Reflections around the cross - Peter - "I let him down"

I didn’t sleep a wink.  I couldn’t.  I felt so awful.  Sick in the pit of my stomach.  Those words he had said to me kept going round my head.  “Tonight, before the cock crows, you’ll deny you’ve ever known me.”  I couldn’t believe it! Me, Peter, the one he’d nicknamed Rocky, deny Jesus?  I’d never deny Jesus.  Never.  As if I could.  He was the man who had given me purpose.  Life was so exciting when he was around.  I’d made lots of mistakes, but he forgave every one – amazing really. How could I ever deny the man who’d turned my life upside down?  Who’d allowed me to share in the greatest adventure ever? I couldn’t!

 

But I did.  Three times.  Swore I didn’t have the faintest idea who he was.  And then he looked at me.  He wasn’t angry; he was reproachful.  Disappointed.  If I’m honest, that’s worse.  I was devastated.  I couldn’t believe I’d let Jesus down.  I’d been so full of it.  So full of good words and good intentions.  But I couldn’t back them up with my actions.  I was so ashamed of myself, I ran out and wept.  Wept like I’ve never wept before.

 

Friday was even worse.  When Jesus needed his friends most, we deserted him – all of us, except John and some of the women in our group.  It was fear that kept me away.  What if they got me too and treated me the way they treated him? The one place I wanted to be was by Jesus’ side – showing him that he could still depend on me and my support, yet I was too much of a coward. 

 

So I had to rely on others to keep me posted.  And the news got worse and worse as the day wore on.  First, they told me that he’d been put on trial for blasphemy, that the authorities wanted his blood; then, I heard about the beating, the insults, the scourging; and then they told me he’d been sentenced to death.  Crucifixion.  A death so horrible that Roman citizens are spared such awful treatment.  Finally, I heard the news I thought I would never hear – he’d died. 

 

Jesus.  The miracle maker.  My hero.  My captain.  My leader. The one who was going to save us all from oppression. Dead.

 

I was numb.  Devastated.  Didn’t believe it. My hopes were snuffed out with him.  What was I going to do now?  Where would I go?

 

Did you hear that I actually cut a man’s ear off on Thursday night? One of the party who came to arrest Jesus. The man had it coming, if you asked me, but still, it wasn’t a very clever thing to do.  But Jesus healed him there and then.  That’s the kind of guy he was.  That’s why I couldn’t believe that he’d died.  You see, a man who could heal people in the blink of an eye.  A man who could stop a storm.  A man who could raise the dead.  Well, that sort of man could save himself couldn’t he? He couldn’t be dead?  So, why did he let them do that to him?  Why did he let them kill him?

Reflections around the cross - Judas - "The Guilt won't let me go"

Dear Rabbi,

I’m writing this although I know it’s too late.  I wish I could turn back the clock, undo what I’ve done, but I know that there’s no going back – it’s past the point of no return, and there’s no way I can make up for what I’ve done. The guilt’s unbearable.  I can’t live with myself.

Over the time we spent together you built up our hopes that you weren’t just an ordinary teacher and healer – you were so much more – I knew you were going to be the one who’d bring us freedom.  The crowds loved you.  They would do anything for you – just one word from you and they’d join the revolution, anoint you as king, and the new era would begin.  I just knew it.  And then came last Sunday, when we entered the city of Jerusalem and the crowds gathered to cheer you on.  You rode in on the donkey and the message was clear – you were the long-awaited king, come to take your rightful place.  This was the moment we’d all been waiting for, when change would come.  We, your closest friends, your disciples, we knew it; the crowds knew it too – this was the time you would come in power and we, who’d been there from the beginning – hand-picked by you, would share in your glory.

But then you did – nothing – you went back to your base that day.  I thought you were biding your time, finding the right moment – perhaps the next day.  And when you made that statement by clearing the temple of all that corruption and greed, I thought that would be the time, after all.  But again, you did nothing.  All you did was teach and debate.  You had the crowds in the palm of your hand, once again, but again you bottled it.  I couldn’t understand why.  I began to doubt – you couldn’t be the king after all.  Why didn’t you take power? Why didn’t you set us free?

Then it dawned on me.  You were never intending to become king by force.  You’d had more than one opportunity to seize the moment – after the mass feeding in Galilee, on that heady day in Jerusalem, in the temple, and you’d refused each one.  It suddenly became clear to me   I’d been mistaken.  I felt such a fool – I felt so angry – what a waste of time! All this had been for nothing.  Those amazing times we had together.   Those miracles, that teaching, those healings.  All for nothing.  I was so angry.  And the problem with anger, as you yourself taught us, is that it can be deadly.

I wanted to punish you or to try and force your hand – force you to act, or do something.  I’d heard the whisperings in the temple.  The high priests, the authorities were out to get you – they saw what we saw, that you were a threat to their power, and the only way to deal with this threat was to get rid of you.  You knew that too, and you weren’t going to stop them.  You were going to walk into danger and allow them to do what they wanted to you.  Suddenly, I saw my chance.  Chance to get my own back.  I could help them, provide a way for them to get to you away from the crowd and to make some money while I was at it.  Soon it was sorted out – they gleefully accepted my help.  Thirty pieces of silver.  Seemed like a good deal at the time. Recompense for all the disappointment.  We made our plans and waited for the right moment.

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over. (Mark 14:10-11)

 

And so I led them to you at the Garden, greeted you with a kiss, so they would know who you were. I’ll never forget the way you looked at me.  Reproachful.  Sad.  Hurt.  Your gaze bore right into my soul and saw the darkness inside – the bitterness, the disappointment, the hurt.  From a small spark, it raged like a fire in me, consumed me completely, and it led me to this.  I betrayed you with a kiss.  I wish I could go back, but I can’t.  There’s no going back.

 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: ‘The one I kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. The men seized Jesus and arrested him.  (Mark 14:45-46)

I never intended for it to end this way.  I didn’t really think they’d have you killed.  I didn’t really think you’d let them do it.  They were like predators encircling their prey and they had no intention of letting you go once you were in their grasp.  And you didn’t fight back.  Why didn’t you fight back? You could have done something to show them who you really were, but instead, you let them walk over you.  You let them condemn you to death.  Why did you do that?

I didn’t know they were going to do that! I didn’t want them to do that.  I only wanted them to teach you a lesson.  I never meant for you to die.  As soon as it dawned on me that they were going to have you killed, I realised I’d made a huge mistake.  You’d done nothing to deserve any of this.  You were innocent.  You didn’t deserve to die.  You’d done nothing wrong – and I’d betrayed you.

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. ‘I have sinned,’ he said, ‘for I have betrayed innocent blood.’

‘What is that to us?’ they replied. ‘That’s your responsibility.’ (Matthew 27:3-4)

The guilt won’t let me go.  I will never forgive myself for what I’ve done.

I’m sorry.  I’m so, so, sorry.

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.  (Matthew 27:5)

The Big God Story - New Testament

At St Christopher’s Church this year, we’re exploring the Big Story of the Bible, beginning this month with a whistlestop tour of the whole bible in just two weeks, before journeying with some of the key characters in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation, gaining inspiration from their stories – their strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures – about how we can grow together in our own walk with God and play our own part in God’s Big Story. Here is the text of the sermon I preached yesterday on whole New Testament (well, almost!). Buckle in and enjoy the ride …

 

“‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction’” (Malachi 4:5-6).

These are the final words of the book of Malachi, the final words of our Old Testament, written in 432BC.  And then, after those words, after that comes nothing. For 400 years, there is silence, which is broken by the announcement of a miracle baby to an old couple, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Zechariah is left speechless – literally – by the idea that he is going to be a dad, and that his promised son would be the fulfilment of the final words of Malachi.  This child, whom he is instructed to name John, “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’” (Luke 1:17) – a deliberate echo of the words in Malachi.  The message is clear.  The time of waiting is over, God is acting again.  Then, 90 miles away, a few weeks later, Gabriel pays another trip, this time to a young girl called Mary (Luke 1:26-38).  She too would bear a miracle baby.  Like John, he would be destined to do great things, he’ll be called Jesus, the son of God, named that way because he would save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

This child’s birth is heralded by angels who serenade sleepy shepherds on the hillside (Luke 2:8-14)  and it attracts strange visitors from afar (Matthew 2:1-11), but other than that, he is born in obscurity, wrapped in rags and laid in a manger (Luke 2:7).  No one would pick this family out of a crowd, except that’s exactly what happens, when Simeon and Anna spot Joseph, Mary and Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem, and realise that this child is the one they’ve been waiting for.  Simeon proclaims, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations (Luke 2:31).  Anna too giving thanks to God for the redemption that he was bringing about through this child (Luke 2:38).  At long last, God is keeping his promise.  At long last, the silence is broken.

But then, tantalizingly, it all goes quiet.  We hear nothing of John or Jesus for around 30 years, except for one strange incident when Jesus gets separated from his parents, sending Joseph and Mary into an understandable wild panic.  Then, after 3 days of searching they discover him at the temple and inexplicably he asks them, “‘Why were you searching for me?’ he asked. ‘Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?’ (Luke 2:49)

Despite Jesus’ strong pull towards the place where he feels most at home, he returns home and is obedient to his parents (Luke 2:51).

And then, again, there is silence, while Jesus grows up “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52) – away from the limelight.  We hear nothing for possibly as many as 20 years.  And then John the Baptist bursts onto the scene.  He appears in the wilderness, wild, passionate, unpredictable, courageous, the one whom, it is prophesied, would call people to “prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:13).  He pulls no punches, calling people to repent and be baptised.  Crowds gather around him made up of all sorts of people.  Cut to the heart they confess their sins and make a brand new start, and out of the crowd steps one whom John knows has no such need.  He has never done anything wrong.  And yet he asks to be baptised.  John objects, asking, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13). But the man, Jesus stands firm.  This is the way it needs to be.  And so, he is baptised not for his sin, but for the sin of all humanity, because he has become one of us.  In that moment of baptism the Holy Spirit fills him, empowering him for ministry and the voice of God declares, “‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’ (Mark 1:11).  You see, because Jesus needs the Holy Spirit, the power of God to do the things he does, to be the way he is.  He also needs the affirmation of the Father, those wonderful words reassuring him, even before he’s done anything particularly special, “You’re my boy.  I love you.  I’m pleased with you.”  That same voice speaks those words to those who seek to follow and obey him.  Hear him speak to you; feel the warmth of his affirmation.

It is a glorious moment, but so short lived.  As so often happens, the experience on the mountain top is followed by a trip to the depths as Jesus is tested in the wilderness, pushed to the limit, but he withstands.  He passes the test.  He is ready, and now his ministry begins.  John is imprisoned by Herod for speaking the truth, and Jesus steps out of the shadows “into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he says. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15).

