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Peter was known as a bit of a lad in the office where I used to work. But one day, his world was turned upside-down. His girlfriend became a Christian. She joined a local evangelical church, and invited him to the Sunday night youth group.
Knowing I was a Christian, he talked to me about the experience on the Monday morning.
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought you Christians were not supposed to be worried about wealth and possessions. But we went to the home of the old boy who ran the group, and he kept going on and on about how much he loved his expensive new three-piece suite. How do you square that with Christianity?”
You can’t, can you?
Peter had a point. And maybe behind it for me is a thought that we as Christians have more of a problem with wealth and materialism than we like to admit.
And so in a week when our time in Ecclesiastes brings us to this trenchant passage about money, I think we need to consider the subject. Is it possible that we are not as distinctive from the world as we might be? Is it even possible that rather than hearing the biblical admonition not to love the world, we are more like spiritual chameleons, adopting the local colour with ease?
Make no mistake: we cannot dismiss this as just some stereotyping of Surrey residents. The statistics support it. Measured by property prices, we live in the wealthiest county in the UK. We have the second highest ratio of multimillionaires, beaten only by the concentration of Premier League footballers in Greater Manchester. I can assure you that my children have noticed it. They ask me why their school friends have multiple foreign holidays every year, while we always stay in the UK. I’m not complaining about being on a stipend, which technically is a living allowance and not a salary – I knew what I was letting myself in for. (Although I confess I’m touched when Mark observes that ministers do one of the most important jobs in the world, so they should be highly paid!) I just want you to know how obvious it is.
And if we do merge in with the local background, then consider this: I think I have told you before that in my first few weeks here, one of my colleagues raised this question: ‘Is the Gospel against Surrey?’ Does the Gospel stand against the values espoused by so many people in this wealthy county?
I would have thought it does. I am aware that there are a number of people in our congregation on very limited, fixed incomes, and if that is you, I promise you I do not have you in mind. I also know that there are people here on considerable incomes, who are also generous. I am privy to some wonderful stories of generosity in this congregation. But generally it is always a danger for Christians that we accommodate to the culture. Partly that may be out of a desire to be accepted, but it is also partly because we find that culture attractive anyway.
So do we need to hear the force of the Preacher’s words in this passage, that wealth is meaningless? Hear chapter 5, verse 10 again:
Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.
This too is meaningless.
One of the extremely rich members of a past generation – and I confess I can’t remember whether this was Rothschild or Rockefeller – was once asked, ‘How much money is enough?’ He replied, ‘Always just a little bit more than you already have.’
Furthermore, increased wealth is to some extent an inbuilt factor in Christian conversion. John Wesley noticed the phenomenon called ‘redemption and lift’. Finding Christ led to a reduced spending on bad habits, making for more disposable income. Not only that, imbibing Christian values of hard work led people to earn more money. Put these effects together and conversion helped people financially. Indeed, as Wesley’s own fame increased and he sold more books and pamphlets, he noticed that his own annual income rose from £30 (remember we’re talking about the eighteenth century!) to £120. However, he calculated that throughout those years he only needed £28 on which to live, and therefore he gave away any income he had over that amount.
I shall come a little later to some of the thoughts about how we might handle the financial blessings many of us have, but that was Wesley’s approach.
All around us we find the trappings and the temptations of wealth. I am fast thinking that there is a local catchphrase. I have heard it so often in this village: ‘You should go private.’ Whether we’re talking healthcare or education, there seems to be a local assumption for many: you should go private. More than one person who knows we have a very bright son has told us we should send him to the Royal Grammar School at Guildford. If we’re lucky, they have a second thought along the lines of ‘Oh, I suppose you can’t afford that.’ There can be occasions when there is no alternative but to take the private route, but around Knaphill I find many people who treat that option as an easy default.
All this happens in a world where at Addlestone we host one of the three hundred food banks in this country, where our denomination has contributed to the ecumenical report by the Joint Public Issues Team called ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty’, which forcefully exposes the demonisation of the poor in our society. In the USA, a film has just been released called ‘A Place at the Table’, which documents the fact that 49 million people in that nation including one in four children – don’t know where their next meal is coming from. How appropriate is it for us to drink in Surrey values, especially in the light of this, let alone what is happening elsewhere in the world?
Some people deal with this by downsizing and simplifying their lives. A dear friend of mine quit as a director of his company, and he and his wife moved to a hamlet in the West Country, where they got involved in the local community in various ways. However, that approach isn’t possible for everybody. For some Christians to do that would involve denying the position of responsibility they have been given at work, and their sense of calling to it.
How, then, might Christians respond and live distinctively within a culture that ignores God and worships Mammon instead? I would commend a passage such as 1 Timothy 6 as a great antidote to the perils of caving in to our culture. In the face of people who have wandered from the faith into deep distress due to their love of money (verse 10) he urges ‘godliness with contentment’ (verse 6). He then commands the rich to be generous, while at the same time remembering that God provides us with everything for our enjoyment (verse 17).
So what kind of Christian lifestyle might we pursue if we were content with the basics God gives us? It will look different for each of us – there is no uniform response – so if you are looking for a very simple ‘We should all just tithe’ sermon, I’m sorry. But let me offer the following thoughts.
