Posted in James

James Part 1: You Cannot Be Serious!

count-it-all-joyLet’s start with a question…

Who is the greatest men’s tennis player of the last, say, 50 years?

It’s hard to compare across different eras, but at the moment we are blessed with three of the greatest ever, all playing at the same time. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Some might go back to Sampras, or to Borg and Connors, maybe even Rod Laver.

However you could make a good case for John McEnroe being better than all of them. Only four men have won more singles titles than McEnroe. Jimmy Connors, Roger Federer, Ivan Lendl and Rafa Nadal.

But none of them achieved much in doubles.

Whereas McEnroe? Well, oddly enough there are also only four men to have won more doubles titles. Two of them are brothers: Mike and Bob Bryan. The others are Daniel Nestor and Todd Woodbridge. But, between the four of them, they only managed two tournament wins in the singles form of the game.

When you combine singles and doubles McEnroe is way out in front of all the others. Today he’s a much sought-after commentator, here and in America.

But winning tournaments or commentating is probably not the thing for which he was most famous. Some of the media had a nickname for McEnroe when he was playing.

 Superbrat.

He was more famous for temper tantrums and arguing with umpires. The most famous was in a first round match at Wimbledon in 1981, against Tom Gullikson. He fired down a serve which he thought was an ace. He started walking across the baseline to begin the next point. But despite a puff of dust coming up off the ground, a lines judge had called it out. The umpire backed the lines judge. At which point McEnroe uttered one of the most famous lines ever uttered in the sporting arena. Which was…

You cannot be serious!

 Which he later used as the title of his autobiography.

 Today I’m starting a new series, based on the book of James. It’s a short book, towards the back of our Bible, which many believe was written by James, the brother of Jesus. Last week I’ve gave out little booklets, offering some background to the book, and suggested you read James for yourself.

If you did, you may have sometimes found yourself, like John McEnroe thinking ‘James, you cannot be serious.’

Sometimes I really hope he was exaggerating for effect. I mean, at the start of chapter 4 he talks about them killing because they don’t get what they want. Now I’ve heard some horror stories from churches, but that’s a bit extreme.

But there may be plenty of times over the next few weeks, when we might find ourselves thinking ‘you cannot be serious.’ But often he is.

 

And today we come up against a real big one, right at the start.

Some writers think the book of James was initially a sermon or collected bits of sermons, rather than a letter. In any form of public speaking, it is part of the art to try to grab people’s attention.

If this was a sermon, I imagine James’ opening line would have really caught their attention.

My brothers and sisters, consider it pure joy when you face trials of many kinds.

 

You what, James?

Joy?

Trials?

You cannot be serious!

You might even find it a bit insulting. James, you don’t know what I’m going through. How dare you tell me to consider it pure joy?!

 

Thing is, as I read the book I don’t get the impression that James was naïve or stupid. He knew how it would sound or read. He knew it would sound stupid. He knew it was not easy. He knew it’s not our natural response. He knew we think of joy and trials as being opposites.

So let’s be clear about something. James is not saying we should pretend that bad things are actually good, or live in denial, saying it doesn’t matter, really, when, in fact, it does. He’s not suggesting we have a stuff upper lip or grin and bear it. Not that long ago we spent a year on all those seasons and words in the spiritual life. About half of them were dealing with the darker side of life. God wants your honesty. God can handle your honesty. Dishonesty gets in the way of any healthy relationship. And certainly with God.

 

Part of the problem is that we tend to think joy and happiness are the same thing. And we live in an age which tends to think of happiness as the ultimate goal in life.

But happiness is largely determined by our circumstances. And one thing is true about life. In life we will have trials. They are universal. Everyone faces them. Having faith, or following Jesus does not give us protected status. Some trials are harder, deeper more painful than others, but they come to us all nonetheless.

Some are persecuted for their faith. We’ve had people from Open Doors and Christian Solidarity Worldwide tell us of brothers and sisters who are part of the great worldwide church who face persecution for their faith. People of other faiths who face persecution too. James knew plenty about that.  He was stoned to death quite possibly within a couple of years of writing this.

But trials can come in all sorts of forms. Temptations, sickness, bereavement, relationship problems, financial worries… Some of them external to us, caused by circumstances. Some internal, the struggles within us, the stories we tell ourselves, or physical struggles.

We can look at others and wish we had their trials, but they might be thinking the same about us.

Not having a job can be a trial.

But people who have jobs have trials because of their jobs.

Not having a family can be a trial.

But people who have family will have trials because they have a family.

Wealthy people face trials associated with their wealth.

Poor people suffer trials because of their poverty.

We all have trials. And they all matter and they’re all significant.

 

The Franciscan monk Richard Rohr wrote recently about Jesus’ call to take up your cross. We hear that, and we focus on the cross bit. Rohr suggested a different emphasis. In life, the cross is inevitable. We have that saying ‘we all have our crosses to bear.’  And we do. We all have our trials. The cross will always be there. We have no choice about that.

No, the choice or challenge is whether we’ll take up that cross.

Trials will come. No-one escapes.

The question is how will we face them?

Will we face them?

What will we do with them?

What kind of people will they make us?

 

There is a natural wisdom in what James about tests and trials leading to growth. When I was training for half-marathons, one route would take me down Watford Road, along Sudbury Court Drive, which is a long, slow, boring climb, then up Sudbury Hill. Which is really hard work. I can’t say I ever enjoyed it. But I could see progress by how far I could get up that hill without stopping. And when I was doing that kind of training I noticed that in races I would be passing lots of people on the inclines. Facing the trial of Sudbury Hill strengthened me.

 

Trials can serve different positive purposes. It turns out we need them. Sometimes they act like those car sensors David talked about last week, calling our attention to something that’s not right and lead us to change course or not do that again. The trial of the hangover might remind the drinker that an extra glass of wine when you have an early start tomorrow is really not worth it and maybe next time do it differently. Some learn that lesson better than others.

Trials and struggle are also nature’s way of inspiring change. Within evolution it’s the creature which is dissatisfied and insecure in its environment that will seek to adapt and innovate. That’s the one that will survive. It is a feature of human development that trials and struggles spur us to innovate, to progress. We seem to be wired for at least a certain amount of discontent so that when trials come we can grow and develop. In life there really is no growth or development without some sort of trials.

But James is talking about something deeper than that. A different kind of wisdom that emerges not just out of life, but out of relationship with the living God. A wisdom that comes to us as a gift from God.

It’s a wisdom that knows that whatever we face we are not truly alone. We are held by a good, loving, generous God, whose purpose for us is not just to survive, but to grow, to thrive, to mature. It’s a wisdom that knows we walk with a God who can not only bring us through this, but transform it and even bring good out of it.

 

But joy? Where does ‘joy’ come into this?

There’s a young woman in America who follows my paperdolls sermon blog. She herself runs an excellent blog called Beauty Beyond Bones. Of itself it is a great example of what God can bring good out of. Much of it is about her faith and her recovery from an eating disorder .

About a month ago she wrote an article on the subject of joy and about attending a conference about joy, hosted by a woman who had written a book about joy. She said at the time it was great, but later it left her feeling a bit hollow. Then she mentioned a quote from a Fr Mike Schmitz.

True joy is knowing that we are known by God, loved by God and always with God. 

 

James doesn’t tell us when we face trials of all sorts of different kinds, to buckle up, hunker down, grin and bear it, and think this’ll do me good. In that sense it’s not like me running up Sudbury Hill.

No, he’s saying when all sorts of trials come – and they will – remember you are known by God, loved by God and always with God.

 

James is not saying it is easy or natural. He says Consider it pure joy. Consider. That requires discipline, intention, focus. It requires being open to the Spirit.

You see trials or troubles, they’re quite needy and jealous. They like to suck up all your mental energy.  They don’t like you thinking of anything else, certainly not anything good, healthy or positive. That’s why they like nighttime so much. Fewer things to distract you. When you start thinking about something else, trials are all woo-hoo, don’t look at that, look at me!

In those times, it takes effort to remember that you are known by God, loved by God and always with God. It requires that we stop, be still, and be open to the Spirit.

You see, inside we’re telling ourselves stories the whole time. They’re shaping how we behave, think and act.

James is telling us to give space for the Spirit to offer another kind of story.

The Spirit reminds you that your trial or your pain is not the whole of your narrative. It’s just part of this season. You may have to go through it, cos sometimes the best way out of a trial is to go through it, rather than round. But as you do so, don’t despair. It does not have the right to speak the last word over you.

Because through God, by his Spirit, you can have an insight that God can not only bring you through this, but he can invert it and use it for good.

 

That story had shaped the people to whom James was writing. Whilst following Jesus took Peter and Paul to all sorts of places, James it seems, after the resurrection, spent his days in Jerusalem.

But he writes to the twelve tribes, scattered amongst the nations. That word, scattered, tells a story. In some ways the people of Israel were like the Irish. There were far more of us outside Ireland than on the island. You’ll find us all over the world. Just look for the Irish pub. But, as with so many people’s scattered around the world there are all sorts of stories behind that leaving home, some of them quite tragic.

The same was true for the Israelites.

Down through the years they had been conquered and taken captive. By Assyria, by Babylon. When Rome conquered Jerusalem in 63BCE Pompey took many of the people as slaves.

Others left simply to find a better life, mostly in Egypt and Syria.

It didn’t always end well. Those captured by Assyria never re-merged in history. But exile in Babylon proved the making of that people. Their faith flourished and much of our Old Testament emerged from that time. Those taken off to Rome were useless as slaves because of their rigid Sabbath observance, so they ended up being freed and flourished.

You get a sense of how far they were scattered when you read the story of Pentecost in Acts 2 and see the great list of people groups at Jerusalem for the festival, all hearing about Jesus in their own language. There was barely anywhere in the world where they were not thriving. Which meant that when the first Christians took the Gospel of Jesus out into the world, they had lots of bases to start from. But it was the result of being scattered. They had been through all sorts of trials, some quite horrific, but in all sorts of ways good had emerged from it.

 

It was also the founding story of the church. It was the story of Jesus, whom God sent into the world to rescue and redeem us. But he had a very strange way of doing it.  A couple of weeks ago I outlined some of the trials Jesus faced in life. He lived most of it poor and on the road. His own family didn’t understand him, including James, who, it seems, refused to believe in him before the resurrection. He faced pain, suffering, anxiety for his future, misunderstanding amongst friends. Ultimately he was rejected, executed in a brutal, humiliating, agonising way, all alone.

That was the story of God saving the world. No wonder Christians looked back through their scriptures and found that passage about a suffering servant which started who would believe that kind of message.

This is how you’re saving the world?

God, you cannot be serious.

Yet through it all God was reaching out to save us, and God was able to bring Jesus through to resurrection and us into relationship with him. In a few minutes we’ll break bread, drink wine and remember and retell the story of how we know, even through the worst of what we face, God has the power to bring life, hope, new beginnings.

When we look at the cross, when we look at this table, it’s like God’s saying ‘you think that’s going to stop me loving you? You think that’s going to thwart my plans to rescue my world? If you think that’s going to stop me it’s you who can’t be serious.’

 

It’s because of Jesus we can know that we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.

It’s by his Spirit within us, whispering within us we can know we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.

So that whatever we face we can face it with the wisdom of God; we can face it knowing we are not alone, for we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.

But James doesn’t leave it there. If he had we might have been left feeling even worse. It’s bad enough going through trials, without feeling guilty about how we approach it.

We might find ourselves thinking James, I’m sorry, but I can’t see it that way. I don’t feel known by God, loved by God and always with God.

There are all sorts of reasons why we might not be able to face trials the way James talks about in verses 2-4. James knows that it is not easy or natural to follow what’s he’s said so far. Even the most experienced and spiritual people will have times when they struggle.

But whatever the reason James has a simple answer.

Ask.

God wants to help you. God loves to help you. God is generous.

Now you know me, I’m not into prosperity Gospel, name it, claim it, Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz type theology. But one prayer he will most certainly say yes to is the one for wisdom. God likes nothing more than when his children ask him for help.

Perhaps even more importantly, James tells us that God gives generously without finding fault. In your trials it’s not about proving yourself to God, proving that you trust him.

If you struggle, just ask. In one of the very first sermons I ever preached here I spoke to you about how one of the biggest barriers to inviting God into a situation is because we’re embarrassed. It’s not a God-size problem. We really ought to be able to handle this. Or we might think I really ought to be able to trust God with this. By now I really ought to face something like this knowing that I’m known by God, loved by God and always with God.

But you can’t. And James’ opening words might sound hard. But it’s not his intention. He says if you can’t do this, just ask God for help.

 

And you know what? God’s not thinking really? This? Again? You still can’t trust me? And now you come begging for help? You can’t be serious!

 God is not thinking anything like that. God wants to help you. It is not bad to seek help. We all at times have that lack. We all need help. Lacking wisdom but asking in faith is a perfectly acceptable place to be.

But James adds something which might trouble us. About doubting and not being helped.

To an extent doubt has always been part of the life of faith. If there was no doubt, we would be certain and not need faith. It is good to question. It’s how we learn and grow. I wrestle with stuff as much as anyone.

But here’s the thing about doubt. It might be a stepping stone on your journey. But it’s not the goal. It’s not the destination. Faith is where God wants to take you. Faith is where the action is. Faith is where we see what God can do.

God can handle your doubt… if you’re willing to listen.

And that’s what James is talking about here.

 

We tend to think of faith and doubt as intellectual type matters. What we believe or don’t believe. James doesn’t. In weeks to come we’ll see James is more interested in how you behave than what you claim to believe. What you do will show whether you have faith or not.

The same is true with doubt. Have you ever had someone come to you for advice, then they completely ignore what you tell them? They are going to do what they want to do, whatever anyone says.

That’s what James is talking about here. That’s the kind of doubt he’s talking about. Asking God for help, then ignoring him. God can seek to inspire you, help you, guide you… but your faith or doubt will be shown in what you do. Will you listen? The greatest advice and guidance in the world is pretty useless if it’s ignored.

 

But if we will listen, we make space for another voice, the voice of the Spirit to speak into our hearts and into our situations. Reminding us that we are not alone. We’re in the hands of a God who not only can bring us through whatever we face, but has the power to bring good even out of this.

God has shown us that in our founding story, which we celebrate at this table, as we break bread and drink wine and remember God’s love for us. God is speaking. All the time. But are we listening?

If we are, we’ll be reminded that yes, trials come.

But whatever we face, we need not despair.

We can face them knowing that we are known by God, loved by God and always with God.

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Posted in James

James: An Introduction

James Main Slife

From Sunday 4 November, I plan to preach through the book of James. With a short break for Christmas, this should take us into early 2019. The aim of this is to introduce the book, freeing me on Sundays to concentrate on its content in the preaching.

 

Much of our New Testament is made up of ‘epistles’ (letters). Most are named after the recipients of the letters. Some are churches, such as Ephesians or Galatians; others are individuals: Timothy, Titus, Philemon. With the exception of Hebrews, these are all attributed to Paul, an earlier follower of Jesus.

There are then a further 7, generally shorter, epistles sometimes called ‘general’ or ‘catholic’ epistles. These are named after the person who wrote them. James falls into this category.

 

It’s possible that James was amongst the first books of our New Testament to be written, yet it was one of the last books to be accepted into the Bible. This had nothing to do with the contents. It was more about identifying the James who wrote it.

 

Even as late as the 16th century Martin Luther compared it unfavourably with the writings of Paul, calling it ‘a strawy epistle’ with ‘no Gospel character to it!’ This was largely influenced by a seeming contradiction between James and Paul’s letter to Romans. For example, compare Romans 3: 28 with James 2: 17, or Romans 4: 2-3 with James 2: 21-23. We’ll talk more about that when we reach that part of the letter.

 

But there are other things that are slightly different about James. He makes no reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact he only mentions Jesus twice, and that in passing.

 

Yet compared with Paul’s letters, James contains more material that can be traced back to Jesus himself. There are up to 23 references to The Sermon on the Mount. Compare James 2: 12-13 with  Matt 6:14-15; James 3:11-13 with Matt 7:16-20; James 5: 12 with Matt 5:37.

