Category Archives: Sermons
On most days of the week, I am the first person up in our household. My alarm clock rudely interrupts my sleep, I switch it off and lie in bed for as long as I think I can get away with, before coming down, unlocking the front door, opening the curtains, feeding the cats and making drinks for everyone. It doesn’t come naturally – I am constitutionally a late night person and am also usually the last to bed as well as the first up.
As Paul gets us to prepare for the second coming of Jesus Christ in Romans 13, he gives us an image of the early morning. He gives us three images of preparing for the day that help us know how to live in the light of the fact that Christ will appear again one day.
The first question is, what time is it? As you may know, a hobby I enjoy is photography. One of the most important factors to consider as a photographer is the light. Some people think that the bright light of the middle of the day is the best light for taking pictures, but to many of us it isn’t. It is harsh, and it causes dark, unforgiving shadows.
No: light is better at the beginning or the end of the day. The times around sunrise and sunset are the most interesting. And just as we speak about there being twilight around sunset, so there is also twilight around sunrise. In fact, as I learned from reading an article the other day, there are three phases of twilight just before the sun rises. There is astronomical twilight, when the centre of the sun is twelve to eighteen degrees below the horizon, and the light is dark blue – even still seeming like darkness. Then comes nautical twilight, when the sun’s centre is now between six and twelve degrees below the horizon. Orange and yellow hues join the dark blue. Finally, there is civil twilight, when the centre of the sun moves between six degrees below the horizon to sunrise proper itself. Now the light is a mixture of pale yellow, neon red and bright orange. Only after that is sunrise itself, and the first hour afterwards is called the ‘golden hour’, because red light turns gold at this time.
Why am I telling you all this? Because Paul tells us that we are living between twilight and sunrise.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; 12the night is far gone, the day is near. (Verses 11-12a)
If you remember the stories in the Gospels about the Resurrection of Jesus, you will recall that it happened in the early morning, before the dawn. Paul effectively says that as we now live in between the Resurrection of Jesus and the Second Coming, when all will be raised from the dead and God’s light will shine everywhere without opposition, we live in between first twilight and sunrise. We live now at a time when the light has begun to come but the darkness is still around. However, the longer time goes on, the closer we get to the full sunrise, when darkness will flee away at the full brilliance of the sun.
This image gives us a reference for our lives. Living as we do between the morning twilight of the Resurrection and the full sunrise of the Second Coming, we know that our world consists of both light and darkness. It can be frustrating and demoralising when it seems like we are surrounded more by darkness than light, but the good news for us is that the light has come and that the sunrise is on its way. It is prefigured even in the Christmas message, as when the apostle John says, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never come to terms with it.’
So next time you are discouraged, remember everything to do with Jesus. He came as the light of the world, and the darkness couldn’t cope with him. Darkness thought it had got rid of him on Good Friday, but in the morning twilight of Easter Day we learned that wasn’t true. Now we are waiting for the sunrise. We may be tempted to think it’s pointless doing the right thing, because evil seems to be rampant, but living between the Resurrection and the Second Coming means that it is always worth aligning ourselves with what is good, beautiful and true. Be encouraged by the breaking of the dawn.
The second question is, what shall we wear? The alarm clock has woken you. A good supply of tea or coffee, pumped intravenously into you, has got you going. A shower has brought you closer to full humanity, and now you must decide what clothes to put on. How will you face the world today?
Paul has two images concerning this in the passage: ‘put on the armour of light’ (verse 12b) and ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 14a). So – two sets of clothes! Let’s think about each set.
It’s about dressing for the occasion, or dressing for the conditions. That we are urged to put on the ‘armour of light’ indicates the conflict we are in. Yes, we know that the light will win, but the darkness is not giving up easily. The forces of darkness will seek not only to fight against us, beat us down and demoralise us; they will also try to infiltrate us. That is why Paul says, after telling us to put on the armour of light,
let us live honourably as in the day, not in revelling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarrelling and jealousy. (Verse 13)
We are not living in the light of our coming King when we resort to these sins. Now you may think that several of these are quite irrelevant to us, and that you have not witnessed any debauchery here in Addlestone Methodist Church. Well, neither have I (unless it has been kept well hidden!), but listen to what Tom Wright says about this verse:
We should not forget that “quarrelling and jealousy” are put on exactly the same level as immorality; there are many churches where the first four sins [revelling, drunkenness, debauchery and licentiousness] are unheard of but the last two [quarrelling and jealousy] run riot.
The church infested with quarrelling and jealousy might just as well be the one that is rife with sexual scandal and drug abuse, in the eyes of the apostle. Think about it. When we let our tongues behave loosely in our conversation before or after the service, we are a deeply immoral church, filled with darkness. We must protect ourselves against this by wearing armour – the armour of light.
What does that mean? I suggest it involves disciplined efforts with the help of the Holy Spirit to concentrate our minds and our affections upon all that is good, worthy and noble. We resist and we cut down the attempts to infiltrate our minds with darkness. This requires filling ourselves with all that is good, starting with the Scriptures. It involves building our lives around the Gospel and all that it implies – the undeserved grace of God, his sacrificial love in Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the benefits of peace with God and others, and so on.
And having established that, the other clothing – ‘put[ting] on the Lord Jesus Christ’ (verse 14a) – complements that. What is the emphasis here? Tom Wright helps us again:
Frequently when Paul uses more than one name or title for Jesus the one he wishes to emphasize is placed first; here, by saying, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ”, he seems to be drawing attention to the sovereignty of Jesus, not simply over the believer (who is bound to obey the one whose servant he or she is), but perhaps more particularly over the forces of evil that are ranged against the gospel and those who embrace it. … The assumption must be that he is urging them, as a regular spiritual discipline, to invoke the presence and power of Jesus as Lord of all things to be their defense against all evil, not least the evil toward which they might be lured by their own “flesh”.
Jesus, then, has power over the evil that threatens us, and when we are tempted to give way to the darkness that denies the coming of the light, we invoke him, we call upon him and are then able to resist and align ourselves with the breaking of the dawn rather than the powers of the night.
The third and final question is, what appointments do we have today? Our reading ends with these words:
and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Verse 14b)
The NIV speaks about us not thinking about how to gratify the flesh. It’s about excluding appointment requests from our diary, not including. I usually look at my diary for the day and consider what is in there. It affects decisions I make during the day about what things can claim my time. I try to check my diary carefully when I receive requests for appointments in the future, too. Do I have too many demands on a particular day? Does this fit with what a minister should be doing? Why does this request appeal to me, and is that for good reasons or selfish ones? Why does this next request not appeal to me? Is that for good reasons or selfish?
Likewise, we have influences who want to take up our time in life, and our decisions on who and what we will give time to may well affect how much we align ourselves with the coming daylight of our King. Paul knows that one way in which we end up making wrong, sinful choices is when we give over our time to things which play on our own self-centred desires. Sometimes it’s the casual way we allow ourselves to idle time away, thinking casually about things that then start to take a hold on our minds, until eventually we end up thinking, doing or perhaps saying things contrary to our faith, and which bring us a deep sense of shame.
You can see this in Bible stories like that of David and Bathsheba. David was supposed to be leading Israel’s army in battle, but he gazed at Bathsheba bathing naked on a nearby roof. Why she used her time to bathe like that where she would be seen from the palace is also questionable. We know the horrifying results. David so wants Bathsheba that he arranges the death of her husband in battle. She becomes pregnant, and they lose the baby.
Now that may be the furthest thing from your mind, but think of how we allow the agenda of advertisers to dominate our thinking until we are dissatisfied with things that previously contented us. We then end up exercising poor stewardship of our money. What about when we give our time over to entertaining gossip? Or how about the occasions when we allow our thoughts to be inflamed by the sly prejudices of certain politicians, journalists or television commentators?