I said earlier that I am paid a stipend, not a salary, and that the key difference is this: theoretically, a salary is ‘the rate for the job’ (or, perhaps, simply the result of a power struggle in bargaining between employer and employees). A stipend is a living allowance. It is meant to be enough so as not to be in want, and to free me to concentrate on my calling without the need to spend a lot of time elsewhere, supplementing my income. Now while that is a rather idealistic description and the reality can be somewhat harder, let me ask this: what if we as Christians prayerfully determined what would be a reasonable level of income for ourselves (including savings) and gave money away that would otherwise take us above that standard of living?
You could say I am suggesting something that is a variation on Wesley’s approach. You’ll remember I said that he continued to live on £28 a year, whether his income was £30 or £120. His motto was ‘Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.’ Is that an approach that commends itself to us?
I said also this wouldn’t be a simple ‘We should all tithe’ response, but tithing needs a mention. The tithes of the Old Testament were rather more complicated than some people like to make out, and the simplified version that is often preached – ‘Give ten per cent of your income to the church’ – doesn’t do that justice and also puts a disproportionate burden on the poor and lets the rich off lightly. However, back in the late 1970s, the American Christian social activist Ronald Sider suggested a variation that tried to address this problem. He called for Christians to adopt the principle of what he called the ‘graduated tithe’. People started out at a base level of giving a certain percentage of their income – say, the ten per cent. However, as their income increased, not only would their giving increase pro rata, they would also increase the percentage of their income that they gave away to the church and to the poor. Alongside that, he proposed other lifestyle decisions, like only buying a new suit no more frequently than every three years. If you want to read more about his ideas, pick up his book ‘Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.’
Let me commend another practice to you. I believe this won’t be entirely new to some of you. I call it the ‘Bob and Kay Fund.’ Bob and Kay were a couple – both now sadly deceased – who were great friends with my parents. Bob had been an executive in the advertising industry but quit that to be the publicity and appeals director of the Shaftesbury Society. I know of at least one occasion when Bob and Kay were generous to my parents in difficult times. When pressed about it, they said they kept a special fund into which they put money, in additional to their regular giving to their church. They then used that sporadically to meet specific needs they came across. Is that something you could do, perhaps administering it out of a separate bank account?
What about our homes? I have heard it said that many people in this area are ‘asset rich but cash poor.’ Hospitality is one of the sadly unsung spiritual gifts in Scripture. Are there ways in which you could be more hospitable, and not just to your close friends?
Whatever giving you do, I recommend this question: am I doing this as a sign of my desire to build for the kingdom of God, and to play an active part in the kingdom community, that is, the church? Or am I just putting something in that I regard in a similar way to the subs I pay to the golf club, the tennis club or the fitness centre?
A final story: Martin Smith was the lead vocalist of the Christian rock band Delirious? Even if you don’t follow Christian rock, you may well know some of their songs, such as ‘I Could Sing of Your Love Forever.’ They sold huge numbers of CDs – at least, by the standards of the religious scene. Also gaining royalties as the main songwriter, Smith earned a very comfortable living. The band toured the world and occasionally made the pop charts.
It was on a visit to India, though, that Smith had his heart broken by meeting a young girl through an outreach to prostitutes and their children. He realised that these girls witnessed things they should never see, and would almost certainly soon end up in prostitution themselves. As a father himself, this distressed him hugely. He and the band set out to support Christian outreaches to them and their mothers.
But at a later date, he realised that he needed to build his own recording studio. He then had an attack of conscience. Could he really do this when the need in India was so great? The money he planned to spend on the studio would fund ten workers with the Indian poor. What should he do?
He built the recording studio. It was central to his calling to make music to promote Jesus Christ, and therefore he concluded it wasn’t greedy to do so. Hence that’s my last point: in the use of your wealth, consider God’s calling on your life.
How, then, will you and I determine to use our resources in a way that makes our wealth meaningful rather than meaningless?
 Martin Smith, Delirious: My Journey with the Band, a Growing Family, and an Army of Historymakers, p 189.
I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a parent in Sandy Hook since Friday. If I had said goodbye to one of my children at the school gate that morning and never seen them again – except in a mortuary – well, I just don’t know. I would be howling. Inconsolable.
And obviously it has reignited the debate about gun control in the States. Some (including in the church) say we shouldn’t be political. I recall after Dunblane here being asked not to preach about the wicked tragedy, but we must raise these issues. So maybe there are things I don’t understand as an outsider to American culture, but here are some of my questions for those who think gun control should not be tightened. I have put in bold what I perceive to be these people’s objections to legal restrictions. I have read several of these in the last three days, and – to let the cat out of the bag – I’m not convinced by the gun lobby.
Criminals will ignore laws They do – but on that basis you wouldn’t legislate anything. Is that what you want?
There are too many millions of guns in circulation for legislation to be effective Well, doesn’t that argument remind you of similar ones used to oppose Wilberforce and the abolitionist lobby?
America is different from other nations I’ve seen that as a comment on a friend’s Facebook page. I’m sorry, that’s just insulting. Is that just another version of American exceptionalism? And if you approach this as a Christian, how exactly is America not characterised by the same beauties and flaws of human character as anywhere else? It’s time to realise that the examples of other major nations when it comes to the public availability of arms show this up for what it is.
