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)

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.

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.

#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.

Be strong and courageous

Just over 32 years ago, I was given the name Andrew. It means "strong, courageous, manly." I remember being in secondary school assembly one day when the local Christian worker was talking about the meaning of names, and he mentioned the meaning of my name. There was a titter that went around those sitting near me, and I was embarrassed, because I felt that there was no way I could live up to that name. I felt far from manly as a teenager, and I don't think that ever really changed. I was never a "blokey" bloke, I felt I related to women better than men, so I felt that I wasn't really doing much to live up to my name. On my ordination retreat in June 2009, i felt so excited, and yet hugely daunted by the prospect of serving God in this new way. I was very clear that I was completely inadequate - there was no way I could do any of it on my own. There is a theological argument in some quarters that people change upon ordination to priesthood. I don't really believe in that, because I believe I'm no more different from any other followers of Christ - we are all part of the "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9) - and yet, I believe there was a change in me upon my ordination - a moment of anointing and equipping for the ministry to which God called me. I also believe I was given the courage and boldness that had previously seemed to evade me. Suddenly I wasn't so afraid any more. Sure enough, when I went up for prayer at New Wine a couple of months later, the words from Joshua 1:9 were spoken over me, "be strong and courageous." I found myself standing up for things and people I would never have previously. A year or so later, out of the blue, a member of the church community where I served as curate (assistant pastor, for those unfamiliar with the lingo), said to me, "keep being bold." He'd seen and wanted to affirm that boldness in me. I believe I was bold, and that I saw the fruit of that boldness in people's lives.

On the morning of the service to mark the beginning of my life as vicar of St Christopher's Church in September last year, I was in Coventry cathedral. The reading from the day was from 1 Chronicles 28, in which the following words appeared: “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you until all the work for ... the Lord is finished." I believe God was giving me an incredibly timely reminder of his command to me, to be bold and courageous. I would need to make difficult decisions, some of which might be unpopular. In the face of this, God was calling me to be courageous.

Just last week, at New Wine, as I was being prayed for, someone spoke over me, "mighty man of God." I don't know if he knew the meaning of "Andrew" (most people know me as Andy, anyway), but in that moment God through him was bringing me back full circle, to the identity bestowed on me at birth. I am called to be strong and courageous.

One of the themes that leapt out at me from the talks at New Wine, was the command to be courageous, that the church needed to stop being so afraid of losing face, or being unpopular. In short, we needed to get over ourselves! Robby Dawkins, a pastor in Chicago, through whom God has worked amazingly, said, "all of us have more power and authority than we use. ... It's about Christ in me. Christ the resurrector lives in us. We need to step into our true identity as God's children. ... Jesus came to show us what WE can do, not what HE can do." Robby's lived that out in his ministry and seen God do some extraordinary things - not because he's particularly special, but because he's grasped what it means to be people in whom God's Spirit lives and works.

The reason why we can be strong and courageous, living out that command God gave to Joshua, the reason why I believe I have been able to be bold, is because of the promise that's attached to that command ... "be strong and courageous," God says, ... "For The Lord your God will be with you wherever you go." Step out, God says, be bold. You will face opposition and hardship. You will face the regular temptation to fall into discouragement or disappointment, you will have every reason to be afraid, you will face what will seem like insurmountable odds. There will be times you want to throw in the towel and give up. But don't forget something vital, something that changes everything - I will be with you every step of the way. I'll catch you as you step into the unknown. I will never leave you. I will give you the strength you need. I will do all this for the sake of my glory, for the extension of my kingdom." We actually have an advantage over Joshua and Solomon, and the others in the Old Testament to whom that command was addressed - because Christ lives in us through his Holy Spirit. We have all we need to see Jesus work in mighty ways through us in our churches and communities. I believe if we really began to grasp this, we would see change in our nation.

Christ lives in me. His power and authority lives in me. I'm actually beginning to believe this. And so, since returning from New Wine, I have an extra spring in my step. I have prayed for people to be healed with that little bit more faith. I am feeling just a little bit bolder. I am taking courage, because I know that God is with me, that he has called me to love and serve this community that he loves so much that he sent his only Son to live and die for every one of the people who live here. I can be bold, because God goes with me. I can be bold because God's kingdom and the commission he's given us to make disciples matters more than my own reputation. I can do nothing without him, but "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." (Philippians 4:13). It's about time I lived up to my name, and became strong, courageous, enduring, a mighty man for Jesus.

Shift

I've been listening to Louie Giglio's teaching podasts, from Passion City Church. Of all the preachers I've heard, he above all has inspired, challenged and encouraged me. The latest series I'm listening to is one on the Lord's Prayer - called "Shift", inviting us to have a shift of perspective in our lives from our own limited and sinful perspective, to God's perspective. Once again it's incredibly inspiring stuff. I recommend you check it out on itunes!