No: if we are dressed in the armour of light and we have put on Jesus Christ as Lord, we cannot imagine that we are going into a bright day where there will be room in our schedules for those things which seem harmless but which grow from tiny specks to great swathes of darkness. Advent Sunday is a time to remember that the light has been breaking through, especially since the Resurrection of Jesus, and today’s twilight will soon become the glorious dawn of his second appearing. May we live, knowing what time it is.
I know, I know, it’s not even Advent until next Sunday. It’s one calendar month to Christmas Day. But this afternoon I am recording a short message for a local Talking Books service. I hope this will do.
Last December, our daughter sang in the choir at a school Christmas production based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, imaginatively called Scrooge.
My wife would claim that I have a certain affinity with Ebenezer Scrooge when it comes to the Christmas season. No, it isn’t that I want to take advantage of the poor like he did with Bob Cratchet, but it is that I can seem to do a rather convincing ‘Bah, humbug’ routine at this time of year.
What? A Christian minister doing ‘Bah, humbug’ at Christmas?
Yes, really. Because I get fed up and tired out by the rush, rush, rush in the lead-up to Christmas Day. We have so much to cram in. There are all the everyday responsibilities as well as the presents to buy, the Christmas letter to finish and the cards to send. My colleagues and I are having trouble finding a date in our busy schedules to go out for a Christmas meal together.
In my case, it’s complicated by the never-ending run of church services, equalled only in intensity by Easter. At this time of year, it’s carol services followed by Christingles followed by Midnight Mass followed by special Christmas Day services. All the time, I am meant to be the personification of jollity. For you, there may be other pressures. But on my first year as a minister over twenty years ago, I got past Christmas lunch and fell asleep on the bed.
Rush, rush, rush. Bah, humbug indeed.
But I guess it was like that for Mary and Joseph. Forced off to Bethlehem by the occupying Roman power. No room for them in the guest room at their relatives’ house there (sorry to disappoint you, but ‘no room at the inn’ is a dubious translation). The baby born in less than hygienic conditions. The first visitors, shepherds (who were regarded in those days rather like people might treat gypsies and travellers today). Yes, later come the beautiful gifts of the Magi, with their gold, frankincense and myrrh. But then comes the hurried evacuation to Egypt to avoid the blood lust of Herod, whom we know from other sources to have been a violently paranoid ruler.
I think they could be forgiven a bit of ‘Bah, humbug.’ Was it worth it? Really?
And maybe that’s what we’re tempted to think, not only in the run-up to Christmas, but at other times, too. Is it worth it when I suffer from a disability? Is it worth it when I am penalised by the bedroom tax and face financial meltdown? Is it worth it when I am bullied, or when people take advantage of me?
I mean, why not just say ‘Bah, humbug’ to it all?
Except what the Christmas story brings to us in the midst of all the darkness is a chink of light. The poetic description in the beginning of John’s Gospel about the coming of Jesus says, amongst other things, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not come to terms with it.’
Jesus and indeed the whole Christian message is real about the existence of darkness in our lives, within us and surrounding us in the world. But there is also this note of hope. Light is shining in the darkness. That light is Jesus himself, entering our human frailty with all he comes to do.
A favourite singer of mine is a Canadian artist whose profile is somewhat obscure in this country (although he is fêted in his homeland). His name is Bruce Cockburn, and he put it like this in one of his songs:
‘Redemption rips through the surface of time in the cry of a tiny babe.’
Happy Christmas. You can put the humbugs away.
I didn’t have time to add the PowerPoint for the sermon I posted earlier today. Here it is. Once again, I have used that marvellous iPad app Haiku Deck. It also now comes as a web browser app, but so far my experiments with using it that way have been unsuccessful and I have returned to using my tablet.
Again, there has been a long gap since the last blog post. I had a week off, then had two consecutive Sundays where I led all age services and the material wasn’t suitable for posting here. Also, the situation with my parents’ health remains stressful and time-consuming. However, I am back to regular preaching today, and here is the sermon.
Yesterday, Debbie took Rebekah to the cinema to see the recent film about her (Becky’s, that is) favourite pop group, One Direction. When I was titling the sermons in this series after songs, I thought I would please my daughter by picking the title of a One Direction song for this week: ‘What makes you beautiful.’
In these verses, Paul is telling the Philippians about some attitudes of heart that will make them beautiful in the sight of God and of other people. He seems to have a ragbag collection of thoughts for a motley crew of Christians in Philippi, but the common thought is about the attitudes that make for spiritual beauty.
Firstly, unity makes you beautiful.
I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Verses 2-3)
We don’t know why Euodia and Syntyche had fallen out, but all the various theories about who they are and what they might have argued about assume that they were leading members of the congregation, and that their disagreement was serious. Paul calls them ‘to be of the same mind in the Lord’, which implies that they are to share the same broad Christian aims. Somewhere they had taken their eyes off the ball. They had stopped ‘making the main thing the main thing’.
So here’s the thing for us. We know that in our society when the church fights over something (let’s say, the Anglican agonies over women bishops), it doesn’t look beautiful to the watching world, it looks ugly. There are bound to be certain things where we disagree, but if we are to break fellowship with each other it really only ought to be over something pretty fundamental. If the church stops preaching the Gospel, then divide. If the church denies the historic orthodox teachings about Jesus Christ, then divide. If the church starts calling sin righteousness or vice-versa, then yes, I think it is permissible to split.
But other things – lesser things – are not permissible grounds for schism. When people tried to divide one of my previous churches over styles of music, that was unacceptable in the light of God, I believe. When people don’t get their own way, pick up their ball and stop the game, that’s not on for Christians. Believe me, if I as a minister were to go off in a huff every time a congregation didn’t accept something I passionately believed in, I’d be half way to Antarctica by now.
No – if we are to look beautiful to the world and to God then we need to be committed to holding together on the fundamentals about God and the Gospel. We may need outside help to get beyond our divisions, just as Paul asked his ‘true companion’ to ‘help these women’, but it is a priority for our witness.
Secondly, rejoicing makes you beautiful.
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! (Verse 4)
Let me say right away that we should not use this famous verse to promote a certain brand of Christianity that seems to expect the followers of Jesus to engage in pretending to be happy when they are downcast, because on that view the Christian who is not full of joy is a sub-standard believer. This is not about playing games of pretend. This is not about putting on a mask when we are struggling.
But Paul does urge us to rejoice in the Lord. Just as Euodia and Syntyche were to agree ‘in the Lord’, so are we all exhorted to rejoice ‘in the Lord’. What does that mean? I believe it is an encouragement for us when we are down in the dumps. Perhaps the Philippian church was in some way discouraged. I do not believe that Paul would have wanted them to be hypocrites: in other places, he is only too frank about his own experiences of suffering and the struggles that accompanied them.
So I take the view that Paul is giving us a way to find joy even in our darkest hours. We rejoice ‘in the Lord’. When we dwell on who he is and what he has done, then even if the dark clouds remain in our lives, the light of God’s Son shines through and reminds us of his great love for us, the world and all creation. That will give us heart when we are lingering in the shadows.
But this is not just for us in our troubles. The fact that we can have some joy when life is hard is beautiful to others. If you ever get the chance to see or read the testimony of the Australian Nick Vujicic, do so. He was born without any limbs and attempted suicide at the age of eight. He told God he would only come to him when he had an answer to the question, why was he born this way. God’s only reply was a request to trust him.
Yet if you see, hear or read Nick Vujicic you will encounter someone who is full of joy. Why? Because that joy is what Paul here calls ‘in the Lord’. It comes from realising that God has forgiven him, and that he has a purpose for his life. It does not ease his physical difficulties, still less heal him, but Vujicic has learned that true joy is in the Lord and that is what makes him a powerful witness.
Thirdly, gentleness makes you beautiful.
Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Verse 5)
I expect you can see immediately that for Christians to display gentleness in an aggressive world is an act of counter-cultural beauty. Yet what we are dealing with here is all that and much more. The word translated ‘gentleness’ in the NIV is a word that carries with it ideas of magnanimity and of sweet reason. It is, if you like, about gentleness in a specific context, when someone can
remain reasonable and unperturbed when confronted by difficult people and to treat them calmly and fairly … it is the opposite of a quarrelsome nature; instead of being irritated by other people, the Christians are to treat difficult people with sweet reasonableness.