The silence is over.  Jesus has come to bring in God’s kingdom.  Now is the time for action.  Now is the time to respond.  And many do.  Crowds soon form around him as they see him perform miracles, heal the sick, as they hear him speak about the nature of God, about heaven and hell, as he paints word pictures of the kind of world that God envisages – a world of justice, where no one is excluded, where all are able to experience God’s love, and above all, a world where all receive the invitation to come home.  If you want to know what God is really like, Jesus says, look at me.  This causes great offence among the religious authorities in the temple, who rather like the power they have afforded to them by their status, and they can’t stand the idea that people’s heads are being turned by this country bumpkin from the north.  Wasn’t he a carpenter from Nazareth – don’t we know that nothing good comes from there?  What’s more, he’s not a lone wolf, he’s enlisted a bunch of working class people and shady characters – fishermen, tax collectors – to follow him and become his so-called disciples, and he also seems to enjoy hanging out with women, perish the thought, some of whom have dodgy reputations.  He dares to stir things up and challenge them.  He has this very annoying habit of telling the truth, calling out hypocrisy where he sees it.  He has no fear of authority. He is clearly a troublemaker.  He’s bad news and, even worse, he seems to be gaining popularity.  The crowds love him.  No mud they try to sling at him sticks.  So, in the end, desperate, they find a way to fabricate charges against him, charges that would bring him down.  They collude with one of his followers, who has become disillusioned because Jesus refuses to capitalise on his popularity to ignite a popular revolution and kick out the oppressive Romans and begin God’s reign here and now. This disillusioned follower agrees to trade in Jesus in exchange for silver.  Then, as now, money talks.

Jesus is convicted in a nighttime trial, by a kangaroo court that was determined to find him guilty of a capital crime no matter what, and in one of the greatest miscarriages of justice ever carried out, he is crucified even though he was innocent.  He joins the ranks of millions over the centuries who find themselves victims of injustice.  How does he respond? He cries out, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34) laying down a blueprint for all those who find themselves victims of injustice.

Darkness falls, and all is deathly silent.  His followers are numb, shocked and disbelieving, it’s not possible – surely he had been the promised messiah, sent by God to right all wrongs, to bring freedom – freedom from oppression, freedom from Rome – hadn’t he come to bring in God’s kingdom? How could he be dead?  All their hopes have gone.

The silence falls once again.  This time it seems so final.  The silence of the grave.  But then, it is broken, two days later, by the sound of thunder, by the sound of a rock moving from the face of the tomb, by the sound of excited and disbelieving chatter – where is his body? Who’s taken him? Broken by the sound of a voice – his voice.  Impossibly, he is alive.  Risen.  He appears to dumbfounded, disbelieving disciples.  They had never understood, never really listened when he told them that the big story would always unfold this way – that this was the way the story had been written from the beginning of time (Luke 24:45-47).  But now, with him standing in front of them, truly, brilliantly alive, they’re listening now.

Forty wonderful days follow – they experience fresh hope and forgiveness, try to go back to their old lives (John 21) but realise that now they’ve met Jesus things will never be the same again – because those who encounter the risen Christ are transformed for good.  But then he leads them to the top of a mountain and says goodbye, disappearing in the clouds, leaving them with three final instructions – go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18), go back to Jerusalem to wait to be given power to do this (Luke 24:49), and get ready for his return (Acts 1:11).

And so silence falls again.  The disciples – by now a group numbering a hundred or so – huddle together, praying and worshipping, in an upper room (Acts 1:13-14), probably in the same room where weeks previously he had broken bread – his body, and drunk wine – his blood, with them.  They hadn’t understood what he’d meant then, but they do now.  And so they wait, wait because they know that they cannot possibly do the task they’ve been given – it’s simply impossible. And the silence is broken by the sound of a rushing wind as the Holy Spirit comes down upon this group and starts a revolution.  By the end of the day, the hundred becomes three thousand.  They are baptised and repent (Acts 2). It’s a new beginning, the birth of the church.  Ordinary people find their lives completely transformed and they find that they are given power to bring transformation to others.  They find themselves able to do what Jesus had done – a lame man walks (Acts 3:1-10), even a dead man rises again (Acts 20:7-12), all in the name and power of Jesus.  And the movement grows. More and more are added to the number of those who follow Jesus (Acts 2:47, 5:14).  But with the glory comes sacrifice.  Persecution follows as the same people who put Jesus to death do all they can to end the revolution (Acts 5:17-42).  The ringleaders are imprisoned, a couple are even killed (Acts 6-7, 12:2).  The church scatters (Acts 8:1).  One fanatic in particular is determined do all he can to kill the Christians (Acts 8:3), but then, on the road to Damascus, he’s stopped in his tracks by a blinding light and the voice of Jesus, who gives him a new job, a completely new direction, an extraordinary part to play in God’s big story (Acts 9).  “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).  People are suspicious at first and most definitely incredulous – wasn’t he the lead persecutor, how can he now be the Jesus movement’s chief ambassador (Acts 9:21-22)?  But, believe it or not, that’s exactly what he becomes, and through him and the other disciples, despite the best efforts of those who try to shut them up, the word continues to spread like wildfire and communities of those who follow Jesus are formed all over the Roman empire, and the more they are oppressed, the more they seem to flourish.  But this new movement – of Christians – as they are called – need teaching, so letters are written to these fledgling congregations to full of tips on how to deal with issues that spring up from matters of theological misunderstandings to conflict resolution and advice about how to live the best life that honours and pleases God.  Accounts are also written of Jesus’ life.  In these accounts and in the letters the writers seek to come to terms with who this Jesus was.  They’d been brought up good Jews who knew that God takes no physical form, and yet here was a man who had lived such an extraordinary life that it seemed that he could have been no ordinary man – and that was before he rose again.

Could it be possible that this man was God? Could it be possible that he had come, because “God so loved the world that he gave his son that whoever believed in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16)?  Could it be possible that the same God had sent his Holy Spirit to fill ordinary people with extraordinary power to continue the work that he started?  And perhaps this is the most extraordinary thing, could it be that this work, this big story – the story that began in the garden and will end with a fully restored heaven and earth (Revelation 21), that will end with his people returning home, is still being written? Could it be that the author of this story who met and worked through people with feet of clay like Abraham, Moses, Hannah, David, Elizabeth, Mary, Peter and Paul wants to write his story through us too? Could it be that we too have a role to play in helping people return home? That the author of life wants to write on our hearts and the hearts of those around us? Could it be that we are God’s only strategy for bringing hope and transformation to a dark world? That we’re no different from those first disciples, whom, because they stayed close to Jesus, living lives empowered and shaped by him, were able to change the world? If so, the story continues through you and me.  God longs to write his story of salvation in us and through us, and the one thing that’s required from us is to learn to listen to him and then to step out and obey.  Our friends, our neighbours, our family members need to hear the big story, that there is eternal hope for the world, that this story will end well when the author of life himself returns.  In the meantime we are called to pray and work for his return, to play our part in the story as we wait for him to return.

“He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.  The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22:20-21).

New Year Update 2016

Dear friends  

Happy New Year! I want to update you with a few things as we begin 2016.

 

“Generosity – A response to God’s love”

Today we launch a new theme, ‘Generosity – a response to God’s love’. This January and February we will explore how our resources support God’s work and we begin this week with a new four-part sermon series on Jesus’ teaching about generosity.

At the same time our home groups will explore God’s generosity to the people of Israel as they left Egypt through studies that invite us to reflect on generosity in our world, our church and in our giving.

In addition, I warmly invite all church members to an important presentation and discussion on this theme on Monday 18th January in the Church Hall at 7.30pm for one hour. Here we will discuss our church priorities and the resources we have available to achieve them.

Following these times of teaching, discussion and reflection we’ll encourage you to respond generously to a Gift Day on Sunday 28th February so that our church will continue to be a vital expression of God’s love and purpose.

 

Prioritising Prayer

Inspired by the words on our foundation stone, “This will be a house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7). I’d like to make prayer a priority for myself and for the church, especially as this is a vital part of stepping closer to fulfilling part of our vision, which is “Growing in God”.

To help us in this we are holding church-wide evening prayer gatherings in 2016 on Wednesdays 3rd February, 4th May, 6th July, 7th September, 5th October, 2nd November and 7th December.  Each gathering will begin at 7:30pm for refreshments.  Please put these events in your diaries and make them a priority.  We’re also planning monthly daytime prayer meetings, which we will inform you about as soon as we can.

Additionally, everyone’s welcome to join us for weekly prayer meetings on Tuesdays at 9:30am, and the fortnightly meetings on Thursdays at 7am.

 

Ash Wednesday and Lent Course

We may have only just put our Christmas decorations away, but Lent’s only a month away.  We begin with our Ash Wednesday Holy Communion with the Imposition of Ashes on 10th February at 7:30pm, and then John will lead us through a midweek Lent course – “The Eucharist Pilgrim Course will take us all on a journey of discovery which will enable us to celebrate the hospitality of God; praise God for all that He has done for us in Christ; commune with our risen Lord; deepen our devotion to Jesus Himself; and renew our service for others.”  It should be fantastic, so don’t miss out! More information will follow soon.

 

Queen’s 90th Birthday Celebration weekend – 10-12 June

There are plans across the Church of England to mark Her Majesty’s 90th birthday.  Every parish church is encouraged to organise a festival on this weekend, to host some celebrations and to organise an exhibition of the life of its parish over the past 90 years.  This will give us a fantastic opportunity to be a blessing to our community.  Please let me know if you’d like to be involved in planning how we lead the community in its celebrations.

 

Sabbatical

I will be on sabbatical from 1st July until mid-October.  It is hoped that clergy are able to have the opportunity for sabbaticals every 7 to 10 years.  The aim of this time is principally rest and refreshment.  I’m planning to focus on the theme of reconciliation, particularly in relation to Coventry and Dresden, and to reconnect with my family story, following my visit to Dresden last year.  Pam and John will share pastoral responsibilities between them, and I will make sure that all services are covered while I’m away.

 

Finally, don’t forget that Alpha begins this month.  Please pray about who you could invite along, or whether you’d find it helpful to attend yourself.

 

If you have any questions or concerns with any of these things, then grab me for a chat either after a service or give me a call – 7667 2879.

