Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: O (Part 2)

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Reading: Romans 11: 33 – 12: 2

It’s a question that’s asked quite frequently of people like me. ‘Do you not think, at the end of the day, we all worship the same God?’

The form might slightly vary. Sometimes it’s formed as a statement, or an assumption… ‘sure, we all worship the same God.’ But it’s the same kind of idea.

In my previous pastorate the ministers of our local churches used to lead some RE sessions with students at the local Comprehensive School. Each class would end with a ‘grill a Christian’ Question and Answer session. Every time I was asked some variation some variation on that question.

It sounds straightforward enough. But most of the time, I’ve found, that’s not what they’re really asking. There is another question behind the question. And it’s more about the next life than this one. What they really want to know is is if I believe people who belong to a different religious group are going burn in hell forever.

And those two questions are not the same.

So I would say something like this…

Say both of us have a best friend called Fred. But Fred, you and I have never all been in the same room. Are we talking about the same person? How would you know?

Well you might describe them. You tell me your friend Fred is a ginger-haired, vegetarian, teetotal, Man United fan. I say mine is bald, hates all sport and loves to wash down a Big Mac with a single malt whisky.

 

Now, I suppose it’s possible that Fred behaves very differently when he is with each of us. But do you think we’re talking about same guy? Would we assume we were talking about the same person just because they shared a name?

So why would we do it with God?

But notice something…

…My answer isn’t really about what religious grouping someone happens to belong to. I remember being asked this question about us all worshipping the same god, back when I was a student minister. This time it was by the lovely Sikh lady who ran the shop across the road from the manse. I said ‘I can’t say for sure that all the people in my church worship the same God…

….And there are only about 30 of us.

So I can hardly be expected to speak for 6 or 7 billion people in the world.’

If we want to know are we worshipping the same God, perhaps you should tell me what your God is like.

I was reminded of that this week when I came across a remark by another (Baptist) minister, with links to the US government, seemed to advocate using nuclear weapons. And I thought ‘I really doubt we’re talking about the same god.’

We’re continuing to explore different aspects or seasons in the spiritual life through the 12 words on the screen. A couple of weeks ago I started on our second word… O.

With this word, we’re thinking about that sense of awe, wonder, worship. It’s almost not a word at all, more like a sound we make or the shape our mouths form, when we see something the English would describe as ‘breathtaking’… O!

Over the next number of months I plan to talk about how all these words form part of a good, healthy, spirituality… even some of the tougher words we’ll reflect on later. But most people of faith would probably agree worship forms part of a healthy spirituality.

But what’s that got to do with how I started?

Well, if we’re going to worship, it’s worth considering why we should do it?

Why bother?

That’s tied in with another question.

What kind of God we’re worshipping?

What is this God like?

Is such a god worthy of worship?

Does he deserve it?

And given what we discover about him, or what he has revealed to us, how then should we worship?

 

Why worship in the first place?

Why does God want, or command our worship?

Is it because God really needs it?

Is God high-maintenance?

Is God insecure?

Is he constantly demanding our attention?

Does he need us to constantly tell him how much we love him, else he’ll get depressed or angry?

Or maybe God likes to dominate us?

To boss us around?

Is he never happier than when we are grovelling before him?

That’s certainly the impression you would get from some modern atheists. In The God Delusion Richard Dawkins writes ‘The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.’ There’s lot of big words in there. Even if you don’t know what they all mean you get a sense of what he thinks. This God’s not very nice. 

To be fair, Dawkins doesn’t extend that to Jesus. In fact, he quite likes Jesus. He’s impressed with his teaching. But, for Dawkins, the fact that Jesus believed in God is apparently the least interesting thing about him.

In his time, he says, ‘atheism was not an option, even for so radical a thinker as Jesus. What was interesting and remarkable about Jesus was not the obvious fact that he believed in the God of his Jewish religion, but that he rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness.

As I read about the God in whom Dawkins doesn’t believe, I find myself thinking ‘I don’t believe in that God either.’

And as for his view of Jesus, well, his only sources are the same ones you or I use. The Gospels. As I look at them I see no evidence of Jesus rebelling against this God. He quite simply doesn’t think God, or Yahweh is like that.

I very much doubt too many people who call themselves Christians would read about the god described in The God Delusion and say ‘yup, that is the God I believe in.’

But sometimes the way I’ve heard him described is a bit too close for comfort. God is all too often described as really angry, but Jesus calms God down. He says “I’ll take their punishment instead, God!” I’m sure it’s not really intended, but the message subtly delivered in such a Gospel is not that God loves us and wants to rescue us. It’s that God is someone we need to be saved from. Jesus somehow saves us from that God.

A Catholic priest was once asked what was the most common problem he encountered in 20 years of hearing confession and without hesitation he replied ‘God.’ He added that very few people, and it’s not just Catholics behave as if God is a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, not as someone worthy of our trust.

I’ve found myself saying this a few times in different setting recently, but for most of human history, gods haven’t been considered nice, good, loving. It’s not been good news when they show up. And 2000 years after Jesus, that sense remains, even amongst those who claim to follow him.

From the Christian perspective, Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God. As the letter to Hebrews says at its very start, God has been trying to reach out to us in lots of different ways down through the ages, but finally he has chosen to speak to us through his Son, Jesus. Jesus acts like a lens through which we have to look at the rest of the Bible.

I’m not saying it’s easy. I too look at parts, say, of the Old Testament and think ‘you what?’

Nonetheless, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

From the Christian viewpoint, if your God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not God.

 

And this matters. But I’m not thinking in terms of where you’re going in the next life. That’s a totally different question. The kind of God we worship affects the kind of people we become….

… here and now.

I don’t know if anyone bought or has read the book Naked Spirituality which I mentioned at the start of this series, but in it Brian McLaren mentions a study by a neuroscientist called Andrew Newberg and a therapist called Mark Robert Waldman called How God Changes Your Brain.

The parts of your brain which you exercise will come to dominate your thinking and shape the person you become. And Newman and Waldberg suggest that ‘Contemplating a loving God strengthens portions of our brain – particularly the frontal lobes and the anterior cingulate – where empathy and reason reside. Contemplating a wrathful God empowers the limbic system which is filled with aggression and fear. It is a sobering concept: The God we choose to love changes us into his image, whether he exists or not.’

Sometimes people blame lots of the problems of the world on religion. That’s not the conclusion Newberg and Waldman come to. They conclude ‘the enemy is not religion; the enemy is anger, hostility, intolerance, separatism, extreme idealism and prejudicial fear – be it secular, religious or political.’

But that does give us a hint as to why we worship in the first place.

God does not need our worship.

We do. Worship affects us.

Worship shapes us. And that’s why it’s important to get a right impression of the God we worship. For what we worship, or what our God is like shapes us.

What we truly worship affects how we live. Who we become.

 

That’s not just new, modern, scientific thinking. You can trace it all the way back to the scriptures. I John 4:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God… because God is love.

We’re loving because our God is like that, our God is shaping us, changing us into his image.

And what is our God like? God is love.

Last time out we looked at awe, wonder, worship, O through looking at creation or creativity. I encouraged you to take time to allow yourself to be wowed. To give space to allow yourself to be filled with awe and allow that to lead you to worship to the creator.

The problem with that is that really that’s a pretty spontaneous thing. We can create opportunities for it to happen, but you can’t really force it. Sometimes you just won’t feel it. And it can be pretty hard to make that space in our day to day, busy lives.

But are there things we can do, practices in our normal, routine of daily living that can help to nurture more awe and wonder in our daily living. I would say there are.

That is what Paul is suggesting we do in the reading we shared from Romans this morning.

Overall he theme of the letter can be summed up as everyone, no matter who they are, is invited into a new relationship with God. We erect all kinds of different barriers to divide us and say we’re not like them, we’re right they’re wrong, we’re good, they’re evil. And Paul says none of them matter to God whatsoever. God loves all of us and has invited all of us into relationship with Himself.

Paul spends the bulk of 11 chapters trying to explain that. He covers a huge amount of ground. He talks about God’s mercy, the ways in which God wants to put us in right relationship with himself, he speaks about the death and resurrection of Jesus, about the role of the Spirit, about God plans for his whole creation, and how even our sin and rejection of God doesn’t get in the way. In fact somehow or other God uses it as part of his rescue plan.

Romans has been interpreted lots of different ways. People have tried to follow some kind of logical flow to what Paul says. It’s not easy. I would suggest that because there isn’t one. It’s not really one big argument. It’s a series of short ones. He tries one analogy after another. One idea seems to work, then he runs into a problem, so he tries something else, but that doesn’t fully express what he’s trying to say either. He tries another idea but there’s a problem with that…

 

The he hits a sentence which doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well.

‘For God has bound everyone over to disobedience…’

What possible good can follow that?

But he’s not finished, because he adds ‘so that God can have mercy on them all!’

He’s spent 11 chapters trying to explain this stuff and every time he’s tried it’s broken down because every time he realises he’s not doing God’s goodness and mercy justice. It’s like he’s climbing and climbing and climbing and suddenly he reaches a summit, he looks over the edge and the view is far greater than he realised. However wide a picture he tries to create of God’s love and mercy, he just can’t fit it in. It’s wider than he can possible know.

And at this point it’s like he just says ‘I give up’.

It’s like God takes all his analysis, all his explanation, and says yup, that’s all well and good. But why don’t you just face it. You’ll never comprehend it all. As he says elsewhere, he’ll never grasp how high and wide and long and deep the love of Christ really is. So having done his best he gives up on the theology and turns to poetry.

And there it is… that little word… O

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!

“Who has known the mind of the Lord?

Or who has been his counsellor?”

“Who has ever given to God that God should repay them?”

For from him and through him and for him are all things.

To him be the glory forever! Amen.

 

He realises he’s never going to get his head around it. However merciful he tries to make God, God will always be more merciful. However loving he tries to describe God, he will always be more loving. However good he makes the good news, it’ll always be better than that. All you can do is stop and be filled with awe and wonder and worship. It’s an O moment.

If your God is a tyrant always waiting to punish you that will affect how you worship.

But how should that worship of a God like this express itself?

He doesn’t say ‘in view of God’s mercy make sure you spend an hour a day reading your Bible’

Or in view of God’s mercy make sure you spend your time on your knees praying.’

It’s much more basic than that. Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.

Not offer your mind.  

Not offer your spirit, even

Offer your bodies.

You can’t get more basic than that. But what does it mean?

It’s another one of those examples of how the Message puts it so well. Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. 

One of the first theological battles that threatened the church in it’s early days was an idea call Gnosticism. I’m not going into it fully but their basic message was that spiritual stuff was good, the physical stuff was bad. This displayed itself in two ways. Some of them would treat their bodies really badly. They would hurt themselves, to show they saw the body as bad. Others thought that because the body was bad it didn’t matter what you do with your body. Anything goes. Christianity and Judaism before it didn’t like that approach. Physical stuff matters. God likes stuff. He made it.

The Gnostics lost the battle, but in some ways won the war. Because right down to the present there is still this divide between sacred and secular. Between spiritual stuff and the rest of life. But God is interested in what we do with our bodies.

I grew up in quite a legalist culture. People for example didn’t drink or didn’t smoke. If you asked people why, if they had a spiritual reason it was because the body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. Which was fine. But oddly we never heard much about gluttony. How we treat our bodies matters.

As I prepared and wrote this I realised I need to be challenged on this as much as anyone. I’m not suggesting we return to the kind of legalism I grew up.

But how do we care for our bodies?

In what we eat?

In what we drink?

In exercise (where we can).

In our sleep patterns?

If we think of them as a gift from God, surely part of our acceptance of that gift is to look after ourselves.

 

Last time out I mentioned that a good definition of worship is ‘I am not in control… and it’s wonderful.’ Worshipping God with our bodies might involve thinking about how we go about our day. To recognise that all of life is lived in the presence of God.

One practice that might help us is to give God the first or at least an early word in the day. I’m not talking about hours of prayer at the start of the day. But I imagine we at least have those moments;

perhaps whilst waiting for the kettle to boil,

whilst we’re stood in the shower,

cleaning our teeth,

stuck in that traffic jam whatever.

Just take a moment to thank God for the gift of the new day.

 

Thing is that can all too quickly fade by coffee break. A practice that has always been part of the Christian tradition is the idea of fixed hour prayer. In the early years of the church it was encouraged to say the Lord’s Prayer three times a day, at fixed points. I know some people who set an alarm to remind them to say even just one or two sentences of praise and thanks to God.

If that seems a bit overzealous for you, what about meal times? Perhaps you might find the practice of saying grace at meal times helps to put you in touch with the one from who the good things in your life come.

It might be last thing at night, as your head flops onto the pillow and you offer to God what’s gone well, or not so well throughout the day. You say ‘I might fall asleep?’ Perhaps. But how many parents feel bothered about their child falling asleep in their arms? Why should God be any different?

 

None of this is prescriptive. I’m not saying you should and must do all or even some of them.

Really it’s something we need to figure out for ourselves. Patterns that suit me won’t suit you. Your routine is different to mine. But they’re all ways of acknowledging that there is a God and you’re not it.

One practice, and I realise that in many ways I’m preaching to the converted here, that is relevant here is Sabbath. You might expect a minister to say that, but it is true. Work and rest in balance makes us healthy. I’m not even saying it has to be a Sunday. Mine isn’t.

But the mere act of stopping can be an act of worship. Because it is a way of recognising that the whole world does not depend on you.

You stopped and the world kept spinning.

However the flip side of that is also important. Our work. Back when I worked in other non-church environments, one of the things I used to think did a lot of harm to people’s witness was when they didn’t put the effort into their work. When they made bad employees. Your work can also be an act of worship, if you do it as if you were doing it for God. Offer it up to him, saying what do you reckon? God isn’t one of those parents who, when you get 99% wants to know all about the one you got wrong. God takes delight in us, when we offer the best we can.

 

Whatever ways we choose, there will be times when it feels routine and ritualistic. That’s ok.

Sometimes you’ll wonder if it makes any difference whatsoever. That’s fine.

But trust me, over time it will start to make a difference to you. They create little windows which give you space for a bit of awe, wonder, worship. A bit of O.

And that is healthy. And if you stick with it, it will start to shape the person you’re becoming.

 

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: O (Part 1)

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Reading: Psalm 19

Nice You Tube video to introduce theme here

When was the last time something made you stop and think ‘wow’?

What sort of things inspire awe or wonder in you?

There is something wonderful about how so many things inspire awe in children. Mummy… bird, car, tree whatever. But all too soon it fades. It loses its novelty. What fascinates soon becomes commonplace. We get used to it.

Yet still some things retain the power to inspire us. Maybe it’s a work of art. A piece of music, painting, sculpture, a piece of writing maybe. A while ago Jools and I were in London and saw a place called choccywoccydoodah and I saw these. Schnauzers… made of chocolate. How amazing is that?

choccy dogs

It might be a sublime piece of sporting brilliance, perhaps admiring the way a Paralympian overcomes adversity to achieve something amazing. Or a Roger Federer backhand.

