Monthly Archives: November 2009
“This is my friend David Lewis, whom I’ve never met before.”
Those of you who came to the recent demonstration of the Digital Hymnal may remember me using those words. David, the minister of Hutton and Shenfield Union Church, brought the equipment to show us what it could do. I knew David through Internet connections – Facebook, Twitter and his blog. But before that evening we had never met. I had seen photos of him, I knew what his work was and had some idea of his interests. But I had never actually met him.
On Advent Sunday, we think in similar terms about Jesus. We know him, but we have never met him face to face. Yet on Advent Sunday, our thoughts traditionally go not to his first coming in the Incarnation but his ‘second coming’ – although the expression ‘second coming’ is not a biblical one. The main Greek words used in the New Testament mean his ‘appearing’ or his ‘royal presence’. Right now he is hidden from us and we know him from the Scriptures, the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, the sacraments and what we see of his work in others and in creation, but we have not seen him. Advent Sunday is when we look forward to seeing him when he appears.
So we turn to these words in Luke 21, a chapter where Jesus addresses all sorts of world-changing events – the Resurrection, the coming fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 and the ‘second coming’ – or, if you prefer, ‘the appearing of his royal presence’. What does Jesus say to his followers?
Firstly, he gives his followers a sign:
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ (Verses 25-28)
Is this a weather forecast? No. you don’t expect these verses to be followed by someone saying, “And tomorrow will be windy with scattered showers.” Rather, various Old Testament prophets referred to the ‘Day of the Lord’ having cosmic portents involving the sun, moon and stars – there are echoes here of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel.
So is it a sign of the Last Judgment? You might think so when you read about ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with great power and glory: that fits our stereotypes about Christ’s return. Except … it’s a quotation from Daniel 7, and the context is one of vindication after suffering. Which makes the more likely context here not the Second Coming but the Resurrection.
So – the Resurrection of Jesus is a sign of the Second Coming. Why? Because the Resurrection was the first evidence of God making all things new. Jesus received his resurrection body, just as others will at the End.
What does that mean for us? It means that in the Resurrection we already have the guarantee that God will renew creation and bring justice. The Resurrection is what the New Testament calls the ‘first fruits’ – it’s the harvest that happened in late Spring which reassured people the main harvest would come at the end of the summer. For us, then, the Resurrection means we know Jesus will appear again, and God will put right all that is broken and that contradicts his will. Because we are Easter people, we are also Advent people.
When I was a teenage Christian, I discovered the music of an American Christian singer called Randy Stonehill. The last song on one of his albums was called ‘Good News’. I expected a song called ‘Good News’ to be about the Cross, but it was about the Second Coming. ‘Good news, Christ is returning,’ sang Stonehill.
And now I think he was right. The coming of Christ is good news, because it means all will be well. And we believe that because we have the sign of the Resurrection. So when injustice prevails, remember Jesus is risen and will come again. When suffering overwhelms, remember Jesus is risen and is returning. This is a doctrine of hope for the Christian.
Secondly, Jesus gives his followers a parable, the story of the fig tree:
Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Verses 29-33)
I have two problems with this story: firstly I am no gardener, and secondly I don’t like figs. However, it is clear even to a garden-phobic, fig-hating person like me that there is a simple principle at work in this parable. When a tree sprouts leaves, you know what is coming: it is certain.
What does that mean for the followers of Jesus? I think it means this: the purposes of God are certain. When God sets out to accomplish his great plans for creation and for humanity, they will be fulfilled. I am not suggesting that God dictates everything and that we are mere pawns, nor do I believe that our every action is predestined. What I believe is simply this: that God has free will and we have free will, but God’s power means he has more free will than us, and he uses it to further his purposes of salvation. As the fig tree sprouts and later summer comes, so God speaks and his words do not pass away.
