Category Archives: Sermons
Well, long time no see. I had a couple of sermons it seemed diplomatic not to publish here. I have also been dealing with the suffering and decline of my mother, who eventually died a fortnight ago. Tomorrow I come back from some annual leave and compassionate leave. Below is what I plan to preach.
Conflict is regularly in the news, and especially at present with the dispute between Russian and Ukraine over Crimea. We have a Russian President in Vladimir Putin who clearly wants to flex his muscles as if the Cold War were still going on, just with changed national boundaries. He can threaten both Ukraine and the EU with reduced gas supplies. We have lofty moral statements from British and American leaders, who of course would never contemplate illegally invading another country. Hopefully at some stage the sabre-rattling will end and negotiation will begin.
And we are not immune to major conflict in the church. I am thinking here less of the individual conflicts in a congregation when people upset each other, but more about the major arguments that happen across the wider church. The media loves to report on the convulsions of the Church of England over women bishops and gay rights. It mocks the church, because these issues seem settled in the wider society, and because the world just doesn’t understand the care and caution with which churches try to handle their disagreements, in an attempt to reflect the Spirit of Christ. (Or at least that’s the theory.)
Now you may think this isn’t so relevant to you, as a regular Christian who doesn’t get involved in wider church politics. But it does affect you. The decisions made affect you. The media coverage affects you. information is available at hand for you to have an opinion on these things, and they become topics of debate and even of division in local churches.
So let us look at Acts 15, where we come to the first major dispute for the whole church in her history. There had been small, local disagreements before, but the question here about Gentiles joining the People of God went to the heart of the Gospel. How did they handle their negotiations between parties that started out so far apart in order to come to a common mind?
Firstly, let us look at the content of the arguments presented by the differing parties. We have a number of authoritative sources to which the different campaigners appeal. They look to a number of different authorities that we still use today.
We begin by hearing those who want the Gentiles to be circumcised. They call on tradition: ‘The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the Law of Moses’ (verse 5). This is what has been handed down to us, they say, and this is how we have understood it.
Next, when the apostles and elders meet to consider the issue, Peter addresses them using reason. He points to the way he knew God had accepted the Gentiles by faith and then says, ‘why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?’ (Verse 10)
After that, Barnabas and Paul give an account of their experience: ‘telling about the signs and wonders God had done among the Gentiles through them’ (verse 12).
Finally, James speaks up and quotes from Scripture: he cites the prophet Amos and comes to a conclusion from there.
These are the four building blocks of Christian truth – the tradition of God’s people (that is, what has been handed down to us), the use of human reason in a holy and wise way, the appeal to experience in the sense of saying, this is what we believe the Holy Spirit has been doing, and finally comes the authority of Scripture.
Each of these plays a part in the early Church’s decision here, even tradition, which you might think they reject, given that the final decision goes against the traditionalists. But no, because although the tradition is changed, there is a sensitivity to those who value tradition in the letter sent to the Gentile believers at the end – hence asking them to abstain from certain foods and from sexual immorality (verse 29).
Reason is important, too. The old Sunday School song was not ‘Jesus wants me for a zombie’, God wants people who will love him with their heart, soul, mind and strength. Provided we seek to use our minds worshipfully they will make a vital contribution. And that isn’t just for intellectuals: the one who uses reason in this passage is Peter, the former impetuous fisherman.
Experience counts for a lot, too – not in the sense that my experience always trumps your argument, but in the sense that we believe God is active and at work in his world, and so we want to know what the signs of the Holy Spirit’s activity are. That’s what Barnabas and Paul describe.
But Scripture is the ultimate yardstick. While it is too crude to treat it as ‘the owner’s manual’ or as a much neater and more systematic collection of books than it actually is, it nevertheless serves as the framework for God’s authority in Christ, and hence that is decisive for the Christian. ‘O make me a man of one book,’ prayed John Wesley. He used the other sources – reason, tradition and experience – but Scripture was the most important source of knowing God’s authority for him.
Secondly, we need to look at the method used. It’s one thing to talk about these four sources of truth – Scripture, reason, tradition and experience – and to suggest that Scripture is the most decisive for the Christian, but it’s another to put it into practice. You don’t have to be around the Christian church to know how this can go all wrong. Bible verses can be used insensitively, taken out of context and you can pick different verses that seem to support contradictory positions.
To take just one example I could offer among many, I recall being away on a Christian holiday, where one person joyfully (perhaps thoughtlessly) sang along to a song based on a verse from the Book of Malachi which says, ‘God hates divorce.’ The singer had no idea we had a divorcee among us, and still less of a clue that some of God’s displeasure at divorce was about the pain inflicted on people when relationships break down.
Add your own stories – I’m sure you have them.
So how do we use the Bible wisely in negotiating our way to God’s path for us when we are in dispute? The answer I was given when I was a young Christian was about always interpreting the teaching of the Bible in its original context. There is much to be said for the old saying that ‘a text without a context is a pretext’. The apocryphal story of the man who played ‘Bible bingo’ to determine God’s will illustrates this. He opened his Bible, stuck his finger on a verse, and it said, ‘Judas went out and hanged himself.’ Being rather unnerved about this, he opened his Bible elsewhere and again put his finger down randomly. The verse said, ‘Go and do likewise.’ All this could have been guarded against by taking the verses in context and not in this random way.
But even then, interpreting the Bible in context is not enough. It’s not even how the New Testament treats the Old Testament. Think about the Scriptures quoted by the Gospel writers as being fulfilled by the birth of Christ. They generally did not mean in their original context what Matthew or Luke take them to mean when they tell us about the coming of Jesus. ‘A virgin shall conceive’ was originally ‘A young woman shall conceive’, and referred to the coming of a ruler eight centuries before Christ.
But what those writers do there – and which James does when quoting Amos in Acts 15 – is that they interpret the Scriptures in the light of Christ. Amos could not have known that his prophecy about ‘the Gentiles who bear [the Lord’s] name’ (verse 17) had anything to do with faith in the Messiah and the observance of the Jewish Law. But James sees it that way.
And something like that should be our aim, too. When we are working out with other Christians what the way forward should be, and what the Bible above all is saying to us, we need to handle it in what one scholar calls a ‘redemptive’ way. We need to interpret Scripture in a Christ-like way. What does a passage mean in the light of Christ? How does this fit with the climax of God’s revelation to us in Jesus? These kinds of questions will be our method, rather than just thinking, what Bible verses can I shoot at my opponents?
And that leads us to the third and final element of Christian negotiation in conflict: attitude. One way and another, we keep coming back to this, and it’s vital. There is no gloating when the conflict is resolved in Jerusalem. The different parties have come to a common mind without there being any sense of winners and losers. Christian negotiation is not what the world calls a ‘zero sum game’, where victory for one side is balanced out by defeat for the others. It is a common pursuit of God’s will, even if we come from different perspectives – and we must all be open to the Holy Spirit changing us.
