Posted in One offs

Be Strong and Courageous

Image used by Sue in sermon by Chris Duffett

Sermon delivered by Sue Whalley at Harrow Baptist Church

Normally I don’t include the full text of others’ sermons as essentially this is a personal blog, but on this occasion, due to a technical error, the audio and video are incomplete.

Bible Text: Joshua 1: 1-9

Video here from 31:50

Audio here

Emerging from Lockdown

It’s a strange feeling isn’t it? Being told we can walk around without masks, that we can hug other people, can congregate in large groups.  It’s strange what you can get used to if you have to.  Of course, none of this is compulsory.  We don’t have to hug, we don’t have to throw the mask away.  We can continue to meet in small groups, outside, socially distancing, wearing masks when moving around and in public buildings.  Life is still different.  Some of us are entering this new phrase full of jubilation as if we have finally arrived.  Forget the last year and a half, lets slip back into old ways. 

When we went into a world of lockdown, it was full of uncertainty and speculation about what might happen, what the future would be like.  When would we would be allowed out, or visit our families and friends again.  Sixteen months on and things look like they are getting back on track but what’s next?  COVID hasn’t gone away and it is still around so can we get back to normal or more importantly, do we want to?

This makes me wonder what it was like for the Israelites when they finally arrived at the Promised Land.  Phrases like, “At last” or “About time” spring to mind or even “I can take the weight off my feet at last”.   Once they had put up tents, sorted out animals, settled themselves and their families, made a well-deserved cuppa, did they think “Now what?”  Do we resume our old life or is this the time to explore ourselves and the land and maybe do some things differently.  Sometimes making a decision about what to do can be scary.

Some of us find comfort and security in old ways, regular routines.  Others are a little more adventurous and welcome change.

I went on a retreat recently in the Lake District.  A beautiful place and it was so good just to take time out, although you may ask, did I really need that after all the lockdowns and isolation periods?  The retreat was led by Chris Duffett, I don’t know if you have heard of him, he is a prophetic artist and does amazing paintings.  The focus of the retreat was on “lost words”, one of which was, “adventure”.  As a person who likes to stay in my comfort zone, when read this word on the introduction sheet, I thought “Uh oh” this does not sound good!  What is God going to ask of me?  The thing about going on an adventure is that we need an element of bravery and faith to push us out of whatever comfortable place we are sitting, in order to try new things or go to new places.  Some of us are adamant we do not want an adventure at any cost and I am sure some of the Israelites said “we have had enough adventure to last a lifetime.”  Some of us are tempted by the idea of adventure but think that this is for other people, not for ourselves.  Those who are younger, stronger, wiser.  Those with more faith and experience and then there are others who are already out of the door looking for adventure without even saying goodbye. 

When we look at Joshua and his foray into the promised land, it is easy for us to imagine that after all the years in the desert, he could not wait to get there.  Not perhaps because he wanted an adventure but because he just wanted somewhere to set up permanent camp.  A little like some people who after experiencing lockdown, cannot wait to get back to normal as if nothing had ever happened.  And then there are those of us who have become accustomed to the “new normal” and actually like staying at home.  Then there is another group of people who acknowledge that COVID has happened and that we should look at this opportunity to try new things rather than slipping back into old routines.

In the reading this morning, God clearly affirms his promise to his people, reminds Joshua that he is in control clearly indicated in the land he has set apart for the Israelites, marking out the boundaries and his confirmation that he will be with them “as he was with Moses”.

But also in this passage Joshua is told no less than three times to be strong and courageous.  If you read the full chapter, it is four in total and in my version there is even a command to be “very courageous”.  What is God saying to Joshua and what can we learn from it.  At first it looks abundantly clear, Joshua is to be strong and courageous and God will be with him but when we look at it more closely, what does this actually mean and how does it apply to us and our situation?

The first question that comes to mind, Why does God tell Joshua to be strong and courageous?  Has God not bought them to the place he wants them to live.  Has he not said he will be with them, Why does Joshua need to be strong and courageous if the God was providing all that was needed?  Was Joshua not brave?  Did he lack courage?  Hard to imagine God telling Joshua who had taken over from Moses and bought the Israelites into the promised land to be strong and courageous.  Surely that act shows strength and courage.  However, I expect that Joshua too, like many human beings, had moments of doubt, (in himself and in God).  I am sure he had moments of uncertainty, (that walking around the desert was the right thing).  Times of confusion (as to what they were actually supposed to be doing) and yet God told him three times, “Be strong and courageous”.

In verse 7, God gives clear instructions to Joshua, explaining what he must do.

  1. Follow the teachings which Moses has given them (the ten commandments).
  2. Recite the teachings.  Think about them day and night.  Almost with every breath he takes 

If he does these things, follows them faithfully, he will succeed. 

The key word here is to “do”.  It is no good just to remember the teachings, but Joshua needs to follow (put into action). V8 says when “you faithfully do everything written in them” “Only then will you succeed and prosper. 

The courage God was asking Joshua to have was to believe and follow the teachings faithfully.  He knows it is not going to be easy and the job ahead will require immense courage and strength.  He is asking Joshua to trust him, act on the teachings and set an example, putting his faith into practice.

A friend of mine has just taken up kick boxing as a means to get fit and healthy and would you believe when I looked up on the internet the number of different kinds of strength which were mentioned.  I won’t go into it here but trust me, there are a lot.  When God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous, he does not mean physical strength (which of course would be helpful in moving everyone) but mental and spiritual strength.  Strength to stand by our convictions and faith in God particularly when all seem to be against you or you are faced with an insurmountable task.  Courage to follow when you know lots of people may be relying on you and the pressure you feel to get everything right.

God is not just asking for a faith that relies on God when all is going well and believe me, its easier to trust him then, but when the odds are stacked up against you and it feels like the world is closing in on you and any other person would question your sanity in trusting God.

God is asking that we abandon our lives into his care and put all our faith in him.  That calls for strength and courage.

After this last week, full of questions and perhaps uncertainty.  I ask the following questions

Have we lost our way, are we still going round in circles in the desert?

Have we dug our heels in (the desert) and are refusing to move?

Are we anxious to move onto the next stage (arrive in the Promised Land) but that’s enough.

Or are we are chomping at the bit and saying “What’s next Lord?”

Are we scared to take that next step or embrace the idea of a new adventure.  Christ calls us to change, to abandon our life of sin, believe in him and follow him.  That’s scary, that’s a new adventure in itself.  

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes strength in our current situation is having the guts to say we need to stay at home, continue wearing masks publicly either for ourselves or for others but each of us will be facing this situation differently. 

We may not be moving to or even leading others to a new land.  We may not be making life changing decisions uprooting families across the world into new territories but we are still moving into an uncertain existence as to what happens next.  We are not the first people to experience this and God knows that.  Take comfort… 

God knows what we are going through

God is with us

God asks us to be strong and courageous whichever way we are looking at the removal of restrictions or any other situation you may be going through

I encourage you to take that step-in faith, wherever you are in your journey.

Be strong and courageous.

Posted in A More Christlike God

A More Christlike God: Accept no Substitutes (Continued)

Reading: Luke 7: 36-50

Video of sermon here

Audio of sermon here

Livestream of whole service here

A few years ago I came across a book of The Times 100 Greatest Sermons Ever on another minister’s bookshelves. It was, as the title suggests, the text of some of the greatest sermons preached in the Christian era. Thankfully, and not surprisingly, #1 was Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It would have been a pretty bad show if it hadn’t been.

But very close to the top was one by a guy called Jonathan Edwards. Not, I should add, the former Olympic triple-jumper, nor the former General Secretary of the Baptist Union. This was an 18th Century American evangelist. His contribution was a sermon preached on July 8 1741 called Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. In what has perhaps become the most famous part of the sermon Edwards said…

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight. You are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful, venomous serpent is in ours.