 

James is more interested in how we live than what we believe.

He challenges us about what real religion looks like.

Who was James?

The short answer is we’re not sure. James was a common name and there are a few people called James in the New Testament.

The most famous is James, son of Zebedee. With Peter and John he seems to be part of Jesus’ ’inner circle of disciples. However, this James was martyred quite early in the story of the church; probably too soon for the letter to have been written.

There is also a James, a father of a disciple called Judas and a another disciple James, son of Alphaeus, who might also be the disciple called ‘little James’ elsewhere in the Gospel narratives. However, we know nothing about them, and it is highly unlikely they were the James who wrote this book.

 

Then there’s James, the brother of Jesus. The Gospels tell us that Jesus had brothers called James, Joses, Simon and Judas. They also mention unnamed sisters. They did not believe in Jesus during his ministry. Yet they are with the disciples at the start of Acts, before Pentecost. In Corinthians 15, Paul lists those to whom the Risen Christ appeared. James was one of the first.

He then rose to prominence in the Jerusalem church. When Peter escapes from prison in Acts 12, he is keen to get word to ‘James and the brethren.’ When Paul visits Jerusalem, it is James he goes to. He also played a decisive role at the Council of Jerusalem (AD50) in Acts 15, when Gentiles are admitted to the church, without first having to become Jews.

This last reference is quite important, as, following the Council, James issues a letter to the churches, stating their decision. It contains a greeting and some other phrases which occur in James’ letter and nowhere else in the New Testament.

Some question whether, if it was this James who wrote the book named after him, would he not have mentioned that he his relationship to Jesus? Perhaps he saw that as irrelevant.

Some ask whether a simple Galilean would have been capable of the quality of the Greek found in the letter. But we can overstate how simple life was in Galilee. Greek was widely spoken there. As a key figure in the Jerusalem church James would have met believers from around their known world. It’s hardly unbelievable that he would have had a decent grasp of the most widely used language of the time.

If it is not this James, we would need to find another one, so widely known within the first century church that he could just use his name and expect people to know who he was.

When was it Written?

If it was this James it does leave a puzzle as to when it was written. It makes no mention of the issues which were important around the time of the Council of Jerusalem. So this could mean it was quite early (so the Council has not taken place) or quite late (it was so long gone that it was not considered worth mentioning).

A few features suggest to me it was early. He’s not that bothered about church structures. At one stage he even calls the assembly a synagogue. If it is early it is amongst the first bits of our New Testament to be written.

 

There is another possibility.

The letter reads more like a sermon. It’s possible that someone, whom we do not know, took a block of James’ teaching, and wrote it down to preserve from the church, adding James’ name to the top, to show where they got it and why it was important.

If that was the case we should be grateful for it is a great little letter.  It is far from an epistle of straw. It is full of challenging wisdom, calls us to Christian character and deserves far greater attention than it is often given.

May we hear its challenge, but not just hear it.

May we live it.

Grace and Peace.

Andrew

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3:16 – This is the Life

InevitableGoal

Readings: 1 John 1: 1-4John 1: 1-5; John 20: 30-31

‘You’ve tried the rest, now try the best.’

That’s the message behind most advertising. For example a few years back, Marks and Spencer had those ads with a sultry voiceover from Dervla Kirwan, breathlessly aAnd seductively telling you that that this is not just chicken, this is M&S chicken. The message is ‘you might think you’ve experienced roast chicken, but that’s only because you haven’t tried this.’ If you had this, well, you’d never go back.

Sometimes companies are not just comparing themselves with rivals. Sometimes they even compare their current products with what they’ve sold you in the past. How many times have toothpastes, washing powders and floor cleaners declared themselves to be new and improved? Some cleaners that have been around for my whole life have improved themselves so often throughout that time that I wonder if they were doing anything when I was a kid. How much whiter can whites get?

Some improvements are the result of technological development. But not all. Sometimes it’s just making better use of what is there.

When I worked in local government I was in charge of the reporting for my department. They had a couple of big databases and putting lots of information into them, but the amount of information they were getting out was minimal. They had just created my job and when I started they really weren’t expecting very much. But using a bit of my own experience, and a few other tricks I picked up from other people, I showed them there was a whole lot more they could learn about what was happening. I hadn’t done anything new or particularly special. They just didn’t know what they could do with what they already had, cos no-one had shown them.

 

That kind of thinking is behind what John says in these opening words of his letter. He effectively says ‘you think you know what life is? Well, so did we. Then we experienced something which totally shifted our perspective. It showed us what was possible and blew our minds.’

What changed it was meeting Jesus.

John’s letters were amongst the last bits of our New Testament to be written. John lived to a ripe old age, certainly for his era. Longer than the other disciples. His writings are the product of a long life spent reflecting on Jesus and his relationship with him. He had spent perhaps 3 years following Jesus around, witnessing the events we read about in our Gospels.

 

Now if you had that kind of experience I’m not sure what would stick with you most?

We might say ‘he told the greatest stories and said the most amazing things.’

Others might point to the crowds he fed with just a few fish and loaves. How he walked on water, made the blind see, healed lepers with a touch. He raised at least 3 dead people.

And I’m sure all those things did leave an impression on John.

Yet for all the reflection on Jesus, none of those were what really blew John’s mind. John looks beyond all that to get what it was really all about. You get the same sense from his Gospel and his letters.

 

His Gospel he begins by telling us that ‘in him was LIFE, and that LIFE was the light of all people.’

His letter begins by slowly building layer upon layer…

That which was from the beginning…

which we have heard…

which we have seen with our eyes…

which we have gazed at…

which our hands have touched…

this we proclaim about the word of LIFE!

Towards the end of his Gospel he explains why he wrote his ‘life story’ of Jesus. These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have LIFE in his name.’

 

Some years later, towards the end of the first letter bearing his name, as John’s faith community splits and those who cling to his teaching start to feel demoralised and question themselves, he says ‘I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal LIFE.’

Notice a trend?

For John, the central point about Jesus, the thing Jesus gives us is LIFE.

For John, the whole thing is about LIFE!

So, as we end our time in John 3:16, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised when we get the whole point of God sending Jesus, what he planned to achieve.

 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, BUT HAVE ETERNAL LIFE.’

Thing is, we hear words like ‘eternal life’ and we can miss the point. Many of us were raised on the King James Bible. When we first heard John 3:16 the words at the end were ‘everlasting life.’ So we equate eternal with everlasting. We think of eternal life is life that goes on forever.

Yet if all we mean by that is that it goes on forever, that might not be good news. Existence going on forever is not necessarily good. It could, just as easily, mean suffering without end.

Or we hear words like ‘eternal life’ and we think heaven. Something we get when we die. We have this sequential idea of life, then death, then eternal life.

Thing is that’s not how Jesus, John, or any part of the Bible understand it. John is not telling us this eternal life is something we’ve been promised, that we’ll get one day in the future. When John tells his readers that they can know that they have eternal life, he speaks of them having it now.

John is saying ‘you think you’ve experienced this thing called life. So did we. Then Jesus came and that changed everything. It wasn’t easy but once we experienced it, none of us wanted to go back.’

 

Let me draw your attention to the first few words of verse 2. Our church Bible’s have John saying that ‘When that life became visible’ Some translations say this life ‘appeared’. Others say ‘The life was revealed.’

So what? Well it’s the difference between the toothpaste or washing powder that cleans whiter because of technological advance, and my showing the council what the equipment they already had could do.

The sense of the word ‘revealed’ is of somebody uncovering something that was already possible.

I didn’t add anything to our computer system. They just didn’t know what was possible until someone came along and showed them.

 

John says something similar about what happened when Jesus came amongst us. Jesus called on people to repent, to leave behind their old way of life and embrace a different one. But he didn’t just tell them. He lived it out.

John says they watched Jesus life thought ‘I didn’t know this was possible. I didn’t know life could be like that.’

Now at this point you could be forgiven for thinking, but, Andrew, that is Jesus you were talking about.  He was God.  And, well, I’m not.

 

But if you read the Gospels look at how Jesus reacted. He didn’t say something like ‘well, there’s something you should bear in mind… I’m God, so whilst I can do this, you can’t.’

Quite the opposite. He calls people to follow him: to imitate him, to learn from him, to live as he does. That’s what disciples did. They watched their master at work, then went out to repeat what he did. Jesus then sent them out to do the same for others, who in turn are sent out to keep the chain going.

It wouldn’t make sense for Jesus to ask people to follow him, to imitate him, to live as he lived, if the only reason he could do it was because he was God. That would be setting them an impossible task.

In fact Jesus said they would do even greater things than he had done.

After a life time’s reflection on his Lord, the most important thing John found in Jesus was that a different kind of life was possible. And John was not just saying that he and the other followers of Jesus had experienced that kind of life, but that we can too.

And that’s because what Jesus revealed wasn’t something completely new. He revealed something that was already true about us.

This kind of life was already possible.

A central plank of the whole story of the Bible is of God reaching out to us, offering us this life, but of that offer being rejected. The main reason it’s rejected is that we don’t realise we need it. We think we already have it.

In English, the problem is made worse by the fact that we have one word to describe life, whereas the Greek had two.

One word was psyche. The other was zoe.

What’s the difference?

Psyche is what we normally call life. It’s all the stuff that happens to us. Our relationships, finances, achievements, failures. It begins when we’re born, and it dies with us. It can be given up, or taken from us. It’s rooted in and affected by our circumstances. The psyche is a life which begins and ends. But it has one main feature. It’s constantly changing.

However those things are not actually who you are. That’s the zoe life. The difference is probably best explained by an example.

If the psyche is like the clouds, or the weather going on all around us, the zoe is the sky which is always there – the backdrop on which all those weather patterns take place. It might look different to us, but the sky isn’t actually changed by the clouds.

There’s something else that’s important about zoe. The source of psyche is the events which go on around us. Sometimes within our control, sometimes not. The source of zoe is God alone.

Zoe is the life that God has given you. It belongs to God but he shares it with us. We can ignore it, but no-one can wrest it from us.

Zoe is the life, or person God created you to be. It’s that part of us that’s able to relate to God. It’s that part of us into which God speaks and assure us that we’re loved, that we’re his children, and whatever the psyche type of life throws at us, God can keep us safe and bring us through.

We can see the confusion that can cause when we look at one verse. John 12:25. Jesus says those who love their life will lose it, whilst those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

 Those who love their psyche will lose it, whilst those who hate their psyche in this world will keep it for eternal zoe.’

Now we must be careful how we interpret that. For one thing it would be hard to see why it could ever be good news to keep something you ‘hate’ as we would use the word.

What’s more one thing that comes across in all the Gospels is that Jesus hardly hates this life. If anything his enemies accuse him to enjoying it too much. Faced with crucifixion, Jesus didn’t want to die. We see him longing to be spared in Gethsemane.

It’s not a case of we have psyche now, then when we die we get zoe. Both are going on all the time. It’s just most of the time we’re only paying attention to the psyche.

 

But Jesus warns about the seductiveness of basing your life around, or seeking your meaning from the psyche, or your circumstances, rather than attending to who you really are, who God intended you to be. If you do that you’re setting yourself up for a fall. Not because the psyche is bad as such, it’s just you’re expecting it to do something for which it was not intended. It’s the nature of the psyche to be constantly shifting. It is not a solid base around which to build your life.

Whereas zoe is constant, unchanging, like a rock that holds fast when the rain, wind and storms of the psyche batter us.

When John speaks of this zoe kind of life, it’s not something that Jesus came to plant within us.

It’s already there.

It’s part of being created in God’s image. God wants us to waken up and notice it. The Bible story is God trying to waken us up to the zoe, whilst we spend our lives focussing on the psyche.

It’s there right at the very start of the Bible. Genesis opens with humanity made in the image of God, created to relate to God, in a relationship of trust in God’s care and goodness. In Genesis 2:7 we read God formed man from the dust of the ground, breathed into his nostrils the breath of zoe. He places him in the garden to care for it and says ‘you’re free to eat from any tree in the garden but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will certainly die.’

Then the serpent comes along and says ‘are you really going to trust him? Might he not be keeping something from you?’

So they eat of that tree. The first thing that happens is that they realise they’re don’t drop on the spot.

They reckon God got it wrong. He said we’d die and we’re still here. We cheated death.

But something has changed in them. The second thing is they become distracted by the psyche. We don’t have any clothes here.

They think they’re alive, but from God’s perspective all they’ve got is existence. We need God for the zoe kind of life. But they’ve cut themselves off from the source.

Over the few weeks we’ve looked at some Old Testament passages. Moses speaks to the Israelites and says, See I set before you life and prosperity, death and destruction. Now choose life so that you and your children may live. And he tells them that the LORD is their life. Life is to be found in living in relationship to him.

Last week saw God saying through Ezekiel ‘why are you choosing death rather than life? He calls on them to turn to him and live.

The story continues down to our own generation. God offering us life, we think it’s alright God, we’ve already got that.

We hear words like ‘eternal life’ and our minds are drawn to the word eternal, rather than the word life.  We read of Jesus offering ‘abundant life’ and focus on the word abundant because we think we already have the life bit sussed. But we focus on the psyche, when God is offering us the zoe.

Whereas, John says, Jesus came and revealed to us that a whole new kind of life was possible. Often we focus on Jesus as being fully God and all that he did for us that we couldn’t do for ourselves. That’s vitally important. It was to John.

But just as important for John was to emphasise that Jesus was fully human. Jesus doesn’t just reveal to us what God is like.

He reveals to us who we are, what God made us to be.

What’s vital for John is that Jesus is flesh and blood, just as we are. He could be heard, seen, touched.

John highlights that Jesus didn’t just become human, he became flesh. The word Flesh in the New Testament highlights the frailty and vulnerability that comes with being human.

John tells us of Jesus being tired out by a journey.

He tells us of Jesus getting thirsty.

He tells us of Jesus weeping.

Yes John highlights that Jesus is fully God. But he’s also fully human. He’s not Superman.

Time and again, throughout this series I’ve kept going back to the idea that if you want to know what God is like, we need to look at Jesus.

But now as we touch it down I want to tell you Jesus does more than this. Jesus reveals to us who we really are. If we seek to understand the life God intended for us, look no further than Jesus. He was fully awake to the zoe.

In him we see a life that wasn’t rooted in the psyche.

 

His sense of value or meaning wasn’t dependent on finance. He was born to a poor family, he lived on the road and when it came time to pay his taxes he sent Peter fishing.

 

It wasn’t based on always having healthy relationships. His own family thought he was nuts, his friends deserted him, one handed him over to people who would kill him and those who should have recognised him wanted him dead.

 

His security wasn’t dependent on avoiding pain. Jesus’ body was broken and his blood shed in excruciating pain.

He didn’t rely on freedom from anxiety. On the night of his arrest Jesus was so stressed by what lay ahead of him that he sweat great drops of blood.

He wasn’t dependent on success. In the eyes of this world Jesus died alone. He was viewed as a tragic failure.

What Jesus revealed was that even in the frailty and vulnerability of being flesh, human, and even in the midst of all the psyche, or changing circumstances of life, real meaning and purpose was found in attending to the zoe.

Even in the midst of all that it was possible to be awake to the knowledge that we are held in the love of God, that nothing can separate us from that love.

What Jesus revealed was that in all he went through it was possible to know that God could be trusted.

God showed us that, not by shouting it from afar, but by embodying it in Jesus.

And God showed that he was worthy of that trust. That those who will allow him to waken them to the zoe and who will seek the meaning and purpose in their relationship to him will ultimately be vindicated. God could bring them through all things. He proved that in bringing Jesus through all things to resurrection.

After a lifetime spent in relationship with the risen Lord, John had seen that kind of life was possible not just for Jesus, but for us.  He had seen it in so many of the other disciples who had gone to their death for faith in Jesus. He had experienced it himself. And he says that we can know that kind of life too.

