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. 

Saturday, 20 May 2017

How to have a different approach to people

The church is never a place where you will find selfish ambition or vain conceit! That’s a joke!
In fact our passage speaks of selfish ambition and vain conceit (v3).

Selfish ambition: the desire to have more, to be more: more money or possessions or status or significance.
Ambition in itself does not need to be wrong. The problem is what we are ambitious for. The problem is when we end up climbing over others to get what we want. We fix our eyes on the object of desire and nothing and nobody will get in our way.

Vain conceit: this is the temptation to think more of ourselves than we should. We have our petty little achievements and successes and as a result we start to think that we are rather important. We become 'puffed up'. I’m bigger than you; I’m stronger than you; I’m cleverer than you; I’m more attractive than you. We look down on others. We think we deserve greater status or honour. We're put out when we feel that we haven't been treated with the respect that we deserve. And resentment eats us away like a cancer.

I remember with utter shame the time that I went to a formal dinner and complained because I had been placed on one of the lower tables. I felt it was below my status as vicar of St Mary's.

And vain conceit leads to my seeking empty glory; it means I pride myself in my petty achievements - which in the grand scheme of things are pretty pathetic - and I end up mercilessly fault finding in others.

The problem with vain conceit and selfish ambition is that it divides.
If you are conceited, if you are ambitious for good things in this life then it is almost a given that your conceit will smash against my conceit; your ambition will crash against mine. And there will be argument, conflict and division.

And sadly that happens as much in church communities as it happens elsewhere.

It certainly was happening here in Philippi.
·         Paul mentions people who were preaching Christ not to build up the Kingdom of God, but in order to build up their own name (1.17: ‘they preach Christ out of selfish ambition');
·         He speaks of Epaphroditus who 'takes a genuine interest in your welfare' unlike all the others who 'look out for their own interests, but not those of Jesus Christ' (2.20-21).
·         He pleads with two ladies by name, Euodia and Syntyche, and he urges them to agree with each other in the Lord (4.2).

And every church community is the same. Because we are human there will be the envy, the pride, the jealousy, the naked ambition that tears people apart.

But, and this is what is radical about this passage, it does not need to be so in the church.
There is the possibility to begin to live in a radically different way.

Paul writes to the Philippian Christians and he urges them to be like-minded, to have the same love, to be of one spirit and one mind.

1.      We have the most amazing example of someone who renounced selfish ambition and vain conceit
2.      And we have the grace of God, the power of God which can come into us and fill us with his compassion and tenderness, and it can transform how we look at and how we treat other people.

1.      So we look at Jesus
He is the one who we call Lord - and we seek to follow his example:
‘In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had’ (2.5)

There was no self-conceit or selfish ambition in him.
He had everything and he gave it all up.
Whereas we are always looking to fill ourselves up with status and stuff, he emptied himself of status and stuff. 'He made himself nothing' (v7).

Kierkegaard tells the story of the fabulously wealthy and powerful prince who loved a peasant girl. She was unaware of his love. His problem was how to declare his love.
If he commanded her to love him, would he ever know if she truly loved him? Perhaps she would always live her life in fear of him.
If he brought her to his palace to woo her, would she fall in love with him or would she fall in love with all the prince and princess stuff?
The only thing he could do was to leave his prince life and become a peasant; to exchange the palace for a hovel; to live the sort of life that she lived; to woo her as one peasant would woo another peasant.
And so Jesus leaves heaven and comes to earth. He becomes a baby, one of us. He woos us. And what is even more astonishing is that he does that in the knowledge that we would reject him.

Vv6-8 speak of the emptying, the self-humbling and the obedience of Jesus.

That is the alternative to selfish ambition and vain conceit.

It is about being like Jesus, putting God first, and doing what God wants us to do.
And if we commit ourselves first to being obedient to God, if we kneel before Jesus, who has been made Lord and who has been given the name above every name, then we will be changed.
If we commit ourselves to him, and if we place our desire for him and for his kingdom above our desire for stuff and status and significance, then it becomes so much easier to empty ourselves.
And if we begin to learn how much he loves us, and the good he desires for us (not necessarily here and now), then it is much easier to humble ourselves before others. So what if they consider me insignificant, a 'dead dog', 'a flea' (as David said to Saul, when Saul was hunting him)? It really does not matter. If Jesus lives in you, you can be treated as a dead dog as far as this world is concerned because you are a prince or princess of heaven.

So we look at Jesus, at his example

2.      We turn to the grace of God
Without the power of God at work in our lives, this will just be wishful thinking. We cannot change.

