Monthly Archives: November 2012

Sermon: The Noble Woman Of Faith

Proverbs 31:10-31 

It’s interesting to read this account of the ‘wife of noble character’ (verse 10) or ‘woman of valour’, as some translations have it this week, in the wake of the Anglican General Synod’s vote on women bishops. Proverbs 31 describes an amazing woman: trusted by her husband, managing businesses, providing for the servants, running the household, and all the while speaking words of wisdom.

Does such a woman exist? I know women are always telling us men how they can multi-task and we can’t, but the answer is ‘no’. The question with which this begins, ‘A wife of noble character who can find?’ is clearly rhetorical, and expects the answer ‘no.’ Or at least, ‘Only once in a blue moon.’

The Proverbs 31 woman does not exist, for an obvious reason: this is a poem made up in praise of women. We can tell that not only from the fact that it is written in a poetic form, but also because it is an acrostic. There are twenty-two lines here, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each line starts with the next successive letter of that alphabet. It is entirely a poetic device.

But to what end? In some church traditions, Proverbs 31 has been so held up as the exemplary pattern of Christian womanhood that it has become a burden to women, an impossible plumbline to attain. Yet if it is about one imaginary woman I do not think it should be used that way.

I think we should take note of this:

‘Pious Jewish husbands still recite this poem every Sabbath eve in praise of their own wives.’1

In other words, we should see Proverbs 31 as an opportunity to praise women of faith, not to burden them. Not every section of the poem will apply to every woman: not all of you are married, not all of you run businesses, few (if any) of you have servants – although you might be keeping some secrets from me! But there will be some parts of this poem which affirm you and encourage you as you live each day for Christ. Men: this is a chance for us to make sure we value and support every area of life where the women we love are called to make a difference for Christ. And that will go a long way beyond us donning a cookery apron for them once in a while.

Firstly, let us praise the strong wife. If you know Debbie and me at all, you cannot miss what different personalities we are. If you wanted the traditional image of the demure minister’s wife (if ever such a person truly existed), then you certainly didn’t get that in Debbie. Indeed, a couple of years ago, a single female friend of ours who is also a rather feisty person said to me that she admired the fact I hadn’t been afraid to marry a strong woman. I got the impression that our friend had been on the end of some nonsense from some young Christian men who clearly expected a potential wife to be meek and mild in all the wrong ways. I’m sure she is rightly frustrated if this is the case.

What has this to do with Proverbs 31? It isn’t immediately obvious from the verses about a wife at the beginning of this poem, but it is hidden there:

A wife of noble character who can find?
She is worth far more than rubies.
Her husband has full confidence in her
and lacks nothing of value.
She brings him good, not harm,
all the days of her life.
(Verses 10-12)

Here in Proverbs is a book which contains much instruction to young men on the cusp of marriage. Whatever the differences in the nature of marriage between the ancient world and ours, there is so much here that the writer holds before young men about good wives. You want someone in whom you can have ‘full confidence’, he says. Now, granted, trust can take time. It’s so easy in a marriage when you don’t understand what your spouse is doing to start asking anxious questions that betray a low level of trust. Sometimes trust takes time, but it’s worth having. Without it, the foundations of a marriage begin to crumble. Everything is under suspicion.

But where is the strong wife in this this? After all, you could have a relationship of trust with a traditional, submissive wife. Well, note that the trustworthy wife ‘brings [her husband] good, not harm all the days of her life’. One of the Hebrew words used here is the one used elsewhere for booty brought home from victories in wars2. Does that sound like the ‘little woman’? Not to me it doesn’t!

Some people will object to this, saying that elsewhere the Bible tells wives to submit to their husbands. Well, yes it does, but in that passage in Ephesians ‘submit’ seems to be parallel to the word ‘respect’, all Christians are told to respect each other and the husband is told to be willing to sacrifice himself for his wife. So any idea that ‘submission’ should ever be used as a way of keeping women down is monstrous.

Proverbs 31 is not an excuse for men to wimp out, but it is a call to celebrate women who rise up into their destiny as fully gifted participants in life. To celebrate the strong wife is also to praise the God who distributes his gifts among all, women as much as men. I am glad I belong to a denomination that believes that, and I hope it is something we shall honour in a local congregation, rather than merely seeing women as church mice.

Secondly, we praise women who acquire and provide (verses 13-20). Again, we are far from the territory that some fundamentalists would tell us is ‘biblical womanhood’. They would tell us that the husband is the provider and that he takes all the initiative. Proverbs 31 knows nothing of this distortion. Here is a craftswoman, a businesswoman who acquires materials for her work and provides for a large household that includes not only her husband and children but also female servants. It may be miles away from the experience many of us have, but while we do not inhabit the same lifestyle, there is much we can take from this example from a different culture and background.