Like Jesus, however awake we are to the zoe, we still live with the psyche. The two go on together. We pass through difficulty, and often we don’t understand it.

We may pray for deliverance and as we do so may even find ourselves distracted by the psyche.

But there is something else going on, whether we realise it or not. When you are awake to the zoe, that is when we hear the voice of God whispering into us, telling us that we are loved and that whatever we face, the psyche life does not have the final word.

And the deeper we allow ourselves to be drawn into that awareness, the less we will want to shape ourselves around the psyche. For we’ll know it doesn’t have the final word.

Whatever we face, God is able to bring us through. It’s that awareness which can allow us, as John says at the end of his letter, pray with confidence, knowing that we are heard.

God loves us so much that he sent Jesus into the world, both to reveal to us what God is like – that he loves us, is pursuing us, and gives himself for us.

But he also came to show us what we are like. Or what we can be. Because God wants us to have life of the zoe variety, where we can live in a relationship of trust, just as he created us to live.

That was the life that Jesus revealed. The kind of life Jesus came to offer us. The kind of indestructible life that is possible for each one of us.

John was able to tell us so, because he had seen it in Jesus, he’d experienced it for himself

and he says that we too can have that kind of life.

The kind of life that the more we experience it, the less we’ll want to be without it.

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3:16 – Perish the Thought

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Readings: Luke 13:1-9; II Peter 3: 8-15a

Occasionally, people send me lists of humorous mistakes, found in church notices. I’m really fond of them. It makes me worry slightly about our own noticesheet. But there have been some crackers, like these…

On 24 October, Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married in our church.

So ends a friendship that began in their schooldays.

 

The senior choir is currently seeking new members.

Anyone who enjoys sinning is welcome to come and join in.

Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house.

Don’t forget your husbands.

This morning’s sermon: Jesus Walks on Water.

This evening’s sermon: Searching for Jesus.

Whilst the pastor is on vacation, massages can be given to the church secretary.

Remember in prayer the many who are sick of our church and community.

Smile at someone who is hard to love. (It’s make you paranoid is someone smiled at you).

But it goes on… Say “hell” to someone who doesn’t care much about you.

On a similar note…A songfest was hell at the Methodist church on Wednesday.

At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be “What is Hell?” Come early and listen to our choir practice.

Maybe there’s something Freudian about ‘hell’ continually cropping up unexpectedly in church noticesheets. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not a topic talked about much in church these days. Certainly not in the way, say 18th Century evangelists like Jonathan Edwards would talk about sinners in the hands of an angry God, ‘dangling over the pits of hell.’ Recently there was coverage in the media about the Pope denying the existence of hell, though what he was really suggesting was close to the official teaching of the Anglican communion for about 20 years.

Those who were here last week might remember I mentioned that this morning’s sermon would major on the subject of Hell. Well done if you do, and still came. If you missed last week, that’ll teach ya!

 

A few years ago, I had a visitor from Ireland, who after hearing me preach asked me ‘Andrew, how often do you tell them that unless they turn to Christ they’ll spend eternity in hell?’

Hell is not something I talk about much. I’ve been here nearly five years and, I think, it’s the first time I’ve, to any extent, majored on it.

It’s not that I avoid nasty bits in the Bible. I’ve not preached much on heaven either. I’ve preached quite frequently on judgment. But I guess my background was very much ‘hellfire and brimstone.’ I may overcompensate for that. Also, when people discover I’m a minister and Irish they often conclude I’m either a Catholic priest, or Ian Paisley. But there some words just sound so much more threatening in an Irish accent. And bad as it is, hell is one of those words.

But there’s another reason. Sometimes when discussions centre on heaven and hell, it makes faith seem about somewhere else, sometime else. It disconnects it from the here and now.

Don’t mistake me. It’s not that I think these things are unimportant. Quite the opposite.

It’s just that I so long for people to know that God wants to have a relationship with you now.

God has given you life now.

I long for you to know that God wants to be at work in you now.

He wants you to share with him in his work of re-creation now.

He wants to be shaping you into the kind of person he made you to be now.

The kind of person who would enjoy being in his presence for eternity. Your current life is precious and God doesn’t want it wasted wishing we were somewhere else.

Just as we say ‘take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves,’ so I believe if we embrace the kind of life Jesus offers to us now, then the next life will take care of itself.

If the kind of life I’ve just described isn’t what you want to shape your life around now, I’m not sure how anything the Bible describes as heaven can be in any sense heavenly for you.

 

Something worth bearing in mind is that we know a lot less about the next life than we might think, What we have in scripture is often ambiguous, using lots of symbolic language. As I said last week, you may find yourself disagreeing with me, but this is where I’ve got to in my thinking. It’s not the definitive word – even for me. It is worth being humble and not claiming certainty where we have none. The only thing I know for certain is that God is just. And however it all works out, God will deal with us justly.

Why am I even talking about this at all? Well, over the summer we’ve been unpacking the Christian message through the words of John 3:16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life. Today we have come to the words ‘shall not perish.’

This was the one of the first verses I learned as a child. In King James’ English. I could recite it long before I knew the meaning of words like begotten, eternal… and perish. When it was explained to me, I was told that if I asked Jesus into my heart (that’s believing in him), I wouldn’t go to hell (the perish bit) but would go to heaven (the eternal life bit).

But throughout this series I’ve tried to focus on how Jesus wasn’t just talking about life after death. He was just as interested in the here and now. Today as we unpack those words ‘shall not perish’ I’ve selected two passages which show that ‘perish’ and ‘go to hell’ are not mere equivalents, although they are linked.

Hell’s not as unpopular as you might think. We’re more prone to ideas of who’s in and who’s out than we like to admit. Last week I spoke of the popular wisdom of ‘all roads led to God.’ That kind of thinking appears to have limits. It’s not uncommon, even in our ‘secular’ age, when someone like the Moors murderers, Sadaam Hussain, or Osama Bin Laden dies, to see headlines like ‘Rot in Hell.’

 

The word ‘hell’ it probably conjures up all sorts of images. Most have more to do with Dante’s Inferno than Jesus of Nazareth. Science may have taken us past the 3-tier heaven, earth, hell, topography. But we probably still have a certain understanding how it works. It came up in the question by the King Alfred’s pupil I’ve mentioned a couple of times. How can a good, loving God send people to hell simply for not believing certain things about Jesus? Actually when they first asked the question the phrase they used was ‘why would God punish people.’

The words ‘hell’ and ‘punishment’ seem to fit together. It’s like the message out there is that God is loving and kind, full of grace and mercy… unless you don’t turn to him. Then he punishes you forever.

That says more about us than God. When someone wrongs us, part of us that likes to see them get their comeuppance. If someone cuts you up on the motorway, then later you see them being booked by the police for speeding, do you not feel even a hint of pleasure?

More seriously, when we encounter something quite horrible, we can, quite rightly, be indignant about it. We want justice, which turns into wanting to see that person punished, and we can take pleasure in knowing that’s happening.

We project that image onto God. God’s ticked off at people for rejecting him, so he makes them suffer. That’s how we get ‘God punishing people for not believing certain things about Jesus.’

It’s important if we discuss hell to get the backdrop right. If we don’t start in the right place we’ll wind up with skewed notions about God.

God is bigger than that. If God wanted to zap us he wouldn’t have to wait until we’re dead to do it. In our reading from 2 Peter, we saw that God is patient with us, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. That’s not just New Testament, peace and love man, Jesus. In the Old Testament, in Ezekiel we find God asking the people why they are choosing death rather than life; why perish rather than live, before saying ‘I take no pleasure in the death of anyone’, declares the Sovereign Lord. ‘Repent and Live.’

 

The starting point for understanding hell is that God is not waiting to destroy us.

God is for us.

We’ve spent the summer in John 3:16. The next verse, John 3:17 reads ‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.’

Nothing pleases God more than when we turn from paths that are taking us towards our own destruction, either in this life, or in the next.

God is not dying to send us to hell.

Jesus died to rescue us from it.

A couple of other things which might surprise and/or disturb us. The Old Testament doesn’t really deal in heaven and hell much, not as we would understand it.

In the New Testament the word Hell is found almost exclusively on the lips of one person: Jesus.

More disturbing is how he uses it. We tend to connect the idea of hell with those who are obviously far from God or have never heard of Jesus. Jesus, by contrast, exclusively uses the expression to warn people like me, and maybe people like you. People who know what’s true and right, but presume on God’s love, or play games, ask questions like ‘ah, but what about…’ Those who deflect the argument or avoiding examining ourselves. The warning in 2 Peter was given, not primarily to people opposed to God, but to those who claimed to be his followers.

Sometimes people from outside the church, when they find out what I do, ask me if I believe in hell.

Personally I believe in Jesus, but I accept Hell is a reality.

And I believe it’s possible people will choose it.

But I don’t just root that in the future or next life. I root it in the here and now.

I want to show you what I mean by hell, and why it can be so easy to choose it.

 

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we speak of heaven as a place where God’s will is done. We say ‘thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’

We might then think of Hell as the opposite of that, as where God’s will is not done.

If that’s the case, if hell is where God’s will is not done, how often people choose hell here and now.

 

Pastorally there are times, mercifully not as frequent as they might be, when people tell me stuff that’s been done to them, and really no words could make any difference. You just want to weep. Their life is a hell, and someone has made it so.

Tragically, in a different way, there are times when people set off on, or cling to destructive patterns of behaviour. They cause all manner of hurt, not just to those around them but to themselves.

They reject God’s will in that part of their life.

They choose hell, here and now.

Choices we make have consequences. If we set off on a destructive trajectory and keep on that road we can wind up bringing destruction down on ourselves. Often we think we can handle it, but when it arrives, it comes crashing down.  It’s sudden, like a thief. And tragically it’s possible to go so far down that road they reach the point where they don’t even want to be different. We’d rather cling to what we’ve got, however much it fails us.

Those examples are big, often obvious. We can say, well, what did they expect? Or they brought it on themselves. But whilst we’d probably not quite see it like this, we can feel superior, and think that’d never happen to us; we’d never do that.

That’s what we get in the Luke passage. It’s one of very few times we see Jesus make direct reference to current affairs of his day. We don’t have a huge amount of information on the incidents about which Jesus spoke. But the first one rings true about Pilate. Pilate was known for unfeeling brutality, even sadism. He disappears from history a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when he is recalled to Rome for excessive force in putting down a revolt in Samaria.

There is one incident from Pilate’s time which we know about from outside the Bible, offers a reasonable possibility for what Jesus is talking about. Pilate decided to build a new water supply Jerusalem. But he chose to finance it by confiscating money from the Temple. Siloam, the site of the tower which fell, was the site of an aqueduct.

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

The first group brought it on themselves, because when they rebelled, what did they expect?

The latter group may have been caught in a sheer accident, but if they hadn’t collaborated they wouldn’t have been there. They got what they deserved.

Note Jesus says they were not any worse than anyone else,

nor does he say they are better.

All Jesus does is warn us that rather than tutting about someone else, we need to consider the state of our own hearts.

 

When we are tempted to think we are better than someone else, that we would never do what they did, we can lose sight of the destructive choices we make, those areas of our own lives to which God is given no access, those parts of us where God’s will is not done. Those areas of us where faced with the choice of heaven and hell in the here and now, we choose hell.

By all means consider how others bring destruction on themselves.

But only as a warning to yourself.

This choice of hell, rather than heaven, can happen not just at individual level, but at societal and global level.

The story where Jesus most graphically speaks of heaven and hell is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. If you have never heard it, it’s in Luke 16. The Rich Man seems to find acceptable a world where he lives in luxury every day, whilst a poor man, covered in sores which dogs lick, sits at his gate day by day, longing for even the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table.

At one level that’s a story about the sin of one individual, but individual sin can lead to very real suffering at a much larger level.

If enough rich men, treat enough Lazaruses outside their gates in this way, you wind up with a massive social/global problem.

We might not be the ones suffering, but we’re choosing a world which can’t possibly be the way God intended it to be.

We’re rejecting heaven.

And when we do that, we’re choosing hell,

not just in the next life.

But here and now.

I’d be dubious of taking anything of literal detail from a parable there is one part of the story which helps bridge the gap between this life and the next, or that allows me to root the idea of hell in the choices we make in this life.

When the rich man’s in hell, we get a glimpse of why he thought it reasonable to live in luxury and ignore Lazarus. From hell the rich man asks Abraham to get Lazarus to bring him water. Even in their respective positions, he still clings to his view of how the world should work. He still sees himself as above Lazarus. He still wants Lazarus to serve him.

Even in death, the rich man is still choosing Hell.

It’s a frightening thing that love, grace, even basic humanity can be rejected. As Rob Bell writes ‘From the most subtle rolling of the eyes, to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please.’ That’s how free will is. As I mentioned last week when we spoke of Jesus as the only way, we have our choices, but our choices have consequences. God takes our choices seriously.

That’s why I accept the reality that hell exists. It’s not that God wants to make us suffer for rejecting him.

Hell is not a statement that God does not love us, but that he won’t force us to love him.

Love can’t be forced, and although I so long to be wrong, experience tells us that it’s possible not to embrace that love.

Ultimately God will give us what we want and if, when all is laid bare, it is revealed that what we want is hell, so be it.

Speaking to the church at Laodicea, the Risen Christ says ‘listen, I stand at the door knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and have fellowship with you.’ He’s God. There’s not a door he couldn’t blast down, but he won’t force it. We have the choice whether to welcome him or not.

God is patient and has no desire that we perish.

But perishing may be the option that some choose.

God holds out life and love to us, but what is he to do if we don’t want it?

 

But ultimately there’s one final reason why I do accept that hell is a reality.

We live in a good world that God has given us. But we live in a world corrupted by evil. We don’t always appreciate it. Mercifully most of the time we are shielded from it. But there are things in our world which would make us sick to our stomach if we saw it.

But God sees it.

All of it.

All the time.

I don’t know why God allows it, why he doesn’t stop it, except that Jesus gave his life for even the worst offender and God longs for even them to come to repentance.

But I also believe there will be a day when God says ‘enough.’

No more will children suffer abuse.

No more will people be transported for the purposes of sex slavery.

No more will a woman have to cower at the sound of the slamming of the door as he comes home drunk and abusive.

No more will people hijack planes trains and automobiles and take thousands to their death.

No more will someone kidnap a child, force a gun in his hand and torture him until he goes to war.

Enough.

No more.

If you ask me why a loving God would allow hell to exist, it’s because a loving God won’t allow evil to reign forever, but it’s possible not everyone will embrace the alternative. Some may rather cling to what they’ve built their life around. And if that’s abuse, violence and evil, you’ll be clinging to things for which God will has no place in the shaping of eternity.

And sadly experience holds out the possibility that some may quite simply not want to let go.

 

But if you’re here today, and worry in case that might apply to you, the fact it bothers you is probably a sign that you’re not there. But if that is you, don’t harden your heart. I don’t say all I’ve said to depress you, for Hell doesn’t have to have the final say for anyone.

God is patient, not out to destroy anyone.

Like the tree in the parable in the Luke reading, your past doesn’t have to have the final say in your future.

God longs for you to reach out and take the life he offers today.

To shape you to be what he made you to be.

To offer you a new heart and a fresh start.

Reach out and grab that relationship today.

At risk of sounding like those bits at the end of the Soaps, if you are affected by anything I’ve said today, don’t leave without talking about it with me.

I recognise that today is not the happy, happy stuff we probably all like to hear. Maybe my Irish friend was right, maybe I should talk about this more.  But there’s another reason I don’t talk about hell much

Because I hate it so much. Perhaps today with all the hell talk I risk you going away thinking I’ve gone all fundamentalist or a fool. I’d rather that, than not try to speak truth. I hope today I’ve done that in love.

That’s why I pitch up here Sunday by Sunday. I don’t do it hoping you think I’m smart, funny, entertaining, good with words. I do it because I long for you to know Jesus here and now. I long for you to choose the life he offers now. I do it because someone did that for me, and in turn I want to pass that on to others. So that you too won’t let Hell have the last word. That you might choose that life which Jesus died to give, here and now. For that kind of life is the kind that can sustain you not just here and now but beyond death and into eternity.