I have been particularly struck by the first verse of this passage:

It speaks of the encouragement that comes from being united with Christ.
In schools they used to say, "Put your hands together to pray". It is quite a simple way of explaining what it means to live in a relationship with Jesus. This is me. This is Jesus. We were enemies of God, but because Jesus let them drive nails through his hands when he hung on the cross, we are forgiven, and can become friends of God. And not just friends of God, but intimate with God. It is about being in Jesus - united with Jesus.
And so we are united with the one who has been made Lord of all.
I'm part of him. You are part of him. In him you are welcomed, accepted, forgiven. God has given him everything and in him, as part of him, you have received everything.
There will be many times when life is rough, you are hurting, you feel abandoned and lost. But you are in him. And you are not on your own in this. Each one of us who has received Jesus is part of him. And in being part of him we are part of each other.

So when the grace of God grabs us and we know that we are united to Christ, we begin to realise that we have an interest in building up each other and in not tearing each other down. When you are built up, I am built up. When you are torn down, I am torn down. When the Methodists or Baptists are built up, we are built up. When the 9.30 or the 11am are built up, we are built up. We are united with Christ. We are part of him and we are part of each other.

That is why separation is painful, because we are literally losing part of ourselves. But it is only temporary. Because on the other side of heaven, as believers we will be reunited and there, there is no separation and no death.

And Paul writes of the comfort that we receive from the love of God.
I make no apologies for speaking about Michael who I visit and who has motor neurons disease. It has spread right through his body and is now beginning to affect his swallowing. If there is anyone who I know who you would expect to spit in the face of God it is Michael. But we were speaking on Tuesday about this passage, and Michael spoke of the comfort of the love of God. He spoke of the gift of the still small voice of calm that brings peace. And he was saying, through his oxygen mask, how he longs to be able to take that peace, wrap it up and give it to others.
If we know the love of God, then Michael has taught me that we can face any situation. 'Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For you are with me ..'
And when we know that love of God then we will begin to see other people as they really are: people created in the image of God, of equal value as you and me, and beloved by God. We see ourselves and each other as people whose identity, dignity and destiny can only be truly found in Christ.

And Paul writes of the fellowship of the Spirit:
This is speaking about the fact that as believers we both have the Holy Spirit living in us and we are brought together by the Spirit.
He gives us different gifts so that we need each other.
And I hope you also know something of that almost indescribable connection that can come between fellow believers in Jesus.
Someone I knew went many years ago to a Taize week. She shared a tent with a Polish girl. She didn’t speak Polish and the Polish girl didn’t speak English. But, she said, as they prayed in different languages, but together, there was something that united them at a heart to heart level.

So of course we are not perfect; and of course you will find selfish ambition and vain conceit in the Church. You’ll find it here ..

But what Paul is saying is that it does not need to be like that. We can be different. We can change. We can begin to put away vain conceit and selfish ambition. We can begin to value others above myself. We can begin to look not only to my own interests but also to the interests of others.

·         Look to Jesus, who humbled himself and who was exalted. We kneel before him. We put him first

·         Pray for the grace of God: ask him to fill us with his Spirit, so that we know the encouragement from being united to Jesus, the comfort of his love and the fellowship of having his Spirit living in you.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

What do you do when someone hates you?

So, somebody hates you.

Perhaps they have grounds for that dislike.

Maybe it is a Jacob and Esau situation.
Esau had every reason to hate Jacob. Jacob had taken advantage of his weakness, deceived him, and stolen what was his.
And maybe somebody hates you because you have hurt them. You've walked out on them in a relationship; you've said things or done things that have deeply hurt them; you've stolen from them; you’ve treated them as dirt

And when others have reason to hate us, then we need to do something about it.
We need to acknowledge the other person’s reason for being angry with us.
We need to say sorry, and - in so far as it is possible - we need to begin to put things right, with saying sorry
Of course, we are good at deceiving ourselves.
I remember one man, who was a member of one of the churches where I have served. He walked out on his wife for someone else. And rather than face up to the reality of what he had done, of how he had hurt her and his children, he demonised her. She had made his life hell for so many years, he said.
We knew them. It was not just true. Oh and a few years later the younger model that he had left his wife for, walked out on him. As an aside – although maybe for one person here, this is why God brought you today - please men, and I am particularly speaking to us, we need to think with our head and not with our groin.

If someone hates us for a reason, we need to be real and honest.
We need to acknowledge that we have hurt them and that they have a reason to hate us.
And we need to realise that trust may never be built up to what it was before, but we have to take steps so that they know we realise what we have done and that we are really sorry.

This is hard, but it really is at the centre of what being a Christian is all about. We’re human. We’re fallen. We will hurt people – intentionally and unintentionally. What matters is what we then do.
In Matthew 5, Jesus tells us that if we are about to make an offering to God and we remember not if we have got something against our brother and sister, but ‘if your brother or sister has something against you’. And, he says, in that situation, you are to leave your gift there – and go and be reconciled to that person. As Paul writes, ‘As far as it is up to you, live at peace with all people’.