As powerful, visually descriptive oratory goes it’s certainly right up there. But there’s a much more important question to be answered about it.

Is it true?

Is God so dreadfully provoked that he looks on us as loathsome insects or hateful venomous serpents?

Does God abhor sinners and view them as worthy of nothing else than to be cast into hellfire?

Elsewhere in the sermon God is described as merciless in vengeance.


Many it seems would believe so. Even amongst the faithful. I’ve mentioned to you how David Ford, a Cambridge Professor of Divinity once asked a Catholic priest the most common problem he encountered in 20 years of hearing confession. With no hesitation the priest replied ‘God.’ Very few parishioners this priest met in confession behaved as if God was a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, not as someone like Jesus, worthy of our trust.

I emphasise that ‘someone like Jesus’ because it helps us get to the heart of the matter. Does the God described in Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sound like Jesus? Does it sound remotely like the Jesus we encounter in Luke’s Gospel who welcomes the woman who had led a sinful life, as she washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Such a God might inspire terror, but such devotion? It sounds more like the God pictured by Simon the Pharisee, who knows what wretched sinners we are and should really want nothing to do with us.

In recent weeks we have been thinking about A More Christlike God. We’re asking the question what is God like, and I’ve been suggesting that if we want to know what God is like we need to look at Jesus. Jesus told his disciples if you’ve seen me you’ve seen the Father. Jesus is the image of the invisible God, or the exact representation of God.

Three statements underpin everything I want to say over this series…

  • God is like Jesus
  • God has always been like Jesus
  • God always will be like Jesus

God has been reaching out to us, trying to reveal himself to us down through the ages in many different ways. Even within the Bible there are different, sometimes competing images of God. But the central one, the one to which all the others have to conform was his Son, Jesus, who took on flesh and dwelt among us.

Last week we saw how the key image Jesus used to describe God was Father, or Abba.

But we also saw how this can lead to some quite distorted images of God. I mentioned 4 common ones and last week we looked at 2 of them. We considered the doting grandparent – a sugary nice figure whom we can wrap around our fingers, can be won over with a smile or frown, ultimately is just there to do our bidding, and just glosses over any bad behaviour.

Then we talked about the absentee parent, who seems distant, disinterested, uninvolved, doesn’t like to be disturbed. If, with the doting grandparent there is the risk that we become spoiled, entitled, getting annoyed if God doesn’t jump to attention, with the absentee parent, there is the opposite extreme of not asking or expecting anything from God. That’s the best way to avoid disappointment.

Today we turn to two alternative distorted pictures. These are the Overly Demanding Parent and The Santa Claus Blend.

And although I come to it third, I’d say the Overly Demanding Parent is probably the most common distortion I encounter. In many ways it’s the favoured image of those who want to belittle faith. A God who sets rules he knows we’re never going to be able to keep, then punishes us for failing us to keep them. It’s quite easy to be cynical about such a God.

But it can be very potent amongst those who do identify as Christians. They might use different imagery to describe it. Perhaps most common the punitive judge, always watching out for every slip and always ready and waiting to punish the offender.

But as a distortion of the image Jesus offers of God as Father, it works just as well. I remember a number of years ago an evangelist sharing with me how he’d been on holiday at a campsite. There was another family nearby with kids of a similar age to his own. They would greet each other as they passed, until one day they got talking and he mentioned his work as an evangelist. The husband of the other couple looked to his wife and said I told you they were Christians! It turned out this couple were too, but the evangelist asked how did you know and the answer came back because of the way you disciplined your children! Which he admitted certainly wasn’t the answer he was expecting or hoping for.

But it is perhaps how many of those who have grown up in the faith in particular come to see God. It’s there in The Prodigal Son story isn’t it? We see it in the attitude of the elder brother when he refuses to come to the party. All these years I’ve slaved away for you, and you’ve never thrown a party for me. You’ve never even given me a goat to share with my friends. There’s an edge of resentment in there. Grace sounds great, but there is part of us wants to earn our ways into God’s good books and can resent God extending it to others whom we don’t think deserve it.

Often these issuesare reflected in our own relationships, perhaps especially when we’re growing up. If acceptance, or love feels conditional on our behaviour. Where even success can sometimes not be quite good enough. You got 98%? Why did you get 2% wrong? You came 2nd? Why not 1st? Where people don’t hear the words well done or I’m proud of you often enough.

You see it in church circles when we come to the communion table where a badly interpreted understanding of a passage in 1 Corinthians urges people to review every sin to decide whether they are worthy to eat at the communion table, lest they eat and drink judgement on themselves. It’s no wonder many live with this sense of not feeling worthy enough for the love and welcome of God.

And it’s hard to square with the God revealed in Jesus who shared table fellowship with all sorts, from the Pharisee in the Luke story to the tax collectors and sinners just a few chapters later. 

If we live with this distorted image of God, we can torment ourselves with guilt, put ourselves down, never feel that we quite measure up, never feel we’re good enough….

But does it sound like Jesus? In Jesus we don’t encounter a God who kicks us when we’re down and tells us that’s where we deserve to be. Those who were faltering, stumbling, failing came to Jesus and found nothing but unfailing love, enduring mercy, forgiveness and welcome. Jesus most stark and challenging words weren’t for those who needed to ‘get their act together’ but for those who considered themselves too good to lean into God’s grace.

Perhaps you have lived with this sense of God as the overly-demanding parent, who is always demanding more and for whom nothing is good enough. Jesus didn’t come to put us down, but to lift us up. He didn’t come to announce the condemnation of the Father, or even spare us the condemnation of the Father, but to reveal the love of the Father and the unconditional assurance of his welcome when we turn to him.

But there is one final image I want to turn to, which is not so much an entirely different, but a kind of mix of those that have gone before. It’s called the Santa Claus blend.

Once a year, in normal times, one of the more fun things I get to do is the Christmas story with the Preschool children and our Toddler group. I actually missed that last year. We gather round a nativity scene that’s about the same size as most of them and I tell them the Christmas story. One year, as they were settling down, one of the kids was heard whispering to another, sssh! We’re about to hear how Santa Claus was born.

Which I do find quite sweet and quite funny. But there is a more serious dimension to it. Because there is something of Santa Claus in the way many view God. He is that mix of the three previous images.

From the overly demanding parent we get the legalistic, judgmental Santa Claus. He’s making his list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice. He watches over our every move to the extent that he knows when we’re sleeping and knows when we’re awake. So be good for goodness sake. Be good or you’ve had it. It’s quite an anti-grace message.

But there is also something of the doting grandad. The kid kind of knows they’re going to get what they want in the end. Really the only difference is that he seems more generous to those who already have more to begin with.

But at the same time he’s a distant, absentee, aloof figure who lives far, far away and only drops in once a year, and that when we’re unaware of him. How different to the God we encounter in Jesus who promises never to leave us, nor forsake us and who is with us always.

Perhaps something in one or more of the images has resonated or jarred with you over the last couple of weeks. You’ve recognised something of your story and understanding in there. Ok, so some of them are quite stark, perhaps it’s not entirely where you’re at, but there are hints there. Perhaps our image of God can at times get distorted.

What do we do about that?

Well, when a taster wants to rid herself of a nasty taste in her mouth, what does she do? She cleanses her palate. And how do we do that? By turning our attention to Jesus. To immerse ourselves in the story of the one who made space for all, including those who stumbled and fell, who got it wrong and knew it. In fact especially those who stumbled and fell and who got it wrong and knew it. The kind of love and devotion Jesus inspired in those like the woman in Luke’s Gospel who washed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, couldn’t be won through terror and coercion, but through welcoming grace.

