Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: … Part 1

be still

Reading: Psalm 62

Thomas Aquinas was an Italian priest and Dominican Friar, who lived in the 13th Century. He’s also one of the most influential theological thinkers of the last 2000 years. Even 7-800 years after he lived a lot of modern theology is indebted to him.

His most famous writing was called Summa Theologica, in which he tried to summarise the results of his life’s work. It’s been described as one of the classics of the history of philosophy and one of the most influential works of Western literature.

And there was plenty of it. It runs to some 3,500 pages. Apparently if you read at an average pace of 250 words a minute, it would take 61 hours and 24 minutes to read.

Fact for the day.

That’s a lot of words.

But on 6 December 1273 something happened to Thomas Aquinas which changed everything for him. He had some kind of religious experience during the mass. We can’t be sure what it was, but it had a profound effect. For afterwards he said now such things have been revealed to me that all I have written to me seems so much straw.

And from that day on, despite the protests of others, Aquinas went silent and wrote no more. So, when he died, in March 1274, his greatest work (remember 3,500 pages) was still unfinished.

What did Aquinas mean when he compared his work with straw? Basically today we might say he considered it ‘lightweight.’ He was only ‘skimming the surface.’ He realised that all his words, wisdom, intelligence, and genius, could not do justice to what he had seen.

No words could.

It reduced him to silence.

It might not be an especially religious experience, but perhaps you too have had some kind of experiences, and you’ve tried to describe it, but you realise no words can ever really fully capture it, describe it, explain it.

I’m reminded of the story, probably apocryphal, of a philosophy student at St Andrews who sat a three hour exam, with a single question… what is courage? I mean how do you answer that. Well, one student returned an answer book which was entirely blank, save for two words. ‘This is’

But try to describe that glorious sunset you saw on your last holiday. Or describe the smell of freshly ground coffee? There is a time when words fail us. When we think, what words can do it justice?

The same is true of a spiritual experience, or an encounter with the divine. There is a place for words. I’m using plenty right now. It is good to seek to explain and explore. But in the end we have to accept that words just aren’t going to be enough to properly describe it.

There is a place for silence.

We’ve been working through these various seasons, phases, or stages of the spiritual life. We’ve assigned each phase a word. Today we turn to the last one. Well, I say word. In fact this last one is not really a word at all.

I’ve just given it three dots. But over the next few I’m thinking of stillness, or silence.

Which I have to admit is a bit odd…

…speaking about silence!

When I mentioned it on Facebook last weekend, one of my friends said ‘this sermon on silence. You gonna talk much?’

I have to admit I was tempted to stand here for 20 minutes and see how you reacted. I decided that you’d just think I hadn’t done any prep!

Believe it or not, there is a piece of music, by the American composer called John Cage. It’s called 4’33’’. It comes in three movements, but it is effectively complete silence. Look it up on youtube. You can see it performed.

 

But over the last few weeks of this series, it’s that idea of silence, or stillness I want to think about. It was the main theme of the Psalm we shared together. In the church Bibles, the Psalm opens with the lines

            For God alone my soul waits in silence

            From him comes my salvation

 

Silence is an important part of many religious traditions, within the Christian faith, amongst people of other faiths…

Even beyond faith traditions, the health benefits of silence are widely recognised. It’s been said to

improve memory,

stimulate brain growth,

reduce stress,

fight insomnia,

heighten sensitivity.

 

We live in a noisy world. And it’s got a lot noisier in the last half century or so. There’s a guy called Bernie Krause who records nature sounds for film and TV. He says that 40 years ago if you wanted to get one hour of pure, natural sound, undisturbed by any human-created noises like planes or cars, he would have needed to record for about 15 hours. Today to get that same 1 hour of undisturbed sound he needs to record for 2000 hours.

12 full weeks.

It’s like we feel the need to surround ourselves with noise all the time. I think the first time this really struck me was a few years back when Julie and I went to see the Table Tennis during the London Olympics. Every spare second was just filled with noise. And I don’t just mean background noise. Loud, blasting noise. God forbid you might want to just sit quietly, or discuss what you’d just watched with the person you came with.

We’re surrounded with noise from the alarm clock which wakes you in the morning, pretty much until we got to bed at night. Not just audible noise. Visual noise. A sports star can’t do an interview against a blank wall these days. It’s against a wall of company logos. When Rafa Nadal wins the French Open today (and I don’t think I need to be a prophet to predict he will) when he is presented with the trophy, he will suddenly be wearing a watch he wasn’t before. And it’s not so he can be sure he’s back in the locker room for the start of the new series of Poldark. It’s advertising. It’s visual noise.

Last weekend I became aware in a new way how we surround ourselves with noise. In our hotel in Belfast, it was the first time I’d seen this, there was a TV in the bathroom!

Of course, not all silence is good. Perhaps you are waiting for some news from a doctor, or about a job interview. And you’re looking at the phone saying ‘oh, come on, ring….’ That silence can be torture. Or silence can be used to punish you. Someone can give you the ‘silent treatment.’ Ever found yourself in a room where two people aren’t talking to one another and even without either of them saying a single word you can feel that tension. Or maybe sometimes you’re with someone and the conversation has dried up and you are desperately trying to

think of something to say. It’s uncomfortable. That’s not a good silence.

But there is another kind of silence. A kind of companionable silence. Silence can be a very intimate thing. It is the mark of a good, healthy relationship when you can sit with someone and be comfortable with one another without the need of words. If you always lived like that, I wouldn’t say it is a good thing. But you can just be relaxed in one another’s company.

Our relationship with God can be like that. Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life and she said ‘mostly, I listen.’ When she was then asked what God said to her she said ‘oh, mostly he listens.’

Prayer is good, but often we think of prayer as being about what was say to God. But we can also have that relationship with God where were are able to simply sit in stillness, in silence. That’s the kind of relationship with God that the Psalm is talking about.

But there is another dimension to silence, or stillness. You see to a certain extent we can’t do much about living in a noisy world. There are some things we can control. I have a choice whether I put the headphones on and listen to music as I walk to the office or not. But there is still going to be drilling, traffic etc.

But you know you could get yourself into an environment where there is complete silence, you could get away from it all, and you will still have the noise and the chatter in your own head. Just try sitting in stillness for a few minutes (we will a little later). You’ll be amazed at how many thoughts whizz through your mind. Did I turn the oven off? Mustn’t forget so-and-sos birthday. We’re out of washing powder, must add that to the shopping list… Then there is the unhealthy thoughts. The negative messages we feed ourselves. I’m rubbish, I’m stupid, I’m ugly. The noise we long to escape is not just out there. It’s in here.

Perhaps the internal noise is even more dangerous than the external. For as Frederick Buechener puts it ‘what deadens us most to God’s presence within us, is the inner dialogue we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought.

The kind of stillness, the Psalm is speaking of is not an absence of noise out there. All sorts is happening around him. People attacking him, people saying one thing to his face, another behind his back, people enjoying a good gossip about him, without checking whether the facts are true.

But the Psalmist has found an inner stillness, an inner strength, not because of how laid back he is, or because of the kind of person he is, but rooted in a relationship with God. He has a part to play in it, but it is based on his experience and his relationship with God.

But even if we recognise the benefits of silence, it is not something we find easy. And that inner stillness can be the hardest to find.  This is not an entirely new phenomenon. The philosopher Blaise Pascal, as far back as the 1600s, said ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

I came across an example of this in a book called Silence in an Age of Noise, by Scandinavian explorer Erling Kagge. He speaks of an experiment conducted by the universities of Virginia and Harvard, where individuals ranging from teenagers, up to the age of 77, were left alone in a room, for between 6 and 15 minutes, without music, reading material, the chance to write, or their smartphones. Most found it uncomfortable. Some were allowed to take the test at home. Many of them admitted later that they had cut the experiment short.

Then they took it a step further. They placed a button in the room, which, if they pressed it would administer a painful electric shock. Each participant was given the shock before the test so they knew how painful it would be. Yet nearly half of the participants still pressed it to break up the silent time. The researchers concluded that being alone with ones thoughts was apparently so terrible people were prepared to effectively torture themselves, to avoid it. One participant pressed the button 190 times!

It’s been said that silence in the canvas on which music is painted. From the perspective of the writer of Psalm 62 inner silence or stillness is the foundation on which is life is built. The Psalmist makes space for that inner silence and lives his life out of that.

 

But there are a couple of things I want to draw out of the Psalm. One is that we might find ourselves thinking ‘yeh, but we’ve got to live in the real world.

There is a brutal realism to the Psalmist. He is aware of all that is happening. We may not be entirely sure what circumstances he was facing. Some think it might be weakness, some people think it is simply advancing age. He is well aware of his circumstances. And he sees them realistically.

And it’s his inner stillness that provides the foundation from which to face it. It helps to keep his God and his circumstances in perspective. It is because he trusts in God that his foundations won’t be shaken.

If he was writing this today we would speak of him practising mindfulness. All too often we live reactively to circumstances and we don’t take time to stop, to breath, to reflect and when we do that we get stuff out of perspective. As yourself this, have you ever looked back on something that really had you worried, then wondered why you worried about it? You’ve got it out of perspective.

The Psalmist response to that would be to find that place of inner stillness and silence and allow that to be the base from which he lives his life. Yes, he can see what is going on, and it does matter to him and he can see some of the attractiveness and temptation of how others would react to what he is facing.

But he also has his knowledge of God, his power, his unfailing love, and justice and that is what helps him keep it in perspective. It helps him gather himself in trust before God.

We can fall into the trap of thinking well that’s just the kind of chilled out guy he is. But that’s not the message of the Psalm. There is a single, tiny Hebrew word that appears at the start of 6 of the first 9 verses. It’s there in  verse 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9. It is אַךְ (ak).

I suppose the closest meaning we have for this is ‘surely’. The idea is that this is not something which just comes naturally to him. It is not his immediate instinctive reaction to life. It is learned through experience, sometimes bitter and difficult.

In a sense this word … silence, or stillness, it can feel very similar to the seasons of closeness with which I opened the series, of Here or O. That’s why the words are not just arranged in a sequence. It’s not because I could most easily fit them onto a screen. We are in a way coming full circle.

We are returning to that awareness of the presence of God. But this is not the simple, first flush of faith closeness. This is faith which has been around the block, has been through the seasons, perhaps several times. Who has been through all those difficult, dark seasons, yet has found that when he has stuck with God, God has brought him through it. It might not necessarily have worked out how he thought it would, how he thought it should, but God brought him through it.

So it’s like he starts Be silent my soul and wait for God. But all this other stuff floods in. But then we get a second, Be silent my soul and wait for God. It’s like he is telling himself ‘woah, woah, woah, calm down. And from there he starts to list all the things that God is to him. Hope, rock, salvation, fortress, deliverance, honour, mighty rock, refuge. The stillness emerges from a period of wrestling in his soul.

The truth is cultivating inner stillness isn’t easy.

But it is possible.

It takes practice.

It takes training.

Some days are better than others.

But with a little practice you will notice the difference. I notice it in my life. And I notice it when it gets out of kilter.

I’m not saying you will become a complete model of serenity. I don’t think the person who wrote Psalm 62 was. But if we do seek to cultivate it, we create the space into which God can speak to our hearts. It’s not, despite what some people might think, something that takes hours and hours. But perhaps two three minutes, a couple of times during the day, where you stop, still yourself, notice your breathing. You will find yourself slowly connecting with the still centre which is in each of us.

There is a time for words in prayer. We are invited to pour out our hearts to him, to cast all our cares on him. But there is also a time to just leave it with God. To sit in his presence. To allow him to speak into what you’ve brought him, not with answers, but with perhaps an awareness of who your God is. To bring him what you’ve got, but to acknowledge that the God revealed in Jesus is greater than that. And the God revealed in Jesus has committed himself to you. And allow him to create that inner silence, that still centre within you from which to live.

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Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Yes! Part 3

003-gnpi-105-peter-restored

Reading: John 21: 1-22

During the 1930s the songwriter Eric Maschwitz spent some time in Hollywood. There he became romantically involved with the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. But the relationship did not last. Mainly because he returned to Britain.

Maschwitz longed to be with her.  Everything, however small, seemed to remind him of her. A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces; an airline ticket to romantic places…

He couldn’t shake off his longing. Memories of their time together lingered, like a ghost clinging to him, refusing to let go. From that we got a really great song These Foolish Things. 

As we continue our time in these 12 words, describing different stages, seasons, phases of the spiritual life, we’ve been considering the word Yes. In some ways it might be a surprise that Yes comes so late in the series. Surely faith journeys begin with our Yes to God and his Yes to us.

But there is a deeper Yes that comes from experience.

When you’ve been battered by the storms of life.

When your faith has been tested.

And yet you have hung on in there.

That might be because you found yourself thinking ‘where else can I go?’ But you held on.

When you say Yes in that situation, it’s different.

 

Or maybe you didn’t.

Maybe you got it wrong.

You messed up.

You made a wrong choice.

Maybe you did leave it behind.

Maybe it stopped making sense.

Or maybe you thought it was just way too hard.

Maybe you think God has given up on you.

 

Maybe you thought you had left it behind, but somehow it never quite left you. For much of my 20s I had very little to do with church or faith. In one sense I had left it behind, but it was still part of me, who I was. It came out mainly in things like my sense of justice. I developed a fascination with the Historical Jesus. Part of it still clung to me. Perhaps the way Biblical writers put it, it was like seeds that had taken root.

Maybe you tried to follow and got a lost on the way.

Well the invitation to come and follow is still open.

You can still offer your Yes.

 

That’s what is happening in this morning’s Bible reading from John 21. It’s set sometime after the resurrection of Jesus, in the 40 days before the Ascension. We’re not quite sure when. The scene has shifted from Jerusalem in John 20, back to Galilee in chapter 21. 7 of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, James, John, Thomas, Nathanael and a couple of others who aren’t named are together. Peter decides he’s going to go fishing and the others say ‘we’ll go with you.’

Peter has messed up.

Perhaps he’s wondered if there is any future in the whole ‘following Jesus’ thing.

Perhaps he’s already made his decision and that’s why he’s back in the boat.

He thinks he’s leaving it behind, but it’s not really gone. The ghost of that life he had as a close disciple of Jesus still clings.

This story is full of what Maschwitz would describe as foolish things. Reminders of that time. Good and bad.

