Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Why? Part 2


Reading: Psalm 88

We all like a happy ending.

Where the heroine and hero get together, against all the odds.

Where the rotter discovers the error of his ways and decides to start again.

Where the detective discovers whodunnit.

This evening Julie and I will be watching The Durrells. One of the nice things about that is that, although I’m sure there will be some ongoing plot development throughout the series, that by the end of the episode disaster will have been averted and the main struggle of the evening happily resolved.

All in the space of 60 minutes…

45, if you skip the ads.

Sometimes we might wish life were more like that. But we know it isn’t.

And some of the best stories recognise that. Julie and I also enjoyed Line of Duty, me partly because it is filmed in Belfast and I keep going ‘oh, I know where that is.’ But also because even though on one level the case seems to be solved, something bigger is going on in the background. And 4 series in that hasn’t all been resolved. There are loose ends still not tied up.


Some great Bible stories are also like that. Joseph and the family might be reunited at the end of Genesis, so we could be forgiven for thinking they have reached the happy ending. But they are just part of a bigger story about Abraham’s family and, as Genesis draws to a close, there is still little sign of them having any land, being a nation or blessing the world. All the things introduced as far back as Genesis 12, which the whole story is supposed to be about. None of them seem any further forward.

Some of you might remember a few years ago around this time we spent Lent in the story of Jonah. At the very least you might remember the Veggietales cartoon. But the story didn’t end with Jonah learning the error of his ways, preaching to Nineveh and revival breaking out. It ends with Jonah in a grump, wishing he could die and God challenging him about the prophet’s attitude.

And we’re not told how Jonah reacted.

Likewise the prodigal son story doesn’t end with the father hugging the long-lost son, putting the ring on his finger, new clothes, new shoes and a party. It ends outside the party with the father begging the elder brother to come in. (If you read the whole of chapter 15 and see the context in which Jesus tells the story, that bit, the bit outside the party is actually the main point).

We’re not told whether the brother responds.

The same is true in the story of Zacchaeus, the little tax collector, who climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Jesus calls him out of the tree, goes and has dinner with him, the townspeople grumble but Jesus tells them not to. Zacchaeus is also a son of Abraham, says Jesus.

Did the townspeople agree with Jesus?

Did they say, hmm, suppose Jesus has got a point?

We don’t know.

They might have run Zacchaeus out of town for all we know.

We assume Zacchaeus kept his promise. But we’re never actually told.

And if Zacchaeus stopped being a tax collector, was the guy who took his job any better? Maybe he or she was just as big a crook. Maybe even worse.

This morning we read a psalm together. A lot of people like Psalms. There’s something there for pretty much every mood. But, you know, I’d be very surprised if there was anyone would put Psalm 88 in a list of their favourites. When you’ve read it, you’re probably not that surprised that it is one of the Psalms bypassed in the back section of our hymn books. The lectionary basically overlooks it.

I would suggest one reason for that is that is hard to find much hope in it.

There is no happy ending.

Those who write about Psalms categorise them in lots of different ways. But one quite helpful way is from a guy called Walter Bruggemann. He says there are three kinds of Psalms.

There are Psalms of orientation. These are the ones where it all makes sense. The ones which suggest the world works the way we’d like it. The good guys win the bad guys get what they deserve. Like Psalm 1. The Godly prosper. The wicked get blown away by the chaff.

But there are also Psalms of disorientation. These are the ones where the world stops making sense. Where things start to fall apart. Where the psalmist feels lost. A few weeks ago we looked at Psalm 13. How long, O LORD, will you forget me? How long will you look the other way? There is no sense that his suffering is because of anything he has done. He just feels God has forgotten him. It doesn’t make sense.

Then there are psalms of reorientation. Where they had a bad experience, perhaps took a wrong turn, but learned from it and it enhanced their understanding. An example of this is Psalm 73.

When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant;

I was a brute beast before you.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel,

and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you?

And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

It all turns on that word YET.

Thing is…

… reorientation assumes at some point there has been disorientation.

You can’t be found unless you’ve got lost.

Our understanding does not develop unless at some point things stopped making sense.

If everything just carried on the way you expected you would never have a reason to question anything.

This is how we grow.

We might wish we could jump from orientation to reorientation without disorientation but life doesn’t work like that.

Ever found yourself saying ‘if I knew then what I know now, I’d never have done that?’ Well how come you know now what you didn’t know then? Often it’s precisely because you did do that.


There are no shortage of Psalms which deal with the darker side of life. Psalm 51 has David confronting his sin, seeking forgiveness and a fresh start. But it ends with the assurance that God will welcome him.

Psalm 23, which we sang from earlier sounds very peaceful, but chances are it is written in the dark valley. But it ends with goodness and love following us wherever we go, and us dwelling close to God forever.

Even Psalm 22 which starts in very dark fashion My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? echoing the words Jesus spoke from the cross, is a Psalm that ends in victory. In God turning things around, the poor eating and being satisfied, and God being exalted as Lord among the nations.

As the hymn book for the life of faith of Israel and the church, the psalms are not always the most happy, happy.

Psalm 88 is different. There is no hint of reorientation here. It is unashamedly a Psalm of disorientation. We don’t get any sense of a movement from turmoil and trouble to it starting to get better.

There are only two positive things in the entire Psalm. One is right at the beginning, when he speaks of God as the One who saves him. He is waiting to be saved, but God is the One who can do it.

The other positive that despite everything he appears to be experiencing he is still writing it…

He is still praying.

Whatever we do and however we approach this Psalm, don’t underestimate the importance of that last point. Hold that thought. We’ll come back to it.

But for now that’s not what he’s feeling. He is overwhelmed with troubles, he describes himself as being in the lowest pit and darkest depths. It seems to have been ongoing for a long time. Later in the Psalm he speaks about how he has suffered since he was young and he has had enough of it. He feels cut off from his closest friends. In fact he is accusing God of doing this to him. That God has rejected him, is punishing him. You don’t get much of that in Songs of Fellowship or Baptist Praise and Worship.

And if God doesn’t act soon, he says, it’ll be too late. He continues…

Do you perform miracles for the dead? Do they rise up and praise you?

Is your constant love spoken of in the grave or your faithfulness in the place of destruction?

Are your miracles seen in that place of darkness or your goodness in the land of the forgotten?

From a Christian, post-Easter point of view, with a hope in Resurrection and a belief in life after death, we might answer this differently or miss his point. For the vast majority of the Old Testament they didn’t think that way. It’s only really in the very late stages of the Old Testament, possibly even in the period between the Old and New Testament that they really start to have any developed ideas about things like life after death, heaven, hell, resurrection and so on. In short, when we read this in the Psalm, he is expecting the answer to be ‘no!’


On and on he goes. And this is where our word for the next couple of weeks come in….

Why do you reject me, Lord?

Why do you turn away from me?

You have made even my closest friends abandon me,

and darkness is my only companion.


At this stage you might be thinking ‘yes… and…’

But that’s where the Psalm ends.

And this is in their Temple Praise and Worship.

When they came to putting together the worship books of Israel, who knows how many songs they could have chosen from? And someone said this has got to be in there.

What do you do with a song like that?

There are three brief things I want to say about it. Sadly they don’t have three nice headings.

The first is this. It’s there because it’s an experience that is part of the life of faith.

 Over the last number of months we have been looking at the different phases or seasons we encounter or experience when we try to live in relationship with the living God we encounter in Jesus Christ. In that context this is a Psalm written by someone in the Why? season.

The word itself is used twice in quick succession towards the end of the Psalm.

Why do you reject me, Lord?

Why do you turn away from me?

This Psalm is very real. In dark times we can find ourselves asking these kinds of questions. When we feel we are sinking lower and lower, when we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances. We can very much feel isolated from others.

Sometimes that is a very real thing. You may encounter people in life who avoid you when you are in a dark period. I have a friend whose first child died within a few days of being born. He remembers walking down the street and people he knew crossing the street to avoid having to speak to him.

He says that it almost felt like they think it’s contagious. Get too close and the same thing might happen to you. More normally it’s the fear of not knowing what to say, or of saying the wrong thing. But the avoidance feels much worse than anything you would be likely to say.

Or it might work the other way. I recognise my own tendency to withdraw, when I am struggling, to go into myself. We might be frightened of what others think if we spoke how we feel. Or we might assume they wouldn’t be really interested. No-one wants to put up with that, we might think. Either way, there is this sense that we feel cut off from others.

For those in that kind of situation, this Psalm serves two purposes. Firstly it says ‘you do belong.’ These feelings are a legitimate part of the life of faith.

If all we had were the Psalms with the happy endings, if all we had were Psalms, say of orientation, you might soon start questioning whether this faith had anything to say to you. Your world doesn’t work like that. Even with psalms of reorientation, you could still find yourself thinking ‘do I belong here?’ I’ve hung on all I can, and still it’s not getting better.

When you include a Psalm like this where it is not resolved, where it ends as it begins, and you include it within the hymn book, at the heart of the life of faith, it’s a reminder that you do belong.

Yes, for those who are not there it might feel a bit depressing. Can we not just get to the praise the Lord bit? Psalm 88 says, yes, we’ll get there. But just for this moment can we let these people know they belong too?

Disorientation is an authentic faith feeling.

The other purpose it serves is to speak two very powerful words.

Me too.

I know those words have been used a lot in the media recently, within a particular context. But they can be very powerful and liberating words to hear.

A while ago I met an old friend who has been going through a dark period in her life. I didn’t know that when we met up, nothing had been said, but although we had only communicated by e-mail I sensed that there was something she wanted to talk about.

Just before we met I had spent an hour with my therapist. About every 4-6 weeks I still visit the therapist who helped me when I suffered from anxiety a couple of years ago. I treat it like going to the dentist for a check-up. She tells me it’s not the most flattering comparison she’s ever had, but it works for me. But it checks things are ok, or if there is something that needs me to work on before it becomes a more significant problem.

Anyway, I met up with my friend ands he asked what I’d been up to that morning. In part my response was driven by the sense that there was something she wanted to tell me. Also I’m not embarrassed to talk about therapy. So I said ‘oh, I’ve just been to my therapist.’

You could almost feel the relief as I said it. It was my way of saying ‘me too’ which made it so much easier for her to open up.


That’s what this Psalm does. It’s for those in the why season, feeling they have been down for so long, feeling cut off from everyone and everything, to hear the words ‘me too.’

It might not be your exact experience, but someone else has felt this way.

It’s an authentic faith experience.

That leads on to the second thing I want to say about this. When we feel this way we have permission to express it. God is not in the least embarrassed, hurt or annoyed at us expressing it.

Some of us may have been around the faith for a long time. Perhaps all the way since childhood. We might have grown up with it. It might be at home. It might have been at school. But you know it’s possible that we’re still speaking to God in pretty much the same way we did as a child.

Some of us do struggle with expressing our feelings with anyone, and perhaps particularly with anyone in authority. And that can be passed on to how we relate to God. It’s all very polite and deferential.

Also we can be inclined to distrust our feelings. My religious background emphasised truth, scripture and reason. Feelings on the other hand could be deceptive. They were fickle and subject to change.

But feelings are very much part of who we are. God made us with feelings. Merely cutting them off is denying a fundamental part of our humanity. So much damage is caused by feelings which are not expressed. How we express them is important. I’m not giving people a licence to go around hurting one another.

But God can handle our honesty and our feelings.

As God sees it, at least we’re still talking.

When we stop talking then we’ve got a bigger problem.


However acknowledging feelings doesn’t necessarily make them right. Our feelings are not necessarily the ultimate explanation of how things really are.

The truth ‘as we see it’ is not necessarily the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

For a start what we notice is partial. I mentioned my trip to the therapist earlier. I have to admit, as I went in I was glad for the time I had. In general I knew I was ok, but between catching up after a few days off and things which had previously been postponed due to the Beast of the East, I just felt there was a lot on. Speaking it would give me the chance to get some kind of order. But the conversation took a very different turn. On Tuesday I had got a good first report from my Spiritual direction course. I was quite chuffed. Then I started talking about something else that had gone well, then there was something else… and I discovered there were quite a few things to be thankful for, but in my rushing I wasn’t appreciating. You know, like I’ve kept encouraging you to do for the last couple of years?

But there is another level to this. The psalmist speaks of being rejected by God, being punished by God, that God has been taking his friends away.

Is this accurate?

Is he right?

A number of weeks back I spoke about my faith upbringing and how I was taught to learn verses off by heart. One I was taught early on was in Proverbs. It says

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.

In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.


At first sight it is about seeking God’s guidance for life. But there is another level to this. There is a difference between trusting God and trusting our understanding of God. With the why? question we are holding two things together. We’re saying God I believe you are there and you are good, and acknowledging our pain. In why we are saying I can’t make sense of those two things.

With the Why? question we have two options. We can ditch God. In which case we’re still left with the pain.

Or we can say I don’t understand, I maybe won’t understand for some time, but I’ll choose to trust God rather than my understanding. We’ll see Jesus do that next week.


I would say that the psalmist is not telling the truth about God and life. He is expressing the truth of how he feels about God and life. And God welcomes our honesty. We can tell God the truth about what we feel. In time we may come to see that how we felt was not 100% accurate, but this is part of the journey from disorientation to reorientation. And it is so much healthier not to live in repression and denial.

In the season of why and of disorientation there is no need to wonder whether you belong. The scriptures we’ve received remind us they are an authentic part of the life of faith.

There are others who have felt that way, recorded it and stand with us to say me too. So we have permission to express how we feel. Sometimes we’ll be wrong. Sometimes we’ll be unfair. But its how we feel. A healthy relationship with God need not be afraid to tell God how we truly feel. God is big enough to hold it.


Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Why? Part 1


Readings: John 9: 1-7; Luke 13: 1-5

The news headlines and weather forecasters last weekend got it pretty much spot on when it talked of ‘spring postponed.’ According to the meteorological calendar spring was supposed to begin last Thursday. Instead the Beast from the East came ablowing in, reminding us that we were not quite out of the winter just yet, and bringing the world to a standstill.

Quite literally it seems. If you’d only had the news to go on, you’d have genuinely wondered whether anything other than white stuff falling from the sky was happening in the world!

And in amongst the stories of heroic Scottish bus drivers and babies being born by the side of the road, there were the usual questions…

Why were so many people stranded on the roads when they were told not to drive unless absolutely necessary?

Why does this country always seem to be so rubbish when it comes to handling these kinds of weather conditions?

Why? Why? Why?


That’s the question we’re going to be thinking about this morning… and over the next few weeks. Not the weather stuff, but the Why?

Why? is our latest word as we continue to explore the different seasons or phases that we go through when we seek to live in a healthy relationship with the living God. Each season or phase has been assigned one of the 12 words on the screen.

And Why? is an appropriate word for this stage of the year. A few times I’ve grouped the words together in groups which reflect different weather-type seasons we experience.


The first three words, Here, O and Thanks could be described like a spiritual summer. It’s a time of enjoying the warmth of our faith. We are aware of God’s presence, we’re filled with awe and wonder, which drives us to praise and worship, and are aware how blessed we are.


But with the next three words, Sorry, Help, and Please, we enter an autumnal season. Things are not always plain sailing. We notice some of the struggles. We recognise our own frailty, our own capacity to get stuff wrong and mess up. Confession is a healthy part of the spiritual life and we thought about that with Sorry. We recognise we are very human, we have our struggles and turn to God for Help! We look around us and are moved with compassion when we see the struggles of others. That’s what we thought about with Please. But even here there’s a kind of confidence that if we bring it to God he’s there for us.


With the last couple of words we’ve recognised that sometimes following Jesus can be a real and prolonged struggle. We might call it the winter season of the spiritual life. We pray Sorry and ask for strength to overcome temptation, but make the same mistakes again and again and despair of ever getting past it. We pray Help! but no wisdom for dealing with our struggles seems to come. Or we pray Please for others, but the situation doesn’t improve. It might even seem to get worse. Our self-control starts to wither, our endurance grows weaker and hope is fading. That’s when we find ourselves in the season of When? asking How long, O Lord?

Or we can enter a season of No! That might mean we rid ourselves of some ideas of God which seemed fine in the spring and summer, but can’t survive the winter chills. That’s not necessarily bad. Our understanding of God should grow as we do, along with our understanding of anything else.