Quoting the Second Amendment in a fundamentalist way In other words, just quoting the words without context. Back then, guns were loaded one bullet at a time. Today, clips may have a hundred bullets. Since when is ‘the right to bear arms’ really a right to protect a consumerist lifestyle? How on earth can churches vocally support such a thing?
Laws won’t change the human heart Is anyone saying they will? Nobody is making so grandiose a claim. But laws still have a value, in restraining evil. Read Romans 13 again.
Sandy Hook happened because public prayer is banned in schools You mean your God is so small he can be rendered ineffective by the separation of Church and State? Read God can’t be kept out by Rachel Held Evans. Preach it, sister.
This isn’t about gun control, it’s about mental health We don’t know all we can know about Adam Lanza, but does it really stand up to say, ‘Just keep weapons out of the hands of the crazies and we’ll be OK’? Are mentally stable people always to be trusted with guns?
My dear American friends: Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and many other places. How many more young lives must be cut down before effective action is taken?
Meanwhile, can we in the church model a different way? A better way? A kingdom way?
So often different parties in the church are at war with each other. Just like Jesus wanted. Not.
But here is a music project that links Catholics, Evangelicals and more Liberal/middle of the road Christians. It’s The Martyrs Project. The Catholic website Salt And Light Radio is featuring the video for their song about Oscar Romero. You can read more there about who is involved. It includes some of my favourite Christian musicians.
Alternatively, below is (just) the Romero video:
A fortnight ago I preached on Mark 13:1-8 and said that despite certain appearances that chapter wasn’t about the Second Coming. Today, Advent Sunday, we start a new year in the Lectionary and we switch our main Gospel readings from Mark to Luke. The Luke reading set for today is the end of his equivalent chapter to Mark 13, and I would still contend that – despite appearances – it is more to do with the fall of Jerusalem to Rome than it is with the Second Coming.
Yet the Second Coming is a traditional theme for Advent Sunday. As we enter the season where we prepare to mark Jesus’ first coming, we also look forward to his appearing again – this time, in glory.
It was in remembering that emphasis for Advent Sunday that I decided instead to preach from today’s Lectionary epistle in 1 Thessalonians. There is no doubt that both of Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians have plenty of sane things to say to Christians about the return of Christ, and so I want to take verse 13 from our reading as a text this morning to explore this theme.
Let’s read it again:
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Firstly, let us think about Paul’s statement that Jesus is coming. We have to get beyond some of the silliness around the doctrine of the Second Coming in order to see that actually this is a wonderful and beautiful truth. We shouldn’t be distracted by the lurid interpretations of this. We should pay no attention to those who claim to have made elaborate deductions from Scripture about the relevance of present-day events to a heavenly timetable for Christ’s return. We should ignore those who use this doctrine as a way of scaring people. And I know that last one, having been subjected as a teenager to an American film called A Thief In The Night, which basically tried to frighten young people into following Jesus. It gave the members of some youth groups who watched it nightmares for years afterwards. Its effect was more like a religious horror film than an instrument for the Gospel.
But just because the fruitcake brigade exists doesn’t mean that sane interpretations don’t also exist. To believe in Christ’s return is to have real hope for our lives and for all creation. It is like the mirror image of Christmas. For just as his incarnation was announced by angels, so here Paul envisages his return, flanked by the entire army of angels. Paul refers to ‘the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints’, where ‘saints’ is literally ‘holy ones’ and in this case that probably means angels, not Christians. Jesus is coming back to wrap up what he began. Like Magnus Magnusson or John Humphrys on Mastermind, he is saying, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.”
To put it another way, let us remember how Jesus came, proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand, and indeed had come. The evidence was seen in the healing of the sick, the release of the demonised and the preaching of the good news to the poor.
But it didn’t all come. Evil resisted Jesus, and still does. We do not live in a society where sickness, death and injustice have been conquered. We await that day. In other words, the kingdom of God has come, but not fully. In the words of some, it is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’. When Jesus comes again, it is, as I said, to finish what he started. It was promised in the ministry of Jesus. It was guaranteed in his resurrection.
How does this affect us now, as we continue to live in a world where we are surrounded by suffering? One answer is that it fortifies us with hope. Other people are driven to despair, but we who live in the light of the resurrection and the hope of the Second Coming know that God will one day make all things new. He will banish all tears and pain.
I am fond at this time of year of telling a story about Tony Campolo, the American preacher, social activist and sociologist. He tells of how someone asked him how come he wasn’t despondent when faced with all the pain and wickedness of the world. He replied, “I’ve got the book and I’ve taken a peek at the final page, so I know the ending: Jesus wins!”
On Advent Sunday, we are the people who believe that Jesus wins, and we, too, are strengthened with that hope as we too live for him in a world that is often otherwise grim.
Secondly, we need to think about a fitting response to the news that Jesus is coming back to complete the coming of his kingdom. How might we be in harmony with God’s kingdom, fully come? Paul certainly anticipates something like that when he talks of us being ‘blameless’ when Jesus comes again with the angels.
What would it mean to be blameless before God? Well, this too is a matter of the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of God’s kingdom. There is a sense in which we are already blameless, and a way in which we are not yet blameless. What do I mean?
