Monthly Archives: March 2012

Sermon For Palm Sunday: Where’s Wally?

I expect you’re familiar with the ‘Where’s Wally?’ pictures and illustrated books. You see a large, detailed picture containing hundreds of people and your task is to find Willy. Unless you are tuned in to what Wally looks like, or you have eagle eyes, it will take you quite a while to find him. Our dentist has a large ‘Where’s Wally?’ picture on the wall in her surgery to occupy the children.
Similarly, our children’s school recently had a Book Week and on the Friday invited children to dress up as their favourite book characters. So did the staff. The Head came dressed as Wally, and challenged the children to find him later in the day. It was a bit unfair: he hadn’t told them he would be changing back into his suit and going to a meeting elsewhere!
What does that have to do with Palm Sunday? It’s a story with a lot of hiddenness about it. We are so used to thinking that Jesus comes in on a donkey to demonstrate that he is the Messiah, fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah. In particular, we point out that to come in riding an ass means that he was coming in peace, not in war. We think he is acclaimed as Messiah by the crowds as they sing, ‘Hosanna’.
But, but, but! We may know that Jesus fulfils Zechariah’s prophecy, but Mark doesn’t quote it. You need eyes to see. We may know that he was claiming to be king, but the Romans didn’t seem worried about this little demonstration. We may acclaim Jesus as Messiah, but when the crowds sang ‘Hosanna’ they didn’t quite go that far in what they said.
It’s all hidden. It only becomes apparent later. You need to know the rest of the story. You need to read the Scriptures in the light of Jesus. You need the help of the Holy Spirit. At the time, had you lived in Jerusalem and witnessed what we call ‘The Triumphal Entry’, you wouldn’t have guessed.
What, then, do we know that wasn’t apparent at the time?