Or perhaps we turn to the natural world. That’s what the little collage at the start was about. Last year Julie and I went walking in Austria and the scenery was spectacular. My father-in-law used to have a marine fish task. I could have watched it for hours and not got bored. The sheer diversity of colour, design, whatever…

Or perhaps we find wonder by looking into the night sky. Thinking about our universe. Even our solar system is just vast. The space craft New Horizons travelled at speeds from 50,000 to 160,000 km/h and took 91/2 years to reach Pluto. And that isn’t even the edge of our solar system. The outer edge of our solar system is called the Oort cloud. Theoretically it will take Voyager 1 300 years to reach that and 30,000 years to pass through it. That’s just our solar system.

 

And you… you are amazing. This complex mix of dust and stars; of systems and components that make up the human body. I’m told the various chemicals which make up a human body have a market value of less than £3.50. Yet the average adult body contains enough energy to power 30 nuclear bombs. Try remembering that next time you feel a bit tired.

But just as fascinating is when we go small. And I mean small. For a long time science searched for the building block which makes up anything. They thought they had found it when the atom was discovered.

Atoms are tiny. Millions fit on the head of a pin. There are more atoms in a cup of water than there are cups of water in the world’s oceans.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Then they discovered that atoms could be broken down into smaller units. And those smaller units could be broken down into smaller units still. In fact more than 200 subatomic particles have been discovered.

And at that level things get really weird…

There are particles which come into existence for the tiniest fraction of a second, then disappear. We don’t know where they come from or where they go.

There are particles which move from point A to point B. But they don’t travel the distance between those two points.

Some travel from point A to point B by every possible route, and only reveal which route they took when they’re observed. *

If your head hurts that’s ok. My point is that whether you go big or small, there is so much to inspire awe and wonder in our world.

The thing about awe and wonder is that sense that words cannot do the experience justice. Our best descriptions fall short. No words can recreate the beauty of that sunset or that waterfall. Photographs rarely even come close to doing them justice.

This week I came across a quote from the philosopher Wittgenstein who said it was impossible to convey the aroma of freshly ground coffee in words. **

Einstein said that anyone who is not lost in awe and wonder at the power of the mind behind the universe is as much good as a burnt out candle.

That is when we turn to art. In the case of this morning’s reading to poetry and music.

In this morning’s reading we see the one who wrote the Psalm would have agreed with Einstein…

The heavens declare the glory of God.

The skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech

Night after night they display knowledge

They have no speech; they use no words

No sound is heard from them

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth

Their words to the end of the world.

We continue our time exploring different aspects or seasons in the spiritual life through the 12 words on the screen. In the last few weeks we have considered the word Here. That’s where we begin.

Where we are.

We don’t have to get ourselves to some other place to encounter God. God comes to meet us here.

In this place.

At this time.

As we are.

We are invited to wake up to the presence of God who is with us in all things, at all times, whether we notice his presence or not, whether we recognise his presence or not.

We’re moving on to our next word. What are good, proper responses to this God?

We could have chosen to start with another idea, I suppose, but surely one appropriate response is awe, wonder, praise, worship.

There are a number of words which could have been used. Hallelujah for instance. But the one on which we will consider over the next few sermons is O.

 

We have used it and will use it quite a bit in our worship this morning. We sang O enter then his gates with praise. Unfortunately Baptist Praise and Worship changes the words in the chorus to All Creatures of our God and King to Now praise him. I always remembered it as O praise Him. Our closing hymn is O for a thousand tongues to sing.

A tiny word, yet it can be used to express so many emotions.

We can use it in gratitude at someone’s generosity. O, what a lovely gift.

It can express relief when we are comforted O, I’m so glad you’re here.

It might an expression of surprise or shock. Had you come in to my office when I was boogying and air-guitaring round the place to the Coldplay track we played at the top of the sermon, and I don’t hear you enter, I’m stopped short and say O, I didn’t see you there.

We might even use it in pain, O, my heart is breaking.

 But it’s also the word we use for awe in the presence of beauty. O, what a sunrise. ***

In fact it’s almost not a word. It’s like the shape our mouths make it wonder. It’s like a gasp, or the sound of our breath being taken away. O.

The spiritual life will go through many seasons, but certainly awe and wonder should be a component of any healthy spirituality. It was there in the Psalms as the writer looked into the heavens, perhaps given some of the imagery at sunrise, at his breath was taken away.

But he didn’t just wonder at creation for its own sake. Instead, like Einstein he was lost in wonder at the power of the mind behind it all. He wasn’t driven to worship of the creation, but of the creator.

In the Psalmist’s mind creation’s not saying look at me, it’s pointing to the One beyond it, whose handiwork creation is. Just as we might be able to tell something about an artist by looking at their handiwork, so creation, without words, simply be being what it is, doing what it does, speaks eloquently about God, for God.

We sometimes speak of the Bible as the word of God. But actually the Bible itself speaks of lots of things being a word of God. I mean, THE Word is Jesus, but the first word, if you like, is creation itself. ‘In the Bible the whole universe is God’s megaphone.’****

But that voice needs interpreting. What is it saying?

The first thing, is that it is presenting a picture of a joyful God. I’ll focus more on this in one of the other weeks. But there is a certain joyfulness, playfulness about those opening words of the Psalms.

It’s possible for us to have this sense of God as serious, stern, angry, punishing. But joy is really the first emotion the Bible attaches to God. The scriptures start with God delighting in his creation. God keeps doing things and saying ‘O that’s good.’

Have you ever done a trick for a small child, or shown them something new and the child keeps saying ‘again.’ One of my Bible reading notes which has stuck with me for many years used that picture of God looking at creation and with each new tree, flower, fish or whatever, God is saying ‘again, do it again.’

Creation displays a certain playfulness and wonder in God. When you’re lost in wonder at creation, God’s joining you in it. He’s right there with you saying ‘yeah, it’s awesome, innit?’

If you don’t mind me saying so, some of the imagery might actually be considered a bit risqué. If I wrote a song with this kind of imagery, I’m not sure it would get included in the next edition of Songs of Fellowship. The picture of the athlete running his race, fine. But the sun rising like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber?

 

In the first chunk of this Psalm there is nothing specifically Israelite about it. Even the word for God is quite a generic name for God. If you look at the church Bible’s you’ll see from verse 7 onwards the Psalm speaks of the LORD (capitals). When you see that in an English Bible, the Hebrew word is Yahweh, the Israelite name for God. The name gave Moses at the burning bush. The word for God in verse 1 is El, which could be a name for any deity.

In fact it’s possible that this was borrowed or nicked from a song or poem about a God called Shamash, a Mesopotamian sun God. He was also linked with giving King Hammarubi his code of laws. In their mythology Shamash was said to lie at night in the sea in the arms of his beloved.

Either way the image the Psalm uses for the sun rising and sweeping across the sky, is of the newly-wed bloke, emerging from the boudoir with a bit of a swagger or a spring in his step, cos he’s had a bit of lurving. So it is overall quite a playful image in the passage.

Also when the Bible speaks of God, his glory and creation, power has a part to play in that. Definitely in comparison to us.

For example in Isaiah (40), the prophet has God saying…

‘to whom will you compare me. Or who is my equal?

Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens, who created all these?

He who brings out the starry host one by one,

And calls them each by name

Because of his great power and mighty strength

not one of them is missing.’

Other people around them worshipped the sun, moon and stars. The Israelites? Pah! Their God gave them permission to come out.

One of the greatest pieces of poetry in the Bible is found in Job, starting from chapter 38. Some of the words in Indescribable are taken from it. After almost 37 chapters of God being questioned, God enters the scene and begins with these words…

‘where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations;

Who marked off it’s dimensions,

who stretched a measuring line across it…

Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades,

loosen Orion’s belt or lead out the bear with it’s cubs?

 

One of my favourite bits in the Message paraphrase can be found here. The ancient world saw the sea as a source of great terror, of chaos which could sweep them away. But it was nothing compared with God. In fact this God treats it like a baby…

And who took charge of the ocean  

when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?

That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,    

 and tucked it in safely at night.

Then I made a playpen for it,     

a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose,

And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place.     

Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’

So certainly the power of God might be source of awe and wonder.

But by itself power might not be a good thing.

Not every one who has power need be good.

Not everyone who has power uses it well.

That’s why almost always, even in the Bible when people encounter God, their first response is fear. For the vast majority of human history, when gods have shown up, it’s not generally been considered a good or desirable thing.*****

That’s a barrier God has to get past to reach us. We know what we do with power and fear God might do the same.

But that’s only part of the message that creation is proclaiming about God. That’s just one part of the glory.

Ever noticed how two people can look at the same thing and see something entirely different? Or the same person might react differently depending on their mood. You get a bit of this in the Bible. This is one of those situations.

This is not the only place in the Old Testament which uses the image of the sun making its way across the sky. But the other one is very different. You’ll find it again in Ecclesiastes…

Meaningless! Meaningless says the teacher.

Everything is meaningless..

Generations com and generations go;

But the earth remains forever;

The sun rises and the sun sets

And hurries back to where it rises…

It’s not so much of a swagger there. It’s like the sun, along with the whole world is on a treadmill. It finishes one day then has to rush back to be ready for morning again, there’s a sense of ‘if I must.’ Same old, same old.

Sometime we’ll do Ecclesiastes and I’ll talk about why that is. But where the teacher looks at the world and sees monotony, the Psalmist looks at the same world and sees that God is reliable, and trustworthy. God’s wisdom gives meaning and order to the world. The regular rhythms and seasons, might seem like same old, same old. But actually they are reminders of God’s trustworthiness, of his promise that as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease. This God is not just powerful. This God uses power wisely, faithfully, well!

And if God can be trusted with the ordering of creation, he concludes, God can be trusted with his life. That’s the link between creation and the law. For the same God who brings order to the world seeks to guide us, as we find our place within that world.

The same God is behind both creation and Torah. If I were to ask us to think of images to describe law, very few of us I imagine would think of it in terms of pure gold and the sweetness of honey. We often think of law as a limiter, a kind of harsh, grudging thing.

That’s not how the Psalmist sees it. He sees it as God seeking to guide him into life. It warns him when he is in danger of bringing disaster on himself. By following what God asks of him, he says he finds reward. Not in a kind of duty sense where I do this, so God has to do that. It’s just that in the Torah he finds God’s way of giving him real life, the kind of life God intended. God is not just a rule giver who likes to boss us around. He is actively seeking to guide us away from our own destructive tendencies.

I love how The Message translates verse 13.

Keep me from stupid sins; from thinking I can take over your work.

He looks at the order of creation and sees that the world works by functioning according to God’s wisdom, God’s faithful ordering. When he looks at the world and sees how God orders it, what makes his think he could do better?

And we see so much more than the Psalmist could ever know. Our world is much more weird and wonderful and mysterious than he could ever have fathomed, and we too can be moved to wonder at the mind, at the God behind it all.

I wouldn’t seek to tell our musicians how to play their instruments, they’re better at it than me. I wouldn’t think of telling Brian and Chris how to do their gardens. They’re so much better than me. And the Psalmist uses that same logic with God.

He can do it so much better than me. Why not trust him with it? The world works when it follows God’s wisdom. Why shouldn’t he? Why shouldn’t we?

We live in a world where knowledge and wisdom are so often confused. We think they can be found in books. For the vast majority of history they didn’t have books. They couldn’t read. They just looked at nature. They looked at how the world worked.

That’s where Jesus went to for wisdom. So much of his teaching came from observing the world around them and how it worked.

Technology has helped us to harness nature, to train it, to subdue it. That’s well and good. But a vital part of a healthy spirituality is to allow ourselves to stop and have those O moments.

We do well to stop and wonder at how the world works. Whether in its vastness or its smallness. To allow ourselves to be wowed. To allow ourselves to have our breath taken away in wonder.

Spiritual practice. Take time to indulge in something that wows you.

Not as an end in itself, but to allow it to point to the One behind it all. The One who calls all things into being and sustains all things. To allow ourselves to be drawn into worship of one who does it all so much better.

I heard this week a definition of worship as a way of practising ‘I am not in control… and it’s wonderful.’ There will be other seasons, other words, other postures in our spiritual life and journey. But awe, wonder, O, should be part of that journey.

When we are drawn into O, into awe and wonder, we recognise that all things are held in the hands of one who does all things well. The universe does not depend on us. When we take time to wonder, we see that, and come to see not only his power, but his wisdom, love and faithfulness. He holds all things, what makes us think he can’t hold us? We can step into the knowledge that in his hands we are held and we are safe.

 

Notes * Everything is Spiritual II: Rob Bell; ** Faith and the Creeds: Alister McGrath; *** Naked Spirituality: Brian McLaren; **** What is the Bible: Rob Bell; ***** Richard Rohr, but I can’t remember where

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Here (Part 3)

calivin hobbes

Readings: Exodus 24: 12-18; Matthew 17: 1-9; 2 Peter 1: 16-21

Most of us, I imagine, at some point experience the sensation of someone not being quite ‘with us’. You know what I mean; they’re physically present, but their mind is somewhere else completely.

I had a really great example of this back when I lectured in universities. I taught a statistics class to Sociology students. It was a tough gig for a couple of reasons. One is that it often comes as a surprise to Sociology students that they need study stats at all. They thought they were just going to sit around talking Marx and Feminism. I imagine quite a few thought they’d finished with Maths forever. Then I come along….

The other was that this particular class was from 4-6pm. That’s the lecturer’s equivalent of the ‘graveyard shift.’ You know they’d rather be at home watching Pointless or whatever the equivalent was in those days. Probably Neighbours. Actually the lecturer would probably prefer that too… 

The class involved using spreadsheets, so it was in a computer lab Students sat in swivel chairs with no arms. In one particular class a student fell asleep. And I mean asleep. He was completely out of it. I couldn’t miss him. He was in the front row.

The top half of his body started rolling around in the chair. I was tempted to wake him up with a scare. But I was a nice tutor and didn’t really want to embarrass him. But at the same time there was a good chance that he was about to fall off the chair and hurt himself. Could he make an insurance claim for me causing injury by boring him to sleep? Eventually he woke with an enormous ‘wuhhhhh!’ which nearly gave me a heart attack!

To all intents and purposes, he was there. If you looked at the register there was a tick by his name. But he was really somewhere else entirely. As a result he missed what was one of the most wonderful pieces of lecturing ever delivered in a British University!

 

It’s not just in run of the mill things that this can happen. Often it’s even easier to be distracted, or not quite ‘there’ on really big occasions. Sportsmen always talk of the need to savour the big occasion, the final or whatever, because it’s a special day and you might never get the chance to experience it again. But it passes so fast and often they don’t really enjoy or savour it.

We’ve recently started a new series called Encountering God in 12 Words. You might think of them as different seasons or stages in the spiritual life. We’re asking are there practices or postures which can help us nurture our relationship with God in everyday life?

I’m not talking about big things which require lots of time, effort and willpower. Just simple things we can build into what we’re already doing. That’s what the 12 words in the circles on the screen are about.