Yes, the good times are there, stretching right back to the very beginning. John 21 is almost a carbon copy of the beginnings of Peter’s journey. Peter and Andrew, James and John had fished all night and caught nothing. Then Jesus came along and said ‘go on, give it one more go.’ Perhaps against their better judgement they did.  On both occasions the result was a bumper catch.

But that’s not all that’s in here. The events take place at Tiberias, where Jesus took the disciples to be alone with him.  It was also the scene of another meal; the feeding of the 5000.

It was also the where Jesus had appeared to them once before and was not instantly recognised; when he came walking to them on the water.

 

Peter’s relationship with Jesus had been through it’s ups and downs. But tragedy had struck. Judas had betrayed Jesus and handed him over to the religious authorities. Jesus had been tried and sentenced by both Jewish authorities and Rome and he’d been crucified.

Today we know the end of the story. We have the benefit of the insights of 2000 years and can see meaning in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The disciples had none of that that. When Jesus died nobody thought ‘its ok. He’s the Messiah. It’ll be alright, he’ll be back in a few days.’

From their perspective Jesus had been killed in a humiliating fashion by the Romans. They’d backed the wrong horse. For the disciples who had thrown their lot in with this man for the past three years this loss was devastating.

 

For Peter, the man who had been so close to Jesus over those three years it was doubly so. Along with James and John, Peter was there at all the key moments, and even amongst those three a quick glance at the Gospels suggest he was a ‘first among equals.’

 

Peter had originally been called Simon, but Jesus had given him the nickname Peter, meaning rock. Jesus had said that on this rock he would build his church. Peter was the first to openly declare who he thought Jesus was.

When Jesus began to talk of what would happen to him, how he would get to Jerusalem, be betrayed and killed Peter declared he would not allow it. On the night of Jesus’ arrest, at a meal, as Jesus broke bread, Peter boldly announced that he would follow Jesus wherever it took him, even if it cost him his life. He swore that even if all the others deserted Jesus, he would not. Jesus warned him that before sunrise, when the cock crowed, Peter would deny three times that he even knew Jesus.

 

Peter was determined to prove his point. Maybe that’s why when they came to arrest Jesus, Peter’s first instinct was to resort to violence. He pulled out a sword and cut off the ear of a guy called Malchus, a servant of the High Priest. But instead of being grateful for his efforts, Jesus rebuked Peter, and healed Malchus. Peter was powerless as Jesus was arrested.

Whilst it appears the other disciples fled as Jesus was arrested, Peter did follow, but at a distance. He went with John and because John appears to have known the High Priest, he managed to get into the High Priest’s courtyard as the trial progressed.

But from here on Peter ceases to be quite so rock-like and becomes quite rocky.

In the courtyard a servant girl challenged Peter saying You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too are you?

Peter replied I am not! 

He took his place around a charcoal fire. Across the courtyard, he probably would have seen  one of the High Priest’s officials slapping Jesus across the face.

Again someone asked Are you sure you’re not one of his disciples. 

No, I’m NOT! argued Peter once more.

But someone else said I’m pretty sure I saw you with him in the garden

And again, by the fire, Peter denied even knowing Jesus.

Then the cock crowed, and Peter realised what he had done.

The disciple who said he would stick with Jesus to the bitter end denied he even knew the man.

Three times

.As the cock crowed the light dawned on Peter. Hours earlier Jesus had told him this would happen and Peter had said ‘No way.’

But it had happened.

Peter tried to live up to his promises and failed.

He has given his Yes, but not lived up to it.

We’re told he went out and wept bitterly.

Perhaps that was the moment when Peter stopped believing in himself as much as anything. His Yes hadn’t been worth much. He had crumbled under pressure.

There’s a telling comment made in Mark’s Gospel by the empty tomb. The women go to the tomb, but they do not find Jesus’ body. They do see a young man who says Don’t be alarmed. You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. Well, he’s not here, he is risen. Look this is where his body was.

Then he adds Go tell his disciples…

…and Peter.

Was Peter already counting himself out of their number?

Had Peter already given up, even then?

Up until this moment we’re not aware of any words shared between Peter and Jesus, after the resurrection. Mary met Jesus in the garden. The two on the Emmaus Road who had all but given up, met with Jesus. Thomas who simply refused to accept that Jesus was alive had his doubts quelled. But thus far, it seems Jesus had no words for his ‘right hand man.’ Maybe Peter thinks that’s it. He’d messed up. He was beyond forgiveness.

And that’s how he finds himself out on the boat.

He thought he was leaving it behind.

Yet the memory of what had happened still lingered.

All of it.

Perhaps he longed for a chance to reaffirm his love and commitment to his Master. And that love and commitment had been there. Even under the denials lay a devotion which had gone farther than most of the others. He almost stuck it out to the end.

 

We may judge the Peter of the gospels harshly, but perhaps we should have more sympathy for him. Yes, he made mistakes, but at least he put himself in the position where he could make those mistakes. That fateful evening Peter was the one of very few who got close enough to be recognised as Jesus’ disciple. The rest of them were nowhere to be seen.

And so, out on the sea of Galilee they toil all night and catch nothing. Then a stranger on the shore says ‘try casting the net out on the other side. And to their amazement a huge catch came in. So big, someone decided we really need to count just how big this is. There’s always one. It’s normally me.

153 fish.

Then one of their number says ‘It’s the Lord!’

 

And suddenly, at that moment, do new possibilities emerge for Peter?

He wraps his coat around himself and sets off into the water. Perhaps at one stage he had been thinking of returning to fishing. That opportunity was being held out to him. The bumper catch would be a good starting point.

But Peter is not thinking about the catch. He wants another life. I wonder if the other 6 were thinking ‘great, it was his idea to come out here fishing, then leaves us to drag the thing in!’

 

But if the huge catch of fish had brought back memories of happier times, on the shore it was different. There he encounters the flickering light, the hiss and crackle and the distinctive, acrid smell of a charcoal fire.

Do the memories come flooding back of the last time he’d been at one of these… in the High Priest’s courtyard?

Does he remember the denials?

Does he begin the doubt whether that new future, that new chance to give his Yes is possible?

 

Well,  Jesus doesn’t turn him away. Together with all seven of the disciples who had been there that evening, he shares breakfast. Another meal. Another glimpse of their past together. A mixed message. There had been the feeding of the 5000. But there had also been a last meal when Peter had made the boasted and given a Yes for which he wasn’t ready.

Then, when they’ve finished eating, he turns to Peter and says ‘Simon, son of John…

 

Simon, not Peter. Jesus too is retracing their relationship. This is exactly how Jesus referred to Peter when he first called him.

Is it because Peter feels no longer worthy to be called the rock?

Is Jesus just reaffirming him as the man he had first called?

Simon, son of John Do you love me more than these?

More than what?

 

Does Jesus point at the nets, the boats, the bumper catch? Is he saying ‘you left them once before – will you do it again?’  Does he point to the others and say ‘you once said your love for me went farther than the others – still think that?’  Either way Jesus is offering him the chance to reaffirm his love commitment. To give his Yes once more.

The last time Peter had warmed himself by a charcoal fire, his love and commitment had failed him three times. Here by the another charcoal fire he is offered three chances to reaffirm that love and commitment.

As Peter reaffirms his commitment to Jesus, Jesus reaffirms his commitment to Peter.

 

It’s painful to Peter. Why does Jesus have to ask him 3 times?

Maybe Peter does have to face up to his past.

To name, to acknowledge that he had messed up.

To own it.

It’s part of him and his story.

The past is past. It cannot be undone.

But it needn’t be his destiny.  Because of what Jesus went through and overcame in resurrection Peter’s own failure can be dealt with.

Here he is offered an opportunity to offer his Yes.

Not the Yes of the early days.

Not even the Yes of the upper room.

The Yes of one who has passed through the autumn and winter of faith. Who has been through the joys and sorrows, the highs and the lows, known successes and failures, victories and defeats, but still comes back to offer his Yes.

Perhaps this is where we expect the happy ending.

But that’s not where the curtain falls.

Instead, before Jesus issues his final invitation, he offers Peter a glimpse of what is to come.  Peter had been a man of action. Sometimes overly so. He acted without thinking. He had been a man who liked to have control of his destiny.

His future with Jesus will have many great moments. But the glimpse Jesus offers is that if he says Yes, there will come a time when he is older he will be led to where he does not want to go. John tells us this was about how Peter himself would become a martyr.  In the upper room he had made the boast that he was prepared to die for Jesus. In Jerusalem he had failed that test.  But Jesus tells him there would come a time when he would live up to that boast.

Then Jesus says Follow me.

Peter is invited to offer his Yes.

Will he offer it, knowing that it will mean confronting his failures and fears?

This could also be the happy ending if he just says Yes.

But that’s not what happens.

It’s as if one last time Peter seemed destined to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

For instead he looks around  and asks‘what about him?’

He’s talking about the one whom the writer of John keeps referring to as the disciple Jesus loved.

It’s like Peter is saying ‘is it just me who has to go through this, or is he going to get special treatment?’

And Jesus effectively says That is none of your business. You must follow me.

Peter is offered another chance to give his Yes.

And sure, we can read this story in the light of Pentecost and the book of Acts.

But as John leaves us the invitation is left hanging.

Peter does not give his answer.

We turn the page not knowing how he responds.

Of course that’s deliberate.

For those words are not just spoken to Peter.  We’re invited to place ourselves by the shore and be challenged by the invitation come, follow me.

We know our own stories. The times we’ve started and failed. The stuff we’ve got right, and the stuff we’ve made a mess of. Our foolish boasts, our false starts, our failures, our relapses. But the challenge and invitation comes to us. Will we offer our Yes?

It’s a challenge that comes to us daily. Following is a dynamic thing. Discipleship is not just a decision. It’s an ongoing choice.

Most of us won’t be asked to die as martyrs, but the road ahead is not marked with guarantees. Yes, there will be summer moments when we are aware of God’s presence, wowed by what we witness and are aware of his gifts.

But we will also pass through the autumn, struggle with our weakness, need help and see pain of others.

We’ll have winter seasons when we cry out how long? when we refuse to accept that this is how it should be and will be or cry out why?

There will be times when we start to see new life… and all of it is part of the journey of the discipleship, will we say Yes to all of it?

 

Maybe you’ve said Yes in the past but struggled to live up to it. We may struggle to accept the grace and forgiveness God wants to bring to us. Our forgiveness can be grudging, on the basis of ‘better not do that again.’ God’s isn’t.

The writer Brennan Manning was a man who struggled in his faith and passed through the seasons. But in his book the Ragamuffin Gospel he writes [Failure] is the cross we never expected and the one we find hardest to bear. But one morning at prayer, I heard this word ‘Little brother, I witnessed a Peter who claimed that he did not know Me, a James who wanted power in return for service to the kingdom, a Philip who failed to see the Father in Me, and scores of disciples who were convinced I was finished on Calvary. The New Testament has many examples of men and women who started out well and then faltered along the way. Yet on Easter night I appeared to Peter.  James is not remembered for his ambition but for the sacrifice of his life for Me.  Philip did see the Father in Me when I pointed the way, and the disciples who despaired had enough courage to recognize Me when we broke bread at the end of the road to Emmaus.  My point, little brother, is this: I expect more failure from you than you expect from yourself.”

 

I’m reminded of that great source of theological wisdom that is Bargain Hunt. Every now and then a couple will take along an item, for which they’ve paid, say, £100. The auctioneer starts by asking for a hundred. Deathly silence. She goes down to 80, 50, still no one seems interested.

The contestants are downhearted. They loved that item. They’d have taken it home if they could. But nobody else seems to like it.  Down she goes to 30, when perhaps finally there is a bid. Then the price slowly starts to rise.

At this point, the presenter occasionally says something which is designed to encourage them. They might say something like

‘it’s not where it starts that matters. It’s where it finishes!’

That’s true of following Jesus. It’s not where you’ve started, or where you’ve been,what diversions you have taken on the road.  It’s where we end up that matters. The invitation is still open. Will we offer our Yes?

I’ll leave you with a short section from a reflection by Adrian Plass. He is talking about the passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount…

Jesus, could I ask you something

Anything

You know that bit about the little gate and the narrow road and there being only a few that find it?

Yes, I think I know the bit.

Well, it frightens me.

 I can understand that… Is there something in particular you wanted to ask?

You don’t mind?

I never mind questions. Do you mind answers?

I don’t know yet. It’s just what is the narrow gate? what is the narrow road? and, well, am I one of the few?

Ok…  Well my answer to all three questions is a question. If I got up now and walked away without telling you where I was going, or whether I’d be coming back, what I’d be doing, or how it would all end, would you take my hand and come with me?

 

 

We stand with Peter at the end of Gospel. Jesus issues the invitation Come, follow me.

We’re invited to offer our Yes.

The page is turning and the ending is open…

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Yes Part 2

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Reading: Genesis 11: 1-9Acts 2: 1-8; 12-21

This morning I want to begin with a quick quiz. I want to see how much you’ve been affected by the great ‘evils’ of marketing and advertising.

A number of companies are instantly recognisable without even using their name. It might be the Golden Arches of McDonalds or the Nike swish.

Other companies are quickly recognised because of a slogan. Some of these slogans are so good that the company have been using them far longer than we realise. Or at least, I realised. In a world which everything else changes so fast, that really says something.

I will give you an advertising slogan. Let’s see is you can guess the company.

Have a break, have a… Kit-Kat. They’ve been using that slogan for more than 60 years. Since 1957 in fact.

Beanz Meanz… Heinz. Another one that’s been around for longer than I have. Since 1967.

Does Exactly What It Says on the Tin… Ronseal. That’s been around since 1994.

Once You Pop, You Can’t Stop… That’s Pringles crisps. A bit more recent.

Snap! Crackle and Pop!… Rice Krispies. Anyone want to have a guess at when they first used that slogan? 1932

Because You’re Worth It… ‘L’Oreal’ This was originally ‘Because I’m worth it. But was later changed. I was surprised to find they’ve been using it since 1973!

Some surprised me.

Anyone want to know who described themselves as Fair and Balanced? Fox News! If they got a way with that, things must have changed a lot since 1995.

 

Some slogans remain famous long after the companies have gone. Back in the 1980s both my sisters worked for companies with really recognisable slogans. One no longer exists one disappeared for a while, but in recent years has come back.