 

Yours in Christ

Andy

Immeasurably More

This is the sermon I preached today, based on Ephesians 3:14-21 It’s holiday season and some of us will be heading to the coast. Nearly all of us have. When we stand on the shore, there’s so much more out there. And sometimes you can stand on the shore, and if you look left, all you can see is the sea, and if you look right, all you can see is the sea, There is nothing else on the horizon – you’re struck by the boundless depths of the ocean. But you don’t really experience the sea unless you get your feet wet, actually you need to get out of your depths. Even then, you don’t experience the depths of the sea – you need to go diving or to a sea life centre to experience the breadth of life there. Then you become aware of the boundless depths of the ocean. Wouldn’t it be a shame if all you experienced of the sea was the view you got from the shore, gazing at the pretty blue thing out there. And yet, for many of us when it comes to our faith, if we’re honest, we’re standing on the shore. Some of us might have dared to step beyond the shore, but we’re still only up to our ankles and we don’t believe we can go much further. God’s saying, “I’ve got more for you than that – I don’t want you just to be paddling. I want you to be immersed in the full depths of all I have for you.” This morning I want us to widen our horizons, our expectations of what God can do in us and through us, so we might begin to grasp the immeasurably more that God has for us. Because God is a God of immeasurably more – he is able to do “immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.” God says, “I want you to imagine more with me, and together we can do some fantastic things.”

We’re going to be looking together at this passage from Ephesians 3:14-21, which is one of the great prayers of Scripture. In fact, if you’re wondering what prayers to pray for others, or indeed yourself, this is a great prayer!

Lord, we pray that “You would strengthen us with power through his Spirit in our inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith. And I pray that we, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that we may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Wow, that’s mindblowing!

It’s great that we’re looking forward to some wonderful celebrations of love, and there’s no doubt about the depth of love there is between Kerri and Ray who are being married next weekend, but God’s love that he wants us to experience is even bigger than that! God’s sating I have so much more than you can possibly imagine.

But what stops us from experiencing that “more” from God?

This morning I want to explore two barriers that stop us experiencing all that God has for us.

 

1) We fail to grasp how much God loves us

2) We make God to small

 

1) We fail to grasp how much God loves us

 

I think some of us are afraid of God. I think my nan was a God-fearer. This fear can impact everything we do, when it comes to faith. We come to church out of some sort of fear that when we meet with God face to face, we’ll be rejected because we haven’t met the standards and he’ll judge us if we’ve not gone to church or said our prayers often enough. And then, when we come to pray, we pray as though God doesn’t really want to hear from us. We fumble over our words and think of ourselves as not being important enough to be worth God’s time and certainly not good enough for God.

God doesn’t want us to come to him like this. He wants us to come to him like children come to their parents – with confidence. He wants us to know that his love for all of us is “wide and long and high and deep” and that his love for us “surpasses knowledge” (vv.17-19) – he wants it to be in our head and our hearts, to the depths of our being. He wants us to be filled with this love – not just to paddle in it, but to be completely immersed.

God loves you. Oh, how he loves you. If you’re here this morning, doubting the depths of God’s love for you, hear the voice of the Holy Spirit saying over and over again, oh, how he loves you. Grasp that. He has adopted you into his family, and made you his child. He delights in you. He wants you to know that to the very core of your being. You don’t have to strive to be in his favour. You already are. People in this world are desperate for love and approval. It’s there for them, and they don’t need to do anything to earn this love.

“The Law commands that we love perfectly. The Gospel announces that we are perfectly loved.” – William McDavid.

I think if we really grasped God’s love for us, it would change the way we prayed, it would change the way we hoped. I think it would also change some of the relationships we have with each other, because if we’re anchored by the knowledge of God’s love for us, we no longer depend on our family and friends to sustain us. This means that when we let each other down or hurt each other it’s not a disaster, because our self-worth is derived from God’s unchangeable, perfect love for us, rather than what others think of us and how they treat us. I think it would bring freedom to those who are imprisoned by fear. Why? Because, as it says in the Scriptures, “there is no fear in love, because perfect love drives out fear.”

God wants you to experience his love, to be immersed, as we are in the ocean, in his love for you. Knowing this and experiencing this love knocks down one major barrier to experiencing God’s boundless grace – we fail to grasp God’s love for us.

I pray that you would grasp that just a little bit more today, that you are infinitely precious, and infinitely loved, and nothing can take that away from you.

The second barrier that prevents us from living fully in God’s boundless grace is that

2) We make God too small. We put limits on what God can do.

St Paul ends his prayer with the words,

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (vv.20-21).

Do we believe in the God who can do immeasurably more? Do we know that God has so much more for us?

Christian author and speaker, Louie Giglio in the early days of his career in teaching at youth conferences and lock-ins, would preach and stay in the homes of host families. In fact, he had never stayed in a real hotel in his life – until one day, the hosts of this youth conference wanted to bless him so they gave him the nicest hotel room in the city. When he was with them all everyone talked about was the room, and how wonderful it was. When we saw it, he was impressed, but not that impressed – it was just an ordinary hotel room. What he didn’t realise was that he’d actually been given the hotel suite, with a living room, a dining room and even a second bedroom on the other end of the suite. Sitting on the dining room table was a massive gift basket with snacks and a t-shirt for the youth conference where he was speaking and a wonderful note welcoming him. He only discovered this later, by chance – he’d been given the key to the bedroom section at check in and not been told about the main suite that he had access to as well. He nearly missed out altogether on the best room in the city.

What if we lived our whole lives in the adjoining bedroom and thought our Christian journey is this, and God’s saying, I have so much more for you. More than you can ask or imagine. We don‘t have to be confined to the room. We can step out to experience all that God has for us –as individuals and as a church.

I don’t want us to merely exist as a church. I want us to really live. Jesus came so that we could have life to the full, to live life in colour, not just in black and white. I want us to grab the life God has for us with both hands.

Last Sunday – fantastic to celebrate our children’s and youth work. But, got to be honest. I’m not satisfied with current situation. Rich history of children’s and families’ work in the church. Why then are do we only have five teenagers who come regularly to church? What about the ones who are around their age who don’t come to church any more? I think there are about 30 children between the age of 14 and 18 who used to come to church but do so no longer. Of 9 young people who were confirmed only two years ago, only 3 still come to church. This is heartbreaking. I know this is a common experience with churches across the country – that young people drop off after the age of 11 and we don’t see them again until they come back when they themselves have had children. I don’t want to be satisfied with that. I believe God has more for us than that. We need to raise our expectations. We need to have a bigger view of what’s possible. What if we have 50 children as regular part of the church community? It’s not impossible – not in Allesley Park, which is a family area with four primary schools. But these things don’t happen by chance – we need take some steps of faith.

This is why I – and the PCC – believe the appointment of a children’s worker is vital – so vital that we’re willing to invest £17,000 of money that could otherwise be spent on the development of the building. I’m fully expecting that we’ll be able to obtain grants to help towards the costs of this role. But if we don’t, we risk running out of reserves completely. One temptation would be to hold onto our money and think that the children’s work would work itself out. We’d risk less that way, wouldn’t we? Actually, it depends on our perspective. I did some number crunching recently. In the past year, our average attendance of children has dropped by 8 in the past couple of years. If this continues at the same rate, we’d have no children left in the next 6 years. To not do something at this stage, to not act now, when we have great kids work and potential to grow in this area. To not act now could be far more risky than to act and to use the resources that are available.

We don’t have to be satisfied with the status quo. I don’t want to be satisfied with the idea that decline is inevitable, becayse church competes with so much these days, so we may as well get used to it. I don’t want that. I believe the narrative can change, and God calls us to dream bigger dreams for us as a church community. I want to dream that we can have 50 children as regular worshippers and that they don’t drop out at the age of 14. We need to dream bigger dreams and step out. The thing about swimming in the depths is it’s risky. When you’re out of your depths, anything can happen. But, we have a God of grace, of boundless possibility –a God who loves us he will not let us drown. I want to encourage you to dream bigger dreams. I want to encourage you to be people of faith who believe that God has immeasurably more for us. Be full of faith, because God is the Lord of the church – and he will build his church and his kingdom. He says, “I will buiold my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

So, we’re on the shore. I don’t know where you are in your life. Have you limited what God can do for you? Are you praying small prayers? We put fetters on God, and God wants us to break out of those fetters and pray bigger prayers. To think bigger thoughts, to imagine bigger ways that God might work. We need the work of the Holy Spirit to stir us up, that we might dream God’s dreams for us. There is more for us. Not just in the area of children’s work. It’s been wonderful to have 5 adult baptisms in the past year. I want this to be the start. Why not pray for 10 – or more next year – more salvation, more of God at work, more lives changed. There is more for us.

Our duty is to allow God to work in our lives so that our imaginations can be released to dream the dreams God has for us. And then, to get to the edge of the shore. There’ll be areas of our lives where we’re challenged, where we find it difficult to imagine God working, where he’s saying to you, if you want to get the more I have for you, you need to step into the water. Get ankle deep, knee deep, and then immerse yourself fully, and we need to take a risk. . Some of us have got situations where we’re struggling, where we feel imprisoned and we can’t imagine a different future, and God is saying, come on – come out into the deep, like when Jesus walked on the water, he called Peter to walk on the water towards him. While Peter had his eyes fixed on Jesus, he did it, he walked on the water.   And Jesus is saying to us, looking at us, saying come on, walk on the water. Imagine what I can do in you and through you. Imagine my love for you – a love that will never die. Because God can do so much more than we can ask or imagine.

My prayer today is that this morning you grasp his love for you in a deeper way, that you swim in the ocean of God’s love for you. And also, as a church and as individuals, we’re able to swim in the ocean of God’s possibilities for us. We need to take risks, to take steps of faith so that we might see God’s kingdom come in ever greater ways in our church, in our lives, in this community.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

 

Weekly update (1 March) - Friends of God

It was a huge privilege to be in Dresden as the city marked 70 years since the bombings. It was both a sombre time of acknowledging deep hurt, but also a celebration of the most unlikely friendship that has sprung up between former enemies. This, as Archbishop Justin said, is miraculous. It’s a picture of the Gospel. Our selfishness and sin has made us enemies with God, but Jesus, the “friend of sinners” has enabled us to be reconciled with God once again (see Romans 5:8-10). We are friends of God, which is the greatest miracle of all.

His ability, my availabilty

Just listening to the audio Bible, and got as far as Exodus 3.  I have a soft spot for Moses.  The story of the way God led him, spoke to him and worked through him has been so helpful to me already, and God has used that story to encourage me in the past.  This morning, I got to the bit where Moses meets God through the burning bush.  God calls him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and Moses comes up with many excuses and reasons why God should call someone else and not him.    I think his story will prove to be fruitful and helpful for me all through my ministry.

Leadership is hard.  It will always be difficult, no matter in which context I believe God is calling me to lead.  There will be plenty of times when I feel overwhelmed and won't know what I'm doing.  I will often feel completely inadequate - and actually, I think that's the best place to be.  I need to be constantly reminded that I must rely on God and not myself.  This is where the story of Moses, and the interactions between him and God - is so helpful.
The LORD said, "So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’"

But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

And God said, "I will be with you." (Exodus 3:10-12)
 
Moses' first objection is that he is a nobody, and God suggests that this is irrelevant, because what matters is God's presence.  This doesn't satisfy a still sceptical Moses, who continues to object ...
 

