Monthly Archives: July 2009

links for 2009-07-29

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links for 2009-07-28

A Fun Game On Google

So here’s some fun you can have on Google. In the search box, enter ‘Do’ followed by the name of a corporate body, or ‘Does’ followed by the name of a famous person, and see what suggestions for possible searches come up. It’s good for a bit of inane fun.

Via Louis Gray on FriendFeed.

Sermon: Moses And The Feeding Of The Five Thousand

John 6:1-21

When I trained for the ministry in Manchester, we went out on preaching appointments all over the north west – everywhere from Liverpool to Newcastle under Lyme. If we were in a circuit morning and evening, we had lunch and tea with members of that circuit. I remember the Liverpool couple who were proud they lived just across from the estate where Brookside was filmed – unfortunately, I’ve always been allergic to soaps. I recall the farming couple in Chester who tried to marry me off to their daughter. I remember visiting a former superintendent of mine from home who was then in Newcastle under Lyme.

Less happy are my memories of a trip to a Methodist church in Swinton, Greater Manchester. Apart from my college principal turning up unannounced to assess my service, I got a frosty welcome in the vestry. The stewards had telephoned for the hymns during the week, and when I walked into the vestry they demanded I change two of them. “We don’t know this one and we don’t like that one.” I refused. I told them they could learn the unfamiliar one, and they could put up with the hymn they didn’t like, because it fitted my theme.

What was the hymn they disliked? ‘Moses, I know you’re the man’ (this link is a PowerPoint download). And I mention that this morning, because this famous story about the feeding of the five thousand – the only story to appear in all four Gospels apart from the death and resurrection of Jesus – is full of Moses references. Let me show you what I mean – and how that is relevant to us – not by taking things in the order they appear in this story, but by taking the ‘Moses’ elements of this account and placing them in the order they originally happened in Israel’s history.

Firstly, there is the element of Passover. According to John, this incident happened when ‘the Passover … was near’ (verse 4). You’ll remember that the Passover commemorated the deliverance of God’s people when God judged Egypt for enslaving them. It is a festival of freedom and justice.

And in Jesus’ day, many of God’s people felt the need for something similar. They may have been back in their own land, but they were occupied by the Romans. Even in this reading, the Sea of Galilee is also referred to by its alternative Roman name, the Sea of Tiberias (verse 1). The Jewish people once again needed deliverance. It’s telling that after this miraculous sign, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king (verse 15).

But as we know with hindsight and with faith, the deliverance brought by Jesus was a different kind of freedom. Not that he was or is indifferent to the plight of those who are under the cosh of a powerful enemy, but he knew that everyone also needs a far deeper liberation, not just the freedom from the sins of others but freedom from their own sins.

And that is where Christians celebrate a festival meal of freedom and justice. We call it Holy Communion, where we proclaim that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Yet the moment you try to make that connection with John’s Gospel, you have trouble. John is the only Evangelist not to record the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The nearest he has is the feeding of the five thousand, followed by the conversation later in John 6 where Jesus describes himself as ‘the bread of life’. You also see in this story Jesus not simply saying grace before the bread and fish are distributed, but giving thanks, in language similar to that which he used at the Last Supper. It is no wonder that the nineteenth century Christian F D Maurice, when asked whether this passage was about the Lord’s Supper, said no, but that equally, there was no better place in the Scriptures to learn about Holy Communion than here.

I have always had a problem with the way we give such small amounts of bread and wine to worshippers at Holy Communion. But perhaps God intends us to expect a feeding miracle at the sacrament. As we receive small morsels of bread and take tiny sips of wine, God multiplies them in our hearts, as he makes himself real to us by his grace through our faith.

So we might wonder, especially in a well-fed western society what the feeding of the five thousand means for us, but we can immediately see one application. It helps us come to the Lord’s table with expectant faith that he will work in us.

Secondly, we have the Mountain. The disciples go up a mountain with Jesus (verse 3) after he has healed many sick people (verse 2), just as Moses went up the mountain to be with God, after God delivered the children of Israel from Egypt. Moses receives the Ten Commandments.

Now before we note what the Jesus equivalent here to the Moses parallel might be, we do well for a moment to think about the Ten Commandments. Sometimes we think these are rules for a healthy society, and everyone should follow them. Well – yes, they reflect God’s standards. But we are mistaken if we think we can commend them to others or command others to follow them and all will be well. As a young Local Preacher, I remember an elderly lady saying to me after a service, “If we could just get our country to follow the Ten Commandments again, everything would be all right.”