Furthermore, the tone of the letter from Jerusalem to the Gentile converts is what some Christians call ‘irenic’ – that is, peaceable. It isn’t a lecture from know-alls to know-nothings. Rather, it says, this is what we have concluded. We would ask you to do this, and we would advise you to do that.
The whole debate and the consequent letter are framed in humility, gentleness and grace. This is a group of Christians living out what Paul described about the humility and servanthood of Jesus in Philippians 2:1-11.
And we need to aspire to this. It isn’t always easy in the middle of passionate debate, but it is vital that humility, servanthood and grace are the dominant tones of our conversation, even of our disagreement. It’s the lack of such things that leads to division and to the demonising of our brother and sister Christians.
For instance: while I’m not in this sermon going to talk about my views on the whole sexuality debate, I will just observe that it is one that could have been conducted in a much more Christ-like way in the church. When pro-gay activists label everyone who disagrees with them ‘homophobic’ or (in one individual case ‘morons’), then what hope do we have? When those who wish to preserve traditional teaching smear homosexuals with the idea that they are latent paedophiles, then that is just as bad. There are dreadful people and dreadful arguments on both sides, to be sure. But there are also people in both camps who want to preserve something important about Jesus and the Gospel. One party is concerned to welcome those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, the other wants to maintain Christian holiness. Both are important to retain.
Can we, when we are tempted to get hot under the collar ourselves about major issues, still retain that humble, gracious attitude that the church leaders in Acts 15 displayed? Can we make sure we are drawing on what each of the sources of Christian truth – Scripture, tradition, reason and experience – tell us? Will we give a priority in all this to biblical teaching, but do so in a way that is in harmony with what we know of Jesus Christ? And can we negotiate our differences in a spirit that is different from the combative, blood-letting approaches of the world – in a style that looks more like the character of the Lord whom we serve?
The Sermon on the Mount is something of a theological football. It gets kicked around by different parties, all claiming it supports their views. And the Beatitudes, which open the Sermon, are dragged into that fight. Is this all about politics in the here and now? Is it about what heaven will be like? Do we sit around and wait for glory? Does the teaching of the Sermon apply to all people, or only to Christians? And so on.
I think we must first of all say that this is material that is primarily aimed at disciples of Jesus. When Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain, but it isn’t the crowd that comes to him (was he trying to escape from them?), it is only his disciples (verse 1). He is teaching his disciples.
What is a disciple, then? It is someone who is a learner, an apprentice, or a student. In Jesus’ day, bright young men asked rabbis if they could follow them. They would not only learn the rabbi’s teaching, they would also seek to copy the rabbi’s lifestyle, right down to some of the minutest and most private areas of life.
If, then, we are disciples of Jesus, we are those who are being called to learn his teaching not simply by memorising it, but by putting it into practice as he did. It is a lifelong task. No disciple of Jesus can ever in this life behave as if she has arrived. It doesn’t work like that. There is always more to know and more of Jesus’ life to imitate. There is no place for complacency. We should always be thirsty for more of Jesus’ teaching, and we always need to retain a passion to follow the example of Jesus. If we ever can’t be bothered to learn of Jesus or seek to model more of our lives upon his pattern, then something is seriously wrong with our lives, and we are not behaving like true disciples.
The story is told of a young girl who watched with fascination and incredulity as she regularly saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Why do you keep on reading the Bible, Grandma,” asked the girl, “Surely you’ve read it all by now and know it?”
The elderly lady smiled sweetly and replied, “Because I’m studying for my finals.”
I wonder if that is our attitude. We may have been Christians for many years, but still as his disciples we are called to study for our finals. It doesn’t require the physical strength of youth that may have departed years ago, it merely necessitates a serious commitment to Jesus.
For Jesus is no ordinary rabbi. He is not a run of the mill spiritual teacher. Note how he goes up the mountain in this story. That would have been very suggestive to Jewish people. Moses went up the mountain and came down with the laws of God. Any time someone goes up a mountain in Matthew’s Gospel, something big happens.
In fact, just as there were five so-called ‘Books of Moses’ in the Old Testament – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – so there are also five blocks of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew. He is the new Moses.
More to the point, he fulfils the ancient prophecy that one greater than Moses would come, for there is one key difference. When Moses comes down the mountain, he returns with laws given to him by God. Jesus does not go up the mountain to receive from God something that did not originate with him – he gives teaching that is his, and with authority (as we hear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount). We are called to be disciples not merely of a human teacher, but the Lord himself. This is all the more reason to take our apprenticeship seriously. He is giving us the New Law of the Messiah. He brings ethical teaching that is from heaven, based on future judgement and rewards, and earthed in true wisdom, all for our reception and action.
So yes, Jesus gives this teaching to disciples, but the crowd is at a distance, watching them. When we get to the end of the Sermon, we shall find they are still there. You might say that the teaching is given to disciples, but it is to be lived in the full gaze of the crowds, of the world. For this is teaching about a distinctive way of life, and right from the start here with the Beatitudes, we have Jesus painting a picture of good living that is vastly different from worldly expectations.
And that means we are onto our second observation about the text: it’s about what kind of disciples Jesus has in mind. Just pause for a moment and consider the list of disciples he gives us in the Beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. While some of those qualities are sporadically attractive to the world, they are not generally the kind of people who ‘get on’ in life. Society likes the full, the happy, the proud, those who aggressively trumpet their rights, the go-getters, those who lust and are lusted after, and those who will stop at nothing to achieve what they want. These are the people we celebrate. These are the kind we reward. Not Jesus’ list. We know how the world mocks the teaching of Jesus: ‘The meek will inherit the earth – provided the rest of you don’t mind, of course.’
If anything, Jesus gives us a list of losers. And you only have to hang around children and young people today to know that ‘loser’ is not a term of sympathy, but an expression of derision. But the disciples of the kingdom don’t look much like a photo-opportunity of celebrities that are getting themselves into our fairly news-free newspapers at the slightest chance. The disciples of the kingdom are usually a long way from the business success stories of our day, the millionaire sports stars, and even the celebrities of the religious world who gain millions of followers and sell thousands of books. Not that God doesn’t love these people too, but those who are alert to the values and ethics of the kingdom Jesus ushered in almost inevitably live different lives.
Why? Because when you look at the kingdom of God as described by Jesus, it is good news for the materially poor and the spiritually destitute. It is good news of healing for those who bear great grief. It is grace and mercy, not judgmentalism. It is about reconciliation, not putting one over your opponent. These are the things you know, appreciate and build on when you apprentice yourself to Jesus. These are the lifestyles you adopt when you sign up to be a student of Jesus.
