Monthly Archives: November 2010

Sermon, Advent: Time To Wake Up

Romans 13:11-14

One of my least favourite, but most necessary, possessions is the alarm clock. Without it, someone like me, who is constitutionally a night owl, would oversleep every morning. I cannot say I appreciate the insistent beeping that says, “Listen to me, I am so annoying. Just get up and switch me off.” While other people bounce out of bed, energised to meet the new day, I wish the god of sleep had not been dethroned for yet another day.

The apostle Paul wouldn’t have known about alarm clocks, but he describes Advent in a manner that is like seeing it as God’s alarm clock. It urgently tells us God’s time. It tells us that

our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (verse 11)

and that

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here (verse 12).

Advent is the season that tells us God’s time. It tells us not simply that Christ is coming in terms of his birth at Christmas, it tells us that he will one day appear again, this time not in obscurity but in glory.

In these terms, we might get nervous about Advent as an alarm clock. The thought that ‘our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed’ makes us think of those Christians who are forever predicting that Jesus will come again very soon. Their predictions always fail, and we are left with the Christian faith being discredited by what is either well-meaning error or cynical emotional blackmail. We want none of that. We know that Jesus said no-one knew when he was coming again.

But the basic truth which Paul elucidates here must be true: our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The fullness of God’s kingdom is closer. There is less time until the general resurrection of the dead, and God brings in his new heavens and new earth.

God wants to tell us his time. He will not tell us when Jesus is returning, but the fact that he is has an effect upon the way that we live the Christian life. With an alarm clock, there is no room for complacency. It rings or beeps incessantly, until we do something about it. And that is what God is doing at Advent. He is saying to us, this is no time to be lax about being a Christian. Rather, this is a time to be active, deliberate and full of intent as a follower of Jesus. Like the t-shirt slogan says, ‘Jesus is coming: better look busy!’

Telling the Advent time, then, is about living with a sense of urgency. Not frantic, not haunted or hunted, but urgent.

That’s all very well, but what does that mean? Paul calls us to two actions that we need to do when the alarm clock goes off. The first is to wake up:

The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber (verse 11).

In a service where we have already baptised Leo, ‘wake up’ may be a theme that provokes certain thoughts and emotions from Kim and Mark! While I hope that at two years old, Leo has long since established a sleep pattern, there are doubtless still plenty of occasions when his parents don’t need an alarm clock, because they are woken by his calling.

What does it mean to wake up when we discover the urgency of God’s time? Partly, it is about the urgency of which I spoke a moment ago. When we know that the grains of sand are trickling down through God’s timer, then we know we need to wake up and get on with things. The alarm clock says, if you don’t get on with things now, you’ll be late for work. And you don’t want that. The crying baby says, I have an urgent need. Come to me!

What kind of person is ‘awake’, according to Paul? It is one who is prepared for the end of the night and the breaking of the dawn. For Paul, the ‘night’ is the present evil age, the age of sin, which Christ came to conquer and redeem in the Cross. The ‘day’ that is ‘close at hand’ (verse 12) is the kingdom of God, where God reigns in love, justice and grace. If we have heard God’s Advent alarm clock, we want to be living as if it is daylight, not as if it is night.

So if I am to be ‘awake’ in the sight of God, I will be a person who embraces the kingdom of God. I will be someone who lives according to the values and principles of God’s coming age, even when they conflict with the darkness of the contemporary ‘night’ in which we find ourselves living.

Therefore, to live awake as if in God’s daytime is to live by love for God and for neighbour. To be awake in Christ is to live in a spirit that forswears revenge in favour of forgiveness. To live in the day means to show God’s special concern for the poor and the obscure, instead of the popular fantasies that prefer the wealthy, the powerful and the celebrities. To be awake in the kingdom of God is to live a life based on the fact that the most precious thing in all the world is to know that I am ‘loved with an everlasting love’ by Almighty God in Jesus Christ. I do not then take my significance or status from my job or my social standing: to do so is a vanity, compared with God’s love for me in Christ. To live as awake in the light of Christ is to know that God’s words are a light to my path, not to let the loud but passing fads of our culture steer our lives.

Advent, then, is a call to wake up to God’s time: that Jesus who came will come again. It means we need to wake up and live in God’s daylight. I’ve just suggested a few examples of what that will mean for us.