But sometimes it’s not like that. We might find ourselves arguing with God, appealing to God’s nature saying ‘this can’t be how the world is? You can’t want the world to be like that.’

Last week we saw how far from condemning that kind of No! it might be the way God moves us to action. God joins us in our No! God says ‘No, I don’t want the world to be like that. In fact, would you like to be part of stopping it being that way?’

In the Why? season we’re reminded, just as we were with the Beast from the East, that winter is still very much with us.

But there is also a subtle shift. It’s almost like we’re turning the corner. It’s a move from ‘No! It can’t be like that?’ to ‘Why is it like that?’ or ‘Why must it be like that?’

Do you notice that subtle difference?

One is saying there is no reason for this. It just can’t be. The other holds on to the hope that there might be some reason to this. We might understand it right now. We might not know what it is. We might struggle to believe it.

But asking the why suggests that if we hang in there, some kind of answer will come.

That’s not to say it’ll be the answer we want or expect.

But it will come.

In his book Naked Spirituality, on which this series has been based, Brian McLaren describes these three words as similar to going through a tunnel with two ends.

We enter that period of darkness really at the end of the autumn period. We’re aware of how things aren’t always easy, but perhaps still hoping that answers will start working again, it’s just a matter of time, praying ‘how long?’

But the further we go into the tunnel it just gets darker and the less the answers we thought would sustain us seem convincing. That it is the time of the No!

But we hang on, keep going, then a glimmering pinpoint appears in the distance. At first we wonder if we’re imagining it, but we move towards it anyway.

That, says Brian McLaren is the beginning of the season of Why?

In a healthy season of Why? an honest hope starts to emerge. It’s not the naïve hope that no bad will befall us and that we’ll land on our feet. That’s gone. But there is the hope that despite it all we are still here, and we will come through.

There will be tomorrow.

We will emerge into spring.

But I add that word ‘healthy.’

The Why? I am talking about is best handled carefully, with an element of maturity. In the wrong hands it can be destructive.

We see that in this morning’s Bible passage. This is a Why? story.

Jesus is in Jerusalem, with his disciples, presumably in the temple area, and they encounter a man born blind. The disciples ask what at first might seem to us a strange question.

“Teacher, whose sin caused him to be born blind? Was it his own or his parents’ sin?”

The disciples are asking a why? question.

This man is blind. Why is it like that?

There are a couple of odd things about their question. Did his own sin cause this or his parents? The really weird one is that he was born blind, so how could he have previously sinned?

It’s an idea we might find in faiths which believe in previous lives. You might remember Glenn Hoddle, when he was England football coach, being forced to resign after he suggested people with disabilities had done something wrong in previous lives.

That’s not what’s going on here.   Previous lives have never been part of Jewish or Christian thought. B

ut there was a school of thought within Judaism at this time which believed it was possible for a child to sin whilst it was still in the womb. So it wasn’t a completely unthinkable question for the disciples.


But a more obvious issue the disciples’ question raises is that it assumes that there is a link between the man’s condition and what he or someone else has done.

In fairness this was the standard teaching of rabbis of their day. They taught there was no death or suffering without sin. The disciples see something wrong, so there must be a reason.

In a sense the question is not as unknown to us as we might think. We’re forever reading stories linking certain behaviours, patterns, products or experiences with diseases. I mean what have the following things got in common…









bubble bath,

canned food,

wearing a bra,

being lefthanded, beef

and baby food?

A certain British newspaper has linked all of these things to cancer!

A couple of our British newspapers are infamous for stories about what causes cancer as their main headline, often several times a week. I’m not saying there is nothing in any of it, but bear in mind at different times they have linked cancer to being a woman…

…and to being a man.

To being childless….

…and to having children.

If it’s not that or the weather, it’ll be a miracle pill which can cure diabetes and heart disease.


If you read the research behind the stories it’s rarely as clear cut as it appears to have become by the time it become a headline. Back when I lectured students I used to constantly remind them that ‘correlation is not the same as causation.’ Basically because you can find a pattern between two things, doesn’t mean one causes the other, or they are even really linked.

But it has a certain appeal, because it satisfies a longing for a predictable world. We live in a scientific age. We’re products of an age of reason. Our brains are designed to look for patterns.


It’s not just in the world of media. It can still over into the life of faith. Philip Yancey opens his book Where is God When It Hurts? with the story of a young woman who was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease. She was visited by a number of people from her church. A deacon told her that she must have sinned or stepped outside God’s will. Another came along singing happy hymns but refusing to discuss the illness. A third arrived saying that if she claimed her healing and had enough faith, she would be healed. A fourth told her that she should thank God for doing this to her. Rejoice in your suffering. Finally her pastor arrived and told her to be encouraged, she was on a mission from God, appointed to suffer.

When I was at college I organised a summer placement working with a Christian Healing organisation close to where we then lived. Rather ironically the placement was cut short because I was injured in a cycling accident. I did learn some stuff from them, but I remember one session on their training course which really concerned me. It was where they linked particular physical conditions with specific sins in people’s lives.

And I’m drawn back to John 9, where Jesus is at the temple with his disciples and they ask him ‘why is it like this? Was it this man or his parents’ sin that caused this?’

Why, Jesus? Why?

The Why? question from the disciples comes from a good place. We want to believe the world is fair, because God is good, loving fair. We long for a world to be totally predictable and understandable. But it isn’t. Someone smokes 60 cigarettes and drinks a bottle of whisky a day and lives to a ripe old age, whilst someone who treats their body as a temple dies young.

The comedian Romesh Ranganathan talks about raising his children and one of the things he says is about telling him ‘don’t do that, cos if you do that you’ll hurt yourself.’ Then the child does it and doesn’t hurt himself. And he says I hate that. It’s like life telling him that his dad knows nothing.

The world is not a moral vending machine. Not every good act results in reward. Not every bad act gets punished. Our world is more mysterious than that. Kindness sometimes gets scorned, and bad guys sometimes seem to get away with it, sometimes for really long periods.

Jesus rejects the simple ‘Why?’

It was neither this man, nor his parents.

In a sense Jesus answer is ‘it just is.’

It’s not the only time Jesus uses this kind of argument. We see it again in Luke 13.  This is one of the only times when we read of Jesus directly commenting on the current affairs of his day.

We can’t be sure what incidents Jesus is speaking about. But there is one incident from around this time which is also mentioned outside the Bible, which offers a reasonable possibility.

Pilate wanted to improve the water supply to Jerusalem. But he financed the project using money from the Temple. Siloam, the site of the tower which fell, was the site of an aqueduct.

What’s suggested is that the Galileans who were slaughtered, whilst offering their sacrifices were rebels, part of a protest against the temple money confiscation. Those crushed by the tower at Siloam it’s said were working on the water project. They were seen as traitors and collaborators taking the Roman shilling.

The first group brought it on themselves, because when they rebelled, they knew what Romans were like. what did they expect? It was hardly likely to end well.

The others were caught in an accident, but if they hadn’t collaborated they wouldn’t have been there. They got what they deserved.

Nice, simple Whys?


But Jesus rejects them.

Jesus refutes that they were any worse than anyone else, nor does he say they were better. True, he says, if they keep getting caught up in certain types of behaviour, it would come back to bite them. But that was just basic common sense. Rebellion was always unlikely to end well.

But otherwise, it just is. If you go looking for simple reasons, says Jesus, they’ll eventually fail you. Life doesn’t work like that.


Jesus suggests that rather than tutting about someone else, maybe we’d be better considering the state of our own hearts. When we’re tempted to think we are better than someone else, that we would never do what they did, we can lose sight of the destructive choices we make.

Something similar is going on in the story of the man born blind. They look at the man born blind, and assume he or his parents had done something wrong. There is an unspoken assumption in what they say.

They’re not blind, so they are ok.

But Jesus rejects a simple Why? He says no, it doesn’t work like that. Life is lumpy and messy. It rarely offers nice, neat straightforward answers.

Jesus shows the limitations of the Why? question. We’ll look at this more in later weeks, but I want to introduce the idea now.


In a sense Jesus’s answer tells the disciples they’re asking the wrong question. They see a moral question. Jesus sees a need.

But it also seems quite an odd answer. Our church Bibles say Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.

It reads like God made this guy born blind, just so Jesus could heal him.

Thing is Greek had no punctuation and there is an alternative way of phrasing this … “Neither this man nor his parents sinned”, said Jesus. “But so that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must do the work of him who sent me while it is still day.”


It might seem pedantic, but it does make a difference. When you read it that way Jesus effectively says…

 Why only gets us so far. We can debate all day about why things are as they are, but they’ll still be the same. Right now we’ve got a chance to help. We won’t always have that chance. So rather than debating the whys, we could do something.

Why is an alright question. It’s open, honest, and hopeful. And any healthy relationship is open, honest and hopeful. But it’s at its best, if it gives way to another question…

…what now?

Why? is really best in the right hands. It needs handled with care. Why in the wrong hands can be quite destructive. That’s what was happening in the disciples. They assumed the world was simple and got it wrong.

In the hands of the immature Why can become a weapon.

Why did you not have enough faith?

Why did you not just pull yourself together?

Why did you not just do as you were told?

It takes wisdom to live with the Why? question well. That’s why it’s best explored by those who have been through the winter season of the spiritual life who are more likely to have it.

We can want to rush through the winter of the spiritual life, just as we might long for our winter to be over. But if we are to grow and mature and become wiser, it will be in the season of winter that a lot of that is achieved.

Imagine for a moment you are looking for a book on how to build a successful marriage. You’re flicking through various titles in Waterstones, or in the local Christian bookstore, and you see one that seems to suit you. But then as you read the bit about the author just insider the front cover you discover that the author wrote the book on their honeymoon.

Are you likely to buy it?

Why not?

You’ll be thinking, seriously?

You want to know they’ve been round the block a few times. You want to know they’ve been through a bit, survived a bit together. Been through a few arguments and dealt with them. You’ve realised there can be better times.

The same is true of the spiritual life. Beware of theologies formed in the springs and summers. They’ll only teach you so much. We live in a world where wisdom is equated with knowledge. We go to school in the hope that we are going to get answers. But the reality is, the more we mature we start to discover there is more we don’t know.

And at times in the spiritual winter, we will find ourselves asking Why? It is a call to honesty. It’s about recognising we can’t explain everything. We don’t understand everything. We don’t control everything.

But hear that correctly. We don’t know everything. That’s not the same as saying you don’t know anything. Sometimes when confused we lose sight of what we do know. There will be things you learnt along the way. You just don’t know everything.

It isn’t easy. But it’s ok. Life isn’t meant to be.


But you know, as I went out into my garden this morning, the signs of the snow were fading. The beast from the East had been and gone. Tomorrow is supposedly going to be 10 degrees. Spring might have been postponed. But it is coming, in its time.

That’s what it means to hold on to the Why? Life is mysterious. We will have questions. That’s part of an honest faith. But if we dare to hold onto the why, we join the long line of those who have kept faith, hope and love alive in a world that has shocked, rocked and mocked them. But they kept going through the tunnel and edged towards the light.

If we hold on, like them we will see the night giving way to the morning.

Winter will give way to the spring.


Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: No! Part 3


Reading: Matthew 15:21-28

Our generation has more ways of communicating than ever before. That is pretty indisputable. We almost take it for granted that we can contact someone whenever we need to, wherever we are and wherever they are.

It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re closer than before. That loneliness is one of the major issues of our age suggests we’re not. But we do have all sorts of ways of communicating.

Some are more effective than others. One of the problems with electronic communications, like e-mail or text messages, is that it’s not always easy to convey tone or mood.


E-mail is great if you just want to communicate factual information. If all you want to say is The Lent Group will meet in Room 4 on Monday afternoon, 2.30pm, e-mail works brilliantly.

Unfortunately not everything is that simple. Say you ask someone a question by e-mail. They’re in a hurry when they get your message. Probably on their phone. So they send a one word reply…


Are they ok with what you’ve just said or not?

Well, it depends on their tone.

Are they saying ‘fine’ as in ‘yeah, yeah, no problem, totally ok with that, go ahead…’

… or is it ‘humph! Fine!’


Most of the time there’s probably no problem, but occasionally it might not be obvious. How you hear it might have more to do with what you’re feeling than what they are. How you read their response might have more to do with how you expect them to react, rather than how they are actually reacting. You might feel unnecessarily guilty about having angered them, or worse, go ahead and do something that they’ve said will really annoy them.

This is not as new a problem as you might think. It’s not only modern, electronic communication that can suffer in this way. It’s a problem with anything that’s read rather than heard or seen.

That can include the Bible. Today’s reading, where Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman in the region of Tyre and Sidon, is one such example.

I just wish I could have seen, or at least heard what Jesus said. It doesn’t make for comfortable reading.

There’s a lot of stuff in here that we simply do not know.

Jesus leaves the region of Galilee and goes 30, 40, 50 miles North into the region of Tyre and Sidon. This is the one time we read of Jesus leaving the Galilee/Judea region. It was a predominantly Gentile region.

We’re not told why he does it. It might be because he was facing a lot of opposition. Tensions between Jesus and opponents like the scribes and Pharisees were getting worse. Not long before this, he is rejected the people in his home town synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus is also getting noticed by Herod, which wasn’t a good thing either. Jesus might be giving himself a bit of space for things to calm down a little.

Perhaps the rising opposition indicates to Jesus that the cross is drawing closer and wants some time to reflect on what lies ahead of him, to be sure this is what God wants for him. Perhaps he wants some time to prepare his disciples for what lies ahead. It is shortly after this episode that Peter first confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus starts to tell the disciples that he will be killed when they get to Jerusalem.

Those are all pretty good reasons to get away. Maybe it was a mix of all of them, maybe it was none of them, we don’t really know. But Jesus is getting away. When Mark tells the same story he tells us that Jesus did not want to be recognised. He was trying to keep a low profile.

However he’s approached by a Canaanite woman, who has an ill daughter, and she cries out to him to heal her daughter. At first Jesus ignores her. Again, we’re given no reason why. It’s not what we might expect from Jesus, who seemed happy to chat with the Samaritan woman at the well. But it would have been a fairly normal response from a Jewish teacher of the time. They did not tend to associate with women they didn’t know and didn’t deal with Gentiles. This woman ticked both boxes.

But this woman doesn’t give up easily. She follows them around, refusing to leave them alone. We don’t know whether this all took place over a single day, or whether this went on for some time. But eventually the disciples tell Jesus to send her away.

Again, we don’t know whether they were asking Jesus to tell her to get lost, or whether they were telling Jesus to give her what she wants to make her go away. Either is possible. But their main concern seems to be that this woman is annoying them and they want a bit of peace.

Jesus says he was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But the woman still does not give up. She kneels at his feet and starts begging him to help.

Jesus answers ‘it’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’

She answers ‘well, yes, I suppose, but dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their master’s table.’

Anyone who has ever had a dog will know that is true. When I was younger, we used to have a family dog called Candy. If I dropped a piece of toast at breakfast a lot of the time she’d have caught it before it hit the floor.


This is the one time when someone seems to get the better of Jesus in a debate. Jesus effectively says ‘now that is an answer.’ Then he tells her that her request will be answered and her daughter is healed.

It’s one of those stories which parts of me kind of wishes wasn’t there. Or at the very least, I wish I could have heard it and understood a little more.

You see however you read it, however we try to explain it, Jesus calls this woman a dog.

That’s bad enough in English. In Britain we love our dogs. Jews didn’t. They were unclean, scavenging animals. Within the Judaism of Jesus’ day, dog was a deliberately derogatory term for Gentiles.

Even the remark Jesus makes has more behind it than we might immediately realise. This region of Tyre and Sidon was on the coast and was quite a prosperous region. But they actually imported a lot of their goods from the Galilean region. Including their bread. It was known as the breadbasket of the region.

Sometimes that worked well. Trade helped both sides and both did well out of the deal.

But when times got tough it was different. Then the wealthier folk of Tyre and Sidon could afford more for the bread than the Galileeans. So guess where the food went. They were described as Gentile Dogs taking food from Jewish tables!


