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.

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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.’

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

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

playdoh

Reading: John 3:16; Genesis 1

As a child one of my favourite toys was play-doh. One of the great things about the job I do now, is that from time to time I have been able to bring it into worship. But, I have to admit from time to time, after I finished with the play-doh I would forget to put it back in the tub,  or I would forget to the lid back on the container. And so the play-doh went hard, and unworkable. It seemed useless, fit only for the dustbin.

But actually it wasn’t finished. I could hand it to a grown up and they would begin to work with it, and gradually wok the substance back into a putty which could be reshaped, used once more.*

It’s that image of the putty in the master’s hands that I want you to keep in your mind as we continue work slowly through the words of John 3:16.

John 3:16 is amongst the most loved in the whole Bible. It’s been described as the Gospel or the Christian story in a nutshell. It’s a mere 20-something words, very few more than one syllable long. Yet it’s packed with huge, bold claims about God, us, our world and our destiny.

Last time out we looked at the first four words. For God so loved… Four short simple words, yet they tell us two of the most important parts of the Christian story.

  • That there is a God
  • and this God is not impersonal or indifferent, is actively interested in us, wants to relate to us. This God loves

But this morning we are asking ‘what does God love?’ And in the next couple of words we get our answer

The world.

 

It might seem odd to think that this term even requires us to think about it, let alone split it over two weeks. You might think surely everyone knows what you mean by ‘the world?’

 I used to think so too. Until one day a certain minister took a session for us in college. He is no longer with us, but he was highly regarded, loved and respected by absolutely everyone I know who’s had dealings with him as a minister. But I must admit, at college we found him a bit odd.

Not least, because right at the start of his session he asked what we thought it meant that God so loved the world. He asked ‘who did Jesus die for?’

He held to a school of thought called Calvinism, after the reformer John Calvin. One aspect of Calvinism is that God has chosen, or elected, those who will be saved. Which, if you keep following his argument, means surely God has also chosen those who won’t. He suggested that we should read these words as God so loved the elect, or the church.

I shan’t comment on that any further except to say that if anyone can find me another place in the Bible where this switch has taken place I’ll consider it. In fact, as we delve a I’d say John 3:16 takes us in a very different direction to what he was suggesting.

 

But even if we lay aside theological debates, which is probably no bad thing, we use the term ‘the world’ in different ways, with subtly different meanings.

We speak of ‘the world’ to mean the physical planet in which we live. Mountains, trees, rivers, countries, they make up the world. We say things like Rafa Nadal is the greatest tennis player in the world, or that so-and-so is the greatest artist, novelist, designer, in the world today. We’re referring to the physical space in which we live.

But we also use it in a slightly different way. We use it to refer to the people of the world. When we say the whole world knows something, we are saying everybody knows that. We say ‘it takes all sorts to make a world’.  Each time ‘world’ here refers to the people of the earth.

 

The Bible uses the term ‘the world’ in similar ways. For example, there is a verse at the start of John’s Gospel, which we mostly hear around Christmas, in 1:10.

He (that’s Jesus) was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

The word ‘world’ is used 3 times there. The first one refers  to  the physical planet we call home, the last one to the people of the earth. The one in the middle I suppose could be either.

Normally this is the point where ministers justify the money they spent on too many commentaries by saying ‘we have only one word for this, whilst the Greeks had 50’ or something like that. 

But no, they only had one. It’s the same word every time (kosmos).

When John tells us that God so loved the world or that God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world does he mean the physical creation in which we live and move, or the people of the earth?

Now, when I first learned to recite this verse, aged 5 or so, I was told the story behind the verse. That God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to earth to die for us, so that if we ask him into our hearts, we won’t go to hell, but will go to heaven to live with Jesus forever.

In that version of the Christian story which meaning of ‘the world’ do you think we were talking about?

It was people, wasn’t it?

 

But a couple of weeks ago I suggested that if that is the whole story we tell, it’s like looking thru a telescope the wrong end.

That’s why I want to suggest that the fuller answer is both. The planet and the people.

 

 

Without the planet bit, the Christian story becomes largely about somewhere else, sometime else. It’s focus is heaven or hell when we die or when Jesus returns.

But what about this life?  If you go too far down that road we can reduce this life to little more than a waiting room for the next one.

What can subtly creep in is a view in which this world becomes unimportant, or even negatively – we won’t need it when we’re in heaven!

I recently heard a sermon from a Christian who works for an organisation heavily involved in conservation work. He spoke of being confronted quite seriously by Christians who asked him why he was wasting his time on that sort of stuff. Surely the sooner the earth is trashed, the sooner Jesus will have to return.

Now that’s extreme. At least, I hope it is.

Nonetheless, we can quite freely use terms like ‘spiritual life’ which makes it sound quite distinctive from the rest of life. Many people understand the word ‘spiritual’ in a particular kind of way. Basically it’s not physical, or material.

We also use the term materialism, or materialistic in quite a negative way, (of they’re quite materialistic!) which can create an impression that it’s spiritual things good, material things bad. ‘

The truth of the Christian faith is really very different. ‘Spiritual life’ is not a term you’ll find on the lips of Jesus, or elsewhere in the Bible. William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II said that Christianity was the most materialistic of all religions.

CS Lewis pointed out God must like material things like food and drink – after all he made them. One of the things for which Jesus was most renowned was enjoying food and drink.

Actually there’s a third way in which the Bible and John particularly use the term ‘the world.’ We’ll return to that next week. For today I’m going to focus mainly on the first of these.

 

Our Bible begins with God creating the world and blessing it and declaring it good.

Recently I’ve been reading a series of books about the Old Testament by a guy called John Goldingay. In his discussion on the creation story in Genesis he talks of how we humans can be self-centred and jump pretty much straight from God creates the heavens and the earth to ‘let’s make humans in our image.’

But in the Bible, the balance of the story is somewhat different. The story is 5/6 over before humans are mentioned.

(What amused me was when he lays out the scheme with Day 1 on a Sunday and Day 6 a Friday – according to this scheme he has humans being created on a Friday afternoon. It made me smile because when Julie worked in the car industry if they had one which kept going wrong they said ‘that must have been a Friday afternoon job.’ Brothers and sisters, that us.  The Friday afternoon job.)

Yes, Jesus says, we are more important than many sparrows, but surely the fact that God clothes the flowers of the field, feeds the birds of the air and knows when every sparrow falls to the ground suggests that God loves his creation very much. The balance of the Genesis story suggests the real importance of the created world to God. The earth is created and declared good. Things are important to God in their own right.

We have a tendency to think of God creating everything for us, but if anything you could say that we’re made for the creation, to exercise the care and rule of creation on God’s behalf. That was our purpose.

Christians often speak of us as stewards of creation, or God entrusting creation to us. If you entrust something to someone that suggests it is vitally important to us.

