Monthly Archives: January 2008

Jesus Music

Just discovered two amazing blogs for downloading MP3s of old Christian vinyl music. Heavenly Grooves had Graham Kendrick’s first album from 1972, ‘Footsteps On The Sea’, and a 1978 album from Brian McLaren (yes, that Brian McLaren). The Ancient Star Song has a wide range, too, with a more British focus. I’ve found some other early Kendrick there (including the wonderful ‘Paid On The Nail’). I’m currently playing the first album by Fish Co.

There are some potential disadvantages. Firstly, both sites use the Megaupload site for downloads. It places limits on downloads for those who don’t pay a subscription fee. Secondly, it prohibits the use of download managers. This means you can only download to your default location. You’ll be fiddling to get the music into iTunes or whatever, once you’ve expanded it. Which raises the third issue: the downloads are not in ZIP format but RAR. That means getting specific software to unzip it. For a Windows user like me, that means WinRAR. You can get a trial version for precisely zero pence. It lasts forty days. Beyond that, it costs about thirty euros (about £20+). However, if you’re going to use these sites regularly, that’s a bargain.

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Sunday Evening’s Sermon: The Servant’s Calling

Tomorrow morning, I take my final Covenant Service of the year. So that will be a repeat of the sermon I posted a fortnight ago. In the evening, I have to preach a fresh sermon. I’ve chosen the morning Lectionary Old Testament lesson. The words, ‘It is too light a thing … ‘ spoke powerfully to me on a personal level. You may see some missional-type thinking in the second of the two points.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Introduction
In 1988, my sister was completing her studies to become an Occupational Therapist. She had to do one final placement. Within reason, she could pick it herself. She chose to go to Rwanda, and work in a missionary hospital for three months.

The experience was a culture shock for her in several ways. She learned the sense of being on African time: that if you made an appointment with a patient at the hospital for Tuesday at 10 a. m., that meant ‘Tuesday – some time’. She discovered the – ahem – excitement of African driving styles, that would put Italians to shame, and on far poorer roads.

But the missionary culture was strange, too. The missionaries lived on a compound, separate from the people they served. Worship was strange. Although African drums called people to worship on Sunday rather than church bells, the service was Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century English for twentieth century Africans!

The biggest shock was something else, though. The missionaries employed servants at the compound. Although it was justified as a way of giving jobs to the locals, she was uneasy. Although she is by nature bossy, she was still uncomfortable!

I guess most of us would feel queasy about having servants, too. It is part of a past that feels a long way away now – except when you meet elderly people today whose first job was ‘in service’. And it’s a long time since ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ was on the TV to remind us of a past age.

We have a big bridge to cross, every time we hear ‘servant’ as an image of discipleship in the Bible. And it looms large in this part of Isaiah. These verses from chapter 49 are one of several so-called ‘Servant Songs’. They appear to come from the time when God’s people had been exiled in Babylon for many years, but are now only a decade or two away from liberation and return. As the prophet brings his message of hope, ‘servant’ is a regular metaphor he uses for the relationship between humans and God. To some extent, he applies it to himself, to the people of God and to the longed-for Messiah. To that list, we would add ourselves.

Being a servant of the Lord has similarities with, and differences from the general notion of servanthood or slavery. Yes, to serve God puts us ‘under orders’. We don’t have the right to negotiate our terms with God, however much we try at times. But at the same time, God treats us with dignity and love, to the point that Jesus told his disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends.’ And he did this, because he invited them in on his plans, unlike a master and a servant.

And our passage is one of encouragement for God’s servant. Although the servant knows he has a gift with words (his mouth is like a sharp sword, and he is like an arrow hidden in a quiver, verse 2) and that he is called the Lord’s servant (verse 3), nevertheless we then hear:

But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain,
   I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
   and my reward with my God.’ (Verse 4)

Sometimes in the Christian life, you can think, what’s the point? Why am I doing this? Whatever I do, it achieves nothing. I’ve wasted my time. Is that ever your experience? It is mine, from time to time. So how does God encourage discouraged servants? There are many ways, but I see two in this reading:

1. A Renewed Call
Straight after the expression of despair comes a recapitulation of the servant’s call:

And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength— (verse 5).