The first word we’ve been looking at is ‘here.’

If it doesn’t sound too obvious, here is the only place we can begin because here is where we are. But we don’t need to get somewhere else, because here is where God comes to meet us.

Where we are.

In this place.

At this time.

I speak of God coming to meet us, but this is not about God ‘showing up’ like God hasn’t been there all along. It’s more about God waiting for us to show up. This is about us waking up to the presence of the God who has been with us all along.

Something you’ll hear or read a lot about today is ‘mindfulness’ and living ‘in the present moment.’ It’s often associated with Eastern religious traditions, like Buddhism. But variations of mindfulness have been part of every major religious tradition. Including Christianity. In fact, it can be traced back to Jesus himself.

When we worked through the Sermon on the Mount we reflected on what Jesus had to say about worry. Jesus spoke about ‘considering the birds and the flowers.’ That’s a classic mindfulness text about living in the present.

Mindfulness is being advocated in all sorts of other, more secular environments too, as helpful for particularly good mental health. A couple of months back Time Magazine ran a special edition entirely devoted to it.

But, of course, you might be thinking, Andrew, of course I live in the present. When else would I live? But psychologists tell us that most of us live ‘everywhen except the present moment.’ We spend a lot of our time dwelling on the present or worrying about the future.

 

So that I am not misunderstood, I want to make a distinction between living in the moment and living for the moment. We sometimes speak of people who are ‘happy-go-lucky’ as living for the moment. However, living for the moment can be reckless, if it means acting without thought for the consequences or who you might hurt.

 

Living in the moment is different. It’s about recognising life is a gift. This moment, this day will come around only once and it’ll never return. From a faith perspective it’s about being awake to the possibility of what God might have to say to us at any given moment.

It’s that idea of being attentive, about waking up to the presence of God with us, that I’m talking about when I’m thinking of the word ‘here.’

This idea of living in the moment, of noticing and appreciating what we are experiencing comes up in the readings Gill read for us this morning. Two directly describe quite significant spiritual moments. In Exodus it’s God’s appearance to Moses and the Israelites at Sinai. In Matthew it’s a mysterious moment in the life of Jesus, witnessed by 3 of the disciples, called the Transfiguration. In our third reading, Peter, one of the witnesses to the Transfiguration, looks back to that event and explains something of how he, in time, came to understand or interpret what he had seen.

 

This idea of being present, being here, living in this present moment occurs right at the start of the Exodus passage. In your church Bibles Exodus 24: 12 reads The Lord said to Moses, “Come up the mountain to me, and while you are here, I will give you two stone tablets which contain all the laws that I have written for the instruction of the people.”

I’m no Hebrew scholar. But I am reliably informed that’s not quite what the Hebrew says. It really reads something like this…

‘Come up to me on the mountain and be on the mountain.’

It seems an odd thing to say. If Moses goes up the mountain, of course he’ll be on the mountain. Where else would he be?

But when rabbis interpreted this passage they saw something of the body in one place, mind in another, like the student with which I began.

Last week we considered the passage at the start of Exodus when God calls Moses at the burning bush. I touched on how reluctant Moses was to accept this call. Moses had a lot of reasons why God had picked the wrong guy. Nonetheless, once he gets started Moses throws himself into the task of liberating the people.

But although his story is thousands of years old, Moses suffers from a very modern condition.

Moses had poor work/life balance. Moses is a workaholic. His mind is always on the people.

Between leaving Egypt and returning to rescue the people, Moses had married a woman called Zipporah. Moses did well. For Zipporah’s father, Jethro, also turns out to be a real blessing to him. He challenges Moses on how he’s working tells him he’s mad. If he isn’t careful he’ll burn himself into frazzle. Jethro tells Moses to wise up and delegate more of his work. (That’s my translation, not King James).

 

All of us probably know someone with an indispensability complex.

Actually I’m being generous. Most of us probably have an indispensability complex sometimes. We think ‘if I don’t do it, no-one will.’

Sometimes they might feel justified in thinking that way. Certainly Moses could have been forgiven for thinking that. He left Aaron and Hur with the people to go up the mountain, but by the time he returned the people were already worshipping a golden calf!

Moses is on the mountain almost a week before God invites him to approach the cloud. He’ll be up there some time. So it’s not unreasonable to assume that it would have been possible for Moses to be physically on the mountain, but his mind is back down in the valley, wondering how long this will take, what the people are up to when he’s not around, what messes he’ll have to sort out when he goes back.

The passage talks about Moses receiving the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments on it. But actually Moses receives some very detailed instructions on constructing the tabernacle which the people will carry with them throughout the wilderness journey. So as Moses listens, I’d be surprised if he’s not wondering how he’s going to manage this job, or weighing up who be the best person for that role.

God knows Moses well enough to know that however amazing an experience this must have been, that’s how Moses’ mind works. So God says ‘Moses, come up here, and I want your full attention. I want you here, mind and body.’ There will be a time for returning to the people, and getting to work. But right now God wants him to be attentive to this moment, to what’s happening here and now. God knows Moses well enough to know he could allow this moment to pass him by and not savour it. Not learn its lessons.

 

The same is true of the Gospel passage. There are a lot of deliberate echoes from the Exodus passage. Moses takes Joshua, Israel’s next leader up the mountain with him. Jesus takes the first generation of his closest followers. There’s all the details: the cloud, the light, the voice. Those raised on the tradition of the wilderness wandering stories would have recognised those similarities. They knew they’d heard this kind of thing before, and knew what had followed.

This is one of the more ‘otherworldly’ parts of the Gospels. What precisely did the disciples see? How did they know it was Moses and Elijah with Jesus? We’re not told. They just did.

Often when people talk about this passage they talk of how we can’t always live on the mountaintop. We can’t make the great experience last forever. We might think Peter is living too much in the present moment.

But that’s not quite what’s going on here. Peter says ‘it’s good for us to be here. Let’s build three shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus.’

But Peter is not thinking about fixed, solid places. Peter is picking up the echoes from the story he’s been taught since he was a child. Peter is talking about building tents, what they’d have called tabernacles.

Remember the background to the Moses story. God gives instructions for building a… tabernacle. It wasn’t like the temple they built in Jerusalem. This was a tent which they took with them. It travelled with them. It was a place they would go the meet with God in the wilderness, when they had left Sinai behind.

That’s what Peter is hoping to recreate. Peter doesn’t hope to stay on the mountain forever. It’s more he wants to preserve the moment. We might say he wants to bottle it. He wants something to take with them wherever they go.

The life Jesus was living was inevitably leading to trouble and Jesus knows it. Just before this incident Jesus starts to make the predictions of what lies ahead when they get to Jerusalem. How he’s going to be arrested, tried and killed. Virtually every remaining scene in Matthew’s Gospel is full of misunderstanding, hostility, opposition, tension. Perhaps Peter has begun to notice this too. It’s not that Peter wants to stay there. He just wants to be able to maintain the feeling, to know the similar assurance of God’s presence when things get tough, as they inevitably do.

And who can blame him?

Do we never wish we could bottle that good feeling?

How quickly does that lovely holiday feeling disappear on the first morning back at work?

How quickly do we go back to feeling like we’ve never been away?

In a way what Peter is trying to do is like a classical equivalent of those people with a camera phone at a concert, trying to preserve the memory of seeing their favourite band. But whilst they concentrate on preserving the memory, they don’t fully experience and appreciate the 2 hours they spend at the show. Peter is trying to find a way to preserve the experience, but he’s missing the moment. He’s trying so hard to ensure he remembers being there and that he’s not actually there. His mind is somewhere else. That voice ‘this is my son, listen to him’ is designed to draw him back. Jesus never wrote a book – wanted them to live it, experience it.

Of course, it’s possible we might wonder if we can learn too much from these incidents. They’re quite far removed from what I imagine most of our experience would be.

But in a sense there is an underlying problem which we do share with Moses and Peter, which also draws on ideas like mindfulness and living in the present. It’s about our ability or inability to distinguish between two things.

The urgent and the important.

We can let life slip by and miss out on so much by confusing the two.

Urgent tasks are the demands we place on ourselves, or which others place on us, or that we even just perceive people are placing on us.

The important things are those which are ultimately valuable. Those things when we look back and say ‘I wish I’d spent more time doing….’ Often we’re so caught up in the urgent that we miss what’s important.

That was the risk Moses faced. If he allowed his attention to be distracted by the urgent stuff that being leader placed upon him, that he risked missing out on the important experience with God. Peter, distracted by what Jesus has just warned them lies ahead in Jerusalem, perhaps focussing on what lay ahead, risked failing to realise that this moment had an importance all of its own. We might be stunned to think that such a problem could arise. But both passages suggest it could.

Actually research suggests the human mind has a way of allowing an urgent task to filter out the important. Let me show you a video to show what I mean

Firstly how many had seen this or something similar before?

If you hadn’t, how many spotted the gorilla?

Did you notice the other stuff?

The guy is the gorilla outfit was blatantly obvious. But half of the people didn’t notice him because they were focussed on the urgent task of counting passes. I only found that version when I was looking for the clip in my preparation. I missed the curtain and the player, because I was focussed on seeing the gorilla.

 

That danger of failing to distinguish between the urgent and important can enter into our relationship with God. In his book Prayer: Does it make a difference Phillip Yancey writes ‘it occurred to me one day that though I often worry about whether or not I sense the presence of God, I give little thought to whether God senses the presence of me

How often, when I pray, is God having an ‘Andrew’s not quite there’ moment. Maybe you find the same. We’re invited into the presence of God, yet rather than truly accepting the invitation, the urgent takes over, the list of things that need done are at the forefront of my mind, and I’m not there in the present moment. My body is here, but my mind and my spirit are not where God has come to meet me. Here.

Our age sees busyness as a virtue. And ministers are amongst the worst with that. When I ask other ministers how things are going, nine times out of ten the first thing they will comment on is how they’re ‘busy’. There are times in minister’s gathering when part of me wants to respond ‘really? I’m not!’ just to see how uncomfortable the meeting would become.

But it is really easy for the busyness and urgency of life to shout loudest and crowd out those moments when God has been real, present, or when you’ve been blessed with something good in your day. We aren’t alert, or awake to the good in our lives. We aren’t here. When you do that, all you’ll ever notice is when things go wrong, when God feels distant.

Yet that suggests why being awake to those moments of closeness, being here, awake, to the presence of God is important. Because those moments can’t be bottled. They will pass. Life will not always be lived in those moments. We will go through other seasons, when other words will be more dominant in our spiritual experience. Sometimes tougher words like sorry, help, when, why, no. Words we’ll look at later in the series.

There will be tougher seasons. And as I said right at the start of this, it’s very human to want to rush through those seasons. But often it’s not how it works. God will be waiting to meet us there too. But if we don’t take time to grow aware of his presence in those moments when he feels close, they can’t sustain or strengthen us then. The purpose of those moments of closeness is to give us hope when we face the dark paths, when seeing God at work and hearing what he might be saying to us seems so much more difficult.

That’s what we get in the reading from II Peter. In years to come he would look back on that moment of closeness he experienced at the Transfiguration as a time when he caught a glimpse of just who this Jesus in whom he had placed his trust really was.

Years later he would write to a bunch of people who saw nothing but trouble, who were beginning to doubt it all and were beginning to wonder whether they had backed the wrong horse.

And in response, Peter takes them to that moment and what he had learned from experience, when he’d seen Jesus transformed. When he had caught a glimpse of the God with whom he was dealing.

Jesus told them not to talk about it until they’d seen him rise from the dead. It’s good wisdom not to speak too readily or too quickly about those moments when God has seemed close to you. Better to ponder, better to give them space to sink in, to percolate.

For truly for Peter it only made sense when he reached the end of the Gospel and experienced a somewhat different hilltop experience.

On this mountain, Peter saw Jesus revealed in glory; On that hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was a figure of fun, displayed in shame.

On this mountain his clothes shone white; On that hill outside Jerusalem, they were stripped off, and soldiers gambled for them.

On this mountain he wass flanked by two of Israel’s greatest heroes; On that hill outside Jerusalem, he’d be flanked by two terrorists.

On this mountain a bright cloud overshadowed the scene; On that hill outside Jerusalem, darkness comes upon the land.

On this mountain Peter blurts out how wonderful it all is; by that hill outside Jerusalem, he’d be denying he even knows the man.

On this mountain God himself declares that this is my son; On that hill outside Jerusalem, the only one to declare that this was God’s son would be one of his executioners.

Somehow or other, when he saw the Risen Christ, in some way recognisable, in other ways transformed, Peter witnessed the power of God to transform those who entered the darkness trusting in him.

Those experiences took him into the path of discipleship which lay ahead, which had moments of closeness, but so much darkness too. But by starting here, by waking up to the presence of God in those moments of closeness, he was offered light to shine in the darkness of those darker seasons when other words come to the forefront of our spiritual consciousness.

It is here God wants to begin. Where we are, as we are. To show up, to allow ourselves to be in the place where we can experience him. It can’t be forced, but if we open ourselves to it, it happens in God’s own time. It can’t be bottled. We can’t take it with us in that sense that we will always feel God nearby.

Pray for those occasions, and relish them when they come. But don’t try to preserve them. For when God, in his grace, gives them, for if we start here and learn those lessons well, they can help sustain us in the journey ahead.

 

 

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Here (Part 2)

04-Exodus_Burning-Bush_preview-imageryReading: Genesis 28: 10-22; Exodus 3: 1-15

About 10 years ago, Joshua Bell, one of the biggest-name solo violinists in the world, made news when he went busking in a Washington DC metro station. He played for almost 45 minutes. But he didn’t announce it. He went in disguise. He wore a baseball cap to hide his floppy hair and a t-shirt.

What do you think happened?

Well, you might imagine a crowd would develop. That some would think ‘ok, so I might be running late, but this guy is awesome. As the Guardian said at the time, had this been a Richard Curtis film, Bell would make the whole station come to a standstill, causing a spontaneous multiple epiphany as people realised the hollowness of their pathetic, materialistic lives and their spirits awoke up to a world of transcendent beauty.

But what did happen?

 

Well, whilst he played, 1097 walked past. The Washington Post, who were in on the experiment, counted them.

How many do you think stopped to listen for more than one minute?

7.

How much do you think he made from busking?

$52.17

$20 of that was from one individual who did recognise him. So from the others it was just $32.

However the point Bell was trying to make wasn’t so much that we’ve don’t appreciate real beauty and talent when it right in front of us, nor that we’ve lost the ability to stop and pay attention, though certainly those things might be true.

It’s more that we fail to notice these things when they turn up in the wrong place, where or when we don’t expect it.

Had Joshua Bell been in a concert hall, on a stage, in a tux and bow tie, he would have no problem being recognised. But dressed casually, in a tube station, when we’ve got somewhere else to be? Less easy.

It’s probably true. Location does have a part to play. I mean, have you ever had trouble recognising someone because they are not where you normally see them? I’m more likely to stop and listen for a few minutes to singers in the markets at Covent Garden, when I’m just browsing and not in a rush anywhere, than in a tube station.