Now I accept that Jesus isn’t a 21st Century right-on liberal leftie like me, however much I might occasionally try to make him so. To take Jesus seriously, you’ve got to allow Jesus to be a man of his time and place. But it can still be quite uncomfortable to think of Jesus in that way.


You sense that discomfort in the various people who write about this episode in the life of Jesus. There are a couple of different approaches they take. Some will say that if you look at the Greek, Jesus doesn’t really call her a dog. The word Jesus uses is more like the word for puppy. Jesus seems to be talking about loved household pets, rather than scavenging dogs.

There may be something in that, and I will return to it. But Jesus probably spoke Aramaic not Greek. And there is no real evidence that Jews kept dogs as household pets. This explanation doesn’t do as much to improve things as those who suggest it think.

Others say we need to hear the tone. In the same way as we might jokingly call someone an old rogue or rascal, and it’s all very jokey, jolly banter, they claim that’s how this conversation went. The woman, picking up on Jesus’ tone, keeps the joke going with him.

I’m reminded of the time Julie and I went to America and we were going through immigration. The guard looked at Julie’s passport, asked her what she did for a living, and when she said accountant, he was jokingly shouting round to his colleagues ‘are we letting accountants in today?’ Oddly his smile disappeared when I told him I was a Baptist minister. He just closed my passport, handed it back and said ‘have a nice stay, sir!’

There may have been something in Jesus’ tone which suggested the door wasn’t being quite so firmly closed as it sounded.

But, you know, I struggle with the jokey explanation too.

I mean, it’s just not how that conversation goes, is it?

Imagine taking your really sick child to a doctor and he says ‘oh, do we treat toddlers on Wednesdays?’ and waits for the witty response.

It’s probably not a time when you’re in the mood for a joke.

What’s going on here?

Well, if I can return to the 12 words which I’ve been using to describe the various phases or seasons in the spiritual life, today we encounter a woman who was in the season of No! and who was honest and brave enough to voice it.

She was a woman who wasn’t prepared to accept the status quo, that this was how things were and would always be.

This is a woman who dared to say to Jesus No! that’s not how things should be.

And Jesus didn’t get angry and turn away.

Jesus heard her and answered.

For its time, place and culture this was a radical, shocking story. On so many levels. Jesus is being rejected, misunderstood and misinterpreted by his own religious leaders, his own townspeople, his disciples, even his own family. All the people who should have known better.

Then here comes a woman, from the wrong place, of the wrong religion…

… yet she gets it more than all of them.

She has a better grasp of what Jesus can do than all of them.

She has a better grasp of the scope of God’s love and plans for the world than all of them.

It’s a passage which, as with quite a few passages we’ve looked at recently, echoes the story of Abraham standing before the LORD, arguing for Sodom. Back then we saw that Abraham stops arguing before God stops relenting. But this time the woman does not give up.

But there’s also an echo of another odd, mysterious story from Genesis, involving Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. It’s in Genesis 32. Jacob has been on the run from his brother, Esau, after stealing Esau’s birthright and blessing. Now he is finally returning home and he is not sure how he is going to be greeted.

One night as he prepares to meet his brother, he’s left alone and gets involved in a wrestling match with a man, an angel, God, it’s all left quite vague. The fight continues throughout the night. Then, as dawn approaches, the man says ‘let me go, for the day breaks’. And Jacob says…

…No! I won’t let you go, unless you bless me.

That’s what the Canaanite woman does. She says No! It’s not going to be like that. I won’t go unless you bless me.

Was there something in Jesus’ tone that suggested he may be open to a response?

Was his remark as much aimed at the disciples who were keen for Jesus to send the woman away?

Is she testing a stock Jewish answer?

Is she saying ‘don’t give me that answer, Jesus. I know you’re better than that?

I really don’t know…

But what we do have is a woman whose prayer was answered, purely because she had the audacity to say No! to the world being as it is.

There is one other little piece of historical information that might help our understanding. Jews might not have liked dogs. They might have seen them as unclean.

But here, in the more prosperous, Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon, they had a rather different view. They didn’t share the same understanding of animals. And they did keep dogs as loved, household pets. Maybe Jesus says ‘it’s not right to take the children’s food and toss it to the dogs.’

She responds then maybe you Jews could learn a thing or two about how we treat dogs round here!

She tells Jesus there was nothing in hearing her prayer that would stop him doing anything for his own people.

It was mere crumbs from the table.

After all, did Jesus not say this was how their God had always worked. Did he not cause controversy when he told his townsfolk that the God who was at work in Jesus was the same God who, during a famine, all those years before has used a widow in Zarephath, to protect Elijah rather than one in Israel. The God at work in Jesus was the same God who healed Naaman the Syrian, when there were lepers in Israel.

In short she called on Jesus to act on the implications of his teaching.

And Jesus heard her and agreed.

And because this woman refused to give up and dared to voice her No!, her prayer was answered.

Her daughter had reason to be thankful for her mother’s No!


Each week I have highlighted the risk of seeing his word No! as part of a healthy spirituality. There are plenty of times our No’s will be ignoring or running from what God wants for us. That’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor do I want you to take away from this that God is somehow ours to order around. Last week we saw an Old Testament prophet called Habakkuk voicing his No! God took Habakkuk’s No! and used it to enlarge Habakkuk’s understanding.


This is different. This time it’s not so much that God tolerates our No! as he wants it, needs it. God needs those who are going to look at the world and say No! That’s not how it should be. That’s not how it’s going to be.


Someone sent me a video this week of the Dalai Lama being interviewed and he talked about how we have prayed for thousands of years for peace, yet there is still violence. He says that’s because God hasn’t created it. We have. And it’s down to us to sort it.

I don’t 100% agree with what he said, but he does have a point. God outs great responsibility of the care for our world in our hands. We can pray for things to be done, but not be prepared to take action ourselves. In the last couple of weeks, in the aftermath of the school shooting in Florida, the words ‘thoughts and prayers’ have been getting bad press. They’re seen as the antithesis of doing something.

The two need not be mutually exclusive.

Back when we looked at Please, we saw how our concern might drive us to God in prayer. When that prayer is not answered we can find ourselves in the season of When? crying How Long, O LORD? Our anger and frustration can turn into the No! It can’t be like this.

And sometimes that anger and frustration can be used to spur us to action.

God is using our No!

It can come in many different ways. We stand at the beginning of Fair Trade fortnight. That’s the product of those saying No! to the world as it is, where one person’s cheap goods and convenience, come as a result of the exploitation of another. Thoughts and prayers turn to action.

It might be in Foodbanks. We say No! to a society where people have to choose between heating and eating and God takes our anger and frustration and uses it to help feed them.

It might be in Firm Foundation, where we say No! to a society that ignores homelessness, and our thoughts and prayers are turned into Night shelters, drop-in, and helping towards rehousing.

It might be in Street Pastors, where we say No! to people being at risk on a Friday or Saturday night.

It might be those traveling to Calais, to help refugees, it might be those in coffee mornings, or in visiting, or in challenging us on our inclusion within the church family, all of which are ways in which we say No! to people living in isolation.

It might be in evangelism, where we say No! to people being unaware of the difference a relationship with the living God, expressed in Jesus, and seek to share what we have found.


In some ways, many of them won’t even feel like a season of No! because they don’t feel angry or defiant, but they are all ways of saying the world should not be like this, refuse to accept it as it is and thoughts and prayers and turned into action. All of them are about God taking the loves and passions he has planted within us, and using them to reshape the world. That’s why No! is a part of a healthy spirituality. Because it’s about refusing to accept the world as it is, and taking action to make it more as God intended.

And when we do that, we share with a God who said No! to the world as it is and took action. A God who, when we estranged from him, reached out to us, and didn’t just give us thoughts and prayers, but gave us his very self in Jesus. The cross was God’s No! to the world as it is and the resurrection his Yes! to the new life, new relationship which God longs for us to have.

Can No! be a part of a healthy spirituality. The answer is Yes!

In our No! we’re joining with God in saying things can be different. Tomorrow doesn’t merely have to repeat today. We can become his hands, his feet in the world, turning our thoughts and prayer into deed.

When we respond to our No! with action, it opens the way to a new possibility. One not where we’re left to work it out on our own, but one where we open ourselves to God working within us, to draw others into the life he longs for them. Our No! becomes the means sharing with God in his plans for the world.


Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: No! Part 2

does not computer

Reading: Habakkuk 1: 1 – 2: 4

A university lecturer was teaching a class one day but kept getting distracted by a bloke at the front. The guy wasn’t doing anything in particular. He was just wearing a t-shirt with a huge letter K on the front. What was bugging the professor was that he couldn’t work out what this K meant. He was pretty sure the guy’s name was Barry, he couldn’t think of any major designer who had a great big K logo. He tried to put it out of his mind but every time he looked up, there it was; this great big letter K. There was nothing for it, he decided. At the end of the lesson he’d just have to ask the student.

‘Tell me’ he said, casually as if it hadn’t been driving him nuts, ‘I couldn’t help but notice your t-shirt and wondered what the big K on the front meant.’ ‘Oh that?’ said the student, ‘it stands for confused.’

Naturally this threw the lecturer even more, so rather stating the obvious he said ‘but confused starts with a C, not K,’ to which the student responded ‘yeah, that just shows how confused I am!’

We’ve been taking time to think about different seasons or phases in a healthy spiritual life. Anyone who takes seriously relating to the God we encounter in the Bible, will sometimes find following Jesus bewildering or confusing. Contrary to what people might think, faith is not about having all the answers, or even thinking you have. At times you can be confused. Perhaps with a capital K


If you doubt that, look no further than Habakkuk. The man we encounter in the little book which bears his name had immense faith in God. But that didn’t mean he understood everything. Not only did he have three Ks in his name, but all 3 Ks could, have quite easily stood for confused.

One of the things I love about the Bible, and, as a result, one of the things I love about the God revealed in its pages, is that there is no attempt to hide from those awkward questions.

The Bible is often dismissed as a set of bronze age myths, which we have outgrown. We’re more sophisticated than that. But open these pages we see the questions which puzzle us have puzzled people down through the ages.

They have not only committed those questions to writing.

They’re recorded as scripture.

Their questions are not considered faithless.

They have come to viewed as sacred, every bit as much as God-breathed as the cries of praise and thanks.

Habakkuk, worked in the temple of Jerusalem, some 2600 years ago, at a time of great national uncertainty. Just a few years earlier, the king had been Josiah. Josiah one of very few kings in the Old Testament to get a good review. He had drawn the people back to what God required of them. He has acted justly, protected the poor and vulnerable.

But Josiah was killed, by the Egyptians, in a battle at Megiddo, from which we get the term Armageddon. Egypt installed Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, on the throne.

Jehoiakim possessed none of his father’s positive attributes. He had no concern for justice and mercy, the kingdom was run to suit his own ends. It seemed like the social fabric of their national life was unravelling.

Those further down the hierarchy followed Jehoiakim’s lead, so that there was widespread oppression and injustice. Even in days before advertising by ‘no win, no fee’ lawyers, Habakkuk’s society was highly litigious. The richer you were, the less likely you were to fall on the wrong side of the law. They looked after their own. And as for trying to do the right thing. That only seemed to get you trampled on.


And this society was violent. The opening sentences of his book could almost be lifted from the evening news. I’m not one for thinking our society is so much more violent from generations before. It just takes different guises. Violence has this nasty tendency to change its form and acquire different euphemisms to describe itself.

Does anyone want to have guess at how many wars are going on in the world at the moment? Wikipedia tells me it’s around 60. Even our 24 hour news coverage can only show a little of what is going on. Today we hear of gang violence, road rage, drunken mayhem.

2 women die each week at the hands of violent partners.

There have been 6 stabbings in our borough since the turn of the year.

Even so much of what is described as entertainment is really quite violent. The words of Salman Rushdie, in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh, could describe so many ages in history, including our own. He said ‘Violence today is hot. It is what people want.’


It could also have described the age in which Habakkuk acted as a prophet.

Well, I say prophet…

…but most of the time we would probably think of a prophet as one who beings a message from God to us, who speaks from God to us.

What makes Habakkuk slightly different is that, he primarily speaks for us to God. When we turn to the book of Habakkuk, we encounter the prayer life of one individual within that society. Doubtless his words were echoed by others in his own day who sought to live as God intended.

It’s a short book, but it is packed with timeless questions which echo into our own age: like why God allows evil, the apparent pointlessness of prayer, God’s apparent silence in the midst of all manner of violence and injustice.

If you’ve ever thought ‘God, you don’t seem to make sense’ then you’ll find a companion in Habakkuk. He had great faith, but also dared to voice a feeling that I’m sure we all encounter at some point, that God didn’t know what he was doing.

We have been considering different seasons of phases of the spiritual life, each of which we have assigned one of the words on the screen. Most of Habakkuk’s book consists of a conversation with God. And, within our reading, we see him move between two of the words.

At first Hakakkuk seems to be in a When? season. What perplexed Habakkuk was not just the state of the nation but that God seemed silent, inactive, disinterested. ‘How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen. Or cry violence but you do not save.’

It’s not as if Habakkuk’s prayer was self-centred. This was no ‘Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedez Benz’ type prayer. Habakkuk could, in all sincerity say that he was praying in line with what God would have wanted. He knew what God wanted cos he probably worked in the temple.  The stuff about which he was praying was supposed to be the kind of things God cared about. If anything he might have thought this should be something that God deals with without the need of Habakkuk’s prayer.

Yet long as he prayed, there seemed no answer. So why the delay? How long, O Lord? How long should I keep praying this, when no-one appears to be listening?

Habakkuk was in a season of When?

Yet if Habakkuk was perplexed when he asked the question, that’s nothing compared to how he felt when the answer came.

Last week we started looking at this word and we asked is it ever ok to say No! to God? And I suggested there are few occasions in the Bible when the answer seems to be that it is! We’re going to look at a couple of examples over the next two weeks. God’s response to two No!s is slightly different. But in neither case is it anger. Habakkuk is one of these examples.

As Habakkuk moves into the second stage of the conversation he leaves behind the season of When? and enters a season of No!

Habakkuk raises his When? question. How long? he cries out. He’s about to get his answer.

But that doesn’t mean he’s going to like it. He’s told to look out and wait to be amazed or astonished. That could mean ‘look our for something amazing’ but that’s not the meaning here.

A slightly flippant way we could characterise God’s response to Habakkuk’s prayer is ‘if you think this is bad, wait til you see what’s coming. The Message has God tell Habakkuk to brace himself for a shock.’ For what follows is a description of a new super-power for whom violence is a way of life.

For the answer suggested that far from doing nothing, God was at work, in a group of people called the Chaldeans, stirring them up. Our Bibles calls them Babylonians, but more precisely they were Chaldeans. The difference is a bit like talking of the Welsh, Scottish, or Cornish, instead of British. Whatever we call them, God answer suggested he was about to act. He was going to deal with evil and injustice from which Habakkuk had cried out for deliverance. And he was going to do it through these Chaldeans.

What Habakkuk’s invited to look at and be astounded is probably the Chaldean defeat of Egypt at Carchemish. This would pave the way was for destruction of Judah about which Habakkuk had been praying.

Habakkuk has prayed and his answer has come. But Habakkuk could be forgiven if this answer left him confused with a capital K.

This solution poses more problems than it answers.

Habakkuk had longed for the evil to be overthrown, for evil to be dealt with. But this could hardly be presented as ‘good triumphing over evil.’ God wasn’t saying you lot have got it all wrong so I’m bringing in some good guys to clean this mess up.

God pulls no punches about the Babylonians. They’re described as ruthless looters and pillagers, hellbent on destruction, oppression and violence. They’re guilty of the very things from which Habakkuk had prayed for deliverance: and proud of it. In verse 11 God describes them as evil men whose own strength is their God.


And Habakkuk is not being invited to see this as just another random change in the world order, but to see that even in this God is sovereign and that God’s plan for his world is not being derailed, but still moving forward.

Habakkuk doesn’t get it. He still comes up with a massive ‘does not compute.’

So Habakkuk moves from When? to No!

God you can’t do that! He says God, you’re eternal, sovereign, pure. You’ve told us you cannot look on evil, and won’t tolerate wrong. So how come you’re using or appointing of ordaining that lot.