So it is with God and his creation. When we view creation, or this world as relatively unimportant, or even negatively, not only are we spurning a gift which God has given us that he has declared very good, but we lose something of the Biblical understanding of what it means to be human.

 

If we doubt the importance of the created world, consider how God graces it with his presence. God takes on flesh and bones and becomes human. Another reason our faith is so earthy is that all the main events of our faith, the life, the death, the resurrection of Jesus all take place in this space, in this time.

That’s not to say that there is not something fundamentally wrong in our world. The fact that there is something wrong with the world is precisely the reason we need the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We don’t have to look too hard to come to the conclusion that this world as we experience it can’t be all that the God we described last time would want.

The Bible doesn’t ignore that. The creation story continues with the story of the fall and a world growing further and further away from what God intended. Romans speaks of creation being frustrated and being in bondage to decay, looking for liberation.

Creation can seem like the hardened play-doh, with which I began. But that doesn’t mean that God has given up on it. It’s in his hands. The grand story of the Bible might be seen as God working with that hardened world reworking, refashioning it, reshaping it so that it once more fulfils the purpose for which he made it. The big story from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 is one of God on a mission to put creation back as he intended it, to bring together the heavens and the earth, just as it was in the beginning.

 

That’s the Christian hope as Jesus understood it. He sums it up in Matthew 19:28, when he talks of the renewal of all things.

Or when Peter is defending himself in the temple courts he speaks about God’s plan to restore everything. ‘as he promised through your prophets.’’

Or when Paul writes to the Colossians and talks of Jesus dying on the cross to reconcile all things. I love how the message puts it – God fixing all the broken, dislocated people and things in the universe.

 

The picture with which our Bible concludes is not of the end of this world, but it’s renewal, when God renews the earth, and the new Jerusalem descends out of heaven and God makes his dwelling with us.

Of course not all Christians believe that. They will talk of God taking us away to heaven whilst the world suffers. You might remember a few years ago a guy called Harold Camping predicting that Jesus would return on May 21 2011. This is largely based on a single passage in Thessalonians 4: The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.

 

That verse has been taken to mean that Jesus is going to snatch us up and take us on up into heaven.

But that’s not the image Paul uses. The image on which he is drawing is of a military hero returning home from battle. People would be looking out for the hero’s return and when they got sight of him, the hero’s supporters would rush out to meet him on the road back home.

But what happened next was not that he then turned around and took them somewhere else, but that they turned around and joined him as he completed the journey home. That’s not a passage about going somewhere else, it’s about Jesus coming home to the world he has made.

When the Bible says For God so loved the world, yes it means the people of the earth, but the grand story of scripture shows us that it can also means the whole creation – the world which God created in love, which may currently be in bondage waiting, longing, straining on tiptoe to look for its liberation, but has been promised that one day it will be restored, renewed, reconciled.

When we catch a glimpse of that it invests life with so much meaning. Because it reminds us of the purpose for which we were created, our very first human commission, to join God, to partner him in taking his world from creation to new creation. That’s why Christians should be at the forefront of things like care of creation, aid and relief projects, seeking justice for people who face oppression, whether we agree with their viewpoints or not. For they can all play their part in God’s remoulding of the world to make more as he intended.

Have you ever been part of a team exercise and something you have done has made it to the finished product? We might be a bit too modest to admit it, but it’s a good feeling, isn’t it? At risk of not appealing to the highest of motives, can you imagine finding that God has built something of yours into the new creation?

Yet that’s the promise of scripture. As Chris Wright says in The God I Don’t Understand, in a quote I’ve used before the new creation will be filled not just with the rescued souls of people from many nations… it will not be a blank page, as if God will simply crumble up the whole of historical human life in this creation and toss it in the cosmic bin, and then hand us a new sheet to start all over again.

Everytime we help some to have the kind of relationship with God they were created for we play our part in that.

Everytime we see something is wrong around us and do something to put it right, all those moments when you sat with someone and felt useless but for that moment they knew they were not alone.

Like the people in the parable of the sheep and the goats, even those things you didn’t realise you were doing… somehow or other they’ll find their place in that new creation.

Nothing will be lost. God will make room for it all.

I don’t understand how it will be so. But the Biblical affirmation is that it will be so.

We might look at the world and ourselves and wonder how it will be so. We look at our world and are reminded of the playdoh that’s been out of the tub too long. And we might be tempted to give up on it.

But God hasn’t. It’s still the object of his affection.  Our world is in the stronger, loving hands of the Father, who is refashioning it, remoulding it, reshaping it. And he invites us to join him in that.  God has no plans to condemn the world, but to save it.

Because God so loved the world.

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3: 16 Part 2: For God So Loved

Jesus-Son-of-God

Reading: Isaiah 53: 1-6; John 3: 14-18

Twenty years ago, for a period of about 6 months, after leaving university, I worked in a call centre. I was one of those people who dealt with ‘all other enquiries.’

It seems a odd to think this now, but I’m not sure if, before that job, I’d ever used one of those phone menus where they ask ‘if your call is about this press 1, or about that press 2.’

Perhaps that explains why I could never understand why people often seemed really wound up at the start of the call, even when their query seemed quite minor. I’d never had twenty minutes of someone telling me my call was very important to them; even if not important enough to answer!

Something I learnt from those months in the call centre was that there is really very little point in shouting at the person on the other end of the line. They’re not the source of your problem, and they’re actually more likely to try to help if you’re nice to them. I’m far from the most patient of people, but I try to remember this….

…Most of the time!

I remember one occasion, I got really frustrated. We’d just moved to Somerset. I contacted the people who insured our household contents to change the address on our policy, but received no confirmation they’d done it. So I rang to check.

I rang several times a day… for several days… only to be told I’d reached a switchboard, all the advisors were busy, but if I left details they would call me back. Which they never did.

Now, old call centre trick. I’m not sure if it’s still the same, a quick look at Google suggests most use technology to do this for them, but my call centre experience told me that they have to answer a certain percentage of calls within a set time, else they get fined.

One way my call centre used to handle really busy spells was to put some of their teams on ‘call backs.’ The person answering claims you have been put through to a  switchboard and tell you all the advisers are busy. But it was actually the same people who would normally have taken your call. That way they have technically answered your call, even if they have not dealt with it.

If their system was anything like the one I’d worked with, they’d have to punch my details into the computer system to generate the ‘call back’ request. My details would come up on  the screen. All I needed was for them to tell me what my address was. That would be right in front of them. It would take less time to answer my question than to arrange the call back. But they are not allowed to give the answer, even if it is staring them in the face!

This went on for days. After several days I got really cross. I cringe when I think about it, but I could hear myself saying things like ‘do you find this level of service satisfactory? Because I don’t find it satisfactory…’ In the end we just changed company.

Hold that thought for a moment. Let’s think about something nicer. Dating agencies. Unlike call centres I have no experience of dating agencies. I have described the way Baptist ministers are matched to potential churches as a great big, holy dating agency, but it’s not quite the same.