Now can you imagine if this is what the world experienced when it encountered Christians? What if the Christians, by virtue of this kind of gentleness, were the ones who were known for their peaceable characteristics and who could be called upon when there was tension to help effect reconciliation? Imagine if the Christians were the ones who could defuse the tensions that arise in a workplace from time to time.
Or more than that: what would we look like to outsiders if this were the attitude we brought every time someone attacked the church or Christian values or beliefs (as happens more these days)? Would we not be thought of more positively than we often are – perhaps even as beautiful?
This kind of gentleness requires walking the way of the Cross as we absorb hatred and anger directed at us and at others. But if we are followers of Jesus Christ, then it must be possible.
Fourthly, prayer makes you beautiful.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Verses 6-7)
We have an epidemic of stress and worry in our society. It affects relationships, the ability to work, the NHS drug budget and many other things. We speak about the invention of labour-saving devices, but all that happens is that we cram more into our lives and wonder when we are going to schedule sleep.
We Christians are not immune to events and circumstances that have the potential to put strain on our lives, either – and I speak as one who inherited a family predisposition towards high blood pressure.
So what if there were a way for Christians to be attractive in such a climate? The answer comes in prayer. But of course many in our culture pray, especially when the pressure is on.
Yet Paul here commends Christian prayer that taps into other values. Prayer can reduce our anxiety, because our lives are in the hands of God and he has good plans for us. That is why we can bring our requests not only with peace (that again!) but also with thanksgiving. We pray from a perspective of gratitude to God. We pray, knowing that he has answered in the past, and that brings a positive attitude to our prayers, even when the petitions we bring are those which have every reason to increase our worries. We do not only pray when we are at panic stations: we pray at all times, and this tunes us in more closely to God’s wavelength. This gives us more of his perspective, and that enables us to find a greater serenity than if we only turn to God when a crisis hits us. It is, perhaps, this on-going commitment to prayer that makes us beautiful.
Fifthly and finally, thinking makes you beautiful.
Did you hear me aright? Yes, thinking makes you beautiful. But don’t some thinkers just become annoying, smug clever clogs? Yes, they do. But according to Paul, thinking makes you beautiful if you direct your thinking appropriately:
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (Verses 8-9)
The challenge Paul gives us is in how to focus our minds. This is not about being an intellectual, it is about a positive way of conquering sin and becoming more Christ-like. We may not all be academics, but we all have a mind and we can all use our minds for good or for sin. The trick, says Paul, is not to leave your mind vacant. One of the objections I have to the meditation techniques of eastern religions (sometimes found in practices such as yoga) is the tendency to empty your mind. Paul knows that an empty mind is one that is vulnerable to invasion. So instead he urges us to fill our minds, by concentrating them on ‘whatever is true … noble … right … pure … lovely … admirable … excellent or praiseworthy’.
But it isn’t just a problem for those who might be seduced by the unhelpful elements of other religions. It’s a difficulty for us when we choose to fill our minds with trash. While it’s important for us to engage with our culture and understand it – Paul isn’t assuming here that we can exist in a safe Christian bubble where, in the words of one satirical singer, ‘You’ll only drink milk from a Christian cow’ – it is only to easy for us to entertain ourselves with the trivial and the trashy. The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to counsel preachers about their reading that they didn’t have time to read good books, they only had time to read the best, and I think the same advice could be passed on to all Christians. By all means read the best literature and engage with the best art and entertainment, but don’t swim with the flotsam and jetsam that our culture offers.
And as well as that, make sure you engage with the best reading that the world of Christian literature can offer you. How can we expect to radiate Christ unless we fill ourselves with his wisdom? It is this that can help us put into practice good Christian living and fill us with the peace of God.
And wouldn’t that above all make us beautiful?
It’s time for our annual All Souls service, where we invite back all those for whom we have conducted funeral services. Here is what I am going to be sharing tomorrow evening:
If you were here last year, you might just recall that we also built a lot of the service around ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’ (Psalm 23) on that occasion, too. Why do it again this year?
Well, apart from a lapse of memory on my part (called, failing to check my records), it’s an opportunity to look at these much-loved words in a different way. What does God offer us in this Psalm? I offer to you four gifts of God:
The first gift is that God provides:
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. (Verse 1)
I was still living with my parents when my grandmother died. We belonged to a church where to be a white European was to be in a minority. Most of the people were West Indian or West African. When we suffered our family bereavement, those friends from other cultures than our own treated us as one of their own families, and did for us what they did for others. They turned up on our doorstep with ready-made meals to take the strain off us. Some insisted on doing the ironing for my Mum. They provided for us, so that we had time and space to grieve, in the midst of all the arrangements we had to make for the funeral.
Most of us gathered this evening are not in the first throes of bereavement. We are months, or even years, down the line. But our grief is still there, even if it expressed differently now. But we still need those people who will be attentive to our needs, because the grief can pop back into our lives without warning too many times. Maybe equally, because of what we have been through, we can be available to do this for others.
There is a second gift in this Psalm, peace:
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he refreshes my soul. (Verses 2-3a)
We talk of our loved ones being at peace, but if we pay attention to ourselves, we are far from at peace. We hope that if our loved ones are no longer suffering, then that will give us some reason not to scream out in pain.
But even if that is what has happened, we still face our loss. Our lives will never be the same shape. I don’t go for explanations that time is a healer.
But what I do buy is the kind of peace that comes from trusting in God. Not that such trusting either is always an easy serenity: sometimes (rather like some of the other Psalms in the Bible) it involves questioning God, and even anger. It’s the kind of trust that beats its fists against the chest of God, only to discover that we are being held in his arms like small children while doing precisely that. It is the peace that comes from knowing a God who is big enough to cope with our pain and our anger.
The third gift is God’s presence:
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me. (Verse 4)
Again, this can seem unlikely to us in bereavement: God is present with us in our grief? Didn’t even Jesus cry out while he was dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Yet the death of Jesus is the very reason we can count on God to be with us in ‘the darkest valley’ or ‘the valley of the shadow of death’.
Right now, my sister and I are having to deal with elderly and increasingly frail parents. Our heads tell us they need to go into care, but our hearts say, “Please, anything but a care home.” As we walk through this dark valley which doubtless will become darker still, we are encouraged by those who say to us, “That’s what I had to do, and I felt exactly like you do.” In other words, it’s the people who are with us now but who have gone through the same experience who are the most help to us.
I suggest to you that this is why God can help us. The God who embraced darkness, who knew suffering and grief, can come alongside us in the worst places that we walk, too.
The fourth and final gift I want to share with you is that God prepares:
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for ever. (Verses 5-6)
This is the language of feasting. The table being prepared is a banqueting table; the reason for anointing someone’s head with oil is that it was an ancient Middle Eastern custom to do that for honoured guests at feasts.
The psalmist had human enemies; the enemy we share in common is what St Paul called ‘the last enemy’, namely death. As enemies scorn and mock us, God prepares those things which will honour us instead. So God is preparing a great feast after death for all his people, when we who embrace Jesus can laugh together that death – which once taunted us so cruelly – has been destroyed. Even now, God is laying the table, setting the places, warming the plates, cooking the finest foods and opening bottles of vintage wine.
And so let me close these reflections with the words of a Celtic blessing:
May the peace of the Lord Christ go with you,
wherever He may send you.
May He guide you through the wilderness,
protect you through the storm.
May He bring you home rejoicing
at the wonders He has shown you.
May He bring you home rejoicing
once again into our doors.
If in last week’s sermon I began by alluding to 1960s television with Opportunity Knocks, in this week let us move forward to the 1980s, to the birth of breakfast television and the arrival on our screen of fitness instructors in lurid spandex leotards. If you didn’t go out to work, or if you worked from home, then almost as soon as your cereal had settled in your stomach, an energetic extraverted fitness expert was there to help it all come back through vigorous exercise.