But to do so requires a determined attitude. When we wake up, there are various things we need to do in order to face what life has for us. One such thing is to get dressed, and that is the other thing Paul calls us to do here: get dressed. In fact, he says it twice, in slightly different language each time:

So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. (Verse 12)

Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (verse 14).

‘Put on’; ‘clothe yourselves’. Get dressed. Wear on the one hand ‘the armour of light’ or on the other hand ‘the Lord Jesus Christ’. What are we to take from these images? I believe it’s something to do with the fact that to live according to the daylight of God’s kingdom rather than the night-time of the present age is going to take an effort. We need to be intentional about it – that is, it won’t just happen to us. The old slogan ‘let go and let God’ may be valuable in teaching us to trust God, but if we think we don’t have a responsibility for our actions, we’re tragically mistaken. We need to co-operate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We shall live by his power, but we need to say ‘yes’ to walking in his ways.

We have all the resources of Jesus Christ, but we still need to ‘put him on’ – to be ‘clothed in Christ’. God shines his light, but we still need to ‘put on the armour of light’.

And perhaps ‘armour’ is a telling image for the clothing we wear. To wake up and live in God’s daytime is to accept not merely that we will live differently from the world. It is to accept that to do so will mean we need the protection of divine armour, because we shall find ourselves in a conflict, and sometimes under attack for doing so. The trouble with living by daylight is that light starts to shine into darkened places, and the darkness no more welcomes that than a dictatorship embraces dissidents. If we put on the armour of light, we are the dissidents of the world.

Think about it in relation to the examples I mentioned a minute or two ago: loving God and loving neighbour sounds attractive – after all Girl Guides promise to love God and do good – but while society will accept this up to a point, what our culture really wants to believe is that charity begins at home. In other words, we put ourselves first. Forgiving those who wrong us may get some admiring coverage for a while, but ultimately it’s a challenge to those who always need to find a scapegoat to blame for everything. Finding our status in the love of God rather than in our job or our social standing turns our society’s way of putting people in their place upside down. Favouring the poor and the marginalised may win you certain plaudits, but in the long run our economy can’t run that way, because it’s structured to thrive as much by our purchasing the things we don’t need as anything else.

It requires determination, then, to wake up and get dressed in the light of God’s time. Right now, Paul places us at the end of the night, as dawn is coming. Night is fleeing, the day is on its way. But his image breaks down, because he is imagining not a sequence where day follows night but a clash between night and day. If we live in God’s coming daylight, we shall be drawn into that conflict until the time of God’s final and ultimate triumph over the night. Sometimes, the forces of the night will inflict suffering on the armies of the day. That is to be expected for a community that was formed around the sinless Son of God who was crucified on false charges.

But … we are not merely the community of the Cross, but of the Empty Cross. We are the people of the Empty Tomb. We who are called to wake up and live in the light of God’s coming day are those who do so, knowing what the future holds. The final chapter of Revelation, the final book in the Bible, contains an image of God’s people in God’s new Jerusalem that is pertinent to our theme this morning. Revelation 22:5 says this:

There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.

Friends, as the Advent alarm clock rings and we wake up, determined to get dressed and live in the light of God’s coming day regardless of the temporary presence of the remaining night, we do so knowing the future God has for us. Whatever the darkness does to us now, the Advent hope is not merely that the light of Christ comes into the world. It is that it will prevail.

Whatever the evidence looks like at times, when we commit our lives to following Jesus, we sign up with the winning side.

That’s the Advent hope.

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Jack Rutter

On Saturday, I had  the privilege of conducting a memorial service for a church member who had recently died. His professional significance was such that an obituary will be appearing in The Guardian, probably next week. This text will soon be cross-posted on our church site, along with the audio of this tribute.

Jack was born within the sound of Bow Bells to Arthur and Amy Rutter. He had three younger sisters, Frances, Cecily (who died in 1989) and Noel. He grew up in Worcester Park and then Guildford, where he attended the Royal Grammar School.

From the Royal Grammar he went to Imperial College to study Botany. He graduated in 1938 and then began PhD research. With the advent of the war, he was called into a reserved occupation, where he studied how to increase crop yield to reduce British dependency on imported food. Alongside this, he joined the Home Guard, where he learned how to make Molotov Cocktails.

During the War, he travelled across the country – difficult journeys that often meant cycling. On one occasion he was at a wedding in Bristol where he met Betsy Stone, a nurse from Bridgwater, who was working at Bristol General Hospital. He was the first of Betsy’s boyfriends to win her mother’s approval! They married in 1944, and had three children: Margaret, Bill and John.