We are already blameless in that we are forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven, we are proclaimed ‘not guilty’ before God and the Great Judge has ‘justified’ us – he has declared us to be ‘in the right’ before him. As the Psalmist says, ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ Not only have we been pardoned from all our sins, the record is wiped clean. There is nothing left on our record before God. All has been dealt with at the Cross. ‘He remembers our sins no more.’ That much is our ‘already.’ This is what we already have.
But to hear the word ‘blameless’ is to feel the force of the ‘not yet’ as well. We are not yet fully blameless in the way we conduct our lives. Forgiven and justified we may be, but we do not live in perfect harmony with the will of God. Sometimes we are only too conscious of the ways in which we continue to fail God and disappoint Jesus. We have a long way to go to become blameless in our everyday lives.
Yet what would be more fitting and appropriate in the kingdom of God but to be utterly blameless? If Christ returns to make all things new, to make a new creation where not only is there no more sickness and pain, there is also no more sin and evil, then how would we fit in if we continue to be sinners? Does it not follow, then, that although God has already declared us blameless in his sight, he also wants to make us blameless in practice?
It therefore becomes our aspiration, as Paul says here, to seek greater holiness in our lives. Just because we have been forgiven we cannot sit back and say, “I’m OK, I have my ticket for heaven.” Rather, if we know we have been forgiven by such love and at such cost to Jesus, our response will surely want to be one of gratitude. What can I do to please such a Saviour? What can I do to demonstrate my thankfulness for receiving such a priceless gift? We shall never want to settle for some idea that we have already arrived in the Christian life. There is no room for complacency in the life of the disciple. Disciples are always learning, and not simply learning religious facts. Disciples are learning more how to live after the pattern of their Teacher, Jesus.
The story is told of a little girl who saw her grandma reading her Bible. “Grandma, why are you still reading the Bible at your age?” asked the girl. “Surely you’ve read it all by now. Why do you keep doing it?”
Because I’m studying for my finals,” replied grandma.
This leads us to the third and final theme this morning. How can we achieve such blamelessness? Surely it’s beyond us.
Paul knows that, and he doesn’t expect us to manage it ourselves. Remember how the verse began:
And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless … (emphasis mine)
The third theme is that God makes us ready for his kingdom.
Let me tell you a pretty open secret. You may disagree with me, but one Christmas carol I truly dislike is ‘Away in a manger.’ It’s that silly line, ‘But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes’, that always gets to me. If Jesus were fully human, he would have cried! It ranks alongside ‘How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given’ from ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ – words clearly written by someone who had never attended the birth of a child.
But how does ‘Away in a manger’ end? ‘And fit us for heaven, to live with thee there.’ Now while I would still like to finesse that line a little too, because technically in the New Testament heaven is where we go between our death and our resurrection, but after our resurrection we live in God’s new creation, but nevertheless I like the thought that God fits us for eternity. ‘And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness’ indeed.
If God strengthens us, then that usually indicates the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the power of God. Jesus is coming again and will make all things new. We need to be ready for that, yet we are unable to be. But just as God has provided for our forgiveness, so he has also provided for our holiness. When we respond to the grace and mercy he lovingly offers us in Christ and we find redemption, he then grants us the gift of the Holy Spirit so that he can begin his work of fitting us for eternity. The power of God is available to us.
This doesn’t mean we become perfect overnight. Experience tells us that. But let us dwell on that image of being ‘fitted’ for eternity, and let that inform Paul’s teaching that God strengthens us in holiness. Think of someone who goes for a fitting for some clothes – perhaps a bride for her wedding dress. It takes a number of sessions over a period of months. A design is chosen. The bride is measured. She goes back a while later and the measurements have to be retaken, because she is making an effort to lose weight, ready for her wedding day. The dressmaker makes some adjustments, and notes what needs to be changed. And so it goes on, until the great day when the bride walks down the aisle, and stuns everyone with her beauty.
I think that what God does in strengthening us in holiness is a little like that. It is a process over a long time. It involves adjustments and changes. Eventually, one day, we – not as individuals but corporately as part of the Church, which is the Bride of Christ – will walk down the aisle for the marriage to Jesus the Bridegroom, and we shall stun people with our beauty – the beauty of holiness, as the hymn writer put it.
And let us remember also that the fact that God strengthens us in holiness does not absolve us from personal responsibility. We do not sit back and let God take the strain while we have an easy, quiet existence. Oh no. We need to co-operate with the Holy Spirit. The dressmaker would not be able to make the bride look beautiful unless that young woman co-operated with her work. We need to be open to the Holy Spirit, not closed.
This, then, describes some of the Advent hope. Jesus is coming again. He will finish what he started, by making all things new. It is only fitting that we seek holy lives in accordance with his kingdom purposes. However, we cannot do that on our own. Thankfully, God steps in with his Holy Spirit to strengthen us and fit us for eternity.
Our Advent calling, then, is to co-operate with the Spirit’s work in our lives. The same Spirit who brought Jesus into the world is available to us, so that we might live to please the One who came and who is coming.