One sister worked for a company which claimed ‘we won’t make a drama out of a crisis.’ Anyone tell me what it was… Commercial Union.

The other worked for TSB. What did they like to be known as… The Bank That Likes to Say Yes! This was an age before banks trashed the economy by throwing money at people who could never repay it. People would dread going to see the bank manager. Being the bank that liked to say ‘Yes’ was a bit of a selling point.

We’re continuing in our series of seasons, phases or stages we experience when we seek to live in a relationship with God. Each stage was assigned a word, and the word we started last week was Yes!  Last week the emphasis was on our saying Yes! to God. We saw Jesus invite the disciples to join him, in his ongoing work of rescuing, redeeming, reconciling the world and how he needed their Yes! There was no Plan B.

This morning I want to approach this word from a slightly different angle.

What is our God like?

Does God likes to say Yes!?

 

Jesus seems to think so. He says God delights to give us good gifts. He says things like he has come that we might have abundant life.

Ephesians talks about a God who blesses us with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

But do we really believe that?

What is our picture of God?

What’s your picture of God?

Do you have a God who likes to say Yes!?

Not everyone thinks so. Last week I mentioned the Vicar of Dibley scene, where they’re discussing whether the word can’t is in the Christian vocabulary.

Steve Chalke tells a similar story of an interview he once had on BBC Radio in a programme about adultery. The presenter was complaining about God being miserable and down on everything we do. ‘It’s all don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t commit adultery. It’s pathetic!’

‘Where does the Bible say don’t commit adultery?’ asked Steve Chalke.  ‘I’ve never read that bit.’

‘You know fine well it’s there,’ came the response. ‘It’s one of the Ten Commandments.’

‘Oh right. Now I know what you’re talking about. I didn’t recognise it as first because of the tone of voice you’re using.’

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“You’re absolutely right,” Steve Chalke continued. “God does say that we shouldn’t commit adultery, but not in the way you’ve read it.

Before God gives any of the Ten Commandments he introduces himself as the God who loves Israel. He lets them know that he is for them; not against them. He wants the best for them. He knows the pain and heartache that we’ll cause others and ourselves if we pursue agendas that are contrary to the way he made us to be.

The Ten Commandments is a loving God saying, ‘Look, I am the God who loves you. I’m on your side. I got you out of slavery. I’m the best deal you’ve got going for you. Trust me. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t abandon me. Don’t commit adultery, because if you do it will unleash destructive powers that will slowly over‐shadow you, destroying you, your families and your society. Trust me. Don’t be stupid.”

 

There’s another story, quite relevant for this morning, which might give the impression of a God who likes to say No!

It’s in Genesis 11.

Some people decide to build a tower that reaches to heaven so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.  But one night God comes down and inspects what they’re doing. God decides that if they can do this nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  So God says Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.

 So the project fails, and the people scatter. End of story.

 How odd is that?

 

Surely a God who loves his creation, the kind of God who would like to say Yes!  would want us to flourish, to succeed? Sounds like this God feels a bit threatened.  This God sees people about to achieve something and says ‘can’t have that. Must stop that.’

 God says No!

 What’s going on?

A better question is what is God saying No! to?

 

Well, what do we know about Babel? We are told a little in the previous chapter.

 Cush was the father of Nimrod, who became a mighty warrior on the earth. The first centres of his Kingdom were Babylon (also known as Babel) Urruk, Akkad, and Kalneh.

So Babel was built by a guy called Nimrod, who is known as a warrior.

But that’s not all we’re told. Genesis add that his first centres were Babylon, Urruk, Akkad and Kalneh. His first centres. What does that tell you about our Nimrod?

Sounds like he’s spreading doesn’t it? We have a word for that. It sounds like he’s building an empire and using war and violence to achieve it. Doesn’t it?

That’s what happens when someone, or a group of people, use military might and economic dominance to crush anything, and anyone, in their way.

 

Anything else in the story? They bake bricks, to build their tower instead of stone. They use bitumen instead of mortar.

Bitumen was what was used to keep the ark waterproof, to keep it afloat and the people safe. And brick. That was a big breakthrough. Building with stone, all well and good. But it’s difficult and limited.

This is a very modern story in a way, about technology.

Combine those two things. People who have power, build empires and will use war and violence to get their way. And they are the ones with the new technology.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

No, we still fear that today?

Part of our problem in interpreting the scriptures, is that we in the West have power weighted in our favour.

The Bible, on the whole, was written by people who did not have that advantage, and is actually critical of those who do have it.

It’s why we tend to talk about Christian things as ‘spiritual.’

It’s why we hear, maybe even say, things likes don’t mix religion and politics.  Those with power don’t want God getting in the way.

The truth is, this book is every bit as much political as it is religious.

 

But most of the people who wrote it were on the other side.

Does the God in the Babel story say No!?

Yes.

 

But God says No! to a particular way of life, a way which sets itself over and against the rest, that uses power to dominate and exclude others.

God says No! to that, so that he can say yes to one which empowers and includes, and is open to all people.

If you doubt that, ask yourself…. what is the very next story in the Bible, after Babel?

God calls Abraham and says ‘I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great and you will be a blessing… and all the peoples on the earth will be blessed through you.

Notice those three words towards the end there ‘all the peoples.’

Everyone.

Babel says Yes to a small, elite band who look after their themselves and will use violence to get their way.

God’s Yes is flung wide open. It’s for anyone.

Fast forward several thousand years to the city of Jerusalem, where a crowd has gathered together to celebrate the Jewish spring harvest. It was a feast which occurred 50 days after Passover. Some called it the feast of weeks, others Pentecost.

For a small gathering in that city it was about to become a very special day. Just over 7 weeks ago they thought their leader was dead. He had been arrested, tried, sentenced to death and crucified. They’d buried him and thought that would be the end of the story.

But the following Sunday, some of the women in the group went to the tomb, found it empty then met some strange men who said ‘why are you looking for Jesus here? He’s not dead. He is risen’ And they discovered that was true. Over a period of six weeks, the risen Jesus kept showing up in different places, sharing with them, eating with them, explaining all the things that had just happened, giving them a new way of understanding the scriptures on which they had been raised…

Then 10 days ago they had been with him on a mountain when he had been taken from them, ascended into heaven. But before he went he said ‘don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father has promised which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit… You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ 

When Jesus left, he left behind a small crowd of followers, about as many as we get on a good busy Sunday here. Then that Sunday morning they were gathered together in one place. Suddenly there was a sound like the blowing of a violent wind that came from heaven and filled the house where they were gathered. They saw what seemed like tongues of fire which separated out and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enabled them.

 

Notice the language in there…

tongues of fire, which separated out on each of them.

 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit…

There’s no in group or our group.

It’s not some get it, others don’t.

A tongue came on each of them.

 All of them were filled.

And all of them played their part.

In what?

Well look what happens next…

There were God-fearing Jews from all over their known world in Jerusalem at that time. They appear to have heard whatever it was that was going on where the followers of Jesus had been praying and they came together… There were people from places with all sorts of strange names, that made the reader really grateful I didn’t ask for verses 9-11 to be read. Parthian’s, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Libya near Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs…

But they are from all these places, whatever they’re called… and they all hear about what God has done in their own language.

That’s my favourite bit of the whole story.

 

This is a story about God reaching out into the whole world. This is a God who is building a Kingdom, an empire if you like. Beginning at Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and on to the uttermost parts of the earth. Sounds a bit like the Babel story.

Except Babel was about power and exclusion. This story has lots of references to a God and Kingdom which is open to everyone.

At Babel the languages get confused and they are scattered.

 

Here the diversity of languages brought people together!

This is a story about a God who likes to say Yes. It’s a story about how far that God was prepared to go to give his Yes to all people.

This was a diverse, cosmopolitan crowd. But to reach that whole would only have required two languages. They would all have either understood Aramaic and/or Greek. You might also add Hebrew or possibly Latin.

Some scholars think that this is what actually happened. They think, if you’ll pardon the pun, something got lost in the translation and Luke misunderstood.

But a bunch of Galileans speaking a few languages that were generally known to them, would hardly have caused much amazement.

And it misses the most exciting aspect of the whole story. Not a few Galileans speaking 16+ languages. But the extent to which God was prepared to give his welcome, to give his yes to that assembled crowd.

A couple of languages might have got the job done, but God wasn’t content to deal with people in second languages.

I love being part of a faith community with people of so many different nationalities. I’m always really impressed by how so many of you, especially those who are first generation immigrants speak such brilliant English. I have to say we don’t make it easy for you. We have a strange language. Even stranger when communicated in this accent.

But I’m aware of times when, even with the best of vocabulary, you struggle to make yourself understood to me, and I struggle to make myself understood to you. I find myself thinking ‘if only I could communicate in your first language.’

But I remember times when we have had someone come from China and I have been able to put them with Serphia. Or when Beny, Cristian, Christina, have been able to talk to someone who is Romanian. They are able to hear and be heard in their own language. In their own tongue.

When that happens we get to be Pentecostal. Each person is sharing as they are able in their own tongue.

God is a God who likes to say Yes.  And God’s yes is for everyone. Everyone who calls on the same of the Lord will be saved.

From God’s perspective a second language, however many spoke it, wouldn’t do. If you were a Parthian, a Mede or a Roman, God wanted to speak to you as a Parthian, a Mede or a Roman. That to me is what’s amazing about Pentecost.

And God  uses different people to reach each one.

 

But there’s another dimension to God’s Yes. God is building his empire but who is invited to be part of it?

Again God’s yes is to all people. And how. I will pour out. This is no drip feed. God’s Yes to the Spirit is not grudging. It’s poured out. But on who?

I will pour out my flesh on all people. It says nothing about race, class, qualifications, background, morality… God likes to say Yes.

His Spirit is being poured out on all flesh

 Gender is not an issue to God. Twice in the passage Joel and Peter make that point

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy; then later, just in case you missed it first time; Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days and they will prophesy.

 

And in that sentence we also get that status doesn’t matter. The word servant is actually slave. From top to the bottom God’s Spirit is available to all.

It’s sad that so often we have taken the Spirit and made him a source of division. At my course the other week we were discussing Pentecost and asked to give one word to describe the Spirit. The responses were generally positive. Then we were asked how the Holy Spirit might come up in directing conversations. The scenarios were remarkably negative.

 

When you hear those words, spoken on the first day of the church, how has it taken us so long to accept women in ministry?

How is it that the sisters I serve beside in the Baptist family find it so much harder in our settlement processes?

How is it that so many of our churches still don’t accept the validity of women in ministry?

How have we taken a few verses, often ignoring other verses around them and built a theology of exclusion around them?

Could it be we’ve slipped from being part of the story of Genesis 12, of a God who likes to say Yes and slipped back to being a Babel like people of Genesis 11?

Age is not a boundary either. Young men will see visions; Old men will dream dreams. How easy it is for us to dismiss people on the grounds of their youth. To not take them and their ideas seriously. Paul told Timothy not to let anyone look down on him cos he was young. And he could have kept writing those words for much of the next 2000 years. Are we a people saying No! when God wants to say Yes?

But equally we live in a younger and younger person’s world. Where people are made to feel past it. If you doubt me just look at the drivel with which England announced their World Cup squad in the week.

Ours is an age which values the new and the novel and turned its back on wisdom from the past.   True, at different times and seasons in life, the role for which the Spirit empowers us might change. But the Spirit is still empowering us for something. There is no retirement age in God’s Kingdom. God has said No! to the Babel model which excludes. God has a place for you. God likes to say Yes. You might feel past it, and think that society, and even the church is saying No!

Well this morning I want to tell you, the Spirit is for you. We have a God who likes to say Yes and who likes to say it to you.

We need the energy, enthusiasm and vigour of the young, and the wisdom, experience and know how of those who have been around the block a few times. There is room for all.

All of us are welcome to receive him. Male, female, old, young, rich, poor, whatever nationality you are, He is available to all.

And all we have to do is call on him.

To ask him. To say yes to his offer.

The Spirit is a worldwide equal opportunities empowerer.

For he is the Spirit of a God who likes to say Yes.

 

Posted in NOT A SERMON, Uncategorized

Some Thoughts for Mental Health Awareness Week 2018

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In the past I  have suffered from anxiety and depression.

I have felt inadequate, and convinced myself that everything that went wrong was my fault, however little or much control I had over it.

I have told myself that people would be better off without me.

 

I’m not going to make out it was worse than it was. I never considered harming myself. A large part of that was considering the affect it would have on my wife, my family in Ireland, my church, though it was more than that. Nonetheless I would go to sleep thinking it ‘wouldn’t be such a bad thing if I didn’t wake up.’

 

It wasn’t something I could directly relate to circumstances. When the facade finally cracked, things weren’t too bad actually. They’d certainly been a lot worse. But that was beside the point.

 

What’s more, I convinced myself that, as a Baptist pastor people relied on me.

I wouldn’t have expected the same of anyone else, including ministerial colleagues. I’d have told them it was ‘ok to not be ok.’

But I never said that to myself.

Then one day I found myself in the church office, when suddenly I could feel the tension welling up inside me.  It started in my stomach, then up into my upper chest, where I felt I was about to explode.

I had to get out of there. I got my PA to come with me to my office. I’m not sure why. I just couldn’t be alone. Then, almost as soon as the door clicked shut, I found myself unable to stop crying.  If you’d asked me to pinpoint what was wrong, I couldn’t have done it. It was… well… it was just everything.

There was only one thing I did know.

I couldn’t go on.

 

I walked out of the office and went to find my wife at work. Next day I went to speak to my doctor.

 

My first instinct was to hush things up. Just let people know I was ‘unwell’ with some kind of unspecified illness. I mean, I couldn’t tell them what was really going on. I was supposed to be the one who had it all together.

Then I called bullshit. Sorry if that offends anyone, but it was how I felt.

 

Had I been physically ill, I’d have had no such compulsion to cover it up. Why should I feel this way about depression and anxiety?

Besides, what signal did that send to those in my congregation who suffer in this way? That there was something to be ashamed of?

No, that thinking was bullshit. And it was a relief when I told them.

 

I have to admit, I was blessed. I have a great wife who was patient and understanding.

I committed to taking the tablets.

