Friday, 29 January 2010

The baby who brings salvation, revelation and judgement

LUKE 2:22-40

At the heart of this passage is a prophecy. It was spoken by a man called Simeon when Joseph and Mary bring the 40 day old Jesus to the temple to be presented to God. They were doing what any good Jewish family would do at the time: they were bringing their first born son to be presented in the temple.

It was what had happened for centuries.
Abraham and Isaac
Hannah and Samuel

It was a way in which parents recognise that all life is a gift from God; that their child belongs to God

But this time it is different. Simeon speaks of the baby:

He foretells how this child

1. Will bring salvation: this child will rescue us from sin and death and bring in God’s Kingdom (Luke 2:30)

This was the great Jewish hope and is the great Christian hope.

Simeon and Anna were both old.

Anna was phenomenally old. She was almost probably over 100, which in those days was exceptional. (You can do the maths: She had been married for 7 years, and a widow for 84 years. Working on the assumption that she was married when she was 13 or 14, she was probably about 105) [note, some texts say that she was a widow until she was 84].

And Anna is called a prophetess. That also is quite remarkable. For 400 years there had been no prophets, and now Luke tells us that there was a prophet - an older woman who was preaching in the temple. 

Simeon was also probably old. It sounds as if he has been waiting to die, but that he had been given a personal promise that he would not die until he had seen the Lord's Messiah. And so having seen the baby Jesus, he says, ‘Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace’.

He is described as righteous and devout.
[righteous: not just in the sense that they did what was right, but in the sense that they were living right with God and with people.
devout: We are told that Anna never left the temple, but worshiped day and night, fasting and praying.

I don’t think she was there trying to earn her forgiveness, or to make up for something dreadful she had done in the past. I certainly don’t think she was there to impress people or God. She was there because she loved God, she loved the worship of God, the place of God. God really was her life.]

But the key thing about both Anna and Simeon is that they put their trust in the promises of God.

God had promised that one day he would send a Saviour, someone who would come and set his people free – free from their sin, free from the power of death – and he would establish his Kingdom: a rule of righteousness and peace and justice; and an end to separation, suffering, pain and death. 

Simeon, in addition, had been given a specific personal promise. God had told him – we don’t know how: an inner conviction, a dream, someone prophesying over him – that he would not die before he saw the Saviour.

But Anna and Simeon believed it and lived their lives depending on it.
Simeon was waiting for the ‘consolation’ – the ‘comfort’ of Israel (v25)
And Anna speaks to those who were ‘looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem’ (v38):

It really was the promise that God gave his people in the Old Testament:
Isaiah 40:1 ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed that her sin ahs been paid for’
Isaiah 52:9 ‘Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem’

Simeon and Anna were looking for this. And as they see the baby Jesus, they rejoice, because they know that the one who will bring this to happen has been born.

As Christians who live 2000 years after this event, we too put our hope in Jesus Christ.
• He is the one because of whom are sins are forgiven. Sin does not need to have a hold on us. We can begin to live the life of the Kingdom of God
• He is the one who has defeated death, and because of whom we do not need to fear death.
• He is the one who is alive, and who will return one day to establish fully his Kingdom

2. Will be a ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles’.

This child will open people’s eyes so that they can see: see God, see his purposes, see his ways.

It is interesting that here:

The one who is presented to the Lord is the Lord
The one who has come to set us free from the law is governed by the law (we are told that in v22,23,27,39):
The one for whom a sacrifice is made will sacrifice himself for us. 
The temple welcomes the one for whom it was built and to whom it points; the temple embraces the 40 day old baby who one day will embrace it, and physically embody everything that it stands for.

And yet, nobody sees it – apart from a couple of old people, Simeon and Anna.
By the way, if you are young never dismiss those who are older
And if you are older, don't dismiss what God can do through you

And the reason that Simeon sees it is because the Holy Spirit is at work: ‘The Holy Spirit was on him; it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit ..; Moved by the Spirit’

And Jesus will open our eyes by sending the Spirit. We saw a couple of weeks ago how John says of Jesus, ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’. And it really is the Spirit of God who opens our eyes.

We think we can see because we live in a society which in the past has been saturated in Christian thinking. But ideas of forgiveness and love of enemy and mercy and gratuitous generousity and compassion for the stranger are not innate in us.

And even if we do live in a society which has cherished many of the Christian virtues, we’ve still closed our eyes to God. We are walking around like blind people. Ideas of submission before God, of trust in Him, and repentance and living under God’s authority are totally alien to us. And we are so blind to the things of God.

But because of the Spirit and because of Jesus, we can begin to see the ways of God. This is not something that can be taught. This is gift. We begin to see God. We begin to see how he has been at work in history. The Jewish scriptures come alive to us; Jesus shows us how we are to understand them and how we are to live them. And as we seek him and grow closer to him, so we are taken deeper into him.

You might say, ‘But I don’t see! How can I see?’

Jesus has told us: If we really want to see – we need to mean to do business with God. ‘Ask, seek, knock’. Don’t give me or one of the staff members any rest; go along to whatever group you can find; read; talk and get down on your knees and ask’. The very fact that you are beginning to hunger for God means that the Holy Spirit is at work in you.


There is a third thing that Simeon says:

3. This child will bring – in this world – judgement and division:

(Luke 2:34, He says to Mary, ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’)

How we react to Jesus shows how we react to God

Most people sadly ignore Jesus. When we ignore Jesus we are simply showing that we ignore God. We may turn to Jesus when we are in trouble, but as soon as the crisis passes we continue to live as if there is no God

Some people do not ignore Jesus. They hate Jesus. They hate what he stands for. The Jewish leaders hated Jesus because he challenged their authority and their status and their traditions. Nietzsche hated Jesus because he said that Jesus stood for all that was weak and vulnerable and feeble – all that deserved to die.

Some today hate Jesus because they see him as anti-libertarian. It is a strange accusation for one who was born to set us free. But they say that to be free is to do what you want, to become your own God. Jesus says that to be free is to live by love and obedience to him and to God, to live as we were made to live. And that means that not everything is OK.

Actually I often have most hope for those who hate Jesus: they are the one’s who are taking Jesus seriously – and when they turn, wow, they turn.