Yes, they will put you at odds with the world. You may be teased, mocked or worse at times. But this is where following the Lord of life takes you, and in every case he pronounces the word ‘Blessèd’ over you. ‘Blessèd’ doesn’t simply mean ‘happy’, although that can be involved in it. Nor does it always mean that you are having a wonderful spiritual experience – although again, that can certainly be included. But ‘Blessèd’ means that the favour of God rests upon you, and what more could you want? How does a shiny new car compare with the favour of God? What comparison is there between a successful career and knowing God’s favour? Which is better – society putting your name up in lights or God lighting up your life with his blessing? Yes, those who walk in the ways of the kingdom, following Jesus may suffer rejection in this life, but they do so knowing there is One who does not reject them but does the opposite – he approves, he favours, he blesses.
And that leads us to the third and final observation this morning – it’s about the kind of blessing the disciples receive. Here is the list of blessings: theirs is the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will receive mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
What do we observe about this list of blessings? Most of them are promised blessings for the future – they will be comforted, inherit the earth, be filled, receive mercy, see God, be called children of God. The first and last, though, don’t speak of the future, they speak in the present tense. Both the first and last blessings say, ‘theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Of course, the kingdom in all its fullness also belongs to the future. But it also starts now. God is already reigning in kingly power, but in this life his rule over all things is still disputed by rebel forces.
The blessing of Jesus’ disciples, then, is much like the kingdom of God itself. It has started, but is not fully here. There is great blessing to come in the future – there is a bliss to come, the description of which can only paint the shadows. But it is not simply ‘pie in the sky when you die’: the blessing starts now. We can see glimpses of glory even in the darkness of a sinful world. Even now, God begins to make what the American preacher Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘an altar in the world’. Jacob looked back on his dream of the ladder and said, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it,” and similarly with us. We may not expect to encounter the blessing of God in a world of sin, suffering, injustice, and death, but he breaks through in the ordinary areas of life as well as in the places we might more conventionally expect him, such as church services. And as he breaks in (not that he was ever absent), he smiles at us. In fact, I like to think that sometimes he even winks at us. He gives us the knowing look of the secret conspirator that all will not remain the way it is, and even now his pleasure is directed to us, with a view to that day when that joy will no longer be restricted by the powers of sin.
Indeed, about five years or so ago there was a Christian song doing the rounds called ‘God is smiling’, and the chorus said this:
God is smiling over us tonight
God is smiling over us tonight
Where hearts are broken, love unites
God is smiling, God is smiling over us tonight.
Yes – as the song says, even (and perhaps especially) ‘where hearts are broken’, God smiles. Not at the pain, but his subversive love breaks in and turns upside-down the pain of this world. And all that is a foretaste of the great reversal that began in the coming of Jesus and will be completed when God has finally made all things new. Then, the new creation will be populated by the meek, the pure, by the righteous, by those who have made peace, and so on.
It seems a long way off now, and it is still discouraging when being an apprentice of Jesus means walking in the difficult ways of the Beatitudes while the world watches, but what a promise is held out before us, a promise that even begins its fulfilment now.
So let us commit again to being the apprentices of Jesus, seeking the power of the Holy Spirit to imitate him. And as the world looks on, sometimes puzzled, sometimes scornful, and at other times curious, let us rejoice that we are ‘blessèd’, the recipients of God’s favour, beginning now and becoming a torrent in the life of the world to come.
You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:
‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.
‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’
One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’
Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’?
Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.
So how can we approach conflict in hope?
Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.
And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).
Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.
What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.
So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.
And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.
There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”
So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.
If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.
You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.
Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.
But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.
How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.
Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.
Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.
Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.
We begin a new sermon series to cover the next three months this Sunday at Knaphill, and as you’ll see from the introduction, it’s on conflict and is loosely based on some Mennonite values.
One of the things I’m pleased that today’s ministerial students are trained in that I wasn’t is in handling conflict. You would think that a college training ministers would include that one, knowing the level of disagreement and outright argument that happens in churches, but it didn’t happen in my time. It’s all very well coming up with pious desires that there should be no conflict in the church, but the reality is that it does happen and it needs addressing. The New Testament calls Christians to be of one mind and purpose, but we clash because we have different interests, different perspectives, different gifts, different personalities … and because, frankly, we are all sinners.
That’s why we are going to spend quite a while examining the theme of conflict. We might like to pretend it doesn’t happen here, but it does. We might think it shouldn’t occur, but it still does. And having had the privilege last September of going away on a week’s training course with an organisation called Bridge Builders that specialises in ‘conflict transformation’, I am using some material from them as the basis for this series. Explicitly, the material for this series comes from a group of Mennonite Christians – a tradition that specialises in peace and reconciliation. It is centred on a group of twelve commitments they made in their understanding of conflict and faith.
We begin with this week with the need to accept conflict. And we take this chunk from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which describes, in Tom Wright’s words,
‘the mutual welcome which … is the concrete, bodily form which ‘forgiveness’ is supposed to take in the present time.’
In other words, this is what the forgiven life in the family of God looks like. It is very much about what we do to avoid unnecessary conflict. We accept that conflict happens, because we are different and fallible human beings, but it is possible in the church to major on minors, and Paul gives us principles to hold us together in the face of our real differences.
Firstly, Paul calls us to accept one another:
Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. (14:1)
He gives two examples of conflict, one about food and one about holy days. Carnivores such as me might be amused to read of him saying that those who only eat vegetables have weak faith (14:2), but this is not a dispute about vegetarianism. It is about a debate that ran not just in Rome among the Christians, but also among the disciples at Corinth. It was about a prevalent issue of that time: meat sacrificed to idols. Generally, the meat you bought in the market had already been offered as a sacrifice at a pagan temple. Some Christians felt ‘strong’ about this and said, “It’s all right, the idols are really nothing at all, so although I wouldn’t worship them, there is nothing to worry about here, I’ll eat the meat.” But others said, “There are demons behind the idols at the pagan temples. I want nothing to do with that, so I will not eat meat.” Both in their way are respectable Christian approaches to the problem. Both reflect the desire to serve the Lord, as Paul goes on to observe (14:3-4, 6b-9).
And if that is the case, the different sides had no business in showing contempt for, or looking down upon, those they disagreed with. Whether to eat meat or to abstain, all sides were servants of Christ. Anything that elevates itself over the common commitment to serving Jesus Christ and divides us off from each other in doing that is not the work of God, but of the enemy.