Leaving aside that (a) I don’t believe in a threefold order of ministry and (b) I’m not Anglican, it was interesting to read the letter published in today’s Independent in support of the campaign for General Synod to vote tomorrow in favour of women bishops. Several old friends of mine have signed the letter, and I also know a few friends who will be opposed. The contents will not convince those who cannot accept this, and in a detailed argument I would want to go much further than it does, but I hope the legislation goes through.
It all started at the end of our holiday this year. “Dad, why do we just go away on holiday in this country when my school friends go to Turkey twice a year?”
A few weeks later it was, “Dad, why doesn’t the church pay you as much money as other people? A minister’s job is very important! You should be paid lots of money! Then we wouldn’t have to think about whether we can afford an iPad or not.”
At the weekend there were three questions. One went like this: “Dad, why do we have to go to church every Sunday when most of my friends don’t go very much at all?”
The next was, “Dad, why do our teachers ask us all the questions in RE lessons, just because they know you’re a minister?”
And at bath-time I got, “Dad, why don’t as many people go to church these days?” Oh yes: I had to explain theories of secularisation to an eight-year-old.
Our children, at the ages of eight and nine, are now beginning to feel how different it is to be the daughter and son of a manse family. Some of it is exacerbated by currently living in the wealthiest county in the country. But it was going to come at some point. So how do we respond?
I used the first two questions to discuss with them what Jesus teaches about money, and why it isn’t the most important thing in life. I hope I got them thinking about the priorities of love and relationships. However, the issue will keep returning, especially here in Surrey.
The question about church attendance was asked by one of the children and answered by the other: “We have to go every week, because Dad is the minister.” I said, “No, we go every week because that’s what Christians do.” I would have liked more time to explore that. On its own it wasn’t an adequate answer.
I sympathised with them over the way their teachers seem to single them out in RE, expecting them to know a lot. I suggested it was possible their teachers weren’t churchgoers, and were looking for help from them. But that just provoked another question: “If our teachers are meant to show us what is true and good, why don’t they go to church?” And that led into the bath-time discussion of secularisation.
Yet it’s not just a matter of asking the questions. It’s about what we model and how we handle the whole consequences of my distinctive (perhaps the old word ‘peculiar’ is appropriate here) calling.
So I thought I’d throw this out for discussion: what are the best ways to raise preachers’ kids? I especially don’t want church to put them off. They can’t help but realise at times that not everything about church is nicey-nicey. All that alongside peer pressure around here, based presently on financial lifestyle implications.
Over to you!
Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?’ Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Verses 25-27)
I only preached on this passage back in October when I visited a church in another circuit and this was the Lectionary Gospel passage. Tomorrow I preach on it in a sermon series for Lent based on selected incidents from Holy Week.
One of my cousins married the daughter of a captain in the Army Catering Corps. The father of the bride said he would therefore organise the food at the reception. And so, on a cold February day, we trekked after the wedding ceremony to the barracks in Aldershot. As we arrived, the usual champagne flute glasses were offered, along with plates of vol au vents. As we ate these appetisers, we waited for the call to the main course.
It never came. The vol au vents were the meal.
Some of us later decamped to my aunt and uncle’s house, and to compensate for our hunger we ordered in fish and chips. Just as we were tucking in, there was a ring at the doorbell. In came the bride and groom. “Fish and chips?” they said, “Great! Can we have some?”
It wasn’t exactly the image of the wedding banquet that we expected. The nearest I have experienced to that was at another friend’s wedding where there was at least a full roast meal. However, as I went along with my plate taking my food, I was told by a member of the catering company, “Only two potatoes, sir.”
I can’t quite imagine God (or the king in the parable) throwing a banquet for his son where there was a strict rationing of the food. Although I have to say I harbour strange thoughts at communion services where we thank God at the end that we have had ‘a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people’ when that ‘foretaste’ consists of no more than a miniscule square of white bread and a tiny sip of sweet wine. It is the merest of mere foretastes!
In the parable, I am sure the king is sending out invitations to a lavish banquet, just as I am sure that the wedding reception at Buckingham Palace last year for ‘Wills and Kate’ was rather more than a selection of ready meals from Asda. The invitation is to something generous, swish, and – in the best sense of the word – tempting. It is to come to the table of the abundant God. Oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered – the best of the herd have been prepared (verse 4). Nothing less will do.
The question arises, then, what will people do with an invitation to such a feast?
But in normal circumstances that seems such an easy question to answer. The shock in this parable – and I never tire of saying that we need to look for the shocks in the parables of Jesus – is what happens in response to the invitation.
In the first instance, the king sends his servants ‘to those who had been invited to tell them to come’ (verse 3). It sounds like this is a group of people who have already received an invitation. But the nature of the invitation is different from our culture. In our society, when we receive an invitation to a wedding, we are told the date and time as well as the location. But these people have not yet been told the date and the time. They have been invited more generally. Now the servants go with the word that the date and time have been set, and they are to attend.
I therefore take these people to be the ones who expect an invitation. Given that this parable occurs in the midst of the tension being racked up between Jesus and the religious establishment, I take it that these are the people in the firing line here. They are the people who would expect an invitation to the great messianic banquet of God’s kingdom. They are the people who would expect not only to be invited, but to be sitting in the places of the greatest honour. They are the people who consider themselves uniquely favoured by God. And yet they are the ones whom Jesus says have effectively trashed the invitation.