Firstly
, we see the Triumphal Entry as a sacred duty. On Palm Sunday, I always recall an Anglican church that was a neighbour to one previous Methodist church I served. Every Palm Sunday, they would always have a donkey in church. The reason I never forget this, is because the donkey had a name. Dave. Dave the Donkey appeared every year. For some reason, certain people made it their business to ensure I always knew about him.
And the donkey – laughing stock character as it is to some – is where we get the sense of sacredness and holiness on Palm Sunday. How so? Well, have you ever wondered why Mark goes to such detail to talk about the animal? Clearly it’s significant. Note Jesus’ specification: it is to be ‘a colt that has never been ridden’ (verse 2). This seems to reflect the Old Testament requirements that animals used for holy purposes had in every way to be unblemished. Jesus is making clear to his disciples his intention that the manner in which he will enter Jerusalem shows that this journey is a sacred duty.
The nature of Jesus’ entry as a holy task, a sacred duty, will not surprise you. But who in heaven and earth focusses on a donkey for such work?
Jesus, that’s who. A humble ass is the way he makes clear to those with eyes to see the nature of what he is doing. It’s part of that whole approach to life in our faith which deeply values the physical and the material. Archbishop William Temple said that Christianity is ‘the most avowedly materialist’ of all religions. That is a claim that sounds shocking to our ears when we have been taught that materialism is wrong. And if materialism means worshipping material things, then it is wrong.
But if materialism simply means valuing the material aspects of life, then we see that our faith is shot through with materialism. We believe in a Creator God. We believe in Jesus who took on human flesh, and whose lasting symbols are water, bread and wine. We believe in the resurrection of the dead – and that means bodily resurrection, there is no other kind. Our ethical beliefs touch on the most material and physical aspects of life – money, sex and so on.
Sometimes, though, we veer off this course. When someone dies we are prone to saying that their body was just a shell for the real person, but this is wrong. When we grieve a death, we are waiting for the day when that person will be raised to new life with a resurrection body animated by the Holy Spirit.
All of which is to say that when we look at Jesus’ use of the donkey for his purposes, let us dedicate the physical and material dimensions of our lives to his glory. Let us seek to use our physical bodies and material possessions in a holy way. When we take up the offering later in the service, let us remember that we are not simply raising enough subscriptions to keep an institution going, we are offering the physical to God in holy worship and service. We shall live out the meaning of the offertory prayer every day.
Secondly, let’s look at the use of the Scriptures in this story. There are a few things to put together here. One is what I mentioned at the beginning, namely that there are hints in this story that Jesus fulfils the prophecy of Zechariah about a messianic king coming to Jerusalem in peace. Another in the use of the donkey seems to reference at text in Genesis (49:11) which is part of Jacob’s blessing of his sons, but which was later taken as a messianic prophecy. Finally, we have the crowds singing ‘Hosanna’, and in doing so quoting one of the Psalms, and in particular one that was used by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem either for the Passover or the Feast of Tabernacles. It isn’t strictly a messianic psalm, but again Mark may want us to see the reference to ‘the coming kingdom of our ancestor David’ (verse 10) as a messianic hint.
What’s going on here, then? A common thread seems to be this: none of these texts – Zechariah, Genesis or the Psalms – gets limited to their original meaning. Often the way we are trained to approach the Scriptures today is to say that the primary question is to ask what meaning the original author intended. Or alternatively, we sit around in a Bible study fellowship group, asking, ‘What does this verse or passage mean for me?’
But Bible verses are not used in either of these ways in the Bible itself! Helpful as it is to have a foundation in the original meaning, the fact remains that the New Testament authors approached the scriptures they already had differently. And relevant as it may seem to ask, ‘What does this mean for me?’ that can degenerate into reading the Bible in a me-centred way.
No: the New Testament writers had a different question about the scriptures they inherited. I think it was this: what do the Scriptures mean in the light of Jesus? That’s why they sometimes come up with some surprising applications of Old Testament passages. At heart, it’s the old slogan that ‘history is his story’. Life has meaning in the light of Jesus Christ, and so we interpret everything in the light of him. That includes our supreme written testimony to him, the books of the Bible.
Now you can take this to ridiculous extremes. You probably know the story of the preacher giving a children’s address and who asks the question, ‘What is grey, furry, with a tail and climbs trees?’ A little girl nervously raises her hand and says, ‘I know the answer should be Jesus but it sounds like a squirrel to me.’
In other words, I do not mean that we look for all sorts of doubtful interpretations in the most obscure of Bible verses, but I do mean that the overall thrust of the Bible in all its diversity and difference is to point to Jesus Christ.
There is still a place for those of us who can offer something by delving into the original meaning of the Scriptures. It gives us a base from which to work. But we are not limited to what the original authors meant, because what we are called to do is see that the biblical books have what some people call ‘a direction of travel’ – they point to Jesus. And that means we can all with the help of the Holy Spirit profitably read and discuss the sacred writings with a view to drawing nearer to Christ and following him more closely.
Thirdly and finally, let us see worship with new eyes here. For this I want to concentrate on the shouts of the crowd:
Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!
(Verses 9b-10)
There is a lot conflated here. Take the word ‘Hosanna’. We perhaps think of it as a word of praise, rather like ‘Hallelujah’. It did turn into that, but it began as a cry of ‘Save us’ and then became praise or an acclamation for a revered figure, such as a rabbi. In with all that you have the longing for the kingdom, and it could be either a restoration of David’s throne that is desired or a passion for final redemption. Somewhere in these words, then, you potentially have a number of elements of worship mixed up: praise, intercession and declarations of allegiance.
Again, the natural meaning at the time for the crowd would have been perhaps to honour Jesus as a great teacher and to pray that God might bring deliverance (of a political variety) through him as he rode into Jerusalem. Nevertheless, it couldn’t have been terribly militant, or – as I said in the introduction – the Romans would have taken more of an interest.
But for Christians, we see these hopes transformed and magnified in what we have come to know about Jesus. He is more than a rabbi; he will bring a salvation of a kind nobody could have imagined; he is bringing in a kingdom altogether vaster and more comprehensive in scope than previously dreamed.
And this Jesus – the king who would be enthroned on the Cross – is worthy of worship. This Jesus – who does more than merely meet our own aspirations but ushers in a universal kingdom where all will be put right – is worthy of worship. This Jesus – so much more than a rabbi – is worthy of worship.
When the crowds shout their well-meaning hosannas, the Christian sees with new eyes the allegiance of which Jesus is worthy. When the crowds seek salvation, the Christian sees the salvation to come. When the crowds shout in anticipation of the kingdom, the Christian sees the call to pray and work for that kingdom, to the glory of Jesus Christ the Lord.
The worship we offer on Palm Sunday, then, is more than some hymns, prayers, readings and reflections. If Christians have eyes to see Jesus through Palm Sunday, worship will be an expression of commitment and devotion. It will be an oath of allegiance, a renewal of vows. After all, every part of life – past, present and future – has meaning in the light of him. And therefore in our worship we dedicate not only the ‘spiritual’ but the physical and the material to him in praise for who he is and gratitude for what he does.
This Palm Sunday, let us have the eyes to see Jesus as he truly is, and to respond fittingly to him.