Moses said to the Lord, ‘Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.’

The Lord said to him, ‘Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the LordNow go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.’ (Ex. 4:10-12)

The lesson is clear.  God doesn't choose people with super ability.  He chooses those who are willing to join in with his plans.  He is the one who gives us the ability to speak.  He is the one who equips us to do the work to which he's calling us.  It all depends on his ability, not ours.  We need to be available.  God does the rest.

So, feel inadequate today to the calling God's put on your heart?  I suggest that's the best way to be - because then God can really do his work in and through you. Step out in faith, trust in God, and you may well be pleasantly surprised!

 
 
 
 
 

A personal story of reconciliation

Tomorrow I travel to Dresden, Germany as part of a party from Coventry to join in with the commemorations marking 70 years since that city was bombed.  The two cities were both (along with many others) devastated by bombing in the course of World War II.  After Coventry was bombed in 1940, leaving the cathedral completely destroyed, the people of the cathedral community made a decision to seek peace and reconciliation, and to build bridges between warring peoples.  This vital work still continues today.   A symbol of this reconciliation is the friendship that exists between Dresden and Coventry, the two stricken cities.  Our visit tomorrow will be a statement of solidarity as we stand side by side with our brothers and sisters to declare that love must overcome hate.  It will be a privilege to represent the church and city of Coventry over the weekend, but there is a deeply personal reason why the brief visit will be particularly poignant for me, and it's all to do with my grandparents ... this is a snapshot of their story ... The Buettner Wobst children in happier days in 1930s. Rike is 2nd from right.

Friedericke Luise Büttner-Wöbst (Rike) was born in 1926 as the youngest of 5 children in the village of Langebruck, on the outskirts of Dresden. Her father was the village doctor and they owned one of the only cars in the village. In the thirties they met and befriended Fred Clayton, a young Englishman from Liverpool - a Classics scholar from King's College, Cambridge where he had become good friends with Alan Turing amongst others. Fred was in Dresden tutoring in English, and it was through this tutoring that he met the Büttner-Wobst family. Fred left Germany when it became clear that Germany was becoming more of a hostile place under the rule of Adolf Hitler. A novel, ‘The Cloven Pine’ was published under the pseudonym of Frank Clare and served as a warning about the growing danger of Nazism.

The Büttner-Wobst family were happy and stable. Rike was confirmed in Dresden's Kreuzkirche. Then war broke out and everything changed. Tragedy struck the family when the eldest son, Götz, was shot and killed by a sniper in the invasion of Poland in September 1939. He was only 17, and his parents in particular were broken-hearted. They died within a year of their son's death. Rike and her siblings were orphaned, and life was far from secure.

Then in February 1945 the city of Dresden was destroyed. Thankfully, Rike was working on a farm outside the city when the bombs struck, but she knew people who had been killed by the bombing. Then the Russians arrived, anxious for vengeance. They gravitated towards the Büttner-Wobst house and their car. Rike was held at gunpoint and managed to talk herself out of being raped.

Meanwhile, Fred had begun the war at Bletchley Park. His skills as a linguist and love for the way that language worked made him the perfect code breaker. Although his fluency in German meant he was well-suited to the work at Bletchley, his superior officers were suspicious of his potential German sympathies, and he himself felt he'd had a too 'easy' war, so volunteered to go out to India to break Japanese codes.

Fred had not forgotten his German friends. After the war finished, he wrote to find out how they'd got on. Rike replied that the future looked grim as the likelihood was of Russia being in control of East Germany. However, during this time, something unexpected happened - as they exchanged correspondence, Rike and Fred fell in love. He sorted out the paperwork and enabled Friedericke to flee Dresden. They married in Liverpool in 1948 and soon moved to Exeter, where Fred began work as a Professor of Classics. Rike (Anglicised to "Rikki") began life in a foreign land - the land which had only recently been at war with her homeland.

Rike outside the doorway of her childhood home on a visit in 2000.  Above the doorway is the inscription, "Do right and fear no-one".

Rike and Fred were my grandparents. I had the privilege of visiting Dresden in 2000 with her and seeing my family's old home. Until I came to Coventry as a Vicar, I had no idea about the connections between this city and the one of my grandmother's birth, and particularly between Coventry Cathedral and the Kreuzkirche, where my grandmother was confirmed.

I find it incredibly significant to be visiting this city at the time of the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Dresden bombing, because, through my grandparents, reconciliation is in my blood. By being part of the commemorations and bringing their story back to life, hopefully it'll make a statement that love wins over hate - it's a message our world so desperately needs to hear.

This week's update - keeping lent faithfully

It’s soon the season of Lent, when we remember Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, and prepare ourselves for celebrating the greatest event in history – Jesus’ resurrection. Lent is a time of self-examination and self-discipline, and generosity. Have you thought about what you might give up? If you do give something, how can you use the time or money you save to build up your relationship with God? Let us pray for grace to keep Lent faithfully and to give ourselves more fully to God.

Stephen Fry, God and Suffering

This is the text of a sermon I preached last Sunday in response to the interview held with Stephen Fry the previous weekend.  I add my voice to the many who have already shared their reflections. Last weekend Stephen Fry the comedian and broadcaster was asked in an interview what he’d say to God where he to meet him at the pearly gates. The 57-year-old replied: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. … The god that created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac… utter maniac, totally selfish.”

This interview has gone viral – it’s been watched 3 million times since the weekend. In this interview he expresses one of the main objections that people have to belief in God – there is simply too much suffering in this world to believe that it was created by a benevolent, all-powerful God. Such a God who stands distant from the world he created, watches on while we all suffer and expects our devotion or threatens us with hell if we don’t comply is one that he rejects out of hand, as stupid, mean-minded, and maniacal.

Stephen Fry echoes the question of many who are atheists, ‘Why respect a God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?’

He asks a good question, doesn’t he? It’s an issue that I’m sure all of us have wrestled with in some way or another. That there is so much injustice and pain in this world is abundantly clear. The suffering of innocents through bone cancer, ebola and other terrible diseases, starvation, child abuse – is unfair and horrific. How can we possibly defend a God who stands idly by while we suffer? You know what? We shouldn’t. Such a God is not worth our worship. And that’s not the God we Christians worship.

Stephen Fry protests at unjust suffering, but the Bible is also soaked with protestations … The whole book of Job is devoted to wrestling with this very issue, as a godly man undergoes extreme trauma, including the death of his entire family, and chronic sickness. David, the Psalmist laments, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? Oh my God, I cry out by day but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.”

Perhaps you can relate to the pain that’s expressed here. Perhaps you can relate to the experience of suffering that seems so unfair. And the only reasonable answer is why? How can you reconcile belief in a supposedly good all-powerful God when so much of life is horrific for so many people? If Christians don’t believe in the kind of God that Stephen Fry describes, what kind of God do we believe in?

Firstly, we believe in the kind of God who looks like Jesus. Our two passages this morning tell us something absolutely vital. If we want to know what God is like, we need to look at Jesus. The Bible seems to be quite clear – that Jesus is God.

Firstly, in John 1, we read,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

And then, writing around 20 years previously, Paul expresses something very similar, - The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15). Jesus himself said, “I and the Father are one.” The message of the New Testament is clear. If you want to know what God is like, then look at Jesus.

And we know, don’t we, what Jesus is like. Jesus, is as Time magazine put it, "the most persistent symbol of purity, selflessness and love in the history of Western man."

“Jesus Christ is to me the outstanding personality of all time, all history, both as Son of God and as Son of Man. Everything he ever said or did has value for us today and that is something you can say of no other man, dead or alive. There is no easy middle ground to stroll upon. You either accept Jesus or reject Him.” – Sholem Ash

So, if Jesus is who he, and the New Testament writers claimed to be, and he then God has to be like him. This, not the selfish maniac, is the God we worship – a God of unparalleled compassion and love. Jesus is the mirror image of God.

So, what about suffering? How is it possible for suffering to exist in a world created by someone so completely pure, selfless and loving?

I guess we need to go back to the very beginning, at Genesis 1. When God created the world, it was good. In fact, when everything was created, he declared it was very good. He created humanity as the pinnacle of his creation, and we were made primarily for relationship with him – we read in the early chapters of Genesis that he walked with Adam in the Garden of Eden, and that our chief role was to be stewards of God’s creation. It was our job to care for the world. So what went wrong? There was a moment of cataclysm when, given a choice between obedience and giving in to selfish desire, Adam and Eve chose to do their own thing, rejecting God’s authority over them. That moment a chasm appeared – firstly between God and humanity. The relationship between God and humanity was destroyed. As Paul recounts in Romans 1

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, … 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

 

Though we don’t have time to look in depth at the following verses, what follows is a litany of shame that reveals a chasm opening up in humanity, as relationships are distorted and destroyed through human selfishness and greed. This passage climaxes with these words …

 

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.

 

Here is the first answer to the suffering we see in the world. Most of the time, it’s due to sin. Much of the suffering we see is man-made. We often point to the acts of ISIL and rightly shake our heads, but in truth, we’re each culpable. We each make our own choices. In our hearts, we are king, our instinct is to look after number one, and if anyone else gets in the way of our self-interest, then they better face the consequences.

But what about the other suffering, the so-called “natural” suffering that we see? How is that possible in this supposedly completely good world? Firstly, it’s worth bearing in mind that the only way that the world can sustain life is through tectonic plate movements. Without it, the earth couldn’t sustain life. Natural events such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc are part of the package. The thing is, we know now where these plates are, and we know the risks, and yet we still build cities on them. Los Angeles and San Francisco are major cities built in a dangerous place. Admittedly, they have access to technology that prevents major loss of life, but some people aren’t so fortunate. Some of the natural disasters have been significantly worsened due to human selfishness … for example, why did so many in Haiti live in badly built houses? What about those who live in floodplains, because the ground is more fertile?

There is even a good possibility that cancer is a manmade disease – a study published in 2010 seemed to suggest that the root causes of cancer are pollutants and diet.

So some of the natural suffering can be explained and understood to co-exist with the world ruled by a good and loving God. But there is still so much suffering that seems unfair. How is this possible, and what does God do about it?

When Adam and Eve chose sin rather than obedience, it didn’t impact only on humanity, but on the whole of creation. In Romans 8, St Paul writes about the world being “in bondage to decay” and describes it as “groaning”. The fall of humanity was cataclysmic for the whole of creation – it affected everything. This was not the creator’s original intention for the world he made.