How do we respond to this parable? In rather similar ways to the sign of the Resurrection. We respond with hope and with humble confidence. We put our lives in the hands of the God who promises to work for good in all things with those who love him, those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
So this is a parable of hope for the disciples of Jesus. Those of us who entrust our lives into his hands and follow him know that a good outcome is promised for creation. Suffering will not render life meaningless. Evil will not prevail. Things may happen which cause our pulse rate to rise and worries to increase, but in the midst of the anxiety God offers us peace, because his Son is risen from the dead and is coming again. Be encouraged! As the communion liturgy says, ‘Lift up your hearts – we lift them to the Lord.’ And, ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’
Thirdly and finally, Jesus gives his followers an exhortation:
‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’ (Verses 34-36)
What is the essence of this exhortation? To me, it is a call to a disciplined life. ‘Be on guard,’ says Jesus. Don’t have a lifestyle of dissipation and drunkenness. ‘Be alert.’ These are the watchwords of lives with a focus, a focus on Christ, and therefore matched with a discipline to keep that focussed concentration on him and not on sin or a casual approach to life. The watching and alertness are not about working out exactly when Jesus will return, but about keeping our eyes fixed on him in our lives.
So the way to prepare for the coming of Christ is not to work out a celestial timetable, but to concentrate our efforts on doing what pleases him. We do that in contrast to a lifestyle of ‘dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life’, as Jesus puts it – which remains a very contemporary challenge.
The temptation to ‘dissipation’ or self-indulgence is all around us, but Jesus calls us to self-discipline and self-denial. The life of the world to come will not be a hairshirt one, but it will be one where joy and pleasure are based not on what I get, but on what I give. So let’s get in tune with it now.
The temptation to ‘drunkenness’ is not merely about alcohol, but about addiction to all sorts of things from drugs to food to shopping to relationships. Often our addictions mask pain in other areas of our lives, but Jesus calls us to face that pain and find healing with him. Then we can let go of damaging habits and live a life that anticipates the healing found in God’s kingdom.
As for ‘the worries of this life’, our whole consumer society is based on feeding those worries. It isn’t that Christians can’t enjoy good things, but an obsession with them is counter again to the values of God’s kingdom, where true riches are found in other things, notably the fruit of the Spirit as God renews people to be more like his Son. Those are what the Christian will chase.
So in conclusion, Advent is a time of hope for the Christian. As we recall Christ’s first coming and anticipate his appearing again, God’s action in the Resurrection gives a certainty to our hope. His purposes of love are certain and we are in his hands. That means we respond by reordering our lives according to the purposes of his kingdom, which means living distinctive lives –counter-cultural lives. May the hope of Christ’s coming give us the passion to do so.
 Tom Wright, Surprised By Hope, chapter 8.
‘What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer.’
Many of us think of Francis Bacon’s famous words when we read this account of Jesus before Pilate. But we have a problem: the Lectionary omits verse 38 where Pilate says, ‘What is truth?’ for reasons that are beyond me. Well, unless it is to do with the political correctness that afflicts the Lectionary in some places. Maybe Pilate has to be rehabilitated.
But aside from strange editorial decisions in the compilation of the Lectionary, this is a difficult passage, however familiar it seems. We read it today, because today, the Sunday before Advent, is the Feast of Christ the King, also known as Stir-Up Sunday, from the famous collect
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And hence Jane’s piece at the beginning of the service with the cake! If today were just about cake, we’d have few problems with it – maybe it would be suitable for Back To Church Sunday!
But the kingship of Jesus is a problem. It’s a problem throughout the Gospels, and it’s a particular problem here. The kingship of Jesus is a problem for everyone who encounters him. By considering how King Jesus is a problem for different people, we shall see how his kingship challenges us all.
Firstly, and obviously, King Jesus is a problem for Pilate. To return to Francis Bacon’s words, I don’t think he is ‘jesting Pilate’ at all. Pontius Pilate has a serious political problem here. As a Roman Governor, he is used to being able to throw his weight around, using the occupying army to subdue the locals. His trouble is that he has done it too heavily-handed once too often, having desecrated the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish leaders had sent a deputation to Rome to protest, with the result that Pilate was on a final warning. However aggressive the Roman Empire was, they saw no need to cause what they believed to be unnecessary provocation in the lands they conquered.
So when the Jewish leaders hand Jesus over to him, Pilate has a big problem. Yet to be fair, he starts from a position of justice: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (verse 33); ‘What have you done?’ (verse 35)
Yet by the end of the interview, we know Pilate, like a politician today, will cave into compromise and short term expediency. Throughout the conversation, he can’t get a handle on who Jesus is. He doesn’t fit his categories. Because Pontius Pilate only understands one language: the language of politics. He’s expecting Jesus to be a revolutionary. Well, he is, but not in the sense Pilate expects: Jesus is no terrorist. Not only does Jesus’ lifestyle deny such an idea, he contradicts it in his reply:
‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ (Verse 36)
Some people seize on this as a sign that obeying the kingship of Jesus means we don’t get involved in politics. They quote it as ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. Therefore, they argue, since we are part of that kingdom, we should not get embroiled in dirty, everyday politics: that’s a different kingdom.