You know what they’re like. They’re worse than us and you’re watching on whilst they destroy us. You won’t tolerate our wrong, but you tolerate theirs.

You’ve left us helpless like fish in the sea that just get ripped up indiscriminately.

And God I can’t even really see what’s in it for you. These people, they’re not going to recognise you. When we lie ruined they’re just going to gloat and they won’t acknowledge you. We might not be living for your glory, but having this lot take over won’t change that. God, since when did two wrongs make a right.

Habakkuk challenges God to explain himself. And that first verse in chapter 2 is quite interesting. For it treads a fine tightrope between defiance and faith. Having posed his question about how God can use the Babylonians, he says ‘I will look to see what he will say to me and what answer I am to give to this complaint.’

At one level he says to God ‘Now there’s an argument for you. Let’s see what you’ll do with that one.’


But at the same time the question is asked in faith. He is prepared to wait and listen for the answer. Habakkuk was not the kind of person whose insistent demands on God ceased only when God appears to have finally realised that he was right all along. Habakkuk dares to challenge God, but he is also prepared to have God challenge him.

His question might seem quite clever, but it actually displays a trait not uncommon to even modern humanity and from which those who claim to know something about God are far from immune.

It’s the way we instinctively assume that we have the competence to be moral judges and compare ourselves with others around us and to try and claim the moral high ground. It’s this sense of ‘I know we’re not perfect, but hey, we’re not as bad as them!’

In Habakkuk’s case he goes from calling on God to judge his sinful nation and deal with the evil which surrounds him, but once he realises how that might happen, he decides this judgement might not be a good idea – especially if it comes through people worse than them.

In the process he almost whitewashes the people whom he’d been praying about beforehand. He forgets how bad they are.

We might think in terms of us and them, good and bad, but God is not keeping league tables. There aren’t certain people pushing for places in the Champions League of holiness and others languishing in the relegation zones of lower divisions. None of us are perfect. We are all a mix of good and bad, so what about the evil in us? or the evil from which we benefit, often without us even noticing it?

But flawed though Habakkuk’s reasoning might seem, God does answer. And he asks him to write it big, so that a runner might be able to read it. Make it big, like a motorway sign so that it’ll even attract the drivers attention.

Habakkuk would not have been alone in his desperation at the prevalence of violence and evil in his land. This message was intended to galvanise those paralysed by despair at that situation. They needed a word of true encouragement to keep trusting God in the future.

Habakkuk cried how long and I am sure it felt like an age. Yet as history judges, the glory of Babylon which looked so large in Habakkuk’s vision was shortlived and is barely a historical curiosity. In fact history is littered with the corpses of insatiable empires who sowed the seeds of their own destruction. If we had read the rest of chapter 2, those words could easily be the epitaph of any number of empires, national, business or personal.

In contrast Habakkuk says three Hebrew words which not only became the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation, but which many Jewish scholars would say contain the whole message of the Bible, the righteous shall live by faith.

Habakkuk made the mistake of assuming that God was doing nothing simply because he couldn’t see any sign of it. And even when he did start to catch a glimpse of it, it must have been difficult to get his head around.

Faith doesn’t mean things always make sense. There may be times when we can say we feel confused with a capital K. And God did not condemn Habakkuk for his No! It was part of his journey of faith. He honestly faced the challenging questions his faith brought him.

And it will be part of ours. Next week I will look at a different response to our No! But for this morning the response is ‘give it time.’

Something I believe will always be a struggle is why for now God allows evil to exist and it seems so powerful.

Ours is not a God who removes suffering from us. He’s a God who enters into suffering with us, indeed goes ahead of us into it, so that he might bring us through.

Our God understands our confusion all too well. One night in a garden, as he was about to fall into the hands of evil men, he sweat great drops of blood and prayed a prayer not entirely dissimilar to that of Habakkuk.

He begged for any way he could be spared what lay ahead of him. But no alternative way came. The pathway to all that God had planned for him took him through, not round, the heart of the evil and suffering of the world. Like Habakkuk, in the midst of it he felt God was silent – even absent, as he cried My God, My God why have you forsaken me.

But he remained faithful and God was waiting to meet him and bring him through in triumphant resurrection.

The problem of evil in the midst of a world in which God reigns is not going to give a neat, logical solution. Things aren’t fully resolved, questions aren’t always completely answered. That is part of the human condition. And next time we’ll see that sometimes God requires our No! to answer our prayer.

But sometimes our journey towards understanding will take us through ‘no!’ Sometimes God needs our anger.

If we ever doubt God’s commitment to us and his world, or should we ever doubt what God can work through to fulfil his purposes, we need look no further than the cross, on which Jesus bears all the filth and darkness and our enmity to God. Yet somehow it was the means by which God was buying our deliverance. But on the third day Jesus rose triumphant from the grave, and, in his resurrection he declared that nothing could separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. Nothing can stop God fulfilling his plan.

For now, we wait, perhaps not that patiently, for God to finish what he started in Christ. Peter reminds us that God is not slow in acting as we think it. But for now, we still might find ourselves asking ‘how long.’ For now we might, from our limited perspective, fail to see where God is at work in our world – but that is not the same thing as God being inactive. For now we might have in mind the way we want God to answer our prayers, but that does not mean God is limited by what we expect. Sometimes God will hear our No!

But for now the way in which God acts in the world, will remain a mystery.

For now we know in part, and see in part. But though we might cry out and our Spirits might groan within us, saying ‘how long’ his Spirit whispers alongside us, reminding us we are his children, inviting look to the cross where God expresses his bloodstained commitment to put right all that is wrong and broken in his world, and to look to an empty tomb where he displays his power to deliver on what he has promised.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: No! Part 1 (A Very Personal Story)

No! PicReadings: Matthew 21: 28-32; John 12: 23-25

I opened by showing pictures of Jesus from around the world. They came from a set called The Christ We Share a pack by the Church Missionary Society.

This morning I want to do something different.

We’ve been working our way through the seasons of phases of a life lived in relationship with God. Today we are turning to a new word. And, in a sense, this is quite a controversial word. Over the next few weeks I am going to be considering the word ‘No!’

And I want to look at it from a couple of different angles…

Is it ever ok to say ‘No!’ to God?

Can we say ‘No! to God?


Before I go on, I’m not talking about disobedience. We often look at stories like the story of Jonah and see Jonah being told by God to do one thing, and doing the other, running in the opposite direction. And that doesn’t end well.

I have no doubt there will be times in our lives when that kind of ‘no!’ does form part of our relationship with God. I’m pretty sure it happens in my own life often enough.

I have no doubt that God can use that just as he did with Jonah – it’ll be part of what I share this morning.

But that’s not really what I’m talking about.

Are there times when ‘No!’ forms part of a healthy spirituality?

I want to suggest to you that it can.

We have encountered something like this in recent sermons. In the story of Abraham praying for Sodom. God tells Abraham his plans and Abraham challenges God… You can’t do that! And so begins Abraham’s ‘what if there are 50, 45, 40… righteous people in the city. Abraham challenges God on his own reputation. Will not the judge of the earth do right?


This is not the only time we encounter this in the Bible. In Exodus 32 there is a story where we have something similar. Moses is up the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Whilst he is up there, the people are getting a bit nervous and decide to build the Golden Calf to worship. God says to Moses ‘leave me alone, I’m going to destroy this people and start again with you.’

But Moses says ‘no!’ you can’t do that!’ He appeals to God’s reputation. What would the Egyptians think? They’ll say you rescued them, brought them out into a desert and destroyed them. What would that say about you and all the promises you made in the past.

And God changes his mind.

Moses said ‘No!’

What’s going on there?

In the next couple of weeks I want to look at a couple of stories where people said a similar type of ‘No!’ And not only was God not angry with their No!

He welcomed it.

However there is another kind of No!

One where we are not saying ‘no’ to God as such. It’s where we’re saying ‘no’ to a particular understanding or vision of God.

And that is part of our growing process.

That’s why I began with those pictures. A number of you will have seen them in at least one format or other before. They are images of Jesus, as he is depicted in art from around the world.

Normally when I do that I ask people to pick out images to which they are particularly drawn or images which they strongly dislike or perhaps even find offensive.

And there can be all sorts of reasons for that.


But amongst them will be the image we have of God. I’ve spoken before about how in Philip Yancey’s book on prayer, a Catholic priest who was asked about the most common problem he had encountered in 20 years of hearing confession.

His answer, without hesitation was ‘God.’

He said very few people behave as if God is a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, not as someone like Jesus, worthy of our trust.

Yancey also speaks of a woman pouring her heart out about living in absolute fear of a God who was always watching her, always waiting to punish her for messing up, and the spiritual director said to her ‘why don’t you just sack that God?’

William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during part of the Second World War once said if you have a false idea of God, the more religious you are, the worse it is for you. It were better for you to be an atheist.

In a healthy spiritual life there may come a time when of the things we have to say No! to, is a particular image of God. Jesus says unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it cannot produce a good harvest. Maybe one of the things that needs to die, for a healthy, fruitful spirituality is a particular image of God.

 And that’s what I want to talk about this morning. But I want to do that in a particular way. I want to share something of my own personal story about my own faith journey. And how this word No! has been a big part of that.


Please don’t hear this as me saying I am better or worse a believer or a human being because of this. It’s possible when you move away from a particular understanding of something to be a bit of a jerk about people who haven’t made that journey. You can also go too far. Even when you move on, where you have been is part of your story. And there were and are good things in that. You need to remember those, be grateful for them, and for those who brought it to you, often through hard work and sacrifice.

So this just my story, from my perspective…

…nothing more, nothing less…

Went to church

Went to Sunday School

Went to church

Went to bed

This could have been the entry for my diary of any given Sunday throughout my early years. (I might have added ‘had a nice dinner’).

Jackson’s went to church.

It’s what we did.

I was raised in Belfast in a conservative, you might even say fundamentalist background. Our church was Baptist and on top of Sunday worship I was a member of a uniformed youth organisation called the Campaigners. In fact my father set up the Campaigners in our church. As a child I also attended a children’s meeting on a Friday evening.

There has never been a time when God has not figured in my thinking. From an early age I was taught scripture. I could recite John 3: 16 before I knew what most of the words meant. Likewise with Isaiah 40: 30 and 31…

…In King James English.

One slightly strange thing was that although I went to church more than the vast majority of my peers, I was probably one of the last to learn and know the Lord’s Prayer. Even today, amongst the bread, trespasses and deliverance, I can get a bit lost. It just wasn’t part of what we did.

Something which has strongly influenced or coloured my life was my father’s death in a climbing accident when I was 16 months old. He had been a highly respected figure, influential in the church and a gifted sportsman.

Things were not easy for my mother. At 34, she was a widow with four kids, ranging for aged 12 down to one. My father had been the chief breadwinner. However her faith was vital to her. My mother took to heart the promise that God would be father of orphans and a protector of widows (Psalm 68: 5) and looking back I can see all sorts of ways God has protected me down through the years and brought key people alongside me at key moments.

We weren’t always the most overtly demonstrative family, but love and sacrifice do form parts of my early experience.

There are some things for which I am really thankful in that background. People with strict, conservative religious or moral backgrounds have something solid on which to build. I would say that was true for me. Being the youngest may have also allowed me a little more freedom to explore than the others too.


Which was important, for there were some things to which I needed to say No!

I wouldn’t say my image of God was especially positive. Whatever I turned my hand to, there would be someone who would tell me how my father was really good at that. Don’t get me wrong. They meant well. But over time, there was this sense of never being quite good enough… And that did spill into other areas of my life. Including my spiritual life.


The God of my childhood was quite exclusive. Our church had a long and detailed statement of faith, and you needed to believe all of it in order to be received into membership. We could be quite dismissive of people who didn’t believe all this. The political and religious background of Northern Ireland was hardly ecumenical, especially within the Baptist tradition.

And that was just other Christians.

Northern Ireland, even in Belfast, was not particularly multicultural when I was growing up. I did not have much encounters with people of other faiths.

God was one to be feared. I was very conscious as a child, of God being able to see what I was doing, wherever I was. He wasn’t quite the Gary Larson character in the Far Side cartoon with his finger on the smite button, but he could be pretty angry.

We were also taught the idea of the secret rapture, when Christians would be whisked off to heaven and unbelievers left behind. This could happen at any time. I was taught this with such a sense of imminence that if my mum was late home I would fear being left alone.

Overall the Gospel was very much about the next life. Asking Jesus into your life before you died.

I did this for the first time when I was 3 years old. However, for many years I was never sure I’d meant it and still lived in fear of the rapture. I do remember making a commitment to Jesus in April 1982, when I was 11 years old. I was baptised on New Year’s Day 1984.


But that process of saying ‘no!’ really began in my teenage years, as I began to question much of the faith and understandings of God I had inherited.

This happened in two quite divergent ways. Firstly I explored the charismatic movement. A good friend, who was a bit of a wild child came to faith when I was about 14 and started attending a local Pentecostal church. To try to encourage him in his faith, I started to go to their youth club with him. Over a few years I got more involved in it. (In part, admittedly, cos of the potential girlfriends). That helped develop an emotional, warmer, more spiritual or emotional dimension to my faith, which up until then had been dominated by the head.

But the 80s was also the Live Aid era and I grew more and more interested in justice type issues. And none of my church experience really connected faith to the social and political dimensions of life. At least not in especially helpful ways.

I wondered how a country with so many people in church every week be blowing the living daylights out of each other. And my church life didn’t really seem to have a lot to say about things like poverty, hunger, bigotry, racism, nuclear power and the like.

In 1988 I attended a world Baptist Youth Congress in Glasgow. I came across people like Tony Campolo at that Conference. I also encountered a number of black South African Christians, who were given platforms to speak powerfully about the Gospel and racial justice in ways I had never heard. Slowly I was becoming more aware of a God who was interested in the here and now.

Arguably one of the most influential periods of my life was when I really had very little to do with church at all. I decided not to go to university when I left school. That was probably a smart move. But I spent 4 years wishing I had. So, in 1993 I decided to go to University in St Andrews.

That was a period when I really gained some belief in myself. I developed a number of skills which turned out to be really useful in later life, even though I had no inclination of ministry in church.

It’s funny looking back, but those extra 4 years seemed to give me this air of experience, maturity, wisdom. My rooms in halls was constantly frequented by students pouring out their woes to me. I edited a student newspaper and served as the Vice President of the Students’ Association.

I briefly attended the Church of Scotland and dated a girl who was a Quaker. I was very attracted to the Quaker silence. But for the most part laziness kept me from church.


At one level it seemed as if I was saying No! to God full stop. But that wasn’t how things unfolded.

Although my degree was in Economics, the Scottish university system meant I needed to fill out my timetable with some other subjects. So for two years I did some Biblical Studies modules and, in my second year, a module on the Quest for the Historical Jesus.

As those two years ended, and I had to settle on my final degree. I was asked if I would consider changing to a theology degree, as my Biblical Studies marks were more consistent than my Economics ones. (I did enjoy it). However at the time I could not see what possible use it would be to me in later life!

These helped greatly to expand the way I viewed Jesus and understood faith. It opened me up to greater breadth of understanding, tradition, spirituality, theology, to which I had never previously had access. I was discovering how even when we disagreed, there was still so much to learn from one another. I was recognizing that truth was true, whoever had it.

My eyes were being opened in other ways too. During that time two of the men who were most helpful and influential to me were gay men, one of whom was a firm atheist, but yet was living more generously than almost any Christian I knew. Looking back, I was learning how God is at work in all sorts of people, whether they believed in him or not. God was turning up in all sorts of unexpected places and people.

A few years after leaving university I almost inexplicably began to explore my faith once more. After a few false starts I began to attend a church just outside Birmingham in Alvechurch. Alvechurch introduced me to Celtic spirituality, which I have found deeply enriching. For a long time I used the Northumbria Daily Office in my prayer life. Mark Woods, who was then minister there, was massively helpful in helping me understand a God who had a vastly wider mercy than I had ever known.

I attended an Alpha course and, after the Holy Spirit day, I began to feel I was being called to something. By this stage Julie and I were dating. I would say Julie and I probably know each other better than we know ourselves. We are often ahead of the other in what is going on in the other’s life.