Before the new word comes, there is a reminder of the old word. God called the servant to bring Jacob (Israel) back to him. The initial call is a call to God’s people. In bringing them back to God, it is a pastoral and prophetic call. It is the call that prophets answered over centuries to speak God’s word to God’s people. That is why this prophet has ‘a mouth like a sharp sword’ and is like an arrow hidden in a quiver. There is a challenging word to be given to the people of God. In calling people back to the Lord, it is inevitably a call to repentance. It is a word that describes how far people have gone from God, how he longs for them to return, and what that will involve. It is a ministry fulfilled many times in Scripture: Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, John the Baptist and others.

Oh yes, and someone called Jesus. He lived his entire life within the boundaries of the Promised Land. The vast majority of the people to whom he ministered were Jews, not Gentiles. (There are occasional exceptions, such as the centurion who showed true faith and the Gentile leper who returned to give thanks.) He told the Syro-Phoenician woman who was desperate for healing that his focus was on the people of God.

And the content of what he said? Not all of it could fall under the heading, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. Alongside all the good news for the poor, the healings and other miracles, come stern words for the rich and the religious leadership. His parables of the kingdom challenge people to decision about following him. If you had Jesus in your church, then it might not all be the comfortable ride you had anticipated.

And down the centuries since then, God has called people in his church to bring them back to himself. The apostle Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. Our witness is at stake, and so messengers are sent to us with a burden for the repentance of the Church.

Certainly, the most vigorous Local Preacher in my home circuit was an elderly Welshman, John Evill. I remember what today we would call his catchphrases – not that he would have stooped to something so trivial: ‘Do you believe it?’ He didn’t mean, do you assent to this in your mind? He meant, do you show you believe this by the way you live? He also used to say, ‘I only challenge you after first challenging myself.’ As a young church steward, I recall once in the vestry before a service asking him to ‘give it to us with both barrels’.

Perhaps that isn’t the best metaphor, and yes as a young Christian, I could say all sorts of reckless things, but I think John’s ministry had modelled something for me: responsible Gospel preaching doesn’t simply give people strokes. So much is at stake. How easily we drift in our commitment, we preachers included. John Evill knew that. As the old hymn puts it, ‘Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.’ But the call to repentance from the God of grace needs to be issued continually. And it can sap one’s hope to show people the ways in which they may be raised up, only for them not to do what is healthy for them. It can indeed be discouraging to keep preaching that way, when there isn’t always a positive response. But God renews the call, because it is vital.

2. An Extended Call
Now here’s the strange twist in the tail: the servant is discouraged, and God renews the call to restore the people of God. Surely, that’s enough? It sounds like a hard task. But that isn’t how God describes it:

he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ (Verse 6)

The heavy and sometimes discouraging responsibility of restoring God’s people is said to be ‘too light a thing’! But here we have it: God’s call to his servant is not merely to work within the church, it is to serve him in the world. ‘I will give you as a light to the nations,’ God says. You will be my witnesses not merely among my people, but to others.

Again, the Old Testament prophets often reflected this. Much of their message was directed to Israel, but there were also oracles to or about the nations. The bigger problem was whether the nation of Israel fulfilled her call to be a light to the nations. Many think the story of Jonah, with his reluctance to go where God sent him, and his grumpiness when he got there, even when Nineveh repented, is a message aimed at Israel’s reluctance.

And while Jesus’ ministry was geographically confined within national borders, he knew the outcome would be a movement that began at Pentecost in Jerusalem and swept through Judea, to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts gives us some early highlights of that process.

It means there is a twin call for the Church today. The call to build up the people of God through calls to repentance and the exercise of pastoral care remains, and is renewed for us. But it is too light a call on its own. We too hear the call to be ‘a light to the nations’. It is equally important. The faithful church of Jesus Christ is committed both to inward renewal and to outward witness.

During a sabbatical five years ago, Debbie and I worshipped at the local Baptist church. When the pastor (who was a friend of ours) preached, the sermons were worthwhile. When others preached, you could not be so sure. On one occasion, a deacon preached. He clearly fancied himself as an evangelical superstar, prancing and prowling from one side of the platform to the other as he dispensed his wisdom on the grateful congregation. His priceless pearl was when he told us that Christians would always care about how you really are, whereas non-Christians will ask how you are but never mean it. Debbie and I looked at each other in disbelief, knowing very well some good friendships with non-Christians.