But what Jesus says is perhaps better rendered, ‘My kingship is not from this world’. He’s not advocating withdrawal from the world, he’s saying that he does things differently. His kingship comes from heaven, where justice is not established by force or violence. His kingship is therefore radically different from the tactics employed by Roman Emperors or Jewish Zealots.
Jesus doesn’t bail out of politics: it is about the common good, and he cares about that. But his kingship redraws how his disciples will get involved. They will do so peaceably, not forcefully.
What does that mean for us? Not all of us are directly involved in politics. Apart from anything else, I believe it means that if we live under the reign of King Jesus, we conduct ourselves in public in a peaceable way. We do not shout, scream, demand, manipulate and scheme. We speak up more for the poor and the voiceless than for ourselves. We do so passionately, but without aggression. Is that possible? Jesus managed it.
Secondly, King Jesus is a problem for the Jewish leaders. There’s a lot of reference in John’s Gospel to ‘the Jews’. Tragically, down the centuries some Christians (and others, such as Hitler) have used it to justify prejudice and violence against Jewish people.
However, John does not use ‘the Jews’ to mean the entire Jewish race at the time. He normally uses it to refer to a distinct group, and he is clearly aware of other people in the story – not least Jesus – who are also Jewish but are not included under ‘the Jews’. Mostly, it stands for the religious authorities who are in opposition to Jesus and his ministry. It is these people, designated ‘the Jews’, who have handed Jesus over to Pilate (verse 32).
What’s their problem? Simple. Jesus doesn’t fit their expectations. Jesus is at odds with most of the major groupings in the Judaism of his time. He won’t cosy up to the Roman authorities like the wealthy Sadducees and some of the priestly classes. He won’t use the Scriptures as a weapon to exclude people in the way the scribes and Pharisees do. He won’t retreat to a secluded, pure community like the Essenes. And as we’ve already noted, he rejects the violent revolution of the Zealots. He just doesn’t fit.
So what are you going to do with a misfit who keeps causing you trouble? You’ll try to get rid of him. The traditional Jewish punishment of stoning was still sometimes spontaneously used, as we see from the story of the woman caught in adultery . But around AD 30, Rome took away the Jewish right to execute someone. But it further suited the purposes of the religious establishment to have Jesus crucified, because then by being hung on a tree he would be subject to a curse, according to Deuteronomy. It’s sobering what lengths human beings will go to in order to exclude someone they regard as a misfit.
I’ve talked before in sermons about the way we wrongly fit Jesus into our own preferred image and can’t cope with the fact that he won’t be confined to it. Recently, I read something helpful that a friend posted on Facebook. Pam is an American Christian (a Methodist minister, in fact) who recently returned to the USA from the UK. She has obviously been listening to the famous American radio show ‘A Prairie Home Companion’, hosted by the author Garrison Keillor, author of the well-known series of books that began with ‘Lake Wobegon Days’. Keillor, a Christian of Lutheran and now Episcopalian background, tells fictionalised stories based on life in rural Minnesota. They often draw on his My friend Pam quoted a gem from a recent broadcast by Keillor:
Jesus came to earth and disappointed a lot of people.
When you follow Jesus, he will disappoint you. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day were quickly disappointed by him. He won’t conform, and life with him will not always go the way we want it to. For he is king, and it is his rule that matters.
The question therefore comes, what will we do with our disappointment? Will we attempt to banish or exclude him, like the Jewish establishment of two thousand years ago? Or will we continue to follow him, mixing joy and disappointment? It’s a hard choice, but let’s remember that only those who continued with Jesus through disappointment got to see him in his risen glory.
Thirdly, King Jesus is a problem for us today. It’s simply this: even if Jesus radically reinterpets kingship into a peaceful form, it’s still a reworking based on a notion of kingship that has very little equivalent in our world today. We may still have a monarchy, but our Queen is meant to act on the advice of her ministers. Largely, therefore, she gives Royal Assent to Bills in Parliament that have been shaped by politicians. She retains certain powers, but they are much diminished. She is no absolute monarch. Long gone are the days when we spoke about ‘the divine right of kings’.