Jesus didn’t trample on the broken but restored them with grace. It’s what he did so often, from Samaritan women at a well, to tax collectors like Zacchaeus. From lepers to the woman caught in adultery. From Gerasene demoniacs to a thief dying on a cross. From people like me, to people like you. Jesus came that we might know God has room for us all.

So as we move on and look more closely at Jesus, ask yourself, is my God like that? God doesn’t abhor you, or consider you a loathsome insect, or venomous snake. God loves you and sent Jesus into the world that you might be drawn into his love. And whatever competing images we have of God, his decisive revelation is Jesus. God is like Jesus, God always has been like Jesus and always will be like Jesus. May you encounter this Christlike God, be drawn into relationship with him, and may you come to know just how truly loved and welcomed you are.

Posted in A More Christlike God

A More Christlike God: Accept No Substitutes

Bible Reading: Luke 11: 9-13

Video of the sermon here

Audio of the sermon here

Many of you, even those who might have avoided it previously, may have got increasingly adept at online shopping over the last 16 months or so. I must admit, guilty as charged. There have been times when delivery drivers must have felt an urge to check Jools and I were ok cos we’ve gone a few days without a parcel.

But one thing I’ve not really had to do, or got into, is grocery shopping online. Apart from coffee. Get your priorities right. Last year when everybody was panic buying toilet roll and soap, I had a coffee mountain in our spare room!

But I know some people who have been doing their grocery shopping online for years. And it sounds great… until they don’t have what you ordered and decide to swap it for something else.

I’m pretty sure they must get it mostly right. But occasionally they get it badly wrong. I came across a newspaper article which highlighted a few of them…

Like the person who ordered a tub of roses and got sent a bunch of roses instead.

Maybe not too disastrous. But then there was the person who ordered sunflower oil and got an actual sunflower! Again, at least, you might be able to see how the mistake arose.

I’m not so sure about the person who ordered frozen fish, but for some reason got fabric softener instead.

Or the person who ordered latex gloves and was sent a packet of condoms!

Jools will tell you that most weeks she reaches a point in the sermon where she wonders where I’m going with this. Let’s just say we got there very quickly this week.

Last week we started a new series called A More Christlike God. Over the next weeks we are asking a very basic question.

What is God like?

Last week we saw that, for Christians, our understanding is not just that God can be known, but God wants to be known. We are created to live in relationship with God. God has been reaching out to us down through the generations in different ways.

But the most decisive way he has revealed himself is in sending Jesus. Words couldn’t do God justice, so he became one of us. God couldn’t reveal himself in the pages of a book. If we were truly to come to know what God was like, God had to be experienced, lived out, enfleshed.

So, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus is the image, or exact representation of God. Last week I left you with three statements which underpin what I want to say over the next few weeks…

  • God is like Jesus.
  • God has always been like Jesus.
  • God always will be like Jesus.

It’s important to keep those three things in mind. Because as we read through the scriptures, it’s possible to come up with contrasting, even seemingly contradictory images of God.

At the most simplistic many have this idea of Old Testament God v New Testament God. You know what I mean. The Old Testament version is angry, and all fire and brimstone, whereas the New Testament God is more chilled, relaxed, all peace and love, man.

That is, until we get to near the very end, where according to some, even Jesus drops the nice guy act and gets all angry and violent again. We’ll come to that in later weeks.

But it’s hard to square that with the God described in the opening him, of whom it was said Praise Him, Still the Same Forever.

No, God has decisively revealed what he is like in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the one to whom all other understandings of God have to conform. If your God, even if you believe he’s the God you’re encountering in the Bible, doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s time to rethink.

Often when I get into conversation with someone who tells me they don’t believe in God, often I’ll find that, when they describe this God they don’t believe in, I don’t believe in that God either. Oh, I’m sure there are people who believe in the kind of God described by, say, Richard Dawkins. But I’d venture most  of those who identify as Christians don’t.

But even amongst those who do believe in another type of God and do identify as Christians, we can develop quite distorted views of God. As Bradley Jerzak suggests in one of the books that has greatly shaped and influenced this series, it’s like our highest expectations and deepest disappointments get pushed onto God. They shape how we see and understand God.

But the problem is the results are all too often poor substitutes for the God revealed in Jesus. They are about as much use as a sunflower in your supermarket shop, when what you needed was cooking oil. Worse than fabric softener, when what you asked for was frozen fish!

Over the next couple of weeks we’re going to look at 4 such distortions. They all have something in common. Like many falsehoods, they are powerful because there is a shred of truth in there. They are all kind of based on one of the key images Jesus uses to describe God.

God as our Father.

Father seems to be Jesus ‘go to’ image for God. Jesus refers to God in this way at least 70 times in the Gospels. Today was one example of that.

But, like all images, it’s not without it’s problems. We use the term Father in different ways. At one level it refers to the male partner who is involved in the conception of a child. Such a ‘father’ may or may not have any further involvement with the child.

But there are also those who nurture, nourish, raise, support and direct a child, sometimes even though theirs might not be the name recorded on the birth certificate.

I know which type of father is preferable.

Jesus is very much talking of the latter kind. The kind of father intimately involved in the love, support and nurturing of his children. In fact, Jesus encouraged us to call God Abba, a very intimate word for Father. It wouldn’t just be small children who used it. Recently Jools and I have been watching an Israeli drama called Shtisel, following the lives of an Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. Even the grown up children refer to their father as Abba. When Jesus talks about God as Father, he is talking of one who tends and spares us, knows our weaknesses, tenderly cares for us, and protects us.

But the second issue is that not all of us have good or even any experiences of Fatherhood. And that comes across in the false images of God I want to talk about. These are…

  • The doting grandparent
  • The absentee parent
  • The overly demanding parent
  • And the final one, a mix of these three called the Santa Claus blend.

Today we’ll look at the first two.

Let’s start with the doting grandparent. Many of you will have become grandparents and are perhaps aware of the differences in the behaviour of the two. I was never her biggest fan, but I did find it quite witty when the former First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, as the country was coming out of the first lockdown, suggested that grandparents would be really excited to see their grandkids, before adding, maybe less so their children!

But for some this is the image they have of God. A sugary, nice figure who can be twisted round our little fingers. A smile or a frown is all it takes to get what we want from them. This God turns a blind eye to our misbehaviour.

For some of us, God is only as good as what he’s done for us lately. And it can be backed up by Bible verses. Even some of the ones we shared this morning. Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened.

Jesus says things like whatever you ask from the Father, he will give it to you, in my name.

Luke does not kind of put a bit of a caveat on the ask, seek and knock thing. He adds about God giving the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Matthew doesn’t add that caveat. And these are big, bold claims. I remember once, in a church service, a worship leader leading prayer and saying (and this is a quote) if we just ask for these things in Jesus’s name, God is duty bound to give us what we ask.

Ultimately this God serves us, not the other way round. We snap our fingers, he acts. And it’s fine, until life doesn’t work that way. That cancer isn’t healed. That daughter keeps using. That partner refuses to listen to reason. We don’t get the job. One of the reasons I so vividly remember that quote about the duty bound God is that we prayed for two very seriously ill people, with very similar lllnesses. One made an amazing recovery. The other died.

I’m not even talking particularly selfish things. If they were it’d be easier to rationalize. A good parent doesn’t give us everything we ask for. Not everything we want is good for us. Even if it appears to be.

I’m told there were some sea serpents that looked remarkably similar to fish. But would be harmful if eaten. And that a scorpion could curl up so that it looked like an egg (and even if cut open would be a mix of white and yellow – I can’t confirm that, it’s just one source and he admits he’s never tried and doesn’t plan to). But things we want may not necessarily be good for us and a good parent recognizes that.

But it can be more mysterious than that. There are times when we might think how could this possibly NOT be what God would want in this situation? Park that thought, we’ll come to it in later weeks.