As Martin Saunders surmises,

“[Stephen Fry] assumes that God deliberately created a universe with appalling undeserved suffering. But a central doctrine of the Christian faith is that God created a good and perfect world and after the fall of humanity nothing is fully as it should be. To blame God for natural disasters and childhood cancer is like blaming the landlord after tenants have trashed their house.”

So, the Fall affected everything. Our sin affects everything. What did God do? Stand idly by from the sidelines and tut at our errors? No, far from it. God got involved. As we read in John 1:14, The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God took on human form and became one of us. Why? To begin to close up the chasm that we opened. As Paul explains in Colossians 1:19 and 20, God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Jesus, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

 

And now we come to the heart of our faith. God could have, quite rightly come in great judgment and condemned us for the terrible mess we’ve made with this beautiful world. He could have left us this way. Instead, he got involved, to close the chasm that has opened up. He was born to die, and to bring back peace in creation.

Pete Greig wrote the following in response to Stephen Fry,

“The crux of the Christian faith is the cross: a moment of unimaginable and undeserved suffering. Those gospel writers didn’t believe in the God Stephen Fry doesn’t believe in either. They believed in a God of such humility and love that he held himself culpable for the terrors of this world on the cross, and paid the ultimate price to rescue us from it. … This is the tragedy at the heart of Christian faith: the belief that God suffered with us, like us and for us. That God is not distant, malignant or dispassionate. The cross, if it means anything at all, means that he identifies with us in our suffering, and that he is not yet fully in control. Evil things, like rape and slavery, happen which God does not want or intend. … And then the resurrection of Jesus means that evil will not prevail forever. … Sickness and death will be no more. As the last book of the bible says, there will be no more crying and no more dying. Our indignant cries ‘How dare you? How dare you?’ will be silenced in the end by the cross.”

Stephen Fry is right, there is so much darkness in the world. But there is so much to celebrate. So much to rightly give God thanks and praise. He is the source of all goodness, light and life. When we glimpse these things, we see a glimpse of his glory. Let’s not get too caught up in the darkness that we fail to see the light. Let’s not also forget that God put us here for a purpose. We are still called to love and care for this world that he loves and for which he died. When we see suffering around us, whatever the cause, he commissions us to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and look this suffering and death in the face, and meet it with our love and light. It’s no coincidence that two of the high-pofile Ebola nurses are Christians. In Jesus is light and life, and that same light and life lives in us. He calls us to light up the darkness.

Ultimately there are things about this world that we will never know or fully understand, mainly because God is God and we aren’t. One day all of our answers will be answered. In the meantime, we are in the midst of the battle between good and evil. We know that there is this battle going on, because we’re part of it. It happens within each of us. As St Paul writes, elsewhere in Romans, “So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me” (vv.21-23). In other words, we want to do good, but something stop us and we find ourselves doing stuff we later regret.

This is the bad news. Suffering exists because of the sin that you and I have perpetrated. The Fall of humanity affected the whole of creation, and the battle between good and evil rages on. But the good news of the Gospel is the God we worship is the God who saw our darkness and sent his son to become flesh and to move into the neighbourhood, to bring his light and love into this world.

“Jesus lived a life of love and grace and died on the cross to bring forgiveness and reconciliation. He promises a future where evil is finally overthrown. The job of Christians in the meantime in our broken world is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, showing the same love and grace to everyone.”

(Martin Saunders)

New beginnings - This week's update

Next Sunday will be a day of new beginnings. It’s a privilege to host a confirmation service, and I look forward to celebrating this momentous occasion with those who will be making public declarations that they are Christ’s disciples. I’m also excited about being able to celebrate the beginning of Pam’s ministry among us. She has been a great support to me in the past few months, and I know that this will continue. I look forward to the whole church family coming together to celebrate.

Proclaiming the saviour of all

This is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday on "Making New disciples", based on Luke 2:8-20. We live in a world where news, good or bad, can travel extremely quickly and far. Social media like facebook, etc, enables us to be part of the news sharing process, and we share everything from the sublime to the ridiculous and very serious. Within minutes of the attacks in Paris, the whole world was kept up to date with the blow by blow account of the attacks, and the ensuing police chase. Newspaper headlines and frontpages have been dominated by these attacks in Paris, and the response of the international community – from millions expressing their solidarity. The hashtag #jesuischarlie was tweeted over 5 million times in the days following the attacks. It was meant to show solidarity with the victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine, as well as a defense of freedom of speech.

We love to be bearers and recipients of news. I’m sure one of the reasons why some of you are looking forward to church today is that it’ll give you an opportunity to share news with your friends. News spreads quickly, especially if it’s something important. We want to be kept informed, and we feel put out if we’re the last to hear something. And we feel privileged if we’re the first to hear a piece of news or information.

Just imagine how the shepherds felt that night when the angel appeared to them with his very important message.  Shepherds were rather dodgy characters, treated with suspicion by mainstream society. They lived on the hills outside the city, away from everybody. They were shunned by people in polite society. Shepherds were unreliable – not even allowed to testify in a court of law, they were crude, rude and hardy, and you wouldn’t want your sister dating one. So they weren’t your obvious choice to be the recipients of such important news. And yet, God chose to send his angel to them – he chose them to be the first to know that this king has been born. Have you ever wondered why it was them and not some, well, more important people?

The message of the angel has to give us a clue – “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.”

Wow, what a statement. This is good news for all people everywhere, full stop. Not the majority of people, but everyone –– every man and woman, including peasants and shepherds, the unemployed, the retired, farmers, teachers, office workers, shop assistants and even members of the clergy; people like you, people like me. This news was for everyone, and as if to illustrate the point, the first people to know, except for his parents, the carpenter Joseph and peasant girl Mary, were these shepherds. They were the first to hear this good news for all people. They were outcasts, so were the very people who needed to hear that there was good news for everyone.

But what was this good news? What could possibly qualify as good news for all people everywhere? Good news is only good news for you if you’re included in the benefits. Last week, it was great to hear about the Coupes’ news of Roy’s new job and Daniel’s success on the trampoline, and it was fantastic to be able to celebrate with them, but that news isn’t good news for all of us – we could appreciate my friend’s good news, but we couldn’t all participate in the benefits.

What good news could affect all people equally, regardless of race, sex, income level, or location? What about a cure for cancer, or world peace, or the end of poverty? None of these, although, it would be wonderful, counts as good news for everyone, because not everyone is impacted by cancer, war or poverty.

When you try to think of something that qualifies as good news for everyone, it’s hard isn’t it? What does the angel say is good news for all?

“Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-12).

Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. 

That’s the only good news that’s equally good for 'all the people.' Not only the shepherds the angel spoke to, or the people of Bible times, or the early church, but all the people anywhere, ever! A Saviour has been born for all people. His birth offers “good news” for all people who have ever been born or who ever will be born.

This baby Jesus, was born in order that he might grow up to suffer and die for you and me. We may feel insignificant and overlooked, but God sent a saviour to be born for you and me. Too many people feel God is out to get them, that his finger is poised on the destroy button as soon as we step out of line. Actually, the news is just the opposite – God sent Jesus on a rescue mission, to save us from our sin and death – as John 3:16 proclaims. “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.”

As Dan Schaeffer reflects,

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince people that there is a perfect, righteous God who loves them and forgives them. It’s not an easy sell, strangely, but it is always good news. This baby Savior would grow up in the midst of our sinful world. He would spend time with prostitutes and embezzlers, telling them the same thing He told the religious folks—“there’s a place for you in My house, and I want you to come and live with Me. I know everything about you, and yet, I still want to be your Saviour!” Good news for all the people!  

All the people who have ever lived have done wrong and need a Saviour. Jesus came to be that Saviour, and that is good news of great joy for all people.

“Jesus is the only Saviour anyone will ever have. He is Mother Teresa’s Savior, and he is Madonna’s. … It was as much good news for Pilate and Herod as it was for Mary and Martha. Jesus was the Saviour of the soldiers who crucified Him as well as Peter and Paul who worshipped Him. The good news for the Hindus and the Buddhists and the Muslims is that Jesus is their Saviour.”

The good news both for the terrorists who killed the people at the offices at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish supermarket – as well as their victims – is that Jesus is their saviour. The good news for those who were involved in the massacre in Nigeria that left over 2,000 people dead – as well as their victims – is that Jesus is their saviour.

Whether people take up that offer of eternal life through faith doesn’t diminish the power of that good news. Jesus is the only saviour – and as Peter says in Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Jesus offers everyone salvation. Although many people will never accept Him as their Saviour, will never avail themselves of this good news, this in no way diminishes the character of the news. An act of kindness, even when it is snubbed, remains an act of kindness. Hope, even when it is rejected, is still hope.

When we’re diagnosed with a serious, sometimes life-threatening illness, it’s bad news, isn’t it? But if the illness is treated soon enough it’s possible to recover fully, so that diagnosis then becomes good news. Many forms of cancer are treatable, but only when they have been diagnosed, only when we know there is a problem. It is the same with God’s good news. The good news highlights the bad news. The bad news is: we need a Saviour. The good news is: we have one.

The good news remains good whoever we are, whether we’re kings or shepherds or somewhere in between. And as it’s good news for everyone, there is an obligation placed on us. God has given us a mission – to be bearers of that good news. We’re called to follow in the footsteps of the shepherds and tell people that a saviour has been born to them. Has everyone in Allesley Park and Whoberley been given the opportunity to hear and receive the good news of Jesus’ saving love for them?

Jesus’ command was clear and simple – “go and make disciples of all nations.”

There is no exception to this command. We’re to go – person in every street and every house in this community should have the opportunity to hear and receive the good news. And yet evangelism is something that terrifies us and, as the nationwide statistics of church attendance in the UK over the past few decades tells us, our evangelistic efforts don’t work very well. But why?

If we want to know why our evangelistic endeavours don’t work as effectively as they might, there is one simple reason. We don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. A prostitute was asked whether she’d consider going to church, and she replied, “Why would I go there? I feel bad enough about myself already.” And that’s the problem, churches have simply given Christ such a bad press that people avoid us like the plague. They think of us as hypocrites, bigots and troublemakers. My brother was in a pub in London, near the church where he’s the vicar, and he played a bit of game with a young woman sitting near him, and tried to get her to guess what he did. Finally, she gave up and he told her – I’m a vicar. Her response? With no hint of humour, she said, “I hate everything you stand for.”

That hurts, doesn’t it! I was devastated and, quite frankly, repulsed, to read in the news about so-called Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic. They may call themselves Christians, but they do great dishonour to the Christ they proclaim. And if I’m honest, though my behaviour is far less extreme, so do I.

And this is the main reason why our evangelism doesn’t work – because we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. People will read us before they’ll read the Bible. We are called to embody Jesus, to be like him, to be authentic. And yet we fall so short. As Gandhi once famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

This is the key to all our evangelism. God calls us to be like Jesus. This is the goal of our lives. As John Stott, the well-known Anglican minister, teacher and theologian said in his final address,

“What is God’s purpose for His people? I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.”