The image people are encouraged to present in their profiles is designed, shall we say, to accentuate the positives. You want to seem like a ’catch.’ Photographs are shot in a flattering light. You speak of our positive qualities.

So a potential date might describe themselves as GSOH, FS (Good sense of humour, Financially stable).

But if you’re not careful you  find yourself with someone who is more GFTM, FP (Grumpy First thing in the Morning, with a flatulence problem).

Hold those two images in your head this morning: The busy call centre and the dating agency profile. I’ve begun a new series looking at 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.

 It’s one of the most famous verses in the Bible.  It’s been called ‘The Gospel in a Nutshell.’ Only 20-something words, but it reveals a huge amount of the Christian story. We’re going to slowly unpack this verse and explore the grand Christian story behind it.

 Today we turn to it’s opening words

For God So Loved.

Four short simple words.

For God so loved.

Yet they form the foundation of the entire Christian story.

They contain two, big bold assertions

That there is a God…

…and this God loves us.

The very existence of God has been the subject of quite vigorous debate in the last 10, 15 years, perhaps particularly since the release of Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion or Christopher Hitchens God is not Great.

Some of you the bus advertising campaign about 10 years ago which declared There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.

Some of the debate about the existence of God is really angry. I have some atheist friends and I joke that they talk more about God than I do… and I’m paid to do it. If someone posts anything vaguely religious online, they have to make a point about how nasty and evil religion is.

For others it’s much more subtle. The sense that all that faith stuff was fine for people who don’t know what we know. When David considered the heavens, the moon and the stars, he was driven to worship. Whereas the more our age consider the moon and the stars, the more we think we and science can explain, we think we need God less.

Take a series from a few years ago, on BBC, called Wonders of the Universe with Professor Brian Cox. It was fascinating. But one episode began on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, at the temple of the Hindu God Shiva. Cox spoke of ‘ancient beliefs about how the universe works.’ How every civilisation and religion has a creation story. Then he added that he was about to tell us a different one, ‘based entirely on physics and cosmology.’

Subtle, but placing words like ancient and religion together, before saying ‘but my story is based on science.’

Some deliberately try to set science and faith against each other. People of faith are asked to ‘prove’ the existence of God. For something to be said to exist, it must be open to proof using scientific methods. ‘It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.’ The existence of God can’t be proved in this way. Therefore it is argued it should be presumed that there is probably no God.

It’s beautifully, internally consistent. But the same can be said for religious fundamentalism. But there’s a problem in the challenge itself. It assumes Christians understand God as an object within the universe. It suggests that if people who believe in God made a list of everything in the universe, they would simply have one extra, unnecessary item which is absent from the list atheists possess.

But the God of the Bible isn’t part of the created order. He’s the source of it. God’s existence can’t be proven in that kind of way.

 

But I’m not sure ‘the does God exist’ question is really as interesting as people think. In the Bible James says even demons believe God exists. There’s a much more important question… Does God care?

If God exists but is not interested in us, doesn’t care about us, does it really matter whether God exists?

For many that’s a bigger question. It’s not whether there is a God but whether it has anything to do with them, or whether God is interested.

That’s why I began with the image of the call centre. Cos that’s how many view God. We can see this God as having a great big universe to run. Think of all the problems in the world. Big things. Surely he is too busy to deal with your enquiry.

I was chatting with someone recently who asked me to pray about something that was happening in their life. I said I would but, as I almost always do, I also told them that God was just as likely to listen to them.

He responded ‘oh, He’s always engaged when I call!’ Just like I might struggle to believe that my call to my bank or energy supplier really is important to them, so people struggle to think if there is a God, that he really cares.

Even describing the God, doesn’t automatically make things easier. We consider the sheer scale of creation. The Psalm with which we began our worship speaks of God setting in place the moon and the stars. Our Sun is just one of 100bn stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is just one of billions. On that stage our world is just a tiny speck, a grain of sand.

We use words to describe God like eternal and sinless, who can say ‘I am God and there is none like me.’  I truly believe that all of those things are true.

 

But on its own God’s greatness and power is not necessarily good news. God can exist, God can be great, holy, all those things we say about Him. But really the first two words of John 3:16 ‘For God’ don’t amount to much without the next two ‘so loved.’

That’s where we come to our other image. The Dating Agency profile. You see when we want to speak of the God who loves, it’s then we turn our attention to Jesus.

 

The first Christians talked of Jesus being the ’image of the invisible God’

or ’the exact representation of his being’

Basically they wanted to say ’if you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus.’

The thing is, many have a problem reconciling the image of God, perhaps particularly in the Old Testament, with the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels.

Richard Dawkins describes Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament,  as ‘arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction.’

Whereas Jesus? Well, sure, he believed in the God of his Jewish religion. He had no real choice about that. What was more interesting is that Jesus ‘rebelled against many aspects of Yahweh’s vengeful nastiness.’

 

It’s not just the faithless who have this problem. I remember an article in a Baptist Union magazine called Dulcea’s diary which began ‘Sometimes don’t you wish God were a bit more Old Testament? He seems to have lost his Old Testament mojo and gone a bit well… New Testament! You know what I mean. There’s no more wrath and fire these days.’ It goes on to say ‘Then again if he’d stayed all Old Testament we wouldn’t have had the cross and we wouldn’t have had the resurrection. And as far as miracles go you can’t really beat the resurrection!’

There it is… Old Testament God, all hellfire, judgment and brimstone, then there’s Jesus, all peace and love, man, in touch with his feminine side.

It’s there in our worship songs. Take for example the modern song In Christ Alone. It’s a song has a huge amount of truth, but I struggle with parts of the second verse, where it says ‘On the Cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.’

It suggests that Jesus did something which changed the attitude of God to men from condemnation to forgiveness and misses something fundamental about the cross.

In his book Love Wins, pastor and writer Rob Bell says that sometimes the Gospel is presented as ‘God will send you to Hell unless you believe in Jesus.’ And subtly the message becomes that Jesus rescues us from God. It’s the same idea.

Which, he says, begs the question, what kind of God is that?

How can that kind of God be trusted?

How can it be Good News that his Kingdom has come near?

But just as I don’t believe in the part of the created order, scientifically provable God, so I don’t believe in either the call centre God too busy to deal with the trivialities of our existence, or the Dating Agency God, who sends Jesus, to win us over, by showing us his better, more attractive side.

The God of the Christian story and whom we read in John 3:16 is the God who loves.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey once said ‘God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all.’ If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. With God what you see is what you get, what we saw was Jesus. If you read more closely dividing God into Old Testament/New Testament type God doesn’t work.

It’s the God of the Old Testament who takes the initiative in sending Jesus into the world. He yearns for us, reaches out to us in love. We glimpse it throughout the Old Testament.