Instant Gratification

One thing you’ve hardly had on this blog is instant gratification. Not with three weeks since my last post, thanks to major work pressures. However, I received the graphic below in an email from someone called Tony Shin, and although it’s based on American culture, I think the same basic points hold for the UK. The question, of course, is why we are addicted to the instant. Deferred gratification, rather than instant gratification, is meant to be a sign of psychological health. Is instant gratification a sign of immaturity?

Instant America
Created by: Online Graduate Programs

Another Sermon On Matthew 22:1-14

I only preached on this passage back in October when I visited a church in another circuit and this was the Lectionary Gospel passage. Tomorrow I preach on it in a sermon series for Lent based on selected incidents from Holy Week.

Matthew 22:1-14
One of my cousins married the daughter of a captain in the Army Catering Corps. The father of the bride said he would therefore organise the food at the reception. And so, on a cold February day, we trekked after the wedding ceremony to the barracks in Aldershot. As we arrived, the usual champagne flute glasses were offered, along with plates of vol au vents. As we ate these appetisers, we waited for the call to the main course.

It never came. The vol au vents were the meal.

Some of us later decamped to my aunt and uncle’s house, and to compensate for our hunger we ordered in fish and chips. Just as we were tucking in, there was a ring at the doorbell. In came the bride and groom. “Fish and chips?” they said, “Great! Can we have some?”

It wasn’t exactly the image of the wedding banquet that we expected. The nearest I have experienced to that was at another friend’s wedding where there was at least a full roast meal. However, as I went along with my plate taking my food, I was told by a member of the catering company, “Only two potatoes, sir.”

I can’t quite imagine God (or the king in the parable) throwing a banquet for his son where there was a strict rationing of the food. Although I have to say I harbour strange thoughts at communion services where we thank God at the end that we have had ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ when that ‘foretaste’ consists of no more than a miniscule square of white bread and a tiny sip of sweet wine. It is the merest of mere foretastes!
In the parable, I am sure the king is sending out invitations to a lavish banquet, just as I am sure that the wedding reception at Buckingham Palace last year for ‘Wills and Kate’ was rather more than a selection of ready meals from Asda. The invitation is to something generous, swish, and – in the best sense of the word – tempting. It is to come to the table of the abundant God. Oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered – the best of the herd have been prepared (verse 4). Nothing less will do.

The question arises, then, what will people do with an invitation to such a feast?

But in normal circumstances that seems such an easy question to answer. The shock in this parable – and I never tire of saying that we need to look for the shocks in the parables of Jesus – is what happens in response to the invitation.