Perhaps it’s easier to understand in our context when we look at Paul’s other example here, where some keep a calendar of holy days, and others treat all days as the same. It’s like those who keep saints’ days, all the Christian festivals, and follow the Lectionary on the one hand, and those who find none of that helpful. At the more extreme ends, it’s like holding Catholics and Baptists together, but you don’t have to go as far apart as that. Methodist to Baptist would do. Indeed, before she met me, Debbie didn’t even know what Lent was, because it was never marked in her home church. But would it be right for us to unchurch them or them to unchurch us? Of course not! It’s therefore wonderful to live in a village where the Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans and Catholics can run an Alpha Course together.
None of this is to downplay our differences, or our varying convictions. Differences exist, even within our traditions. So we as a church where many people expressed a preference for sermon series as part of Christian teaching find that one or two preachers in the circuit prefer to do all their preaching from the Lectionary. We have good reason for what we do, and they have good reason for their preference. It means it is hard to work in partnership, but we should by no means despise each other.
And just as that is true across churches, it needs to be true within churches. We need to commit to a level of acceptance of each other, whilst respecting our differences.
Secondly, and following on from this as the other side of the coin, Paul calls us not to judge one another. We are well advised not to judge others (14:13), because we shall be judged by God (14:10-12). I take that to mean a couple of things: one is that we should leave all judgement to God. The other is: what will God think of us if we have spent our time ripping other people to shreds?
But rather than just seeing the call not to judge our brothers and sisters as a mere negative command, what can we positively do instead of being judgemental? Paul has some ideas.
One is this: to encourage those we disagree with, we can choose to forgo our own rights. The meat-eater should not eat meat and upset those who struggle with meat that has been offered to idols, Paul says. That isn’t love (14:13-16). I do not have to spend all my time demanding my rights when the exercise of them will become a stumbling-block to others (14:13). I am persuaded that it is all right for Christians to drink alcohol in moderation, but I will not condemn those who disagree. I will not bring a bottle of wine with me to your house if you invite us for a meal. For the sake of Christian love, I will happily put aside my enjoyment of wine. On a corporate level, that’s one reason why I’m happy with the Methodist position that we use non-alcoholic wine at Holy Communion. Our first positive step in avoiding judgmentalism, then, is to remove stumbling blocks.
Our second strategy to counter judgmentalism is to set out to edify others:
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (14:19)
Edification is the construction of an edifice. It is ‘building up’. Paul calls us to build up, rather than to tear down, which is what judgmentalism does. Perhaps we know that there is someone in the church with whom we have a problem. There is something about them that winds us up. We find ourselves thinking all sorts of unworthy thoughts about them. We may even share some of these with our friends – and may not even realise that we have been overheard. Could you set out to affirm that person, even bless them, instead?
An example of what I mean: when one of my cousins was going out with the young woman whom he eventually was to marry, his future mother-in-law made it plain to him that he wasn’t good enough for her girl. You can imagine what this did to my cousin.
But then he took a transforming decision. He vowed that every time he left his girlfriend’s house, he would say ‘God bless you’ to her mother. At first, he said it through gritted teeth. However, in time, the relationship thawed and became warm. It all happened because he chose to bless.
So I want to challenge everyone here this morning. Is there a person you despise? Is it someone in this church? Will you commit to blessing that person instead? Edification instead of judgmentalism makes all the difference in conflict. You still may not agree with that person. But that does not stop you blessing them.
Thirdly and finally in this approach to conflict, Paul’s word to us is that we should seek to please our neighbours, not ourselves, because this builds them up and follows the example of Christ, who did not set out to please himself (15:2-3).
By ‘neighbours’ Paul still has in mind the people we disagree with – those who eat meat sacrificed to idols versus those who don’t, those who very liturgical versus those who are more extempore in their faith. Our neighbours here are not those who are like us, but those in the family of God who are not like us. If our neighbours were the people who thought like us, then pleasing them would be easy. But instead, Paul lays down a challenge – seek to please those people with whom you are at odds.
Indeed, it is countercultural. We are taught, especially by advertisers, that it is good to please ourselves. ‘Go on, you deserve it,’ they say. ‘Because I’m worth it,’ said the infamous L’Oreal advert. But Christians are to please others, even and especially those they are in conflict with, those where they are risking a major fall-out.
What does this look like? Here’s another story. I once had a barney with a fellow minister. He announced an initiative which involved coming into the area where one of my churches was, and he didn’t consult me or the other church leaders in the area. I sent him a rather angry email, complaining that he hadn’t listened to the existing local Christians in that town. We would have welcomed his church as partners in evangelism, but were upset that they were coming in as if there were no disciples of Jesus already there. It had the potential to be a damaging row.
Yet however much we were upset with each other, we both wanted to put it right. He contacted me and invited me out to lunch at a nice hotel. He insisted on paying the bill. I turned up with a box of chocolates for him and his wife and children. We managed to talk through our conflict, understand each other, and find a peaceable way forward, because we both entered into that lunch meeting with a desire for the other person’s good.
What difference would it make when we disagree at this church if we were to set our arguments within a context of actively wanting the best for our opponent? I think the conflict would be transformed. I think the potential for resolution and reconciliation would increase hugely.
In fact, more than that: Paul says that when we bring this attitude to our differences, we bring praise and glory to God (15:6-7).
So let us accept that conflict exists and happens. Let us not cling onto forlorn hopes that we shall never experience it in the church. But let us approach our so-called opponents in such a spirit of acceptance, a rejection of judgmentalism in favour of edification, and a true desire to please those who antagonise us that a miracle of reconciliation happens, even if neither party manages to convince the other.
Yes, let even the way we handle our conflicts be a witness to God’s reconciling love in Jesus Christ. And may God receive all the praise and the glory.
Sometimes as a preacher I think I must sound like a broken record, repeating the same themes. Usually I am brought down to earth by congregations who haven’t remembered the theme I think I am repeating, anyway. (What that does to the value of preaching is another matter that I won’t consider at this point.)
One of the themes I know I repeat comes around at Covenant Sunday every year. It’s the notion I like to advance that tries to deal with the fears we have in making such solemn and even radical promises to God. And that thought is the one that points out – virtually every year – that the human side of a covenant with God in the Bible is always a response to his great acts of mercy, love and salvation. We only enter into a covenant with God because he has already done so much for us.
That is the position the Israelites find themselves in when we come to our first reading in the Covenant Service, from Exodus 24. God has saved them from the terrors of the Egyptian Pharaoh. The commandments are only given in the Old Testament after that act of salvation. They are not being required to do something good so that God will feel favourably disposed to them: God loved them before that, and unconditionally. As we consider God’s call on us as disciples of Jesus again this year, we remember that as our starting-point: God acted to save us before we did anything for him. It isn’t slavery in Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea in our case, it’s slavery from sin and the parting of the waters of death.