Jack completed his PhD and began lecturing at Imperial. Later, as we know, he would become Professor of Botany, until his retirement in 1979. His research centred on the hydrology of the Scots Pine, and his work would carry him from Forestry Commission land in this country to Rhodesia (as it was) and the island of Aldabra, 250 miles north of Madagascar. He also went on an academic exchange to Pakistan, and was able to take the family with him. While he was there, he had dysentery, only to be cured when a colleague made a goat stew and fed it to him. He and the family also explored up the Khyber Pass to the border with Afghanistan, where they met some ‘interesting’ tribesmen with guns.

He gave an illustrated talk about his work on Aldabra to a women’s meeting here at the church. His knowledge of Botany also meant giving advice to the Queen on her gardens. Then more humbly he ran a garden stall at the church bazaar, assisted by Helen Baker and Robb Peters. He also contributed a Christmas tree to the church for many years, once digging up one from Pauline and Jim Holden’s garden in Mayford. He helped Christine with the cultivation of a Mahonia plant that still flourishes as a bush in her garden. She is offering cuttings from it to anyone who would like one in Jack’s memory.

Back home, the family lived in Brookwood and then in Knaphill, where their house had a one-acre garden. Jack mowed the grass, cut the hedges, took care of the thirty fruit trees and grew fruit and vegetables. Betsy produced the jam. Jack also made wine from the grapes on the vine. He was also a beekeeper and produced several jars of honey a year. Through Marilyn Meller’s involvement in the Guides, he tested the one Guide who was brave enough to take on the beekeeper’s badge.

For all Jack’s professional foreign travel, family holidays were generally taken in England, and usually in locations that offered opportunities for good walking and visiting cultural locations as well as the seaside. So places such as Pembrokeshire, North Wales, Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales featured.

Betsy was a nurse, and worked with Pauline Holden at the Health Visitors’ Clinic at Pirbright Village Hall. When she became terminally ill, she was under no illusions about what would happen and set about teaching Jack housekeeping and cookery.

Betsy died in 1978, the year before Jack retired, and in his retirement these skills became useful, not only for himself but for others. He cooked for others, and invited people to stay with him in his home. He cared for a teenage girl who had been thrown out of home by her father and stepmother. He fed two or three street people, who sometimes used to stay for two or three days. He took in someone who had had a breakdown, even though he hardly knew the person at the time. He also took over one particular concern of Betsy’s. She had always taken an interested in a lady in the village called Jean who had a son with special needs. The son went to live in a home and Betsy took her to visit him in Botley’s Park Hospital, Chertsey, every Sunday afternoon. When Betsy died, Jack took over these duties until both son and mother died about ten years ago.

Jack was extremely active in church life here. I have just noted his particular care for people, but there are some other incidents to mention. He was a class leader, as we sometimes call them in the Methodist Church, or pastoral visitor. One family he visited was Marilyn Meller’s. He visited her mother, Irene Elliot, in the farmhouse delivering the monthly magazine on a Thursday evening and would help her pack eggs into boxes ready for Marilyn’s egg round the next day. He would visit Marilyn and Tom at White Lodge after he had had his lunch, and talk about farming with them. he took an interest in their family, including their two daughters.

On other Thursdays he attended the Thursday evening fellowship group. Members of the group enjoyed sharing with him, and valued the contributions he made to the discussions. He could recite poetry and biblical passages.

Then there is the Spice Girls story. For those of you who don’t know, the Spice Girls recorded their earliest tracks in Knaphill. They used to have lunch breaks at the King’s House Coffee Shop, which is run by four of the churches in the village. A film was made of their early days, and a scene was recreated in the King’s House. Jack, who worked in there voluntarily, played the rôle of the waiter. He had to reel off a list of the available snacks – cheese sandwiches, ham rolls and so on. Finally, he had to deliver a line, the significance of which he did not understand:

“Tell me what you want, what you really, really want.”

He took an interest in the church youth club, often turning up on a Saturday evening to chat with everyone and make sure that the heating was working.

Indeed, the heating was but one aspect of the church property for which he cared, but the boiler room was the location where one day a fairy godmother left him a bottle of his favourite Guinness. He also made a new wooden gate for the car park and put in posts to hold up the fence around the church building.