Julie suggested God might be calling me to ministry, I said God was smarter than that. But not long afterwards, Mark Woods left to take up his post at the Baptist Times, and a number of possibilities for me to serve in the church, I began to question that myself.

I began to explore ministry, most of the time half-hoping I would be turned down. Our ‘consolation’ prize if I got turned down was a holiday of a lifetime in New Zealand. But I wasn’t and I spent three years studying at Regents’ Park College.

And because of how Baptists do stuff, I found myself sole minister of a church from day one of training without having previously spending a single day in any form of formal church leadership. People from other traditions think we’re crazy. It could have gone disastrously wrong. But my student ministry, in Radford Semele was a time of great blessing. They were a small church, a kind people, who were happy to give things a go and not be afraid of failure. From there we moved to Somerset, then onto here.

And there have been many blessings along the way. I do still feel very blessed to be here amongst you.

But the time of real growth were the darker times. Amongst the lowest points was a spell around two years ago when I started to suffer from stress and panic attacks. I had been working fairly hard, but really it felt like everything was falling apart and I was just making a mess of things. I can struggle with a potent mix of Protestant work ethic and Catholic guilt. Like a lot of ministers I do have a bit of a Messiah complex and do have to be reminded that there is a redeemer… and it’s not me.

However this was a time from which I emerged greatly changed. The day I broke down I happened to have a meeting with my then Spiritual Director. He encouraged me first a foremost for a few weeks to do absolutely nothing. But then he told me to start thinking of strategies which were going to help me not let this happen again.

My approaches to prayer were a big part of that. I started to explore Christian dimensions of mindfulness, to incorporate more silence into my prayer. Centering prayer, meditation, contemplative reading and silence became a much greater part of my prayer life, rather than words. Words still form an important part of my prayer life, however I make more time for listening.

I began to see the real power in noticing and naming emotions and feelings, noticing what makes me feel alive and what drains me. And amongst those things I was noticing were the things I needed to say no to. The slave driver who filled me with ‘performance angst’ and would great every success with ways it could have been better. The One before whom I was never ‘good enough.’ Instead I was offered the chance to say ‘yes’ to One who loved me regardless and whose mercy was wide enough to cover any wrong steps I take.


My story is one of the son who at first seemed to say no to being part of what God wanted, before later saying yes. And in part that was because of what had to die. What I had to say No! to. The God I was saying no to was the exclusive, judging God before whom I had to cower but one whose grace and mercy just grows wider than I can get my head around.


It’s been said God comes to us disguised as our life.

One of the key things I have learned about the spiritual life is that pretty much everything is spiritual. There is truth in all sorts of places just waiting to be unearthed. There is no aspect of life that God is not interested in, no part of life he cannot work through. And God is much bigger, wider, more inclusive than I can normally get my head around. I’ve not always found it easy to apply that mercy to myself, but it has got better. In part because of what I am learning to let go of. The God I am having to say no to, that I might say Yes to and encounter the real One, who wants to give me life.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: When III

parable-wheat-taresReading: Matthew 13: 24-30; 36-43

Bob Newhart Stop it sketch

I first saw that video a minister’s conference when the presenter joking about pastoral encounters going a bit like that. Somebody comes to us saying they’re struggling with some sin temptation, addiction or destructive tendency, and we think just saying ‘stop it’ solves everything.

But if we’re really honest, we know it’s not always quite so easy as that. Some stuff in our lives is really deep-rooted. Some things have been part of our lives for so long that we don’t even realise they are affecting us. It’s just normal to us.

How many of you have had people say really hurtful words to you, or done something which hurt you, perhaps many years ago, perhaps even as far back as childhood, yet it still really affects how you feel about yourself and perhaps treat others? 

You might even know it’s not true. You’ve been told it often enough. But the longest journey sometimes can be the one between the head and heart. Between hearing something and truly receiving it. It would be great if you could just ‘stop it’ but uprooting it, allowing a new way of thinking to affect your life…

it’s possible…

…it’s desirable…

…it’s a good, healthy thing to do…

…but it can be a long process. Always be wary of anyone with the quick fix. It’s a narrow door, a narrow path…

…and frighteningly few find it.

If that is true of our lives, should we be surprised that the world is also like that. Yet many people treat God in much the same way as Bob Newhart’s doctor treats his patient. One of the most common faith questions people ask is if God is so powerful and so good and loving why is there so much evil and suffering in the world.

Why doesn’t God just ‘stop it?’

We’re continuing to consider different seasons or phases of the spiritual life. Each season is identified with one of the words on the screen. Recently we’ve been thinking of the season of When. It’s about those times when we struggle and things don’t get resolved neatly and quickly. When you pray and nothing seems to happen. God seems absent. When we find ourselves saying ‘how long, O Lord?’

Some of these words are harder than others. There are some seasons or phases we would prefer to find ourselves in. We might say knowing the presence and being aware of the blessings of God is preferable to, say, When.

However that doesn’t mean one season is better than another. Those in seasons of when are not necessarily less faithful than those who are on top of the world. The point is not somehow to get through the tougher words quickly to get to the good ones. God can encounter us in each of these seasons. God uses all of them to shape us into the people we were created to be.

But why should When be a season we experience?

Why doesn’t God just ‘stop it?’

In previous weeks I’ve not even tried to answer that. I’ve just let that question sit there. And there really is no complete answer. I’m not even going to claim to offer one.

But it does lie in the background of the parable Jesus told and explained in our reading this morning. A farmer sows some seed in a field, but in the middle of the night someone comes and sows other, ‘bad seed’ amongst the crop. Both crops start to grow, but over time it becomes apparent that not everything growing in the field is the wheat the sower wanted. The servants ask their master if he wants them to uproot the bad plants, but the master tells them to wait. It might damage the good plants. Leave it to harvest time, then you can do it properly.

In one sense it seems a strange story. Someone comes in and sows weeds. We might think ‘if only weeds were something you had to plant.’ 

But actually it’s not as odd a story as we might think. This is just not any sort of weed, like the dandelions that grow on my lawn, or even like the scilla plants I go to war with every spring and summer in the stones at the front of the house.

The weed talked about in the passage is called darnel. Sowing darnel in a wheat field was actually a thing. As an act revenge, it was a crime punishable under Roman law. The fact that they made a law about it suggests it was not that rare.

Darnel could be used as chicken feed, but was inedible for people. It could make them very ill. As it grew, it initially looked like wheat. Only later, as the plant matured and the heads began to form, did it become obvious that it was not wheat. But the problem was that as they grew the roots of the darnel were deeper and got tangled up with the wheat. If you tried to rip up one, you would also rip up the other. For the most part the people listening to Jesus held small plots of land and were grateful for any wheat it produced. You didn’t waste it.

But if you left it til harvest time separation was possible. It was slow and laborious certainly, but you could do it. So Jesus’ sower’s instruction would have made sense.

Jesus often taught people was through stories we call parables. He would start by saying ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’ and then he would launch into a story. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven he was talking about the way God works in the world. He says ‘the way God works in the world is like this…’

Stories can be a good way of helping people understand something. For one thing, stories stick in the memory more easily than concepts or straightforward facts.

But it’s a risky strategy. Most of Jesus’ stories didn’t include much detail. He didn’t tell us why God’s rule was like landowners hiring workers or a pearl merchant shopping in a market. Jesus makes us work it out for ourselves.

We might think we are hearing the same stories and think we understand them in the same way as each other or in the same way as Galileean Jews, but how we understand them varies according to who we are, where we come from, and the ideas we take into the story.

Maybe that should be less of a problem with today’s parable than others. In the second half of our reading Jesus spelt out what he meant.

The person who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, or Jesus himself.

The field is the world.

The good seed are the children of the Kingdom. We might call them Christians.

The enemy is the devil

The weeds are children of the devil. We might call them sinners.

The harvest is the end of the age or judgement day

The reapers are angels.

So, we might conclude, this is a story about how in the world there are those whose father is God and those whose father is the devil. They exist side by side for now but when judgement day comes one lot will burn and the others will rejoice.

But it’s not that simple. That interpretation or more accurately that interpretation of Jesus’ interpretation, doesn’t work.

When we hear phrases like ‘Sons of the Kingdom’ or ‘Sons of the Evil One’ we probably tend to think of parentage. I’m Samuel and Lila’s son, not John and Jean’s or Ruth and Kerry’s.

First century Jews used that expression to describe what people were like. In the Gospels James and John were called ‘Sons of Thunder’. They were stormy, tempestuous guys. In Acts, Barnabas is nicknamed ‘Son of Encouragement.’ Always getting alongside people, building them up.

So, when people are described as Sons of the Kingdom or Sons of the devil, Jesus isn’t really talking about people whose father is God or the devil, but those who act in ways which display God’s rule and those who act in ways that don’t.

This makes things a little more complicated. It would be great if it were so neat. If Christians were always wonderful people and non-Christians horrible, nasty people.

People have always tried to identify who are good guys, who are the bad. Who are the wheat, who are the weeds?

The trouble is, if we’re honest, we’re a mix of good and bad. Some parts of our lives are in tune with God and what he wants for us. Other parts, erm, well…

…let’s say we’re all ‘works in progress.’


One big problem is that the interpretation completely ignores the central chunk of the story: the conversation between the householder and the servant. That needs to be taken seriously because it’s a major part of the story people heard. Most of Jesus’ audience didn’t hear the interpretation. They only heard what we read the first half of this morning’s reading.

They were told that when God rules it’s like someone sowing wheat in a field, only for an enemy to plant darnel which sprouted alongside the wheat. The householder knows full well what caused the weeds. His servants wanted to uproot the weeds straight away, but the master tells them to leave it. Ripping up the weeds could damage the wheat. Leave it til harvest time when we can separate them out properly.

We’re not told whether the servants did as they were told. We don’t know whether there was a good crop. We don’t even know if they ever did separate out the wheat and darnel.

So what were those with ears to hear in the crowd supposed to listen to?

What were they expected to hear?

In one sense this was a story of an occurrence on a piece of land. Those listening could look around and see wheat fields.

But there was another level to the story. The land, and what happened on it, had a great significance for the Jewish people. It was their most priceless possession, given by God when they were released from slavery. They belonged to it as much as it belonged to them.

The land came attached to promises. In Genesis one of the results of the fall is that the land will bear fruit only through hard toil, against weeds thorns and thistles. As Israel entered the Promised Land they were told that obedience to God would mean abundant harvests from the land. If they slid into idolatry and immorality and didn’t remember that the land was a gift from God, they’d have all sorts of problems; from being ravaged by enemies, to drought, locusts…

…and weeds


Jesus actively encourages people to look at this story on that second level. He didn’t just tell a story of something that happened on the land. He started by telling them ‘this is what God’s rule looks like.’

But what did this say about their relationship with God?

What would it have told them?

This was a people in a season of When. They were dominated by people who really didn’t care about their God. Mostly Romans and wealthy collaborators. They held most of the land. Ordinary people had tiny scraps of land and tried to eke out a living. They had to work really hard, and get lucky to get a decent harvest.

And they wondered how, if they were God’s chosen people why their enemies dominated them as they did?

Why didn’t God do something about it?

If God was so powerful why doesn’t he just stop it?

Did he not care?

When would be come to the rescue?


That’s a thought with which I am sure, at times, most of us can be sympathetic.

When we turn on the television, watch the news, what demands our attention?

Is it not dominated by bad news?

We can ask why does God stand back and allow some to cause such suffering for others?

Why does he not do something about such evil?

Why does he not stop it?

Why does he not root out or strike down those who commit such things?

Even in our own lives, what commands our attention?

Is it those areas where God’s grace is in operation?

Or is it our struggles against adverse circumstances, and fights against illnesses in mind, body and spirit?

And we ask, why doesn’t God just make it stop?

If God really cares when will he do something about it?


So what is Jesus encouraging them to see?


I think there are two things.

The first is that God knows what he is doing. We don’t like to wait. We want action and we want it now. If we had our way that’s what we would do.

But what would we destroy in the process?

What good would be undone?

We can be very selective about what kind of evil we want God to deal with. It’s the big stuff. Not our own stuff. Out stuff is trivial compared with that. But none of us is an island. We’re all more entangled than we realise.

And we might not pick out all the weeds. We think we have perfect vision, but that’s a big assumption and one that history has consistently proved wrong. We think we’re sorting one problem and all the while we’re creating another.

Until it had fully grown it wasn’t easy to tell the weeds from the darnel. Just because something seems good doesn’t mean it won’t ultimately be destructive. It’s the landowner who knows the wisest course of action.

Cast your mind back a few weeks, if you were here the week I spoke about Abraham praying for Sodom. What kind of God did Abraham encounter? In Abraham’s prayer we see a God who’s longing to protect the good, outweighs his desire to destroy the bad.

Is Jesus saying that evil doesn’t really matter?

No. It’s a picture of a God who takes evil seriously. Far more seriously than we do. Far more seriously than we’d like him to.

Is it just pie in the sky when you die? Does Jesus say God just leaves absolutely everything until the last day?

No. But it does contain the promise that one day it will be dealt with. That’s why faced with the problem of evil in our world the Biblical response is not just ‘why’ but ‘how long?’ The When question has an answer, even if we can’t see it.


But there is another point. Evil might be real. But it’s time is limited. It’s fate is sealed.

And it’s power is limited.

Even if the parable assumes there will be weeds, it also assumes that even in land dominated by weeds, there will be a harvest! Blessing will come.

At times we can live in a season of When. Following Jesus doesn’t mean we avoid times when life feels dark, difficult, and evil seems to thrive.

But if we look there are also signs that God is at work. It can be very easy not to notice, because the dark side of life screams for attention. That’s why it is good to take time to name things for which we are grateful.

The darnel can grow but it can’t stop wheat springing up. God’s promises and blessing are coming to fruition.

Is Jesus offering a complete picture of why bad things happen to good people?


Is Jesus saying that God or the landowner wants the weeds in place?



The cross convinces me that God can bring good out of anything. It doesn’t mean he wants it and it doesn’t make evil or suffering a good thing in its own right.

There will be a right time when all the causes and sources of sin to be uprooted, separated out and destroyed forever – but God has the wisdom to do what’s ultimately right in the right time. God’s way of working might seem so slow, so laborious.

But God is more keen to preserve the good than destroy the wicked. And we should be thankful for that.

We have a God and a Gospel which takes sin and the brokenness resulting from the fall seriously. God hasn’t forgotten you. Yes, the troubles of this life remain. They’re still there. We might long for them to be gone. We might call out When? How Long?

But the one in whom we place our trust knows what he’s doing. In him lies the wisdom to deal with it when the time is right.

But even now, as we wait for the answer to the questions of When, if we dare, the signs of God’s blessing and provision may be seen breaking through. By faith, may we be able to see them.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: When II


Reading: Hebrews 11: 8-16, 32-40

If you’ve watched the news recently, you might have noticed the controversy surrounding advertising for recruits for the British Army. First the army decided to drop it’s Be the Best slogan, because market research had suggested it was considered ‘dated, elitist and non-inclusive.’ However these plans were halted by the Defence Secretary.

New adverts have focussed on the idea of ‘belonging’ and highlight aspects like emotional and physical support for new recruits. All the adverts are voiced by serving soldiers, with questions like…

  • What if I get emotional?
  • Can I practice my faith?
  • Can I be gay in the army?
  • Will I be listened to?
  • Do I have to be a superhero to join the army?

It hasn’t been entirely favourably received. A former commander of forces in Afghanistan said it was neglecting the main group of people who might be interested in joining the army. He claimed they aren’t worrying about whether they are going to be listened to or if there’s an emotional issue. They are worried about how they will face combat. In fact, they’ll be attracted by images of combat because that’s why people join in the first place.

I have no idea whether he’s right. He’d know more than me. But I found myself thinking about those ads, especially that last question, as I approached today’s reading from Hebrews.

For several months we’ve been considering different seasons or phases in the life of faith, and each phase has been linked with one of the words on the screen. A couple of weeks ago we started on a new word… When.