Yes, this morning I bring back to your thoughts the memory of Mr Motivator (or Derrick, to his friends). I can offer prayer afterwards for anyone who finds the recollection too traumatic.
But I do want to talk about motivation today. Not, how do we motivate people to take more physical exercise, but how do we motivate the people of God to live as a Christlike community? How do we become more like a family that bears the resemblance of our heavenly Father and of our elder brother Jesus?
In this most famous of passages in Philippians, Paul gives us three motivations to live our common life as the church in a manner befitting of Jesus Christ.
Firstly, he gives his readers some incentives. I’m sure you have used incentives to motivate people to do something. “If you do that, you’ll get extra pocket money.” “If you don’t do what I want, you’ll lose pocket money.” “If you do this for the company, you could earn a bonus.”
People who observe Christians have to cope with the high degree to which we get involved with things such as community service, and sometimes the uncomfortable fact that Christians do more than average requires an explanation from them. One such explanation that I have heard from some contemporary atheists is that what drives Christians is their fear of burning in hell. As the rock group Crowded House sang in their song ‘Distant Sun’, ‘Like a Christian fearing vengeance from above.’
But nothing could be further from the truth for Christ-followers. We are not motivated by fear of frying, we are motivated by the love of God. The words of the seventeenth century Latin hymn which we know as ‘My God, I love thee not because’ put it well:
My God, I love thee; not because
I hope for heaven thereby,
nor yet because who love thee not
are lost eternally.
Thou, O Lord Jesus, thou didst me
upon the cross embrace;
for me didst bear the nails and spear,
and manifold disgrace,
And griefs and torments numberless,
and sweat of agony;
yea, death itself; and all for me
who was thine enemy.
Then why, O blessed Jesus Christ,
should I not love thee well,
not for the sake of winning heaven,
nor any fear of hell;
not with the hope of gaining aught,
not seeking a reward;
but as thyself hast loved me,
O ever loving Lord!
So would I love thee, dearest Lord,
and in thy praise will sing,
solely because thou art my God
and my most loving King.
And it’s that positive incentive Paul gives the Philippian Christians in verse 1:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion …
It’s all about their experience of God’s love, of being loved and giving love. If you need an incentive to live the Christlike life in community with your brothers and sisters, it is this. God loves you. He has united you with his Son. You are comforted by his love. You participate in the things of the Spirit. You experience tenderness and compassion.
No Christian needs to be stirred up by terror about eternal consequences. We already know that we are loved with an everlasting love. We can be humbly confident in the love of God for us. It is there in God’s promises. It is there in God’s actions. It is there in our spiritual experience. Let us live as the family of God because his love has drawn us to himself and drawn us to one another in his presence.
But what would that involve? We therefore secondly nevertheless hear of our obligations:
then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (Verses 2-4)
You can sum up the obligations here in two words: ‘unity’ and ‘humility’. Unity comes in the words ‘like-minded … same love … one in spirit and of one mind’. Humility comes in doing ‘nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit’ but ‘in humility valu[ing] others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests’.
These are to be the characteristics of the Christian family: unity and humility. We are to seek unity in our thinking and goals, bound together by love. That means selfish ambition goes – holy ambition is fine, that is, ambition for the glory of God, but we must not be self-seeking. And vain conceit must go too, because our motivations in the Church are not to seek applause for ourselves but for Christ.
The thing about this is, most of us will sign up to unity and humility without hesitation. Voting against unity and humility is for Christians like voting against apple pie. Yet what we have to watch is the small, subtle temptation. I have to win the argument all the time. I do little things that just elevate my reputation in small, almost indiscernible increments. What I claim to be the cause of Christ is really my own personal campaign.
What are the antidotes? Perhaps some of it comes in Paul’s exhortations to ‘value others above ourselves’. It isn’t that we don’t value ourselves at all – one of the lessons of dealing with my parents’ frailty has been the hard one that I have done all I can but I can’t do it all, and if I try to do it all I will become ill and no good to anyone. So I must value myself to a certain extent, but I mustn’t put myself on a pedestal.
The great thing about valuing others above ourselves is that unity and humility flow as a result. If with a good heart I seek someone else’s well-being, then I will become more united with them. If I do this truly, then by necessity I value them from a posture of humility, because this is an act of service.
Yet what we need to remember above all is that these things don’t just happen automatically. We need to be utterly deliberate in our intentions and actions of valuing others. It must be a conscious decision that we act out. As the American preacher Vance Havner once said,
The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.
Imagine what the effect might be if we did, though. Just as it was said of the early disciples, ‘See how these Christians love one another’, wouldn’t it be wonderful if that were what people said of us in this community?
Thirdly, finally and supremely, we are motivated by the story of Jesus. Now you would expect Jesus to trump everything. He is our example. We are to imitate him, are we not – daunting as that may sound?
But Jesus is not a vague set of principles and laws. Jesus is a person, indeed the Second Person of the eternal Trinity, who became human. He has a story, a narrative, and that is what is compelling for us: his story. He actually lived the things he calls us to do as his family. He has modelled it all for us.
And of course ‘story’ is an engaging and persuasive medium for us humans. You don’t generally communicate truth, goodness and beauty to children by getting them to recite a list of laws in the same way that they learn their times tables by rote. You tell them stories. Many adults find the same is true. It’s why novels, TV shows and films are such strong parts of our culture. The story is magnetic, captivating and convincing. Somewhere embedded in the story are the values of the author.
Nowhere is this truer than in the story of Jesus. And Paul gives his readers a miniature summary of Jesus’ story (verses 5-11), telling of how he who came from the highest heaven put aside all his status to become a servant and obey his Father, even to the humiliation of the Cross. Yet God vindicated that humility by raising him and exalting him, so that one day every being in the universe will recognise him as Lord. When Debbie did her jury duty at the coroner’s court in the summer, everyone had to stand when the coroner himself came into the court or left; similarly, when the name of Jesus is announced at the end of time, all will not stand but bow as an act of homage. That is how far the Father has vindicated his Son for his humility and obedience.
The great thing about what Paul does is that he carries the story of Jesus beyond what the Philippians know. They know Jesus was incarnate, they know about his humble life and death, they know that God raised him from the dead, but they don’t know the climax of the story where the tables are so completely turned that the Humbled One receives the humble praise of all creation. Will not the Judge of the earth do right? Why, yes he will.
As Paul tells the whole arc of the Jesus story, going beyond what we know in the Gospels to the resolution of all the conflict and tension, he gives us an incredible motivation to live as the family of God. Is it that Jesus is our example in how to live in the power of the Spirit? Yes – but it is more here. Paul gives us more than a model for living. He says more than, ‘Copy Jesus’. If that were all he gave us, we might not have much more than a dull moral lecture.
However, the full story of Jesus motivates us to live as a united, humble family. How? By showing us how God ultimately treats those who live in humble obedience. He vindicates them. He exalts them.
Oh, to be sure, all creation will not bow down at the sound of our names – we are not entitled to worship as Jesus is. But our God is the God of the great reversal. Not only does he call us to values that turn upside down the assumptions of the world, he then confirms that upside down way as the true grain of the universe in final judgement. For judgement to God is not simply the punishment of the wicked, it is vindication, too. And those who are willing to live the humble life of service, seeking to build up the family of God by valuing others above themselves are those who will be vindicated by God at the end of all things. These are the people who can expect to hear the words all Christians covet: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ It’s the story of Jesus as told here by Paul that gives them that hope, and the motivation to live for it.
Do we want, then, to live as the family of God? Are we willing to put in the effort under the leading of the Holy Spirit? Let us find incentive in the love of God to fulfil our obligations to unity and humility. And let us be motivated by the vision given to us in the story of Jesus, as we go through our travails, for God is the master storyteller, and although he gives us freedom to improvise our characters, we know he has planned justification for his humble people.