In the first instance, the king sends his servants ‘to those who had been invited to tell them to come’ (verse 3). It sounds like this is a group of people who have already received an invitation. But the nature of the invitation is different from our culture. In our society, when we receive an invitation to a wedding, we are told the date and time as well as the location. But these people have not yet been told the date and the time. They have been invited more generally. Now the servants go with the word that the date and time have been set, and they are to attend.
I therefore take these people to be the ones who expect an invitation. Given that this parable occurs in the midst of the tension being racked up between Jesus and the religious establishment, I take it that these are the people in the firing line here. They are the people who would expect an invitation to the great messianic banquet of God’s kingdom. They are the people who would expect not only to be invited, but to be sitting in the places of the greatest honour. They are the people who consider themselves uniquely favoured by God. And yet they are the ones whom Jesus says have effectively trashed the invitation.

What had they done wrong? If we are talking about the Pharisees, we are considering a group who honoured the Scriptures and cared passionately about the holiness of God’s people. Yet this had distorted into the erection of barriers to decide who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Conveniently, they themselves were ‘in’.

If we are talking about the chief priests and the teachers of the law, we are considering a social class who had ingratiated themselves with the ruling Romans in order to protect their own status. To do that, they had made their religion in their own image, to justify their actions. It’s not dissimilar from what many Christians do today. It’s remarkable how many Christians of a certain political persuasion think that Jesus would vote in a rather similar way to them. The Guardian carried an article about this very phenomenon at the beginning of this week, which even showed a photo of Argentinean football supporters holding a large photo of Jesus, who by sheer coincidence was wearing an Argentinean football shirt. Not that we would ever claim that God was a perfect English gentlemen. Oh, no. Not us.

These, then, are people who use God and religion to their own ends. If we use faith as a way of justifying ourselves and fortifying our own positions, rather than seeing it as bowing the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord, then we can be sure that Jesus sees us as one of those who have scorned the invitation to the great banquet. Because the way to accept is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, in both word and deed. People who seem the most ‘religious’ may in fact be those least likely to follow Jesus. For ourselves, we need to ensure that we don’t substitute religion for discipleship, and that in sharing the Gospel we don’t just assume that the ‘nicest’ people will be more disposed than others to the Good News.
The second wave of invitations goes out. Rather than send his servants to the usual suspects, now the king commands them to ‘go to the street corners’ (verse 9) and invite anyone, whether ‘good or bad’ (verse 10). The implication of this for Jesus’ critics is scandalous. He wants to invite into the kingdom the very people who had been kept out by their rules. Those with a blemish. Those who didn’t fit. Those whose reputations brought shame rather than honour.

Applying this to us, no longer are we necessarily talking about taking the Gospel to the obvious candidates, to the people we think would have the most chance of fitting in with the church culture.  One church I served appointed a married couple from another church as the cleaners. When this was done, somebody remarked that these people didn’t look like conventional churchgoers. The husband had long hair – even though he was in his fifties. They weren’t the most cultural of people. They were deeply working class. But the depth of faith this couple and their teenage daughter had shamed many established Christians. They had, as it were, come to the banquet from the street corners.

I have seen other people ostracised in churches who have had deeper faith than the clean, eloquent types who typically fill our pews. Not that there is anything wrong with being clean or eloquent, but too often we miss the fact that Jesus by his Spirit is going ahead of us to the street corners and wooing people we wouldn’t even think of with his grace and love. It’s our calling to join in with what the Holy Spirit is doing. As we do, we become the servants of the king, carrying the invitations to the great banquet.

Around the 1970s, when the so-called Church Growth Movement was at the height of its popularity, one of its most controversial beliefs was the idea that the best way to make churches grow numerically was to attract more people of similar social background. The idea was that people like to mix socially with others who are similar to them. Apply that to the church, and you have more chance of seeing growth. Many people criticised it, because the Gospel is not only about personal reconciliation with God in Christ, it is then also about reconciliation between human individuals and groups who would previously have shown animosity to each other. Not only that, it contradicted the teaching of this parable that involved taking the Gospel to people beyond the usual boundaries of those who normally embrace it.