An Arab Christian convert from Islam said 'If all Christians were Christians - that is, Christlike - there would be no more Islam today.'

Wow.

The problem is, we don’t know how. This dilemma is well expressed by William Temple, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War.

'It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it - I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it - I can't. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.'

And that’s the key. There is no way you and I could become more like Jesus if we were left to rely on our own strength. And so the temptation is to despair, as it seems like God has commanded the impossible and will condemn us for our failure – it doesn’t seem fair – it’d be like giving Alicia the Times crossword and refusing to give her dinner until she was able to complete it. I wouldn’t do that, by the way!

But, the good news is that we haven’t been left on our own. God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in a work of transformation and to help us on our journey towards Christlikeness. Jesus’ whole purpose is that we live in him and he lives in us. It’s a two-way process. We can be indwelt by the Holy Spriit – God’s wonderful promise is, Christ in me the hope of glory. God wants to help us live a life that pleases him. He wants to help us to become more like Jesus, but he won’t force us to change. He calls us to cooperate with him. Are there areas of your life where you know you’re not living out God’s will? Submit them to Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to continue his work of transformation in you.

Liz always tells me that I need to ground my sermons and make them practical. Unfortunately, the subjects of evangelism and discipleship are too large to squeeze into one sermon, even when you speak as long as I do. All I can do is promise that in the course of the year – or longer – our sermons will cover key aspects of what it means to live a life following Jesus. I’d like you to help us choose what to focus on, so look out for a survey that’ll come out in the next couple of weeks that’ll help us, from issues from other faiths to the environment, how to evangelise, how to manage our time and money, sexuality and godly relationships, etc.

For now, simply know that Jesus is good news for everyone, and we are called to bear and embody this good news. We do this best by being like the Christ we proclaim, and we can only do this through the power of the Holy Spirit who is alive and at work in us today.

#JeSuisJesus – What the world needs

 This is the text of a sermon I preached yesterday for our local Service of Christian Unity based on Bible text – John 4:4-42

Good evening everyone, it’s wonderful to be together to worship, isn’t it?

I hope you’ll forgive me for beginning with a joke ...

How many Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Charismatic: Only 1 - Hands are already in the air. Pentecostal: 10 - One to change the bulb, and nine to pray against the spirit of darkness. Presbyterians: None - Lights will go on and off at predestined times.

Roman Catholic: None - Candles only.

Baptists: At least 15 - One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad and fried chicken.

Anglican: 3 - One to call the electrician, one to mix the drinks, and one to talk about how much better the old one was.

Methodists: Undetermined - Whether your light is bright, dull, or completely out, you are loved. You can be a light bulb, turnip bulb, or tulip bulb. Bring a bulb of your choice to the Sunday lighting service. Traditionalists: None - we don’t believe in change.

I hope you’re not too offended and that you were able to laugh at yourself just a little. One of our problems is that people perceive that we take ourselves too seriously but we simply don’t take Jesus seriously enough. We are seen as being divided by wrangling over doctrine and the style of the way we worship and over other perceived petty things when what holds us together is far greater than what divides us. And in a world where in the past week alone, we’ve had bloodshed at the hands of Muslim extremists in Paris and more shockingly in Northeast Nigeria, where over 2,000 people were reported to be killed, and also in the Central African Republic, where so-called Christian Militia are responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims, the world needs a united church more than ever. After the terrorist attacks, the hashtag “JeSuisCharlie” was tweeted 5 million times all over the world as a sign of defiance and of the defence of free-speech. Actually, the world doesn’t really need me to be Charlie – because I’m not sure that the publication of offensive images is necessarily to be celebrated – although their right to do so should be defended. The world doesn’t need me to be Charlie. The world needs me to be Jesus.

The world needs the more than 2 billion people who call themselves Christians to stand up and say in our words and actions, #jesuisJesus.

If we want to know why our evangelistic endeavours don’t work as effectively as they might, there is one simple reason. We don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. A prostitute was asked whether she’d consider going to church, and she replied, “Why would I go there? I feel bad enough about myself already.” And that’s the problem, churches have simply given Christ such a bad press that people avoid us like the plague. They think of us as hypocrites, bigots and troublemakers. My brother was in a pub in London, near the church where he’s the vicar, and he played a bit of game with a young woman sitting near him, and tried to get her to guess what he did. Finally, she gave up and he told her – I’m a vicar. Her response? With no hint of humour, she said, “I hate everything you stand for.”

That hurts, doesn’t it! I was devastated and, quite frankly, repulsed, to read in the news about so- called Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic. They may call themselves Christians, but they do great dishonour to the Christ they proclaim. And if I’m honest, though my behaviour is far less extreme, so do I.

And this is the main reason why our evangelism doesn’t work – because we don’t look like the Christ we proclaim. People will read us before they’ll read the Bible. We are called to embody Jesus, to be like him, to be authentic. And yet we fall so short. As Gandhi once famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

This is the key to all our evangelism. God calls us to be like Jesus. This is the goal of our lives. As John Stott, the well-known Anglican minister, teacher and theologian said in his final address,

“What is God’s purpose for His people? I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth and it is – God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.”

An Arab Christian convert from Islam said 'If all Christians were Christians - that is, Christlike - there would be no more Islam today.'

Wow.

We’re called to be like Jesus, who is both offensively inclusive and offensively exclusive. Offensively inclusive, because he reaches out to the worst of sinners and causes great offense to religious leaders. He even hangs out with this Samaritan – this Samaritan woman – this unmarried Samaritan woman – this unmarried Samaritan woman who has been married five times – this unmarried Samaritan woman who has been married five times and is shacked up with a man she’s not married to. Jesus knows all this about her, and he still talks to her, showing her genuine respect. Jesus throws open the doors of the kingdom to sinners of all stripes, and by doing so condemns us for our self-righteousness. Jesus is offensively inclusive.

The inclusive posture of Jesus poses a challenge to the church today, just as it did for the Pharisees two thousand years ago. Until the radically offensive inclusiveness of God’s grace seeps into our bones, we will never join Jesus at the margins of society, welcoming and blessing repentant sinners of all kinds, like ourselves.

But Jesus is also offensively exclusive. He tells the Samaritan woman, “salvation comes from the Jews”, and he makes it very clear that he alone can offer the living water that truly satisfies. He reveals himself as the Messiah, and the only Saviour of the world. In a pluralistic world he dares to say, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He makes an even more extreme statement when he declares, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

In this pluralistic world where our rights and choices to live life the way we want to are king, Jesus’ demands and claims are offensive. He calls me to submit my will to his, to trade in my personal agenda to his kingdom agenda, to submit to him in the way I use my time, skills and money, how I live, how I love, how I worship, how I behave sexually, how I speak, how I follow Him as Lord.

So, Jesus is both offensively inclusive and offensively exclusive. He alone is the Saviour, he alone is the hope of this world. He is the one we’re called to represent. The world needs Jesus, and we, his church are his hands and feet. We’re called to be like Christ. Sadly, left to our own devices, this is impossible. We know we’re called to be like Jesus, but don’t know how. This dilemma is well expressed by William Temple, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War.

'It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear and telling me to write a play like that. Shakespeare could do it - I can't. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life like that. Jesus could do it - I can't. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live in me, then I could write plays like this. And if the Spirit could come into me, then I could live a life like His.'

And that’s the key. There is no way you and I could become more like Jesus if we were left to rely on our own strength. But we haven’t been left on our own. God has given us his Holy Spirit to help us in a work of transformation and to help us on our journey towards Christlikeness. It’s a journey we’ll never finish – whether we’re 8, 18, 48 or 88, we’re still on that journey, and we’re called to a life of cooperating with the Holy Spirit. Are there areas of your life where you know you’re not living out God’s will? Submit them to Christ. Allow the Holy Spirit to continue his work of transformation in you. Allow his living water to flow in and through you. Is there division between our churches of which we need to repent? Then let’s sort it out. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.

And let’s find ways of working together to build God’s kingdom. It’s great to know of some of the ecumenical projects that are springing up, but I think there’s more that can be done. Perhaps there’s scope for working together in practical mission. I’m currently involved in the early stages of setting up a project called Besom, which seeks to help us make a difference to the lives of others and to make it easy for us to do so. If you’d like to hear more, and may be interested in getting involved, please chat to me afterwards.

There may be other projects we may set up. Whatever we do, may we see Christ proclaimed as we reach out into all corners of the communities whom we’re called to serve. Whether our endeavours mean that people become part of the church community of Limbrick Wood or St Christopher’s, or St Andrews’, Our Lady, St John Vianney, or St James’, then the Kingdom is growing.

Two years ago, this service was blighted by the snow that made getting to St Andrew’s rather difficult. When one snowflake falls to the ground, it melts. But when many snowflakes fall together, they stop traffic. This is the power of unity.

Now more than ever, the world needs Jesus. He has the living water, and his living water flows through us. Let’s not be afraid of either his offensive inclusivity or offensive exclusivity. The world needs Jesus. Our communities need Jesus. In his strength and in the Spirit’s power, may it be said of us, #jesuisJesus

The Magi - A journey of worship (Sermon - 11 January)

We’re at the beginning of a new year. No doubt the dawn of this new year has come full of expectations and hopes and fears, and perhaps resolutions? How many of you have made new years resolutions? How many of you have broken them? As we’re at the start of the new year, it seems a good time to renew our focus and remind ourselves of our priorities as a church and as individuals. Over the next three weeks, we’ll be looking at worshipping God, making new disciples, and transforming communities, using familiar figures from the Christmas story to bring these themes to life. So first we begin with worship, and who better to journey with than the magi? The Adoration of the Magi

They set out with one purpose – to worship the new-born king. Though we don’t know detailsl, it’s likely their journey was around 1,000 miles through inhospitable and uninhabitable landscapes. On foot. There would have been no hotels or creature comforts. The return journey would have taken months – and if you take into consideration the time they would have needed to prepare, you’re looking at six months away from home. Why? The answer is simple,

“Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

These mysterious magi from the east, possible ancient Persia – modern day Iran, came simply to worship the king. They didn’t just fancy a nice journey. They came to worship.

11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

You have to admire their tenacity. I wonder how much time they actually spent at their destination before making their long journey home? Not long, I imagine. But their journey no doubt must have been worth it, because they came face to face with the child Jesus. They came to worship him. They gave him their valuable treasures, but you know what, I don’t think their treasures were the most precious gifts they gave him. The most precious gift they gave Jesus was their devotion and their worship. They put everything else aside that they might bow down at his feet.