Take Genesis 12, a story we come back to again and again, not just because I happen to like it, but because it is so important for understanding the whole Bible. Abram hears the divine voice saying ‘Go from your country, your people, your Father’s household to the land I will show you. Amongst the promises God made to him were ‘I will bless you’ and ‘all the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.’ God not only reaches out to Abram. He wants to bless him… and the whole world.

Abram lived in a world where God’s were impersonal and vindictive. You never knew where you stood with these Gods. The idea that God would be interested in us and would step into history to bless us was really new to him, as much as anyone else.

The people who taught you how to deal with the Gods were your people and your fathers. Abraham is not simply being told to leave home and go to a new one. He is being told to leave behind a whole way of doing things, a whole way of dealing with Gods, and enter a relationship with a God who is interested in him, who longs to bless him, and bless the whole world through him.

In Exodus 3, at the Burning Bush, this God speaks of how he has seen the misery of his people, has heard them crying out under the weight of their oppression… and he is concerned about their suffering and has come down to deal with it. He’s a God who cares.

 

In the Psalms we read of a God whose love endures forever, who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. Psalm 119 declares that the earth is filled with the love of God.

 

Jeremiah speaks of this God loving with an everlasting love, drawing us with unfailing kindness.

Jonah complains that Old Testament God is rather undependable with the whole wrath, hellfire and brimstone thing. He said ‘I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, who relents from sending calamity.’

Hosea tells a love story between God and his people acted out in the marriage of Hosea and Gomer. In the end when the adulterous Gomer is left with nothing and placed for sale in a slave market, who steps forward to buy her back?

 

Hosea.

The idea is that it’s not God who’s out to destroy us. We’re all too capable of doing that to ourselves. But God is waiting for us, to welcome us back, to save us from ourselves – and he’s willing to pay the price that that might happen.

All of that hundreds of years before Jesus is born.

 

Sometimes people like me are accused of going on and on about how God is love, but that this is only one attribute of God. God is also holy, righteous, just and all manner of other things. If we constantly go on about God as love we make him a soft old Father Christmas in the sky, always ready to ruffle your hair and say ‘oh, it doesn’t matter.’ Admittedly God is sometimes presented like that.

But that’s not the principal understanding of love in either Old or New Testament. In Deuteronomy we read ‘The Lord set his affection on your ancestors and he loved them.’ It sounds quite warm, but the actual meaning was of tethered love. It’s not that God felt mushy about them, but that God chained himself to them, not because they were lovable, but just out of sheer love keeping the promises he made to Abraham and his desire to buy back the world.

The love of which John 3:16 speaks is that same kind of love. True love is not just a feeling. There are times when true love is a decision or an act of will. Love can be costly and painful. All other attributes of God follow from God’s love, expressed in his commitment to all he has made.  A God who won’t act to put right a world gone wrong, but who instead will leave it to follow its own course could hardly be described as love. He’d be little more than an impersonal force who winds up the world, sets it off, and takes nothing more to do with it. We’ll come to that in later weeks.

The God of John 3:16 is a God who loves. The Heavens May Declare the Glory, power and majesty of God, but by themselves they don’t tell us everything. For a clearer picture we need to look into the face of Jesus.  A face which Isaiah said had nothing attractive about him that we should give a second look. Someone looked down on, passed over, from whom people turned and treated as scum.

As he was broken and bruised we thought he had brought it on himself, was suffering for his own failures. But the fact is it was our pains he carried, all the things wrong with us. Our sins that ripped and tore and crushed him.

The God in whom we believe is not a God out to condemn us or destroy us. He created us and has chained himself to us and has committed himself to us in love. When we turned from him, he was not just willing to welcome us back into relationship with himself. He was willing to pay the price to make it happen.

In fact he has already paid it. He allowed all our destructiveness to be unleashed on him, and as it happened cries ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.’

And we didn’t – for somehow though his bruises we are healed. No wonder Isaiah said ‘who believes what we have heard and seen? Who’d have thought God’s saving power would look like this?’

It’s one thing to know and to celebrate the glory of God in the heavens and the wonder of creation. But the real knowledge of his glory is expressed in the wounded face of Jesus Christ. The God of John 3:16 is not the God out there, commander-in-chief of a cosmos, too busy to take our call. Nor is he hiding behind the image expressed in his Son. What we see is what we get, and what we see is Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, but is now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

John 3:16 begins with two big, bold claims- and they are both important. It’s one to know that God exists, but by itself it’s not good news. What’s important to know is For God so Loved.

Posted in Nutshell 3: 16

Nutshell 3: 16 Part 1: Of Water and Spirit

3 16 embroidery

Reading: John 3: 1-18

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, that whosever believeth in him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.                                  John 3: 16.

It was one of, if not the first verse in the Bible, that I was taught to memorise and recite. I was probably about 5 years old and I was taught that verse in King James’ English.

I couldn’t tell you how many of those words I would have really understood. What 5 year-old knows the meaning of begotten or perish? Still, I knew John 3: 16.

I was told it was one of the most important verses in the Bible. It’s been called The Gospel in a Nutshell. 25 words in the King James Bible. 27 in our church Good News version. But it told you everything you needed to know to sort things about with God.

That God loved me so much that he sent Jesus into the world to die for me, so that if I asked him into my heart, I wouldn’t go to hell, but instead I would live with God forever in heaven.

 

Yet over the years, I have come to think it says so much more than I was told. It was a bit like looking through a telescope or a pair of binoculars the wrong way round. It made everything so much smaller. The good news is more than that. It’s better than that.

Mainly it made faith and Jesus all about life after death. Faith was something to buy before you die. It was about another place, in another time. Christianity was about asking Jesus into my heart with the main benefit being a place in heaven rather than hell.

Ok… but what about the life I have now? Does the good news have anything to say about that?

This leads me on to another problem with the way the verse was explained to me as a child. It works well when you lift it out of the Bible and treat it as a single verse.

But it does not come to us as a standalone verse. It crops up in a conversation Jesus has, with a man called Nicodemus. A conversation about wind, water, Spirit, and a strange story about Moses lifting up a snake in the wilderness…

… and let’s not forget another big Christian idea on which everything else depended…

…being born again.

 

And so, 40+ years on, over the next few weeks, I am returning to these words. We’ll crack open the nutshell and explore what this Gospel it contained really is.

But today I want to start with the background. With a conversation between Jesus and a man called Nicodemus.

Nicodemus was an influential man. A member of the Jewish ruling council. He had quite a bit of political and religious significance.

We don’t know where it took place. We don’t really know why. I will suggest one possible reason in the few minutes. But the only thing we know for sure is that it happened at night.

Despite his status Nicodemus approaches Jesus rather respectfully. He clearly wants to create the right impression and put Jesus at his ease. So Nicodemus says ‘we know you’re a teacher who has come from God, because nobody could do what you do unless God was with him.’

This suggests that Nicodemus knows more about Jesus than John has told us so far. The only things we know from John that Jesus has done, is change water to wine, and drive money changers out of the temple.