It has been our joy, too, here, to build friendships with non-Christians. It is our privilege to pray for them when they are in need. Indeed, there have been times when – contrary to the Baptist deacon – it has been more refreshing to spend time with non-Christians than church people! Then it seems ‘too light a thing to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel’. It is an honour to invite the widow for a coffee, and support the worried mother whose son is under Great Ormond Street. We do this because of our faith, and our friends are under no illusions about that. And we pray that the opportunity will come to be more explicit about what Jesus can do for them.

Yesterday afternoon, Mark and I killed some time in the children’s department of Waterstone’s while Debbie took Rebekah for a treat at Claire’s Accessories. As we wandered around, there was a couple with their primary-age son. He was choosing a book. He picked up a children’s Bible. ‘What do you want a Bible for, weird boy?’ said his mother. ‘Why don’t you get something on dragonology?’

So there you go – ‘dragonology’ – or whatever the proper name is – is less weird than the Bible. Being a light to the nations will risk the accusation of being weird. But it is our high and holy calling to take that risk, alongside what we might feel more comfortable doing, restoring ‘the survivors of Israel’.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Evening’s Sermon: The Servant’s Calling

Tomorrow morning, I take my final Covenant Service of the year. So that will be a repeat of the sermon I posted a fortnight ago. In the evening, I have to preach a fresh sermon. I’ve chosen the morning Lectionary Old Testament lesson. The words, ‘It is too light a thing … ‘ spoke powerfully to me on a personal level. You may see some missional-type thinking in the second of the two points.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Introduction
In 1988, my sister was completing her studies to become an Occupational Therapist. She had to do one final placement. Within reason, she could pick it herself. She chose to go to Rwanda, and work in a missionary hospital for three months.

The experience was a culture shock for her in several ways. She learned the sense of being on African time: that if you made an appointment with a patient at the hospital for Tuesday at 10 a. m., that meant ‘Tuesday – some time’. She discovered the – ahem – excitement of African driving styles, that would put Italians to shame, and on far poorer roads.

But the missionary culture was strange, too. The missionaries lived on a compound, separate from the people they served. Worship was strange. Although African drums called people to worship on Sunday rather than church bells, the service was Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century English for twentieth century Africans!

The biggest shock was something else, though. The missionaries employed servants at the compound. Although it was justified as a way of giving jobs to the locals, she was uneasy. Although she is by nature bossy, she was still uncomfortable!

I guess most of us would feel queasy about having servants, too. It is part of a past that feels a long way away now – except when you meet elderly people today whose first job was ‘in service’. And it’s a long time since ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ was on the TV to remind us of a past age.

We have a big bridge to cross, every time we hear ‘servant’ as an image of discipleship in the Bible. And it looms large in this part of Isaiah. These verses from chapter 49 are one of several so-called ‘Servant Songs’. They appear to come from the time when God’s people had been exiled in Babylon for many years, but are now only a decade or two away from liberation and return. As the prophet brings his message of hope, ‘servant’ is a regular metaphor he uses for the relationship between humans and God. To some extent, he applies it to himself, to the people of God and to the longed-for Messiah. To that list, we would add ourselves.

Being a servant of the Lord has similarities with, and differences from the general notion of servanthood or slavery. Yes, to serve God puts us ‘under orders’. We don’t have the right to negotiate our terms with God, however much we try at times. But at the same time, God treats us with dignity and love, to the point that Jesus told his disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends.’ And he did this, because he invited them in on his plans, unlike a master and a servant.

And our passage is one of encouragement for God’s servant. Although the servant knows he has a gift with words (his mouth is like a sharp sword, and he is like an arrow hidden in a quiver, verse 2) and that he is called the Lord’s servant (verse 3), nevertheless we then hear:

But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain,
   I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
   and my reward with my God.’ (Verse 4)

Sometimes in the Christian life, you can think, what’s the point? Why am I doing this? Whatever I do, it achieves nothing. I’ve wasted my time. Is that ever your experience? It is mine, from time to time. So how does God encourage discouraged servants? There are many ways, but I see two in this reading:

1. A Renewed Call
Straight after the expression of despair comes a recapitulation of the servant’s call:

And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength— (verse 5).