The first talk, based on "our Father in heaven" was a challenging reminder that prayer shouldn't be us simply offloading onto God, telling him our problems and what he should do about them (as Louie says, we'd only be telling God what he already knows), but rather seeking to have a divine perspective on these things, to remember that above all, in our prayer and worship we should seek to glorify God, to listen to him, and everything else flows from there. It made me realise that too easily the sum total of my prayer-life is all too often made up of the shopping list, when I should begin with praise. Intercession of course plays a part, but it is only part of prayer, not all of it. We should seek to glorify God through our prayers as well as our thoughts and actions, intentionally praising him simply for who he is, resting in his presence, and thanking him for what he's done in sending Jesus to live and die to save us, and for sending his Spirit to live in us, comfort us and make us more like Jesus.

Lord, would you change my heart even more, so that my prayers might reflect your will. Change my perspective, so that I see things more the way you see them, and seek to glorify you through my thoughts, deeds, words and prayers. Amen.

The 2nd talk was based on "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven." He related to the "occupy Wall Street" movement. He suggested that Christians should begin an "occupy all streets" movement, where we intentionally seek to declare the coming of God's kingdom where we are, that through our words and actions, God's will might be better represented wherever we are; that through our praying presence, the presence of Jesus might be known. He called for a shift - that rather than seeing our lives as going to work and going to church, or being at home, we should seek to bring God's presence wherever we are. This is incredibly challenging, because it calls us to be full-time Christians - Ambassadors for God at home, at work or school, and church. Imagine what our communities looked like if we intentionally lived like that, praying for our communities and workplaces, and asking God how we can be a blessing to our home, workplace or neighbourhood; seeking to be Jesus' hand, feet and mouth and heart wherever we go. If we all did that, we'd see radical transformation, because Jesus lives in the hearts of each one of us, and he empowers us to e his missionaries, if only we ask him to. Let's no longer be passenger, but let's seek to be agents of change so that God's kingdom comes in greater power wherever we are.

Lord, give us courage to live for you. Help us to share your love in the way we think, speak, live and love. May your kingdom come wherever we are through us and in us. Amen.

One Saturday

A headline in the paper read“Religious nut and freak is dead.”
The spokesman for the Pharisees
Explained (while looking very pleased),
“This man had caused us lots of trouble,
We had to get him on the double.

He claimed he was the Chosen One,
Almighty God, His only Son.
We Pharisees weren’t having that! – 
Even worse, he claimed he’d sat
At God’s right hand in heaven above
And will again. You know, I’d love
To see that day, but won’t of course –
For that man’s words are just a source
Of claptrap and of blasphemy,
That’s why we killed him, can’t you see?
He drew the crowds with clever tricks –
They even claimed he’d healed the sick.
The blind can see (or so they claim)
And crippled people walk again!
But that’s not all – you’ll laugh at this –
A dead man (said with emphasis)
Was brought back to life at his word –
This claim’s preposterous, quite absurd.
We all know that dead men don’t walk
About, or eat and drink and talk.
It’s clear to me they’ve all been had.
Poor, simple people fooled – how sad!
At first we’d tried to humour him
Until he got beneath our skin.
He insulted us, called us snakes,
Told us that we were on the make.
We couldn’t take it any more,
That really was the final straw.
We had him silenced, put to death,
This carpenter from Nazareth.
Let’s see him speak against us now –
As he’s dead, I can’t see how!
He could rise again and death defy.”
The spokesman spat, “And pigs might fly!”

The Passion Ballad

All eyes on a garden - a kneeling manCries out to his father, “Take this cup if you can.”
A gasp heard in heaven - angels can’t bear
Watch the scene of a broken man crying down there.

The fate of the world is now left unsure,
The plan for salvation could stutter and fall.
It hangs on a man who feels so much pain;
His burden is great, his sweat falls like rain.

Urgent discussion - is there a way out?
No sign of the Father, beginnings of doubt.
Fervently pray that the man will find strength,
Agonised moment, unspeakable length.

Until . . .

A look of decision.  All heaven awaits.
Resolution is formed, no time for debate.
“Not my will but yours,” he’ll follow the way
Ordained by the Father.  He’ll face the next day.

All happens so quickly - soldiers arrive.
Fulfil their destiny, keep our hope alive.
Man stands on trial; he’s committed no wrong.
Agony in heaven as the Father looks on.

A sprinkle of water - case is dismissed
In the hands of the Jews who betrayed with a kiss.
The sentence is passed: a criminal’s death.
Hang on a cross, no dignity left.

Each blow of nails through hands and through feet
Echoes through heaven - a desperate beat.
The Father winces as his son hangs down there
In desolate loneliness, there’s no one to care.

Dignitaries mock as the sinless one dies.
“Father, forgive,” is all he replies.
His life ebbs away, the darkness descends.
“It is finished!” he shouts.  The struggle just ends.

Leaderless people - the light has gone out.
Fail to see what the anguish was about.
They don’t understand that he had to die;
They secretly mourn, and simply ask why.

The third day dawns and it all becomes clear:
The tomb is empty, there’s nobody here.
"The Lord is alive,” the angels rejoice.
Relief in heaven, for he made the right choice.

The great gamble worked - he carried our sin,
Died on the cross so we could go in.
United to the Father through the Son.
Mission accomplished and the victory won.