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3:16: Way, Truth, Life

07.31-One-Way

Reading: John 14: 1-7

When I served as minister-in-training , I got to know the Sikh family who ran our village shop quite well. We talked a lot about faith, particularly around major festivals, when we would talk about what we were celebrating and why it was important.

One day the conversation grew more tense than usual. I can’t remember the context, but the woman in the shop remarked about how, at the end of the day all religions were basically the same. We all worshipped the same God. It was said in such a way as it was assumed I agreed.

It must have come across in my face or something, because before I’d said a single word she was very much ‘what? You don’t believe that?’

I said ‘I’m sorry. I can’t even say for sure that all the people in my church worship the same god. And there’s not very many of us.  I can’t speak for the whole world.’

There are a few topics which, when they come up in conversations, are virtually certain to cause a few awkward moments. Today and next Sunday I plan to consider two of them.

They both used to come up in the Q&A sections of the RE classes I talked about taking a few weeks the subjects for this week. Often combined in one question about how a good, loving God could send people to hell, simply because they did not believe certain things about Jesus.

That question, or variations on it, is amongst the most common things people ask about Christianity or Christians. Sometimes I wonder if people are using it to suss me out, rather than my faith, but I do get asked it reasonably often.

It touches on two related, yet quite different topics.

One is about the uniqueness of Jesus. It’s like the question my Sikh shopkeeper friend was asking. Are all faiths not basically the same?

Yet since the earliest days of the church Jesus’ followers have believed he is unique. That God has acted in a special way through Jesus to save the whole world. We thought about this in one of the earlier sermons in the series. Jesus is God’s one and only Son.

One of the earliest Christian sermons ripped off Roman propoganda to claim ‘salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.’

The other topic was quite explicitly stated in the question. It’s the subject of hell.

At risk of reducing next week’s congregation to almost zero, the idea of Hell is part of next week’s sermon. It won’t be entirely about it, but it will be part of it.

 

Today we are touching on the ‘believing certain things about Jesus’ bit. Before harvest and my holiday we were unpacking something of the Christian story based on the words of John 3:16. 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. Today we are focussing on just two words.

In him.

 

Before we dive into these questions, let me just say this. On the topics we’re discussing over the next couple of weeks, I have no great need to be right. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to find, when all is revealed, I was completely wrong on both.

And you may disagree with me. I suspect pretty much everyone will at some point. I can live with that. But this is where I’ve got to, by wrestling with these ideas and the scriptures.

 

But whatever your view, Christians should be very careful how we speak of Jesus as the only way. I’ve heard people speak of Jesus as ‘the only way’ in quite aggressive, not particularly gracious tones. If I go down that road this morning, tell me because it won’t do anyone any good.

Sometimes this winds up being expressed in bolshy, defensive tones. And whether we realise it or not, whether intentional or not, the impression it gives is that Christians are amongst the least caring people on the planet. And much the same is said of their God.

Behind both of these topics, is one basic question. I’ve said before the most fundamental religious question is not does God exist, but does God care? This morning I want to add a little bit onto that. When people ask these kinds of question what they are wondering is does God care more than us?

I sometimes think the language of ‘religion’ gets in the way. Jesus said nothing about signing up for a religion. There is no real evidence that Jesus wanted to start one. He talked about believing in him, coming to the father through him—not a religion or a church.

But even if we overlook that, consider this.

There are around 7 billion people alive today.

Christianity is the biggest world religion. Around 2.4 billion people self-identify as Christians.

Even so, the majority (2/3) of the people in our world are those of other faiths (or none).

What are we saying about the other 4.8 billion?

Including those who were simply born in a place where they have never even heard of Jesus?

I’d love to say I believe in Jesus after weighing up the options. But no, mostly it’s cos I happened to be born into a Christian environment. Had I grown up in another faith, with a different worldview, chances are that is how I would have continued to develop.

Birth will play a large part in what I come to believe about God.

 

The person raising the question obviously cares about it, so should it not seem reasonable that God does? A God who doesn’t care about that, or doesn’t even care as much as us, wouldn’t be worthy of our worship or trust. If we turn out to be more caring about the world than God, surely it would make more sense for God to worship us, or aspire to be more like us?

But this question about the uniqueness of Jesus has been brought more sharply into focus in the last 60 or 70 years, with increased migration, mobility, tecnhnology. We live in a diverse borough. Some people here might remember a time when they only encountered anything about other faiths in documentaries, books, or when a missionary visited church. Today I imagine we all know at least one person of another faith.

It’s one thing to have beliefs about other faiths and their believers when they were over there. It’s different when they’re not across the sea, but across the street, across the fence, across the desk.

And surprise, surprise our encounters reveal they’re nice people. They are just like us. They have the same hopes, dreams, care about the same things.

In many ways I think in our information age we have too much information. We struggle to cope with it all. We can’t process it. We want someone to give it simply. These are the good guys, these are the bad ones. They’re right and they’re wrong.

But life doesn’t work like that. Believing in one faith doesn’t mean we have to consider everything about other faiths as bad and wrong, or that they have nothing to teach us.

But that doesn’t make them all the same.

These encounters force us to think about what it means to speak of Jesus saying he is the way, the truth and the life and that no-one comes to the Father except through him.

How arrogant is it to say he THE way, THE truth, THE life??

Would I like it if someone said that about Islam or Hinduism?

And sometimes, admittedly not always without reason, speaking of the uniqueness of Jesus can sound to come like you think your faith is superior, which quite easily becomes you think you’re superior.

Unfortunately in large parts of our world Christianity has become tied to ideas of ‘Western.’ Through colonialism, and modern politics that’s a view that the West has impressed on the world. Our way is best! People should aspire to be like us! Even if in the last few years we’ve given them no shortage of reasons to say ‘no thanks!’

I’ve good friendships with people of other faiths and our respect for each other is because we believe our own faiths to be true. We don’t just ignore differences. Hopefully we hold those differences respectfully.

 

But the conversation with the woman who ran my village shop is quite typical of how many people prefer to understand different faiths. Popular wisdom is that all religions are basically the same, all roads lead home, it’ll all work out in the end.

It’s like the story of the students who are blindfolded, then an elephant is brought into the room and they’re asked to describe it by sense of touch. The one who gets the tail thinks it’s a snake, the one who gets a leg thinks it’s a tree and so on.

Popular wisdom says that’s like us. We’re all groping around blindfolded, describing the same thing from different angles.  Only when the blindfold is removed we’ll see we were all talking about the same things.

In that environment for Jesus, or John, or the Christian church to make such an arrogant claim about Jesus is surely just the talk of extremists. And, well we know the problems religious extremism can cause?

You know, part of me wants that to be true. But the idea is flawed in a couple of ways. Firstly, and I will come to this in a moment, all faiths are not basically the same. We have a lot in common. But there are big differences.

But secondly, whilst it might give off this air of ‘enlightened tolerance’ it’s actually quite dishonouring to both the religions and to ourselves.

It’s like the game show ‘Deal Or No Deal.’ For those who never saw it, it was a show hosted by Noel Edmonds in which one person stands in the middle. They have a numbered box, and around the room are people with numbered boxes. On the underside of the lids of each box is written a different amount of money, ranging from 10p to, I think it’s £250,000. They open the boxes one by one and try to eliminate the lower amounts of money. They then have to guess whether to accept a deal offered by a banker, based on the remaining sums of money, or to take home the amount on the underside of their box lid.

The approach many people take to faith is as if whichever box you choose you’ll wind up with £250,000. The choices you make don’t really matter – they are just illusory.

That’s the popular wisdom about faith. Our choices don’t really matter. It’s all just an illusion. You can follow all these different paths, but when you get to the end you’ll find they’ve all really been the same road. Your choices didn’t matter.

It sounds quite attractive – but for reasons I’ll spend more time on next week, the attraction is quite deceptive.

There’s a reason it’s quite attractive. We quite like the idea of free will, being free to make choices and so on. We don’t like to think of ourselves as just puppets or robots; with everything mapped out so our choices are just an illusion.

It’s quite another thing when it comes to living with the consequences of those choices.

We want the freedom to eat whatever we want, but don’t want the obesity epidemic.

We want the freedom of buy now, pay later, but don’t want the inevitable credit crunch that comes with it.

We make choices without ever giving God a second thought, and sometimes make choices which we know full well are wrong, then blame it all on God when it all comes crashing down around us.

We want free will. But in a way we also want our choices to be illusory.

But God has a much higher view of humans than that.

We matter.

You matter.

The choices you make matter.

We find this in what Moses says to the people of Israel just before they enter the Promised Land. In Deut 30:11. ‘Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask ‘who will ascend into heaven to get it, or proclaim it to us, so that we might obey it. Nor is it beyond the sea so that you will ask who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us, so that we may obey it. No it is very near you; it is in your mouth and your heart so that you may obey it. See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. Now choose life so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life.

Had Moses lived 3500 years later he’d have said ‘it’s not rocket science! You don’t have to go to some ridiculous lengths to reach God to get God on your side. God’s saying ‘I’m right here – waiting to be discovered. I’m speaking into your heart, longing for you listen, to relate to me, to have the kind of life I created you to live, to become the kind of person I made you to be. God longs for you to have that kind of life….

But he won’t force it on you. We need to choose it.

The whole thing about ‘believing the right things about Jesus’ is misleading. God’s not waiting to zap you cos you chose B instead of C in a cosmic multiple choice exam. It’s just that he is the source of that life.  Say no to him and you’re turning your back on that source.

Something similar is going on when Jesus speaks of himself as the way, the truth, the life. When Christians make that claim about Jesus they are often accused of being exclusivist or arrogant. But I believe we miss some of what Jesus is saying simply because we’re reading it, not hearing it.

I use e-mail quite a bit. E-mail is a great means of communication – for raw facts, if you want to say something like ‘tonight’s meeting is at 7.30, at the manse.’ But you don’t have to go far beyond that for it to be problematic. When someone sends you a one word e-mail which says ‘fine.’ They could be saying fine (good tone) or fine (huffy tone).

How we hear it has more to do with us than them. Electronic communication is particularly prone to this, but it can occur when we read anything. Including Bible passages. Like this one.

Also when we read the Bible and I preach on it, it tends to be small chunks. We know from our own media how easily a couple of lines lifted out of a speech or interview can totally twist how we hear it. People will say that remark was taken out of context.

This passage is something we can easily do that with. Those words are part of a bigger conversation Jesus has has with the disciples. It begins in John 13:31 and doesn’t end until Jesus is arrested in John 18.

Like an e-mail we can hear it in one tone, when it was spoken in another. I think sometimes when we read these words ‘No-one comes to the father, except through me,’ what we hear is ‘choose me or you’re dead!’ Jesus becomes a cosmic bouncer, choosing who is in and who is out with God.

But when you read it in the context of the whole passage it sounds a lot different.

Before accusing Jesus of arrogance, remember what he did just before the started speaking.

He washed the disciples’ feet. A junior slave’s job.

As he finishes speaking, the chain of events which will lead to him surrendering his life for us will have been set in motion.

Arrogant? I don’t think so.

Also, Jesus is speaking to bunch of disciples whose hearts are, in his own words, troubled. This is the last night that Jesus will be with them before his death. Even after his resurrection their relationship with him will look quite different. They won’t have that daily human interaction with him. That should influence the tone in which we hear it.

Jesus talks about ‘going away.’ The disciples don’t get it. Peter wants to go with him, Thomas is bemused about where he’s going. But the whole conversation is about Jesus explaining why he is going away. Certain things cannot happen unless he does go away. He tells them that they should be glad he is going away. He claims that because he is going away, they will be able to do even greater things than he has done. If he doesn’t go away the Holy Spirit can’t come to them.

The tone is not ‘if you want to get to God you got to get past me first.’ It’s ‘I’m going away because if I don’t, nobody will be able to come to the Father. Jesus is saying that unless he goes through the arrest, trial, betrayal, denial, desertion, humiliation, cross, resurrection and ascension, no-one will have access to God.

Jesus isn’t the bouncer. He’s the door.

Jesus is not limiting access to God. He’s making it possible.

Jesus isn’t making a big extravagant claim. He’s stating a fact. No-one else is coming for you. No-one else will do this for you. When he says he’s the only way, he’s saying there’s no other God passionately pursuing you, giving everything so you can come to him.

That’s what sets Jesus apart. That’s why I couldn’t say to my friend that we’re all worshipping the one God. I want to know what God we’re talking out.

Is he coming for you, pursuing you in love?

Does this God love you enough to step into history, live amongst us and surrender his life in this kind of way?

Jesus isn’t saying choose me or you’ve had it – it’s choose me, cos no-one else is coming for you.

If Jesus doesn’t do it, no-one else will.

We might wish that not to be the case. Jesus wished that. That same night he sweat drops of blood as he prayed ‘surely there must be another way. If there is another way, let this pass.’ But it didn’t, There was no other way.

I’ll be honest. I don’t why there was no other way. But there wasn’t.

To suggest that there is any other way into a relationship with God is to suggest that God allowed Jesus to go through what he went through needlessly.

Whilst that might point to a God we should fear, it would certainly not point to a God worthy of worship and trust.

A couple of quick observations from the text, then I’m done. To suggest Jesus is being exclusivist when he calls himself the way, the truth, the life, is to miss what Jesus has already said.

My Father’s house has plenty of room.

The King James talks of many mansions. The Kingdom of God doesn’t have a housing crisis. There is plenty of space for anyone. There is space for you.

And we shouldn’t think of the ‘preparing a place for us’ as Jesus has spent 2000 years getting the heavenly guest rooms ready. It’s basically he is going away so that anyone can have access to the kind of relationship with his heavenly father that Jesus himself had. It’s not God and I are forming a nice little exclusive club for us and our mates. All that Jesus went through was to bring us into relationship with God.

Jesus reaffirms what we said a few weeks ago – everyone is welcome. God operates a whoever policy.

When you put these words of Jesus into the broad context of the whole conversation, they make a bit more sense. One of the main things Jesus says is that because he is going away, the Holy Spirit can come to us, and if we welcome him, he will dwell within us. This can help us understand what Jesus means by the way, the truth, the life.

If you ask someone directions, they could do two things (assuming they know the way). They could say ‘it’s second right, then first left, then left again.’

Or they could say ‘I’m going that way myself, I’ll take you there.’ If they do that they become the way we get to our destination.

That’s what Jesus does when he sends the Holy Spirit to us. That’s why he can call himself the Way.

The Spirit acts as our guide through all we face, reminding us of what Jesus has told us, so guiding us in truth, and can be at work within us, making us the kid of people God made us to be, leading us into the life God planned for us. Through the Holy Spirit within us, Jesus becomes our way, our truth, our life.

One thing I’ll drop in and try to fit in next week, is what Jesus doesn’t say. Jesus is not prescriptive of how we come to him. I’ve mentioned people who have never even heard of Jesus. That doesn’t mean they have never encountered him.

God does care more than us. I do believe there will be some big surprises when everything is revealed, as countless millions will come together with God, because of Jesus, even if they never recognised him.

But finally, Jesus blows apart the blindfolded students and the elephant theory, for in sending Jesus into the world, God removed the blindfold, and says here I am, this is what I am like. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. If your God is not like Jesus, it’s a good sign it’s not God.

And in Jesus we have a God who loves you, who pursues you in love, and am giving myself for you, to draw you into relationship with God’s self..

What sets him apart is that there is no other God coming for us.

And to choose him, is to choose life.

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3:16 – Harder to Believe than Not To

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Readings: Numbers 21: 4-9; 2 Kings 5: 1-14; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31

A number of years ago, Adrian Plass wrote a short story called A Letter to William. In it he tells of two guys who are attracted by a strange advert in a newspaper to go to an isolated croft in the North West of Scotland which claims to now be the ‘sole agents of salvation.’