Knaphill is having a sermon series on Philippians. It was launched last week by a Local Preacher. Tomorrow, I get to preach the second sermon in the series. Each week is named after a song – hence this week’s title ‘Chain of Fools’. More strictly, this is about chains and fools.
People of a certain age will remember the TV talent show ‘Opportunity Knocks’ with Hughie Green telling us every week, “I mean that most sincerely, folks”. And anyone who has to remind you they are being sincere is automatically suspect to me.
For that show, the opportunity that came knocking was for fame and perhaps fortune. It was the opportunity that a door would open into a wide vista where all things might be possible for those who won the public vote. For winners such as Freddie Starr, Paul Daniels, Les Dawson and many others, that was the outcome.
But in our reading today the apostle Paul is telling us that opportunity knocks in a different way – not when the doors are flung open but when the doors are shut tightly, and chains are attached to his feet. Paul’s opportunity comes in prison. He is under the fiercest of constraints.
And this morning I want us to explore what Paul tells us about the opportunities we still have as Christians when our lives are constrained. Our constraints may not be imprisonment, but they may be ill health, aging, unemployment, financial loss, bereavement, or any one of many unwelcome intruders into our lives. What kind of opportunities does Paul envisage us having?
The first area where constraints become an opportunity for Paul is in the advance of the Gospel. Writing from prison in Rome, Paul says,
Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (Verses 12-14)
The Gospel has got into the imperial household, not by Paul hob-nobbing with the high and mighty, as if the only way to do so is by mixing with movers and shakers, but by his interaction with the soldiers guarding him. Not only that, his example in straitened circumstances has encouraged the local Christians ‘to proclaim the gospel without fear’.
So find encouragement here if you think the only way the Gospel can prosper in society is if we in the church have connections with the high and mighty. Do not fear when you see the diminished public influence of the church, because the spread of the gospel is not dependent upon our level of influence in the media or government – much as I believe that it is important for Christians to be involved in both of those areas, creating stories and making policies that have their roots in the Christian faith. Do not be perturbed because you are one of society’s nobodies. The influence of the gospel doesn’t work like that. It goes from person to person as we let people see that Christ has changed us.
And what could be more impactful than the fact that people see how our faith transforms our attitudes when we are down and struggling? It’s easy to say how wonderful Jesus is when times are good, when money is plentiful and when life is on the up. But when we can still speak of his love in those seasons where we are suffering loss or injustice, then we have a powerful testimony to God’s love in Christ for us and the world. It has been said that it is in the bad times that we know how much of God we have: I would say further that it is in the bad times that other people know how much of God we have.
You see, the advance of the gospel in these isles doesn’t depend on the church supplying an unending list of celebrity testimonies, and it doesn’t depend on the Church of England retaining its Established status. The cause of the gospel in our land has more to do with ordinary Christians, even and especially those facing privation in their lives, commending Jesus Christ to people.
The second area where constraints become opportunity for Paul is in the blessing of others who are not suffering.
Listen to what he says next:
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defence of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (Verses 15-18)
We move from the chains to the fools. When your circumstances are less than optimal, isn’t it easy to be generous about people who are taking advantage of your misfortune. Some preachers seem to be using Paul’s incarceration as an opportunity to advance themselves in the church. You might expect a person like Paul to be mad about this. Yet he is gracious:
‘The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.’
It’s one thing being chained into a life circumstance you don’t like and still finding a positive way to live for the gospel, but when people who should be colleagues and friends act not in co-operation but in competition, then liberal doses of sodium chloride are applied to an open wound. It may be that at work, someone takes advantage of your misfortune in order to further their career. It may be that in the church, someone you counted on as a friend discreetly puts you down to others behind your back, casting doubts about your suitability for something you are passionate about, and it all leads to them doing something in church life that you had longed to do – and they knew it.
How might we react in such a situation? Well, help is at hand if you want to lash out at them. Just go online to the Biblical Curse Generator on the Ship Of Fools website, and let it randomly give you some juicy Old Testament smiting words to apply. Purely in the interests of research, I tried it out, and I received the following to use:
I pray thou shalt beget difficult teenagers, O thou offspring of a squashed cockroach!
Behold, thou shalt have more mother-in-laws than King Solomon, thou relative of Herod!
Woe unto thee, O thou Mesopotamian harlot, for you will go on a diet of crunchy, unsweetened locusts!
But Paul doesn’t do that. Not only does he leave vengeance to God, rather along the lines of Psalm 35, which begins with the words, ‘Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me,’ he does more. He rejoices in the successes of others. He just cares that even those who are preaching the gospel for the wrong motives are – well – preaching the gospel.
This is a test of grace. Can we show that the gospel has been having an effect upon our lives in this area, too? We live in a culture whose building blocks include a large one called ‘envy’. Our economy is largely built on the idea that we must get bigger and better things, because other people have bigger and better toys. But can we rejoice that others have things we don’t?
Another building block of our culture is called ‘status’. Can we be pleased for others who are elevated when we languish in obscurity? That young whippersnapper who came into the company after us, and who had the proverbial meteoric rise, shooting past us – can we rejoice in their success, and bless them?
According to the gospel, our self-worth is not in our money and possessions and nor is it in our status. We are valued for far greater reasons: we are made in the image of God, we are redeemed by Christ, and we are being remade into God’s image by the Holy Spirit. These facts give us far more dignity than anything our society can offer. And if these things are central to our identity, we are free to bless others who enjoy the limelight while we are in the shadows.
The third and final area where constraints become opportunities for Paul is in evaluating life and death.
Again – remember Paul is in prison. His future is ambiguous. Will he be released, or will he be executed? That uncertainty would torture the minds and emotions of many.
But not Paul. Again he sees something positive. He weighs up the pros and cons. If he lives, he can preach the gospel and encourage the Philippian Christians. If he dies, he gets to be with Christ – and nothing can better that. He regards his future as what we would call today ‘a win-win situation’. He simply can’t lose. Either he gets to do more useful kingdom work, or he goes to glory.
Let me commend Paul’s positive outlook on the future to you. If life had been easier for him, I wonder whether he would have thought like this. But the chains of prison lead him to this faith-filled assessment of the situation that he just can’t lose, whatever happens to him.
And as we dwell on Paul’s positive faith in the face of adversity, let me ask you again about the uninvited intruders in your life that have the potential to sow discouragement in you. For me, you will not be surprised to know that presently that means the traumas associated with my parents’ increasing frailty, and the major decisions my sister and I are suddenly faced with, far sooner than we expected. Can I live through this, believing in the God who works for God in all things for those who love him, or will I allow the crisis to drag me down? Can I believe that God can be glorified in my parents’ time of weakness and need?
I think one reason why our trials stress us is that we forget to bring God into the evaluation. Without God, and without a hope that death is trumped by resurrection, all will seem futile. But when we factor in our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, things look different. They may still be painful, but they are transformed by him.
Let me put the whole issue this way. If you set someone an assignment to complete in the creative arts, they may well produce their best work if you constrain their options. Ask someone to produce a painting, but limit the number of colours to be used. Invite a photographer to take pictures of an event, but only allow them one lens to use on their camera. These constrictions force new, creative thinking.
There is one famous example I can think of from the world of rock music. When the singer Peter Gabriel was making his third solo album, he invited his former Genesis band mate Phil Collins to play the drums on the tracks. But Gabriel told Collins he wasn’t allowed to play any cymbals. It contributed towards an unique and pioneering sound.
Paul sets something similar before us here. His options have been limited. His best choices have been removed. And comparable things will happen to us as well. But the apostle rises to the challenge, and his faith in the crucified and risen Lord enables him to advance the gospel, to bless those of whom he might be jealous, and to see the most enormous kingdom possibilities in an uncertain future.
I don’t mean to trivialise or minimise the woes in our lives. But I do hope we can take a lead from Paul in seeing that even when life is tough, we can find positive opportunities to live kingdom lives for the Gospel.