But Simeon warns Mary – and the warning is to all who follow Jesus Christ. Don’t be surprised if people ignore Jesus, or use his name as a swear word. Don’t be surprised if they hate him.

And some people hear of Jesus, are fascinated by what they hear and they wish to find out more. And as they hear they begin to love him, and they desire to know him and they reach out for him.

How we react to Jesus reveals how our heart responds to God.

I guess this incident is the closure of the Christmas story

The baby is promised
The baby is born
The good news is declared to shepherds

Now, says Simeon, the good news will reach out to all peoples.
This baby was born for salvation
This baby was born for revelation
And now we must choose what we think.




[Note: How people responded to the law and the temple and the promise of God showed how people responded to God – cf Anna, Mary and Joseph. Now, says Simeon, what matters is how people respond to Jesus Christ]


Saturday, 16 January 2010

Impact of Eastern Orthodoxy on Western Christianity

A lecture given at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, January 2010

This is a vast topic. So there will be a long introduction, and then I am going to focus in on three specific areas: the Trinity, Worship and the liturgy, and the Jesus prayer.

Some introductory comments

1. I am speaking as someone rooted within the Western Christian tradition.

I was brought up and nurtured within the Anglican evangelical tradition. That is where my roots are. I am not an Orthodox (with a capital O) Christian, but I would claim to be orthodox!

Based on my experience of Orthodoxy – living in an Orthodox seminary in St Petersburg and subsequent visits to the city taking groups from the Diocese of London, involvement for short while with Anglican – Russian Orthodox liaison group before it collapsed after a particularly disastrous visit to Moscow, some study, retreats at Tolleshunt Knights

So I am going to focus on how Eastern Orthodoxy has impacted our Western way of thinking, and obviously our way of thinking about God. I do not consider myself an expert and much of what I will say will be personal.

2. What I say will be gross simplification. It is simply too easy to put things into boxes, and to say that Eastern Christianity thinks this, and Western Christianity thinks that.

People who write on this subject often do this:

Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) writes “It cannot be denied that Orthodoxy, not as the universal Church but as Eastern Christianity, wears an aspect which is less 'of this world' than that of the Christianity of the West. The West is more practical, the East more contemplative: Eastern Christianity considers as its first apostle the beloved disciple whom Christ from the cross gave as son to his Mother, the apostle of love. Western Christianity is especially filled with the spirit of the two princes of the apostles: Peter (Catholicism) and Paul (Protestantism). John wished to rest on the Master's breast, while Peter asked if two swords were enough and concerned himself with the organization of the Church. This explains the contemplative character of monastic life in the East. Here monasticism does not show the variety and shades evident in Catholic religious orders. Contemplation in the West is proper only to certain orders; in the East it is the characteristic trait of all monastic life” (A Bulgakov Anthology, ed. James Pain and Nicolas Zernov, SPCK, p131)

[He likens Western Christianity to Martha. Eastern to Mary]

It is of course much messier than that: we share so much in common – One Lord, one Spirit, the scriptures, 1000 years of church history - but by putting thinking into the two boxes, it does help us clarify differences – and it does help us to learn from each other.

3. We need to learn from each other

I am passionate about this. There is so much that we can learn from the East, and that they can learn from us.

The previous Pope, John Paul II, spoke of the need to breathe with both our Western and our Eastern lungs. He was in fact taking an analogy that Bulgakov used, when he spoke of how our loyalty to a particular tradition can be like breathing with one lung and thinking that we are breathing fully.

But we need both lungs.

And of course much of what I have learned from Orthodoxy I could have found within our own Western tradition. It is just that sometimes we receive things from outsiders which we do not receive from those closest to us [pride and identity].

1. The impact of Eastern Orthodoxy on Western thought

It is often said that Eastern, Orthodox thought, follows Greek ways of thinking: focussing on the nature of reality, the ultimate, being – whilst the Western world, rooted in the Greek world, but educated through the Roman world and in Latin – is much more pragmatic, and emphasises doing.

John Zizioulas, the author of Being as Communion, argues that the greatest impact of Eastern Orthodoxy (Irenaeus, Athanasius, Cappadocians, Maximus – and specifically their Trinitarian emphasis) on Western thought has been to show us the importance of the person, of who we are in relationship to others, rather than what we are.

Putting this simply, the West has exalted the individual. Everything comes back to the individual. Even Augustine, writing long before the Renaissance and Enlightenment, in his understanding of the Trinity draws an analogy with the individual: Memory, understanding, will.

“For I remember that I have memory and understanding, and will; and I understand that I understand, and will, and remember; and I will that I will, and remember, and understand; and I remember together my whole memory, and understanding, and will… And, therefore, while all are mutually comprehended by each, and as wholes, each as a whole is equal to each as a whole, and each as a whole at the same time to all as wholes; and these three are one, one life, one mind, one essence.” (De Trinitate, X, 11, 18)

And Descartes, the father of modern Western thought, brings everything back to the individual: ‘I think therefore I am’.

The East, on the other hand, with its roots in Trinitarian theology, talks about persons, and defines a person in terms of their relationship to others. I am who I am in relationship with others.

Whereas our Western thought, with our pragmatic approach, wants to know ‘What is a person: what makes them tick, what is their biological and psychological make up, what do they do?’ – Eastern Orthodoxy wants to know the answer to the Who question? Who are they? Who are they in relationship with? To go back to Bulgakov’s quote, what is important is the question, ‘On whose breast do you lay your head?’

2. The theological impact of Eastern Orthodoxy on Western Christianity

Historically there has not been that much contact between East and West, since 1054 and the even more disastrous sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204. There have been two worlds living next to each other, and a few people have made the journey across.

It has only been in the last century, with the Russian émigrés coming to the West that we have begun to become familiar with Eastern Orthodoxy. And today we have small but flourishing Orthodox communities in many cities and towns.


Recently some have looked at the Orthodox church as a possible home to move to from the Anglican church - although I have to say that even though Orthodoxy has an ecclesiology that is closer to an Anglican understanding than to a Roman understanding, the cultural gap is often too great to jump.