Before the new word comes, there is a reminder of the old word. God called the servant to bring Jacob (Israel) back to him. The initial call is a call to God’s people. In bringing them back to God, it is a pastoral and prophetic call. It is the call that prophets answered over centuries to speak God’s word to God’s people. That is why this prophet has ‘a mouth like a sharp sword’ and is like an arrow hidden in a quiver. There is a challenging word to be given to the people of God. In calling people back to the Lord, it is inevitably a call to repentance. It is a word that describes how far people have gone from God, how he longs for them to return, and what that will involve. It is a ministry fulfilled many times in Scripture: Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, John the Baptist and others.

Oh yes, and someone called Jesus. He lived his entire life within the boundaries of the Promised Land. The vast majority of the people to whom he ministered were Jews, not Gentiles. (There are occasional exceptions, such as the centurion who showed true faith and the Gentile leper who returned to give thanks.) He told the Syro-Phoenician woman who was desperate for healing that his focus was on the people of God.

And the content of what he said? Not all of it could fall under the heading, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. Alongside all the good news for the poor, the healings and other miracles, come stern words for the rich and the religious leadership. His parables of the kingdom challenge people to decision about following him. If you had Jesus in your church, then it might not all be the comfortable ride you had anticipated.

And down the centuries since then, God has called people in his church to bring them back to himself. The apostle Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. Our witness is at stake, and so messengers are sent to us with a burden for the repentance of the Church.

Certainly, the most vigorous Local Preacher in my home circuit was an elderly Welshman, John Evill. I remember what today we would call his catchphrases – not that he would have stooped to something so trivial: ‘Do you believe it?’ He didn’t mean, do you assent to this in your mind? He meant, do you show you believe this by the way you live? He also used to say, ‘I only challenge you after first challenging myself.’ As a young church steward, I recall once in the vestry before a service asking him to ‘give it to us with both barrels’.

Perhaps that isn’t the best metaphor, and yes as a young Christian, I could say all sorts of reckless things, but I think John’s ministry had modelled something for me: responsible Gospel preaching doesn’t simply give people strokes. So much is at stake. How easily we drift in our commitment, we preachers included. John Evill knew that. As the old hymn puts it, ‘Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.’ But the call to repentance from the God of grace needs to be issued continually. And it can sap one’s hope to show people the ways in which they may be raised up, only for them not to do what is healthy for them. It can indeed be discouraging to keep preaching that way, when there isn’t always a positive response. But God renews the call, because it is vital.

2. An Extended Call
Now here’s the strange twist in the tail: the servant is discouraged, and God renews the call to restore the people of God. Surely, that’s enough? It sounds like a hard task. But that isn’t how God describes it:

he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ (Verse 6)

The heavy and sometimes discouraging responsibility of restoring God’s people is said to be ‘too light a thing’! But here we have it: God’s call to his servant is not merely to work within the church, it is to serve him in the world. ‘I will give you as a light to the nations,’ God says. You will be my witnesses not merely among my people, but to others.

Again, the Old Testament prophets often reflected this. Much of their message was directed to Israel, but there were also oracles to or about the nations. The bigger problem was whether the nation of Israel fulfilled her call to be a light to the nations. Many think the story of Jonah, with his reluctance to go where God sent him, and his grumpiness when he got there, even when Nineveh repented, is a message aimed at Israel’s reluctance.

And while Jesus’ ministry was geographically confined within national borders, he knew the outcome would be a movement that began at Pentecost in Jerusalem and swept through Judea, to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts gives us some early highlights of that process.

It means there is a twin call for the Church today. The call to build up the people of God through calls to repentance and the exercise of pastoral care remains, and is renewed for us. But it is too light a call on its own. We too hear the call to be ‘a light to the nations’. It is equally important. The faithful church of Jesus Christ is committed both to inward renewal and to outward witness.