What had they done wrong? If we are talking about the Pharisees, we are considering a group who honoured the Scriptures and cared passionately about the holiness of God’s people. Yet this had distorted into the erection of barriers to decide who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. Conveniently, they themselves were ‘in’.
If we are talking about the chief priests and the teachers of the law, we are considering a social class who had ingratiated themselves with the ruling Romans in order to protect their own status. To do that, they had made their religion in their own image, to justify their actions. It’s not dissimilar from what many Christians do today. It’s remarkable how many Christians of a certain political persuasion think that Jesus would vote in a rather similar way to them. The Guardian carried an article about this very phenomenon at the beginning of this week, which even showed a photo of Argentinean football supporters holding a large photo of Jesus, who by sheer coincidence was wearing an Argentinean football shirt. Not that we would ever claim that God was a perfect English gentlemen. Oh, no. Not us.
These, then, are people who use God and religion to their own ends. If we use faith as a way of justifying ourselves and fortifying our own positions, rather than seeing it as bowing the knee to Jesus Christ as Lord, then we can be sure that Jesus sees us as one of those who have scorned the invitation to the great banquet. Because the way to accept is to confess Jesus Christ as Lord, in both word and deed. People who seem the most ‘religious’ may in fact be those least likely to follow Jesus. For ourselves, we need to ensure that we don’t substitute religion for discipleship, and that in sharing the Gospel we don’t just assume that the ‘nicest’ people will be more disposed than others to the Good News.
The second wave of invitations goes out. Rather than send his servants to the usual suspects, now the king commands them to ‘go to the street corners’ (verse 9) and invite anyone, whether ‘good or bad’ (verse 10). The implication of this for Jesus’ critics is scandalous. He wants to invite into the kingdom the very people who had been kept out by their rules. Those with a blemish. Those who didn’t fit. Those whose reputations brought shame rather than honour.
Applying this to us, no longer are we necessarily talking about taking the Gospel to the obvious candidates, to the people we think would have the most chance of fitting in with the church culture. One church I served appointed a married couple from another church as the cleaners. When this was done, somebody remarked that these people didn’t look like conventional churchgoers. The husband had long hair – even though he was in his fifties. They weren’t the most cultural of people. They were deeply working class. But the depth of faith this couple and their teenage daughter had shamed many established Christians. They had, as it were, come to the banquet from the street corners.
I have seen other people ostracised in churches who have had deeper faith than the clean, eloquent types who typically fill our pews. Not that there is anything wrong with being clean or eloquent, but too often we miss the fact that Jesus by his Spirit is going ahead of us to the street corners and wooing people we wouldn’t even think of with his grace and love. It’s our calling to join in with what the Holy Spirit is doing. As we do, we become the servants of the king, carrying the invitations to the great banquet.
Around the 1970s, when the so-called Church Growth Movement was at the height of its popularity, one of its most controversial beliefs was the idea that the best way to make churches grow numerically was to attract more people of similar social background. The idea was that people like to mix socially with others who are similar to them. Apply that to the church, and you have more chance of seeing growth. Many people criticised it, because the Gospel is not only about personal reconciliation with God in Christ, it is then also about reconciliation between human individuals and groups who would previously have shown animosity to each other. Not only that, it contradicted the teaching of this parable that involved taking the Gospel to people beyond the usual boundaries of those who normally embrace it.
Yet despite this, many churches persist who are monochrome. Same culture, same race, same economic background, similar interests, and so on. Yet the Gospel says that the banquet is not just for people like us. It is for all.
We’ve had two shocks so far. The expected guests at the wedding say ‘no’, and come under judgment, rather than blessing. Then, the invitation is extended to people you wouldn’t expect to be in attendance at the wedding banquet of the king’s son. It would be like the Queen throwing open the grounds of Buckingham Palace to the Occupy Movement.
But there is a third and final shock. A man turns up who is not wearing wedding clothes. Just as we dress up for weddings, so did people in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures. Furthermore, kings would provide wedding attire for their guests. This man has no excuse. In the words of a hymn we shall sing tonight at the ecumenical Lent service, ‘All are welcome in this place’. However, with the Gospel offer of grace comes in response the Gospel demand of discipleship. Does the man turn up for a free lunch? If so, he’s in for a shock. The Gospel is a free lunch – we are freely forgiven in Christ and have just to accept the gift by faith. But that free lunch is given us not only in love but also to build us up for the calling of discipleship.
The other day, somebody told me a story about not being allowed to go to Sunday School one week as a child because she was in her ‘play clothes’, not her ‘Sunday best’. This isn’t about the physical clothes we wear, it’s about being ‘clothed with Christ’. We are clothed in his righteousness that is our forgiveness and declares us to be in the right with God through his death in our place on the Cross. But we are also clothed in Christ in that we begin to take on his righteousness by the Holy Spirit. Our worship and gratitude in response to God’s free grace is shown as we actively co-operate with Christ’s work by his Spirit in our lives to make us new people, to make us more truly into the character that is fit to be at the king’s banquet. Of ourselves we are not fit to be there at all, and we only enter by grace. But we stay as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us more into the image of the King’s Son.