These magi give us a picture of worship. Worship is the devotion that we bring to Jesus. Often when we think of worship, we think of the type of worship that we like, and we can be critical, saying things like, well, I didn’t get much out of that today – whether that’s because we’ve not liked the hymn choices, or the style of the service. We stay away from church on those weeks when we don’t think we’re going to like the way the worship is going to be done. There has been lots of wrangling over the worship here in this church, which hopefully is something we’re over now. The problem with all this is that, although it’s appropriate that we are free and able to worship in a way that best enables us to meet with God, it all misses the point rather.

Worship is for God and not for us

We see worship as something we consume, something that is done for us. Worship isn’t about that at all. We’ve got it the wrong way round. Worship is something that we do. It’s something we offer to God. These mysterious magi, though they probably weren’t steeped in theology, they understood this – worship is something we give.

A man once heard a couple of people complaining about the service they’d been part of at church. One said to the other, I didn’t get much out of the worship today. Walking past, the man remarked, “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise we were worshipping you.”

And that’s exactly the point. Too often we make worship all about us, when it’s all about Jesus. When it comes down to it, worship isn’t for me or for you. It’s for God. It’s what we offer to him in response to all he is.

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him. Worship the Lord in the splendour of his holiness.” – 1 Chronicles 16:29

You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you. – Nehemiah 9:6

When we worship, we join with all of heaven to give God praise. Worship is, as it says in one of my favourite phrases in the Anglican liturgy, “our duty and our joy.”

We give thanks and praise to God for who he is, and all the incredible things he has done for us and given to us. We worship God, above all, to give thanks for the wonderful gift of Jesus – and it was wonderful to be reminded of this wonderful gift of Jesus’ coming into the world as we celebrated Christmas together just a few weeks ago. We gather weekly throughout the year, because Jesus is for life, not just for Christmas – he deserves our regular devotion – it’s the least we can do to express our thanks and praise for the fact he came to save us, to bring us new hope and new life.

Worship is about encounter

The magi met with Jesus face to face. Isaiah, when he had his vision in the temple, he met face to face with God. This is why he was so terrified.

“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

In the Old Testament it was well-known that no one could meet with God face to face and live. However, thanks to Jesus, who has taken away our guilt and sin, and made us pure. This means we can meet with him face to face. We gather on Sundays in order to meet with God together, and to be changed to be more like him.

Worship is a lifestyle

Worshipping God isn’t something that only happens when we go to church on a Sunday, or Wednesday, or whenever. Worship is a lifestyle. In Romans 12, St Paul writes, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

In the Message version of this verse, we read …

"So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life-your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life-and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him."

Darlene Zschech, the worship leader and writer says, "My heart is not for sale. God has claimed all of it to be his own. My life purpose is to revere and worship the Lord, as is the purpose of every person on earth. Our hearts have been bought with a great price and they are not up for grabs. No deals, no financial contracts, no momentary pleasure, no earthly offer can compare to the fellowship that is given to those who love God with their whole heart."

Worship is something that we’re called to do 24/7. Everything we do should be an act of worship. Give glory to God in all that we do and all that we are. The key aspect of our gathering together on Sundays is that we should be able to meet with God together, to learn more and grow deeper in our faith together, and that we might be equipped to live out our life of worship all through the week. We need each other to help us live our lives for Jesus. This is why it matters when you come on Sundays. If we all gathered together we could be such an encouragement to each other. It’s impossible to live out the Christian faith to the full on our own. This is why church matters.

In the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a statement of faith written in 1646 and 1647, it declares, “Humanity’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.”

Jesus is our goal

Jesus is the goal of our lives. We’ve been made to live and love for God, to worship him with our whole lives. Of course, it’s easy to find meaning in other things, to make them our idols. In the past week, I’ve been personally struggling, because I’ve been looking through the numbers of those attending on Sundays and the reality is that we’re not growing numerically as a church. I have pictures in my mind of the people who no longer come to church, and I feel responsible. I feel like a failure. But, the truth is, I’ve made numerical growth an idol. I’ve made the desire to be a successful vicar – and to be seen to be a successful vicar – my goal.

A platoon of soldiers was marching through the blistering heat of the Egyptian desert during the Second World War in desperate pursuit of water. The guide was confident of where to find it, but suddenly one of the troops spotted a beautiful desert lake several miles away. It was undeniable. So despite the guide's pleading, they hurried off course towards the beautiful water. Sadly as they approached, the Lake grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared in the sand. It had been appearance without reality. They had chased a mirage, and we only know about this because one of the soldiers recorded in his journal in his dying hours.

For me, church growth, or the lack of it, is the mirage in my life. You may have other mirages – other things that, though good in themselves, should never become objects of worship. Actually, our goal should simply be Jesus.

Phil Vischer was an animator who became a millionaire when his production Veggietales became a worldwide hit. It then all went wrong, and he became bankrupt and the dream died. He later reflected -

"if God gives a person a dream, breathes life into it and then it dies, then God might want to know what is more important to the person – the dream or God? The impact God has planned for us doesn't occur when we are pursuing impact. At long last, after a lifetime of striving, God was enough. Not God and impact or God and ministry. Just God."

This year, I’m going to seek to make Jesus my goal, to live my life to his glory. My prayer is that we would all live this out as a church community. The rest is in God’s hands.

Let’s seek to surrender our lives to Jesus.

A global family - this week's update

I, like many, was horrified by the terrorist attacks in Paris. Such senseless slaughter has rightly been condemned, and the blanket media coverage these events attracted is no surprise. But it occurs to me that we are very biased in the West. In Nigeria Islamic extremists reportedly massacred over 2,000 people, and Christian militias have been killing Muslims in the Central African Republic, and yet this gets little attention. These people are no less precious to God than those who died in Paris. Let’s remember we’re part of a global family, and we’re called to stand with all those who suffer. Lord, open our eyes.

This week's update

As you may know, I've been writing a mini-blog each week for our church news sheet.  Beginning this week, the aim is to publish these online too.  This is the latest edition, hot off the press! Happy new year! Have you made any new year’s resolutions? Are any still intact? If not, don’t worry, there’s always next year!!! Seriously though, I’d like to suggest a resolution that we might all make this year – to know Jesus better and to become more like him. This is God’s purpose for each of us; as preacher and pastor John Stott reflected, “God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God. … In our own strength it is clearly not attainable but God has given us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us, to change us from within.” Come, Holy Spirit!

People of Truth and Grace

This is the text of the sermon I preached this morning, reflecting on Paul's courage to speak the truth in Acts 13:1-12.

 

Life was good for Jonathan Aitken. He was a high-profile, successful politician, destined for greater glory as a future leader of the Conservatives and therefore possible Prime Minister. Then, in 1995 Jonathan Aitken found himself the subject of front-page headlines that alleged he was involved in dodgy dealings with Saudis. He responded with the following speech …

 

If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it. I am ready for the fight. The fight against falsehood and those who peddle it. My fight begins today. Thank you and good afternoon.

 

When Jonathan Aitken made that speech, claiming to fight for truth I'm sure many applauded. How brave he was to stand up against the tyranny of the press that so often can be full of lies.

 

He was right - the truth matters. There is, I feel, something hard wired in us that demands to know the truth and we feel so angry when we are lied to or about.

 

In the last ten years, we have had big inquiries over the Iraq war – were we led astray, were there really WMD? there is an ongoing investigation into police conduct at Hillsborough where police witness statements were doctored and false accusations were made about Liverpool fans. There is still so much anger about the way the truth has been obscured time and time again. Even now, there are accusations and counteraccusations flying around. What about the recent downing of the Malaysian Airlines plane? Who was responsible? Who supplied the weapons? Have the rebels in Ukraine doctored evidence at the scene of the crash? We all demand to know the truth.

 

We want to get to the truth – about historic child abuse. The truth must come out.

 

Jonathan Aitken was right about the importance of fighting for truth. Falsehood needs to be confronted.

 

But it’s not just in the big institutions, or in government or high-profile cases where truth matters. Truth matters in this church community, in my life.

 

But, some might argue, how do we know what truth is – isn’t it subjective? A matter of opinion?

 

Actually no. Truth is objective. Truth is a person.

 

Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life.”

 

He also said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free’ (John 8:31-32).

 

Jesus is the source of all truth. We also read, “For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does.”

 

The truth isn’t out there, it’s here [pick up Bible]. And the thing about the Bible, is that we need to allow to challenge and correct us. We can’t just pick the bits of the bible that we like. There are, of course, parts that we need to wrestle over, and discuss together, which is why we need to read the Bible in community, not just on our own. Most importantly, we need to allow the Bible to read us, as well as read the bible.

 

I remember being at university. I was well aware of God’s calling on my life as a vicar. I then read the parts of the bible that outline the qualities that someone should have who aspires to that sort of role …

 

above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.

 

Elsewhere it says an elder must be blameless, not overbearing, not quick-tempered … He must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. 9 He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.

 

I read those words and I looked at myself and realised how far short of those standards I fell. I knew myself. I knew I was a sinner. I struggled particularly with self-control and quick-temper. I certainly wasn’t holy or disciplined.

 

And yet, I still felt the overwhelming sense of God’s call on my life for this vocation in life. I knew that I needed to change, to be different, and I knew that I needed help to do so.

 

Of course, this is where the Holy Spirit comes in – with our co-operation he works in our lives, shaping us and making us more like Jesus. We need to be open to the work of God in our lives. But we also need each other’s help too. We can’t do this Christian life on our own.   It’s just too hard. So I did something that would be alien to many of us. I found a more mature Christian and met with him regularly, and gave him permission to ask some brutally honest and deep questions of me. No holds barred. It was sometimes painful, but it really helped me.

 

Home truths were brought to me. A mirror was held up that showed who I was –

 

I was told I was arrogant, that I often devalued people by being distracted when I was talking to them. I was also told that certain habits that some may argue were harmless enough could, if they took root, destroy me. It could be a flaw in my character that would trip me up and undermine the work I do for God and the work God does in me.

 

These revelations hurt, my pride was dented. But what matters more? That my ego is respected, or that the sin that is in my life is dealt with? If you need an operation, what would you rather have, a good surgeon or a mate who will be nice to you?

 

I know of a young woman who is in an accountability group where in their first meeting they confessed persistent and habitual sin in their lives.

 

Wow. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it, but it demonstrates how much holiness matters.

 

We are called as Christians to love each other. We think that being nice automatically means being loving. So, we opt to be nice to each other. Don't tell the truth, because we think it'll hurt. Not telling the truth will hurt more long term.  Too often we don't want to say anything that might hurt the feelings of people around us. We want to let sleeping dogs lie, we don't want to upset the apple cart. We mistake niceness for love. They are not the same thing. Sometimes sleeping dogs need to be opened. Apple carts sometimes need to be upset, turned over, even destroyed.  if they aren't they could destroy us. 