During a sabbatical five years ago, Debbie and I worshipped at the local Baptist church. When the pastor (who was a friend of ours) preached, the sermons were worthwhile. When others preached, you could not be so sure. On one occasion, a deacon preached. He clearly fancied himself as an evangelical superstar, prancing and prowling from one side of the platform to the other as he dispensed his wisdom on the grateful congregation. His priceless pearl was when he told us that Christians would always care about how you really are, whereas non-Christians will ask how you are but never mean it. Debbie and I looked at each other in disbelief, knowing very well some good friendships with non-Christians.

It has been our joy, too, here, to build friendships with non-Christians. It is our privilege to pray for them when they are in need. Indeed, there have been times when – contrary to the Baptist deacon – it has been more refreshing to spend time with non-Christians than church people! Then it seems ‘too light a thing to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel’. It is an honour to invite the widow for a coffee, and support the worried mother whose son is under Great Ormond Street. We do this because of our faith, and our friends are under no illusions about that. And we pray that the opportunity will come to be more explicit about what Jesus can do for them.

Yesterday afternoon, Mark and I killed some time in the children’s department of Waterstone’s while Debbie took Rebekah for a treat at Claire’s Accessories. As we wandered around, there was a couple with their primary-age son. He was choosing a book. He picked up a children’s Bible. ‘What do you want a Bible for, weird boy?’ said his mother. ‘Why don’t you get something on dragonology?’

So there you go – ‘dragonology’ – or whatever the proper name is – is less weird than the Bible. Being a light to the nations will risk the accusation of being weird. But it is our high and holy calling to take that risk, alongside what we might feel more comfortable doing, restoring ‘the survivors of Israel’.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday Evening’s Sermon: The Servant’s Calling

Tomorrow morning, I take my final Covenant Service of the year. So that will be a repeat of the sermon I posted a fortnight ago. In the evening, I have to preach a fresh sermon. I’ve chosen the morning Lectionary Old Testament lesson. The words, ‘It is too light a thing … ‘ spoke powerfully to me on a personal level. You may see some missional-type thinking in the second of the two points.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Introduction
In 1988, my sister was completing her studies to become an Occupational Therapist. She had to do one final placement. Within reason, she could pick it herself. She chose to go to Rwanda, and work in a missionary hospital for three months.

The experience was a culture shock for her in several ways. She learned the sense of being on African time: that if you made an appointment with a patient at the hospital for Tuesday at 10 a. m., that meant ‘Tuesday – some time’. She discovered the – ahem – excitement of African driving styles, that would put Italians to shame, and on far poorer roads.

But the missionary culture was strange, too. The missionaries lived on a compound, separate from the people they served. Worship was strange. Although African drums called people to worship on Sunday rather than church bells, the service was Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Seventeenth century English for twentieth century Africans!

The biggest shock was something else, though. The missionaries employed servants at the compound. Although it was justified as a way of giving jobs to the locals, she was uneasy. Although she is by nature bossy, she was still uncomfortable!

I guess most of us would feel queasy about having servants, too. It is part of a past that feels a long way away now – except when you meet elderly people today whose first job was ‘in service’. And it’s a long time since ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ was on the TV to remind us of a past age.

We have a big bridge to cross, every time we hear ‘servant’ as an image of discipleship in the Bible. And it looms large in this part of Isaiah. These verses from chapter 49 are one of several so-called ‘Servant Songs’. They appear to come from the time when God’s people had been exiled in Babylon for many years, but are now only a decade or two away from liberation and return. As the prophet brings his message of hope, ‘servant’ is a regular metaphor he uses for the relationship between humans and God. To some extent, he applies it to himself, to the people of God and to the longed-for Messiah. To that list, we would add ourselves.

Being a servant of the Lord has similarities with, and differences from the general notion of servanthood or slavery. Yes, to serve God puts us ‘under orders’. We don’t have the right to negotiate our terms with God, however much we try at times. But at the same time, God treats us with dignity and love, to the point that Jesus told his disciples, ‘I no longer call you servants but friends.’ And he did this, because he invited them in on his plans, unlike a master and a servant.