And ecumenically things have not been great. The high point was in the first decades after the Second World War (probably with the 1976 Moscow agreed statement). There was even talk of mutual recognition of orders. Since then, the way the Anglican Church has gone about deciding about the ordination of women, and subsequent issues relating to homosexuality, have meant that relationships have cooled down significantly.

But dialogue continues, and there has been some agreement about our understanding of episcopacy, conciliarity and the Trinity. It is significant that Common Worship now includes an authorised creed without the filioque.

And two of our recent Archbishops have been very influenced by Orthodoxy: Ramsey and Williams

At a popular level Orthodoxy has had some impact: although I have to say that it is rather a pick and mix attitude to orthodox prayers, icons and music [not really architecture – although maybe some of our great domes come from the East].

More profound level:
• our understanding of the Trinity;
• the theology of Icons and the Orthodox approach to matter;
• Ecclesiology and the idea of conciliarity – challenge to our individualism;
• the place of Mary and saints in Orthodox theology;
• The lives of many of the Eastern saints themselves – Starets Silouan, Seraphim of Sarov, St Ksenia of Petersburg;
• Eastern monasticism; the sayings of the Desert Fathers;
• Teachings on prayer (Philokalia; the late Metropolitan Anthony [Bloom] of Sourozh),
• Apophatic theology,
• the divine darkness – and the connection between mysticism, prayer and theology;
• vision of theosis and transfiguration;
• place of Easter and the resurrection.

And I would like to focus on three areas


1. THE TRINITY

The Western church has tended to separate God from the three persons. In our theology the unity of God is separate from the three persons. There is a God who is behind the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

We have tended to turn the Trinity into a mathematical problem. And we have got into a mess. [Clip from Nuns on the Run (with apologies for language)]

For us in the West, the being of God, the nature of God, comes before the persons in God and the relationships in God.

And many of our Western dogmatic theologies begin with a chapter on the nature of God, on his power and eternity and unity and love and holiness and mercy – whereas when I look at say Vladimir Lossky’s The mystical theology of the Eastern Church I discover that the first chapter is about the Divine darkness; and Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Way is about God as mystery. In other words, they begin their theology by emphasising the fact that the what-ness, the essence, of God is unknown and un-knowable, but that we can still know God mystically, personally, we can still ‘lay our head on his breast’, we can still worship him.

It is interesting that the creed that we use in our communion service (and I quote from Common Worship) says, ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty’. The creed that is used by the Orthodox in the liturgy says, ‘I believe in one God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth’.

The difference is a comma between God and Father.

And in Eastern Orthodoxy there is no doubt that the God in whom we believe is the Father – and that the Son and the Holy Spirit come from, and are included in that term the Father. In other words there is no God behind the Father.

It was Gregory of Nyssa who argued that the idea of relationship is part of the very being of God. You cannot call God Father without realizing that the reason he is Father is because there is a Son. You cannot separate the Son and the Holy Spirit from who the Father is. He writes, ‘All that the Father is, we see revealed in the Son; all that is the Son’s is the Father’s also; for the whole Son dwells in the Father, and he has the whole Father dwelling in himself .. one cannot think of the Son apart from the Father, nor divide the Spirit from the Son’.

Gregory of Nazianzus writes, ‘No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One When I think of any One of the Three, I think of Him as the whole, and my eyes are filled .. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light’.

That is why in Orthodoxy there are many more prayers addressed to the Trinity. For us in the West, we rarely pray to ‘the Trinity’ (apart from the blessing on Trinity Sunday!).

Morning prayer:
‘O Most Holy Trinity, have mercy on us.
O Lord, cleanse us from our sins.
O Master, pardon our iniquities.
O Holy One, visit and heal our infirmities
For your Name’s sake’

One of the climactic points of the liturgy (the Great Entrance) goes as follows: ‘Let us, the Cherubim mystically representing, and unto the Life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy chant intoning, all cares terrestrial now lay aside. That we may raise on high the King of all, like conqueror on shield and spears, by the Angelic Hosts invisibly up-borne. Alleluia’

But when the Trinity is addressed in the East, they hear, ‘Father, in whom is the Son and the Holy Spirit, and from whom came the Son and the Spirit’ or ‘Son of the Father in whom is the Spirit’ or ‘Spirit of the Father and the Son’.


The Orthodox understanding of the Trinity is best shown in the icon of the Trinity: three persons of the same age, with the same face, each wearing the royal blue and holding a royal sceptre, in a circle of communion. Behind the angel representing the Father is a house; behind the angel representing the Son is a tree (the tree of life; the cross); behind the angel representing the Spirit is the wilderness (the place of meeting with God). There is a movement of submission to the Father, and a movement of blessing from the Father. And the reverse perspective means that the person standing in front of this icon is invited into communion into the Trinity.

The Trinity is not a problem to be solved, an idea to be understood, but it is The Reality beyond, behind and above all reality, to which we pray

Eastern Orthodoxy reminds us that we are a Trinitarian church. It warns us against separating the persons of the Trinity. At an inter-faith level that might appear very attractive, but it is not orthodox.

Much modern theology tries to talk of faith in God, apart from faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Or we separate Jesus from God the Father and the Holy Spirit. We speak of him as someone who was lived 2000 years ago, an example, an inspiration. Alternatively we retreat into a private Jesus and me spirituality. In both cases we separate him from the Father and the Spirit. We forget that he is the Son of God (something that is totally alien to Orthodoxy: icons, Christ Pantocrater above you in church, standing in church for prayer – all remind us of the divinity of Christ)

And spirituality comes to mean contemplating a candle, meditation using a sound or single word, yoga, tai-chi, extra-sensory perception, faith healing, the para-normal. It is about values and being green and out-of-the-body experiences. I exaggerate, but in all of this there is the danger that we separate the Spirit from the Father and the Son.

The Spirit will always lead us back to communion with/prayer to the Father through the Son.

And so Synesius of Cyrene (373-414) wrote a prayer
(quoted by Kallistos Ware in The Orthodox Way, p.42)
Hail, Father, source of the Son,
Son, the Father’s image;
Father, the ground where the Son stands,
Son the Father’s seal;
Father, the power of the Son,
Son, the Father’s beauty;
All-pure Spirit, bond between
The Father and the Son.
Send, O Christ, the Spirit, send
the Father to my soul;
Steep my dry heart in this dew,
The best of all thy gifts.