On arrival they are greeted by a man called Bill, who tells them that they are still offering total forgiveness, eternal life, love, joy, peace and all the rest. But, following instructions from HQ, we no longer need all that church, prayer, Bible study and so on. Instead all you have to do is climb Snowdon three times a week.

One of the guys who has made the journey starts asking questions about things like work, family, travel, but their host, Bill, just says that most people don’t go through with it. Instead, he says, most try to come up with a compromise. He tells of one church which has built a 4ft model of Snowdon with steps and the entire congregation climbs up and down the model every Sunday before the sermon. It’s all very interesting he adds, but not really climbing Snowdon.

Others have established Snowdon discussion groups, where they consider the ‘real meaning of climbing. Still others come up with a Snowdon songbook, including classics like

  We’re marching to Snowdon

  Beautiful, Beautiful Snowdon

but, whilst it’s all very well to have songs to sing on the journey, there’s no point just talking or singing about it.

You have to do it.

As the two friends go to leave the croft, one despondently says ‘I don’t see what was wrong with the old way. The people in my church never did anyone any harm. Why do you have to make it all so much harder?

To which the response comes back…

You really don’t get it, do you? We haven’t made it harder. We’ve made it so much easier.

 

We’re continuing our time on the verse John 3: 16. For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

This verse has been described as the Gospel, or the Christian story in a nutshell. So we’ve been cracking open the nutshell and having a look at the contents.

We’ve talked about how this verse is not just about life somewhere else after we die, it’s about the life God has given us here and now. And last week we looked at how God offers this to everyone. That God operates a ‘whoever policy.’

But what does God ask of us if we want to receive that kind of life?

We get the answer in the next word in the verse.

Whoever believes.

 

But at risk of sounding like some of the people in the Adrian Plass story, what does this mean?

To some it might feel like a bit of an anti-climax. If God has done so much for us, if God has given his one and only Son, surely he must want something in return. We might want it to read ‘whoever can prove they’re worth that kind of sacrifice,’ or ‘whoever can pay back to God what they owe him.’

Whatever happened to God helps those who help themselves?

Last week, spoke to me, how it struck them that the message offered in these words seems too good to be true. Well, today’s message is probably not going to help with that.

Believe… it just seems to, well,  simple.

How can believing something possibly be more difficult than, say, climbing Snowdon 3 times a week?

Part of the problem I think is the way we use the word ‘believe.’ Beliefs have traditionally been very important in the Christian faith, especially in the last 500 years or so, since the reformation. If you look at church websites, you will see that many have statements of faith, or belief, sometimes quite detailed. I’m not sure if it is still the same, but the church in which I was raised certainly used to have a very detailed statement of beliefs to which a prospective member had to give their agreement.

In his book Finding Our Way Again, Brian McLaren mentioned a bookstore manager who was asked what the most popular non-fiction books he sold were. Number one was apparently ‘how to get rich’ type books. But after that came books on spirituality and especially Buddhism. When McLaren asked why books on Buddhism were more popular than books on Christianity he was told it was because Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, rather than a system of belief. People are no so much interested in the teachings, as ‘how can this affect my life?’

I was reminded of a Hindu who came to speak to us at Regents when I was studying to be a minister. During his session he took some questions and he commented how when he speaks to Christians they always ask him what he believes. Hindus he said are interested in a different question – what does it make you do?

When I was on Somerset I used to take the occasional RE lesson in our local comprehensive school. We would always have a question and answer session as part of the class. We called it Grill a Christian. Most of the time the questions would be very similar. Ad one of the regular questions was about whether a good God could punish people or send them to hell just because they did not believe certain things about him.

 

All those examples illustrate something of how we, in the West, understand the word believe. Most of us, if we grew up in the modern Western world tend to associate it believe with the brain. We intellectually agree with something.

We believe the word is round.

We believe in gravity.

But you can believe those things without really having to let it affect your way of living.

It’s like the old story of Charles Blondin, the tightrope walker who walked across Niagra Falls. Crowds watched as he did it. He did it blindfolded, on stilts, on a bicycle…  Then he reached for a wheelbarrow and asks ‘do you believe I could push someone across the Falls in this wheelbarrow?’ The crowd cheered their approval. Then he asked for a volunteer. Suddenly the number of ‘believers’ plummeted. I men, there’s believing and there’s believing.

Jesus does not ask us to agree with a set of statements, or recite a statement of faith whilst attached to a lie detector. Faith is not, as a child reportedly once said, believing things you know aren’t true.

Believing does not only mean accepting there is a God, that the world has meaning, or that God has a plan for the world. It involves having a confidence that God can and will fulfil his plans and promises, and trusting him to do it in his way, whether we understand it or not.

 

And letting that shape how you approach life.

The musician Steve Taylor spoke of this kind of believing in a song which concluded with the line

Don’t you know by now why the chosen are few?

It’s harder to believe than not to.

 But is it?

And, if so, why?

In 1 Corinthians, Paul brings together two parts of what Jesus calls us to believe and allow to affect our lives. One is to do with Jesus and what he achieved.

The other has a very human dimension. It speaks of God involving them (and us) in his plans.

Paul does not deny that these things are far from obvious. He tells them to many, in his day, and in ours, it seems sheer foolishness.

One reason why it can seem so foolish is that it involves accepting something, even when our understanding of what God has done for us in Jesus is, at best, partial.

Jesus himself suggests this when he was talking to Nicodemus in the conversation from which John 3:16 comes. He said that just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man, that’s Jesus, be lifted up, so that whoever believes in him may have eternal life from him.

We’ve mentioned this story a few times over the last few weeks, and this morning we read it together. In the passage from Numbers the Israelites have escaped from Egypt, and are crossing the wilderness on their journey to the Promised Land.

But the wilderness could be a dangerous place. And, in this story, they find themselves under attack from venomous snakes. Many of them are dying. They ask Moses to call on God to get rid of the snakes.

Not an unreasonable request. But that’s not what happens. There is no mention in the story that the snakes disappear.

Instead God gets Moses to make a bronze snake, raise it on a pole. If someone is bitten they are to look at the snake on the pole. We are told that those who did lived. We’re not told why looking at the pole saved them, it just did.

Earlier this morning we looked at another similar odd story. There was a guy called Naaman, who did not even believe in Israel’s God, and he had a terrible skin disease. On the advice of a servant he went to an Israelite prophet, Elisha, to ask for his help. He is told to dip 7 times in the River Jordan and he’ll be fine.

In one sense Naaman’s really believable. He gets annoyed that this prophet can’t even be bothered to speak to him. Does he now know who Naaman is?

But the funnier thing is that it’s not the method that bothers him. It’s the fact that he can think of better rivers back home to dip in.

But one thing that is never explained is why dipping in the River Jordan helps him. It just does. He just has to believe in it. And act on it.

Jesus uses the story of the bronze snake lifted up on a pole to describe what God is doing through him. Jesus himself would lifted up onto a cross and anyone who believed in what he was doing could have the life God offers.

But how does that work?

Throughout the pages of the New Testament people tried all sorts of ways to explain it. In the last 2000 years people have kept trying. And at different times throughout those 2000 years people have tried to claim that one of those ideas is the only way to understand it. But we are wise not to confuse the image or the metaphor with what is actually going on. At best, any of those images can only give us a partial glimpse of how it works.

And that’s ok.

The point Jesus makes is that we don’t have to fully understand it. He just invites us to accept that it works.

That’s one reason why it is harder to believe. For many today that’s just not good enough. They claim we live in an intellectually sophisticated age. And they think their objection is quite modern.

But it’s an objection that’s as old as the Gospel itself. Paul tells the Corinthians that Jews looked for signs, or power, whilst Greeks, or Gentiles looked for wisdom.

Greeks were trying to think their way to God, then along come Christians who tell them to trust in a poor teacher from nowhere, hanging on a cross, as a victim of capital punishment, in a tiny corner of the world, and see in that the way God was winning back the world.

They couldn’t get it, so many rejected it.

There was a time in my own life when I came very close to rejecting it. I remember sitting in a pub in Edinburgh about 25 years ago, firing a whole load of questions at a Christian friend. I’d grown up in the faith and it had left me with as many questions as answers. They weren’t bad questions. I’m not sure I know all the answers to them now.

But my friend just said to me ‘Andrew, if you wait til every question is answered until you accept it, you never will.’

Most of you will know me well enough that I’d never advocate unthinkingly accepting anything. But she was right. God’s not especially interested in arguing with you, or in satisfying your curiosity. The life of faith does include mystery and trust.

But we place our trust in things we don’t understand all the time. Life would grind to a halt if we didn’t.

Jesus asks us to do the same thing with him.

But its’ not just that we don’t understand it. It can seem so counterintuitive. We can find ourselves thinking that’s not how the world works.

Richard Dawkins once said that the reason he could not believe in a creator God was that is such a God existed and did create the world, why would he do it in such a way that would leave the least evidence of his existence? I’m not in a position to argue that with him. I’m not a scientist. Some who know their stuff agree with him, others don’t.

But many people struggle to believe the Christian story because God’s way of working is very different to how we would do it. In our culture, if you want to announce something to make a big noise about it. Take out prime time TV advertising, hire a billboard, stick it on the side of a bus.

That’s not how God showed the world his love. He kept his promise hidden amongst a people who spent the vast majority of their time on the wrong side of history, oppressed by people with very different worldviews, then when he comes amongst us, even the vast majority of those who has carried that promise did not recognise him.

And how does he do it?

He is born amongst us, lives to adulthood virtually unrecognised, then spends a small amount of time doing good in a tiny, largely ignored part of an empire, before surrendering his life into the hands of unscrupulous people, dying the kind of death normally reserved for only the worst of criminals, or slaves.

That defies all human wisdom and understanding.

Our culture is fairly familiar with the cross. We display it on our buildings. Some traditions even design their buildings in that shape. It is used widely in jewellery. We fail to see how shocking the people of that world would find that. Imagine travelling 100 or 200 years into the future and finding people wearing little nooses or electric chairs round their necks.

Everyone knew what the cross stood for. It was designed to humiliate the victim. To inflict maximum pain for maximum time with maximum publicity. It showed everyone who was in charge round here.

It would have been one thing to claim the cross was a mistake which God corrected in resurrection. But that’s not what Paul says. He goes way beyond that to say this, the cross, being on the ’wrong side’ of the cross displays the power of God. It is how God overcomes the power and wisdom of the world.

We live in a world where might makes right. Yet we also realise that raw power has its limits. In my lifetime we’ve seen the collapse of European communism. Across the Arab world in recent years we have seen leaders who had seemed so powerful, fall so suddenly.

But none of that compares to the fact that somehow God has taken the story of a man being subjected to the most brutal form of torture and execution, designed to humiliate and silence its victim… and use it change the lives of people over thousands of years, and thousands of miles away from anywhere his feet walked.

We’re not invited to get our heads around it. We’re just invited to accept it.

And Paul never offers the Corinthians an explanation. Instead he points out that’s how God does business.

These days if we want publicity, who we turn to? Probably a ‘name’; a celebrity. That’s not how God works.

In the Naaman story, the person who could help him find his healing was not a big commander or a king, but a slave girl in his home.

The first disciples of Jesus were few in number. The fact that he seems to have met them when they were engaged in trades suggests they were not the cream of the crop. Their opponents noted that they lacked education.

But God used them to change the world.

Paul tells the Cornithians it was the same in their church. Not many of their congregation were rich, powerful, of highly regarded by their society, but God enabled them to see that because of what he had done in Jesus, the world would never be the same.

To this day, faith grows most powerfully amongst the poorest parts of our world, often most rapidly amongst those for whom faith means persecution. The news of Jesus seems to draw most people in what we would consider unpromising circumstances. Just as in Numbers, God doesn’t necessarily remove the source of the problems, but still people find that by looking to Jesus, God works in ways which defy comprehension.

In 1949 Christian societies were expelled from China by the Communists. It was felt to be a disaster for faith in that country. Yet it is reckoned that less than 70 years later, there are more believers in Jesus, than in Communism.

Our world puts its faith in power, money, influence and the like. But that’s not where God places his hope.

It can be harder to believe because it involves placing our trust in what we can never fully understand, and runs contrary to how we expect the world to work. But Paul makes no apologies for that…

And neither do I.

God does not rely on what we would rely. In Christ he has shown that there is nothing through which he cannot work to fulfil his promises.

He does not ask us to rationalise it.

He does not ask us to understand it.

He asks us to believe him.

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3: 16: This Time It’s Personal

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Reading: John 3: 16;  Luke 15

Has anyone here ever used the program Google Earth? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s a program which allows you to look at different parts of the world, from lots of different angles, whilst sitting at your computer screen.

Like many things on the internet it’s not been without its controversy. Some countries banned it as a risk to national security. It was also reported that thieves were using it to identify churches with lead in the roof. Some people complained about being in the photos cos they were caught at places they were not supposed to be.

Nonetheless it is quite an amazing piece of kit. You can start way out in space, and gradually work yourself down, getting lower and lower, closer and closer, finally working down to ground level, to the point where you can view an individual building.  

 

What I’ve just done is fairly typical of what people do with Google Earth. Faced with endless possibilities of viewing anywhere on earth, where do most users go first? Yep, sat at their computer they say ‘where shall I go? I know… my house!’

 

But today we’re doing something similar to what I’ve just done with Google Earth, to the Christian story.  We’ve been walking through the words of John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.

I’ve described this verse as ‘The Christian Story in a nutshell.’ We have been cracking open that shell and looking at what’s inside.

Today we turn to another chapter, which has been given a similar kind of title. Luke 15, contains not one but three of the most famous stories Jesus ever told. This chapter has been called ‘The Gospel within the Gospel.’

Luke 15 and John 3:16 complement each other.

But they tell the Christian story on different levels.

John, with his God so loved the world could be said to give us the wider, aerial view. It can feel quite out there. When governments say they are doing something in the national interest, it’s not always obvious how it affects us. Equally we can read words like For God so loved the world... and wonder what that really has to do with you or me.

Luke, on the other hand, could be said to bring it down to ground level, to the level of the individual. Jesus’ stories speak of God’s concern for the individual, one of two sons, ten coins or 100 sheep.

 

But this morning we get to a point where both passages meet. John 3:16 might start out there on the widest possible canvas, but in one word he zooms in to how this impacts us.

That word is ‘whoever.’

Over the last few weeks we’ve seen that in John 3:16 Jesus was talking about how we can have the kind of life God intended or designed us to live. Not just after we die. But here and now.

But who is that offer open to?

Well, in John 3:16 we see it is open to anyone.

God operates what writer Max Lucado calls a ‘Whoever policy.’

Who isn’t a whoever?

What do I mean by this?

Let me explain  with an example.

Let’s consider the country Brazil.

A while back I came across an article by a specialist on Brazilian society. He was talking about why Brazil was successful in some fields, but not in others.

Brazil is a big country. And when it comes to football, they have been very successful. But for a country with a lot of resources, economically speaking until quite recently it was not as successful as it could, or maybe should have been. Why was that, he asked

 

Well, he said, when Brazilian scouts look for footballing talent no stone is left unturned. They scour all areas of the population, from the richest to the poorest. There is no discrimination against boys from the slums. They realise they could find the next Pele or Zico anywhere.

However, he said, when it comes to business, they don’t do the same thing. Then they only really look amongst the middle and upper classes. So whilst they might find the next Pele, they might miss the next Bill Gates.

In Brazil football operates a ‘whoever policy.’

 

Part of us wants to believe that we live in a world where anyone can make it. We love rags to riches stories or films about the underdog overcoming adversity to achieve something amazing. But the reason those stories make such great blockbusters suggests they are quite rare.

We know that some, purely through birth, or factors over which they have no real control, will have access to those things which don’t automatically make a successful life certain, but will make it more probable. We live in a system that espouses merit, equality and a level playing field, but in reality we exalt wealth, power and celebrity – however it’s achieved.

But in a single word Jesus says that access to the life God intended for us, becoming the kind of people God made us to be, is truly open to everyone.

God operates a ‘whoever’ policy.