And our passage is one of encouragement for God’s servant. Although the servant knows he has a gift with words (his mouth is like a sharp sword, and he is like an arrow hidden in a quiver, verse 2) and that he is called the Lord’s servant (verse 3), nevertheless we then hear:

But I said, ‘I have laboured in vain,
   I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
   and my reward with my God.’ (Verse 4)

Sometimes in the Christian life, you can think, what’s the point? Why am I doing this? Whatever I do, it achieves nothing. I’ve wasted my time. Is that ever your experience? It is mine, from time to time. So how does God encourage discouraged servants? There are many ways, but I see two in this reading:

1. A Renewed Call
Straight after the expression of despair comes a recapitulation of the servant’s call:

And now the Lord says,
   who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
   and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord,
   and my God has become my strength— (verse 5).

Before the new word comes, there is a reminder of the old word. God called the servant to bring Jacob (Israel) back to him. The initial call is a call to God’s people. In bringing them back to God, it is a pastoral and prophetic call. It is the call that prophets answered over centuries to speak God’s word to God’s people. That is why this prophet has ‘a mouth like a sharp sword’ and is like an arrow hidden in a quiver. There is a challenging word to be given to the people of God. In calling people back to the Lord, it is inevitably a call to repentance. It is a word that describes how far people have gone from God, how he longs for them to return, and what that will involve. It is a ministry fulfilled many times in Scripture: Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, John the Baptist and others.

Oh yes, and someone called Jesus. He lived his entire life within the boundaries of the Promised Land. The vast majority of the people to whom he ministered were Jews, not Gentiles. (There are occasional exceptions, such as the centurion who showed true faith and the Gentile leper who returned to give thanks.) He told the Syro-Phoenician woman who was desperate for healing that his focus was on the people of God.

And the content of what he said? Not all of it could fall under the heading, ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. Alongside all the good news for the poor, the healings and other miracles, come stern words for the rich and the religious leadership. His parables of the kingdom challenge people to decision about following him. If you had Jesus in your church, then it might not all be the comfortable ride you had anticipated.

And down the centuries since then, God has called people in his church to bring them back to himself. The apostle Peter said that judgment begins with the house of God. Our witness is at stake, and so messengers are sent to us with a burden for the repentance of the Church.

Certainly, the most vigorous Local Preacher in my home circuit was an elderly Welshman, John Evill. I remember what today we would call his catchphrases – not that he would have stooped to something so trivial: ‘Do you believe it?’ He didn’t mean, do you assent to this in your mind? He meant, do you show you believe this by the way you live? He also used to say, ‘I only challenge you after first challenging myself.’ As a young church steward, I recall once in the vestry before a service asking him to ‘give it to us with both barrels’.

Perhaps that isn’t the best metaphor, and yes as a young Christian, I could say all sorts of reckless things, but I think John’s ministry had modelled something for me: responsible Gospel preaching doesn’t simply give people strokes. So much is at stake. How easily we drift in our commitment, we preachers included. John Evill knew that. As the old hymn puts it, ‘Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.’ But the call to repentance from the God of grace needs to be issued continually. And it can sap one’s hope to show people the ways in which they may be raised up, only for them not to do what is healthy for them. It can indeed be discouraging to keep preaching that way, when there isn’t always a positive response. But God renews the call, because it is vital.

2. An Extended Call
Now here’s the strange twist in the tail: the servant is discouraged, and God renews the call to restore the people of God. Surely, that’s enough? It sounds like a hard task. But that isn’t how God describes it:

he says,
‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ (Verse 6)

The heavy and sometimes discouraging responsibility of restoring God’s people is said to be ‘too light a thing’! But here we have it: God’s call to his servant is not merely to work within the church, it is to serve him in the world. ‘I will give you as a light to the nations,’ God says. You will be my witnesses not merely among my people, but to others.

Again, the Old Testament prophets often reflected this. Much of their message was directed to Israel, but there were also oracles to or about the nations. The bigger problem was whether the nation of Israel fulfilled her call to be a light to the nations. Many think the story of Jonah, with his reluctance to go where God sent him, and his grumpiness when he got there, even when Nineveh repented, is a message aimed at Israel’s reluctance.

And while Jesus’ ministry was geographically confined within national borders, he knew the outcome would be a movement that began at Pentecost in Jerusalem and swept through Judea, to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts gives us some early highlights of that process.

It means there is a twin call for the Church today. The call to build up the people of God through calls to repentance and the exercise of pastoral care remains, and is renewed for us. But it is too light a call on its own. We too hear the call to be ‘a light to the nations’. It is equally important. The faithful church of Jesus Christ is committed both to inward renewal and to outward witness.