What I love about this section of the poem, though, is that if we just talked about acquiring and providing, we would not be very different from many people in our society. They work to gain as much money as they can, and to live as high a material standard of living as it is possible for them to attain. However, the women praised in Proverbs 31 are better than that. Look how this section of the poem ends at verse 20:

She opens her arms to the poor
and extends her hands to the needy.

The godly woman who acquires and provides does not do so simply in order that her family becomes more materially prosperous. She acquires and provides, not only so that her family has what it needs, but so that she may reach out to the poor and make a difference.

In 1998, Mark and Cheryl Frost were among three thousand wealthy Californian Christians listening to a sermon by a preacher called Dr Jack Reese. He made it clear that Jesus had dire warnings for the rich and the wealthy had obligations to the poor. Afterwards, as Mark anticipated a tasty lunch, Cheryl said to him, “I know what I’m going to do about that sermon. And it’s going to cost you a lot of money.”

Cheryl knew that another American state, Michigan, had passed a law requiring all able-bodied welfare recipients to seek employment. As a result, single parents were having to leave eight-year-old children looking after three-year-old siblings. The social consequences were dire. With a friend called Emma who had told her about the need, she founded a ministry called Children’s Outreach, providing small day care facilities in the poorest part of Detroit. Eventually she recruited some of the women from these projects and trained them to work there. One reason the ministry survived is that for ten years Cheryl didn’t draw a salary.

In March this year, Cheryl Frost died of pancreatic cancer. But this ‘noble wife’ left a legacy through having opened her arms to the poor. Cheryl and Mark’s daughter Caren is now the Director of Business Development at a charity which seeks to empower Burmese women. And who is the Executive Director of that organisation? Jessica Reese, daughter of Dr Jack Reese, whose sermon transformed Cheryl.

Women of KMC, are you open to acquiring and providing so that you can open your arms to the poor in Jesus’ name? Let us have an opportunity to praise God for what you do.

Thirdly and finally, we praise women of wisdom. If you’ve picked up anything from this sermon series on Proverbs, it’s the importance of godly wisdom. We began with it in chapter 1, where the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Now, as we arrive at the final chapter, the book closes with an example of wisdom in the woman who is praised in this poem.

How so? You will remember that wisdom here is not intellectual knowledge but the ability to live a good and godly life. The woman of Proverbs 31 is depicted in just such terms in the final verses of the poem. Take verses 21 to 27: here we see her living a righteous life, in doing her part to look after her family, as she provides clothing and bedding, and generates income from her business by selling to merchants. It is epitomised in verse 27:

She watches over the affairs of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Idleness’ is the opposite of wisdom in Proverbs. In passages we haven’t looked at, the sluggard is unwise because he is lazy. Hence here, because the woman is not idle, we assume her particular industry makes her wise.

And we also see wisdom pouring forth from her mouth:

She speaks with wisdom,
and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
(Verse 26)

Is this imaginary woman not an example to all who believe? Her hands are full of godly deeds, not necessarily in the most spectactular ways but in the ordinary and necessary routines of life. And her mouth is full of godly deeds. Word and deed, belief and action are in harmony. This is true wisdom. What is the clue to her wisdom?

Well, just as chapter 1 introduced us to that revelation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the same is hinted at here. This final section from verse 21 onwards is enveloped by ideas of fear. On the one hand, the godly woman has no fear for her household when it snows, because they are all clothed in scarlet (verse 21). And on the other hand we read in verse 30,

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

She knows what to fear and what not to fear. Honouring and revering the Lord, she lives appropriately and consequently has no need to fear. This balance of awe for God and faith in daily life (not just the obviously religious bits) makes her wise in word and deed.

This woman is praised by her children and her husband for all the right reasons (verses 28-29). If you long to he honoured for all your hands have done (verse 31) – if indeed you long to hear Jesus say one day, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, that is, if you long to be praised for your godliness rather than your star quality, the woman of Proverbs 31 epitomises all this book has wanted to tell us from the beginning.

The Irish poets Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady got it right in their hymn ‘Through all the changing scenes of life’ when they wrote,

Fear Him, ye saints, and you will then
Have nothing else to fear;
Make you His service your delight;
Your wants shall be His care.