But it’s important to remember something about the timing of the Ten Commandments. God gave them to Israel after he delivered them from Egypt. In other words, keeping the Ten Commandments was never going to earn salvation for Israel. Rather, keeping the Ten Commandments was a grateful response to God’s faithful covenant love in delivering them. They were to keep the commandments as a sign of gratitude.

Now when Jesus invites the disciples up the mountain in this story and he is then joined by the large crowd (verse 5), what is the Son of God looking for? He looks for a response to his saving acts. The crowd know he has been healing people and the disciples know he has been performing wonders such as turning water into wine (2:1ff) and has been referring to himself as ‘the living water’ (4:10), relying on food from his Father (4:33). In other words, they know some amazing acts and statements of deliverance from him. Do you not think that he too looks for some grateful obedient faith?

And just as Moses didn’t get a great response from the Israelites – you’ll recall that a golden calf was involved – neither does Jesus. When he tests the disciples with the question of what to do about the problem (verses 5-6), Philip responds that six months’ wages would not be enough to feed everyone (verse 7).

Andrew does a little better, though.  Just as in an earlier chapter he brought his brother Simon Peter to Jesus, now he brings a small boy. ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ (Verse 9) He doesn’t sound full of hope. Just a boy in a grown-up world. Just five loaves – and barley loaves at that, the food of the poor. Not only that, but the two fish are not fresh fish but dried or pickled fish – again, elements of a poor family’s diet. There’s not much, and it’s not of great quality.

Yet that is what Jesus uses. It may not be much and it may not be good, but he performs the miraculous sign with it. Just as Andrew’s faith was not much. Just as our faith may not be much.

What is God looking for? He is searching for grateful obedient faith in response to all he has done for us in Christ. We may not think we have anything much to give, but the challenge then is not to reject God like the Israelites, nor to be faithless like Philip, but to offer even the meagre faith of an Andrew. Even a response like that is enough. It puts us in God’s hands, at God’s disposal. That’s what we need to do.

Thirdly and finally, this all happens in a withdrawn place (verse 3 cf. verse 15). There may have been ‘a great deal of grass’ on which to sit down (verse 10), but it was clearly remote. It was the equivalent of the Wilderness. This story is about food being provided in a wilderness. So not only does it resonate with the Passover, it also makes connections with the provision of the manna.

You’ll remember that when God supplied the manna to the children of Israel in the wilderness, he did so after a bout of complaining. They were missing the home comforts of Egypt – a rich claim from a group of people who had been forced to make bricks without straw, but they were fed up with the plainness and simplicity of their desert life. They hardly had the best of motives. Yet God provided for them.

And here, you could say that the crowd didn’t entirely have the best of motives. I’m sure there was a certain amount of genuine human need mixed in as they followed the Healer to his mountain hideaway, but there was a clear element of going for what was in it for them – hence they label Jesus as the prophet they had expected (verse 14) and try to make him king by force (verse 15) to serve their purposes.

Yet just as in the wilderness where God provided for an unworthy bunch, so he did the same in Christ here. That may be revolutionary to us in a society where our welfare state is based on the idea of the ‘deserving poor’, but grace doesn’t simply give to the deserving. It wouldn’t be grace then. God in grace gives blessings to the undeserving.

Before I studied Theology and then trained for the ministry, I was a civil servant, working in what was then known as the Department of Health and Social Security (or the Department of Stealth and Total Obscurity, as some frustrated wags called it). I remember being on a Christian holiday one year, where a rather Hyacinth Bucket type woman asked me what my work was. Replying that I worked for the DHSS, she said, “Well at least you are on the right side of the counter.” That’s the kind of attitude that doesn’t understand grace.

No – the grace of a God who blesses the undeserving in the wilderness looks very different. It may be something apparently trivial, like the story of Steve Chalke who first went to church because that was where the pretty girls were, only to find himself bowled over by Jesus Christ. It may be someone who tries to strike a bargain with God – “If you do this for me, I will follow you.” It may be somebody in desperate straits that are partly or completely their own fault. In a book I recently read, Neil Cole said that you can ask the non-Christians in a street who most needs the Gospel, and they will usually be right. They will point you to the person in the most terrible situation. You can visit that person, and often they will be open to the Gospel. It may even be a heinous sinner who has become a social outcast, the modern equivalent of a Zaccheus. Whoever it is, the gracious God who in Christ blessed undeserving people in the wilderness wants to do the same today, through his Son who went to the wilderness of the Cross on our behalf. It is our privilege to be his ambassadors, introducing this reckless and extravagant love to a suspicious world.