During a sabbatical five years ago, Debbie and I worshipped at the local Baptist church. When the pastor (who was a friend of ours) preached, the sermons were worthwhile. When others preached, you could not be so sure. On one occasion, a deacon preached. He clearly fancied himself as an evangelical superstar, prancing and prowling from one side of the platform to the other as he dispensed his wisdom on the grateful congregation. His priceless pearl was when he told us that Christians would always care about how you really are, whereas non-Christians will ask how you are but never mean it. Debbie and I looked at each other in disbelief, knowing very well some good friendships with non-Christians.

It has been our joy, too, here, to build friendships with non-Christians. It is our privilege to pray for them when they are in need. Indeed, there have been times when – contrary to the Baptist deacon – it has been more refreshing to spend time with non-Christians than church people! Then it seems ‘too light a thing to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel’. It is an honour to invite the widow for a coffee, and support the worried mother whose son is under Great Ormond Street. We do this because of our faith, and our friends are under no illusions about that. And we pray that the opportunity will come to be more explicit about what Jesus can do for them.

Yesterday afternoon, Mark and I killed some time in the children’s department of Waterstone’s while Debbie took Rebekah for a treat at Claire’s Accessories. As we wandered around, there was a couple with their primary-age son. He was choosing a book. He picked up a children’s Bible. ‘What do you want a Bible for, weird boy?’ said his mother. ‘Why don’t you get something on dragonology?’

So there you go – ‘dragonology’ – or whatever the proper name is – is less weird than the Bible. Being a light to the nations will risk the accusation of being weird. But it is our high and holy calling to take that risk, alongside what we might feel more comfortable doing, restoring ‘the survivors of Israel’.

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Grief

This weekend, I am surrounded by death. Yesterday, I travelled
back to Medway. I attended the funeral of my dear friend Bran Griffith. He was
only 51. An early death wasn’t unexpected. He suffered terrible back problems,
caused by radiation damage. He had had radiotherapy for cancer in his youth. He
also had serious heart trouble. Three days before Christmas, he fell down the
stairs at home, and died instantly. Hundreds of us thronged to St Paul’s,
Parkwood yesterday, to remember a man, who, in the face of enormous pain,
radiated the most wonderful faith. He was gentle, humorous, uncomplaining and a
man of strong principle. His career as a social worker cut short by his
ill-health, his very character blessed innumerable people. In my case, Bran and
his wife Nikkii welcomed me to their home many times, especially when I was
single. The speaker who referred to his Caribbean chicken brought back
particular memories for me, as three times in the service I mopped up tears.

As I arrived home, my wife was coming off the phone. A church
member who had been in a home with, I guess, some form of dementia had passed
away. I rushed to see her husband. Despite lights and television clearly being
on, he couldn’t have heard my two rings at the doorbell.

This morning, we bury the ashes of my Church Council
secretary, who died two days before Christmas. I am writing this as I prepare
for that ceremony, praying that the wind and rain might subside for a
particular five minutes.

You could say it is the time of year. One month between November
and February each winter seems to have the highest concentration of deaths. You
could say it is part of the minister’s lot, and you would be right. It makes me
feel like many elderly people, who speak of how they go from one funeral to
another, from the loss of one friend to the death of another relative. All of
this would be true. What I do know is, it’s making me snappy with my family as I
attempt to process my own grief, as I think of one widow after fifteen years of
marriage, and two widowers who spent over fifty years with their wives.

But as I have sat reading prayers, ready for this morning’s
interment, I have been struck again by one inadequacy in Methodist death
liturgy. In the funeral service we pray, ‘May your Holy Spirit lift us above
our sorrow, to the peace and light of your constant love’. In the interment
service, there is a similar petition: ‘Lift us from the darkness of grief into
the light of your presence’.

What is my problem? Is it that I don’t want people to be
delivered from grief? Of course not. I do. It is a problem of timing. We are
still in the journey of grief at this point. Many who are bereaved will still
be on that journey for the rest of their lives. I want to experience God’s
peace and light within my grief. After
all, my grief is a sign of my love. I grieve, because I can no longer express
my love for the one who is gone. I don’t want to diminish the resurrection hope
for one second, but I am wondering about rewording the prayers. Would you make
any changes? If so, what, and if not, why?