2op. cit., p 261.Proverbs 31:10-31

How To Write An Awful Worship Song

Stephen Altrogge has Seven ways to write an awful worship song. It’s funny in places, but also rather too close to the truth. Principle #1 put me in mind of all the ‘Jesus is my boyfriend’ songs. #2 made me think about ‘the dove from above‘ in Reeves and Mortimer‘s ‘Shooting Stars‘. The ‘poetry’ of #5 reminded me of that strange mixed metaphor in ‘I could sing of your love for ever‘ – ‘Over the mountains and the sea, your river runs with love for me.’ (Ever seen a river run over the sea?) As for #7, I thought about the old story Murray Watts used to tell about people saying to him, ‘The Lord has given me a poem.’ It was usually turgid. Watts would tear up the poem, saying, ‘The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.’

Can you add to Altrogge’s list?

What would you nominate as an awful worship song, and why? (Don’t be nasty.)

How can we improve?

The Biblical Case For Women Bishops?

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.

Sermon: It’s Not The End Of The World

Sorry for blog silence this week: some difficult and painful family news to deal with. However, I’ve managed to ready tomorrow morning’s sermon for publication. It’s based on the Lectionary Gospel reading, and there’s a big Tom Wright influence to my interpretation. For me, he makes huge sense of a difficult passage.

Mark 13:1-8 

If we’re not careful, reading a passage like this can make us complacent. We are so used to reading these accounts of ‘wars and rumours of wars … but the end is still to come’ (verse 7) that we assume this is one of those texts about the end of the world, and so we get smug about those Christians who foolishly predict when the end is coming. We sit back saying, “How silly,” and don’t allow the text to have any force with us.

But what if our interpretation is wrong? What if Mark 13 isn’t fundamentally about the end of the world and the Second Coming? Let me make a case that it’s about something else. And while that ‘something else’ doesn’t at first seem to affect us, actually it does. Allow me to explain.

How does the passage start? It begins with one of Jesus’ disciples admiring the Jerusalem Temple.

‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ (Verse 1)

It’s all about the Temple. Jesus answers the comment in those terms. He prophesies the destruction of the Temple (verse 2), and it is about this that Peter, James, John and Andrew ask him for signs that it is about to happen (verses 3-4). I know some will point to later in this chapter (beyond today’s reading) where Jesus quotes Daniel about ‘the son of man coming in glory’ but that is not a prophecy about the Son of Man coming to earth, but coming to God. It prophesies Jesus’ vindication in his resurrection, his ascension and the fulfilment of these prophecies.

Essentially, Jesus tells his closest disciples not to be too impressed by the grandeur of the Temple. It was thought at the time to be the most beautiful of all ancient buildings, and so on a human level you can understand how impressed they are. Further, as good Jews going up for a festival, you can expect them to be favourably disposed towards it. And if they didn’t see it all that often, there here are devoutly religious men who are blown away by an act of sincere religious tourism, just as we might be if we visited a location that had key associations with our faith, such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands on the most likely site of Jesus’ tomb.

But then you think a bit more. Did the disciples really expect Jesus to be as awestruck by the Temple as they were, so soon after he had cleared the moneychangers out in a profound act of religious vandalism? Had they not learned a lesson from that? Evidently not.

What are we to take, then, from Jesus’ prophecy of the Temple’s destruction, a prophecy which would come true just forty years later when Rome crushed a Jewish rebellion?

I think we should clear out one wrong conclusion. This does not give us permission to hate Jewish people, any more than the crucifixion does. If we start to argue that the destruction of the Temple was God’s judgement on the Jews for their part in the death of Jesus, then what are we to make of the many Christian church buildings that have been destroyed over the centuries? Should we automatically assume that all such actions are a sign of God’s displeasure?

And should we assume that Jesus’ prophecy gives us reason to be opposed to all religious buildings? Again, probably not. If a group of people gathers for worship, they will usually need a building. It is a moot point whether they need to own the building or whether they can borrow one, but you cannot avoid the need for buildings.

I think that rather than concentrate on what I might call ‘negative’ interpretations of this story, we need to seek positive interpretations. I don’t say that because I want everything to be nice and happy and to paper over cracks – you will see that positive interpretations carry a considerable challenge.

This story is about true worship. Let me tell you a story. When I arrived in my first appointment as a probationer minister, I was told that my main church had a catchphrase: ‘Flo won’t like it.’ And it was true. Flo never did like it, whatever ‘it’ happened to be. On one occasion when I had announced in advance that the annual Free Churches Good Friday service would include someone hammering nails into a cross – surely unexceptional for such an occasion – I was summoned to the farm where she lived, plied with tea, cake and copies of John Wesley’s Journal, and then asked me to rescind this terrible decision.

It transpired that Flo’s late husband had been the major financial contributor to the purchase of both the manse I lived in and the church building. Her whole life was about preserving his heritage. Flo never did like ‘it’. Her ‘temple’ had to be preserved along its original lines.