It is about relationship. Relationship within God, which reaches out and draws us into communion with God, and which includes us together in the Son.


2. OUR UNDERSTANDING OF WORSHIP

This flows out of the emphasis on Trinity and relationship.

If relationship with the Trinity is at the heart of everything, is what everything is all about, then our worship and prayer is central.

Orthodoxy means ‘right worship’ or ‘right glory’ – and at the very centre of the life of the Eastern Orthodox church is the liturgy – the worship of the church.

There are two understandings of liturgy. There is liturgy and there is THE liturgy

1. Liturgy, for us, means a formal service. The liturgy is the order of service that you have in front of you, and in which you are told what to say. There are countless liturgies today. Some people like it; others find them very unhelpful.

2. The Orthodox understanding of THE liturgy is different. There is only one liturgy. It is THE liturgy: the set service of the church. The music may be different (Greek music is very different to Russian), and in some places some prayers may be added on at the end, but the liturgy is the set service.

And for the Orthodox the liturgy of the church is absolutely central. [Our experience with Diakonia in the seminary]

In 1919, The Communist authorities in Russia made a big mistake. They stamped down on everything that the church did: they proscribed evangelism, catechism within the home, Sunday school, social work. They nobbled priests – either by imprisoning or executing them (Fr Kyrill) or by totally compromising the hierarchy, and they closed church schools and they closed churches. The one thing that they did not proscribe – when they left a church open – was the service of the church, the liturgy.

They thought: It is in an archaic language; it is only being celebrated by old people and it is irrelevant to everyday life. It will die out.

But what happened was very different. 40 years later it had not died out, and they looked at the church and saw that it was still there and still full of old people – different old people. So they had another go. They reinforced the teaching of atheism in schools, they locked up and executed more priests and lay people; they closed a few more churches; but they still allowed the church to celebrate the liturgy.

They thought: It is in an archaic language; it is only being celebrated by old people and it is irrelevant to everyday life. It will die out.

30 years later, when Communism died out, they looked at the church and saw that it had not died out. It was still full of old people. And because it was still there – when it was given freedom, the church was able to flourish. And they first thing they did was to build churches so that they could celebrate the liturgy.

[Contrast with the churches that we saw in Scandinavia – doing wonderful social work, with large staff teams – but empty on Sunday. The heart had been taken out of them]

And when people meet together to worship God, to declare his praise and his story and his rule over creation,
and his coming kingdom, and to receive from him – even if there are only two or three of them, or if they are old, or even if few of them fully understand the language – there is a power.


And if I may get personal for a few moments, as a result of my connection with Orthodoxy

1. I have a growing conviction that worship is at the centre of all that we are and do.

Worship: the conscious turning to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, giving him praise, receiving from him. It is the first thing that we are called to do. Not evangelism, not social action, not education, not pastoral care, not music. Those things all flow out of worship (it was out of the ‘liturgy’ (Acts 13:2) that Paul and Silas were set aside for evangelistic work).

We need to rediscover this, particularly as we face our own pressures.

But worship and prayer is our breathing. It is our purpose and our joy. It is why we live and for what we exist: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, chosen that you might declare the praises of him who brought you out of darkness into his glorious light’. (1 Peter 2:10)

And today with declining resources, the church needs to choose where it is going to put those resources.

2. I am also convinced that the prayers of the Church matter.

My big discovery in Russia was the Church.

In our society we focus on the individual and ‘my’ personal relationship with God.

On one occasion in the seminary, some workers from Co-Mission were introduced to the Orthodox seminarians. Each of them introduced themselves and spoke of their personal relationship with God. But the question the Orthodox would put to them was not to question their personal relationship, but to question whether the God they professed to trust was in fact the God of the church, or whether it was some made up personal fantasy God.

And that is a real challenge to our increasingly individualistic society where I do what suits me now. In the virtual world I can shape the universe to suit me. We try to do that in the real world, although it is not quite so compliant. And we do it in church: we go to the church where the service suits me; we create services to suit us, to suit our time and our peculiarities. We are in danger of trying to create God in our image.

The fact that for the Orthodox there is one service, one liturgy, which has been passed down from generation to generation challenges us to remember that we are members of one body of people in Christ, that existed long before us.

I am reminded of that by the iconostasis.

The prayers that we pray have been prayed by the men and women who have gone before us, but who are also part of us – because we are part of the body of Christ with them.

And the liturgy shapes how we understand our connection with the past. It shapes the standard for the church, and it shapes our thinking. The liturgy gives us a pattern for praying and a pattern for thinking that is bigger than me and than us. Someone said to me, ‘If you have a problem praying one of the prayers of the church, then it is not the prayer that has to change, but you’.

And yes, as members of the church we need to be relevant to today, but we also must hold onto the fact that we are not the centre of the universe or the Church.

And at a personal level, I came across a number of prayers that have become very special for me.

Heavenly King
O heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who is in all places and dwells in all the things, the treasury of blessing and the giver of life. Come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save, O gracious One, our souls. Amen

Trisagion
Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.

The great Canon of St Andrew the Great (read on Wednesday before Easter)
Lenten Triodian Page 378

Lenten Prayer of St Ephraim the Syrian
O Lord and Master of my life,
do not give to me the spirit of laziness, faintheartedness, lust for power, and idle talk.
But give to me Your servant the spirit of purity, humility, patience and love.
O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother or sister,
for blessed are You unto ages of ages. Amen.

Easter Canon
Christ is risen from the dead! Death has destroyed death, and to those who were in the grave, Life has been given.

And although I come from a tradition that was suspicious of using other people’s prayers, I have come to really appreciate the prayers of the saints: I find it so difficult to pray. My passions get too mixed up; I become more confused about my motives or for praying for what I am praying. I am someone who finds intercessory prayer on my own difficult: I pray for someone and then the thoughts and emotions come rushing in. I can be overwhelmed. I do not know how to pray. So the liturgy and the prayers of the church become more and more important.

Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You.
You alone know what are my true needs.
You love me more than I myself know how to love.
Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me.
I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation.
I can only wait on You.
Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy.
Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up.
I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways.
I offer myself as a sacrifice to You.
I have no other desire than to seek to fulfil Your will.
Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen


3. THE JESUS PRAYER

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”

Our introduction, via Tolleshunt Knights. The hesitation: ‘Are we not saved’ already? Didn’t know my bible references to salvation as a process (Acts 2:47; 1 Cor 1:18; 2 Cor 2:15)

Also introduction to The Way of a Pilgrim – the story of a man who is convicted on reading the command to ‘pray continually’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Learns to pray the Jesus Prayer

What is Jesus prayer? Nothing magic about the words. At its heart is nothing less and nothing more than the invocation of Jesus’ name.

Matthew 9:27 (two blind men) ‘Have mercy on us, Son of David’
Matthew 15:22 “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession”
Matthew 20:30 Two blind men: ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us’
Luke 18:13 ‘God have mercy on me, a sinner’

There are four ways of praying this prayer

1. For a specific thing:
the blind man seeking sight. The prayer is prayed as a mean to an end
the woman who wants Jesus to heal her daughter (note how she asks mercy on her and then prays for her daughter. Why? Because she loves her daughter)

2. As a meditation:
Lord – surrender
Jesus – find it very hard to focus on this word: Luther spoke of the cross. Imagine that I am blind man calling out to Jesus. But it is the Jesus who I read about in the gospels, who died and rose from the dead
Christ – ties in with Old Testament, the promised one, the ruler of God’s world
Son of God – ties in with Trinity; shows us divinity; shows us to whom we are praying, what we are called to become. He is able to save us.
Have mercy on me – of course that can be for anything: for help in trouble, for someone in need, for a Godly sorrow, for wisdom to know what to pray, for true repentance, for a deeper love
(there is a danger that all of this is incredibly individualistic – but actually the person who has become like Christ is set free to love – they weep when others weep and they rejoice when others rejoice. Your burden becomes their burden)
A sinner – but this is the main reason we cry of mercy – because with the tax collector I am a broken, inadequate, weak, mortal sinner. I am unable to love. I am under the wrath of God.

‘They asked the Abbot Macarus, saying, ‘How ought we to pray?’ and the old man said, “There is no need of much speaking in prayer, but often stretch out thy hands and say, ‘Lord, as Thou wilt and as Thou knowest, have mercy upon me.’ But if there is war in thy soul, add, ‘help me’. And because He knoweth what we have need of, He showeth us His mercy.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p157]

3. As the bedrock of all prayer:
When we pray this prayer we can go no deeper: although we might use technique (breathing, prayer beads), it is about the abandonment of self and technique
This is the prayer that underlies all prayer
(Spike Milligan: 'Thank God the ground broke my fall’).
It is about resting on Jesus: you can drop no further.

4. As a way of going deeper into God
The prayer as a way of life, so that the prayer, the calling on Jesus, becomes closer to me than my breathing.

It is about going beyond words

Abandonment of thought – not because thought is wrong – but because God is beyond all human thought, and my salvation does not depend on right thought but on Jesus.
Abandonment of technique of prayer – because my salvation, in every sense of the word, does not depend on my prayer, but on Jesus
Self-forgetfulness in throwing ourselves on Jesus.
It is about entering the divine darkness, the stripping away of everything that we depend on, so that we might be transfigured, filled with the light of God.

There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]

And in this way, the Jesus prayer – prayed with the whole of the person in the one to whom we are calling to – does not become a means to an end – but it becomes the end in itself.

Why? Because salvation – in its fullest sense – begins with and ends with faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God. It is about becoming like the Son of God through communion in him, with the Father.

It is about laying our head on his breast.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Why does Jesus turn water into wine?


This is the first ‘sign’ that Jesus is recorded as performing.

In John’s gospel there are seven specific signs:
Water into wine
Healing of official’s son (John 4:46-54)
Healing of the man paralysed for 38 years (John 5:1-9)
The feeding of the 5000 (John 6:1-14)
Healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41)
Raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-44)
The death and resurrection of Jesus (cf John 2:18-22)

And John tells us why he has recorded them: in John 20:30-31

“Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

So why this one? Why is this the first, and why are we told that this is the first?

IT TELLS US ABOUT JESUS:
‘so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God’

Jesus is shown to be the person who can take ordinary things and make them extra-ordinary. He takes water and turns it into wine.

There are, as always with John, many different levels

1. Jesus is shown as the creator: the one who has the power of creation.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and earth, the first stuff God had to work with was water.  And at the beginning of John’s gospel we are told that Jesus is ‘the one through whom all things were made’.

2. Jesus is shown as the one who brings in the new covenant.

He takes the rituals of Judaism, and he transforms them. Here are jars that are to be used to contain the water for purification. There were strict rules about washing. It is a bit like going into the West Suffolk Hospital.

And Jesus takes these jars which were intended to contain something that was no doubt good in the first place (water for ritual washing), but which had become

• a real stumbling block – so that people thought that relationship with God was about washing themselves in the right way: leads to the shallowness that thinks that religion is all about doing ‘religious’ external things, or it leads to pride: ‘the ticking all the boxes’ mentality
• a burden to people
• they had become a barrier between people; to add to the barriers of circumcision and the food laws. The Jewish people were not simply told to separate themselves from non-Jews, but to serve non-Jews: to bring God’s word and God’s law to them.

And by turning water into wine, Jesus is saying that he has come to turn the water of the old covenant, into wine of the new covenant.

The old covenant, which was good, was about an external law. God tells the people of Old Testament that they are his people, and he gives them his promises and his law – so they know how to live as his people. But now Jesus says, ‘I’ve come to turn that water into wine. I’ve come with better promises and I’m not going to give you an external law. I will put my law in your hearts and minds, so that – when you are facing God – you will want to, choose to obey that law. Nobody will need to tell you to do it because you will freely choose to do it.’

Jesus is saying, ‘I have come to turn water for ritual washing (which is something we put onto ourselves), into wine (something which we drink, which we take into ourselves). I have come to take the old system and to transform it so that it becomes something that is not life-draining, but life-giving.

Of course the people at the feast now have a problem. The jars that they use for ritual washing are now full of wine. So they can’t fill them again with water. The new promises build on the old, but they replace the old.