But if our image of God is of the doting grandparent, who spoils us, who comes running when we click our fingers, who ultimately serves us, we will in time become disillusioned when life doesn’t work out as we planned. We may give up on God altogether.

Or maybe we swap him for the second image. The absentee parent.This is like the flip side of the doting grandparent. The God who is either powerless or does nothing to help. This can be felt by those who have that sense of abandonment in their life. That parent who left and never visited. The one who never came to the school play. The one who was always distant, never around or wasn’t to be disturbed. Far from expecting this God to jump into every situation, we come to expect nothing of them.

Many Christians have an ‘orphan spirit’. Maybe you’re one of them. You don’t really feel that sense that you are really loved by God. Oh, yes, up here, you know and might say God loves you. But we’re not, as Paul puts it in Ephesians, rooted and established in that love. We can live with that sense of God loves us cos, well, he has to. It’s God’s job. Maybe it comes from having that experience in our own lives and relationships. Maybe it comes from disappointment in prayer. We’ve asked for something, perhaps persistently and the heavens have seemed silent. Our prayers feel like they’ve bounced back off the ceiling. We can slip into this sense of a Social Services type God, means testing our prayers. It’s summarized with mottos like God supplies your needs, not your greeds.

And we can reach the point where we ask nothing of God. We talk about how prayer is not about changing God, but about changing us. Its half true. It’s not about changing God. But what we can really mean is it’s not about changing situations. We just have to accept it is what it is. That way we don’t risk further disappointment.

A few years ago, largely on the back of a period when I suffered with my mental health, I began to incorporate more contemplative prayer into my life. It would be mostly wordless, sitting in silence in the presence of God. I still use it.

For a season, that might have been helpful as I learned to pray in that way. I was creating space for God to quietly speak into my life. But, after a while I started to sense something was missing. And it was as basic as I had stopped asking for anything.

Which might sound virtuous. But the God we encounter in Jesus doesn’t mind being asked. He delights in us asking. He loves to give good gifts to those who ask him.

Bradley Jerzak writes about talking to Eugene Peterson about this tension between the doting grandparent and the absent parent, between asking for everything and assuming it’s our right and asking for nothing. Eugene Peterson’s response was to prepare to be disappointed.

Be prepared to ask. But be prepared to ask knowing that your prayer might not be answered as you want, or expect, or think it should, certainly in the time frame we would want. But also to be prepared to trust God with that, even with this disappointment. He said Pray for heaven to touch earth, grieve that heaven is not earth.

For the God we encounter in Jesus is a good, good Father. He’s neither the doting grandparent, willing to be wrapped around our little finger, jumping to fulfil our every whim. But neither is he remote, distant, disinterested, uninvolved, from whom we ask nothing.

And that is good news. For these substitute gods are about as much use a sunflower when we wanted a cooking oil, even worse than fabric softener when you’re wanting to make fish and chips. Accept no substitutes.

He’s a God who delights to give good gifts to his children. Who knows what we need before we ask, but delights to be asked anyway. Who does somehow or other build our prayers into the way he works in the world.

But he’s also a God who knows our end from our beginning, who knows the fish from the snake, the egg from the scorpion. He can be trusted to be at work in all things and that his purposes for us are good. So may you keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking, and may you discover God as the Good Father, who delights to give good gifts to his children. May you come to see that God is like Jesus, always has been like Jesus and always will be like Jesus. May you turn your eyes to Jesus, and see in him the God loves you, and may you accept no substitutes.

Posted in A More Christlike God

A More Christlike God: What if…?

A while back Jools and I had a chat with a financial advisor about how to get more from our savings. The advisor discussed a range of options he thought might be suitable. It depended on things like how much we had, how quickly we might need to access our money, how long we planned to keep it with them, what kind of risk were we prepared to accept, our ages…

It all seemed quite detailed, but then he made an interesting analogy. He told us that all the products he was offering were essentially, and this was his word, wrappers. As I understood it (and I’m not a financial advisor, so this may not be entirely accurate) once we had decided the mix of risk and return, whatever product we chose, they would largely do the same thing with our money. 

The returns might be different, but that had more to do with the tax man than markets. Some were more suitable for some seasons of life than others. But basically whichever wrapper we chose, they would still be doing the same thing with whatever money we placed with them.

It struck me that, in some ways, this was how people view faiths, religions and so on. We might call them different names, with different rituals and practices. Depending on our circumstances, accident of birth or whatever, some may seem more ‘suitable’ than others. But, basically, if you dig below the surface they would be all doing the same thing!

When I’ve done stuff in schools one of the most frequently asked questions is ‘do people not all worship the same god at the end of the day?’ In other words, isn’t all the religion stuff just wrappers? Different people, in different seasons, in different places, might find different wrappers helpful, but it’s all really the same, innit?

When I’m asked that question I always talk about my friend Tracy.

Say you and I were to meet and get chatting. In the course of our conversation we discover we both have a friend called Tracy. My friend Tracy is a married vegetarian who loves knitting. Yours is a teacher who supports Spurs and relaxes by listening to Tchaikovsky.

Are we talking about the same person?

Well, actually, we might well be. There is no reason your Tchaikovsky-loving, Spurs fan teacher couldn’t also be a married vegetarian who loves knitting.

But if you told me your friend Tracy was a single lady, who hated anything craft-y and liked nothing more than a good steak, well, we wouldn’t assume we were talking about the same person just because they were called the same name, would we?

So before I answer I’d say tell me about your God. What is your God like?

But before I go on, let me say that question is just as relevant if, to keep the analogy going, thewrapper  is the same. Never mind comparing Buddhism, Islam or Christianity. John Wesley and John Calvin were both highly respected Christian theologians. Yet Wesley once described the God of Calvinism as more false, more cruel and more unjust than Satan. There are some descriptions of God, even offered by some of the best-selling Christian writers in our age that leave me cold.

Some of the difference is shaped by our culture. Perhaps more than we realise or care to admit. We Brits sometimes look across the Atlantic at American brothers and sisters and wonder how, say, they could they possibly have supported Donald Trump. Well, the God we worship will be strongly shaped by the culture in which we are raised. The God preached in America is hot on freedom, individual responsibility and Capitalism. Over here there is a greater tendency towards tolerance and fairness. Go to China and honour and harmony are things God really values.

It’s been said God created us in his own image and we have returned the favour. Or, as writer Bradley Jerzak puts it, the highest moral values of any given people get stamped into their image of God, are reinforced by their worship and downloaded back into their people.

(More Christlike God, Page 30).

I don’t even have to look across faiths, continents or even across the room. My own understanding of God has shifted massively over time. If you were to come back to me in 10 years, I suspect the same might be true again. I hope it is. And I pray it’s for the better.

Which I suppose begs a couple of questions…

Firstly, does it matter? I would say yes but maybe not for the reason most people expect. For we become like what we worship. In time what we worship will shape us. If your God is harsh, judgmental, easily angered we can easily justify those traits in ourselves. You’ll become quite different to the one who truly finds God a gracious, loving, forgiving Father.

The other question is can we know anything about God anyway? Who’s to say you’re right and I’m wrong or vice versa?

Well, the Christian view is that God not only can be known, but wants to be known. We are created for relationship with a God who has been reaching out to us down through the ages. As the opening to Hebrews says In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets and in various ways…

Where do we go to discover this God who wants to be known? Well, in the first instance we might say The Bible. And in one sense that’s correct. But it might not yield as clear an answer as you think. For the Bible contains many contrasting images. It’s a big book. You can find a lot of stuff in there if you want to find it. 

If you want a God of war, you’ll find him in The Bible.

If you want a God of peace, you’ll find him there too.

If you want a God for all people, you’ll find that God in these pages.