So the first point I want to make this morning is precisely that: yes, today is a day when we are called to reaffirm our obedience to God. We might not like it, but we do so because we already know God loves us. He loves us beyond measure. As Christians, we would go beyond the Exodus text and say that he loves to the point of his only begotten Son taking on human flesh, and living and dying for us. This is the love by which God sets us free, and this is the love to which we respond today by offering our obedience.
Some of us might find it helpful to draw an imperfect parallel with parenting. We ask our children to do what we require of them, but we do so out of love. We ask our children to obey us, because we love them and because we have already shown that love sacrificially for them, and indeed we shall go on loving them at great cost to ourselves. That is the love that calls forth a child’s healthy response to parents.
And it is similar in the life of the Spirit, as I have said. We gather to make these promises today, because we know a God who loves us to the uttermost in Jesus Christ. He doesn’t simply say to us, “Do this, because I say so,” he says, “Do this, because I love you.” That makes all the difference in the world.
So the commandments are the first feature of the covenant, from our perspective, and they are our response to God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ.
The second feature of the covenant in Exodus 24 is blood. We read about the animal sacrifices made by the Israelites, and how Moses divided the blood between the basins and the altar.
You might expect me to make a point here from a Christian perspective about the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ for our sins, but that isn’t quite what I’m going to say – apart from the fact that I have already alluded to that in talking about the level of God’s committed love for us in the first point.
Actually, there were several kinds of sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the ‘sin offering’ was only one. Here, we have ‘offerings of well being’ (verse 5). Other translations call these ‘fellowship offerings’. They are offerings that express something about the relationship between God and the people. They do not so much make the relationship by dealing with the barrier of sin as show that the relationship already exists.
Furthermore, in the context of a covenant, the shedding of blood is significant. In ancient times, a covenant was sealed with blood. We may seal an agreement with signatures, or perhaps a solicitor will attach a wax seal to something particularly serious, but go back three thousand years or so and you will find people sealing covenants and solemn agreements with the blood of an animal.
So – this may not be the way we do things now, but the essential message for us to take from this in the passage is our relationship with God has been sealed and confirmed.
Our covenant is, of course, sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross. His death does not only mean the forgiveness of our sins, it means a permanent relationship of mutual commitment has been settled. Through the Cross, we become not only forgiven sinners, but disciples and friends of Jesus.
In other words, this is what we say in the Covenant Prayer when we conclude with the words, ‘you are mine and I am yours.’ It is a declaration of such close fellowship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit that we are united. The covenant is not simply an exchange of deeds – God’s salvation and then our obedience – it is the making of a deep and lasting relationship.
Can it be broken? The Old Covenant was broken by God’s people, as we heard in Jeremiah 31. Some say the New Covenant cannot be broken, but John Wesley said it could – albeit only in extreme circumstances.
Again, think of the parent-child relationship. When that has been built on sacrificial love, it takes something extreme to break it completely. Wrong-doing can seriously weaken it and make parent and child distant instead of close. Likewise, it takes something on the scale of our utter rejection of God to break the fellowship of the covenant. We can by our sin weaken the relationship so that it is not as close, rewarding and joyful as it could be, but that should not make us complacent. Instead, would it not be good to think that as we renew our covenant this year, we commit to building and strengthening our relationship with God through the use of spiritual disciplines (what Wesley called ‘the means of grace’) and by doing his will?
And that leads neatly into the third and final feature of the covenant: eating and drinking. Listen again to the curious way in which the reading ends:
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10and they saw the God of Israel. Under his feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11God did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; also they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (Verses 9-11)
You have the close fellowship, culminating with those words, ‘and they ate and drank.’ You can soon think of other biblical examples of people ‘eating with God’, even if not quite so directly. The Passover meal. Jesus dining with sinners. The Lord’s Supper – of course. The wedding feast of the Lamb and his Bride in Revelation. It’s very physical and material, hardly the ethereal, spiritual occasion that many assume a religious experience to be. No wonder C S Lewis called Christianity ‘the most materialist of all the religions’.
Again, in ancient times, after a covenant had been sealed with the sprinkling of blood, the parties to the covenant would sit down and feast together. We shall do this at the climax of our service with bread and wine, although when we speak of the sacrament being ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ and then swallow a tiny piece of bread and a thimbleful of wine, it is a pretty microscopic foretaste!
This God enjoys our company, meets us in the ordinary and necessary areas of life, and transforms the mundane into feasting. This God turns everyday grey into multi-coloured celebration.
Most of all, perhaps, the thought of us sitting together and feasting with God confirms the notion that the covenant has brought us into a family. Like a family sitting down to eat in the evening when everyone has come in from school or work, so we reflect together on what we have done with God and what we shall do tomorrow with him. And we do that with food and drink, bread and wine, at tables and in cars, in homes and in shops, breathing air and using our five senses, because we can not only taste and see that the Lord is good as the Psalmist said, we can also touch, see, smell and hear that he is good.
We live out this relationship which the covenant has established and confirmed not waiting for heaven but seeking to do his will on earth as it is in heaven, all the while giving the world an advance taste of the new heavens and the new earth which God will bring with the resurrection of the dead at the end of all things as we know them now.
What does this have to say to us as we renew our covenant this morning? We are called not only together into the fellowship of the church with God but also to go into the world with him and celebrate his love there. We can find him in the normality of daily living just as we can also find him in the specialness of Sunday morning. And as we encounter God in the physical world, so we rejoice in that love as we turn material things back into the stuff of his kingdom.
May that be what each of us does this year.
I have mentioned before that the subject I disliked at secondary school was English Literature. I only developed a conscious interest in creative writing when I was an adult. Even now, I rarely read novels. If I read one novel a year, that’s quite a high rate, even for an avid reader like me.
But I have found some of the ‘literature’ aspects of the Bible fascinating. In particular, one insight about biblical poetry has stayed with me, and in a moment I aim to show you how it is important in this account of Jesus’ birth.
In the Old Testament, the poetry of the Psalms and large parts of Proverbs, Job, some prophets and so on rhymes. But it doesn’t rhyme like English poetry does. We rhyme the sounds at the end of each line. You can see that in the carols we are singing tonight.
Hebrew poetry rhymes differently. The Hebrew poets didn’t rhyme sounds, they rhymed ideas. So the second line rhymes the first by repeating the same idea in a different way. Or it states the opposite of the first line. Or it takes the idea of the first line and moves it on.
If you want to impress people at dinner parties, this particular kind of rhyming is called ‘Hebrew parallelism’. So now you know.
I want to suggest that the song of the angels to the shepherds can be understood this way, and that when we do, we see the power of the poetry they sing. Hear again their familiar words:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’ (Verse 14)
In the first line God, and the second line refers to human beings. Heaven in the first line, earth in the second. Glory in the first, peace in the second.