And in other cultures, the gap is even greater. How do you think about King Jesus when you live in a republic with a President as head of state? The American Christian author and speaker Brian McLaren has spoken of his cultural struggle with the biblical references to kingship and the kingdom of God. He suggests an alternative. We should refer to ‘the revolution of God’.
I think that’s helpful! If following King Jesus joins us up to the revolution of God, then one thing is certain: we are not in for a quiet, cosy time, at least not in the way some church communities seem to envisage. We are called instead to a dynamic, challenging, risky way of life.
A risk-free existence can look very attractive for a while. Although the fine line between risk-free and unbearably boring is easily crossed. But those who want risk-free should never become Christians. To follow Jesus means risking all to follow him. I was recently reminded that the Church of Scotland report ‘Church Without Walls’ says that the essence of church is ‘People with Jesus at the centre, travelling wherever Jesus takes us.’ The whole fresh expressions initiative is about allowing Jesus to take us to those whom our existing churches do not reach, and working with him, as he forms a new group of people, who are willing to go wherever he takes them. That inevitably involves risk.
Because that is the logical conclusion of the other two issues we have thought about. Risk. It will be risky to follow King Jesus in the ways I have suggested. People who campaign for the poor in public life and do so in a peaceable way may end up on crosses. People who are willing to keep following Jesus even through disappointments are not signing up for a safe and quiet life, even if they do live with the hope of resurrection. But we remember how Jesus finally answered Pilate:
‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ (Verse 37)
Nothing else is the way of truth.
 Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentary), p215.
Extract from a new book about the ability of introverts to lead in church and business, despite cultural expectations (especially in the USA) that favour extraverts. The article cites research that shows that in fact the larger-than-life, dominant characters set up their successors for failure.
Discussion on the ShIp Of Fools Forum about experiences of NewFrontiers churches.
Academic study using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator of 'lead elders' (cf. pastors, ministers) in Newfrontiers, contrasting them with a similar study of Anglican clergy. The article suggests where certain statistically significant differences might make for different attitudes to church life and leadership.
Discussion on the ShIp Of Fools Forum about experiences of NewFrontiers churches.
Academic study using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator of 'lead elders' (cf. pastors, ministers) in Newfrontiers, contrasting them with a similar study of Anglican clergy. The article suggests where certain statistically significant differences might make for different attitudes to church life and leadership.
Do read this challenging article, ‘Derivatives With A Twist‘, by Alan Roxburgh. It contains a powerful story of a Victorian expedition that sought to find the north west passage around the Arctic. All the sailors died, but they set out not with the appropriate provisions and equipment for a trip to frozen wastelands. Rather, they packed the ship with artefacts of their home culture , such as bone china, a library of books and an organ.
There are shattering parallels for the missionary intentions of many churches. We want ‘them’ to come to ‘us’ but we expect them to enter our world. It’s rather like when my sister spent three months working in Rwanda with a mission agency at a hospital. Sunday morning church might not have featured bells to call people to worship, there were drums. But the service? Pure Church of England Book of Common Prayer, direct from 1662 England.
And I suggest many of us are no better. We’re right that people who find faith need incorporation into the family of God. But we assume we’re ‘it’. How necessary it is to journey into the culture we are seeking to reach and incarnate the Gospel there.
The Roxburgh article features an interview with an Australian Christian, Simon Carey Holt, who tells a shocking story of his time living in Los Angeles. A multiple drive-by murder, made more horrific by the mistaken identity involved, happened outside his house. The local community gathered there two days later and held an informal, unstructured vigil. Down the road was a megachurch. Their regular attendance was 9000 and they had 100 pastors on staff. Not one of those people attended the vigil. Why? None of them lived in the neighbourhood and therefore none of them knew about the atrocity. If they knew, they would have cared. But they commuted into church and drove back to their own communities. An opportunity to show Christian love was missed.
So what bone china do we carry that we should ditch? How might we be in the neighbourhood rather than caught up in our own culture?