There was a fascinating story in the news recently about how the opposite can also be true. We can think more highly of something, which is actually quite ordinary, if it is in a grand place. A 17 year old left a pair of glasses on the floor of a San Francisco art gallery and walked away.

But people thought they were part of the exhibition. They stopped and stared at them, considered their meaning, got down and took photos of them…

And I wonder…

might we fail to notice God’s presence with us, cos it seems like the wrong place, it’s not where we would expect to find him?

God is here, but we don’t see him, cos surely here is the wrong place?

Where we least expect him?

Last time we started a new series, looking at the nature of the ‘spiritual life’ through 12 words. Lots of people would say they are spiritual, even if they would not consider themselves religious. More people have experiences which they would describe as ‘spiritual’ than we might realise.

But experience can be deceptive. It’s unreliable. Besides most of life is not lived in the highs and lows of experience. Most of us spend most of our time living in the ‘ordinary’. If are created to be drawn into close personal relationship with God our creator and sustainer, it can’t be based purely on great experiences. Good as they are, their impact fades over time. Relationship with God is only sustainable if we can find it in the ordinary.

So, are there ways in which we can encounter God and nurture relationship with God in the everyday experience of life?

I’m not talking about heaping more things onto a ‘to do’ list or suggesting big things that require lots of time, freedom or self-discipline. I’m talking about simple, doable things that we can build in to what we’re already doing.

Well, that’s what the 12 words in the circle on the screen are about.

The first word I introduced last week was Here.

If it doesn’t sound too obvious, here is the only place we can begin because here is where we are.

We might wish we were somewhere else.

We might think we should be somewhere else.

But we’re not.

We’re here.

In this place; in this time; in these circumstances; with these joys and sorrows; these strengths and weaknesses.

Here.

 

And last time I suggested that was good news.

We don’t need to get ourselves somewhere else to meet with God.

God wants to meet us here.

Where we are.

That’s what the two passages Femi read for us this morning were about. God encountering people where they were. But they were the ‘wrong places.’ The places where did they not expect to find him.

 

But something just to make clear about this word here. This is not about God ‘showing up’ as if God wasn’t there all along. This is about us wakening up to the presence of the God who has there all along whether we noticed or not, whether we wanted him around or not.

Consider what Jacob says in the Genesis passage.

The LORD is here. He is in this place and I didn’t know it.

Last time I introduced you to a very brief prayer, where we allow ourselves to be open to God’s presence with us. It was…

Here I am, Lord

Here You are, Lord

Here we are together.

 

Neither Moses nor Jacob seemed like ideal candidates to have any kind of encounter with God. In many different ways they weren’t in the ‘right place.’

It was true about their geography or physical location. But it was also true if you considered their emotional, mental or spiritual state.

Take Jacob. He’s the son of Isaac. The grandson of Abraham. Abraham had received great promises from God. Land, descendants, that God would bless him and, through his family bless the world.

Sounds great.

But God had his work cut out. At the time God made the promise, Abraham had no kids, and there seemed little chance of any arriving.

But even when Isaac was born the trouble wasn’t over. It was hard to imagine a whole world being blessed through this family. They weren’t even very good at blessing each another.

Jacob was a twin. His brother was called Esau. It would fair to say they didn’t get on. The parents didn’t help because they had favourites. Isaac favoured Esau, their mother, Rebekah, favoured Jacob.

Up until this point there is very little to indicate that Jacob had any real interest in, or awareness of, the God of his grandfather. There are only really two, strange little stories we read of him to this point. One where he persuades his twin brother to give up the inheritance rights of the firstborn son, in exchange for some bread and lentil soup. The other is as Isaac is preparing to die. Rebekah and Jacob conspire to steal the blessing Isaac had prepared for Esau.

As we pick up the story Jacob is on the run from Esau. Their mother Rebekah has had to help Jacob escape. Esau wants to kill him.

This story occurs just as Jacob is about to leave the Promised Land. He’s returning to where Abraham had been when he first got his call. He’s going back to the place Abraham had been told to leave behind.

He stops for the night and decides to get some sleep. You might think it odd to have a stone for a pillow, but that’s what they would have had. No lovely, soft, duck down in those days.

The place where he stops is described as sacred. It might just be with hindsight, knowing what’s about to happen, that the writer says that. More likely it was a shrine or worship site for the gods of the people who lived there. It’s possible, from the dream, that it was the site of an ancient ziggurat, a worship area for Mesopotamian gods, with ramped sides. Perhaps that serves to highlight just how alone Jacob is out here.

That’s when he has his dream, of a stairway or ladder up to the heavens, with angels ascending and descending on it. He discovers that God is not just out there, distant and aloof, but is interested and connected with what is happening here and now.

But what was new and groundbreaking about this story was not the spectacular dream, but the promise that was given to Jacob.

I will be with you and protect you, wherever you go.

Jacob was raised in a world where gods were thought to be local. Everyone had their gods and their gods ruled over their land. When you entered someone else’s territory it was the area of their god.

That was part of Jacob’s story too. When Abraham had been called to leave behind home and family and set off to a place God would show him, it was a story about leaving behind their gods.

So it would make sense for him to not expect his god to in this place. When you leave the family behind, you leave the gods behind too. Away from home, from family, at the worship shrine of another god, Jacob could be forgiven for thinking he is leaving behind God. He could even think he is being banished by God. That perhaps he’s finished with God, or at least God is finished with him.

But here at Bethel, or Luz, Jacob makes a huge discovery.

This God could be with him wherever he was.

This God could be encountered anywhere.

Jacob did not have to get back there.

God could meet him here.

Wherever here was.

His story bear striking similarities to the account of Moses. Who knows how many times Moses had walked his sheep that way, before the encounter at the burning bush. We’re told again that the site was sacred. It was Sinai, the holy mountain.

But Moses shows no signs of being aware of that. He’s not looking for any kind of spiritual encounter. He too is separated from his people. If anything he’s trying to leave the past behind.

Moses was a bit of the Harry Potter of his day. I’m not saying he was a wizard or anything like that. For those who know a bit about Harry Potter, Moses was the original boy who lived. At a time when Pharaoh was putting all the male Hebrew children to death, Moses mother had rebelled. Then when she could hide him no longer she placed him in a basket on the river. He had been picked up by Pharoah’s daughter and wound up being raised by his own mother in the royal house.

But for all his privilege, Moses never forgot his roots. He despised how his people were being treated. One day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave and killed the Egyptian.

But this didn’t make him a hero. There may have been a bit of a ‘what’s this got to do with the posh boy at the palace’ but when he tried to settle a dispute between two Hebrews, he was not only told to get lost, it became clear that his murder was known. So he fled and that was how he ended up being a shepherd. That was why he was out in the desert.

Moses encounters God in the course of his ordinary working day. But he doesn’t go the bush looking for God. He’s just awake enough to notice something odd about the bush. When the rabbis talk about this story they say the bush has been burning the whole time, it’s just that this is the first time Moses notices it. Again this is not so much a story about God showing up. It’s about Moses waking up to the presence of the God who has been there all along.

But just like Jacob, when he’s far away, when he feels he’s on his own, when he thinks him and God are finished, when he’s least expecting it, he discovers he’s not out of the reach of God.

That’s the place where God meets him.

We get a sense of what Moses might have been thinking from God’s response.

Was he thinking that God doesn’t care?

That God is out there, not interested in what is happening to his people?

Either he doesn’t see or he doesn’t care?

God reminds them that he has seen.

He has heard their cry.

He is aware of their suffering.

This God is interested in here and now.

He’s as interested in what’s happening in Egypt as in the land he had promised Abraham.

But it’s another feature of the story I find interesting here. Take off your sandals for this is holy ground. It’s always seen as a sign of reverence that Moses takes off his shoes.

But why would that be seen as reverent?

Perhaps the shoes get in the way.

Perhaps the divine wants more connection, not less.

But even before that, how does Moses respond to his name being called from within the bush?

Here I am.

Neither Moses nor Jacob seemed in the right place to encounter God. Neither was in the right place physically, geographically. The places are described as sacred, but they show no signs of knowing it.

But neither did they seem in right place mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Neither of them had gone there looking for God.

Both were far from where they would have thought they needed to be. They were in the place where they least expected to encounter God.

But they didn’t need to get from that place to somewhere else to encounter God.

God met them where they were.

In fact, God had been with them all along, even though they never knew it, even though they never acknowledged it. Perhaps, even, when they didn’t want him.

 

We speak of God showing up. But if anything what these passages teach us is that God is waiting for us to show up. To wake up to the divine presence that is with us, around us, always.

And that this God looks to encounter us.

Just where we are.

Just as we are.

It’s not a matter of us getting from there to there. It’s not about us getting ourselves in the right place emotionally, spiritually or whatever before God can meet with us.

God longs to encounter us as we are, where we are.

Here.

Here is where God comes to meet us.

It’s the only place God can meet us.

Both Moses and Jacob are, in their own ways, hiding.

But God comes to where they are to find them.

He comes to meet them, even where they least expect to find him.

 

God doesn’t wait for them to have it all sorted out before he can deal with them. It’s clear from the name he gives himself.

I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

He was the God who been revealed in their stories, in their lives. And none of them were super saints. Oh, at their best they were fine, but at their worst they could be a right dysfunctional lot.

But God was the God who was faithful, often despite rather than the cause of them. He’s the God who was there as the story unfolded, even when they forgot about him, even when they didn’t notice him, even when they didn’t want him. Even when they hid from him.

This God didn’t wait for us to get it all right before he came looking for us in Jesus. It was whilst we were still far from him, he came looking for us in Jesus. It was whilst we were still sinners, Christ gave himself for us.

But we also learn in our encounters this morning that when God comes to meet us, it doesn’t answer all the questions. We just get enough for the next stage of the journey.

It’s pretty ambiguous whether Jacob has really that much more faith when he leaves Bethel than when he arrived there. His response is ‘if God does this, that and the other for me, then I’ll let him be my God.’

He’s a God who works with Moses and all the doubts he has. We only read a small part of the encounter. Moses offers many reasons why God should go encounter someone else.

He asks ‘who am I to do it’.

Then he tries ‘I don’t know what to say’

Then he tries ‘what if they won’t listen to me’

Then he tries ‘I’m not equipped, I don’t have the skills.’

Then when all else fails he tries ‘can you not send someone else?’

But God starts with Moses where he is. And when Moses asks for a name he says I am who I am, or I will be what I will be.

Moses you’re going to have to trust me with that. I’ll be always present, but never fully grasped. It’s a relationship. There will always be more to discover. There will always be mystery.

You’ll never know all you think you need to know.

And that’s ok. Cos just as I am here now,

I will be there then,

and there then,

and there then.

That is the nature of the relationship we are invited into through Jesus.

There may be times we experience him as a shepherd.

There may be times when we encounter him as our rock.

There may be times we encounter him as a father, or a friend.

He will be what he will be.

But always beginning from the same place.

Here.

Where we are.

Waiting to be encountered.

Waiting for us to wake up to his presence.

We’re not waiting for him to show up. He is always there.

 

We might feel like we’re in the wrong place. We might not feel prepared. We might not feel worthy. But all he’s asking is that we show up when he calls. That we say Here I am.

Here I am, Lord

Here you are, Lord

Here we are together.

But they were the ‘wrong places.’ The places where did they not expect to find him.

Just an ordinary pair of glasses.

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Here (Part 1)

here

Reading: Genesis 3: 1-13

Sometimes people claim we live in a ‘godless society.’ Or they might say where they work or where they spend some other part of their time is a fairly ‘godless’ place.

It’s not a phrase which makes any sense. For a couple of reasons.

Firstly, we all have gods.

Everyone.

From the most fundamentalist believers to the most ardent of atheists. We have our Gods. We might not recognise them as such, we might not call them by that name, but it’s what they are.

They can be good or bad things.

Our God could be pleasure.

It could be our career.

It could be ourselves.

Everybody believes in something.

We all have stuff we live for.

We all have our gods.

None of us are godless.

So wherever we are can’t be godless. If anything there’ll be lots of gods hanging around.

You say, Andrew, that’s not what the phrase really means. Well, I know, but the other reason is more important.

God is everywhere. I’m not sure if it was philosophers or theologians who came up with the word but one of the words they used to describe God was omnipresent. But ‘everywhere’ is easier to say.

It’s a point made by one of the most loved Psalms (139)

Where can I go from your Spirit?

Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;

if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I rise on the wings of the dawn,

if I settle on the far side of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,

your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me

and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;

the night will shine like the day,

for darkness is as light to you.

If God’s everywhere, nowhere can be truly godless. We might not be aware of God. God might not be recognised. God might not be noticed. God might not be wanted or welcome.

None of that changes anything. God is always there.

And if God is everywhere, then God is here.

Which brings us to our first word.

Here.

For if we want to encounter God, then here is where we must begin.

It’s the first question God asks of us.

Where are you?

And if they are to encounter this God who comes seeking them there is only one honest answer…

Here.

Here I am.

People often miss the point of those early chapters in Genesis. The point is not that our world is a mess because of choices a couple of people made a long time ago, in a land far, far away.

It’s about the choices we make,

all the time,

here and now.

And about how God wants to relate to us here and now.

I don’t for a minute think we’re supposed to imagine God walking in a garden, rooting through the bushes asking ‘where are those pesky kids?’ God knows precisely where they are.

But God needs them to recognise it.

To see, to realise where they are.

Because that is where God comes to meet them.

Here.

It’s the word we use to denote our presence. In the school roll call it’s our response to our name.

Jackson?

Here!

Here might seem the obvious response to the question ‘where are you?’ But often we’re not really ‘here.’ We’re anywhere but here, in anytime but now. We dwell on the past. We worry about the future. We’re distracted by all the stuff that’s gone on this morning, or have to do later today.

But here is where God comes to meet us.

And can I suggest that’s a good thing?

We might wish we were somewhere else.

We maybe should be somewhere else.

But here is where I am, whether I like it or not.

In 2017;

in this political climate;

in this stage of my life;

with this set of circumstances.

With this set of problems;

With these faults;

With these things which bring joy

With these things that could cause me great embarrassment;

With these mistakes.

 I’m here.

Here is the only place I can begin.

Here.

Now.

Just as I am.

But I don’t need to be anywhere else to start.

I don’t have to get myself somewhere else.

For here is where God has come to meet me.

To meet you.

Just where I am.

Just where you are.

That’s not to say there can’t be places or moments where we will feel God closer to us than others. There are places where we can set aside time and be aware of God’s presence. One of the places we are invited to us do this is here at the table, where we remember that when we were still far from God, he came looking for us, asking ‘where are you’

But we are also invited to recognise that God is with us wherever we are. God has been there all along, even when were too distracted, groggy, sick or immature to notice.

As I draw to a close I want to share with you a very short prayer, which can, if we use it, help us to re-set, to become aware of God’s presence. At any point.