If you want a God who picks sides, he’s right there.

The writer Brian Zahnd says the Bible can sometimes be like a psychological Rorschach Test, where we look at patterns of inkblots on a page and say what we see. It can reveal as much about us as it does about God.

But the writer of Hebrews didn’t stop where I did just there, and nor did God.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.

The letter to Colossians says much the same thing: The Son is the image of the invisible God… For God was pleased to all his fulness dwell in him and through him to reconcile to himself all things.

If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Jesus is the decisive revelation of God. Jesus alone is perfect theology. God’s ultimate message is not contained within a book, it was enfleshed in a human being. In Jesus of Nazareth.

It’s there in the words of Jesus himself. On the night of his arrest, one of Jesus’ disciples, Philip said Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.

Jesus effectively responds what do you mean show us the Father? What do you think I’ve been doing all this time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!

Or there was another day, told in each of the first three Gospels, when Jesus took three of his closest disciples up a mountain. Whilst they were there the Gospels says Jesus was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. Elijah and Moses also appeared with him and were talking with Jesus. Peter said Rabbi, it was great that we were here. Let’s put up three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.  Then a cloud covered them, and a voice came from the cloud This is my Son, whom I love, listen to him.

I’ve always thought that Peter’s mistake was that he was trying to capture and keep the moment, like he wanted it go on and not to go back down the mountain. To extend their audience with Moses and Elijah. And maybe he did. Who could blame him?

But that’s not the key point. The mistake he made was to try and make Jesus like Moses and Elijah. Like they were all on a level.

And they weren’t.

Jesus was way too important for that.

Elijah and Moses represent the Law and the Prophets, or what Jews had called their scriptures. Jesus was the one that they had pointing to all along. Jesus is what the Law and the prophets had been trying to describe but could never really put into words.

Down through the ages and in various ways God had been trying to reveal himself to us. God couldn’t say all he wanted within the pages of a book, so instead he wrapped his message in human flesh and became one of us.

That’s why Jesus can say he has come not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them; yet at the same time say, over and over, you have heard it said… but I say to you. The scriptures can guide us towards the kind of God we have. But only Jesus can fully reveal it.

It’s why  throughout his ministry, Jesus was so misunderstood, even by those closest to him. It’s why Jesus has to tell the disciples not to mention anything about what they’d seen on that mountain until after he was raised from the dead. For whilst the law and the prophets tried to offer a glimpse of what God was like and how he planned to redeem his world, it was never quite enough. It needed to be seen to be understood. It needed to be enacted, embodied, enfleshed.

The voice in the cloud says This is my Son. Listen to him.

If they were all on a par, you could use Law to challenge Jesus, or take the words of the prophets and say but Jesus, what about this? That option is closed down.

If Jesus and The Bible appear to be in conflict, Jesus takes precedence.

And that is the same for us. If our God is not like Jesus, if the God we think we encounter in the Bible is not like Jesus, then we need to go back to the Bible and seek fresh understanding. For the scriptures point to God, but only Jesus is the exact image of God.

As Paul told his young apprentice Timothy all scriptures are God breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness. But it’s only in Jesus that all the fullness of God dwells. Only Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

God is like Jesus.

God has always been like Jesus.

And God always will be like Jesus.

What if we take Jesus seriously when he says that if we see him we have seen the Father?

What if we take seriously that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the exact representation of God?

What if we take seriously that all the fullness of God dwells in Jesus?

That’s what we’re going to be thinking about over the next few weeks. How might understanding that God is like Jesus challenge the ways we view God and the way we seek to follow him in his world?

And really there is no better place to begin than at the communion table. For if the decisive revelation of God is Jesus, the clearest depiction of who God is can be found here and in the events this table represents. His body broken and blood poured out for the world. A God who saves the world not with overwhelming force, but by overcoming love.

In the Gospels we read of how as Jesus died, the curtain in the temple, which kept God hidden from the people ripped in two from top to bottom.

It starts at the top, for the initiative comes from God. But what does it reveal. A suffering servant on a cross, crying Father, Forgive!

Jesus didn’t come to enable God to love us. Jesus came to reveal God as love.

Jesus didn’t come to reconcile God to us, but to bring us back to God.

God is a God who would rather go through the agony and torment of the cross, than leave us estranged from him. For the one, true living God created us in love, for love, to live in relationship with him. He wants to be known.

Over the last year we have had to be a bit more creative about the ways we stay in touch, but the reality is, we know it’s not really the same as actually being there, in the flesh. Well God wasn’t content to remain within the pages of a book. He could never be fully revealed there. So he took on flesh and became one of us, so that we could truly know what God is like.

God is like Jesus.

He didn’t come to make us Biblical. He came to make us Christlike.

And here, at this table, is where we begin. You may have heard it said you are what you eat. Well, here we are invited to eat bread and remember a body broken for us. We are invited to drink wine and remember blood shed for us. And remember that our God is a God of sacrificial love, and calls us to model it in our lives together.

We’ll unpack that more in the next few weeks. But for now we remember, that…

God has revealed himself and he is like Jesus.

He has always been like Jesus.

He will always be like Jesus.

May we know him, grow in our knowledge of him, and may we discover a more Christlike God, and day by day become a more Christlike people.

Posted in One offs

The Elder Brother at the End of the Bar: A Narrative sermon, based on The Prodigal Son

Reading: Luke 15: 11-32

Video of the sermon here (recommended as best way to appreciate it)

Audio of the sermon here

Gimme another one, Joseph, no, no, I’m ok, I’m ok, just keep ‘em coming…

Have you heard that racket across the way?

I don’t know how long it’s been going, but it must be at least three or four hours. I could hear when it when I was coming towards the house on my way home from work.

Goodness knows what the rest of the neighbourhood thinks, although most of them seem to be in there, having a right old knees up.

And that smell? That’s Daisy that is. We were supposed to be fattening her up for a special occasion. Not something like this. Anyone would think this was something worth celebrating. I mean it, the old fella’s really lost it this time.

You mean you haven’ heard? He’s back! You know who – Goldenboy my broth- sorry father’s son. No, sorry, I can’t bring myself to use the b word to describe him – well, not that particular b word anyway.

I’ve been dreading though that this day would come. I knew it would be like this. All the time he’s been gone the old fella’s not been the same. It would break your heart if it wasn’t so pathetic. I don’t think he’s smiled once. Even when we’ve trying to have a serious discussion about the estate you call tell he’s distracted. His eyes keep flitting across to the window. Then a single figure appears on the horizon and he’ll jump up, staring out to check if it’s the long lost son. You’d think he’d concentrate on the son he still had.

I wouldn’t mind so much, but it’s not as if old sonny Jim gives two hoots about my father. I mean, you know what he did? A couple of years back, he waltzes into dad’s office, cool as you like, and asks for a meeting.

Dad, he said. I’m sick of waiting around here for you to die. I’ve got a life to live and I don’t want to spend it round here. Why don’t you give me the share of the estate now? I’m going to inherit it anyway and I want to be able to enjoy it.

I mean, can you believe the cheek of it? He might as well have told the old fella that he wished he was dead.

OK, so Dad’s loaded and I can’t say I’ve never thought about the changes I would make to the estate when I inherit it. But I would never even dream of doing anything like that.

If it had been me I’d have given a clip round the ear.

Oh, sure, I tried to talk my father out of it. I couldn’t believe it when he agreed. It’s not as if boyo’s ever been any good with money. Unless, of course, you’re talking about wasting it. He goes through it so fast you’d think he was frightened of it burning a hole in the sack.

But no. Daddy dearest knows best. He counted out his share of the estate and gave it to him. I tell you, I made sure he didn’t get a Denarius more than he was owed.