There are times when the life of faith is hard, when keeping on believing can be a struggle. You may be blessed with seasons of closeness, wonder and thankfulness, as we talked about in the first three words. There may also be times when that closeness makes you aware of your own need to change, your own need for help and hopefully it fills you with compassion for others, like the second three words.


When is more about those times when things aren’t neatly resolved. When, in fact nothing seems to happen. If anything things get worse rather than better.

They don’t get healed.

That relationship doesn’t improve.

Those times when God seems absent, or your prayers don’t seem to get past the ceiling, if you can pray at all. Those times when, if anything, believing and being faithful makes things harder rather than easier.

Those are times when church might feel difficult. When you find yourself wondering ‘do I really belong here?’ You might wonder if you have to be some kind of superhero to live the life of faith.

In one sense you might think a passage about people like Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Samson, David and the like suggests the answer would be yes.

But the point of the passage we shared together is the opposite. It’s there to tell those in the season of When that yes, you do belong.

Hebrews was written to Jewish followers of Jesus who were in a season of When. They faced persecution on two fronts. From the Romans and from their Jewish brothers and sisters.

Hebrews was probably written around 63, 64 AD. This is before the Jewish war, in which Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Relations were never that good between the Jews and the Romans. The Romans just didn’t understand them, with their one god whom they couldn’t see. But they respected their history. They’d been around a long time and survived. They had heritage. And Romans loved a bit of heritage. So, on the whole, provided the Jews weren’t giving them any trouble, the Romans just let them get on with it.


Christians were different in one very significant way. They revered, even worshipped Jesus. Jesus was a man who in relatively recent history had been crucified. Crucifixion wasn’t something which just happened to anyone. It was reserved for slaves and for the worst type of criminals.

If you want to get a sense of how shocking this was for Romans, imagine what would happen if a British Muslim described Saddam Hussain or Osama Bin Laden as a hero.

From the perspective of a Roman, it would have been pretty much the same thing to even revere Jesus. That’s why it’s really important that our Gospels, at the cross, as Jesus dies, include the detail of someone declaring he was innocent, or that he was the son of God… and who says it?

A Roman centurion.

But Christians didn’t just revere Jesus. They greeted one another with the affirmation Jesus is Lord

…which was a title Romans reserved for Caesar and Caesar alone.

They said things like there is no other name under heaven, given amongst men, which can save us. Which, again, is what Romans said about Caesar.

So you can see why Romans were suspicious about Jesus. What about the Jews? Well, at this stage most followers of Jesus were still probably Jews. Christianity was seen as a branch of Judaism, certainly from a Roman point of view. Jesus himself was a Jew.

Rome didn’t have time for what they saw as an internal squabble in a religion in one tiny corner of their empire. So they started becoming stricter with Jews. So official Judaism sought to create distance between themselves and the Christians. It would eventually lead to Christians being forced out of synagogue communities. Families would be forced to cut ties with them.

The result was that these Christians struggled to keep the faith. They faced all this opposition, and no relief seemed to come. If anything things got worse. They were humiliated, cut off from communities, some of them put in prison, others killed. They were discouraged and demoralised. Many just gave up. It wasn’t worth it. Surely if God was with them, they wouldn’t have to go face all this.

Hebrews was written to a bunch of people in the season of When and one of it’s key themes is ‘hold on.’ Yes, a life of faith could be hard. But far from that being a sign that God had forgotten them, or that somehow they didn’t belong, this was normal! This is what the life of faith looks like.

But, even more importantly, through it all, God is faithful.

Even when it looks messed up.

And even when we get it wrong.

Hebrews 11 offers a broad sweep of the story of much of our Old Testament period, with a few hints at the period between Malachi and Matthew. The thread running through it is ‘this is what the life of faith looks like.’

There’s an old story about a girl in a Sunday School class who was asked what faith meant. She said ‘faith is believing things you know aren’t true.’

Whoever wrote Hebrews certainly didn’t think that. At the start of Hebrews 11 we read ‘Faith is being sure of things we hope for and assured of things we cannot see.’


We live in a world where people will often say seeing is believing. That you should only ever believe in something for which you have hard evidence. Stuff that can be measured, proven, seen, heard, smelled, touched, tasted.

Thing is, no-one truly lives like that. We act by faith in things we cannot prove all the time.

I cannot prove Julie loves me. Nor can she prove that I love her. Yes, we can look back at things the other has said or done, but it can’t be proven. But our belief in the other’s love affects pretty much every aspect of our lives and most of the choices we make.


And that’s important for understanding what’s being said in this morning’s reading. The Christian faith is sometimes portrayed in terms of what we believe. It’s a set of ideas we say we agree with, maybe put in the form of a creed or a statement of faith. When people teach the Christian faith they will often talk about things like who Jesus was, why did Jesus go to the cross, did Jesus rise from the dead, is there a God even.

Those things are good and important, but it’s not the kind of faith Hebrews 11 talks about. Hebrews 11 is about how we act. How our faith affects the choices we make.


There are 3 aspects to the kind of faith Hebrews speaks of.

There is risk or uncertainty. It’s about believing in stuff you are hoping for, but don’t yet have, in things that are not obvious. Right through Hebrews 11, people are believing in a promise that has not yet been fulfilled. That’s a point both halves of the reading made.

A promise had been made, but they hadn’t received it yet.


But it’s not just blind faith. Scripture does not see credulity as a virtue. It is based on something. The assurance is based not on themselves or what they thought they could achieve. It was based on the God who had made the promise and who was capable of delivering what he had said.

And, just as I would be able to point you to things Julie has said and done which gives me ground to believe she loves me, so Hebrews would tell us to remember the times of blessing, of answered prayer, of closeness to God, of help he’s given, of things for which we are thankful.

It’s something I keep coming back to, cos it’s important. It takes that little bit more effort to spot and notice the good things in life. We can drift mindlessly through them. They don’t force us to stop.

But if we’re not careful, all we’ll really remember is the tough times. The bad stuff. Which is far easier to spot. It screams at us for attention in a way the good stuff in our lives doesn’t.

Knowing what God has done in the past can provide grounds for trusting in what he will do in the future. It can offer us the assurance we need whilst we wait for the promises to be fulfilled and enable us to live in the present, trusting in that future. That’s part of what is going on in Hebrews. Yes, Hebrews would want us to remember the good things in our own lives. But in Hebrews 11we’re reminded that we’re part of a bigger story, of people who have kept the faith and hung on in the past.

But there is a third thing besides uncertainty and assurance. There is waiting. There is the waiting between the promise and fulfilment. Those times when things don’t get resolved neatly, those times when as we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we’re crying out ‘how long, O Lord.’ Those times when we feel forgotten and nothing seems to be happening.

And that might be the most substantial part of the life of faith. Yes there are times of decision. Yes there are times of achievement.

But there is also a lot of waiting.


Hebrews 11 would tell us all three of these things are part of the life of faith.

There are good moments. There are times when, ok, maybe looking back, but it becomes clear God was at work. We see plenty of these in the verses 32-35. He drops names of people, most of whom faced impossible odds to achieve great things. People like David, Gideon, Samson. Others he hints at.

Is it Joseph who administered kingdoms or rose to positions of power.? Maybe it’s Daniel. Perhaps it’s Esther.

He’s probably thinking of Daniel when he talks about stopping the mouths of lions

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego facing the fiery furnace.

Both Elijah and Elisha raised boys back from the dead. That’s probably what Hebrews refers to in verse 35.

But if we left it there we would not be telling the full story. And Hebrews 11 doesn’t end there. For then there were the others. Tortured, mocked, scourged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two. Zechariah was stoned. If tradition is correct, Isaiah was sawn in two, Jeremiah was imprisoned…

This is the story we step into. Highs and lows. We may not, I pray we never do, face what so many of the others faced. There is no sense that these were any less faithful than those in the previous section. There was risk and uncertainty, there were highs and lows, there were times when the story seemed to be on track, and times when it looked like it was all over.

But all of them lived in the season of When.

None of them fully received what God had planned and promised. God wasn’t finished with any of them yet.


And something else was true. None of them were prefect. Some were better than others. But at some point they all messed up. They didn’t have to ‘be the best’ At their best they could be very good. But they were still a mix of good and bad.


All that was true of Abraham, who is the prime example of the man who lived by faith. The story of Abraham and Sarah can be summed up in a sentence.

A couple wait for a child.

And they wait a long time. For the most part it’s a When story.

Along the way Abraham receives a number of promises, which form the backbone of the Old Testament story. There is the promise of land, that he will become a great nation and that he will be blessed.

But the promises are slow to be fulfilled. Some 20, 25 years between the promise of a child and the birth of Isaac. Even then it seems completely lost when Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac, but is stopped in the process by God.

His story even ends in the period of When. In some senses it seems farther from fulfilment than at the start.

The aftermath of the story of Abraham and Isaac is somewhat tragic. Perhaps understandably so, but still tragic.

In Genesis 22, Abraham almost sacrifices Issac. In the very next chapter we read that Abraham wife Sarah dies in Hebron. Some rabbis connected those two events. Not entirely unreasonable.

But Abraham goes to mourn her. Where is Abraham? Well, after the binding of Isaac he settles in Beersheba. Sarah is at Hebron. At the time of Sarah’s death, they’re living 30 miles apart.

And what about Isaac? Well, in the next chapter Abraham asks his servant to find a wife for Isaac. Not Isaac. When he finds Isaac a wife he goes to Beer-lahoi-roi. Which is where Isaac is living Even further South.


This is a family fragmenting. They are to be a blessing to the whole earth, yet they are find it hard to bless one another. To even live in the same place. It’s a story where the tensions are unresolved.

It’s a story which begins with a promise of land, nation and blessing. But at the end of Genesis, several generations later, there is little sign of a nation and they’re not even in the right country.

It’s a story of the faith journey, but it’s also a story of when. There’s a promise, but it’s not yet fulfilled.

It’s a story with it’s highs and lows. It’s a story of risk. It’s a story of belief often against seemingly impossible odds, which seem to get longer, rather than shorter over time.

And it’s a story that involves a lot of waiting.

It’s a story where there are decisions made. It’s a story where things are achieved. But there are long stretches where nothing seems to be happening. It’s a When story, stretching between promise and fulfilment.

That’s the story of the life of faith. There is no sense that they see the big picture of what God plans for them. They just take the next decision in front of them, sometimes getting it right, sometimes getting it wrong. That’s what the life of faith looks like. Not having it all mapped out. Just taking the next decision.


It has its highs and lows, it’s not easy. In Baptist circles we’re not fans of ‘saints’ as such, so I’ll say one of my favourite ‘historic Christians’ is Teresa of Avila. She was a nun who lived in the 16th century. She’s probably best known for that poem about Christ has no body but ours.

But my favourite story about her is the one where she was complaining to God about the struggles in her life. God said to her ‘this is how I treat all my friends’ to which Teresa responded ‘well, it’s no wonder you have so few then!’

The life of faith isn’t easy. But it’s not just for superheroes. All of the characters in these pages were flawed and messed up. Most of what God achieved through them was as much despite rather than because of them. But God was not ashamed of them, not because of what they achieved, but simply because they hung on and didn’t give up in the when seasons.

And the same is true for us. There are times when faith is difficult. When it involves risk and uncertainty. There will be times when we find ourselves in the When season. We will live in the tension between the promise and fulfilment. Thing’s won’t always be resolved quickly, or even as we hoped. And there will be times when we mess up and get it wrong.

But the same God who was faithful to them, will ultimately be faithful to us. He’s the God who brought creation out of chaos, and who is bringing forth new creation out of the seeming chaos we can find ourselves in. He’s the God who has expressed his commitment to us in Jesus, who went all the way to the cross for us, who trusted in God and to whom God proved faithful when he raised him from the dead.

We don’t yet have all that he has promised and we can’t always see how he is going to get there. The journey isn’t always easy, but as Adrian Plass says somewhere ‘he never promised us it would be easy. He just promised it would be worth it.’ God will finish what he has started.

There will be times when, in the journey of faith, we don’t know what the future holds. But much more important is to know who holds the future.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: When


Reading: Psalm 13

Tomorrow is an extremely important day. It’s not a religious festival, and we won’t get a bank holiday for it, although that might actually be a good thing. Can anyone tell me what it is?

Tomorrow is called Blue Monday.

Does anyone know what Blue Monday is?

It’s the name given to the most depressing day of the year. It normally falls on the 3rd of 4th Monday in January.


It’s a relatively new thing. It was first publicised in 2005 in an article by a travel company, who may have just wanted us to book holidays to cheer ourselves up. They even claim to have a formula for calculating it…

[(W + (D-d)) x TQM /(Mx NA)

W is the weather;

D is how much debt we’re in;

d is our monthly income;

T is the time since Christmas;

Q is the length of time since we failed to keep our new year’s resolutions;

M is our low motivational levels and

NA is our sense of needing to take some form of action.

Blue Monday is apparently when, as a nation, we apparently hit the bottom.


You might wonder if we have a most miserable day of the year, do we have a happiest one? For we British that’s not a given. We like a good moan. But yes, we do have a happiest day.

This year it will be Saturday July 14th.

The formula might look quite impressive, but it’s fairly meaningless. But that won’t stop you reading about it in the papers or hearing it on the radio tomorrow. I mention it in case you wake up tomorrow feeling fed up and think it must have something to do with being at church this morning. Particularly when you’re considering a passage like Psalm 13!

But the idea that there might be such a thing as Blue Monday, and that it would be around this time of year, probably feels like it makes sense. January can feel a miserable kind of month. The fun of Christmas and the colour of the Christmas lights have vanished. The weather is miserable, we may have spent more at Christmas than we wanted to, so we’re a bit short of cash, and holidays seem a long way off. It’s like there’s not a lot to look forward to.

In the manse we normally keep our tree up to Twelfth Night, partly cos I like to get my money’s worth out of the real tree and partly cos I think it all looks so drab when it’s all gone. A few years ago I discovered the Anglican tradition that Christmas season lasts to 2nd February, or Candlemas, when they remember Jesus being taken to the temple and being blessed by Simeon. That’s my excuse for defiantly keeping the two little trees outside our house lit at night until then.

I had a couple of conversations this week, one with another minister where we were talking about it being a grey, miserable time of year. Then in the other, bless the woman who said this, she’d noticed the days were getting that little bit longer. A much more positive view.

Some people like winter. I’m not saying there’s nothing good about winter. But the garden’s look dead, the trees are bare, it’s cold, it can feel like a ‘how long til spring?’

Those first snowdrops can be such a welcome sign.

There is life out there after all.

Its that ‘how long’ question we turn to this morning.


We’ve been looking at different stages or phases of the spiritual life by considering the 12 words in the circles on the screen. We’re starting the 7th word this morning. When?

But with this word, and the next couple it’s like we enter a whole new season.

We might liken the first three words to the summer. It’s a time of enjoying the warmth of our faith. With Here we sense God’s presence, with O we are praising him, with Thanks we are aware of blessings that God has brought to our lives.

With the next three words we enter an autumnal season. It not all plain sailing. There is still warmth, but we enter phases of struggle. Colder winds sneak in. We recognise our own frailty, our own capacity to get stuff wrong and mess up. Confession is a healthy part of the spiritual life and we thought about that with Sorry. We recognise we are very human, we have our struggles and turn to God for Help! We look around us and are moved with compassion when we see the struggles of others. That’s what we thought about with Please.


But sometimes things don’t resolve themselves. Things seem to spin out of control with no prospect of being fixed anytime soon. We pray but nothing seems to happen. We talked a bit about this last week.

So we recognise our faults and failings, we acknowledge them, name them before God, confess them, but they overwhelm us. Knowing forgiveness is good, but we need more. We want to stop doing wrong, to change for the better. But we make the same mistakes again and again.

Or we face the struggles of life, and no wisdom for dealing with them seems to come. Our self-control starts to wither, our endurance grows weaker and hope is fading.

Or we pray for others, but the situation doesn’t improve.

The war steps up another notch.

The mission agency suffers another flood or earthquake.

The friend gets bad news from the hospital.

That family member refuses to listen to reason and keeps making those disastrous choices.


Maybe you feel like the disciples did in that boat, in the episode where they are on the water, a storm blows up, they’re terrified…

…and Jesus is fast asleep.