You may be the sort of person who doesn’t notice that the clothes you have been wearing have become dirty, and it takes someone – perhaps a loved one – to point this out. Similarly, it is possible not to notice the bad habits or compromises that sneak into our lives. Someone may need to point them out lovingly to us. It may be our reading of the Scriptures or our participation in worship of fellowship groups that reveals the truth to us. However it happens, our calling is to be present at the wedding feast of the King’s Son when God’s kingdom comes in all its fullness. And for that reason, it’s time to dry clean our clothes, so to speak, to accept the invitation on Christ’s terms and to be part of taking his invitation to all who will receive it, whether they fit the commonly accepted stereotypes or not.
Friends, the wedding feast awaits. It’s time to get dressed.
The first time I conducted a baptism service, the passage for the day was about John the Baptist. In my sermon, I made a crack about John the Baptist and Jesus the Methodist – only to discover that some of the happy couple’s family worshipped at Millmead Baptist Church in Guildford.
But today, I can proudly announce to you that I have discovered a Methodist in the Bible from before the birth of Christ. Habakkuk.
Why do I make this facetious comment? Because Habakkuk sang his theology. I have often said that if you spotted three Christians going to worship on a Sunday morning, each carrying a book with them, the Anglican is carrying a prayer book, the Baptist is holding a Bible, and the Methodist is holding a hymn book. It says something about our spirituality.
And as Habakkuk responds to God’s second answer in chapter 2 with a prayer, he sings it. That strange beginning in verse 1, complete with a Hebrew word to trip up the reader, highlights it:
A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth.
Shigi-what? ‘Shigionoth’ is a rare term for a dirge, only used at times of complete reliance upon God’s faithfulness. There are also references (not translated in the NIV) to another Hebrew musical term, selah, in verses 3, 9 and 13. Finally, the book ends with these words:
For the director of music. On my stringed instruments. (Verse 19b)
Habakkuk’s prayer, then, is not a private prayer that happens to have been preserved, but one that has been turned into a public act of worship. Just as we often look in our Bibles and see much of the words of the prophets written in poetry, so here Habakkuk has used a creative gift to share his prayer of response to God’s word. By sharing it that way, he makes his prayer memorable and the content usable by others. Could it be that when we have an insight into faith, we might consider using our creative gifts in order to share it with others?
But that’s a little off on a tangent, something that might spark one or two of you into action. For the bulk of this morning, we need to consider the message that Habakkuk preserved for us in his sung prayer, even if we no longer know the tune.
Firstly, Habakkuk sings about God the Deliverer in the past. Verses 3 to 7 use language that is reminiscent of the Exodus and the Conquest of the Promised Land. In other words, Habakkuk looks back to see and to celebrate what God has done in the past. He goes back to the greatest act of deliverance that the Yahweh, the God of Israel, has accomplished in history, and reminds himself – and others who will hear or sing this song – of that event. If times are bad now, this is the God he believes in and trusts. When God’s people were oppressed by an unjust nation before, this is what the Lord did. He delivered them from Egypt and brought them into their own land.
I believe Habakkuk takes strength and comfort from this. He knows that God has not changed. God is still able to do this. So he fortifies himself with a theological history lesson that underlines for him the character and the actions of his Lord.
It is something we Christians can do, too. We can remember God’s great acts of deliverance in Jesus Christ. We can celebrate his Incarnation, assuming human flesh in order to redeem it. We can celebrate his death for our sins and his resurrection for our justification. We can rejoice in how his Ascension tells us that he reigns.
Indeed, Jesus has provided a particular way of doing this regularly. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he said. Every time we share in Holy Communion we remember. And although the bread and the wine particularly point us to the giving up of his body to death, in that act of the Lord’s Supper we celebrate everything from creation onwards. Notice how the great prayers of thanksgiving move through the history of God’s saving acts, climaxing in Jesus Christ. Every time we eat bread and drink wine in obedient faith to Jesus Christ, he provides a way of remembering who he is and what he has done for us. It’s not just an act of memory, it’s not merely a feat of the intellect, Christ engages our sight as we see the bread broken, our hearing as we listen to the thanksgiving, and our senses of touch, taste and smell as we receive the elements. It is a full, sensory experience of remembering the God who has delivered us in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, this Christian remembering of God’s deliverance in Christ is not one that leaves a two-thousand-year gap between those events and the present day. On the one hand, our sacramental remembering puts us back at the Cross, as if we were truly there. On the other hand, it brings the past into the present, making those past events effective today.
When we face our questions, doubts and troubles about the state of the world and about the state of the church or even our own lives, let us invite the Holy Spirit to sing the great song of remembrance in us, that encourages us to believe in our faithful, redeeming God at the worst of times as well as the best of times.
Secondly, Habakkuk sings about God the Warrior in the future. Now I have to say this is not so obvious in English translations, and here I rely on the scholars. As we move into 9 to 15, there is still a description, it seems to us, of God acting in deliverance in the past. However, not all the language here quite so easily fits the Exodus and the Conquest.
