, in his brilliant book on prayer, 'A praying life' writes that intercession is that place between, 'ask whatever you wish' and 'in my name'. We need to ask, but we then need to listen to Jesus and find out what he would have us ask. And as we ask him for the shallow desires, as we trust him, he will show us our deeper desires. And it is those desires that he will satisfy.

The early teachers of the church said that we had three fundamental desires. The first is the desire for being. We want to exist. The second is the desire for well-being. We want to live well, to be happy, to be fulfilled. And the third is the desire for eternal well-being. When we are happy and fulfilled we do not want to die.
Well, Jesus says, 'Ask whatever you wish in my name and it will be given to you'. Not necessarily here and now, but if you ask it will be given you.

3. What does Jesus desire?
What was his deepest desire? If we took Jesus apart what would we find at his very centre.

a) A desire that his Father would be glorified (v8).
Because Jesus is so at one with his Father, he longs to see him glorified. And the Father is glorified when people become followers of Jesus and when they bear fruit (v8).
b) A desire that our joy would be complete (v11)
Jesus desires our eternal joy. It is a joy that is deeper and greater than any joy that the things of this world can give, even a house with a river at the bottom of the garden. It is a joy unspeakable. It is a joy which will overwhelm and fill us. And it is a joy which comes when we are united with Jesus, just as he is united with his Father

So on this Trinity Sunday I'd like to finish with a brief look at this Russian icon, because I wonder whether Jesus might have seen something like this if he had looked in the mirror of Erised.

Like Harry Potter’s picture it shows three people who are together. It shows the intimacy of the three persons of the Trinity. They are represented by three angels. The Father is on the left, wearing gold, and behind him is a house. The Son is in the middle, wearing the red scarf of sacrifice. Behind him is the tree, the symbol of the cross. And the Spirit is on the right. He is wearing green. He is the life giver. Behind him is a rock, the wilderness, the desert place which so often is the place where we meet with God. They are like Triplets. They are the same age and they have the same face. They each wear the blue of royalty and hold a sceptre of authority. And they are gathered round the table.

The Father, who is the source of the Son and the Spirit, blesses the Son and Spirit. And the Son blesses the Spirit and the Spirit blesses the one who looks at this icon. And the head of the Son and the Spirit are inclined toward the Father (as are the rock and tree), in recognition that the Father is their source.

But the circle is not complete. There is space for another, for the one who looks at this image. And as we come to Jesus, as we ‘abide in him and his words abide in us’, so we become part of this communion. The Spirit leads us to Jesus. We are in Jesus and Jesus is in us - there is a communion cup on the table. And Jesus, as he inclines his head toward the Father, invites us to share in the love of the Father.

When we are with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are ultimately at home. They are the fulfilment of all our desires and wishes. This is the place where we find our final security and peace and fulfilment. And it is when we are here, with Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that we find our eternal well-being and our deepest joy.