Here I am, Lord

Here you are, Lord

Here we are together.

It’s a simple prayer.

It takes less than 15 seconds. We can utter those words, even in a whisper, on the way to that meeting, as we sit with that person whom we long to help, on that journey, wherever we happen to be found.

Here I am, Lord

Here you are, Lord

Here we are together.

With those words we welcome God into whatever we are doing.

We ask him to awaken us to where we are, and to the presence of the God who is with us wherever we are.

The one from whose presence we cannot flee.

It reminds us that we don’t have to be anywhere else to meet with God.

Perhaps we wish we were somewhere else.

Perhaps we ought to be somewhere else.

But here is where we are.

And we don’t need to be anywhere else.

For here is where God has come to meet us.

Here is the place we begin

And begin again.

 

Posted in 12 Words

12 Words: Introduction

In the first half of the year, we spent a lot of time on the theme of Knowing Christ. We considered the idea that we are created for loving, intimate relationship with God our creator, who has revealed himself most fully in his son Jesus.

In one sense I wrapped that up before I went on holiday. But I’m not totally leaving it behind. I want to build on that theme in a new series over the next number of months.

The focus is slightly different. I suppose I’m asking things like…

  • Who is this kind of spiritual life, or relationship with God for?
  • Is it just for some kind of super religious elite?
  • Or is it wider than that?
  • What does the spiritual life look like?
  • How do we grow in that relationship?
  • Does it just grow by accident or do we need to nurture it?
  • If we need to nurture it, how do we do that?

An expression I hear quite a lot is when people say they are spiritual, but not religious. I suppose they mean is that there is more to life than we realise, more than can be explained by our senses. Our world is mysterious. There is more to it than we realise. But equally they find ‘organised religion’ doesn’t really help answer the questions they have. Sometimes they sense it even gets in the way.

In fact for some people there is a tension between those two ideas – being spiritual or being religious. For some people church is the last place they would expect to encounter anything ‘spiritual.’

There are lots of reasons for that. Some good, some bad. It’s just how it is.

But it’s not just outside churches I encounter this. On Youtube I can find all sorts of videos along the lines of ‘why I hate religion, but love Jesus’ or ‘it’s about relationship not religion.’ Or when I do a google image search stuff like this comes up.

Christianity is not a religion.

Religion is humans trying to work their way to God.

Christianity is God coming to men and women through a relationship with Jesus Christ.

 Now I sympathise with some of what that’s trying to say. But I suspect it’s a product of the fact that the word religion has got such bad press.

I’m not sure that such a tension really needs to exist. For at their best, they’re both about the same thing. In the few weeks before I went on holiday I spoke about how the word re-lig-ion has the same root as ligament. The purpose of good religion is to bind us together – body, mind and spirit; to connect us to God and each other.

Yes, religion has been used for quite destructive ends, and been used to justify many terrible things. But at it’s best it draws us together with others, bring wholeness to us and connects us with the divine.

What we believe has its place, but far more important are questions like:

is this life-giving? I mean Jesus did say he came to bring us life.

Is it true,

noble,

right,

pure,

lovely,

admirable,

excellent,

praiseworthy?

Far more people have experiences that they would describe as ‘spiritual’ than we realise. It might be a sunset or the birth of a child. Equally they might encounter it in the darker moments of life where they wonder if they can make it, if they can go on. Then from somewhere they discover strength or courage they never knew they had, or help comes from an unexpected source. We say things like ‘it’s like it was meant to be.’

Maybe it was.

Spiritual experiences are great and to be celebrated. But they can’t sustain a meaningful relationship for any period of time. They are very unreliable. You can’t just flick a switch and they happen. There is no magic formula for them.

Most of life is not lived in the real highs or lows or intense experiences. It’d be exhausting if it were. So if we are to live life in relationship with God, it can’t be built around great experiences. It’s only sustainable if we can find it in the ordinary.

So, are there ways in which we can encounter God and nurture relationship with God in the everyday experience of life?

Over the next number of months I want to suggest we can.

The spiritual life shares more in common with other areas of life than we realise. We can develop habits and practises which help to nurture our spiritual life.

For example at the moment I can’t speak Romanian. But if I took some classes, gradually, word by word, phrase by phrase, I’d slowly begin to develop my Romanian. When I spoke to Christian and Aurica or Beny and Elisabeta I could insist we only used Romanian. I could spend time in Romania. Over time I might become fluent. Some of you have had to do that with English since you came to this country. It was something I was unable to do, but I could develop.

Or I have run a few half-marathons. When I started running I could barely manage a few hundred metres. But gradually over time, by following a program, slowly building up the miles, I could slowly build it up to the point where I was able to complete races. Again through small, simple steps I built up my capabilities.

Could the same true of the spiritual life?

Can I become more forgiving?

Can I become more thankful or humble?

Can I learn to accept God’s grace more freely?

Please don’t think I’m underplaying the importance of grace in the Christian life. This is not about things we do to get God on our side. God is already with us. God loves us completely, just as we are.

However all relationships are two way. God won’t force his way on his if we do not want it.

Over the course of this series I want to offer certain practices that can help us nurture the relationship with God. Things which can create space for the living water or the wind of the Spirit which Jesus spoke about to move in our lives.

That’s what these 12 words are about.

I recognise that in my job, at this season of my life, without some of the responsibilities that others have to deal with, I have space a lot of other people don’t. So this is not about heaping more do this, do that onto you in your already busy lives. If the only people who can set out on a spiritual journey needs lots of time, freedom and self-discipline, it’s not going to work for a lot of us.

No, this is stuff that’s simple, doable and can be built into what we are already doing. They can help us to encounter God in the midst of all life.

One final thing before I dive in, is that growth and progress is rarely straightforward. I spoke a few weeks ago about how growth often comes in spirals rather than straight lines.

We go through cycles of learning. We start from the position of thinking we know something. Everything seems lovely and wonderful.

Then something happens which tells you this might be more complicated than I thought. And things don’t get better quickly.

It can develop into a crisis. You might even look back to the day where you wondered ‘how could I ever have thought that?’

But hopefully over time you come to discover a new way of understanding. It may be that what you thought was wrong. But often, hopefully, you discover that there was some truth in it, but you had more to learn to understand it more fully.

When we grow in a healthy way we don’t just go round and round in circles. We take what we learned from the experience and it launches us forward onto a new cycle of learning.

The spiritual life works much the same way.

We might liken it to seasons.

We have the summer of life when we are aware of God’s presence and goodness and worship comes easy. But if you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any length of time you know it doesn’t stay that way. Summer gives way to autumn. You become aware of needs within yourself, needs of others, need for help. And the spiritual life will pass through the darkness of winter in that period of waiting for rescue, when you might find yourself shaking your fists at the heavens, when you find yourself asking why? But then winter gives way to spring and we begin to see signs of new life.

Of course, it sounds nice and neat, but just like normal seasons it’s not always predictable. You might get a hint of summer in the midst of winter, or unseasonably cold days in summer. But it does help to unpack a little of how we grow. So over the four seasons we’ll consider three words for each season…

 

Summer

Here – when we become aware of God’s presence

O – where we respond in worship

Thanks – where we appreciate God’s goodness to us

Autumn

Sorry – an awareness of our need for forgivness

Help –we discover weaknesses and appeal to God to strengthen us

Please – We see others in need, realise our own powerlessness to help, and turn to God

Winter

When – where we ask the great spiritual question ‘how long’

No – when we refuse to accept the world as it is.

Why? – where we will deal with lament and loss

Spring

Behold – we begin to see new signs of life

Yes – we begin to welcome the newness God’s brings

… – which is just about stillness. In the silence God prepares for us for what’s next.

The point of all this is that being a good Christian is not about trying to keep yourself in summer. Life doesn’t work like that. No-one should feel guilty if they find themselves spiritually in autumn or winter. It’s about whatever season we find ourselves in, God can meet us there.

Nor is it about getting through the stages quickly. Each season has lessons to bring and if we want the full life God has to offer us, we can live well and grow through each of them.

If you want to know where I am going with all this, my main source is this book – Naked Spirituality by Brian McLaren.

I’m not following his scheme exactly (my seasons don’t even match his) but the broad scheme will be similar.

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ: Worth It?

Readings: Philippians 3: 4-14; Matthew 13: 44-46

In the Jewish, rabbinic tradition, they have a description for the way they reflect, or meditate, on the scriptures. They call it ‘turning the gem.’ They said the scriptures were like a precious stone with 70 faces. Each time you turned it over you would encounter something new, something different.

In a sense that’s what we’ve been doing over the last few months… with just five words.

I want to know Christ.

 

That phrase crops up twice in our reading from Philippians this morning.

In verse 10 Paul says I want to know Christ. Yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead.

Just a couple of verses earlier he has said I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

We’ve not done it 70 times, but over the last few months, on Sundays, at church meetings, at deacons’ meetings, these words have been at the background of pretty much every reflection and sermon I’ve shared with you, even if the actual words have not been read.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the belief that we are made for relationship with God. We have a God who lovingly created us and longs for relationship with us. Down through the ages, in many ways God has been reaching out to us, revealing himself to us, inviting us into relationship.

But he has revealed himself most fully in his son, Jesus. That’s why Jesus came into the world.

Jesus said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father, except through me.’ Often those words are presented as a warning, as a really exclusive ‘choose me or God’ll get you.’

But that’s not how Jesus used them.

Jesus is saying if you want to know what God is like, look at him.

If you want to know what the kind of life God created us to live looks like, look at Jesus.

If you want to know God and enter into relationship with him, get to know Jesus.

Observe and learn from how Jesus relates to God.

We’ve explored this theme from a lot of different angles. We’ve considered ‘where’ we are to know Christ. We’ve spoken about him renewing our minds, stretching our imaginations, knowing him in our hearts. We’ve considered the importance of memory, of allowing the good God has brought into our lives to take root, in sustaining that relationship.

We’ve thought about the circumstances into which we can invite Christ: our loneliness, our anxiety, our self-doubt, our suffering.

We’ve looked at what Jesus says about himself, how Jesus describes himself. As the bread of life, light of the world, the true vine. We’ve observed his dealings with others, from the fishermen by the shore, to the Samaritan woman at the well. We have seen him deal with doubt in Thomas and failure in Peter.

We looked at how we grow in relationship and a couple of weeks ago I considered the question of how then shall we live. We are challenged to live differently.

 

This morning I want to wrap up this series by couple of last considerations. God invites us into living, personal relationship with himself through Jesus.

But do we need it?

Is it worth it?

And finally… does God consider us worth knowing? How can we know God wants it?

There’s no doubt Paul thought it was worth it. He says I consider everything a loss compared with knowing Christ. But to be fair we might argue ‘he would say that.’

But what is he talking about?

What is he comparing?

 

Last week I spoke to you of how the word religion is related to another English word: ligament. Just as ligaments exist to connect different parts of the body, so the purpose of re-lig-ion is to re-connect us, to put us back together again.

Which kind of suggests we’re not all together in the first place. The Christian worldview is that we live in this network of relationships: with God, with others, with our world, with ourselves. The scriptures has a word to describe when all these relationships are in good, healthy, working order.

Shalom.

It’s translated peace, but it means so much more than just an absence of trouble. It’s about everything that makes for our greatest good.

Shalom is about the deepest longings of our hearts.

However, shalom does not characterise the world. These relationships are all broken or damaged. We’re all part of it. We all mess up. We are, as the song I keep hearing on TV at the moment reminds me, only human after all.

The aim and purpose of good, true re-lig-ion is to heal these relationships;

to re-connect all these things,

to put us back together.

To restore us to shalom.

But of course, even if we admit this, we may not think we need to help to put it back together again. Faith they might say is fine for those not strong enough to take care of themselves. It’s a crutch for them. But give us enough time, will, money and effort there’s nothing we can’t sort. Why put our trust in some God, when we are perfectly capable of doing the job ourselves?

When Paul says those words on which we’ve been reflecting over the past few months, that’s the kind of thinking he’s been challenging.

 

I’m sure we’ve all encountered people from time to time who have no shortage of self-confidence. They boast about their prowess, how much money they can earn, their success, just how drop-dead gorgeous they are.

That’s not how most people see themselves. Many wonder just what they’re good for. People have more trouble even liking themselves than you might think. If you doubt it, just look at the rise of cosmetic surgery. Not that long ago that it was largely for the Hollywood stars and the very wealthy. Not any more. In 2015 50,000 people had cosmetic procedures. A few years ago psychologist James Dobson estimated that 80% of teenagers dislike how they look and are.

Paul argues that we can find shalom in the world.

It is within our reach.

But it’s not rooted in ourselves.

Instead it’s rooted in God’s love for us, in his plans for the world. In his longing to draw us into relationship with himself.

It’s not based on what we achieve, how good we become.

God has done all this required to set us right with himself in Jesus.

It’s not to be found by trying to make our own way, solving everything by ourselves, trusting in our own abilities and achievements. But by leaning on him trusting in what God has done to put us back together again.

In fact relying on ourselves, risks more than we realise. It’s harder to lay hold of something precious, if your hands are already full; when you’re clinging to what you already have and refuse to let go.

 

We can rely on ourselves.

But thing is, how will we know when we’ve done enough?

How will we know when we’re good enough?

Who do you compare yourself to?

I used to play a lot of table tennis. I was ok. I won a few tournaments as a teenager, although none of them were exactly of the highest standard. But for my level, I was pretty good. I did pretty well.

Then I was asked to play in another league. In one of my first matches I came up against the number 1 player in Ireland. Before we had even got through the warm up I knew I had nothing. And so it proved. He absolutely thrashed me. If I chose my competition well, I seemed so good, but I was not good enough in that environment.

And he was only the top player in Ireland. He was brilliant at our level, but if he stepped out of that and say, came across to the British mainland, he had the same experience I had against him.

How good is good enough?

 

Consider two children. One knows she is loved unconditionally. She knows what is expected of her. But her parents love her and support her whatever. There is nothing she can do, good or bad, that will change that. For she is already loved completely. If she messes up, she will still be loved, she will still be welcomed.

The other knows what’s expected of her, and knows that she is being watched to see if she lives up to it. Love and affection can be withdrawn or withheld. Acceptance is based on being good enough. So she tries and tries and she does live up to it. But she knows if she messes up she will never be allowed to forget it.

Which do you think is happier?

Which is freer?

Which child finds it easier to take risks?

Which has the better way of living?

 

Paul knew what he was talking about. He had been where the second child was. He knew what was required of him and did all he could to live up to it. He hoped it would lead to him discovering the life God created him to live. He hoped in doing it he would discover shalom.

And Paul was good at that life. He could say ‘if people want to play this game of how much they can do to please God, let’s see if they can compare with me…’

So Paul lists his credentials. His Jewish credentials were top notch. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews. He not only knew the Torah, which outlined the life God wanted them to live, he kept it… and how. If he had to decide how to apply a law to his life, he would choose the stricter end. Just to be sure. Better that than risk being wrong. He had no tolerance for those who challenged that way of seeing the world. We might not think that’s particularly commendable but Paul would have done.