In a few weeks I got myself an excellent therapist. My job enabled me to get some initial sessions at a reduced rate. I caanot recommend Churches’ Ministerial Counselling Services enough.  I still see my therapist every few weeks.  I tell her it’s like a check up at the dentist. I give her permission to poke around my psyche and see if I wince, or if I am keeping myself in check.

The day I broke down, I already had a meeting with my spiritual director in my diary. He too gave a lot of his time to help piece me back together.

I committed myself to mindfulness and meditation.

I had a great church congregation who appreciated my honesty. Sadly that’s not always a given, but in my case it was.

 

Recently someone asked me, was it my faith that helped me get better. Well, in a sense it did. But it was mainly the other stuff. Or at least that’s how God worked in me.

 

We’re coming up for 2 1/2 years on. I still have days when it really is not ok. More than days sometimes. However I take heart that they are noticeable more because they are not the norm. The feelings pass and I can tell myself they will pass because they always have.

I do recognise my blessings. But I have learned that mental illness can come to anyone. You don’t have to have it all together. At the end of the day I’m not convinced any of us has. If we’re honest, most of us are winging it, most of the time.

But when it’s not ok, please, please, please talk about it. Many of us, perhaps particularly men, are crap at talking about this stuff. We convince ourselves we’re supposed to be able to sort this out, that it’s a sign of weakness. Can I just ask you to call bullshit on those attitudes.  Seek what help you can.

Anxiety, depression and all other forms of mental illness are horrible, but they are not entitled to speak the last word on you.

Grace and peace

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Yes Part 1

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Reading: Acts 1: 1-11

This morning Ian read for us an account of Jesus’ last encounter with the disciples before he ascended into heaven.  We get a few words about what happened immediately afterwards this side of that encounter. Two men, or angels, asked the disciples what they were doing staring up into the sky.

But what about on the heaven side?

There is an old legend about what happened as Jesus was welcomed back into heaven. He was greeted by the angels, but then they caught a glimpse of the scars in his hands, feet, and forehead which had been pierced by the thorns. Gabriel says ‘it must have been terrible what you went through, to rescue the world. But still, at least the whole world knows how much God loves them.’

‘Not the whole world’ says Jesus. ‘Just a few of them. You’d like them… Peter, James, John, Mary, quite a few Mary’s actually, Joanna, Thomas…’

‘Just a few of them?’ said a startled angel.

‘How then is the rest of the world to get to know?’

‘Oh, they’ll tell people, who will tell people, who will tell people, it’ll spread outwards. Word of mouth, like…’

‘But… but… but’ said the angels ‘what if they don’t? What if they just stop passing it on? What’s Plan B?’

‘Plan B?’ said Jesus.

‘I’m not sure what you mean. There is no plan B. I’m trusting them.’

 

In this morning’s reading Jesus was placing God’s plans and purposes for the world into the hands of those gathered round him. But if things were going to move forward, it would require their Yes!

Which brings us to our latest word as we continue to explore the different seasons, stages of phases of a life lived in relationship with God.  Yes!

 

Perhaps Yes! is not a word people would immediately associate with Christians.

I’m reminded of an episode of The Vicar of Dibley where they are trying to replace a stained glass window damaged in a storm. Their fundraising efforts are a bit of a disaster and David Horton, the chair of the parish council, says ‘Sadly we must minute that Dibley can’t afford a new window.’

But the vicar interrupts. ‘Stop writing. ‘Can’t’ isn’t in the Christian vocabulary.’

To which one council member replies ‘Yes it is! You can’t commit adultery, You can’t steal…’

and another adds ‘You can’t even covet your neighbour’s ass. Even if it is very alluring!

 

No might be a word more readily associated with Christians, even if not as I talked about it a few months back. There was certainly a lot of No in my early faith background. Drinking, smoking, dancing, cinema, there was a long list of things to which we said No because we were Christians. The list got even longer on Sundays.

 

And, in fairness, there is a place for that kind of No. It’s not all bad. There are a couple of occasions in Luke’s Gospel when Jesus is asked an identical question… what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus response each time is slightly different.

Once he asks what’s written in the law? How do you read it?

On the other occasion he says you know the commandments You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother…

Again, notice, most of them are about what you don’t to.

Different answers, but in a way quite similar. Each time Jesus turns to Torah or Law as a starting point.

We see the same in the Sermon on the Mount. Several times Jesus says ‘you have heard it said… but I say to you.’ Each time he’s talking about one the commands or an established interpretation of scripture. He never says they’re wrong, that Old Testament writers hadn’t a clue what they were talking about, or maybe it’s time we moved on from all that stuff. Quite the opposite. He is trying to take them deeper.

But each time in the background is the realisation that laws, or Nos can only take you so far.

The two guys asking Jesus about eternal life have clearly given it their best shot. One even claimed to have kept all the commandments since childhood. But the fact that they were asking shows it still didn’t seem like enough.

No can be a good place to start. If a command stops you making a really destructive choice, that is good. But it only gets you so far.

And sometimes, particularly when Christians appear on the media, I think we’re better at talking about what we’re against, rather than what we’re for.

Do we also say Yes?

What are we saying Yes to?

And the thing about those questions, how can I inherit eternal life, how can I live in a relationship of love and trust in the divine, is that in the end it’s about grace.

It can’t be earned.

It can only be accepted.

It can only be received.

It needs our Yes.

Of course, others might argue that every journey of faith begins with our Yes! Yes is essential to the Christian faith.

That Yes might, at least at first, be a bit reluctant.  Think of Moses before the burning bush. Moses offered no fewer than 4 reasons why he shouldn’t be the one God sends to Pharaoh. 4 reasons why he shouldn’t say Yes. And when God answers all 4, Moses still asks God to send someone else.

But ultimately, however reluctantly, Moses offers his Yes!

From Isaiah’s Here am I, send me to Mary’s I am the Lord’s servant, let it be as you have said, they are all responses to an invitation from God. They all begin by giving their Yes!  There is a Yes that we can give at the beginning of our Christian journey. And it is good and necessary that we do.

But there’s another kind of Yes which I want to focus on over the next few weeks.

A deeper Yes that comes from experience.

When you’ve been battered by the storms of life.

When your faith has been tested.

When you have passed through those winter phases, where you’ve cried out When? How Long, O Lord? When you’ve been through that season of No! and really wrestled with God. When you’ve cried out Why?

And yet you have hung on in there. At times it might have felt like Peter in John’s Gospel when Jesus is being deserted by the crowds and he asks the disciples if they want to go to. Maybe, like Peter, you’ve found yourself thinking ‘where else can I go?’ But you have held on.

When you say Yes in that situation, it’s very different.

The kind of Yes I’m talking of here follows on from the Behold! which we considered over the previous few weeks.

You’ve passed through the winter and, as we talked about in the last few week, you know you’ll never be the same.

But you’re still here.

And new life is possible.

It might look different, not as you anticipated, and you still bear the scars of what you experienced. But new life is possible.

Will you embrace it?

It needs to be received.

It needs your Yes.

Or maybe, as we considered last week, you’ve caught a glimpse of how God is truly at work in your life, around you, in the wider world. For a long time you’ve thought what difference can I make but somehow you’ve caught a glimpse of small seeds, slowly, often unnoticed, giving birth to new hope and new life.

And you’re challenged or invited to be join in and be part of it.

It needs your Yes!

 

It’s that kind of Yes that we witness at the start of Acts. We don’t know who Theophilus was, but whoever it was, Luke begins Acts by reminding him that he had written a former volume in which Luke had told him of all the things Jesus had begun to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven.

But it’s clear, from that word began to do and to teach, the story is to continue, as it does in Acts, with what he continues to do and to teach.

But this time it looks different. Jesus is nowhere to be seen. By verse 11 Jesus has exited stage up and was hidden from their sight.

You know how sometimes when one person is leaving a job, they may have a handover period with the next person? That’s what had been going on in the 40 days after the resurrection. But now that handover period was over, Jesus was passing it on to them.

 Jesus extended the invitation to be part of it. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

God had a plan and purpose for the world and they were being invited to be part of it.

But it needed their Yes.

And there was no Plan B.

This wasn’t the first time many of these guys had said Yes to Jesus. But this time was different. This was a deeper, post-winter Yes that came from a deeper place or knowledge, or experience, of journeying with Jesus.

It was much deeper than, say Peter, James, John and Andrew had offered, when Jesus had walked by the sea of Galilee and said follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. And they left their nets and followed.

Or when Matthew left his tax collecting post and took up Jesus’ invitation to follow him.

This Yes cme from a place which had been through the darker side of faith. That had seen Jesus be misunderstood, opposition turning more and more hostile, to the point where he was arrested, tried, crucified, killed and buried.  Their faith hadn’t been too strong in those moments, as they all abandoned him and he was left alone.

And Jesus was not offering any promises that it would be any easier going forward. The word for witness is martys, which is the root of our word martyr.

But it was also a faith which had experienced resurrection. As Luke summarises in the opening words of Acts, Jesus had presented himself to them on several occasions, and offered many convincing proofs that he was alive.

They had witnessed the empty tomb, met Christ on the road, behind locked doors, or by charcoal fires on the shore. It was a faith which was coming to realise how even amongst the very worst that they had been experiencing, God was not defeated, God was bringing good out of it, God was reconciling the whole world to himself.

It was a faith which was beginning to Behold!

But it was still waiting for their Yes.

 

It didn’t mean they had really started all together. They would still make a hash of things. They would still misunderstand. But Jesus was inviting them to offer their Yes.

And in a sense it’s quite encouraging because they are things we have struggled with the same things ever since.

We catch a glimpse of two misunderstandings in our readings. One is in verse 6. Jesus is it now you’re going to restore the Kingdom to Israel. They had been raised on this idea that one day the Messiah would come and defeat all their enemies, which in their immediate context was Rome. Perhaps they also had the Temple authorities in their sights. They had done their worst to get rid of Jesus, yet he was still here. Surely now was the time.

Their mistake was to make it to earthy. We can get caught up in all sorts of things, even the good kind of progressive things I was talking about last week. We can get really passionate about that. And that is good. As I said last week, I genuinely think God is in on that.

But still their vision was too small. The Kingdom of God is certainly not less than that. But it is also a lot more.

But then there was the opposite mistake. Jesus was taken into heaven before their very eyes and a cloud hid them from their sight. Then they were looking up intently into the sky. And suddenly there were two guys standing with them and they said ‘why are you standing around looking into the sky?’

Which is a bit harsh because they’ve just watched Jesus being taken up. Where else would they be looking?

But there’s a sense of them needing to be reminded that their business is here. Or more precisely not up on the mountain. Back down in the world.

If one side is too ‘earthy’ it’s possible to become too ‘heavenly.’

At my course this week we were looking at images of the church. Two of them are Ark and Leaven. The ark is the idea of being rescued, like Noah and the family in the boat. But it can have a tendency to be obsessed with churchy stuff and our relationship with God that they don’t pay any attention to the world around them.

The leaven has the opposite problem. They do great stuff in the world and make an impact, like yeast in the bread (hence the name). But they don’t focus on their relationship with God.

It’s not the only time these two attitudes are set side by side by Luke. One of them is actually in a passage I mentioned earlier, when a guy asks Jesus ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life.’ One day I will write a proper sermon on this. Cos what follows is two stories and we tend to deal with them separately. And we miss something of what they have to say.

Cos the guy has just said that to inherit eternal life he needs to love God with all his heart, soul and strength and love his neighbour as himself.

The two stories which follow are The Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha. In the parable of the Good Samaritan we’re often told the priest and the Levite don’t help the guy because it would have made them unfit for the temple worship. In this story the hero is the activist, loving his neighbour, who gets down and dirty and helps the guy on the road, whilst the bad guys are the ones doing the holy stuff, whose loving God makes them miss their neighbour.

But in the very next story we get Mary and Martha where Jesus seems to take the part of the one doing the holy stuff at the expense of the one doing the practical. Who’s letting loving others get in the way of loving God.

It’s the same idea.

 

Too earthy vs staring into the sky. Which is it? The answer is we need both types of spirituality.

That’s why Jesus tells them to wait for the Spirit. To not go charging off. They’ll only get themselves into a tangle and get lost in the paths they choose.

It’s the Spirit that enables those disciples to offer their Yes and mean it. It’s the Spirit that empowers those disciples who go back down from the mountain to begin the second volume of the story of Jesus. True he can’t be seen, but Jesus is still alive and at work in them through the Spirit, who is the main actor throughout Acts.

But notice how Jesus talks of the Spirit…

Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift that my Father promised

 Gift

 The Spirit cannot be earned.

The Spirit can only be received, as a gift.

The Spirit needs our Yes.

We cannot earn the Spirit. The Spirit only comes as a gift. But we can put ourselves in the place where we are ready to receive the Spirit. Through prayer, through meeting together. By being open to God to guide us. That’s how we offer our Yes.

But if we will say Yes, it is The Spirit who guides us along the path, as we seek to find that balance between our relationship with God and our service to the world.

But we’ll never receive him without our Yes.

Perhaps we need to open ourselves to the Spirit for the first time. To have that initial encounter with the Risen Christ, to invite him into our lives and ask him to be our Saviour.

But perhaps we are being called to a deeper Yes. We’ve been through the winter, our faith has been tried, we have wrestled with God, but now the Spirit who has been quietly taking you through that season is showing you signs of new life. Or perhaps the Spirit has been prompting you, guiding you towards some good that God has been at in the world.

You are starting to Behold!

Is the Spirit just waiting for your Yes?

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Behold Part 3

cupsReadings: Colossians 1: 15-20; 1 John 1: 1-4; Matthew 13: 31-33

On Monday morning I was in one of our major coffee chains, getting my caffeine ‘fix.’ I’m a bit of a regular there and know the staff to talk to. And a while ago, when it was in the news about the environmental effects of all the disposable cups they give you to take away, I bought one of these flask-type cups that you can take back and they will use instead. I always pour it into my normal mug when I get back here, but that’s just me. In return for using one of these mugs, I get about 20, 25 pence off a medium Americano. Which can’t be bad!

But on Monday, after I handed the cup over, the guy who was making my coffee asked ‘do you think you’ve made your money back on the cup?’

Well, I think I spent £4 on the cup, so after about 20 cups of coffee, so yes, it’s probably safe to say I have.

But I said ‘yes, probably, but you know I’ve never really thought of that. I just like to think I’m saving the world!’