So firstly, why does God in heaven receive glory? What has he done that is worthy of praise? Well, clearly, he has at last sent the promised Messiah, for whom his people have longed for centuries, to deliver them:
Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Verse 11)
At last! The prayers of the centuries are being answered. The waiting is over. To people suffering long comes good news. The angels sing praise, and if the shepherds can think straight in the middle of this strange and terrifying experience, they will, too. Hope is about to be fulfilled!
But you and I know that this child came as a very different kind of Saviour and Messiah from that which was expected. Not the mere human military ruler. And there are hints here, in that he is called ‘the Lord’. He takes on a divine description. This isn’t simply some warrior. This is God, come to command our allegiance. If he is military at all, he is the Lord of hosts, the Old Testament God of angel armies. God himself has come to save his people. This is not a human being calling Israel to rally to him.
What that will mean can only be hinted at in the barest terms in the nativity story, and even then it is easier to spot if you know how it all pans out. A humble birth to poor parents, and now lying in a manger, for example. God comes in weakness, and he will live and minister in weakness, depending entirely upon the Holy Spirit. He will die in weakness, but that weak death on the Cross will transform all things. He will not raise himself from the dead, but God the Father will do that for him by the power of the Spirit.
But for all this, God is glorified, God is praised. He has come to save his people. He has come to bring a revolution. But not a revolution that will spill the blood of enemies. A revolution of love. A revolution where the Messiah himself will spill his own blood, not that of others.
This is why God is to receive praise in heaven. Do the angels even know what is coming? Do they know the plan of God? We have no idea. But there are tiny signs now of what is to come, where God in Jesus will accomplish his purposes in the most humbling and astonishing ways. As the American Methodist minister and scholar Allan Bevere says, the God of Christmas is an embarrassment. He stoops as low as it takes. He enters the muck and the mire. He will go on to party with sinners.
So we have a choice with God this Christmas. We can be embarrassed by him – and take offence. That was what Jesus’ religious opponents would do, thirty years later, when he spelled it out in his words and actions. Or, God’s embarrassing actions can make us smile, laugh and rejoice. And then we give glory to the embarrassing God.
And secondly, what about this peace on earth? Lots of people jump on this and use it to support their favourite notion of peace. Christians with a very personal, individualist understanding of faith use the mention of peace here to buttress their claim that Jesus came to bring peace on earth between individuals and God. It’s rather like the way Billy Graham used to preach about having ‘peace with God’. It’s the peace that comes from having your sins forgiven and declared righteous by God, all because of what Jesus would do for us in dying for our sins on the Cross.
Other Christians, those with a social conscience, emphasise ‘peace on earth’ in the sense that Jesus came to bring peace instead of war to this world. They see an effect upon society, more than an individual transformation. They see the hope of the prophets that the lion would lie down with the lamb being fulfilled.
Let me suggest to you that the text requires us to see that Jesus’ coming to bring peace is both personal and social. It has to be personal, because this is not a general ‘peace on earth’, which you might be forgiven for thinking from the way this verse is popularly quoted, and from the way those who stress it purely in terms of social justice speak. For it is ‘on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests’ (my italics). It is peace being granted to the people of God, to his followers. Now that can still be social, as we shall see, and those good Jews who were desperate to see the end of Roman occupation could have seen it that way, but it is definitely specific. This is a gift of peace for those whose allegiance is to the God of Israel.
I offer to you the approach, then, that the song of the angels promises peace between people and God, and then the people of God as a people of peace. We have a world that longs for peace, and as the people of God we are meant to be a sign of God’s coming kingdom. The church is not the kingdom of God, but we are meant to be the community of the King. Our common life as well as our individual life is to be a witness to the coming of God’s reign. Our life together is to show people what life under the rule of God looks like. That is why the bickering, the jealousy and the petty feuds we experience in the church at times have no place in our midst.
And where does it start? It begins with the personal commitment to follow Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. It means accepting his assessment of us as sinners, and his offer to make a new start, based on the Cross. He cures our alienation from God and gives us peace.
But it cannot stop there. The one who names Jesus as Lord and Saviour does so as an individual, but never in a private capacity. It is public and communal. God is building a people for his praise. He is doing it in his uniquely embarrassing way, as I said. The God who comes in all humility at Christmas offers us peace with him that we might build a community of peace in his name, a colony of heaven on earth.
If we as Christians are serious about celebrating Christmas, then we embrace a personal relationship with Christ and all that means – prayer, witness, discipleship and so on. And we also commit to one another in the church as we embrace our calling to show the world what the forgiven and forgiving life looks like. That would be a fitting way to sing the angels’ song:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’
Here is a Christingle talk I prepared. It isn’t going to be used this year, but filed away for now.
Let me tell you a story about when I was a child.
I grew up in London, and one year our family decided to have a summer holiday in Scotland. It would be a long distance away, and my Dad didn’t want to drive all the way there and back.
So he booked us on a special overnight train from London to Perth in Scotland. It carried the cars at the back, and we went to special bedrooms in the main part of the train. We were to sleep in bunk beds while the train sped through the night to Scotland. My Dad and my sister shared one bedroom, my Mum and I shared another.
There was one problem: as a child, I was afraid of the dark. At home, we used to leave the landing light on at night, so that I wouldn’t be worried at night. But you couldn’t do that on the overnight train. So I insisted that Mum and I kept the main light on in the room all night.
I don’t think we slept much.
Is anyone else here afraid of the dark? I wonder why we are scared of the dark. Sometimes we think there are monsters at the end of our bed. Other times we hear the house creak and we think it’s going to collapse. In other words, we connect the darkness with bad things, scary things, horrible things.
So if we think about the darkness as something bad, we think about the light as something good. And when we call Jesus ‘the light of the world’ or ‘the light that shines in the darkness’, we are saying there is something good about him. He shines light – goodness – into the darkness. The Bible says, ‘The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’
And that’s what we’re celebrating at Christingle and at Christmas. We know there is a lot of darkness in the world. That is, we know there is a lot of bad in the world: people are selfish, greedy, angry, they hurt people and so on. But we believe that light has come. Jesus is the light and the darkness cannot win in the end.
How is Jesus the light in the darkness? He starts with us. He wants to forgive the darkness in us. He took that darkness upon himself. That’s why when he died on the Cross, the sky went dark. Then he wants to change us, to live more like him. He shows us the way to live a good life, full of light, and he offers us his power to live that way. He also promises that one day he will judge the world, and the evil darkness will be gone.
This Christmas, as you take your Christingles away with you, look at the candle. Remember Jesus, the light of the world, who can shine his light into your world when the dark things worry you. Remember Jesus the light of the world, whose light can change the darkness of our own bad things. Remember Jesus the light of the world, who promises one day to chase all the darkness away.