Again, blog posting has been light recently. One reason is alluded to in this week’s sermon. See the comments early on about my mother’s health, and you will know where most of my spare time has gone. What blogging time I have had has gone on my even more overtly new ‘work’ blog that I mentioned in my last post, Thinking About Mission. Please do follow that blog, too. Each day there is a short, punchy discussion starter post on an aspect of Christian mission.
But now, to this Sunday’s sermon, and an attempt to preach on one of the most difficult passages in the whole Bible.
Today’s sermon could be one of those in which a foolish minister rushes in where angelic preachers fear to tread. There has been a lively debate on the UK Methodists page of Facebook about the fact that Psalm 137 is set in this week’s Lectionary. What do we do with passages like this? I expected some shock at your hearing this psalm right the way through to the death wish expressed for Babylonian babies.
A number of us agreed that we have to think about and discuss these readings, because we know people are troubled by them. It was a matter of debate whether such thinking should be done out loud in a Sunday sermon or in a home group. Some people thought it would be better discussed informally in a fellowship group rather than raised in a sermon, and I’m sure there is merit in that thought. There would be more opportunity to thrash out issues that way.
But in the end, I decided that this kind of text can’t be ignored in Sunday worship, either. For one thing, this is a psalm – it is a piece of worship material. It appeared in Israel’s hymn book. And just because it’s worship doesn’t mean it can be prettied up with a bouncy tune, such as in the song ‘Rivers of Babylon’:
Further, I think there is a pastoral word to be said in relation to where Psalm 137 sits in relation to the rest of the Bible that is important for us all to hear.
Here is an illustration to help us see a way of understanding why such a psalm, with its frightening calls for vengeance, has a place in Holy Writ. My mother was discharged from hospital on Friday after nearly eight weeks. She had fallen and fractured her hip, and this was followed by a series of other unrelated mishaps that kept her in for longer. But come home she did, and Friday was an excellent day for that, because on that day she and Dad celebrated their fifty-fifth wedding anniversary.
However, Mum – at the age of eighty-three – is inevitably frail after these traumas, and Dad – who was eighty-six on Tuesday – is no longer strong enough to look after her without help. So it was agreed that she would come home with a care package. However, the care agency couldn’t start until tomorrow, so there had to be an emergency provision for the weekend. Originally that was going to be supplied by the hospital’s rapid response team, but in the end various of us in the family covered the necessary duties in the short term.
I want to say that Psalm 137 is a short term, rapid response, emergency reaction to the crisis that Israel finds herself in. Let’s remind ourselves what has happened. For years, prophets such as Jeremiah have warned the people of God that their sin will render them liable to God’s judgement. Always, they have thought themselves to be a special case, possessing a ‘Get out of jail free’ card that would prevent them suffering the consequences that the so-called doom merchants were predicting. But now it has come true. King Nebuchadnezzar’s armies have marched on Jerusalem and conquered God’s people. Many are murdered, a large number have been taken captive into Babylon itself, including Israel’s own Gifted and Talented stream (among whom we shall later find the likes of Daniel and his friends). Only a small number have been left at home, mostly those the triumphant army thought incapable of making a worthwhile contribution to Babylonian society.
This is a trauma of the highest magnitude for the chosen race. They had thought that Jerusalem was inviolable – but it wasn’t. They had assumed that God would not allow harm to come to his holy temple – but he did. Their faith, based so strongly on the idea of occupying the land promised to them, has been ripped to shreds.
And perhaps we have some similarities to them, at least on the metaphorical level. We Christians are no longer at the centre of our society. We live in some kind of exile, where our convictions are increasingly marginalised and ridiculed. For those who have grown up familiar with a culture in which the church and her leaders were respected, this is an alien land, our Babylon. We might just as easily cry out to God about this as we might about other things.
So what do you do when such a terrible event happens to you? Many of us scream out in pain, and perhaps even in anger, lashing out. That is certainly what the psalmist does here. As he and his people weep in Babylon and vow never to forget Jerusalem, they turn their frustrations upon their captors and call for violent revenge.
Now, at that point, you might think, “That’s all very well, it goes some way to explaining why the tribes of Judah were feeling this way, but it doesn’t explain why a text like this in the Scriptures. After all, are we not called to forgive and to love our enemies?”
Well, indeed we are, and that is one of the biggest problems with this psalm. It doesn’t seem to fit with the teaching of Jesus, does it? And if it stands alone, it would be very dangerous.
Let me suggest to you, though, that you have to feel anger before you can forgive. We can be so keen in the church to ensure that people forgive and do not become bitter that we actually abuse people who have already been hurt. If we aren’t careful and jump in immediately to ask someone who has been wronged, “Did you forgive the person who did this to you?” they will not in fact forgive, they will merely suppress their anger. And suppressed anger tends to come out again at a later date, like a Jack in the Box, in harmful forms. Sometimes it comes as rage, sometimes it mutates into depression.
For that reason, I was once horrified to hear the story of a church member who had been raped. People jumped in and asked the woman, “Have you forgiven your attacker?” without giving her permission to feel her pain and anger about the evil that had been done to her.
We rush into all sorts of things in our instant society, and in the church we seem to have included forgiveness among the things that we have powdered down and can quickly reconstitute with boiling water. But we need to allow time. I recently witnessed an unfortunate misunderstanding which I won’t spell out here, where someone was accidentally let down by another church member, and the results were distressing. A week later, the person who had been hurt was still mad at the person who had failed her, and was overheard to say, “I don’t feel very forgiving.” A well intentioned member of the congregation asked me if I would intervene, and I said I wouldn’t immediately. It needed another week to see whether this was a case of someone still feeling the pain or whether it truly was a case of nursing a grudge. Should it prove to be the latter, I said, then I would certainly speak with the person in question. But we have to give these things time.
Psalm 137, then, reminds us by even the expression of anger in an ancient hymn, that we need to feel the hurt. Not only that, it gives us permission to express that pain to God himself. If we are not careful, we make worship purely into a celebration (which in many respects it is – of course!) and nothing else. But Scriptures such as this show us that a fuller understanding of worship includes such things as bringing our laments as well as our songs of praise to God.
My observation is that some of us in the church think that we have to be prim and proper with God, being careful to say the right things before him as if he cannot cope with the heat of our tears and the fire of our fury. We think that unless we come to him full of faith and in the right spirit, he will get one of his specially prepared thunderbolts out of the cupboard and hurl it at us.
But scriptures like this tell us otherwise, just as our Gospel reading in which Jesus quotes another psalm on the Cross – Psalm 22 – does, is that God is big enough to cope with us coming to him in anguish. Somebody once said that they felt like they were beating their fists against God, and this felt so wrong, but they came to understand that they were – so to speak – beating their fists against God’s chest, but that he was holding them in his arms as they did so. Could God be better than we think he is? Could it be that the One of whom we say this most basic statement – ‘God is love’ – truly is like a Father to his children, holding them in their suffering and wiping their tears from their eyes?
And because it is a God of love in whom we believe, we can eventually come through the lashing out to the point of forgiveness. Just as we listened to Jesus crying out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” so we remember that the same Jesus also said, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” We need to feel the anger, but if we choose to make anger our permanent abode, then we shall degenerate into bitterness, with all the results that brings, both in the shrinking of the spiritual life because it gives us antipathy towards Jesus, and also in the physical harm that bitterness can cause to our mortal bodies.
It is worth us remembering that in the New Testament, the word translated into English as ‘to forgive’ means ‘to set free’. When we forgive somebody, we set them free. It is no accident that Jesus told parables about forgiveness in which he talked about the forgiveness of financial debts. People are set free from spiritual debt by forgiveness. Until we forgive, do we not feel like the evildoer owes us something?
But there is another side to the setting free that comes in forgiveness. It is not only the offender who is set free: the injured party is also liberated. When we choose not merely to feel our anger but to stay with it permanently, the bitterness that takes over our lives becomes like chains wrapped around us. When we forgive, not only do we set the wrongdoer free of any debt to us, we also find that the chains of resentment and animosity fall away from us.