His basic point is that if God was going to be pleased with anyone, it would have been him.

But Paul doesn’t play the game the way others would have. He’s not merely trying to show how good he was. All he’s saying is if anyone should have been capable of putting things right themselves, if anyone could have laid hold of the life God had for him, it was him.

But Paul had tried it and found it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

It’s as if Paul has in mind an accounting system. He presents on one side all the good stuff in his favour. All the advantages he had. Then he encountered Jesus, and found that in that relationship his whole system didn’t work. All the stuff he thought would help get closer to God and would help him put everything back together, was getting in the way. It was stopping him trusting in what God had done for him.

The picture being presented is not of Paul standing before God with a 99% on his exam paper, only to find God saying ‘sorry, but the pass mark is 100%.

Paul doesn’t say all those things he once cherished were rubbish. Paul valued each and every one of them. It was just he had found something that was better, more powerful, more effective, and all that stuff did not compare. Paul’s not comparing good and bad. He’s comparing good with the best.

I’m not a rubbish table tennis player. At least I wasn’t. But placed next to the Irish number 1, I didn’t half look it.

Paul looked at what he had, trusting to himself. Then he compared it with the intimate, trusting relationship God was offering him through Jesus, and Paul realised he had nothing.

But realised there was another way of being.

Another way of living.

Another way of discovering shalom.

And it began by realising he wasn’t just relying on his own abilities, on how own merits. It began with realising he was loved completely and unconditionally.

He didn’t have to get God on his side.

God was already there.

God was already at work reconciling all things,

restoring all things,

renewing all things,

healing all things

and he was invited to simply place himself in the flow of that.

And God was so much better at it than him.

It’s like the guys in the two parables of Jesus that we shared. It wasn’t that they had nothing. It seems that by the standards of this world at least they were people of means. Then they found something else and realised that what they had simply didn’t compare.

That’s not to say it isn’t without its costs or its challenges.

In the last few weeks we’ve had no shortage of people saying that they can satisfy all out hopes, dreams, aspirations, and we needn’t worry about the cost.

Jesus never made any such promise.

And the people to whom Paul wrote knew that. One of the main themes of Philippians is about keeping faith in difficult settings. Paul is writing the letter from prison. He is writing to a church that is facing persecution and hardship for sticking to their faith.

When Paul writes those words in verse 10, it would be good to be able to say he stopped it half way. To say I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

Who wouldn’t want a bit of that?

There are no shortage of teachers happy to tell you that you can know that power in your life.

 

But far fewer will tell you how you discover it.

Paul doesn’t stop there. He knows there is only one pathway to resurrection. He adds to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so somehow attaining to the resurrection of the dead.

Paul doesn’t claim that the live he has taken on and in which he urges the Philippians (and us) to continue, is easy. Jesus himself had said ‘in the world you’ll have trouble’ and Paul knew it.

But he also knew that when he faced them, he wasn’t alone. That the same God who was at work in Jesus is at work in us, even in our trials.

In Gethsemane, Jesus had begged to be spared, but had faced all that lay ahead of him, trusting in God, and discovered that God wouldn’t let him down.

God was greater, more powerful than whatever he faced.

God could turn it for good, that God could bring new life out of it.

God would be able to hold him and nothing could separate him from God’s love.

In the world we will have trouble – no-one escapes.

But we have a choice.

We can choose to face it alone, trust in our own strength, our own abilities, our own merits, or we can enter into relationship with God, through Jesus, knowing that he is more than capable of keeping his promises.

It is a journey.

And it will last a lifetime.

Not even Paul claimed to have made it.

Yet the deeper we enter that relationship, the more we come to know Christ, the more we come to realise he is far more able of bringing shalom to our life than we are.

The deeper we enter that relationship, the more we realise we are loved totally unconditionally. Yes, at times we will mess up, but we don’t have to live in fear, because we’re loved unconditionally. Yes we’re called to live differently, but not out of fear of what God will do to us if we don’t. We can choose to live generously, to be truthful, to forgive and stop carrying around bitterness, we can be compassionate, we can seek peace in every situation, simply because in Jesus we come to see it’s a better way to live.

It’s the life God revealed to us in Jesus, a life lived in the awareness that in all things we are held in the hands of a loving God, who is worthy of our trust, and whose intentions for us are good. In his hands, whatever we face, we can know we are going to be ok.

 

But how can we know that?

Because in God’s eyes you are the treasure buried in the field.

You are the pearl of great price.

 

We often read these parables and see ourselves as the treasurer seekers and the pearl merchant. So the story becomes about what we have to do, what we have to give up.

It sounds good. Heroic even. And Jesus did say seek and you will find. He calls us to take up the cross to follow.

But Jesus never says that in the parables.

He merely says the Kingdom of heaven is like that.

And there is another side to that story.

Maybe the treasure seeker or the merchant is God himself.

The message of the Gospel is not about us seeking out God, so much as God seeking out us. Elsewhere, whether it’s lost sheep, coins or sons that are found, the description Jesus speaks of the joy of the find is God’s joy at finding us.

Jesus says this is how God works in the world. He seeks us and when he finds us he will do everything possible to draw us into relationship with himself. That was what he did in Christ. That is how we know that not only are we created for relationship with God, but God wants us to enter it.

For it was Jesus who gave up everything he had, so that he might once again be in relationship with us. That he might be able to take all the broken pieces and put us and all things back together again. Jesus who left behind all the glory and the power and emptied himself and became obedient even to death on the cross.

If you want to know how much God wants us to enter into relationship with him, we need only look at the outstretched hands of Jesus on the cross as he says ‘this much.’ The cross shows it’s not about how good we are, but that we are loved unconditionally.

We don’t have to get God on our side.

He’s already there.

That is how committed he is to restoring all that is wrong in the world.

That is how committed he is to shalom.

 

We are invited into relationship with God, intimate personal relationship with him, where we can know we are loved completely and nothing can take that love from us.

All he asks us to do is trust him.

 

 

Posted in One offs

A Response to the London Bridge Attacks: A People of Faith, A People of Hope, a People of Love

This was very last minute. It was pretty stream of consciousness really, which is not me…

Most of you will know I really script stuff. I can barely say ‘hello’ unless it’s on the script. Almost every word I say will be in the script.

This is this morning’s sermon. So you can probably guess I’m out of my comfort zone.Sermon Notes

This isn’t what I intended to say at 8.30 this morning. I was reflecting in my prayers this morning, on the news we had had this morning, I felt inclined to move away from what I planned this morning, and share some of what I will share this morning.

So if this morning is less polished and slick than the wonderful presentation you are used to, or doesn’t even make any sense at all please forgive me. And if it comes across as self-indulgent, please forgive me. It was certainly never intended like that.

But I was reflecting on how it’s just a week since people from all sorts of different faith communities, about 100 of us, came together in this place, and reflected and prayed for a shared longing for peace. And then I realise we are thrown back into the place of fear.

And it came to an area Julie and I really like. We frequent the London Bridge/Borough Market area quite a bit. I met a friend there 2 weeks ago. Hyde, the developer of the post office site, with whom we work, their offices are there. When I’ve met them a couple of times in London, that’s where we go.

On the day of Pentecost, people were gathered, from all over the known world, in a city and it’s a day when we should be celebrating and new life. I was sharing with a colleague this morning, who is much more creative than me, not long out of college, with all those new ideas and  that energy to do them. She’s in the midst of that. She said she had a service planned with party hats, balloons, poppers and all that, and she says somehow it all seems inappropriate now.

For today is a sorrowful day. Today our city is filled with people from every year, speaking every tongue under heaven, now unlike Jerusalem was on that 50th day after Passover, Pentecost. We live in a city which needs to see and hear in a way they can understand the wonders of what God has done.

So with that in mind, I am going to read some words of scripture. You can find them in Romans 8: 18-39.

I consider that what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.  All of creation waits with eager longing for God to reveal his children.  For creation was condemned to lose its purpose, not of its own will, but because God willed it to be so. Yet there was the hope  that creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God.  For we know that up to the present time all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth.  But it is not just creation alone which groans; we who have the Spirit as the first of God’s gifts also groan within ourselves as we wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free.  For it was by hope that we were saved; but if we see what we hope for, then it is not really hope. For who of us hopes for something we see?   But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

 In the same way the Spirit also comes to help us, weak as we are. For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express.  And God, who sees into our hearts, knows what the thought of the Spirit is; because the Spirit pleads with God on behalf of his people and in accordance with his will.

We know that in all things God works for good with those who love him, those whom he has called according to his purpose.  Those whom God had already chosen he also set apart to become like his Son, so that the Son would be the first among many believers.   And so those whom God set apart, he called; and those he called, he put right with himself, and he shared his glory with them.

 In view of all this, what can we say? If God is for us, who can be against us?  Certainly not God, who did not even keep back his own Son, but offered him for us all! He gave us his Son—will he not also freely give us all things?  Who will accuse God’s chosen people? God himself declares them not guilty!  Who, then, will condemn them? Not Christ Jesus, who died, or rather, who was raised to life and is at the right side of God, pleading with him for us!  Who, then, can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship or persecution or hunger or poverty or danger or death?  As the scripture says,

“For your sake we are in danger of death at all times;
    we are treated like sheep that are going to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! For I am certain that nothing can separate us from his love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future,  neither the world above nor the world below—there is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord.

I’m going to share three very brief things that our city needs us to be right now.

It needs

People of Faith

People of Hope

People of Love

Can anyone where the word religion comes from, or what other word is religion linked to.

Ligament

Ligaments holds things together. Re-lig-ion is supposed to be about joining us up, bringing us back together.

I’ve showed you this picture so many times…

Broken 9

How we live in a whole network of relationships with God, with others, with ourselves, with creation… and I’ve spoken of how in the human condition, all of these relationships are broken. The purpose of true re-lig-ion, is to put them all back together again.

When you hear the word religion is that the first thing you think of. Is that what most people think of when they hear of religion?

When people hear of or see attacks like we have witnessed in our city, in Manchester, or which was experienced in Kabul, they think religion is the cause of that. Religion has nothing to do with bringing us together. Religion divides us. Last week I shared on Facebook about how we had people of all sorts of different faiths together to stand for peace and most of my friends thought it was a good thing. Then there was one who said ‘I can’t understand how, when an atrocity is caused by religion, people feel the need for another dose of religion to heal it.’

I just responded ‘I wasn’t forcing you to come.’

Religion is supposed to be abit connecting us. Putting us back together.

But there’s not just re-lig-ion in the world. There is a spirit of de-lig-ion. There are those who seek to tear us apart.

And we need people of re-lig-ion, people of faith, who will seek to join God in the purpose of putting his whole creation back together.

And we don’t just need people of faith. We need people of hope.

We need people who will look our world in the face, see it as it is, and say ‘it doesn’t have to be like that.’

Our Bible really begins with an odd story about a nobody in Genesis 12. (Yes, I know there is stuff before that!)

God comes to Abraham and says ‘leave behind everyone and set off for something new that I will show you. I will bless you and you will be a blessing to others.’

And that story is radical in so many different ways. It was groundbreaking. We have come to see our world in a certain way, and don’t realise how odd it was.

There are two big ways in which that is true.

One was what were the gods whom Abram had been brought to believe in like. They were out there, distant, remote, the had absolutely nothing to do with us. Yes, we needed them for rain and for sun so that we had food, but we had no real influence on them. They did not relate to us. We never knew where we stood with those gods. Whether they were pleased with us or not.

Then this God talks to someone and says ‘I want to bless you.’ Groundbreaking.

But the other radical thing about the Abraham story, and it’s the story of the entire scriptures, was that Abraham lived in a world which just went round and round in cycles. Nothing ever really changed. we lived, we died, the world moved on. Tomorrow would be the same as today. If you were in particular tribe in a particular place, that was where would you would stay. Nothing would change.

And right at the heart of the Bible story is the message that tomorrow does not have to be like today.

God was doing something new.

The past does have to define who we are.

So we don’t have to deny our suffering.

We don’t have to deny the bad that is in the world and name it as such.

God re-lig-ion is not just an opiate that numbs us so that we don’t have to think too hard about it.

Those things that Paul mentions in Romans…

trouble , hardship, persecution, hunger, poverty, danger, death

if you have experienced any of them they matter. Coming from someone like me, it might sound twee. From Paul it was someone who lived it. It’s stronger from him.

So we don’t have to deny them. And we don’t have to understand them either. Our creation groans and we groan with it. But the Spirit searches our hearts and brings our longings into the presence of God.

We don’t have to understand it. Today is not a day when we need to have all the right answers. We don’t have to have the right words. Our creation needs to express its groaning. And we groan with it.

But we still carry within us the hope that is does not have to be like this. That we can seek to be part of something new, to be part of the solution.

And on Pentecost it is surely a good time to ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to help us rebuild what has been destroyed. More can be mended than we know. We will need power to trust that there is a God who somehow in the midst of all things that God can bring good out of it. That God can turn it around. That evil, destruction and chaos will not have the final word.

Because tomorrow does not have to be like today.

We believe and trust in a God who is making all things new.

We believe in a God who is doing a new thing.

And we will need power to be witnesses to that.

We will need power to listen for the gentle, quiet voice of the Spirit, reminding us that, in a world where people seek to maim, and kill and destroy, and take apart, that the world is not in their hands but in the hands of a God who invites us to call him ‘Abba.’

He is the driving force, taking the whole thing forward.

He, and not the guys with guns and bombs and knives.

And nothing can separate us from his love.

But we’ll also need people of love.

And we’ll need the Spirit to help spread that love and help us put things right.

And we’ll hear over the next few days and weeks how people will use what is happening to fuel suspicion.

People will use what’s been happening in our country to tear us apart.

People will use what’s been happening in our country to spread de-lig-ion.

And at times they will seem that they’re reasonable and right.

But they’re not.

We don’t have to agree with anyone, or change who we are. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love.

And there will need the Spirit to search our hearts and purify us.

For this is the product of evil which lurks in the human heart. And all of us can be vulnerable to hatred and destructive patterns.

We’ll need the Spirit to enlighten us for the path ahead.

We live in the most diverse borough in London.

But may we be a place that for all that diversity can be a people of hope, that it doesn’t have to be like this.

We can be a people of faith and use the good in our traditions to serve those around us.

May we be people of love who look violence in the face and declare that violence won’t speak the final word.

And we are in a good place to do that.

For love in the face of violence is what we’re about.

It’s what heals us, draws us together.

It’s the message of the table we are about to gather around.

Love in the face of violence is what we encounter in Jesus as he endures the brutality of torture and murder all that is done to him and responds Father, Forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.

That’s what this table is about. That’s what we are about.

That violence won’t have the last word. For we have a God who is making all things new.

We have a God from whom nothing can separate us.

Because of that God we can be free to have faith that tomorrow does not have to be like today.

We can be people of hope in the new future God is preparing for us.

We can be people of love, who will honour all people.