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links for 2008-01-18

Internet Evangelism Day

I am pleased to reproduce below the official press release for this year’s Internet Evangelism Day:

For immediate release

New Advance for Church Websites
Free Church Site Evaluations Now Available Online

Summary
Churches can now receive a free customized 15-page report about their
websites, enabling them to develop strategies to reach outsiders in
their communities.

And this year’s international web outreach focus day – Internet
Evangelism Day – will be used by churches around the world on Sunday
27 April 2008

“How can our church website help us reach out into our community?”
Churches often find it difficult to know how to build sites that will
engage with outsiders in their area.

A new online tool has been released by Internet Evangelism Day, which
provides churches with a free 15-page evaluation report. Users assess
their own website by answering 55 simple questions in the tool
questionnaire. Their customized report is immediately displayed
online, ready to print or save. Its recommendations are tailored with
specific practical suggestions, based on the questions that were
ticked. View the design tool here:
www.InternetEvangelismDay.com/design

A church site which has been prioritized for non-Christian visitors
can be remarkably effective in reaching the community. “Week in, week
out, more visitors turn up at our church on a Sunday because of the
website, than anything else,” writes one growing church in London UK.

Church leaders have welcomed this new resource:

“This competent evaluation tool and rating service provides a
valuable service to churches and Christian ministries that will help
them strengthen their effectiveness in outreach through the
Internet.” – Dr. Sterling Huston, Director, North American
Ministries, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

“Most church websites are not evangelistic. The new Church Website
Evaluation Tool can help rectify this problem. This is a wonderful
tool.” – Dr. Bill Gordon, Evangelism Response Center, NAMB.

“There is no silver bullet for a great ministry site. However, this
checklist is an invaluable tool to identify critical areas for
improvement. Every church should study this regularly and act on it!”
– Gary McClure, LifeWay Ministries.

This Evaluation Tool is just one of a range of pages at
www.InternetEvangelismDay.com that help Christians learn to use the
Web to reach the world. Internet Evangelism Day also encourages
churches to hold a web awareness focus day on or near 27 April 2008,
to explore this huge potential. Their site offers free downloads
(PowerPoint, video clips, drama scripts and handouts) so that
churches can create a custom program of any length from two minutes
to an hour. “I am glad to commend Internet Evangelism Day,” says Dr John Stott.

Website: www.InternetEvangelismDay.com

Internet Evangelism Day is an initiative of the Internet Evangelism
Coalition, a group of major ministries involved in web ministry,
based at the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton.
Interviews available: InternetEvangelismDay.com/publicity
Photos available: InternetEvangelismDay.com/photos
Recommended photo for this item: InternetEvangelismDay.com/churchphoto
Additional articles – ready-made material and MP3s:
InternetEvangelismDay.com/articles
Leaders supporting IE Day: InternetEvangelismDay.com/supporting

For immediate release
More information: Tony Whittaker
Contact email: InternetEvangelismDay.com/feedback
Contact phone: +44 1283 702334 (GMT office hours)

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Typepad Blog Offers

If any reader is thinking of taking out a Typepad blog, I have three vouchers that entitle you to a free 60-day trial, plus 20% off your first year’s subscription. (I should declare that if you then maintain your blog beyond the trial period, I get a discount on my subscription.)

These vouchers expire on 29th February. If you’re interested, leave a comment on this post and I’ll get in touch.

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links for 2008-01-16

The Top 10 Last Words In Your Church

From Christianity Today‘s weekly Church Laughs email:

I think I’ve earned the right to say this.
Thank you for the unanimous vote of confidence.
We’ll incorporate a seeker sensitive approach into our present worship service.
In ancient Israel, the people danced before the Lord.
Recently, I’ve been reading about the importance of publicly confessing your own sins, so today …
I’ll show the church secretary who’s boss around here!
I’m sure I can trust you to keep this confidential.
Then there are no hard feelings, right?
I’m sure Mrs. Jones will agree that she’s been our organist long enough.
They need to realize this kitchen belongs to everyone.

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