Do you ever wonder what on earth Jesus is playing at? Because I do when I read this passage. Just before this story, Jesus and his disciples have been inside the Jerusalem Temple. They have witnessed the flamboyant giving of the rich, and the sacrificial giving of the widow with her mite. Jesus, you remember, commends the widow who gives all she has to live on. But now, having praised her contribution to the Temple, he announces its destruction. What exactly is the point?
Jesus is using graphic language about cataclysmic events to make his followers face important issues about faith and discipleship. He poses them some challenging questions. By inference, he challenges us, too, to get our priorities of faith right.
Firstly, he challenges their priorities about the Temple. The disciples sound so much like typical Methodists to me, when they say, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (verse 1). They sound exactly like church members welcoming a prospective minister who is considering a possible invitation to their circuit. (I can’t think why that is on my mind … ) They make a show of the building.
But Jesus asks, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down’ (verse 2). Better not worship the buildings: that’s idolatry. Yet it’s a common temptation for many of us. It’s not that we can do without buildings: any gathering of a certain size will need a building, whether owned or rented. But the problem is one of false worship.
For me, this became clearer this week in my studies for today which made me reflect on the fact that there are two New Testament Greek words used for ‘temple’. One means the buildings and surrounding area of the Temple, the other refers to the inner sanctuary, where God was believed to dwell. In this passage, Jesus uses the first word. He says the buildings will be destroyed, not the presence of God.
What about the second word, the word for the place of God’s presence? Jesus uses that elsewhere, to apply to himself. You may recall the time he said, ‘Destroy this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days’ (see Mark 14:58), meaning his own body in death and resurrection.
So what’s the crux of this point? Jesus tells his disciples – and us – that buildings may come and go (even beautiful religious ones) but the presence of God cannot be destroyed. Jesus, not a church building, is our temple, because the Holy Spirit, the presence of God, dwells in him. Which is also why Paul would refer to groups of disciples as the temple of the Holy Spirit, because God’s Spirit was present in their midst.
And if that’s the case, then it’s the gathering that matters more than the gathering place. The building needs to be suitable, we should take appropriate care of it, and so on, but what drives everything is the core issue of gathering to meet the risen Christ. That is our non-negotiable: meeting Jesus. Everything else may be nice, but is secondary and serves the main purpose of worshipping at the Temple which is the presence of Christ. It means we hold all other accoutrements lightly, including as our buildings.
But this isn’t just some reason to scold people who idolise church buildings. It’s also good news. How many Christian congregations are weighed down with the burden of maintaining a building when it has got beyond their capabilities? How many churches become obsessed with property and finance issues rather than the Gospel? Jesus reorders our priorities. However important it seems to us that we expend all our energies and finances on buildings, there are times when a proper concentration on Jesus relieves us of that pressure. So hear the good news: Jesus, not the fabric, is our Temple.
Secondly, Jesus challenges their priorities about Time. They get obsessed about the future:
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ (Verses 3-4)
You might think they are like the kinds of Christians who go on endlessly about the end of the world, predicting the date of the Second Coming and terrifying people with visions of fire and brimstone. It rather sounds like one of those ‘The end is nigh’ routines, complete with statutory sandwich boards and tracts.
And if that’s the case, you might wonder what on earth they have to do with people in churches like ours. When we hear Jesus’ rebuke to them, we might think, “Good on you, Jesus, go for it!”
But maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty to be self-righteous and comfortable. For it might just be that we fall into an opposite temptation. One preacher described the danger we face in these words:
I think that a more common “wrong” view in our day is an understanding that there is no end. Rather than living our lives today guided by the future Jesus has promised, we are guided by today or the past, e.g., “This is the way we’ve always done it.” Congregations (and individuals?) should be pulled ahead by a vision of the future rather than be pushed by the past — or worse, seeking to return to the past that no longer exists.
How easy that would be for us, whether we are worrying about whether our church has a long-term future, or whether we are planning for a centenary in two years’ time. Both could be reasons for looking back and living in the past. We could retreat to the cosy warmth of our memories.
But Jesus won’t let us live like that. He won’t let us slip into the habit of detailed predictions about the end of the world, but he does call us to look forward. As the hymn puts it,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
Some of us find it easy to praise him for the past, but harder to trust him for what is to come. Our future vision for the church is filled with images of struggle, decline and closure.