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ, Loving His World

PSHE_CitizenshipLogo_JPG_jpeg

Readings: Jeremiah 29: 4-14; I Peter 2: 9-17

I don’t know if other nationalities are like this, but when the British meet someone new, the conversation will soon turn to the matter of ‘what do you do’.

I try to avoid the conversation going there too quickly. All too often people discover someone they just need to speak to… as far away from the minister as possible.

It can be amusing when people find out.

Sometimes they rush to tell me they’re not into all that, whatever ‘that’ is. I didn’t ask if they were.

I can almost see them replaying the conversation in their head, working out if might have somehow offended me.

Or they find some link between themselves and church, no matter how tenuous. Their great-aunt’s second cousin’s mother-in-law’s twin goes to church.

At Christmas.

In leap years.

Or on the rare occasion when I wear a clerical collar it can be quite interesting. Sometimes it’s good. I remember a conversation with a young woman whose boyfriend was about to be sent to Afghanistan. She’d sat at the table next to Julie and me, cos she’d seen the collar and wanted someone to talk to.

But far and away the funniest was on a train to Coventry. There was a guy sat directly behind me, having quite a loud, and coarse conversation, with I presume his girlfriend on his phone. I don’t know she asked him to say, but it must have been bad. I mean the rest of the conversation had been more 50 Shades of Grey than Mills and Boon. But whatever it was he suddenly exclaimed ‘I can’t say that! I’ve got an effing priest in front of me!’

Probably just as interesting is the affect the collar has on me. There’s that moment in the queue. I’m in a hurry. The person up ahead is trying all sorts of coupons, or waits until they are asked to pay before they start fishing around in a handbag. Like it never occurred to them when they were in the queue that they might need money. I feel that tension rising, I almost feel like throttling them, then I remember I’m wearing a bit of plastic round my throat and realise I have to behave.

Or I’m on the phone with that call centre, I’m getting really bad customer service; my voice is getting slightly raised, then they bring me down to earth with a single phrase…

but Reverend Jackson…

Whilst the reputations of clergy, along with all other institutions of the day, might have taken a bit of a battering in my lifetime, not always unfairly, there is still an expectation that we should seek to be good, to set an example.

That’s no bad thing. However it has its dangers. Particularly if it is restricted to people who wear a bit of plastic, call themselves Revd, pastor or whatever.

Over the last few months we have been spending time on this theme of Knowing Christ. I’ll be bringing that to a close in the next few weeks. All along I’ve been reminding us that each of us is created for relationship with God. Through Jesus the way has been opened up for us to enter into that a living, intimate trusting relationship with God. We’ve considered that from all sorts of different angles.

This morning I want to ask a very important question. If we do know Christ, if we enter that relationship with God through Jesus, how should we live?

Should it affect how we relate to the world around us?

How?

Those ideas were part of both our passages this morning (though I’m aware one was several hundred years before Jesus). Peter reminds them that they were all called to be different. He describes his readers as a priesthood. He wasn’t writing to a clergy conference. At least not an official one. He was talking to the whole church. It’s from this that we get an idea, very dear to the Baptist tradition, of the Priesthood of all Believers.

The point isn’t that we all have the same function, or that we shouldn’t set people aside to perform ministerial tasks. The New Testament describes the church as a body with different parts, performing different functions.

But priesthood has two basic functions.

To represent the world to God.

To represent God to the world.

And that’s the work of all of us.

Whether you like it or not, the moment you claim to be a follower of Jesus people will watch you. In the age we live in, people think less about whether what we believe is true, but whether it works, whether it makes any difference to us. They can see that by looking at us.

More people will read Christians than read a Bible.

Once we know Christ we do need to ask ‘how then shall we live?’ It should challenge us. How we live is important. Our lives are an advert for Jesus.

Ours culture has, whether it likes to admit it or not, been heavily influenced by the Bible and the heritage that Christianity, and Judaism brought to the world. So those of us who have lived most of our lives in Western Europe or North America may find it hard to grasp just how strange and different the first Christians were to those around them. Particularly as they expanded into the Gentile world.

Yes, there is a lot of murky stuff in the history of the church, and we should admit that. But so much of what we take for granted also originated there.

Take for example their care for the sick and vulnerable. Compassion wasn’t considered a virtue in the Roman world. Mercy was discouraged. Why help the weak, when society could do without them? Most people couldn’t afford doctors so when people fell sick even those closest to them would leave them to die. Unwanted children, particularly girls would be thrown out like rubbish.

In the third century when plague struck, families threw their own out onto the street in case they became infected, or left them behind as they fled. But the Christians who stayed behind, tended the sick, buried the dead, often at great risk to themselves.

And they did it, not just for their own, but for everyone.

And this was at a time when they were being scapegoated as the cause of the plague and persecuted.

Early Christians may not have gone far enough for our 21st century tastes when it came to dealing with slavery. But they were extremely radical for their time. They were accused of giving slaves ideas about how they were more than just property, that they had dignity and were equal as humans, created in the image of God. And that point of view was seen as subversive and bad.

Our society would hopefully be appalled at the attitudes of much of the world in which the first Christians lived. We would probably consider them primitive, and see ourselves as more moral, or caring.

But it began with people entering into relationship with God and one another through Jesus Christ, then asking how shall we live.

They did it because they revered God, honoured all people and, even if they couldn’t pledge their allegiance, they respected earthly leadership, including the emperor.

All of these things and so much more were seeds that got planted and grew into trees. The society around them perched and nested in the branches, even as they did not know where it came from. It began with believers and communities knowing Christ, and loving his world.

Sadly, all too often it’s not just the world that hasn’t realised where the seed came from. All too often God has found himself walking through history with his creation, whilst those who claim to have known him have been on the wrong side of history and the church as an institution lagged behind.

As they reflected on how being a follower of Jesus impacted how they should live in the world, they realised that however they did it, it seriously challenged some of the values of those around them.

That’s why we get passages such as Romans 12, were after a great deal of theology, Paul turns to the question of ‘how should we live?’ and begins with the statement, don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Jesus himself had said they were to be in the world, but not of the world.

 

By the time I Peter was written they were really having to think about these things. The first followers of Jesus appear to have expected Jesus to return quickly, in their lifetime. But it didn’t happen. They realised they were going to be in a world they were not of for longer than they’d anticipated. 

Now it might be because Christianity grew from Jewish roots, but as they considered how they should live and how they should relate to the world they had an example from their history to follow. We encountered it in our Old Testament reading this morning. They looked back to the time when their people were exiles in Babylon. This was a traumatic period in their history. They had lost everything that they supposed had given them their identity. Their land, their kingdom, their temple…

… but it was also a time when they discovered who they really were and what was really important to them. What set them apart. They had to think what made them distinctive and preserve that.

That’s where most of their scriptures come to be written down and where the faith into which Jesus was born comes from. Its influence is felt down to the present day.

But that wasn’t the only response to the exile. Some fell in love with what Babylon had to offer. They forgot who they were and where they’d come from. When they were released from exile many did not return. They chose to remain in exile. They were comfortable with that world.

The first Christians were also aware that the world could be dangerous. The major power of their day brutally executed Jesus. Jesus had warned them that in the world they could expect trouble. Most of Jesus’ first followers were executed because they believed in him. It’s worth remembering that when Peter urged his followers to respect the emperor, he is talking about Nero.

All that in mind they knew they were called to love a world, they were in but not of. So they needed to decide what that looked like. How would they relate to the society around them?

Even within the pages of the Bible that tension exists. There is a right kind of love for the world. I mean God loves the world so much that he gave his one and only Son for it.

But equally from the exiles they learned that there was a wrong kind of love for the world. Where you just get too comfortable with the world as it is, and not want to see it as God intended.

We encounter that in a kind of bit-part player in the New Testament, a man called Demas. We don’t know much about Demas, but he appears to have worked with Paul. When Paul is finishing off his letters to the Colossian church and to his friend Philemon, Demas is there with him, sending his greetings. But towards the end of his ministry, amongst the last words Paul writes, feeling quite alone, he adds Demas has forsaken me, because he loves this present world.

The tension between ways of loving the world, how we are in it, but not of it, is partly because they weren’t quite talking about the same thing. It’s not always clear what world they’re thinking of.

Sometimes we use the same word to describe different things. I mean we use the same word, church, to describe the building we meet in and the congregation. If I were to say ‘isn’t the church hot today?’ you’d know I was talking about the building. But if I said ‘the church has decided to build an extension’ you’d know I was talking about the people. Same word, different meanings.

Normally I would say the Greeks had all sorts of different words for that. But this time they don’t.

When the New Testament talks about the world, there are at least three different things it is describing. Two are pretty much as we would use them. One is the planet we live on. God’s creation. The world God pronounced good. It’s good to love that world. It’s God’s gift to us.

Then there is the world as in the people of every nation. When we talk of God loving the world we should include the physical creation, but this is the one we are mainly talking about. God loves all the different people of the world. It is good to love them. The greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and love our neighbour as ourselves.

But the Bible has a third way of talking about the world. It’s about the way the world is run. That our world is not run as God intended. That there is power in the world and in us which is actually hostile what God wants for us. So when Jesus comes into the world, the world doesn’t recognise him. The world rejects him.

When Jesus says you’re in the world, but not of the world, in the first half he’s talking about, we live on the planet, we’re amongst the almost 7 billion people who make up the world’s population; but we’re not of it. It’s that 3rd idea he’s talking about. If we follow Jesus we are to seek to live differently, we are to seek to live as God intended. We pray may God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our lives should reflect that.

It’s this tension that has led to different understandings of how we relate to the world.

One understanding was to reject the world. It’s a fallen world, so come out from among them. Have nothing to do with the world. The point of the priests were they were separate, so we should separate from the world.

In some cases this has meant withdrawing physically. At the time of Jesus a group called the Essenes sought to avoid being corrupted by the world by running off to the desert. In some ways the life of the monks was a bit like that, with cloister walls to hide behind.

There is a bit of that in our history too. When the first Baptists refused to baptise their babies they were withdrawing themselves from society. In that time being baptised into the church and being baptised into society were the same thing. The Baptists refused to take part in that. For another part of our history we were forbidden from standing for Parliament, or attending the major universities.

You might say they’ve focussed on not being of the world, but it comes at the expense of not being in it either. Jesus called us to the salt of the earth and the light of the world. It’s hard to be either salt or light when you’re not involved, when you’re in a holy huddle. Salt hidden away in a cellar won’t make my food taste any different. If you hide a light under a bucket it’s not going to do much good.

And at the extreme, it can turn into hatred for the world. And if you have a vengeful, violent God, which is invariable a product of angry, vengeful people, it can lead to seeking to carry our his vengeance for him.

Of course it’s possible to go the other way, to fully immerse ourselves in the affairs of the world. To fully embrace the world. It sounds great, but it comes with its own dangers. It can easily slip into becoming of the world too. Not standing out at all. One of the reasons for the radical reformation, of which the first Baptists were part, was that they didn’t think that followers of Luther and Calvin had gone far enough. They were fully immersed in society and involved in the decisions, but they weren’t any different from those around them.

It’s possible to confuse what we think is right and good with what God must want to happen. I see it a lot at the moment with an election on. I can’t see how you call yourself a Christian and vote x. We can confuse our agenda with Gods.

The exiles did it in Babylon. Some told them God couldn’t possibly make the exile last. Rebel they said and God will rescue us. It’s a verse that’s used so often in Christian contexts, Jeremiah 29: 11 I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to give you hope and a future.

But we don’t really use it as Jeremiah does. It’s about confusing our agenda with God’s. Then it’s God’s way of saying ‘I know what I’m doing, even though you may not think it, when you see what’s happening.’

The first Christians had the same problem. As Jesus prepared to ascend into heaven what were they asking? Are you about to restore the Kingdom to Israel. And Jesus effectively says ‘that’s not your priority. You’re going to be my witnesses.’

Separating ourselves entirely from others is a bad idea, but we need to be careful about embracing anyone else’s agenda too readily. We can risk losing what makes us distinctive and salt that loses it’s saltiness is useful for nothing but grit.

 

But there is a third way, which was the route suggested in both the passages this morning. That you can be true to your faith and remain a good citizen.

It’s hard to realise what a radical idea Jeremiah was suggesting to the exiles in Babylon. He risked being called a traitor. There was a certain amount of pragmatism to Jeremiah’s response. Jeremiah knew the exile was unlikely to be over quickly. His call to settle down, to build houses, to start living lives as normal, it made sense if they were going to get through it. If this people were to survive, rebellion was not the way to go. They’d just get crushed and there’d be fewer of them left.

But Jeremiah went way beyond just avoiding rebellion. He told them to pray for the place where they were in exile, to seek what was the best for it. This was a people who were used to praying for Jerusalem. But it was a whole different matter to pray for a people who were their enemies, to seek their good, to be good, active positive citizens.

Yes, they were to remember who they were and that their first allegiance was to God. But they were also to give to society. None of us are an island. The same rain falls on good and bad alike. If their society succeeds it will benefit them.

It’s on that idea that Peter builds. But he goes beyond it. Like Jeremiah with the exiles, Peter is realising that the church will be around longer than he initially anticipated. But it was about more than surviving the intervening period. It’s about God’s rule would thrive and grow whilst we waited.

There was a degree of pragmatism to what Peter said too. True they believed that they ought to obey God over human rulers. Their first allegiance was to Jesus, not Caesar. But that didn’t give them a reason to basically rebel. For a start it wouldn’t end well. They would be crushed.

That’s not to say doing good will always be popular. It isn’t. Peter’s advice could be summed up as ‘they’ll say bad stuff about you anyway, but you don’t have to make it easy for them. You don’t have to give them an excuse.

The first Christians had all sorts of accusations levelled against them. They were disloyal to government; because they spoke of the bread and wine as the body and blood of Jesus, they were accused of cannibalism; Because they had shared meals called love feast they were accused of having orgies. They were accused of turning slaves against their masters. They were accused of all sorts of things, but they were never accused of not caring. Quite the opposite.

There was a brilliant article a few years ago in the Independent by the journalist Mary Ann Sieghart. I’m not sure she would claim to have any kind of faith. But her articles was titled ‘You don’t have to believe in God to cherish the church.’ She said the power of good is what the Church in this country exemplifies. It’s by no means true of all religions at all times – far from it – but here and now we are extraordinarily lucky to have the Church we have. It is broadly charitable, open, welcoming, tolerant, compassionate and undogmatic. It does a huge amount of good for a huge number of people well beyond its pews, work that goes almost entirely unreported.

In recent times Christians have found their place working together in groups like Foodbanks, groups like Firm Foundation. If you removed the church from work with children and young people, the sector would shrivel up to basically nothing. It’s part of our DNA too. Just over 50 years ago, in an old church hall, which was where you are sat now, people of this church, concerned about the housing situation got together and the result was Harrow Churches Housing Association. Currently we work with developers who will have very different values than us, but we do so because we seek the prosperity of Harrow. This evening, we get the chance to stand with people of so many different backgrounds, faiths, nationalities, worldviews, people with whom on many things we might agree, big things, but we stand to say we care. We will seek the peace of the place in which we live. Jesus holds our first allegiance, but we will love his world, because God loved the world and gave his One and only son for it. And I really don’t know how tonight is going to go. It’s way out of my comfort zone, but it’s a chance to make a contribution to our community, to seek the peace and prosperity of this place, for it this place has peace and prosperity, we might be blessed with it.