But the difference is, you can’t just wake him up to calm everything down. You can feel like you’re going under. You’re calling out ‘how long, O Lord.’

If I follow the season analogy, it might feel like a season of winter, and you’re just longing for signs of life.

Perhaps you’ve never been there.

Perhaps you think we never should be. Last week we looked at a whole load of ideas behind prayer which seems unanswered. Maybe, thus far, those have worked for you.

Or maybe you have been there.

Maybe you are there.

It’s not just a Blue Monday. It’s been a lot longer than that.

Maybe you have known summer seasons when you have experienced the goodness and closeness of God. Perhaps you have autumns when you became aware of your need for forgiveness, help, and have prayed fervently for others.

But now God seems far off. You feel prayers, when you can pray, are hitting the ceiling and bouncing back. And that season can feel prolonged. Perhaps you wonder how long it will last.


What if that sense of God’s presence never returns?

What if the strong faith I once knew doesn’t come back?

Church can be a hard place to feel that way. Our songs mostly focus on praise and how good God is. For all sorts of reasons we don’t do much in the way of lament. Maybe when something terrible happens which shocks the whole church or community. But not week to week.

If you look at the back of Baptist Praise and Worship, where they have responsive Psalms, Psalm 13 isn’t there. In others, certain parts of the psalms are glossed over, and it’s not ususally the ‘hallelujah, praise the Lord’ bits. I’m not knocking that book. I doubt other books are much different.

It can feel quite lonely when you’re struggling. You might even feel a bit guilty about it.

Do I belong here?

If I really believed, would I feel this way?

What would everyone else think if they knew I felt this way?

Well this morning I don’t plan to unpack any nice easy answers. To a large extent I am just letting the question sit there.

But I do want to let those who are there know that yes, you do belong. The season of ‘when’ or ‘how long’ is every bit as much part of the spiritual life as the happier times of Sorry, Help and Please and even Here, O and Thanks.

All of the spiritual life can be found in the book of Psalms. And the season of ‘when’ or ‘how long’ is one of the most prominent. I did a quick Bible Gateway search on the phrase ‘how long’ and it occurs in now fewer than 13 different Psalms.

A few of those are God speaking to us. God is asking how long are you going to ignore me and do wrong? You know the right thing to do, so when are you going to do it. How long are you going to mistreat the poor or whatever.

But far more common it is the psalmist asking God ‘how long?’ ‘When are you going to act.’ ‘Do you now know what’s going on? Do you not care? How long are you going to wait to sort it?’

Four times in the opening couple of verses of Psalm 13 we read those words ‘how long?’

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

and have sorrow in my heart all day long?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Psalm 13 is historically linked with David, who, for all his faults, was considered ‘a man after God’s own heart.’ Yet David has that experience where, just when he needs him, God seems distant. His prayers don’t get answered, God seems unresponsive.

There are occasions in the Psalms when he admits he feels far from God and that it’s his fault. Psalm 51 for example is traditionally linked with his adulterous liaison with Bathsheba, in which she gets pregnant, David fails to cover his tracks, organises for her husband to be killed.

In the Psalm he senses his distance from God. He says ‘don’t cast me from your presence.’ But in that case he knows he has drifted from God.


That’s not the case here. We’re not told the precise circumstances here. Some think it was a serious illness, other think it was at a time when people were plotting against him, but we can’t be sure. Perhaps that’s no bad thing. If it were to specific we might wonder if this can possible apply to me. This way we might be able to identify with it.

But whatever it is, no reason is given why God seems distant. It just feels that way. Psalm 13 suggests that even the most loyal God-fearer may despair over God’s apparent failure to pleas for help.

He’s begged for help and no help comes. It’s like God is looking the other way when he calls out to him. It’s playing on his mind. He feels stuck, he can’t move. Every waking thought is burdened with his pain and his sorrow.

You might have been there. You’re looking for a job, healing, a resolution to a problem and you’re thinking ‘LORD, how long?

Have I not been faithful God?

Have I not trusted you?

Where are you?’

There’s something very human about where his mind goes next.

What if others knew?

What would they think?

In the case of someone like David you don’t get where he was without having enemies. You certainly don’t stay there. He’s thinking they’d love it if they knew what I was going through.

We might not find ourselves thinking quite the same things, but we might think something similar. What will others think?

We might fear that people are going to point the finger at us and judge us.

We might fear that people will think less of us.

That might be true, or it might just be in our heads. Trouble can leave us feeling isolated.

A couple of years ago this week when I went down with stress. My first instinct was not so much to cover it up, but play it down. Very quickly, for all sorts of reasons, not least what signal was I sending to other people who suffered in similar ways, I chose not to. And I don’t regret that.

To be honest, looking back, I was blessed at how loving, caring, understanding people were. I was blessed by a mix of the best wife, medication, a great therapist, a wise spiritual director, and really supportive church and my own will to get better God helped me and I emerged stronger for it.

But my first instinct was that I didn’t want others to know.

What would people think?

Would they start thinking ‘he can’t handle it!’

Would they think ‘surely if he trusted God he wouldn’t have these problems?’

Would they think less of me?

Would they think they couldn’t approach me?

In the wintry season of ‘when’ God can feel distant, but our thoughts can also leave us isolated from other people. We long for change, but nothing seems to happen. Our prayers feel like unheard and we’re calling out ‘How long, O LORD. How long? Tell me this won’t go on forever.


Look at me and answer he says. Lighten my eyes. Give me some direction, help me to see some way through this. Maybe even just grant me a glimmer of hope.

In the wintry season there are just those moments when signs of new life begin to break through. The first green shoots start to emerge and suggest more is going on beneath the soil than we realise.


But they can be hard to see. Sometimes we have to really look for them. During the week when I was in my ‘oh, it’s grey, it’s miserable’ frame of mind, someone else was able to spot the fact that it is getting dark that little bit later. Despite appearances, the promise of a change of season, even on that is some way off still stands.


I’d love to tell you you’re never going to go through a season like this. But I suspect if you follow Jesus for long enough, you probably will, at least once.

Sometimes we don’t get to go round the obstacles in life. Sometimes we have to go through them. Growing towards maturity in anything in life involves facing the struggles, not bypassing them.

And the when seasons will change you.

You may emerge stronger.

You may carry the scars.

But in the meantime what are we to do?

How do we live?

Firstly, don’t hide from it. Don’t be frightened to bring it to God. The former Conservative politician, Jonathan Aitken who found faith after being imprisoned for perjury, once spoke of treating God like a bank manager. By this he meant he was polite to God, but he was basically in control of everything.

Some of us treat God as a bank manager, in a slightly different way. We think we have to go to God and be all proper and polite, however we feel. The big danger in that is that we don’t approach God in the struggle.

The truth is, God can handle it when we’re in the when or how long season if we’re honest with him. As we said last week, God wants our honesty. One of my favourite images is from Adrian Plass where he talks of a child on her father’s knee, crying and hammering the father’s chest until she falls asleep and the father simply enfolding her in love.

God is that kind of father. He can handle us arguing with him. In fact he gives us scriptures then invites us to use these words to help us express our struggle. It’s considered sacred every bit as much as the Praise the Lord bits.

If we don’t find healthy ways to express the pressure that builds inside, it will eat away at us and emerge in more destructive ways.

But we do have the choice of whether we will trust him. The choice of whether David will trust God is not with those who would take delight at his falling. It’s with him.

It might not look the faith of the Here, O and Thanks days or even like the trust we had in the Sorry, Help and Please days.

In the when season, Hanging on, keeping praying, keeping saying ‘how long’, keeping the longing alive and refusing to go away, those are marks of faith.


There is something defiant about the words of the Psalm I will trust in your unfailing love. I will sing.

In her book The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy Rachel Joyce describes an encounter with a dying woman and a nun in a hospice. The nuns asks her to look out the window and she says ‘what do you see?’

I see clouds, said Queenie. Grey ones. This is England what do you expect?

But you also see sky, said the nun

Well, yes.

And sun.

I do?

The sun and the sky are always there. It’s the clouds that come and go.

In the ‘when’ season, we have to learn to trust the turning of the seasons. Just as the first glimpse of daffodil or blossom signals that summer will come around again, we have to trust that the answer will come.

It might not be soon.

It might not look like we expected.

We might need eyes of faith to see it.

But it will come.

The clouds will come and go. But God is there whether we can see him or not.


I will trust in your unfailing love.

You might remember that word. Although it was way last year I talked about it.


A steadfast, committed, reliable love which never fails, never gives up on us, never quits.

You might draw on past experience of times when you have been aware of God. The psalm says ‘you have been good to me.’ Back when we looked at that word hesed, I was talking about the importance of memory. Noticing and remembering when God has been with us and looked after us.

Because there will be times when we struggle to keep going. When we think he’s forgotten us. But he is still the same God who was with us then and he will bring us through.

We are in a better position than the writer of Psalm 13 in that we live after Jesus. We have a fuller expression of God’s full commitment to us in Jesus.

Through Jesus we are reminded that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We may go through the when seasons. They may be prolonged. And they will change us.

But they need not get to speak the final word.

So, in the when season, we may find that defiant trust that the God who was prepared to enter our world in Christ, who was prepared to go to the cross for us, ultimately won’t let us down.

Right now he might feel hidden. It might feel like he is turning his face from us, but he has shown his goodness to us, and will do so again. If we hang in there. Keep praying ‘how long.’

It may feel like we’re plodding, and getting nowhere. But don’t underestimate that. I came across a book last year by an explorer called Erling Kagge. It’s called Silence in an Age of Noise. He says the secret of walking to the South Pole is to put one foot in front of the other. On a purely technical scale this is quite simple. Even a mouse can eat an elephant if it takes enough bite. The challenge lies in the desire. The biggest challenge is to get up.

Keep plodding. Keep praying how long. Defiantly refuse to let go. In the seasons of when those will be the signs you belong.

We might emerge from the season of when scarred and changed, but if we keep going, the seasons will turn around.


Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Please 3

loving worldAbout 10 years ago a group called the John Templeton Foundation conducted a study on the question of whether praying for someone makes any difference. It was based around patients in the cardiac ward of a particular hospital.  They got a group of people, all of whom believed in a God who cared about people and answered prayer. They were all committed members of worshipping communities. They agreed to pray for some of the patients. When they arrived in the ward, patients were put into 1 of 3 groups.

One group was prayed for and knew they were being prayed for. (Their first name was given to the pray-ers).

One group was prayed for but didn’t know.

The final group was not prayed for.

They wanted to see if the outcomes were better for any group.

The results were interesting. Overall there was no significant difference between the outcome of the groups. But if anything those who were prayed for fared worse than those who weren’t.

Especially in the group who knew!

That’s not the first time this has happened. A study about 20 years ago did something similar with recovering alcoholics and got the same result. Those who were prayed for fared worse than those who weren’t. Before you think I’m about to tell you to stop praying cos you’re doing more harm than good, other studies have shown small benefits in ‘prayed for groups.’


There are all sorts of problems with the research. How do you know someone in the ‘not prayed for’ group wasn’t being prayed for? It’s not like the only people who could possibly pray for patients were those involved in the study. Someone might be part of a megachurch holding a round-the-clock vigil.

How much account was taken of the severity of the patient’s condition or their general health?

On a more theological point, what does it say about God that he should choose to help people because they were randomly assigned to a particular group by a bunch of academics?

Really all such experiments show is that prayer is hard to analyse and understand. And you probably don’t need a PhD and $5m in research funds to work that out.


I’m continuing our time in the phases or seasons in the Spiritual life, where we have assigned each season one of the words on the screen. Our current word, which I want to wrap up today is Please.

Please is about when your faith causes you to care for and pray for others. It’s what Christians call ‘intercession.’ The word means to stand between two parties. It might be big international news, local or national issues, mission organisations or friends, loved ones and even, in the case of one of the readings today, enemies.

 Please is about making their needs and concerns your needs and concerns. It’s about bringing them to God, and, as we saw a couple of weeks ago it might involve bringing God to them. Putting flesh on your prayers.


When we pray we claim we are believing two things.

  • God cares
  • And so do we.

If we didn’t care we probably wouldn’t pray. If God didn’t care there would be no point.


Pretty much every faith will have some sort of prayer. I imagine most people of faith would say that prayer is important. They might have different reasons why but it is important.

But you don’t have to take prayer seriously for very long before you notice something about it.

It is mysterious.

Just by show of hands (and I’m not going to ask you to say any more than this, so it’s perfectly safe to raise your hand) how many people here have ever had an experience where they prayed for something and felt that prayer was answered?

How many have ever had an experience where you prayed for something and it wasn’t answered? At least not as you had hoped?

How many answered yes to both questions?

Prayer raises all sorts of questions. I mean God knows what we need. Jesus told us as much. So why do we need to ask?

And why do we need to be persistent? When Jesus told his disciples to ask, seek and knock, the sense is to keep on asking, seeking, knocking. Are we saying God has to be bullied into answering our prayers?

No. Jesus wanted to encourage his followers that they could trust God with the same confidence as Jesus himself had. He wanted us to see God as a good father who cares for our needs and wants to help us. Prayer was part of that. He encouraged us to bring our prayers to God and expect answers.

It’s wonderful when we feel prayer is answered. But it can be really difficult when we don’t get what we prayed for, however good or important it seemed or was. Perhaps because of the confidence with which Jesus tells us to pray, we can seek all sorts of reasons why prayers aren’t answered.

It’s not in God’s will. Perhaps. But how do we know what God’s will is? Are we really saying that all the suffering in the world is what God wants?

Or some would say ‘it’s God’s punishment’. You’ve stepped out of God’s will and God won’t answer your prayers until you come back into line.

Now, sometimes we make destructive choices and we live with the consequences of that. And there’s no point asking God to deliver you then continue to make those same destructive choices. We live in a world of cause and effect.

Sometimes suffering the consequences of our choices wakes us up to the disastrous nature of our choices. Sometimes they are rescuing us rather than punishing us.

For example in the story of Jonah, the fish is less of a punishment, and more God’s way of trying to rescue Jonah, both from the sea and his bad choices. Feeding pigs was a natural outworking of bad choices made by the prodigal son and it woke him up to the folly of those choices.

But that’s a long way from being able to say God is punishing us through suffering or by not answering our prayers. Besides we all have sin in our lives. What’s makes theirs worse than ours?


Some people say ‘you don’t get what you want because you don’t have enough faith.’ Jesus said if you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could move mountains. So, is what we’re saying ‘you’re the problem?’ Thing is, I’ve known people who had massive faith and have genuinely believed their prayer would be answered… yet things haven’t worked out as they prayed.

Or maybe we’re asking in the wrong way. Are we praying it in Jesus’ name? It can feel like Jesus’ name becomes some form of holy abracadabra. It reduces prayer to a form of magic. Are we saying that God only answers prayers if we get everything right?

Some would argue ‘maybe you didn’t want it.’ How would they know? Or maybe God has something better for you. I mean a good parent wouldn’t give their children something they knew would harm them. Jesus says as much in the Matthew reading.


There may be times when we rush to say a prayer has or has not been answered.

There is an old story about a wise man living on one of China’s vast frontiers. One day, his son’s horse ran away and was taken by nomads across the border. Everyone tried to console him for his bad fortune, but the wise man, said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a blessing?”

Months later, his horse returned, bringing with her a magnificent stallion. This time everyone congratulated him for his good fortune. But now the wise man said, “What makes you so sure this isn’t a disaster?”

One day the son fell off the stallion and broke his hip. Once again, everyone offered their consolation for his bad luck, but the father said, “What makes you so sure this is not a blessing?”

A year later enemies invaded their land, and every able-bodied man was required to go to war. The families living on the border lost most of an entire generation in battle. Only because the son was lame the father and son survived to take care of each other.

Just as we can rush to judgement on whether something is good or bad, blessing or disaster, so we can rush to judgment on whether something is an answer to prayer or not.

The end of the story might not have been written yet.


Reasons go on. Our motives are impure, we need to adjust our will to God’s.

All of these may have a grain of truth in them. Some are better than others. They may even have a verse or two of the Bible to back them up. But the fact that so many ideas are found in the scriptures should teach us a bit of humility. We don’t have all the answers. People of faith have wrestled with these questions for as long as we have prayed.