You might think it would have been polite for Jesus to exchange pleasantries. To perhaps acknowledge who Nicodemus is, or even affirm him for recognising God at work in what Jesus is doing.

But that’s not what happens. In fact, the first thing Jesus says appears to have absolutely nothing to do with what Nicodemus has just said.

Very truly I tell you, no-one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.

You could be forgiven for thinking ‘hold on a second. Have I missed a bit? Nicodemus hasn’t mentioned any Kingdom of God!

Where’s that come from?

What’s going on?

 

A little background to the story might help.

In our Gospels the Kingdom of God was central to Jesus’ teaching.  The very first words Mark’s has Jesus speak are ‘The time has come. The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.’

Matthew, perhaps as a result of a conservative Jewish upbringing, normally refrains from saying God’s name and talks about the Kingdom of Heaven. But it’s  the same thing.

John very rarely uses the term. Instead John talks about ‘eternal life.’

 

But although Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God a lot, it wasn’t unique to him. The Kingdom of God was a hot topic of the world of Jesus.

But it wasn’t about somewhere they went when they died. It was very much about life here and now, ordered as God intended.

You see something of what it meant in the Lord’s prayer. Jesus told his disciples to pray

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

This was a particularly Jewish way of writing, where they would put two lines together, and the second would explain or expand on the first.

 Notice that, on earth as in heaven.

The Kingdom of God is not about another place, another time, but here and now.

It’s about God’s will being done, lives lived as God intended them to be. Here and now on earth. About our world being ordered in such a way that God’s will is done here, every bit as much as it is in heaven.

 

Down through the generations, Israel carried within them a hope that God would break into our world, doing something new. They recognised our world could not be the way a good God intended it to be, but that one day God would put right a world that had gone wrong. They saw themselves as a light to the world, as having a central place in God’s plans for the world.

But time and suffering under any number of empires drastically reduced their hope. By the 1st century what they called the Kingdom of God, which was shorthand for kicking out the Romans and getting back their land.

If you’ve ever watched Star wars, you’ll get a reasonable feel for first century Palestine.

Everyone’s in the grip of an evil empire.

Many have decided that the empire can’t be beaten so submit, or compromise. They do what the empire tells them.

Others withdraw from life, operate in little communities which they hope the empire will ignore.

Others like the main characters in Star Wars decide, despite the odds stacked against them, to take on the empire and fight to the death.

Something similar was true of first century Israel. They believed that God could not intend that bad guys prospered, whilst those who sought to do good got trampled on. Pagan Romans should not be ruling in the land God had promised Abraham.

They wanted their own independent kingdom. They didn’t want to be ruled by a foreign power.

They wanted to rebuild the Jerusalem temple so that God could be with them as he had been in the golden days of the past.

And they wanted complete defeat of their enemies. This was pretty much what every Jew, including Nicodemus wanted.

And they believed, or at least they hoped, it would happen.

What they disagreed on was how.

The Zealots had one answer. Direct Action. Revolution. Violence was only language enemies understood.

Others had an entirely different view. People like Herod, Sadducees and chief priests. They thought the zealots were mad. Any attempt to use violence to fight Rome was pointless. You would lose. You can’t beat them, so join them. Make the most of the situation.

Another group were the Essenes. They knew violence would not work, but were appalled by any talk of compromise. They withdrew into the desert, lived in alternative communities, like the one in Qumran who collected the Dead Sea Scrolls. They waited for a day when God would again assert his rule and would recognise them as his true people, over and above everyone else.

Then there were the Pharisees. As they saw it, Israel had the Law. It was clear what God wanted them to do. If they were overrun by pagans, Pharisees said it was because they were too sinful for God to help. If they just did what God wanted God would respond to their faithfulness and the Kingdom would come.

One hugely influential group of Pharisees believed that if all Israel kept God’s law perfectly for just one whole day, they would see the Kingdom of God. There it is – that phrase again – but very much part of this world! Nicodemus was probably part of this last group.

 

In their own ways, all these groups had a couple of things in common.. They were all seeking the life they believed God intended for them.

But they were also all trying to work out just what they needed to do to achieve it.

With that in mind, let me suggest what’s going on here. Nicodemus is a member of the Jewish ruling council. One of their jobs was to test any new teacher to check if he was a false prophet.

Nicodemus has seen Jesus in action. He may even have heard Jesus speak of the Kingdom of God.

But what he wants to know is where can he slot Jesus?

Which party do you belong to, Jesus?

He’s asking ‘Jesus, which of us do you think has got is right?’

Now what’s this got to do with us 2000 years on, in a totally different part of the world? I mean we don’t operate within the kind of understandings of 1st Century Jews.

Yet we only have to switch on our news or pick up a paper to understand collectively that the world is not as we would like it to be. If that’s is true, then surely it’s not how a God who made the world in love would have wanted it to be. Even if you ditch the idea of God, as many would prefer to do, the world still has a lot wrong with it.

For several hundred years we have been told a story that we can solve all our own problems. Just give us enough time, money and effort. Like them we might have different ideas about what we need to do to get there, but it’s still within our power.

Now, often we do make progress. Think back to that survey I got you to do a few months ago about how things are improving. But at the same time, all too often it’s not that we don’t know the right thing to do, or don’t have the capability to change.

We don’t have the will.

We’ll all have views about who is to blame – banks; governments; multinationals and big business; media; international bodies; markets; the poor refusing to help themselves and expecting everything done for them.

But if we’re honest, we might admit that the root of the problem is in us.

And how do we do anything about that?

Some live with the sense of failure, regret, hurts. For them a longing for the chance to start again might readily ring true.

The self-help book industry is booming. TV is full of makeover programmes. Magazine stands are full of stuff about how to get a ‘new you!’

So many of us can’t get a handle on life as we intend it, let alone as God intends it.

Just like them we can have shrunken views of what a good life might look like. If I just had this, or if only that problem was sorted, everything else would be fine.

That works for us, because it allows us to set the agenda. We often even have some control of what needs to be sorted and how to go about it.

Even without reference to God so many are trying to find ways to make life work for them.

There’s no shortage of people who would like the chance to start again. And I’m pretty sure Nicodemus would have been among them. It’s not the desirability of a new start he questions. It’s the possibility.

Nicodemus stands before Jesus, asking which one of us has got it right. And effectively Jesus’ answer is none of them.

You can get things looking good on the surface, but what really needs to be dealt with is the problem within us.

That, says Jesus, is not something we can fix alone.

That comes across in both the words Jesus uses.

Born and again.

Birth, by definition is a passive act. A new baby might be gorgeous, but they didn’t really contribute a huge amount to their delivery.

Birth is something that happens to us.

 

As for again. Well, there are two words which could have been used.

Palin, meant just to repeat something, or redo something that’s done earlier.

The other, Anothen, requires the repetition to be by the original source.