May we be a priestly people. Always read to represent those around us before our God. And may we represent our God well to those around us. I’m going to conclude with a on the walls of Mother Theresa’s home in Calcutta, which sums it up.

People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.

If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.

If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies. Succeed anyway.

If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you. Be honest and sincere anyway.

What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.

If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous. Be happy anyway.

The good you do today, will often be forgotten. Do good anyway.

Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway.

In the final analysis, it is between you and God.

It was never between you and them anyway.

Posted in Knowing Christ

Knowing Christ: Growing Well

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Reading: I Corinthians 3: 1-15

On the back of the door of the kitchen cupboard in my aunt and uncle’s house in Belfast were some pencil marks. I used to visit them on Sunday afternoons, a couple of times a month, until I was about 11. Each time I went, my uncle would ‘measure’ me. It was a big day when my head was about the same height as the cupboard door. Though we probably only discovered it when I walked into it. Those marks, climbing up the door, showed how much I’d grown over time.

To be honest, I couldn’t possibly have been growing as fast as my uncle was telling me. I certainly didn’t seem to be growing that fast when my mum measured me, or when I was measured at school. It was years before I realised he was putting the mark a little higher than was true, to make me feel good. In a way I suppose realising that was a sign that I was growing up in a slightly different way.

In this church we’ve been blessed in the last few years with a number of children. I sometimes joke with Lin and Frankie that I wonder what they were putting in the food at 4U. And they’re all growing so fast. They’ll grow faster at some times than others, they’ll do some things in different orders, do some things at different rates, in their own good time. But God willing they’ll keep moving forward.

But we grow in lots of ways and they’re not always straightforward. I haven’t done any running for a long time, but when I did, and I’d train for half marathons, it would have been great if every time I went out I got further and faster. But it doesn’t work that way. You get the odd day when your body or your mind just go ‘nah!’ You go through phases when you don’t seem to be improving at all, then suddenly, sometimes just as suddenly as it started, that phase just passes and you go up a notch. It can be the same when you’re developing any skill. Progress is rarely steady. It tails off, maybe feel you’re going backwards sometimes. But if you stick with it, suddenly something ‘clicks’ and you improve.

And you can use it or lose it. If you stop disciplining yourself to get out there and do it, over time you’ll not be able to run so far, or do it as well as you once could.

Relationships change and develop over time. You might remember those early days of your marriage when you couldn’t keep your hands off each other. When that other person was just the most wonderful one in the world to you. But relationships go through tough periods. Sometimes through circumstances. Or we get something wrong. Over time the way he doesn’t clear the stubble from the sink after shaving doesn’t seem quite so endearing. That football match you recorded but hadn’t got round to watching yet gets deleted from the sky box.

At every wedding and every dedication I remind people, and I’m not giving away too many secrets about life in the manse, but it won’t be all lovey dovey every day forever. Yet, if you survive it, you may find that though your relationship might be different, in other ways its deeper. Often the road to that deeper love is painful, but you’re loving them more fully, loving them more as they really are.

Over the last few months I’ve been exploring with you this theme of Knowing Christ. I’ve spoken about how we are invited into loving, intimate relationship with God, through Jesus. But like any relationship that is expected to grow over time.

In different ways how it grows might be similar to the different examples I’ve just described. Different people’s faith will develop at different rates. We’re all different. Two people coming to faith at the same time might be equally committed but their faith grows in different ways. Stuff that’s a real battle for me might not be a problem for you. You’ll have your own struggles.

It’s very rarely straightforward. As with developing a skill there are disciplines and practices that can help you grow in that relationship. Prayer, scripture reading, meditation, fasting, charitable giving all have been found helpful to followers of Jesus down through the centuries to grow and develop their relationship with him. Sometimes as with my example of the running, there are times when it is a struggle. I’d love to tell you that the more you pray, the closer to God you’ll feel. But in my experience whilst I sometimes feel really close to God, other times I’m just hoping that what you say is getting past the ceiling. You may find yourself wondering if you’re just piously talking to yourself. And that can last some time.

Often what prompts us to grow in our relationship with God isn’t easy. There are times when that relationship is rocked by circumstances. It might be challenged by prayers which seem to go unanswered. Ideas and beliefs that you once cherished no longer seem to work…

Sometimes when people get to that stage they just give up.

If God had cared he wouldn’t have let that happen.

Why didn’t God answer my prayer?

I used to think that, now I see it’s not quite like that, so the whole thing is a load of rubbish…

Others hang on in there and find a faith and love that is deeper as a result.

Last week we looked at the story of Jesus restoring Peter. The love which Peter had for Jesus after that encounter was different and deeper than it had been before. Peter had seen the whole drama of rejection and crucifixion unfold. Any images or illusions he’d had when he first started following Jesus were gone. Now he was following with his eyes open, fully aware of the cost.

Peter was also aware of his own weaknesses and shortcomings. Those days when he had trusted himself and could confidently declare that Jesus could rely on him; that he would stand by Jesus, whatever happened, even if all the others deserted… those days were gone.

But Peter also knew he was still loved. All that would have changed the nature of his relationship with Jesus. That period of change was difficult and painful. But really it was the only way he would ever discover it. There was no shortcut.

If you have a living faith in Jesus you should expect it to grow and change over time. Jesus likened faith to a seed, planted into the earth, growing into a plant. It starts off tiny, like a mustard seed, but can grow greatly from those small beginnings.

Paul develops a similar analogy in the reading from the Corinthians this morning. He talks of one person planting the seed, another watering it, but God is involved in the growth.

Paul wants the Corinthians to grow in their faith, and that would be his longing for us too. But growth isn’t easy. Grow involves change and change is never easy.

But as we delve deeper into this morning’s readings we find a couple of issues about growing in the faith. A couple of growing pains, if you like.

One is about being reluctant to grow.

The other is how we handle growth when it comes.

This morning I want to introduce you to something which I plan to comeback to later in the year.

Some of you may have seen this in other settings, so bear in mind I am really simplifying things. But it has something to teach us about how we learn, grow or develop.

We go through cycles of learning. We start from the position of thinking we know something. Everything seems lovely and wonderful.

Then something happens which tells you this might be more complicated than I thought. And things don’t get better quickly.

It can develop into a crisis. You might even look back to the day where you wondered ‘how could I ever have thought that?’

But hopefully over time you come to discover a new way of understanding. It may be that what you thought was wrong. But often, hopefully, you discover that there was some truth in it, but you had more to learn to understand it more fully.

Let me use an example. I am using little Theo, just because I wrote this shortly after he’d fallen asleep on me. Theo’s needs right now and fairly basic. Milk, changing, winding, cuddles, sleep. In Theo’s world, if he wants any of those things he only has to cry. There are big people whose job it is to give him those things. It might take the big people a little while to work out which of these things he needs, but keep crying and sooner or later they’ll work it out.

However there’ll come a time when he realises that things aren’t as simple as he thought. He reaches for a sharp object and it’s moved out of his reach before he gets there. He wants sweets when he is just about to have his dinner, or has already had quite enough. The big person says no.

He tries the crying tactic, I mean that’s how it’s supposed to work, and it doesn’t get him anywhere.

This develops into a crisis, or as his parents might come to see it, the full blown tantrum. He’s always known he was loved and secure because these people have given him what he wanted. They must hate him. How could he have been so wrong?

But over time you hope he comes to see that he was right that he was loved and secure. But not everything he wants is good for him. And much, much later, possibly even, God willing when he has kids of his own, he’ll realise that they sometimes knew best.

But when we grow in a healthy way, he doesn’t just go back to where he started. He moves on, with his new learning and the cycle repeats as he moves on to the next challenge. But the route he gets there is difficult and painful.

Let’s take a disciple. Say Peter. He starts to follow Jesus. He comes to think Jesus is the Messiah. And Peter thinks he knows what that means. A king who will rescue his people from the Romans. But then Jesus starts saying things which make it seem that’s not quite so simple. He starts talking of being rejected and killed and rising again. Peter doesn’t understand that. He resists it. But it grows into a crisis when what Jesus says actually happens. How could Peter have been so wrong? But after the resurrection Jesus explains things, and Peter sees he was basically right, but he had so much more to learn.

He moves on and later the same thing happens in the Cornelius story. Peter thinks that God loves the world, but he especially likes the Jews. To become Christian God really wants people to become Jewish first. Then he has a vision which questions it. Then he meets Cornelius and it’s clear that Cornelius has been accepted by God. This is a crisis for what Peter thought. And he realises that God does love the world, it just doesn’t work like Peter thought. And his faith develops.

What’s that got to do with what we’ve shared from Corinthians?

When people tell me that they would like us to get back to the faith of the New Testament church, I always say ‘fine, provided it’s not Corinth.’ Most of the letters which make up such a large chunk of our New Testament arose because churches had problems. But Corinth had quite a few. That’s why their letters are so long!

One of which was that they were a divided church. Paul was the one who had planted the church. He spent 18 months with them. Then Paul moved on to the next place. After Paul had gone a guy called Apollos came to Corinth. Don’t get the wrong idea. Neither Paul nor Apollos would have seen the other as a rival or an enemy. Paul never says anything bad about Apollos, just how they react to him.

Paul had started the church. Some of his early converts would have been part of the Jewish faith so would have had knowledge of what we call the Old Testament. They would have understood much of what Paul was talking about.

But others, probably most, wouldn’t have had that. So Paul would have kept it basic. Just as new born babies are fed on milk, because it is all they can handle, Paul likens his teaching to milk. He gave them what they needed to begin their Christian life.

When Apollos turned up the situation had moved on a little. He found a community which looking after itself. They were handling well what Paul had taught them. So Apollos tried to take them a little bit deeper. Nothing wrong in that. Paul doesn’t criticise him for it.

From what we can gather from the Bible Apollos was a persuasive, charismatic preacher. Which, it might surprise you to know, Paul wasn’t really. In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul speaks about how they considered him impressive in writing but when you meet him in person he and his preaching’s not up to much!

Anyway this caused some division in the church in Corinth. Some loved Apollos, but some were wary of him, perhaps out of loyalty to Paul, their founder.

But it went a bit deeper than that. In chapter 1 we see these weren’t the only groupings. Some were following Cephas (which is another name for Peter) and others said they were following Christ.

What was going on?

And what’s it got to do with growing in faith?

What’s happening here is a very human response to growth or the challenge to change. Paul is challenging two opposite responses to growth and change. Suspicion of the new and disdain of the old.

If we start with the suspicion of the new. Some were reluctant to embrace Apollos. He had tried to move them on in their faith. But they were suspicious because it wasn’t what they were used to. But it wasn’t what they knew. It sounded different to Paul. Maybe it challenged some of what they had understood from Paul. So it must be wrong.

But some went further. Some, perhaps from the Jewish end of the church, said ‘well, if you think about it, that’s not really any different to what Paul did. He developed the message of Peter, or Cephas.’ So in turn they were suspicious of Paul.

But of course, why stop there? Some were suspicious of Peter. Where did he get his message from? Perhaps there was an air of superiority to those claiming not to follow any of those but to just follow Christ.

Note, Paul doesn’t commend any of those groups. Not those who are loyal to him, or even those who claim to be just loyal to Christ.

By the time we pick up the reading he has just focussed on the situation between those who claim to follow Paul or Apollos. He’s telling them they are missing the point. It’s not that Paul and Apollos were rivals preaching different messages. Apollos was building on what Paul had taught. Maybe he was taking them further and deeper. But that didn’t mean Paul’s teaching was any less useful, or worthwhile. Paul’s teaching was a necessary stepping stone on the way.

It is possible to be suspicious of the new, purely because it seems, well, new. It’s not what we’re used to. It might even challenge some of what we have long held dear, cherished, believed. And that kind of growth can be scary. It involves change. We can be very loyal to the people who first introduced us to the faith. Perhaps what they said resonated with you. And that’s brilliant. It was just what you need at that time. But those three words are important.

At that time.

But, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, growing and developing and coming to own your own faith, that might mean leaving some stuff behind. It may not be that what helped you 5, 10, 30, 40 years ago is what you need for now. You might feel that to move on from what you were taught all those years ago is disloyal to the person who introduced you to the faith. But you’re not called to be loyal to them. And if they were true teachers of Jesus they wouldn’t want you to be loyal to them at the expense of growing in your faith.

That doesn’t mean that what seems new is always good. It needs discernment. Paul speaks of some building with gold, silver, precious stones. Others with wood, hay and straw. The gold, silver, precious stones would stand the test of time, outlasting the wood, hay and straw.

And it’s not always obvious who is using what materials. Selling lots of books, having a TV station, having a huge church and following is not a certain sign that it is good. It’s not a sign that it’s bad either. But it could just be you’re telling people what they want to hear. It does need a degree of discernment.

One of the churches commended in the book of Acts is the Berean church. Why? Because they took what Paul was saying, and checked it out to see if he was right. If they were doing it for Paul’s teaching, it makes sense we should do it with ours. Including this one.

Paul was looking for them to have the same kind of personal, open and honest faith we encountered in Thomas. A faith that was open to grow, open to challenge, open to question, open to explore. One of the things that will stop us growing in faith is the fear of growth, the fear of the change. The suspicion of the new.

But there is another type of growing pain. It’s about not being able to handle growth well. It’s when those who do get it, who do want to explore, who become excited by the next thing, act, well there is no nice way to say this…

…like jerks.

They look with disdain on those who are still back where they were. How can they possibly still think that way?

In one sense it’s understandable. Making that step forward might have difficult. It was a journey were you discovered something you had cherished wasn’t what you thought it was. It didn’t work any more. That can feel quite painful. You may want to avoid others feeling that same pain.

But it makes no more sense than Simi looking down on Jayson cos he hasn’t starting walking yet, or Danny making fun of his sister Keren cos she hasn’t mastered her 7 times table yet.

Disdain for the old is no better and can be just as divisive as suspicion of the new. Besides, as we’ve seen already, embracing the new doesn’t mean that everything you learned back then was wrong. Brian and Maire will have learned that even if Anne Marie and Femi don’t let them have everything they want, they are still loved, still secure. A much better way of looking back to where you’ve been is to own it, find the good in it, give thanks for what you learned in it. It’s part of your story. We all grow at different rates, in different ways, it’s rarely straightforward and what’s more important is that each of us has a personal, open and honest faith.

May you grow well. May you build on the one sure foundation, which is Jesus, without whom we have none of the rest.

May you be wary of gullibility but also of being too suspicious of the new.

There is no need to fear the exploration.

But nor is there any need to disdain where you have come from. And remember where you are now, might not be where you are in a year, 2 years, 10 years.

We are all works in progress.