 

He said ‘well, we can do our little bit, but in the end it’s the big corporations that are killing us all…’

… to which one of his colleagues said ‘you mean, like us?!’

Well, we’ll not got there…

We were all just joking around, but I suppose there is a part of me hopes, even believe, that small actions can make a difference. Especially if enough people join in. I suppose I am hoping it’s like a small seed which is dropped into the ground, but in time produces a tree, great enough for the birds of the air to perch in it’s branches.

I’ve seen it happen often enough, say with Foodbank. We have an article about Foodbank in our current newsletter. I’m sure those involved will tell you some of the things they hear and encounter are heartbreaking. I remember the face of one child when he looked in a foodbank parcel and his face lit up as he exclaimed ‘mummy. We’ve got jam!’ That’ll stick with me forever.

 

We’ve been looking for the last few weeks at the latest of our words which describe different seasons or phases of the spiritual life. The current word is Behold!  It’s been about seeing God at work in unexpected ways and even through some of the most unexpected circumstances.

Last week we looked at the story of Joseph, of the technicolour dreamcoat variety, and we saw how he came to see that even through all the evil, hostility, injustice, and unfairness he faced, God had been at work. Others had sought to do him harm, but God had turned it for good.

 

Well this morning I want to come at this from a slightly different angle.

You see, I think God is at work in all things. That every good and perfect gift has its root in God. If it’s true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy, God is in there, whether he is noticed or even wanted or not.

But it can be difficult to notice him. We might not even be looking for him. We can fail to recognise God or miss him altogether.

In a sense that’s where I was coming from when I gave out this little quiz a couple of weeks ago. Or more precisely, it was given out whilst I was away. Thank you to those who filled it out. I really appreciated it.

 

If you want to know where I got this stuff from, it’s from a book called Factfulness by Hans Rosling. (Seriously, I encourage you to watch any of his talks on youtube. He was one of the most entertaining speakers I’ve ever heard – some links below). He died last year and this was the work he devoted the last years of his life to.

It’s about differences between how we see the world and what is actually happening. Even amongst those closest to it. At one point he talks about teachers, many of whom taught global population trends, being asked a question about their subject area, and only 9% got it right. At the World Economic Forum, where policy to tackle these issues is supposedly developed, only 1 in 4 were operating with correct information, even though that information was freely available.

In one way it’s less of a problem if you and I don’t know this. But maybe we miss something of what God is doing, and perhaps are more reluctant to share in it, because we can’t see it.

Test can be found at http://forms.gapminder.org/s3/test-2018

Question 1: Is the world getting better, worse, or staying about the same?

Not really a fact. There is, as you’ll see an answer I was looking for. But really it depends what you are measuring and what you think is most important. But I wanted to see if how we answer that makes a difference to how we answer other questions.

Our scores

Question Our Score (% Correct Responses) Least Popular Answer Correct
% Girls Low Income Countries Completing Primary School 9% *
Where does majority of world population live (Income) 16%
Change in % World Population in Extreme Poverty 16% *
World Life Expectancy 29% *
Estimate of Number of Chilren in World by 2100 8% *
Main reason for pupulation increase by 2100 25% *
Deaths from Natural Disasters over last 100 years 23% *
Where does majority of world population live (Location) 19%
% 1 year old children vaccinated 11% *
Years, on average, 30 year old woman has spent in school 15% *
Endagered species question 3% *
% world with access to electrity 21% *
Change world temperature over next 100 years 93%

Our average score was 2.9 out of 13.

Interestingly in 10 out of 13 questions, the least popular answer turned out to the right one.

But I was also interested to see if how we view the world made a difference.

Average score of those who think the world is getting better: 4.6

Average score of those who think world is getting worse: 2.2

Now you might say I’ve been very selective in the subjects I’ve chosen to look at. There are things which have grown worse in the world. But these are not isolated examples.

In 1800 there were 193 countries where forced labour was legal. Today that figure is 3.

In that same time the proportion of children dying before their 5th birthday has fallen from 44% to 4%

The number of nuclear warheads in the world today is a quarter of what it was at its peak in 1986.

In the last 20 years new HIV infections have fallen to less than half of what they were 20 years ago.

In 1893 there was only one country where women and men had equal voting right. Today that stands at 193.

That’s not to say they are all democracies, but even then the share of humanity living in democracies has increased from 1% in 1816 to 56% in 2015.

Child cancer survival, access to protected water supplies, literacy, cereal yields, I could go on – all getting better.

 

Yet we struggle to think of it in that way.

Now I didn’t ask you to do that test to try to make you feel stupid or show that I know more than you. I scored 6 when I did the test before reading the book, but that’s still quite a lot I didn’t know.

Rosling did these questions with people all over the world, and basically we are…

 

… normal.

How come there is so much good in the world and we do not notice it? That’s what he spends most of the book discussing and he has a number of reasons.

But I’ll just mention a couple.

Sometimes it’s not really an advantage to be able to reason things out. A chimp choosing answers randomly would score better than most of us do. We Chances are many of us would have done better answering randomly. But we get our news from somewhere. Mainly from the media.

 

Where we encounter media bias. I’m not talking about the press running down the government or whatever. It’s just they can’t tell us everything. They have to choose what they tell us. The media have a job – to get our attention. And they can be quite effective at that.

The one question where we scored well on was the one about climate change. It is in our media all the time. Interestingly it was the one where the answer was more negative. You are made aware of that. You’re not told about how many children are vaccinated, or how many have electricity.

 

In a sense people like me don’t help. Every now and then we will have some sort of appeal and I’ll tell you this many people don’t have clean water, or that many people have no shelter. It’s the same with those adverts that come on TV.

And it’s true.

But in a sense they don’t want you to go away with the idea that you thought things were a lot worse. It’s not a great motivator to do something about it!

 

Which links to the other thing I want to highlight: The difference between improving and good. Just because I have been highlighting that things are improving, is does not mean they are good. I don’t want the thing you take away from this is that things are getting better so we don’t have to try any more.

60% of young girls, in low income countries, finishing primary school is a huge improvement.

But 40% don’t. We’re still on the way.

Same with all the other stuff.

Why is it we don’t hear about all the good that is happening? Because it is the product of slow, methodical work and improvement. They are the product of small seeds which have grown into great plants which provide shelter for so many.

Slow, methodical improvement is not really news. If a plane crashes, that’s news. If millions safely make it to their destination, it’s not.

 

You’ve heard the phrase no news is good news? Well yes, but the fact that it is no news means we are not aware of it, unless we go looking for it. So we don’t notice it. We don’t Behold!

Lots of things are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy and we are unaware of them. God is at work in lots of places and we don’t see them. We don’t Behold!

 

And there is a practical outworking of that. I’m not saying if we were a bit more informed we would be a lot happier about the world. Jesus did say you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. But that’s not my point here.

It’s the fact that God can take our efforts and use them to fulfil far more than we can ask or imagine. Seeds can achieve far more than we know.

One local example. One of our local MPs, Bob Blackman, was invited by Firm Foundation to visit one of their night shelters. He returned this year, when our team was cooking the meal. He knows good cooking when he sees it!

 But Bob was impressed by the work and challenges faced by Firm Foundation and took the opportunity to introduce a Private Members’ Bill in Parliament called the Homelessness Reduction Bill. He even mentioned Firm Foundation in Parliament. Private Members Bills don’t have the highest rate of success. But Bob was successful and on April 3 this year, the Homelessness Reduction Act passed into law. It is, as a speaker from Shelter described it, in a positive way, the most significant piece of homelessness legislation in this country in the last 40 years.

And it starts in a night shelter.

Small things matter. Though it takes faith to Behold! cos it’s how God works.

But as I leave this word behind I just want to highlight it’s how our faith was born.

Those two passages from Colossians and John make really big statements about Jesus. Who creates, sustains and reconciles all things. These words were written maybe about 25, 30 years after Jesus walked the earth. The words from John another 20, 30 years later?

To use, after years of being handed on, they are part of our tradition, our faith. But we can miss something…

 

They were writing about someone who lived fairly recently. They had seen with their eyes, they had looked at (or reflected on him and what he meant). They had touched him. And they came to see that in him God was moving amongst us.

 If you want to grasp that… imagine someone where to say that about Mahatma Ghandi, or Martin Luther King. I pick those examples because they lived in the lifetimes of some of you and were assassinated largely because of what they stood for.

Even then you would not really be getting close. If you wanted to get to the shock value of these words you would need someone who was executed by the superpower of their day.

 

It didn’t come all at once. Even to those who believed in him. They found themselves scratching their heads thinking ‘who is this?’

And he was easily missed. So easily missed that those who should have known better didn’t get it. He came to his own and they didn’t recognise him.

And he was rejected. He was nailed to a cross. A brutal form of execution. And he was laid in the ground. Even when he rose from the dead, they struggled to understand him.

But in time, through reflection, prayer, the presence of the Spirit, in community with one another, there were those who came to see it, to Behold! it.

God had been at work.

Even in the worst of things.

Even in his rejection God was reconciling all things to himself.

God was opening the way back to relationship with him.

 

But that can be missed every bit as much as his work in the world. It takes faith to Behold! it. Every bit as much as it takes to Behold the good he is doing in the world, and is doing amongst us.

But we can do things to help us Behold! And you’re invited to join in one now, as we gather round the table, take a piece of broken bread, a tiny sip of wine, very ordinary things, nothing special about them at all, and uses them to communicate with us about his love for us, and his plans for us.  How God is at work, even in the most ordinary, mundane, non-newsworthy things, drawing us back into relationship with himself, healing his world, offering us life.

May we eat, drink, reflect and Behold!

Hans Rosling talks:  https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen

https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_reveals_new_insights_on_poverty

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Behold! Part 2

joseph_coat_colors_bible_hero_poster_1_1

Reading: Genesis 45: 1-15; 50: 15-21

I often find myself in conversations about how I became a minister. People often assume that I studied Theology at university and my job was a natural progression from that. It surprises them that although I did study theology later (and even did some Biblical Studies at St Andrews) my actual degree was in Economics. Then they ask ‘so how did you end up doing this from there.’

did pursue the Economics thing for a while. I was a researcher in a business school and I taught finance students but my academic career did not end well. It’s a long story. In truth it was probably for the best, I didn’t really have a passion for what I was doing. But I still felt badly treated, and it didn’t seem like a good thing at the time.

Around that time I made a shortlist of two for a wellipaid job with a big company in Birmingham. The job seemed suited to me and I thought the interview had gone brilliantly. When I told one of my friends about it he told me not to make any plans for December 25. They seemed to like me so much they would probably invite me to Christmas dinner!

But they went with the other person.

A few months later there was another job that really excited me. So much so that, the other evening, neither Julie nor I could remember who it was with. But I was excited at the time. And again I was on a shortlist of two.

But again they chose the other person.

I remember my birthday 15 years ago, being quite disheartened. Julie and I spent the day in Banbury, for some reason. Julie tried to encourage me, it’s a numbers game, you will be the one chosen one of these days, then you’ll prove yourself…

That was a Friday. The following Monday I put some new CVs into a few agencies in Birmingham and was working by Tuesday morning. There were a few minor detours, but a couple of months later I got a contract doing admin in a homeless admissions centre.

Then one day the big bosses in houses wanted a report on something. I was asked if I could just produce a few figures. But one of the things my time at universities has taught me was how to use spreadsheets. I really put everything into this.  My boss took my report to his bosses and when he came back he said ‘you should have seen their faces. They were really impressed. It told them far more than they asked. They didn’t even know they could find out some of this stuff. They didn’t understand it all, but they were happy you seemed to know what you were talking about. But they were impressed!’

They were restructuring our department. And mainly as a result of that report they created a permanent job which may as well have had my name of the Person Specification. After a few months in the role one of the ‘up there’ bosses asked me to a meeting where she said they had undergraded my job and gave me a 40% pay rise.

That might have made a very good, happy ending to the story…

…but a few days earlier I had been accepted by the ministerial recognition committee to train for Baptist ministry.

But you know I look back over that whole period, including the hurts and disappointments, and see how they have helped me in what I do now. God did bring good out of them.

I didn’t see it at the time. I may have occasionally hoped some good would come out of it. But I couldn’t see it.

But I look back on those times when I seemed to be living in the When/How Long? and Why?  and from here I can have a sense that God was at work even in the midst of all that. I look back with a sense of what I described a couple of weeks ago with this word Behold!

 

Behold! is the latest in our 12 words, seasons or phases in a healthy, living relationship with God. I introduced it a couple of weeks ago.

At first glance it might seem a little similar to some of the earlier words as it is talking about noticing about how God is with us.

But in another sense it is very different. For Behold! is for those who have been through the cold, dark winter season of life and of faith. When things have stopped making sense, when you’ve been through that time when you’ve wondered if you are ever going to get through this.

Behold! is about looking for the potential for new life, new hope, resurrection even. 

Behold! is not about saying what happened in those dark seasons didn’t matter; that it wasn’t as bad as you think. You don’t have to look back and say that’s ok, then. 

Behold! is not about blurring distinctions between good and bad, like it’s just a matter of perspective. 

Behold! is not even about saying there is something good about the bad we encountered. 

But Behold! is about saying that even despite that new life is possible. 

There is potential for good to emerge, whatever we face.

It might be hard to see it.

It may look different.

But there is life. There will be life.

There is nothing from which God cannot bring good.

More can be mended than we know.

The story of Joseph is a Behold! story, although on a lot grander scale than the one I opened with. However low I felt, I was never in the place where Joseph was. I might have felt unfairly treated at the start of the story, but I did not encounter anything like the injustice Joseph faced. And certainly I’ve not risen to anything like his importance!

Of the main characters in the Genesis’ stories, more space is devoted to Joseph and his story than to anyone else. That’s more than Isaac, Jacob, and even Abraham, the father of the Jewish faith. It’s such a great story that it’s even been made into a hit musical with an Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.

But this is more than just a great rags to riches story, or a story about someone overcoming great adversity (though there is plenty of that).  This morning I’m not going to stick just with the bit we read, I want to look at it more widely. But in both this morning’s readings we get to the key point.