Here is the address I gave at yesterday’s carol service.
There are two groups of people I would like us to think about for a few minutes this evening.
Group number one: cast your mind back to July this year, and the birth of the royal baby. Crowds gathering at Buckingham Palace awaiting the posting of the official announcement; other crowds at St Mary’s Hospital, camera phones poised behind the barricades for that first glimpse, and then an outburst of applause and flash as the proud parents came out.
Follow that with the speculation as we awaited the announcement of his name. And sure enough, he was given conventional royal names: George Alexander Louis. Kevin and Tyler weren’t in the running.
Then we had the christening, where there was more media coverage about the gown the young prince would wear than the meaning of the ceremony. Do only the royals dress up their little boys in frilly clothes, or is it just preparation for a public school uniform when he is older?
Trappings, ceremony, accoutrements – and enough coverage in Hello magazine to destroy all the rain forests. We expect that with a royal birth. Facebook and Twitter going crazy, you know the deal.
Yet we celebrate a royal birth at Christmas that looks so different. No privilege, no wealth, no ease. Mary is a teenage girl who may popularly be suspected of a scandal. She doesn’t come from an upwardly mobile family, and she had no chance of an education, let alone one at a prestigious historic university. Joseph wasn’t born licking a silver spoon, and he merely grew up to become an artisan, working as some kind of carpenter, builder or stonemason. You want that extension on your house or that new fitted kitchen? Call Joseph, and he’ll turn up in his old Transit van, with his plaid shirt, beer belly, and a copy of the Daily Mirror.
Royalty? Well, the only connection they got with royal circles was when the local despot Herod felt threatened and sent his death squads into Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and the young Jesus have to leave everything behind and become refugees. No palace for them.
All of which leads me to believe that the Christmas story is especially for the poor, the forgotten, the obscure and those who think they are nothing or worthless. Do you feel insignificant? Jesus came for you. Do you feel like you don’t count? Jesus came for you, too. Or do you feel like you are on the margins, or rejected, or that you will never be popular? Do you believe that you are the sort of person who, when fame and fortune come along the road, take a detour to avoid you? The Jesus who came in the Christmas story is for you.
Perhaps, though, you are not like that. You may be one of those Surrey residents who has wealth or power or position or influence. If so, then the story of Christ’s coming at Christmas is one that holds dangers for you – or at least warnings. It is no good relying on our social position or our prestige with Jesus. Why would the King of Kings and Lord of Lords be impressed by that? Doesn’t your power or property seem puny in the light of who Jesus is?
Christmas – the time when we celebrate the coming of the humble king – is the time when we can only come to that king in humility ourselves. We don’t get into heaven on the basis of our contacts or whose number is on speed dial in our phone. But if we do come in humility, then we discover the amazing truth that Jesus is for us.
Group number two: they were a gang of heavy drinkers who lived on the outskirts of town. They carried weapons, which they were ready to use and they were known to conduct burglary raids together. Better not get in their way, or they might use a knife. They weren’t unemployed, they had a trade, but people were happy to do business with them, just so long as they stayed out of harm’s way. Although they tended to use other people’s land for their work, and if they came over your boundary, then you’d better not argue. At least, not if you wanted to keep good health.
If you had a gang like that living in your town, what would your attitude be? Would you call the police? Would you band together to hold a public meeting and demand that civic officials took action? Would you lobby your councillors or MP?
And what would you call for? ASBOs? Have them locked up? Perhaps they’re really illegal immigrants and should be deported.
Do you know what you’ve just done? You’ve just kicked the shepherds out of the Christmas story. The shepherds were the rogues, the chavs, the petty criminals of first century Palestine. Not respectable. The Daily Mail would have run front page campaigns against them and their type.
And yet, and yet … these people, these crooks, these bandits, these ne’er-do’wells, these scum of the earth are the first to hear the announcement that the Messiah has been born. If you think that Jesus came just to hang out with the ‘good’ people, forget it. He came for the bad and for the misfits.
If you doubt me, think about some of the crowd Jesus hob-nobbed with during his adult life. They weren’t all scallywags, but plenty of them were. Simon the Zealot was a terrorist or a freedom fighter, depending on your political views. The brothers James and John had a nickname – they were called ‘the Sons of Thunder – well, what kind of guys get that for a nickname? Early Hell’s Angels, perhaps? Matthew was a collaborator with the occupying Roman army.
So Christmas is a time to put to bed once and for all the idea that Jesus came for good people. Right from his birth, throughout his life even to his death on the Cross , when he was crucified with two common criminals, Jesus came to offer forgiveness and a new life to people who knew they were bad.
If you think you are a failure, this is good news for you. if you think you could never possibly be accepted, this is good news for you, too. Jesus wants you to say ‘yes’ to him and follow him.
But others here might be thinking, I don’t see myself like that. I’m a good, decent, hard-working member of society who is trying to be respectable. I put things into society, I’m not a taker. Why should Jesus favour the scroungers and the hoodlums? It’s unfair.
Do you know what the basic problem with that argument is? When we try to argue that we are fundamentally good, we manipulate our image. Like a photo of a plump person with acne being made to look clear-skinned and slim in Photoshop, so we tell the good story about ourselves and we mask the ugly truth about our own selfishness.
And Jesus won’t let us get away with that. Following him can only begin and continue with an acknowledgement of our selfishness, our thoughtlessness, our unjust behaviour. Without that humility he can’t clean us up, much as he wants to.
So I invite you to be like the shepherds this Christmas. Come dirty to the manger, and find the One who accepts your praise, makes you new, and calls you to follow him.
The language ‘kingdom of God’ is a problem today. Most obviously it’s a problem if you live in a republic. How do you relate to the image? One American Christian writer faced that difficulty and decided to paraphrase it in a way that he thought maintained the impact of the expression. He called it ‘the revolution of God’.
And even in a monarchy like the United Kingdom, we have trouble relating to the phrase ‘kingdom of God’. In our nation, the Queen acts on the advice of her ministers. The sovereign’s powers have been circumscribed over history. We, too, need to understand that when John the Baptist comes proclaiming the kingdom of God – the very theme that will be central to the ministry of Jesus – we are talking about a revolution. The revolution of God.
Indeed, ‘kingdom of God’ was revolutionary language in New Testament times. And our mission this morning is to consider what kind of revolution John was heralding, and which would arrive in Jesus.
Because make no mistake, if our Advent preparations consist merely of tinsel, presents and mince pies we have missed its true meaning. This is the season when we prepare for revolution.
And that is essential for us to grasp. We have taken it as a truism for so long that the kingdom Jesus came to preach was not the one that good Jews of his day longed for. That’s a truism because it’s true! But if we Christians aren’t careful, we become smug or complacent about that, and we miss the fact that the kingdom of God is still revolutionary for us. Why? How?