What are we to do? Just as our view of the Temple must be Jesus-centred, so our view of Time must be focussed on Christ. For Christians, the ultimate future is filled with one vision: the kingdom of God. It is a conviction that the final victory belongs already to Jesus. He has conquered sin and death. The last enemy will fall.
Every time we take Holy Communion, we allow this vision to fill our sight. For we are not only remembering the past with gratitude, we are enjoying ‘a foretaste of the banquet prepared for all the world’. We celebrate the Last Supper, and we anticipate the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.
Let us allow the Scriptures and the worship of the Church give us a proper perspective on Time in the economy of God. And let that give us a proper, proportionate sense of hope.
All of this implies a third and final challenge. Jesus challenges their priorities about Truth. For his response, which leads to all the talk about ‘wars and rumours of wars’ and ‘the beginning of the birth pangs’ (verses 7-8), starts with the words,
Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. (Verses 5-6)
What kind of leading astray is going on here? Leading people astray from Jesus himself. This is about a host of temptations to divert from the Truth himself. At a simple level, it’s about those who peddle false Christs, as in cults and heretical sects. So the image of Jesus in the Jehovah’s Witnesses that makes him less than fully divine is a leading astray from the Truth. The image of Jesus who blesses married people more than singles as in Mormonism is another deviation from the Truth. Or the Christian Scientists who say that illness is an illusion cannot match up with the Jesus who healed the sick of very real diseases.
So far, so easy, so smug. But I believe we have to recognise that we have similar problems even within the boundaries of the Christian Church, among those whose basic beliefs about Jesus are thoroughly orthodox, consistent with Scripture and the affirmations of the ancient Creeds. We go in for a ‘leading astray’ from Jesus the Truth, too.
What we do is we conjure a picture of Jesus according to our own preferences. One give-away is when someone says, “I like to think of Jesus as like …”. What follows might be helpful, but more often is simply an image of Jesus conditioned by the preferences of the speaker.
Another example would be something that happened to me after a service once. I had expounded a Gospel passage where Jesus said some difficult, if not tough words. I tried to explain what those words might mean. Afterwards, a man told me Jesus couldn’t possibly have said those words. Why not? Because they didn’t fit his preconceived ideas of what Jesus was about. On that basis, the witness of those who were closer to him was dismissed. If the Jesus presented in the Gospels doesn’t fit what we want, we leave those bits out.
And so we become very selective about Jesus, even in the Church. We take the bits we like and pretend the other parts aren’t there. For some, Jesus is a politician or social worker. For others, he is an evangelist who calls people to a code of personal morality. For others he is a teacher or a healer. Yet in the Scriptures he is an evangelist, a pastor, a healer and a proponent of social justice.
Above all, he is Lord, and he will not submit to the way we miniaturise him in order to fit what we religious consumers will buy. It is not for him to fit into our vision; it is for us to fit into his vision. Anything else is to be led astray, often willingly.
The great Christian leader John Stott used to begin his sermon preparation for Sunday the preceding Monday by reading the Bible passage he was to preach about on his knees. It wasn’t that he worshipped the Bible; rather, he recognised that the text conveyed to him the will of the sovereign Lord to whom he must submit. That is the example we need to cultivate: one that rejects the picking and choosing of what suits us.
In conclusion, then, every single priority of faith and discipleship to which Jesus calls us turns out to be a focussing on him. Our ‘Temple’ priority is to see him as the location of God’s presence, rather than a building. Our ‘Time’ priority is to let his perspective of the future determine our attitudes to the past, present and future. And our ‘Truth’ priority is to stop being selective about Jesus or making him in our own image. Instead, we bow the knee to him as Lord.
After all, wasn’t ‘Jesus is Lord’ the earliest Christian confession?
A new family comedy film called Nativity! about a school nativity play that gains the interest of Hollywood is released in British cinemas on 27th November. For those with long memories of British TV comedy, it may bring back the nativity sketch from ‘Three Of A Kind’.
The movie stars Martin Freeman of ‘The Office‘ fame, along with other big British names such as Ashley Jensen from Extras (so that’s two stars from programmes originated by Ricky Gervais), John Sessions, Ricky Tomlinson and Alan Carr.
Damaris Trust has been commissioned to provide resource materials for churches to use in discussion and outreach (and which will, effectively, promote the film in church circles). Below is a trailer. Enjoy!