We get it 3 times in 4 verses in Genesis 45 (5-8)

Now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you… God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance… it was not you who sent me here, but God

Or later, after Jacob has died and Joseph’s brothers worry that Joseph might choose this moment to take his revenge on them, Joseph says You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 

This is a Behold! story. Joseph is not saying that what his brothers did was ok. It was evil. They did intend to harm him. And what others did to him was wrong too. But Joseph has reached the place that he can look back on all that has taken place over perhaps 20 years and see that God was somehow at work in it all. And God had brought good even out of the most terrible of experiences, even out of the intended evil.

That doesn’t mean he always saw God in it. I would say there’s good reason for thinking it’s only as he reaches the start of Genesis 45 that he really has a fuller Behold! moment. But he has reached the place where he can see God at work in all the stuff that happened.

What did he experience? I’ll try to cover it briefly…

Joseph was one of 12 sons of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson. Now this is the family through who God was supposedly going to bless the whole world. Remember that.

Because this family was a right mess. It was family wracked the favouritism. If you look back over the Genesis they have a long history of it. Causing problems by favouring one child over another.

Jacob has children with a mix of four women. Be careful what you are advocating when you talk about ‘Biblical marriage.’ But Rachel is his favourite of them. She also found it hard to conceive, so when she had Joseph, Joseph quickly became his favourite.

Jacob didn’t even try to pretend he loved all his children equally. He gave Joseph a gift of a coat. Whatever it was it was clearly very special and it is described in such a way as to suggest that Joseph didn’t have to work like other brothers. It was long, with full length sleeves, which would have been impractical for working. So there is more going on here than simply giving him a new Prada jacket, whilst the others get their presents from Primark.

Joseph then had a dream. He talks of binding sheaves of wheat, then his sheaf standing upright and all the brothers sheaves bowing down to Joseph’s. Shall we say this didn’t help him.

Had I said this in my family the dead arms and Chinese burns I’d have got would have deterred me from saying anything similar again. Maybe if one of them had tried that with Joseph it wouldn’t have got so out of hand.

But not Joseph. He has another dream in which the sun, moon and 11 stars bow down to him. And he tells them.

So resentment really builds up in the family. So much so that one day, when the father sends Joseph out to check up on the brothers at work they decide to kill him and chuck him into a pit. But one of the brothers, Reuben, says ‘no, let’s not kill him. Just chuck him in the pit. He has plans to rescue Joseph later.

Then Reuben appears to disappear for a while. But whilst he is gone some traders come by and one of the brothers comes up with the idea of selling Joseph into slavery. Judah actually says killing him is a bit harsh. Let’s sell him into slavery instead.

Cos that’s just so much nicer…

Remember this is the family that is supposed to bless the whole world??? Looking really good so far.

So they sell him into slavery, dip Joseph’s technicolour dreamcoat in animal blood and pretend to their father that Joseph is dead.

Interesting side point. The people they sell him to are Ishmaelites. This is a different branch of Abraham’s family which had been a source of tension a long time before. In one sense that’s highlighting just how bad things have got. They are collaborating with those who have historically been their enemies to harm their own brother.  But if you look at it in a different way, God is using that other part of Abraham’s family to play a part in saving Joseph, saving Egypt and blessing the world. But we’re a long way from there yet.

Joseph is taken to Egypt where he is sold to a quite senior figure called Potiphar. Joseph proves trustworthy and excels at his work. He is put in charge of Potiphar’s whole household.

But thing is Joseph also appears to be a bit of a looker and Potiphar’s wife tries to get him to start and affair with her. Joseph refuses her advances.

But one day he is alone in the house with her when she basically pounces on him. Joseph pulls himself out of his coat and runs.

Potiphar’s wife does not take the rejection well. She uses the coat to claim Joseph had tried to rape her.

The fact that Potiphar has Joseph put in prison rather than killed, suggests that Potiphar is not convinced that his wife is being entirely honest. But he still has Joseph thrown into prison. So even though Joseph tried to do the right thing, he still winds up in prison.

But again Joseph proves trustworthy and excels in prison and is put in charge of the prison. Then two of the Pharaoh’s servants, a cupbearer and a baker are thrown into jail with him. One night both have troubling dreams. They mention it to Joseph who interprets them both. For the cupbearer it suggests he is about to be returned to service, but for the baker it suggests he is about to be killed. Joseph tells him the meaning of their dreams, telling them it is God, not him, giving the interpretation. What he says comes true. But, as the cupbearer is released, Joseph says to him, remember me when you get out of here.

But the cupbearer forgets all about him.

And again, although Joseph has tried to do the right thing, no help comes. He is still in a why? or how long? season. And two more years pass.

Then Pharaoh has a couple of troubling dreams which no-one can interpret. At this point the cupbearer says ‘oh, yes, I knew a bloke once… ‘ and Joseph is taken from prison and brought to Pharaoh.

Again Joseph does not take the credit, but says God can hep him and tells Pharaoh the interpretation of his dreams.

There are going to be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. So best to store up during the 7 years of plenty, then you will have enough to get through the 7 bad years. You’ll need someone to administer that, he says. Pharaoh says you sound like just the man. So like that Joseph rises to be second in the land.

Time passes. The 7 years of plenty come and go. The 7 years of famine begin. Then Jacob sends most of his sons to get food in Egypt. They come before Joseph. He recognises them, but unsurprisingly they don’t recognise him.

It’s here that I part company with most of the people who write about Joseph. As Christians we keep trying to see the Jesus type character. Which here is going to be Joseph, to be fair. He is the Saviour figure.

But we can rush to get there. We want to focus on Joseph the good guy who forgives his brothers. But what follows is a lot of shenanigans in which Joseph displays he can be as guilty of the same favouritism, deception and vindictiveness as those same writers criticise in Jacob.

But somehow it gets overlooked when Joseph. I’m amazed at some of the justifications made for Joseph’s behaviour.

What’s going on here?

I would say this is Joseph comes to terms with what has happened in his own family. Along the way he’s been able to see how various parts of his life have helped bring him to this place. And perhaps he can come to terms with what happened with Potiphar’s wife and being forgotten by the cupbearer.

But he’s still got his own personal stuff to deal with.

And that’s a lot harder.

In churches we can talk about forgiveness, how important it is that we do it, if we don’t forgive others their sins, will God forgive us?…

And I believe every word of that.  All of it is entirely true and important.

But we can sometimes not fully acknowledge how hard it can be. That forgiveness like any form of healing can take time. Forgiveness is a journey. And I think we’d be doing people a favour if we showed that, rather than try to gloss over it; when it’s right there in a Bible story, as it is right here. Joseph is in turmoil and it brings out the worst in him. He gets there… but it’s a journey.

That’s why I think as we picked up the reading Joseph can no longer control himself. Translated literally he collapses before them. Sometimes it can be easier to care for the people out there, than it is to care for the nearest and dearest, particularly when they hurt you. Now he has to face it.

He had come to see that God had come to use the time he spent in Potiphar’s house and even in prison to bring him to the place he was now. But that God had also been in the really painful stuff. Through the messed up family, the division, the cruel treatment, the sibling rivalry. It had been really messed up but it was part of what brought him here.

Through the murderous plot by his brothers, through the attempted seduction in Potiphar’s house, through the forgetfulness of the cupbearer, God had been in it all working through it. None of it was wasted. It was all part of the story. God had an ability to turn it all for good.

That didn’t make any of it ok. Just as three times he mentioned God had brought him to Egypt, so three times he mentions what they did. I am Joseph he says, probably speaking to them for the first time in their native language. Whom you sold into slavery. Don’t be angry because you sold me here. It was not you who sent me here… And later in Genesis 50 ‘as for you, you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,’

Joseph does not gloss over or minimise what they did. It did matter. It was as bad as he and they remembered. He didn’t have to try to think there was something good about any of it.

But new life and new beginnings were possible. Because of God and what he had done. It may have looked different. But there was life. There was nothing from which God cannot bring good. God had been at work through the evil plans of evil people.  More can be mended than he knew.

Perhaps in Genesis 45, Joseph was seeing it this clearly for the first time. In fact Joseph doesn’t just have a Behold! moment for himself. He offers one to the brothers. In chapter 50 ‘Look! you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, so that lives all around you would be saved.’ Sometimes it’s not just about us. It’s bigger than that.

It looked like the family of promise was a right mess. With good reason. They were. But even in that mess the world, as they knew it, was being blessed.The good God had intended was not just for Joseph (though he did fairly well out of the deal), nor for Jacob’s family (who probably got more than they deserved) but all the nations in their region. God at been at work even in the dark destructive moments when God seemed absent.

Joseph cannot always have seen that. One of the other main interesting things about the main characters in the Genesis story is that although more space is given to him than anyone else, Joseph is the only one to whom God is not reported as speaking directly.

Adam and Eve, yep.

Cain – yep.

Noah – Yep.

Abraham – Yep.

Isaac – Yep.

Jacob – Yep.

Joseph? Twice we are told God is with him, but this only becomes apparent through events. In the narrative God speaks not one word directly to him.

That is what makes this story a really great Behold! story. Because that’s how God most often comes to us. You might be someone who ‘hears from God’ all the time. I don’t. As Catholic writer Paula D’Arcy once said God comes to us disguised as our life.

Yes, there will be times when in scripture reading and prayer I sense God speaking into what is going on around me or is on my mind, but for the most part for most of us it will be in the circumstances we find ourselves, the events which surround us, the conversations we have. That’s why so frequently I pray the Celtic prayer

Be in the heart of each to whom I speak

And in the mouth of each who speaks unto me. 

The Ignatians, whom I know Lin mentioned last week, talk about God in all things. And perhaps sometimes we notice him.

But then there are times when he seems hidden, when we can’t see him. In the When?, No!, and Why? seasons and it’s only later it starts to make any sort of sense.

It doesn’t become ok.

It doesn’t go back to how it was.

But God is at work in it. God can bring good out of it.

Because that is how our salvation comes about. It is in the ordinary, dark, seedy aspects of power that God reaches us. Through jealousy, politics, petty rivalry, power games, Jesus was brought to the cross. But in the midst of it all, God was saving his people. God was saving all people.

And in the midst of all things, God is reaching out to us. Nothing is beyond his reach. When it comes to you, may you have the grace to Behold! it.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Behold! Part 1

beholdReadings: Isaiah 43: 16-25; Ephesians 3: 14-21

During my Easter break I watched a film, which was recommended to me by someone here, called Goodbye Lenin. It’s a German film, set in Berlin around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It centres on the relationship between a son and his mother. The mother, who has been a committed Communist activist, has a massive heart attack and goes into a coma which lasts for 8 months. So she misses the decline of Communism, the fall of the wall, the opening of the border between East and West Berlin and the rapid advance of capitalism.

When the mother emerges from the coma, the doctor tells her son that any shocks could cause another heart attack and this time it’s likely to be fatal. So the son decides to stop her finding out what has happened whilst she was in the coma. To try to make her think life continues as always.

Much of the rest of the film is about his increasingly desperate, and tragically funny, attempts to hide what is going on in the city outside. There’s one particularly funny scene, on the mother’s birthday, when the son is telling her how she is loved and respected for her commitment to Communism, and over his shoulder, we see through a window to a building on the far side of the street, where a massive Coca Cola banner is unravelling.

Change is happening all around her and, in fairness, with the best on intentions, the son his trying to stop his mother seeing it. He thinks he’s protecting her. But he’s keeping her stuck in the past, in a rapidly changing world. A new thing is springing up.  New life, lots of new possibilities (not all necessarily good), and new hopes are emerging. But the mother cannot see it.

 

It’s that idea of seeing signs of new hope, new life that is behind the word we’re turn to this morning, and will consider over the next few weeks. Over the last few months we’ve been looking at different phases or seasons on the spiritual life. Each season, or phase, has been assigned one of the words on the screen. The word we are starting to consider today is Behold!

I’ve grouped these 12 words into 4 bigger seasons, like our natural seasons. The first three words were like the summertime of our faith. It’s a time of enjoying the warmth of our faith. With Here we sense God’s presence, with O we are praising him, with Thanks we are recognise blessings that God has given us.

With the next three words we considered an autumnal season. There is still warmth, but there are also colder winds. We recognise our own frailty, our own capacity to get stuff wrong and mess up. Confession or Sorry is a healthy part of the spiritual life. We have our struggles and turn to God for Help! We are moved with compassion when we see the struggles of others. That’s what we thought about with Please!

But over the last few months we’ve considered some darker, tougher words. These were the Winter season of faith. In the time of When?, struggles aren’t resolved quickly. We’re crying out how long, O Lord? We might find ourselves in that time of No! where we refuse just to quietly accept things as they are. Then we looked at the question of Why? Why is it like that? Why must it be this way?

 

The thing about seasons is that we can’t control them. Like much of life, they happen to us, whether we want them or not.

But another thing about seasons is that they change.  Admittedly this year winter proved rather reluctant to go away. But as you grow, you soon realise that if you just wait seasons do turn around. It’s not like Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe… always winter but never Christmas. Winter does give way to spring.

Those keen on gardening may be the first to spot it. Those first shoots start to peek up through the hard, winter soil. The garden has looked dead, like absolutely nothing is happening for months. Then you see… through it all, life has kept going. New life has been emerging. If you’re not quick enough to spot it, that first cut of the lawn soon becomes a real struggle. Not saying that’s happened to anyone!

 

Well, with these last few words, we’ve been through winter. We’re emerging into Spring. The potential for new hope and new life is emerging.

Thing is, unless we’re looking, in those early stages we might not immediately see or recognise it. We might not notice.

That’s what this word Behold! is all about. It’s an invitation to see it.

It’s not taking a quick glance. It’s about really noticing it, understanding what’s going on.

It’s like those disciples on the Emmaus road who suddenly had their eyes open, and saw things differently.

In one sense it might feel we’ve been here before. In those early, summertime words, where I was encouraging you to notice the presence of God, to be moved with awe and wonder, or to stop, in the busyness of life and notice the good thing that comes into our lives. Things for which we should be thankful.

But this is quite different. There’s a kind of blissful naivety in those summer phases. But with Behold! you’ve been through the winter. You’ve experienced times when everything’s falling apart, when it’s stopped making sense, when you’ve thought I’m not getting through this.

Yet you’re still here…

…and despite it all, perhaps completely unexpectedly, new life, new possibilities start emerging.

Don’t get me wrong. Behold! is not about blind optimism. It’s not about denial.  It’s not about glossing over the struggles and the horror of what you’ve faced.