Firstly, the revolution of God is an outsider revolution. John is not part of the establishment. No priest or scribe he, even though he was the son of Zechariah who ministered in the Jerusalem Temple. John puts all that behind him and goes to the wilderness. No flowing priestly robes for him, he goes for true shabby chic (without having it professionally distressed) in his choice of camel hair and a leather belt. I have joked in past years that he might have been the inventor of the ‘Bush tucker trial’ on ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ with his diet of locusts and honey, but actually he wouldn’t have been impressed at all by celebrities. In fact, given the scathing words he addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees here I can’t see him getting on the phone voting to save them.
Here’s the way God’s revolution often works. It comes from the margins, not the centre. It is rare for God to renew his church and reform society in a movement that comes through the structures of power in the church itself. He tends to be at work on the outer boundaries. He tends to be stirring things up among those who do not have access to traditional sources of power or authority. He takes delight in using nobodies. It’s not just the aims of God’s kingdom that are revolutionary, it is the methods, too.
And if that is true, then it is time for hope to spring up in the pews of the church. Hope – and perspective. Do not wait around, expecting the ministers and Local Preachers necessarily to be the standard bearers of God’s revolution. I would love to be such a person, but God may not choose me. Do not assume that because of my office God will somehow automatically choose me. That is by no means necessarily God’s way. He may come in power upon and through those of you who think you are nothing in the eyes of the church, let alone the eyes of God. It’s what he did, using John the Baptist in the wilderness. It’s what he did, having his son born in poverty and laid in a manger.
So I invite you this Advent to consider the thought that you are as likely as anyone to be the kind of disciple that Jesus would enlist to do something significant in the revolution that we call his kingdom. Do not let the disappointments of everyday life blind you to the possibility that God may choose to use people who are among those who are unexpected, the ones who would never pass the selection criteria for the ministry, the ones who never pass exams, the ones who have never been in the limelight or held a significant rôle in society.
Secondly, it’s a homecoming revolution. Listen to the language of homecoming:
“Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.” (Verse 3)
The Lord is coming home, is the message. He is coming to take his rightful place on his throne. That is why we can say the kingdom is coming.
And it was relevant to John’s audience. These words are quoted from Isaiah 40, where the prophecies of Israel’s return from exile in Babylon begin. It is no accident that scriptures with that theme were relevant to John and Jesus. For in their day, the Jews believed they were still in exile. Not geographically, for they were in the Promised Land, but because they did not rule it themselves on behalf of God, but living under a foreign power, Rome, they felt they were still effectively in exile. Many felt God had deserted them. Some rabbis had said that after the final prophet in the Old Testament had spoken, the Holy Spirit had left Israel.
So imagine what it is like for them to hear that God is making a homecoming. He will reign – and the Romans will not. He will be present in his kingly power, not absent. This is good news. In fact, it really is good news in their terms, because the word ‘gospel’, which we translate as good news, comes from an ancient practice of proclaiming the great things the king had done. God’s return to Judah and especially to Zion is a Jewish form of gospel.
Yet now see these things not merely as Jewish gospel two thousand years ago, but in the light of the One who did come to Zion, Jesus the Messiah. He comes to reign. He comes and has the title ‘Lord’. He is Lord, and by implication, Caesar is not Lord. The Romans would not have the final say in this world, and nor will the powers that be today, be they political, military, economic or media. Like Jesus was to say to Pilate, they only have power because it has been granted to them from above. The true Lord of our lives and of the whole cosmos is Jesus himself.
So we rejoice that the powers of our day will one day have had their day, while Jesus reigns – not from Zion but from a hill outside where he was lifted up; not in a temple made by human hands but in the midst of a temple made of humans; not in the precincts of Jerusalem but at the Mount of Olives, from where he ascended and where he will appear again.
The authorities of today are put in their place. They can posture and pout as much as they like, but it is all vanity and we can laugh at it, because Jesus is the true Lord.
We can also resist their seductions, in the name of Jesus the coming Lord. It will anger them, and it will cost us, but their days are numbered.
And furthermore, if Jesus is the presence of God coming to us – Emmanuel, God with us, as we remember at this time of year – then we are no longer alone. God has no longer deserted his people. By sheer grace, God is with us. Yes, granted, God hides himself from us for seasons, but he has come to be with us and never to forsake us.
Thirdly and finally, it’s a revolution of repentance. Those who flood out from the big towns to John’s outsider location (verse 5) confess their sins and are baptised (verse 6). John says he baptises for repentance (verse 11). And when the religious élite come to seek baptism too – are they like modern politicians jumping on the coat-tails of a popular phenomenon? – he reserves his choicest insults for them:
‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. (Verses 7b-10)
This is a kingdom where status counts for nothing. All that matters is the opposite of clinging to status: humility; the humility that leads to repentance. A repentance that does more than say sorry; a repentance that makes straight our crooked paths to be fit for the coming of the Lord.
This is a kingdom where no-one can rest on religious laurels. What could have been truer for good Jews than to trace their spiritual heritage back to Abraham? Yes, that strictly was where God began to form a pilgrim people for himself, but it could not be claimed as a badge. You could not hold up your ‘child of Abraham’ laminate on your lanyard and automatically be granted entry into God’s kingdom. There had to be substance, and that was shown by a willingness to change.
There has to be the substance of repentance for us, too, and it needs to be on-going. John could come to us and say, ‘do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Wesley as our father’”’ We are not a heritage site designed for spiritual tourists, we are a colony of God’s kingdom.
Let us beware what we are building on. In one previous church, a group of people objected to the use of modern worship songs alongside traditional hymns. (Those who enjoyed the contemporary songs were more generous in their attitude to the tried and tested gems from the past.) The final straw for one of this group came after I had left that church, when they decided to replace the pews with chairs. She and her husband resigned their membership. Her understanding of faith was based on the style of her heritage, and certainly not on the spiritual substance of what Wesley wrote about in his hymns.
So let us ask ourselves this question: when was the last time we allowed God to challenge our actions, our thoughts, our words or our lifestyles? Have we permitted God to effect a revolution in our own lives, such that he may use as agents of his revolution in the world?
There are many popular images of the church. It is common to say that it is a hospital for the sick and the sinners, and I certainly understand the church like that. But I think we also ought to ask what kind of church we are. Would it not also be reasonable to conclude that the church is a field hospital, healing its wounded so that they may be strong for the battle with those forces that foolishly resist the coming revolution? Here God binds up the injured nobodies and sends them to herald his kingdom from the outside, not the centre. Here in the church, his revolutionaries know the presence of Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord, following his instructions in his presence.
Have we signed up for the revolution? Because that is what John – and later Jesus – called us to embrace.
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.