3. We are shown Jesus Christ, the Lord of life.

Jesus is not a kill-joy. Turning water into wine not only shows us the power of Jesus, but it also shows us how this-life affirming Jesus is.

He produces 150 gallons of wine (if we say each jar contained 25 gallons). That is 909 bottles of wine. It means that if there were 100 people at the wedding, there would be 9 bottles each. And even if it went on for another two or three days, that was quite a few. And this was not of any sort of wine; this was really good wine.

Michael Macintyre talks of the rituals of restaurant eating. They bring you the bottle of wine. They open it for you. They pour a tiny amount and invite you to taste it. Macintyre is very funny on this. It is a joke. Most of us don’t have a clue. We take a sip, and we think, ‘This is wine. White wine or red wine’. And then we look at the waiter and we say with great authority, ‘Yes. Very good’.

On this occasion Jesus did produce good wine, and the master of the feast said, ‘Yes’.

Don’t be life deniers. We are commanded not to abuse the gifts that God gives us, but 1 Timothy 4:4 (and it really is an important verse) states, ‘For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer’.


4. We are shown Jesus as the rescuer:

He is the one who can step in and rescue, when all other resources have failed. And of course, what he does here – when his hour has not yet come – is a small picture of what he will do when his hour does come – when through his death and resurrection he will fully rescue us, save us from sin and death.


That is why Jesus manifests his glory when he turns water into wine. He demonstrates his creative power, he demonstrates what he has come to do, he demonstrates that he is the Lord of life and he demonstrates that he has come to save.



THIS PASSAGE GIVES US A GLIMPSE OF WHAT IT MEANS TO BELIEVE IN JESUS:
‘and that by believing you may have life in his name’.

I would like to focus on the faith of the servants.

They listen to Mary (and I think when John talks of Mary in John’s gospel, she is both the human mother of Jesus, but she is also a picture of the church, of the whole people of God)

It is very interesting to see how John’s gospel uses Mary. In fact she is never mentioned by name. She is always ‘the mother of Jesus’. She only appears twice. Here (John 2:1-5) and when she is standing at the foot of the cross (John 19:25-27). [She is also mention in John 6: 42, but simply as an aside, when the Jewish leaders say that they know his mother and father.] And in both cases the words that she says and the words that are spoken to her are very significant. Here, she is the one who has faith in Jesus and tells the servants to ‘do whatever he tells you to do’. She doesn’t fully understand what Jesus is about, and Jesus tells her ‘that his hour has not yet come’, but he performs this sign as a way of showing how he will rescue those who put their faith in him. In the second Jesus tells her that she is to be the mother of John and he is to be her son. In other words, the mother of Jesus becomes the mother of the beloved disciple. Yes, it shows us Jesus care for her and for John, but I think that something more is going on here. It does not surprise me that in Revelation 12:1-6, the woman who gives birth to 'a male child, one who is going to rule all the nations with a rod of iron', is identified with the Church. 

They listen to Mary and they put their faith in Jesus. They do ‘what he tells them to do’, even when he tells them to serve water to the master of the feast.

You see, when you put your trust, your faith in Jesus, when you obey him, the most ordinary people become extra-ordinary, and the most ordinary things become extra-ordinary things.

Servants who serve the old wine, which runs out, find that they are serving a new wine which is not going to run out.

And I challenge us. Which wine are you serving people?

We offer people advice about health, education, which TV programmes to watch, which gadgets or apps to buy, what clothes or colours to wear, the books to read, the places to go, the best way to invest money. It is not wrong – it is just so sad that we spend so much time doing it when we could be offering people the new wine.

Jesus speaks of how diligent the children of this world are about the things of this world.

The old wine represents the things of this world. The new wine represents life in the Kingdom of God.

Jesus does not need people who have got it sussed. He simply needs people who realise that the old wine has run out. They have understood that the things of this world will never fully satisfy, will never give real life. And so they come to Jesus, the Son of God, prepared to be obedient.

The greatest need for the church of today is for men and women who will work as hard at being servants of the new wine as they do at being servants of the old wine. We need servants, ministers, of the Kingdom. We do not need qualifications, resources, abilities for this. It is simply about putting your faith in Jesus, listening to him and being obedient to him.

So it could well be today that God is calling some of us to get involved with Town Pastors, whether as people who pray or who go out on the streets. It could be that he is calling us to get involved in some gospel outreach work: Passion for Life, visiting ministry, children or young people’s ministry, running a parents and toddler group with a specifically evangelistic thrust. And it could well be that God is calling some people here to come forward for some form of recognised ministry: lay pastor, reader or even ordination (whether to stipendiary – paid – or non-stipendiary). It could be that God is calling some of us not into those roles, but to give sacrificially so that those who are called to those roles can be released to fulfil them. It is all about sharing in the work of serving this new wine.

Jesus turns water into wine to show who he is, the Christ, the Son of God. He reveals his glory and his disciples 'believe' in him. They put their trust in him. They become servants of the new wine.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Hope for a new year

Luke 3:15-22

We all face times when things are dark.

- loss, financial, health, relationships, work, personal pressures

For some of us 2009 was very difficult; for some of us 2010 will be difficult

But as people who put our trust in Jesus Christ we always have hope.


Luke 3 is set in a time when it was dark for the people of Israel

Political darkness: Roman occupation

Moral darkness: Herod the Tetrarch. He had married his brother’s wife, and – even more seriously – when John the Baptist rebuked him for this and for other things – he imprisoned John. Now I don’t know if things at the top go wrong because things at the bottom have gone wrong, or if things at the bottom go wrong when things at the top go wrong, but I do know that it is a serious situation when things at the top go wrong.

And it was dark.

But into this darkness there came a ray of light: Jesus Christ.

Luke simply says: ‘Now when all the people were baptised and when Jesus had also been baptised’ (v21). It does not tell us why Jesus was baptised, but simply the fact that he was baptised. And it tells us what happens as a consequence of his baptism and his prayer.

And three things happen.


1. Heaven is opened (v21)

It is an immense statement.
It implies that the heavens were closed. The door between heaven and earth was shut. Men and women cried out to God, but nothing happened.