Yet despite this, many churches persist who are monochrome. Same culture, same race, same economic background, similar interests, and so on. Yet the Gospel says that the banquet is not just for people like us. It is for all.

We’ve had two shocks so far. The expected guests at the wedding say ‘no’, and come under judgment, rather than blessing. Then, the invitation is extended to people you wouldn’t expect to be in attendance at the wedding banquet of the king’s son. It would be like the Queen throwing open the grounds of Buckingham Palace to the Occupy Movement.
But there is a third and final shock. A man turns up who is not wearing wedding clothes. Just as we dress up for weddings, so did people in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Furthermore, kings would provide wedding attire for their guests. This man has no excuse. In the words of a hymn we shall sing tonight at the ecumenical Lent service, ‘All are welcome in this place’. However, with the Gospel offer of grace comes in response the Gospel demand of discipleship. Does the man turn up for a free lunch? If so, he’s in for a shock. The Gospel is a free lunch – we are freely forgiven in Christ and have just to accept the gift by faith. But that free lunch is given us not only in love but also to build us up for the calling of discipleship.

The other day, somebody told me a story about not being allowed to go to Sunday School one week as a child because she was in her ‘play clothes’, not her ‘Sunday best’. This isn’t about the physical clothes we wear, it’s about being ‘clothed with Christ’. We are clothed in his righteousness that is our forgiveness and declares us to be in the right with God through his death in our place on the Cross. But we are also clothed in Christ in that we begin to take on his righteousness by the Holy Spirit. Our worship and gratitude in response to God’s free grace is shown as we actively co-operate with Christ’s work by his Spirit in our lives to make us new people, to make us more truly into the character that is fit to be at the king’s banquet. Of ourselves we are not fit to be there at all, and we only enter by grace. But we stay as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us more into the image of the King’s Son.

You may be the sort of person who doesn’t notice that the clothes you have been wearing have become dirty, and it takes someone – perhaps a loved one – to point this out. Similarly, it is possible not to notice the bad habits or compromises that sneak into our lives. Someone may need to point them out lovingly to us. It may be our reading of the Scriptures or our participation in worship of fellowship groups that reveals the truth to us. However it happens, our calling is to be present at the wedding feast of the King’s Son when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. And for that reason, it’s time to dry clean our clothes, so to speak, to accept the invitation on Christ’s terms and to be part of taking his invitation to all who will receive it, whether they fit the commonly accepted stereotypes or not.

Friends, the wedding feast awaits. It’s time to get dressed.

Why I’m Buying Another Windows PC, And Not Converting To Mac

I had an interesting discussion on my Facebook page last week about this. Our current desktop PC is an aged Dell. I’ve tried this, that, everything and more to keep it running but Anno Domini is calling and it’s time to replace it. Given that I’ve had frustrations with Windows, I thought this might be the time when we’d have to consider an iMac, even though my beloved brother-in-law works for Microsoft and that would feel like a family betrayal. So as part of the research I borrowed a MacBook from a friend. I also downloaded the Consumer Preview of Windows 8 onto a spare laptop. I asked friends on Facebook for their opinions, and had constructive thoughts from people on both sides of the debate.

Before any of this, I had ruled out going over to Linux. I’ve had bad experiences of it, and if it sent me scurrying around Internet forums for hours trying to find solutions and spending more time than I’d like on the command line than in the GUI, then what would it be like for Debbie? A price of free, gratis and otherwise no charge is very attractive, but is sadly impractical.

Why, then, still come down in favour of Windows when so many can eloquently describe the superiority of Macs? Here are the reasons that led to my conclusion:

Macs may look very nice, but over a period of years I’m not going to be comforted by an attractive appearance when there’s a problem to solve. Yes, Rebekah our daughter loved the sight of the shiny MacBook and the way the keyboard lit up in dark conditions, but I need more.
Then there’s integration. Some of my friends need synchronisation with their iPhones and iPads. I possess neither. My smartphone runs Android, and my contract is coming to an end in the next few weeks, but I just can’t afford iPhone prices. The only way I could afford one would be an old iPhone 3GS, and that would be no better than my existing HTC Desire. So I’ll be sticking with Android, and that’s not compatible with Macs, whereas it is with Windows.