And that means we too shall need to learn the habits of recklessness and extravagance if we are to model that grace. May God lead us willingly to the undeserving. For we were – and still are – ourselves among their ranks.

links for 2009-07-25

links for 2009-07-24

One Rule For Them

What a surprise. If you’re a regular visitor to a school in future (as ministers like me who take assemblies are) you’ll need vetting under the new Safeguarding procedures. But if you’re another kind of minister visiting schools – namely, a Government minister – you won’t. See here.

links for 2009-07-18

Sermon: The Wilderness – Jesus’ Favourite Getaway Destination

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

At this time of year, much conversation revolves around, “Are you going on holiday? Where are you going?” One of Rebekah’s classmates was missing on Friday’s final day of term, because his family was driving and ferrying to France. Others have flown to Disneyland. Our children wonder why they haven’t been on an aeroplane yet, but we have more modest ambitions and budgets. It still doesn’t seem long since we weren’t confined to the school holidays, and could book cheaper holidays.

Where would you get away to, if you had the choice? I would fancy New Zealand (not just because I’ve seen the Lord of the Rings films), parts of the United States and I’d like to return to Norway, having once done a mission there. After all, where else would you spend nine days in August, but north of the Arctic Circle?

Where would Jesus go? Like a couple in my first circuit who every year travelled with a holiday company specialising in camping in the wildest parts of the world, Jesus’ preferred destination was the wilderness. When he wants a break with the apostles, he invites them ‘to a deserted place’ (verse 31), and that almost certainly means a wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of a wilderness as a good place for a spot of R and R. I think of somewhere that is too hot, and too dry. That’s why it’s a wilderness, after all. I think about the children of Israel wandering aimlessly and disobediently in the wilderness for forty years, between leaving Egypt and arriving in the Promised Land. A wilderness doesn’t have good associations for me.

But I want to talk today about how the wilderness is a good place in the spiritual life. It is somewhere the Christian Church has known in former centuries as a desirable destination, but in our comfort-saturated world we have lost sight of that. I am thinking not simply of the wilderness in a literal, geographic sense, but also the spiritual wilderness, when our lives seem dusty and barren. Come with me, and see why it is good to be in the wilderness with Jesus.

The Apostles
At my first theological college, we were introduced to the tradition of the Quiet Day once a term. A visiting speaker would address us in chapel two or three times during the day, but we spent the rest of the day in silence – even our lunch. One of my friend made a cardboard speech balloon with the word ‘hello’ on it and brought it to the dining room once!

One year, I decided I would spend the day reading a short book about community. Only a hundred and twelve pages long, I thought I could easily devour it and think about it in a few hours. It was called ‘Life Together’ and was by the famous German Christian who resisted Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

A hundred and twelve pages? Fat chance! If I got through twenty, that was all. Why? Because every paragraph was challenging. The comment I most remembered was one where Bonhoeffer said that nobody should attempt to live in community if they couldn’t cope with solitude.

The apostles in our reading learn community and solitude in the wilderness. Jesus invites them there in order to rest, because he wants to get them away from the notion that non-stop busyness is what makes someone a good or valuable person. You have to come away from that way of life at times in order to reset your priorities. And our priorities are not just to do, but to be. After their recent mission, Jesus calls them away from people to the loneliness of the wilderness, so that they might be with him. When he had chosen them in Mark chapter three, he had not only set their ‘job description’ as including preaching, healing and exorcism. Before all that, their call was ‘to be with him’.

How we forget that for ourselves, too. We reduce Christianity to a series of lists – a to-do list, a tick list, a shopping list. We forget that we are also called to spend what one Christian called ‘A Royal Waste Of Time’ with God. So Jesus urges us sometimes to put the busy schedule away, because it is ruining us. We become like car drivers who never fill their tanks with petrol, and then wonder why we stutter to a halt. And if it requires the drastic action of removing us from the busy place to restore us, then Jesus will take us to a wilderness, so that all we have is him – not our status, not our rôle in the church, just him.

Whether you are an introvert or an extravert, this is a challenge. For the extravert, who gets energy from other people, the wilderness reminds her to depend not on other people but on God. For an introvert like me, who is energised by being alone with books and the like, I am challenged to rely on God and not on other tools. But what is sure is this: Jesus knows we need to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’, and he will take us to the solitude of a wilderness if that is what it takes.

The Multitude
And yet the apostles still can’t get away completely. They escape in a boat (verse 32) from the ‘many [who] were coming and going’ (verse 31), but when they arrive at the deserted place, there is no peace for them:

‘Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.’ (verse 33)

The apostles have preached the good news, cast out demons and cured the sick (verse 13). It’s like they are victims of their own success. Well, not their success, because it is the work of God, but right now the multitude can’t see that. All they see is need – their own need – and that this group can help them.