But now, as Jesus comes, as he is baptised, and as he prays, heaven is opened. Jesus opens the door between heaven and earth.

Jesus opens many things in Luke’s gospel.
He opens the mouths of people so that they can declare the praises of God (Luke 1:64)
He opens the eyes of people so that they can see him (Luke 24:31)
He opens the word of God so that people can understand what God is saying (Luke 24:32,45)
He opens the door to God: ‘Knock and it will be opened to you’ (Luke 11:9)

And because of Jesus, even when things are very dark, there is hope. Heaven has been opened.

Maggie, from St Peter’s, was telling me about her brother Paul. He lost his son in an accident and his daughter through sickness. He was then diagnosed with motor neurons disease. He died last week.
One wonders how people cope. One wonders how his widow copes.
But he (and she, for that matter) was a Christian, and last September in his church he gave his testimony – and declared that, in spite of everything, in spite of the fact that his prayers for healing had not been answered, he still put his trust in God.

Or I think of a woman in one of the previous churches where we have been. She became her Christian. Her baby daughter was then involved in an accident that was going to scar her for life; and then out of the blue her husband walked out on her. I went to see her – I thought what is she going to say?: ‘I became a Christian – and look what God has done to me’. But instead she said, ‘I am so grateful that I have become a Christian. If I did not know God, I do not know how I could have coped’.

Because of Jesus, even when things get dark, heaven is opened. There is hope. There is the hope that God change things here. But there is also the hope of forgiveness and eternal life. There is the hope that he is doing a work in us that is far far greater than we can ever imagine.


2. The Holy Spirit comes

In Luke 3:22, the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in bodily form.

This is the Holy Spirit spoken of by John: ‘He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire’.

The Holy Spirit is often likened to a fire.

When the Holy Spirit comes on the first Christians, the Holy Spirit comes as ‘tongues of flame’
And Paul urges us not to ‘quench’ the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19): not to put out the Spirit’s fire.

Fire is used to describe the words of God, the actions of God, the judgement of God and the presence of God.
• Long ago, at the beginning of the bible, God speaks to Moses out of a bush which burns but is not consumed
• Elijah, one of God’s messengers, had a competition with some prophets of a false God. They both built an altar and placed a sacrifice on the altar. The false prophets prayed to the false God. Nothing happened. Elijah prayed to the God of the people of Israel. Fire fell from heaven and burnt up the sacrifice.
• The New Testament talks about the day of judgement as being like a day of fire – when we and our works will be tested with fire (1 Corinthians 3:13ff; 1 Peter 1:7)
• The risen Jesus is described in Revelation as having ‘eyes like a flame of fire’ (Revelation 2:18)

Of course this passage points to Jesus as the one on whom the Holy Spirit comes, who is the fire of God. He is the word of God, the judgement of God, the presence of God.

How we respond to him shows how we respond to God. You may not like it. You may think it is unfair. But that is the test. You can’t go into an exam, turn over the paper, read the question and say, ‘I don’t like it. I’m going to set my own question’. I suppose you can, but you will fail. You do not judge the examiner. The examiner judges you.

God has shown us what he is like. And how we respond to the visible Jesus shows how we respond to the invisible God. That is why we judge ourselves. That is why Jesus is the fire of God.

If we say yes to him, if we allow him to baptise us with the same Holy Spirit, to immerse us in the Holy Spirit, to allow him to work in us, he will begin to change us and to make us like him. He will begin, as we allow him, to burn up all that is rubbish, self-centred, cruel and twisted and unloving in us, all that is sinful and opposed to God, so we too can begin to become this fire of God.

The bible says of the angels: ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire’

There came to the abbot Joseph the abbot Lot, and said to him, “Father, according to my strength I keep a modest rule of prayer and fasting and meditation and quiet, and according to my strength I purge my imagination: what more must I do?” The old man, rising, held up his hands against the sky, and his fingers became like ten torches of fire, and he said, “If thou wilt, thou shalt be made wholly a flame.” [Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p158]


3. The Father speaks

Just as an aside, we see here the work of the Trinity. The Son is baptised and prays; the Spirit comes down and the Father speaks.

We cannot separate the three persons of the Trinity. The Son is the Son of God because of the Father. The Father is father because of the Son. The Spirit is Spirit because he is the Spirit of the Son and the Father.

And we are given a glimpse into the heart of the Trinity. What God the Father says here is amazingly personal and intimate: ‘You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased’. This may be a voice that is heard by others, but it is a voice that is for Jesus.

Jesus has been baptised with the people. He has humbled himself. He has been obedient to God his Father. It is the beginning. It is going to get much harder. He is about to be led into the wilderness, and to begin his public ministry – which will end with his crucifixion.

And so God says to him, in our hearing, ‘You are my beloved Son – and I’m pleased with you’.

But those words that the Father speaks to Jesus are also spoken for us.

Because it is as we receive Jesus that we become Sons and Daughters of God. We become adopted children in the family of God. ‘To all who received him, he gave the right to become children of God’ (John 1:11). The Holy Spirit enables us to call out to God, ‘Abba Father’. The Spirit assures us that we are children of God.

Of course there has to be baptism: and by that I do not simply mean that we need to have been done as a baby or as an adult. Rather I mean that we need to live that baptism daily: identifying ourselves with Jesus; living as people who have died to ourselves, to our failures and achievements, our hopes and fears, our boasts and our shames, our ambitions and disappointments – and living as people who are alive to him, to his hopes and achievements and boasts and ambitions.

And that living as dead people – to this world and to ourselves – can be painful.

Paul writes in Romans 8:16, ‘The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children’. But he goes on to say: ‘Now if we are children we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ - if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’

None of us know what this year holds in store for us. I pray it will be a year of great happiness, but for some it might be a year of pain and deep sadness. It may be a year when like Jesus after his baptism, we are led by the Spirit into the wilderness. It may be a dark year.

But even if it is, it doesn’t matter because:

Heaven has been opened – we can know God
The Holy Spirit has come – and God can work in us, through both the good and the bad.
Father God has spoken and speaks. He loves you, and he delights in you.

There is hope.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

The gap between heaven and earth

CAROL SERVICE 2009

There are times when the gap between heaven and earth seems very close.