One great, early example of intercession was in our Old Testament reading, where Abraham almost haggles or bargains with God as he pleads for the city of Sodom.

Often this story has got tangled up with a whole load of stuff which is never said. So let me say something about what the story of Sodom is not about. This is not about homosexuality. The ‘very great sin’ of Sodom and the reason Sodom is eventually destroyed is not because of gay men.


The Bible offers its own commentary and explanation of the story. In Ezekiel 16:49 we read ‘this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.’

In Isaiah 1 we read ‘Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah!… Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Jesus himself says that it will be worse for the cities that refused hospitality to his disciples than it was for Sodom and Gomorrah.

Other translations speak of the outcry against Sodom reaching God. That’s a term which is used of people suffering injustice or oppression. In Isaiah 5v7 God condemns Israel because he

expected justice, but saw bloodshed;

righteousness, but heard a cry.

What was the sin of Sodom? They failed to protect the vulnerable amongst them.

To understand this story you need to recognise the importance of hospitality amongst ancient nomadic people of the Middle East. When a stranger or foreigner came amongst you, they were to be provided with food, shelter and safety. That’s what Abraham did in the scene before our reading. It’s what Lot did in the scene after it. That is contrasted with the people of Sodom who wanted to mistreat them.


Even so, it’s one of those stories we might struggle with. God wiping out the whole city. It’s one of those passages people turn to when they think of Old Testament/New testament God. The violent, bloodthirsty, vengeful Old Testament God, and the chilled out, peace and love New Testament version.

You may have no problem with it. But if you do struggle with it, then you find yourself standing with Abraham.

And actually I’d argue it doesn’t sit easy with God. The writer doesn’t tie everything up neatly. It’s not all neatly resolved. But God actively seeks a way out of the destruction. God’s reluctance to destroy the city is evident throughout the haggling. At no point does God say ‘enough’. It’s Abraham who stops the deal. Not God.

Which begs the question… what if Abraham had kept going?

In the context of the scriptures and the world in which Abraham lived this is a really radical story. Gods of the ancient world and the civilisation in which Abraham lived were out there, impersonal, distant, they did what they wanted, good or bad. In Genesis 12, when God first addresses Abraham, that is a huge step forward in religion and spirituality. A God who addresses an individual, who wants to relate to humans? That’s new.

But in this passage this God involves a human in his plans for the world. In the Old Testament you will quite often read an image of God convening some kind of heavenly council. God says let us make human beings in our image. Or at the call of Isaiah he says who will go for us.

Well, in this story, it’s like Abraham is invited into that council. In fact it’s like God lets Abraham chair the meeting! God almost makes himself accountable to Abraham. Go on, talk me out of it.

The other thing that is quite radical about it, is that this God values the righteous more than he cares about punishing the wicked. It’s quite a common view of the world, then as now, about how the bad can infect the good. This is a passage which says the good, however few, can save the bad. As few as 10 might have saved Sodom. Who knows, had Abraham not stopped at 10, it might not even have needed that many.

In the passage immediately before this Abraham is visited by three heavenly visitors who tell him his long-awaited son Isaac is to be born. It’s all a bit vague. In some bits they seem to be described as men, yet in others it’s YHWH or the LORD. Abraham extends hospitality to them, they tell him of Isaac then they are about to set off. Abraham walks with them a bit of the way.

Then there is almost a bit of an aside. Like the Shakespearan character who takes a couple of steps to the side to reveal their innermost thoughts, yet the other characters can’t hear them.

God says Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Then decides, No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.’


God tells Abraham about his plans and the others set off towards Sodom, but Abraham still stands before the LORD.

Abraham is blocking the LORD’s path.

He is literally, physically interceding.

He stands between God and Sodom.

It’s not that Abraham does not know what Sodom is like. But a couple of factors concern him. In the city lives Lot, Abraham’s nephew. But also this is not Abraham’s first dealings with Sodom. A few chapters earlier Sodom lost a battle with one of the other kinds in the area and Lot was kidnapped. Abraham quickly put together an army and rescued the people and their possessions.

So for Abraham Sodom is not some impersonal idea. It’s real people. Some of whom he cares about.

It can be quite easy to denounce or condemn whole groups of people when they are just a label.

But when you meet them?

When you have relationships with them?

When it might even affect your family?

When you start to put faces and names to the labels?

When they stop being labels and become people?

That’s a whole different matter.

God has promised to bless Abraham and through him to bless others. God seeks a friend in Abraham. He is not after a ‘yes man’ or a ‘yes woman.’ Part of that calling is to do and to seek what is right and just.

That’s why God tells Abraham. He is inviting Abraham to challenge him. To questions whether this is the right and just way forward. The initiative is with God. God could have told Abraham nothing. But God invites Abraham to bring his questions. God doesn’t just tolerate it. He welcomes it.

God wants to hear our fears, misgivings, objections.

In short, God wants us to be real with him.

It’s as if Abraham gets the hint and recognises God’s reluctance. That’s why Abraham gets drawn into the haggling. He starts at 50, then 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, all the way down to 10. Why does he stop there? Perhaps he hopes that there are at least 10 in Lot’s household who will qualify.

Whatever the reason, in this story we see Abraham in the season of please, involving himself in intercession, standing, quite literally, between God and others, pleading their case.

In part he is drawn by his connections. But in doing so he is offering his prayers whether those who would be blessed deserved it or not, would acknowledge it or not.

And that is part of the challenge of this word ‘please.’ God invites us to bring our questions, fears, misgivings about how the world is. In intercession we are bringing others to God and in some ways in prayer we are urging God to be God differently from the way God was planning to be God.

Prayer is mysterious. I’d love to tell you how it all works. But I can’t. And yet somehow, some way I truly believe it matters. Somehow or other I truly believe that God invites us to bring him our concerns and the concerns of others and somehow uses them in the way he works in the world. In prayer, as much as in action, God is involving us in his care of the world.

How that works I really don’t know.

Will praying make a difference?

Will God intervene and work miracles?

Does it change God?

I don’t know.

And in some ways it’s probably better that we don’t have all the answers to tough questions like why there is so much suffering in the world. Perhaps it is best that we don’t understand why those we pray for suffer as they do.

Cos if we could say ‘oh, there’s a clear reason for this, logic could take over from caring. We would explain rather than empathise, theorise instead of pray, answer instead of act.

But the absence of logical explanations and the mystery draw out of our heads and moves our hearts. Our own powerlessness to help throws us into the arms of God and urges us to pray ‘please.’

Phillip Yancey suggests that Christians in developing nations spend less time pondering if and how prayer works and more time actually praying. By all means it’s good to wrestle with the questions, and even form opinions. But don’t think you’ll solve them once and for all. Later you will see them differently, because you’re seeing them from a different perspective.

No it’s more important that we do it, and keep doing it, whatever answers come or don’t come, however we believe prayer ‘works.’ Because however much or little prayer changes things, however much or little it changes God, it will certainly change us. It will strengthen our sacred connection and in time draw us more into the image of Christ. It is one of the ways, perhaps the most important way we are drawn into God’s plans and purposes for his world. For in doing so we are joining our hopes, loves and longings with God’s.

Posted in Christmas 2017

Trusting the Teenager


Reading: Luke 2: 1-20

One of my favourite films is Fiddler on the Roof – which I imagine most of you know, is a musical, set about 100 years ago in a Jewish settlement Russia. It centres around the family of Tevye, a Jewish milkman, who’s seeking to marry off his three daughters.

There’s a scene quite early in the film, when Tevye is going home after a long night’s partying. He’s just arranged the marriage of one of his daughters and he is celebrating. As he staggers along the road he is stopped by the village policeman. ‘You’re a good man, Tevye,’ says the policeman, ‘and that is why I am giving you advance warning… He goes on to warn Tevye that the police are planning to stir up a pogrom or a massacre of the Jewish population of the village. Naturally Tevye sobers up pretty sharp-ish. This is really bad news. As he continues his journey home he raises his eyes towards heaven and prays. ‘Dear God’ he says ‘did you have to send me news like that on today of all days. I know we’re the chosen people, but once in a while, could you not choose someone else?’

If the same thought had crossed the mind of a Nazarene teenage girl called Mary some 2000 years ago, she could have been forgiven. As with the news Tevye received in Fiddler on the Roof, for Mary this news could not have come at a worse moment.

She was engaged.

She’d be married within a year.

As a young girl, in what was probably a poor-ish family, in a remote corner, of a colonised country, Mary didn’t really have a lot to look forward to in life. She didn’t ask much of life. There wasn’t much point. Her wedding would probably be the only time in her entire life when she would feel at all special. When she got the news that she was to be the mother of Jesus, that wedding was approaching.

 And why her anyway? Why of all the women in Israel, or even the world, should God come to her?

Amidst the upheavals to and fro between Galilee and Judea, first to Zechariah and Elizabeth’s and then to Bethlehem for the census, did Mary ever find herself wondering ‘why me?’

When it comes to Mary, I can’t help but feel Roman Catholics have cornered the market. Protestantism has often over-reacted and really doesn’t like talking much about Mary at all.

So let’s get some sense of balance here. I don’t think of Mary as co-redeemer or a co-mediator. She was the recipient of God’s grace, just like you or I. But she was the woman who brought Jesus Christ into the world, so I wouldn’t have any problem with someone telling me she was probably the most important woman in the history of the world.

But that’s only really from our viewpoint. It doesn’t automatically transfer into any kind of special status in heaven.


Yet, as I say, that 1st Century Life magazine might well have wondered if the angel Gabriel had turned up at the wrong house, saw the slip of a lass at the door and thought ‘oh well, she’ll do.’

As a matter of fact they could have been forgiven for thinking Gabriel had not just knocked at the wrong door, but had gone to the entirely wrong town. Nazareth was not exactly an epicentre of modern culture. Years later one of the guys who’d become one of Jesus’ followers, Nathanael, asked if anything good could come out of Nazareth. I don’t know what your impression of Nazareth is, but I wouldn’t make it overly elaborate. Today it has a population of 66,000 or so, but back then it would probably have not been much more than 100 or so. It might even have been less.

Some writers do try to build its part up a little. Yes, it lay on a major trade route, but only as one of those places you passed through and kept going.

So far as Jewish history goes, it may as well have not existed. It was not mentioned once in the Old Testament, nor in any other major surviving Jewish literature.

When Joseph, Mary and Jesus return from Egypt after the death of Herod, Matthew cites a prophecy which said ‘he will be called a Nazarene’ and no-one really knows where he got it from.

And what about Mary herself? In recent years I would say much more effort has been made to extricate her from the myths that surround her. That’s not an easy task. Her role in the Nativity story means she has portrayed in art perhaps more than any other woman. Impressions of Mary are probably tainted by art like this – she’s something of a middle aged woman, lovely, embroidered, flowing robes, couple of crowns, halo etc.

But trust me, small as Nazareth was, if Gabriel had turned up in town with this photo-fit, every man, woman and child would have responded in the same way. They’d have said ‘never seen her before in my life. I’m sure I’d recognise the crown.’ Mary wouldn’t have recognised herself!

What do we know about her? We know she was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph. It’s basically an engagement only with more official status. The age at which young women were betrothed was 12, 13, 14. It would be rare for it to be much older. Boys, or men, may have been a bit older, but not necessarily. If we plump for 13, we’ll not be far wrong.

Mary’s also probably poor. We actually have less evidence for this than many people think. Living in a place like Nazareth wasn’t going to suggest she was wealthy. But the main piece of evidence is that after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph present him at the temple and they take along an offering of 2 young doves or pigeons. If they had not been poor they’d have brought a lamb.

Another thing is that she is probably illiterate. It would be very rare for young women to be educated, unless they were from a fairly wealthy family. What little knowledge she had of the prophecies behind the story of which she about to be part would have had to be retained in here. She’d have had no books or scrolls to check up and even of there were some in the house she’d probably not have been able to read them.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time building this up, just to give you a bit of a picture of what we are talking about here. Because what I want you to get a handle on is that God could have chosen anyone to bring Jesus into the world.

Let’s not underestimate the task being set before her. God is about to entrust Jesus into her care. He’s not going to emerge from the womb noticeably different from any other child. His first words aren’t going to be the opening three chapters of Leviticus. He’ll be relying on her to feed and change him and the only technique he’ll have available to tell her he needs these things is to cry like any other baby. For the little Lord Jesus, crying will be a survival strategy!

It’s a big job and God could have chosen someone with a bit of life experience, a bit of know how, rather than choosing a young girl, barely into her teens, if that. He could have chosen someone with a bit more wealth and influence. Someone who could have offered him some of the advantages of this life, the best education, the best healthcare available. He could have chosen someone who would have been able to introduce Jesus to ‘the right people.’ Get a foot in the right doors. Not a poor, illiterate girl who lives in the sticks. But God entrusts Jesus to Mary.

There are other faiths that struggle with the idea that Almighty God should allow himself to be humbled to the point of becoming human. But the Bible doesn’t gloss over the fact or apologise for it. Not only does the Christian Gospel declare that God became human, but it forces us to take a good look at how he does it.

And this should challenge us on two levels. Who do we trust? I’d like to think that most of us would like to see this church move forward. We’d love to see more people joining with us and becoming part of us and what we want to do. But it is so easy for us all to have in mind the kinds of people we think we need if God is going to take us forward.

We can very easily build up a profile of the kind of people it would be so good for us to have. But we don’t get that choice. I’m not saying we trust anyone with anything. But if I read the Bible correctly, the credentials God is looking for are very different to what we might expect.

Perhaps reading more directly into the text, how seriously do we take the faith of the young? We might try to soften this a little and talk about how childhood is so different today and in part that may be true. I certainly wouldn’t use this passage, as one US politician did earlier this year, to try to justify or trivialise alleged predatory behaviour against children.


Recently a friend of mine baptised his twin boy and girl, who are about the same age that I have suggested Mary was. Although he was confident that they both believed ok, he found himself going through the whole are they ready, do they know enough about what they are doing…

Even if that’s not our dilemma it can be quite easy to claim we admire the enthusiasm of the young without really taking them seriously. One of the things that I found at college was how difficult it was for the younger ministerial students, to get themselves even considered by churches, even those looking for assistant ministers. It’s not a new thing. As good Baptists we might believe that God can speak to us through any one but Timothy was not the last person to find himself looked down on because he was young.


If I take anything from this story it this – Mary, and quite possibly Joseph, might have been young, they might not have known a huge deal but they had the capacity to respond in faith to what God was doing and that was enough for God to put his trust in them. Youth didn’t stop the adult Jesus choosing the 12 to be his followers. It’s likely that those he entrusted the mission after his ascension were no more than 20.

But there’s one other challenge/promise within this passage. Just as God entrusted Mary and Joseph to bring Jesus into their world, so he entrusts us to bring Jesus into our world. Jesus can only be born once, but Jesus is as helpless today in our world if we don’t listen to his call as he was if Mary and Joseph ignored his cries as a baby. There may well be the odd exception but making Jesus known isn’t going to suddenly happen, at least not in a good way, if we don’t do it. As plans go for letting the world know of God’s love and offering the chance to respond, placing the Gospel into the hands of believers and asking them to pass it on, well, there’s almost as much can go wrong as when you put your one and only child into the hands of a young teenager like Mary.

And we might well find ourselves asking the same question as Mary – how will it be? When it comes to being all that God wants us to be and bringing Jesus into our world, well, we’re about as capable as a virgin seeking to bring a child into the world. We can all come up with our reasons but God’s not after our credentials. In fact starting from the position that without God we bring nothing of merit is a pretty good place to begin. The question is are we open to the power of the Holy Spirit coming to us.

And that’s one of the reasons why this table is such an appropriate reminder of who we are and what we are called to be. For bread and wine are great levellers – very ordinary things only made special because of Jesus and what he did on the cross. As we seek to follow him, the events which this table symbolises may be enough to stop us wondering why we do it, but may not answer the questions why he should save us and trust us. For that we may never have an answer, for grace and reasons don’t go particularly well together. Perhaps like Mary all we can say is may it be to us according to his word, trusting that no word from God, least of all the Word made flesh, will ever fail.