Pain, suffering, loss, struggle, trial, whatever form it takes, affects people in all sorts of different ways.

But one thing is always true.

It never leaves us unchanged.

Last week, in his encounters with the disciples and Thomas, we see Jesus, in his risen life, still bearing the scars of his crucifixion. In fact the scars help them recognise him. In Genesis there’s a story of a man called Jacob who encounters and wrestles with a mysterious figure… a man, an angel, God, it’s never really fully explained. It changes him, in some good ways. But in the struggle he is injured and from then on walks with a limp.

The struggle left it’s mark.

So, whatever has caused you to say When? How Long?…

Whatever has caused you to say No! I refuse to accept this is how it should be and always will be…

Whatever has caused you to cry out Why?…

 …Behold! is not about saying it didn’t matter.

…Behold! is not about simply returning to how it was.

…Behold! is not about blurring distinctions between good and bad, like it’s just a matter of perspective.

…Behold! is not even about saying there is something good about the bad we encountered.

Some stuff you just don’t get over.

Some stuff you live with.

But there’s a short, but very important word in that sentence.

Some stuff you live with.

There is life… afterwards.

It might be hard to see it. It may look different.

But there is life.

Christians have a word for this.

Resurrection!

 Behold! is about saying new life is possible.

There is potential for good to emerge, whatever we face.

There is nothing from which God cannot bring good.

God is able, as Ephesians says, to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine…

Or that phrase, from writer Francis Spufford which was on the board in my office for so long, which I keep coming back to…

 More can be mended than you know.

 

 

But the fact that we have to summoned to Behold!, to notice, to see it, suggests it’s not always obvious. It can go unnoticed. It can be missed. We need to look out for it.

 That’s what was going on in the Isaiah reading. This was a promise made people in exile in Babylon.

A generation before, their nation had been all but destroyed. They’d lived in Judah, the last remnant of the old Kingdom of Israel. Then Babylon, the military superpower of their day, attacked and conquered Jerusalem. Their monarchy fell, their temple was destroyed and the people, or at least those whom the Babylonians thought useful, were taken to a foreign, pagan land in exile.

Everything that gave this people their identity as a nation was stripped away.

Land. Temple. Kingdom. They lost the lot.

In the early days of exile many had said don’t worry, God won’t let this situation last long. You can read about them in the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. One of the things that made Jeremiah extremely unpopular in his day was that he was the one saying this won’t end quickly.

And Jeremiah was right. 60 years later they were still there. Then Babylon itself was conquered by a Persian leader called Cyrus. It’s to that time and to that people that the words in Isaiah were addressed. It was a word or a promise suggesting new possibilities, new life, new beginnings…

See, I am doing a new thing!

Now it springs up, do you not perceive it?

That word see? It’s a call to Behold!

Look intently. Watch. Notice. Understand what’s happening.

But, if the people listening were completely honest, quite possibly their answer would have been ‘no, we don’t see it.’

There are all sorts of reasons why it might have been difficult. It had been 60+ years. At a time when life expectancy was much lower than in 21st Century Britain. For most of these people exile was all they had ever known.

And at the bottom of the pile, does it really matter who’s in charge of the empire? They had no great affection for Babylon. They might even have enjoyed someone doing to Babylon what Babylon had done to them.  But who was to say the new bad guy at the top was any different to the previous bad guy at the top? One tyrant can be as bad as another.

Cyrus was a very different kind of leader. He was quite enlightened for his era, respected people’s cultures and religions and saw no advantage in keeping people in exile. Cyrus allowed Israel to return home. But it would take time to see God at work in that.

But few, if any, had any real knowledge of Jerusalem. It may have been part of their heritage, but it was still just a city that lay in ruins hundreds of miles away. It would involve months of travel across dangerous terrain.

Babylon was what they knew. Life would not be easy to rebuild. Not everyone chose to make the journey.

But there was another, more religious or spiritual reason, for their thinking. They had been through the winter of exile. They had been through the When?, No! and Why? They had questioned their whole relationship with God.

Was God was all they had thought he was?

Had God been defeated with them?

Had God just abandoned them and forgotten them?

Others understood it as punishment from God. They’d had a covenant with God. They knew what God had wanted of them. For 200 years different prophets had warned them what would happen if they hadn’t changed their ways. But they didn’t listen.

They also had an understanding of what they needed to do to set things right. But they couldn’t do anything about it. It required sacrifices in a temple which no longer existed, and which was hundreds of miles away anyway.

 

This was a people needing a Behold! moment.

Like the disciples on the Emmaus road they needed to see things differently. To look and to notice what was going on. To see God at work in it.

Change was happening, but like the sick mother in Goodbye Lenin, they were couldn’t see it, and it was stopping them from moving on.

Within the reading there is a tension between remembering and forgetting. The passage starts with God reminding them of who he was, how he had helped them in the past. He reminds them of the story of the Exodus. How, as they tried to escape from the Egyptians, God had parted the waters, they had crossed on dry land, then as the Egyptians tried to chase them down, the waters closed over on them. 

Then having just reminded them of something he did back then, he says something odd…

Do not cling to events of the past

or dwell on what happened long ago.

Watch for the new thing I am going to do.

It is happening already—you can see it now!

There is a tension in the passage. There seems to be some things it is good to remember but as the great Irish playwright Brian Friel said, to remember everything is a form of a madness. There are somethings it is better to forget, to leave behind. 

 

In the life of faith there is always a tension between what needs to be remembered and what needs to be forgotten. In the Old Testament God constantly reminds the Israelites what he has done for them, how he has shown he is with them, he shown his love for them. In the New Testament Jesus does the same thing. He tells the disciples to remember him in bread and wine.

But it’s the right stuff that needs to be remembered. The past has a role. When we look back we may see what God has done, it tells us what God is capable of. We may hope he shows his love for us again.

But we can get stuck in the past when what is required is to look to the future. The past can teach us, but it must not be allowed to bind us. The past can become an idealised place when the present or the future is too frightening to think about. Or it can be a foundation on which we build. The past can give us hope about what the future might hold, but it can also become a curb on our imagination.

 

There is stuff to remember. If they think the journey to a new life is difficult, he wants them to remember that he’s done it before. He took them through the waters, he took them through the desert, he provided for them throughout the journey, even when though the constantly complained about him. He can do that again.

 

But there is also stuff to forget

What events of the past does God not want them to cling to?

What things that happened long ago does God not want them to dwell on?

 

 

I think there are two things. They’re closely linked.

One is to forget about the way they messed up on the past. Not in the sense that he doesn’t want them to learn from their mistakes. But we can carry stuff that’s already been dealt with. We can refuse to accept we can be forgiven, struggle to forgive ourselves and it stops us rebuilding. That is unhealthy.

A major part of the prophet’s message, in the second part of Isaiah, starting from chapter 40, is that however badly they messed up and however much they think God is finished with them, a new beginning is possible.

The first words of chapter 40 are

Comfort my people. Comfort them. Encourage them.

Tell them they have suffered enough

Their sins are now forgiven

 

Basically, yes, you messed up, but it’s sorted, it’s been dealt with. Why keep carrying the weight of it around with you when it’s been dealt with? This use of forget. It’s more like my great talent for leaving stuff behind. Glasses, hats, whatever… That’s what God is saying. Leave it behind. You don’t need it. It’s not helpful. It’s stopping you from seeing the new possibilities opening up in front of you.

But they need a different view of God and what he can do in them and for them.

They’ve been through the winter, but they’re entering the spring.

A new thing is happening.

New life, new possibilities are springing up.

They might struggle to see it, cos it’s happening in an unusual way. Cyrus was an unlikely person through whom God worked.

They had been through the winter of exile. It looked like everything was lost. But there were no dead ends with their God. It might have been hard to see right now, but their God could do immeasurably more than they could ask or imagine. New life was possible. God could bring good out of it. Even out of exile. More could be mended than they know.

They may not have realised it, but new life had already developing in the winter of exile. Much of our Old Testament, much of the way they came to understand God, much of how we in turn have come to see God it emerged not in the glory days of King David and Solomon. It was in the days of exile.

It wasn’t to say exile was good. It was an horrendous, traumatic experience. They never forgot how terrible it was. They preserved the memory of it in, amongst other places, the book of Lamentations, which is certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Yes, they could own their past. They needed to own it. They needed to learn from it.

But it wasn’t to define them.

There was new life ahead.

New beginnings were possible.

But this different view of God wasn’t just about his power. It was also about his love.

But.. but… but they say, thinking of the temple, the sacrifices, the things they cannot offer.

 

But God tells them that whole sacrifice thing? It was never about that anyway. It never really worked anyway.

 

This new starts was possible, just because that’s what God is like.

Just because he loved them.

God hadn’t given up on them.

God couldn’t give up on them.

God hadn’t forgotten them.

His love and care was way beyond their imagining. They could never fully grasp just how wide, high, deep and long God’s love is. I mean we can’t. So what chance had they who loved before the cross.

But God loved them with a love which was making the new life possible. God wanted them to forget about the past and step into the future he was making for them, because forgetting that past was precisely what God wanted to do.

New life, new beginnings…

 

resurrection.

It’s not just something that God did once for Jesus in a garden 2000 years ago. It’s what God is always in the business of doing, whether we notice it or not.

Perhaps you are in, or have passed through a winter period, a season of When?, No!, or Why?

Well this morning you need to hear the seasons do turn. It won’t be always winter. Winter will give way to spring.

You might feel that God’s forgotten you.

You might wonder if God has given up on you.

Maybe at times they feel like giving up on themselves.

New beginnings are possible.

Not because of what we do, or think we can do, but because simply because of who God is.

 

This is not a message about getting over it.

Some stuff you will continue to live with.

But don’t forget that important word.

Live. There is life. New life, new beginnings are possible.

So Behold! Look out for it. Watch! Notice!

 

You’ve been through the winter and you don’t have to pretend it didn’t matter; that things will go back to how they were; or that’s it really wasn’t as bad as you thought. You are free to name it for what it is.

But behold! Look out for winter giving way to spring. You can’t make it happen. But it does happen. Seasons do turn around.

It might not always be easy to see.

But new life is possible.

The God who asks you trust him, to behold is able, to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine…

He loves you with a love which,  from whatever angle you look at it, is far greater than you can get your head around. Higher, wider, longer, deeper….

And because of that power and love, there is potential for good to emerge, whatever we face.

There is nothing from which God cannot bring good.

More can be mended than you know

 

Posted in Easter 2018

On a Walk in the Evening: Easter Sunday 2018

emmaus walk

Reading: Luke 24: 11-35

One of the fun things about being a minister is that you sometimes find yourself in situations wondering how on earth did I get here? For me, amongst the strangest was last year when I was asked to go and preach to the American Football Team the Cleveland Browns, whilst they were over to play a match at Twickenham.

It came about because between a whole chain of people, including our friends from Game Day Church in Jacksonville, they could only come up with one minister in London. Even so, on a Saturday evening, back in late October, Doug and I went across to a hotel on the outskirts of London where they were staying, which was actually where the England Rugby team normally stay. Any link between me visiting the England team hotel and their sudden change in form is entirely coincidental!!

It was a real eye-opener into the kind of world professional sportsmen operate in. Everything is just so tightly controlled. They have a time for this, then they need to be there. And I doubt I’ll ever have to go through quite the same amount of security just to preach again. Hope not anyway.

The whole thing felt quite surreal. The information I was working with was patchy at best. What were they expecting of me.

Would anyone show up?

Did they have to show up?

But mostly I was wondering if I was the right person for the job. I’ve been to a couple of games the Jacksonville people, but I really don’t have a clue about American Football.

But in another sense that made me the ideal person to do it. At least I wouldn’t be overly starstruck by who was in front of me. For all I knew I cold have been preaching to the American Football equivalent Lionel Messi or Brian O’Driscoll.

But you get my point. I could have been with the greatest sportsmen in the world that evening, but I didn’t recognise them.

This morning’s reading was about a couple who spent time with Jesus on the evening after the resurrection, but didn’t recognise him. They’d walked and talked with him along the road. They clearly felt comfortable with him, despite some almost harsh words at the start of his explanation. Not only did they share some really quite deep stuff with him, but, when he had looked as if he was going to continue his journey they urged him strongly to stay with them and eat.

It was only when Jesus broke the bread that their eyes were opened, they recognised him, but just as soon as he was there he was gone from their sight.

The difference is, I had good reason for not recognising any of the American footballers. These two, Cleopas and his companion, appeared to have known Jesus before his crucifixion. They had spent time with him yet as they walked with him they did not realise or recognise who they were with.

How come?

There are a few reasons which have been suggested for this. Some say it was because Emmaus lay West of Jerusalem. So they were walking into the sunset and the sun was in their eyes. Not sure I find that especially convincing. Besides no-one is really that sure where Emmaus was. We’re told it’s about 7 miles from Jerusalem, but in what direction is anyone’s guess.

One thing that the resurrection appearances of Jesus have in common is an element of mystery. Jesus is clearly physical. He eats food and invites Thomas to touch him. But he can still appear in locked rooms and here he seems to just vanish from their sight. In some ways he seems to be quite obviously recognisable as the Jesus who walked and talked with them, so that he can be recognised. But there is often something different about him which means he is not recognised straight away. Gospel writers never really try to make sense of that.

But let’s be honest. One reason is they probably just weren’t expecting him. Yes, there had been reports of a empty tomb, but there is no indication that these two believed reports about visions of angels saying Jesus was alive. The women’s report had been dismissed as nonsense The disciples had been to check it out and not found anything. That’s the fact that seems more relevant to these two.

From a 21st Century perspective we can have a fairly patronising attitude to people of the Biblical world, like they were just stupid and gullible. Sure, there is a lot of stuff we know now that they didn’t know then. But there was one thing they did know. When you were dead you were dead. In particular when the Romans killed you, there was no come back. They did a lot of it. They were good at it.

But some other odd stuff about this story is why it is there at all.

And why does Jesus appear to these two?

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lovely story, beautifully told. But it’s not like we know who Cleopas is. This is the only time he is mentioned in the Bible. His companion isn’t even named. When they realise who this stranger on the road is and that Jesus is alive, they rush back to the other disciples in Jerusalem to be told it’s true, the Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon (or Peter).