I’ll tell you what happened next. I knew it would happen. It’s not as if, having got what he wanted, he stuck around here to help with the work. No, no he left all that with Muggins here.

And I was right. I mean the last coin had barely stopped chinking as they went into the sack than he was off. No forwarding address. Didn’t think to tell anyone where.

It wasn’t local, for my father asked everyone he knew from nearby if they had heard any news of him. No-one had. It seems though from what one of the servants has told me it was quite a way off.

I was there when he said goodbye to my father. My Father was clinging to him for dear life, as if the mere act of holding on meant his son wouldn’t leave.

Waste of time.

You could tell old Fancy Dan was just desperate to get away. By then I was just glad to be shot of him. Good riddens to bad rubbish. But sheer look of complete desolation on my father’s face – I’ll never forget it. It was unforgivable, Joe, honestly.

Well, what do you think he did with the money? Drinking motion Live it up. Party – that’s what. Just like he always did. And no-one’s told me this for certain, and Joseph, you know me, I’m not one to gossip, but between you and me I wouldn’t mind betting there were a few hookers in there as well.

Now I know he got a fair amount, but anyone with even the tiniest amount of sense would know that the cash wasn’t going to last forever. But hey, we shouldn’t give him too much credit.

Cos, sure enough, it did run out. And oh dear, he had to get a job and well if you’ve ever worked with him you wouldn’t employ him.

And he got a bit desperate and you’ll never guess where he ended up. Go on, try. He was a swineherd! Imagine it. Mr ‘I’m so gorgeous, wonderful and popular’ and he’s stinking, dirty and still hungry. You know when I heard it, I just wish I’d been there to see it.

What do you mean, I’m not being very nice? Well he’s not very nice person, is he?!

Anyway, picture it. There he is and he gets to thinking. I’ll tell you what he’s really thinking. He’s thinking ‘who’s mug enough to take me in?’ And that’s when he thinks of old ‘soft touch Pops’ over the way there. And he comes up with a plan.

I mean no-one in their right mind is going to forgive what he’s done, are they? And he knows it. So he decides, get this, to offer himself as a servant. I mean, it’s not as if my Father doesn’t know how utterly useless he is. A servant – it just shows how desperate he was. I’ll bet he even had a little speech planned.

I’ll bet he didn’t even work his notice period. Guarantee you, he’ll have just up and left those pigs. And I can just picture what happened next. My father will have caught sight of him on the horizon as my father looked out the window and when he saw him he was off. The servants said they’d never seen him move so fast. I mean, where’s the old fella’s sense of decorum? You can see what I mean about him losing it.

The servant who told me what happens says the waster muttered something about sinning and not being worthy to be a son anymore. It’s just as well I wasn’t there because I’m have told him too flipping right he wasn’t worthy. But no, Daddy dearest knows best once again. Out comes the best robe, which I don’t mind telling you, I had my eye on, a new ring, new shoes. And old Gertrude was going to be about as pleased to see him as I am. They’ve been partying ever since.

Where was I when all this was happening?

Doing what he should have been doing all along – working. I’ve been doing two people’s work this last couple of years.

I was shattered and looking forward to just flopping on my mat this evening. Then I heard the racket, and the servant came out and told me all I told you.

Oh yes, I am invited to the party. But can you blame me for not wanting to go? My Father came out and pleaded with me to come in. Well, I told him straight. I said exactly what I’ve wanted to say these last two years. ‘Look!’ I said. All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you’ve never even given me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But this son of yours, who’s wasted your property with hookers comes home and you throw a big party.’

Then I saw that same look – the look of desolation he had when Goldenboy left.

Anyone would have thought that I was the one breaking up the family.

Well, at least he acknowledged that I was always there and that all the estate’s mine – that was a relief. But he then said we had to celebrate because my broth- sorry his son was as good as dead but is alive again, was lost, but is found.

What do you mean he’s got a point?

You’re saying that just because my Father’s forgiven him I have to?

Ok, so it’s his son, but you heard what he d-?

Well, I don’t know when I’m going to go back….

I mean, what sort of Father forgives like that…

You’re not seriously suggesting I should go to the party are you?

Posted in Growing Back Better

Growing Back Better 6: When Love Has the Run of the House

Reading: 1 John 4: 7-21

Video of sermon here

Audio of sermon here

One of my favourite podcasts is called The Rest is History. Twice a week, historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook take a theme, an event, a person from history and discuss it in a semi-light-hearted way, sometimes relating it to present events. For example, towards the end of last year, as the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU came into effect, they considered our top 10 Brexits. 10 occasions when Britain cut herself off from mainland Europe, beginning with the drowning of Doggerland beneath a tsunami, around 6100 BC, which resulted in us becoming an island!

In the last couple of weeks, on Twitter, they carried out a World Cup of Gods.  They didn’t want to cause needless offence, so these were gods who have at some point stopped being worshipped. They weren’t asking people to decide whether Krishna or Allah was best. No they were (mostly) of the ancient variety. From Zeus to Ishtar, from Odin to the rather obscure Irish god Brigid! Prince Phillip even got a mention as he was worshipped by a tribe in the southern island of Tanna in Vanuatu.

So they did a draw, like they do in the football, and people voted on whether Zeus was better than Odin, or Ishtar better than Prince Philip. The loser was knocked out, the winner went on to the next round, until there was only one left, which turned out to be Athena, the Olympian Goddess of Wisdom and War.

These gods were a right mix of good and bad, from the manipulative to the downright nasty. They all needed to kept onside… or else. As I listened it became very clear why, for most of human history, it was not considered good news when gods showed up. It was far more likely that someone was ‘in for it.’

That goes for much of our Bible too. The most common opening line in an encounter with the divine is don’t be afraid… and with good reason.

But it also shows why three little words which appear together twice in the reading this morning would have been so shocking when they were first uttered…

God. Is. Love.

So simple.

So familiar to many of us.

We may even come to take it for granted.

But they are reckoned to be amongst the last words written in our Bible, and they are the product of an aging disciple spending a lifetime reflecting on the divine. We only realise it because of Jesus. When it comes to how we see God, Jesus was the gamechanger.

Note what John doesn’t say. He doesn’t say God has love; nor does he say God is loving; or even God is loveable. All of those things are true. But not what John says. God is love. Love is the very essence of God.

As the passage is read, it’s kind of hard to miss the point. In 15 verses the word love appears no fewer than 27 times. Love is the driving force of everything God does. From creation, to free will, to providence and care, to God’s redemptive plans and purposes to reconcile all things to himself. Love is the basis of the whole lot.

Throughout history, since we were conscious of anything beyond ourselves, humans have wrestled with ideas about what God is like. The world is full of so much beauty, but so much terror. We’ve sought to explain it. So the dominant images of what God must be like broadly fall into a couple of different categories.

For many God is the angry judge, watching our every move, ever ready and willing to punish any slip up. The alternative is an aloof, disinterested God. One who creates the world and winds it up, but plays no role in it. It takes the course it does. 

Or, says John, there’s a third way. A God who created in world in love, sustains the world in love, and plans to redeem all things.

God is love. Always there, always reaching out, always taking risks, never giving up.

God loves, simply because of who he is. He loves us just because. We’re imperfect, we stumble, we make a mess… and God goes on loving.

The Beatles were kind of right. All we need is love. But what is love? How do we know it? It’s more than sexual attraction. It’s more than affection. It is more than loyalty. It is more than friendship and support. Love is utterly unconditional.

When we dig into what John says here about love, we discover how our expressions of it are mere shadows of the kind of love John is talking about. That’s not to say they’re not good. They are and we are truly blessed when we experience love. But they cannot compare to the love John is talking about here.

There is no fear in love; perfect love drives out all fear.