And that’s why I said that Psalm 137 and passages like it take their place in the Scriptures as the rapid response to the sorrows and wrongs that are inflicted upon us. We need that stage, but we cannot stay there. The long term care package is forgiveness.
‘I am the vine,’ says Jesus (verse 1). The moment you allude to vines and therefore grapes – and hence to their product, wine – you get into difficulty in Christian relationships. In one Anglican-Methodist church I knew, the bishop was so intent on the communion wine being alcoholic and the Methodists equally determined to use non-alcoholic wine that a way forward had to be found. The bishop wouldn’t tolerate the Methodist suggestion that both forms of wine were made available at the sacrament. He therefore insisted that the wine be made by local worshippers trampling the grapes before the service, so that the Methodists could believe they were drinking grape juice and the Anglicans could believe that the fermenting process had begun. The one time I attended a communion service there under this regime, the lighting was poor and I felt like I was drinking something mushy – it was more like a thick New Covent Garden soup than wine.
But we need not worry ourselves with such farces this morning. When Jesus says ‘I am the vine’, he is making an important statement to people who can hear the Jewish background. In the Old Testament, Israel – God’s people – was described as a vineyard. Isaiah 5 is a notable example. So for Jesus to call himself the vine is for him to claim that he is all that God intended the People of God to be. If we are to be joined to him as branches of the vine, then he is teaching us how to be and to grow as part of the People of God. Jesus is telling us here, then, about how we grow as God’s people. And hence why we read this passage at a Covenant Service.
First of all, Jesus makes it clear that all we do in the process comes under the rubric of responding – that is, responding to God. The passage is filled with assumptions that God acts first, and we respond. Jesus is already the vine, the Father is already the gardener, the Father already loves Jesus, and Jesus already loves us. God’s saving actions come first. Everything we do is because God has already reached out to us in love through his Son.
This is the very nature of a covenant. Ancient Israel’s covenant with God at Mount Horeb was similar to the covenants of their time. A powerful king rescued a weaker party. In gratitude, the weaker parties then responded to the wishes of the powerful one who had saved them. That is what we see with Israel when God has delivered her from Egypt. The covenant is set in place at the mountain of God, and the Ten Commandments are given. Thus Israel was never to keep the Ten Commandments and the other laws of God as a way to earn salvation, because their salvation had already been freely and graciously given in love: God had saved them from the evil power of Egypt. All that Israel did was a response.
That is what we are coming to do today, as well. We are not coming in order to make impossible promises to God, fingers crossed behind our backs, hoping that we might manage to twist his arm into pleasing us. No: we are responding to God’s love for us in delivering us. We come to this Covenant Service, because God has already come to us in Immanuel, God with us, his Son Jesus Christ. We come to make our vows today, because God has already set us free in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is continuing to set us free from the penalty, the power and the presence of sin. Today we come, then, not to a severe God who wants to torture us with unreasonable demands, but to the God of outrageous grace.
Let us come and make our promises today, because we are already loved by God. We do not have to win him over. It is rather God who wants to win us over to him. Do not let past or recent failure put you off. His arms are open wide from the Cross. He has stopped at nothing to love us. Our promises today are where we recognise that with joy, and say that we will stop at nothing to love God and love our neighbours in response.
The second theme to pick out here is of remaining – as the branches of Jesus the Vine we are to remain in him in order to be fruitful. We need to be attached to receive the sap that enables us to make a difference in the world as Christians.
‘Remaining’ suggests something continuous, not a one-off event or action. Other translations speak of ‘abiding’, which implies permanent residence. Why is it important to emphasise ‘remaining’ in this way?
Because there is a strand of Christianity which tends to reduce faith down to the moment of decision for Christ, and little else. Do not mistake me, deciding to trust Christ is important, but my point is this: the Christian life is not simply about a decision in the past, it is about on-going discipleship. Jesus called for disciples, not decisions. And disciples are those who are committed to the long haul. By definition, a disciple is a learner, or an apprentice. We do not learn our trade as Christians overnight. The training and the study take a lifetime – maybe more!
So Jesus therefore calls us to ‘remain’ in him. That way, he can nurture us. Remaining in him involves staying closely connected to him, through all the classic ways: prayer, Bible reading, worship, the sacraments, fellowship, solitude, silence, simplicity, fasting and so on. One renewed commitment we might make today is to our spiritual disciplines, or ‘means of grace’, as John Wesley called them.
As well as that, there are a couple of general applications of this notion of ‘remaining’ that come to mind. One is that we simply say to God, ‘I am not going to be a fair-weather Christian. I am going to stick with you, through good times and bad, through times when I feel blessed beyond words and times when for I can barely feel your presence. I will not just be your follower because I receive good things from you, I will be your follower simply because it is the right and good thing to do.’
And in a slightly similar vein, I think not so much of those who are only up for expressing their faith when everything is sunny, I think of those who are struggling to hang on. For those who are finding the going altogether too difficult for whatever reason – painful life circumstances, things getting on top of us, dreadful things happening – I invite you to see the Covenant promises today as just a simple commitment to staying with Christ. I see some of us effectively saying words rather like this: ‘Right now, Lord, I really don’t feel much like this Christian stuff. I can barely keep my head above water. But even if it’s only by one finger, I’m going to hang onto you.’
I believe that when we say things like that, there is good news for us: God’s grip on us is stronger than ours on his.
The third and final element I want to talk about this morning as we seek to grow as God’s people is obeying. ‘You want to know how to remain in my love?’ asks Jesus. ‘You do it by keeping my commands, just as I obey the Father.’
Let me illustrate the point like this. I was once asked to complete a questionnaire to discover what kind of a learner I am. There were four different learning styles that you could be. Most people were not exclusively one type, but a varying mixture of the four. In my case, I was predominantly someone who learned knowledge by studying the theories behind it. I was also someone who learned by reflecting on things that had happened. I learned a little bit by putting things into action, and I learned little or nothing at all from a pragmatic approach. If you know me well, none of that will surprise you – academic, theoretical and impractical.
But for someone like me, Jesus says the way to learn discipleship in the People of God is not by theory. Or at least doing the theory is not enough on its own. It has to be put into practice. I have commended the spiritual disciplines yet again this morning, but just doing them is not enough on its own. What we learn from our devotions has to be put into practice in the form of obedience to Christ.
Two weeks ago I mentioned in passing when I talked then about practising spiritual disciplines that one of the church members I had known in the past who had been most faithful in daily Bible study had also been one of the cruellest Christians I had come across. She was someone who did the theory but didn’t translate it into action. Indeed, unless we act on what we learn we will earn that common charge made against Christians, namely that we are hypocrites.
Ultimately, the need to obey is about love. Jesus links keeping his commands with remaining in his love. Does that sound tough or unfair? Well, granted we often think of love in terms of equal relationships, and so obedience is not the first category that comes into our minds, and we would have to acknowledge that our relationship with Christ is not one of equals. Nevertheless, love is possible, just as we call a child to do what a parent asks in the context of a loving family. If we love someone, we have more than warm feelings for them: we want to do what pleases them. When we do so, that strengthens the relationship we have with them.
And that, I think, ties together everything this is about today. For, as I said first of all, we are responding to a God who in Christ has reached out to us in love in the first place. All that we do is in loving response to his love. And in the light of that love, we secondly want to remain in the relationship: we are in this for the long haul in a disciplined way, even if there are also times when we are able to do no more than cling on. And so thirdly we want to demonstrate that remaining in Christ’s love by obeying.
These things bind us more closely to Jesus the Vine, the True Israel. We become more truly what we have been called to be by grace: the People of God.
As a small child, I had a tricycle. But when the time came to graduate to a bike, I never had one. The owner of the local cycle shop wouldn’t sell bikes with stabilisers. He said stabilisers were harmful to children’s attempts at cycling proficiency. So because I had a bad sense of balance, my parents never bought me a bike and to this day I still cannot ride one.