Luke had a choice of two encounters he could have told us about. One to Peter, who has played a big part throughout the rest of the story and was last seen weeping bitterly on the night Jesus was arrested, because he had denied even knowing Jesus. The other a couple who have played no previous role in the story and who never appear again.

Which would you go for?

I can’t help but think I’d have gone for the Peter one.

Unless there is something else going on in the story.

Something else that Luke is trying to tell us.

Something that is worth doing when looking at Bible stories is looking for echoes of stories which have occurred before. And with the Emmaus story there is one which springs to mind.

It’s a story of another couple, a divine encounter taking place in the evening, about eyes being opened… it even has food in it….

I’m thinking of a story way back at the beginning of our Bibles, all the way back to the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve* are placed in the garden to work it and take care of it. They’re given pretty much free rein of the garden but told there is one tree from which they are not to eat. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Aserpent approaches them in the garden and says to Eve Did God really say you must not even from any tree in the garden?

Eve replies oh, we may eat from the trees. But there is that one tree in the middle of the garden from which we must not eat, or must not even touch it, or we’ll die.

The serpent says What tosh! (Literal Hebrew translation, that!) You won’t die. God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you’ll become like God, knowing good and evil.

Eve eyes up the tree, then takes some, eats it and gives it to Adam who eats it too.**

And what happens next?

Then their eyes were opened.

And what did they see?

That they were naked and they set about covering it up.

Their eyes were opened and they began to feel vulnerable. It was still the same world…

…but suddenly Eden did not feel such a safe place to be.

They don’t feel so secure in one another’s company. That’s why they cover up.

But it’s not each other they feel they need protection from. It’s God.

God comes looking for them… when?

In the cool of the evening…

God comes to walk with them in the cool of the evening…

And they hide.

God calls out where are you?

Adam replies I heard you in the garden and I hid because I was naked.

Who told you that you were naked? says God. Did you eat from that tree from which I told you not to eat?

Finger pointing, blame, recriminations and consequences all follow.*** Their world has changed. Things are different going forward.

But in the midst of it all there is one small moment of grace towards the end. The Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.

Even now, in this moment, God is still caring for them. They thought they had to hide away, but God is still protecting them. Their own attempts to make themselves safe in what felt like a scary world were pretty pathetic. Yet they were safer than they knew. God was caring for them way better than they could care for themselves.

Fast forward about 1000 pages in our Bibles and we come to the resurrection story we shared together this morning. This is another story about a couple feeling vulnerable and hiding away in the evening.

It had been a traumatic few days. They had been followers of Jesus, one whom they had hoped was God’s promised Saviour, or Messiah. Just a week before crowds had gathered round Jesus as he had entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey. They had waved palm branches, placed their cloaks along the road and cried Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest.

But the excitement of that day now seemed like ancient history. Once inside the city, Jesus had not been welcomed. The chief priests and rulers had long objected to him and were not about to change their minds.

Jesus was betrayed by one of those closest to him. He had been arrested, tried, flogged, mocked, then brutally executed. As he breathed his last their hopes for this people went with him. Nothing made sense.

Before they had any chance to digest any of that, his body had gone missing. Some of the women in their group had gone to the tomb early that morning with spices they had prepared to complete the embalming of his body. But the tomb was empty. They had seen two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning, angels, Cleopas and his companion had assumed, who said Jesus was alive. They went back to the others and told them, but nobody believed them.

If anything the world felt a lot less of a safe place for this couple. If the leaders had killed Jesus and taken his body for good measure, would they come for his followers? So Cleopas and his companion probably set off for Emmaus to seek safety.

But they’re not the only ones out on the road for a walk in the evening. As they talk they encounter a stranger. He walks with them, but they do not recognise him. He asks them what they were talking about. It takes a certain amount of courage to speak up. After all, he could be anyone. He could be someone out looking for followers of Jesus to arrest them.

Still, it all comes out. How they had had high hopes but they had been dashed. Their leader had been taken and killed.

The stranger responds How foolish you are and how slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken…

Then he begins to explain the scriptures to them as they walk.

As he does so they do feel strangely different. Something they can’t quite put their finger on. But all too soon they reach their destination. It seems the stranger is about to go on. But they urged him to stay with them. To eat with them.

But at the table something strange happens. Firstly the stranger acts as host, taking the bread, giving thanks and breaking it. Then we get those words again…

Then their eyes were opened.

And what did they see?

They saw Jesus.

The one who had been taken from them.

Who had been crucified, killed and buried.

Yet he was alive.

Their world was still the same world, but suddenly, just as it had in the garden, it seemed very different. But this was a different different. Suddenly they realised the world was a much safer place than they thought.

Those they had feared had done their worst to Jesus, yet Jesus was alive. All along they had had ideas about what God might do to rescue them, but all along God had other ideas, better ideas.

And now God had acted in Jesus. Now the world was different.

But just as the earlier couple had found in the Genesis story, here they discovered a God who was way more gracious than they had ever imagined. He had been with them all along and they hadn’t recognised him. When they hadn’t trusted him and went into hiding he went looking for them and patiently drew them back.

Perhaps that is a key message for us this morning as we gather round this table on Easter Sunday morning. That even when we have struggled to trust him, or not trusted him at all, God has still come looking for us in Jesus.

And those he came looking for were not the great and the good, those who had played a significant part in the story. People who hadn’t featured at all, and don’t feature again. Ordinary folk, who struggle along in their faith. They’re the ones Jesus has time for. People like us. Like you and me.

They’re the ones he seeks to draw to himself.

Perhaps you are here, in a good place, you feel close to God, Easter is a time of celebration, lines such as we’ll sing soon, No more we doubt thee, glorious prince of life, come easily to you. If so, God bless you.

But perhaps you are more like those on the road to Emmaus. You’ve reached Easter and you’ve realised you’re still carrying the same hurts and pains you carried through Lent, perhaps since last Easter, or for as long as you can remember. You’ve given up expecting the world to be any different. You feel vulnerable in the world. It doesn’t feel a safe place.

You’ve come to church this morning and heard us sing of resurrection and new starts and you’d long to see it differently but struggle to do so.

Well perhaps the risen Christ wants to meet with you this morning. The fact that you’re here suggests he has been walking with you, whether you’ve recognised him or not. This morning Jesus invites you to meet with him round this table. To bring him all the stuff that’s been in your heart. Sometimes we struggle to be honest with God, but part of the Emmaus disciples healing was to share with him what they truly felt.

But we also have to allow Jesus space to speak too, to breathe words of hope into our hearts.

To allow our eyes to be opened.

To allow the Spirit to help us to see things differently.

To help us see that even in the hurt and even when we think God has let us down, maybe it’s just that the last word hasn’t been spoken.

To help us to know we are loved, and that nothing can separate us from his love.

That even though our world is still the same as it was at 10.29 this morning, it is truly safer than we can ever know because we are held by one who will never let us go. We are secure whatever the world throws at us.

We’re invited to break bread and drink wine and remember how the world threw its worst at Jesus, breaking his body, spilling his blood in the most cruel and unjust fashion. Yet Jesus’ love never faltered and God’s purpose never failed. God never let him go and Jesus has promised that if we just trust him he will never let us go. He will hold us through all things.

Or perhaps you’ve never really entered into that relationship with Jesus in the first place. But you are here this morning and you want to know him. God sent Jesus into the world for each one of us, good and bad, great and least alike.

By his Holy Spirit, the risen Christ is present amongst us this morning, wanting to encounter us.

To encounter me and you. Easter is all about new life. And this morning Jesus invites you to lay hold of that life.

Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever your journey has taken you. You can start again. In the resurrection we see that more can be mended than we can know.

All you have to do is lay hold of it. If you want to talk it through after the service it would truly make my Easter. But you can do it now, just where you are.

To say

Jesus, I’m done with trying to make it on my own.

I want the new life you offer me, the life you sent Jesus into the world to bring me.

I thank you for all that you have done for me through Jesus.

Help me trust you.

Help me to follow you.

If you ask him, he will do it.

*another link between the two stories is that only one character is actually named. Eve only gets her name at the very end of the Genesis story. But since we’re going to talk about the woman, and everyone will know it is Eve, let’s just go with that.
**This story has been used to blame and subjugate women for thousands of years. Notice the serpent has to work really hard on Eve. All Adam needs is for someone to hand him a piece of fruit. For more on how I really read this story see https://mypaperdolls.wordpress.com/2015/11/02/the-world-in-four-words-ii-brokenreading/
***and continues to the present day.
Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Why Part 3: Reflection for Good Friday

GoodFridaythorns

Readings: Matthew 26: 36-46; Matthew 27: 45-50

Eloi, Eloi, Lama sabacthani?

 My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?

Jesus’ life had been full of questions. His first recorded words had been a question.

 Why were you searching for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?

 And the questions just kept on coming…

Have you not read?

 Who appointed me as a judge or arbiter between you?

 Who was the neighbour?

 Who do people say that I am?

 

On the cross it seems Jesus has left the biggest and hardest question to the last.

 My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?

 Why?

 

It is amongst the oldest, most primal questions we have. The story of Job is reckoned to be one of the oldest in the Bible and it deals with that very question.

Why do bad things happen to good people?

 Why?

 

And this is not just a bad thing happening to a good person. This is horror being inflicted on the best of us. The only one of whom it could be said he was always and totally good.

Jesus was no serene martyr. He had taught his disciples to pray that they might be delivered from evil and it was to those words he had turned when he was in Gethsemane. 

My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet, not as I will, but as you will.

And again, later, My Father, if it not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.

 

But no deliverance had come. Now as he hangs on the cross, straining with all his might for every breath, and as darkness falls across the land, Jesus does not go quietly into the night, but rage, rage, rages against the dying of the light.

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

 

He had told them to pray to their Father in Heaven, but here on the cross he needed his Father to be in hell, because hell was where he was right now. He was reaching into those darkest parts of humanity, those darkest parts of us that God might be able to reach us even there.

And that primal question didn’t just reach back into history, it echoes down through the ages into our own age.

My God, My God, Why?

It’s the word we turn to when all seems lost and everything we thought we relied on has turned to dust. In one sense it feels like an expression of doubt.

Yet it’s also an expression of faith, a hope against hope that there is some reason for all this.

 

But words like ‘Why?’ and ‘reason’ can mean very different things. Some more helpful than others.

For some ‘reason’ might be similar to the idea of a plan. Yes, it’s painful, unpleasant, hard, horrific right now, but there’s a reason for this. It’s all part of the plan.

It’s possible to read the story of the crucifixion in that way. Again and again as we read the accounts of that Friday, particularly in John’s Gospel, how these things happened that scripture might be fulfilled…

Plans try to tell us something about the past. That this was all pre-ordained, written into the script by God, in quite literally pain-staking detail.

But do we really want to say God happily engineers even the worst of human existence as part of a pre-ordained plan?

Is that what we mean?

Is that the meaning of Jesus’ why?

For others ‘reason’ means the same as an explanation. Rather than reaching back into the past, explanations try to tell us something about the present.

Why has this happened?

Why are things this way?

What has made this inevitable?

Jesus has encountered something of that reasoning on a previous visit to Jerusalem when he had encountered a man born blind and his disciples had asked why was he born this way? Who sinned?

 

Jesus response had shown the limitations of that kind of why. It doesn’t always offer the most helpful of answers. If we can explain something away, or worse find someone to blame, it can stop us doing something about it. We can debate all day about why things are as they are, but they’ll still be the same. Much better, perhaps than debating the whys, do something.

Doubtless our why moments have something of that past and present dimension to them. We wants answers.

 

But really both are of very limited help to us. They put us in a universe where everything is predetermined where we have no real freedom.

But above all they offer very little in the way of hope.

But there is a third way of understanding the why which rather than explaining the present or reaching back into the past, reaches out into the future.

Instead of saying what plan from the past predetermined this suffering and therefore explains it in the present? there is a different question we can ask…

What possible good can be brought out of this?

What now?

 

This question makes no assumptions either about whether the present moment is inevitable, but nor does it claim that it is just random and meaningless. It just is.

But this Why? holds out the possibility that some meaning and good can be wrested from the present horror.

That’s the why? Jesus cries out from the cross My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?

To what end?

What good can come of this?

We catch a hint of this in Gethsemane. Jesus is overwhelmed with great sorrow, even to the point of death. But the words Jesus prays are telling. 

He doesn’t say I know this cannot be avoided and is all part of the plan. Please give me the strength to come through with it. 

His prayer is very different. 

If it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.

 

If 

Jesus doesn’t have clarity about a pre-determined, set-in-concrete plan. He wonders if there can be another way. He longs for there to be another way.

As darkness falls and Jesus cries out My God, My God, why…? Jesus isn’t trusting a plan. He is trusting God. He is trusting that whatever happens, God can turn this to good.

 

Bad things will happen to good people. Bad things came to the one truly good person. So why should we expect any difference. Trouble will at some point find us. Pain, abandonment, doubt and despair will come to us all, however close we think we are to God.

But they won’t have the last word.

The cross is a defeat before it is a victory.

On Friday it looks like everything is lost.

Jesus goes to his death and amongst the last words on his lips is Why?

But it’s not a why reaching back for an explanation or a plan.

It’s a trust that reaches forward to the God who holds the future.

It’s a what now?

Can good come from even this?

And in resurrection we see God’s answer is a resounding YES!

Even in the end, in the darkness, in the word, good can be sought and hoped for.

Good can be worked.

Good can arise.

In the midst of the Why it is not always easy to see it. It’s no wonder the second century Roman orator Marcus Aurelius Fronto declared the religion of the Christians is insane, in that they worship a crucified man, and even the instrument of his punishment itself.

Without resurrection he’d be right.

Without the sending of the Holy Spirit he’d be right.

But because of the cross and resurrection, we and not only voice that most difficult, primal spiritual question Why?

We can  voice it with hope.

We don’t have to accept our pain as meaningless, nor do we have to endure it as part of some inevitable, pre-ordained plan. We can voice it reaching forward asking ‘God what good can you bring out of this.

When we look at the cross we see the worst of us. But we also see the means by which we are invited into relationship with the very God we rejected on that cross.

It’s on this day, as we remember how Jesus went to the cross for us, when darkness fell and Jesus screamed out his why, we find the grounds for our hope.

Nothing is beyond the reach of our God.

There is nowhere his love cannot reach us.