What it seems to be is this: Hebrews had a way of speaking as part of their language that is strange to us. Whereas in English we are used to a series of tenses in our verbs that are variations on the present, the past and the future, Hebrew was more complex when it came to a sense of time in their verbs. One example of this is what is called the ‘predictive past’. In other words, something is predicted to happen in the future, and the speaker is so certain of it that he or she speaks of it as already having happened in the past. When Jonah prays to God from the belly of the fish, he hasn’t been delivered, but he prays as if he has. Scholars think this part of Habakkuk 3 is also a ‘predictive past’. The prophet has been fortified by the act of remembering God’s acts of deliverance in the past. As a result, he now has faith that God will also act mightily in salvation in the future. He is so trusting of this that he sings as if it has already happened.
What does that mean for us? Something like this: if we have remembered God’s deeds of salvation in the past, we have reason to hope and trust for the future. Think of how we sing the old hymn, ‘This, this is the God we adore’ and recall those lines,
We’ll praise him for all that is past
And trust him for all that’s to come.
That, effectively, is what Habakkuk is singing. He has praise for the past, and that leads to trust for the future. Praise for the past and trust for the future are not separate. They are connected. Because we know what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, we can trust him in the future.
Think of it in terms of human relationships. What is our reaction if someone comes to us and makes false accusations against a loved one? We tend to say, “But that is not consistent with what I know about the one I love.” In other words, we fall back on what we know of their character and their deeds from the past. I know it isn’t a perfect illustration, because it’s possible that someone might hide things from us, but I hope you see the basic point. In our faith, we do something like that. A whisper comes in our ear that God cannot be so good, because all this evil is going on around us. We respond by saying, “But I know what God is like. He sent his Son. And because he did that in the past, I will trust him for what is to come.”
To summarise so far: Habakkuk’s song is first of all a great song of remembering, in which we engage with what God has done in the past. It then secondly is a great song of trust in the future, because of God’s past deeds. But that leads to the third and final part of the song: what about the present? After all, now is the time when things are bad. In Habakkuk’s case, it was the wrongdoing of God’s people and their looming punishment through the evil Babylon. For us, we may be exercised by other dark scenarios. It may be war, famine, injustice or economic turbulence in the world. It may be closer to home in the form of personal sickness or troubles. Either way, there isn’t much light at present in between what God has done in the past and what we trust him to do in the future. How shall we live now?
Habakkuk offers a glorious climax to his song:
I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig-tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights. (Verses 16-19a)
He is content to wait, and we’ve talked about that last week. But while the harvest fails and there are no animals on the farms for food, he rejoices in the Lord his Saviour and finds strength in him. This is an astonishing confession of faith in which the prophet basically says, “I’m not in my relationship with the living God just for what I can get out of it. I will not limit my faithfulness to the good times. God has made a covenant with his people, and I am committed in return to that covenant.” In that faith commitment Habakkuk finds joy and strength in the Lord, despite dire circumstances.
As I pondered this, I thought about which of my Christian friends leave the most impression on me. Yes, some of my dearest friends in the faith have a lot of money but have used it with a near-secret generosity to support missionaries in obscure former Soviet states, and they have also used their financial nous to advise those with far less than them. But even those people have faced devastating personal losses.
And I think of a couple I know, where both husband and wife were in professions ancillary to medicine. Yet both of them have been struck down by differing disabilities. In the fifteen years I have known them, neither has been in paid work. They depend to a large extent on the benefits system, and the forthcoming changes might well not be very kind to them. Yet they have raised three fine daughters and they both have such a vibrant faith, even though neither of them has yet received the healing from God that to my eyes would make an immense difference to them. They have suffered at the hands of a church leader, too, yet I would be proud to have them in any congregation I served. Their fig tree has not budded, so to speak, and they have no grapes on their vines, yet they rejoice in the Lord and find strength in him, because they know that God is faithful and they have committed themselves in faithfulness to him.
Are we in some form of darkness right now? Is it to do with world events or personal circumstances, be they ours or those of someone we love? Can we dare to sing with Habakkuk? Can we sing of God’s acts of salvation in the past in Christ? Can we sing of our belief that he will act again in salvation in the future? And while we wait, can we sing in defiance of the darkness, of our joy in the Lord and the strength we find in him?
Someone once said that most of the Bible speaks to us, but the Psalms speak for us. Enter the famed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann:
HT: the Pastors’ Weekly email from ChurchLeaders.com.
Brueggemann proposes there are three things we can do with our anger when something unjust has happened to us:
1. We can act it out – but surely Christians don’t want to do that;
2. We can deny it – but then it comes out somewhere else, perhaps in our family;
3. We can give it to God.
It is that third way which he says is present in the ‘imprecatory Psalms’.
I love Brueggemann’s illustration of the parent who has to deal with two children, where one has been hurt and accuses the other of having caused the injury. The wise parent doesn’t say, “Don’t be angry,” but, “Let me deal with it.”
Yet so often I see options 1 and 2. I see option 1 in the way some Christians support aggressive international policies by their governments. I see option 2 among those Christians who know they need to forgive, but mistakenly think that means denying their anger. Brueggemann is right, it does come out somewhere else. Either they take it out on an innocent party, or on someone who has only wronged them a little. Or they suppress it and it turns into something like depression. (Not that I am saying all depression is caused this way – it isn’t.)
Option 3 is the ‘healthy option’.