But when we turn to Luke 15, we see God is not just reaching out with this offer to a vague ‘anyone’ but he holds it out and offers it to each one of us.

God longs for each one of us to live in relationship with him.

In Luke 15 Jesus offers us 3 lost and found stories. They seem very similar but each is subtly different.

But one key point remains the same throughout.

At no point does Jesus say there is anything special about the particular sheep which goes missing.

There is no hint that the particular coin is any more valuable than any of the 9 remaining coins.

The only story which makes any distinction is the last one about the two sons. We are told it is the younger son who takes his share of the estate and wastes it in a far off country.

 

Now, I am the youngest of 4 kids in my family. I’m well aware that the others consider me the spoiled one. Probably not entirely without justification. It’s probably the same in a lot of families.

But in this culture the younger son was considered less important than the elder. He’d have inherited less of the father’s estate than the elder brother.

In short, there is no reason to suggest that any of the sheep, coin or sons had any special reason why the shepherd, wife or father should love them so much.

 

So far as Jesus was concerned they had had two things in common…

One was that they were lost.

The other is that the shepherd, wife and father wanted them found.

 

We might live in a world which values things like money, celebrity, power and so on. Having those things might offer you more access to the things the life of this world have to offer.

But when it comes to accessing the life that God has to offer, life lived in a relationship with God, knowing that your loved and precious to God, those aren’t what God is looking for.

Nothing of ourselves makes us more or less precious to God.  God operates a ‘whoever policy’.

 

This theme crops up again and again in the Bible. God tells Israel that it wasn’t because they were bigger or more special than the other nations that he chose to seek to reach out and bless the world through them. In fact, if anything, the opposite was true. God just loved them.

 

In the New Testament Paul writes a couple of letters to a small group of Jesus’ followers in Corinth. Corinth was renowned for being a bit of a ‘new money’ snobbish city. In keeping with their culture the Corinthians were all arguing about who was more special, and whose leader was more special.

Paul reminded them that when God reached out and invited them into a relationship with him, very few of them were anything to write home about. The things they really valued might give them the best that Corinth had to offer, but when it came to the life God had to offer, none of that mattered cos God operated a ‘whoever’ policy.

 

It’s impossible to over-emphasise this point in the Christian story. We tend to hear these words in a world where advertising seems to hold out such amazing promises only for four little words to appear at the bottom of the screen: ‘terms and conditions apply.’

That’s not the case in the offer which Jesus holds out to us. Whoever is a word which allows no qualifiers.

Jesus doesn’t say ‘whatever Jew’ or ‘whatever woman’ or ‘whatever woman’ or ‘whatever Irishman’ or ‘whatever Arsenal fan…’ (add your own whatever).

The word ‘whoever’ blows apart any distinctions we want to place on God’s offer.

Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus broke down the walls of hostility that divide us and invited us all into relationship with God.

He told the Galatians that there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female – the labels we attach to people just don’t matter to God. We are all brought together through Jesus.

Through Jesus God invites us into relationship with him, and the God who is extending the invite is operating a ‘whoever policy.’

And those two words, ‘through Jesus’ highlight the subtle difference from the Brazilian football example. There it’s the merits or talents of the individual boy that provide the access to the life that football has to offer. The life God offers has an even greater leveller.

It’s not on our own merits that this life is made available to us, but through what Jesus has done on our behalf. Because Jesus died for each one of us, each of us is on an equal standing with God. It’s because of what Jesus has done for us that God can offer this ‘whoever policy.’

However one thing does differ in each of the stories. The manner in which each of them gets lost. I don’t know if any of us have had much experience of shepherding, but sheep do have a reputation for wandering or drifting aimlessly, getting distracted by whatever comes along.

I have no experience of the lost sheep, but plenty of the lost coin. The parable of the lost wallet is played out almost daily in the manse, often alongside the lost keys and the lost mobile (particularly when I am in a hurry).

But contrary to what I might think at the time they’re not hiding from me, they can’t help being lost. It’s not their fault. It’s mine, for not paying attention when I put them down.

The son on the other hand chooses to distance himself from his father. He ends up where does through his own foolishness and choices. At least that is how Jesus’ hearers would have heard it. Jesus seem to make a real effort to show how deliberate his actions were to make his point.

Whilst we might not necessarily like the analogies we do encounter people who fit of all of these descriptions. I’m always hesitant about doing things like this because people are complex creatures and nobody fits neatly into any of the little boxes to which we are very good at assigning them.

 

But how often I encounter lost sheep syndrome. One of the biggest struggles in trying to introduce people to faith and following Jesus, is not science, fundamentalist atheism or anything like that. It is sheer apathy. For an intelligent species we have an immense capacity for the trivial, the inane or the banal. So many just drift through life without thinking about anything worthwhile. It’s only when tragedy strikes that they realise they have nothing to hang on to.

Or there are those who are a long way from anything like a life God intended for them, simply because they’ve never known or heard of anything different. I’m well aware that what my upbringing lacked in terms of wealth, was more than made up for in terms of an awareness of right and wrong, some really basic life skills, like the importance of paying bills and so on. Above all there was never a time when I was unaware of the story of a God who loved the world, a God who loved me. I had so many advantages that others simply did not have.

But there are those who have had every advantage, who may even have lived a life of close relationship with God, but have chosen to go their own way.

I imagine that at different times and in different situations all of those descriptions of lostness could apply to anyone of us.

But the point of the three lost and found stories is that God’s whoever policy is not limited or invalidated by how we got to where we are. Whether we have consciously turned from him, drifted from him or have simply never known that God loves us and has a plan and purpose for us, the whoever policy still applies. The invitation is still open.

It’s still open whoever you are, however far you’ve gone and however you got there.

But an invitation has to be accepted.

 

There’s one other point about God’s whoever policy. God created each one of unique and the invitation is extended to each of us individually.

There’s one very interesting line in the prodigal son story. It’s when he’s bottomed out. In the church Bibles it says when he came to his senses, but more literally it reads when he came to himself. We might say it’s when he realised the truth about himself.

It’s here we get to the heart of why God so longs to bring us back to himself. Jesus is saying that it doesn’t really matter how we got where we are, so long as we are away from God, we’re not truly what he made us to be. The prodigal Son story speaks of God’s longing for us to be who we truly are, what we were created to be.

God created each one of us for a purpose. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

It’s not always easy for us to see because for now we only have partial glimpses of the picture. But God has a plan for his world and each of us invited to join with him, live in relationship to him and take our place in that plan. God’s whoever policy means that the invitation to play our part is open to every one of us. Each one of us is called to seek out our part in that plan.

Each of us invited to share in the call to run with perseverance the race set out before us, or to work out our own salvation, not someone else’s.

As I draw to a close, this was implicit in one of the passages we shared last time, when Jesus spoke of his yoke being easy and his burden light. The actual word for easy was ‘well fitting.’ We might say it’s tailor made to fit us. Effectively Jesus is inviting us to work alongside him and he says I have a place in my plans, where you can work alongside me and its designed especially for you.

We don’t have to be anyone else. You cam as you. When we accept that invitation we are accepting the invitation to be ourselves, who we are, what we were created to be.

To so many in our world the idea that God loves each one of us individually and is reaching out to each one of us individually seems like madness.

Even that is acknowledged is the stories of the lost and found. In that culture no father in his right mind would have welcomed back a son who treated him so disgracefully, let alone make an idiot of himself by running up the road to greet him and throwing a community wide party. The elder son’s frustration would have been echoed by all in that crowd, and probably most of us.

There’s a sense of desperation in the risk of leaving the 99 sheep to go out and search for the missing one. The cost of a woman throwing a party would probably outweigh the value of the coin she lost. But in each case, Jesus says that’s exactly what the love of God is like – it defies logic.

For God the search is prolonged, painful and entails a huge amount of rejection, but he’s driven on in the knowledge that in our lostness we are not what we made us to be, and by the delight he receives in finding us and when we turn to him, and the invitation to come home is open to us, whoever we are.

That invitation is open because God so loved the world. It’s a plan which has been formed long before any of us were here. God has plans for his whole world, his whole cosmos, but we don’t need to leave it out there. There’s one word which allows us to zoom in and find ourselves in the picture. That word is whoever.

In this life so much is transient.

So much of life comes and goes and we lose so much, from sobriety, to solvency, to sanity. We lose youth, vigour, ideals, dream.

But there’s one thing we will never lose – our place on God’s whoever list. All those things come and go, but God invites us into a relationship with him where we come to know that whatever else comes and goes, we have a peace that passes all understanding because we know we are safe with him.

And access to that life is open to any one of us, for God operates a ‘whoever policy.’

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3: 16 – The One and Only

Musée_national_message_biblique_Marc_Chagall_-_panoramio_-_Rokus_Cornelis-1468x900Readings: Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 11: 25-30

During the week I came across an article on a theology blog called Is the Old Testament Dying? Certain languages, like Latin, have died. Even today there are national groups struggling to keep their language alive. Languages die when they stop being used or stop being used properly.

The article claimed that is what is happening to the Old Testament. Many just don’t use it. Others, inside and outside church use it badly. Modern atheists quote the Old Testament without any reference to or understanding of context, or how societies evolve and develop, all to show how awful the God of the Bible is.

Meanwhile followers of Jesus struggle to link the God of the Old Testament with the one we meet in Jesus. And, as I said a few weeks ago, if your God doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s worth asking if you’ve got the wrong god?

 

This morning’s passage is one of those passages that is often misread and misinterpreted. It is certainly a strange uncomfortable story. Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken about how John 3:16 has been part of my life since I was very young. Well, so has this story.

But there’s a difference. I love John 3:16. But if God ever gave me the chance to remove 5 passages from the Bible, the story of Abraham and Isaac would be one of them.

Three of the world’s biggest faiths, accounting for more than half the world’s population, trace their roots from Abraham.

All three, in some form, tell this as the climax of his story.

But are we saying Abraham is a great man because he was prepared to kill his own son?

And that he did it to please God?

What kind of God is that?

Or is it possible that the story is making a totally different point?

I want to suggest to you that the story is making a different point. And it’s not me trying to make the Old Testament softer and more palatable. It’s how Jesus himself uses the story in John 3:16.

Over the last few weeks we have been walking through the words of John 3: 16. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life.

That verse has been described as the Christian story in a nutshell. We’ve been cracking open the nutshell, and considering what’s inside.

It’s no accident that in John 3:16 Jesus is described, not just as God’s son, but as God’s ‘one and only son.’

Remember the background to the verse was a conversation between Jesus and a guy called Nicodemus. Nicodemus was one of the big religious teachers at the time of Jesus. He devoted his life to studying the scriptures. He knew his stuff.

It was common when two rabbis were talking or debating, to drop phrases into the conversation, which would act as allusions to other stories. In John 3:14, Jesus spoke of Moses lifting up the snake in the wilderness. Nicodemus would have heard that and thought of the story of the Israelites being attacked by snakes in the wilderness and being saved by turning to looking at a bronze snake which God told Moses to raise up in the camp.

The same thing would have happened when Jesus used the words one and only son. Nicodemus would instantly have picked up on the reference to verse 2 in the Genesis narrative – take your son, your only son…’

But why would Jesus point towards this particular story?

You might remember, back from when we started this, the background to this conversation was about the Kingdom of God. Jesus first sentence is ‘unless a man is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.’ Many people read the words Kingdom of God there, and think ‘heaven.’ So they assume Jesus’ words were ‘you can’t get to heaven when you die without being born again.’

But when Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God, he was talking at least as much about living this life in a relationship of trust in God, living life in the way God always intended us to live. But there were lots of different groups with different ideas about how we might get there. I suggested Nicodemus came to Jesus that night, because he wanted Jesus to settle an argument. He was saying, ‘Jesus, we know you come from God. Maybe you can help us. This life God intended us to have. How do we get it? This group says this, that group says that… what do you think?’

Jesus response is to say ‘none of you have really got it. If you want the life that God intended you to live, you have to be born again. If you really want it, you have to be prepared to leave behind you old way of life, your old way of doing things, your old ideas of how we please God, and step into a totally different way of doing things – not based on what you have to do for God, but based on what God longs to do for you.

That is the big idea behind the entire Abraham story. We get a summary of his story is about right at the start. In Genesis 12… The LORD had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 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 I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

This is where the big story of God’s plan to win back his creation begins. We’ve had stories of creation and the fall. We see humanity drift farther and farther from God and his intention. Then God steps into the picture speaks to Abram (same guy) and through him sets out to draw his world back to himself. The idea of blessing and being a blessing is essentially the same thing as the language of life as God intended, living life in the knowledge that God is with you.

Abraham is not simply being told to move house, or leave home and find a new one. He is being told to leave behind a whole way of doing things.

You father’s household was a place where you learned how the world worked, how to behave. A central part of this is how you dealt with the Gods. Ur of the Chaldeans, where Abraham lived, was a place with lots of Gods. They had Gods for almost any part of life. If you wanted to get on in life you needed to keep them on your side.

Something that might surprise us, particularly if, like me, you heard this story from childhood, is how utterly radical this was. A god speaks to Abraham, and tells him be wants to bless him? This was new. Abraham had grown up with gods who were impersonal. No-one had any way of knowing where they stood with the Gods, whether they had these Gods on their side.

When really Abraham is asked to leave home, he’s also being told to leave behind that kind of worldview and to step into a relationship with a God who is interested in him, who longs to bless him, and bless the whole world through him.

When you move from one way of living to another, or from one worldview to another, there’s a lot of unlearning to do. If you grow up in an atmosphere of violence and abuse, you develop strategies or behaviours to cope with it.  But if you then step into a relationship of loves and respect, where you’re valued, those strategies and behaviours need to be unlearned, new behaviours need to be learned in their place. If you grow up in an environment where you can’t make a mistake, where it is always treated as a disaster, then you enter an environment where you’re told, it happens, no harm done, let’s try again… that can take a bit of getting used to.

Something similar is happening in the Abraham story. But with gods.

Abraham’s asked to leave behind an old way of life and step into a new one, with a God very different from those of whom he learned in his father’s household.

That’s how the various twists and turns of the story are to be understood.

And I repeat again, this is the climax of the story. This is where God makes clear just how different this god is.

 

So in Genesis 22, God comes to Abraham again and says ‘take your son, your only son, the one you love.’ In case he still was fuzzy, God says his name, ‘Isaac, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain that I will show you.’

A couple of quick questions. Why doesn’t Abraham say ‘no! That’s an awful thing to do!’

And why doesn’t he say ‘how?’ Apparently Abraham knows what to do.

He doesn’t seem shocked that God should ask him to sacrifice what is most precious to him.

Why not?

Cos in Abraham’s world that’s what Gods did.

They demanded and demanded until there was nothing more to give.

It’s a disturbingly common feature in the development of civilisations throughout history. From earliest times humanity has known it is reliant on forces outside itself. But unless God somehow steps into the picture and shows us something of what he is like, there is a limit to what can be known of him.

There’s the cavewoman who realises she needs the plant outside her cave to grow, else she and her family starve. Then she connects its growth with the red ball that moves across the sky and the cloud that sends down the wet stuff. She comes to recognise the plants and her dependence on the red ball and the water. If the right mix doesn’t happen she doesn’t survive.

Over time the thought emerges, rather than just hoping it’ll happen, can I be a bit more proactive?

  Can I make sure it happens?

Can I keep them happy?

Can I show them I don’t take it for granted?

So they set aside part of what they get as an offering to the Gods.

All of these forces seem to come from above, so the altar and burning the offering emerges to symbolise raising it up to the Gods.

Then drought comes.

The plant doesn’t grow.

They’re hungry.

The question forms ‘have I annoyed them?

Are they angry?

Maybe we didn’t give them enough!’

The natural solution is a peace-offering. But drought continues.

The plant doesn’t grow.

They wonder maybe what I did was worse than I thought.

Maybe I didn’t offer enough.

So they offer something more.

I summarise, but drought continues and over time they get locked in this kind of cycle of continually offering more.