Can we truly say our loves are without fear? Love, as we so often experience it, makes us vulnerable. We put ourselves in the hands of another without any control over how they might respond. We can fear loss, betrayal, that the one to whom we give our love will ultimately prove unworthy of our trust.

None of those things are true of God’s love. God loves us with an all-consuming love, which never runs out and from which nothing, not even death, can separate us.

Love can’t be proved. It can only be given and received, expressed and experienced.  When it comes to love, actions speak louder than words. It needs to be shown. And God has shown that love in sending Jesus into the world to give us life. To draw the world back to Godself.

For so many, even the God expressed in Jesus can seem like the angry judge, just waiting to punish. For many the good news is that God is mad with us, and needs to take it out on someone. But Jesus steps in and makes it all ok. For far too many, what passes for good news is that Jesus saves us from God.

And nothing could be farther from the truth. The initiative to save us starts with God. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn us, but to save us. God’s every intention and longing for us is to live in his love.

God didn’t send Jesus to reconcile himself to us, but so that we could be reconciled to him. There never has been a time when you are not forgiven, but you do have a choice whether to live in that forgiveness.

It’s not God who needs the cross. It’s us.

Because somehow, without it, we will never grasp that whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, we are forgiven, we are loved, because God is love.

It’s a well known verse that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But when you study anything, your aim is not to end at the beginning. You don’t just want Wisdom 101. That’ll only get you so far. For the mark of drawing closer and closer to God is becoming more and more aware of his love. The more we fear God the less we truly understand that love. Fear belongs to the situation where there is no trust and where someone might use their power destructively.

And it’s true God is all powerful, but God’s power would rather go to the cross than destroy and condemn.

Love builds trust. As trust increases, fear decreases. As fear decreases, so it makes more room for love to grow. The more aware we are of how much we are loved, the less we need live in fear. We can be confident that we are safe in God’s hands and that with him we will be ok.

But we don’t just stop there. We aren’t called to just be containers of God’s love. We’re called to be channels of it. Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God. That phrase child of God. It was like a Jewish idiom which expressed character traits. We sometimes talk of people being a chip off the old block. What we mean is that they bear some kind of family likeness. People might say I can tell whose daughter or son you are, by something you have done.

Sometimes in our house, when we’re watching the tennis, that sometime around 2035-2040 the Federer household with their twin girls and twin boys will ave Wimbledon sewn up. Both singles, both same-sex doubles and the mixed doubles. If they take after their parents.

When parents are good at something they often pass it on to their children. Well, when God is at work in us, so his love should start to flow from us. The true test of just how much we know God is not how much of the Bible we can quote, how many conferences we attend, how many nights a week we are at church stuff, how many hours we spent in prayer. It’s whether we love. There is little in life I find as sad as someone using the Bible as a weapon, to attack, to win, to get one over on the other.

Jesus said by this others will know you’re my disciples – if you love one another. Maybe it was that John  had in mind as he wrote no-one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us.  I love how The Message puts verse 8: The person who refuses to love does not know the first thing about God, because God is love. Or verse 16: God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives is us. This way love has the run of the house…

No-one can see God, but they can see us. And they can see how we react towards them and each other. It’s through us that God expresses his love. That’s what it means for his love to be made complete in us.

And this love, it’s not something we can just conjure up within ourselves. Oh, in our better moments we will be really loving and on top form. But there will come times when busyness or tiredness takes over. Or there will be some we simply find hard to love. And not always without reason.

No, this love, it needs to be rooted in God. It’s as the Holy Spirit comes upon us, it’s like She creates a pipeline for the love of God to flow into us, and through us to those whom we encounter.

We live in a world which doesn’t know just how loved it is. In part that’s because they have not seen it expressed in those who claim to follow him. And that in large measure is because we have no idea just how much we are loved by God.

I’ve talked a lot in the last few weeks about Growing Back Better. And at root that is a question about what love is asking of us. In Christian terms we have often talked of who’s in or out. But maybe a different question is about the direction we are travelling. Are we drawing closer and closer to God, or drifting from him? Are we being drawn deeper into love, or are we drawing back from it. Whether we truly Grow Back Better will depend on whether we let love have the rule of the house.

That means within us and amongst us.

Will we allow the story in which we live to be one in which our God is love?

Will we be drawn deeper into that love?

Will we allow that love to banish fear, in turn freeing up space for further love to grow?

May we do so, and may that love make its home in us, flowing from us, so that others will see that love, know that they are loved and step into that love for themselves, because they come to know God for themselves and discover for themselves that God is love.

Posted in Growing Back Better

Growing Back Better 5: New Life from the Old

In 2003 Bethany Hamilton was a child prodigy surfer. At just 13 she was tipped for great things as a professional. That was until she was attacked by a 15ft Tiger Shark, and lost her left arm.

The situation seemed utterly hopeless. What chance would anyone have in that field after that?

But Bethany wasn’t to be swayed from her conviction. After a series of operations, she began to learn to surf with only one arm and a customized board. Within a few months she was back competing and she went on to have a hugely successful career. Last year, before covid struck, she was attempting to make a comeback on the professional tour, after a few years away in which she had a couple of children. She was attempting this comeback despite having just recovered from breaking her remaining elbow skateboarding. Her story is told in the film Unstoppable.

Her story is truly inspirational. But Bethany doesn’t just put it down to her own special character traits. She says her faith played an important part in that journey. God had given her that passion for surfing and that hadn’t gone with her left arm. In an interview with The Guardian  last year she said I had a sense of peace after the attack. Faith helped me through. Adult me is like Whoa, how did I do that? It was childlike faith.  

The front page of her website says I know life can be hard, but I’ve learned that we can rise above even the biggest challenges and fears. No matter where you’ve come from, or what you’re facing, you are loved by God, and you can overcome.

I seriously encourage you to check out her website. There is some amazing stuff there.

I came across Bethany’s story whilst doing a Google search for hope in hopeless situations. There’s a lot of motivational, self-help stuff out there if you look. For example one article quotes a note that a legendary basketball coach called John Wooden was given by his father Joshua. It says The secret of turning a seemingly hopeless situation into a triumph is simple. Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Don’t make excuses. Just do the best you can. Nobody can do more than that.

But if you dig a little more deeply into his story, you find that has a faith root too. For a couple of other bits of that advice were pray for guidance, and give thanks for blessings and drink deeply from good books, especially The Bible.

A while back a friend complained to me about attending a church service at which she said the sermon was little more than pop-psychology wrapped up in a couple of Bible verses. That, she said, would protect no-one when the storms come.

I must admit, it made me a little bit wary. I can be fascinated by neuroscience, psychology and the like. I was worried she might be talking about one of mine! I’ll sometimes share some of that with you, where it hopefully connects with faith, following Jesus and so on. The midweek Wellbeing Journey course is part of that. Those who were there last Wednesday will know we were looking at the subject of our mindset, and how it affects our lives.

I love the description of science by Johann Kepler as thinking God’s thoughts after him. I love to relate my faith to life. Christianity is an incarnational, physical, material faith. The way God chooses to interact with the world is for the Word to become flesh.  I believe God is in and is interested in all of life.

But equally I am aware that when you think about a subject like finding hope in hopeless situations, and when you start out with an example like I used, it can easily slide down the road towards the power of positive thinking. I hope that I am clear that our real hope is not to be found there, but in the good news and transforming power of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.

In recent years I have grown in my appreciation of the opening lines of what has become known as the Serenity Prayer…

            God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

            Courage to change the things I can

            And the wisdom to know the difference.

Because a key part of the Growing Back Better we’ve been talking about these last few weeks is about where we find hope when we are powerless to deliver ourselves. And both Bethany Hamilton and John Wooden, inspirational as they are, found that. As we drink deeply from the scriptures and as we come to realise just how we are held in the unstoppable love of God, from which nothing can separate us, that we find true hope. Not in ourselves, but in the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.