Or maybe it is a David and Saul situation.
David had done nothing to make Saul hate him.
The only thing that he had done was serve Saul with distinction.

But because of that, Saul was jealous of David.
He knew that God had left him and that God was with David.
He knew that the future lay with David.
And so he saw David as a threat.

This is harder. Someone has something against you, and there is nothing you have done!
For me, at least, this is quite unusual! If someone has something against me, then it usually is about something that I have not done or something that I have done which has hurt them.

But, as in this case, there are times when people are jealous because it seems that you have succeeded and they have not; you have got what they wanted; or they are jealous because things seem to be easy for you and not for them; or that people have favoured you and not them; or you have got the breaks and they haven’t.

Or they may hate you or discriminate against you because you are different to them and that makes you an easy target. They can build themselves up by belittling you. Or they hate you because your difference threatens them.

Jesus warns his followers that the world will hate us because we are believers.
At St Mary’s this year, our theme is being different. It is about the challenge that if we do take Jesus seriously, we will be different. We will owe allegiance to a different authority; we will see people in a different way; we will have different priorities and we will pursue a different goal.

And that difference will threaten people, especially if God is starting to speak to them and they are feeling challenged, and it will make us an easy target.
And so there will be ridicule and mockery and discrimination, and there will be persecution.

Anyway, somebody hates you. They have demonised you. They want to destroy you.

How as a Christian do you respond to that hate?

1 Samuel 24 is one of many great stories in the Old Testament

And David’s response to Saul offers us a model of how a Christian believer can respond to that kind of hatred.

It is quite remarkable.

This is serious, life and death, business. David has been pursued by Saul. He can’t settle anywhere. Those who support him have been murdered by Saul. And now, David is hiding in a cave, and Saul is out there looking for him with 3000 of his crack troops.
But suddenly the whole situation is reversed. Saul walks into the very cave that David is hiding in. He comes in, as one American version put it, ‘to go to the bathroom’. He doesn’t realise that David is back there. And now Saul is completely in David’s hands. His men are saying, ‘This is a miracle. This must be of God. If you let him live, you know he will never change, but you can end it now once and for all’. And they press him, ‘Let us kill him’.

But David doesn’t. Instead he lets Saul walk.

Three very simple guidelines. If someone hates you,

1.      You pray for some opportunity to do good to the person who hates you

That is radical. It is being different.

But it is what Jesus says:
‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who ill-treat you’. (Luke 6.27-28)
And Paul in Romans writes, ‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse .. Do not repay anyone evil for evil .. if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12.20)

And 1 Samuel 24 is an illustration of what that means in practice.

David lets Saul walk. He could have killed him. He saves Saul’s life.
He does it, not because he is against taking revenge – elsewhere he does take revenge on his enemies – but because he is convinced that Saul is God’s anointed ruler.

This is one of those passages that shakes the foundations of our self-centred individualism to its very core. We think nothing of cutting the corner of the robes of those in authority. We mock or deride them. And yes, I know that the United Kingdom is not Israel, and that we have moved a bit of a way from the Tudor and Stuart doctrine of the divine right of rulers. But we must not forget that Paul writes in Romans 13 that all authorities are established by God, and that we are to ‘honour the emperor’. And Paul writes that when, like David, he was facing persecution from the very authority that he was affirming.

We thank God that we live in a democracy and that we have the right of free speech. But that does not mean that we can mock our rulers, or simply carry on doing our own thing.
As Christian believers, we should be the first to show a deep respect to those in authority. It does not matter what their personal life is like, or whether we agree with them or not. We honour the position and not necessarily the person who fills the position.
And that respect should not change even if they choose to persecute us. We are the people who should be the first in showing respect to councillors, mayors, judges, headteachers, referees, police officers.
And we do not always have to obey – think of Daniel who refused to obey Darius’ order when he declared that for a period everybody was to pray to him – but when we disobey, we do it with respect and we expect to face the consequences for our actions. 

And although David is mortified that he has cut off the corner of Saul’s robe, and that he has even thought of taking Saul’s life, by letting Saul walk, David has done good to his enemy. He has blessed the one who is persecuting him.

So if someone hates you, what about starting by praying to God that he would give you an opportunity to do them good?
I have no idea what that could be: Giving them some money; standing up for them publicly when others are cursing them; taking the very awkward neighbour a cake – no, not with arsenic in it - and with no strings attached.

2.      You pray for an opportunity to speak the truth to them

David, having spared Saul’s life, has an opportunity to speak with Saul.

He is very honest. He tells Saul about the good that he has done, and then he challenges Saul, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ He declares his innocence. He tells Saul that he would do nothing to harm him because he believes that he is God’s anointed ruler. And he also uses God language. He appeals to God – to God’s justice and to God’s vindication.