If things go the other way, if things go well, you need to let the gods know that you are aware that they have been good to you. So you offer more. But how much is enough? I offered God 5% of my harvest. My neighbour has offer offered 6%. The gods will think I’m ungrateful…

You never really know where you stand with the Gods. So either way they’re trapped in the cycle, until they get to the point where they offer they have nothing left to give. So they offer the most precious thing they have – child sacrifice emerges.

That’s the environment in which Abraham grew up.

That’s the kind of behaviours he learned.

This is a story which begins with a God who says ‘I’m going to bless you.’ This is the climax of the story. Along the way Abraham has learnt some lessons about this God.  God has made promises to Abraham, most of which hinge on Isaac. So when he says ‘God will provide the lamb’ perhaps Abraham somehow knows that if God is going to make good on his promises this has to end differently.

But, throughout his life Abraham has known that if you want gods to bless you, you give them what they want. So he gets to the point where he builds the altar, arranges the wood, why doesn’t Isaac run, but Abraham has the knife raised, ready to kill his son, when the voice says ‘Stop! Don’t do it!’

And he catches sight of a ram caught in the thicket and offers it instead.

But the story doesn’t end with a statement about how fab Abraham was because he was prepared to kill his only son. It ends with a statement about a God who provides.

Yes, God brings Abraham to the brink, but is the point of the story that God is saying to Abraham You are used to Gods who just demand and take from you? Throughout your life you have learned that if you want Gods to take care of you, you have to give and give until you have nothing more to give. Well, Abraham, I’m not like that.

Throughout his life Abraham would have grown up thinking what do I have to give. But the story climaxes with not only a God who blesses, who invites us into the relationship God intended for us. But he’s also a God who provides.

A god who makes that relationship possible.

No-one had ever conceived of a God like this.

Now we can see why Jesus takes Nicodemus to this particular story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus and he says ‘we’re all aware that life can’t be as God intended, and we’re all trying to find ways to discover the life God did intend us to have. Some are saying we have to do this, others we have to do that, my group are saying we have to do the other, what do you think, Jesus?

And Jesus says ‘you’re all thinking about what you have to give to get God on your side, what do you have to do, and who can give the most.

After all this time you still haven’t learnt the lesson of Abraham. The one True God in whom you claim to believe, he’s already looked at the idea of you giving all you got, of you bringing what’s most precious to you, as a means of winning his blessing, getting him on side. And he’s rejected it. This God is not only a God who longs to bless, to invite you into the life he has intended for you. But he’s also a God who provides the way.

Roughly 2000 years passed between the life of Abraham and Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. They claimed to worship the one true God, but their God was still a demanding tyrant, waiting to be appeased before breaking in to offer them the life they longed for.

They still needed to hear the call to leave that life behind, and step into a different way of life with a God who would could be trusted, who didn’t constantly need to be appeased.

 

2000 years have passed and we still need to hear it, again even amongst those who worship God, and his Son Jesus Christ.

We might think the story and ideas behind it are so primitive, but they are not so very far away from us.

At root so many still worship the same old gods. We just give them different names. Like success, achievement, ambition. None of them essentially bad of themselves. But they still make the same demands. We even speak the same language. If you want this, you’ve got to make sacrifices. But what price are we prepared to pay?

We should hear the story of Abraham and be horrified by it. It quite rightly should sound primitive.

But how many children and families are sacrificed on the altar of career?

How many on an altar to supporting a lifestyle?

How many to ministry?

They might be called different names and claim to satisfy different needs, but it’s still same old Gods, same old demands. They’re so engrained in our culture and psyche that we barely realise that life could be anything different. But when they become your God, when they become the thing around which you base your life and search for meaning, the demands are never satisfied, until you have nothing left to give. We too need to hear those words to get up, leave those Gods and the demands they place upon you behind and step into a new reality, with a different God who created you in love and longs for you to enter into the kind of relationship and life he created you to have.

It was into such an atmosphere that Jesus came and said ‘Come to me all you who are weak, worn down by all those things you think you need to do to make life work, to have God on your side, and I will give you rest… Learn from me and you will find rest for your souls.’ You can let it all go.

For us as for Abraham, that switch involves a lot of unlearning. That’s why Jesus says ‘learn from me.’ That’s not to say it will always go swimmingly. It didn’t for Abraham, it didn’t for Jesus, and it hasn’t for anyone I know who has truly set out on this kind of journey. But one of the things we learn from Jesus is that this God is able to bring us through whatever we face in life or death, if we put our trust in him. And it’s not to say it’s doesn’t mean behavioural or life changes. We’ll come to this in other weeks but there is a world of difference being doing something in an atmosphere of love and respect and doing it cos you’re terrified of what’ll happen if you don’t.

But there is one last thing to bring out from this, which also feeds in to those words of Jesus. For God doesn’t longs to draw us into a new life in relationship with him. He’s the God who provides.

One more question which might be asked is why, when Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, why all these ideas of how to get God on your side had gained any credence. Did they not have a whole sacrificial system to do that? If you’ve ever read Leviticus you’ll see a very elaborate sacrificial system. The historian Josephus reckoned that around the time of Jesus 265,000 lambs were sacrificed in Jerusalem at Passover every year.

Which is all the more staggering because they knew it didn’t work. They never got any better. They never felt any more assured. 

The writer of a book called Hebrews realised this. There we read about the same sacrifices being made day after day, but they were not still right with God. Into that picture steps Jesus, and offers himself. He comes from a God who not only longs to bless, but who provides the means.

All through history humanity has been locked in a cycle of what do I have to give to get God on my side, giving more and more. Then Jesus cries out on the cross ‘It is Finished.’

What is?

So many answers, but one of them is this whole idea of giving more and more to get God on side. It is finished is God’s answer to that whole bloody sacrificial mess. ‘that stops here. Enough already!’ No more giving God what is most precious to us. God has given us what is most precious to him. God has given us his one and only son to draw us to himself. What do we reckon we’re going to offer to add to that?

4000 years ago God came to Abraham and called on him to trust him, to leave behind the old ways, the old God who just demand more and more until you’ve nothing left to give, and step into a new life, unlearning old behaviours and realise that God was already with him.

2000 years ago, the guises had shifted a little, but they were still the same Gods, with the same demands. And Jesus held out the same offer to Nicodemus, as God his Father did to Abraham.

Today he makes the same offer to us. Examine our hearts. What is it around which we are seeking all our meaning? What sacrifices are they demanding from us? Is even just maintaining what we got grinding you down, sucking all the joy out of life?

If so the invitation is for you – leave those Gods behind and come to one who created you, knows you, and come knowing that there is no sacrifice that you can bring, however precious you think it is, that can make him love you more. For he’s already with you. He’s already Emmanuel, God on your side and he’s shown it on a cross, by giving you all that he has and is.

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3:16 The Gift God Gave

wrapped in kraft paper gift for Valentine's Day with red hearts

Readings: Mark 7: 14-23; Ephesians 2: 1-10

Have you ever had a present you really didn’t want? If you have you are not alone.

Every year, normally around Christmas or New Year, you will find articles in newspapers about  what to do with unwanted gifts.

In the UK it seems we are a fairly generous nation, spending on average £475 on Christmas presents last year.  But although we do a lot of gift shopping, we don’t seem to be very good at it.  Each year 75% of us will get at least one gift we do not want. 60% of us receive 5 gifts we never use.

What do we do with them? Well, last year £355m worth of gifts were returned to shops in the period after Christmas. Almost  80m gifts were re-sold on e-bay by new year. And these are only the tip of the iceberg. 50% of us will give unwanted gifts to charity shops, whereas 25% will repackage them and pass them on to someone else next year!

Whilst preparing for today I came across yet another article, this time from the Readers Digest, on how to choose the perfect gift for your wife. It was actually more of a ‘what not to buy.’ It included such gems as ‘avoid all things useful – that silver polish designed to save hundreds of cleaning hours is unlikely to win very many brownie points.’ But it also advised that you don’t buy anything that involves weight loss or self-improvement. You really don’t want to live with the consequences of the signals such gifts send.

This morning I want to spend a little bit of time thinking about gifts, or about one gift in particular.

We are working through the words of John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

We have been unpacking the Christian story contained within those 20 something words. So far we have looked at the God who loves the world, today we consider how God expressed that love.

Today we’re thinking of the Gift God Gave.

And why we have trouble receiving it!

Grace is at the heart of the Christian story. The road into the kind of relationship with God we were created to have isn’t earned. It comes to us as a gift. When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, as we read together he spoke of a gift.

He tells them it is by grace they are saved, through faith, not of ourselves, it is a gift of God.

In another of his letters, this time to the Roman church, he spoke of how the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

But just as some of the other things we have unpacked from the words of John 3:16 are not necessarily easy to accept, so the idea that the way into the kind of life God intends for us comes through a gift is not easy to swallow. That last example of the unwanted gift contains a certain relevance as we come to consider The Gift God Gave. Because just as the weight loss or self-improvement book might send out certain signals, so the idea that we need a gift from God is not entirely complimentary.

We can appreciate Jesus’ teachings, or admire his example. But when it comes to his death of Jesus, we can it as nothing more than a tragedy really. A good man got killed by an unjust regime.

Historically we know Romans carried out thousands of crucifixions. The sight of man hanging on a cross would have been literally an everyday occurrence outside Jerusalem.

What can this one death, in a tiny corner of an empire, thousands of years ago, have to do with me and you today?

I’m not so much talking about how it works. That is a whole different subject for another day. Our New Testament is littered with all sorts of different images that the writers sought to use to explain what Jesus achieved in his death on the cross.

No, what I’m talking about is why it happened.

Why did God think it as necessary?

And when you look at it from that angle there are a couple of broad objections that people frequently raise. Some people say ‘well, God made me this way, and you keep telling me God loves me so much, so why should I need him to so anything for me? Why do I need him to give me his Son.’

We live in a world which really struggles to cope with the idea that you can love and care about someone without actually approving of what they do.

But in short, loving someone is not the same thing as wanting them to stay as they are. I mean cute and loveable as a newborn baby is, we don’t want them to stay a baby. We want him to grow into a strong, healthy and mature.

Or a parent can love their child, but still be heartbroken as they watch that child go off the rails or estrange themselves from the parent. When we see someone heading towards disaster, we can love them too much to want them to remain as they are, or not try to do something about it.

Max Lucado writes about a more common objection people have. He got into a debate with a guy on a plane, who vocalised the objections many people make to the idea that our road into the life God plans for us is based upon his gift. He said ‘I don’t need God to give anything for me. I’ve led a good life. Held a good job. People respect me. ’My wife loves me. I don’t need God to give me his son.’

I had a similar-ish conversation with someone a while back, which covered quite a lot of God-stuff, but one thing she kept coming back to, was that what she really hated about Christians was this whole idea that we kept coming back to God, begging forgiveness for these sins we were apparently committing all the time.

I appreciate some of where she was coming from. I’ve encountered preaching which has had the capacity to bring about a kind of self-loathing or worthlessness. When I am putting together patterns or liturgies for communion services, I always really dislike those prayers which speak of us like worthless worms. I just really don’t think that’s how God sees us.

We can have a picture of a grudging God who forgives us on the grounds that ‘we better not do it again!’ It’s hard to reconcile that with the Jesus of the Gospels, who speaks of rejoicing in heaven when someone repents. A Jesus that inspires self-loathing and worthlessness shouldn’t be the Jesus we preach.

But we can go too far the other way. Surely a better understanding of God, sin and forgiveness, is preferable to simply dispensing with them altogether.

Admitting that in his death on the cross Jesus was offering himself to us as a gift of God, or reaching out and accepting that gift is difficult if you think you don’t need it. If you reckon you’re good enough as you are. Reaching out and taking that gift means accepting you are a sinner. Taking Jesus at his word means accepting that you have a need to repent, to do things differently.

 

We live in a culture which is in denial about sin. Our grand overarching story of the West for the last several hundred years has been about march of human progress. Sure we’re not perfect. But whatever problems we face, they can be solved by human ingenuity.

I don’t say this to belittle human achievement. Much of it has I’m sure been God-given, God-inspired and is to be celebrated. And despite how we might think of our nation in moral decline, the last 50-60 years have probably been amongst the most morally sensitive, moralistic even in history. People care and care passionately about stuff they see as wrong in the world.

Yet try as we might putting stuff right always seems just beyond our reach. Even within our own country, in the last few years, one by one, the flaws in basically all our major institutions – press, politicians, business, church have been writ large.

The same generation which has allowed the idea of sin to drop off the agenda has, squandered nonrenewable resources, allows 24,000 people to die of hunger-related causes every single day, and been warned just this week that we are in danger of doing damage to our planet which we might not be able to reverse.

It all begs the question, if, rather than simply being the solution, we might  need to admit we are part of the problem.

 

The trouble with the examples I have given you is that they are just so huge. Or they  can seem quite distant from us.

It’s them.

Other people.

It’s just journalists, it’s just politicians, it’s just bankers, it’s just priests.

 

We don’t see ourselves in the picture of the human heart spoken of by Jesus. Sure we can think of people Jesus was describing, and be outraged by them. But we can emerge from such stories with feelings of superiority.

This was summed up well in a song from a number of years ago by a guy called T-Bone Burnett. It’s based around the teaching of Jesus that we read together this morning. I won’t play it to you, cos I doubt it’s that many people’s cup of tea here. But the song’s called Criminals and the words go like this…

I’ve seen a lot of criminals,

I’ve seen a lot of crime

Doing a lot of evil deeds,

doing a lot of time

We speak of these men as aliens,

from some forbidden race

We speak of these men as animals,

we would lock in a cage

But there’s one man I must arrest,

I must interrogate

One man that I must make confess,

then rehabilitate

There is no other I can blame,

no other I can judge

No other I can cast in shame,

then require blood

There is no crime he cannot commit,

no matter too complex

His heart is filled with larceny

and violence and sex

His heart is filled with envy,

and revenge and greed

His heart is filled with nothing,

his heart is filled with need

He’s capable of anything,

of any vicious act

This criminal is dangerous –

the criminal under my own hat.

We can all look around us, point the finger and say ‘I’m not like them.’

But in truth what we’re passing judgment on is just their expression of stuff that lies within each one of us. If you’ve ever been party to gossip, or been a bit nosey about stuff that wasn’t your business, it might be smaller scale but it’s the same root that leads to an invasive tabloid story.

In the Sermon on the Mount, which so many people claim to live by, Jesus says you might not have killed someone, but have you ever spoken hurtful words?

You might not have cheated on your husband or wife, but have you ever thought lustfully about someone?

Actually the difference between the people who make the headlines and us is not just that for them it’s all being played out in public, but that we are not in the position to do what they have, or that may not be our particular weakness or temptation.

It’s easy to judge others and say I wouldn’t do what they’ve done. Thing is temptation is quite subjective. Stuff I struggle with wouldn’t even register on your radar and vice versa. I used to be a heavy smoker. Even today if someone offered me a cigarette it would be a temptation. But for many of you, you’ve never smoked, you’ve always thought it was a yucky, disgusting habit, and if you were offered one it’s a no- brainer. Temptation is only real if it offers something you want and it is possible for you to do it.

So even when we do bring it down to an individual level, it’s possible to point at others and say ‘well I can see why they would need God to give his Son for them. But I’m not like them. They’re bad, I’m good.’

But at the same time those very people could be pointing at us and saying ‘I wouldn’t do what you do!’  The big problem for the ‘I don’t need God to give me anything, I’m a good person’ argument is how good is good enough?

I used to play a lot of table tennis. I used to think of myself as pretty good. I’ve a decent collection of trophies and medals. In my field I was good…

… but it wasn’t a good field.

During that time I played the Irish number 1 and got an embarrassing thrashing…

…and my sole consolation was that it was the same kind of embarrassing thrashing he got when he played top players from other countries. I was good when I compared myself against one field, but not when I changed my field of reference.

It can be like that in how we judge ourselves. We can be good at choosing those we measure ourselves against.