An advantage of the Mac is the possibility of running both Apple’s OS X operating system and Windows. There is a variety of ways that can be used. However, the spec level we could have afforded in an iMac, while fine for running Mac software (which has a lower RAM footprint), would be no better than what we currently crawl along in for Windows programs. Hence a Mac would be little use for keeping some essential Windows apps. The spec would likely mean a complete conversion to Mac, and that would mean further expense. Had our budget been larger, this would have been a strong argument for change.

What about the learning curve? I picked up the bare essentials of OS X from an hour’s tutorial by my friend Richard, who loaned us the MacBook. I ran into trouble after a couple of days, when a utility refused to allow me to shut down the computer. Fortunately, after a couple of emails I learned about Apple’s ‘Force Quit’ application, which is much neater than holding down Ctrl-Shift-Esc to bring up the Task Manager in Windows. Overall, one friend who is experienced in using both systems and who for work reasons has had to alternate between them estimated it took him between three and six months to adjust to the change each time, and he is computer literate. Debbie, my wife, was just too daunted by that time scale, especially at a time when our children still consume much time in their dependence upon us. “Perhaps I’d be willing to consider a Mac next time,” she said.
So Windows it is, and I’m aware that what has gone above doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for it, more a case that our circumstances led us to this decision. Well indeed, there are certain Windows bugs that in time will infuriate us. However, one of our current limitations was that we were confined to 32-bit Windows 7, and that meant a much lower RAM limit than the 64-bit versions. Also, given the fact that I’m sure one of our problems has been an elderly hard drive slowing down, I’m going for a system that combines a 1 terabyte hard drive spinning at 7,200 rpm with a 120 GB solid state drive, with much faster performance. Furthermore, my early impressions of Windows 8 are good, even though there will be several new ways of working to learn with that.

What have I ordered? Essentially, I looked at PCs specified for gaming and photo and video editing, in order to have the sort of power that would last. One friend who makes particularly heavy duty use of computers (full-fat Photoshop, Indesign and the like) raved about a company called Cyberpower. I spent a lot of time trying out different configurations on their website. They have an amazing range of options and components, bigger, I think, than any other company whose website I’ve visited.

But in the end I couldn’t quite get the spec I wanted within our price range, and so I went to a company that keeps winning awards for its computers, namely Chillblast. Here, then, is an image of roughly what our new baby will look like:
I’ve tweaked the sound card and monitor, plus I’ve gone for an internal card reader so I can just take memory cards out of cameras rather than plug the cameras into the USB ports.

That’s our story, then, and I share it in case our experience is any help to you. How have you decided about computers? Why not share your stories briefly below?

Just one condition. As I said on Facebook, no fanboy stuff, please, from any party. Sensible, rational accounts would be much preferred!

Two Contrasting Perspectives On Forgiveness

(Via ChurchLeaders.com)

Volf’s experience of forgiveness is formed not only in the crucible of his brother’s unfortunate death at the hands of a negligent soldier, it also comes from his upbringing as a Croatian and therefore in that tempestuous region of conflict, the Balkans.

Consider what Volf and his family endured in order to forgive (sometimes in droplets, or as a process as he says near the end of the video). Then contrast Arquimedes Nganga, who claims his conversion to Baptist Christianity prevented him from playing for Manchester United. Where do the words ‘petty’, ‘pathetic’ and ‘chancer’ occur here? He was in the Portuguese Third Division when he was converted at the age of 25, and he is delusional enough to think that Man U would have come in for him. It’s a laughable case with no chance in law, and he will have some big bills to pay, so he’d better hope his book does better than the three derisory reviews (all one-star) it has garnered on Amazon.

And which part of the word ‘forgiveness’ didn’t he understand when he was an evangelist?

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