And this raises the question about who, what or where we truly worship. Devotion to a building is wrong. A temple is never an end in itself for worship. A temple is where heaven and earth meet. Supremely for Christians, Jesus is where heaven and earth meet, being both divine and human. Indeed, when it comes later to his trial, he will effectively claim to be the true temple when he says, ‘Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.’

In other words, the positive challenge from the beginning of this passage is to make sure that Jesus is the focus of our worship. To stress Jesus as the object of our worship probably sounds so obvious, so central and perhaps even so trite that you might wonder why I would even bother to emphasise it.

But the reality is, we can easily take our eyes off Jesus. We can worship religion rather than him. Like Flo, we can become obsessed more with the vehicles that help us worship than the One who is the worthy object of our devotion.

I say this, having heard recently that some members of the church at whose building Debbie and I were married fear that they will be closed down. I will feel desperately sad if that happens (which is not to comment on whether it will happen, or whether it is right or wrong). But it will be a reminder to me that my focus must be on Jesus, not a building.

And perhaps this is an important reminder for us all. Just as Jesus was warning his disciples that tumultuous and catastrophic times were coming upon the Jewish people, so we live in a time when it seems like the outlook for the Christian faith in our culture seems bleak. Just as the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, so we too see cherished religious institutions collapse and fail. Churches close and denominations even get close to being unviable. This is a critical time to remember that we are to concentrate on Jesus more than the organisations or traditions we dearly love. Might it even be that just as the Jerusalem Temple, with its elaborate sacrificial system and the opposition of its leaders to Jesus, became redundant, so some of our religious systems and structures are also no longer fit for purpose? Now more than ever is a time to make sure our first loyalty is to Jesus and not to some human construction.

But we find all these social convulsions troubling, distressing even. That leads to the second of two themes I want to share with you this morning. Jesus knew his disciples would be upset by the thought of wars and rumours of wars, and he had a word of hope for them. It wasn’t a sugar-coated word of hope, it was one set in the harsh realities that were coming. But hope it was, nevertheless.

That hope comes right at the end of our reading:

‘This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.’ (Verse 8b)

Birth pangs. Last week a friend gave birth to a little girl. After a long labour she lovingly scolded a friend who had told her that giving birth was just like ‘doing a big poo’. Need I tell you the deluded friend was male?

Birth pangs are painful, intensely so. What a mother goes through in order to bring new life into the world is excruciating – and even that word seems too weak to describe the experience. But they bear the pain for the sake of the outcome.

By talking about birth pangs, Jesus tells his disciples that the forthcoming traumas, horrendous as they will be, will be the prelude to new life. To quote Tom Wright

‘The picture of birthpangs had been used for centuries by Jews as they reflected on the way in which, as they believed, their God was intending to bring to birth his new world, his new creation, the age to come in which justice and peace, mercy and truth would at last flourish. Many writers from Jesus’ time whose works have come down to us spoke of the Jewish hope in this fashion. Since … Jesus believed that his kingdom-mission, his message, was the divinely appointed means of bringing this new world to birth, we shouldn’t be surprised that he sometimes spoke of it in this way as well.’1

Despite the pain, God is doing something new. Despite the upheavals, God is at work. When you see the tribulations of the church in decline today, do not simply stop and blame our society for turning its back on Christianity, however much that is true. Go further in your thinking. Ponder the thought of why it is God might want to do away with the forms of religion we have had for many years. Could it be that he is judging us? Could it be that the things we cling onto instead of Jesus are the things God is making redundant?

But more than all that, do you dare think that the pain the church is undergoing is that of birth pangs? Could it be that God is bringing something new to birth? As the old ways of doing things falter and crumble, could God be inviting us to experience a death so that we might embrace a resurrection? Can I dare you to believe in the God of new beginnings? The God who says in Isaiah 43, ‘Forget the former things, do not dwell on the past. Behold, I am doing a new thing’? The God who says in Revelation 21, ‘I am making all things new’?

Friends, is it not time to recognise the ways in which we have become too attached to our religious institutions and repudiate that as the false worship – yes, the idolatry that truly is? Is it not time to renew a radical commitment and devotion to Jesus as the true object of our desires?

And is it not time to trust God in the shaking of our times, believing him for another act of new creation?

1 Tom Wright, Mark For Everyone, p177f Kindle edition.

Remembrance Sunday: Swords Into Ploughshares

At Knaphill this Sunday we shall hold our usual all age worship parade service for Remembrance Sunday. Our Bible text is Micah 4:1-5, especially the famous words in verse 3, ‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares’.