Well, what a great day I’ve had. I serve on the committee of the Essex Christian Healing Trust, and today was our AGM. You wouldn’t think an AGM made for a great day, would you? Well, we did the business – accounts, elections and so on – in thirty minutes over lunch. The rest of the day was a wonderful conference, led by John and Gillian Ryeland from the Christian Healing Mission in London.
Now I ought to declare a connection before going any further: Gillian is a friend of mine from teenage days. (Note, Gillian, if you read this – I didn’t say old friend!) We went to the same secondary school, and before she married an Anglican vicar she was a member of the same Methodist circuit where I grew up. We were in a circuit youth preaching team together, where I gained my first experience of leading worship and preaching. I have met her and John on and off over the years – usually at the Christian Resources Exhibition!
Today, John gave us a series of talks called ‘Meeting Jesus – Finding Healing’. You can find MP3s of these talks when John gave them on an earlier occasion here. Essentially, John’s teaching could be broken down into a rough structure, something like this. The first stage was to remind us thoroughly that God the Father, Abba, dearly loves us. He took various word images from Ephesians 1 to reinforce this.
The story I most liked was an illustration he gave of forgiveness. He said that many people pictured the way God takes away our sins as if they are a document he takes out of our hands and places in a filing cabinet. They are not on view, but when we sin again and are forgiven, another document goes into that cabinet. The file gets bigger, and God can bring out the whole file to accuse us. This, however, is contradictory to the scriptural notion that God ‘remembers our sins no more’. Rather than put our sins in a filing cabinet, he said, the office equipment God uses is a shredder. I love that: our sins are shredded.
Having begun with the Father’s love, John’s second stage was to raise our expectation that we may meet with Jesus and hear him speak to us. Quoting John 10, ‘My sheep hear my voice’, he encouraged us to be more optimistic that we can hear the voice of Jesus. Without wishing us to lack discernment, he said that many Christians are more afraid of deception than they are expectant that Jesus will speak to them.
That led to a third stage of interaction with Jesus. If he has spoken, what is our response? It puts the focus away from the problem and onto Christ. It takes us away from agonising over the will of God, because everything is a response to God. Christ sets the agenda.
All this he built into a prayer model that we can use for ourselves or to accompany someone who comes with a prayer request. Firstly using volunteers and later encouraging us to try this with each other in pairs, the prayer minister encourages the person with the need to dwell quietly on the love of God the Father for them. This was like brief, guided prayer. Then the prayer minister asks the person to sense where Jesus is. Some could describe that geographically (“He is right here”, indicating with a hand). Others did so by describing something they sensed or saw in their mind’s eye. Then the prayer minister encourages the person to hear what Jesus is saying to them. This is followed by considering how to respond to that.
I have described the method briefly. This is a summary of three talks, so about two hours’ worth of material. There are some obvious caveats to apply, but I found it a helpful, simple and liberating approach. I had two experiences where I had a clear encounter with Jesus, and he said significant things to me about a major crisis I have been facing over a period of months. I’m afraid I can’t give you any specifics here, because the nature of the issue is that it’s one I can’t discuss publicly. What I can say is, be encouraged. I hope this commends the Christian Healing Mission to you.
That headline pains me. I’m not convinced by the Apple fanboys. But … no-one can deny the effectiveness of Steve Jobs as a communicator. There is now a book out entitled ‘The Presentation Secrets Of Steve Jobs: How To Be Insanely Great In Front Of Any Audience‘. Now while the subtitle itself gives away some reservations I might have as a Christian – the purpose of a preacher is not to be great but to show the greatness of Christ – I read this article and thought that some of the key points might be worthwhile thinking for preachers. The author of the book, Carmine Gallo, lists five elements that are present every time Steve Jobs speaks in public. They are:
1. A headline – a short slogan present throughout the talk and the publicity.
2. A villain – from IBM in 1984 to Microsoft today, Apple sets itself up as a good guy in opposition to ‘evil’.
3. A simple slide – not wordy bullet points but a slide mixing minimal text with strong images.
4. A demo – he shows the new product working, and he has fun with it.
5. A ‘holy smokes moment’ – something incredibly memorable.
Do read the article and come back here to tell me what you think about the strengths and weaknesses of these ideas from the perspective of Christian communication.