If ever there was a story of the possibility of hope in a hopeless situation it was the story we turned to in John’s Gospel this morning. John goes to great lengths to show how far gone this situation truly was. As we picked up the story, in verse 17, we are told that when Jesus arrives in Bethany, Lazarus has been dead for 4 days. Later, when Jesus asks them to remove the stone, Martha protests saying there will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried for four days. What’s so important about those 4 days.

The point John is making is that this is a situation that has gone beyond hope. Lazarus is dead dead. There are a couple of ideas which may be alluded to in the story. One was a belief held by some Jews, that after death the spirit hung around the body for a few days hoping to re-enter it. However after a few days, normally around day 4, the face would change colour, a sign that de-composition had begun, and the spirit would depart.

It was also at that stage that the tomb would be permanently sealed. You might remember from the Easter story how the Friday Jesus’ body was taken from the cross and laid in the tomb, but early Sunday morning some women go to the tomb to complete the burial rituals. Yes there is a seal on that tomb door too, but they were still somehow hoping to get access to the body of their Master. But around the day 3 or 4 the tomb would be sealed up.

John really wants us to really get a sense of just how far gone this situation is. That any cause for hope would seem to be gone. The name Lazarus means God helps me. But this Lazarus was beyond help.

But there are a couple of things about the God revealed in Jesus that we discover in this story.

One is that God is not remote from us in suffering. It might be the shortest verse in the Bible, but it would have been one of the most shocking… Jesus wept.

It’s odd that although of all the Gospels John is the most obviously aware of Jesus’ divinity, he also seems the most aware of Jesus’ humanity. For example in John 4, when Jesus meets the woman at the well, John tells us that when they reached Samaria Jesus sat down because he was tired out by the journey and was in need of a drink.

Well here, even aware of what he is about to do, we see the powerful emotions of Jesus. Some of the depictions we see of Jesus on film have him seeming quite otherworldly, serenity itself, gazing off into the middle distance. But here he’s not calm, serene, detached, unmoved by the sorrow and suffering around him. He is quite powerfully moved. He’s described as shaken, shuddering with emotion, deeply moved.

Not surprisingly perhaps in a passage about death and a funeral the English word weeping crops up a few times. But the word used for Jesus weeping here is different from the world used elsewhere in the story. It suggests a real depth to the sorrow in the tears Jesus’ sheds.

Jesus validates and affirms the sorrow we feel at loss in our lives. Jesus, more than anyone, is aware of the hope we have in the love of God. But even he sheds tears. We too can have hope in the love of God. But hopeful grief is still grief and still painful. It matters. Death is not, as a poem often shared at funerals suggests, nothing at all. It matters. Jesus shows us that is true. Jesus weeps. He feels the sorrow.

But he is still Lord of it.

The other thing Jesus reveals is Gods utter determination to bring new life out of this hopeless situation. At every point Jesus meets resistance to what he wants to do. When Jesus is told of Lazarus’ illness, although he doesn’t go immediately, his disciples on the whole would rather he not go at all. Last time he had been over that way some of the leaders had wanted him dead. The disciple Thomas gets the last word in before they set off for Bethany – let’s all go with the teacher, and die with him.  

When he arrives he meets disappointment, first from Martha, then Mary. Where were you? If you’d been here we wouldn’t be in this mess! Lazarus would still be around. That disappointment is shared by at least some of the crowd.

As Jesus weeps, some note how much Jesus must have cared. But others say could he not have done something about it when he had the chance?

Then when Jesus tells them to roll back the stone, he meets resistance once more – we can’t do that. It’ll stink! At every turn Jesus’ meets resistance.

But at every turn he persists, determined to bring new life. You know what? Jesus longing to bring new life to us is way greater than ours to receive it.

What are the hopeless things we carry around with us?

Perhaps things we’ve prayed for, but maybe even long since given up.

Things that seem so far gone, that not even God can help.

Yes, we might know that God cares about it, and cares about us. We might even draw comfort from that.

But we can also think, if God were going to do anything about it, surely he’d have done it by now?

And I’ll be up front with you. If you ask me why he doesn’t appear to have done anything up to now, my answer is I don’t know.

There may be some things that aren’t resolved in this life. I mean who knows if there were any others in that Bethany graveyard? But even when we think all hope if gone, Jesus may not. That’s what it means for him to be the resurrection and the life.

Jesus won’t force things on us. He patiently works with us, and in our resistance.

There is something that we can learn from each of the 4 things Jesus says…

Where have you laid him? asked Jesus.

Come and see, they replied.

What are the no-go areas of our lives? What parts would we rather not explore? Certainly not with others, but even with God? Are we prepared to let Jesus go with us to those places of sorrow, hurt, fear, disappointment? Those may be the places into which the Spirit longs to bring light, life, resurrection. But will we take him there?

Take away the stone said Jesus. Even if we are prepared to go there, will we open up to him? I suspect Martha thought Jesus just wanted to have one last look at his old friend. Maybe there was a sense of doing him a favour. Jesus, better to remember him as he was. Not as he is now. Besides, Jesus, it stinks in there. It can take courage to roll back the stone with anyone. Are they prepared for what they might find there? Shame can be one of the biggest barriers. That sense of if they saw what was behind there, they might think differently of you, think less of you. That somehow or other we’re not worthy.

And we can act that way with God. We can seek to put on a front or a face with God every bit as much as with anyone else. And it’s true that not everyone will be worthy of the trust required to roll back those stones.

God is. God knows us completely. God loves us completely. In Christ God has shown that love by giving himself for each one of us. He hasn’t come to condemn us. In him there is only grace and mercy beyond our wildest dreams. His longing to give new life far surpasses our longing to receive it. His love is greater than whatever we bring to him.

Then Jesus says Lazarus, come out.

For Lazarus to embrace the offer of new life, he has to step out of the tomb. It might seem obvious that we’ll want it, but it’s not. We can become used to how these things are, and lose the will for things to be different. It was there in the Bethany Hamilton story. The adult Bethany would have though Whoa, how can that happen. Stepping into the new life calls for childlike faith.

When I was about 10 years old I was knocked down by a car. I’m not quite sure why, but the next day I had to sit in a hospital dentist chair and have a good couple of hours work done. As he finished the work, I still remember him saying You did very well. You were very brave. A lot of adults wouldn’t have let me do that to them. I must admit my first thought was if I’d known I had a choice, nor would I have let you!! But in life we can become not only jaded in the hope for newness of life, or expectation of it, but in the will. It’s what we know. All change is risky. Will we trust that God can bring us into that new life?

Finally, Jesus says unbind him and set him free.

Lazarus’ resurrection is not like Jesus’ resurrection. In John 20 we’ll read of the grave clothes left as they were, with the face cover neatly folded by itself. Lazarus emerges still with the grave clothes and the face covering. He steps into the new life, but he is still all bound up. It takes others to help him get free.

But interestingly the word for unbind has the same root as new birth. We’re not called to travel alone, but together. We’re to help one another embrace that new life. To encourage one another. To strengthen one another. Not to spend our time taking people back to how they were. But together we can embody the grace and forgiveness that God longs to bring us to he offers new life.

In Jesus there is hope, even when we struggle to see it or find it. We might think we’re too far gone. We might have given up hope that anything can change. We might even erect stumbling blocks on the road. But God is not remote from us in it. God affirms our sorrow and sense of loss. But he still declares Jesus as Lord over it. And God longs for us to embrace and experience his new life even more than we want it.

May we find ourselves able to take him to those places where we most need his life, light and resurrection.

May we find the grace to open ourselves up to him.

May we find the grace, when new life is offered, to step into it.

And may we be a people of grace, walking together, caring for one another, embodying the love in which God longs to enfold us.