Ever noticed that virtually no-one ever considers themselves rich? We can always find someone richer to compare ourselves to.

When it comes to morality we can always think of someone worse. Our judgments can be based on the best of us and the worst of others.

But shift the criteria, shift whom we compare ourselves against and it becomes a whole different picture.

 

But overall it fails to answer one basic question which has been with humanity for as long as we have sought after God.

How do we know that we are in a right relationship with God?

How do we know that God is not angry with us?

How do we know that God is with us?

And the big problem, if it all depends on us, is that we can think we are good, we can work and work and work to be good…

…but how good is good enough?

But the God we encounter in Jesus isn’t interested in all that.

In Christ God comes to us and says there’s no need to struggle to get me on your side – I’m already there. You want a right relationship with me. Take it, it’s yours. It’s a gift.

God showed that he loved his world by giving us the gift of his Son.

We can take offence that God should feel its necessary, but God clearly thought so. In Gethsemane Jesus begged ‘if there is any other way, spare me the cross. But no alternative came.

A God who put Jesus thru the agony of the cross, if it were not necessary would hardly be a God worthy of our trust.

And if we insist that we don’t need him, that we’re good enough on our own, there’s not a lot God can do for us.

And actually rather than inspire a picture of self-loathing, this story of a God who gives himself for us casts a whole new dignity on us. It reminds us how precious we are to God. Rather than leave us to our own devices, when there was nothing we could do to help ourselves, God steps in and does what is necessary to bring us home. That’s a picture of just how loved and precious that we are to God.

His love and care os not earned. It is offered to us as a gift.

But like any other gift, it has to be taken.

We can throw all the weight onto ourselves, or we can take Jesus at his word when he says Come to me all who are burdened and heavy laden. I’ll give you the rest.

We can argue why a God who loves us should want us to change whilst all the time he is reaching out to us saying ‘I love you too much not to help you change.’

We can work and work and work at it, and all the time God is reaching out to us saying ‘take it, I’ve given myself to you, it’s a gift.’

The road to the life God plans for us comes to us as a gift. But the question remains – are we prepared to take it?

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3 16: The Object of God’s Affection Part II

mercy

Readings: John 3: 14-18; Matthew 9: 9-13

Fiorello La Guardia was mayor of New York for 12 years, which included both the Great Depression and the entirety of World War II. He is reckoned by many to be the greatest mayor in New York’s history. There was even an award-winning musical written about him.

He was only 5’ 2’’ , but  he had a huge personality and was even known to take entire orphanages to baseball matches.

One night La Guardia turned up at a night court sitting in one of the poorest districts of New York. La Guardia dismissed the judge for the evening and took the bench himself.  Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She pleaded guilty, but told La Guardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving.

As she told her story, La Guardia glanced across to the shopkeeper but he refused to drop the charges. ‘Your honour’ he argued, ‘this is a bad neighbourhood. If she gets away with it, it’ll encourage everyone else to steal. She has to be punished to teach other people round here a lesson.’

La Guardia sighed. He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions. You must pay ten dollars or spend ten days in jail.”

But then he reached into his pocket, pulled a $10 note out of his wallet and paid the fine.

But he wasn’t finished yet. He added I am also going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. 

He ordered a bailiff to collect the fines and give them all to the grandmother.  $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren. It included fifty cents from the grocery store owner. The whole court, including some New York City policemen gave him a standing ovation.

It might not have been a courtroom, but we encounter a not entirely dissimilar scene in the story which we read this morning from Matthew’s Gospel. The ‘good guys,’ the ones who look down on the ‘tax collectors and sinners,’ who believe they need to be made an example of, need to be taught a lesson – rather than being in the midst of the party they are huffing to one side, whilst those they despise, those who sit on the wrong side of the tracks just grab the invitation and join in with the celebrations.

We are spending some time reflecting on the words of John 3:16. It’s one of the most loved verses in the Bible. It’s only 20-something words. Short enough for me to memorise as a 5 year old. But those 20-something words hold a huge amount of the Christian understanding of God, ourselves, our world, our destiny. It’s been called the Gospel in a Nutshell.

A couple of weeks ago we saw the first two big claims John 3: 16 makes, in it’s first 4 words. For God so Loved. Not only does this claim that there is a God, but that this God cares, this God loves.

But what does God love?

Well, last week and this week we’re considering ‘the object of God’s affection.’ For God so Loved the World.

Last week we saw that we use the term ‘the world’ in a couple of different ways. We use it to talk about the physical creation in which we live and move. God loves the world he has made and although it is not as God intended it to be, he has plans to redeem and renew his whole creation.

 

But perhaps more traditionally when we come to look at this verse, we also use it to speak of the people of the earth. God loves us, however far from his intention for us we might be. Just as he longs to rescue and renew his broken creation, so he longs and offers to do the same for each one of us. That’s the angle from which we are going to consider the verse this morning.

The Bible offers lots of pictures in which God reminds us that he loves and cares for us. Amongst the most famous come from the lips of Jesus himself.

He says things like are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your father’s care. Even the very hairs on your head are numbered, so don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows.

Jesus speaks of God feeding the birds of the air and clothing the flowers of the field in a splendour which not even Gok Wan could dream up, before adding are you not much more valuable than birds and flowers?, If God looks after them will he not look after you?

Our Bible has so many assurances about the love of God.

Yet something struck me as I was preparing  this.

Maybe there is a reason there are so many.

Maybe it’s not just that God really longs for us to know his love, although I’m fairly certain that’s also true.

Maybe it’s because there is an insecurity about us, which means God has to keep repeating it. We just don’t believe him. 

 

It’s there in the passage about birds and flowers. The theme of the passage is our anxiety about whether God cares for us.  God has to remind us so often because we have so much trouble believing it.

 

A Catholic priest was once asked what was the most common problem he had encountered in 20+ years of hearing confession.

Without hesitation he replied ‘God.’

Very few people – Catholic or Protestant – behave as if God is a God of love, forgiveness, gentleness, and compassion. They see God as someone to cower before, not as someone worthy of our trust.

 

There does seem to be something within us that finds it difficult to trust God, or is quite suspicious of God. The Bible recognises this problem within us. It’s there in the very earliest stories, in the Garden of Eden, even before what  is described as the Fall.

The serpent plays on the suspicion God is somehow hiding something from us, or trying to control us. That’s why he won’t let us eat from that tree.

That lie persists to this day. People talk of shaking off faith as becoming ‘enlightened’ or see faith as being little more than a list of do’s and don’ts, designed to keep us in line.

When Adam and Eve take the fruit that distrust takes on a whole new dimension as they find themselves hiding from God. They can’t face him.

I’ve met quite a few people who have told me ‘if I ever went into a church God would strike it with lightning.’

I always think two things at such moments…

One is don’t build your part up. You think you’ve managed something God’s not seen before?

The other is you really think God has to wait til you enter a church to do that? 

 

Still, many of the people who have most trouble believing that God loves them are actually people of faith. It’s one thing to hold in your head this idea that God so loves the world in some vague, general sense of the term. It’s quite another to be able to look in the mirror and say that God loves me.

I remember being sat with someone who at the time wasn’t a Christian, was trapped in an abusive relationship and they asked me ‘if I leave is God going to send me to hell?’

My heart went out to her because I too grew up with an image of God as someone watching my every move, waiting for me to slip up.

Perhaps the reason I hope I preach so much against that kind of ‘angry God’ image is that it still lingers with me. It still surfaces from time to time. My image of God can come a much closer to the one with which Philip Yancey admits growing up – a glowering ‘cosmic Supercop, to be feared rather than loved.’ When I’m aware of something wrong in my own life, I can be more inclined to hide, to avoid Bible reading, praying, meditation and so on, than to turn to God for a fresh start.

In this morning’s reading Jesus quotes from the Old Testament. It seems to have been one of Jesus favourite passages. It was from the book of Hosea, in which God says ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’

So many of us have trouble believing in a God whose heart is more inclined towards mercy than sacrifice and likes nothing more than giving us a fresh start when we admit we’ve messed up.

Perhaps today as we consider how the Matthew passage we’ve shared informs the view of a God who loved the world, Jesus would ask you to place yourself in that scene, at Matthew’s house, see him smile and beckon you, to invite you, and me, to pull up a chair at the party with Matthew.

If your image of God is one more willing to condemn the world (and you) than to save it (and you), if he’s the God who’s only on the side of those who meet standards you could never attain, rather than one who longs to help you turn around and set out on a right path, then perhaps Jesus would ask you that same question ‘why don’t you just consider firing that God? Come, follow me.’

John tells us God loves the world. In the story Matthew’s call we get a sense of how wide God’s love and mercy really stretches.

I must admit I feel a little sympathy for Matthew. There’s a sense of there but for the grace of God and all that. It’s a little known fact that I almost worked for the Inland Revenue. It was one of a handful of jobs I applied for around the same time. My job in Birmingham City Council just happened to come up first. So I counted homeless people instead of how much you owed the government.

This table scene is not an isolated incident. Jesus himself points out that people accused him of being a ‘friend of tax collectors and sinners.’

Yes, it can be for us to define people by what we see as their worst moments, however isolated and atypical they might be. But that they had that kind of nickname for Jesus suggests that this was something he did regularly. The Gospels back it up.

Tax men aren’t popular in any culture, but in the culture in which Jesus lived, tax collectors were the ‘prototype sinners.’ On the whole they were considered an amoral self-interested bunch. We may and should feel sympathy for grannies who have to steal to feed their grandchildren, as in the story with which I began. We may (and should) lament that we live in a world where people feel that kind of need.

But by popular consent, if anybody fitted the ‘they made their bed, they should lie in it’ description it was tax collectors. Taking on the role involved effectively turning your back on your own people to look after number 1. No-one was forced into the job, they volunteered. In fact, at one time, although this had probably stopped by the time of Jesus, people actually paid for the privilege.

Tax collectors had a monopoly within their area. Information about what rates applied to what tax was not easy to come by, there are no right of appeal once a tax had been levied. On the whole they made their money by ripping off the poor and helping the rich evade tax. (Again, we think we’re so new).

 

And ok, the categories might be different but we’re not so very different today. One of my besetting sins is that I listen to, or at the very least hear quite a few radio phone ins. And one of the things that I encounter fairly frequently, particularly when it comes to debates about things like crime or benefits is the willingness of so many to write others off. As I said, they made their beds so lie in it. You reap what you sow. What goes around comes around.

We can be quite selective about the precise details to which we feel  this might apply, but something within us finds the idea of karma pretty attractive.

But the God we encounter in Jesus isn’t interested in those kind of rules. Each of us in precious in God’s sight, nothing delights God more than to see us flourish and to be what he made us to be. We were made for life with him. Nothing breaks his heart more than when we reject it, when we opt for life without him, when we make destructive, choices. We can choose not to hear or listen for his voice, but the God we encounter in Jesus doesn’t rest from seeking to draw us back into relationship with himself.  Nothing pleases him more than when we return to him and seek a fresh start.

Last week I mentioned a third way in which the Bible speaks of the term ‘the world.’ John speaks of it in a particular way. The uses the term ‘the world’ in a way which suggests there is something at work in the world and within us that is actually hostile to God. It’s like the way Paul speaks of sin, not just as something we do, but as a power which has a grip on us. We might try and want to do the wrong thing, but there is something pulling us in the wrong direction.

The reach of sin goes beyond even just ourselves as individuals. The comedian Dave Gorman wrote a book about trying to make a journey from one side of America to the other without having to use a single major corporation and how difficult it was.

Sin is like that. It is so ingrained in all of human life and relationships that it is unlikely we go through a single day without some complicity in the evil, oppression and suffering in our world.

I don’t say that to make you feel guilty. But only God in his power and wisdom can unravel all the tangles of evil in our world.

God’s heart is not just broken by the evil we do, but by the fact that, like the grandmother in the story at the start, we are held in the grip of sin. God’s not interested in the whole argument of who’s getting away with what. He recognises that his whole world is held in the grip and thrall of sin. We all need rescued. And nothing makes him rejoice more than when we call to him to rescue and deliver us.

God will one day put his world to rights and for that to happen judgment must come, but for now his sole longing is not to destroy us but to save us.

However much the New Testament speaks of us being reconciled to God, it never speaks of God being reconciled to us, because in the heart of God there is an unwavering, undefeatable, steadfast love and graciousness displayed towards us and offered to us, if only we will take it.

To those who reckon that God’s out to smite them with lightning, Jesus says that God causes the same sun to rise and rain to fall on evil and good alike. His love is all inclusive and seeks nothing but our highest good.

But that’s not even the whole truth that Jesus reveals about God. The liberal Jewish scholar Montefiore once pointed point out that there was something unique about the God of whom Jesus spoke. The idea of a God who would invite the sinner back or would welcome back the penitent was not especially new. But the idea of a God who seeks us out was. And the idea that he calls us to do the same was also new.

But that’s the God we meet in Jesus. And he remains unique. For so many other religions, the idea of a God who would to the lengths of our God to reach us, who would not only become human, but who would allow himself to suffer at our hands and do all that was done to Jesus is not just unthinkable – it’s positively blasphemous.

But that’s the God who revealed himself in Jesus. The God not desperate to condemn us, but to condemn and conquer the power of sin which held us in its grip.

The God not ready to condemn his world and its people, but the one who comes among us to seek out those who will admit they’re lost, or they have messed up and who will reach out to allow him to lead us home.

The God not just waiting for us to come to our senses, but the shepherd scouring the hills and field, the woman sweeping every last corner of the house, the father gazing onto the horizon, ready to make an idiot of himself running to meet us on the road.

The God not interested in who can be good enough, but the God with a heart for those who know they can’t, but who are willing to put their trust in him for that new chance and fresh start.

The God who knows the penalty, but even as he pronounced sentence was preparing to pay it himself.

I don’t know the state of your heart as you come into the presence of God. I don’t know how you perceive God feels about you. I don’t know the extent to which you feel God cares for you. But the God we encounter in Jesus came to tell us that God loves us and we are precious to him. The This table reminds us just how precious we are, and the lengths to which he was prepared to go to seek us out.

Perhaps you have come with an image of God in which he is the never-fully-satisfied tyrant, grudging in forgiveness with his record of your wrongs.

If that is your God, perhaps today Jesus would ask you ‘why not consider firing that God?’ Cos there’s a different, better God available. A God who desires mercy, not sacrifice. Who wants to give you a fresh start, who is not waiting for you to somehow make it up to him.

Perhaps today you are aware of sinfulness in your life, stuff which you know is destroying you, destructive choices you keep making, perhaps even quite deliberately stuff you long to be put right.

Perhaps you feel others have already written you off. But God hasn’t.

Not even God can help you if you are not prepared to let go of it or turn around, but if you are, if you will turn to him, hear not my words, but the words of Jesus.

It’s not the righteous I’ve come to call but sinners.

 

He invites you to come to his table, eat and drink, find forgiveness, empowered to make a new start. The God who invites you wants mercy, not sacrifice. This God is even more willing and excited about giving you forgiveness, than we are to shed the guilt and the shame.

 

There’s a story I’ll share with you as I close. I’m sure I have told it before, but the best stories are worth retelling and it reminds us of the relationship God is offering to us, if we will put our trust in him.

Brennan Manning writes about a Catholic woman who was having visions of Jesus. The local archbishop visited her to check this out. However much he quizzed her, she stuck to her story. She was having visions of Jesus.

So he said ‘next time you have a vision of Jesus I want you to ask him a question. I want you to ask him what sins I confessed last time I went to confession.’

She agreed. Time passed. The archbishop heard that the woman was having more visions of Jesus. So he went to see her.

‘Have you been having visions of Jesus?’ he asked.

‘Yes, I have’ she replied.

‘Well remember we had a deal. You had to ask him a question.’

‘And I did’ the woman replied.

‘What did he say?’ asked the archbishop.

The woman took the archbishop by the hand and said ‘When I had my vision of Jesus I asked him what sins you confessed the last time you went to confession and Jesus’ exact words were ‘I don’t remember.’