The difference is probably best described by means of an example. Take a picture of the Mona Lisa. I could get out the paints, canvas, easel and so on and announce that I am going to paint it again. And I do. It’d be rubbish. You would probably struggle to work out what picture I was trying to replicate. But technically I’d have painted the Mona Lisa Again. The word for again would be Palin.

For the Mona Lisa to be painted Anothen would require Leonardo Da Vinci, to redo the work.

So what Jesus is saying is if you want the life God designed you to live, not only do you need to realise that it is something you receive at the expense of the efforts of another, like a birth, but you must also receive it from the original source – God.

When Nicodemus doesn’t get it, Jesus describes it further as being born of water and Spirit.

Nicodemus would have known of water as the image of new life. Converts to Judaism underwent a baptism leaving behind their old life. When they did it, they were said to be a new person.

John the Baptist was in the wilderness baptising people. It was a movement which recognised that life was not as God intended and that they, as much as those who went before them, were part of the problem. So they turned away from their old way of life.

But it was one thing to start again. It was how to continue in it. He knew the history of the people of whom he was part. How many times had this people realised the errors of their ways, but realised that simply knowing the right thing to do didn’t help. It wasn’t knowing the right thing was the problem – it was the will.

That’s why Jesus expressed surprise that Nicodemus didn’t really know what he was talking about. Because he would have also known that God had promised to do what was necessary to empower them to live differently.

Through Jeremiah God had pointed out that he was aware of the limitations of giving them laws written on stone, but that instead he would plant it within them.

Through Ezekiel God had promised to put a new heart and a new Spirit within them.

 

If water was the symbol of repentance, Spirit was to plant the power within them to live that new life.

When Jesus describes eternal life, or the Kingdom of God, where life is lived as God intended, it doesn’t just stop with our own individual faults and failings. It encompasses all things being done as God intended.

But God did not leave us alone to do that. That’s what we’re going to explore over the next few weeks. For today I’ll leave it where Jesus takes it, that somehow or other his death and resurrection of Jesus plays a key role in opening the door to that kind of relationship with God which would enable us to possess the life which God intended for us.

 

And yes, we can speak of life hereafter, but Kingdom or eternal life, starts here and now. It’s about God’s will being done on earth, as in heaven.

It’s not a matter of what do we have to do to make life work for us, or to gain this life that God intended for us, or to get God on our side. It starts by recognising that part of our problem is within us and that we need help from outside us.

That’s the image to which Jesus pointed when he spoke of Moses raising the serpent in the wilderness.  Israelites in a desert, dying of snake bite didn’t need to know why looking at a bronze serpent in a wilderness saved them, they just had to accept it would.  There’s nothing we can do to get God on our side – he’s already there, if we’ll only receive him.

Jesus has already done all that we need this is for us. All sorts of theories have been ventured for how it works, but the good news is that we don’t really need to fully understand it – just receive it.

But it begins when we accept our road of self-achievement isn’t working and repent of it, he gives his Spirit not only to guide us into the paths towards the life he intends for us, but to empower us to follow.

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: Epilogue – The Last Word

Love

Reading: I Corinthians 13

You might have thought you’d seen the last of the 12 words, arranged into a circle on the screen. It’s been part of our worship for basically a year now, as we have journeyed through the seasons.

But perhaps it is surprising, when you call a series Encountering God in 12 words, that one word was missing. A word that was quite prominent, to say the least, in this morning’s reading. And that word is…

Love.

How can you talk for a year about encountering God in 12 Words, and not have as one of the words, love?

I mean God is love surely?

Yes, sure I have mentioned it most weeks, if not every week, but still…

 

Yet although we have not used it explicitly as one of our words, it’s the one which runs through all of them. As Brian McLaren puts it Love is ‘the seas toward which all the rivers run.’

A couple of weeks ago I talked about the Good Samaritan and Mary and Martha and spoke of Loving God and Loving neighbour. I talked about the balance of activism and contemplation.

There was a young couple visiting with us that Sunday and when I got chatting with them after the service he challenged me on what I’d said. He argued that you couldn’t really have one without the other. You can’t say you love God and not love your neighbour.

And of course he was right. The Bible says ‘if you don’t love the neighbour whom you have seen, how can you say you love God whom you haven’t?

But love has been running through all 12 words.

Love begins with presence (Here).

Love adores (O).

Love appreciates (Thanks).

Love regrets everything that stands in the way of or damages love (Sorry).

Love sees need, in oneself or in others, and sees it as a chance to make a loving connection (Help and please).

When recovery meets resistance or sees delay, it becomes an occasion for a loving longing for release (When).

Love refuses to stand by whilst suffering continues (no!).

Love dares hope that some reason might be found, there might be some meaning to it all, even when it can’t make sense of what is happening (Why?)

In the end love looks out expectantly for signs of hope (Behold),

surrenders to the tender proposals of the beloved (Yes)

and ultimately finds it’s peace, stillness, and rest back in the presence of the beloved, a place where no words are necessary. Mere presence is enough.

As I concluded last week, God has been present through it all, and so each is an opportunity to be loved. To know God’s love.

If there is a message running through these words, it is that we are created in love, and made for love. You are loved.

Loved with a love that came to offer us not a new religion, but a true re-lig-ion.

Way back when I was preparing to begin this, I spoke of how the root of the word religion was the same root as the word ligament. The purpose of true religion is about binding us together, body, mind and spirit, to connect us to God and to each other. It’s brings wholeness to us and connects us to the divine. If your religion isn’t doing that, take it as a sign you’ve got it a bit wrong.

For the one true God is in the process of reconciling all things, renewing and things, re-creating all things.

In Love.

Loved with a love that is patient;

kind;

not envious

or boastful

or arrogant  

or rude.

You are loved with a love that does not coerce,

is not irritable or resentful;

that does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

Loved with a love that will stick with us through all things

always believing,

hoping

enduring.

That never gives up.

It never ends.

We encounter this love most fully in Jesus who embodied all those descriptions. You could swap every mention of love with the name of Jesus.

In Jesus you are loved with a love that is prepared to journey through the seasons, that does not rush us to it’s desired conclusion, but guides, nurtures and challenges us as we make the journey all the road.

 

And nowhere do we encounter the love with which we are loved more than when we come to this table, where we are invited to come just as we are. To eat a piece of broken bread and be reminded of a body which was broken that we might know healing. To drink a small glass of red liquid and remember blood that was shed that we might know life.

Loved with a love that did not wait for us to have it all together to love us, but came looking for us in Christ. A love that is there whatever our season.

So come to his table.

Eat.

Drink.

Remember.

Whoever you are.

And know that you are loved with a love that runs through all the seasons of life, and longs to make you whole.

Grace and peace

 

Posted in 12 Words

(Encountering God in) 12 Words: … Part 3

listen.jpg

Readings: Psalm 1; Matthew 13: 1-17

Recently I came across a story of a naturalist who was walking, with a friend, through the bustling streets of New York. Suddenly he stopped and said ‘listen, do you hear that cricket?’