 

The recent tragic case of Peaches Geldof tells us the dangers of addiction. But it’s not just drugs that destroy us. We can be addicted to other things … lust, porn, anger, bitterness, gossip, jealousy, being judgmental, idolatry, ambition … lots of different things that can hold us captive and destroy God’s work in us. And often, we can’t see it ourselves. That’s why we have the term blindspots. We’re blind to the damage we’re doing to ourselves or to others. This is why we need each other, to confront the truth. Telling the truth, however hard, is love. Ignoring the truth because we’re being too nice is not love.

 

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.(1 Cor 13:6).

 

I don’t want to be known as a nice vicar. I’d much rather be known as someone who had courage to tell the truth. Why? Because my calling here is to do what I can to build up and encourage the body of Christ here so that together we become mature in the faith. The key passage for me here is in Ephesians 4:11-16.

 

Ephesians 4:11-16

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

 

We need to be people who are anchored to the truth, to not be people who only listen to the parts of the Bible that we like, or to listen to teaching that makes us comfortable. This means we need, each of us, to know our Bibles, so we know what it says about the way we should live our lives, we should also do our utmost to grow in our relationship with Christ, to stay close to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. We also need to be filled and refilled with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus describes as the “Spirit of truth … [who] will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

 

Does this mean that we have permission to go around and say exactly what we like to each other? No, of course not. In our passage from John this morning, we heard that Jesus was full of grace and truth. Paul writes of speaking the truth in love. In that most famous passage about love, we’re reminded that our words and deeds are worth nothing without love. We need to be loving in the way we speak to each other – to think before we speak, to think about how we phrase any criticisms, if we should speak them at all.

 

In our survey our weakest area came out as loving relationships. This might have surprised many of you, because this is a tight-knit community. I wasn’t very surprised, because we don’t think about how we speak to each other. We can be careless with our words. And we also speak about each other rather than to each other. I have heard complaints about various things mainly through someone approaching me and saying, so-and-so says this. We need to speak the truth, but do so in love – and we must remember we’re doing God’s work …

 

James 5:19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

 

All of this takes courage, and it could be costly, because we may need to confront some difficult, deep-rooted habits. However, the cost of not speaking out the truth could be much, much worse. After his famous speech, Jonathan Aitken took the Guardian newspaper and Granada TV court for libel, but the case collapsed in June 1997 when evidence was shown that backed up their version of events and not his. He had lied in court, and was later convicted on charges of perjury and perverting the course of justice. His fall from grace was complete and he spent 7 months in prison.

 

Then, everything changed. Through his fall from grace, he met with God, having an encounter with Jesus, who came to bring truth in this world, the one who is the way, the truth and the life. Aitken writes,

 

I had been travelling on a spiritual journey. It was largely the pressures of adversity that had set me on this voyage of exploration. Those pressures had included defeat, disgrace, divorce, bankruptcy and now jail - a royal flush of crises by anyone's standards. Yet pressure can be a making as well as a breaking experience. For after several false starts, stumbles, doubts and backslidings, my voyage of exploration evolved into a committed quest for a right relationship with God.

 

A quest for truth may be costly, but the consequences of not speaking the truth, of not confronting sin or injustice are much, much worse.

Joy in heaven

 

I love the verses in the Bible that talk about God’s delight in us, about partying and rejoicing in heaven when people come to him.  Jesus said, “Count on it—there’s more joy in heaven over one sinner’s rescued life than over ninety-nine good people in no need of rescue.” And, in my favourite verse in the Bible, we’re told … 

“The Lord your God is with you,
 he is mighty to save. 
He will take great delight in you; he will quiet you with his love,
 he will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

 

Most of the time it seems incredible to think of God rejoicing and delighting in us, but last Sunday I think all of us who gathered for worship at St Christopher’s got a taste of what that’s all about.

 

Sunday was a day to remember for us as we welcomed Rob and Tony to "the best family in the world - God's". Rob was baptised and Tony reaffirmed his baptism vows. When most people think of baptism, certainly within the Anglican Church, they think of a baby being baptised with a sprinkle of water, but Sunday's baptism was very different. For a start, it took place in the vicarage garden. Secondly, there was no font in sight, but rather a baptistry that looked more like a hot tub. Thirdly, Rob and Tony are adults, and there would be no sprinkling - they would both be fully immersed in the water.  This would be no ordinary baptism, and it was wonderful to hear them share their stories of why they were making this declaration of faith.

 

Both of them did the Alpha course earlier in the year, which proved very significant for them in their journey of faith. 

 

Rob had been brought up as a Christian, but he didn't fully embrace the Christian faith - it wasn't fully real to him. He was waiting for a "Damascus Road" experience. Something changed last year when he wanted to find out more about God, so he signed up for Alpha. He found it incredibly helpful, and he realised he didn't need a dramatic experience of God; he simply needed to accept Jesus into his life.  Since he made that decision, Rob has experienced real peace in his life - he has come to realise that the words from Isaiah that he has in his room, "do not be afraid, for I am with you" (53:4) are true for him; that God will never leave him.

 

Tony had been baptised as a baby, but never believed. He read many books desperately searching for answers to questions he had about life, but his search seemed fruitless. The one belief he had always had was that there is a creator.  Tony also did Alpha, and he found it life-changing. Over the course of those months, he found faith, and it has made a huge difference to him. Suddenly everything seems in technicolour.  As he testified on Sunday, "I was blind, but now I can see." Tony wanted to mark this new beginning, the new life he's found in Jesus by reaffirming his baptism vows by full immersion. 

 P1020391 P1020397 P1020405 P1020419 P1020424

It was an incredible experience for Tony and Rob, and all those who were present to celebrate with them, and it is a huge privilege to be involved in their journey of faith.  

 

So, Sunday was the beginning of new life, a lifelong journey of faith for Rob and Tony. It was wonderful to celebrate with them, to welcome them into our family of faith, to witness to the difference that Jesus makes to people's lives today. It was a joyous morning, one that I for one will never forget. I'm so grateful to God for his amazing grace, and for the new life and transformation he brings.

#christmasmeans my wonder and worship ...

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago.  I tried to convey my continuing wonder at this most familiar of stories. I don't want to ever "get over" Christmas and what it means.  I hope this will inspire you and make you wonder just a little too. ... Perhaps you might be stirred to worship the baby King. Feel free to share ...

 

Was it badly planned? (A Christmas Poem)

 

Dear God and Lord almighty, creator of it all,

I have a few questions about the Christmas festival.

Each year we remember these events so long ago -

We sing and tell the story - but there's lots I still don't know.

You see, the problem is, I don't quite understand

Why it happened the way it did - was it badly planned?

 

Your mother was a peasant girl, so fragile and so young,

Her fiance was a hero, reluctant and unsung.

How did you know they could bear the load, that they wouldn't crack?

Why take such a massive risk - there would be no way back.

Why involve us humans - we could have made a mess

Of this great salvation plan - it could have cost you less.

 

You could have come in splendour more fitting for a king

- anything would have been better for the Lord of everything -

So, why choose rejection? why choose the manger?

Why those first visitors - it couldn't get much stranger

than these smelly shepherds. Could you really trust them?

They were outcasts, after all, not creme-de la creme.

 

Surely such a baby deserves a V.I.P.

Not riff-raff or outsiders, not people just like me.

Or was that just the point? Do we need to know

We're infinitely precious - is that what Christmas shows?

Was the Christ-child born for all? Is it really true

that Immanuel - God-with-us - is the perfect gift from you?

 

And can I really come to you in all my sin and shame?

Do you take me as I am, give me a brand new name?

"Beloved" now, and "chosen", "forgiven" and set free -

Accepted by the Saviour, who lived and died for me. 

I simply cannot take it in, not even a tiny part

But I thank you, God, for Christmas, from the bottom of my heart.

 

Andy March (c) 2011

Martin Luther-King and the Power of Hope

50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr gave one of the grestest speeches in modern-day history. On 28 August a crowd of up to 250,000 marched on Washington as a mass demonstration for freedom. He was introduced as “the moral leader of our nation,” and the next 15 minutes were political dynamite, a clarion call for complete racial equality. “Now is the time”, he said, “to make justice a reality for all of God’s children … We will not be satisfied until justice rolls like rivers … and righteousness like a never failing stream.” And then he uttered those famous words … I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. … I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by their character. 

 I have a dream today. 
… I have a dream that one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. 

I have a dream today.

 I have a dream that one day every valley shall be engulfed, every hill shall be exalted and every mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plains and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. … With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

 With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

 With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to climb up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. … So let freedom ring … from every hill and molehill … and every mountainside.

 When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every tenement and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual, "Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last."

What makes this speech so compelling? Why are we remembering this speech, above all others made during the long civil rights campaign for racial equality? I believe it’s because of that elusive and powerful sentiment – hope.

Hope is so powerful - as Andy Dufresne expresses so eloquently in one of my favourite films, the Shawshank Redemption, "Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." Without hope, life loses all its colour, and even its purpose. Hope compels us. Itdrives us and motivates us - we long that things will be better. We all need hope, especially in a world where so much seems to go wrong, where there’s poverty, war, famine, and corruption everywhere you look. We need hope. We've been made to hope.

I believe that hope is so compelling, because we've been made for more. We've been made for day. We've been made for a world where everything will be just and fair and where everyone will be "free at last". That longing hardwired inside each of us, because we all have heaven in our hearts. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, God has set eternity in our hearts (3:11)., or, as Augustine puts it, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." We've been made for more, so much more, and so much better than the world around us. We've been made for this ...

“God has moved into the neighbourhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good – tears gone, crying gone, pain gone – all the first order of things gone.” (Revelation 21, MSG).

The world will be given an amazing upgrade. It will be an awesome place to live. I know some of you are thinking this is all pie in the sky when you die, but it’s not – this is a hope based on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who brought hope to so many through his words and works of power - and then destroyed the power of death by rising from the grave. The tomb is empty.

Even today, Jesus is bringing hope to people. People are finding healing and wholeness through his power. All over the world, Spirit-filled people are carrying on his work. Great acts of selfless love and mercy are being carried out on an hourly basis – the sick and dying are cared for, the poor are given food, clothing and medicine without which they would die, orphans are given families, lives are being transformed – often by people who do so in the name and power of Jesus. They do it because that’s what Jesus would do, because that’s what being his follower is all about. Jesus brought hope to so many people when he walked this earth and he still does today. He can bring hope to you.

We are made to hope, because God has given us cause for hope. Our hope is sure and certain. Martin Luther King's dream may never be fulfilled in my lifetime, but there will indeed come a day when freedom will ring out from every hill and mountain top, and thank God, we will be free at last.