Christmas can be one of those times

It points to another world: a world of beauty, hope, peace, joy, warmth, light, feasting, love, united families in united communities with open doors, kindness, of wonder

Alison and myself lived for two years in St Petersburg, Russia. We went there in 1993, just as the country was opening up after 70 years of communism. The place was in a dreadful state. The buildings were falling apart and the infrastructure was shot to pieces, apart from the underground. You stood for ages in freezing temperatures waiting for a bus or tram, and then when it turned up, you were propelled by the crowd waiting outside the bus into the bus and slammed up against the wall or into someone else. On one occasion we were with an older couple who were also working for a mission organisation. We had been slammed again into the bus, and she said – in language that is totally becoming a missionary in Russia – B..Y Russia! We shared her sentiments even if we never said it. There were very few goods available in the shops. We spent 2 months trying to find a small electric cooker, and when we did it was in a shop that sold clothes. And it was cold, it was dark, it was dreary, it was drab (everything was gray or black), and it was dirty: the snow fell and then melted. The Russians have a word for dirty: gryasny – it sums it up. Life for people was hard – particularly for women. The young women looked gorgeous, yet almost everyone over the age of 30 looked as if they were at least a very tired 50. The average salary for people at the time was $50/month. And at the end of 4 months, we were fed up and drained.

And then, one evening, Christmas time, we went to the Marinsky theatre to see the Kirov ballet dance the Nutcracker. And I have to confess that as the curtain lifted on the stage, I felt tears running down my cheeks. Because what we saw in front of us was another world: a world of colour and of beauty and of harmony. It was a fairy tale world, but for two glorious hours we lived in that other world.

I hasten to add that as time went by we grew to love so many of the Russian people who we had the privilege of meeting, and to love Russia – and to find the beauty in the harshness

Or, one other illustration: Last week the snow came. Friday morning, the place looked beautiful under the white blanket. It was like waking up to a different world: of immense beauty and purity.

There are times – and Christmas can be one of those times - when we glimpse that maybe this world is not all that there is – there is something else. Something that is bigger than us, more beautiful than us, more pure than us. Something that does not need to be just then – in the future – but that could begin to be lived here and now.

The bible says that God has put eternity in our hearts.

And yet, as we reach out to try and touch it, to claim it, it disappears.

Yes, there is so much that is amazing and beautiful in the world and in us, but there is also so much that is evil and cold and dark and brutal and destructive – not just in the world, but in our own families and lives. Solzhenitsyn said – and this is a very loose paraphrase: ‘If only evil were out there, in certain people – and all we need to do is to cut them off from society and we will be OK. But evil is not just out there. Evil rests in here, and to cut it out would mean cutting out a bit of our own heart’.

We glimpse that there is more, maybe when God breaks into our lives, or we suddenly hear him, or in a very real act of calling out to God, of astonishing generosity, forgiveness or self-sacrifice - but then we are dragged down again. We return again to our God-denying, self-centred, closed little lives.

And we cannot blame others for the pride and the fear and the resentments and the jealousies and the lusts and the selfishness which blind us and drag us back to earth.

We cannot live our lives blaming others. Yes, others may have hurt us very badly; circumstances may have gone against us, life may have done the dirty on us, but God in his love lets us be adults. And when we are adults what we do with that hurt and pain and suffering is our responsibility. And as adults we are responsible before God for that which is cold, dark and unloving within us. And before him we stand guilty. Like children caught red-handed, there is nothing we can say apart from bare-faced denial or ‘sorry’.

So although we glimpse the other world, and we long that it might be the real world, it seems that even if it is real it is inaccessible. Between heaven and earth there is an unbridgeable chasm.

And yet at Christmas it can seem the gap is closer. The other world of ‘peace and goodwill’ is more than a fantasy. The world in which we can be released from ourselves, and begin to discover love, joy and peace is no longer just a fairy tale.

And the reason for that is because on the first Christmas, heaven touched earth. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. In the baby born to Mary, the fully human son of Mary and the fully divine Son of God, heaven meets earth. Divinity and humanity wrapped up and laid in a manger. And the way from that world to this world was opened. We could not open it ourselves – to be honest we didn’t particularly want to open it. It is nice to think that there might be something there, but it is better to keep God at a distance.

We can’t do that. If we keep God at a distance, we remain rooted in this world. We will live in this world. We will die in this world.

But at that first Christmas God opened the way to the other world in Jesus, and even though we tried to slam the door on him, Jesus has now got his foot in the door.

That is why Christmas is so powerful. The door really is open. We walk past that door and we glimpse the other world beyond. Many of you will have done that many times. And at Christmas we hear the message. Jesus calls us: ‘Come to me, put your trust in me, follow me, obey me, and I will take you through that door – and you can begin to live the life of heaven on earth.

Of course it will not mean that we will be taken out of this life where there is so much sin, suffering and sickness. What it means though is that we will have a new anchor. Several years ago I went on a channel ferry to Poole. Half an hour into the journey I felt queasy. An hour into the journey I wanted to die. If death had come it would have been welcome. But then the miracle happened. With three hours still to go, I saw a light which was near Poole harbour. And for the next three hours, I sat at the front of that boat, and I fixed my eyes on that light. Nothing would take them off that light.

And when we receive Jesus, we are given that light. He is our hope, our rock, our anchor. He is the fixed point in life.

Yes, it will mean big changes. It will mean new priorities. But it will also mean a new intimacy, a new identity, a new destiny and a new hope. If we begin to live the life of the other world in this world, then it doesn’t matter even when this world is taken away.

John tells us, ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, Jesus gave the right to become children of God’.

Perhaps you might be thinking: but this is your nutcracker world; this is your fairy tale world; this is your snow-covered world. It is all an illusion. Is it? There is only one way to find out. Begin to live in it – then you will know which the fantasy world is and which is ultimately real.



Lord Jesus Christ
Thank you for the gift of Christmas
Thank you that at Christmas – in your person - heaven touched earth.
We would come to you, put our trust in you, live for you.
We are sorry for living such blind, self-centred, God-denying lives.
Please help us to begin to live the life of heaven on earth
And to see what is ultimately real.
We ask this in your precious name. Amen.