His friend thought he was mad. How could he hear a tiny insect over all the commotion which surrounded them? How could anyone hear it?

But the naturalist said ‘we hear what we are trained to hear.’ Then, to illustrate his point, he said ‘watch this…’ and took out a quarter and dropped it on the pavement.

Instantly a crowd of people turned round.

 

Now I really don’t know how ‘true’ that story is, but even if it was made up, it does contain an important truth. For we do hear what we are trained to hear, or we notice what we are trained, or have trained ourselves to notice.

 

We rely on this in much of life. We go to a doctor, and we need them to notice what’s going on, what the combination of symptoms we’re describing could be. Or when we have an x-ray we need them to know what they’re looking for. They notice what they’ve been trained to notice.

When I used to work with statistics for a living, when a number didn’t make any sense, I learned by experience a few things to look for to help solve the problem. This made me generally quicker than others to find it.

On Monday I had a friend staying and I cooked a meal. As we were eating it he said to me ‘this is nice, is that paprika I taste?’ I was quite impressed. Turns out he’s been using it in quite a few things he’s cooked recently. I doubt I’d have been able to do that, if he had cooked for me.

Try listening to a piece of music with someone who really knows their stuff. They can pick out different instruments, even sometimes hidden deep within the piece, that many of the rest of us wouldn’t even spot. I’m sitting thinking what is she on about? Then they’ll say hear it is, it’s coming up now. Listen.

They notice what they are trained to notice.

They hear what they have learned to hear.

 

It’s perhaps a rarer thing than we think. This is an idea some of our supermarkets play on. The supermarket Aldi had a series of adverts which said ‘Like brands only cheaper.’ Their point was why pay more when people won’t notice the difference? You might even have even seen tests, they often have them with things like mince pies coming up to Christmas, in which a panel will be tested to see if they can spot the Fortnum and Mason mince pie from the supermarket own brand.

 

That idea of hearing what we are trained to hear, or noticing what we have learned to notice runs through the reading from Matthew that we had this morning.

We’re in the last of our 12 words, seasons, phases that make for a healthy spiritual life. Our final word is not really a word. It’s been symbolised with three dots. We’ve been considering the place of silence or stillness within the Christian tradition.

We’ve considered it from a couple of different angles.

One is when we are reduced to silence. When our words simple cannot do justice to what we’re describing. A couple of weeks ago I talked about Thomas Aquinas, saying for all the words he had written, and they were many and great, he was still only scratching the surface. He could never do God justice.

But we’ve also thought about the place of contemplative silence. That inner stillness, in which we can listen to God, and to ourselves.

 

I was at an event this week for Embrace the Middle East and I was sat next to a nun, sister Theodora. The main thing I noticed was how still she was. The seats we were sat on were clearly expensive, but not very comfortable. But she seemed not only to have this inner stillness, but it was as if it spread outward from her spirit to her body, even on really uncomfortable seats, she was able to be very physically still. Next to her, I became really conscious of just how much I was fidgeting all the time.

 

So in these last few weeks we’ve also been thinking about how silence and stillness form part of a healthy spirituality.

Today, as we turn, mainly to these words from Matthew’s Gospel, I want to finish our time considering these 12 words.

In today’s reading Jesus is teaching by a lake. A crowd is starting to gather round. So Jesus gets into a boat, pulls out a little from the shore, presumably creating a little more space to see and to be seen and heard.

Then he tells a story of a farmer who sows some seed. Some of the seed falls on a path and birds eat it. Some falls in rocky soil, which gets started, but then it gets a bit hot, the plant has no really root and it withers. Some falls on ground which is full of weeds, thorns, thistles and the like and it gets choked and comes to nothing. Other seed falls on good, well-prepared ground and produces a harvest. Some seeds are more fruitful than others. But there’s harvest nonetheless.

Then Jesus says something odd…

 Whoever has ears, let them hear.

The disciples come to him and say Jesus why are you teaching with parables?

For us that might seem an odd question.  2000 years on, one of the things Jesus is famous for is telling stories, which are called parables. But actually up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel that’s not how Jesus had taught. He uses the odd word picture, like wise and foolish builders or old and new wineskins, but even then he explains what he is talking about.

From this point things change. Here he just tells a story about a farmer who sows seeds which fall on different types of ground, with predictably mixed results. The end. No wonder the disciples ask Jesus why he has suddenly changed approach.

But Jesus answer is even odder. It sounds like he doesn’t want people to understand what he’s talking about. He says he does it so that

Though seeing they do not see

Though hearing they do not hear or understand

He then quotes from Isaiah, saying

You will indeed listen, but never understand,

and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull

and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”

 What’s going on here?

And what’s all this got to do with silence, stillness or whatever?

The background to this story is one of opposition and misunderstanding. Some writers note that we never read of Jesus teaching in a synagogue again from this point, suggesting he was no longer welcome there. That’s why Jesus is teaching from a boat on the shore.

Jesus is certainly facing opposition; from religious leaders, who think he in league with the devil; to his own family who think Jesus is going out of his mind. Even amongst the crowds who are being healed, there is very little engagement with what he is trying to tell them or show them. They make their demands and go when they’ve got what they want.

That’s when Jesus starts to speak in parables. But it’s not that Jesus does not want any of these people to hear and understand him. But a couple of things might stop them from doing so.

 

Jesus warns us that our hearts can grow dull, ears become hardened, eyes become blinkered, and we stop listening, we stop noticing. We stop expecting.

There is a certain amount of familiarity breeds contempt. I noticed this a bit this week. The Embrace the Middle East event I went to was in the Speaker’s Rooms in Parliament. You can tell the people who are used to those surroundings, from the rest of us. We were looking all round us, at the surroundings, blown away by it all. Others were more used it and barely looked around them at all. I suppose do it for a while, it just becomes normal, and you stop looking and noticing.

Perhaps we, more than those by the shore, can become like that with the teachings of Jesus. Oh, it’s the parable of the sower again. Heard that, know what it’s about, know what he’ll probably say.

Or perhaps, and this isn’t me passive-aggressively having a go, you listen to me, and you think Oh, there’s Andrews, he’s off again, talking about this, or I’m sure he’s told that story before. We assume we know what’s going to be said, so we stop listening.

And perhaps by that shore that day they were so caught up in their own thoughts, what they want, whether it’s religious leaders, looking for where Jesus is going to get it wrong,  crowds wondering how long he was going to be so they could bring him their problems, disciples even, they all their own preconceived ideas of what he is trying to tell them and to do, that no-one, or at least very few, are really listening to him.

It’s like they are blocking up their ears, or allowing their eyes to be blinkered and they’re not in a position to hear or to notice. They are not training themselves to hear or to notice.