With that in mind, we are using the video below, which has connections with Christian Aid, and which we found through Barnabas In Churches. It tells a remarkable story of putting this Bible verse into practice in a creative way in Mozambique. Watch and be moved.

Justin Welby And Social Media

Bishop Welby’s elevation to Canterbury was announced by Downing Street on Twitter:

In his press conference, the ABC-designate said, “I intend -if I am not stopped – to go on tweeting.” (Currently he tweets here, but that will change.)

If these are early signs that the incoming Archbishop understands the communications world in which we now live, that is a good sign.

The ‘Four Alls Of Methodism’ For Today

My church at Knaphill is redesigning its website. I’ve been asked to write a ‘Statement of Faith’ for it. While Methodism doesn’t generally produce doctrinal statements in the way many Christian organisations have since around Victorian times, I have drafted something based on core Methodist beliefs. This is what I have come up with – although I’m sure it will need tweaking:

What do we believe? The Methodist Church holds the same basic beliefs as all the major Christian traditions. These are summarised in documents such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.

We are historically connected to the Protestant Reformation, and John Wesley was particularly influenced by the warm devotion of Moravianism and Arminianism’s stress on human free will.

In particular, historic Methodist belief can be summed up as ‘Four Alls’:

All need to be saved
All can be saved
All can know they are saved
All can be saved to the uttermost

What do these mean? Here is a brief outline:

All need to be saved
We believe that human selfishness (‘sin’, if you want the religious word) separates us from God and makes us deserving of divine judgement.

We are unable to change this of ourselves, but God can. Jesus’ death on the Cross absorbs the power of evil and the cost of forgiveness, putting us right with God. His resurrection gives us new life.

Our response is to trust this good news and turn away from our selfish ways of living in gratitude for what God has done in Jesus.

All can be saved
We believe no-one is beyond the possibilities of God’s transforming love. This good news is for everyone. God does not exclude anyone from the offer of his love. That means you and me!

All can know they are saved
What’s more, God wants us to be sure that he loves us. We believe God wants us to have that assurance. It comes through both the promises God makes us in the Bible and in an inner personal experience of God’s love through the Holy Spirit.

All can be saved to the uttermost
The Christian life isn’t just about being forgiven now and waiting for heaven. It’s about our lives being changed for the better here and now. We believe God wants to do that through the power of the Holy Spirit. We want to live differently as a sign of gratitude for God’s love. We want to make a difference in the world as a result.

Being A Blessing

At a recent all age worship service, we were looking at what the Book  of Proverbs says about riches. At the end of our ‘AAW’, we like to give the congregation a take-away to remind them of the theme. This time, one of our team suggested we give everybody a small amount of money – 50p – and invite them to use it in a Christian way. If people were badly off and needed it for themselves, they could keep it. However, we hoped that many would do some good with it. Hopefully we’ll hear some good stories in due course.

Well, one vicar in North Yorkshire has done the same thing on a much larger scale. I don’t often say the words, ‘Here is an inspiring story in the Daily Mail’, but on this occasion read this and enjoy.

Advice For The New Archbishop Of Canterbury

If it is true that Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, is to be the new ABC, then I wonder whether he will heed the advice that Rowan Williams is offering his successor (as reported in the same article):

Speaking in Auckland yesterday, at what aides said would be his final press conference, he was asked for advice for his successor.

Quoting the theologian Karl Barth, he said that the new Archbishop should preach “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other”.

He said that it was vital that whoever is named must be able to make his message relevant to modern life and “like” reading newspapers.

“You have to be cross-referencing all the time and saying, ‘How does the vision of humanity and community in the Bible map onto these issues of poverty, privation, violence and conflict?’

“And you have to use what you read in the newspaper to prompt and direct the questions that you put to the Bible: ‘Where is this going to help me?’

“So I think somebody who likes reading the Bible and likes reading newspapers would be a good start.”

Valuable as this is, I just wonder whether ‘newspaper’ ought to be augmented with ‘social media’. The new Archbishop enters a world where communications are faster than ever, and social media reporting and campaigning (whatever the doubts about accuracy) has such a rapid effect upon events, that he will need to be strongly aware of that, too. Perhaps the ABC needs not only a press office but a rapid response social media office.

That said, who am I to advise? And perhaps it would be good to heed the thoughts of Adrian Chatfield on Twitter, who tweeted,

Christians At War

Here is the fixture list:

Arminians v Calvinists
Egalitarians v Complementarians
Creationists v Theistic Evolutionists
Conservatives v Liberals

And so on.

Bill Kinnon calls for Christians to stop ripping each other to shreds in the way opposing sports fans do.