Only later did I learn that my parents couldn’t afford a bike for me and that my poor sense of balance helped them save face, but my wobbliness was a self-evident truth.
Just as we need balance to become a cyclist, so we need balance in the life of the Spirit before God. It’s easy to be an unbalanced Christian. We have to hold together various paradoxes to have a truthful relationship with God, but some of us wobble to one side or the other.
To give one example: God is both awesome in holiness and intimate as a friend, but it’s easy to tilt to one side at the expense of the other. Some so stress reverence before a holy God that they fail to hear the good news of God’s passionate, personal love for us. But some emphasise that intimacy with God to such an extent that they become matey with God and miss the importance of his terrifying holiness.
This week’s Psalm is also about balance. It calls us to hold together two different approaches to God in order that we might have a healthy posture before him. They involve on the one hand a downward move and on the other an upward move.
First, the downward move: we call this humility.
My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. (Verse 1)
Let’s make clear what we don’t mean by humility. We don’t mean the kind of debasing ourselves that sees ourselves as worth no more than a worm. We are not looking at the Uriah Heep notion of being ‘very ‘umble’. We are not referring to models that elevate the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. There is good Christian reason for omitting the infamous verse from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:
The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate.
There is nothing bright and beautiful about these ways of conceiving humility.
Nevertheless, it is the opposite of pride to pursue ambitions beyond our abilities and callings. The RSV doesn’t say ‘My eyes are not haughty’, it renders the text, ‘My eyes are not raised too high’, and that’s the danger. The naked running after personal ambition in order to elevate ourselves is rampant in our society, and something Christians need to guard against. It isn’t just those in the office environment who climb higher by grovelling to those above them and treading on those below them. It also happens in the church. I know of two sad cases where ministers sought preferment beyond their capabilities, and their ministries were derailed by alcohol – in one case temporarily, in the other case permanently.
How can we judge our gifts with humility, then? Paul has a helpful approach in Romans 12. Significantly, it falls between his call for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and some descriptions he gives of the use of spiritual gifts. His link between the two is to call us to think of ourselves with sober judgement (Romans 12:3).
There are various practical ways in which we can come to a sober judgement of our gifts, so that we do not raise our eyes too high and then fall. One way would be this: there are various tools available that will create an inventory of our likely spiritual gifts. They usually come in the form of a questionnaire. You can find various examples on the Internet. Two of the best known are the Spiritual Gifts Inventory from Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and the SHAPE test from Saddleback Church in California. None of these tests is perfect, but they will get you started. They can be useful material for a home group to use and discuss.
And that leads to the other helpful way to approach this: ask your friends and family what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Again, it can be useful to do this in a small group. I have been in groups where we have written down not what we think our own gifts are, but what we think the gifts of the other group members are. If several people in the group start to spot similar abilities in you, then this is something to take seriously.
Ultimately, a sober judgement of our gifts that takes us away from selfish forms of ambition and pride is the way of peace. When we serve according to our abilities, we have the peace of knowing we are where God wants us.
Remember, it is about serving rather than ambition for ourselves. Our ambition must be for the glory of God, not ourselves. If we strain for things beyond us for the sake of our own advancement, we shall only know strife and cause strife. If we humbly accept the limits and extent of the gifts God has given us and use them for his praise, then that will bring with it the peace that comes from contentment.
So we move to the second element in our paradox, from the downward move to the upward move. If humility means a certain growing down, our second element, maturity, is about growing up.
How is this psalm about maturity? Because the writer speaks of being ‘like a weaned child’. Not a child, but a weaned child. This is not an image of being infantile, this is a picture of growth. A weaned child has come off the breast milk and is progressing with solids. Such a child is maturing physically.
Therefore the psalmist holds before us the need to be mature disciples. But what is it to be mature in Christ?
We hear a lot about the existence of mature and faithful Christians, when all we mean is that certain members have been in the church for many years, and turn up most Sundays. However, such people are not necessarily faithful or mature. They are simply regular. They may display signs of immaturity, throwing tantrums when they don’t get what they want, for example. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty such people in over twenty years of ministry.
No: a mature Christian is a growing Christian. Mature Christians are those who are never satisfied with the level of their spiritual lives. They want to know God’s will more deeply, and follow Christ more closely.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews got frustrated with his readers about this very issue. He told them that they should have progressed in spiritual terms from milk to solid food – it’s a similar image of weaning a child. But they hadn’t, and thus were more likely to succumb to the pressures coming on them from outside the church to compromise their faith, especially about the superiority and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.
Thus it is not an option for the Christian to mature, it is a necessity. Growing in grace is not merely for the keen Christians, it is for all who might be disciples.
That’s why I was saddened to read in our Family Friendly church questionnaire last autumn about the number of members here who don’t engage regularly with the Bible outside of Sunday services. I’m not saying that daily personal Bible reading is a religious panacea, not least because I have known church members elsewhere who have been avid daily Bible readers who have been among the nastiest of Christians. But it is one key discipline among many we need to practise for the sake of growth. It is part of our feeding and our exercise.
But one sure sign of the immature Christian is the person who forever demands to be fed spiritually and makes little effort to feed themselves. Remember that although Jesus told Simon Peter to feed his sheep, it is also true that the Lord our shepherd in Psalm 23 simply takes the sheep to the green pastures: the assumption is that the sheep get on with feeding themselves.
If we listen to the Apostle Paul, we will learn that the function of church leaders is not to keep administering baby food, but to see to it that the church family grows up. So in Ephesians 4 he says that the purpose of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to see the whole Body of Christ grow up. And in Colossians 1 he says that his aim as an apostle is ‘to present everyone mature in Christ’.
But, you may object, I aim at growth but I fail regularly. How, then, would I encourage us to live?
I would point to the words of the late Brennan Manning, who said in his classic book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ that the Christian life is like a ‘victorious limp’ (chapter 10, passim). In particular, he says this:
The mature Christians I have met along the way are those who have failed and have learned to live gracefully with their failure. Faithfulness requires the courage to risk everything on Jesus, the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout our lives.
The image of the weaned child as one of growing maturity speaks to us on many levels. The child will fail regularly, but the parent lifts them up, dusts them down, and encourages them to keep trying – whether it is attempting to walk, to climb, or to learn another life skill.
The weaned child is growing, and knows that a lot more growing is needed. Think how a child looks forward to when it will be taller than its parents. It will take time, but the child expects to grow.
It is a mystery to me why some Christians therefore seem to give up on the spiritual diet and exercise that are required for growing in grace. I am bemused by those Christians who tell me they should just be concentrating on ‘consolidating’. Believe me, there are only two choices in the life of the Spirit: growth and decline. Would the church not be healthier if we were all aspiring, like a child, to be taller?
But the progress from infancy to childhood is bumpy. Eugene Peterson says,
The early stages of Christian belief are not infrequently marked with miraculous signs and exhilarations of spirit. But as discipleship continues the sensible comforts gradually disappear. For God does not want us neurotically dependent upon him but willingly trustful in him. And so he weans us. The period of infancy will not be sentimentally extended beyond what is necessary. The time of weaning is very often noisy and marked with misunderstandings: “I no longer feel like I did when I was first a Christian. Does that mean I am no longer a Christian? Have I done something terribly wrong?”
The answer is, “Neither: God hasn’t abandoned you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You are being weaned. The apron strings have been cut. You are free to come to God or not come to him. You are, in a sense, on your own with an open invitation to listen and receive and enjoy our Lord.”
Your duty in this is to attend to the diet and exercise that bring growth. My duty as your minister is to be a little like your personal trainer at the gym, advising you on the best ways to achieve fitness.
So we’re back to this question of balance. Some Christians can think altogether too much of themselves and need a dose of humility. Using our gifts requires sober judgement and a commitment to God’s glory, not ours.
But other Christians either don’t want to grow or belittle themselves as if they were no more than worms. To such we hold out the possibility of, and the need for growth in grace, by adjusting their spiritual diet and practising spiritual exercises.
Where does each one of us need to adjust our balance?