Thus we traditionally interpret this episode as being about the importance of putting aside your own need for rest in order ‘to spend and be spent’ for others. But what if we turned it around and considered the thought that God had a purpose for the multitude in bringing them to the wilderness to receive what they needed? What if we concentrated on that?

If we did, I think we’d see that when we are in need, God may well bring us to a wilderness for our own well-being, renewal and healing. Why? Because God calls us to come out of our ‘Egypt’ and journey to our ‘Promised Land’, but the route often goes through a wilderness. We need to leave Egypt behind, with all its temptations and bad influences, but the journey to Canaan is not a quick and simple one. In purifying the pagan influences of our own personal Egypt, God takes us to a stark place in the wilderness where he strips away the toxins that have infected our souls.

When God draws us into a wilderness experience, it is the most natural reaction in the world to kick and scream as we are dragged there. But God the loving Father does this for pure, holy purposes.

One thing is for sure: when God leads people into a wilderness, his intention is to do great things. What happens to this multitude? What we’re reading is the preface to the Feeding of the Five Thousand. They have tracked down the apostles, rather like first century stalkers of paparazzi, but whatever their motives, they end up stranded a long way from civilisation and without food. In that wilderness place, God through Jesus provides generously for their needs.

So it may be with us. We may wonder why we are in a wilderness. It may be due to our own rash choices, or it may directly be in the purposes of God. But God in Christ has good things for us in the parched places of life.

Jesus
Finally, we read about Jesus and the multitude:

‘As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.’ (Verse 34)

What does that have to do with a wilderness theme?

The clue comes in the phrase ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. To which a considered response might be, ‘Huh?’

If it makes no sense, the clues come from the Old Testament. When Jesus thinks the crowd are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’, there is a strong Old Testament background to that thought. In Numbers 27:17, Moses in the wilderness asks God to provide a new leader for Israel ‘so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’ They need a leader in the wilderness.

And in Ezekiel 34:5, God’s people are scattered in the wilderness of exile ‘because there was no shepherd’.

Both times, God’s people are in a kind of wilderness, and they need shepherds, or leaders. However much God wants to bless his people in the deserted places, they still need a leader. But how does a Jesus-like shepherd lead the people of God in the wilderness? Isn’t it complicated, leading people in strange, unfamiliar and unwelcome lands – rather like we find ourselves in today?

Surely the ministry of Jesus was like leading his people on a new exodus to the salvation he would bring. He helped them navigate the way through the wilderness into the good things of God’s kingdom. You might list a whole catalogue of things that could involve, but the navigational work of the Christian shepherd in the wilderness comes down to the three priorities elucidated some years ago by Eugene Peterson in his book ‘Working the Angles’. They are prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction. Anything beyond that, whether a current fad or a venerable tradition, is probably extraneous. Just because ‘it has always been done that way’ or because loud voices demand a particular course of action are no reasons to depart from the essential practices necessary to navigate the way through the wilderness.

You may say that Jesus walked this earth in a simpler time, and he did. There are complications provided by the society we live in today. But that is no reason for the Christian Church to add unnecessary complications to the cause of leadership in the wilderness we find ourselves in today. The compassion of Jesus when he saw the crowds simply led him, in the words of Mark, ‘to teach them many things’. Through prayer and study of Scripture, he knew the word of his Father and how to navigate the rocky terrain of the wilderness. There, in the barren desert, Jesus led the multitudes by teaching them the kingdom of God, and by feeding them and healing them. Simple stuff – and therefore a challenge for the likes of me!

Conclusion
So – it may be surprising to cosseted twenty-first century Christians that Jesus wants to bless his apostles and his multitudes in the wilderness. It may surprise us that his favour does not rest on fevered activity, but on a rhythm of ‘being’ followed by ‘doing’ (and never the other way around).

Yet we’re used to Jesus turning the values of the world upside-down, aren’t we? This is the kingdom where the king was enthroned upon a Cross. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so astonished that Christ would use the privations of a bleak location as the scene for our growth in grace.

And in a complex world, the way in which Jesus leads and guides us through the rocky places towards lands of milk and honey lacks much of the complexity our culture deems necessary for everyday living. He also cuts out the all-singing-all-dancing approach the Church has mistakenly baptised, in favour of simplicity: prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction.

Maybe it’s time that a church in the wilderness pared things down to essentials.

Maybe then, we might find life.

links for 2009-07-17

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