And please note, and this is important, that David does not use holier than thou language. He doesn’t take the moral high ground.
He sees himself starkly. ‘Against whom has the king of Israel come out? Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog, a flea?’ In effect he is saying, ‘I am nothing. Certainly, as far as the world is concerned, I am nobody’.
It is a really good line to take with those who hate us: ‘Why bother. I’m nothing. I’m nobody’.
I do sometimes think that when the media go on a Christian-bashing campaign.
What is it about us that is so offensive. Yes, maybe in the past when we exercised power, when bishops shaped government policy, when you had to be a solid member of the Church of England to get on the world. But now?
Oh, for the good old days!

And of course people will take offence if they think we are being holier than thou. But that is not what I see in David here. It is not what I see when I read Paul. He does not boast of his achievements but of his weaknesses. He describes himself as ‘the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world’ (v13)
And when David appeals to God, he doesn’t say, ‘May God judge you’, but ‘May the Lord be our judge and decide between us’ (v15).

So, if someone hates you, pray that you will have an opportunity to speak the truth.
That doesn’t mean that we pray for an opportunity to justify ourselves.
But pray that you may have the opportunity, if it is true, to tell them how their charge against you is not true. ‘I didn’t say that about you; I wouldn’t say that about you – or if it seems that that is what I said, it really is not what I meant, and I am sorry’.
And pray that you may have the opportunity to tell them that you know that you are utterly insignificant as far as this world is concerned.

Forgive me for saying this, but you are! When you consider the size of this universe, and when you consider that there are currently 7 billion plus people alive on this earth, who are you?
But speak also, as a Christian, of the Father in heaven who knows you and who loves you, and before whose judgement seat you will stand and they will stand. Remember that you will only be saved by mercy. And pray for them, that they might come to know that love of God, so that your enemy might become your friend for eternity in Jesus.

3.      Trust God to do his work, but be wise!

David does not need to take matters into his own hands, because he stakes his life on the truth that God is judge, and there will be judgement.

For those of us who have not judged ourselves correctly in this world, there is going to be a pretty dreadful shock.
For those of us who have judged ourselves correctly, who know that we have fallen short, and who have called on Jesus for mercy, there is abundant forgiveness and vindication.

There will be justice. And so we can commit ourselves and the situation into God’s hands.

There will be justice then, but there is also justice now.
We see that in this passage.
Saul sees himself very clearly. He weeps. He confesses to David, ‘You are more righteous than I. You have treated me well and I have treated you badly’ (v17)

Perhaps you know one of the story lines in Les Miserables. Javert, the law, is pursuing Jean Val Jean, who many years earlier jumped parole. It is an echo of this story. Javert believes bad about Val Jean, that a man cannot change, and he will not give up. And then comes the cave moment. Jean Val Jean saves Javert’s life. He does good to his enemy. But Javert cannot take it. That act of kindness shakes everything that he has staked his life on. And he commits suicide.

Perhaps that is what Paul means when he writes, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12.20)

It is not that we do good to those who hate us in order to heap burning coals on their head. We do good to them so that they might come to know Christ, and become our friend in Christ. But often in the judgement of God, our acts of kindness do heap burning coals on their head.

And even if we do not see that judgement here, my brothers and sisters, if people hate you for no good reason, there will be judgement then.

We can do good to our enemy,
We can speak the truth to them
We can even see signs of God’s judgement on them ..
but we still need to be wise!
I note that at the end of this passage Saul returns home, ‘but David and his men went up to the stronghold’. David knew that it wasn’t over. He had done good to Saul; he had proclaimed good to Saul, but he didn’t trust Saul. He could not trust him. He knew that the demons of fear and jealousy would once again overwhelm Saul and that he would come David-hunting.
And he was right. The whole thing happens again in 1 Samuel 26

Blessing your enemy, doing good to your enemy, forgiving your enemy does not mean that you can trust them. It means, I guess, that you are open to learning to trust them again.
But you need to be wise; there are times when you need your stronghold, your strong tower.
For David, that was a physical space. But for David his strong tower was also his God.

What do you do when someone hates you?
If they hate you for a reason, you say sorry and you look to try to sort it out and to start to rebuild trust, in so far as the other person wants. They have to set the agenda

If they hate you for no reason:
Pray for an opportunity to do them good
Pray for an opportunity to speak the truth – the truth about who you are (nothing, nobody), and the truth about who God is – the God of justice who vindicates
Pray that you may have the grace and the strength to leave the situation in the hands of God.

Someone once said
To do evil to someone when they have done you good is demonic.
To do good to someone when they have done you good is human.

But to do good to someone when they have done evil to you, is divine.  

Saturday, 22 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thank God for you; for your faith and love

2.      I thank God for the gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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