Ever been in a conversation where one person assumes they know what the other is going to say, so they’re not really listening? I think if we’re really honest, we’ve all been on both side of that sometimes.

There’s a great story about Franklin D Roosevelt who would get really bored with receptions, where he shook hands with long lines of guests and exchange a few pleasantries. He was pretty sure no-one was really listening to him. So one day he decided to try a little experiment. As each guest arrived and shook his hand, he smiled and said in a calm, polite, pleasant voice ‘I murdered my grandmother this morning.’ One by one each guest shook his hand, each one responding something like ‘lovely’ or ‘marvellous’ or ‘keep up the good work.’ Right the way down to the end of the line where eventually a Bolivian ambassador said ‘Well, I’m sure she had it coming.’

They all had ears to hear, but only one was really listening.

Or perhaps cultivating stillness and silence is something of a lost art. Perhaps it is one we have never cultivated.  So we find it hard to really listen. Our generation has been described as amusing ourselves to death. As I’ve spoken about the last few weeks, we have surrounded ourselves with lots of different forms of distraction. Maybe we don’t hear, because we’ve lost the art of really listening, or perhaps we’ve never really cultivated it.

That’s the kind of listening to which Jesus calls us. But if we are ever to do that, we need that stillness, that silence, we’ve been speaking of these last few weeks.

 

Parables speak into this idea of silence, stillness, wordlessness in both the ways we have been speaking about. When, like Thomas Aquinas, we come to realise that for all our ideas and concepts, we can still not do something justice we turn to art, to poetry, to song, to story, to find ways to express what our words really struggle to convey.

Parables do that. They allow us to use our minds and imaginations in ways we wouldn’t otherwise.

But really they will only do their work if we stop and let them. If we take the time to not only hear the words that are said, but to truly listen to what is being spoken. To really pay attention.

That is the place for stillness and silence. To create the space for God to speak into in such a way as God might be heard. We’re giving our ears a chance to hear.

We’ll come to hear and to notice, what we’re trained to hear and to notice.

 

One of the things I have noticed is that when I have a few days away, or just doing something different, is that suddenly things I had been thinking about, ideas I have had, they pop into my head. All too often in the rushing around of daily life, they’ve not so much dropped out of my head, but they have got covered over by the immediate demands for my attention. It’s as I step away they get the chance to be heard once more.

That’s not something any of us can do constantly, but I can just create space to be still, to breathe, to stop and to listen.

To God, yes.

But also to my own life.

To notice what is driving me. Good and bad.

What are the things I really care about?

How are the experiences I am encountering affecting me?

What type of person am I becoming?

Do I like it?

Am I growing closer to God,

or drifting farther from him?

It doesn’t necessarily need to be long periods of time. Perhaps just a few minutes a couple of times a day, just to bring back that sense of perspective, to when you’re losing sight of what is important. Maybe to check in with God and remember that God with here with you in all things, that all of life is lived in God’s presence.

It’s a small, easily missed part of life.

But it’s so, so important.

 

It’s something that runs through both the readings this morning. The Psalmist tells us that it is the one who makes space to work out what God wants of them and for them and meditates on it, who is like the tree by springs of water, producing fruit in season.

In many ways the parable of the sower is like a parable about parables and the affects they have on those who hear them. For some it will just be a story, nothing more. They live at surface level and don’t think too hard about things. For others, the distraction will come when it gets a bit harder, or when other cares take over. It’s the one in whom it takes root that bears the fruit. They are the ones who have trained their ears to hear.

 

But it’s also a parable about how we approach life.

God is speaking to us all the time. Not necessarily in what we would recognise in an audible voice, but through circumstances, other people, chance comments, our own reactions to things.

Some of us live on the surface level and fail to notice.

Others might notice for a little while, then life takes over.

Some though really do notice and their relationship with God makes a difference to them. They are growing.

I’ve always resisted being too fatalistic about the ‘what type of soil are you?’ interpretations of the parable. My sense is that we’re all a bit of a mix, there are some parts of our lives in which God finds it easier to reach us than others.

But soil can be cultivated.

Ground can be prepared to receive the seed.

In moments of silence and stillness and meditation, we are preparing ourselves to receive what God wants to bring to us. When we learn to recognise God’s presence in the stillness, we start to notice his presence around us at other times. We find that he is waiting to meet with us, where we are, as we are. In this place, in this time.

 

We don’t need to be somewhere else. God is waiting to meet us here…

In fact as we grow we may notice he was there all along. It was sometimes he was easier to spot.

We may have noticed him in the season of O in the awe and the wonder.

We probably did notice him more in the season when were struck by his goodness towards us and driven to give him thanks.

He was there waiting to rescue us when we came to him in confession to say sorry.

He was waiting to catch us, when we realised we couldn’t do it on our own, and we called out to him for help.

He smiled when we were moved with compassion, and cried out please on behalf of another.

We may have got frustrated with his silence when we cried out ‘how long, O Lord!’ When?

When we refused to accept the world as it is and could only offer our No,

or when we cried out ‘why must it be this way.’

He was there as we turned the corner, spring began to emerge and we Behold, however tentatively signs of new life.

He waited for us to encounter him and issued the challenge to follow me, and waited for our Yes.

And he’s with us in the silence, when we realise that for all we’ve experienced on the journey, God is bigger and better than we can get our head around. And he’s there in the stillness and silence, waiting for us to recognise his presence once more.

Which brings us full circle.

Back where we started.

Here.

We don’t need to get somewhere else.

God is waiting to meet us Here.

He always has been.

All along.

So we’ve come full circle.

 

Except, hopefully, not quite.

No hopefully as we come around again, we have changed.

God hasn’t.

But we have.

By the grace of God may that change have been good. We have been changed by what we experienced on the path, and what we have learned on the road.

Although I’ve arranged the words in a circle, the aim of a healthy spiritual life is not simple to go round and round in circles, making the same mistakes over and over.

No, it is to grow. A healthy spiritual life is more of an upward spiral. I’ll spare you the dynamics. There will be stuff we need to leave behind, and stuff we will have learned on the way.  It’s like we’ve come back to where we started, but we’re not just older, but wiser, stronger.

It will be those who, along the way, have cultivated space for the stillness, who have learned to listen for the whisper of the Spirit, they will be the ones bearing fruit when the seasons come around again. For they have trained their ears to hear. They have learned to listen.

So may you,

In whatever season you find yourself

Whichever word best describes where you are right now

Find God waiting to meet with you.

May you come to realise that there is something to be found in each season.

Be it Here

O

Thanks

Sorry

Help

Please

When

No

Why

Behold

Yes

May you find stillness and silence into which the spirit can speak and your listen to your own life can speak.

May you bear the fruit of a healthy spirituality, a healthy relationship of trust with the God who loves you, the Christ who gave himself for you, and the Spirit who seeks to empower you and guide you.

May you know your life in held and enfolded in the love of the divine Trinity, whatever the time, wherever you are, and whatever the season.