However, not all Jack’s adventures with the church property went smoothly. Famously, he was one day climbing through the loft space to change some light bulbs when he accidentally put his foot through the ceiling. How he didn’t fall right down, nobody knows. Later, though, he made an almost invisible repair.

Then there was the time when he once covered the church cleaning for Helen Chamberlain while she was on holiday. During that period, he and Robb Peters decided to sand the church floor. They only did half, due to the sandstorm they created, which took twelve weeks to settle.

Finally on the subject of church work, as well as his pastoral and property duties, Jack was also for a period of time the church treasurer in an age before computerised accounts. He scrupulously kept a contingency fund for emergencies, decades before the Methodist Church required all local churches to formulate a reserves policy.

In the last few years before Betsy died, she and Jack holidayed in the Western Isles of Scotland. He continued to do this after they died, until he was about 90. He planned his routes, travelled light and walked long distances, befriending many B & B owners on his travels. He also continued to travel abroad, visiting relatives in Canada several times and attending a wedding in India.

In 1994, he could see that one day he would not be able to cope with the large garden in Knaphill, and moved to his bungalow in Goldsworth Park. He remained fit, active and independent until around the age of 90. That was when those close to him started to notice a change in his mental powers. He gave up driving a few months before reaching 92.

Jack leaves six grandchildren: They are: Margaret & Adrians’s children: Henry, Thomas and Emily;

Bill and Corrie’s son, Philip; and John and Esther’s children, Jennifer and Jack. He also leaves a great-grandson, Arthur, Henry and Cat’s son.

But he also leaves behind many more friends, and so many others whose lives he touched by his love and through his great gifts and talents. No longer for Jack the confusion of these last two or three years, but the peaceful sleep of rest, and the resurrection to come into a new, healed body in which he can continue to serve Jesus Christ.

And who knows what talents a resurrected Jack Rutter will have in God’s new creation?

links for 2010-11-22

Jesus Had HIV

There has been much coverage this week of the South African pastor who began a sermon by saying that ‘Jesus had HIV‘. I know I am not alone in being saddened by those who have opposed Pastor Skosana. Nearby Baptist pastor Mike Bele is offended, because ‘Christ is supreme and Christ is God’, but Skosana is not saying this is literally true, he is saying that Jesus always identified with the broken and the marginalised. Therefore the first thing to say is that this is emphasising a theology of incarnation.

But not only that, this is about an orthodox, dare I say conservative, doctrine of the atonement. By Pastor Bele’s account, 2 Corinthians 5:21 would only say of Christ, ‘him who had no sin’, but the entire verse says:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

We may want to protect the sinlessness of Christ (‘him who had no sin’), but Paul decisively aligns that with Christ’s identification with sinners on the Cross. Verses like these are behind the most substitutionary understandings of the atonement you can find in Christian theology. If you believe that God laid the sins of the world upon Jesus on the Cross, and if you believe that HIV is often contracted through sinful acts (both positions held by many conservative Christians), then it makes sense to talk metaphorically of Jesus having HIV. What’s the big deal unless you want to keep Jesus in heaven, never assuming human flesh to come and die for the salvation of the world? If you hold a conservative theology, I believe you should applaud Pastor Skosana, not demonise him.

Let me link this with some British history. In 1923, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the future King George VI. The BBC wanted to broadcast the service on radio. Who objected? Not the Royal Family, but the Church. The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey protested, saying that ‘men may be listening in public houses with their hats on.’

Maybe we laugh at that story now, but it betrays a religious attitude that majors only on people who are ‘not good enough’ and denies them the welcome (and challenge) of grace. For me, those who reject Pastor Skosana’s approach are people who will only preach ‘you are not good enough’ and not offer grace. Or they are, if they logically follow through with their objections. I know they will deny that, but to me that seems to be the logic.

But I can’t end this short piece without also pointing out another obvious matter, namely that HIV is not always contracted through sinful actions. Many who contract it do so as innocent victims. Some catch it in the womb. Some wives catch it from infected husbands who think they will be cured by sexual intercourse with a virgin.

And therefore the ‘Jesus had HIV’ metaphor has further power: it is not only about Jesus’ identification with sinners, it is about his identification with the sinned-against.  Salvation from sin is about freedom from the penalty, practice and presence of sin. Salvation from the presence of sin is not only about anticipating God’s coming new creation, it is about the healing ministry with victims today.

May Xola Skosana challenge us all into a lifestyle that identifies with both sinners and the sinned-against.

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